The Seventy

My wife and I have been holed up in our house for a week and a half now, so she decided we should clean the pantry. My first job was to clean out an old file cabinet. The first thing I happened to pull out was an old manuscript of a Note or Comment  from 1986 intended for publication in Dialogue. I had no recollection of this piece whatsoever. The manuscript was in a Dialogue envelope with a letter from Lavina that seems to indicate it had been accepted for publication, but it never appeared. I’m guessing there arose an editor that knew not Joseph. Normally I wouldn’t want anything I wrote 25 years ago to see the light of day, but I read it over and decided I wasn’t ashamed of it, so I figured I would give it a belated publication here on the blog.

THE SYMBOLIC SIGNIFICANCE OF THE NUMBER SEVENTY

In discussing the gospel with both those who are investigating and those who have recently joined the Church, I am often asked the source of the unusual title “seventy.” My initial response is that the office of seventy was revealed to the Prophet Joseph Smith as a part of the restoration of all things, based on the precedent of the Saviour calling seventy disciples to preach his gospel. This response is usually found to be satisfactory. Occasionally, however, someone will probe further, inquiring as to whether the mere fact that Jesus happened to choose seventy men warrants our naming an office of the priesthood after the number seventy. On such occasions I explain that, just as the selection of twelve apostles was not mere happenstance, so the selection of the seventy was more than a fortuity. The number seventy has a rich symbolic significance throughout the scriptures. Both the seventy of Christ and the office of seventy in our day reflect this symbolism.

The Number Seventy Has Symbolic Significance

Certain numbers had a strong symbolic significance in the Old Testament. For example, the number forty was frequently used to represent an indeterminate period of time (e.g., Genesis 7:12). Perhaps the most important of these symbolic numbers was the number seven. The creation account tells us that God created the heavens and the earth in six days and then rested on the seventh day and sanctified it (Genesis 2:1-3). From this the number seven came to be seen as symbolic of wholeness, of completeness, of perfection.

Multiples of the number seven were also seen as significant. The Jubilee Year described in Leviticus 25 was to be celebrated every fiftieth year, or after seven sabbatical years (Leviticus 25:8). Similarly, the Day of Pentecost was celebrated on the fiftieth day following the Passover, the forty-nine intervening days comprising the Feast of Weeks, seven weeks of seven days each (Leviticus 23:15-16).

The number seventy seems to have drawn its significance from the fact that, like the number forty-nine, it is an important multiple of the number seven. In Genesis 4:24, Lamech poetically increased the sevenfold vengeance the Lord promised against anyone who should slay Cain by seventy:

If Cain shall be avenged sevenfold,

truly Lamech seventy and sevenfold.

A similar numerical increase is recorded in Matthew 18:21-22, where Peter asked Jesus how many times one should forgive one’s brother. Peter himself suggested seven times, but Jesus replied:

I say not unto thee, Until seven times;

But, Until seventy times seven.

These passages suggest that the number seventy may have originally become significant because of its relation to the number seven, and the tendency of the Hebrew poets to create parallel lines by the device of numerical increase.

The scriptures are replete with passages that symbolically use the number seventy. Three examples should suffice to illustrate the symbolic nature of the number:

When Moses led the children of Israel to Elim, they found there twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees (Exodus 15:27). The early Church Fathers interpreted these as representative of the twelve apostles and seventy of Christ.1

The Greek translation of the Old Testament is known as the Septuagint (a word of Latin derivation meaning “seventy”), because Jewish tradition held that it was produced in seventy days by seventy-two elders sent from Jerusalem to Alexandria.2

Jesus seems to have sent the seventy forth at the time of the Feast of Tabernacles. The number of bullocks offered during the feast was seventy in all, decreasing from thirteen on the first day to seven on the seventh and final day (see Numbers 29:12-32). According to the Talmud, “The seventy bullocks serve as atonement for the seventy nations of the world,” referring to the seventy nations of Genesis 10.3

The Number Seventy Symbolizes Missionary Work

The unique calling of the Seventy in our own day has always been related to missionary work. This has been so ever since the Prophet Joseph Smith’s 1835 revelation on priesthood: “The Seventy are also called to preach the gospel, and to be especial witnesses unto the Gentiles and in all the world–thus differing from other officers in the church in the duties of their calling.” (D&C 107:25)

In Luke chapter 10, we read how Jesus appointed “seventy others” (the meaning of the Greek text of Luke 10:1), in addition to the twelve apostles sent forth in chapter 9, to preach His gospel. They went two by two into every city in order to reap a bountiful harvest for Him who is Lord of the harvest (Luke 10:1-2). The mission of these seventy was a singular success, and the Lord told them that their names were written in heaven (Luke 10:17-20).

It seems likely that Jesus chose seventy additional missionaries to represent the seventy nations of the world listed in Genesis 10. This “table of nations” listed all of the known nations of the earth shortly after the flood. Thus, the seventy of Christ appear to symbolize the idea that the gospel would be taken to every nation, kindred, tongue and people. This interpretation is supported by the fact that some New Testament manuscripts read “seventy.:..two” instead of “seventy” in Luke 10:1, an alternate reading which appears to be based on the fact that the Septuagint text of Genesis 10 lists seventy-two nations rather than seventy. Modern prophets have consistently emphasized the same theme, as President John Taylor did in a discourse given on April 8, 1878: “Hear it, 0 ye Seventies! you are called and set apart by the Priesthood, to act under the direction of the Twelve, to go forth as His messengers to the nations of the earth.” (Journal of Discourses, 19:307)

Just as the number seventy symbolizes all the nations of the world, so also it stands for the whole house of Israel. Genesis 46 catalogues Israel’s family at the time he took them down to Egypt, and they numbered seventy souls. Again, the prophets often speak of missionary work as the gathering of Israel, as in this example from the prophecies of Zenos:

Yea, then will /the Holy One of Israel/ remember the isles of the sea; yea, and all the people who are of the house of Israel, will I gather in, saith the Lord, … from the four quarters of the earth. (1 Nephi 19:16)

The Number Seventy Symbolizes Governance

The Lord commanded Moses to choose seventy men of the elders of Israel. These seventy were privileged to see the Lord (Exodus 24:9-10) and to prophesy (Numbers 11:24-25). They were officers over the people, and called to bear the burden of governing the people along with Moses (Numbers 11:16-17). Thus, the number seventy also came to be seen as symbolizing the authority to govern.

We see this use of the number frequently in the Old Testament. When Adoni-bezek was captured and had his thumbs and big toes cut off, he said that God had requited him for cutting the thumbs and big toes off of seventy kings (Judges 1:6-7). Abimelech, the son of the judge Gideon, was given seventy pieces of silver by his mother’s brethren, and he slew his seventy brothers to secure his ability to be anointed king (Judges 9:1-7) Abdon, who judged Israel eight years, was said to have forty sons and thirty nephews who rode on seventy ass colts (Judges 12:13-15). Jehu slew the seventy sons of King Ahab to cut off the house of Ahab from further rule in Israel (2 Kings 10:1-7).

The number seventy was recognized as the appropriate number for a ruling council in New Testament times. Thus, the great Sanhedrin consisted of seventy members plus a president. When Josephus organized Galilee during the Jewish War, he chose out seventy of the most prudent men and appointed them to be rulers.4 Josephus also tells us that the Zealots at Jerusalem set up a court of seventy chief men to take the place of the courts they had suppressed. 5

In our own day, after the First Presidency, the ruling councils of the Church are the Quorum of the Twelve and the First Quorum of the Seventy. The numbers twelve and seventy are often symbolically associated in the scriptures, as in the twelve sons of Israel and seventy souls of Israel (Exodus 1:1-5), the twelve wells of water and seventy palm trees at Elim (Exodus 15:27), and the twelve pillars and seventy elders of Exodus 24. The variant “seventy-two” is occasionally found in certain traditions and manuscripts partly because it is a multiple of twelve rather than seven.

It should be clear from the foregoing that the office of a seventy in our day has a place within the rich scriptural tradition of ascribing symbolic significance to the number seventy. In particular, the seventy have a special responsibility for missionary work, and the First Quorum of the Seventy also plays an important role in Church governance. As President Joseph F. Smith once said,

The seventies are called to be assistants to the twelve apostles; indeed they are apostles of the Lord Jesus Christ, subject to the direction of the Twelve, and it is their duty to respond to the call of the Twelve, under the direction of the First Presidency of theChurch, to preach the gospel to every creature, to every tongue and people under the heavens, to whom they may be sent.6

Notes:

  1. Tertullian, Adversus Marcionem, iv, 24; Origen, Homily 7 on Exodus and   Homily 27 on Numbers; and Jerome, Epistula, 1xix, 6.
  2. E.g., see the Letter of Aristeas, R. J. H. Sutt, trans., in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Vol. 2 (Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985), 7-34.
  3. Gunther Plaut, The Torah, A Modern Commentary (New York: Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981), 1220.
  4. Bellum Judaicum, ii, 20, 5: Vita, 14.
  5.  Bellum Judaicum, iv, 5, 4.
  6. Gospel Doctrine (Salt Lake City, Utah: Desert Book Company, 1977), 183.

Comments

  1. Interesting symbolism. Thanks Kevin.

  2. I’ve always thought seventies were very strange and couldn’t see how they fit in to the big picture. I never noticed the number 70 used elsewhere in the scriptures. I loved all the references and context you share and am looking forward to noticing 70 as I reread the scriptures. Thanks.

  3. Dolly Wright says:

    Was there at one time, an office of the priesthood where a man would be a member of the seventy in his own ward/stake? I have a childhood memory of my dad being ordained as a seventy and he felt very proud of that. But his callings always centered around being ward clerk.

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    Hi Dolly, I just saw this. Yes there used to be local seventies. When I was on my mission in the 1970s we would meet for priesthood meetings with the 70s.