The Liturgy of Creation: Reading Genesis 1 as a Festival Calendar Narrative

The Liturgy of Creation: Understanding Calendars in Old Testament Context” by Dr. Michael LeFebvre (2019)

I own more than 400 books on the topic of origins, broadly speaking. That includes commentaries on the book of Genesis, works on the relationship of science and faith, young-earth creationist textbooks and popular literature and books on the philosophy of science. 

I’ve recently finished my most recent purchase The Liturgy of Creation by Dr. Michael LeFebvre. I will need to put this new book onto my shelf of books that I think are the most important or that had the greatest impact on me personally.  In particular this one goes next to my must-read books on interpreting the first chapters of Genesis. 

And I nearly missed it. With so many notable new entries this past year, this book arrived with little fanfare from a source that is not well-known among the community of science and faith writers and thinkers.  I only learned about the book when my father called me and said, “I just finished reading a book that you need to read.” Lacking marketing support and name recognition, I am concerned the book may not have the impact that it deserves.  But if the thesis of the book is sound, I believe it will have a profound effect on the modern interpretation of the Genesis 1 narrative, even influencing how we discuss origins and science in the Church.   

You must be thinking that this book must present a novel thesis and novelty runs the risk of the response: if this were true why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?  Or, if God had meant us to see Genesis this way why did he wait until now to reveal it to us? The answer in this case is that LeFebvre’s solution is not truly novel. It’s as old as the Israelites and the many pieces that make up his thesis can be found in many commentators that have gone before him.  One might say that he has rediscovered the original meaning that has been continually overlooked.  It’s a recovery of the past only in the sense that every age has a tendency to read the scriptures through its own lens rather than that of the original audience and intent of the original author and so we find ourselves having to constantly remind ourselves of how the original audience would have heard these words. If it sounds like I’m echoing the thoughts of John Walton from The Lost World of Genesis One you would not be wrong.  Walton’s thesis also reoriented us toward a perspective on the original audience that the modern world had lost sight of. However, although I benefited a great deal from his work, I always felt like a piece was missing from his narrative. I had not been able to identify what I felt was missing until I read Michael LeFebrvres’ book.

Meet the author, Michael LeFebvre. Michael LeFebvre is the pastor of Christ Church (Reformed Presbyterian Church North America) in Brownsburg, Indiana. He earned an MDiv at Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary (RPTS) in Pittsburgh, PA, and a PhD from the University of Aberdeen (Scotland) for his work on Old Testament Law.  In addition to his pastoral duties he is also an adjunct professor of Old Testament at RPTS and is a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians. 

I provide LeFebvre’s background partly to acknowledge his credentials for writing a book on Old Testament festivals and calendars but also to highlight that he writes from a theologically conservative position. In addition, his denomination (RPCNA) has been permeated by creation science-influenced literalistic hermeneutic and scientism with respect to origins views, even affecting their constitutional statements on the doctrine of creation (more on this in a future post).  

Dr. LeFebvre is not a well-known name in the science and faith community and certainly not in the lay-Christian community.  However, the forward for the book was written by one who is well-known, Dr. C. John Collins (Professor of Old Testament, Covenant Seminary). Furthermore, aforementioned Dr. John Walton, Tremper Longman III, and Kenneth Turner, each of whom have long records of commenting on Genesis and science and faith topics, also provide their endorsements.    

The publication of this book is nothing short of providential with respect to my studies of origins and the current landscape of science and faith debate.  LeFebrve interacts with and builds upon works of other biblical scholars that have contributed to my thinking over time. These include John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (2009), Greggory Beal’s The Temple and the Church’s Mission:  A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (2004), John H Sailhamer’s Genesis Unbound: A Provocative  New Look at the Creation Account (1996), The Pentateuch as Narrative: A Biblical-theological Commentary (1992),” and The Meaning of the Pentateuch: Revelation, Composition and Interpretation (2009), and C. John Collins’ Genesis 1-4: A Linguistic, Literary, and Theological Commentary (2006). There are even glimpses of an early influence of mine, Meredith Kline’s Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview (2006, large portions of which have been around since the early 1980s). 

LeFebvre takes many of the well-tested conclusions from these previous scholars, interacts with them and combines them with his studies of Israelite calendars and festivals to provide a deeper, richer, and—in my mind—simpler solution to the context and significance of the Genesis narratives. 

This book deserves to be read, contemplated and then discussed. I want this book to be discussed because I want to see other experts evaluating the strength of its thesis. Having spent nearly 30 years pondering the meaning of Genesis and how to dialogue with Christians about Genesis and how it relates to modern science, I find the thesis proposed by Dr. Lefebvre to be very helpful.    

Below, I will hopefully convince you to give this book a change. I copy two of the reviews provided by the publisher and also some quotes from the book to give a taste of LeFebvre’s thesis.  I hope to further explore some of his insights in future posts. 

First, two reviews from the publisher:

“The Liturgy of Creation is an important book for many reasons. LeFebvre helps us understand the Israelite calendar in relationship to the significant annual festivals that were so central to the life and theology of the Old Testament people of God. His work on the calendar itself is worth reading, but he goes further and draws crucial conclusions concerning creation in a way that affects the present debate over the relationship between science and faith. This book is essential reading for all serious students of the Old Testament.”  Tremper Longman III, distinguished scholar and professor emeritus of biblical studies, Westmont College

“Exegetically rigorous, theologically sophisticated, pastorally sensitive, and apologetically relevant, The Liturgy of Creation does three essential things as it delves into Israel’s festivals and cultic calendar. First, it illumines the ancient Israelite understanding of time and rhythm, which ties together cultic life with daily (agricultural) life (i.e., worship and work). Second, it makes a compelling argument that the relatively few specific dates in the Pentateuch must be read through the lens of Israel’s cultic calendar to evoke liturgical memory and commemoration. Third, the book applies this larger framework to Genesis 1, treating the creation week as a festival calendar narrative to help Israel ‘remember God’s work and God’s rest through their own weekly labors and worship.’ The thesis is reasonable and interesting, and it yields fruitful results (or talking points at least) for modern origins discussions—especially since this study comes from a pastor (in a conservative denomination, no less), whose intent is to speak directly to the concerns of the church.”  Kenneth J. Turner, professor of Old Testament and biblical languages, Toccoa Falls College

And now for some selected quotes I have pulled from the book that provide an overview of his central thesis about the Israelite calendar system and what we learn from that might be applied to the Genesis historical narratives. 

 “It is my thesis that dates are added to certain events for their liturgical remembrance, not as journalistic details.  Dates like historical memory to the specific festivals that later Israel observed. The dates of the festivals are the specific festivals that later Israel observed.  The dates of the dates of the festivals are set by the heavenly lights and the naturally occurring seasons and harvests of Canaan (as we saw in chapters one through three).  The timing of the festivals are not based on the historical events they commemorate. Rather, the reverse it the case. The historical events are ascribed with the dates of the Israel’s festivals in order to associate those memories with later Israel’s progress through each year’s calendar. Every year Israel “participated” in the ancestral exodus from Egypt by remembering the exodus events in connection with the various phases of their harvests….in their retelling in the Pentateuch, both the flood deliverance (from the deluge judgement to Noah’s altar) and the exodus deliverance (from the angel of death to Moses’ tabernacle) are ascribed with the dates that fit each redemptive story to a single year in Israel’s calendar.”

This method of assigning dates would be like telling the Christmas story and stating that “Mary laid her baby in a manger on the twenty-fifth day of the twelfth month.” That was not the date on which Jesus was actually born, but the date would associate that memory with the timing of its annual observance (December 25).  For certain, modern historical conventions would regard such a saying as inaccurate, hence the sentiment of many scholars that either the Synoptics or John must be “inaccurate” when giving contradictory dates for the crucifixion. But the problem lies not in inaccurate texts but rather our anachronistic expectations about the purpose for an author’s giving a date to an event. 

…..  My thesis is that the Pentateuch uses dates for liturgical instruction, not to provide a journalistic chronology. Event sequencing, not dates, is the Pentateuch’s method to indicate chronology.” Page 60

 “Scientific curiosity and argument has distracted us from the actual function and beauty of the creation week. It is a passage designed to draw our hearts to worship with eternal hope.  Taking my cue from the fourth commandment and drawing on the broader Torah pattern of dated narratives, I want to contribute toward the practical use of the creation week as a Torah calendar narrative that serves as another festival guide—this one being designed to help us “remember the Sabbath.”  Page 135

“Is the creation narrative reporting God’s creative works with actual occurrence dates, or are the day numbers in this text observance dates like the month dates in the other calendar narratives of the Pentateuch?  Did God perform his deeds of creation on these actual dates of the world’s first week of existence, which are then reported to us journalistically? This is what we would normally expect from a historical narrative. However, in this book I am arguing that God completed his works of creation with timing that has not been preserved, and his works are ascribed with the days of the week to guide Israel’s Sabbath festival observance. It is the thesis of this book that the creation week narrative contains the history of God’s ordering of the world, mapped to Israel’s observance schedule for stewarding that order with labor and worship, without any concern to preserve the events’ original occurrence timing. I will endeavor to support this thesis concerning the creation week in this final part of the book.”  Page 116

 “The approach to Genesis 1:1-2:3 proposed in this volume is one that any Hebrew farmer, stone mason, homemaker, or child would have been able to understand. It is not a complicated interpretation that requires anachronistic insights into cosmology, nor does it presuppose a cross-cultural education in Mesopotamian mythology, nor would this view have required taking some words at face value (like day [yom] while treating other terms metaphorically (like the firmament [raquia] or the verb sprout [dasa]).  It is a straightforward and accessible reading grounded in the pattern of calendar narratives found throughout the Pentateuch and consistent with the fourth commandment. 

As for the question about natural origins, this reading of Genesis leaves open such curiosities as the age of the universe, the original chronology of creation events, and the process of creation.  Genesis does not tell us whether the world originally came into existence over several billion years or within the space of a few days. Whether God’s word of creation prompted an immediate appearance of animals or launched their gradual evolution is not resolved by this text. To quote John Calvin, “This is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world [i.e., how things appeared to the lay Israelite].  He who would learn astronomy, and the other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception.” The simplicity of the narrative is a mark of God’s love, communicating accessibly to men and women of all eras about his call to live by the Sabbath metronome.”   Pages 196 and 197

“The presence of a pre-scientific worldview into a creation account is difficult for some Christians to accept, even though we generally admit the widespread appearance of other pre-scientific descriptions in other parts of Scriptures (like those listed above).  Somehow the creation account has been turned into a test case for the reliability of God based on its scientific “accuracy.” Ironically, this inclination commonly emerges among Christians eager to champion a literal reading of the text, but it ends up leading to non-literal readings in order to avoid its archaic features…”  Page 123

For those who wish to simply dismiss what Lefebvre’s message out of hand because they comport with your ideas of science and scripture, I would just say, you need to read the book to see how he develops and defends his thesis. Let him defend himself with evidence from the scriptures before slipping back to the comfort of your own convictions but be warned, you might find your convictions challenged.  

Lastly, LeFebvre makes many observations about the current debates about science and Genesis.  I plan to expand on those in the next reflection on this important book.


Editing kindly provided by MC

Comments

  1. Dale Cutler says:

    I am comforted by his perspective, because it adds strength to a somewhat lonely position in late 20th and 21st century American evangelicalism, namely, that the Lord’s Day is still the Christian Sabbath, by enunciating implicitly (that may be a contradiction in terms 🙂) the importance to God of the six and one day work-rest cycle by his basing the very first portion of scripture on it. If anyone is interested in further development of that, this is a short essay (5 pages with a lot of white space 🙂) pointing to some markers of its importance to God:

    https://docs.google.com/file/d/1FC5Uhzwb7RFUpg6BhpL_10FG-pP8WCWJ/edit?usp=docslist_api&filetype=msword

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  2. sallyhawksworth says:

    Well, to this layperson, both as regards science and as regards OT theology, the book’s thesis re the creation story and its linking to religious ritual celebration of creation, sounds very plausible. And interesting. Where I’m not convinced is that there is any evidence whatsoever of God having had anything to do with either the writing of the bible or the creation of the world, or of His existence in the first place. Just as I can understand reasons for the gospel nativity narratives being as they are, and why later accretions like Jesus being born in the winter, or the magi being kings came to form part of the tradition, without supposing that any of it has any factual truth. Any more than Father Christmas has any factual truth, whether or not you can trace his origins back to a possibly genuinely historical bishop many centuries ago, to whom some extremely improbable miracles were ascribed. Interesting to know why the early chapters of Genesis are as they are, but the important point is that as either science or history they’re codswallop. IBut if this book can persuade any people who would rather reject all scientific and historical evidence than doubt the validity of their Christian faith that it is possible not to take The Genesis narrative as literally true and still be a Christian, good luck to it.

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    • Hey, Sally –

      You might take a look at the last page of my little essay above (the epilogue), and its associated footnotes. It speaks to the reality of the God who is and his immanence and interventionism in his people’s lives. That the Carpenter from Galilee addresses global climate change and that the Bible also applies itself to other aspects of today’s reality is something else you might be interested in.

      Dale
      “You have to believe in free will, you have no choice.” I.B. Singer 😝

      Liked by 1 person

      • What carpenter from the Galilee are you talking about that address climate change? Can you link us to his web page?

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      • sallyhawksworth says:

        Hi Dale. If you have had experiences which you have interpreted as God manifesting His immanence to you, and this has made you feel happy and blessed, then I am happy for you. But interpretation may vary, and I think myself that I would probably ascribe these occasions to different causes than you. Even if you have been above average fortunate on a significant number of occasions, there is no guarantee that this will continue, though Ihope for your sake that it does. One difficulty I have with believing that any such experience is actually God intervening specially on your behalf, is my personal knowledge of cases where God did NOT intervene to protect/aid /comfort other very sincere, committed Christians or Jews in desperate straits who implored His help.Are we to take it that this was because these people had somehow failed to do whatever they needed to do to access God’s help, that their suffering or feeling of separation from God was the result of their own failure and sin? That was the stance taken by Job’s “comforters” wasn’t it? Quite literally, IMO, adding insult to injury.

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        • I never said that God is not inscrutable (that word being used in translation in two places in scripture), but he is a good Father. I also never said that some of the things he tests us with are not easy.

          God is sovereign over mutations in DNA, they are not random. The amazing timing of my kidney cancer attests to it.

          From an mail to Matt, my pastor, 7/15/17 (a Saturday):

          News

          Just news, not good or bad particularly, but I am going to lose a kidney. My urologist called me after 5 yesterday [Friday] and said that I had a mass on my right kidney.

          I had blood late [Saturday night] last week, and, in God’s providence, when I called Monday a.m., the doctor had had an appointment cancelation for that afternoon. My Co-instants Log entry:

          7/10/27 [Monday] Having developed a significant bleed, I had just tried to call the urology clinic. The line was busy [WHAT?! No voice answering system menu?!] so I picked up the nearby Joy & Strength* for today and read, “MOST GLADLY, THEREFORE, WILL I RATHER GLORY [BOAST! 🙂] IN MY INFIRMITIES, THAT THE POWER OF CHRIST MAY REST UPON ME. 2 Corinthians xii.9 Wow. [The words jumped off the page at me. “LORD, I HAVE AN INFIRMITY!!”, I immediately said.]

          Then I called back and… the doctor had had an appointment cancellation THIS AFTERNOON at 3:15. [Talk about co-instants! Otherwise it would have been three weeks or more!] My reply when she told me: “Perfect.”

          So he scoped me Monday in the office and didn’t find the source of the bleed, and I had a CT on Tuesday. The former didn’t reveal anything about kidneys, but the latter is pretty definitive for kidney cancer. That is something particular to this affliction – a biopsy is not really needed, I guess. I don’t know anything about size/stage or grade yet, but I expect to be asking next week.

          The very first thing I read [after clicking on the first online search result] when looking for info online was, “Your doctor has just told you that you have kidney cancer. Your mind whirls with emotion. Your spouse begins to cry.” Jeanne and I have both failed. 🙂 [My mind wasn’t whirling with emotion and Jeanne did not begin to cry. We trust our Father. What he does is good – good for me, even if it is hard, and good for his name and honor, which is my desire more than my comfort.]

          Our times are in his hands [Psalm 31:15], and that’s a good thing.

          Bro’ Dale.

          *Joy & Strength is a classic daily devotional that my mom, my sister and I used to read regularly. I don’t read it regularly so much any more, but it was within arm’s reach after the busy signal on the phone.

          8/1/17. Right radical nephrectomy – only 22 days from phone call to surgery, sooner than I otherwise might have been able to get even a first appointment!

          Of course, I have reflected on that verse and its meaning, “‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”

          One of the things that power means is the ability not to be afraid. Ever. In ALL circumstances, including sickness and death. “You can’t kill a Christian, all that you can do is change his address.” 🙂 The most frequent mandate in the Bible is “Don’t be afraid” or one of its several variations – “Be anxious for nothing”, “Fret not”, and others. So it is the power to obey that mandate, and the power to obey it gladly. It means to be glad and cheerful no matter what the circumstances, even cancer. Father is in control and whatever he does is good for both of us. The doctor and his office and nursing staff at the hospital have never had a more cheerful nephrectomy patient. 🙂

          Studying a little further, I discovered that the “rest” is to rest as in a dwelling. So that means that the power is the strength of God over me as a strong shelter.

          As I quipped on Facebook, “My only complaint about my recent surgery to remove a kidney was that, while he was in there moving the furniture around to gain access, he failed to leave me with six-pack abs on his way out. THAT was a total failure! 😝”

          A kind of funny and a co-instance footnote to the kidney account, showing that I was being taken care of in another way, too:

          My recovery at home was so free of pain that I did not take ANY of the prescribed analgesic, Norco 10mg, an opioid. I was distinctly uncomfortable more than once, but never in severe pain at all, so that extra-strength Tylenol was all that I ever took. (I did look up the street value of the Norco, though, both here and in Omaha. 😁)

          But three months later, the week of Thanksgiving, I caught a relatively bad cold. I have had worse coughs, in that they were deeper and harder coughs, but I had never before had a cough like the one with this cold – I just could not stop coughing. I was coughing continuously and cough drops were not helping at all. I knew I needed a heavy duty cough suppressant if I was going to get any sleep, and we did not have any codeine cough syrup. It was Wednesday night before Thanksgiving about 10:30, and there would have been no easy way to get any.

          I knew I had the Norco, so I looked on online for what the codeine content of a prescription cough syrup was, and it was the same as the Norco. So I was able to sleep, and was thankful! (And I know to Whom.)

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    • It is interesting in the quote that the author mentions that the liturgical calendar fixed the dates of certain events, rather the calendar being determined by the events historical dates. the examples given are the Exodus and the flood, both mythological tropes. The analogy would lead to an obvious conclusion about creation.

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  3. I’ll mention something that took me a moment to notice fully. The introduction is by someone called C. John Collins, not the prominent scholar John J. Collins.

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  4. Robert Byers says:

    I did post here but it never appeared likewise with the previous thread. Whats wrong? I’ll try again.
    This idea about dates seems still just a traditional rejection of genesis as GODS word. So saying the dates are made up for a calender. Well the bible goes on and on about so many subjects using so many words but it hardly at all uses many words to talk about calendars. its not that important.
    Genesis and dates is meant to be believed and claims that its just working out a calendar are unreasonable. Say its not gods word but don’t say its a calendar agenda.

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  5. Ronald Myers says:

    When I saw the title, I thought this would be an expansion of the observation that Genesis 1 can be read as a responsive reading (or recitation) with a leader and one or two respondents. This book clearly goes much deeper.

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