The creation account of Genesis 1 is divided into six days of creation and one day of rest. Each day of creation ends with the same two clauses: “And there was evening and there was morning, day 1,” “…evening…morning…the second day,” etc. To us, it seems perfectly clear that day means a 24 hour period. Why else would he say, “And there was evening, and there was morning…?” So why do some interpreters, like myself, say it’s possible that Moses uses “day” in a non plain-language way?
Reviewing the Chronology Argument
I dealt with a similar problem in my post on The Structural Symmetry in the Six Days of Creation. In that post, though, I was dealing mostly with the chronology or the order of the events described. That’s also a topic I deal with in more depth in my post, “Genesis 1:1–2:3 The Creation Account as Hebrew Poiesis.” There, I made the point that when we read Gen 1 we tune in right away to the “there was evening and there was morning” clauses and read them as chronology indicators. This immediately triggers in us a strategy for interpretation that gives us a reading of the text that looks like this, when we express it in a picture:
Of course that’s a timeline. I go on to argue in those posts, that when a Hebrew read Gen 1 they would notice that every day begins and ends with the same phrases. Every day begins “And God said…” and every day ends, “And there was evening…” They would then look further and notice other repetitions that form a literary structure or structural symmetry (you’ll have to go back to the “Structural Symmetry” if you need a refresher).
For Hebrews, I suggested, a better visual expression of their interpretation is this:
The reading above does not exclude chronology. But it does see another, primary theological purpose in the text. It also suggests that Moses ordered the events of creation to create the structural symmetry we found in a close reading. The implication is that it does not have to be chronologically ordered. In fact, we really need something else in the text to show us that he did intend chronology because he obviously uses a primary ordering strategy other than chronology.
What About “Days” and Length of Time?
The question of days (the duration of creation) is related to chronology (the order of creation) because the day clauses are essential to the structural symmetry of the text. Along with “And God says…” which begins every day, the day clauses, “And there was evening, and there was morning…,” clue us in to the fact that we have symmetry in the text.
The next thing to notice is that along with the structural symmetry, the days are used to give the text its seven part structure. The number seven is essential to evoking the temple meme that we talked about a few posts back.
So again, because the primary reason Moses uses these clauses and the number seven is to create the structural symmetry that carries the theological meaning of the text, it becomes possible that “day” is used here figuratively rather than with the plain-language meaning of 24 hour day.
But then again…why “day”? He could have used something else to create a seven part structure and relate it to the temple. The Babylonian text Enuma Elish is written on seven tablets. There are no seven days. The Gudea Cylinders text is also divided into seven parts in a way that does not involve days. Plus, temples are usually built in seven years, not seven days (though time is involved).
To really get to the heart of this problem, we need to consider the command to keep the sabbath that we find in the book of Exodus. Here’s my very literal translation divided into Hebrew clauses:
So the Israelites will keep the sabbathExodus 31:16–17
to do the sabbath through their generations
it is an eternal covenant.
Between myself and between the Israelites it is an eternal sign
because six days JHWH made the heavens and the earth
and on the seventh day he rested
and he breathed easy.
This text really makes it look like these are 24 hour days. Israel is supposed to rest for one day, one real, plain-language, 24 hour day. That much is obvious. It also seems like Moses is saying they’re supposed to rest because they’re supposed to imitate God who created for six days and then rested on the seventh day. So then God’s day must be a plain-language day just like Israel’s day. Right?
First, we need to look at just exactly what this text says. It does not say that Israel rests on the seventh day because God rested on the seventh day. It says that the sabbath is a sign of the covenant because God created in six days and rested on the seventh. That means the key here is to understand why the sabbath is a sign that relates to God’s six days of creation and one day of rest. To understand that, we need to understand what Moses means when he talks about signs of covenants.
The Sabbath and the Sign of the Covenant
To understand the sabbath as a sign of the covenant between God and Israel, we have to look beyond just Exodus 31:16–17, or even Exodus 31:12–18. By golly, we’re gonna have to look at the whole book of Exodus and even the whole Pentateuch. So this section is going to have to be divided up into several sub-sections. Let’s start back at the beginning of Genesis where the story of the whole Bible begins.
The Plot of the Bible
I’ve already written a lot about Genesis 1 and the fact that it tells us creation was meant to be a place where we dwell in the temple with our holy God. We were meant to live in God’s presence.
Things go bad in Gen 3 when Adam and Eve fail in their responsibility to uphold God’s creation order. When they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they disobey God, they become sinful and they are kicked out of God’s presence.
This is the tension that sets up the plot for all of the Bible. Can we ever get back to God’s presence? Can we once more dwell with him in his holy presence in his temple? This is the very question we have in mind as we read Exodus.
The Book of Exodus
The book of Exodus ties right in to this theme of the return to God’s presence. How so?
The book is divided into two parts. The first part is about God saving Israel from slavery in Egypt. We love that story, it’s awesome.
The second part is about a bunch of other stuff. We’ve got some wanderings in the wilderness (booooo-ring), we’ve got some law code (positively soporific), and then there’s all that about how to build that temple (Ex 24–31) and then all that gets repeated again when they actually build the temple (Ex 35–40) exactly as God told them to (has anyone actually read all this?).
It’s hard to understand how these two parts are related. I would like to suggest that the reason we don’t find the second part of the book as interesting as the first part (except maybe chapters 32–34) and the reason we don’t know how it relates to the first part (except chronologically) is because we just plain don’t understand what’s going on. And let me also point out that the sabbath law is in this part of the book. So maybe we don’t quite get it either.
The second half the book is, in summary, all about God making a covenant with Israel. In other words, God is coming into a relationship with Israel in which he will be their God and they will be his people. In fact, this is why God brings them out of Egypt, as he tells them in chapter 6:
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.Ex 6:7
Now we can easily see how the exodus of the first part of the book relates to the second part. Before God can make Israel a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:6), they have to be freed from Egypt. Freeing Israel from Egypt is just the first step of God coming into a covenant relationship with Israel.
But we can also see how Exodus relates to the story of the Bible as a whole. The tension of the biblical story is…can we return to dwell with God in his presence? Exodus, as a whole, talks about Israel coming back to dwell in the presence of God. The whole book moves towards this goal and reaches a climax when it happens. The book couldn’t end without going all the way to chapter 40.
The Covenant in Exodus 24–31
The specific text about the sabbath that we are interested in shows up in a text that stretches from Ex 24:12–31:18. That text breaks up into three main parts. The first is Ex 24:12–18, then Ex 25:1–31:17, and finally Ex 31:18.
It turns out that the first and last smaller sections form an inclusio around the central section (for more on inclusio see the post “Reading Creation Through the Proper Interpretive Lens”). In Ex 24:12–18 God calls Moses to come up the mountain so that he can give him two tablets of stone written by the finger of God. Those of course, are the ten commandments.
A: Come up to me on the mountain…, that I may give you tablets of stone with the law and the commandments…
And JHWH commanded Moses…
And JHWH commanded Moses…
And JHWH commanded Moses…
And JHWH commanded Moses…
And JHWH said to Moses…
And JHWH commanded Moses…
And JHWH said to Moses…
A’: And he gave to Moses, when he finished speaking with him on Mt. Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.Ex 24:12–31:18
In the last section, Ex 31:18, God has finished speaking to Moses on the mountain and actually gives Moses the two tablets written with the finger of God. After that, Moses heads down the mountain. These two texts, the giving of the law, frame the main section in the middle. What’s in this middle section?
In the central section we read how God gives Moses instructions for setting up the tabernacle. It includes all the instructions for building the tabernacle but also some basic instructions for the priests and their service in the tabernacle.
So what do we have when we step back and look at these three sections? We have the giving of the law and the building of the tabernacle. All of this is related to the covenant. The law is the standard that Israel has to live by if they are going to be in a relationship with God. These are the covenant stipulations. The tabernacle is the place where God is going to dwell in the midst of Israel. Once he’s in the midst of Israel, the covenant is established and God is present to bless and protect Israel.
The Sabbath and the Instructions for the Tabernacle
Let’s look closer at that central, tabernacle section from Ex 25:1–31:17. It’s divided into seven parts. By the way, we’ve already been clued in to this number seven in the first section (Ex 24:12–18). When Moses went up the mountain, the text says JHWH’s glory “dwelt” on it for six days and on the seventh day he called Moses out of the midst of the cloud. This should alert us to the fact that something is going on here. What exactly is going on in these seven parts?
First off, we shouldn’t be surprised by the number seven here because the tabernacle is just a tent that serves as a portable temple and we already know that temple texts are often divided into seven parts. But what are the parts in this case?
Interestingly, there is a clause that repeats seven times that serves to mark off the seven subsections. The clause is, “And JHWH commanded Moses” or a slight variation of that clause, “And JHWH said to Moses” (Ex 25:1, …) Does that sound familiar? Every day of God’s creation in Gen 1 begins in a similar way, “And God said…”
The first six sections are about the tabernacle and how it is to be built and organized. The seventh section (Ex 31:1–17) is different. It’s the text that we’re interested in, it’s the sign of the covenant—the command to keep the sabbath.
The parallel between Gen 1 and Ex 24–31 is becoming more stark. Both texts are divided into seven parts, each part begins with “And God said…,” the whole thing is about God dwelling with his people in a temple, and now the whole thing ends with the sabbath. The whole point of creation is for people to dwell in God’s presence. The whole point of the tabernacle in the covenant between God and Israel, is for Israel to return to dwell once more in God’s presence.
The Pentateuch and the Sabbath as the Sign of the Covenant
Before we look specifically at the sabbath as the sign of the covenant let’s zoom back out to the Pentateuch as a whole and look at the three covenants that Moses describes in Genesis and Exodus (and Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy).
It’s interesting to note that every covenant that Moses describes has a sign. What exactly are these signs of the covenant all about?
First we have God’s covenant with Noah (and all creation) in Gen 6–9 and especially in Gen 9:8–17. In this text God says that the sign of the covenant is the rainbow. Why the rainbow? How is this a sign of the covenant? The covenant with Noah is God’s promise that there shall never again be a flood to destroy the earth (9:11). The rainbow marks the place where the rains came from so, in a sense, it marks the place people look to remember what God has promised.
The second covenant that Moses talks about is the covenant with Abraham in Gen 15 and 17. We’ll look at Gen 17 because that’s the text that talks about a sign. In this text God promises Abraham that he will be fruitful and become the father of many nations. The sign of this covenant is circumcision. Why is circumcision a sign of this covenant? Because circumcision marks the place where Abraham’s seed comes from and, just like the rainbow, marks the place Israel is to look to remember what God has promised.
Now, finally, why is the sabbath the sign of the Mosaic covenant? Well, what is this covenant about? It’s about Israel coming back to dwell in the presence of God. All the other signs point to the place we look to see what God has promised. So how does the sabbath rest point to dwelling in God’s presence? The text tells us:
because six days JHWH made the heavens and the earthExodus 31:17
and on the seventh day he rested
The sabbath points to God’s original creation as a temple where we dwelt in the presence of our holy God.
I don’t know about you, but I get crazy giddy when I realize how awesome these texts are. This kind of logic is theologically richer and connects better to the whole biblical story than the first reading.
In the first reading, Israel is to work for six days and rest on the seventh because God worked for six days and rested on the seventh. But wait, God needs rest (he breathed easy) and we need rest? That can’t be it. God doesn’t need to rest. And how would that be a sign pointing to the promise of the covenant?
In the reading I give here, the sabbath points us back to the original creation because it says this new covenant between God and Israel is meant to be a relationship between God and people like the relationship in Gen 1. In other words, just like the Noachic covenant and the Abrahamic covenant, this covenant moves us forward in the biblical plot by moving us towards a return to God’s presence.
This also fits with the fact, as pointed out above, that the whole text from Ex 24–31 is shaped like the creation account in Gen 1.
This also makes sense in the book as a whole. Look at how the book of Exodus ends. In Exodus 40:1–15, JHWH gives Moses instructions for bringing the tabernacle into service. Then, in Exodus 40:16–33 Moses carries out these instructions. What’s interesting is that this text is also divided into seven parts by the phrase, “as JHWH commanded Moses.” Once What is even more interesting is what happens next. This is the climax of the book of Exodus, it’s the moment the whole book has been anticipating from the very beginning (did you know Exodus has a climax?). In this seventh part, once Moses has finished everything, God’s presence comes down from the mountain and comes to dwell in the tabernacle. This is finally the establishment of the covenant and God is now dwelling in the midst of Israel!
Man, gives me goosebumps.
The Logic of the Seventh Day in Genesis 1
Now we can go back and talk about the seventh day and its relationship to the days of creation in Genesis 1.
What we see in this reading of the text is that in the Pentateuch, which functions as a kind of whole (it’s five books, each with its own structure but they also work together as a whole), the sabbath is set up intentionally, from the beginning as a sign of the Mosaic covenant. In other words, Moses tells the creation story in Gen 1 knowing full well that this serves as the sign of the covenant in Exodus. God’s people are going to work for six days and rest for a seventh in order to remember their covenant with God and that the whole point of the covenant is not the commandments themselves nor is it the tabernacle as a building with its customs and sacrifices, but the whole point of the covenant is the sabbath as pointing to creation. It points to the ultimate goal of returning to God’s holy presence in his temple.
Let’s compare this to the logic of chronology versus structural symmetry. In terms of the chronology of Gen 1 we saw that Moses ordered events in order to make a structural symmetry. The structural symmetry is there because it leads us to his primary theological claim. Since the reason for the ordering is clearly structural symmetry, it might not be chronology. In fact, I don’t think the text gives us any reason to believe creation did take place in the order described. Therefore, if creation did not in fact take place in the order described by Moses, the text is still true in its primary theological claim and it is not false in its assertions about the order of creation since it makes no chronological assertions.
We have similar logic with the days. The reason Moses set up creation in seven parts is to show that creation was meant to be a temple where we dwell in God’s presence. The reason he sets up creation as taking place in seven days, is to set up the sabbath as the sign of the covenant that points back to Gen 1 and to God bringing us back into relationship with him. The days of creation are analogous to the seven days of Israel’s work week.
Since the reason for creation in seven days is analogical, the days need not communicate the length of time it took God to create. In other words, if it did not take God six days to create, then the primary claims of the text (that creation is a temple and that the sabbath is a sign pointing to the creation temple) are not falsified. Also, it is not clear that there is anything in the text that makes a claim about the length of creation. Therefore, the text is not false in its assertions about the length of time it took God to create because the text makes no such claims.
Rounding Out the Series
This brings us to the end of our interpretation of the creation account in Genesis 1. We’ve seen that Moses has some deep theological truths that he wants to communicate to us and he does this through the literary features of the text. It is the literary features of the text that carry the theological meaning. Without them, this text would be nothing more than an account of events and we would be left to interpret their theological meaning.
But this does raise some questions. It seems to me that it creates three problems for evangelicals that I will address in the closing articles of this series. Here are the three problems in brief:
- How can the text be both historical and literary? Or… How do we know what parts are historical and what parts are literary?
- Didn’t the church interpret this text differently for about 2000 years? What makes us think we’re so good we’ve got it right?
- What about the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture? It seems like you have to know Hebrew and understand ancient Near Eastern culture to understand this text. Really?! Most people would never get that.
- The Evangelical’s Creation Conundrum: Navigating the Scylla and the Charybdis
- Designed for Order: The ANE Wisdom Worldview
- The Fear of Yahweh is the Beginning of Wisdom: The Israelite Wisdom Worldview
- Consilience: The Unity of Science and Scripture in the Matrix of Wisdom
- Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, How I Wonder When You Are
- The Structural Symmetry of the Six Days of Creation
- Creation is a Temple: Reading Creation through the Proper Interpretive Lens
- Creation is a Temple: The Temple as a Meme in the Ancient Near East and Genesis 1
- Creation is a Temple: Moses’ Brilliant Literary and Theological Move in Genesis 1
- When a Day Might not be a Day
- Reading Genesis 1 as Literature and the Three Problems it Creates for Evangelicals
- How Can a Text like Genesis 1 be Both History and Literature?
- Did the Church Really Get This Text Wrong for Two Thousand Years?
- The Paradox of Perspicuity: How Would a Regular Person Ever Understand Genesis 1 This Way?