By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: The Bible


Does the five husbands have same meaning as the five porches and the five smooth stones?


There is no end to speculation of the symbolic meanings of various numbers used in the Bible. Numbers were already being used by the Egyptians and Sumerians in the third millennium BCE. Each had a little different method, but both had affinities to the decimal system. The Hebrew people inherited much of this knowledge through their interactions with these cultures – their 400 year enslavement in Egypt and their conquest of Canaan.

The symbolic use of numbers was common in the Old Testament as well as in other ancient Near Eastern literature. The use of certain numbers seems obvious – seven stands for completeness (God created the world in seven days). Forty stands for a time of trial or probation (the forty days of flood, years in the wilderness, time of testing). Three is another example of completeness (beginning, middle, end; height, length, depth). It can also signify divine perfection, the Godhead. [See discussion in questions and answers for December 2005.]

Ten can also represent completeness – ten fingers and toes. (Not to mention that it is also the basis for the decimal system of numbers.) Ten is sometimes thought to be significant because it is a combination of three and seven. Hence, there are ten Words from God; a tithe is 10 percent, and multiples of ten abound (thousands).

And five is half of ten. Frequently mentioned, five is sometimes used as a small round number. It is most often used in penalties, measurements, or rewards. Hence, if you steal an ox, you need to restore it with five others (Ex. 22:1). The altar was five cubits long and five cubits wide (Ex. 21:7). Benjamin was served five times what his brothers were given (Gen 43:34). Five is also commonly used when designating ages: many people are twenty/thirty/forty/etc. and five.

In the case of David (1Sam 17:40ff), it is true that he chose five smooth stones, but he only needed to use one to fell Goliath. Some people see an allegorical interpretation of the five husbands as representing the five deities of Samaria (remembering, of course, that the woman was a Samaritan woman) (see John 4:18ff). This has been largely debunked with the realization that the Samaritans had seven deities, not five. And scholars' only comments on the five porches revolve around whether sick people lay in all five or only the one (See John 5:12ff). There doesn't seem to be a common thread in these stories.

But as previously stated, that doesn't prevent others from speculating on the meaning of "five" in the biblical text. Most refer to it as the number representing God's grace. How individuals come to that conclusion varies dramatically. Some use the example of five loaves and fishes. Others point to the five curtains and porches in the temple. Several others note there are five sets of knots on the tassels worn by observant Jews. Whether or not these can be used as examples of God's grace is left up to individual interpretation. While it cannot be determined if there is any historical warrant for any of these assumptions, one has to admit that it's a nice thought, which may lead to reflection and inspiration.

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