7 x 13 = 28. At least, that's what Lou Costello thought. In one of my favorite comedy sketches of all time, Lou tries to explain to his partner Bud Abbott, how his 28 freshly baked doughnuts can feed seven officers a hearty treat: 13 doughnuts a piece. Bud, standing amazed at such an absurdity, cannot contain his incredulity. "That's ridiculous! What's the matter with you?" he asks. To Lou, of course, it makes perfect sense. After all, if you take the 1 and the 3 of 13 and multiply 7 and 1, you get 7. Then multiply 7 and 3 which equals 21. Add 21 and 7 and you get... 28! 7 x 13 = 28. Of course, 7 x 13 doesn't really equal 28. That's what makes the sketch funny. For although Lou is sincere in his calculations, he is sincerely wrong. His numbers just don't add up.
In our reading for today from Revelation 7, John introduces us to one of his most controversial and contestable visions:
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: "Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God." Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. (verses 1-4)
144,000 people sealed by God? What's this all about?
Fascinatingly, like Lou Costello trying to convince Bud Abbott that 7 x 3 = 28, John's accounting doesn't add up. John multiplies 12,000 individuals by the 12 tribes of Israel to arrive at his 144,000 who are sealed by God. Yes, 12,000 x 12 does indeed equal 144,000. That's not what makes John's accounting strange. What makes John's accounting strange is his tribe listing:
From the tribe of Judah 12,000 were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben 12,000, from the tribe of Gad 12,000, from the tribe of Asher 12,000, from the tribe of Naphtali 12,000, from the tribe of Manasseh 12,000, from the tribe of Simeon 12,000, from the tribe of Levi 12,000, from the tribe of Issachar 12,000, from the tribe of Zebulun 12,000, from the tribe of Joseph 12,000, from the tribe of Benjamin 12,000. (verses 6-8)
Nowhere in the Old Testament can we find the listing of tribes used by John. The tribe of Dan is omitted while a tribe never included among the Old Testament twelve, Levi, is included in John's list, and Joseph is listed rather than his son Ephraim who is listed in the Old Testament enumerations. Moreover, the tribe of Judah appears first rather than Reuben, who is traditionally given primacy as the firstborn. In other words, John is doing math with a listing of tribes that, in the Old Testament, is non-existent!
Why would John do such a thing? After all, as a good Jew, John should know who the twelve tribes of Israel are! Why would he give us a listing of tribes that doesn't add up?
John gives us a listing of tribes that doesn't add up because he's not meaning for us to add them up, at least as the historical twelve tribes of Israel. John's interest is not in historical Israel, but in a new Israel, headed by the tribe of Judah, from whom comes "the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David" (Revelation 5:5). John is interested in a new Israel, headed by none other than Christ himself. And this new Israel is none other than the church of God - you and me.
John's numbering here, as is his listing of tribes, seems to be symbolic. The number 12 is associated with the church in Revelation (e.g., Revelation 21:14) and the number 1,000 is a Scriptural number for completeness (e.g. Psalm 50:10, 2 Peter 3:8). Thus, John's point is simply this: All who trust in the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, are sealed for salvation! We need not fear "the great day of wrath" (Revelation 6:17) to come upon this earth, for we have been rescued by Christ! And just in case we miss his point, John spells it out for us using math that anyone can understand:
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." (verses 9-10)
John's 144,000 turns out to be innumerable. No one can count them, for Christ's salvation extends so far and so wide. And you and I are a part. You and I will be singing the song of the great multitude: "Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." I can't wait to join in the chorus.