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Have you ever wondered why our compass has 360 degrees? Or why clocks are divided into 12 hours, with 60 minutes to an hour?

Actually, the “counting by sixties” system (called sexagesimal) came from ancient Mesopotamia. But, according to Wycliffe’s senior statesman/scholar, Dr. Richard Pittman, the system had a very common and explainable origin. In fact, the method of counting by sixties is still in use in parts of Southeast Asia.

Dr. Pittman, one of Wycliffe’s specialists in linguistics, helped to create the Alphabet Museum at the JAARS Center in Waxhaw, NC. His theory on the origin of this unique system is as follows.

The ancient Mesopotamian man would, using his right thumb as a counter, touch each joint of each finger of his right hand in turn, with the tip of his thumb, counting as he did. (Try it yourself as you read this.) With your right thumb touch the three joints of your index finger — counting as you go. Then move to your middle finger, etc. By the time he finished, he had counted 12 joints on his right hand. Then, moving to his left hand he let each finger count for 12. He would fold down his fingers as he counted, making a fist. By the time he got to his thumb he had counted to 60 in multiples of 12. (Go ahead, try it. Your index finger on your left hand is 12. Your middle finger is 24. Your ringer finger is 36. Your little finger is 48. Your thumb makes 60).

Having counted up to sixty on his fingers, the Mesopotamian would then move to the joints of his arms. This time each joint would count for 60. His left wrist would be 60. His left elbow 120, his left shoulder 180, his right shoulder 240, his right elbow 300, and his right wrist 360.

By being able to distinguish his right from his left, each joint of his body would have certain consistent numerical value. That is, his left shoulder would always be 180. His middle knuckle on his right hand would always be 5. The little finger on his left hand would always by 48. Fascinating!

Dr. Pittman says it was probably this counting procedure which led to the widespread current division of circles into 360 degrees, hours into 60 minutes, minutes into 60 seconds, feet into 12 inches, and in earlier times, years into 360 days.

Knowing this helps us understand what God meant when he told Jonah that he pities the city of Ninevah “in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left” (Jonah 4:11). By that, we conclude they were illiterate and/or unskilled in arithmetic because they didn’t know how to count.