November 1st, 2006

Is Forty Figurative?


I’ve always been intrigued by the abundant instances of “forty” in the scriptures. Some examples:

  • 40 days and nights of rain in Noah’s flood (Gen. 7:4, 12, 17)
  • Moses’ two fasts of 40 days and nights on Mt. Sinai (Deut. 9:9, 11, 18, 25)
  • Moses was 40 years old when he visited the children of Israel (Acts 7:23)
  • Spies watched the Promised Land for 40 days (Num. 14:34)
  • Children of Israel wandered 40 years in the desert (Num. 14:33)
  • Elijah’s 40 day fast (1 Kings 19:8)
  • 40 days that Ammon’s search party wandered lost in the wilderness (Mosiah 7:4-5)
  • Jesus’ 40 day fast (Matt. 4:2)
  • 40 days that Jacob/Israel’s body was embalmed (Gen. 50:3)
  • Wicked men beaten w/ 40 stripes (Deut. 25:3)

I’ve heard before in some classes that the number 40 is a Hebrew idiom which when figuratively interpreted simply means “a long time”. (I can’t seem to find anything definitelive online.. anybody else know where to find something to support this claim?) This is analogous to me saying “There were a billion ants on my driveway!”. I don’t literally mean a billion—I am simply using that number to convey the idea that there were a large number.

Like much of scripture, it’s hard (if not impossible) to deduce when to interpret the number 40 literally or figuratively. I have a hard time believing Moses fasted forty days. I can also easily believe that the flood of Noah lasted longer than 40 days. Yet I do think that the children of Israel did in fact wander in the desert for 40 years (since other scriptures give supporting evidence to calculate this exact amount of time).

There is a lot of symbolism and figurative metaphors in the scriptures, especially with numbers. I’d be curious to find out exactly when 40 is to be literally interpreted, and when it simply means “a lot”.

2 Responses to “Is Forty Figurative?”

  1. John Anderson
    November 1, 2006 at 10:19 am #

    Seven is a number that represents completion and wholeness (because of it’s reference to the creative periods) in ancient scripture. So seven sevens (which is pretty close to forty, I guess) would probably emphasize that completeness or wholeness.

    Same thing with seventy times seven.

  2. fontor
    November 1, 2006 at 9:35 pm #

    The Oxford Companion to the Bible says that forty is intended literally, unlike seventy.

    It’s behind a paywall, sorry, so I’ll paste.

    “Forty days was a strictly limited period of time (for six, not seven, weeks?; Gen. 7.4; Exod. 24.18; 1 Sam. 17.16; Jon. 3.4; Matt. 4.2; Mark 1.13; Luke 4.2; Acts 1.3). Forty years was the length of one generation (Exod. 16.35; Num. 14.33; 32.13; Ezek. 4.6; 29.11). It was regarded as significant if a king reigned for this number of years (2 Sam. 5.4; 1 Kings 11.42).

    Seventy meant a comprehensive number, and should not normally be taken literally.”

    A little sketchy, but it seems to lean away from the figurative reading.

    Anyway, what’s implausible about Moses fasting for 40 days? Nothing is impossible with God. Just have faith.

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