I was recently reminded by a colleague about the Italian origins of the word quarantine. Literally meaning, “the span of forty days,” the word was used in the Middle Ages to describe the keeping of ships waiting off port for 40 days to prevent latent cases of plague coming on shore.
Of course, the number of forty is familiar to readers of the Bible. The number forty is always used to describe a time of exile, wandering, loneliness, and testing. We recall the story of Noah, when the rain fell for forty days and nights, forcing Noah and his family to be at sea until the storms calmed and new life began to spring forth; and, the story of the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness for forty years, between escape from Egyptian captivity and entrance into the Promised Land; and, of course, the forty days and nights after his baptism that Jesus stayed alone in the wilderness, tempted and tested, before starting his public ministry.
In these biblical stories of quarantine, time is spent apart: a time of consecrating self and community to God and God’s purposes in the world.