Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Sacred time & sacred space

I’m going to quote some passages on the creation account and the flood account from The Sceptic’s Annotated Bible. I’ll then respond:

(1:1-2:3) "In the beginning"

The first of two contradictory creation accounts. Compare with Genesis 2:4-25 in which the order of events is entirely different.

(1:1-2:3) The Genesis 1 account conflicts with the order of events that are known to science.

In Genesis 1:1, the earth and "heaven" are created together "in the beginning," whereas according to current estimates, the earth and universe are about 4.6 and 13.7 billion years old, respectively.

In Genesis, the earth is created (1:1) before light (1:3), sun and stars (1:16); birds and whales (1:21) before reptiles and insects (1:24); and flowering plants (1:11) before any animals (1:20). The order of events known from science is in each case just the opposite.

(1:3-5, 14-19) "Let there be light"

God creates light and separates light from darkness, and day from night, on the first day. Yet he didn't make the light producing objects (the sun and the stars) until the fourth day (1:14-19). And how could there be "the evening and the morning" on the first day if there was no sun to mark them?

(1:6-8) The Firmament (Heaven)

God spends one-sixth of his entire creative effort (the second day) working on a solid firmament. This strange structure, which God calls heaven, is intended to separate the higher waters from the lower waters.

(1:11-13) "Let the earth bring forth grass"

Plants are made on the third day before there was a sun to drive their photosynthetic processes (1:14-19).

(1:16) "He made the stars also."

God spends a day making light (before making the sun and stars) and separating light from darkness; then, at the end of a hard day's work, and almost as an afterthought, he makes the trillions of stars.

(1:17) "And God set them in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth."

Then why is only a tiny fraction of stars visible from earth? Under the best conditions, no more than a few thousand stars are visible with the unaided eye, yet there are hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy and a hundred billion or so galaxies. Were they all created "to give light upon the earth"?

(1:25) "And God made the beast of the earth"

Were humans created before the other animals?

(1:31) "God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."

In Genesis 1 the entire creation takes 6 days, but the universe is about 13.7 billion years old, with new stars constantly being formed.

(6:14-15) "The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits."

Noah's ark is 450 feet long. The largest wooden ships ever built were just over 300 feet, and they required diagonal iron strapping for support. Even so, they leaked so badly that they had to be pumped constantly. Are we to believe that Noah, with no shipbuilding knowledge, was able to construct a wooden ship longer than any that has been built since?

But not only was the ark too big to be seaworthy, it was far too small to be able to contain the earth's millions of plant and animal species.

(6:16) "A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it."

God tells Noah to make one small window (18 inches square) for ventilation.

(6:19-20) "Of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark."

(7:2-3) "Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens."

How did Noah know which animals were "clean" and "unclean" to God? (It wasn't defined until Leviticus was written.)

How many of each kind did Noah take into the ark?

(7:7-10, 11-13) "In the selfsame day entered Noah."

When did Noah enter the ark?

(7:8-10) "Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls ... There went in two and two."

Whether by twos or by sevens, Noah takes representatives from each species of "every thing that creepeth upon the earth." [more] How many of each kind did Noah take into the ark?

(7:13-14) "In the selfsame day"

All of the animals boarded the ark "in the selfsame day."
Since there were a million species or so at the time, the animals must have boarded at a rate of at least 20 animals/second.

(7:17)"And the flood was forty days upon the earth."

How long did the flood last?

(7:19-20) "The mountains were covered."

The flood covered the highest mountain tops (Mount Everest?) with fifteen cubits to spare. Where did all the water come from? Where did it all go? Why is there no evidence of such a massive flood in the geological record?

(7:24) "And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days."

How long did the flood last?

This attack on Scripture is painfully inept. But for a couple of reasons I won’t offer a point-by-point rebuttal. For one thing, I’ve responded to this sort of thing in the past, and I don’t care to repeat myself here. I’d add that simply reading a good commentary or two would clear up these pseudoproblems.

Instead, I want to make a more general observation. This whole approach to creation account and the flood account is simply tone deaf to the literary strategy of the narrator (whom I take to be Moses).

1. There’s a fairly explicit element of sacred time to Gen 1. For the timetable is meant to foreshadow the Sabbath.

Of course, that alone doesn’t select for a non-YEC interpretation.

2. A number of scholars (e.g. Beale, Walton) have pointed out that Gen 1 also depicts sacred space. It foreshadows the tabernacle. It that respect Gen 1 a stylized account, using implicit architectural metaphors to depict sacred space. It’s native to press every detail as if it were intended to be a literal description.

Likewise, the proportions of Noah’s ark (300x50x30) reflect simple ratios. And these, in turn, foreshadow the tabernacle. As Wenham says in his commentary, “The surface area of the ark was thus three times as much as that of the tabernacle courtyard, 100x50 cubits (Exod 27:9-13)” (1:173).

In addition, the triple-decker design plays on the cosmic temple motif.

3. Therefore, sacred space and sacred time are axial coordinates in Gen 1. They create a unified word-picture–with time representing the horizontal axis and space the vertical axis.

(There’s a sense in which we also have sacred sound in Gen 1: the spoken word of God.)

4. Sacred time is a key concept in OT religion. And sacred time is conventional rather than natural. That is to say, the day, date, duration, or frequency of occurrence aren’t something given in nature.

So even though sacred time may often be real time, it doesn’t represent a natural division of time. It’s not a periodic process like the solar day or lunar cycle.

5. Apropos (4), there's a numerological motif in many OT rites, objects, and events. Let’s take a few examples:

"Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall remove leaven out of your houses, for if anyone eats what is leavened, from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel" (Exod 12:15).

"You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread. As I commanded you, you shall eat unleavened bread for seven days at the appointed time in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt" (Exod 23:15).

"And he shall take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the front of the mercy seat on the east side, and in front of the mercy seat he shall sprinkle some of the blood with his finger seven times" (Lev 16:14).

"Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation" (Lev 23:3).

"Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement" (Lev 23:27).

"Speak to the people of Israel, saying, 'On the fifteenth day of this seventh month and for seven days is the Feast of Booths to the Lord'" (Lev 23:34).

"You shall count seven weeks of years, seven times seven years, so that the time of the seven weeks of years shall give you forty-nine years. Then you shall sound the loud trumpet on the tenth day of the seventh month. On the Day of Atonement you shall sound the trumpet throughout all your land" (Lev 25:8-9).

"You shall count seven weeks. Begin to count the seven weeks from the time the sickle is first put to the standing grain" (Deut 16:9).

"Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets" (Josh 6:4).

"And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation" (Gen 2:2-3).

"Take with you seven pairs of all clean animals, the male and his mate, and a pair of the animals that are not clean, the male and his mate, and seven pairs of the birds of the heavens also, male and female, to keep their offspring alive on the face of all the earth. For in seven days I will send rain on the earth forty days and forty nights, and every living thing that I have made I will blot out from the face of the ground...On the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened..." (Gen 7:2-4,11).

"And in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat...He waited another seven days, and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark...Then he waited another seven days and sent forth the dove, and she did not return to him anymore...In the second month, on the twenty-seventh day of the month, the earth had dried out" (Gen 8:4,10,12,14).

"And in the eleventh year, in the month of Bul, which is the eighth month, the house [of the Lord] was finished in all its parts, and according to all its specifications. He was seven years in building it" (1 Kgs 6:38).

"So Solomon held the feast at that time, and all Israel with him, a great assembly, from Lebo-hamath to the Brook of Egypt, before the Lord our God, seven days" (1 Kgs 8:65).

"And on the eighth day they held a solemn assembly, for they had kept the dedication of the altar seven days and the feast seven days" (2 Chron 7:9).

6. So we clearly have a stereotypical numerology in play. What is more, the numerology is characteristically septunarian. The septunarian dates and intervals often represent real time, Yet they are conventional rather than natural. Arbitrary figures, chosen for their numerological or intertextual associations.

(BTW, there’s also the question of what numeral system the narrator was using. Modern scholars automatically filter these figures through a decimal numeral system, but that may be anachronistic. Depending on what numeral system the narrator employed, we might be overlooking other emblematic ratios in the story.)

7. And in some narratives (e.g. Gen 6-8) they appear to be somewhat artificial figures. It isn’t coincidental that these figures ring the changes on the septunarian motif.

This may also be true of Biblical numbers like 12 or 40, which sometimes seem to be idiomatic or numerological figures rather than literal sums.

8. To some extent, the overly precise calendar in Gen 6-8, with its unnaturally symmetrical time-markers, represents a stylized numerology of sacred time.

This doesn't mean such numbers can't approximate real time and space. But it seems to be the case that Bible writers rounded numbers up or down to create a symbolic pattern. Not simply round numbers, but rounded off for numerological purposes.

So just as sacred time and sacred space are axial coordinates in the creation account, they are axial coordinates in the flood account as well.

9. And this is one reason why it’s so naive for unbelievers to point out numerical difficulties or discrepancies in the account. Even if, for the sake of argument, these didn’t mesh, that misses the point. For if the figures are numerological, then they were never meant to express exact measurements in time and space.

10. That’s not to say that sacred time and space bear no relation or resemblance to real time and space. But there are situations in which the narrator clearly intended to forge an artificially schematic account for hierophanic purposes.


  1. "This attack on Scripture is painfully inept."

    I don't know if it's that inept. These attacks have hardened skeptics and caused some folks to lose their belief in Jesus.

    But all in all... a great and helpful post!!!

  2. Truth,

    I want to touch on this that you just wrote:

    "....these attacks have hardened skeptics and caused some folks to lose their belief in Jesus...".

    Well, I am not following you here.

    What do you believe?

    Do you believe God saves or He does not?

    Which is it?

    Quite actually, we are all the time losing our beliefs in Jesus. Why do you think I continue coming in here?

    It isn't based on my beliefs in Jesus.

    It is based in Jesus' belief in what God Our Heavenly Father said to Him about me that justifies me, a very ungodly sort.

    With my own brief of my ungodliness I conclude God is nuts, crazy and stupid to save a wretch like me!

    Or, do you not understand John's account of the declaration of our salvation made by Jesus?:::>

    Joh 17:1 When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, "Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you,
    Joh 17:2 since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.
    Joh 17:3 And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.

    Solely the only reason I have the gift of Eternal Life and will not perish has nothing to do with me.

    God gave me to Jesus. That is the Truth. Jesus, all knowing about me, went ahead and wrote down my name in His book of Life anyway. Not because of His knowledge of me, but rather, because He loves God and does His Will everytime. It is not just when I believe, but in spite of when or what I believe.

    I don't always believe correctly. If God waited for me to catch up to correctively believing, I might die first before He could right my name in the Lamb's Book of Life! It is not when or what me, it is and always When and What Him!

    I don't question what God believes; I now happily just believe what He believes and He ought to know that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. For two reasons, one, He is His Son, and two, He sent Him and He did what He wanted Him to do which when He did it, the Spirit vindicated it as well, not for His sake, but rather so I can be set free from my incorrect beliefs and start enjoying His promises to me and the Truth about His vindication of the Truth.

    God doesn't leave my salvatiom up to my beliefs. He leaves it up to Christ believing the Truth. Jesus was tempted on all points as we are and He did not fail or sin one time after each temptation. And the Truth is, Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God and He died on a cross for my sins according to the Scriptures, not according to my beliefs. He was buried because those that unimpaled Him from the cross of my redemption believed He died and was dead, needing to be buried quickly enough. He did rise again, which, at one time, was something I didn't believe either.

    How odd it is that I need correction all the time and He does not? Why is that?

  3. Monergism.

    God saves.

    P.S. My comment above is basically that these attacks on Scripture do have some effect.

    Do you agree or disagree?

  4. truth,

    yes, monergistic.

    We agree.

    What else?

    Yes, I grow weary and sometimes I curse.

    I am Elect and the perseverance of the Saints gets me through the seemingly endless troubles. I am a bit slow at times and forget that Truth and don't call on the Name of the Lord in the day of trouble so at times because of that I find myself talking to my soul:

    Psa 42:3 My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all the day long, "Where is your God?"
    Psa 42:4 These things I remember, as I pour out my soul: how I would go with the throng and lead them in procession to the house of God with glad shouts and songs of praise, a multitude keeping festival.
    Psa 42:5 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation
    Psa 42:6 and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you from the land of Jordan and of Hermon, from Mount Mizar.
    Psa 42:7 Deep calls to deep at the roar of your waterfalls; all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.
    Psa 42:8 By day the LORD commands his steadfast love, and at night his song is with me, a prayer to the God of my life.
    Psa 42:9 I say to God, my rock: "Why have you forgotten me? Why do I go mourning because of the oppression of the enemy?"
    Psa 42:10 As with a deadly wound in my bones, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me all the day long, "Where is your God?"
    Psa 42:11 Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.

    Any attack on Scripture has no effect on Scripture so you will need to clarify that one for me so as to agree with you on the point?

  5. Truth,

    ooops, see, I sometimes cannot even write write right!

    "....I don't always believe correctly. If God waited for me to catch up to correctively believing, I might die first before He could right my name...".

    "I might die first before He could write my name...".