What is the significance of the number forty in Scripture?

Full Question

What is the significance of the number forty in Scripture?


The number forty appears many times in the Bible:

  • Forty days and nights of rain during the flood
  • Moses lived forty years in Egypt
  • Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai
  • The Jews journeyed through the desert for forty years to the Promised Land
  • Jonah preached forty days to Nineveh
  • The prophet Ezekiel laid on his right side for forty days to symbolize the sins of Judah
  • Elijah fasted for forty days on Mount Horeb
  • Goliath taunted Israel for forty days
  • Jesus fasted in the desert forty days

Generally speaking, the number forty has been considered to be used in the Bible as a rounded number. It was used to express a complete period of time rather than expressions like “many” or “some.”  It would be similar to referring to a number of years ranging from eight to twelve as “about a decade.” In this case, the number forty is being used instead of saying “a few days” or “a few decades.”

Its use denotes a complete period of time that transitions to another period of time. After each forty days or years listed above, a great event occurs, or a definitive transition takes place. It’s a more effective and dramatic literary device than saying, “After some time [momentous moment] began.” It also helps the sacred author highlight theological parallels.

When we see the number forty used to denote time in the Bible, we are being told that something extraordinary and definitive is happening.

By Fr. Charles Grondin



  1. Patrick Gannon Reply

    “Moses lived forty years in Egypt
    Moses spent forty days on Mount Sinai
    The Jews journeyed through the desert for forty years to the Promised Land”
    None of this happened. Moses, first of all, is an Egyptian name and derives from an earlier culture. More importantly we know today that the mass Exodus from Egypt, and conquest of Canaan did not occur in any ways, shape or fashion as described by the bible. That story is pure mythology, probably invented to help the Jews feel better about themselves after the Babylon captivity.
    There is not a shred of evidence for the Exodus, including the sites where Moses spent extended periods of time. There isn’t a shard of pottery, a spear tip or arrow head, a shield or wagon wheel to indicate that any mass Exodus ever took place. Even Jewish Archaeologists who were given exclusive access to sites mentioned in the bible, came up completely empty-handed. They found evidence of a Persian invasion or two of Canaan, but nothing to indicate that any of the biblical stories has any merit whatsoever.
    These are two of the pillars that have washed out. The existence of Yahweh-Jesus is based on a foundation supported by five pillars, and all have washed out. There was no six day creation, no two-person DNA bottleneck (Adam and Eve), no global flood, no mass Exodus from Egypt, and no conquest of Canaan. Without these things, there is no remaining foundation for Yahweh the biblical god of war.

  2. Peter Aiello Reply

    Forty also seems to be related to a period of preparation or trial.

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