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What is the significance of the number 40 in Sacred Scripture?

What is the significance of the number 40 in Sacred Scripture?


Father Wade Menezes explains that in Scripture the number 40 signifies preparation, transformation, a change from one great task to another great task. He further explains that the number 40 brings to mind such things as repentance, self examination and escape from bondage or slavery – such as bondage to sin.



Examples of the number 40 in Scriptures:

The rain in the great flood lasted 40 days and 40 nights – Gen 7:4

Moses fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to prepare himself to receive the law – Ex 34:28

Moses was at the top of Mount Sinai for 40 days and 40 nights receiving the law – Ex 34:28

The Israelites wondered in the desert for 40 years – Joshua 5:6

The mana rained down on the Israelites for 40 years during their sojourn in the desert – Ex 16:35

The Israelites explored the land for 40 days – Numbers 13:25

The prophet Elijah walked 40 days and 40 nights to reach Mount Horeb – 1 Kgs 19:8

Nineveh was given 40 days to repent – Jonah 3:4

Our Lord fasted for 40 days and 40 nights to prepare for His three years of public ministry – Matt 4:2

Our Lord ascended into Heaven 40 days after His resurrection – Acts 1:3


Q: Why is Lent forty days long?

By James Akin

A: Because forty days is a traditional number of discipline, devotion, and preparation in the Bible. Thus Moses stayed on the Mountain of God forty days (Exodus 24:18 and 34:28), the spies were in the land for forty days (Numbers 13:25), Elijah traveled forty days before he reached the cave where he had his vision (1 Kings 19:8), Nineveh was given forty days to repent (Jonah 3:4), and most importantly, prior to undertaking his ministry, Jesus spent forty days in wilderness praying and fasting (Matthew 4:2).

Since Lent if a period of prayer and fasting, it is fitting for Christians to imitate their Lord with a forty day period. Christ used a forty day period of prayer and fasting to prepare for his ministry, which culminated in his death and resurrection, and thus it is fitting for Christians to imitate him with a forty day period of prayer and fasting to prepare for the celebration of his ministry’s climax, Good Friday (the day of the crucifixion) and Easter Sunday (the day of the resurrection).

Thus the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:

“‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sinning’ [Heb 4:15]. By the solemn forty days of Lent the Church unites herself each year to the mystery of Jesus in the desert.” (CCC 540).

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By Saint Augustine of Hippo

Chapter XV – 28 – As to the reason why this life of toil and self-control is symbolized by the number 40, it seems to me that the number ten (in which is the perfection of our blessedness, as in the number eight, because it returns to the unit) has a like place in this number [as the unit has in giving its significance to eight]; and therefore I regard the number forty as a fit symbol for this life, because in it the creature (of which the symbolical number is seven) cleaves to the Creator, in whom is revealed that unity of the Trinity which is to be published while time lasts throughout this whole world, –a world swept by four winds, constituted of four elements, and experiencing the changes of four seasons in the year. Now four times ten [seven added to three] are forty; but the number forty reckoned in along with [one of] its parts adds the number ten, [as seven reckoned in along with one of its parts adds the unit,] and the total is fifty, — the symbol, as it were, of the reward of the toil and self- control. For it is not without reason that the Lord Himself continued for forty days on this earth and in this life in fellowship with His disciples after His resurrection, and, when He ascended into heaven, sent the promised Holy Spirit, after an interval of ten days more, when the day of Pentecost was fully come.

From letters which were written by Augustin after his becoming bishop of Hippo, and before the conference held with the Donatists at Carthage, and the discovery of the heresy of Pelagius in Africa (A.D. 396-410).

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