Pick Up Three Things at the Store: Milk, Bread, Juice, and Eggs
There are six things which Yahweh hates; yes, seven which are an abomination to him: (WEB)
Poetic writing of the several languages and cultures of the ancient Near East, including that of the Hebrew Tanakh (the Christian Old Testament), deploys the device of ascending numeration, or the numeric ladder. The speaker in verse might say something like:
There are three things I love about bagels:
A taste of lush butter and cream cheese
A texture firm and filling
Their warmth on my palate —
Four, four things
My mother’s hands who made them.
The poet first declares an upcoming list of x items, but then increments the list to x + 1, and provides x + 1 items in the list. This turns what might have been a literal enumeration, if this were some sort of technical document, into a literary device expressing the notion of much more, many more, greater and greater, and the superlative.
Here’s the complete proverb at verse 16-19:
There are six things that the Lord hates,
even seven that are disgusting to him:
a lying tongue,
hands that kill innocent people,
a mind devising wicked plans,
feet that are quick to do wrong,
a dishonest witness spitting out lies,
a person who spreads conflict among relatives.
(God’s Word Translation)
The NKJV Study Bible comments: “This passage is a numerical proverb … that describes seven things that the Lord hates. The use of numerical progression — six, even seven — in these proverbs is a rhetorical device that embellishes the poetry, provides a memory aid, and builds to a climax.”
The translators of the NET Bible call this a numerical ladder, where the “point of such a numerical arrangement is that the number does not exhaust the list.”
These are very Jewish expressions.
The Old Testament holds a variety of examples of this x then x + 1 and similar numerical rhetorical devices in its prose and verse. The writer always provides x + 1 items in the list, but we suggest (with the NET commentators) that the list does not end at x + 1, and the point of emphasis by the writer is the unquenchable or indefinite or superlative nature of the subject.
These ascending numeric devices have been much studied by the scholarly community.
Here’s another example from Proverbs 30, where the Hebrew poet places several incremental numeric devices into the verse:
The bloodsucking leech has two daughters—“Give!” and “Give!”
Three things are never satisfied.
Four never say, “Enough!”:
a barren womb,
a land that never gets enough water,
a fire that does not say, “Enough!”
The eye that makes fun of a father and hates to obey a mother
will be plucked out by ravens in the valley and eaten by young vultures.
Three things are too amazing to me,
even four that I cannot understand:
an eagle making its way through the sky,
a snake making its way over a rock,
a ship making its way through high seas,
a man making his way with a virgin.
This is the way of a woman who commits adultery:
She eats, wipes her mouth,
and says, “I haven’t done anything wrong!”
Three things cause the earth to tremble,
even four it cannot bear up under:
a slave when he becomes king,
a godless fool when he is filled with food,
a woman who is unloved when she gets married,
a maid when she replaces her mistress.
Four things on earth are small,
yet they are very wise:
Ants are not a strong species,
yet they store their food in summer.
Rock badgers are not a mighty species,
yet they make their home in the rocks.
Locusts have no king,
yet all of them divide into swarms by instinct.
A lizard you can hold in your hands,
yet it can even be found in royal palaces.
There are three things that walk with dignity,
even four that march with dignity:
a lion, mightiest among animals, which turns away from nothing,
a strutting rooster,
a male goat,
a king at the head of his army.
(Proverbs 30:15-31, God’s Word Translation)
This device is not limited to Proverbs. Examples are found throughout the Old Testament. Some of these follow the x then x + 1 technique, while others involve similar numeric devices to magnify the writer’s point.
Exo 20:5 Thou dost not bow thyself to them, nor serve them: for I, Jehovah thy God, [am] a zealous God, charging iniquity of fathers on sons, on the third [generation], and on the fourth, of those hating Me, (Young’s Literal Translation)
Exo 34:7 keeping kindness for thousands, taking away iniquity, and transgression, and sin, and not entirely acquitting, charging iniquity of fathers on children, and on children’s children, on a third [generation], and on a fourth.’ (YLT)
Num 14:18 Jehovah [is] slow to anger, and of great kindness; bearing away iniquity and transgression, and not entirely acquitting, charging iniquity of fathers on sons, on a third [generation], and on a fourth; — (YLT)
Deu 5:9 thou dost not bow thyself to them nor serve them, for I Jehovah thy God [am] a zealous God, charging iniquity of fathers on children, and on a third [generation], and on a fourth, to those hating Me; (YLT)
Deu 17:6 By the mouth of two witnesses or of three witnesses is he who is dead put to death; he is not put to death by the mouth of one witness; (YLT)
Deu 32:30 How doth one pursue a thousand, And two cause a myriad to flee! If not — that their rock hath sold them, And Jehovah hath shut them up? (YLT)
Jdg 5:30 Do they not find? — they apportion spoil, A female — two females — for every head, Spoil of finger-work for Sisera, Spoil of embroidered finger-work, Finger-work — a pair of embroidered things, For the necks of the spoil! (YLT)
YLT: Is not this David, of whom they answer in choruses, saying, Saul hath smitten among his thousands, and David among his myriads?’
NASB: Is this not David, of whom they sing in the dances, saying, ‘Saul has slain his thousands, And David his ten thousands’?”
YLT: And he lifteth up his face unto the window, and saith, ‘Who [is] with me? — who?’ and look out unto him do two [or] three eunuchs;
NASB: Then he lifted up his face to the window and said, “Who is on my side? Who?” And two or three officials looked down at him.
2Ki 13:19 And the man of God is wroth against him, and saith, ‘By smiting five or six times then thou hadst smitten Aram till consuming; and now, three times thou dost smite Aram.’ (YLT)
Ezr 10:13 but the people [are] many, and [it is] the time of showers, and there is no power to stand without, and the work [is] not for one day, nor for two, for we have multiplied to transgress in this thing. (YLT)
Neh 13:20 And they lodge — the merchants and sellers of all ware — at the outside of Jerusalem, once or twice, (YLT)
Job 5:19 In six distresses He delivereth thee, And in seven evil striketh not on thee. (YLT)
Job 33:14, 29 14 For once doth God speak, and twice, (He doth not behold it.) … 29 Lo, all these doth God work, Twice — thrice with man, (YLT)
Psa 62:11 Once hath God spoken, twice I heard this, That ‘strength [is] with God.’ (YLT)
YLT: There fall at thy side a thousand, And a myriad at thy right hand, Unto thee it cometh not nigh.
NASB: A thousand may fall at your side And ten thousand at your right hand, [But] it shall not approach you.
Pro 6:16 These six hath Jehovah hated, Yea, seven [are] abominations to His soul. (YLT)
Isa 17:6 And left in him have been gleanings, As the compassing of an olive, Two — three berries on the top of a branch, Four — five on the fruitful boughs, The affirmation of Jehovah, God of Israel! (YLT)
Jer 3:14 Turn back, O backsliding sons, An affirmation of Jehovah. For I have ruled over you, And taken you one of a city, and two of a family, And have brought you to Zion, (YLT)
Hos 6:2 He doth revive us after two days, In the third day He doth raise us up, And we live before Him. (YLT)
Amo 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13 3 And thus said Jehovah: For three transgressions of Damascus, And for four, I do not reverse it, Because of their threshing Gilead with sharp-pointed irons, … 6 Thus said Jehovah: For three transgressions of Gaza, And for four, I do not reverse it, Because of their removing a complete captivity, To deliver up to Edom, … 9 Thus said Jehovah: For three transgressions of Tyre, And for four, I do not reverse it, Because of their delivering up a complete captivity to Edom, And they remembered not the brotherly covenant, … 11 Thus said Jehovah: For three transgressions of Edom, And for four, I do not reverse it, Because of his pursuing with a sword his brother, And he hath destroyed his mercies, And tear perpetually doth his anger, And his wrath — he hath kept it for ever, … 13 Thus said Jehovah: For three transgressions of the sons of Ammon, And for four, I do not reverse it, Because of their ripping up the pregnant ones of Gilead, To enlarge their border, (YLT)
Amo 2:1 Thus said Jehovah: For three transgressions of Moab, And for four, I do not reverse it, Because of his burning the bones of the king of Edom to lime, (YLT)
Amo 4:8 And wandered have two or three cities, Unto the same city to drink water, And they are not satisfied, And ye have not turned back unto Me, An affirmation of Jehovah. (YLT)
Mic 5:5 And this [one] hath been peace, Asshur! when he doth come into our land, And when he doth tread in our palaces, We have raised against him seven shepherds, And eight anointed of man.
Does your Study Bible or favorite Old Testament commentary remark on this technique? If so, please comment and add to our examples and analysis of this literary device.
We pray that God blesses you! And that you read the actual Bible for yourself!