Book Review: The Liturgy of Creation

Dear Reader,

Michael Lefebvre’s The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2019) presents an interesting new approach to Genesis 1. LeFebvre is a member of my own denomination, a pastor, and a professor at the denominational seminary. He is clearly an intelligent scholar who has done a lot of study and put a lot of thought into the argument he makes. Having read the book and taken some time to ponder it, I am still not entirely sure where I fall on its argument.

My own background is in biblical Hebrew [1] and I have given some thought to the creation story in the past. Going into this book I would have said I am somewhat agnostic on creation issues, tending toward an Old Earth creationism but certainly not a literal 6-day creationism. [2] I also would say (and have said) that Genesis 1 is a unique narrative. It stands not just at the beginning of our Bible but as an introduction to the Pentateuch, the Old Testamen,t and the Scriptures as a whole. Despite attempts to define it, it is not really like any other section of Scripture in terms of its style and genre. Therefore it is hard to know how to take it.  I have argued, for instance, that though literal creationists want to compare the use of days with numbers attached to other such uses in the Pentateuch, that these can not really be compared on an equal footing since they are not the same kinds of texts.

LeFebvre has no doubt gotten and will get a lot of flack for his book from literal 6-day creationists. In fact, a large part of the book is devoted to saying, again and again, that Genesis 1 cannot be used to say anything about the scientific aspects of when and how the earth was created. This is not my problem with the book. I went into the book already half-way on LeFebvre’s side in that I did not take the six days literally and I do take Genesis 1 as a different kind of genre, though I had no real answer to the question of what that genre is.

LeFebvre provides an answer to the question. The thesis of his book is that Genesis 1 is a calendar narrative (p. 6). As far as I know this is a genre he has uniquely identified and defined. The arguments he makes are built something like a brick wall in that they all hold together and work toward a common goal but it would be possible to disagree with some points here and there without knocking down the whole edifice. To mix my metaphors, one might say many of his arguments are circumstantial evidence. No one alone proves his point but when taken altogether he does make a compelling case.

I can’t possibly address everything LeFebvre brings into the discussion. I am going to leave aside all the scientific/creationist issues because (a) I am sure others will address those at length and (b) they are not issues for me personally. What I would like to focus on are just a few of the bigger issues and implications of Lefebvre’s argument.

Simply put, LeFeFebvre’s argument is that there is a genre within the Old Testament which he calls calendar narrative. He begins by looking at other passages from the Pentateuch and showing how the dates in them make no sense if taken literally (or at least pose serious issues). He shows how these dates line up with the festival holidays of Israel and argues that they were never meant to be taken literally but to tie Israel’s history to its calendar observances. These dates, he says, were for “liturgical remembrance,” not “journalistic detail” (p. 60). They were meant for the instruction of later generations (p. 66). Whereas the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern cultures might tie their festivals to their myths, Israel’s festivals were rooted in their history (p. 14). Thus the story of the Passover, for one, is not intended to provide a precise history but to give instruction and meaning to the worshipper who will come later (p. 77).

Having learned “a reading strategy” (p. 66) from these other passages, LeFebvre turns to Genesis 1 and argues that the seven-day week it describes was also never meant to be taken literally. Like those other dates, the narrative of Genesis 1, according to Lefebvre, provides a justification for Israel’s festivals. In this case it is the weekly work cycle culminating in the Sabbath which is the focus (p. 113).  Note that it is not the Sabbath alone which Genesis 1 points to but the whole week. It is an example to us as much of what we should be doing the first six days of the week as what we should be doing on the final day. The description of God’s work week in Genesis 1 establishes the pattern for the human week. As LeFebvre describes the events of that first week, there are the normal patterns of plants growing and the normal taxonomy of animals with which the Israelite farmer would have been familiar (p. 173). There is nothing miraculous here; the original audience would have recognized what happens in Genesis 1 as mirroring their normal work. God, in this scenario, is the pattern for humans (p. 137). He is the Model Farmer (p. 165). The culmination of the week, the seventh day, is a time to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor. It is a day of feasting.

On one level, there is a lot of appeal to LeFebvre’s theory. As I said, it tends to be in line with where my thoughts were going anyway — that Genesis has a unique genre and that we need to understand it as such. I think we also need to admit that there are some parts of the Bible that are just hard to take as literal history. Some dates don’t seem to line up or to make sense. There are various ways to deal with these seeming contradictions and some are more convincing than others. LeFebvre’s theory does an end-run around such arguments by saying that these dates were never meant to be taken literally.  He rather elegantly does away with the seeming contradictions without undermining the text or robbing them of it meaning.

LeFebvre spends some time explaining how the Bible deals with the scientific theories and beliefs of its day. Basically his argument is that the Bible never contradicts what its original readers would have believed. It never stretches them scientifically even if what they believed was wrong (a geocentric universe for example). In the context of his overall argument, this is perfectly acceptable. Since the Bible was not meant as science, it has no need to correct wrong science or to teach right science. I do actually like how he explains all this. It was not something I had thought about in this way but it makes sense.

I am less persuaded by some of his other arguments. (Recall that these arguments are like bricks in a wall; if we remove too many the whole will fall but to reject one or two is not necessarily to overthrow the whole.) He largely discounts miraculous explanations for the seeming contradictions. Not that he is a denier of miracles altogether, but he argues that if “the supernatural help of the Lord” were needed to accomplish large tasks such as the making of the utensils for the tabernacle in a relatively short amount of time that the text would have made this explicit (p. 87). This seems like a big assumption to me. One could argue on the other side that because there are so many instances where things were accomplished in humanly impossible (or at least improbable) amounts of time that this is how the text operates — these things happen and it does not comment on them. As with so many aspects of the biblical story, we are left to draw our own conclusions.

The thesis of LeFebvre’s book is that Genesis 1 is something he calls a calendar narrative. He bases this identification on the analogy with the other Pentateuchal texts which give dates. While he makes a compelling argument that the other passages use dates in a liturgical way, I don’t think he has established that there is a genre called calendar narrative or that Genesis 1 necessarily uses dates in the same way. As LeFebvre points out, the dates in Genesis 1 are different. They are days of the week with no reference to months (p. 115). He would say that this is because Genesis 1 speaks of the repeated weekly cycle rather than the yearly festivals, but, nonetheless, it is a difference. Genesis 1 is also one compact, discrete, and highly organized narrative. Compare this to the Flood story or the descriptions of Passover. My belief going into this was that Genesis 1 stands apart from the other Old Testament narratives we have because of its form and organization. LeFebvre has made a connection via the use of dates but he has not shown me that there is a genre here or what its defining characteristics would be, other than the use of specific dates which hardly seems enough to define a genre.

There is a difference as well in how LeFebvre himself deals with the details of these narratives. When speaking of the other narratives, he seems to take their details literally, apart from the issue of timing. Thus he can discuss how long it would have taken to make the utensils for the Tabernacle because he assumes that these utensils were made just as the text says and that the other events also happened as well in roughly the order they are presented. Yet when he comes to Genesis 1, there seems to be very little that he takes literally. To dismiss the idea of a literal week is one thing, but LeFebvre also says that the events of Creation need not have happened in the order they are presented (p. 138) and that even the mechanism of Creation is not meant literally (p. 146).

LeFebvre’s overall argument makes a very strong case for the Sabbath which I am not at all opposed to but it does so at the expense of other meaning. Coming as Genesis 1 does at the beginning of the whole Bible and being as it is a highly ordered narrative (a fairly unique thing within the Scriptures) one expects it to give an introduction to everything that follows, to set the tone if you will. [3] For Lefebvre, that introduction boils down to the Sabbath and the Sabbath alone:

“When the Holy Spirit guided the compilation of the Pentateuch, the sabbath-week calendar was placed at the front — literally in its first chapter (Gen 1:1-2:3). The cadence taught in that passage is the foundation from which our vision of God’s kingdom is unfolded in the rest of Scripture.” (p. 218)

In other words: “The Sabbath promise is literally the framing paradigm for all Scripture” (p. 219). This is quite a bold statement yet it comes at the end of the book with little discussion of how this would play out for our interpretation of the rest of the Bible. Let me say this again: LeFebvre is proposing a new paradigm for understanding all of Scripture.  Now the Sabbath is a wonderful thing and I think he could go a long way by talking about the ideal Sabbath rest which was set before us in Genesis 1, lost, found again in Jesus, and awaits us in eternity. But is this the paradigm by which we should understand all of Scripture? There are surely competing options. Covenant comes to mind. Jesus said that all of Scripture points to Him. If we are to say that Sabbath is the paradigm then at the very least that needs to be understood under the heading of Jesus as our Sabbath rest in which case it is not really the Sabbath which is key but Christ.

LeFebvre makes grand claims for Genesis 1 and yet in many ways he seems to rob it of meaning. His view of Genesis 1 is very focused and narrow. He concentrates on the weekly cycle of work and rest but in his understanding there is little else that Genesis 1 has to tell us. Personally, I think God tends to be a little more multifunctional than that. If we compare Genesis 1 to the Flood story, another of his calendar narratives, we find that while we might follow LeFebvre in not taking the dates literally there is still a lot the text has to tell us about not just big concepts like sin and judgment (not to mention baptism) but even about details like how many animals came in. If there is such a thing as calendar narrative, we still need to ask and answer questions about how we are to understand this genre. It is not enough to say “calendar narrative” as a way to explain the dates in a story and then to ignore the rest of what that narrative has to tell us. Considering the genre of any piece is useful in that it helps us know how to read that piece. LeFebvre has given a theory about how to understand the dates of certain texts, but he hasn’t spoken to how this helps our understanding of the rest of the details of these narratives.

As LeFebvre explains it, there is little left in Genesis 1 that would have been new information for its original audience. He makes a point of the fact that its agricultural details would have been very familiar to the average ancient Israelite. The actions and details of Genesis 1 would have been completely representative of the weekly cycle of work and rest of the average person. So much so that LeFebvre calls God “the Model Farmer.” I am willing to give LeFebvre the benefit of the doubt that he does not mean it this way but it is hard not to feel at times that, rather than man following the example of God here, God is being made in the image of man.

Often throughout the book I found myself wondering if what we have here is a chicken-and-egg problem. That is, which came first? If the Passover story (as an example) is being told in a way that instructs about the later celebration of that festival at the expense of the actual details about how the original Passover happened, which is the original story? Are there events which happened upon which the festival is based? Or is the story about Moses and the Israelites told to justify the festival? Again, this may not be how LeFebvre himself sees it (and I suspect it is not) but this is quite how modern, non-religious scholars take such texts — every story is created to explain a situation the audience already is quite familiar with. This is the definition of myth (with no implied judgment on its truthiness). Thus in Greek mythology the story of Demeter and Persephone explains the seasons and the Tower of Babel story explains why people speak different languages. LeFebvre’s understanding of Genesis 1 seems to fall into this same pattern — it explains something the audience already knew (agricultural cycles) and why they have certain practices (weekly work/rest pattern) but it would not have been informative for the original audience. In such an understanding, it is a story to explain why we do things the way we do not to tell us how to do something. The question for Genesis 1, then, is: Is the creation story written this way to justify the weekly practice or do the people have the weekly practice because this is how creation happened?

In his understanding of how dates are used in the Pentateuch, I do think LeFebvre has hit on something that deserves more attention. He has shown quite clearly how the various specific dates given lined up with Israel’s various festivals and feasts and that is quite compelling. He has not convinced me that there is a genre here that can be used to understand Genesis 1 in particular.  What I would like to see is a fuller description of the defining characteristics of this genre and how we are to interpret it, especially how we are to understand the details of such a story given its genre. I tend to agree with LeFebvre that there is not much we can get about chronology from Genesis 1 but that does not mean that there is not more that the story is telling us beyond the weekly cycle of work and rest.

LeFebvre is quite right when he says that his interpretation makes the Sabbath the paradigm for all of Scripture. But that is a huge claim. It is a fairly daunting thing in the year 2000-something to say “I have a new paradigm for understanding Scripture.” If he means it, I think he also needs to speak to how that paradigm shapes our understanding of the rest of the Bible.

If I can close by returning to the analogy I started with, I think LeFebvre has some very interesting bricks here. I am not convinced he has built a wall. When he speaks of the Sabbath paradigm, I feel he is saying “look, I can see a totally new country from my wall,” but he doesn’t tell me enough about what that country looks like.

Nebby

[1] I have a bachelors and masters in Hebrew from one secular university and was ABD “all but dissertation” in a Ph.D. Program at another prestigious secular university.

[2] You can find earlier posts I did on the whole creation/evolution thing here.

[3] Psalm 1 sets the tone for the Book of Psalms in much the same way.

[4] “Secular” here describes the institutions which had no religious affiliation (except perhaps a very distant historical one). The students and staff held to a range of beliefs. Some, students especially, professed various forms of Christianity. Some, professors especially, were fairly religious Jews.

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