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Introduction to the Third Day Motif

The concept of number appears to be “as old as man, the creature ‘thinking God’s thoughts after him.’”1 The use of numbers in such matters as mathematics dates to very early times and is attested in the literature of such ancient peoples as the Semites, Egyptians, Chinese, and Greeks. Some numbers also appear to have held a symbolic significance. Thus Birch remarks, “Numbers in the Bible and other ancient literature often have symbolic or cultic meaning. Many of these have uses that are simultaneously literal and symbolic in meaning.”2

A prominent example is the Greek philosopher Pythagoras whose fascination with the concept of number led to a philosophical school which “in a period of two hundred years, laid the foundations of mathematics as we know it today, inaugurating a tradition that ranks with the poetry of Aeschylus and the philosophy of Plato as among the greatest intellectual contributions of Greece to civilization.”3 In time and especially among his followers his concept of numbers as entities and number as the essence of things assumed a mystical nature, which developed an “absurd and fantastic correlation of numbers and things.”4 The Pythagorean school was to have a profound effect upon many thinkers including Plato and thus through Greek influence the symbolic, even mystical, use of numbers that can be seen in later Judaism, among the early Christian fathers, and still more prominently in the Jewish Cabala in the Middle Ages.5

White laments the effects of the Pythagorean school of philosophy pointing out that its “mystic brotherhood of disciples eroded whatever objective scientific value their teacher’s labors may have held and plunged his name into a veritable swamp of magic and ritual.”6 Nevertheless, despite the excesses to which the Pythagorean school led, one must not forget that Pythagoras’ mathematical systemization paved the way for advances in such disciplines as geometry and astronomy including “the construction of the heliocentric theory, which was propounded by Aristarchus of Samos about 280 B.C.”7

This study, however, is not as much concerned with number as a concept or theories of numerology as much as with the literary use to which a given number could be put by the biblical authors. In conveying God’s revelation they doubtless communicated matters in patterns that were familiar to them and to the surrounding ancient Near Eastern world. Thus Pope observes, “Many of the uses to be noted here have analogues and parallels in the older literatures of the Egyptians, Sumerians, Akkadians, Canaanites, and Hittites.8 The Ugaritic texts in particular share with the O.T. some striking rhetorical and symbolic uses of numbers.”9 One of the significant literary uses of numbers in the Bible and in secular literatures is the technique of motifs.

It is this use of the number three that is the principle subject of this study, and the motif of the third day in particular. Beginning with an examination of the basic nature and function of literary motifs as attested in selected scriptural passages and as illustrated in western literature, the study will then proceed to an analysis of the number three and the ordinal third in the Bible. This will be followed by noting examples of the employment of three and third in literary patterns in preparation for the understanding of the ordinal third as a literary motif. After noting how the third day motif functions in various biblical texts, the study will culminate in an analysis of the third day motif in relation to Christ’s resurrection. A summary and conclusions will bring the study to a close.


1 W. White, Jr., “Number,” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible (ed. Merrill C. Tenney; 5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975), 4:452.

2 Bruce C. Birch, “Number,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (rev. ed.; ed Geoffrey W. Bromiley; 5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 4:558.

3 Reginald E. Allen, Greek Philosophy: Thales to Aristotle (New York: The Free Press, 1966), 8.

4 Frank Thilly and Ledger Wood, A History of Philosophy (rev. ed.; New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1953), 30. Allen (Greek Philosophy, 7) points out that Pythagorus’ “doctrine that numbers are the real nature of things” appears to have been suggested by a discovery in music that “the perfect consonances which form the basis of musical scales, the fourth, the fifth, and the octave, could be expressed as exact ratios between the least whole umbers: the octave is 2:1, the fifth 3:2, the fourth 4:3.”

5 See John J. Davis, Biblical Numerology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1968), 126-134.

6 White, “Number,” 4:460.

7 Thilly and Wood, History of Philosophy, 31.

8 Among the Greeks one may note Plato’s quoting Socrates as asking, “May we not say generally that there are three arts concerned with any object—the art of using it, the art of making it, and the art of representing it?”; Francis MacDonald Cornford, The Republic of Plato (New York: Oxford, 1945) 332.

9 Marvin H. Pope, “Number,” in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (ed. George Arthur Buttric; 5 vols.; New York: Abbington, 1962), 4:563. Pope (4:564) observes, “The ancients conceived of the universe as consisting of three divisions, heaven, earth, and netherworld.” In the Scriptures, however, earth’s created natural world is presented as heavens, sea, and land. This tripartite division is clearly presented in the creation account in Genesis 1. Thus days 1-3 provide the general areas of the creation and days 4-6 deal with specific details. Derek Kidner (Genesis [TOTC; Downers Grove, Inter-Varsity, 1968], 45-46) views this as the principles of form and fullness. U. Cassuto (A Commentary on the Book of Genesis [2 vols.; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1961], 1:27) points out further, “The three parts of the universe that we designate by these names are precisely those that God organized in the period of creation: the firmament that He made is none other than the heavens that we know; the pool into which the waters were gathered is our sea; and the dry land that appeared then is our earth.” Kenneth A. Mathews (Genesis 1-11:26 [The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996], 120-121) remarks, “The days consist of two groups of three parallel, corresponding days, leaving the seventh day without a match. God speaks ten times, with seven commands for creation and creatures and three pronouncements concerning humanity.”

Related Topics: Theology, Bibliology (The Written Word), Terms & Definitions