Atheists and skeptics like to point out numerical difficulties in the Bible to prove that it is full of mistakes. For example, in 2 Samuel 15:7, the King James translation says that after 40 years, Absalom asked the king to allow him to go and pay a vow. Most modern translations say it was four years. The King James follows the Hebrew Masoretic text, while the other translations use different manuscripts. The number four in Hebrew is “arba” and the number 40 is “arbaim.” It is easy to see how a copyist could confuse these two words, but we also need to understand how the Bible uses numbers.
The Jewish culture gave special significance to numbers, including 40. Some writings used numbers, perhaps not intending that they should be mathematically exact but symbolic. My friend Richard Hoyt has researched this, and he points out many times when the Bible tells us that something occurred over a period of 40 days, nights, or years:
Genesis 7:12 – It rained for 40 days and 40 nights.
Genesis 8:6 – Noah waited 40 days before opening the window of the ark.
Exodus 16:35, Numbers 14:33-34 – The Israelites wandered for 40 years.
Exodus 24:18 & 34:28, Deuteronomy 10:10 – Moses was with God 40 days on the mountain.
Numbers 13:25 – The spies returned from searching the land after 40 days.
2 Samuel 5:4 – David reigned for 40 years.
1 Kings 11:42 – Solomon reigned for 40 years.
2 Kings 12:1 – Jehoash of Judah reigned for 40 years.
1 Kings 19:8 – Elijah journeyed to Mount Horeb for 40 days and 40 nights.
Jonah 3:4 – God gave Nineveh 40 days to repent.
Matthew 4:2 – Jesus fasted for 40 days and 40 nights.
Acts 1:3 – Jesus appeared to people for 40 days after His crucifixion.
To understand how the Bible uses numbers, we must consider how a Jewish person at the time would have understood it. Numerical references frequently involve symbolic importance. One indicates unity or singleness of purpose. (See Acts 17:26 or Romans 5:12,15.) Ten indicates completeness – the ten plagues, the ten commandments, the tithe. (See Genesis 14:20 and 28:22 or Luke 15:8 and 19:11-27.) When biblical writers used 40 to indicate a period of time, they may not have meant an exact mathematical number. We do the same thing in English. You might say, “I’ve told you a thousand times” when we mean a large number but not literally a thousand.
Any time we read something, we have to ask, “How did people understand this statement at the time it was written?” It is critical that we consider not only who wrote it, to whom they wrote it, and why, but also how the receiver would have understood it. In the 2 Samuel 15:7 passage, there is also a question of the meaning of “after.” After what? Anointing a king was an important event and a significant time marker. If it means “after” the anointing of David to be king, then 40 years makes sense.
Bible numbers always have a message which is more important than the number itself. If we understand how the Bible uses numbers, we can resolve many of the challenges from atheists and skeptics.
— John N. Clayton © 2020
Our thanks to Richard Hoyt for assembling this information from a variety of sources, such as THIS.