Even though it comes first in the Bible, Genesis 1 represents the youngest of three Israelite creation traditions. As happens in culture and even inspired religion, the past was adapted, shaped, and (re)appropriated to meet the needs of the present.
The form of Genesis 1-2:4 (as we have it today) is generally understood to have come from a priestly tradition associated with the tabernacle/temple, and received its current form some time around the Babylonian exile (which explains some of its anti-Babylonian polemics, which go totally unnoticed by modern readers.) Several characteristics of Genesis 1-2:4a suggest priestly and temple associations, but the most important for our purposes here is the emphasis on sacred time over sacred space (see here, #3 in particular.)
If you’ve ever talked to Jehovah’s Witnesses about birthdays, you know they don’t celebrate them, because “no one in the Bible does.” And this is generally true, because Israelites weren’t the ultra-specific hour-by-hour calendrically obsessed society we are today in America; as with literacy, Israelites neither had the means nor the utility for it. It’s unlikely they knew when their birthdays were. This holds true, btw, for some Middle Eastern people today. A relative working in Saudi Arabia with several hundred natives confirms that many of them not only don’t know their birthday, but have no idea how old they are.
The only people who concerned themselves heavily about specific days and years were either royal scribes or priests. Scribes needed to chronicle the king’s doings, and the priests needed to be aware of the multiple overlapping calendars of holy days (beyond the weekly sabbath) and holy years, as well as any time-based prescriptions in the Torah regarding purification and the like. Priests functioned as the calendar for the people.
How does concern for time figure in to Genesis 1? First, the sun and moon, created on Day Four, are “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” The signs and seasons here refer specifically to the religious holidays and holy days the priests needed to track, not Israel-in-Egypt-style signs nor agricultural seasons. The two terms together are better understood as a hendiadys, “the appointed times” whether days or years.
Second, as everyone knows, creation in Genesis 1 consists of a very careful literary arrangement of events over numbered days. The events on Day One are carefully paired with the events of Day Four, ditto with Two and Five, and Three and Six. (This parallelism, which we could explore in more depth, seems to have been first recognized by J.G. von Herder in 1774.) Day Seven is the capstone. Even though nothing happens on that day, it’s the most important day of creation. Perhaps we could say, because nothing happens on that day, it’s the most important day of creation, but the reason for that is not apparent without unpacking some more Israelite context.
The creation account in Genesis 1 has strong parallels with the account of the construction of the temple/tabernacle in Exodus (another priestly association.) The implication is that creation is God’s cosmic temple. Deities rest in temples and only in temples; for God to rest on the Day Seven indicated that God’s cosmic temple (i.e. creation) was finished, that he had taken up residence therein, and therefore, Life, the Universe and Everything would function as it should. (This is really an understated summary of a mind-blowing idea that finds its most concise application in John Walton’s Lost World of Genesis One, proposition 7 onwards but really, read the whole thing.)
Recall that the Babylonians destroyed Israel’s sacred space large and small, defiling the holy land and destroying the Jerusalem temple. Within that historical context, what does Genesis 1 emphasize? It minimizes the recent destruction of the temple by emphasizing that creation itself is God’s temple, in a sense. There may no longer be sacred space for the Israelites, —they cannot carry out the nearly 1/3 temple-related of the 613 commandments in the Torah— but they can still keep sacred time, the Sabbath, the seventh day.
This inspired calendrical innovation in creation theology— portraying creation over a seven-day period— drew on ancient Near Eastern and Israelite ideas of temples being built or consecrated in time-period-multiples of 7.
Several examples of temple inaugurations from ancient Near Eastern literature… show that these rites took place in the course of seven days and that the deity entered the temple to take up his rest on the seventh day. Mark Smith, in his discussion of the motif of seven days in Genesis 1, concludes, with Hurowitz, that “creation in Genesis 1 uses the language of temple-building.” Regardless of whether Genesis 1 is understood as reflecting a temple-building account (like the building of Baal’s Temple in seven days) or a temple-inauguration account (like the temple inauguration in Gudea Cylinder B), the connection between Genesis 1 and temple imagery is confirmed.
Seven-day temple inaugurations are the norm in biblical temple-building accounts. In the account of the construction of Solomon’s temple, a seven-day dedication, to which was added a seven-day feast/banquet (2 Chr 7:9; 1 Kgs 8:65), followed the completion of construction. Levenson observes the repeated use of the number seven in the account and concludes that the account is modeled on the seven days of creation.
<<1 Kings 6:38b tells us that it took Solomon seven years to build his Temple. According to 1 Kings 8, he dedicated it during the Feast of Booths (Sukkot), which occurs in the seventh month (verse 2) and which, in the Deuteronomic tradition, is a festival of seven days’ duration (Deut 16:13–15).… Can the significance of the number seven in this Temple dedication be coincidence? In light of the argument on other grounds that Temple building and creation were thought to be congeneric, this is improbable. It is more likely that the construction of the Temple is presented here as a parallel to the construction of the world in seven days.>>
However, because the number seven occurs frequently in texts reflecting the ancient Near Eastern cognitive environment, it might be more likely that the association is the reverse—namely, that the Genesis 1 account is modeled after a temple-inauguration account.
– Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology, 181-2.
This seven-day innovation had very specific intent, responded to a very particular problem. The Israelites were in Babylon, and the purpose of the priestly creation account in Genesis 1 served both to counter Babylonian creation theology, and also emphasize what the Israelites could do while “in a strange land,” not provide context-free and culturally irrelevant scientific revelation about how long material creation took (assuming Genesis is even talking about material creation, on which, again, see Walton.) The important thing there is the resting on the seventh day.
“For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exo. 20:11)
The priestly authors/editors thus intended the days in Genesis 1 to be 24-hour days for ritual and theological reasons, not scientific or historical ones; these simply weren’t concerns in the Israelite mind. The days in Genesis are literal, but not historical. (If that doesn’t make sense, I’d point out that the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland is a literal cat; “Literal” does not mean “real” or “historical.”)
To make the days “symbolic” of long periods (the “day-age” theory) weakens the divine model of resting on the seventh day for the sake of making Genesis “scientific”— a modern concordist misreading— but at the cost of the literal meaning of Genesis for Israelites; the preservation and emulation of sacred time while in Babylon, keeping that regular weekly sacred time because they couldn’t keep the sacred space; “Observe the sabbath day by making it different, as the LORD your God commanded you.” Deu 5:12, my translation.
Now, it’s true that Heb. yom “day” can indicate a general period of time— I am not saying it always means a 24-hour period —but it has that meaning only in a few idiomatic cases, which do not fit the context of Genesis 1.
Second, it’s irrelevant to this argument that the sun is not created until Day Four. Day One clearly indicates that light and darkness were present, Israelites believed light was independent of the sun, and moreover, a 24-hour period does not require light or darkness to exist. Time passes regardless of whether it is marked by sun, moon, a watch, etc. This and other objections are strongly driven by concordist assumption, that whatever Genesis is teaching about creation must be scientific and materialist in nature, and align with modern scientific knowledge. Because, following concordism, otherwise it can’t be true.
I concluded my FAIR talk from 2017, explaining that Genesis is indeed teaching truth; they’re just truths that responded to the Israelites’ pressing questions, not our own. Genesis relates to reality in a way other than what you expect with modern Enlightenment presuppositions about the age of the earth, science, etc.
Can we recognize what Genesis was for, that is, what kind of tool it was designed to be? Do we speak the language and idiom of Genesis and understand its context, not just the dictionary meaning of the words? Are we rightly perceiving how the model Genesis puts forth is intended to relate to reality?
Update: I recently came across a book that makes an argument like this, The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context. Published in 2019, the author argues that the days in Genesis are not journalistic/calendrical (as modern readers assume), but ritual/prescriptive. This has numerous things in its favor, such as consistency and ancient accessibility.
“The approach to Genesis 1:1-2:3 proposed in this volume is one that any Hebrew farmer, stone mason, homemaker, or child would have been able to understand. It is not a complicated interpretation that requires anachronistic insights into cosmology, nor does it presuppose a cross-cultural education in Mesopotamian mythology, nor would this view have required taking some words at face value (like day [yom] while treating other terms metaphorically (like the firmament [raquia] or the verb sprout [dasa]). It is a straightforward and accessible reading grounded in the pattern of calendar narratives found throughout the Pentateuch and consistent with the fourth commandment.”
The author goes on.
“Is the creation narrative reporting God’s creative works with actual occurrence dates, or are the day numbers in this text observance dates like the month dates in the other calendar narratives of the Pentateuch? Did God perform his deeds of creation on these actual dates of the world’s first week of existence, which are then reported to us journalistically? This is what we would normally expect from a historical narrative. However, in this book I am arguing that God completed his works of creation with timing that has not been preserved, and his works are ascribed with the days of the week to guide Israel’s Sabbath festival observance. It is the thesis of this book that the creation week narrative contains the history of God’s ordering of the world, mapped to Israel’s observance schedule for stewarding that order with labor and worship, without any concern to preserve the events’ original occurrence timing. I will endeavor to support this thesis concerning the creation week in this final part of the book.”
“This method of assigning dates would be like telling the Christmas story and stating that “Mary laid her baby in a manger on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month.” That was not the date on which Jesus was actually born, but the date would associate that memory with the timing of its annual observance (December 25). For certain, modern historical conventions would regard such a saying as inaccurate, hence the sentiment of many scholars that either the Synoptics or John must be “inaccurate” when giving contradictory dates for the crucifixion. But the problem lies not in inaccurate texts but rather our anachronistic expectations about the purpose for an author’s giving a date to an event. “
Once again, assumptions are everything.
This post is part of my syllabus about understanding scripture, creation, and science.
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