One of the challenges of studying the Old Testament is knowing which verses were meant to be interpreted literally and which verses were intended to be interpreted figuratively.
Studying ancient literature, I learned that certain numbers were not meant to be taken literally. They were intended to be figurative, symbolic, or even magical. I discovered this when I read Old English, Middle English, and Old Norse literature in college.
One key to spotting these figurative numbers is their repetition. Their too frequent use goes beyond mere coincidence. For example, if all the kings reigned for 30 years, or all the monarchs died at 70 years, those numbers are likely to be figurative rather than literal.
In the Bible, the number is “40” is used over one hundred times. The number “40” can be literal or figurative/symbolic. Of course, because “40” is used figuratively or symbolically at times, does not mean it cannot also be literal.
(Other frequent numbers: “7” = “completeness” and “perfection.” “3” = “divine.” “12” = “perfection of government or rule.”)
“40” Literally Means “40”
Many uses of “40” in the Bible are clearly literal. For example, 40 was the maximum number of lashes a person could be whipped as punishment. 40 days is the period required for purification after the birth of a baby. The holy place of the temple was 40 cubits long.
“40” Stands for a Large Approximate Number: “Many” “A Lot”
One figurative use of “40” in the Bible is to represent a large approximate number. It means “many” or “a lot.” In other words, it is like us using “umpteen” or “gazillion.” It is like saying, “I’ve told you a million times to put the toilet seat down.” In the Bible, for example, Deborah, Barak, Eli, Gideon, Saul, Joash, David, Solomon each served/reigned for 40 years. The use of “40” is too frequent to be coincidence.
“40” Represents One Generation
A second symbolic use of “40” is to denote one generation. Moses and the Israelites wandered in the desert 40 years until the older generation passed away and a new generation was born.
“40” Denotes Man’s Prime Age
A third symbolic use of “40” is to represent a man’s “prime.” For example, Isaac was 40 years old when first married. Moses was 40 years old when he was called by the Lord to free His people. Saul’s son was 40 years old when he commenced his short reign. Caleb was 40 years old when Moses sent him to spy on the land
“40” Stands for A Long Period of Probation, Preparation, Purification
A fourth symbolic use of “40” is to convey a long period of probation, preparation, or purification, often involving trials and afflictions. The earth was cleansed after 40 days and nights of rain. The Israelites were on probation for 40 years while wandering in the wilderness. Jesus prepared for his mission by fasting 40 days and nights.
“In Talmudical literature “forty” is often … used as a round number or as a concrete and definite expression in place of the abstract and indefinite “many” or “some,” and hence becoming a symbolical number. As regards the period of forty years, the Jews seem to have shared with other peoples, especially the ancient Greeks, the notion that the fortieth year was the height or acme of man’s life; and from this fact forty years came to represent a generation.” (“Forty, The Number,” Morris Jastrow and I.M. Casanowicz, Jewish Encyclopedia)
Some Uses of “40” in the Bible
- Noah’s flood, which cleansed the earth of iniquity, came after 40 days and nights of rain (Genesis 7:4).
- 40 days after the ark rested on the tops of the mountains, Noah opened a window and sent forth the raven and dove (Gen. 8:4-6)
- Isaac was 40 years old when he married Rebekah (Genesis 25:20, 26:34).
- Esau was 40 years old when he married Judith (Genesis 26:34).
- 40 days were required for the Egyptian physicians to embalm the body of Jacob. (Genesis 50:3).
- Moses was 40 years old when the Lord called him to free His people, 80 years old (40 X 2) when he fled from Egypt, and 120 years old (40 X 3) when Moses died. (Acts 7:23, 30, 36)
- Moses spoke with God for 40 days and 40 nights upon Mount Sinai, after which God gave him the stone commandments. (Deut. 9:11; Ex. 24:18)
- Moses was with God, and without food, a second time for 40 days and 40 nights (Exodus 34:28).
- God made Israel wander in the desert for 40 years (Numbers 14:33-34).
- Israelites ate manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35).
- Moses’ spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days (Numbers 13:25).
- Caleb was 40 years old when Moses sent him to spy on the land (Josh. 14:7);
- God allowed the land of Israel to rest for 40 years (Judges 3:11).
- God again allowed the land of Israel to rest for 40 years (Judges 5:31).
- God again allowed the land of Israel to rest for 40 years (Judges 8:28).
- Abdon (a judge in Israel) had 40 sons (Judges 12:14).
- Deborah, Barak, Eli, Gideon, Saul, Joash, David, Solomon each served/reigned for 40 years. (320 years total?) (Judges 33:11; 31:8; 8:28; 1 Sam. 4:18; Acts 13:21; 2 Sam. 5:4; 1 Ki. 11:42; 2 Sam. 5:4; 1 Ki. 2:11, 11:42; 1 Chron. 26:31; 29:27; 2 Chron. 9:30; 14:1))
- Saul’s son Ish-bosheth was 40 years old when he commenced his short reign (2 Sam. 2:10)
- Solomon had 40 stalls of horses (I Kings v. 6).
- Barak’s army consisted of 40 thousand men (Judges v. 8
- Israel did evil and God gave them to an enemy for 40 years (Judges 13:1).
- Goliath taunted Israel’s army for 40 days (1 Samuel 17:16).
- Israel was oppressed by the Philistines 40 years (Judges 13:1).
- David killed 40 thousand Syrian footmen in battle (I Chron. 19:18)
- Elijah wandered without food in the wilderness for 40 days until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God. (1 Kings 19:8)
- Ben-hadad sent 40 camels’ burden as a gift for Elisha (II Kings viii. 9).
- God commanded Ezekiel to lie on his right side 40 days, to represent the 40 years of the sin of Judah. (Ezekiel 4:5-6)
- Egypt will be laid desolate for 40 years (Ezekiel 29:11-12).
- God and Jonah gave Nineveh 40 days to repent (Jonah 3:4).
- Jesus fasted 40 days and nights (Matthew 4:2).
- Jesus was tempted 40 days (Luke 4:2, Mark 1:13).
- Jesus remained on earth 40 days after resurrection (Acts 1:3).
- Jerusalem was destroyed 40 years after the death of Jesus (Matthew 24:1 – 2, Mark 13:1 – 2)
Are these examples meant to be interpreted literally, or figuratively, or both? Did Jesus, Elijah, and Moses literally fast for 40 days and 40 nights? You decide.
(Obviously, whether “40” is literal or figurative, this is not a question that impacts our testimony or salvation.)
(Interestingly, there are a few similar references to “40” in the Book of Mormon which can also be interpreted literally or figuratively. Forty years after separating from the Lamanites, the Nephites and Lamanites had wars and contentions. (2 Nephi 5:43) Ammon’s group wandered “many days” in the wilderness, even “forty days” did they wander, before finding King Limhi and his people. (Mosiah 7:4-5))
(See: “Forty, The Number,” Morris Jastrow and I.M. Casanowicz, Jewish Encyclopedia; Michael David Coogan,”A Brief Introduction to the Old Testament: The Hebrew Bible in Its Context,” Oxford, 2008, p. 11; “The Biblical Expression ‘40 Day and 40 Nights’ Just Means a ‘Really Long Time,’” Daven Hiskey, Aug. 2, 2010, http://www.todayifoundout.com; “The mysterious 40 day ministry of Jesus after Easter,” Daniel Peterson, Mormon Times, May 2, 2019; “40 (Number),” “Temptation of Jesus,” Wikipedia.)