My “Natural” but Unnatural Assumption

For a good portion of my life I read Genesis 1 through my own Alabama eyes. The text was given to prove the theory of evolution wrong. I never once stopped to ask what the text could possibly mean to an Israelite in 800 BC that had never heard of Darwin. In this article I will focus on one verse, Genesis 1.14, that shows how I (maybe no one else) missed what was written on the page because of my own unchecked assumptions.

When I read Genesis 1.14 (and memorized the chapter) I simply assumed that the “seasons” (KJV/NIV) where winter, spring, summer and fall. That is the cycle of the year where we plant, harvest, leaves fall and possibly get snow. The same kind of seasons that James Taylor spoke of when he says we got a friend. It was natural to me to think in terms of winter, spring, summer and fall, after all those were the only “seasons” that I knew anything about.

I leaped over the vast distance between Israel and me. It never even occurred to me to ask, much less investigate, what seasons meant to an Israelite. I was a textbook example of simply assuming that my world and Israel’s world were the same. I was guilty of a huge error, that of anachronism. I read the Bible out of its context. My error contributed to my failure to hear Genesis 1 as it was intended.

One day I was reading the Bible in a different version than I used at the time. Genesis 1.14 read differently.

Then God commanded, “Let lights appear in the sky to separate the night from the day and to show the time from the day, year and religious festivals” (Genesis 1.14, GNB)

What!? Religious festivals, not “seasons.” Suddenly this text was cast in a whole new light. According to Moses, the lights were given to determine the worship calendar of Israel.

I ignored the context of Israel, the context of Scripture. For those that believe biblical authority is real, and not simply a slogan, this error is anathema.

My rather “natural” assumption, shared by many in my Stone-Campbell heritage, that “seasons” was merely winter, spring, summer and fall, was anything but “natural.”  In fact it is quite unnatural because I brazenly ignored the vast historical distance between Genesis, ancient Israel and myself.

The biblical world was seemingly identical to my own world, except perhaps for cars and electricity but nothing that made me “see” the entire world differently.  It never once occurred to me that my ignorance was quite vast.  Israel’s “seasons” certainly were part of a calendar.  But Israel’s calendar was very different from the one we Americans use daily and simply impose without question upon the biblical text. 

Israel’s calendar is a lunar calendar and our modern one is solar.  Israel’s calendar was religious where as ours is not. I had no idea that Israel’s calendar and seasons might not be exactly the same as the calendar I use daily (which I never investigated) and its seasons were just like mine.

Israel’s calendar had “seasons” of course, but they are not what we call winter, spring, summer and fall.  Israel does not have the four seasons as most Americans think of as seasons. Rather the seasons are times, festivals, that celebrate the work of Yahweh as Creator and Redeemer. Israel’s calendar is much closer to what is known as the “church” calendar in our world.  But being raised in a rabidly anti-liturgical tradition, like the Stone-Campbell Movement, I likewise had only the foggiest idea of what that was.

Understanding Distance: Genesis 1.14, Calendars and Worship

Fifteen years ago I was working on my understanding of creation, new creation and Genesis 1.14 smacked me with my hubris. A number of facts came to light that I had no clue about. When I came to understand that the Genesis one was not written with Charles Darwin in mind, I was able to to ask “what did this mean to an Israelite in 1200 BC, 1000 BC, 700 BC, AD 1?” The contemporary, instinctive, apologetic against evolution was not even on their radar screen.  What did the text say to them? Several things, noticed and commented upon for centuries by rabbis, church fathers and others, became visible to me as well.

First, the word for lights is unusual. The text does not say “stars.” Moses could easily have said “stars” and we expect “stars” but the text does not say, “stars” but “lights.” And not just any “lights.” In other places where this word occurs in Scripture, it is in the description of the Lamp Stand or Menorah in the Tabernacle. But the Tabernacle/Temple was something that I had paid almost no attention to at all, I had less appreciation for its significance in Scripture than I did for the word “seasons” in Genesis 1.14.

The Tabernacle/Temple, in the Hebrew Bible, is the place where heaven and earth meet. It is the dwelling space of God within creation. It is a miniature cosmos. The Tabernacle/Temple is a map, if you will, of the whole realm of God.

The “lights” on the Menorah are the only illumination in the inside the sanctuary.  The lamps on each point of the Menorah look like stars or better planets against the velvet black sky. The night sky reminds us of being inside of the Tabernacle. It seems this term is deliberately chosen in Genesis 1. The word lights reminds us of the sacred furniture within God’s Space in the Tabernacle  (Exodus 25.37; 27.20).   The lights in the sky remind us of worship and the Tabernacle is a miniature cosmos.

Second, this is why the second word, “seasons” is also not the word in the Hebrew Bible that is used for winter, spring, summer and fall. It is the “appointed times.” In all the other uses in the Bible, it refers not to summer/winter but to Passover, Tabernacles, First Fruits, etc. It refers to festivals! For example the exact phrase from Genesis 1.14 occurs in the following locations in the Hebrew Bible:

And they shall stand every morning thanking and praising the LORD … and whenever burnt offerings are offered to the LORD on sabbaths, new moons, and APPOINTED FESTIVALS, according to the number required of them, regularly before the LORD” (1 Chronicles 23.31)

The contribution of the king from his own possessions was for the burnt offerings; the burnt offerings of morning and evening, and the burnt offering for the sabbaths, the new moons, and the APPOINTED FESTIVALS, as it was written in the law of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 31.3; see also Zechariah 8.19; Neh 10.33; Ps 10.19; etc, etc)

The “seasons” of Genesis 1.14 is translated “appointed times/festivals” more properly and is so in other texts.  But what are these “seasons” on the calendar that an Israelite in Hezekiah’s day would think of? They are outlined in several texts, the most convenient for our purposes is Leviticus 23 which uses the very language of Genesis 1.14.

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: These are the APPOINTED FESTIVALS [or seasons] of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my APPOINTED FESTIVALS …” (23.1-2).

The seasons are Sabbaths and Passover/Unleavened Bread (23.1-8), First Fruits (23.9-14), Pentecost/Weeks (23.15-22), Trumpets (23.23-25), Atonement (23.26-32), Booths/Tabernacles (23.33-43).

When Moses had finished teaching Israel the “seasons” on the calendar the text reads, “Thus Moses declared to the people of the Israel the APPOINTED FESTIVALS of the LORD” (Leviticus 23.44)

Genesis 1 does not speak to us primarily of the seasons associated with weather of the solar calendar. Genesis 1 speaks of the seasons of worship, the festivals of the Lord. The new Moon marked the time of great celebration and worship to Yahweh.  The Moon and the lights told Israel when it was the season of Passover, the the season of Booths and the like.

It would seem that the worship of God begins on the first page of the Bible.

Did Ancient Jews Understand Genesis 1.14 as Festivals?

The Septuagint translation of Genesis also translates Genesis 1.14 as referring to the Israelite calendar. Sirach 43.7, numerous references in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Jubilees, and Philo interpret Genesis 1.14 as referring to the Israelite worship calendar. Since many do not have access to these ancients sources I will cite them.

From Ben Sira we read,

It is the moon that marks the changing of the seasons,
governing the times, their everlasting sign.
From the moon comes the sign for the festal days,
a light that wanes when it completes its course.
The new moon, as its name suggests,
renews itself,
how marvelous it is in this change,
a beacon to the the hosts on high,
shining in the vault of the heavens
(Sirach 43.6-8)

From Jubilees 2, a passage that is an interpretation of Genesis 1 itself,

And on the fourth day he made the sun and the moon and the stars. And he set them in the firmament of heaven so that they might give light upon the whole earth and rule over the day and the night and separate light and darkness. And the LORD set the sun as a great sign upon the earth for days, sabbaths, months, feast days, years, sabbaths of years, jubilees, and for all of the (appointed) times of the years — and it separates the light from the darkness — and so that everything which sprouts and grows upon the earth might surely prosper. These three kinds he made on the fourth day” (Jubilees 2.8-10)

Many other passages can be cited from Second Temple Judaism, as well as the rabbis following the Second Temple period, that clearly indicates that Genesis 1.14 was understood in reference to the worship calendar of Israel.

Conclusion: Genesis 1.14 calls us to “Seasons/Festivals” of Worship

Roger Beckwith, who has studied Israel’s calendars in detail for many years writes in his Calendar and Chronology, Jewish and Christian: Biblical, Intertestamental and Patristic Studies, on Genesis 1.14,

when the lunar calendar appears in the Old Testament, it is often precisely in priestly, or cultic, contexts that it does so. Thus, it is hard to believe that Gen. 1:14-16 and Ps. 104:19 are referring simply to secular ‘seasons.‘”

Gordon Wenham concurs with our conclusions in his Word Biblical Commentary on Genesis 1-15,

“‘What is clear is the importance attached to the heavenly bodies’ role in determining the seasons, in particular in fixing the days of cultic celebration. This is their chief function’.”

Wrapping Up

Our brief exercise with Genesis 1 has shown us how unspoken assumptions can blind us to what is rather explicit in the text itself. Our experience of public worship conditions us to see certain things. For those raised on an allergy to Catholicism we have “naturally” hidden from our eyes anything that looks like “liturgy.” In fact our experience has subverted the text itself and we come away with something that no one for thousands of years actually did.

But Genesis 1 reminds us that the seasons, the festivals, the rhythm of worship is woven into the fabric of creation itself by its Creator. Creation calls humanity to worship the Creator, a frequent theme in Scripture beginning right here.

The lights make us think of the Tabernacle and the “seasons” make us think of the pilgrimages to the Tabernacle … that is the festivals of Yahweh, appointed times of worship and great joy, great fellowship with both humans and deity.

This is why numerous modern translations have abandoned the rendering of “seasons.” And seasons is a fine translation as long as we read it as an Israelite. The seasons are Passover, Tabernacles and First Fruits! Those are the seasons on Israel’s calendar.

So translations for a hundred years (thousands if we include the LXX and other ancient renderings) have had festivals or religious festivals in Genesis 1.14. These include Moffat, TEV, GNB, NEB, REB, etc, but never knew.

From the first page of the Bible we are called to a different conception of time itself. The lights remind us to mark off God’s Time.

And I am reminded of the danger of ignoring the historical setting of Scripture. When I did I missed a fundamental point the Holy Spirit makes on the very first page of the Bible.

Genesis 1.14 is talking about time … festival time. The four “seasons” that this North American Bible belt disciple grew up with, were something that never even occurred to an Israelite.

Blessings

For Further Reading

David J. Randolph, “Festivals in Genesis 1:14,” Tyndale Bulletin 54.2 (2003): 23-40