70 or 72? Do numbers count in Luke 10?

Is is 70 or 72, that is the question? I’m quite fascinated by numbers. Chapter’ 10 in Luke’s Gospel recounts the number Jesus sent out “like lambs in the midst of wolves” with “no purse, bag or sandals” with the greeting “peace to this house”.

Were there 70 or 72? I am just asking for a friend.

Of course, the answer begins with 7. Anything beginning with 7 is the right answer because 7 marks all our time. We have 7 days in a week – as God took 7 days for creation, 6 days work, then a day’s rest. 7 carries with it the meaning of perfection and completion.

According to some texts the answer is 70 – and there is good reason that there should be 70 because there were thought to be 70 nations – the descendants of Noah’s children who settled the earth after the flood. Is then the sending of the 70 the Godsend to all people who on earth do dwell? (And Jesus did send out the “70” two by two, didn’t he?)

According to other ancient texts the answer is 72. And there seems to be good reason for that as well. If there were 72 Luke 10 would read “after this the Lord appointed 72 others”. What is the “after this” referring to, and who are the others? The previous chapter (Luke 9:1-6) recounts Jesus calling “the twelve” together and sending them out with no staff, bag, bread, money. I am putting 2 and 2 together here and thinking that Luke might have intended “72”, because 72 plus the others (12 of them) makes 84.

84=7×12. There is the 7 again, that number signifying completion and satisfaction. But there is also 12, the number of the apostles, the number of the tribes of Israel (because of the number of Jacob’s sons). 84 is mentioned elsewhere by Luke – as the age of Anna the prophetess, who prayed in the temple night and day and who spoke about the child Jesus “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem”. (Luke 2:36-40). Anna’s age adds further significance to the number 84. It becomes a number of wisdom and proclamation.

If 72+12 = all the people of God, this becomes a passage not just about the sending out of 72, but the sending out of the whole people of God, you and me, sent out two by two.

If the answer is 70 then this become a passage about the destiny of peace’s greeting. “Peace to this house” then becomes a greeting for the whole world.

Is it 70 or 72? I’m just asking for a friend (to whom it matters).

Or do we treasure the happy ambiguity presuming that Jesus and Luke meant both: that the good news of the coming of peace should and would be carried to all nations, and that all God’s people are commissioned to be bearers of peace, even as lambs amongst wolves, even eschewing all the usual self defences?

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