What is the meaning of three days and three nights in the Bible?
What is the meaning of three days and three nights in the Bible? That question is often asked because people assume the expression “three days and three nights” refers to three full days or seventy-two hours. Then they struggle with the fact that Jesus died on Friday afternoon and was buried, was in the grave on Saturday, and was in the grave and arose on Sunday morning. They struggle because that is not a seventy-two hour period. It is not three full days and three full nights. Therefore, some people try to find proof that Jesus died on Thursday. Others conclude the Bible is wrong. The root cause of this confusion is that they do not understand the meaning of the old Jewish expression “three days and three nights” that occurs in the Bible.
Meaning of Three Days and Three Nights
The Bible was written by Jewish authors who used Jewish expressions. The meaning of three days and three nights in the Bible can refer to a span of time that starts on one day and ends sometime on the third day. The reason is that the Jews counted any part of a day as a full day. For example, the Jerusalem Talmud states,
[Rabbi] Akiba fixed a day for an Onah, and a night for an Onah: but the tradition is, that Rabbi Eliezar Ben Azariah said, . . .”A day and a night make an Onah, and a part of an Onah is as the whole.” . . . [Rabbi] Ismael computeth a part of the Onah for the whole.
Rabbi Akiba said a day and a night make an Onah. But an Onah can also be only part of a day and a night. The term Onah refers to a full day or twenty-four hours in this statement. That gives us the definition of three days and three nights in the Bible.
This also helps us understand that from a Jewish perspective, Jesus was dead for three Onah or three days and three nights in the Bible. Why? When Christ died and was buried on Friday, the Jews counted that as the first day or a day and a night. When Jesus was in the grave from Friday night at 6:00 pm until Saturday at 5:59 pm, it is clear that He was in the grave a second day or an additional day and a night. Notice the Jewish day was from 6:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Since Christ was in the grave on Saturday at 6:00 pm until Sunday morning before His resurrection, that is counted as the third day or another morning and evening. This helps us understand Jesus was in the grave for three days and three nights according to the Bible.
Illustrations of Three Days and Three Nights
Here are three biblical examples of the meaning of three days and three nights. In 1 Samuel 30:12-13 we are told that King David’s six hundred men gave an Egyptian a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins. Here are verses 12-13.
They gave him a piece of fig cake and two clusters of raisins, and he ate; then his spirit revived. For he had not eaten bread or drunk water for three days and three nights. David said to him, “To whom do you belong? And where are you from?” And he said, “I am a young man of Egypt, a servant of an Amalekite; and my master left me behind when I fell sick three days ago. 1 Samuel 30:12-13 (NASB)
Then we are told in verse 13 that the three days and three nights referred to three days. Now are we suppose to believe that this Egyptian had not eaten for seventy-two hours to the second?
A second example is found in 2 Chronicles 10:5, 12.
He said to them, “Return to me again in three days.” So the people departed.
. . .
So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam on the third day as the king had directed, saying, “Return to me on the third day.” 2 Chronicles 10:5, 12
A clear example of portions of days being counted as three full days is found in Esther 4:16. In this passage we are told Esther commanded the Jews to fast for three days and three nights.
Go, assemble all the Jews who are found in Susa, and fast for me; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day . . . Esther 4:16 (NASB)
But in Esther 5:1 we discover that on the third day she visited the king.
Now it came about on the third day that Esther put on her royal robes and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace in front of the king’s rooms, and the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room, opposite the entrance to the palace. Esther 5:1 (NASB)
Now it is obvious that she did not give the command in Esther 4:16 at 12:00 am (midnight) on the first day, and on the third day visit the king at 11:59 pm that night. This helps us understand that three days and three nights does not necessarily refer to three full twenty-four days. It is simply an expression that can refer to partial days as being full days. So, she gave the command during some part of the first day. Then she visited the king during some part of the third day. Esther 4:16 and Esther 5:1 illustrate for us the meaning of three days and three nights as that expression is used in the Bible.
The expression, three days and three nights, as used in the Bible refers to a period of time that begins at some point during the first day and ends sometime in the third day. The examples above illustrate this definition.
1. Babylonian Talmud. Abodah Zarah 5:11.
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