Every so often, we hear of a well-meaning Christian attempting a “Jesus Fast” – a forty-day renunciation of food that recalls the time Jesus spends in the wilderness (cf. Matt 4:2; Mk 1:13; Lk 4:2). Undertaking this fast sometimes leads to health issues and even death (a quick internet search reveals a surprising number of such unfortunate incidents). What these strict attempts at messianic replication miss, however, is the fact that “forty” has a specific symbolic meaning in Jewish thought; the number signifies a period of judgment, so that the Gospels’ reference to forty days is more about the nature of Jesus’ testing than it is about calendrical time. In assigning “forty days” to Yeshua’s fast, the Gospel writers locate their Messiah within a numerical Jewish tradition that highlights his experience as the subject of proper judgment.

Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness recalls Israel’s forty years in the Sinai desert after the exodus—a time that Scripture refers to explicitly as a period of divine judgment or testing of the peoples’ faithfulness: “The Lord your God has led you these forty (ארבעים; ‘arba’im) years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing (נסה; nasah) you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not” (Deut 8:2). In his dialogue with the devil, Jesus quotes the very next verse in Deuteronomy (Deut 8:3; cf. Matt 4:4; Lk 4:4), which shows that Jesus’ forty days accomplishes the same end as the Israelites’ forty years: Yeshua is “tested” (πειράζω; peirádzo) in order to see whether he would keep God’s commandments—and, of course, he does.

Beyond the forty years that Israel spends in the wilderness, it does not take much scriptural study to see that the number forty symbolizes judgment: God judges the earth with the flood rains for “forty days and forty nights” (ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה; ‘arba’im yom v’arba’im laylah; cf. Gen 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6); Moses, like Jesus, fasts on Sinai for “forty days and forty nights” as he receives the legal statutes of the Torah (Exod 34:28), which would be the standard for “righteous judgment” (משׁפט צדק; mishpat tsedeq; Deut 16:18); and Deborah, the best judge in Israel’s history, brings peace to the land for “forty years” (ארבעים שׁנה;‘arba’im shanah; Judg 5:31; cf. 3:11; 8:28). In light of this numerical symbolism, the meaning of “forty” is far more important than the number itself. Therefore, instead of testing the limits of our bodies with a literal forty-day fast, Bible readers should focus on the theological “testing” to which the number forty points. Understanding forty days/years as a time of “judgment” highlights the reason for Jesus’ wilderness wanderings and the level of Jesus’ success in following God.

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75 COMMENTS

  1. I love these short blogs. I never read this before and I have never done a long food fast. I’ve done short fasts and fasted from things, sometimes permanently for Jesus. Prayers and encouraging my Christian brothers and sisters seems more useful.

  2. Dr. Nicholas, thanks for this insight. Would that signify Adam’s forty day praying & fasting penitence to hashem in the river jordan also.

    • Adam’s fast occurs in the pseudepigraphical “Life of Adam and Eve,” but yes. Forty would have a similar valence in this case as well.

    • Thanks for your question, Donald. While we’re unsure exactly which year Jesus died (so it may not be a perfect 40 years to the destruction of the Temple), the Talmud states that Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai predicted the destruction of the Temple forty years before it happened (not unlike Jesus’ own declaration), so “forty” in this case would be a term of judgment prior to destruction (see b. Yoma 39b).

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

  3. Your teachings that I’ve read have been greatly appreciated. I’ve shared them with many others. I am not able to do a class at this time. Please continue to share the biblical teachings of how the Jewish people interpret scriptures. Thank you. GOD bless.

    • We could certainly do something on the commandments, Dee. It’s a vast topic; is there something particular that you’re wanting to study in more depth?

  4. True the number may mean judgement, but, the time (days, months, years) given is still the literal duration of time expended; 40 days means exactly 40 days not 39, not 41, but 40.
    Why do you always make everything so confusing.

  5. I know quite a few people who have fasted 40 days with no ill-effects at all. Surprised to hear people have suffered physical problems from this.

    • What doctor Nicholas is saying is true, the people you are talking about might be breaking every night. There is no way they can fast for 30 or 40 days without food or water. Your body can take it for 7 to 10 days. So don’t try it.

  6. Thanks for the clarification. Like you rightly said, many so called Christian leaders call for and wind hook their gullible congregations to engage in 40 days fast so that God will answer them and grant their heart’s desires. At the end, nothing to write home about. All for nought!

  7. Thank you for this insight, Father has been revealing the same information to me especially in “light” of what American “theology” teaches about believers not suffering and always being wealthy in all physical areas of life. Where man defines God and life in the flesh from the physical realm governed by the five senses … Father has “eternal” perspectives in His approach to all men/women and if “suffering” will cause us to come to Messiah then let suffering reign in our lives.

    • Those who teach “health and wealth gospels” ignore Jesus who said, “in this world you shall have tribulation.” It is the same philosophy that teaches a “rapture” before a “great tribulation.” Paul taught suffering for Christ is a desired identification with Him.

  8. Very insightful. Does that also apply to the 40 stripes (of flogging) meted out apostle Paul ? Thanks for more explanation(expected).

    • Thanks for your question, Chizoba. 40 lashes was indeed symbolic of “full judgment” or punishment. Paul receives 40 lashes “minus one” (i.e., 39) because by Paul’s day (and the early rabbinic period) Jewish law mandated not to go all the way to 40 so as to be sure not to break the injunction not to exceed 40 (see Deut 25:3; cf. b. Makkot 22a [Babylonian Talmud]).

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

      • The Gemara discussion is particularly interesting, with all the various different reasons given for the choice of 39, but here is what really jumps out at me (from Makkot 22b): “Apparently, the authority of the Sages is so great that they are able to amend an explicit Torah verse.” 🙂

  9. Hi Dr Schaser
    Could I ask regarding Deborah as Judge bringing peace for forty years, In the Jerusalem Bible I read from this account and the other Judges where stated, the translation for peace is given as rest, can I ask the correct or nearest interpretation of this

    • Thanks for your question, Jon. The word in Judges is שׁקט (shaqat), which denotes the absence of war (cf. Josh 11:23; 14:15). So the translations of “rest” or “peace” are both appropriate. Other options might be “respite,” “quietude,” or “tranquility.”

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  10. I really appreciate this insightful commentary. Pls, I need some clarification on Yeshua’s parable of the Prodigal Son(Luke 15:11-32). I think situating the parable in Jewish Context may provide revelations beyond what we know from the Gospel of Luke.
    Shalom!

  11. I learned Hebrew thinking considers 10 the full manifestation of an issue, similar to 18 meaning life. Do you find it reasonable to see 40 in the tav, Hebrew’s final letter, representing total judgement? To see tav’s 400 gematria designation in light of 10 40s? Aleph-Tov, Alpha&Omega? Begining and End?

    • Gematria is a post-biblical Jewish interpretational tool, so the writers of Israel’s Scriptures wouldn’t have been making links between the tav and 40(0). The rabbis certainly do, but they come much later than the original writers of the Bible. Thus, gematria is usually less useful for ascertaining the original meaning of the biblical narrative.

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    • Great question, Sunday. In light of the clear symbolism of 40, the actual number of days is less important than what the number means. The number of 24-hour periods is not the focus, but rather the element of judgment and testing that goes along with forty in the biblical tradition.

      • Good day, Dr. Schaser – You explain that the focus (primary meaning?) is the symbolic allusion to judgement/testing. But there is still the separate question of whether these instances of 40 are also literal history. Can you address that?

        • One is certainly free to take the references to 40 as “literal history,” but the abundance of symbolic usages of this number in Scripture points to a meta-meaning beyond the strict numerical value. One can have it both ways, as it were, but the theology or symbolism should not be muted in the service of the modern assumption that the Bible records bare history for history’s sake.

        • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

          • Thank you. What is your own position?

            Are these instances of often-symbolic (400, 40, 10, perhaps 7, 3) best presumed symbolic-only by default?

            Or should they be presumed to be BOTH symbolic and historically accurate unless and until proven otherwise?

          • Being attentive to symbolism when 3, 6, 7, 10, 12, and 40 come up is a good default practice. In these instances, step one should be mining meaning, and step two should be asking the historical question. In some cases, if we miss step one we will be taken down a misleading historical path (e.g., 480 years [40 x 12] in 1 Kgs 6:1) or run into seemingly problematic verses from an historical perspective (e.g., “about 600,000” in Exod 12:37, which is symbolic for the creation of a new humanity, rather than a precise numerical statement).

  12. Moses sent spies into the Holy Land to spy out the land. The men spent 40 days exploring the land. When they refused to go into the land God became angry with the Jews and sentenced them to stay in the wilderness.forty years, a year for each day they had

    • Yes, Franklin. Thanks for this additional reference — the 40 days scouting the land is yet another instance of forty being associated with testing and judgment insofar as the Israelites are “judging” the quality and inhabitability of the land.

  13. Wow! Your articles are very insightful and I have greatly enjoyed the courses you have taught. The opportunity to study here has been a wonderful blessing. It’s hard to choose which course to study each month; I want to study all of them. I feel like the scriptures have truly been opened to me now. I did not realize the full significance of 40. Now it has personal significance as well. Thank you so much for broadening my understanding.

    • Thanks very much for studying with us, Clara. We’re glad to have you as a student at IBC and happy to hear that you’re finding our articles and courses beneficial. This is why we do what we do here, so it’s wonderful to know that our work is bearing fruit for you.

  14. Hi Dr. In one comment above it is said that Paul received 39 stripes, did not YESHUA also received 39 and not 40? In our Afrikaans translation it spells out one less than 40.

    • Isaiah:50:6 “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair:I hid not my face from shame and spitting.”
      Isaiah:52:14 “As many were astonished at thee; his visage (assuming His face) was so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men:”

      Yeshua was beaten far past what would be considered normal “testing.” He was beaten so badly that instead of the normal 3-5 days crucifixion took to die, He died in just 1/2 day, and that without His legs being broken to speed the process. There are many “source documents” for the NT, and most of them disagree. Going back to prophecy and comparing it to what scripture says was done to Him, I’d say your version chose the wrong source document as its basis for translation. The Greek NT without OT primacy is problematic at best; more often just plain wrong.

  15. 40 days of testing, 40 years in the desert, 40 days prior to the ascension, even the 40 days & nights of the flood…. one could argue that that the symbolism is more of “preparation” for something new, than of judgment. Sometimes God’s judgment or discipline is at the same time a preparation for the next step, so i can see a lot of overlap here. But at the same time I wonder if 40 is perhaps better considered as symbolic of preparation rather than judgment.

    • Thanks for your comment, Wyn. In biblical thought, “judgment” can go one of two ways: (1) a negative judging of humanity (as in the flood), or (2) God judging (i.e., assessing or teaching) humanity (as in Israel’s and Jesus’ time in the wilderness, or Jesus’ time with his disciples prior to his ascension). You’re right about the overlap — “preparation” is sometimes a component of “judgment” or “assessment.” Still, “judgment” works better when we get into multiples of 40 — as in 40 x 10 = 400, which stands for “military conflict” (“judgment” x “power” = conflict). For more on this, see https://weekly.israelbiblecenter.com/esau-four-hundred-men/

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  16. What is the origin of the tradition linking the number 40 with judgement?

    Does the symbolism derive from the original use(s) in the Torah (40 days of rain, Moses 40 days on the mountain, etc.)?

    Or, rather, do you believer that even those instances come from earlier (non-“Jewish”) tradition.

    • Good question, Neville. The number is used symbolically in ancient Near Eastern literature that predates the Bible. For instance, in the Atrahasis Epic, the gods toil with the work of the world for forty years, before enlisting humanity to do so. In ancient Mesopotamian law codes, the payment for damages in a court setting is often forty shekels. In the Aqihar Court Stories, the protagonist is told to regain strength for forty days. The number was used widely in a symbolic way, often in terms of periods of testing/toil or judgment being rendered, and the Israelites contribute to this usage.

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  17. Thanks to Dr. Schaser and to all who commented. The article and discussion have been very helpful. And I would add this: one footnote in the NKJV Faithlife Study Bible for Exodus 24:18 mentions that the # 40 signifies a time of separation for spiritual purification and growth.

  18. Also: Jesus mentioned the importance of prayer & fasting for power over the enemy. And one can do a simple 1 day fast from breakfast & lunch, then “break the fast” with supper. Or a “juice & water fast,” where you only fast from food. Drink fruit & veggie blends.

  19. This interpretation is dangerous because it implies that the Bible is not literally trustworthy? So should we believe Jesus was not circumcised on the 8th day? Lazarus did not die for 4 days? Jesus resurrected on the third day? It’s a sin to twist God’s word into your own understanding.

    • It is incumbent upon the modern reader of the Bible to understand numbers in the way that the original writers of the text understood them. Not all numbers are symbolic, but many are; it is up to the reader to interpret the information in a way that is closest to how an ancient Israelite would have meant it, as opposed to always taking numerical data at face value.

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

      • Again, it’s dangerous when you say that the modern reader have to decide. Do you mean that human will judge God’s word instead of receiving it and believing it? That’s too far!!! God is clear in His word and it is LITERALLY trustworthy. Either you believe it or reject it.

    • Jesus certainly abstained from food for a period, but that 40-day period is representative of an appropriate time of judgment or discernment.

  20. Very interesting. But when it talks about 40 years in the wilderness or a King reigning for forty years etc are we to assume the number is only symbolic or both literal with a judgement significance?

    • One is certainly free to take the references to 40 as “literal,” but the abundance of symbolic usages in Scripture points to a meta-meaning beyond the strict numerical value. One can have it both ways, as it were, but the theology or symbolism should not be muted in the service of the modern assumption that the Bible records bare history for history’s sake.

    • We are very happy that you’ve joined our discussion forum. Would you believe that these articles are only a taste of what Israel Bible Center has to offer? We also provide comprehensive teaching on a variety of biblical, historical, and cultural topics. You might begin with The Jewish Gospel of Matthew or The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. You’ll be amazed at the Jewish world that awaits you. Don’t delay another minute: enroll now!

  21. A theologian said to me ” Jesus never fasted for 40 days. It just means a long time.” I replied “Then it could have been 70 days. One Irish hunger striker lasted longer.” His look might be fury to be so easily disproved, suspicion of my politics, or my theology!

    • Yes, it doesn’t mean a “long time,” but rather a time of proper testing. 70 would have been better for “a long time,” since 7 is the Hebrew number of completeness.

  22. Is it not God who is being judged by man to determine if He can be trusted for a covernant relationship? Satan has lied about god and made accusations about His character.

  23. Thank you for the insight i had been curious about the number and its meaning as it occures so often in Gods word. BTW i am enjoying both your news letters and the course very much.

    • Israel Bible Center equips you with the tools you need to enter into the Jewish world of Scripture. We provide first-rate teaching, and the opportunity to learn from some of the world’s top scholars. As a student, you will be able to interact personally with our teaching faculty, and gain access to hundreds of hours of Bible courses, including The Jewish Gospel of Matthew and The Hebrew Psalms: How To Worship God. Become a part of the community of teachers and students at Israel Bible Center today!

  24. Wow. Thanks for that. It was awesome. I have always thought that mishpat was the hardest hitting word in the Bible, besides forgiveness. And maybe the two words are intimate. You are a great teacher.

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