Monday, March 28, 2011

Until Seventy Times Seven

When Peter asked the Christ, "Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?" Jesus responded, "I say not unto thee, until seven times: but, until seventy times seven" (Matthew 18:21-22). Peter, likely familiar with the rabbinical teaching that you must forgive an offender three times, undoubtedly thought himself generous in exceeding the prescribed conditions of forgiveness, but the Lord taught him that our forgiveness should be unlimited. The number 490 represents a limitless and unconditional forgiveness because, as we read in the Doctrine and Covenants: "I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive, but of you it is required to forgive all men" (64:10). The message of Christ's reply to Peter--that we must forgive as frequently as we take offense--is clear, but the numerical terms in which he expressed that message are also symbolic and significant. 

Some weeks ago my brother, the esteemed Defender of Doctrine, forwarded the following thought in a family letter: "Growing up I often wondered what the significance of the Savior's injunction that we are to 'forgive 70 x 7' was. Does it mean that we keep a tally and when we get to 491 we're done? Not practical. If it means we are to forgive always--why those specific numbers? Here's an answer to that question that resonates with me. After the flood the descendants of Noah divided the earth into 70 parts--check out Genesis 10 if you want the 70 names. Thereafter 'THE WORLD' was thought of as comprising those 70 areas or divisions (gives new perspective on why the Quorum of the 70 is not the Quorum of the 80 too . . . ). Our reckoning of  time is a cycle of 7 repeating days. Hence, by teaching us we are to forgive 70x7 the Savior was really saying 'All the world, all the time.'"

The DoD's interpretation is compelling, and a little research suggests that it's based in fact. Now, to be sure, if you open up to the tenth chapter of Genesis, you won't find any statement indicating that the world was divided into 70 segments; instead you'll find a a genealogy of Noah's three sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth. The Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament explains the connection between this genealogy and the a 70-part world: "According to the Jewish Midrash, there are seventy tribes, with as many different languages; but this number can only be arrived at by reckoning Nimrod among the Hamites, and not only placing Peleg among the Shemites, but taking his ancestors Salah and Eber to be names of separate tribes. By this we obtain for Japhet 14, for Ham 31, and for Shem 25, - in all 70 names. The Rabbins, on the other hand, reckon 14 Japhetic, 30 Hamitic, and 26 Semitic nations; whilst the fathers make 72 in all. But as these calculations are perfectly arbitrary, and the number 70 is nowhere given or hinted at, we can neither regard it as intended, nor discover in it 'the number of the divinely appointed varieties of the human race,' or 'of the cosmical development,' even if the seventy disciples (Luke 10:1) were meant to answer to the seventy nations whom the Jews supposed to exist upon the earth." To sum up: first-century rabbis contemporary with Christ certainly believed the world could be divided into 70 segments, whether or not we agree with the fuzzy math they employed in arriving at that conclusion--so the DoD's interpretation has the backing of the Midrash.

I love the DoD's "Forgive all the world, all the time" analysis, but as I was enjoying a seder feast last night, in anticipation of Passover, and while reviewing the stories of Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, it occurred to me that there was another, equally significant way to understand the Savior's "seventy times seven" injunction. It seems important to me that the Savior gives his "seventy times seven" response in answer to Peter's question about how often he ought to forgive his brother--and not, for instance, a neighbor, strangeror Samaritan. Those three clues--seventy, seven, and brother--suggest to me that the Savior was teaching Peter a lesson about the blessings of forgiveness and not just the conditions in which we are to extend it.

The greatest story of forgiveness in the Old Testament--all of scripture, as far as Peter was concerned--is that of Joseph in Egypt, whose brothers sold him into slavery for twenty pieces of silver. As Joseph labored for Potiphar, as he sweltered in an Egyptian prison, he must have struggled with ill feelings toward his brothers. And when--at the beginning of seven year famine--his brothers turned up, wholly in his power, and begged for mercy, it must have been difficult to restrain the urge to recriminate. Indeed, it would appear that Joseph didn't wholly restrain his punitive instinct; he threw the ten brothers responsible for his ordeal into prison for three days (Genesis 42:17), and Simeon stayed there for months (Genesis 42:24). But, in the end, Joseph forgave his brothers and made them leaders in Egypt; when his father learned that Joseph was still alive, he moved to Egypt with Joseph's eleven brothers and their families, and "all the souls of the house of Jacob, which came into Egypt, were threescore and ten" (Genesis 46:27). For those of you not familiar with old English standards of measurement, a score is twenty; threescore and ten is the another way of saying seventy

Because he forgave his brothers Joseph saved seventy of his family members from seven years' suffering, and probably from physical death; in other words, his forgiveness was worth an aggregate 490 years of life. This math, in and of itself, represents a significant reminder of the blessings that come from forgiveness. But Joseph's family were not just ordinary individuals; they eventually became the twelve tribes of Israel, the Lord's covenant people, and Joseph's act of forgiveness is a type and shadow of the spiritual salvation which Jesus Christ offers to all those born or adopted into the tribes of Israel through the forgiving and healing power of His Atonement.

When Jesus Christ instructed Peter to forgive his brother "until seventy times seven" he did instruct him to "forgive all the world, all the time"--but he also reminded him of the blessings that come from such an attitude of forgiveness. Every Israelite, including Peter, was a physical product of Joseph's exemplary act of forgiveness, and Christ "seventy times seven" may have been Christ's way of gently reminding Peter that he owed his very life to Joseph's willingness to forgive more than was required. You and I may or may not be physically indebted to Joseph, but we are all spiritually indebted to the Savior, whose ultimate act of forgiveness Joseph's clemency foreshadowed. The words "until seventy times seven" are an invitation to remember that fact and to act accordingly, with an eye to the blessings of forgiveness, which will persist and multiply--like the twelve tribes of Israel--long after we are dead. 


Aaron H. said...

Well done.

Jenny said...

Really great.

Becky said...

Catching up here on the Mormon Monk. One of my favorite posts to date. :)