The Time-World of the Bible
Did God create time? We want to say Yes. The reasoning is simple: God created everything. Time is a thing. Therefore, God created time.
Inspect Genesis 1, though, and you’re brought up short. God speaks light into existence on Day 1, names the light day, separates it from darkness, and sets them up in an alternating dance of evening and morning. Evenings and mornings pass, piling up days, until the end of the creation week. God creates light and the rhythm of days. But what about time?
On Day 4, God concentrates the light of Day 1 into heavenly lamps, the sun, moon, and stars. He places them in the firmament to separate and rule day and night, “for signs, and for seasons, and for days and years” (Gen 1:14). Lights conduct the music of evenings and mornings, the cycles of the seasons, the turning of months and years. Yahweh labors for six days, then enters Sabbath rest, establishing the pattern of a week. Days, weeks, months, years all make their appearance in Genesis 1. But is that time?
Plato wouldn’t have thought so. For Plato, days and years are “parts” of time. Past and future are “forms” of time. Time itself is a “moving image” of eternity (Timaeus).
Isaac Newton wouldn’t have thought so either. Newtonian time is “absolute time,” which plods along at a constant pace everywhere in the universe, whether or not there are any things there or events taking place.
Ancient Hebrew has a word for time (‘et), but biblical time isn’t “Newtonian time.” Biblical writers speak of “this time” and “that time,” “the time when women go out to draw water” and “the time when the flocks are mating,” “meal time” and “times of trouble.” According to Solomon, there’s a time for war and a time for peace, a time for gathering and a time for scattering, a time to speak and a time for silence (Eccl 3). Solomon isn’t musing on time, but on times.
Most of all, biblical times are festival times. Israel’s liturgical calendar added a historical layer to the seasonal cycles of planting and harvesting. Spring wasn’t just a time for planting, but commemorated Israel’s deliverance from Egypt. The autumnal Feast of Booths was a harvest festival, which pointed to the final harvest of nations.
We might conclude the Bible is too primitive to offer a “philosophy of time.” But ancient writers imagined time as a flowing stream, or a container for events and actions, or a line. Aristotle defined time, mysteriously, as “a number of change with respect to before and after” (Metaphysics). Augustine brought Plato’s questions to Genesis and puzzled over time’s relationship to the God of eternity.
No, the biblical view of time isn’t childish. It’s just radically different from both ancient philosophical and modern scientific views. In the Bible, time is personal. Time isn’t an infinite container or a blank colorless constant. It’s shaped by human action and decision and takes on different tonalities, depending on what we’re called to do. The sages of Israel had far more to say about timing than “time in itself.”
Scripture, in short, invites us into an alternative time-world, a world in which time is finally filled to fullness, until it bursts out in times of refreshing from the presence of the Lord.
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