Frosties or Sugar Puffs?

I only got a couple of minutes into Bandersnatch, the dark Black Mirror-related interactive movie on Netflix, before I had to pause it and sit, paralyzed, staring at the screen.

You see, when the main character–I haven’t gotten far enough in to even learn his name yet–is sitting at the breakfast table and offered a choice of cereal, Frosties or Sugar Puffs, by his father, I’m convinced that everything hangs on that decision. I chose Sugar Puffs. Then, a few seconds later, I had second thoughts. I backed up and chose Frosties. In the aftermath of both, the neighbor’s dog was barking and digging in the garden. Dad was yelling out the door. So far, there’s no difference, but who knows what cosmic chain of events was set in motion by the choice of cereals? That’s why I hit pause.

Decisions are important. They have consequences. One thing leads to another. If I hadn’t made an offhand comment about needing to get a job, maybe my high-school friend Dan wouldn’t have suggested that I work with him at Taco John’s. Then I wouldn’t have met Penny. Then we wouldn’t have gotten married and had four kids.

Ready for the topper? In the minutes since I started writing this entry, I learned that my youngest child’s first kid has made her entry into the world. And if it hadn’t been for saying something about needing a job back in 1980, then maybe she’d be a gerbil instead. (Don’t try to make sense of that. I’ve always thought the whole parallel universe thing was kind of ridiculous.)

Of course we want to think about the consequences of our actions, but much of the time, like in Bandersnatch, we have to simply make a choice without knowing where that choice will lead. As the great theologians of Rush sang, “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.” That’s deep, eh?

Where would my life be if I had decided to seek a job at Burger King instead of Taco John’s? Or was I always fated to make tacos and marry Penny? I just don’t know.

As I cast my mind over the Bible, I note how many stories seem to revolve around snap decisions, determined choices, that lead to a very good or a very bad outcome. Let’s think of a few in Bandersnatch fashion.

  • Eve: Eat the fruit the serpent is offering / Barbecue the serpent
  • Cain: Clobber your brother / Go fishing with your brother
  • Noah: Build a big boat in the backyard / Use the gopher wood to host a big pig roast for the neighbors.
  • Abraham: Sacrifice Isaac / Go out for falafel with Isaac
  • Joseph: Get revenge on your brothers / Forgive your brothers

You see how this is going, and I’m not even out of Genesis. Of course other choices, in the Bible and in our lives, are not so clearly ones that involve obedience and loyalty. They don’t come with a clearly defined “right choice.” Some of them are as apparently random as working at Taco John’s or what breakfast cereal to eat. Or are they?

 

Don’t Worry about Me!

You’ve been there. Somebody is doling out the praise, sharing the credit for some accomplishment. They thank everyone under the sun–except you. How do you feel? You’re ready to scream, right?

Throughout the scriptures, we hear God referred to as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Why does Joseph never find a mention in that list? His story—the dreams, the fancy coat, his brothers selling him into slavery, dealings in Potiphar’s house, prison, more dreams, and then his redemption before Pharaoh—dominates Genesis 37-50. That’s nearly one-third of the Patriarchal History, yet still we read about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Many Bible commentators have noted that Joseph stands as a Christ figure in Genesis. First, and we could argue this, he is the only significant character in the Old Testament about whom nothing bad is said. Unless you want to blame him for cluelessly sharing his dreams with the family, Joseph is pretty much perfect.

Second, and less arguable, Joseph provides an unexpected means of salvation for this family. “Despised and rejected” by his brothers, Joseph finds himself consigned first to death and then to the living death of slavery. The brothers never expect to see Joseph again.

They said, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt!” Jacob was stunned, for he did not believe them.–Genesis 45:26

Substitute the name Jesus for Joseph, “the whole world” for “the land of Egypt,” and Thomas for Jacob, and this verse could fit into the gospels pretty readily.

But through the power that God had placed within him, Joseph not only survived but thrived. He not only found his way out of a difficult situation but used first his foresight and then his superb planning abilities to prevent massive starvation both for the people of Egypt and also for his own family.

Without Joseph, we assume, the twelve tribes would never have developed beyond a handful of related shepherds. So didn’t he deserve a mention in the list of the patriarchs? We can imagine him going into a rant.

Where would you be if it hadn’t been for me? You’d be dead! You’d have starved to death. Your sheep would be dead. Your children would be dead. You’d be a forgotten smudge on the pavement of history! My kids would have been okay in Egypt, but you would have been long gone and utterly forgotten! But that’s okay. Don’t bother mentioning me.

Recognition is a good thing. Like anybody else, I enjoy being giving credit when I do something good. Joseph didn’t live long enough to hear people refer to the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” so we can’t say whether it would have bothered him or not. However, I can be fairly sure that being miffed at an omission like that is not worthwhile.

Full of Years–A Mathematical Excursion with the Patriarchs

As we learn in Genesis, the patriarchs of the Hebrew nation lived to ripe old ages. Abraham passed on at 175 (Genesis 25:7). Isaac was 180 when he died (Genesis 35:28). The next generation, Jacob, lived to age 147 (Genesis 47:28), while Jacob’s most celebrated son, Joseph made it to 110 (Genesis 50:26).
Aside from the fact that these men would have almost single-handedly bankrupted the Social Security system had they lived in the United States, what can we learn from these numbers?
The bit of mathematical conjuring that follows is certainly not original to me, but its origin is, from my research, obscure. Let’s look.

Within the Ages

Looking at those credibility-stretching ages, we see that each of the first three can be expressed by a formula: Age=X * Y2. In other words, each each age is a multiple of a perfect square. What are the odds of that happening by coincidence? I checked out every age from 1 to 184, dividing each by the numbers 2 through 9. That is 1,472 possible combinations. And of those 1,472 possibilities, only 46 yielded perfect squares. That’s 3.1%. The likelihood of two generations in a row being like this? It’s less than one tenth of 1%, and the chances of three in a row matching are .0031%. That’s just north of 3 chances in 100,000–more likely than a lottery win but still very unlikely.

Not Just Unlikely But Following a Pattern

Looking more closely, not only do all three of those first three patriarchs have such X * Y2. ages, but there’s a pattern to their ages.
Let me demonstrate.
Name
Age
X
Y
Y
Sum
Abraham
175
7
5
5
17
Isaac
180
5
6
6
17
Jacob
147
3
7
7
17
So if you noticed, the value of X decreases by 2 with each generation while the value of Y increases by 1 in the same generation. I’m not sure how to calculate the probability of that progression, but it is clearly far less probable than even the .0031% we saw above.

All that and 17 Also!

A great deal has been made by previous writers of the fact that this pattern also features all of the digits adding up to equal 17. When you think about it, however, that consistency is simply a feature of the progression. If X decreases by 2 and Y increases by 1 but is counted twice, then what else can that “Sum” column do but remain steady. Still, if there’s significance to the number 17, there might be something to it.
It turns out that 17 is a significant number for a couple reasons:
  • It is a prime number.
  • It is the seventh prime number: 1, 3, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17.
  • It is a combination of 7 (the number of the divine) and 10 (which appears several times in Genesis). E.W. Bullinger explains this sum as a combination of “spiritual perfection, plus ordinal perfection, or the perfection of spiritual order.”

Have We Forgotten Joseph?

I know that you’re wondering if Joseph, our fourth patriarch, fits the pattern. If the progression continued, then we would expect Joseph to be 1*(8*8) or 64 years old when he died. Instead, of course, he lived to be 110. So is Joseph the pattern buster?
Perhaps it is nothing but Joseph’s age can be expressed with the expected X (1) and the sums of the three preceding squared Ys (5, 6, and 7). That is, 1*(25+36+49)=110.
Of course, even though I suggested that might signify nothing, I don’t really believe it. What are the chances that happens by accident?
Let’s assume that we’re adding up three numbers hoping to reach 110. We could use dozens of different combinations if we didn’t care about those perfect squares. But if we restrict ourselves to perfect squares, there are only three combinations: 2 (4), 5 (25), and 9 (81) on one hand, and the 5,6, 7-combination noted above. In short, there is very little chance that Joseph’s age just happens to combine the squares that were found in the ages of his three preceding ancestors.

So What Does It All Mean?

Hopefully I have convinced you that the numerical play afoot in the ages of the patriarchs is not just an accidental occurrence. Assuming that it is not an accident leaves us with the sense that some intent lay behind these numbers.
The mere presence of these numbers does not prove anything about the interpretation of these numbers and it does not prove or disprove the hand of God in the creation of the Genesis text.
  • Could a human author have deposited mathematical Easter eggs for readers to discover? It’s possible.
  • Could God have controlled the ages of the patriarchs in order to produce these numbers? That’s possible as well.
Either way, what does it mean? That’s a question for a later post.