Genesis 1:14-19 — The Creation of the Luminaries to Keep Yahweh’s Festivals

“Let there be lights in the domed barrier of the skies to separate between the day and the night, and let them be for signs, and for fixed times, and for days, and for years.”

The domed vault or raqî‘a that was made in verses 6-8 to separate and hold back the waters above is now populated with the luminaries: sun, moon, and the stars—with no awareness of the individual distances of each luminary from the earth nor their actual places in the solar system. Here they are presented as two-dimensional buttons on an arched vault behind which are the primordial waters above.

Unlike modern man, ancient man constructed their calendars and measured the progression of time according to the celestial luminaries: predominantly the sun and the moon. The author of Genesis’ first creation account depicts this idea by having the creator deity specify that these luminaries were created for this specific purpose.

The most fascinating, and certainly the most revealing, element here in verse 14 is the claim that these luminaries function, in part, as celestial markers for mankind to identify specific “fixed times.” The Hebrew mo‘adîm is most often translated as “seasons.” But this translation does not capture the full semantic range implied in the word mo‘adîm, and completely misses, I would argue, this author’s subtle argument here.

A mo‘ed, the singular form, was not only a fixed or appointed time (i.e., a specific day set by the appearance or position of the moon), but it was equally a fixed meeting, congregation, or more significantly festival. So the author of this text is claiming that the god who created the habitable world also embedded into the very fabric of the skies luminaries for observing the festival dates, the mo‘adîm, which mankind in general, but the Israelites specifically, were obliged to keep. In other words, the luminaries in part were created so that mankind could know, observe, and keep Yahweh’s festivals, these mo‘adîm!

What exactly are these “festival dates” or  mo‘adîm? And why was this author interested in alluding to them in his creation account?

Out of the 158 times that the word mo‘ed appears in the Pentateuch, only 13 of them are from non-P texts! That is to say approximately 92% of all the occurrences of the word mo‘ed in the Pentateuch are found in the Priestly source. This is no coincidence. The Aaronid priestly guild responsible for the composition of this once independent scroll, which scholars conveniently label the Priestly source, was inflexible about the observance of the cult and Yahweh’s mo‘adîm. In fact, according to this priestly guild, and its god, the observance of the sacrificial cult, Yahweh’s festivals, and as we shall see the Sabbath as well, were all intimately woven into the very fabric of the creation of the world itself.

The specific mo‘adîm, “fixed times” or “festivals,” alluded to in Genesis 1:14 are specifically laid out in detail in Leviticus 23—a text penned by the very same author who wrote Genesis 1:1-2:3 (this goes for all of Leviticus), our Aaronid priest!

And Yahweh spoke to Moses saying, “Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: ‘Yahweh’s fixed times/festivals (mo‘adîm) which you shall call holy assemblies—these are my fixed times/festivals (mo‘adîm):’” (Lev 23:2)

The chapter then continues with a list of Yahweh’s “fixed times” (mo‘adîm):

  1. The 14th day of the 1st new moon is Yahweh’s Passover—an “eternal law” according to this author, and his Yahweh.
  2. The 15th day of the 1st new moon is Yahweh’s festival of Unleavened Bread—also an “eternal law.”
  3. The day of the first harvest is the Festival of Weeks, also proclaimed an “eternal law.” And 7 sabbatical weeks later, on the 50th day is Pentecost.
  4. The 1st day of the 7th new moon is the Horn Blast Holy Day.
  5. The 10th day of the 7th new moon is the Day of Purgation/Atonement, also an “eternal law.”
  6. The 15th day of the 7th new moon is the Festival of Booths, also an “eternal law.”

Now you know to what exactly these “fixed times” (mo‘adîm) in Genesis 1:14 refer. They refer to Yahweh’s festivals which were to be observed, eternally, throughout the generations on penalty of death or excommunication.

What the priestly writer has subtly done is to argue that there is no excuse for the non-observance of these mo‘adîm, of Yahweh’s festivals, given that the creator god himself created the luminaries so that man would know when these fixed times/festivals occurred and thus be able to observe them. In other words, according to the views and beliefs of the priest(s) who wrote Genesis 1:1-2:3, the inviolable obligation for all Israelites to observe Yahweh’s appointed holy days and festivals was directly woven into the very fabric of creation itself and indicated to man by way of the celestial luminaries which served as signs informing man when Yahweh’s fixed festivals were to be celebrated. There is no excuse for non-compliance. According to this author, and the god of his text, both the Torah (the book of Leviticus) and the world as God created it bear witness to the eternal obligation of mankind to observe and keep Yahweh’s festivals!

This, then, was the priestly writer’s argument. You can’t, centuries later, “interpret away” these laws which were envisioned as being embedded/created into the very fabric of creation itself. This is to misunderstand and neglect this priestly writer’s and his God’s theological conviction! To impress this upon my modern reader, this would be analogous to “interpreting away” the law of gravity, claiming that we no longer have to follow it. This is just as an absurd and impossible a claim to us as it would have been to claim that one no longer needed to follow Yahweh’s fixed festivals (mo‘adîm) to the priestly writer and the Yahweh of his text. Like the law of gravity, these were laws embedded into the very fabric of the world itself. They don’t just disappear or become obsolete.

This is what I mean when I advocate that our goal as a culture is to understand these ancient texts on their own terms and beliefs, and be able to faithfully reproduce them. From there the real conversation begins: Hmm… this is a fascinating worldview. We certainly don’t hold to it today, nor do we worship a god who does. Hmm again… Doesn’t this mean that these “eternal laws” were subjectively held “truths” by this elite priestly guild, shaped by his cultural perspectives and worldview, and then transferred onto the god of his text? Hmm… what are the ramifications of this properly contextualized understanding of these ancient texts and what does it mean with respect to how we as a culture view the Bible?

Modern day Creationists or fundamentalists who claim, ignorantly and hypocritically it must be acknowledged, that they believe in the creation narrative of Genesis 1 are just being dishonest and negligent about this ancient text. The text does not validate nor support their claims. For they do not believe in the beliefs expressed in this text, and legitimated by this text’s god. A proper and correctly contextualized reading of the text itself convincingly demonstrates this point. Moreover, as we have seen with respect to the worldview expressed in Genesis 1:1-10, so too here: it is constructed on culturally and subjectively shaped beliefs and perceptions about the world which were then transferred to the creator deity of this text.

This can be illustrated again even here. The fact that the moon is presented as “the lesser light” (1:16) among the other celestial luminaries reflects the subjective and cultural perceptions and beliefs inherent to the ancient world. Since the sun’s light reflects off of the moon—a knowledge that our ancient biblical scribe did not possess—the moon was falsely perceived as producing its own light. This culturally conditioned “truth” was then transferred onto the god of its text so that our biblical scribe presents God’s creation of the moon as the creation of a light producing source, as he himself understood it! God now creates not the moon per se, but how the moon was perceived by our biblical author and his culture!

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2 Responses to Genesis 1:14-19 — The Creation of the Luminaries to Keep Yahweh’s Festivals

  1. Eliot Fintushel says:

    I love your analyses. I find them illuminating, and with stunning detail. I wonder why you exercise yourself so in opposition to creationists–though I shouldn’t complain, since I enjoy the fruits of that passion–I mean, those folk live in such an insulating, self-reinforcing worldview, impervious to what you and I would call reason. The use they make of their Bible is quite different from the use to which we put it. As long as they have no political power, why bother them?

  2. Thanks for your comment Eliot,

    Why bother? For me it’s really an educational role that I envision myself doing, and bothering with. I don’t have a bone to pick against religion per se, nor against faith, nor even God. . . but I do feel that as a biblical scholar one of my jobs is to rectify and to educate about wrong views and beliefs about this collection of ancient texts that we now label the Bible. Creationists are defaming the beliefs, worldviews, and even messages of these 60 some authors by not really listening to their messages and beliefs, not attempting to understand why they believed what they did and as a result of what cultural perceptions. As I articulate in the conclusion of my book, in not being honest to these texts, their authors, and what they believed, Creationists actually neglect the very texts they say they believe in and as a result exacerbate their levels of ignorance and hypocrisy. In short, to educate the public about these ancient texts and their authors’ competing messages and beliefs.

    Here’s an excerpt from the Concluding section entitled “The Growing Problem of Biblical Illiteracy in Our Country”

    The very fact that Creationists can claim that they believe in the creation of the world as depicted in Genesis 1 and use this text to substantiate their own modern agendas and beliefs, when the text itself adjudicates against their claims and makes contrary claims of its own, is just one small example of the growing problem of biblical illiteracy in this country. Part of that problem, as outlined above, is that most readers have mistaken the
    messages and beliefs of these once independent texts for the message and beliefs that are now supplied and imposed by these texts’ later interpretive framework, “the Holy Bible.”

    But Creationists take their hypocrisy to new levels. Not only do they wish to pawn off their own subjective beliefs about the text of Genesis 1 and about the nature and origin of our world as the beliefs of the author of Genesis 1—and ultimately of God as well—but they also seek to present their unsubstantiated beliefs as biblical creationism and advocate that this gets taught in our classrooms! This is not only grossly negligent of the text itself, as has been sufficiently demonstrated, but it also displays our negligence as a culture for allowing such practices to even be entertained. For in what other discipline would we allow an individual unschooled in a particular field of study to teach their own subjective beliefs and pawn them off as the viewpoint and beliefs of the primary texts of that discipline? We wouldn’t accept this in any other field of study or profession. If we wanted to teach biblical creationism in our schools, which of course as a biblical scholar I have nothing against, then I’ve just written that book! The educational task was to reproduce an unbiased, objective, and culturally contextualized reading of the worldview and beliefs represented in the texts of Genesis 1 and 2, and to understand them on their terms and from within their own cultural contexts. But to allow individuals outside a particular field of study to teach their own subjective—and religious—beliefs in place of the knowledge that that field of study has accumulated over the past few centuries and to pawn their subjective unschooled beliefs off as the beliefs of that field of study’s texts is nothing short of malpractice and should be prosecuted as such. The fact that we as a culture are allowing this speaks to the impoverished nature of education in general in our country and of biblical education in particular.

    Another reason for the growing rate of biblical illiteracy in this country is that we have mistaken religious freedom—the freedom to choose, believe, and practice whatever religion we so desire—for the freedom to believe whatever we want about whatever we want. No one would deny the importance of the freedom of religious beliefs. But religious freedom is not the freedom to believe whatever one wants, whether that be about these ancient texts or for that matter about the world. Most beliefs that ancient peoples and cultures held about the nature of the world, including those represented in Genesis 1:1—2:3, have been eradicated or reformulated through an objective study of the world and the knowledge acquired through that study. Likewise, over the past few centuries the objective study of the biblical texts has led us to realize that longstanding traditional claims about these texts are not actually validated by the texts themselves. When our knowledge about any object of study advances, whether that object be agriculture, meteorology, human anatomy, medicine and diseases, Shakespeare’s texts, or the texts of the Bible, we cannot just hold on to traditional pre-scientific beliefs when the object of study itself has revealed certain truths about its own nature that clash with longstanding traditional beliefs, no matter how authoritative they’ve become. Believing that the Bible is the word of God, is an inerrant homogeneous narrative with a single-voiced message, etc. are beliefs that are no longer tenable. Not because I say so. This has nothing to do with subjective claims. Rather it is because our object of study—the biblical texts themselves—have revealed that these beliefs are not supported by the texts themselves!

    I realize that these conclusions may be discomfiting to many Christians and pose insurmountable difficulties. But we must start acknowledging these texts and their messages on their terms, and stop carelessly and hypocritically using them to legitimate our own cultural beliefs, whether about the texts or about the nature of our world. If as a culture our most cherished beliefs about these texts—beliefs handed down and forged by powerful, longstanding and authoritative interpretive traditions—are called into question by what the texts themselves reveal when objectively studied, then we have an obligation to these texts and their authors to acknowledge that, and move forward.

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