This article is the companion piece to Some, Some More, about a poetic Hebrew idiom that brings me great delight. Read that one first, and if you want to know more, come back.
We’re looking at this construct from ancient Near Eastern literature called graded numerical parallelism, but which I for many years have called “n, n+1” because I didn’t know any better. Let’s remind ourselves what it looks like with the same example as the first article:
Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand.
Until I started writing this article, I had no idea that this concept had been so well-studied. I wasn’t even sure how to search for it: Google doesn’t exactly appreciate search phrases like “n, n+1” (try it!1), and surely nobody else calls it “some, some more.”
Well, I was wrong. Plenty of people have not only noticed the prevalence of this pattern in Scripture, but studied it. They even gave it a name, which I mentioned at the beginning: graded numerical parallelism. (I’m sorry to say nobody likes “some, some more”. Oh well.)
In general, authors used this structure either to heighten emotion by creating tension with the increasing numbers, or to introduce comparisons by setting some number of thing in parallel. There are other uses, but they’re more rare. We’ll get to them.
Here are a few things we should take away from this research.
The Bible Was Written By Real People
First, this structure shows up in all kinds of literature contemporary with the Biblical passages that use it, such as Ugaritic and Akkadian texts. But there’s an important distinction: the Bible uses it more frequently, and in different contexts, than its contemporaries. Specifically, Biblical authors employ graded numerical parallelism in proverbs, which other texts do not. Non-Biblical usage is generally limited to narrative.
What does this mean? Well, Biblical authors were real humans, to begin with. They lived in a real time, in a real place, and they were part of a real culture, and they incorporated that culture into their worship and religion. Christianity has always done this, from the very beginning. The focus of Christianity is Jesus Christ, and not a particular people or a particular place. That means all kinds of cultures throughout the last two millennia have worshiped God within their own culture, their own context, and the Christian world grows richer every day.
One, Two, Ten
Second, there are a couple of versions of this pattern. The most common, like I identified so many years ago, is best expressed as “n, n+1”. Or, as the seminal 1962 paper on the topic (see references at the end) puts it, “x/x+1”. I like my version better, of course2.
But sometimes the author wanted to express not just parallelism but also magnitude. So we might call the other version of the pattern “n, 10n”. We get a famous example in 1 Samuel 18:7:
Saul has struck down his thousands,
and David his ten thousands.
The author of 1 Samuel liked this one so much he repeated it in chapter 21 and again in chapter 29. Saul, we read, didn’t like it very much at all.
There’s also a kind of indefinite version in Psalm 68:17,
The chariots of God are twice ten thousand,
….thousands upon thousands
I’m not sure if the researchers would count this one, because it doesn’t really follow any kind of pattern, but this is my delight. It counts.
There are so many variations because, when the “some, some more” doesn’t introduce a list of exactly n+1 things (see below), the numbers themselves don’t really matter. God doesn’t have exactly twenty thousand chariots, He has a giant, uncountable number of chariots.
So the authors are free to play with form and choose the numbers they like.
Some More Flexibility
The third key takeaway is that graded numerical parallelism has a number of different meanings. Authors used this same construct in many different ways.
The first meaning is the modern sense of “roughly this many,” as in 2 Kings 9:32,
And he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” Two or three eunuchs looked out at him.
We don’t know whether it was two or three, but it doesn’t matter and it’s pretty close.
In fact, until that 1962 “x/x+1” paper I mentioned above, scholars generally assumed that all of the instances had this meaning.
Hosea 6:2 is an interesting version of this case:
After two days he [the Lord] will revive us;
on the third day he will raise us up,
that we may live before him.
Hosea almost definitely meant, “God will revive us after only a few days.” But we on the other side of history know that Jesus, after He died, rose again on the third day. And suddenly this passage is transformed. This weird little ancient poetic form becomes a giant neon sign pointing to the turning point of eternity, the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Pointer To Higher Value
The second usage suggests that the actual value is much higher than the numbers used, as in Job 5:19.
He will deliver you from six troubles;
in seven no evil shall touch you.
Clearly, Job does not mean God will cease His protection after seven troubles. He means, “God will deliver you from six troubles, and from seven, and eight, and nine…”
Related to that last one, it could signify abundance, as in (somewhat oddly to modern ears) Judges 5:30.
“They must be finding spoil, taking their shares,
a wench, two wenches to each warrior.;
spoil of dyed materials for Sisera,
spoil of dyed materials embroidered,
two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil”
This verse has an, um, abundance of examples. The spoil is so great, each soldier gets not just one but two women. And not just that, but “two pieces of dyed work.”
The author of Job gives us an inverted example in Job 40:5,
“I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.”
Job seems to mean, “I have spoken too much already [an abundance], but it was too much, and I will stop now.”
It could mean, “I actually have n+1 things to talk about,” as in Proverbs 30:18, the verse we saw above.
Three things are too wonderful for me;
four I do not understand
The author immediately lists four things he does not understand. This usage is called “climactic,” because the author generally wants the reader to focus mostly on the final element. In this case, he calls the reader’s attention to the mystery of love between a man and a woman (the woman is a virgin, so the two are presumably newlyweds).
It’s interesting that the author always means he has n+1 things to talk about, never just n3. And, as we saw earlier, both descriptions apply to all the items.
In fact, the author sometimes intends to compare the final item to the previous three. For example, Proverbs 30:29–31 lists four things that “are stately in their tread…are stately in their stride”: a lion, a rooster, a he-goat, and a king leading his army. The king is, of course, “stately in [his] stride,” but also bears characteristics of the lion, the rooster, and the he-goat.
I’m sure those kings were flattered.
There are a few more verses that invoke this pattern in non-standard ways.
We have already seen one type, the “n, 10n” form from 1 Samuel. One of my favorite passages, Micah 6:7, also includes this kind.
We also already talked about a different variation in Psalm 68:17,
The chariots of God are twice ten thousand,
thousands upon thousands.
As I sifted every word of the Bible for examples4, I found a few places in the New Testament that sounded right to my ear, even though the New Testament is written in Greek and doesn’t have the same poetic forms. Here’s one from Mark where the numbers themselves are important (which differentiates it from the Old Testament poetry where the specific numbers are irrelevant), but the overall structure sounds the same:
And Jesus said to him [Peter], “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows twice, you will deny me three times.”
Finally, the weirdest and coolest variation of all. Check out this amazing image from Proverbs 30:15–16,
The leech has two daughters:
Give and Give.
Three things are never satisfied;
four never say, “Enough”
First, and most obviously, we get not two but three numbers. This is the fabled “n, n+1, n+2” construction5. Glory!
That’s appropriate, because the passage is about an insatiable leech that keeps saying “give, give”, “more, more.” Like the leech, the idiom in the passage isn’t satisfied with just the standard form, it adds a third line.
And it’s not just the leech or its two daughters that can’t be satisfied. Three unnamed things “are never satisfied.” And then there are four that “never say ‘Enough.’” So the number of insatiable things keeps growing, like an appetite that not only is never filled, but gets bigger and bigger. It will, the author insinuates, consume you.
Just by focusing on a weird little poetic idiom, we’ve uncovered this rich expression of one of the fundamental truths of the the nature of fallen humans.
Delight Through Digging
This article is almost 2,000 words long, and it’s the second article of that length about “some, some more.” I did all this reading and writing because I love this bit of poetry (though maybe a bit less since I learned its technical name). I wanted to know more about it, and I wanted to share it with you. Because it’s awesome.
If you find a piece of Scripture that you love, drink deeply. Dig into its meaning. Spend some time with Google or with a concordance. Sit down with a book about it and consciously try to increase your delight. If you’re eating a piece of cake, and it’s delicious, you don’t set it back and admire it from afar. You get in there with a spoon and eat until there is no more cake left to enjoy.
Do the same thing with Scripture.
Do you know someone who really loves cars? They spend all their free time looking at cars, reading about cars, going to car museums, even collecting cars if they have the means. They know every little detail about every car they truly love, down to the variations in paint color and wheel tread and upholstery material. They know why it’s better or worse than every other car out there. Even if they’ve never owned the car in question!
How about someone who loves football that way? Someone who can name not only every player and coach on their favorite team, but who can also name the players on your team. And your coach. And your stadium. They remember that coordinator twelve years ago who called one play in one game that turned out well (or poorly). Far from being bored by all the names and numbers, they absolutely thrive on learning everything they can.
One thing these folks have in common is that they can’t wait to tell you about the thing they love. Because joy is not complete until it is shared6.
So when you find this piece of Scripture, and you go and learn everything you can about it, you have one more thing to do that will make your delight even greater: tell someone what you’ve learned.
I, for one, would love to hear about it.
Further Reading and Resources
Here are all the sources I used writing this article, listed in order of utility, not alphabetical. I also used the full text of the King James Version and some Python code I wrote that is too embarrassing to share with all of you.
Roth, Wolfgang M. W. “The Numerical Sequence x/x+1 in the Old Testament.” Vetus Testamentum 12, no. 3 (1962): 300–11. doi:10.2307/1516656.
The seminal paper on this sequence. Not the most approachable, but the most thorough.
Davis, John J. “The Rhetorical Use of Numbers in the Old Testament.” Grace Journal 8.2 (1967): 40–8.
By far the easiest reading that is still comprehensive.
Day, John, Robert P. Gordon, and Hugh Godfrey Maturin Williamson, eds. Wisdom In Ancient Israel. Cambridge University Press (1998).
With the next one by Watson, comprehensive books that I haven’t read, but which are available in part on Google Books, where I found them helpful.
- Watson, Wilfred GE. Classical Hebrew Poetry: A Guide to Its Techniques. A&C Black (2004).
Wikipedia. “Graded Numerical Sequence.” Available: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Graded_numerical_sequence.
It’s Wikipedia. Use at your own risk.
I’ve seen at least one source suggesting that Psalm 62:11–12 is an exception to this rule. But… honestly, this makes no sense. Did God speak once or twice? Surely God has spoken many times, and the “n, n+1” structure emphasizes God’s speech. It doesn’t limit Him. ↩
By “every word,” I mean I analyzed the entire King James Version for all instances of two number words that were both one apart (“n, n+1”) and close together in the text. This was harder than it sounds, because sometimes the words were “one, two”, but sometimes they were “once, two times.” ↩
If you count the leech itself as “one,” you can have “n, n+1, n+2, n+3”. ↩