Book review: If you're a scriptural-bean counter, run out and buy this book

Mr. Knowles makes his living as a writer. He is former managing editor of The Plain Truth magazine, published by the Worldwide Church of God.

By Brian Knowles

MONROVIA, Calif.--France's L'Express has called Georges Ifrah the "Indiana Jones of arithmetic." His new book, The Universal History of Numbers (John Wiley & Sons; New York, 2000; $39.95, $59.95 in Canada) is a historical tour de force. The 633-page volume traces the history of numbers from prehistory to the invention of the computer.

From Sumer to Silicon Valley, it's all laid out in grand style with myriad illustrations, tables and charts.

At first glance, this book appears to be a bean counter's dream.

Of course it's not really about bean-counting.It's about numbers themselves and the systems man has developed for using them to advantage.

For those of us interested in Hebrew studies, the pages focusing on the history of numbers in the ancient Near East will be of special interest. Some 29 are devoted to the discussion of Hebrew number systems, and another five discuss the Hebrew calendar.

The Hebrew mentality about numbers is alien to our own more Hellenistic Western mentality. During the Middle Ages, for example, both Jewish and Muslim writings abounded in chronograms, a method of writing dates that is an art form in its own right.

A chronogram "consists of grouping, into one meaningful and characteristic word or short phrase, letters whose numerical values, when totaled, give the year of a past or future event" (Ifrah, quoting G.S. Colin, p. 250).

For example, the Hebrew phrase "one drop of dew in five thousand" is found on a Jewish tombstone in Spain. Of and by themselves the words seem meaningless. But, if we add up the numerical value of the letters in "drop of dew," we have the date of the death of the person buried there: 83.

The person died in the year "eighty-three [drop of dew] on five thousand"; that is, the year 5083 of the Hebrew era (corresponding to A.D. 1322-1323).

In biblical times, in Hebrew and Greek, letters were used for numbers. Writes Georges Ifrah: ". . . It was the sum of the number-values of the letters in a word that mattered."

He cites as an example the number 26. "That is why the number 26 is a divine number in Jewish lore, since it is the sum of the number-values of the letters that spell YAHWEH, the name of God" (p. xxi).

Mr. Ifrah's book helps us understand how varied have been the ways cultures have developed and used numerical and mathematical systems.

The author is a former math teacher and an independent scholar. In researching his book he interviewed mathematicians, historians, archaeologists and philosophers the world over. For those for whom the history and use of numbers in any language or cultural setting is a lifelong fascination, this book would be a worthy addition to their personal libraries.

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