Very early in the Judaeo-Christian tradition the number 40 begins to take on a significance that will broaden and deepen as God continues to reveal his plans for mankind through celebrated Biblical events. The first narrated event after the death of Adam was the epochal episode of Noah and his family and his wicked fellow humans (Genesis 7). Society had sadly gone astray after the original sin of Adam and Eve, in fact, so much so, that the author of Genesis has the Lord lament, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and creeping thing, and fowl of the air; for it repents me that I have made them.” But then the sacred author notes, “Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD.” God did indeed wipe out this early generation of sinful mankind inflicting on them a massive flood of forty days and forty nights. Whether this deluge allowed any time for effective repentance on the part of the wayward human family is not recorded. But this first five and half weeks of imposed renunciation heralds a number of forty day/forty year periods of change, alteration, repentance and conversion.
While the Hebrew people recently freed from Egyptian slavery famously reveled at the foot of Mt. Sinai, Moses was spending forty days shrouded in the mountain’s storm clouds communing with God: “So Moses was there with the LORD for forty days and forty nights, without eating any food or drinking any water, and he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten words. (Exodus 34:18).” This month and a week sojourn on Sinai’s peak marked the solemn beginning of the formal covenant between God and the Hebrew nation, challenging them to adhere more closely to his expectations as his favored people, replacing rebelliousness with obedience. And of course the Jewish people themselves would experience their own not forty day but forty year experience of conversion and renewal as they trekked their way through the wilderness to the shores of the Jordan River. God did his best to refashion these former slaves into a nation worthy of his blessing and graces.
The prophet Elijah experienced one of Israel’s greatest moral revolutions after being fortified, somewhat unwillingly, during his forty day and forty night trudge to Mount Horeb (actually another name for Mount Sinai). Elijah had contested fruitlessly with the wicked Queen Jezebel, her hapless husband Ahab, and her pagan prophets, blasphemously housed in Jerusalem’s Temple. Exhausted by his failed attempts to reform the Jewish nation of his day, Elijah ventured out to the solitude of Sinai where God spoke to him through the “wee, small voice” heard at the entrance to his sheltering cave. Renewed and restored, Elijah strode back to Israel anointing “Jehu, son of Nimshi, as king of Israel, and Elisha, son of Shaphat of Abel-meholah, as prophet to succeed you (Kgs. 19:16).” Once again, forty days and forty nights meant restoration and renewal for God’s people.
The obscure prophet Jonah had been granted forty days and forty nights to convert the wicked city of Nineveh from its pagan ways to righteous living. When the Ninevites responded to Jonah’s effective preaching after a mere three days, the prophet went out to the desert not to rejoice but to pout (Jh 3). His premature success gave too much of a break for these hardened sinners! They needed a greater dose of conversion!
And now, of course, on this first Sunday of Lent, the Christian world is reminded of Jesus’ own retreat to the wilderness, where he fasted for forty days and nights and was tempted by Satan (Mt.4:1–2). Christ forcefully resists Satan’s temptations while appropriately quoting three Scripture passages which frustrate the devil’s clever wiles. All three citations are taken from the Book of Deuteronomy, a Scripture text especially treasured by the northern Israeli community, which skillfully relates the Jewish forty year desert experience of renewal and conversion under Moses.
Now, after more than three thousand years, believers are still enjoined to put forty days and forty nights aside for change, alteration, repentance and conversion. In today’s secularized world Lent has sadly become merely an occasion to publish meatless recipes in the home section of local newspapers. Society’s neglect is all the more reason for Christians today to take Lent seriously through amplified prayer, sincere fasting and thoughtful alms-giving. Former generations of believers from Noah onward have taken their time before God seriously and effectively, benefitting their own renewal and the rebirth of their society as well.