By Hope Bolinger, Crosswalk.com
When exploring which numbers in the Bible carry symbolic significance, number 12 stands out as one of the most prominent in Scripture. Among numbers such as 3 and 40, the number 12 appears numerous times throughout the Old and New Testament.
This article will dive into the importance of numbers in the Bible, why 12 stands out, and 12 fun facts about this number.
What Does the Number 12 Mean in the Bible?
Number 12, as indicated in this article, typically means perfection or authority—often used in a context of government. For instance, because Jacob has 12 sons, they form the 12 tribes of Israel. There are also 12 minor prophets that dot the text of the Old Testament.
Found 187 times in the Bible, the number 12 makes a special appearance in Revelation, showing the authority and perfection of God’s kingdom at last.
Similar to the number three, it’s likely not every instance of the number 12 is a ‘good’ kind of perfection. Jesus heals a woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, for instance (Matthew 9:20-22). The 12 years could possibly symbolize just how bad her condition was, signifying the malady as a ‘perfect storm,’ with seemingly no possible cure. Or, it could signify that this was completion of a difficult timeframe and God would be doing a new thing now.
However, 12, more often than not, tends to represent something good. The new Jerusalem, for instance, is stocked full of the number 12 (gates, angels, foundations, etc., Revelation 21).
What Significance Do Numbers Have in the Bible?
Often, when we read Scripture, we may think some numbers are arbitrarily placed in the text. We may think Jacob just happened to have 12 sons (Genesis 49), for instance.
But numbers in Hebrew culture tended to have a deeper meaning than what we know about numbers today. In a previous article, I covered the number three and how, in Hebraic culture, it tended to mean wholeness and completeness.
Although in most instances in the Bible, the numbers have a literal and symbolic interpretation (Jacob didn’t metaphorically have 12 sons), sometimes numbers may have just a symbolic meaning. Six days—seven including the rest day—may have been literal in terms of creation, or merely symbolic (Genesis 1). Or, as mentioned in this article, the number of saved souls in heaven will likely be more than 144,000 (Revelation 7), but merely means a 12 times the cube of ten—a quotient of perfection.
Numbers in the Bible can clue readers into a deeper meaning in the text; but we have to make sure the context of the passage aligns with the typical symbolism attributed to the number. We have to exercise caution when trying to dig up the meaning of numbers in every case in Scripture. Sometimes Seth just lived to be 912 years old (Genesis 5:8) and there may have been no significant reason behind that specific number of years on this earth.
But in regards to popular numbers in the Bible such as three, 12, 40, etc., we can often find the symbolism within that passage.
12 Things to Know about 12 in the Bible:
1. Jesus spoke in the temple at 12.
Jesus first spoke in the temple with religious leaders at the age of 12 when he and his family had traveled to Jerusalem for Passover (Luke 2:41-52). The religious leaders marveled at his wisdom.
2. 12 cakes were placed in the Tabernacle.
In the Old Testament Tabernacle—a mobile temple of sorts—the priests were to place 12 unleavened cakes (Leviticus 24:5). The unleavened nature of these cakes may have symbolized the same bread used in Passover, when the Israelites left Egypt. Some other elements of 12 in the Tabernacle included 12 silver plates, bowls, bulls, rams, and male lambs (Numbers 7).
3. Not only Jacob had 12 princes.
Jacob isn’t the only descendant of Abraham to have 12 princes (tribes) come from him. Ishmael, Abraham’s son he bore through his servant Hagar, also had 12 princes come from his line (Genesis 17:20). This website lists these 12 tribes of Ishmael, who later played a role in the history of Israel. Individual tribe histories also found in the article.
4. 12 spies scouted the Promised Land.
When the Israelites wandered in the desert after they fled Egypt, they had 12 spies go and scout the Promised Land (Numbers 13). Only two out of the 12 were not intimidated by the people in the land of Canaan. Interestingly enough, only two out of 12 tribes remain in the tribe of Judah when the kingdom splits (1 Kings 12:16).
5. Nebuchandezzar’s dream was fulfilled after 12 months.
When Nebuchadnezzar has a dream that is interpreted that he will act like a wild beast for a while, the dream ends up fulfilled 12 months later (Daniel 4).
6. 12 tribes came to battle.
Twelve thousand men come to battle the Midianites in Numbers 31, a thousand from each tribe. This could be a case in which the people were actually more than 12,000 (or it the number wasn’t 12,000 exactly), but the writers wanted to indicate that a vast number of people came.
7. 12 baskets remained full.
When Jesus performs the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, the disciples gather 12 baskets full of leftovers (Matthew 15).
8. 12,000 people died in Ai.
Ai is destroyed in Joshua 8, with 12,000 people falling that day, “all the people of Ai.” Ai might’ve had more than 12,000 people, but the deaths of them showed a complete and perfect destruction of the place.
9. Solomon appointed 12 governors.
Solomon appointed 12 district governors over Israel, showing how 12 has symbolic importance in government as well (1 Kings 4:26).
10. Elisha worked with 12 oxen.
Elisha, a prophet, while plowing 12 oxen is called into his prophetic ministry by Elijah (1 Kings 19:19).
11. 12 priests were chosen.
When Israel returns after their captivity, Ezra sets apart 12 priests (Ezra 8).
12. The Tree of Life in Revelation will bear 12 fruits.
A tree of life will also be in the new world God brings at the end of time (Revelation 22) with 12 fruits, one for each month of the year.
What Should Christians Remember about the Number 12?
God uses numbers to bring about his kingdom and to reveal himself. We have 12 months to make a perfect year. He uses the number 12 in past governments and future governments at the end of time.
The more we catch these important numbers throughout Scripture, the more we can appreciate the veracity of God’s plan.
He’s used numbers in the past, and he will operate on them in the future.
Number 12 is in Select Company in the Bible
Having written articles on number symbolism in the Bible, I have received letters from people interested to know deep meanings behind other numbers. Although it makes me happy to know people are genuinely interested in how God operates through numbers, we do have to exercise caution for any number that isn’t 1, 2, 3, 6, 7, 12, or 40.
Those numbers listed tend to have the most instances of symbolism in the Bible. This isn’t to say others don’t have a symbolic importance. This website, for instance, lists some more obscure numbers.
But we do have to exercise caution. Or we may get so wrapped up in trying to find the hidden, deep meanings behind the numbers that we fail to see the plain meaning of the text right in front of us.
Hope Bolinger is a literary agent at C.Y.L.E. and a graduate of Taylor University's professional writing program. More than 450 of her works have been featured in various publications ranging from Writer's Digest to Keys for Kids. She has worked for various publishing companies, magazines, newspapers, and literary agencies and has edited the work of authors such as Jerry B. Jenkins and Michelle Medlock Adams. Her column "Hope's Hacks," tips and tricks to avoid writer's block, reaches 6,000+ readers weekly and is featured monthly on Cyle Young's blog. Her modern-day Daniel, “Blaze,” (Illuminate YA) released in June, and they contracted the sequel “Den” for July 2020. Find out more about her here.
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