In the Hebrew Book of Jonah, the prophet Jonah spent 3 days and 3 nights inside a whale. Image Source: CredoMag.
Numbers carry sacred, mystical and occult meanings in Jewish tradition, because they are symbolic religious tokens of the relationship between god and man. Also known as Gematria, the Jews derived this numerological bridge between the divine and the human from the Assyro-Babylonians. Letters of the Hebrew alphabet were ascribed numerical values, such that the mathematical sums embedded in written words conveyed transcendent symbolic messages. To continue HOTTC's series on Forty Days and Forty Nights, this post explores the powerful meanings associated with the number 40 in Jewish culture.
The number 40 is important mathematically, because it expresses the third generation of the Rule of Three. The latter enables a form of cross-multiplication that allows a first jump into simple algebra; when you have three numerical values you know, cross-multiplication enables you to find a fourth unknown value designated by x:
The Rule of Three was a shorthand version for a particular form of cross-multiplication, often taught to students by rote. This rule was already known to Hebrews by the 15th century BCE as it is a special case of the Kal va-chomer (קל וחומר). It was also known by Indian (Vedic) mathematicians in the 6th century BCE and Chinese mathematicians prior to the 7th century CE, though it was not used in Europe until much later. The Rule of Three gained notoriety for being particularly difficult to explain.The number 40 has a several Gematria interpretations (listed here), ranging from stealth and secrecy, to deception, destruction, brightness and birth. But above all, it is associated with water as a metaphor for human interactions with God. The number 40 appears repeatedly in biblical and contemporary sources. Wiki and online discussions list canonical references to the number 40; there are also non-canonical references:
- 40 is the gematria of the Hebrew letter מ [mem], the thirteenth (1+3) letter of many Semitic abjads, including Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew מ and Arabic; it was associated with the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic symbol for water, and before that, from the Proto-Semitic *maʾ-/*may, also meaning 'water.' From the very beginning, the symbolic association of the number 40 with water links it to floods and postdiluvian regeneration. 40 is a shorthand for ancient elemental water divinities, whose cyclical powers were obviously projected upon the Hebrew God's floods, droughts, tears, and rainbows as symbols of punishment, devastation and death; sin and grief; broken and renewed covenants; purification and promises; prophecies and laws; recovery, rebirth and baptism
- In ancient Egypt, embalming required 40 days; this was an Egyptian custom about which the Hebrews would know due to proto-Jewish Levantine slavery under the Egyptians. The Egyptians recognized the period of 40 days to prepare a corpse's journey into a new afterlife: "The embalming process took the usual forty days. And the Egyptians mourned his death for seventy days." Genesis 50:3
- Life in the womb: For the first 40 days, the foetus in Jewish tradition was considered to be a mere fluid; 40 is considered to be the number of weeks a person is formed in his or her mother's womb; it is the only period of time in human life when people breathe water without drowning
- Garden of Eden: Adam spent 40 days in Eden working the land and Eve was created on Eden's 80th day in the non-canonical Book of Jubilees, or Little Genesis
- God cursed Adam with 40 curses; after the Fall, according to Islamic tradition, Adam wept 40 days until he repented
- Isaac was one of the first figures whom the Hebrew God associated with a covenant of care and protection in exchange for faith: Isaac was aged 40 when he married Rebecca
- Esau (Isaac's older brother) was aged 40 when he married his first two wives
- The watery symbolic meaning of the number 40 reveals why God declared He would flood the earth for this duration: "Seven days from now I will make the rains pour down on the earth. And it will rain for forty days and forty nights, until I have wiped from the earth all the living things I have created." Genesis 7:4
- It rained for 40 days and 40 nights when God wanted to cleanse the world and start over: "And rain fell upon the earth forty days and forty nights." Genesis 7:12
- Death of Abraham: When Abraham died, his family wept over him for 40 days in the non-canonical Book of Jubilees, or Little Genesis
- Reference to the same episode: God flooded the land with rain for 40 days and nights in the non-canonical Book of Jubilees, or Little Genesis
- Noah waited 40 days after it rained before he opened a window in the Ark: "And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made." Genesis 8:6
- It took Hebrew spies 40 days to search out the promised land and bring back fruit: "After exploring the land for forty days, the men returned" Numbers 13:25
- The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness, one year for each day they explored the Promised Land: "And your children will be like shepherds, wandering in the wilderness for forty years. In this way, they will pay for your faithlessness, until the last of you lies dead in the wilderness. / Because your men explored the land for forty days, you must wander in the wilderness for forty years--a year for each day, suffering the consequences of your sins. Then you will discover what it is like to have me for an enemy." Numbers 14:33-34
- "The Lord was angry with Israel and made them wander in the wilderness for forty years until the entire generation that sinned in the Lord's sight had died." Numbers 32:13
- The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness, one year for each day they explored the Promised Land: "So the people of Israel ate manna for forty years until they arrived at the land where they would settle. They ate manna until they came to the border of the land of Canaan." Exodus 16:35
- Moses' life is divided into three 40-year segments: "One day when Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his relatives, the people of Israel." Acts 7:23
- Moses' life: "And when forty years were expired, there appeared to him in the wilderness of mount Sina an angel of the Lord in a flame of fire in a bush." Acts 7:30
- Moses' life: "This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt and in the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years." Acts 7:36
- Moses spent three consecutive periods of "forty days and forty nights" on Mount Sinai, descending first to find the Israelis worshiping the Golden Calf: "At the end of the forty days and nights, the Lord handed me the two stone tablets inscribed with the words of the covenant." Deuteronomy 9:11
- Reference to the same episode: Moses' encounters with God on Mount Sinai are repeated in the non-canonical Book of Jubilees, or Little Genesis
- Reference to the same episode: "Then Moses disappeared into the cloud as he climbed higher up the mountain. He remained on the mountain forty days and forty nights." Exodus 24:18
- Moses on Mount Sinai; he went up to beg forgiveness for the people's sin and came down without God's atonement: "That is why I threw myself down before the LORD for forty days and nights--for the Lord said he would destroy you." Deuteronomy 9:25
- Another reference to this episode; this is the number of days in which the Torah (God's body of laws and foundational narrative for the Jewish people) was given by God to Moses: "Moses remained there on the mountain with the Lord forty days and forty nights. In all that time he ate no bread and drank no water. And the Lord wrote the terms of the covenant--the Ten Commandments--on the stone tablets. / When Moses came down Mount Sinai carrying the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant, he wasn't aware that his face had become radiant because he had spoken to the Lord." Exodus 34:28-29
- Moses on Mount Sinai; he descended again on the tenth day of Tishrei, the first Yom Kippur, with God's atonement: "I myself stayed on the mountain, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights, and the Lord listened to me that time also. The Lord was unwilling to destroy you." Deuteronomy 10:10
- Several Jewish leaders and kings are said to have ruled for "forty years", that is, a generation. Eli: "When the messenger mentioned what had happened to the Ark of God, Eli fell backward from his seat beside the gate. He broke his neck and died, for he was old and overweight. He had been Israel's judge for forty years." 1 Samuel 4:18
- Jewish leaders said to have ruled for "forty years"; Saul: "Then the people begged for a king, and God gave them Saul son of Kish, a man of the tribe of Benjamin, who reigned for forty years." Acts 13:21
- Goliath: "For forty days, every morning and evening, the Philistine champion strutted in front of the Israelite army." 1 Samuel 17:16
- Jewish leaders said to have ruled for "forty years"; David: "David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years in all." 2 Samuel 5:4
- Jewish leaders said to have ruled for "forty years"; Solomon: "Solomon ruled in Jerusalem over all Israel for forty years." 1 Kings 11:42
- Elijah strengthened by one angelic meal went forty days to Mount Horeb where the Lord passed by and he heard the voice of God: "So he got up and ate and drank, and the food gave him enough strength to travel forty days and forty nights to Mount Sinai, the mountain of God." 1 Kings 19:8
- Jonah warned the City of Nineveh they had 40 days until God would overthrow the city. The people repented in those 40 days and God spared the city: "On the day Jonah entered the city, he shouted to the crowds: 'Forty days from now Nineveh will be destroyed!'" Jonah 3:4
- A mikvah, a 'collection of water' or purifying bath, consists of 40 se'ah (approximately 200 gallons) of water
- 40 was the minimum age at which a man could join the Jewish court of judges, the Sanhedrin
- Number of lashes for one who transgresses a commandment: 40 lashes is one of the punishments meted out by the Sanhedrin, though in actual practice only 39 lashes were administered
- One of the prerequisites for a man to study Kabbalah is that he is forty years old
- In the non-canonical book, The Ascension of Isaiah, one of the early Jewish Christian Pseudepigrapha, forty prophets gather to hear the prophecies of Isaiah: "And when Isaiah began to speak the words of faith and truth with King Hezekiah, all the princes of Israel were seated and the eunuchs and the councillors of the king. And there were there forty prophets and sons of the prophets: they had come from the villages and from the mountains and the plains when they had heard that Isaiah was coming from Galgala to Hezekiah.." Ascension of Isaiah 6:3
The holiest day of the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, takes place on the 10th of Tishrei: Yom Kippur (1877) by Maurycy Gottlieb (From Jewish Art, edited by Grace Cohen Grossman). Image Source: Wiki.
Caption for the above image: "Tishrei ... is the first month of the civil year (which starts on 1 Tishrei) and the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year (which starts on 1 Nisan) in the Hebrew calendar. The name of the month is Babylonian. It is an autumn month of 30 days. Tishrei usually occurs in September–October on the Gregorian calendar." Further on Yom Kippur, which occurs in the month of Tishrei: "Traditionally, Yom Kippur is considered the date on which Moses received the second set of Ten Commandments. It occurred following the completion of the second 40 days of instructions from God. At this same time, the Israelites were granted atonement for the sin of the Golden Calf; hence, its designation as the Day of Atonement."
The number 40, with its ancient, pre-Hebraic watery connotations, is a central symbol of sin, repentance and recovery from sin in Jewish thought. The season of Teshuvah, or repentance and return, lasts 40 days and is associated with the prophet Jonah:
All of this is encapsulated in more watery images, with the adult Jonah being swallowed by a giant fish or whale for three days and nights to test his repentance and renewal of faith. This imagery is repeated in Christian teachings, where it points to the resurrection of Jesus, and Jonah is honoured in Islam, because of Jonah's greatness as a preacher and as a messenger of God's word:The book of Jonah (Yonah יונה) is one of the twelve minor prophets included in the Tanakh. According to tradition, Jonah was the boy brought back to life by Elijah the prophet, and hence shares many of his characteristics (particularly his desire for 'strict judgment'). The book of Jonah is read every year, in its original Hebrew and in its entirety, on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, as the Haftarah at the afternoon mincha prayer.Teshuva – the ability to repent and be forgiven by God – is a prominent idea in Jewish thought. This concept is developed in the book of Jonah: Jonah, the son of truth, (The name of his father "Amitai" in Hebrew means truth,) refuses to ask the people of Nineveh to repent. He seeks the truth only, and not forgiveness. When forced to go, his call is heard loud and clear. The people of Nineveh repent ecstatically, "fasting, including the sheep", and the Jewish scripts are critical of this.
The story of Jonah and the whale is a remarkable transitional tale, moving from a much older, elemental mythology, with its cryptic, once-divine bestiary, to a climbing grade of religious abstractions in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths.Jonah's Qur'anic narrative is extremely similar to the Hebrew Bible story. The Qur'an describes Jonah as a righteous preacher of the message of God but a messenger who, one day, fled from his mission because of its overwhelming difficulty. The Qur'an says that Jonah made it onto a ship but, because of the powerfully stormy weather, the men aboard the ship suggested casting lots to throw off the individual responsible. When the lots were cast three times and Jonah's name came out each time, he was thrown into the open ocean that night. A gigantic fish came and swallowed him, and Jonah remained in the belly of the fish repenting and glorifying God. ...God forgave Jonah out of His mercy and kindness for the man, and because he knew that Jonah was, at heart, one of the best of men. Therefore, the fish cast Jonah out onto dry land, with Jonah in a state of sickness. God caused a plant to grow where Jonah was lying to provide shade and comfort for him. After Jonah got up, fresh and well, God told him to go back and preach in his land.
Image Source: Bethlehem Lutheran Church.
Many calendars describe epic spiritual journeys for their peoples, and the Jewish calendar is no different, as the forty days of Teshuvah confirm. Image Source: Hebrew for Christians.
See other posts in this series: