Noah’s Raven: A Brief History of Quarantine

by Paul Cantrell

In the Bible, we are taught, 40 days just means “a really long time.” How long was Jesus in the Wilderness? 40 days. How long was Moses on Mount Sinai? 40 days. How long did the rain fall during The Flood? 40 days and nights, which somehow performs the mental trick of sounding twice as long even though we know it’s not. It’s the same way you would describe a Caribbean vacation or a Carnival cruise as eight days and seven nights, like suddenly you’re Honest Abe Lincoln adding scores of years together just to tell time.

It’s been about forty days of hunkering down for some people, so now’s as good a time to discuss the history of quarantine. Allow me to begin by simply saying, “Holy moly! You mean they had to do that on a boat??”

That’s right, the word quarantine comes from the 14th century, when ships from infected ports had to anchor in Venice for 40 days or quaranta giorni. (That’s 40 actual days, not biblical ones.) Many people learned this quarantine factoid in that Tom Hanks Inferno movie, but that was… well I don’t even know how long ago that was.

This isolation of ships started out in Ragusa (now Dubrovnik, the “Pearl of the Adriatic” across the sea from Italy), and it lasted only for thirty days. This trentina nonetheless demonstrates a keen early understanding of both incubation periods as well as those carriers who were not-yet-symptomatic, who would nonetheless have ravaged through town if let off the boat despite looking perfectly fine.

This shift from thirty days to forty was in part because the length of time was at the discretion of doctors and other officials. This makes sense. If you’re Venice, and you hear Ragusa’s doing 30 days, you think, “Just to be safe, let’s double it; or at least let’s up it by a third” (but, you know, in Italian you’d think this).

Thus the 30-day trentino became the 40-day quarantino, which is also what the celebrity couple name would be if Quentin Tarantino were to somehow clone and date himself. This additional ten days works out perfectly because it brings the number up to an even 40, which, because of its biblical significance, was already present in some medical practices. New mothers, for instance, were encouraged to rest for forty days after childbirth, and so on.

So why 40? Well, let’s discuss its Hebrew origin a bit. Numbers are of significant, well, significance in Judaism. So while 40 does mean “a very long time,” it can also have different connotations depending on how you arrive at it—call it a kind of “arithmetic of meaning” (patent pending).

40 days typically suggests a period of trial or probation. The number four has to do with time but also with authority—that is, rule and dominion, and so forth. The number 10 signifies completion. Multiply these two together and you get something like the meaning we’re used to.

However, it is important to point out that we can just as easily arrive at 40 by way of five (power, grace, service) and eight. The Hebrew word for “eight” literally means “to make fat.” This is meant not in the sense of sinful gluttony or engorgement but rather of transcendental fulness, even new beginnings, just as on the eighth day of creation, the week began anew.

I’d like to close by returning to Noah, who also waited 40 days. In Noah’s case, the rain itself lasted 40 days, followed by 150 days, after which it’s frankly rather easy to get bogged down and mired in the aquatic calculus of it all. Suffice it to say that after all of this, Noah then waited an additional 40 days after he’d seen the mountaintops emerge. Only then did he begin his reconnaissance mission.

And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.

Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground;

But the dove found no resting place for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth…

And he stayed yet another seven days and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark;

And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth.

And he stayed yet another seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again into him any more.

So, in summary: Noah sends forth the raven: nothing doing. He sends forth the dove: dove comes back. Waits a week. Sends forth dove again: dove comes back with evidence of low-lying tree. Waits another week. Sends forth dove again: dove never returns, presumably because it found dried twigs on the ground to build a nest. Only then does Noah open up the ark. People, this is how you do a gradual, phased reentry.

Noah knew the wisdom in waiting for the all-clear, the “olly olly oxen free.” Still, there’s a question that’s always stayed with me. What about the raven?

It’s likely that we can take the verse at its word. The raven “went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth,” perhaps even running little button-hook patterns between the boat and nearby mountaintops. One rabbi points out that the carnivorous raven could live off the animals that had sought high ground during the flood, whereas the dove and other herbivores on the ark would need the lower-lying vegetation to become available. Nonetheless, the fact remains: the raven was a scout.

This past weekend, parts of Georgia reopened for business, though the governor’s mansion is “temporarily canceling public tours until further notice to ensure the health and safety of Georgia families.” The mayor of Las Vegas offered up its population of 644,000 as a guinea pig “control group” but said she herself would not in fact be on the casino floor.

Clearly there is something sinisterly rotten in this You-First mentality. Clearly there must be a difference between “sending forth the raven” and treating one’s constituents like caged coalmine canaries. Clearly if you truly believed it safe to resume operations, you would put your money where your mouth is, not the other way round. You don’t send forth the raven in the middle of the storm.

We as a people are not guinea pigs, nor are we some collective litmus test. We are not food-tasters or cup-bearers for the king any more than for our local politicians. Above all we are not expendable. And let there be no mistake. That is what these people are saying. This is the trial-and-error part of the game, and they want to make us the opening gambit.

You know that saying, “Don’t piss on my leg and tell me it’s raining?” Well also don’t toss us out of the airplane mid-air without a parachute and call it an “emergency landing.” The whole point of “Come on in, the water’s fine” is that it implies the person saying it is already in the water. It’s rather less convincing when it comes as an order from dry land afar.

Fortunately, many businesses have defied these prematurely loosened restrictions by wisely remaining closed, no matter the temptation to reopen. This difficult decision by business owners continues to save countless lives every day. In many cases this decision also enables employees to remain at home as they near the 40-day quarantine milestone.

It has been said that we are all weathering the same storm, though not necessarily in the same boat, let alone ark. Each person’s situation is unique. Those among us who are still awaiting the all-clear will have to choose how to get to and greet those 40 days and more. What will the personal arithmetic mean for each of us? Do we go the four-by-ten route of trial and tribulation? Or do we get to 40 through the path of service to one another, of grace and fulness? May we choose grace. Here’s hoping. Take care, stay safe, and be well.

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