The Bible contains certain numbers that have obvious symbolic significance. For example, twelve invokes the tribes of Israel in the Old Testament and the Apostles in the New Testament. The number of Apostles symbolizes the twelve tribes. Three in the New Testament invokes the Trinity.
But what about forty? Is it a symbol, an approximation, or an accurate count? Forty occurs frequently in the bible, more than most other numbers. The following is a sample of the usages of forty.
For forty days and forty nights heavy rain poured down on the earth.
Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah.
Esau was forty years old when he married Judith.
The physicians embalmed Israel for forty days.
The children of Israel ate manna forty years.
Moses was in the mount forty days and forty nights.
They returned from searching of the land after forty days.
He made them wander in the wilderness forty years.
Forty thousand, prepared for war, passed over to the plains of Jericho.
I was forty years old when Moses sent me to spy out the land.
Forty stripes may be given him, and no more.
The land had rest forty years until Othniel died.
The country was peaceful forty years in the days of Gideon.
God delivered them into the hand of the Philistines for forty years.
Eli judged Israel forty years.
David reigned forty years.
David slew forty thousand Syrians horsemen.
Solomon had forty thousand stalls of horses.
Solomon reigned forty years.
No one shall pass through it, neither shall it be inhabited for forty years.
Jesus was in the wilderness forty days.
They were more than forty which had made this conspiracy (to kill Paul).
Josephus uses forty about as frequently in the Jewish War.
The Bible Study Site claims that forty is symbolic for testing and punishment (among other things). The majority of the uses of forty (13 of 22 in the list above) do not imply testing or punishment; nor can they be construed so. Other instances imply punishment even less. In Surpassing Wonder, Donald Akenson calls forty a "magic number" but does not define why. There does not appear to be any common symbolic theme or any indication that any one could serve as a prototype for the others.
I observe one possible characteristic of the above instances. In each case, forty is a large number for the instance. Forty days of rain, forty years in the desert, forty year reign, forty years of peace: All very long times. Forty thousand horsemen, forty thousand stalls, forty men in a conspiracy: Very large numbers. Thus, I think that forty simply means very large in most cases. Could it be used as an accurate number? Possibly sometimes, but not frequently, I think.
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