Revelation 7
Clifford Denton

The Hebrew word for thousand is eleph. The Hebrew consonants are aleph, lamed and peh with the vowel seghol under the aleph and lamed. Having said that, we must remember that vowels were only inserted in the Hebrew text quite recently. The present system was developed by Tiberian scholars in the 9th or 10th century AD. Even up to the time when the Dead Sea Scrolls were written there were no vowel marks on biblical text. Oral tradition was the basis of how Hebrew words were pronounced when reading text, which contained only consonants.

Even if this is not so, a study of the word translated thousand can raise questions as to whether an exact number is always intended, whether an approximate number is intended, or even something more general. The number thousand comes from the base 10 number system. This is the system widely used today consisting of tens, hundreds, thousands and so on. It is the number system used for most arithmetic in the modern day, and the system goes back into ancient history as a means for counting. The ancient Egyptians used this system, for example. Nevertheless, the use of calculating devices for exact computation came later and so we might suppose some approximation was used when counting large numbers when systems of mathematics had not become precise. The nation of Israel was founded on cultivation of the land and the raising of flocks, requiring a mixture of accurate counting and approximation. It is not difficult to imagine the word thousand being sometimes exact and sometimes approximate to convey a general idea of size. For example, in our translation of 2 Kings 3:4 we read:

Now Mesha king of Moab was a sheepbreeder, and he regularly paid the king of Israel one hundred thousand lambs and the wool of one hundred thousand rams.

A literal number of one hundred thousand lambs is an enormous flock to regularly cross the Jordan from Moab to Samaria and difficult to picture as a practical possibility, both regarding size and exactness of number. Would such large flocks exist in the Land of Moab? Here is one circumstance in which it is plausible that the word we have translated as thousand may be something less precise. In fact if we look up the word eleph in Hebrew dictionaries we will find that there is indeed another possibility for the translation of the word. Among the possibilities is that eleph can be translated as something like clan. This would give scope for the regular gift of lambs being a hundred herds or flocks. This we can picture more readily, a number of groups of lambs crossing the Jordan on a regular basis, numbering far less than the literal 100,000.

One might even conjecture that there could have been a minor difference in the way eleph was spoken to signify a different meaning. The word eleph has the same consonants as the word aleph (the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet), so there is no reason why there could not be more variants, one variant being associated with a clan, group or flock, another being the exact number. Whether or not this is so there could be major implications in some places where our Bible translations read a literal thousand.

Hebrew is the foundational language of the Bible. It remains to be seen how much of the New Testament was originally in Hebrew before it became translated into Greek and from Greek to our own language. Reading the Book of Revelation through a Hebrew mindset is very helpful and we have the use of the number thousand on a number of important occasions.

In Revelation 7 we read of the 144,000, 12,000 from each of twelve Tribes of Israel. Suppose instead of the literal thousand we read this with the variant clan. No longer are we left to wonder at the way a literal number of the Tribes of Israel will be saved but we will read this as 12 clans from each tribe. We are left with the very plausible view that the God of Israel will redeem the nation of Israel in its original form based on tribes and clans Ė a very compelling view of Godís Covenant plan for His people.

We might even go on to consider the 1000 years of Revelation 20:6 in another light, as being an epoch of time rather than a precisely defined period. But on this matter perhaps it is safest to wait and see.