Every year, I am constantly thrown off by Lent. We say that it lasts 40 days, but there are actually 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday. So why do we say forty? I could go into this boring history: I could tell you how the lunar and solar calendar don’t get along, which resulted in an annual 46 day problem. I could tell you that some traditions don’t count Holy Week as being a part of Lent while others don’t count Sundays. But in the end, that conversation tells us very little about the theology behind Lent. So instead, I am going to tell you a different story. I am going to tell you about the Story of Forty.
The Story of Forty
When humanity had corrupted the earth, when they no longer recognized who they were created to be, it was time for God to demonstrate Who He was. So he unleashed the waters of Chaos, waters that He once barred in Creation. So once again, God let Chaos reign. So Chaos rained for Forty days.
For Forty days and Forty nights the world was submerged. And a Biblical theme was born. Why Forty? Why not some other number? Is there a reason for this reoccurring number? Answer to that question is, “Yes”. Numbers are used for more than counting in Hebrew literature. They typically represent an idea. So before we can understand Forty, we must first look at the two numbers that comprise it.
Forty is made up of two numbers: Four and Ten. Four always represents the world: the four corners of Creation, the edges of the cosmos. But Four does not have a positive connotation. For God had to order the four corners of the world. So when one sees the number Four, one must remember that it is chaotic, it does not naturally serve God. Creation has become fallen, now it groans. However, when Ten is spotted within the world, Creation does serve God. Ten is what happens when God enters the chaotic world and creates human order within it. It’s the number used when humanity serves God within the chaotic world rightly. Therefore, when Four and Ten meet – something interesting happens, we get Forty.
The Story of Forty is when the Chaotic Four aligns with God’s governing Ten.
So in the days of the flood, the world was renewed and washed clean by Forty. And after the waters receded, a promise was made: never again would the world be destroyed. But the people rebelled, they made a tower so tall and grand that they no longer recognized the God who saved them on an Ark. So in response, God made his covenant with one man named Abraham. It would be his descendants who would be God’s people; and He would be their God. And so Abraham became Issac, and Issac became Jacob, and Jacob became the 12 tribes, and the 12 tribes became slaves, and the slaves became free. And these free peoples forgot that they were God’s people, they forgot that He was theirs. And while they laughed, and worshiped a golden calf, God’s perfect Law was being etched into stone.
And when Moses came down the mountain bearing the divinely ordered Ten, he broke it: for the people did not submit to the Forty days of prayer that were to come before the Law was revealed. Instead, they ran to the chaotic, worldly Four. They did not allow God to mold them. So just as Noah’s world was judged and made right within Forty, so too would Israel be subject to the renewing power of Forty.
In order to receive the Law, the people once again had to be subject to Forty. For Forty years the people wandered. They wandered in order to live into the covenant. They wandered to become closer to their God so they could continue to be His people. They wandered for Forty so they could be renewed.
They wandered, but still they complained; manna was given; yet still they cried, water came forth from a rock; but still they still worried. They went into the wilderness to fully rely on the One who held them closely. In order to be drawn closer to God, one must walk the path of Forty. It is how God draws a stubborn people closer to Him.
So Joshua lead to the judges, and the judges lead to David, and David lead to a monarchy. But still the people forgot their God; forgot to be His people. A change was coming in the air, the prophets tried to warn them. Ezekiel himself laid on the ground of Forty days in preparation for the exile. But the chosen people didn’t listen and they were exiled form their land where they waited for Forty. Forty years until they could return to the land. Forty is how long it takes for God to renew Chaos.
This is the story of Forty.
But when the Forty was over and Israel went back to their land time ticked on. The temple grew and teachings expanded, the monarchy came and went. After all this time did the people even remember what it was like to walk with God in the wilderness? To follow Him while in a foreign land? Did the Story of Forty become a distant memory?
No, it did not. Because a man named Jesus knew the Story of Forty – He Himself lived into it. He left his life for Forty days and journeyed into the wilderness as his ancestors did. But this time, there was no manna on the ground nor was there water from a rock. He went out into the wilderness, away from the greatness of man – away from the towers of Babel. He went out into a foreign place where floods could abound, where Israel wandered. And he too wandered.
He wandered for Forty. Here, the Messiah was subject to the perfect Law of the chaotic world. And it was here that he was tempted. He was tempted to cheat – to test the limits of the Law based world: to live into the Chaos that lives within each person. But he resisted.
He was the first to perfectly live out Forty.
Noah, his family, and the animals only lived through the Forty because God allowed it to be so. Israel only survived the Forty because God took direct care of them. Israel was welcomed back into the promised land after Forty because God allowed it.
But Jesus went into the wilderness all alone. Jesus was subject to Forty. And he resisted. He ate no manna, he worshiped no other, he did not claim the Chaotic city as his own. Instead, he came out of the Forty stronger.
And so, here I am. I am a world away from Noah; 3,000 years removed from manna; 2,000 year removed from Christ, but I find that in this season of Lent I live in the story of Forty. I am so thankful that Christ took on the Story of Forty. I am so glad that the Savior of the world welcomes me personally into His world that is ordered by Him. When I bring in my Chaos, my sin, my own fallen nature, He brings justice and righteousness. I love that He took on Forty and invites me into it every year. Because if I did Forty by myself, I would be as successful as the Israelites, always coming back to my own Chaos.
But in this season of Lent, I am invited to walk into the wilderness with Christ. I am invited to follow after him where towers of Babel do not abound. I am called to follow where there will be no bread and water. Instead, I will find His bread and wine; for I cannot do Forty without Him. He is only One who has done it on his own two feet.
So for these 46 days of Lent, I follow Jesus into the Forty. Here, I will be subject to the chaotic world, with Him. I will be subject to the four winds, with Him. But I will welcome the Law of Moses as I wander in the wilderness with Him, because he is the new Moses. I will will walk with Jesus as He conquers the Forty. I will walk with Jesus as he prays in the garden. I will walk with Jesus as He is nailed to a cross.
I will participate in the Forty. If I don’t, how will I ever experience the empty grave?