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Origin of the time frame of 40 days QUESTION from Michael Lanspa February 22, 2000 I was wondering if you could help me. Our parish priest posed us a question in Mass to help us prepare for and learn more about the season of Lent. I know Lent is 40 days long, excluding Sundays, right? Well, the other question he asked us was what is the origin of the time frome of 40 days (or years, in the case of Moses and the Jews in the desert). Christ fasted 40 days and 40 nights, why 40??? Why not 30 or 50??? What is the historical origin and significance of the number 40???
ANSWER by Mrs. Suzanne Fortin, B.A. on February 25, 2000 Dear Mr. Lanspa
Numbers have had symbolic values almost since the dawn of civilization. They become associated with certain ideas because of their recurrence in nature, or their own mathematical qualities. For instance, the Babylonians thought of 60 as a perfect number because it could be divided in so many ways-- 2 x 30, 4 x 15, 5 x 12 etc.
In Jewish culture, the number 40 became associated with a long period of time whose exact duration was unknown. It was also associated with reaching full maturity. It was considered a number which represented a large number, but one which could not be counted quickly, or easily, much like the way we use 100 or 1000.
The number 40 acquired its symbolism by being associated with periods of struggle in which Man overcomes evil with the help of God. For example: in the time of the Great Deluge, it rained 40 days and 40 nights Gen. 7:12, 17; Elijah climbed Mt. Horeb for 40 days and 40 nights (1 Kings 19:8 in my NRSV) In each example, the power of God is shone forth.
Beyond that, I cannot tell you why the number 40 became associated with such ideas. You might want to ask a Biblical expert.
Thank you for your question,
God Bless, Suzanne Fortin
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