Time in the Old Testament On the Concept of Time in the Hebrew Scriptures

There is general agreement that Old Testament thought "has no natural tendency to abstractions."14 Israel never understood time as something separate from the respective event; in this sense, it knew only "filled time,"15 that is, "every event has a definite place in the time-order; the event is inconceivable without its time, and vice versa."16 As a rule, there is no reflection about the nature of time. What happens within time is much more interesting.17 The earliest period in which more abstract ideas about time are found is the post-exilic period, as, for example, in the Priestly account of creation or in the reflections on time in Ecclesiastes. Due to this reason alone, one cannot speak of a uniform Old Testament concept of time. Furthermore, Hebrew has more than one word for the Western term time. Therefore, an analysis of the passages in which the most closely related words—colam and cet18—occur leads only to a partial understanding of the Old Testament concept of time.19

In the Old Testament, one seeks in vain for eternity as an antonym to time. The Hebrew word colam is not used in as exclusive a manner as is the concept of God's holiness; mountains, sun, and moon can also be eternal.20 Nevertheless, just as God, the Lord over time and space (Isa. 40:28), is the ultimate source of holiness, God also appears to be the final source of eternity.

The eternity of God should not be understood as timelessness, but rather as the fullness of time and power over time.21 This notion of God's sovereignty over time may also have moved the author of the Priestly account in Genesis 1—2 to have the creation event culminate in holy time: "So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it" (Gen. 2:3; cf. also Exod. 34:21, which is probably the oldest version of the Sabbath commandment, and Exod. 20:8-ii).22 The climax of the first biblical creation story is therefore the creation of holy time with social and cosmic dimensions.23 It is worth noting the difference between this version and the Babylonian creation epic, Enuma elish, which ends with the founding of a city and a temple—thus, in holy space.24

The Old Testament deals frequently with land, with space. This cannot hide the fact, however, that it was not ultimately space, but rather time, that decisively determined Israelite identity. The best known but least understood aspect of Jewish civilization may well be the fact that, following the destruction of Jerusalem, Jews had a common calendar for almost two thousand years, although they did not have a common land.25 Different from most other peoples, whose identity manifested itself in structured space, Jewish identity was manifested in the structures of time. Whereas in Christianity and Islam the main focus was on a religious geography and a control over space, Judaism achieved a spiritualization of time: "the Jewish vocation became the creation of a spiritual calendar constructed of timeless moments, sacred events, and religious imperatives, these largely ordered by the cycles of time, the passing of seasons, and even the hours of each passing day."26 Etan Levine believes that only Judaism has been successful in transcending space and, in this sense, has become truly universal.27 The Jerusalem in time was always nearby, but the resurrection of a Jerusalem in space during the twentieth century led to manifold unforeseen ethical, social, and domestic/foreign policy problems for Jewish identity: "for nearly twenty centuries Jews have survived spacelessness; they must now learn to survive space. 28

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