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Istanbul, 8 June 2016

My 2016 continuing education, two weeks of visiting archaeological sites in Aegean and Mediterranean (ancient) Turkey, has truly brought the New Testament world and text to life! Many of the sites are new to me -- like Kaunos, a fortified city we accessed by riverboat (as dolphins frolicked and giant turtles munched on blue crabs). Other locations are familiar, like Perga and Attalia (Acts 14:25) -- wow! -- as well as Patara (Acts 21:1), head of a 23-city league and birthplace of ("Saint") Nicholas of Myra (270-343 AD). Yesterday we flew back to Istanbul (ancient Byzantium or Constantinople) for a visit to the Blue Mosque and other famous sites. And now the time of exploration is over. It's early (3:30 am), time for the long homeward journey.

Captions (clockwise):

Library at Ephesus; theatre at Myra; Atatürk (father of modern Turkey), honored at Fetiye; theater at Ephesus; hoard of ancient coins, Attalia;  turquoise coast of Turkey; oldest known portrait of Paul (Grotto of Paul); with my agent, Levent Oral. For many more shots, see my Facebook page.


So far in our series on Numbers in the Bible we have examined 77, 12, and 1000 (twice). Today let's ponder the number 40, which pops up so many times in Scripture that it feels like a "biblical" number. (40 days of downpour (Noah) and 40 years of desert wandering (Israel) come to mind.)

In some passages the number is literal -- without a nuance or allusion to make us think otherwise. Example: the 40 cows of Gen 32:15. But other times the number 40 is both literal and (somehow) symbolic. Example: David and Solomon ruled as long as Moses led Israel. (Technically speaking, it was 40.5 years in David's case [2 Sam 5:5].)

Sometimes we wonder whether a 40 may be purely figurative. Examples: the time period associated with the rule of the Judges is typically 40 years -- or multiples thereof (3:11; 8.18; 13:1; 1 Sam 4:18), or even portions of 40 (4:3; 15:20; 16:31 -- perhaps indicating spiritual decline).

One often hears that 40 years is a generation. I heard this in Sunday School when I was a little boy. But in what society does a generation last 40 years? Nowhere -- not to mention that through most of human history many never even lived to age 40. Women were more likely to become mothers in their late teens and 20s. Actually, 40 years is far closer to the typical span of two generations.

If any of this makes you uneasy, ask how likely you think it is that the number 40 would keep appearing, as opposed to the odds that the biblical writers were trying to convey some truth by means of the recurrence and symbolism of the number. (Don't worry if you can't decide which it is; I didn't mean to imply that this would always be easy.) While you're mulling it over, consider the 40 days of Moses' stay atop Sinai. Or Jesus' period of fasting in the Judean desert. And what about the most intense part of the Deluge (Gen 7:12)?

So while we cannot always be sure of the meaning of 40, usually we have a good idea. Perhaps the important thing is to be aware that God can communicate his truth in many, many ways. Unless we slow down, and seek to enter the biblical world, we may well miss the message.

Advanced material: Moses tripartite life.
Moses' life was divided into 3 x 40 years. Could there be symbolism or metaphor in play here? Check out Q&A 1157 for more on some intriguing possibilities.

Upcoming: 7

Next week's number is 7. My next sermon is June 12th at North River, from Phil 1:12-14. The next international trip: Paris and Brussels, June 15th-21st.
Thank you, everyone, for your continual support.

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