Honestly, it’s hard to think of a theological topic that gets evangelical Christians more fired up than the doctrine of creation. Now I know the doctrine of creation is wide ranging—we could talk about providence, God’s end in creation, the contingency of creation, the orderliness of creation, etc—but the aspect of creation that really makes people’s blood boil tends to revolve around the creation story, specifically the length of creation and God’s means of creation. Michael LeFebvre, a pastor-theologian, has given us yet another book on the topic… but this book is actually quite different. It presents a novel take on what is actually going on in Genesis 1 and 2. I’ll admit – I would have never seen what LeFebvre points out if I hadn’t read this book. I’ll also admit – I find myself pretty convinced by his argument about what is going on in the creation narrative.
So what is this novel account of the creation story?
Basically it’s this: Genesis 1:1 – 2:3 is actually a “calendar narrative.” What is a “calendar narrative?” It is “a historical narrative in which historical events are given the dates of a festival observance, without regard for the timing of the original occurrence.” (6)
Through a careful reading of OT Calendars and festivals LeFebvre establishes the difference between occurrence dates and observance dates. Think for example of MLK Day. MLK day is supposed to celebrate his birthday. There is a day in which MLK was born but we observe his birth on a Monday regardless of his actual birthdate. The same goes for Presidents Day. There is a difference between the occurrence and the observation of the event. But the key thing to remember is that we know when the occurrence date is. Think about Christmas though. Christmas occurred on a specific day – i.e. the day that Christ was actually born. Yet we observe his birth on December 25th. There is a difference between occurrence date and observance date. There’s a key difference between Christmas and holidays like President’s day and MLK Day – we don’t actually know the occurrence date for Christ’s birth. Typically we keep track of both the original occurrence date and the ongoing observance date. So what does this have to do with ancient Israel? LeFebvre argues that, “all that was deemed important to preserve was the historical even and its observance date. So the Pentateuch simply retells the events having happened on the appointed observance date.” (95)
So that’s the first plank of his argument – a distinction between occurrence and observance dates of festivals.
The second plank of his argument is the demonstration of how the Pentateuch uses narratives for liturgical guidance. These narratives are intended to give guidance for the practice of various festivals.
The third plank of his argument is a demonstration that the creation week narrative is “a structured retelling of the creation around the pattern of a Model Farmer tending his fields and livestock each day of the week until sabbath.” (7) The creation narrative has a “festival” in view – and that festival is the sabbath.
Here’s his big claim:
The Torah adapts historical narratives to the dates of festival calendars for the sake of observance, not chronology. The creation week is another narrative ascribed with observance dates that do not preserve the original occurrence timeline. (138)
Note what he is not saying. He’s not saying that God didn’t create the world. He’s not saying that the events of creation didn’t happen in precisely the way the creation narrative is written. In fact quite the opposite. The festivals – including the sabbath – are all rooted in historical events. So there is a historical event of creation. What he is saying is that Genesis 1 and 2 doesn’t shouldn’t be read as an attempt to give us a narration about the occurrence date – it’s meant to undergird the liturgy of the observance of a festival – the sabbath.
What’s the upshot? The upshot is that Genesis 1 & 2 can’t be used to present a theory for how God created the world, because scripture simply isn’t interested in giving us that information. We will have to turn to other sources of information, e.g. other parts of scripture, science, etc.
Now I’ll admit that I’m not an OT scholar – so this isn’t my area of expertise, but LeFebvre’s presentation of the evidence is pretty compelling. I happened to be sitting on a bus with Tremper Longman while I was reading this book (don’t ask why). I leaned over to him (this was before social distancing) to say: “Hey have you read this? He makes some really important points…” He chuckled a little and said,
“Yeah I’ve read it, take a look at the back.”
Oops – I didn’t even realize that he wrote an endorsement for it. He says that it is,
“Essential reading for all serious students of the Old Testament.”
Tremper is a smart guy, a lot smarter than me, so if both an OT Scholar and a Systematician came to the same conclusion about this book, then I think it’s safe to say – you should probably read The Liturgy of Creation and judge it for yourself.