Why Does the Bible Use the Number 40 So Much?

by Roger Barrier

Dear Roger,


What is the significance of the number 40? It pops up all the time in scripture.

Sincerely, Wondering


Dear Wondering,


The term “40” is a general time period referring to something “around” or close the number “40.” For example, we know that a month has 28, 30 or 31 days; but instead of being so exact, we tend to use the word “month”. “We’ve been married about a month.” OK we know that is about 30 days. “It rained for 40 days and nights,” is like saying, “it rained for about a month.” The Israelites wandered around in the desert for 40 years” means that they were out there for around 40 years—plus or minus a few.


Just for fun, we can take your question a step further and move into the realm of Biblical numerology.


Many believe that numbers in the Bible have built-in significance. I have always thought that there is some truth to this consideration. Two or the most often recurring numbers are 7 and 40. On the basis of Genesis 7:2-4 and other passages, many consider 7 to be the number of completeness or perfection:


If 7 is the “perfect number,” many connect the number with God Himself. God’s number is said to be 7. Revelation 5:6 seems to infer this. The “Lamb” referred to in these verses is, of course, Jesus.


Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God (Revelation 5:6).


The number 6 is thought to be the number of man. Man was created on the 6th day; man labors 6 days a week. Man’s number is one less than perfection. We know that the Anti-Christ’s number is 666 (Revelation 13:18). Man consistently fails to measures up to God. Imperfect can never make perfect. By the way, 666 may stand in juxtaposition to the number 3. Three is often seen as representing the Trinity—God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. 666 is seen as representing the unholy trinity—Satan, the Beast and the Anti-Christ.


Some associate the number 40 with the idea of probation or trial. The Israelites wandered for 40 years (Deuteronomy 8:2-5); Moses was on the mount for 40 days (Exodus 24:18); 40 days were involved in the story of Jonah and Nineveh (Jonah 3:4); Jesus was tempted for 40 days (Matthew 4:2); there were 40 days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Acts 1:3).


Perhaps there is some truth in this position; but once again, don’t overlook the fact that the term, “forty days” is primarily a general term referring to a general time period—like our term month.


To me numbers in the Bible are just numbers and I deal with them accordingly. However, it would not surprise me at all to discover that once again God is utilizing ordinary things (numbers) to teach all sorts of Biblical truth.


Wondering, I hope this helps to answer your question. Thanks for asking.


Sincerely, Roger


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