For whatever reason I am fascinated by the differences between biblical time and our own. It is my belief that if we seek to recapture biblical culture, we have to think and behave the way that the Bible does, and that means seeing the world and seeing time in the same fashion that the Bible does. And this is a difficult task because we are often not aware of the distance between our own practice and that of the Bible. Becoming aware of this difference is the first step in our choice as to how we will straddle two worlds, seeing the difference in perspective between biblical time and the time we are more accustomed to in our Western or Westernized cultures. So, therefore, I thought it appropriate to discuss the matter of biblical time and how it is marked.
The fundamental unit of biblical time, as it is for us, is the day. But there is a substantial difference between those days. The biblical day begins at sunset, and nominally there are twelve hours of daytime in each day (those hours varying by the time of year) and twelve hours of darkness in each night (divided into three or four watches, depending on the time period). A day is therefore divided into the evening (darkness, from sunset to sunrise) and morning (from sunrise to sunset). An evening and a morning equals a day. Obviously, our own time scale is quite different, beginning at midnight and being divided at noon between morning and afternoon. Likewise, in our scale of time the hours are of fixed length and it is the time for sunrise and sunset and the length of day and night that shift over the year (with our man-made Daylight Savings Time, which does not really save any daylight but makes sunset an hour later during most of the year, as well as the natural progression of the earth around the sun).
In both the Bible and our own practice, the week is made of seven days, but the weeks are not quite identical, as might be expected. The biblical week ends at sunset on the seventh day of the week, which is the only named day of the week and is called the “Sabbath,” whose name is taken from the number seven, which also means oath in Hebrew, interestingly enough. Our “weekend” is made up of the seventh and first days of the week, at least according to the calendars of the United States, and the sixth and seventh days of the week according to the (corrupted) calendars of Europe. In our weekly calendars, the days of the week are mostly named after pagan deities of Rome (Saturn’s Day = Saturday) or the heathen Norse deities (Woden’s Day = Wednesday, Thor’s Day = Thursday, Freya’s Day = Friday), or the sun and the moon themselves (Sunday and Monday). This is troublesome for those who wish to avoid using heathen expressions.
The differences between biblical time and our own practices is particularly wide when we are dealing with the month. This difference is closely related to the difference between the years of the Bible and our own culture as well. The Hebrew month is based directly on the moons, while our own months are based ultimately on an attempt to divide a solar month equally, with some additional politics added in. The months of the biblical calendar begin at the new moon, have their midpoint at the full moon, and end at the next new moon. There is some debate as to whether the new moons were originally calculated and verified by the visible crescent, or whether they were originally sighted, and there is also some debate as to when it switched from the visible sighting to the calculated method if it began that way. As might be expected, there is no close relationship between the months of the Roman-based calendar that we use and the phases of the moon. However, there is some quirky politics involved. Though quite a few of the months we use in our calendar are based on Roman deities (Janus = January, Mars = March, Juno = June), the irregularity of February being 28 days most of the time (and 29 in leap years) came about because of the politics of Julius Caesar (aka Mr. July) and Augustus Caesar (aka Mr. August) who renamed two of the months after themselves, and then stole days from February because days named after such great leaders could not be shorter than other months. So poor February got the shaft. This is why calendars should not be left in the hand of corrupt politicians.
Originally, there was not so great a distance between the years of the Bible and the years of our time as later became the case. Originally, both years began in the springtime, but when the Roman calendar was revised by the Roman Catholics, the beginning of the year was moved to January, which made some of the illogical names of our months more glaring (December was the 10th month of the year originally, and now it is the 12th, to give one of several examples). Here also there is a difference between the Jewish year and the biblical year. The Jewish year begins at the midpoint of the biblical year, in accordance with the Babylonian system (which is why the name of the Holy Day is Yom Teruah, or Feast of Trumpets in the Bible, and Yom Kippur, or New Year’s Day, in the practice of the Jews). The biblical year starts at Abib or Nisan (it has two names depending on which time period is used), in the springtime of the year. Additionally, there is a separate year, the Jubilee year (the 50th/1st year of the Hebrew cycle of years) which begins on the Day of Atonement, where the land is restored to its original owning families as a way of preventing inequality from becoming rigid.
The fundamental differences between the biblical year and our own year (and the year of the Muslims) depend on the different types of years that each system uses. The biblical year is a lunar-solar year, which means that it is a lunar calendar that is designed (because of its harvest festivals) to correspond with different seasons of the year–beginning always in spring, and having its three harvest seasons correspond with the actual seasons of the agricultural year, keeping them bounded. This requires the addition of periodic intercalinary months, seven years out of every nineteen years with thirteen months and the remaining twelve years with twelve months. The Muslim calendar is an obviously less sophisticated copycat of the Hebrew calendar that has twelve lunar months, making it shorter than the Hebrew calendar and one that does not have any tie with the agricultural year. The Roman calendar that we use is not too different from the Egyptian solar calendar, with its basis in 12 30-day solar years, with slight modifications to match the solar calendar, and one that requires a leap year every four years, along with other less common tweaks (like “leap-seconds”) to keep everything aligned between our calendar and the solar year it is designed to mimic.
Cycles of Years:
The cycles of years of biblical time are based on biblical law, specifically the Sabbath. There is an astronomical cycle of 19 years during which the 19 lunar-solar and 19 solar years coincide, though this cycle is not discussed to my knowledge in scripture, though it has taken an outsized importance among some people who claim to follow biblical practice. It is possible, though, that this 19 year cycle was the basis of the biblical term for “generation,” a period of time that lasted roughly twenty years. The other cycles of biblical time are more directly related to the Sabbath. There is a seven year cycle of years that forms the “land Sabbath,” where debts are to be forgiven and the land is to rest (to avoid exhaustion) every seven years. And there is a 49-year Jubilee cycle where the 1st year of every 49 year cycle is a Jubilee year, where slaves are freed and land is restored to its original families to protect a basically egalitarian social structure that allowed no permanent ruling elite or permanent underclass to develop among its citizenry.
In contrast, the cycles of years of our own Roman-based calendars are far more decimal in nature, with ten years making up a decade and ten decades making up a century, and ten centuries making up a millennium. It should be noted, though, that the millennium is a rare example of a time cycle that is both biblical and cultural in nature. Some historians have attempted to use Etruscan divisions of time into saecula (or “secular” periods of generations in history), but though we use the terms of these generations often (Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials) in American culture, the mathematical and cyclical basis of this division of time has not yet reached the public consciousness to any great degree.
If we desire to follow biblical time, we have quite a lot of changes we need to make in our mental view of time, because while it is very easy to follow the culture of our time, it is vastly more difficult to change our perspective of time to follow the practice of the Bible. Doing so would make us much more aware of the world around us–the setting of the sun, the phases of the moon, and so on–but it is something that is alien to our practice, as we are not a civilization that is greatly in touch with either our physical universe or the cycles of the land. As far as we are concerned, food comes from the grocery store and not from the land itself. If we want that to change, and we want our practice to mimic that of the Bible, we have to be aware of the wide gulf between our own general practice and that of the Bible. If we find it troubling that our days and months are named after pagan deities or corrupt Roman emperors, it remains for us to do something about it, to change our practices accordingly. How to think that way is quite a challenge, though.