# What's the significance of the "three" and "four" formula in Amos?

Amos 1:3

This is what the LORD says: "For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not relent. Because she threshed Gilead with sledges having iron teeth,

This pattern of "three" and "four" is repeated 8 times! in the opening of Amos? What is its Biblical numerology significance?

• What makes you think it has a numerological significance? Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 17:15
• This is quintessential Hebraism. Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 19:57
• What is its Biblical numerology significance? - None. It's a simple rhetorical device, used for emphasis; see also Sirach 23:16, 26:28, 50:25. Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 6:41

A journal article Telescoping N + 1 Patterns in the Book of Amos by Robert H. O'Connell published in Vetus Testamentum Vol 46 (Jan 1996) proposes how the 8 judgment speeches are arranged "according to a stepwise pattern of escalation that involves the telescoping of N + 1 groupings (where "N" represents a number, usually 3 or 7)."

General observations that support this thesis are:

1. the speech forms in Amos appear to have been arranged into N + 1 groupings
2. the final (or +1) speech form in each such grouping usually presents some rhetorical surprise that departs from the pattern established by the other speech forms in its group
3. until the end of the book, the concluding speech form of each N + 1 grouping serves as a transition to all the succeeding N + 1 groupings, resulting in a telescoping pattern of development throughout the book.

As for the "three transgressions of [PN], and for four" pattern, the article says:

Similar N ‖ N+1 patterns are used commonly enough in Hebrew, Ugaritic and Akkadian poetry to warrant little need to explain or justify this attestation of the device as another instance of ascending numerical parallelism.⁴ What is significant for my purposes is to note that in Amos i 3 - ii 16 there are a total of eight (8) judgment speeches that contain this formula.⁵

⁴ For various treatments of the ascending numerical pair as a device in Semitic poetry, see the appendix at the end of the present article

An article from the GotQuestions.Org website Why does Amos keep repeating “for three sins . . . even for four” in chapters 1–2? explains (emphasis mine):

The phrase “for three sins . . . even for four” is a common phrase in Amos (1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). Used a total of eight times in the book, these words play a special role in the way Amos communicates sin and judgment. “Three sins” represents fullness or completeness; “four” represents an overflow or a sin that is the tipping point for God’s judgment. The word sins or transgressions in Hebrew specifically refers to “rebellions.” The first two chapters of Amos contain eight messages against the nations, including Judah and Israel, condemning them for their rebellion against the Lord.

Similarly, in the Daniel chapter of The Literary Guide to the Bible (edited by a professor of Hebrew and comparative literature Robert Alter) the author Shemaryahu Talmon notes (emphasis mine):

[page 347] Daniel shares with other biblical writings a predilection for the ascending numberical pattern 3 + 1, observable in other ancient Near Eastern literature. Whatever the roots of this pattern, it signifies a basic "complete" unit of three, topped by a fourth of special standing and importance.

...

[page 348, last paragraph] The pattern 3 + 1 finds a most salient expression in Amos's oracles against foreign nations (Amos 1:3-2:3) and against Judah and Israel (Amos 2:4-16). The phrase "for three transgressions . . . and for four," which recurs in every instance, shows the fourth to be more damnable than the preceding ones: "Thus saith the Lord ... I will not turn away the punishment thereof" (Amos 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 13; 2:1, 4, 6). In this as in many other instances, the quintessence of the pattern is to be sought in the "fourth" item in which the series culminates, and which is intrinsically different from the preceding unit of "three" which serves as its antithesis. Therefore, the component "three" cannot be interpreted as referring to a precise number, but rather should be viewed as a schematic literary figure. ...

• This answer is going to change how I'm going to read Amos from now on. Thank you.
– user35953
Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 20:03
• ”addressed the numerological significance of the 8 judgment speeches as a conscious arrangement” this isn’t numerology or a numerological significant answer. It’s a good answer but doesn’t speak of numerology Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 20:55
• @NihilSineDeo Edited accordingly. Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 22:41

Amos 1:3 NASB

Thus says the Lord, “For three transgressions of Damascus and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they threshed Gilead with implements of sharp iron.

Amos 1:6 NASB

Thus says the Lord,“For three transgressions of Gaza and for four I will not revoke its punishment, Because they deported an entire population to deliver it up to Edom.

The six nations mentioned in the prophesies of Amos were Syria, Philistia, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, and Moab. All deserve God's adverse judgment because they were hard-set enemies of God's people the Israelites, they mistreated the Israelites and sold them into slavery.

The expressions in bold means that "Divine Judgment Is Inescapable".

• Could you cross reference that repeated eight times equates to inevitability? I’m not contesting I’m asking you back up the numerology Commented Oct 20, 2020 at 21:05
• Nihil Sine Deo Comment noted . I have amended the last paragraph,Tks Commented Oct 21, 2020 at 10:33

What's the significance of the "three" and "four" formula in Amos?

Amos 1:3 - Amos 2:6 uses an expression of 3:4 | "Three" ( שְׁלֹשָׁה֙ ) : "Four" ( אַרְבָּעָ֖ה ) stating "Evident" : "Predictable" behavior of sinful traditions associated with 8-Kingdoms : Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon, Moab, Judah, Israel.

Amos 1:3 [MT]

[3] "So said YHVH: For three transgressions of Dameseq, and-for four I will not return them; Because they threshed the Gileadites with sledges of iron." ( כֹּה אָמַ֣ר יְהֹוָ֔ה עַל־שְׁלֹשָׁה֙ פִּשְׁעֵ֣י דַמֶּ֔שֶׂק וְעַל־אַרְבָּעָ֖ה לֹ֣א אֲשִׁיבֶ֑נּוּ עַל־דּוּשָׁ֛ם בַּֽחֲרֻצ֥וֹת הַבַּרְזֶ֖ל אֶת־הַגִּלְעָֽד )

Amos 2:6 [MT]

"So said YHVH: For three transgressions of Yisrael, and-for four I will not revoke it: Because they have sold for silver Those whose cause was just, And the needy for a pair of sandals." (כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה עַל־שְׁלֹשָׁה֙ פִּשְׁעֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְעַל־אַרְבָּעָ֖ה לֹ֣א אֲשִׁיבֶ֑נּוּ עַל־מִכְרָ֤ם בַּכֶּ֙סֶף֙ צַדִּ֔יק וְאֶבְי֖וֹן בַּעֲב֥וּר נַעֲלָֽיִם)

Predictable Patterns are established in complete intervals of 3. - The 4th occurrence is a predictable iteration of the evident pattern. Similar statements of iterative sin can be read in [Exodus 34:7], predictably casting judgement on sinful traditions past down from parents to great-grandchildren.

Exodus 34:7 [MT] "extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generations." (נֹצֵ֥ר חֶ֙סֶד֙ לָאֲלָפִ֔ים נֹשֵׂ֥א עָוֺ֛ן וָפֶ֖שַׁע וְחַטָּאָ֑ה וְנַקֵּה֙ לֹ֣א יְנַקֶּ֔ה פֹּקֵ֣ד ׀ עֲוֺ֣ן אָב֗וֹת עַל־בָּנִים֙ וְעַל־בְּנֵ֣י בָנִ֔ים עַל־שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים וְעַל־רִבֵּעִֽים)

Third ( שִׁלֵּשִׁ֖ים ) : Fourth ( רִבֵּעִֽים )

Amos 1-2 is the most impressive use found in Scripture of a Hebrew literary device that I call “ascending numeration”. I’m not sure what others call it and you will not be able to find much when you Google it. It is basically a Hebraic technique where one number is used and, almost immediately, the next number is used before the poet or prophet completes his thoughts. The algebraic formula is “x”, then “x+1”. So, if x is 3, then x+1 is 4 (likewise 2/3; 7/8; etc.). Also, this tends to be found in the poetic sections of Hebrew Scriptures (hence, poets and prophets). Other examples (some quite famous) include… Proverbs 6:16-19. “There are SIX things the LORD hates, SEVEN that are detestable to Him…” (the author then enumerates seven items). Proverbs 30:18-19. “There are THREE things that are too amazing for me, FOUR that I do not understand…” Hosea 6:2 “After TWO days he will revive us; on the THIRD day he will restore us…” (Here ordinal and cardinal numbers are mixed…in English at least, I didn’t bother checking the Hebrew. There are many more, but Amos 1-2 needs to be read in this larger Hebraic literary technique backdrop.