Notes on Genesis (xxix) Forty days and forty nights

‘Now the flood was on the earth forty days and forty nights.’ (Gen 7:17; the last three words are in the Septuagint, but not the Masoretic text.)

The period over which the flood is said to have occurred a resonant one, for it recalls the forty years the chosen people passed en route from Egypt to the promised land (Ex 16:35), the forty days and nights spent by Moses on Mt Sinai (Ex 24:18, 34:28), and the forty days Christ spent fasting in the wilderness (Mark 1:13, Luke 4:2; oddly enough Matthew mentions nights as well as days (4:2), and one might speculate as to a reason for this verbal addition.) In all cases, the forty days (years in one case) are passed in difficult circumstances away from one’s usual haunts, and this sense of discomfort makes the period a suitable one for Lent, whether the forty days are counted from Pure Monday to the day before Lazarus Saturday (in the East) or from Ash Wednesday, as is done in the West. Maximus of Turin, thinking of baptisms at Pascha, comments: ‘In a kind of mysterious image of Quadragesima (Lent), this inundation of the earth refers not so much to a flood as to baptism.’

For the forty days between his resurrection and ascension, Christ taught the apostles (Acts 1:3). Of all the forty day periods, this may be the closest to the experience of the Church, within which he continues to teach. The expectation that he will do this, which in our good days we may think of as an experience, separates Orthodoxy from Christian traditions which see a kind of identification with Christ’s passion as a sign of authenticity.

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