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Patterns in The Life of Jesus: The Number 40

Jesus Tempted In The Wilderness

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Instances of The Number 40

The synoptic gospels indicate that Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights in the wilderness while being tempted by the Devil (Matthew 4:2, Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2).

The number 40 occurs several times in the Bible:

  • During Noah's flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:12)
  • Israel would be afflicted 400 years (Genesis 15:13) — remember that 400 is a multiple of 10 and 40
  • Jacob's body was embalmed for 40 days (Genesis 50:3)
  • The children of Israel ate manna for 40 years (Exodus 16:35)
  • Moses went once into the cloud and on the mount for 40 days and 40 nights, and he fasted during that time (Exodus 24:18; 34:28)
  • The Israelite spies searched the land of Canaan for 40 days (Numbers 13:25)
  • The clothes of the Israelites were made to last 40 years (Deuteronomy 8:4)
  • Moses spent 40 days and 40 nights in the mount a second time, making intercesion for Israel (Exodus 34:28, Deuteronomy 10:10)
  • The wicked was to receive 40 stripes (Deuteronomy 25:3)
  • Joshua was 40 years old when Moses sent him to spy the land (Joshua 14:17)
  • God delivered the Israelites into the hands of the Philistines for 40 years as punishment for their sin (Judges 13:1)
  • The children of Israel were sentenced to wonder for 40 years (Numbers 14:33)
  • Eli judged Israel for 40 years (1 Samuel 4:18)
  • Goliath challenged Israel for 40 days (1 Samuel 17:16)
  • David reigned 40 years (2 Samuel 5:4)
  • Solomon regined over Israel 40 years (1 Kings 11:42)
  • Elijah's journey to Horeb lasted 40 days and 40 nights (1 Kings 19:8)

Ideas Associated with The Number 40

The significance of the number 40 should not be overlooked. In most instances when the number 40 is mentioned, one or both concepts of these two are in view: [1] divine judgment (or trial), and [2] divine preservation.

During Noah's flood, while it rained for 40 days and 40 nights, not only was God destroying the world, but He was also preserving Noah and everyone with him in the ark.

Israel would be affliected for 400 years (400 = 10x40), but God would preserve them and multiply them during that time.

Jacob's body was being embalmed for 40 days in order for it to be preserved after those 40 days.

Moreover, whereas anyone would have died for going into the cloud and going up to Sinai (Exodus 19:13), Moses was preserved.

For 40 days, the Israelite spies were preserved from the Canaanites while they searched the land of Canaan.

The wicked would be punished with 40 stripes, but God preserved his life by forbidding more than 40 stripes.

Although the children of Israel were sentenced to wonder in the wilderness for 40 years so the adult generation would die, the younger ones were being preserved (Numbers 14:30-32), their clothes were being preserved, their feet were being preserved, and they were given manna to preserve their lives.

Joshua endured slavery in Egypt and the trials of the wildnerness for 40 years, and then he was commissioned as a spy.

The Israelites were ruled by the Philistines for 40 years, nevertheless they were preserved throughout Philistine rule.

Eli was preserved as a judge for 40 years, but he was afterwards reproved.

Goliath challenged Israel for 40 days, until God delivered Israel from him through David.

David's and Solmon's kingdoms lasted 40 years: their thrones were preserved although they were tried in numerous ways.

Elijah traveled for 40 days and 40 nights to Horeb while fasting, but his life was preserved.

Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights while being tempted by the Devil, nevertheless he was preserved—and he emerged victorious.

Relevance of The Number 40 in The Life of Jesus

There isn't a prophecy in the Tanach (the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament) that indicates that the Messiah was supposed to fast and be tempted for 40 days and 40 nights. Nevertheless, the gospel writers saw the duration of Jesus' fasting and temptation as significant enough to be included in their works. Why?

Because the duration of Jesus' fasting and temptation followed a biblical pattern: God preserved Jesus through a time of trial, just as He had preserved Moses and Elijah. This preservation of Jesus was a sign to the gospel writers that Jesus was someone very special before God: that God was at work through Jesus, just as He had worked through Moses and Elijah.

The miracles that afterwards followed Jesus continued to confirm the idea in their minds. Consequently, they needed to pay attention to what God was saying through His new prophet (of course, Jesus was more than a prophet, but it would take people time to realize this).

My point is simple: understanding how the gospel writers interpreted the 40 days and 40 nights of fasting by Jesus will help us also understand how the gospel writers interpreted many passages in the Tanach. In many cases, they were not interpreting predictions made by prophecies; instead, they were looking at patterns in the life and ministry of Jesus.

I will explore this topic further in future articles. For now, I invite you to follow my profile so you can receive a notification when I post another article.

How Did They Interpret The Old Testament?

© 2022 Marcelo Carcach