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Lordy, Lordy, Look What’s Forty

40 smallMaybe it’s just me, but a lot of uber-Evangelicals seem kind of nervous. Maybe its from watching too many horror movies, but I tend to doubt it. Now, I am the last person to disparage church folk for being guilty of things that are just as common to your average bear, but I think our dedication to a religion of the book makes us nervous in ways that other people, who have no strong convictions about codes of belief and behavior aren’t. We are often nervous about being led astray by a world full of contradictory philosophies, vile morals, slippery ethics, and, most insidious to us of all, “Liberal” teachings about the Bible… our final authority in all matters of faith and practice. These threaten to loosen our mental and emotional resolve to live life by the book, so to speak. I get it, I really do.

This can, however, make it hard to teach many Evangelicals certain things about Scripture and interpretation. They love Scripture and are more than a little excited when a teacher can make Scripture come to life, but only within limits.

Evangelicalism is founded on age old traditions about how certain portions of Scripture should be interpreted, often in direct reaction to scholarly liberalism. “None of this loosy goosy figurative interpretation for us,” or, as one friend put it, “Oh! You Scholar types. Always trying to figure Scripture out. I just read it and believe it.” If Isaiah 7:14, says virgin then virgin it is… don’t give us all this “but in the Hebrew” nonsense. If you question 6 literal days then you just aren’t quite the right kind of Christian… not for them anyway.

Another “I just read it and believe it,” area of Scripture for many has to do with biblical numbers. We often assume that the ancient writers of Scripture thought about and used numbers just like we do. Anything else would be, in our eyes at least, lies and exaggerations. If the text says 185,000 died, then that’s how many died; don’t give us any of this, “What does thousand mean in Hebrew?” The idea that numbers might even be used in different ways in different places within Scripture would give us apoplexy… and maybe hives.

Just for the sake of argument, however, let’s consider the number 40 in the Bible. Has it ever struck you how many things happen in 40s?

40 days and nights of rain (Gen 7:4, 12), and flood (Gen 7:12) even though Genesis 8:3 has the rain stopping at 150 days. It takes Noah 40 days to open the “window” of the ark after the mountains appeared. (Gen 8:6) Isaac is 40 when he marries Rebekah. (Gen 25:20) Esau is 40 when he marries. (Gen 26:34) Israel eats manna for 40 years. (Ex 16:3) Moses is with God on Sinai for 40 days and nights, fasting… twice (Ex 24:18; Ex 34:28; Deut 9:9). Elijah and Jesus also fasted 40 days. (I Ki 19:8; Luke 4:2)  The spies are 40 days gone (Num 13:25) and Israel wanders 40 years. (Num 14:34) Moses’ life is broken into three 40 year periods. (Acts 7:23; Acts 7:30; Deut 34:7) Joshua was 40 when he went to spy out the land. (Jos 14:7) The land has 40 years of rest after Othniel, (Jdg 3:11) Sisera, (Jdg 5:31) and Gideon (Jdg 8:28).  Israel fled from the Philistines 40 years in Judges 13:1. Samuel judged Israel for 40 years (1 Sam 4:18) after which Goliath stood 40 days challenging Saul. (1 Sam 17:6) Ishbosheth began to rule at 40 (2 Sam 2:10). Saul, David and Solomon all reigned 40 years. (Acts 13:21; 1 Ki 2:11; 1 Ki 11:42)

Now, I do believe in the inspiration of Scripture, even of the numbers;  I believe God speaks through the numbers of the Bible, but not always in the way many think. There often seems to be something wrong with the numbers of the Bible… the problem is not the numbers, however; the problem is our understanding of the numbers. Some biblical numbers are a mystery to us, but we understand other numbers fairly well. The ancient near eastern people, and their descendents in some regions to this day, think about and use numbers differently… figuratively. Some of these figures are complex (318 and 110 for instance); Some of the most repetitive, however, are not complex.

40 means lots.

It is that simple—A long time, a large number, a bunch, tons, oodles, a plethora, loads, heaps, many.

It doesn’t always have to be figurative, but it can be. Some have suggested that exacting uses of reign calculations don’t begin until the era of the divided Monarchy after Solomon.

Cyrus Gordon tells the story of an archaeological dig in the early 1900s during which a father son team worked hard for him. He says to the father, “You should be very proud of your boy. He works hard. How old is he? If you don’t mind me asking.” The man says something to the effect of, “Before Allah, I do not know. He may be twenty, he may be thirty, he may be forty. By Allah, I do not know. But you are a smart man, perhaps you can tell me. My son was born about one year after “blah came to reign here.” (I do not recall the ruler’s name.) Cyrus Gordon did the math. The boy was 13.[1]



[1] Story recounted in Gary Rendsburg’s Genesis course at Rutgers University.

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