Priests, Babylonians, and Seven 24-hour Days of Creation

September 15, 2011 | 32 comments
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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, traditions of the past were once again adapted and (re)appropriated to meet the needs of the time.

solomon_templeGenesis 1-2:4 is generally believed to have come from a priestly tradition associated with the tabernacle/temple, and received its current form sometime 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; as with literacy, they 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 about specific days and years were either royal scribes or the priests/Levites. Scribes needed to chronicle the king’s doings, and the priests needed to be aware of the multiple overlapping calendars of holy days and holy years, as well as any time-based prescriptions in the Torah regarding purification and the like.

How does concern for time figure in to Genesis 1? First, the sun and moon, created on the fourth day, are “for signs, and for seasons, and for days, and years.” The signs and seasons here specifically refer to the religious holidays and holy days the priests needed to track, not Israel-in-Egypt signs or agricultural seasons. The two terms together are better understood as a hendyadis, “the appointed times” whether days or years.

Second,  as everyone knows, creation in Genesis 1 (in contrast to the other two creation traditions) is arranged very carefully by days, culminating in the seventh day, the day of rest where the term sabbath is notably missing (see my next post!). Even though nothing happens on that day, it’s the most important day of creation. Perhaps we should 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 (another priestly association.) Deities rest in temples and only in temples; For God to rest on the seventh day indicated that God’s creation/temple 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. When this account of creation was written down, what did it emphasize? It minimized the recent destruction of the temple by emphasizing that the universe itself is God’s temple. 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.

And that is why I think the priestly authors intended the days in Genesis 1 to be 24-hour days; to make them “symbolic” of long periods (the “day-age” theory) weakens to the point of worthlessness the divine model of resting on the seventh day, which the Israelites could emulate in Babylon, keeping that sacred time because they couldn’t keep the sacred space. The “day-age” theory doesn’t have a leg to stand on, linguistically speaking. Heb. yom “day” can indicate a general period of time, but only in particular idioms, which we very much do NOT find in Genesis 1.

But this innovation of creation in a seven-day period was added for very specific intent. The Israelites were in Babylon, and the purpose of the account was to counter the Babylonian creation theology (which I haven’t talked about at all), and emphasize what the Israelites *could* do while “in a strange land”, not provide some context-free scientific revelation about how long material creation took (assuming it’s material creation, on which, again, see Walton) or how it was done. The important thing there is not the creation per se, but 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)

[This, btw,  is exactly the kind of thing I'd be writing in a book on Genesis, except less terse, more documentation, more hedging, and more refinement. I cranked this out at work prompted by Dave's thread on Seminary and creationism, after deciding it was much too long for a comment.]

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32 Responses to Priests, Babylonians, and Seven 24-hour Days of Creation

  1. Dave on September 15, 2011 at 8:59 pm

    I’m glad my post spurred some reflection, Ben.

  2. Jared* on September 15, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    Nice explanation, Ben. It might also be worth pointing out that the day-age interpretation preceded Joseph Smith and the Book of Abraham. Moreover, as far as I know, the two were not connected (BofA and day-age) in Joseph’s lifetime.

  3. Julie M. Smith on September 15, 2011 at 9:12 pm

    Nice post.

    Anyone interested in the idea of the creation as a temple idea might like this:

    http://www.nbierma.com/heaven/files/beale_eden.pdf

    Let me know if I am over-reading you, but I just want to clarify that you are not saying that the creation of the earth took 7 24-hour time periods, but rather that the use of 7 24-hour time periods is meant to echo the sabbath, not reflect scientific thinking which, in any case, is hard to sustain given that we don’t have a sun until a few days into the whole endeavor, making a hash of the idea of actual 24-hour days. Please correct me here as you see fit.

  4. Ben S. on September 15, 2011 at 9:20 pm

    That’s a good summary, Julie. I think the text intends 7×24 hr periods, but I’ve shown, I hope, that the motive for that was ritual/theological, not scientific/historical.

    It presumes that there’s more than one Israelite view of creation and that they’re not monolithic, something I didn’t have time or space to set up.

  5. Jettboy on September 15, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    As great as this information is, I don’t see a reason that we moderns can’t reinterpret it to function with current science? This is especially the case in a religion that believes in modern revelation. We don’t have to get rid of the literal Garden with Adam and Eve while at the same time accepting Evolution. There is enough interpretive power with what we have that Mormonism should be rather flexible on this subject. One thing I must say is that this ancient Israelite creation tradition is along the same lines as my own view, although in some ways clearly different.

  6. Sam Brunson on September 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    This is spectacular, Ben. Thanks. I like the idea that it can represent 7 literal days (something I’ve never been willing to accept) without doing violence to the actual development of the Earth, etc.

  7. Kevin Barney on September 15, 2011 at 9:53 pm

    Great stuff, Ben. I never gave it much thought, but recently I’ve been skeptical of the Day = vast expanse of time explanation. It’s true that yom in the plural can mean years, but in context the Genesis account seems to me to be talking about Days in the usual sense. Your explanation works for me.

  8. James on September 15, 2011 at 10:08 pm

    Ben,

    Thanks for this brief explanation. Question: Granting that the priestly author intended that this account be read as 7 24hr days (and I agree that he did), do we have any idea whether the priestly author actually believed what he wrote? In other words, did he really believe that the Earth was created in 7 24hr periods?

    That may be a question we can never have an answer to as it would involve reading the mind of a man whose been dead for thousands of years. But perhaps you have some insight.

    Thanks.
    James

  9. Ben S. on September 15, 2011 at 10:09 pm

    Jettboy, there’s always room for reinterpretation. What many people seem to think, though, is that 7×24 hours was the sole and scientific/historical belief, and that departing from that (the so-called “literal” reading) represents a reinterpretation, and an illegitimate one at that.

    What I (and others whom I’m drawing on, like Walton) are trying to show is that that belief is not necessarily what the Israelites believed. IOW, many see a literal reading as the primal “original” reading, and a nonliteral reading as departing from “truth” or “not believing the scriptures.” I’m trying to reframe the discussion.

    Walton has a Q&A at the end of his book.

    “Q: Why don’t you just want to read the text literally?

    A:I believe that this is a literal reading. A literal reading requires understanding of the Hebrew language and the Israelite culture.”

  10. Ben S. on September 15, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    James, that’s hard to say. Certainly they had a very different conception of historiography and what writing about the past meant.

    On the other hand, (and I only barely touched on this in the post), Walton argues that creation in Genesis 1 is not material, but functiona, the difference being modern vs. ancient conceptions of ontology, or what it means to exist.

    It’s difficult to explain concisely, so I’ll once again recommend his book, or listening to one of his lectures on the topic.

    http://www.anthonysmith.me.uk/2010/08/02/john-walton-audio-resources-on-genesis-1/

  11. James on September 15, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    Thanks Ben. I actually own Walton’s book and I’ve read it once, and then re-read a few of the chapters. It is phenomenal. It is like Walton was writing to an LDS audience without realizing it.

    So I guess if the creation account is an administration of assignments, functions, etc., (instead of a physical creation) that could reasonably be done in 6 days.

  12. Ben S. on September 15, 2011 at 10:20 pm

    To the point of non-monolithic creation traditions, apparently some early Christians believe the 7-day thing was just how humans tried to understand it, but God actually created everything ex nihilo instantly. One second, nada; then, bam! Orbiting planets, suns, and Also Sprach Zarathustra, minus the monkies, of course.

  13. James on September 15, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Here is Walton’s answer to my own question (I asked too soon):

    “For the Israelites, Genesis 1 offered explanations of their view of origins and operations, in the same way that mythologies served in the rest of the ancient world and that science serves our Western culture. It represented what the Israelites truly believed about how the world got to be how it is and how it works, though it is not presented as their own ideas, but as revelation from God.”

    http://lehislibrary.wordpress.com/2010/12/02/reading-the-bible-as-an-ancient-document/

  14. Jared* on September 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Random thought: I am reminded of the children’s book, The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Adapting it to Genesis would look something like this:

    “On the first day he created the light. But he wasn’t finished. On the second day he created the firmament. But he wasn’t finished. On the third day…”

  15. john f. on September 16, 2011 at 7:22 am

    Great post Ben — I love it when you go into detail about your thoughts on Genesis. (Almost as fun reading it on T&S as hearing you discuss it over Indian food on Brick Lane!)

    jettboy, the interesting thing about Ben’s post here is that he is saying that a literal reading of seven 24 hour periods is actually what the author(s) of Genesis 1 intended (as opposed to the preferred day-age theory that many who believe both in Genesis and organic evolution fall back on). BUT, that doesn’t mean that the author(s) of Genesis 1 were trying to communicate to readers that God created the earth in seven 24 hour days. Rather, the account was an apologetic piece written in defense of being allowed to set the seventh day aside as a Sabbath, particularly given that their sacred space, the temple, had been destroyed.

    So the advantage of this reading, which is quite convincing given its reliance on language and context, is that we can believe in the literal seven 24 hour days without thinking that is a statement about the “how” or even the “how long” of the creation of the earth — rather, it is a defense of being able to rest from worldly work every seven days.

  16. Paul on September 16, 2011 at 10:49 am

    “I believe that this is a literal reading. A literal reading requires understanding of the Hebrew language and the Israelite culture.”

    Priceless.

    Thanks very much for this.

  17. Chris O'Keefe on September 16, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    Ben, you mention a total of three Israelite creation accounts. I assume the second one is what you get in Genesis 2:5-(something). What’s the third one? I read someplace that Job has hints of a pre-Genesis creation account. Can you provide some details, or do I just need to go read Walton?

  18. Ben S on September 16, 2011 at 2:17 pm

    Walton doesn’t get in to the different accounts. The other two are Genesis 2:4b onwards, and the earlier Chaoskampf echoes, which aren’t a coherent account, but are found referred to in Isaiah, Job, Psalms and perhaps elsewhere. Some of those might be familiar, but since we tend not to pay a great deal of attention to Job and Psalms, most are unfamiliar.

    I count those as a third Israelite creation tradition because what they refer to is very specifically missing from the other two.

  19. RT on September 16, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Ben,
    Great post. I’m interested to see what you have to say about the Sabbath.
    On a technical note, I fail to understand why you date the Priestly text to the Babylonian exile. I don’t really see anti-Babylonian polemics per se, and the emphasis on the Sabbath could fit several possible historical contexts in the post-monarchic period.

  20. Manuel on September 16, 2011 at 4:40 pm

    “Israelites weren’t the ultra-specific hour-by-hour calendrically obsessed society we are today; as with literacy, they neither had the means nor the utility for it. It’s unlikely they knew when their birthdays were.”

    Hmmm… being a Mexican, I disagree that societies that care about calendars, time keeping and astronomical precision are to be labeled as “obsessed,” but oh well…

    I have also given thought to this time relativism in Genesis. I believe most time frames given there are rather relative.

    Case in point: “And all the days of Methuselah were nine hundred sixty and nine years: and he died.”

    I am always amused at the explanations I have heard for these ages, such as “well, back in those days they didn’t have preservatives, parabens and antibiotics in their foods.” Hehehehe… kind of endearing.

  21. Cameron N on September 16, 2011 at 11:24 pm

    I don’t think the day-age concept weakens 24-hour days to worthlessness, although I understand why you think it would. Their are many time/period parallels woven through the plan of salavation, and often when faced with scriptural dichotomies, the answer is ‘both’ or ‘all of the above.’ The Gospel has a lot of duality to it, or even multiple layers of meaning. In fact, with the Spirit prompting individuals based on phrases they read, the same passage can almost have infinite layers of possible meaning, depending on the context. My two cents, at least.

    Now that I think about it more, the creation days don’t even have to represent homogenous periods of time, as long as they communicate phases, stages, or ‘line upon line’ I think the metaphor retains its beauty.

  22. Cameron N on September 16, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    @Jared (14) – Love the connection!

  23. Martin on September 17, 2011 at 11:23 am

    Loved this. I’d love to see a post describing the three creation stories and their contexts and how they were used.

  24. jader3rd on September 18, 2011 at 12:12 am

    So did the priests take an existing Moses written account and adapt it to something that would help them teach the gospel? If they did so why would they still attribute the writings to Moses?

  25. Jonovitch on September 18, 2011 at 5:51 pm

    If “yom” = “day” in Genesis 1, how do you explain this (open question for anyone who understands Hebrew):
    http://www.answersincreation.org/word_study_yom.htm

    I’m not arguing, rather sincerely asking — I don’t know nearly as much about Hebrew as I’d like to (language, idioms, etc.) and I’d like some insight, with as much delicious linguistic detail as you’re willing to give. Thanks!

  26. Ben S on September 18, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    Jonovitch- I haven’t had a lot of time since my last comments here ( as evidenced by my so-far lack of response to RT or Jade3rd), but I hadn’t seen that site, so I checked it out.

    After a quick skim, I have two general comments.

    First, translational equivalents and original language “meaning” are not the same thing. Based on the author citing Strong’s Concordance and translations, instead of original texts or Hebrew lexicons (like HALOT, BDB, TLOT, etc.), I suspect he doesn’t know Hebrew. Many of the things he cites as evidence *in translation* are idioms or constructs of phrases in Hebrew, or just sound funny in English and require a different translation. When you’re doing word studies, you have to work in the original language.

    Second, regardless of what yom may mean elsewhere, we have to look at *context* and usage to determine what it means in a particular spot. There are an awful lot of fallacies one can commit in doing word studies, involving context (see Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson.) And in Genesis 1, yom lacks any of those idioms or constructs that indicate something other than the primary meaning of a 24-hour day. Add in the historical context from P (which I need to address for RT), and for me, at least, that’s strong evidence.

    I’m not making the point he’s arguing against (that yom *always* means 24-hr days), but that he’s over-reached in his counter-argument.

  27. Ben S on September 18, 2011 at 7:42 pm

    That’s my short skimming response, anyway.

  28. Miles on September 18, 2011 at 9:28 pm

    ‘The “day-age” theory doesn’t have a leg to stand on, linguistically speaking. Heb. yom “day” can indicate a general period of time, but only in particular idioms, which we very much do NOT find in Genesis 1.’

    This really seems entirely irrelevant. Note that linguistically speaking, “day” in English can also indicate a general period of time in certain idioms but typically means a single 24 hour period. That has very little to do with the symbolic connections that might be made with the word.

    I mean, take any scriptural symbol you like. The olive trees in Jacob, for example. Obviously “olive tree” has a specific linguistic meaning, referring to a type of plant that brings forth a certain type of fruit (olives). That being the case, the olive trees can still be symbolic of things bearing very little relation to that definition.

    I think it’s pretty clear that this type of symbolism functions in Hebrew just as it does in English.

  29. BHodges on September 29, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    Sweet post. Just opened a whole new view of Genesis to my view.

    “View” repetition not on purpose, but after reading it I decided to leave it in.

  30. Blake on September 29, 2011 at 8:02 pm

    Ben: I’m interested in how the notion of a day made sense without a sun until the fourth day. Israelites (and Jews especially) measured the day by the sun. What does “day” mean in absence of the sun to a post-exilic Jew? Otherwise, great job.

  31. Mondo Soria on October 8, 2011 at 5:07 am

    “Day” is defined as the period of time reckoned from one midnight (or shall we say; one morning, or one evening) to the next. So there must be another meaning to the “evening” and “morning” in the context of the creation account. Otherwise, “eve to morn” (to me) would be suggestive of a half day only.

    Dr. Gerald Schroeder (Physicist) in his book: “Genesis and the Big Bang” translates “Evening” and “Morning” to the Hebrew equivalent of taking order (morning) out of chaos (evening). In so doing, clarifies the confusion between evening, morning and day. “Evening and Morning”, in each creative period, then alludes to a supereon of time.

  32. aquinas on October 8, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    I’m more interested in the idea that we can better understand the Genesis account by understanding the role and function of the Enuma Elish. In other words, that we miss insights when studying Genesis in isolation from competing creation accounts at the time, or when distracted by the modern debates of our own day. The insight is that a creation account that focuses on sacred time rather than sacred space is appealing to a people who are in exile and have no great city of their own (i.e. sacred space). I agree with your emphasis that the real point of the Genesis account has little to do with providing scientific knowledge about durations of material creation. I look forward to your next post.

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