The second Scriptural use of “seventy seven” is in the book of Judges. In the eighth chapter, as part of the story of Gideon (which would have been a very popular story for an occupied people such as the Israel of Jesus’ day, or a persecuted people such as the early church communities), Gideon is said to have “captured a young man from Succoth and interrogated him. The young man wrote down for him the names of Succoth’s officials and city leaders---seventy-seven men in all” (8:14).
It was at Succoth that Gideon, with he and his three hundred men pursuing the Midianites and exhausted, requested loaves of bread for his army. The men of Succoth refused. Gideon vowed vengeance and eventually took that vengeance, executing the city’s men (8:17). Presumably, those executed first, if not exclusively, were those seventy-seven. Again, if Jesus is speaking of the need for forgiveness instead of vengeance in the face of wrongs that are done, then it is more than possible that His insistence that forgiveness be offered seventy-seven times might very well be offered with this story in mind as well.
The third and final use of “seventy-seven” in the Hebrew Scriptures comes from the book of Ezra. Ezra is a post-exile work, chronicling the trials and travails of the Creator God’s people as many exiles returned to the land of their inheritance, joining those who had been able to remain in the land, and seeking to rebuild the Temple. There, in the thirty-fifth verse of the eighth chapter (which, based on what is to be found there, seems as if it should be located after the second chapter), it is written that “The exiles who were returning from the captivity offered burnt offerings to the God of Israel, ninety-six rams, seventy-seven male lambs, along with twelve male goats as a sin offering. All this was a burnt offering to the Lord.”
Also in the eighth chapter, Ezra presents the record of his group’s travel to Jerusalem with the expressed purpose of re-building the Temple of their God. Reading there, one finds “On the twelfth day of the first month we began traveling from the Ahava Canal to go to Jerusalem. The hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from our enemy and from bandits along the way. So we came to Jerusalem, and we stayed there for three days” (8:31-32).
This itself is an interesting point of comparison, as Jesus Himself, in a way, was traveling to Jerusalem. It will not be too far down the road in Matthew’s narrative that Jesus will be seen to be triumphantly entering Jerusalem and dramatically entering the Temple. Of course, later on, as part of Jesus’ “trial,” there will be testimony that Jesus had said “I am able to destroy the Temple of God and rebuild it in three days” (26:61b), which is an allusion to an underlying motif of the Jesus tradition, not explicitly heard in Matthew, that Jesus saw Himself as a replacement for the Temple.
The parallels with Ezra, and with the words previously quoted, are quite striking. If Ezra is in mind when Jesus speaks words in regards to forgiveness (and based on what follows immediately thereafter, this doesn’t seem to be a stretch at all), then He is calling attention to the wider context and story in which this use of “seventy-seven” is to be found. For those that will be hearing Matthew’s story, which will occur well after the Resurrection and after the various components of the oral (and written, to be sure) Jesus tradition have been relatively fixed, the resonances between the Ezra passage and Matthew’s narrative practically jump off the page.