Forty is a very important number in the Bible.
- During the flood, the rain fell for forty days and forty nights.
- The Israelites walked from Egypt to the promised land. It took them forty years.
- Moses was “with the Lord” on Mt. Sinai for forty days and forty nights while he awaited the Ten Commandments.
- Goliath challenged the Israelites for forty days before David took up the challenge.
- The prophet Elijah walked for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness before reaching Mt. Horeb.
- Immediately after his baptism, Jesus was in the wilderness, tempted by the devil. He was there for forty days.
- Jesus appeared to the disciples for forty days after his resurrection.
Most of the time, the number forty symbolizes a time of testing and trial. Something that lasts forty units of time is something that was a difficult and distressing period, but through which someone was able to attain something important, spiritual, or holy. When reading or interpreting the Bible, it’s helpful to remember where and when it was written. Easterners of antiquity did not really think of truth as a literal thing as we do today. They did not really view numbers as meaning the literal counting meaning of the number. Numbers carried meaning in a different way. When the gospel writers said that Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days, they didn’t mean that he was out there for five weeks and five extra days. They meant that he was in the wilderness being tested for a duration. The actual length of time was irrelevant. This also connected Jesus’ ministry to the shared experience of the Israelites, who were in the wilderness, filled with all kinds of temptations, for forty years.
Much of scripture is filled with symbolism like this, and when we can let go of our post-Renaissance, modern need to read it literally, we can find a richness there. Loads of numbers are filled with this richness:
- Three is a number that symbolizes divinity.
- Four symbolizes the whole world (four corners of the earth, four winds, etc.)
- Six is an imperfect number (one less than seven), the number of human endeavors that are always tinged with sin.
- Seven is the number of perfection, the number of endeavors accomplished by God.
- Twelve is the number of God’s chosen people. Twelve tribes of Israel — twelve apostles — 144,000 people are saved in the book of Revelation (that’s 12 x 12 x 1,000 = all the chosen everywhere).
- Seventy is a number of transition, the length of a full human lifespan.
The whole of scripture, to me, is symbolic. It’s all a human and poetic way of trying to comprehend God and our relationship with God. God can’t be captured by words, or explained by words, but God can be glimpsed through words. I believe the Bible was never intended to be read literally. In fact, I don’t even think its authors would have understood what we mean by the word. Numbers are one great example of this, and there is so much more. There’s an old saw that “B.I.B.L.E.” stands for “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Baloney. The Bible isn’t a handbook. It’s a love story, the love story between God and God’s people. I’d say “B.I.B.L.E.” stands for “Big Inspired Book of Love for Everyone.”
Get yourself a good Bible (I’d recommend the Common English Bible, myself), and dive in. It can be great fun if read as a love story, filled with such rich meaning.