Forty Days & Forty Nights , Felix Just, S.J., Ph.D
According to the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus spent “forty days” in the desert before beginning his public ministry (see Mark 1:13; Luke 4:2). Matthew’s Gospel even specifies that it was “forty days and forty nights” (Matt 4:2). Whether or not this period of Jesus’ life was precisely forty days is irrelevant theologically, since the number “forty” is highly symbolic in all biblical literature, simply representing “a long time.” Consider the following examples:
In the story of Noah and the Great Flood, it rains for “forty days and forty nights” (Gen 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6).
It takes a full forty days to embalm the body of Jacob, according to Egyptian practice (Gen 50:3).
Moses spends “forty days and forty nights” on Mount Sinai when receiving the Law from God (Exod 24:18; cf. Deut 9:9-25).
Moses spends another “forty days and forty nights” on the mountain, encountering God a second time (Exod 34:28; cf. Deut 10:10)
The Israelite spies scout out the Promised Land for forty days (Num 13:25, 34); but due to their lack of faith, God requires the Israelites to wander in the desert for forty years (see below).
The Philistine Goliath taunts the Israelite army for forty days before David fights him (1 Sam 17:16).
The prophet Elijah travels forty days and forty nights to Mount Horeb to encounter God (1 Kings 19:8).
The prophet Ezekiel lies on his right side for forty days to symbolize the sins of the people of Judah (Ezek 4:6).
The prophet Jonah preaches in the Assyrian capital, “Forty days more, and Ninevah shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4).
After his resurrection, Jesus appears to his disciples for forty days, before ascending into heaven (Acts 1:3).
In the days of Moses, the Israelites wandered in the desert for forty years, as mentioned in numerous biblical texts (Exod 16:35; Num 14:33-34; 32:13; Deut 2:7; 8:2-4; 29:5; Josh 5:6; Neh 9:21; Ps 95:10; Amos 2:10; 5:25; Acts 7:36, 42; 13:18; Heb 3:10, 17).
Several biblical figures are forty years old when they marry (Isaac in Gen 25:20; Esau in Gen 26:34), or when other life-changing events take place (Joshua in Josh 14:7).
After some Israelite spies scout out the Promised Land for forty days (see above), God requires the Israelites to wander in the