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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”.