Why do we take certain frames of time literally in the Bible, while others we don’t? Example, Jesus resurrected after 3 days which I presume is literal vs creation in 7 days which could be figurative. Or Jesus fasting for 40 days – is that literal or figurative?
The short answer here is we know because of context. The context will point to genre which will usually tip us off to whether the author intends his numbers to be literal or figurative. A little study will reveal it.
6 Days of Creation
In Genesis, there is debate about whether to take the days literally or figuratively. But many clues indicate the author is not meaning 6 literal days. For example, in the same passage the author uses several different definitions of the word “Day”. Sometimes Day means the daytime as in the hours the sun shines (1:5, 1:16). Other times the author clearly means a 24 hour period (1:14). God tells Adam he’ll die the “day” he eats of the fruit, and early church Fathers said this means that “day” ended 900+ years later when Adam actually died.
Another time in the same context (Gen 2:4) the author says “the Day [singular] of Creation” referring back to the Creation Week. Which means “day” in that verse is being used as an epoch or an era, not a 24 hour day. Like when we might say the “Day of America” or the “Day of the Automobile”.
All these clues point to the genre of Genesis 1 which is probably poetry and not historical narrative. Poetry is not “false” but it is not usually literal.
The Number 40
Other times to take time frames figuratively are when we realize that the author is using round numbers instead of specifics. Jews often used round numbers because certain numbers symbolized certain things. “40 years” was often a marker for “a generation”, it didn’t have to be a literal 40 years. Also, 40 was often a number symbolically associated with trial or testing. Examples: Moses lived 40 years in the desert, Moses lived 40 years in Egypt, Moses and was on Mount Sinai for 40 days. Jonah preached in Nineveh for 40 days, Ezekiel slept on his right side for 40 days, etc. Therefore, Jesus fasting for 40 days may similarly represent “a bunch of weeks” and not exactly 40 days.
The Number 12
The number 12 is associated with perfection or governance. This doesn’t mean that every instance of it’s use is metaphorical. Israel had 12 sons and having their names and lineages, we should understand that Jacob literally had 12 sons. But in Revelation, a book filled with metaphors, the number 12 comes up 22 times! We read that 144,000 (12×12,000) are saved out of Israel in the Last Days. This is an oddly round number for a nation. While some take this literally, a good reason not to is simply that it’s found in a book filled with symbols. More likely it means, “the perfect and complete number of Jewish saints”, not an demographer’s bookkeeping report.
When you get to Jesus resurrection weekend, the meaning is somewhat symbolic but mostly literal. Jesus was in the grave for part of 3 days (Friday – Sunday). The days are all named in the text: Day of Preparation, Sabbath, First Day of the Week. It’s clearly historical narrative. So the context tells you the Gospel writers mean this was a literal weekend. But it was not literally “3 days and 3 nights” since that would be a total of 72 hours.
Yes, Jesus seemed to predict this:
“For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”(Matt 12:39)
However, the Jews rendered an event taking up any part of a day to be “a day”. Clearly, the gospel writers are comfortable with this kind of accounting of time, since without any embarrassment they quote Jesus’ very general prediction about Jonah, and proceed to relate the fulfilment of that prediction taking place over a weekend with very specific time markers NOT totally 72 hours.
The Jewish mind is completely at home with this use of numbers and as a bible reader you have get out of a default literalistic mindset to A) understand them, and B) not attribute an error where none exists.