The number five, with its immediate connection to the fingers of one hand, often represents a small amount in the Bible. The idea expressed in modern terms is “just a handful.” When faced with the hunger of five thousand, all Jesus’ disciples could come up with was a child’s lunch of five loaves and two fish (John 6:9). Yet Jesus had no problem multiplying that small gift into abundance for the meal. Isaiah mentions five Egyptian cities that will be unusual as a foreign remnant from that land and that will “swear
allegiance to the LORD of Armies” (Isa 19:18). Numerous other passages indicate an alliance of five kings, a theme that arises so many times it seems like it must be symbolic of a handful of enemies as well as being a literal and historical number. Isaiah again uses the number five to point out the fear that will infect people so that “you will flee when five threaten you” (Isa 30:17). So five carries the effect of a small number with potentially significant weight. The five books of Moses are certainly a handful in several ways.
Five also appears in several places as a multiplier that indicates fairness or favor. When Joseph wanted to single out his maternal brother Benjamin from the rest of his brothers, he gave him five times more food than he gave each of the others (Gen 43:34) and five changes of clothing (Gen 45:22). Old Testament law stated that a livestock thief must” make up for the loss with five head of cattle to replace the bull” (Exod 22:1). When God set apart the Levites as a tribe of priests and his special servants, he designated them as “substitutes for all the firstborn Israelites” (Num 3:45). But when the census was taken, the firstborn Israelites outnumbered the Levites by 273 males. So God settled on five shekels of sliver for each of the extra Israelite males (Num 3:47, “two ounces of silver”).
The number five figures prominently in the structure of the tabernacle in the wilderness. In this case it is prized for its symmetry.
- The pillars were five cubits apart five cubits high
- The bronze altar was five cubits by five cubits
- Five pillars stood at the entrance to the holy place
- The sides of the tabernacle were reinforced by five crossbars on each side (Exod 26:26-27).
- The inner covering of the tabernacle was composed of five curtains that were attached to five other curtains for a total of ten curtains (Exod 26:3). These were attached with fifty loops and fasteners.
- The original priests numbered five. Aaron and his four sons (Exod 28:1)
Five also naturally appears as a standard measurement and half of ten. The construction details for the outer covering of the tabernacle specified ten curtains in two sets of five (Exod 26:3). In Jesus’ parable of the virgins (Matt 25:1-13), there are ten in the group, but only five prove to be wise.