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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Forty, the Number

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In the Bible, next to the number seven, the number forty occurs most frequently. In Talmudical literature it is often met with, in many instances having been apparently used as a round number or as a concrete and definite expression in place of the abstract and indefinite "many" or "some," and hence becoming a symbolical number. As regards the period of forty years, the Jews seem to have shared with other peoples, especially the Greeks, the notion that the fortieth year was the height or acme of man's life; and from this fact forty years came to represent a generation (compare Nöldeke, "Untersuchungen zur Kritik des Alten Testaments," p. 188).

Forty Days.

The rain which brought about the Deluge lasted forty days (Genesis 7:4,12,17); the same period passed between the appearance of the mountain-tops and the opening of the windows in the ark (Genesis 8:6). For the embalming of Jacob forty days were required (Gen. 1. 3). Moses was without food on Mount Horeb for forty days (Exodus 24:18). Elijah wandered without food for the same period (1 Kings 19:8; compare also the fasting of Jesus previous to his temptation, Matthew 4:2). Ezekiel was ordered to lie on his right side forty days, to represent the forty years of the sin of Judah (Ezekiel 4:6). Forty days were spent by the spies in Canaan (Numbers 13:25); Goliath challenged the army of Israel for forty days (1 Samuel 17:16; compare Soá¹­ah 41b). The same number of days was granted Nineveh for repentance (Jonah 3:4). They also form the period required for purification after thebirth of a male (Leviticus 12:2,4), while after that of a female it is twice that number of days (ib. 5).

Forty Years.

Isaac married when forty years old (Genesis 25:20); so also Esau (Genesis 26:34). Caleb was of the same age when sent as a spy (Joshua 14:7); and so was Ish-bosheth when commencing his short reign (2 Samuel 2:10; compare Acts 7:23, where the age of Moses, when he was called to become the deliverer of his people, is given at forty years). Israel sojourned forty years in the desert (Exodus 16:35, and frequently elsewhere). The same period is given for the rule of each of several of the judges (Judges 3:11), and for that of Deborah (5:31, 8:28; 1 Samuel 4:18), as also for the reigns of David, Solomon, and Joash (2 Samuel 5:4; 1 Kings 2:11, 11:42; 1 Chronicles 26:31, 29:27; 2 Chronicles 9:30, 24:1). So also Israel was oppressed by the Philistines forty years (Judges 13:1). In Ezekiel 29:11-13 a desolation of forty years is predicted for Egypt. A multiplication of 40 by 3, or three generations, is seen in the 120 years of the life of Moses (Deuteronomy 34:7; compare Genesis 6:6). Some (compare Wellhausen, "Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels", 2d ed., 1883, 1:285) are inclined to see in the 480 years which are stated (1 Kings 6:1) to have passed between the Exodus and the building of the Temple of Solomon a multiplication of forty by twelve, or the round number of twelve generations.

Forty in Counts and Measures.

Among the presents sent by Jacob to Esau were forty cows (Genesis 32:16). Ben-hadad sends "forty camels' burden" as a gift for Elisha (2 Kings 8:9). The governors before Nehemiah extorted from the people forty shekels of silver (Nehemiah 5:15). Abdon had forty sons (Judges 12:14); Solomon, forty stalls of horses (1 Kings 5:6). Barak's army consisted of forty thousand men (Judges 5:8); as many Syrian footmen were killed by David in battle (1 Chronicles 19:18); and forty stripes were inflicted on certain evil-doers (Deuteronomy 25:5). In the Tabernacle forty sockets of silver supported the twenty boards (Exodus 26:19 et seq.; 36:24,26); in the Temple of Solomon each of the ten lavers of brass contained forty baths; and in the Temple described by Ezekiel the "hekal" and the side-courts measured forty cubits in length (Ezekiel 41:2, 46:22).

Forty in the Talmud.

The fortieth year is the age of reason ("ben arba'im la-binah," Ab. 5:26). Hillel (Sifre, Deuteronomy 34:7; ed. Friedmann, 150a), Johanan ben Zakkai (R. H. 31b), and Akiba (Ab. R. N. ) set out upon their rabbinical careers when they were forty years old. To them, as also to Moses, is ascribed a life of 120 years, being divided in each case into three divisions of forty years each (Sifre, c.). Hillel's disciples were eighty in number (Suk. 28a). A woman marrying after forty can not bear children (B. B. 119b). Marriages are made in heaven by the announcement of the BAT ḲOL forty days before birth (Sanh. 22a; compare Soṭah 2b). Forty times' repetition renders a thing unforgettable (Pes. 72a; compare Yer. Giṭ. 6:47d). The extravagance of Pekah is characterized by his consuming forty measures of pigeons for dessert (; Sanh. 94b; Pes. 57a). Forty measures was the weight of each stone carried into the Jordan (Joshua 6; Soṭah 34a). In connection with Psalms 95:10 it is said that the Messianic age would last forty years (Sanh. 99a).

Forty in Temple History.

The number forty had a fatal significance in connection with the destruction of the Second Temple. Forty years before this catastrophe the Sanhedrin "went into exile," that is, left the premises of the Temple (Shab. 15a; 'Ab. Zarah 8b). Rabbi Zadok spent forty years in fasting to avert the calamity (Giá¹­. 56a). In the war of Bar Kokba forty measures of phylactery-blocks () were found on the heads of the slain at Bethar (Giá¹­. 58a).

The ritual purification-tank ("miḳweh") must hold forty measures of water (Miḳ. 2:1 et seq.; compare 'Er. 14a). The measure of the heave-offering ("terumah") for a generous person () is a fortieth part of the produce (Ter. 4:3). A dry season of forty days is the condition for ordering a public fast (Ta'an. 19a). On the other hand, the forty stripes of Deuteronomy 25:5 are reduced to thirty-nine (Mak. 22a; compare 2 Corinthians 11:24). Forty is also given as the number is of the "principal labors" () which are forbidden on the Sabbath (Shab. 69a, 73a).

Bibliography:
  • Hirzel, Ueber Rundzahlen, in Berichte der Philologisch-Historischen Classe der Königlich-Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften, pp. 6-70, Leipsic, 1885. On the symbolism of numbers in general: Bähr, Symbolik des Mosaischen Kultus, 1:128 et seq.;
  • Johann Heinrich Kurtz, in Theologische, Studien und Kritiken, 1844, pp. 315 et seq.;
  • Kliefoth, Die Zahlensymbolik der Heiligen Schrift, in Theologische Zeitschrift, 1862, pp. 1 et seq., 341 et seq., 509 et seq.;
  • Lämmert, Zur Revision der Biblischen Zahlensymbolik, in Jahrbücher für Deutsche Theologie, 1864, pp. 3 et seq. On the number forty in particular: Rosenmüller, on Ezech. 4:6;
  • Gesenius, Lehrgebäude der Hebräischen Sprache, p. 700;
  • Bruns, in Paulus' Memorabilia, 7:53 et seq.;
  • Bohlen, Genesis, Introduction, pp. 63 et seq.;
  • Grimm, Deutsche Rechtsalterthümer, 1:219 et seq. (1:301 et seq., 4th ed., Leipsic, 1899);
  • comp. also Baraita, pp. 32 et seq., Warsaw, 1848.
J. Jr.
I. M. C.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Forty, the Number'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/f/forty-the-number.html. 1901.

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