Why Seven Days? Heavenly Bodies, Ancient Gods, and 24 Hour Tangents

The number 7 plays a significant structural role in both the writings and practices of ancient Israel. Is there something ontologically significant about the number? Is the number 7 something like the c in e=mc2? Maybe, I don’t know. Ask a physicist.

(I am sure somebody somewhere has written a book with the spurious claim that the number 7 is the key to unlocking the universe and used the Jewish and Christian Scripture to “prove” it.)

Why is the number 7 significant? Why do we have a 7 day week?

Some are so eager to make a huge deal about the 7 days of Genesis 1 that they have never stopped to ask more basic questions?

In homeschooling my sons ages 8 & 10, I am trying to teach them that better questions lead to better answers. (See Ed Burger’s The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking)

So, sometimes I ask them to tell me what is wrong with a question and how a more basic question might lead to a better answer. Here is one that I have used more than once:

“How many times a day does the sun go around the earth?”

While they are tempted to say once (and this would accord with the perspective of the authors of the Bible), they have learned to pause and think about what is, perhaps, wrong with a question.

“Hey, wait a minute”, one of them says, “the sun doesn’t go around the earth.”

So, a more basic question might be, “Does the sun go around the earth?” Which might lead after a few more steps to the better question? “How many times does the earth spin on its axis in a day?”

Notice, the answer remains the same — once. We still have a seven day week but the meaning has changed.

So, where do we get the number 7 from and why was it the measure of days for so many of the world’s cultures. In many languages (at least European languages), the hint is in the names of the days of the week. It helps to know a couple of languages. English is a bastard language — ask anyone who has tried to learn it. What I mean is modern English is born of a hodgepodge of Latin, Greek, French, German, and, I suspect, Danish (and other Scandinavian languages). So, we seem to get the names of the days of the week from a variety of roots. However, some are still obvious.

Sunday, Monday (or moonday), Thursday (is it derived from Thor’s day?), Saturday (Saturn-day) — noticing a pattern?

French: Lundi (lune), Mardi (Mars), Mercredi (Mercury), Jeudi (Jupiter?), Vendredi (Venus?)

We have seven days in a week because in the Ancient world looking at the skies not at a watch or cell phone told you what time it was. You did not need a calendar, if you could see the stars at night. Now, looking at the night sky, many in the Ancient world could see that five heavenly bodies behaved differently than the majority of their heavenly companions (the heavenly host). These 7 heavenly bodies moved and changed. (Skyview is a great free app for locating these celestial bodies.)

These are the sun, the moon, and the five planets that are on a clear night visible to the naked eye. Mercury, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn.

Now, in the ancient world, and as the names suggest, each of these heavenly bodies was associated with a god. The gods moved the stars and the gods controlled the times and the seasons. The celestial bodies were even worshipped as gods in many ancient cultures.

When the author of Genesis 1 chose to poetically structure his account of creation according to the 7 days, it is my conviction (and the conviction of many Biblical scholars — Christian and non-Christian) that, in doing so, he is making a theological statement about the God of Israel. Over against the surrounding pagan cultures, he was saying that there is only one God who creates and only one God who orders the time and the seasons. That is why the celestial bodies are only created on the fourth day and placed into the realm the Creator God had made for them on the first day. If their are other “gods”, they were made by and serve the Most High God, Elohim, the Lord of Hosts (heavenly bodies/angel armies).

The focus on and defense of days as 24 hour periods (or otherwise attempting to discern their duration) is tangential and distracts from the fundamental interests of the biblical author and his (and Israel’s) truly radical and countercultural claims. As a Christian theologian, I am open to learning about God’s good creation through the excellent work of skilled physicists, chemists, and biologists regardless of their philosophy. (On Netflix, watch the updated version of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos.) Just as the author of Genesis 1 looked at the same sky as his pagan neigbours, but came to different conclusions about God (n.b. He did not argue that pagans were wrong about the number of celestial bodies orbiting the sun or the physical nature of those bodies.), so I can come to understand the Big Bang, Blackholes, the origin of species and come to a different conclusion about who is ultimately responsible for our little cosmos.

*****

On this topic I cannot help but once again recommend John Walton’s excellent book and Rikk Watts talk.

Making Sense of Genesis 1 (MP3 or CD)

Also, understanding Biblical Theology is an aid to this kind of Christian thinking. Try one or more of the following:

Regent Audio:

Rikk Watts: Biblical Theology for Contemporary Christians
Bruce Waltke (and Gordon Fee): Biblical Theology of Origins: Genesis 1-11Biblical Theology Old and New Testaments*

*N.B. While I higly recommend Waltke’s “Biblical Theology” and his exegesis, I come to a different conclusion about the roles of men and women based on his exegesis. But, then again, so does Gordon Fee with whom he co-taught. That is, the nature of Regent College and real conversation — genuine disagreement in a loving community that encourages ongoing dialogue.

Books:
Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible

The Search for Order: Biblical Eschatology in Focus

The Progress of Redemption: The Story of Salvation from Creation to the New Jerusalem

The Prophetic Imagination, 2nd Edition

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