Rev. Nancy's Blog

Thoughts on "Forty"

Forty days, forty nights, forty years. We are in the midst of the season of Lent in the Christian calendar – that period of forty days of cleansing before celebrating the crucified Jesus’ resurrection at Easter. The number forty, though, doesn’t always mean a count of forty. It has symbolic meaning, in other traditions as well as in Christianity.

Numbers have had symbolic significance for cultures and belief systems since humans learned to count. They’re abstract representations of things seen and unseen, and hold their own mystery. Numbers play an important role in ancient associations and archetypes, which Jung called root symbols, often expressed in myths, legends and fairy tales.

In folklore, we can’t forget the Arabic tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, a classic tale of overcoming obstacles. In American parlance, “the back forty” refers to a more remote section of land the farmer journeys to. In some pastoral cultures, the spirit of a dead person is said to linger around the body for forty days. This may be related to the forty-day cleansing period described below. A person’s fortieth birthday is a greater leap into seniordom than the calendar year it takes to tread from thirty-nine. Comedian Jack Benny was well known for having his thirty-ninth birthday every year for many years.

Forty is a combination of the numbers four and zero. Mathematically, in itself the number zero has no value. Yet for mystics, zero is a symbol of the unconscious, the feminine and the great mother. It’s linked in shape with seeds and eggs, representing potential yet to be realized. In numerology, zero denotes timelessness, super-consciousness, eternity and absolute freedom, and spirituality. When zero appears with another number, it has its own significance as well as multiplying the innate characteristics of the other number.

In Tarot, zero is the Fool, which also represents the unconscious mind.(1) The Fool appears carefree and foolish. This is the character who is able to step off a cliff into the unknown. The Fool teaches lessons in a lighthearted way, but also can be insightful and is not to be underestimated.

The number four denotes stability, physical limitations, hard labor, practicality and responsibility – and sometimes stubbornness and over-seriousness. Four is thought to encompass the essence of the material world – the four points of the compass, the four seasons, the four elements, the four members of a nuclear family, and therefore also implies strength, order, harmony and wholeness. For Jungians, four can represent personal growth, as in conscious and unconscious thoughts, feelings, senses and intuitions.(1) The shape associated with four is the square.

Four is the number of the Emperor in the Tarot deck, a symbol of masculinity, order, and discipline. The Emperor is concerned with bringing rules to a chaotic world. Structure helps creativity bear fruit. The Emperor teaches us to face problems and work toward a solution rather than ignoring problems or accepting a poor situation.

Four and zero stand side by side in the number forty. Forty in general denotes a period of cleansing, preparation and growth.

Forty is a recurring theme in the Bible and New Testament. After his baptism by his cousin John in the Jordan River, Jesus went into the desert where he fasted for “forty days and forty nights.” There he was tested, or tempted, and emerged successfully to begin his ministry (Matthew 4:1-11). This fulfilled the Biblical scripture which said that the true leader must be able to sympathize with human weaknesses, be tempted in every way, yet remain without sin (Hebrews 4:15).

Moses led the errant Israelites around in circles in the desert for forty years, so they could be cleansed before entering the promised land. The same time period occurs even earlier, when Noah, his family, and all the animals in the Ark, floated around on the sea for forty days and nights while the earth was cleansed in the great flood.

In Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, the Tree of Life is a diagram of ten spheres, called sephiroth, connected by pathways. Mystical tradition teaches that the pattern of this diagram represents the grand plan of all creation. Four levels of the Tree (physical, psychological, spiritual, and divine) overlap to form Jacob’s Ladder, for a total of forty sephiroth.

Forty is significant in Islam, as well. The Prophet Muhammad was forty years old when he first received the revelation delivered by the Archangel Gabriel. He had prayed and fasted in the cave for forty days. The Qu’ran says that a person is only fully grown when they reach the age of forty.

In deepening into the forty days of Lent, we join in a ritual of deep mystical and spiritual significance, deeper than we know. In her book, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard said (loosely paraphrased) that if people knew what powers we called upon while praying, we’d wear crash helmets and seat belts in church.(2) She has a point.


(1) Cheung, Theresa, The Element Encyclopedia of Dreams. HarperCollins, 2006.

(2) Dillard, Annie. Teaching a Stone to Talk. Harper & Row, 1982.