Forty days and forty nights
Continuing our Lent series, Simon Woodman explores the significance of the number forty in the Bible - and what it means for us today
Lent is famously forty days of self-denial (excluding Sundays, of course, when we can eat chocolate to our heart’s content), and I would guess that most of us know that this comes from Jesus’ ‘forty days and forty nights’ of fasting in the wilderness following his baptism, as he is tempted with visions of power and pleasure, which he resists.
But I wonder if we know the wider background to this? Why ‘forty days and forty nights’? For our Lent reflection this week, I’d like to take us on a journey back into the Hebrew Bible, to explore the deeper origins of the period we call Lent.
Let’s start with the number forty, which appears more often than you might expect in the Bible as an indicator of a time period (e.g. Genesis 25.20; 26.34; 50.3; Judges 3.11; 5.31; 8.28; Acts 1.3, 4.22; 13.21). This would indicate that ‘forty’ can function as a kind of ‘round number’, denoting a ‘long period of time’, rather than always being a literal time measurement. St Augustine (354-430ce) noted that as a time marker, the number forty in the Bible is often associated with hardship, affliction and punishment.
The first occurrence of the time period ‘forty days and forty nights’ is in the book of Genesis, as the duration of the rainfall which caused the great flood (Genesis 7.4, 12, 17; 8.6). But once the rains have stopped, Noah waited another forty days after the tops of mountains were seen, before releasing a raven (Genesis 8.5-7). Here in this story we find the themes of judgment and covenant that will crop up again and again as we encounter the number forty.
The next significant cluster of ‘forties’ is found in the story of Moses. The book of Acts claims that Moses waited forty years as an exile in Midian between fleeing Egypt and encountering the Lord in the burning bush (Acts 7.30). Then, later in his story, once he has led the people of Israel out of slavery, he spends three consecutive periods of ‘forty days and forty nights’ fasting from both food and water as he receives the stone tablets of the covenant (Exodus 24.18; 34.28).
The first of these is on Mount Sinai, at the end of which he discovers the people worshipping the golden calf and breaks the stone tablets (Deuteronomy 9.9-11, 16-17). Moses then spends forty days and nights prostrate in repentance for Israel’s sin, again neither eating nor drinking water (Deuteronomy 9.18, 25), at end of which he destroys the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9.21). The then goes back up the mountain to receive the tablets of the covenant for the second time, and stays there again for 40 days and nights (Deuteronomy 10.10).
The people of Israel then make their way to the border of the promised land, and send spies to explore the land of Canaan. Their spying mission lasts for ‘forty days’ (Numbers 13.25), at the end of which the people of Israel rebel and incur God’s judgment (Numbers 14.22-23). The forty days of spying the land becomes forty years of punishment for faithlessness, as Israel are condemned to wander the wilderness in suffering until the generation that came out of Egypt had all died (Numbers 14.33-34; 32.13; Josh. 5.6; Psalm 95.10; cf. Acts 7.36, 42; Hebrews 3.9, 17). However, their wilderness experience is not simply one of suffering, as they are sustained by the manna from heaven for forty years (Exodus 16.35), discovering that the Lord was with them and that they ‘lacked nothing’ (Deuteronomy 2.7, 29.5). So Israel are commanded to remember the way God led them during their forty years in the wilderness, as he humbled and tested them, but also guided and sustained them (Deuteronomy 8.2-4).
The ‘forty years / forty days’ motif becomes part of Israel’s ongoing story, with the prophet Ezekiel embodying these as an enacted oracle of judgment on Jerusalem, by lying on his side for forty days (Ezekiel 4.6), and Elijah being fed with divine food (reminiscent of the manna in the wilderness) as preparation for his fasting journey of forty days and forty nights walking to Horeb the mountain of God (1 Kings 19.8). Goliath challenges the Israelites twice a day for forty days before being defeated by David (1 Samuel 17.16), and Israel is condemned to the hands of the Philistines for forty years (Judges 13.1). Similarly, Jonah warns Nineveh that God’s judgment will descend on them in forty days, which becomes the period of Ninevah’s repentance (Jonah 3.4).
All of which brings us to Jesus, fasting for ‘forty days and forty nights’ in the Judean desert, between his baptism and his public ministry (Matt. 4.2, Mark 1.13, Luke 4.2). We can see from our journey through the Old Testament that this is no arbitrary time-period. Rather, it indicates some key themes that lie behind Jesus’ wilderness experience.
Firstly, Jesus is establishing a fresh covenant between God and humans. The promise of God to Noah that never again would the world be judged to destruction, and the promise to Moses that God would be faithful to God’s people even if they are faithless in return, both find fulfilment in the new covenant that God brings into being through Jesus.
Secondly, Jesus is presented as embodying of the prophetic tradition, with his forty days of fasting and penitence echoing those of Moses, Elijah, and Ezekiel. Jesus’ proclamation of God’s word through his ministry is seen to be rooted in the actions and words of God’s prophets; with the echoes of the Philistines, Goliath, and Jonah speaking of both God’s judgment against sin, and mercy God extends to sinners.
And finally, Jesus’ experience recapitulates Israel’s wilderness wandering. He, like Israel, is tempted by hunger (Exodus 16.1-3), tempted to put God to the test (Exodus 17.1-3), and tempted to idolatry (Exodus 32.1-4); and in his answers to temptation he quotes from scriptures that reference Israel’s wilderness experience (Deuteronomy 6.13, 16; 8.3). Jesus is seen as one who identifies with God’s people in their times of suffering and temptation, treading with each of us the path through the ‘wilderness experiences’ of life, assuring us of God’s sustaining and guiding presence.
The final appearance of ‘forty days’ in the Bible is in the period between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (Acts 1.3), and this intentionally connects the ministry and mission of Jesus, as understood through his wilderness experience, with the ongoing ministry and mission of the church.
Which brings us to today, and to Lent in 2021: we too are sustained by the ‘bread of heaven’ that is for us the body and blood of Christ; we too are guided by God’s word and promise, called to speak and live the good news of Jesus Christ into being in our lives, churches, and communities. We too are called to walk alongside those who suffer, bringing hope into the darkest places of the earth. It is the call to the cross, and the hope of Easter.
Image | Miguel Sousa | Unsplash
This is the latest in a new Lent series written by Baptists - a new reflection will be published each Wednesday throughout Lent
Simon Woodman is a minister at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
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