Why Do So Many Things Take “40 Days and 40 Nights” in the Bible?
Even a cursory read of the Bible will make most people notice the significance of the number 40. From Jesus’s post-baptismal fast in the wilderness to the flood and Noah’s ark, the number is echoed across both the New Testament and the Old.
What is the significance of “40 days and 40 nights” in the Bible? And is 40 an exact number, or does it just mean “a lot”?
Where Do We See “40 Days and 40 Nights” in Scripture?
The Bible notes the time span of “40 days and nights” in a number of references. For example, Genesis 7:12 tells us God was so troubled by the wickedness of the world that he planned to destroy all life – with the exception of those righteous few on the ark – and “rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights.”
Later, after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt toward the Promised Land, God called him to the top of Mount Sinai for “forty days and forty nights without eating bread or drinking water” (Exodus 34:28). There, God gave Moses His covenant, the Ten Commandments, so they could live in alignment with the Lord.
On the eve of their long-awaited entry to Canaan, God had Moses send out spies into the land so they could explore. They spent 40 days and nights scouting the land, then returned and reported all they had found (Numbers 13:25).
In the famous story of David and the giant Goliath, God’s people endure 40 days of taunting and challenges from Goliath before David is sent to the battlefield with bread for his brothers and decides he’s the one who will fight for his people (1 Samuel 17:16).
When the prophet Elijah fled the wicked queen Jezebel, he traveled 40 days and nights until he reached Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19:8). There, in the shelter of a cave, he heard God — not in the mighty wind, earthquake, or fire, but in a gentle whisper.
After Jonah’s rebellion, he prophesied about God’s wrath to the Ninevites, telling them they would be destroyed in 40 days (Jonah 3:4).
Many, many years from that time, the Bible tells us that after His baptism, Jesus was led by the Holy Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. He fasted 40 days and nights, and the devil tempted Jesus there in His hunger and apparent weakness (Matthew 4:2).
And after his crucifixion and resurrection, Jesus remained and walked with His disciples for 40 days and nights before ascending to heaven (Acts 1:3).
Why Is the Number 40 Significant?
There are dozens of times the number 40 is mentioned throughout the Bible, as well. For instance, Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah (Genesis 25:20). The
Israelites wandered 40 years in the wilderness before they entered the Promised Land, something Moses said God orchestrated “to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Deuteronomy 8:2).
A maximum of 40 lashes was the punishment prescribed for the guilty party in a dispute in Deuteronomy 25:3.
After the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord, God put them under the hand of the Philistines for 40 years (Judges 13:1).
It’s mentioned enough times, particularly in the Old Testament but also in the New Testament, that we become aware the number is significant.
Is “40 Days and 40 Nights” Literal, or Is It Just Shorthand for “a Long Time”?
Whether 40 days and 40 nights is literal or merely shorthand for “a long time” is debatable. Most Christians believe that the use of the specific number, 40, was intentional. For example, other numbers are also mentioned throughout the Bible, some only once, and some repeatedly. For instance, the number seven is used a great deal (e.g., the number of years Jacob labored to win Rachel, the number of years in Joseph’s time that the people experienced plenty, followed by famine). So is the number 12 (e.g., 12 apostles, the 12 tribes of Israel). Other times, the Bible uses a number just once, or a handful of times (e.g., the 153 fish Simon Peter counted in John 21:11, the 66 direct descendants of Jacob who traveled to Egypt).
In one sense, the use of 40 could well have been used to mean “awhile.” It was a good, solid number, a number people might use to express a strong passage of time (think today of how people talk about the concept of “a million” — it often means merely “a lot”).
But this could just as well have meant exactly what was written: 40 days. Forty nights. A specific, lengthy (but not too lengthy) period of time whereby someone could fast and endure testing and, one hopes, learn the lesson God intended.
Why Is This Important for Us to Understand?
Today, we still ascribe importance to 40 days and 40 nights. In Christianity, the period between Lent and Easter is 40 days (excluding Sundays). It is a time of holiness, when Christians remember the sacrifice of Christ and explore their own continuing process of sanctification, or becoming more Christ-like. Some give up a bad habit or take on a positive new practice during these 40 days. It’s our way today of honoring and modeling the clear significance of 40 days and nights in the Bible, and specifically the time Jesus spent fasting and enduring temptation in the desert.
Forty is an interesting number. The word “quarantine” is said to derive from it, specifically the Italian word quarantina, and the Centers for Disease Control note that in old times, ships arriving in Venice from infected ports were required to sit at anchor for 40 days before landing. This would presumably give diseases time to die off.
Forty is also the typical number of weeks a woman is pregnant before she gives birth to a child.
But its religious significance is its most important. Today, consider whether God wants you to use a period of 40 days and nights to learn a crucial lesson, end a negative practice, or adopt a new way of walking closer with Him.
Photo credit: ©Getty Images/Sebastian Leesch/EyeEm
Jessica Brodie is an award-winning Christian novelist, journalist, editor, blogger, and writing coach and the recipient of the 2018 American Christian Fiction Writers Genesis Award for her novel, The Memory Garden. She is also the editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate, the oldest newspaper in Methodism. Learn more about her fiction and read her faith blog at jessicabrodie.com. She has a weekly YouTube devotional, too. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and more. She’s also produced a free eBook, A God-Centered Life: 10 Faith-Based Practices When You’re Feeling Anxious, Grumpy, or Stressed.