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 discourse 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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46 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.

    • 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).

  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.

  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.

  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]).

    • 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!

  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.”

  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.

    • Great question, Sunday. I’m saying that, 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.

    • 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!

  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.

    • 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!

  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 🙂 We’re also 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.

  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/

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