During a team building retreat I once attended, the organizer taught us a new card game. She introduced the game’s objective and gave each of us a sheet of paper with the game rules. Then we went to nearby tables to play the game—and chaos ensued. The reason for the chaos gradually became clear. Though we were all told the same objective, each of us received—without our realization—a different set of rules. Players grew increasingly frustrated with one another until we realized what was happening.
Unfortunately, the same kind of frustration often mars discussions of Genesis 1. Christians broadly share the same objective: to read the creation account in a manner that is faithful to the text. But there is disagreement on what kind (genre) of text it is, and thus the hermeneutical rules by which it is to be read.
Some read the creation week as “historical narrative,” employing the rules of a typical event record. Others invoke the rules of “poetry.” Still others insist the passage should be read as “parable,” or as “ancient Near Eastern cosmogony,” or “myth,” and so forth. Identifying the text’s genre is crucial for knowing the hermeneutical rules by which it is to be read.
Reams have been written on the question of Genesis 1’s genre. But surprisingly, there has been little attempt to explore the implications of a genre designation Scripture itself uses for this passage. The five books of Moses are consistently identified as “law” (e.g., Joshua 1:8; Psalm 1:2). I suggest that the most fruitful solution to the Genesis 1 genre question will be found by exploring how the creation week functions as part of Israel’s founding law. The five books of Moses—also called the Pentateuch or the Torah (torah being the Hebrew word for “law”)—need to be interpreted by the expectations of ancient Hebrew law. That includes Genesis 1.
Narratives as Law
While the whole Pentateuch is “torah” or “law,” the Pentateuch contains many different styles of composition. Some portions are readily recognizable as law, like the statutes and commandments. But those portions in styles we (in the modern West) do not generally use when codifying law, such as narratives and poetry, also serve a legal function when used in the Pentateuch. Modern readers generally think of the Pentateuch as containing laws, but recent scholarship has shown that stories in the Pentateuch are also laws, or “narrative law.”1
For example, Leviticus 12:3 states the law of circumcision in the familiar style of a statute. But Genesis 17:1-14 and Exodus 4:24-26 further codify the law of circumcision in narratives. The statute form is simple and brief, while narrative laws preserve ritual sayings, example practices, theological implications, and other instructive material beyond what a statute typically includes. The Pentateuch contains an interwoven collection of laws in various styles of text.2 That includes the Torah’s numerous expressions of Israel’s sabbath law.
Genesis 1 as a Narrative Law
Sabbath laws are stated in many places throughout the Torah, including its opening chapter. The creation week narrative—and I do believe it best to recognize Genesis 1 as a kind of narrative3—is a descriptive presentation of Israel’s sabbath law. In fact, the fourth commandment cites the creation narrative as a law: “Remember the Sabbath day… For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth…, and rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 20:8-11).
Taking its cue from the Decalogue, the church has long recognized the creation account as a sabbath-law text. Despite the many controversies that surround Genesis 1, this one point has enjoyed nearly universal agreement: the creation narrative codifies Israel’s law of weekly work and sabbath rest. This insight is actually quite old—but has yet to be explored for its full, hermeneutical import for how we read the creation week.
Thankfully, the Torah contains several examples of calendar laws in narrative form. In fact, there are twenty-one dated events in the Pentateuch, and my research has identified a calendrical function for each of them.4 An analysis of these calendar-law narratives offers promising insights for reading the sabbath-law narrative in Genesis 1.
Comparing other Calendar-Law Narratives
Israel had an extensive calendar of festivals prescribed in its law. Some parts of the Torah codify festivals in statutes (e.g., Exodus 23:10-17; Leviticus 23:4-43). Other passages enrich those instructions through law narratives. Through study of those law narratives, it is possible to learn the Bible’s own patterns for reading the Genesis 1 calendar narrative—including its seven-day chronology.
For example, Passover was assigned to the 14th day of the first month by various statutes as well as the Passover night narrative in Exodus 12. This narrative version of the Passover law is filled with ritual instructions like, “the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill their lambs at twilight” and “they shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it” (Exodus 12:6, 8). The passage is transparently shaped as festival guidance. It is a calendar law prescribed in narrative form. Not surprisingly, the narrative mentions the 14th day of the first month as the date of the Passover night (Exodus 12:2, 6).
A few chapters later, Exodus 19 provides another narrative about the subsequent pilgrimage festival called “Weeks.”5 The Feast of Weeks was held in the third month, seven weeks after Passover (Leviticus 23:15-16). Exodus 19 appoints the festival preparations for approaching God to enter into covenant with him through the narrative of Israel’s arrival at Sinai. Naturally, the story dates these narrated events to the timing of the Feast of Weeks “in the third month” (Exodus 19:1, a.t.).6
All this seems straightforward, until one compares the dates in these calendar narratives with the actual length of Israel’s journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai recorded elsewhere in Exodus.
Observance Dates and Occurrence Dates
Seven weeks separate the observance of Passover and Weeks, and that timing is reflected in the narratives just reviewed. But the book of Exodus reports in three different passages that the actual time for that journey from Egypt to Mount Sinai was only three days!
God told Moses to take the people “a three days’ journey into the wilderness” to “serve God on this mountain” (Exodus 3:12, 18; cf., 5:3; 8:27). Scholars have frequently noted this apparent contradiction in chronology, often ascribing the difference to distinct traditions that the Pentateuch’s compiler failed to smooth over. But a better explanation emerges when a comprehensive study of all the dated events of the Pentateuch are examined.
On its own, this chronological oddity seems an idiosyncrasy to be explained in any number of ways. But when all twenty-one dated events in the Pentateuch are examined, a pattern emerges. One of the features of calendar-law narratives in the Torah is the ascription of festival observance dates to events that do not reflect the actual timing of those events. This is a critical hermeneutical difference between journalistic narratives and calendar-law narratives.
Actually, we do something similar with modern holidays. Some modern holidays are observed on the exact date of the event commemorated. American Independence Day is held on July 4th, the date the Declaration of Independence was published in 1776. But other modern holidays are observed on dates that differ from the remembered event’s occurrence date. For example, George Washington’s birthday (also known as President’s Day) is legally assigned to the third Monday of February, even though that Monday never coincides with Washington’s actual birthdate which was February 22.
Identifying the text’s genre is crucial for knowing the hermeneutical rules by which it is to be read.
In times both ancient and modern, holiday observance dates are frequently different than the remembered event’s occurrence date. But the Pentateuch appoints those dates in a manner which is unfamiliar to modern readers: it retells the remembered history in a narrative with legal observance dates inserted instead of the actual occurrence dates.
Genesis 1 as Calendar-Law Narrative
This hermeneutical principle offers important guidance for reading the sabbath law narrated in the creation week. In particular, it shows us that the narrative’s chronology is provided to guide sabbath observance and not to report the actual timing of the original creation process. This is an important distinction between calendar-law narratives and other historical narratives. Like the journey from Egypt to Sinai, the actual timing of God’s creative works may be very different than the cadence around which we are taught to remember those works of God and to reflect their lessons in our own stewardship of the world.
By examining Genesis 1 according to the genre designation given by Scripture itself (“law”), and by comparing it to the other calendar narratives of Israel’s founding “constitution,” we are able to find guidance from within the Pentateuch for reading the creation week by its own hermeneutical rules. The text does not preserve the actual chronology of God’s creation works. Instead, as narrative law, the text remaps the creation story around the cadence we are taught for laboring and worshiping in the world as God’s stewards.