Sunday, October 17, 2010

What is the number 666, and should we be worried?

It’s among the most recognized symbols and it shows up all the time, usually to indicate something nasty or wannabe. Scores of experts urge us to be worried, but is that warranted?

We know about the number 666 from the book of Revelation, the final book of the Bible.

In chapter 13, John the Revelator discusses two beasts. The first one (verses 1 to 10) comes out of the sea and seems similar to an earlier mentioned dragon who gives it its authority (v2). The second beast comes out of the earth (v11 to 18). This second beast exercises all authority of the first beast in the presence of the first beast (12). One of the acts of this second beast is to equip all people with a mark on either their right hand or on their forehead. That mark, John explains, is 666.

Is 666 the number of he devil?

Too bad for all the metal heads and horror fans who thought it was, but 666 is a human number, the number of a man (v 18). Some say that, surely, this ‘man’ must be demon possessed but that too is unbiblical. In the Bible no demon ever possesses anything and at best gets to influence people. In fact, God is the sole owner of everything: the entire world (Ps 24:1), and all souls (Eze 18:4).

The number 666 is often associated with the Antichrist, but it’s by no means certain that the two are the same. There are many more villains or mysterious entities mentioned in Revelation and other Bible books.

What might 666 mean?

John seems to invite the ‘wise’ among us to figure out what 666 means. He says, “Here is wisdom. Let him who has understanding reckon the number of the beast” (Rev 13:18). This may seem like a summons to all smarties out there, but in the Biblical arena, understanding means something else than being smart. King Solomon says it like this, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Prov 1:7).

Wisdom starts with reverence for truth, not with being clever, and certainly not with being hexakosioihexekontahexaphobic (that’s the fear of 666 - such a cool word, I had to put it in).

The beast

The word that John uses for the creatures from the earth and the sea is ‘therion.’ Therion usually denotes ferocious creatures like lions or vipers. A verb that’s tied into this word is ‘thera,’ which means to hunt or chase. Paul uses this verb in Rom 11:9 to describe a trap. He quotes Ps 69:22, which paints a picture of deception and dullness that leads to complete ruin.

It should be noted that the word ‘therion’ did then not carry the distinct negative connotation it does today. Aspiring beast-hunters should also know that the constellation we now call Lupus was called Therion in John’s time.

Suggested interpretations

The most popular approach in interpreting the number 666 is to render numerical values to letters, transnumerate personal names and add the letter-values together (this is called Gematria). By adding titles and trying different languages, the number of the beast has been pinned to a large amount of people and institutions, from Emperor Nero to Pope Benedict and the papacy at large.

Since 666 has to do with trade, especially global trade, people have wondered if this number may have something to do with the Internet. It has been overly reported that the name Bill Gates III converted to ASCII codes would add up to 666. But a little scrutiny shows that this isn’t true. The name Bill Gates in ASCII adds up to 663 but the decimal number 3 has ASCII value 51. That’s 714 together.

Others note that the ‘w’ is the transliteration of the sixth Hebrew letter (the waw), and that thus ‘www,’ the signature prefix of all website URLs, transnumerates to 666.

A similar construction (that none of the dozens of the consulted websites, including Wikipedia, mentions, so I reckon it’s my claim to fame) occurs when we realize that the Hebrew word for lily is ‘sixie,’ a word which is closely related to the word for six. Displaying three lilies (Pope Simplicius, 468-483, left, and pope Paulus VI, 1963-1978, right) does therefore seem not very clever.

All this would have been very worrisome is John the Revelator had said anything about six-six-six. He doesn’t. He is talking about six-hundred and sixty-six. And that is something completely different.

A more sensible attempt

Revelation 13 is mesmerizing but wildly guessing after its meaning has no merit. Even if we would accidentally guess right, it wouldn’t serve us much if we still don’t understand the meaning of the chapter, or the book, or even the Bible as a whole. Gematria certainly existed when John wrote Revelation, but nowhere in the Bible is Gematria employed or even mentioned. It is highly unlikely that John inserted a hip riddle in his book, and that the outcome of it denoted something that had nothing to do with wisdom, or even helped anyone who managed to figure it out.

Judging from the many references to established Biblical symbolisms, John obviously meant Revelation to be a commentary on the rest of the Bible. To be specific: it’s virtually doused with references to the tabernacle, which evolved into the Temple, which in turn evolved into the Body of Christ. All the lamp stands, the bowls, God’s throne, the trumpets, and perhaps even the sealed books, are all temple related. And so is 666.

Besides Ezra 2:13 - where 666 occurs as a literal amount, mentioned in a long list of numbers of tribesmen - the only other occurrence of the number 666 in he Bible denotes the annual amount of gold talents that Solomon received from the surrounding nations (I Kings 10:14 and II Chronicles 9:13).

The defining quality of gold is that it doesn’t rust and seems eternal. Hence gold is often used in the Bible as a symbol for truth. In Rev 3:18 Jesus advises the church in Laodicea to buy gold from Him. But Jesus also explains that gold doesn’t make the temple holy, the temple makes the gold holy (Matt 23:17). In other words: knowledge doesn’t sanctify the Body of Christ but the Body of Christ sanctifies knowledge. And this knowledge is not vague esotericism or limited to philosophical or theological knowledge, but any kind of (scientific) knowledge that would help people serve others and glorify God (see Rom 1:20, Ph 1:9, 4:8, 1 Tess 5:21 and Hebr 1:11 – the latter two references were reinvented in the scientific method).

Why the six?

The Bible uses symbols and metaphors much more frequently than a modern text, and numbers are used symbolically as well. Apart from simply denoting a quantity, the number six often indicates an incomplete set or cycle (as seven denotes a whole set or cycle, still reminiscent in our phrase ‘the seven seas’).

Since the Greek language in which John wrote had no exclamation marks, he used an amplification technique that is common in Scriptures. Jesus does something similar in Matt 18:22, where He amplifies seven to seventy-times-seven. In effect, the number 666 could be interpreted as 6!!

Perhaps the author of the temple story literally meant that Solomon received 666 talents of gold each year (which today would come down to a cool four billion dollars) but perhaps this number was chosen to explain that no matter how much gold came, it was never sufficient.

If that is true, then Kurt Gödel earth-shattering discovery that any logical system based on axioms must always remain incomplete was preceded by Biblical insight by two and a half millennia.

Michael and the Dragon

The dragon & beasts cycle covers chapters 12 and 13, and its main theme is a handing over of the authority of the red dragon (who is known as the devil and satan – 12:9). Whatever that authority might be, the whole story is an obvious allegory of the evolution of knowledge, or rather the acquisition thereof. Here’s why:

John divides the whole of man’s mental activity in two, and depicts this division as a battle between the arch-angel Michael and the red dragon. The name Michael means Who Is Like God? Or rather: What’s God Like? And it denotes man’s quest to know God. The Greek word for dragon, ‘drakon’ comes from the verb ‘derkomai,’ which means to look at or behold, and seems to denote a greed for knowledge for the sake of self. The Hebrew word for snake, ‘nahash,’ is identical to the word for to observe or to learn by experience. All this ties wonderfully into the Eden story in which Adam and Eve are tempted by a snake to consume the fruits of the tree of knowledge of good and evil.

The difference between Michael and the dragon is often misunderstood and it must be stressed that both desire or promote knowledge. Yet Michael shows reality to be a kingdom, while the dragon shows reality to be a republic.

Michael’s efforts mould a mind into a centralized throne for the Word of God, while the dragon turns a mind into a cloud without a center. The Hebrew word for Word (or Logos) is ‘dabar,’ which is the masculine version of the feminine word ‘deborah,’ meaning honey bee. Bees dwell in centralized societies, may form vast armies, have a protective house, focus on living flowers, produce honey and care for their offspring. Flies on the other hand (Beelzebub means Lord of the Flies) are not centralized, are inveterately on their own, focus on dung and carcasses, produce nothing, and don’t care for their offspring. Bees are armed; flies are not.

Land and sea

Land vs sea is a very common Biblical metaphor for stability/security/certainty vs instability/insecurity/uncertainty (see for instance Mat 7:24-27). The Hebrew word for sea is ‘mayim,’ which is a plural word (literally: the waters). The singular form of this word would be ‘may,’ which is identical to the common particle of inquisition: what? who? It’s this particle that forms the first element of the name Michael.

To the Hebrews, the sea was in the west and land stretched towards the east. The Hebrew word for east is identical to the word for past. The whole metaphorical system is obvious: from the past comes experience, knowledge and thus certainty and footing. The future is fluidic and can only be wondered about. Depicting the disciples of Jesus as fishermen thus becomes a very bold statement about their ability to harvest the great unknown. And the story of the two fish and five loaves (= seven items) is much more than a miraculous picnic. (Also see Rev 21:1)

The beast from the sea

Any beast that comes from the sea therefore must have to do with something pertaining to the unknown. My guess is that with this beast John depicts the great human ability to plan ahead, to foresee either future or any underlying system to appearing chaos by means of reason. Why this beast should have seven heads and ten horns or ten diadems (compare Rev 12:3 with 13:1) is not explained, but the seven & ten couple also appears in the design of the tabernacle (Ex 25:37 & Ex 34:28 or 36:8 and 38:12). In addition to this, Solomon states that wisdom is based on seven pillars (Pr 9:1).

Why one of the seven heads gets mortally wounded by a sword and is then healed is also not clear, but the sword is a very common metaphor for the Word of God (Eph 6:17). It should be noted that Moses the law-giver married Zipporah (which means bird but is closely related to the word for diadem, see here) and she was one of seven sisters.

When Moses came down from the mountain with the Law, his face shone with the radiance of God (Ex 34:29). Since the Hebrew words for radiance and horn are nearly identical, theologians of old thought that Moses had grown horns in God’s presence. Hence Moses is often depicted with horns, by Michelangelo for instance:

I’m guessing that the mortally wounded head depicts mankind’s natural sense of religion. It must have been through this avenue that God was able to speak to the first believers such as Seth, Noah and Abraham. Paul actually pulls off something similar when he invades the Greek mind through the temple of the unknown God (Acts 17:23). Also compare Rev 13:3 with Zech 8:23.

The beast from the earth

Following the previous, the beast from the earth must depict mankind’s entire body of knowledge. John sees this body as having the appearance of a lamb, which is an overly obvious reference to the redemptive element of Jesus’ earthly mission. Perhaps John wants his audience to also think of Dan 8, where a two-horned ram represents the Medo Persian empire (8:20). But I’m guessing that he still has the temple in mind, the temple that would become the body of Christ, which John most frequently depicts as a lamb. Just outside Solomon’s temple stood two pillars which had no other function than to just stand there. Their names are Boaz and Jachin, and these names put together mean: By Strength He Will Give Certainty (1 Ki 7:21).

John’s description of how society presently runs is chilling because indeed everything is based on information and the gathering thereof. It’s not enough to simply be a human being; nobody will do business with you or even let you subscribe to any service, unless you bring your social security number, address and bank account numbers. Our entire collective identity is based on the exchange of data. As John notes, there’s no way around it: all people are to receive the mark (13:16). The key difference between those who end up in the fiery lake and those who don’t is the same difference as that between the mission of Michael and that of the dragon. Those who worship God live, those who don’t die (14:9, 15:2, 16:2). And the cause of death is not their worship of the beast, it’s the lack of worship of God. See Numb 21:8.

The beast from the earth also creates an image of the beast of the sea (in blatant violation of the 2nd commandment – Ex 20:4-5). Again, I too am not sure what this might mean but, following the previous, I’m guessing this has to do with mankind’s absurd insistence to mark their mental territory with symbols. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that we should adorn the countryside with crosses, or stars, or half moons and the likes. In fact, Jesus says, “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples: that you have love for one another” (Joh 13:35).

Should we be worried?

John the Revelator doesn’t paint a very pretty picture and if any of the described horrors will have a physical manifestation we’re all in for a rough ride. But I strongly suspect that neither of the two beasts will turn out to be something organic, as some religions teach. They would unceremoniously be nuked if they emerged.

Should we be worried? I don’t think so. The devil’s battle is with Michael, not with God. And there is no power anywhere in existence that can separate us from Him (Rom 8:38-39).

Nobody will be condemned by accident or because they didn’t manage to figure out a highly complex riddle, or any other conundrum. Salvation is not a matter of knowing all the right things (as Tony Campolo once said, “Even the devil knows all the right things”) but about being in with God. Some of us might make it through pretty clean, but I suspect a large majority of us will be slimed upon, bitten, marred by a wide variety of marks and claims, bent, broken and sunk nose deep in puddles of murk.

But there’s no way that any of us will end up on the wrong side of the fence.

Or as Jesus says, “These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33)

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