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3. The Use Of Three In The Bible

It should be noted at the outset that the biblical authors’ use of the number three is abundantly attested. Indeed, the number three or its compounds occurs hundreds of times. Most of these display a conventional use such as to mark quantity whether in enumerating persons, things, or activities. For example, Noah had three sons (Gen 6:10) and Job had three daughters (Job 1:2; cf. 42:13);20 The Ark of the Covenant contained three sacred objects ‘The gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant” (Heb. 9:4). Solomon’s Palace of the Forest of Lebanon was designed with windows “placed high in sets of three facing each other. All the doorways had rectangular frames; they were in the front part in sets of three, facing each other” (1 Kgs 7:4-5).21 Likewise, in John’s vision a triple entrance way marked all four sides of the city of the New Jerusalem (Rev 21:13). David “bowed down before Jonathan three times, with his face to the ground” (1 Sam 20:41) and Daniel regularly prayed three times a day giving thanks to God (Dan 6:10, 13). Israelite men were required to appear before the Lord three times in a year: “Three times a year all your men must appear before the LORD your God at the place he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles” (Deut 16:16). Jesus answered Satan’s threefold temptation by citing three scriptural passages Matt 4:1-11). Paul experienced three shipwrecks (2 Cor 11:28) and prayed three times to the Lord for the removal of his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor 12:7-8).

The number three appears often in measurements of time as well. For example, Moses and Aaron petitioned Pharaoh, “Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God” (Exod 5:3; cf. Exod 3:18; 8:27).22 The fleeing Hebrews went three days without finding water in the Desert of Shur (Exod 15:22). When the Hebrews had traveled from Mount Sinai for three days, the people began to complain (Num 10:33-11:1). When the Hebrews neared the Jordan River they were informed, “Three days from now you will cross the Jordan here to go in and take possession of the land the LORD your God is giving you for your own” (Josh 1:11; cf. 3:1-4). The men of Timnah were stumped by Samson’s riddle for three days (Judg 14:14) and King Rehoboam gave Jeroboam and the delegation of Israelites a three day waiting period as he considered their petition for less stringent royal demands (1 Kgs 12:5; cf. 12:12).23 In the New Testament Jesus told the Jewish populace at the Temple, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:16), a fact that his disciples later recalled (v. 22).

A three-month period also figures in some matters. Moses’ mother was able to conceal her baby for three months (Exod 2:3; cf. Acts 7:20; Heb 11:23) and the ark remained at the house of Obed-Edom for three months (1 Chron 13:14). In keeping with this the third month is often mentioned as one in which some significant action or event took place. Thus three months after Judah visited the supposed shrine prostitute, he learned that she was really his daughter-in-law Tamar who was pregnant with his child (Gen 38:24). Asa’s reforms were celebrated in Jerusalem in the third month of his fifteenth year of reign (2 Chron 15:10). Support for the priests of Hezekiah’s day was gained by means of a tithe which began “in the third month and finished in the seventh month” (2 Chron 31:7). Ezekiel received a message from the Lord concerning the fate of Egypt in the third month of the eleventh year of his exile (Ezek 31:1) and the Lord revealed through Amos, “I also withheld rain from you when the harvest was still three months away” (Amos 4:7).

In the New Testament record Jesus’ mother Mary visited Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife, and stayed for three months (Luke 1:56). Paul stayed in Ephesus for three months and “spoke boldly” in the synagogue there (Acts 19:8), and subsequently stayed three months in Greece (Acts 20:3). Still later after the ship that was carrying him to Rome to stand trial was wrecked in a storm, he and his captives stayed on the island of Malta for three months (Acts 28:11).

A period of three years can be noted in the accounts of several biblical texts. In fact, Beyse suggests that “three years … play a more important role” than a period of three months.24 A three year period figures in the instructions to the Hebrews concerning their conduct after they enter the Promised Land: “When you enter the land and plant any kind of fruit tree, regards its fruit as forbidden. For three years you are to consider it forbidden; it must not be eaten” (Lev 19:23). As part of the Levitical stipulations with regard to the year of Jubilee the Hebrews were forbidden to sow or reap, to plant, reap or harvest in the fiftieth year for it was to be a holy year for them. In compensation the Lord promises “I will send you such a blessing in the sixth year that the land will yield enough for three years” (Lev 25:21). After the slaying of his brother, “Absalom fled and went to Geshur, he stayed there three years” (2 Sam 13:38). During David’s reign a three-year famine caused the king to seek “the face of the LORD” (2 Sam 21:1). David’s adversary Shimei (2 Sam 16:5-14) was spared by Solomon on condition that he was permanently confined to the city of Jerusalem (1 Kgs 2:36-38). Shimei obeyed this restriction for three years, but when two of his slaves fled from him, he left the city to retrieve them, an action that was to cost him his life (vv. 39-46). Every three years King Solomon’s trading fleet returned “carrying gold, silver and ivory, and apes and baboons” (1 Kgs 10:22).

Isaiah prophesied that “within three years … Moab’s splendor and all her many people will be despised, and her survivors will be very few and feeble” (Isa 16:14). Isaiah himself went “stripped and barefoot for three years, as a sign and portent against Egypt and Cush” (Isa 20:3). Daniel and his three friends were schooled for three years with regard to the language and literature of the Babylonians (Dan 1:3-5). A three-year period appears in some of the accounts of the New Testament as well. It figures in Jesus’ parable of the unproductive fig tree (Luke 13:7). The Apostle Paul spent three years in Arabia apparently to commune with the Lord and receive instruction from him before going to acquaint himself with Peter (Gal 1:18).

Appropriately, the third year is also singled out for special mention. The third year was special in that it was the “year of the tithe” (Deut 14:28; cf. Amos 4:4), which was to be collected for the needs of the Levites and the underprivileged members of society such as the alien, the widow, and the poor (Deut 26:12).25 During the reign of King Jehoshaphat of Judah because “his heart was devoted to the ways of the LORD,” in his third year of reign he sent officials to “teach in the towns of Judah” (2 Chron 17:6-7). The third year was also the year that Jehoshaphat went to meet King Ahab of Israel with regard to their joining forces in an effort to regain Ramoth Gilead from the Arameans (1 Kgs 22:1-5). Still later, during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem God gave to Hezekiah a sign of deliverance and renewed activity (2 Kgs 19:29; cf. Isa 37:30). “For the third year … there was a direct divine command: ‘Sow and reap, plant vineyards and eat fruit.’ Here was direct assurance that the people might resume normal agricultural activities with full expectation of eating the fruits of their labor. When in the harvest of the third year the people ate in abundance, they would know assuredly that God had been in the entire crisis.”26

In light of the above discussion it is evident that the number three has a distinct place in matters related to time. Thus Birch remarks, “Three is common in designating significant lengths of time, such as three days, three weeks, three months or three years (Gen. 40:12f., 18; Ex. 2:2; 10:22; 2 S. 24:13; Isa. 20:3; Jonah 1:17; Mt. 15:32; Lk. 2:46; 3:7; Acts 9:9; 2 Cor. 12:8).”27 In all of this the conventional understanding of the number three need not be set aside. Nevertheless, it must be noted that a great many things were certainly said to have happened when the number three was utilized, be it three days, three months, or years. Therefore, such may involve more than mere coincidence.

In some literary genres in which the number three is found a symbolic sense may also be intended. Thus Barr points to the number three as one of the numbers used in a special symbolic sense in John’s Apocalypse.28 It comes as little surprise, then, to note that the number three and its multiple compounds occur more than a score of times in the Book of Revelation. Yet it should be pointed out that it is not always easy to determine whether a number, even one that in some cases appears to be symbolic, is being used in a literal or symbolic sense or both.29 Even granted the symbolic use of some numbers in the Bible, one need not dismiss the conventional meaning of numbers altogether in most texts, especially in straight historical narrative.30

Three/Third As A Literary Pattern

As mentioned above the concern of this study has more to do with the rhetorical and literary uses of the number three and in particular with the third day as a standard biblical motif. In connection with the former goal, it may be noted that one frequently encounters a threefold literary pattern in the Scriptures. Indeed, the prophecy of Hosea is replete with the author’s use of a threefold literary pattern. For example, Hosea lists three products of ancient Israel that were not only important to its economy, but were signs of God’s blessing: grain, new wine, and oil (Hos. 2:22; cf. 14:7; Joel 1:10; 2:18-19).
He also puts forward a threefold plea to Judah not to follow in the ways of the Northern Kingdom (Hos 4:15); condemns three areas of Israelite society: priests, prophets, and people (4:4-5) or prophets, people, and king (5:1); and speaks of groups of three cities: Gibeah, Ramah, and Beth-Aven (= Bethel) and three tribes: Benjamin, Ephraim, and Judah (5:8-10).

Metaphorically, Hosea depicts the Israelite king, his advisors, and their deceitful counsel as a baker, a hot oven, and a fire that smolders through the night but “in the morning blazes like a flaming fire” (7:4-7). He also prophesies against the Northern Kingdom by addressing Ephraim, Israel, and Samaria with its king (10:6-7); and portrays the Lord as a lily, cedar of Lebanon, and an olive tree (14:5) as well as picturing the Lord as comparing Himself to a lion, leopard, and a bear robbed of its cubs (13:7-8), while likening His restored people to a lion’s cubs, birds, and doves (11:10-11).31

As indicated above, many details in the Scriptures are enumerated in terms of the number three.32 In many cases, however, in addition to its conventional use, the number three carries with it accompanying implications or expectations. For example, “A cord of three strands is not easily broken” (Eccles 4:12). In context (vv. 9-12) the point is that there is strength in numbers. This was especially true for the traveler in the ancient Near East. Although a solitary traveler could easily fall victim to robbers along the way, a traveling companion could serve as a possible deterrent to a robber or provide a source of help.33

In some cases the number three may signify completeness or finality. Thus Pope observes that the number three “naturally suggests the idea of completeness—beginning, middle, end.”34 Beyond this natural expectation, however, is the realization that “the figure three is an evocative image, filled with connotations” so that “three consecutive occurrences of an event serves as a rhetorical signal indicating special significance.”35 In keeping with the ancient sage Agur who spoke of three things that point to a fourth (Prov 30:15-16, 18-19, 21-23, 29-31) a threefold pattern may indicate that with the third in a series the reader is alerted that something special is about to happen. For example, on Mount Carmel Elijah had the sacrifice doused with water three times to demonstrate that there was no human chance that the sacrifice could be consumed. Nevertheless, in answer to his prayer the Lord sent the fire, which “fell and burnt up the sacrifice, the wood, the stones and the soil, and licked up the water in the trench” (1 Kgs 18:38). Those in attendance at that event as well as those who later heard or read of it would naturally assume that Elijah’s actions were pointing to the fact that something significant—even spectacular—could be expected to follow.

Several other examples may be cited. Thus Balaam beat his donkey three times after which he was reprimanded by both his donkey and an angel of the Lord (Num 22:21-35). Further, Balaam later blessed Israel three times as Balak desired, after which Balaam uttered a fourth oracle warning of what lay in the future for Balak’s people (chs. 23-24). Elijah stretched himself over the dead body of the widow’s son while praying for the lad’s revivification (1 Kgs 17:21) and subsequently, “The LORD heard Elijah’s cry, and the boy’s life returned to him, and he lived” (v. 22).

Before Peter journeyed to Cornelius’ house, he was instructed via a vision three times to eat animals previously declared to be unclean (Acts 10:9-16). Peter was to realize the significance of the vision and so could later testify, “God has shown me that I should not call any man impure or unclean” (Acts 10:28; cf. vv. 34-35). Still later, Peter’s testimony to those assembled at Cornelius’ house was climaxed with a special visitation of the Holy Spirit (vv. 36-48).

In some of the above examples as well as in others the third in a series may serve both to indicate completeness and an expectation of further developments. Both intended significances are thus held in tension simultaneously. For example, Jesus’ threefold restoration of Peter (John 21:15-17), who previously had denied Him three times (Luke 22:54-62) even as the Lord had predicted (Matt 26:34; Mark 14:30; John 13:38), tends to underscore the certainty of the Lord’s recommissioning of His disciple. Yet at the same time it provides the basis for further details concerning Peter’s future ministry. Indeed, the Lord went on to reveal the final end of that new period of service in Peter’s own crucifixion (John 21:18-19).

In each instance involving the employment of the number three or a series of three, of course, the full context (and perhaps the characteristic style of the author) must be the determining factor of the precise use and significance or nuance, which was intended to be conveyed. Nevertheless, the evidence strongly suggests that in accordance with cultural and literary norms the biblical writers often employed the number three or wrote in patterns of three to provide a special emphasis that sought to engage their hearers/readers in exploring the full significance of the events or details of the passage at hand. With this background in mind, the study now turns to the second projected goal—the use of the number three in the motif of the third day.36

The Third Day As A Literary Motif

As with the use of the number three in a series, which conveys implications and expectations beyond the normal conventional meaning, so the third day often carries with it an additional sense or nuance. It seems apparent from the scriptural record that the third day was selected for a given activity or matter at hand for some distinct purpose and attendant emphasis, which those who were involved in the situation understood. Likewise those who later heard or read of the incident would be familiar with the various possible emphases in the choice. The abundant use of the third day argues for viewing the third day as a literary motif that could be employed for several reasons.

Information And Instruction

In some contexts the third day appears to emphasize the presence of new information that will generate further activity. Thus on the third day Laban learned that Jacob had fled with his wives and property (Gen 31:22). The reader expects that Laban is surely going to do something with that information; and indeed he does: “Taking his relatives with him, he pursued Jacob for seven days and caught up with him in the hill country of Gilead.”37 But even more was yet to come, for God communicated with Laban in a dream that he was to speak cautiously with Jacob when he met with him. As Matthews suggests, the Lord’s words of “good or bad” to Laban contain a “figure of speech, warning Laban not to exceed his authority.”38 The Lord’s words to Laban thus serve to fulfill God’s promise to Jacob (Gen 28:15). God sovereignly protected Jacob as He had Abraham (Gen 12:17; 20:3) and Isaac (Gen 26:8). Although the details and arrangements that follow testify to Laban’s anger over the whole situation, they underscore the fact of God’s sovereign supervision of the final outcome of the relations between Jacob and his father-in-law. The entire episode thus contains not only historical information, but the presence of the third day at the outset of the narrative alerts the reader to expect that the account will contain more details.39

Similarly, on the third day Joshua and the Israelites learned that the Gibeonites had used deception when Israel made a treaty with them and so set out for their cities. Because of the solemn and sacred nature of the previous agreement, however, the Israelites could not violate the peace treaty that they had made with the Gibeonites. “Even though it was obtained under false pretenses,” it “could not be revoked.”40 Once again it is likely that the mention of the three days that had elapsed after making the inviolable treaty before the Israelites gained information of their being duped and the attention drawn to the third day alerts the hearer/reader that something out of the ordinary was about to happen.

When David was not allowed to accompany the Philistine forces to the battle at Aphek (1 Sam 29:1-11), he was forced to return to Ziklag in Philistine territory. Upon reaching there on the third day, he learned that an Amalekite group had raided and burned the city, and “had taken captive the women and all who were in it, both young and old” (1 Sam 30:2). One naturally expects that David will do something about the situation and, of course, he does. Taking his forces, he pursued after the Amalekites and overtook them and “recovered everything the Amalekites had taken, including his two wives… . David brought everything back” (1 Sam 30:18, 19). The presence of the third day motif at the beginning of the narrative not only reinforces David’s expected reaction but points to the probable success of his mission (cf. vv. 7-8).

In an interesting case of the occurrence of three days and the third day motif together, Joseph instructs his brothers as to what they must do in order to verify that they had been telling the truth to the one whom they understood to be a powerful Egyptian official rather than their brother (Gen 42:18-20). Here again the third day motif may well send a signal that important developments are to follow. Indeed, the third day here reflects the fact that after the prescribed waiting period, important decisions were to be made on the third day.

A similar scenario is present when Rehoboam specifies three days as the time needed for him to deliver his decision relative to the request of Jeroboam and the northern tribes as to more lenient royal policies (1 Kgs 12:5, 12; cf. 2 Chron 10:5, 12). Here again one expects that a significant decision that will affect relations between the northern and southern tribes would be made. Such proved to be the case, for Rehoboam’s answer to the petition led to an irrevocable schism between the northern and southern tribes (vv. 13-17), as reflected in the poetic declaration,

“What share do we have in David,

what part in Jesse’s son?

To your tents, O Israel!

Look after your own house, O David! (v. 16).41

Completion Of A Preparatory Waiting Period

The two previous incidents regarding decisions and declarations made on the third day by Joseph and Rehoboam point to the use of the third day as the culmination of a proper time of preparation. In both cases significant decisions were made after a specified waiting period. The third day, then, can signal the issuing of a decision or further action that is to take place. Thus Rehab instructed the Hebrew spies to hide for three days before attempting to rejoin the Israelite forces with their report (Josh 2:15-16).42 During the era of the judges, the Israelite tribes, which were seeking to avenge the Benjaminite atrocity against the Levites concubine, waited and sought the Lord’s mind before going up to confront the forces of Benjamin at Gibeah on the third day (Judg 20:29). In both cases the waiting period proved to be proper preparation for the activities on the third day. In both instances, the subsequent action was favorable.

Special Spiritual Activity

In some instances the decision to be reached on the third day is preceded by careful spiritual preparation. Thus before going in to make her request to the Persian king, Queen Esther instructed Mordecai as follows: “Go, gather together all the Jews who are in Susa, and fast for me. Do not eat or drink for three days night or day. I and my maids will fast as you do. When this is done, I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish” (Esth 4:15-16). In accordance with this period of spiritual preparation, “On the third day Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the palace, in front of the king’s hall” (Esth 5:1) and gained entrance to the king’s throne. The events that followed are well known. Her people were allowed to take steps to deliver themselves and the Jew-hating Haman was put to death. Although the plot line of the narrative is filled with tension, the specific mention of three days and nights, and the use of the third day motif provide a lively expectation for the reader that all will be well and worked out in accordance with God’s will.

Likewise, Abraham obeyed the Lord’s instructions and was prepared to offer his only son Isaac on the third day of his journey to Moriah (Gen 22:4). If as might be expected by the mention of the third day in the narrative the hearer/reader anticipated a seemingly better ending to the account, he was not disappointed. For God Himself supplied a substitute for the sacrifice (vv. 9-14) after which He confirmed to Abraham the earlier promises in the Abrahamic Covenant (vv. 15-18; cf. Gen 12:1-3; 13:14-17; 15:17-18; 17:1-22). It was obvious that Abraham truly believed the Lord (Gen 15:6) and put his full trust in Him, doubtless expecting God to provide the means for granting him the vast number of descendants He had promised (Gen 12:1-3; 17:19-22). As Walter Kaiser, Jr. remarks, “He feared God (v. 12) and believed that God would ‘provide’ (vv. 8, 14--yir'eh) so that he and the lad would be able to rejoin the party waiting at the base of Mount Moriah (v. 5).”43 To this the writer of Hebrews also testifies, “By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had received the promise was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even thought God had said to him, ‘It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.’ Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead, and figuratively speaking he did receive Isaac back from death” (Heb 11:17-19).44

Several other contexts utilizing this motif reflect the thought that the special activity on the third day also bears a spiritual impress. Joseph’s prophetic interpretation of the dreams of the baker and the cupbearer were fulfilled on Pharaoh’s birthday, which was also the third day. In accordance with the presence of the third day motif, the reader expects more to follow. Indeed, the Lord’s hand was upon Joseph preparing him for a unique position by which he would be an instrument for the preservation of his people. “In that position he was able not only to prepare Pharaoh’s people for a coming time of famine but also to aid in his family’s migration to Egypt.”45

It is instructive as well that God appeared to the children of Israel on Mount Sinai not only in the third month after their departure from Egypt (Exod 19:1) but on a third day after two days of spiritual preparation (Exod 19:10-11, 16-20). As could be expected, after the Lord’s self-revelation and instructions to the assembled multitude, more was to follow. Such came in God’s issuing of the Ten Commandments (Exod 20:1-17; cf. Deut 5:6-21).46 In all of the above texts the third day motif points to actions and matters that take on a spiritual dimension. Something distinctive, even unique, was to occur on the third day and that in turn pointed to important things to follow.

Purity Or Healing

“The third day has a ceremonial significance as well … The meat left from sacrifices was to be destroyed on the third day (Lev 7:17-18; 19:6-7).”47 Thus nothing spoiled or impure was to mar the spiritual nature of the sacrifice and the third day itself was to be kept holy and pure. In keeping with this were the later regulations concerning purifications by water on the third day as well as the seven days after contamination by touching a dead body (Num 19:11-12, 19; 31:19). Hezekiah asked for a sign that the Lord would heal him so that he could “go up to the temple of the LORD on the third day” (2 Kgs 20:8). The idea of healing thus is attached to the motif of the third day here. Once again not only is the purity of the day emphasized, but the day is one of healing and spiritual activity. It is not surprising, then, that when the prophet Hosea urges the sinning people of the Northern Kingdom to return to the Lord so as to experience His forgiveness, and their healing and restoration, that he employs the motif of the third day: Come, let us return to the LORD.

He has torn us to pieces but he will heal us;
He has injured us but he will bind up our wounds.
After two days he will revive us;
On the third day he will restore us,
that we may live in his presence (Hos 6:1-2).

In light of Old Testament precedents Hosea’s employment of the third day motif would likely fall upon ears that were familiar with its significance. The Lord’s healing and restoration was not only certain, but it would be a very special time of victory for God’s people.

The Day Of Resurrection

Although it is difficult to think of Hosea’s prophecy concerning Israel’s future healing and restoration as a prediction of Christ’s resurrection, it is interesting that mankind’s spiritual healing is associated with the motif of the third day. Indeed, after Peter’s great confession of Christ, Jesus taught that He “must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matt 16:21; cf. Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22). Shortly after Jesus’ transfiguration He again taught His disciples, “The son of man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men. They will kill him, and on the third day he will be raised to life” (Matt 17:22-23).

Jesus repeatedly stressed the message of His coming death and resurrection on the third day, calling it His “goal” (Luke 13:32). Such began as early as His first miracle at Cana of Galilee where He said to the Jews, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). John reports that Jesus’ saying referred to His body and that “after he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said” (v. 22).48 On His final journey to Jerusalem He repeated His earlier prophecy concerning His death and resurrection saying, “The son of man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise” (Mark 10:33-34). Jesus’ teaching was apparently well known, for Matthew reports that as He lay in the tomb the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate and said, “Sir, … we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again’” (Matt 27:63).

That Jesus died and rose again bodily on the third day is abundantly attested in the Scriptures, which contain several lines of evidence, including the empty tomb in which lay Christ’s undisturbed grave clothes (Mark 16:6; John 20:6-7), the displacement of the massive tombstone (Matt 28:2) that was guarded by trained Roman soldiers (Matt 27:62-66), the transformation of the disciples perspective from one of utter despair and disbelief to absolute certitude—a conviction for which they would and many did die (e.g., cf. Luke 24:11 with Acts 2:32), and ten post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, in five instances on the third day alone (e.g., Matt 28:1-10; Mark 16:6, 9-13; Luke 24:1-35; cf. 1 Cor 15:5; John 20:10-23).49

Of interest to the subject of this study is the fact that some of these texts also include a testimony to Christ’s teaching concerning the significance of the third day. Thus the angels instructed the women who came to Jesus’ tomb on the third day, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again’” (Luke 24:5-7). Moreover, the two who were traveling to Emmaus that day remarked to the risen Jesus (whom they were kept from recognizing) concerning their hope in Christ, “But we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place” (Luke 24:21). Still later Jesus reminded his assembled disciples, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem” (Luke 24:45s46).50

Even after Jesus’ ascension the teaching concerning Christ’s resurrection on the third day was still fresh in the apostles’ minds as they bore witness to the truth. Thus Peter testified to this at Cornelius’ house, “God raised him from the dead on the third day and caused him to be seen. He was not seen by all the people, but by witnesses whom God had already chosen—by us who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:40-41). Paul boldly proclaimed to the Corinthian Christians:

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve (1 Cor 15:3-5).

The motif of the third day therefore reaches its climax in the fact of the resurrection on the third day. It is then that the emphasis of the third day as one of spiritual activity and completeness finds its culmination in Christ’s finished redemptive work. And yet, the motif suggests that there is still more to be seen.51


20 It is of interest to note that in the Ugaritic Baal Epic that Baal is said to hate three things: “Baal hates two kinds of banquets, the Rider on the Clouds hates three: a shameful banquet, a degrading banquet, a banquet with wanton women”; (Michael David Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978], 98). For the original text in transliteration, see Cyrus H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (Analecta Orientalia 38; Rome: Pontificium Institutum Biblicum, 1965, 170). For further examples of numerical sequences, see Wolfgang M. W. Roth, “The Numerical Sequence x/x + 1 In the Old Testament,”

V T 12 (1969): 302-311. For the use of numbers in the Old Testament, see Wolfgang M. W. Roth, Numerical Sayings in the Old Testament, VTSup.13 (Leiden: Brill, 1965). In the Damascus Document from Qumran it is said that Satan used three nets, “with which Levi son of Jacob said that he catches Israel by setting them up as three kinds of righteousness. The first is fornication, the second is riches, and the third is profanation of the Temple”; Geza Vermes, The Dead Sea Scrolls in English (4th ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1991), 100.

21 The Temple Scroll from Qumran speaks of the need to make three areas for, “the lepers, those suffering from a flux and men who have had a (nocturnal) emission,” Vermes, Dead Sea Scrolls, 167.

22 The Temple Scroll from Qumran specifies that, “you shall not slaughter clean cattle or sheep or goat in any of your towns, within a distance of three days’ journey from my sanctuary”; (Vermes, Dead Sea Scrolls, 171).

23 See below, the discussion under the third day as a literary motif.

24 K.-M. Beyse, “HAlOH,” in Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (eds. G. Johannes Botterweck, Helmer Ringgren, and Heinz-Josef Fabry ; 15 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 15:122.

25 For the motif concerning such social classes, see Richard D. Patterson, “The Widow, the Orphan, and the Poor in the Old Testament and the Extra-Biblical Literature,” BSac 130 (1973): 223-234.

26 Richard D. Patterson and Hermann J. Austel, 1 & 2 Kings (Vol. 4 of The Expositor’s Bible Commentary; ed. Frank E. Gaebelein et. al.; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 268.

27 Birch, “Number,” 4:558.

28 David L. Barr, New Testament Story (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Co., 1987), 276. Barr also lists four, seven, ten, and twelve as numbers used symbolically by John. A Berkeley Mickelsen (Interpreting the Bible [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963], 272-274) calls particular attention to the number twelve in John’s Apocalypse as signifying the people of God, a conclusion also shared by Barr who points out that twelve is “also the product of 3 and 4.”

29 See the discussion by P. P. Jenson, “SlS/hSlS,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis, (ed. Willem A. VanGemeren; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997), 4:144-146. Even Pope (“Number,” 4:564), who champions the symbolic use of numbers such as three admits, “In many cases it is difficult to tell whether the number three has symbolic significance, or is used merely for a small rounded number or as a specific number with no symbolic significance.”

30 Roy B. Zuck (Basic Bible Interpretation [Wheaton: Victor Books, 1991], 191 cautions that, “though some numbers have symbolic connotations because of their associations, this is no basis for making the numbers mean something other than their normal, literal meaning.“ Davis (Biblical Numerology, 124) is perhaps overly cautious in discounting the symbolic use, saying, “The mystical or symbolic interpretations of numbers has little place in a sound system of hermeneutics.”

31 Hosea’s use of threefold patterning is found so frequently throughout his prophecy that it may be said to be a characteristic mark of his literary style.

32 James Muilenburg (“Form Criticism and Beyond,” in The Bible in Its Literary Milieu [eds. John Maier and Vincent Tollers; Grand Rapids: Eedmans, 1979], 376) points out that “threefold repetition of a keyword within a singlr strophe…is so frequent and the words are so strategically placed that it cannot be said to be fortuitous.”

33 Choon-Leong Seow (Ecclesiastes [vol. 18c of The Anchor Bible; New York: Doubleday, 1997], 189) suggests an analogy with the ancient Mesopotamian Gilgamesh Epic, which reads, “Two men will not die; the towed boat will not sink. A three-ply cord cannot be cut.” Seow goes on to observe, “The point of the proverb in the context of the Gilgamesh Epic is that people are better able to cope with crises if there is solidarity and if they help one another. . . . Qohelet intimates that because life’s journey is difficult and perilous, it is better that one not face it alone” (pp. 189, 190). See also the discussion in Tremper Longman III, The Book of Ecclesiastes (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 142-144.

34 Pope, “Number,” 4:564. Pope goes on to provide examples of the use of the number three in Akkadian, Egyptian and Hebrew literature. For further examples of the number three in Akkadian, see The Assyrian Dictionary H, Part 1 (eds. John A. Brinkman, Miguel Civil, Ignace J. Gelb, A. Leo Oppenheim, and Erica Reiner; Chicago: The Oriental Institute, 1989), 263-266.

35 “Three, Third,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (eds Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998) 866.

36 For other notable motifs, see Alexander Altmann , ed., Biblical Motifs (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966); Gerhard F. Hasel, The Remnant (Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 1974); Tremper Longman III and Daniel G. Reid, God Is a Warrior (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995).

37 Kenneth A. Mathews (Genesis 11:27-50:2 [The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2005], 522) assumes that both the third day and the seven days here “probably are formulaic expressions relatively shorter and longer durations, not to be taken as ten actual days.” Mathews’ opinion is shared by many commentators due to the fact that the distance from Haran to Gilead was several hundred miles—far too long to be able to cover that distance in such a short time. Yet as H. C. Leupold (Exposition of Genesis [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1949], 842-43) points out, the distance that Jacob’s caravan could have traveled each day as well as the specific route that he took may have allowed his group to have arrived in Gilead within that period of time. Likewise, the boundaries of Gilead may have extended further in the patriarchal period so as to be nearer Damascus. If the numbers involved are purely literary devices, they could intend something other than shorter and longer periods of time.

38 Matthews, Genesis 11:27-50:26, 523. Contra Robert Alter (The Five Books of Moses [New York: W. W. Norton, 2004], 170) who remarks that the phrase “either good or evil” is an idiom meaning “lest you speak . . . anything at all.” Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks (Genesis [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001], 428) take the words “good or bad” to mean that Laban is to take no “legal action that will harm Jacob (see 31:29).” So also Victor P. Hamilton (The Book of Genesis Chapters 18-50 [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995], 299) remarks that the disputed phrase “does not mean that Laban is not allowed to speak ‘ any word at all’ against Jacob. Silence is not imposed on him. Rather, even if he feels that he has a legitimate grievance, Laban is not to prosecute and take (legal) action against Jacob.”

39 To be avoided here is any attempt to see some mystical significance in the mention of the third and seventh days such as might be applied on the basis of the details in Milton S. Terry ( Biblical Hermeneutics [reprint ed.; Grand Rapids: Baker, n.d.], 381, 382) that the number three is “the number of divine fullness in unity” and the number seven “being the sum of four and three, may naturally be supposed to symbolize some mystical union of God with the world, and accordingly may be called the sacred number of the covenant between God and his creatures.”

40 David M. Howard, Jr., Joshua (The New American Commentary; Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 229.

41 Some have found in the two incidents involving Joseph and Rehoboam evidence of a court ritual. See “Third Day,” in Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (eds. Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III; Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1998), 864.

42 An interesting parallel may be seen when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem on his first visit there. It was not until the third day that he cautiously set out to examine the city and then only by night so as not to alarm the resident Gentile officials (Neh 2:11-16). As expected, Nehemiah’s survey was to lead to a report to the Jews living there concerning the pressing need to rebuild the walls and of God’s provision together with that of the Persian king to do so. Therefore, the rebuilding of the walls progressed successfully despite the opposition and ridicule of the local officials.

43 Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., Toward an Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978), 89.

44 George H. Guthrie (“Hebrews,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament [eds. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007], 964) observes, “Hebrews interprets the event, saying that Abraham believed that the promises of God would not fail (Heb 11:17-19).”

45 Richard D. Patterson, “Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court,” BSac 164 (2007): 164. The account of Joseph’s stewarding of his God-directed activities begins immediately in the next chapter.

46 Although most probably a conventional meaning is attached to the third day, it is interesting to speculate whether it was more than historical coincidence when Ezra and the people of Israel completed the Temple “on the third day of the month of Adar” (Ezra 6:15). Here, too, more was to follow. For that completion was followed by a time of joyous celebration in dedicating the Temple to the Lord and installing priests “for the service of God at Jerusalem” (vv. 16-18).

47 Ryken, Wilhoit, Longman III, eds., “Third Day,” 864.

48 Interestingly, Jesus’ words were used against Him at His trial (Matt 26:61; Mark 14:58) and were hurled at Him by mocking onlookers as He hung on the cross (Mark 15:29).

49 The resurrection best accounts for the origin of the New Testament, the Christian message and the Christian church. For the fact of the resurrection, see Gary R. Habermas and Michael R. Licona, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004); James Orr, The Resurrection of Jesus (New York: Eaton & Mains, n.d.); Wilbur M. Smith, Therefore, Stand (Boston: W. A. Wilde, 1945), 359-437; and Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 191-257.

50 I Howard Marshall (Commentary on Luke, [NIGTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978], 904) suggests that Luke is here “summarising what Jesus said to his disciples over the period of the resurrection appearances.” Granted this conclusion, the importance of the third day is further underscored.

51 It is interesting to note that by analogy the motif of the third day has significant ties to the activities on the Old Testament Feast of Passover-Unleavened Bread, which commemorated God’s redemption of Israel. Although M. R. Wilson (“Passover,” in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia [rev. ed.; 5 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 4:676) argues that “Passover appears originally to have conflated two separate spring festivals,” Mark Rooker (Leviticus, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000], 285) points out that “these two ceremonies were apparently combined at the beginning, for the passover lamb was to be eaten with unleavened bread (Exod 12:8).” Douglas K. Stuart (Exodus, The New American Commentary [Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2000], 285) observes that Exodus 12:17, “reiterates the importance of celebrating the Passover feast properly and does so . . . by offering an alternative name for it: ‘The Feast of Unleavened Bread.” The redemptive significance of Passover with its emphasis on the importance of the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Exod 12:15-17; Lev 23:4-8), therefore, finds fulfillment not only in Christ’s sacrifice (cf. I Cor. 5:7) but also on the first day of the week, the third day of the passion account, the day when Christ’s resurrection became the capstone to His redemptive work. For it is Christ’s resurrection that provides for the fullness of life and vitality, which believers enjoy. Thereafter the first day of the week appropriately became the day of worship and celebration in the early church (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 16:2). Accordingly, the significance of the third day motif becomes commemorated not only in stated communion services but is fulfilled in and superseded by the importance of the first day of the week with its special spiritual emphasis (cf. Rev 1:10).

Related Topics: Theology, Bibliology (The Written Word), Bible Study Methods