Since I am not much of a mathematician, I don’t generally write about numbers. I am afraid that if I do so, there will be a loud band and a flash and one of my disgruntled arithmetic teachers from secondary school will appear with a red pen to berate me (also numbers sort of squirm around like little spiders on the page in a deeply unsettling way). Nevertheless, today, for entirely obscure reasons, I thought I might dedicate a post to the natural number forty (40), a number which seemingly has great spiritual significance within the three Abrahamic faiths.
In the Old Testament forty crops up again and again. The flood which rained out the sinful people off the world (which Noah escaped via zoological ark) lasted forty days and forty nights. Not only did Moses and the Hebrew people live in the Sinai desert for forty years, but most famous Israelite kings also had forty year reigns (examples include Eli (1 Samuel 4:18), Saul (Acts 13:21), David (2 Samuel 5:4), and Solomon (1 Kings 11:42)). The giant Goliath challenged the Israelites two times a day for forty days before they finally found a champion to defeat him.
Christ was a Jew and Christianity kept up the fascination with forty. Jesus fasted for forty days and night in the desert before he was tempted by the devil. When he returned from death, he lingered for forty days in the world before ascending bodily to heaven and the great beyond. Lent lasts for forty days before Easter.
Islam has even more references to forty (although unfortunately I am not nearly as familiar with Muslim traditions or theology). Mohammed was forty years old when he received his divine revelations. The evil false prophet Al-Masih ad-Dajjal roams (or will roam) the world for 40 day (40 year?) increments. The mourning period for devout Moslems is forty days. Perhaps most famously, righteous men will be rewarded in the afterlie with forty houri—beautiful black-eyed virgins who cater to every whim: although this tradition is riddled with textual difficulties—the number may be seventy-two instead of forty and houri may actually be a mistranslation or raisins. These are important distinctions and it would be good to sort them out, but, sadly, faith does not easily trade in ironclad certainties…
So what is behind this obsession with forty? Is there some divine numerological secret which underlies the three great Monotheistic religions? Do the Pentateuch, the Bible, and the Koran all hint at profound number magic which would put endless power in our hands? Well, actually, scholars suggest that forty was such a large number that it just meant “a whole bunch” to the original authors Genesis. Additionally a forty year period was reckoned to be the Subsequent religious writers seemingly used the number to lend ancient gravitas to their own texts. Of course numbers sometimes confuse me (as does monotheism), so maybe I am missing something here. I anyone has a better idea, I am all ears.