In the Bible, “forty” is a stereotypical way of measuring time: not sacred time, exactly, but the amount of time necessary for a complete revolution of some celestial wheel. David, Solomon, Jehuash and Joash are all said to have reigned for forty years, and the “judge” Eli died in the fortieth year of his leadership. Under Caleb’s younger brother Othniel, “the land had rest” – i.e. from war – “for forty years” (Judges 3:11). A little later (Judges 8:28), “The country was in quietness forty years in the days of Gideon.” This “peaceful forty” clearly differs from a sabbatical kind of rest, such as Leviticus prescribes for the land every seventh year and for the country as a whole in the Jubilee, or 50th year.
Forty can equally measure a time of peace or a time of pain and trial. Jewish tradition makes much of the fact that pregnancy among humans lasts approximately forty weeks; this was often cited to explain the importance accorded the number forty in the Bible. Under Mosaic law, the period of purification after birth is forty days. Moses fasted on the mountain for forty days, communing with God. Elijah survived for forty days on a single meal, traveling to Mount Horeb for his famous encounter with the “still, small voice,” and Jesus after him undertook a forty-day fast in the wilderness, wrestling with temptation. In the Noah story, the rain falls for forty days and nights to cleanse and reshape the world. A similarly harsh cleansing takes place during the forty years in the wilderness, when everyone with living memory of Egypt, except for the faithful Caleb and Joshua, must die, and a new generation, born in the desert, must come to maturity. In Judges 13:1, “the children of Israel did evil again in the sight of the Lord; and the Lord delivered them into the hand of the Philistines forty years.”
Moses was forty years old at the time of his revelation on Sinai, according to the Christian Book of Acts. At the age of forty, Isaac married his cousin Rebecca; Esau married a Hittite woman named Judith; and Caleb was sent to spy on the inhabitants of Canaan – an adventure that lasted forty days. Saul was forty at the start of his ill-fated reign.
The Rabbis of the Talmud, like the ancient Greeks, believed that forty was the age of reason and maturity. Kabbalists traditionally felt that a man wouldn’t be ready to begin studying any esoteric teachings until the age of forty – or some say 42. Mohammed was forty years old when an angel first appeared to him and revealed his divine selection as the Messenger of God. Huike, the Second Patriarch of Chan (Zen) Buddhism – and thus the first East Asian Zen master – was forty when he received the transmission from Bodhidharma. Legend records that he had cut off his own arm in a desperate attempt to still the chaos in his mind during the crisis leading up to his enlightenment. He then went into hiding for forty years to escape an anti-Buddhist purge, and only began to teach at the age of eighty.
Judges in the Spanish Inquisition had to be at least forty years of age. Perhaps in reaction to this sobering fact, the narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground rails against his attainment of the same age:
I am forty now, and, mind you, forty years is a whole lifetime. It is extreme old age. It is positively immoral, indecent, and vulgar to live longer than forty years. Who lives longer than forty? Answer that me that – sincerely and honestly. I’ll tell you who – fools and blackguards – they do! I don’t mind telling all old men to their face – all those worthy old men, all those silver-haired andambrosial old men! I’ll tell it to the whole world, damned if I won’t! I have a right to say so, for I shall live to the age of sixty myself. I’ll live to be seventy! I’ll live to be eighty!
(David Magarshack tr.)
I guess I don’t need to dwell on what it means to be forty in American popular culture. It symbolizes the end of youth and the prime age for the mid-life crisis, a rite of passage for American males. A movie called “Forty Year-Old Virgin” was one of this past year’s surprise hits. The general societal expectation is that one should be well on the road to success by the age of forty. By the time George W. Bush was forty, for example, he had earned a bachelor’s degree from Yale, an MBA from Harvard, and had run two independent oil companies into the ground. By contrast, his fellow Texans the Austin Lounge Lizards extoll the Gen-X slacker ideal:
She wants me to act like some middle-aged man
I used to think she knew me, but she can’t understand
That it’s hard to make a living doing watercolor and collage
That’s why I’m forty years old and I’m living in my Mom’s garage
So today I turned forty. Things should start getting interesting any moment now.