Days, Months, and Years

We have been slowly working through a new book, The Liturgy of Creation by Michael LeFebvre. The central premise of this book is that we will best understand Genesis 1 when we first understand how calendars work in the Old Testament. The calendars present in the Pentateuch, established to govern cycles of life in ancient Israel, are fundamentally different than ‘scientific’ calendars of our modern world.

Some of LeFebvre’s points challenge preconceptions – for example, he argues that the day in Genesis 1 doesn’t run from evening to evening, that this is a misinterpretation of the text. Rather he argues that “the Hebrew day began at sunrise and ended at sunset. The nighttime that followed sunset was technically marginal time rather than a part of any day.” (p. 16) Activities occurring during the dark of night might be considered part of the preceding or succeeding day depending on the circumstance.

Moving on from days to weeks, months, and years: The Hebrew calendar focuses on cycles of seven. Days are grouped into a seven day week capped by the Sabbath. This remains a clear foundation for our calendar today, but the focus on seven as the complete number goes beyond the length of a week. LeFebvre argues that the ‘proper year’ is composed of seven months. The year begins with the vernal equinox and goes out with the autumnal equinox. All of the festivals occur during this period. The first seven months of each year comprise the festival year, or the proper year.

The rainy season [autumn to spring] filled a marginal period at the close of the year and was counted  as part of the previous year “by addendum,” the same way the night filled the marginal time at the end of the day. All of Israel’s major festivals were completed within those seven dry months of the “proper year,” and there were no festivals (apart from new moon days) during the rainy season. (p. 29)

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For it is Written

What does it mean when the New Testament authors reference Isaiah or other passages in the Old Testament?  After a brief delay, we return to Ben Witherington III’s recent book (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) and the use of Isaiah 13-39 in the New Testament.

There is a tendency today to view prophecy as simply a concrete prediction concerning future events. But the “this is that” approach misunderstands the role that Scripture plays and underestimates the sophistication of both the Old and New Testament authors.

Prophecy is not only (or even primarily) a prediction of future events. The primary role of a prophet is not to reveal specific details about the future. A prophet of God is divinely inspired with more than ordinary spiritual insight, one who hears from and speaks for God. He (or she) provides divinely inspired instruction, exhortation, warning, encouragement, and, at times, specific prediction.

The New Testament writers, including Paul, the evangelists, Peter, John (in Revelation), and the anonymous author of Hebrews use Isaiah extensively. In particular they quote, paraphrase, echo, and adapt from among the oracles in 13-39. Outlining a large number of examples in this chapter, Ben Witherington demonstrates that the New Testament view of the prophecies in Isaiah is not a simple “this is that.” Rather their approach is far more complex. Paul, for example, sees Isaiah speaking both to ancient Israel and into the context of Paul’s first century experience. Concerning Romans 9, Witherington writes:

Paul is able to use the text of Isaiah in the way he does not only because he believes it is the word of God, but because he believes those prophecies of old were indeed open-ended, poetic, and metaphorical in character, having depths of meaning that even Isaiah himself had not probed. (p. 153)

Among other things, Paul takes the imagery of God as potter in Isaiah and in Jeremiah and uses it to make his specific point.

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He Will Wipe Away All Tears

He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from off all faces (Is 25:8)

Ben Witherington III, Isaiah Old and New, sees later Isaiah 14-39 coming from the time of the historical Isaiah, the prophet in Judah through the time of Hezekiah, before the fall to Babylon. This section opens with oracles of woe and judgment against the nations and Judah, continues with such oracles interspersed with oracles of redemption and victory, and finishes up with a historical narrative recounting the miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem from Sennacherib, King Hezekiah’s illness and healing, and his rather foolish display of all his wealth to the envoys from Babylon.

Many (perhaps most) scholars will argue that this section dates from a later time, after the fall of Jerusalem and exile, at least the material in chapters 24-27. Witherington argues that this is primarily because they see the hope of resurrection in Isaiah 25 and 26 as reflecting ideas from a much later era. Isaiah, the argument goes, would not have spoken of resurrection. Witherington counters that it is hard to pinpoint the emergence of an idea with any accuracy – especially in a time and place with relatively little written record and that the history of ideas shows that they wax and wane. Although later editors may have made some insertions leading to the text we have, there is no strong reason to doubt that these oracles date to the historical Isaiah.

It is to these oracles of hope that we turn. Specifically to Isaiah 25-26, 29, and 35. Quotes, allusions, and other references to these sections are quite important in the New Testament. Following Isaiah 25:8 quoted at the top of this post, Isaiah 26:19 is quite specific about resurrection:

Your dead will live;
Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits. (26:19)

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Calendars in the Sky

We are looking at Michael LeFebvre’s recent book The Liturgy of Creation, and his argument that the creation week in Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative designed as a guide for faithful work and sabbath worship. He begins by looking at the calendar of the ancient world.

Paul starts his letter to the Romans making the case that all peoples are aware of God:

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (Romans 1:20)

In Lystra, Paul and Barnabas expand on this idea connecting it with the regularity of the calendar:

We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, he let all nations go their own way. Yet he has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17)

In the ancient world the calendar was in the sky, governed by the sun and the moon. Michael LeFebvre argues that the awareness of God Paul refers to in the passages above is written in these days, months, and seasons marked by the motions of the sun and the moon. As the Psalmist wrote “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (19:1) The orderly progression of seasons, the cycle of rains and and sun, are essential to produce the food necessary for life. All ancient peoples recognized the importance of the celestial calendar.

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From the Stump of Jesse


Early Isaiah 1-12 contains three significant passages read by the apostles, the evangelists, and the early church as messianic prophecies fulfilled in Jesus. These passages vary in their context in Isaiah. For Isaiah 7:14-16 it is clear in context that the prophet had a contemporary in mind, likely Hezekiah, rather than a future messiah. In retrospect it was applied to Jesus, the prophet proclaimed more than he knew. In 9:6-7 it appears that there is both a contemporary subject in mind as well as space for an eschatological fulfillment. No mere human ruler could live up to the hyperbolic language here.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.

Isaiah 11 takes us even more clearly into this eschatological perspective.

A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord—and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. 11:1-3, 9

Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics) notes that Isaiah 11 is more clearly prophetic pointing to some future event … “the lack of specificity is intentional, as this is more of an eschatological (and messianic) oracle.

[Isaiah 11] serves as a fitting climax to the oracles in Isaiah 6-11, bringing out the further promise of the coming king, but with a correction. G0d must start over with the stump of Jesse, because the Davidic line will fall into darkness, into chaos, into self destruction and exile. The Davidic dynasty will be cut down to a mere stump, but God can bring new life even from an apparently dead stump. (p. 104)

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Face the Differences

There are a number of places in the Bible where apparently contradictory accounts are recorded. The crucifixion accounts in John (on Passover day when the lambs were sacrificed) and the Synoptics (the day after the Passover meal), the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, the withering fig tree in Matthew 21 and Mark 11, the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2, Chronicles compared with Samuel-Kings, and this is only touches on the issues. In the face of these issues we are left with four choices (1) ignore them, (2) harmonize them, (3) dismiss the Bible as a merely human ancient book, or (4) face the differences, explore the ancient Near Eastern conventions at play in the text, and look for the intended message of the text.

It is better to face the differences. Many attempts at harmonization become rather convoluted and unpersuasive. The cock crowed six times … for example (The Battle for the Bible) … inventing a scenario not recorded in any Gospel to preserve a specific vision of the nature of Scripture.

Let the Bible be the Bible and study it for the intended message.

This extends to the way dates and times are used in the Gospels and throughout Scripture. Michael LeFebvre, The Liturgy of Creation, writes:

It is better to face the differences and consider why the authors used their descriptive latitude to record the events as they did. The journalistic way we expect timestamps to function today is not a reliable standard by which to assess timestamps in the Bible. Furthermore, imposing anachronistic expectations about calendars could hinder our full appreciation of a biblical author’s reason for drawing our particular date alignments. (p. 5)

Although not an internal inconsistency, many Christians today invent rather incredible scenarios unrecorded in Scripture or elsewhere to preserve a young earth view consistent with their understanding of Genesis. Observations of the natural world (creation) are harmonized with the favored interpretation of Scripture, (e.g. rapid post flood differentiation in a few hundred years to account for the present diversity of life). While these constructions are comforting to some, many of us find them decidedly unpersuasive. They can be a stumbling block to faith for those both outside and inside the church. If they are unnecessary (as I believe), this is rather unfortunate. But are they unnecessary?

Rather than fight to protect a particular vision of Scripture, in The Liturgy of Creation Michael LeFebvre focuses on the way dates and calendars are used in the Pentateuch. This leads, he argues, to a better understanding of the form and message of Genesis 1.

I want to propose in this book that the Genesis 1:1-2:3 creation week is most fruitfully read as a “calendar narrative.” It is a special kind of historical narrative in which historical events are given the dates of a festival observance (sabbath observance in the case of the creation week), without regard for the timing of the original occurrence. To establish this argument, it will be important to examine how the Pentateuch as a whole uses dates in other calendar narratives. (p. 6)

And later:

I want to show in this book that the creation week was designed as a guide for faithful work and sabbath worship, and that we rob the text of its intended force when we instead deploy it in disputes about physics, cosmology, and natural history. (p. 7)

We honor Scripture as the word of God when we seek to understand the intended message. This will become clearer when we understand the conventions behind the construction of the text. LeFebvre’s ideas are worth careful consideration – as we dig into them in the upcoming posts.

Is the date discrepancy between the crucifixion in John and the Synoptics a problem to be solved?

How should we approach such contradictions?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

You may also comment on Face the Differences at Jesus Creed.

We will dig into more of LeFebvre’s book over the coming months. Join us if you’d like.

(The links above are paid referrals – try this one if you prefer: The Liturgy of Creation.)

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Mary was Brave

I will finish out this Christmas season with a link to a recent issue of CBE’s Mutuality Magazine: Rediscovering Mary. The issue features a series of articles exploring Mary the mother of Jesus from a range of different angles. Mary is an interesting character – and a brave young woman. The best article in the issue (although I am not an unbiased reader) digs into this aspect of Mary in a little more detail: Mary the Brave: Neither Meek nor Superhuman by Katie McEachern.

One Sunday, about a year ago, I was visiting a new church. It was December, and the pastor was preaching about Mary. I was surprised by how well he positioned Mary as an equal to the congregation—neither meek nor superhuman. He presented Mary to us as if she was someone whose experience was worth trying to empathize with, whether we were male or female. As he presented Mary to us this way, I tried to put myself in Mary’s shoes, remembering what it was like to be a teenage girl. In this exercise, I realized something I never had before about Mary: she was brave.

That day in church, the image of Mary I’d unconsciously inherited—the one that held her up as meek, quiet, and submissive, the one that had made her different from me and other women—shattered. Instead, I saw Mary for who I think she was: faithfully courageous, strong, brave, but also, a human woman. Yes, Mary was right when she said, “from now on, everyone will consider me highly favored” (Luke 1:48, CEB), but let’s not allow the privilege of hindsight to overlook the grit of her lived experience. Most importantly, let us not ignore what her experience says about her and about God. Instead, let us allow Mary’s story to teach us never to twist faithful bravery from underestimated people into meekness and submission. And may her story inspire us to be faithfully brave, too.

Mary is an excellent model for all of us, male and female as we seek to follow God. Take a look at the article and the full issue.


If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

You can also comment on Mary was Brave at Jesus Creed.

Scot McKnight’s book The Real Mary: : Why Protestant Christians Can Embrace the Mother of Jesus (sponsored link) is also a good read on Mary.

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The Light of the World Became Flesh

When Jesus spoke again to the people, he said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Jn 8:12

I recently began to read a new book, The Liturgy of Creation by Michael LeFebvre. The central premise of this book is that we will best understand Genesis 1 when we first understand how calendars work in the Old and New Testament. Michael LeFebvre is a pastor (and an adjunct professor of Old Testament). C. John Collins provides a forward for the book while Old Testament Scholars John Walton, Tremper Longman III, and Ken Turner provide “blurbs” for the book. The purpose of the book is not to reconcile science with Genesis, but to understand how the biblical authors used the calendar to convey a memorable message.

Appropriate for the day, the Pentateuch uses dates in a manner that conflicts with modern sensibilities.

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 memory with the timing of its actual 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 for the purpose for an author’s giving a date to an event. (p. 61)

LeFebvre notes that John places the crucifixion on the day when the lambs are sacrificed for the Passover meal while the Synoptics place the crucifixion on the day following the Passover meal. Efforts to harmonize these two accounts miss the point that is being made in the telling of the story. Although our date for celebrating Christmas at the winter solstice (essentially) is not biblical, it does carry meaning. In a footnote LeFebvre quotes from Augustine:

The actual date of Jesus’ birth is not known. December 25th was adopted to align commemoration of his birth with the winter solstice, the date when night is at its longest and from whence the days begin to overtake the night in length. Augustine preached, “Hence it is that He was born on the day which is shortest in our earthly reckoning and from which subsequent days begin to increase in length. He, therefore, who bent low and lifted us up chose the shortest day, yet the one whence light begins to increase.” (p. 61 – “For the Feast of Nativity” in Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons. p. 34″)

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By the Power of the Holy Spirit

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. Isaiah 7:14

Taken up again in the Gospel of Matthew

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (1:22-23)

Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. For those who were not raised in the church however, or who have for any one of a number of reasons become distrustful of the reliability of the scriptures, the questions are quite different. Scripture relates some pretty incredible events and stories – the virgin birth is high on the list. Why should intelligent educated person in secular, modern or postmodern, enlightened, Western society take this seriously?

Dr. John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible can provide some useful insights here – whether one agrees with him across the board or disagrees with some of his conclusions. Dr. Polkinghorne was a very successful scientist, an expert and creative theoretical physicist involved in the discovery of quarks. He was Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge University before he resigned to study for the Anglican priesthood. He has since been a parish priest, Dean of the Chapel at Trinity Hall Cambridge and President of Queen’s College, Cambridge. After retirement he continues to write, think, and lecture about the interface between science and faith. In Testing Scripture Polkinghorne isn’t dogmatic or defensive about about scripture, rather he is explaining why he, as a scientist, scholar, and Christian, takes scripture seriously. Both faith and reason play a role in his approach to scripture.

The Gospels record a reliable history. Within the historical conventions of their time they tell the gospel; the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the good news of God’s work in the world. Dr. Polkinghorne works through a number of different episodes and events as he describes his reasons for taking the Gospels seriously. One of the most interesting, though, is the one he leaves for last. Continue reading

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For To Us a Child is Born

This time of year we can’t look at the book of Isaiah without considering the messianic prophecies in chapters 7 and 9.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 7:14-16

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. 9:2, 6-7

We skip ahead a little in Ben Witherington III’s recent book Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics to consider these two passages. Matthew quotes the first, likely from a Greek version: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Mt 1:22-23) There are a number of issues with this quote. First, it is likely that the Hebrew text of Isaiah referred to a young woman of child bearing age, not explicitly to a virgin, although the Septuagint does make the reference to a virgin. There is also ambiguity in the phrase “and will call him Immanuel.” The term Immanuel is not always a proper name, it can just be a reference or a throne name “God with us.” The word is used in a slightly different context in 8:8 and 8:10. Finally, it is fairly clear in context that Isaiah had in mind a contemporary (perhaps Hezekiah, Ahaz’s son) rather than a future messiah. Hezekiah was, after all, a righteous king.

So was Matthew wrong? Ben Witherington has a rather different take on the question: Continue reading

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