Seven Days, Seven Speeches

I am not a Hebrew Bible scholar, simply an interested layman. Nonetheless, I remember hearing someone say, over fifteen years ago, that Genesis 1 was really a ritual text; I fell in love with this idea before I became acquainted with the arguments, given how I loved the poetry of the text, and hated Creationism. I have the relevant articles somewhere tucked away, and was not able to consult them for this, but a few words at the outset, before the skeleton of the argument: not all scholars agree with this. The illustrious Jon D. Levenson, in his excellent Creation and the Persistence of Evil, cites the arguments below, and the articles it is based upon, with only partial agreement. I found Jon’s fascinated wariness too cautious. I should say that Crispin H.T. Fletcher-Louis, here, in a two-part article “The Cosmology of P and Theological Anthropology in the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach” (scroll down a bit to get to the link to the PDF of the article), does find this convincing, finds another more dramatic example of this in the priestly literature of the book of Sirach (sometimes called “Ecclesiasticus” — not to be confused with Ecclesiastes), and I found Fletcher-Louis persuasive. Beyond Peter Kearney’s Creation and Liturgy, which turned me on to this idea in the first place, I cannot recall the names of the articles that first proposed these links, though I have them in a binder somewhere for another day, for another amplified and thoroughly annotated version of this post.

In all of the Ancient Near Eastern cosmogonies that I know of, the creation of the world begins in the overcoming of primordial forces of chaos through divinely wrought ordering (sometimes even violent ordering) and culminates in the well-ordered building of a temple that becomes the dwelling of God or the gods. This temple, of course, is either the archetype of the national temple, or else that very temple. It is such in the Babylonian account of the Enuma Elish, where the god Marduk goes to war against the primordial Tiamat and her general Qingu, kills them both, makes the earth by mingling the dust with the blood of Qingu, and then finally establishes his temple, Esagila, the pillar connecting earth and heaven, the axis mundi. One could walk to Esagila. Nebuchadnezzar II, who laid siege to Jerusalem and carried off the elite to Babylon as captives, oversaw the completion of Esagila’s final form (much as Herod would the second temple in Jerusalem).

I’ve written about the textual deposits of a form of this tradition in Hebrew literature. In this context of exile, however, some Jewish priestly authors in Babylon drafted a new creation story –the first of the two that appear in the first four chapters of the book of Genesis– specifically in reaction to the Enuma Elish and stories like it. The Genesis 1 story expresses a kosher mentality of boundaries and order, where man is not a drudge made to “care and feed” the gods (as in the Enuma Elish), but is a divine statue of sorts, an image of God.

It might be said that the temple that climaxes the creation is not a physical structure, but the Sabbath, the Seventh Day. Nothing could be more portable than a temporal observance. Through a series of clever intertextual references here, however, something more than this is occurring: the seven day story of creation is being inter-textually connected with seven speeches God gives to Moses on Sinai concerning the elements of the tabernacle. I will offer only cursory examples of how this works, because I don’t have the original literature handy, or any of my notes.

First day (Genesis 1:1-5 [1]), wherein God calls forth light and separates it from the darkness, corresponds to the first speech to Moses (Exodus 25:1-30:10). In the first speech, God calls for the building of the tabernacle and itemizes its appurtenances (Exodus 25:1-27:19), also calling for the separation of Aaron and his sons from the rest of the people of Israel (27:20-30:10), noting the garments of “glory” and “beauty” (28:2) that Aaron and his sons after him are to wear in their ritual ministrations. Surrounding the long passage pertaining to Aaron and his sons are two passages, 27:20-21 and 30:1-10, which frame the entire second half of the first Speech. The first passage (27:20-21) pertains to the perpetual light of the Menorah lamp (first mentioned in 25:31-40) and the Aaronide tending of that lamp “from evening to morning”. The second passage pertains to the ritual offerings upon the incense altar and its relationship to Aaron’s ritual tending of the menorah lamps (30:7-8). The light of first day, the menorah lamp, the garments of glory, and the Aaronic dynasty are all connected. (The ceremonial officiants of the dynasty, however, are installed into the garments for each new generation.)

Second Day (Genesis 1:6-8 [2]), wherein God establishes a firmament (“heaven”) to separate the waters into above and below (with an eye to the end that there should be a place in which humanity may dwell), corresponds to the second speech to Moses (Exodus 30:11-16), where the form of the census tax that will be instituted on all of Israel is given (separating all Israelite males into above and below 20 years of age), a tax with an eye to the end that there might be funds to maintain the tabernacle/temple, a place in which Aaron, acting as the Lord’s living image, could minister to God.

Third day (Genesis 1:9-13 [3]), wherein God contains the waters below the heavens, so that a space might be made in and through which habitable land might be brought forth, corresponds to the third speech (Exodus 30:17-21) to Moses, in which the Lord commands a bronze water-containing basin to be built (a washing basin –sometimes it is translated into English as a “laver”– that is elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible simply called, “the molten sea” [4]).

Fourth Day (Genesis 1:14-19 [5]), wherein God called forth the sun, moon and stars (for signs and seasons, to give light to the earth, to rule the day and the night and to separate the light from the darkness), corresponds to the fourth speech to Moses (Exodus 30:22-33). There the Lord commands a perfumed holy anointing oil to be mixed, and applied only to the tent, the ark, the showbread table (and its utensils), the menorah (and its utensils), the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering (and its utensils), the wash basin (the “sea”) and its base, as well as Aaron and his sons. It must not be used on profane things and people, or manufactured for profane enjoyment (that is, for any use outside of the holy places of the temple). Just as the creation is now necessarily furnished for man’s arrival (despite lacking animals), so too the tabernacle is sufficiently furnished for priestly ministrations.

Without help it is impossible for us moderns to see how, on the surface of things, the contents of fourth day and the fourth speech are related. Several passages from psalm 89 present themselves to show at least the possibility of their being connected in the minds of contemporaries, if not how they are. So psalm 89:20 [6] reads that

I have found My servant David; / with My holy oil I have anointed him,

and in verses 36-37, we hear that

[David’s] seed shall endure forever, / and his throne as the sun before Me; it shall be established forever like the moon, / even like the faithful witness in the sky.

When the psalmist likens David’s throne to the sun and moon it is almost certainly done to evoke a sense of permanence. This image of permanence also lies behind the imagery for the righteous as stars in Daniel [7], as well as St. Paul’s imagery for the kinds of bodies the victorious faithful shall have in the resurrection compared to the corruptible bodies they now have [8]. Just as the sun, moon and stars are made “to rule the day and the night,” this exalted state of David’s is associated with “glory,” for David loses “glory” when he is cast down from this celestial starry height, when in verse 39 we hear that the Lord “profaned [David’s] crown by casting it to the ground,” and in verse 44 that “You have made his glory cease, / and cast his throne down to the ground.” Just as the sun, moon and stars “separate the light from the darkness,” so too does the application of this holy oil separate holy things and people from profane ones, as they shine like stars in the sanctuary, the oil reflecting the light of the menorah just as the gold of the sanctuary. As with most of the other temples from the Ancient Near East that I’m familiar with, the Jewish tabernacle/temple is a microcosm; it represents the world in miniature. Further, just as the sun, moon and stars are established to mark the seasons, there are also seasonal rotations of the priests.

Fifth Day (Genesis 1:20-23 [9]), wherein God commands the tamed waters to bring forth sea creatures and that the creation bring forth birds, corresponds to the fifth speech (Exodus 30:34-38) of the Lord to Moses, where the Lord commands that a particular mixture of incense be made and that part of it be set before the Ark. Onycha, a substance used in making this mixture, is made by “grinding the operculum of a marine mollusk into a powder which gives off a pungent odor when burned.” [10]

Sixth day (1:24-31 [11]), wherein God commands the earth to bring forth animals and insects, and makes humanity in the divine image, corresponds to the sixth speech (Exodus 31:1-11) to Moses, where God calls Bezalel of Judah and fills him with the divine spirit, calls Oholiab of Dan along with Bezalel, and gives “to all able men ability, that they may make all that I have commanded you.” The phrase, “wind/breath/spirit of God” (“Ruach Elohim”) appears first in Genesis chapter 1, where the spirit hovers over the waters, and does not appear again until here, in reference to Bezalel. The garments that Aaron and his sons are to be appointed to, and the place where he’ll be ministering, are made by the activity of these “inspired” craftsmen.

The seventh day (2:1-3 [12]), wherein God rested, corresponds to the seventh speech (Exodus 31:12-17) to Moses, wherein the Sabbath is commanded as an obligation for all of Israel, and explicitly connected by the author of Genesis to the seven day story, “it is a sign for ever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” [13]

As I recall it, Jon Levenson accepts the connections between days 1, 3, and 7, and the corresponding speeches, but is wary of the others. One can understand why, given how some of them seem, to us, as a stretch. I cannot help but wonder, then, why the same literary pattern appears in Sirach, if Fletcher-Louis’ article is as I remember, and if he is correct?

The significance of the text, then, occurs on several levels: the otherwise-lost world the exiles nevertheless brought with them doesn’t actually die, despite the interruption: it is transfigured as a textual image, yes, certain earlier temple regulations translated as a set of laws, and any divine archetype appealed to as the grounds for royal aggression to emulate is effectively pacified (there is no violence in this Genesis text – God speaks, and the world appears peacefully, orderly; God sets out kosher distinctions in the making of the world, and God’s making of the world is like Moses’ making of the tabernacle, while Moses is patterned like a high priest). It is not clear to me whether these interpretations were designed to be permanent. If I have the chronology correct, the text did set out a historical space, between the Babylonian exile and the restoration of the Jerusalem temple, where the far-off future could be expectation and anticipated, even prefigured. Until this point, I know of no literature whose mythos explicitly began pointing forwards as well as backwards.

In this way, the portable practice of keeping the Sabbath is connected with a textual activity – a virtual rite of sorts, walking around the destroyed temple, under the aspect of the tabernacle, through reading about it (particularly in the book of Leviticus, as the illustrious Mary Douglas notes in a chapter of this book). When the Jerusalem temple cannot evoke its archetype (Moses, going into the cloud of divine glory atop Mount Sinai, is shown a vision of the Jerusalem temple, and is commanded to build everything “according to the pattern” he has seen), the earthly pattern of the Jerusalem temple is invoked, either in and as literature or else quite literally in hymnic invocations [14].

Different ways of engaging with the world lead naturally to different ways of conceiving the meaning of particular things and the whole in a manner in keeping with the activity. The maps that are generated from reflection on these modes of engagement can be quite obscure when so much in them is intended “for internal use only”, so to speak. Many of the themes in Genesis 1 are straightforward, but the full sense of much of it is not obvious to those of us who are not engaged in the practices that these ancient Jews were (or who are not engaged in the memory of these practices), and who do not divide up the world the way they did. For a modern example, a butcher’s map of an animal represents the various cuts to be made (flank steak, rump roast, &c.) while the veterinarian’s map is out-of-mind and invisible to the butcher, meaningless to him while he’s sawing and slicing; likewise the butcher’s map for the vet. Neither map would be nearly as meaningful if either of these activities were somehow lost as a way of engaging animals. So it is with Genesis 1. Engaging the cosmos as a temple leads to this kind of language; fail to do that, and it makes no sense, is fantasy, myth, even delusion. (One sees it, very sillily, compared to the maps of modern physics, which is muddle-headed, as Genesis 1 is not about prediction and control.) There is a certain poetry in regarding the world as a temple, but without the analogous passages in Exodus, and the idea of –and specific practices associated with– priestly activity found in Exodus, we lost much of what the authors of Genesis intended.



Genesis 1:1-5 “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” (RSV)


Genesis 1:6-8 “And God said, “Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the firmament and separated the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament. And it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was evening and there was morning, a second day.” (RSV)


Genesis 1:9-13 “And God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. And God saw that it was good. And God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation, plants yielding seed, and fruit trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind, upon the earth.” And it was so. The earth brought forth vegetation, plants yielding seed according to their own kinds, and trees bearing fruit in which is their seed, each according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a third day.” (RSV)


1 Kings 7:23


Genesis 1:14-19 “And God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to separate the day from the night; and let them be for signs and for seasons and for days and years, and let them be lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also. And God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light upon the earth, to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. And there was evening and there was morning, a fourth day.” (RSV)


The translation of Psalm 89 here is from the NKJV


Daniel 12:3 “Those who are wise [or, “those who impart wisdom”] shall shine / like the brightness of the firmament, / and those who turn many to righteousness / like the stars forever and ever.”


See 1 Corinthians 15:35 and following, and the star-like steadfastness and immovability noted in v.58.


Genesis 1:20-23 “And God said, “Let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth across the firmament of the heavens.” So God created the great sea monsters and every living creature that moves, with which the waters swarm, according to their kinds, and every winged bird according to its kind. And God saw that it was good. And God blessed them, saying, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the waters in the seas, and let birds multiply on the earth.” And there was evening and there was morning, a fifth day.” (RSV)


See the article by Peter Kearney, Creation and Liturgy, p.377 (link to a PDF currently at the top of this post) – to whom nearly all of this post is indebted, and is probably nearly a truncation (I haven’t read the article for 10+ years, and you’re here getting notes I squirreled away).


Genesis 1:24-31 “And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures according to their kinds: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth according to their kinds.” And it was so. And God made the beasts of the earth according to their kinds and the cattle according to their kinds, and everything that creeps upon the ground according to its kind. And God saw that it was good.

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.” (RSV)


Genesis 2:1-3 “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all his work which he had done in creation.” (RSV)


Exodus 31:17 (RSV)


So see the kinds of hymns in some of the post-exilic psalms, in some Dead Sea Scrolls texts such as the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice, and in the additions to the Greek Septuagint version of the book of Daniel – there are several ways they do this, but many of these hymns begin by praising God, then his name (it is hypostatized already in the Exodus text), then his throne, then the cherubim, the heavenly ark, &c.


Banner image from Francois Foucras, Seven Days of Creation, which can be purchased (I think) here

12 thoughts on “Seven Days, Seven Speeches

  1. Ah, nice! Hahn edited a volume on the Temple that I bought. Not a bad volume! I don’t want to go too off-topic from the focus of this blog, but there is no way of dealing with the West and its development in the modern period without dealing with these themes.

    Liked by 1 person

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