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929 Project Genesis 11 – the number 365

July 29, 2018

Robert Alter’s commentary to Genesis 11:10-26:

There are ten generations from Shem to Abraham (as the universal history begins to focus down to a national history) as there are ten from Adam to Noah.  In another formal symmetry, the ten antediluvian generations end with a father who begets three sons, just as this series of ten will end with Terah begetting Abram, Nahor, and Haran.  This genealogy, which constitutes the bridge from the Flood to the beginning of the Patriarchal Tales, uses formulas identical with those of the antediluvian genealogy in Chapter 5, omitting the summarizing indication of life span and the report of death of each begetter.  Longevity is now cut in half, and then halved again in the latter part of the list, as we approach Abram  From this point, men will have merely the extraordinary life spans of modern Caucasian mountain dwellers and not legendary life spans.  The narrative in this way is preparing to enter recognizable human time and family life.  There is one hidden number-game here, as the Israeli Bible scholar Moshe Weinfeld has observed:  the number of years from the birth of Shem’s son to Abram’s migration to Canaan is exactly a solar 365.

When I was a child, I was looking for a way to remember that a year was 365 days long.  Finally, I hit on the following formula:  365 = 142+132=122+112+102.  Indeed, 365 is the smallest number that has more than one expression as the sum of consecutive squares.

Another way I might have (but did not) remember it would have involved recalling a standard 52-card deck of cards.  Count the one through ten cards as having one through ten pips, and assign eleven pips to a jack, twelve pips to a queen, and thirteen pips to a king.

Then the average number of pips on a card is seven – the number of days in a week.

The number of cards in the deck is 52 – the number of weeks in a year.

Computing the total number of kips in a hand, if we calculate 4 x ( 1+2+3+4+5+6+7+8+9+10+11+12+13) we get 364, and adding in one pip for the joker, we get 3655 – the total number of days in a standard year.

365 is the traditional value assigned to the number of negative commandments (“thou shalt not”) in the Bible (although if you actually count the number of verses with negative commandments, the number is greater!)  According to a popular tradition recorded both in Targum Jonathan (Targ. Yonasan) to Genesis 1:27 and the Kabbalistic works, there 365 sinews in the body (although this calculation does not necessarily agree with modern medical anatomy).  Genesis 5:23 says that Enoch was 365 (and in Genesis 5:24, God takes Enoch.)

These sorts of numerical games are endless fun play.  Since Hebrew uses the Hebrew/Aramaic alphabet to record numbers, there is a numerical value to every Hebrew word, leading to a type of numerical wordplay called gematria.

But in truth, it should be said that if the the number had been different, there would have been no problem finding many interesting coincidences.  Indeed, here is a pseudo-mathematical proof that there are no boring whole numbers (non-negative integers):  Let S be the set of all such boring whole numbers.  Suppose that S is non-empty.  Then S must have an element with minimum value, call that value x. Then x is boring; but x is also the smallest boring number, which is pretty interesting.  This gives us a contradiction, so our assumption that S is non-empty must be wrong.  Therefore no whole numbers are boring.  Quod erat demonstrandum.

Here is more information about this series; and here is a table of abbreviations and acronyms.  Posts are backdated to match with 929 reading dates.

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