[Editor’s Note: The following is the first part of a guest post by David Kishik, whose The Book of Shem: On Genesis Before Abraham was recently released by Stanford University Press.]
The God of Genesis declares his seventh day of creation holy, not because on that day something magnificent was made, but because nothing was. Hence the Hebrew word for seven (sheva) can also mean satiation or saturation (sova), while the word for Saturday (shabat) can also mean cessation or going on strike (shavat). God’s supreme act is not the creation of humanity, but his own recreation.
It is only in Exodus, after Moses received the Ten Commandments, that the Sabbath was instituted as a temporal temple to stop the linear flow of everyday life. But this weekly commemoration of the coda to the cosmogenic story is never mentioned in Genesis. To simply assume that the seven days of creation reflect the seven days of the week is to ignore another canonical interpretation, one that has been well established by the highest authorities of the Judeo-Christian tradition since early medieval times: millennialism.
According to this theory, one godly day represents a thousand earthly years. Hence all of human history is already encapsulated in the first chapter of Genesis. Everything is already written. Each day of creation is a prefiguration of a distinct millennial epoch. The true Sabbath is therefore not the last weekday but the seventh millennium. What the year 6000 will mark is not exactly the end of the world but the rest of the world, after which some say that it will begin anew.
This widespread alternative reading has become less fashionable in our enlightened times, but its deep roots still keep it alive. As preposterous or marginal as it may sound, the proponents of millennialism include not only the most influential Church fathers and Jewish rabbis. Millennialism also had a palpable impact on key modern thinkers like Hegel and Marx, who theorized the end of history and the end of inequality.
According to the Hebrew calendar, the sentence you are reading was written in the year AM 5778. The two letters stand for Anno Mundi, or the year of the world; the time that has passed since the event described in the first verse of Genesis. To assume that the world was created only about six thousand years ago is not as ignorant as it sounds. Think of “the world” as a human construct, not a natural reality. Its inception coincides with the cradle of civilization, rather than the Big Bang. The genesis at stake is not that of life on earth but of humanity’s mastery over it.
This world is as old as the construction of the first cities in the Fertile Crescent, around 3800 BCE, which led to the invention of writing and the beginning of human history. The biblical genealogies document the first millennium (until Noah’s birth) and the second millennium (up to Abraham’s story). The chronology gets fuzzier in the third millennium (ending with the rise of King David and the construction of the First Temple, around 1000 BCE) and the fourth (concluding with the chain of events that led to the destruction of the Second Temple, about two thousand years ago, though this catastrophe did not make the cut for the Hebrew Bible). For most historians, only the past four thousand years are within comfortable reach. They usually flail in the dark when considering the first two millennia, purportedly covered by the first eleven chapters of Genesis.
There is no need to get bogged down here by calculations of specific dates. Bible people time is less exact than our own. The world in Genesis is ruled neither by the revolution of the stars nor by round numbers, but by God. Like a day, a millennium begins and ends with an extended and uncertain period of dawn and dusk. It does not depend on great events, such as an apocalyptic war, a natural disaster, the arrival of a Messiah, or the rising of the dead. There is no certitude that the end (or the rest) of the world will come with a bang 222 years from today. But even a cursory look at a newspaper reveals that human history is more or less on schedule.
The millennial narrative can only give us an outline marked by some major signposts over the past six thousand years of world history and delineate the upcoming sabbatical millennium. Due to its general descriptive nature, it is not meant to prescribe any individual course of action. In this grand scheme of things, personal choices and even collective ones are utterly trivial. Your vegetarianism doesn’t change the fact humans are meat eaters. Exactly because millennialism is a generic idea that can tolerate numerous exceptions and variations, this flexibility gives stronger validity to its claim that the fate of the human species as a whole is already pre-scribed. This also means that human life is nothing but a postscript to Genesis.
[Editor’s Note: Part 2 available here.]