by Larry Kirkpatrick
Recently, I met with a person who had become convinced that certain texts in Leviticus 26 teach a time prophecy in the Bible having a duration of 2,520 years. (“seven times” = seven years = (7 * 360) = 2,520 days = 2,520 prophetic years.)
In the meeting, I stated the fact that in Leviticus 26:18, 21, 23, 24, 28, the phrase “seven times” is not found in the Hebrew, but that in those places, only the Hebrew word for the number “seven” (SHEVAH) is present. In each instance, the word “times” has been added by the English translators. Nor are there textual variants involving SHEVAH in any of these verses. The most appropriate translation today, in each case is “sevenfold,” portraying the author’s meaning of intensity—not “prophetic years.”
Turning to Strong’s Concordance with Strong’s dictionary for Hebrew, entry #7651, he stated that the translation of “seven times” was valid, because Strong says that SHEVAH may also be used adverbially to mean “seven times.”
He is not the first to make the kind of mistake he did. The error is common enough that it has a name: “illegitimate totality transfer.” Here is how that works. When one makes this mistake, he takes a list of glosses or definitions for a word and considers them all to be options for translation regardless of the particular context. But word meanings are not free-standing; it is not a matter of our arbitrarily or prejudicially picking out a meaning which we may prefer to be the meaning.
Rather, the meaning of a word is controlled by the words in immediate relation to it. The meaning of a word in a particular sentence is determined much more by the sentence it appears in and the paragraph that the sentence appears in, than by any general dictionary definition. Most dictionaries tell us very little about a word in specific contexts.
Nevertheless, the person I refer to stated rather firmly that “seven times” is an appropriate translation of these verses in Leviticus 26.
Another Translation Option?
Many Bible translations such as the that of the Jewish Publication Society use “sevenfold,” rather than “seven times.” Examples include the ESV, RSV, the Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, the Etz Hayim (JPS Torah Commentary), Stone Tanach. These, and many others, translate the meaning as “sevenfold.” Are they right or wrong?
By no means are the majority, or the scholars, our measure. Still, if truth matters to us as much as we often say it does, we should be willing to investigate carefully possible improvements to our understanding. To adhere stubbornly to an idea or a mistaken interpretation of a certain passage, in the face of available clarifying information, is no recommendation of our faith. Time and again I have seen narrow people accuse others. Holding stubbornly to a preferred interpretation, they claim the other is resisting God. Their own way of seeing is to them the only way of seeing. But “do not bother me with the facts” is not the attitude of the truth seeker.
The text is not arbitrary; its meaning is not up for grabs. The original authors, inspired by God, wrote. They had a particular understanding, a definite meaning in mind. Our goal as we interpret the text, is to understand what the original author intended when he wrote it. Sometimes there really are other options!
Considering our Leviticus 26 question, and the way “seven” is used in the Bible, we have to work with facts such as the following (let’s use the KJV translation for the moment):
- The phrase “seven times” occurs in 33 passages of the Bible, 30 in the Old Testament.
- The phrase “seven years” occurs in 40 passages of the Bible, 39 in the Old Testament.
- In the Old Testament, when the Bible writers want to say “seven years,” they use two words—SHEVAH (meaning “seven”) and SHANNA (meaning “years.”). This is true of every occurrence in the Old Testament.
- When the Bible writers in the Old Testament want to say “seven times,” to express that many years, they use two words—SHEVAH and IDDAN (meaning “time”).
- The words IDDAN (“time”) and MOED (“appointed time,” “place,” or “meeting”) are sufficient to indicate the meaning “year” without needing the help of an additional word for the number.
- When Bible writers want to indicate seven degrees of intensity, they often use two words, SHEVAH and PAAM (“time,” “repetition”). The other way, is by using the word for “seven” alone, then best translated “sevenfold.” The 2011NIV translates this “seven times over.”
Zeroing-in now on our particular question:
- There is no place where SHEVAH (“seven”) or any adverbial number is used substantively (as a noun) standing alone, anywhere in the Bible, to mean seven periods of time. Rather, whenever periods of time are meant, the word for the number is used with a word for a noun to indicate the fact.
- The translation to English “seven times,” but where only the word SHEVAH (“seven”) occurs in the original language, appears in only five passages. Besides Leviticus 26, those places are Psalm 12:6; 119:164; Proverbs 24:16; and Daniel 3:19.
- In the four passages besides Leviticus 26 mentioned above, the usage refers to intensity or completeness. In Psalm 12:6, God’s word is fully purified. In Psalm 119:164, God is praised all day long for the goodness of His ways. In Proverbs 24:16, every time a righteous man falls he recovers and does good. And in Daniel 3:19, an angry Nebuchadnezzar has the furnace stoked to maximum heat.
- On those occasions when time is indicated in the Bible by a single word, it is always a word for time, such as SHANNA or IDDAN or MOED (e.g. Daniel 7:25 and 12:7).
- When SHEVAH does appear alone in the Bible, and when context demonstrates that the literal number seven is not intended but intensity or fullness, it is often translated “sevenfold.”
Using and Misusing Concordances and Dictionaries
All of which brings us back to the dictionary entry in Strong’s.
SHIBAH, from 7650; a prim. cardinal number; seven (as the sacred full one); also (adv.) seven times; by implic. a week; by extens. an indefinite number: -(+by) seven([-fold], -s, [-teen, teenth, -times). Comp. 7658 (Italicized words in original. In this paper I have used SHEVAH, the Shephardic pronunciation, rather than SHIBAH).
Strong says that the meaning can be seven, or fullness, or week, or sevenfold, or seven times or some other seven number (can be part of 17, 77, etc.). But how will we know which meaning to use? We are not to pick the meaning arbitrarily; there is an inspired control. The glosses in Strong’s dictionary are not the inspired control; the local context in the text in which the inspired writing is given, is. (For clarification on the difference between a “gloss” and a “definition” see the article “Pitfalls in Concordance Usage.”) The meaning of any given inspired thought, encompassed in a word in the Bible, is controlled by the relation of that word to all the others it stands immediately connected with.
Therefore, when interpreting Scriptures, we are not at liberty to select at random a meaning we might prefer in order to support an opinion we might have. If we do this, the result is no longer God’s word. Then it has been appropriated; then a thief has inserted his own preferred meaning, and it has become only a human word. When one sets aside the meaning intended by the inspired author and replaces it with his own preferred meaning, he is misrepresenting, changing value, counterfeiting, putting the false in place of the true.
Even when we use the most serious resources, volumes actually intended as dictionaries, like BDAG (A Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Walter Bauer, Frederick William Dankar, Kurt Aland, Barbara Aland, F.W. Gingrich) or HALOT (Hebrew Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament), the meanings presented as possibilities still need verification. Even these conclusions must be reviewed with care.
Now, assuming that a person has one of these more serious dictionaries at hand, and it turns up say eight distinct uses for a word, all will not be options. Only those uses of the word which fit the context where it appears in the passage are candidates for meaning there.
Thus, we start with a list of all the possibilities for translation, winnowing it to only those appropriate in that context. We limit available options to those. Finally, we attempt to choose the most likely meaning fitting the passage. This selection is heavily determined by the way the word is used in its local context, in the sentence it appears in, in the paragraph those sentences appear in. The most appropriate translation of a word is also determined by the way it is—and is not—used elsewhere in the Bible.
A Look at Leviticus 26
Those who are sure a time prophecy has been hidden in Leviticus 26 would do well to engage in a careful study of that chapter as a whole, and strengthen their understanding of the local context of the places (Leviticus 26:18, 21, 23, 24, 28) where “seven” occurs.
Leviticus 26 can understood as having four main sections. Leviticus 26:1-13 tells the blessings of obedience. Leviticus 26:14-39 warns of the consequence of disobedience. Leviticus 26:40-45 urges repentance by Israel, and Leviticus 26:46 serves as a summary of all that has gone before.
We should not miss the accelerating series of judgments presented in the warnings against disobedience. Each judgment is worse than the previous in series. First is verses 14-17: terror, disease and sickness, crop failure, defeat by enemies, and fearfulness. Failure to obey in response to this first chastening results in the second judgment, verses 18-20. This judgment results in negating the effects of their labor, and brings more severe failure of crops and orchards. If, after this judgment is carried out, there is still no change, then a third falls, as indicated in verses 21, 22: This new wave of action brings danger from wild animals, death of children, loss of domestic animals, and reduction of Hebrew population in the land.
The contest between God’s will and the stubbornness of His followers is always epic, and always leads finally to their submission or destruction. If they refuse to be humbled here, He sends judgment number four. We see this in verses 23-26. The judgments increase to include raids and invasions by enemy forces, hunger and famine. Finally, the last cycle of judgments is presented at 27-39 and includes cannibalism, death and destruction in false worship groves, cities laid waste, divine refusal to accept their offerings, and scattering of His people among the nations, even greater fearfulness of them in those places, and finally death in foreign lands.
It should be noted that Leviticus is not a book of predictive prophecy. No particular beginning or endpoints are given. The kind or genre of the book is Torah, instruction. The judgments mentioned above are particular to God’s people but presented entirely as consequential. They are clearly separted into five distinct sets, the first, along with the sevenfold increase at each of the following four stages (18, 21, 24, 28).
Even if somehow these truly were “prophetic” years, they would be four periods of either seven or 2,520 years length each, separated by time given for opportunity to repent. The total time would be more than 10,000 years! God’s determined will might last that length of time, but any people would be wiped off the planet long before such an extensive series of judgments was finished. A single, unitary judgment of 2,520 years is not even supported by the actual text and logic of the passage, even if all the other theories of this doctrine’s advocates were sound.
Not One Biblical Precedent
Returning to the possible meanings enumerated by Strong, only those fitting the context are valid options for interpretation. In the occurences in Leviticus 26, the meaning is increasing intensity—just as it was in the four passages noted earlier in this article where SHEVAHoccurs standing without SHANNAH or IDDAN. Therefore, the most correct translation in Leviticus 26 is “sevenfold,” a literal translation of the text in its context, indicating an increased degree of intensity. God says that He will discipline Israel with ever increasing severity for their disobedience to His covenant.
Simply put, dealing only with facts, the actual text of the Bible nowhere uses SHEVAH(“seven”) standing alone to mean “seven years.” There is no place in the Scripture that can sustain the position that this person insisted to be the correct one. And so, if nowhere in Leviticus 26 is the meaning “seven years” found with specific reference to these five stages of judgment, there is no basis there for any further numerical gymnastics. That is, the five step argument used to support the notion that Leviticus 26 contains a 2,520 year prophecy (see below), is demonstrated to be false at step one. If the first stage of the argument is false, the support for the idea in the following deductions are false. You cannot start with a false premise and reach a true conclusion.
1. 7 times = 7 years →
2, 1 prophetic year = 360 days →
3. 7 years = 7 x 360 prophetic days →
4. 7 x 360 = 2520 days →
5. 2520 days = 2520 years
The chief error that this person made was to misuse Strong’s Concordance. He selected his preferred meaning from the dictionary in the back, rather than one sustained by biblical usage and fitting the context of Leviticus 26. A concordance is not a buffet where we pick and poke and take only what we want. Normally, it will suggest broad options for interpretation. The interpreter weighs these, letting the available meanings of a word be compared with the local context; that is the divine control.
If our goal truly is to understand the meaning that God has placed in His word, then we are not free to substitute our own preferred meanings. Scripture interprets Scripture only when we work with God, letting His controls be our controls so that we interpret the text in a manner consonent with His controls. We have to be listening. We do not tell God what the interpretation of His word is, we let Him tell us. His text is authority. We are only servants.
But Why “seven times” in the KJV?
If the meaning in Leviticus 26 is not “seven times” as standing for “seven years,” then why did the KJV and other Bible versions offer the translation “seven times”? In other places the KJV translators use the word “sevenfold.” Why not Leviticus 26?
Some do not realize that several different persons were involved in the translation of the King James Version. Different books were assigned to different persons. For example, Matthew Parker was assigned Genesis, Andrew Pierson, Leviticus, and so on. The work of different translators helps account for minor differences. We also know that the goal of the translators was not to introduce unnecessary changes, and that usage from earlier translations often prevailed, even when not always self-consistent.
Here’s another part of the picture. Carl Olof Johnnson shows that the first expositor to discuss a period of 2,520 years is John Aquila Brown in 1810 A.D., and that the idea was not even applied to Leviticus 26 until first published by Henry Drummond in 1827 A.D.
More than two full centuries elapsed after the King James Version’s appearance in 1611 A.D. before any notion arose that a prophetic time period of 2,520 years might be hidden in Leviticus 26! When the the Leviticus 26 texts were translated “seven times” in English, none were thinking that it might stand for a period of seven years, let alone 2,520!
For the KJV translators, “seven times” depicted intensity. Likely, they simply reused “seven times” from previous English versions.
Only when the concept of year-for-a-day for the long apocalyptic time periods was applied where the English word for “time” had been added by the translators, did the idea of such a “prophecy” became potential. To get there, you have to add the word “year” to the text, and then make it stand symbolically for 360 days, and then multiply the seven years by 360 to get 2,520 days, and then turn the days into years. This is certainly the long way around the bend! It is convolution.
Is the 2,520 in Daniel Four?
It has been asked if we will offer an article considering whether the 2,520 “prophecy” appears in Daniel chapter four. You will recall that king Nebuchadnezzar was struck by God for his pride and that “seven times” passed over him (Daniel 4:16, 23, 29-32). In Daniel four, the word IDDAN is used with SHEVAH. Some, through similar reasoning as that employed to derive “seven times” in Leviticus 26, have taken this passage also as indicating a prophetic period of 2,520 years.
However, it is completely clear from the Scripture that the dream was specifically for Nebuchadnezzar, the punishment a chastisement for his pride, and that it was imposed upon him and him alone. Verse 33 says “immediately the word was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar” (ESV). Verse 28 says that “all this came upon king Nebuchadnezzar.”
Thus, the Bible specifically applies the chastisement to Nebuchadnezzar. It says that it was fulfilled. The text nowhere suggests any additional fulfillment or application of the prophecy in long time periods external to Daniel chapter four. Finally, it is unlikely Nebuchadnezzar lived a life anywhere near 2,520 years in length (he would have had to have lived until the 1960s A.D.!) His death occurred between the second and sixth months of the 43rd year of his reign. He was succeeded by Amel-Marduk in 562 B.C. The period of “seven times” is wholly applied to Nebuchadnezzar. There is no part of the period remaining to apply elsewhere. An additional paper by us devoted to the question of the 2,520 in Daniel four is unlikely.
Ellen White’s Alleged Support of the 2,520 “Prophecy”
Although even further afield of the Leviticus 26 theory than Daniel four, there is the question of Ellen G. White’s alleged support for the 2,520 “prophecy.” Anything more than a cursory consideration of this would take us beyond the scope of this paper. Still, her alleged support is presented by 2,520 advocates as being very strong. Is it?
White made positive statements supporting the 1843 chart, which included in the uppermost, rightmost corner (about 1/27th of the total area of the chart) the 2,520 “prophecy.” It is important to understand the contents of this chart. The whole is divided into a space of roughly six columns. The first column explains the prophecy of Daniel chapter two. The second and third column space explains mostly the prophecies of Daniel chapters seven and eight along with some 12. The fourth gives dates of historic events. The fifth deals with the 2,300 day/year prophecy; the sixth, with the 2,520 and the 1,260, with its bottom third showing angels blowing three woe trumpets. The chart is a very busy place!
Where does this all come out?
- Ellen White’s support for the 2,520 is quite indirect. The 2,520 was on the chart—in the corner. It was not a primary or even secondary emphasis. When she does mention the chart, it is with special reference to the termination year mistake for the 2,300 day/year prophecy.
- In fact, in her extensive writings, there is complete absence of direct advocacy for any 2,520 day/year “prophecy.”
- In one place, she mentions the possibility of further altering the charts. She also states that God permitted at least a part of the material on the chart relating to time to remain flawed. This raises the possibility that additional clarification could come leading to further corrections.
- The historical fact is that the Seventh-day Adventist Church never adopted the 2,520 “prophecy,” but rather at the time of its founding in the 1860s its people were well advanced in the process of abandoning that interpretation. White raised no complaint concerning this, publicly or privately. We do not have even a single private letter from her to another concerning the 2,520. Were this a crucial and urgent matter, how out of character for her to stand by and say nothing!
- The intended scope of her “endorsement” of the 2,520 “prophecy” needs to be reconsidered. It is interesting to compare the prophetic components she chooses to address in her book The Great Controversy with those on the 1843 chart. In The Great controversy, she supports the chart’s Daniel 7, 8, and 12 teachings, as well as the 1,260 and 2,300 day/year prophecies. Elsewhere, she unambiguously supports Daniel two. Conspicuous in its complete absence in her writings, is any reference to the 2,520 “prophecy.”
Persons urgent to sustain the 2,520 interpretation have misconstrued the scope of her statements in support of the chart. The support advocates of the 2,520 say that they find in her writings is indirect at best, if not non-existent.
It would take us beyond the scope of this article to address questions such as, Why William Miller gets the 2,300 day/year prophecy right in Daniel 8:14 while he is mistaken with the 2,520 prophecy theory, or, to ponder how it is that advocates of the 2,520 “prophecy” can get into as much trouble when they actually do use Miller’s “rules” as when they do not! Suffice it to say, concerning the 2,520 “prophecy” in Leviticus 26, we have our answer. There simply is no 2,520 year prophecy hidden away in the “seven times” passage in Leviticus 26. It isn’t in the Hebrew. It isn’t in the English (when properly translated). It isn’t in the Bible. As for Strong’s Concordance, it is a very helpful tool—when it is used as a concordance. It is a misuse to use it as a dictionary. Thankfully, everyone can grow in their understanding of Bible study methods.
One almost hesitates to state it, but the Scripture evidence in favor of a 2,520 “prophecy” in Leviticus 26 or Daniel four is so lacking, that the reason for its imperative advocacy by some must have some other reason behind it.
Could it be that for some reading this, the actual issue has more to do with attitude than anything else? Whenever speculative matters enter in and separate brethren, I have to stop and ask God to work for me, to help me and search my heart. How quickly the work could go forward if we labored side by side for Jesus and His Third Angel’s Message, and how our adversary rejoices when he succeeds in separating us from each other and weakening the mighty work of living and giving a Present Truth message for this time. Let us reconsider these things, and repent, and advance again together toward the finish line!