We have officially reached day 40 of our lock down here in Springfield, MO which means we have fulfilled the biblical requirements for quarantine. However, I won’t consider it safe to break protocol until I get the nod from the CDC. Still I find the history of quarantine and the significance of the number 40 very interesting. The word quarantine actually means “40 days” and is derived from the Italian – “quaranta giorni”. The concept of a quarantine first began in the 14th century in Venice when ships were required to anchor for 40 days before being able to dock. But even prior to this, we can find the importance of this number in ancient texts like the Bible and the Quran.
The number 40 is mentioned 146 times in the Bible and usually symbolizes a period of trials and testing. For instance, Moses lived 40 years in Egypt and then 40 years in the desert while leading his people out of slavery. He was also on Mount Sinai for 40 days in Exodus 24. And it rained 40 days and 40 nights while Noah was in the Ark, and so on. There are many other examples illustrating the notability of the number 40 throughout the scriptures.
The number 40 is also significant in the Quran, not just for many of the same Bible stories mentioned above, but also for when a person reaches the age of 40. As stated in the Quran, “… When he comes of age and reaches forty years, he says, ‘My Lord! Inspire me to give thanks for Your blessing with which You have blessed my parents and me, and that I may do righteous deeds which please You, and invest my descendants with righteousness. Indeed I have turned to you in penitence, and I am one of the Muslims.” (46: 15)
Perhaps the most prevailing religious practice that emphasizes this number would be Lent which occurs every year, six and a half weeks before Easter. During this time Christians imitate Jesus’s fasting in the wilderness for 40 days and 40 nights. During this time, Christians will fast in a variety of ways from giving up pleasures to actual food fasts similar to what Muslims practice during Ramadan. Speaking of fasting, Ramadan started April 23 and will end May 23 this year. It is a time when Muslims everywhere abstain from food, drink, and other worldly pleasures from dusk until dawn. Isn’t it interesting that across religions and cultures fasting practices would occur at the same time nearly all of humanity is expected to abstain from going out, socializing, gathering in groups, and other daily habits? This is a fast we all get to experience together as a whole. And we needed it, too.
Clearly, forty is a significant number for many reasons both cultural and religious, but why is this number so significant? Is there something special about it that would make it a recurring theme across cultures and eras? One theory suggests that a solar year can be tracked quite accurately by marking each 40th day. Evidence of time keeping involving the number 40 goes back to some of the earliest artifacts, finding it’s way into religious culture and beyond.
Forty is significant for other reasons, too. For instance it’s the only number in the English language whose letters appear in alphabetical order. Also, negative 40 degrees (40 below) is the only temperature that’s the same in both Celsius and Fahrenheit. And if you’ve ever played a game of Monopoly, you’ll notice there are 40 spaces on the board. It’s also the maximum number of players allowed on a baseball team. And although we associate a typical pregnancy with nine months, the more accurate number is actually about 40 weeks.
Is there something magical about 40? Maybe not, but it’s worth noting that across cultures this special number is being celebrated in various ways. And if now is meant to be a time of fasting, let’s embrace it together as the whole of humanity. If we took 40 days and 40 nights out of the year to take a break from working, spending money, and being busy, how would you spend your time? Hopefully you’ve gotten something out of this 40 day fast from life.