Time (in the Old Testament)

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The Biblical notion of time is related to the Israelite conception of history. Because of the concreteness of Hebrew thought nothing approximating a philosophic definition of time is found in Sacred Scripture. The fact that the Septuagint (LXX) translated the Hebrew 'ēt (time) only on rare occasions by χρόνος supports this statement. The inspired authors, however, did have a concept of time that was not necessarily inferior because it was more concrete.

There is ample evidence that one of the meanings that the Israelites had of time was the familiar one of a period or duration (Ex 12.40; 1 Kgs 6.1; Lk 2.46; Acts9.9). Time, however, was given another and far more significant meaning in the Bible, although there is strong disagreement on the methodology used to establish this richer meaning. James Barr attempts to point out the fallacies in the approach and the conclusions of John Marsh and Oscar Cullmann. In the case of Marsh, Barr attacks the distinction made between χρόνος and καιρός, i.e., between time as duration and time as fulfillment. In the case of Cullmann, Barr attacks the distinction made between καιρός and αών, i.e., between time as having content and time as an extended indefinite period. Irrespective of the divergent deductions, the three authors agree that the inspired writers employed the concept of time in a pregnant sense that emphasized the content, i.e., what transpired in time. In a word, time is event-full.

This quidditative (see quiddity) concept of time is at once the fundamental and most meaningful one in Sacred Scripture. For example, in a calendar discovered at Gazer (Gezer) the months are associated with what takes place in them, e.g., one month with seeding, another month with harvesting. In the same vein Noemi and Ruth "arrived in Bethlehem at the beginning of the barley harvest" (Ru 1.22). Again, the cultic rites of the Feast of the passover (the same emphasis on content is present in other feasts also) bring about the reliving of the hour of deliverance from Egypt (Ex 12.2627). What happened before happens again.

Through the theological perspective of sacred history the sense of time as the action it holds (i.e., God's activity) fully emerges. The beginning of heaven and earth is God's creative activity. The Exodus is the day that Yahweh "brought up Israel out of Egypt" (1 Sm 10.18). The Exodus as a saving act of God is a type and forerunner of the saving act of God spoken of by Isaiah (Is 25.9). It commences its fulfillment with the ultimate self-manifestation and involvement of God with man in the Incarnation.

From the beginning to the end of sacred history, time is the medium for God's saving acts. Each act is in some way the day of the Lord, and each day of the Lord is a type and anticipation of the eschatological day of the lord, i.e., the parousia (1 Tm 6.15). This indwelling concept of time as linear, i.e., as pointing to the foreshadowing of Christ in the Old Testament and to His final coming in the New Testament, is supported by 1 Cor 10.111. Preeminently, therefore, time in the Bible connotes God's control of all history and His salvific acts; and reciprocally, time for man is his opportunity to respond to God that His saving acts may for him be efficacious: "there is a time for every affair and on every work a judgment" (Eccl 3.17).

Bibliography: j. barr, Biblical Words for Time (London 1962). l. cĚrnÝ. The Day of Yahweh and Some Relevant Problems (Prague 1948). o. cullmann, Christ and Time, tr. f. v. filson (rev. ed. Philadelphia 1964). w. eichrodt, Theology of the Old Testament, tr. j. a. baker (Philadelphia 1961). e. jenni, "Das Wort 'ô l ām im A.T.," Zeitschrift für die altteststamentliche Wissenschaft 64 (Giessen-Berlin 1952) 197248; 65 (1953) 135. j. marsh, The Fullness of Time (New York 1952). c. tresmontant, A Study of Hebrew Thought, tr. m. f. gibson (New York 1960).

[p. c. berg]