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Forty Days

by Tim O'Hearn

Numerology is a popular pseudoscience. You can purchase books that will tell you, based on numerical equivalents to the letters in your name, what your personality or your fortune will be. One of the faults of this system is that your number may differ depending on whether you use your full name, your first or middle and last name, a shortened version of your name, or your initials and last name. Of course, some advocates would say that the point is that you can change your fortune by changing how you call yourself. A simple change can make you less lazy or more talented. People have been trying to apply various forms of numerology to the Bible for centuries.

Biblical systems of assigning numbers to words is often called gematria. The gematria of a word may be based on the numerical equivalents of the letters in the word or on a numerical equivalent of the spelling of the letters in the word, or even the numerical equivalent of the opposite letter in alphabetical order. In other words, there is no standard system, although assigning digits, tens, and hundredsTwo or three days of feeling queasy on a boat in a rainstorm is quite enough. Forty days would be almost unbearable. to the letters of the Hebrew alphabet is the most common. In Kabbalistic literature, words with the same value may be considered related. Thus, the king of Sheshek (Jer 25:26) may be a reference to the king of Babylon, because their gematria is the same.

Perhaps the most famous example of numerology in the Bible is found in the Revelation. “Let him that hath understanding count the number of the beast: for it is the number of a man; and his number is Six hundred threescore and six.” (Rev 13:18) In Greek that may equate to “Nero Caesar.” Or it may not. First century Christians would understand, but we don’t today.

Other people assign special significance to numbers. For instance, three is the number of deity and seven if the number of completeness, even though there is little evidence in the Bible for such assignment. A more common use of a symbolic number would be twelve. Because there were twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles, the number of the gates of the New Jerusalem in the Revelation was twelve. (Rev 21:12, 14) There is one other number, though, that seems to be more significant than any of these, based on its frequency in scripture, and yet it is usually not given a numerological significance. That is the number forty. More specifically, forty days.


Forty days in a boat in a rainstorm. (Gen 7) Two or three days of feeling queasy is quite enough. Forty days would be almost unbearable. Trying to sleep in a storm-tossed ship is not an easy proposition. Just as you decide to sleep in line with the bow and stern, the storm shifts and the only comfortable way to sleep is across the ship. And then Noah had to deal with all those seasick animals.

Noah was the first to deal with a forty-day period. And that was just the beginning. After the storm, he still stayed onboard until a whole year had expired. Noah had set the standard for others to follow.

Jacob and Jonah

These two could be considered the participants in minor forty-day periods. One was dead, and the other was just sitting around waiting.

In America, the death of a president begins a mourning period of thirty days. Not so with the Egyptians. Joseph was the second in power in the kingdom, so when his father died there was a typical Egyptian period of mourning.

And Joseph commanded his servants the physicians to embalm his father: and the physicians embalmed Israel. And forty days were fulfilled for him; for so are fulfilled the days of those which are embalmed: and the Egyptians mourned for him threescore and ten days. (Gen 50:2-3)

Seventy days of mourning. But it all began with forty days for embalming. Forty days of the body being covered with natron salts, changed at least three times, the body cavity stuffed with sawdust, and then wrapped in resin-coated linen. It was a process perfected over centuries, and forty days was found to be the ideal time for mummification.

Jonah, on the other hand, was very much alive for his forty-day ordeal. He had preached his one-sentence prophecy to Nineveh: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown.” (Jon 3:4) So he sat down to wait. He very much wanted to witness the destruction, just as he had probably witnessed his own land being attacked by these people. But the people of Nineveh repented, and all Jonah got out of it was a case of heat stroke.

The Moses Diet

If Noah is to be commended for enduring a forty-day storm, Moses takes the prize for consecutive periods of that length. At least Noah had his family with him. Moses spent four months away from his people, and most of it without food or water.

First he went up on Mount Sinai to receive the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments and the pattern for the Tabernacle. (Ex 24:18) When he came down from the mountain the people had made the golden calf. He broke the tablets, destroyed the calf, and then began his second forty-day period.

And I fell down before the LORD, as at the first, forty days and forty nights: I did neither eat bread, nor drink water, because of all your sins which ye sinned, in doing wickedly in the sight of the LORD, to provoke him to anger. (Deut 9:18)

After praying for the designated period, Moses went back up on the mountain for—you guessed it—forty more days, likewise without bread or water. (Ex 34:28) If anyone proposes that you take the Moses diet, decline.

Nevertheless, there were two people who did at least one-third of the Moses diet. Instead of three consecutive periods, the went for just one.

Elijah had just won a victory over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Queen Jezebel was searching for him to kill him. He despaired of his life, but an angel woke him twice and told him to eat a meal. “And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights unto Horeb the mount of God.” (1 Kings 19:8) After this forty days he received a message of encouragement from God and returned to Israel.

Jesus had been immersed by John in the Jordan River. He had heard God’s approval. In that triumph he went into the wilderness and fasted forty days. (Matt/Lk 4) Moses talked to God after forty days of fasting. God talked to Elijah after his forty-day fast. What did Jesus get? He got tempted by the devil. That’s not how the Moses Diet was supposed to work. Nevertheless, he answered the devil with scripture and resisted the temptation.

Miscellaneous Forties

Forty days becomes forty years. Sounds fair, right? When Israel approached the promised land, Moses sent men to spy out the territory. They spent forty days in their reconnaissance. (Num 13) They came back praising the land that God was going to give them. But. There is always a but. Twelve of the spies focused on the giants in the land and said that Israel could not conquer them. Two spies said that they could win with the Lord’s help. The people listened to the majority. That was when God sentenced them to forty years in the wilderness, a year for a day, until that generation died out.

Can you cower in fear for forty days? Some people probably exceed that. The Israelite army had do endure forty days of fear. That is the number of days that Goliath came out daily to challenge the army to pick a champion to face him. After that period, David took up the challenge and the rest, as they say, is history. They had spent forty days in fear, when trust in God would have solved the problem immediately. Have we learned that lesson yet?

The average young person changes position in their sleep five times in a night. The body needs to relieve press on the muscles, so we turn over or stretch out. If youMoses talked to God after forty days of fasting. God talked to Elijah after his forty-day fast. What did Jesus get? have ever lain on your side until you were in pain, you can sympathize with poor Ezekiel. Fist God told him to lie on his left side for over a year. Then he said, “And when thou hast accomplished them, lie again on thy right side, and thou shalt bear the iniquity of the house of Judah forty days.” (Ezek 4:6) In all those days he was not allowed to turn from one side to the other. The pain he was sure to have felt was prophetic of the troubles to come on Israel and Judah. Are you sure you want to be a prophet? Maybe not, if it involves what Ezekiel had to bear.

Pentecost comes fifty days (or more, depending on whose interpretation you use) after Passover. Jesus was crucified at Passover and rose three days later. He appeared to the apostles for the next forty days (Acts 1:3), teaching them everything they would need to know before the Holy Spirit came on them with power. At least during this forty-day period he was allowed to eat. After that forty days Jesus ascended to heaven and the apostles went back to Jerusalem to wait. Nor did they have to wait long; only about a week. Imagine what things Jesus had to tell them during that forty days!

Twelve separate periods of forty days. If you believe the numerology, it is probably significant that there were twelve such periods. Even if you don’t, it appears that there may have been some significance to forty days (and sometimes nights). Whether it means anything to us today or not is hard to say. Nevertheless, forty seems to be the most significant number in the Bible.