Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Importance of the Number 40 in the Bible

All numbers in Hebrew have a meaning besides the numeric meaning.  Often numbers were used by the Hebrews to give additional meaning to the story, rather than to denote a literal period of time.  The number 40 almost always refers to trials, probations, and testings.  A time period described as 40 days or 40 years meant the probationary days, or the years of the trials, and did not necessarily mean that the task actually took 40 days.  The number 40 in the story tells us that it took the full amount of time necessary to successfully complete the required test.

Here is a listing of probationary periods in the Bible which use the number 40.
  • Gen. 7:12--Floods covered the earth 40 days and 40 nights, yet the same account tells us, in literal days and months, that the actual time period was about a year (Gen. 7-8 or see "The Journey" in a  previous post.)
  • Gen. 50:3--Jacob's body was embalmed for 40 days while all of Egypt mourned, yet research today shows that the Egyptians actually took about 70 days to embalm a mummy.
  • Exo. 16:35--The Children of Israel ate manna 40 years until they came to the land of Canaan.
  • Exo. 24:18--Moses was in the Mountain of the Lord for 40 days and 40 nights  receiving the Law of the Lord for the Children of Israel.
  • Exo. 34:28--After the golden calf catastrophe, Moses returned to Mount Sinai to "atone" for the people's sins (see Exo. 30-32) where he fasted and prayed for 40 days and 40 nights, begging forgiveness for them and receiving the lesser Law of Moses.
  • Num. 13:25--The spies scouted the Land of Canaan for 40 days before the Israelites' entry into the area.
  • Num. 14:34--The Lord required 40 years  in the wilderness for the 40 days that the scouts searched because the people showed a great lack of faith in being afraid to try to take the Land of Canaan when the Lord had commanded it.
  • Num. 32:13--The Lord required the Israelites to wander in the wilderness 40 years until all the wicked people were consumed.
  • Deut. 8:2--It took the 40 years in the wildernes for the Lord to humble, to prove, to know the heart of the Israelites.
  • Judges 13:1--The Israelites were in bondage to the Philestines 40 years because they did evil in the sight of the Lord.
  • 1 Sam. 17:16--The Israelite soldiers watched Goliath present himself in battle 40 days before David met and defeated him.
  • 2 Sam. 15:7--For 40 years Absalom built up support for himself in order to overthrow King David.
  • 1 Kings 19:8--Elijah's journey to Horeb (Mt. Sinai) to converse with the Lord took 40 days.
  • Ezek. 29:1-12--Egypt was to be scattered and desolate for 40 years because Pharoah proclaimed himself to be a god.  The Lord promised to gather the Egyptians at the end of the 40 years, and keep them humble.
  • Jonah 3:4--Jonah warned Ninevah that they had 40 days to repent or they would be destroyed.
  • Matt. 4:1-2--Christ fasted 40 days and 40 nights in preparation for his ministry.  (See the footnote to verse 1 in which Joseph Smith changes the purpose of Christ's fast to being with God, rather than being tempted of the devil.)
  • Luke 4:2--Christ was tempted of the devil 40 days.
  • Acts 1:3--The resurrected Christ taught his disciples for 40 days before returning to heaven.
  • Acts 7:23--When Moses was "full 40 years old it came in to his heart" to come to his brethren in Egypt and free them, even though the Book of Exodus tells us he was 80 years old at the time (Exo. 7:7).
Reference:  Hebrew Numbers and Their Meanings and


Michaela Stephens said...

I'm liking your blog so far. I've added it to my blog list. Have a great day!

Rebecca Holt Stay said...

40 is the numerical value of the letter 'mem.' To make a noun in Hebrew, you put a 'mem' in front of a verb : so 'shophet'[to judge] becomes 'mispat' [judgment or justice]. So 40 changes action into things, spirit into physical, eternal into mortal. 40 represents this world as a place of trial and testing and probation.

Nancy Wyatt Jensen said...

Fascinating clarifications, Rebecca. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

Moses fasted for 40 days twice. Elijah fasted for 40 days. Christ fasted for 40 days. These three were on the Mount of Transfiguration and later at the Kirtland Temple. Isn't that interesting?

40 is also symbolic of mourning, for example, Noah, it rained 40 days and 40 nights.

Moses was a prince for 40 years, a shepherd for 40 years, a prophet for 40 years. Prophet, Priest, King.

Love your list. Thanks. Oct2010ddn

Anonymous said...

Genesis 7:12 "And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights."
The rains descended for 40 days and nights. The floods then prevented exiting the ark for a year. Although I do believe there is some significance in the rain falling for that period of time.

Anonymous said...

Great explanation. I recently accepted te calling as minister and fhis morning (8-3-2014) i woke up every hour
on or in tge 40 time frame. And i am reminded of those stories. At first i looked up what dodz 40 stNd for but i as i pulled up the search the bible search appeared and now it makes sense. Trials, probation, testings.... may this research bless those like it did me

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much, i have noted it.

aspen said...

On the topic of numbers and symbolism in the scriptures here's a neat chart I found from a site/app I do my scripture study with! It allows super flexible scripture study and I just love it!
Number Symbolism
Number Possible Meanings
1 God’s uniqueness; Holy; Deity; Singleness of purpose
2 A few; Companionship; Division; Unity; Oppression; Different
3 Power of God; Perfection; Complete; Covenant; Solid; Entire
4 Divine revelation; Complete harmony; Sufficiency; Completeness and Perfection; Totality; God’s creations; Man; Glory
5 Semi-complete; A few; Penalties; Rewards; Atonement; Grace; Temple
6 Evil; Apostasy; Man; Incomplete; One less than seven
7 Association with God; Fulfillment; Completion; Perfection; Sanctified; Covenant number; 3 + 4 (2 holy numbers added)
8 A new beginning; Abundant; Witness of Salvation; One after seven
9 The end; Last times or days; Judgment; Three times three; One less than ten
10 The Creation; Divine order; Completeness; Whole; Perfect under the covenant; Quite a few; Two times five; Three plus seven
11 Disorder; Disorganization
12 Union of the people of God; Elective purposes of God; Earthly Government; 3 x 4; Number of Israel
13 Rebellion; Apostasy; Defection; Corruption
14 The Messianic number (number of David)
15 Acts wrought by the power of God
20 Expectancy
24 Heavenly Government and worship
40 Time of spiritual preparation; Renewal; Newness; Life; A generation
42 Antichrist; Evil; Man’s opposition to God
50 Jubilee; Deliverance; God’s administration of the world
70 Gentiles; Those who bring gentiles into the house of Israel; God’s administration of the world
666 Number of the beast (Six, three times)
1000 The most; The highest number; Hyperbolic number for very large
144000 Number 12 (elect) squared times 1000

Here's their site! check it out if you want!