The number 40 turns up in some of the most interesting and unexpected places. Forty is the number of hours in the traditional American workweek-although the pandemic might have changed that expectation forever.
Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves is one of the most famous Arabic folk tales. Kyrgyzstan means “land of 40 tribes.” Islam teaches that Muhammad was 40 years old when he received his first visit from the archangel Gabriel. “Forty winks” is an old fashioned way of describing a short nap. Zirconium is #40 in the periodic table of elements. What do you use for something that sticks or squeaks? Reach for a can of WD-40 which stands for Water Displacement, 40th formula.
Historically, slaves freed after the Civil War were offered 40 acres and a mule, although few were actually rewarded with such a lavish gift. During the height of the Black Death during the Middle Ages sailors trying to enter the port of Venice were compelled to remain on their ships for 40 days before coming ashore. The word coined to describe their situation based on the number 40 was “quarantined.” Mathematically, 40 is the sum of the first four pentagonal numbers, and is also the fourth pentagonical pyramidal number. It is a repdigit in ternary, and a Harshad number in decimal. Just so you know, I have no idea what that means. I got it from an encyclopedia article.
In pop culture, 40 has become associated with pop music. Casey Kasem pioneered the nation’s most famous weekly radio countdown, “America’s Top 40.”
Then there’s the Bible. It can be argued that on the pages of Scripture, 40 represents an indeterminate large number-basically a way of saying “umpteen” or “a whole bunch.” But it is also true that whenever the number 40 appears in the Old or New Testaments, God’s people almost always seem to be waiting. They’re waiting for something special to happen. Noah and his family wait for the floodwaters to recede after 40 days and 40 nights of rain. The Israelites wait 40 days at the foot of Mt. Sinai for Moses to return with the treasure of God’s commandments. Then they wander 40 years in the wilderness because of their disobedience, waiting to enter the Promised Land.
A dozen Hebrew spies spend 40 days secretly checking out Palestine, confirming that it’s everything the people have been waiting for- a land flowing with “milk and honey.” Goliath comes out 40 mornings in a row, trash talking the Israelite soldiers, who wait and wonder how God is ever going to save them from impending disaster. Saul, David and Solomon-the first three kings of Israel-each rule for 40 years. But it quickly becomes apparent that Israel’s security can only be provided over the long run by another kind of king, the long awaited Messiah. The prophet Jonah preaches for 40 days to the citizens of Nineveh-people he cannot stand-only to discover after his long wait that Israel’s enemies will be blessed not destroyed.
In the New Testament, Jesus fasts and prays for 40 days, awaiting the beginning of his public ministry. Then after rising from the dead, he invests 40 days with his disciples as they await his ascension into heaven, followed by the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.
40 appears in the Bible when people are waiting. What are you waiting for? What special thing has God prepared for You? This is a time to be what God has always called you to be: the light of the world and the salt of the earth. Be disciples who make disciples. God has prepared the same great adventure for every one of us. And Jesus himself has promised to walk with us every step of the way. So what are you waiting for?
Ron Naylor, Chaplain