Linear Concept of Time

Let us now look at the question of how the structuring of time appears in the Old Testament world. From the standpoint of cultural history, it would be natural to see a relation between the calendar of festivals and the development of a consciousness of time. The rhythm of festivals and periods without festivals structures people's lives. For this reason, according to Gerhard von Rad, time per se is not an absolute given, but rather the festivals are the conditions of absolute holiness.29 These festivals originally had an agrarian nature, but they were interpreted by Israel within the horizon of its history in such a way that the celebration becomes a participation in the particular historic situation that had become the basis for the festival. One therefore enters into a "vivid experience of the contemporaneousness of the divine saving acts"30 (cf. Deut. 5:3). Israel's God is not a nature god; above all, Yahweh is the God of Israel's history who becomes the God of world history. In light of such historicism, von Rad maintains that one could "scarcely overestimate the importance of such changes, brought about as they were by a unique understanding of the world and of human exis-tence."31 From the individual historical facts, he sees here the growth of a consciousness of historical sequence that results in the conception of a linear view of history. History is guided by Yahweh (Deut. 26:5—9 and other passages). According to von Rad, the idea that Israel owes its existence not to an event but rather to divine historical guidance is "an epoch-making step."32 For a period of time, cultic and chronological contemporizations of history ran parallel. Finally, however, with increasing temporal distance, a crisis occurred in the cultic contemporization of the divine saving acts, which, together with other factors, led to the eschatologization of historical thought by the prophets.33 Even if the concept of eschatology is ambiguous here, von Rad's thesis nevertheless drew attention to two important components of prophetic proclamation, namely, its relatedness to secular history and its claim that the new historical acts are superseding everything that has happened in the past. This then completes a turn toward the future, within whose horizon the cosmic expansion of the tradition of the Day of Yahweh needs to be considered.

In his account, von Rad emphasizes the unique quality of the Israelite conceptions of time, which, in his opinion, are in contrast to an ancient oriental worldview shaped by a mythical-cyclical way of thinking that resulted in a sacred and essentially nonhistorical understanding of the world. In this cyclical concept of the world, there is no room for the uniqueness of the inner-historical divine acts of God. Nevertheless, in his desire to distinguish Israel as totally other and unique, von Rad rushed prematurely to the view that Israel's linear concept was unequaled. It was surely no "ugly ditch" that separated Israel's understanding of time from that of its neighbors,34 as can be seen, for example, in Siegfried Morenz's account of the Egyptian understanding of time. Morenz states that in Egypt there were certainly distinctions among different times, both terminologically35 and in terms of consciousness; in fact, the timeline of human beings is geometrically located on a straight line, whereas natural phenomena and cult are assigned to a circle.36 The circle of periodicity has its actual point of reference in the recurrence of the Nile flood and vegetation. The straight line running into in-finity is oriented toward the goal-directed existence of the individual, which can be illustrated by the official career track of Egyptians and their striving for eternity that finds its highest expression in the symbol of the mummy.37

Even the quality of "being filled," which von Rad develops as a feature of the Israelite concept of time, is actually related to Egyptian thought, for, according to Morenz, Egyptians "did not envisage it [time] as an absolute quantity, or at least only as this, but related it to something else and thereby gave it quality."38 "Time becomes a receptacle for a fulfilled present."39 Corresponding to the Greek kairos, things always have their assigned opportune moment. Morenz presents numerous examples from Egyptian literature for the motto "For everything there is a time," which reminds one of Eccles. 3:iff., just as the sentence "The years are in his hand,"40 from a hymn to Amun-Re, causes one to think of Ps. 31:16 and of Klepper's "You who hold time in your hands."41 Egyptians also were familiar with the notion of time planned down to the last detail42—"all have their nourishment, and their days are numbered."43

The Egyptologist Eberhard Otto also believes that, very early on in the ancient Near East, cyclical and linear concepts of time existed side by side. He sees a compromise between cyclical and linear time concepts in the calculation of time according to the years of rule of the respective reigning monarchs.44

For the ancient Near Eastern cultures of Mesopotamia and the Hittite kingdom, Hartmut Gese has shown that one can also not assume a cyclical, ahistorical understanding of time.45 In Mesopotamia, the view of history as a noncausal sequence of good and evil times in keeping with the unfathomable will of the gods developed into the concept of a succession of ages characterized by a cause-and-effect principle. When Israel developed its conception of history as judgment, it could tie into this ancient oriental conception of history as sequence.46

In the Hebrew Scriptures, one can find traces of at least three different systems for naming months: names having a Canaanite origin, Babylonian month names, and designation of months by ordinal number. We learn nothing about the length of the individual months or years, and nothing about the probable intercalary procedure that was needed for holding lunar and solar years together.47 Even these facts speak for the hypothesis that Israel's concept of time is not as unique or independent of its surroundings as von Rad claims. In contrast to what we know about Babylonian, Assyrian, and Egyptian calendars, we can glean little information on the nature of the Jewish calendar from the Hebrew Scriptures.48 This also indicates that the development of a special concept of temporal structuring was not a primary concern.

Instead of assuming that the development of a linear concept of time in Israel was relatively direct and unique, as von Rad has done, one should conclude that cyclical and linear conceptions of time coexisted and interfered with each other.49 This is confirmed by a look at Genesis 8 and 9, where different experiences of time are redactionally linked to each other. The text describes a new beginning following the Flood, which the Yahwist explains cyclically: "As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease" (Gen. 8:22).50 The Priestly material, on the other hand, marks the new beginning with a historical event: God blesses Noah and his sons and establishes a covenant with them that includes "every living creature" on earth and is sealed by the sign of the rainbow (Gen. 9:i-i7).51 Von Rad does not comment on this difference in the understanding of time; he sees both accounts of the history of the Flood from the viewpoint of maintaining order. Thus, for the Yahwist, "[i]t is not yet . . . that grace which forgives sins . . . , but a gracious will that is ... effective and recognizable in the changeless duration of nature's orders,"52 where as in the Priestly material, one is dealing with "a solemn guarantee of the cosmic orders which were disturbed by the temporary invasion of chaos."53

Claus Westermann, on the other hand, interprets this by starting with the aspect of time. In the expression as long as the earth endures (literally: all days of the earth, Gen. 8:22), he sees a probable Yahwist innovation, by means of which for the first time in human history "the cosmic event is seen as a whole in its extension in time."54 Rolf Rendtorff understands Gen. 8:22 as a polemic against Canaanite religion. The change of seasons, which is understood there to be a battle among the gods and precipitated by ritual acts, is demythologized; from this point on, Yahweh alone guarantees order.55 According to Walther Eichrodt, the Priestly material provides a historical outline of the dispensational teaching of the ancient oriental worldview and illustrates, with the establishment of the covenants, the ordered evolution of history that is progressing according to plan.56

In my opinion, it is significant that the redactional combination of J and P in Genesis 8—9 places side by side cyclical time (in the course of nature and objective order) and linear time (in human and salvation history). Since this combination also brings together sources from different time periods, it is reasonable to assume that the linear concept of time developed from the cyclical one. However, this development should not be looked upon too schematically or interpreted exclusively within the category of progress. It is simply not enough to define the understanding of time in the Old Testament as a single-sided linear one.57 How else could one explain, for example, the post-exilic institution of the Jubilee Year, which, in its regular recurrence, represents a cyclical phenomenon?

Even within the Priestly tradition, one can observe a multilayered complexity to which a simplified contraposition of linear and cyclical time in no way does justice. In his study entitled The Ideology of Ritual, Frank H. Gorman concludes that the different concepts of time that are found in the ritual Priestly material of the books of Leviticus and Numbers could not be reduced to the antithetical pair of cyclical/linear; rather, time must be seen to express various modalities and nuances that are determined in part by the ritual situation. This suggests that time should not be graphically spoken of or depicted as either a straight line or a circle, but should be understood in terms of qualitative tone or texture.58

Accordingly, in order to do justice to the complexity of the material, one needs to accept a certain parallelism in the concepts of time rather than presupposing an underlying hierarchy. It is therefore worthwhile to consider, for example, the scheme of promise and fulfillment under two aspects: from a linear and salvation-historical perspective59 and from the viewpoint of a large-scale circularity.60

It is surely correct to consider the "transformation of religious structures of the cosmic type into events of sacred history" as characteristic of Yahwis-tic monotheism.61 It may also be argued "that the Hebrews were the first to discover the significance of history as an epiphany of God."62 However, this does not mean that a linear and completely unique development occurred here,63 because, for a long time, new and old concepts existed side by side.64 It is reasonable to assume that, finally, the two perspectives—the historical-linear and the cosmological-cyclical—supplement each other in various ways.65 Nevertheless, in apocalypticism, things come to a head: World history is moving toward a goal that lies outside history. This can either be interpreted as the victory of an exclusively linear understanding of time,66 or it can be understood on the basis of the totality of world history as a single cycle that, in turn, is divided into cyclical periods.67 One should also not prematurely exclude the possibility that, even within apocalypticism's essentially deterministic view of history, underlying cyclical thinking is still present. It could be that a cyclical conception of time is participating in the vaticinia ex eventu. When there is an exclusive predominance of a linear concept of time, vaticinia ex eventu are actually illogical because they are completely useless, whereas under the condition of a double perspective— for example, linear time with cyclical undertones—they move into the range of the meaningfully possible: a potential aid to do better next time around.

Far too many Old Testament studies follow without comment, and perhaps inadvertently, the conviction that salvation history is superior to mythology; linear time to cyclical time; and eschatology to apocalypticism. This evokes a pressure to impose clear distinctions on a complex textual material, and suggests an overemphasis on a linear conception of time in the Old Testament. The more appropriate hypothesis, however, is to consider the cyclical as a constant companion, from the promise of the continual return of sowing and harvesting, of summer and winter, and of day and night in primal history, to popular expressions like the "every year once more"68 in a popular German Christmas carol.

The criticism I have expressed here pertains basically to every her-meneutical perspective claiming uniqueness and exclusivity. As the comparison of linear and cyclical time shows, such a viewpoint always tends to construct dualisms, which disqualify, so to speak, half of life: Linear time is linked to Yahweh, the one, masculine God, exclusively for Israel and its striving for religious and ritual purity. The opposite is cyclical time, which is identified with the fertility gods and goddesses and the syncretism of the nations. In similar fashion, myth is supplanted by history, and apocalypticism becomes a kind of degenerate eschatology.

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