This series is drawn from an article entitled “The Narrative Form of Genesis 1: Cosmogonic, Yes; Scientific, No”, originally published in 1984 in the Journal of the American Scientific Affiliation (now Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith). It is reprinted with permission.
Thou has made him little less than God
and dost crown him with glory and honor.
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
then has put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the sea.
This triadic structure of three sets of three points up another problem with a literal reading of the account. Literalism presumes that the numbering of days is to be understood in an arithmetical sense, whether as actual days or as epochs. This is certainly the way in which numbers are used in science, history and mathematics-and in practically all areas of modern life. But the use of numbers in ancient religious texts was often numerological rather than numerical. That is, their symbolic value was the basis and purpose for their use, not their secular value as counters. While the conversion of numerology to arithmetic was essential for the rise of modern science, historiography and mathematics, the result is that numerological symbols are reduced to signs. Numbers had to be neutralized and secularized, and completely stripped of any symbolic suggestion, in order to be utilized as digits. The principal surviving exception to this is the negative symbolism attached to the number 13, which still holds a strange power over Fridays, and over the listing of floors in hotels and high rises.
In the literal treatment of the six days of creation, a modern, arithmetical reading is substituted for the original symbolic one. This results, unwittingly, in a secular rather than religious interpretation. Not only are the symbolic associations and meanings of the text lost in the process, but the text is needlessly placed in conflict with scientific and historical readings of origins.
In order to understand the use of the imagery of days, and the numbering scheme employed, one has to think, not only cosmologically, but numerologically. One of the religious considerations involved in numbering is to make certain that any schema works out numerologically: that is, that it uses, and adds up to, the right numbers symbolically. This is distinctively different from a secular use of numbers in which the overriding concern is that numbers add up to the correct total numerically.
In this case, one of the obvious interests of the Genesis account is to correlate the grand theme of the divine work in creation with the six days of work and seventh day of rest in the Jewish week. If the Hebrews had had a five-day or a seven-day work week, the account would have read differently in a corresponding manner. Seven was a basic unit of time among West Semitic peoples, and goes back to the division of the lunar month into 4 periods of 7 days each. By the time Genesis was written, the 7-day week and the sabbath observance had been long established. Since what is being affirmed in the text is the creative work of God, it was quite natural to use the imagery of 6 days of work, with a 7th day of rest. It would surely have seemed inappropriate and jarring to have depicted the divine creative effort in a schema of, say, 5 days or 11 days.
It was important for religious reasons, not secular ones, to use a schema of seven days, and to have the work of creation completed by the end of the sixth day. “And God ceased on the seventh day from all work which he had done” (Genesis 2:2). The word “ceased” is shabat, a cognate of the term shabbat, sabbath. The “creation model” being used here is thus in no sense a scientific model, but a liturgical-calendrical model based on the sacred division of the week and the observance of sabbath. This is the religious form within which the subject of work is to be treated, even the subject of divine work.
The seven-day structure is also being used for another, not unrelated, reason. The number 7 has the numerological meaning of wholeness, plenitude, completeness. This symbolism is derived, in part, from the combination of the three major zones of the cosmos as seen vertically (heaven, earth, underworld) and the four quarters and directions of the cosmos as seen horizontally. Both the numbers 3 and 4 in themselves often function as symbols of totality, for these and other reasons. Geometrically speaking, 3 is the triangular symbol of totality, and 4 is the rectangular symbol (in its perfect form as the square). But what would be more “total” would be to combine the vertical and horizontal planes. Thus the number 7 (adding 3 and 4) and the number 12 (multiplying them) are recurrent biblical symbols of fullness and perfection: 7 golden candlesticks, 7 spirits, 7 words of praise, 7 churches, the 7th year, the 49th year, the 70 elders, forgiveness 70 times 7, etc. Even Leviathan, that dread dragon of the abyss, was represented in Canaanite myth as having 7 heads—the “complete” monster.
Such positive meanings are now being applied by Genesis to a celebration of the whole of creation, and of the parenthesis of sabbath rest. The liturgically repeated phrase “And God saw that it was good,” which appears after each day of creation, and the final capping phrase “And behold it was very good,” are paralleled and underlined by being placed in a structure that is climaxed by a 7th day. The 7th day itself symbolizes its completeness and “very-goodness.”
The account also makes use of the corresponding symbol of wholeness and totality: 12. Two sets of phenomena are assigned to each of the 6 days of creation, thus totalling 12. In this manner the numerological symbolism of completion and fulfillment is associated with the work of creation, as well as the rest from it on the 7th day. The totality of nature is created by God, is good, and is to be celebrated both daily and in special acts of worship and praise on the Sabbath day. The words “six” and “seven” are themselves words of praise: six expressing praise for creation and work; seven for sabbath and rest.
Uses of the number 12, like 7, abound throughout the Bible. Not only is there a miscellany of references to 12 pillars, 12 springs, 12 precious stones, 12 gates, 12 fruits, 12 pearls, etc., but it was important also to identify 12 tribes of Israel, as well as 12 tribes of Ishmael, and later the 12 districts of Solomon, as well as Jesus’ 12 disciples.
Though in the modern world numbers have become almost completely secularized, in antiquity they could function as significant vehicles of meaning and power. It was important to associate the right numbers with one’s life and activity, and to avoid the wrong numbers. To do so was to surround and fill one's existence with the positive meanings and powers which numbers such as 3, 4, 7 and 12 conveyed. In this way one gave religious significance to life, and placed one’s existence in harmony with the divine order of the cosmos. By aligning and synchronizing the microcosm of one’s individual and family life, and the mesocosm of one’s society and state, with the macrocosm itself, life was tuned to the larger rhythms of this sacred order.
For twentieth-century, western societies the overriding consideration in the use of numbers is their secular value in addition, subtraction, division and multiplication. We must therefore have numbers that are completely devoid of all symbolic associations. Numbers such as 7 and 12 do not make our calculators or computers function any better, nor does the number 13 make them any less efficient. Our numbers are uniform, value-neutral “meaningless” and “powerless.” What is critical to modern consciousness is to have the right numbers in the sense of having the right figures and right count. This sense, of course, was also present in the ancient world: in commerce, in construction, in military affairs, in taxation. But there was also a higher, symbolic use of numbers. In a religious context, it was more important to have the right numbers in a sacred rather than profane sense. While we give the highest value, and nearly exclusive value, to numbers as carriers of arithmetic “facts,” in religious texts and rituals the highest value was often given to numbers as carriers of ultimate truth and reality.
Those, therefore, who would attempt to impose a literal reading of numbers upon Genesis, as if the sequence of days was of the same order as counting sheep or merchandise or money, are offering a modern, secular interpretation of a sacred text—in the name of religion. And, as if this were not distortion enough, they proceed to place this secular reading of origins in competition with other secular readings and secular literatures: scientific, historical, mathematical, technological. Extended footnotes are appended to the biblical texts on such extraneous subjects as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, radiometric dating, paleontology, sedimentation, hydrology, etc. These are hardly the issues with which Genesis is concerning itself, or is exercised over.