The number 40 is a very familiar number in the Bible. In the story of Noah and the flood, it rains 40 days and 40 nights (Gn 7:4,12,17; 8:6). After the sealing of the covenant at Mt. Sinai,
Moses is with God on the mountain for 40 days and 40 nights (Ex 24:18).
When the prophet Elijah is being pursued by Queen Jezebel, he flees for his life and travels 40 days and nights until he comes to the mountain of God at Horeb (Sinai) (1 Kgs 19:8).
The number 40 appears also in the New Testament. Jesus is tempted in the desert for 40 days and nights; his ascension to heaven occurs 40 days after the Resurrection (Acts 1:3).
In the passage at the start of this section, the Israelites are encamped in the southern desert, within easy reach of the Promised Land. Scouts go ahead to survey the land, which they do for 40 days (Nm 13:25).
What would be the symbolic meaning of the number 40? On one level, it represents a longer period of time, but there is more. The longer time has content:
It is a time of need, of struggle, of testing. There is in fact extra-biblical evidence for this usage as well.
But in the Bible, a third level of meaning appears. Forty denotes a period of preparation for some special action of the Lord; it is a time of grace.
After the flood in Genesis, a new creation begins. After Moses converses with God, the covenant is renewed. After Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, they will enter into the Promised Land. After Elijah’s journey, God strengthens him to resume his prophetic ministry. After Jesus’ temptation, he begins his public ministry; after the Ascension, we enter the age of the Church. At the end of the season of Lent, we celebrate Holy Week and the great feast of Easter.