The Magic Numbers: 72 and 432

The man in the street does not know a star in the sky. The solstice he does not observe, the equinox he knows as little; and the whole bright calendar of the year is without a dial in his mind.

n The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, we read about a race of hyper-intelligent, pan-dimensional beings who build a huge computer called Deep Thought to calculate the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything. And the answer it comes up with is 42.[i]  Numerous theories have been advanced as to why the author, Douglas Adams, chose this number but Adams himself said that he chose it purely at random, because ‘it is a completely ordinary number, … in fact it’s the sort of number you could without any fear introduce to your parents.’[ii]
The authors of the Bible also seem to have favourite numbers but these are hardly arbitrary. The numbers 7 and 12 are almost certainly related to the seven ‘planets’ (Sun, Moon, and five visible planets) and the twelve constellations of the zodiac, but there are other numbers which don’t feature quite so frequently and which may look as if they’ve been chosen randomly, but which have real significance.


One of these is the number 72. 72 people (70+Joseph+Jacob = 72) went down into Egypt (Exodus 1:5); 70 men accompanied Moses and Aaron (= 72) to meet God on the mountain (Numbers 11:16); and Jesus sent out 72 disciples to teach the gospel (Luke 10:1). Sometimes the number given is 70, but footnotes to contemporary translations of the Bible will almost invariably point out that 72 is more likely to be the original number and that 70 is simply a ‘rounding off’.
The significance of this number extends beyond its actual presence in the biblical text. Some Jewish commentators suggest, for example, that there were 72 ‘pomegranates’ around the hem of the high-priest’s robes.[iii] The Sanhedrin, the court of law in Israel, had seventy members, and legend has it that the Septuagint (from the Latin septuaginta, meaning 70), the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek, was made by 72 men, six from each tribe of Israel, who, despite being placed by King Ptolemy in 72 separate rooms, produced 72 identical versions.[iv]
The Kabbalists claim that there are 72 names of God, basing their reasoning (in part at least) on three successive verses in chapter 14 of the book of Exodus – verses which describe the actual dividing of the waters - each of which has 72 Hebrew characters.[1]

Exodus 14: 19-21
 (Each verse has 72 Hebrew characters)

ויסע מלאך האלהים ההלך לפני מחנה ישראל וילך מאחריהם
 ויסע עמוד הענן מפניהם ויעמד מאהריהם
19And the angel of God, who had been going before the camp of Israel, moved and went behind them; and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them.

ויבא בין מחנה מצרים ובין מחנה ישראל ויהי הענן והחשך ויאר
 את הלילה ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה
20So it came between the camp of Egypt and the camp of Israel; and there was the cloud along with the darkness, yet it gave light at night. Thus, the one did not come near the other all night.

ויט משה את ידו על הים ויולך יהוה את הים ברוח קדים עזה כל הלילה וישם את הים לחרבה ויבקעו המים
21Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea; and the Lord swept the sea back by a strong east wind all night, and turned the sea into dry land, so the waters were divided.

The Kabbalists also suggest that the names of the tribes of Israel were engraved on the breastplate of the high-priest using 72 Hebrew characters.
There doesn’t seem to be any obvious reason why the biblical authors should use this number so regularly, and it is generally explained on the lazy assumption that it represents an accurate tally of actual numbers of people or things. But, as with 7 and 12, the number has an astronomical connection.
The number is associated with the precession of the equinoxes, and if, as Emerson suggests, common astronomical terms are almost meaningless to the man in the street, then we can expect that an uncommon astronomical term like ‘the precession of the equinoxes’ will be completely meaningless. And indeed, it is. It is even meaningless to biblical scholars, who rarely, if ever, mention it, and yet this astronomical phenomenon has undoubtedly left a profound impression on the mythological and religious writings of antiquity.

 The Precession of the Equinoxes

Patiently scanning the sky over millennia, successive generations of observers would have noticed that the Sun’s position at the vernal equinox changes slightly from year to year against the background of the fixed stars. In the diagram, the white arrows show the daily rotation of the earth around its axis (vertical arrow), which itself rotates slowly (white circle) completing its rotation in 25,920 years. It is caused by the gravitational forces of the Sun and Moon on the earth’s equatorial bulge, and can be likened to the gyration of a spinning-top as it nears the end of its spin, when its topmost point can clearly be seen to be describing a circle. This is the third movement of the earth, in addition to its annual orbit of the Sun and its daily rotation on its own axis. The movement doesn’t amount to much but it has given rise to the concept of the Great Year, a period of 25,920 years, the time taken for the equinoctial point to travel throughout the circle of the twelve constellations, its presence in each constellation constituting a ‘month’ of the cycle. 25,920 divided by 360 (the number of degrees in a circle) is 72.
The equinoctial point moves one degree every 72 years.
The Greek astronomer Hipparchus (2nd Century BCE) is generally credited with the discovery of the precession of the equinoxes, but the phenomenon was observed long before Hipparchus provided an explanation for it.
Santillana and von Dechend, in their book Hamlet’s Mill, which deals with the influence precession has had on our thinking and on our literature, say that, given the fact that the ancients had thousands of years for systematic and careful observation of the skies they must have been aware of precession. They quote the Italian Church dignitary, Domenico Testa, who defended the idea that the universe was created just 6,000 years ago on the grounds that, had the ancient civilisations had millennia in which to observe the stars, ‘even the very sweepers of their observatories would have known about precession’.[vi] Since we now know with absolute certainty that human beings have been around for at least 200,000 years, we can confidently assume that the sages, scientists, and astronomers of old were aware of precession even if they didn’t fully understand why it occurred.

Four Hundred and Thirty-Two

Another indication that the author of Exodus was aware of precession is the number 432. The text tells us that, ’the length of time the Israelite people lived in Egypt was 430 years’ (Exodus 12:40). This number has caused some problems for commentators because it doesn’t seem to square with the ‘prophecy’ in Genesis that the Israelites would be ‘sojourners in a land that is not theirs’ for 400 years (Genesis 15:13), a statement repeated in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 7:6). Nor does this figure tally with the genealogies of Moses given in Exodus and elsewhere, even if we take the great ages of Moses’s ancestors literally.[vii] Various figures (645 years, 430 years, 400 years, 215 years) have been proposed for the length of the sojourn and numerous solutions have been offered for the discrepancies, but the debate seems nowhere near resolution. These difficulties, disagreements, and explanations are analysed on several apologetic websites and the interested reader is encouraged to look at these to evaluate the options, but these are too tedious to discuss here. Such disagreements are further testimony to the confusion that inevitably arises when we try to turn astronomy into history.
However, as Joseph Campbell points out, 432 (the 430 in the biblical text is another example of ‘rounding off’) was never meant to be an accurate count of the years of Israelite servitude; it is a ‘magic number’.[viii] 432, when multiplied by 60 ‑ the resting heart rate of a healthy man ‑ gives 25,920, the number of years in the Great Year. Campbell finds a link here between the rhythm of the individual human being and the rhythm of the universe: 432 is the number of that link and it can be traced in a variety of mythologies. The Kali Yuga of the Hindus is 432,000 years, and in Babylonian mythology, the time between the rise of the first city, Kish, and the Flood is given as 432,000 years. It appears in Icelandic mythology, too. In Wotan’s warrior hall there are 540 doors, through each of which, at the end of the present time cycle, 800 divine warriors would pass to engage the anti-Gods in a battle of mutual annihilation. 800x540 = 432,000.[ix] The Buddhist temple at Borobudur in central Java contains 72 stupas (mound-like, or hemispherical structures), and ‘seated within niches ranged along each balustrade, facing the four directions, are, in total, 432 Buddhas’.[x]
432 is the number which expresses the relationship between the great pulsing cycles of the universe and the pulse of the human being, the mystic link between macrocosm and microcosm.
The book of Exodus tells us in the very first chapter that 70 people accompanied Jacob when he came into Egypt to join Joseph (making 72 in all), and later that the Children of Israel stayed there for 430 (432?) years. These numbers were obviously not just chosen because they are the sort of numbers you could without any fear introduce to your parents.

[1] It may be objected that the original Hebrew did not have the chapter and verse divisions we currently employ. This is indeed so, but it does not invalidate the argument. The division is not arbitrary: there are three distinct stages in the narrative, each of which is expressed in 72 Hebrew characters.

[i] ‘For seven and a half million years Deep Thought computed and calculated, and in the end announced that the answer was, in fact, forty-two – and so another, even bigger, computer had to be built to find out what the actual question was.’ (Douglas Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, page 1)
[ii] Quoted in article Phrases from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on Wikipedia
[iv] Wikipedia, Septuagint
[v] See Wikipedia Priestly Breastplate and Chapter 8 below
[vi] De Santillana and Von Dechend, Hamlet’s Mill, page 60
[vii] Exodus 6 16-18. e.g. Levi lived 137 years, and Kohath lived 133 years
[viii] Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space, page 38
[ix] Ibid, page 35
[x] Lundquist, The Temple, page 18


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