Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/January 1887/The Week of Seven Days
|THE WEEK OF SEVEN DAYS.|
IF a being from another world, suddenly placed among us, should examine terrestrial institutions, he could scarcely fail to inquire why it is that in so large a portion of the earth time is measured by periods of seven days. To a large number of persons among ourselves such inquiry is practically superseded by the consideration that the Bible opens with the recognition of the week: whatever discussion may be raised, and whatever may be the demands of science with reference to the interpretation of the commencement of the book of Genesis, the fact remains that it is asserted that in six days God created the heaven and the earth, and all things in them, and rested on the seventh day. The same assertion is renewed by the fourth commandment, which enjoins the keeping holy of the Sabbath-day. And when we remember how thoroughly the sanctification of one day in seven has been adopted and enforced by the practice of the Christian Church, and how the first day has been marked, in virtue of the chief article of Christian faith, as emphatically the Lord’s Day we can not be surprised to find that with most persons any speculation which transcends the limits of the facts just noticed is likely to meet with small encouragement.
Nevertheless, when we observe the necessarily hyper-historical character (if I may coin such a phrase) of the Mosaic cosmogony, as it is sometimes called; when we perceive, as we must upon consideration, the impossibility of interpreting the sacred narrative without some reference to the knowledge already possessed by those to whom it was given—we shall probably come to the conclusion that the reference to the creative work and the seventh day's rest of God does not exhaust the question of the existence of a seven days' week. Therefore, as it is manifestly impossible to detach the ordinary week of a large portion of the world from the history contained in Genesis, and as it is equally impossible to find in that history a complete explanation of the phenomenon, I have thought it might be interesting to examine the subject a little more closely, and see what light can be thrown upon it.
I begin my investigation with a few remarks upon what may be described as favorite numbers. There are certain numbers with which we meet more frequently than others, and of which we make more use in dealing with common things. The most favorite may, perhaps, be said to be ten, twelve, and seven.
The reason why ten is a favorite—perhaps the most favorite—number is obvious enough, namely, that we have ten fingers. "When we begin to count we almost of necessity do so with our fingers; if we have a large number of things to count, say a flock of sheep, we instinctively divide them into tens, or perhaps into scores; if the number of things be very large, the collection of tens are naturally grouped again by tens, and so we have hundreds. A further grouping of hundreds leads to thousands, etc. Thus we get the ordinary system of enumeration, and there can be no manner of doubt that man's ten fingers are the root of it. We are told in treatises on arithmetic that it would have been much more convenient if we had agreed to count by twelves instead of by tens; and possibly this may be true. But if it be, we have so much the more evidence, if evidence be needed, that the basis of the system of counting was not determined by theoretical considerations, but by the simple elementary fact of the number of human digits being ten and not twelve.
Nevertheless twelve has its turn as a favorite number; we often count by dozens, and the reason probably is that twelve admits of being quartered as well as halved, which in many cases is an advantage. Take the case of wine: a dozen bottles is a convenient quantity to take as a standard, because a customer can order half the standard number, or, if he needs a small quantity, the quarter of the same; in fact, twelve admits of being divided not only by two and four, but also by three and six, which for many purposes give it a great advantage over ten, which can be divided only by two and five, the latter division being rarely of any use. Hence the great divisibility of twelve is sufficient to mark it as a favorite number, but in the most notable instance of its use—namely, as marking the number of months in a year—we need some further explanation. The real month—that is, the number of days between two successive full moons—may be taken as measured by twenty-eight days. Thirteen times twenty-eight makes three hundred and sixty four, or as nearly as may be one year. Consequently, it would have been much more nearly true to say that thirteen months make a year than twelve. The explanation is to be found, I conceive, in the extremely awkward character of the number thirteen; it is what is called by mathematicians a prime number; that is to say, it admits of no division of any kind; had there been thirteen months in the year, the half-year and the quarter alike could not have been reckoned by months, and consequently twelve, which, as already explained, is one of the most convenient of numbers in the matter of divisibility, was encouraged and permitted to usurp the place, which, in all strictness, belonged to its next-door neighbor.
There is a somewhat parallel case with regard to the division of the circle into 360 degrees. The ancient Chinese mathematicians divided the circle into 3654 degrees, corresponding to the length of the year, or 3651⁄4 days, which number, though not exact, is very near the truth. But this division of the circle is practically intolerable; it would throw mathematicians into despair; consequently the number 360, which admits of being divided by 4, by 60, by 90, and by many other numbers, ursurped the place which the Chinese righteously assigned to the awkward number which Nature suggested.
I now pass on to the consideration of the number seven. It has no such obvious suggestion as ten, and no such recommendation of practical convenience as twelve; nevertheless, it is quite as truly a favorite number as either; perhaps, in some sense, it is more so. Its early occurrence in the book of Genesis might be adopted at once as an explanation of its prominence among numbers; this course of treatment, however, would not fall in with the intentions of this essay, and I shall therefore, in the first place, treat the subject in the most general manner possible, putting out of mind for the moment all thought of the references to the institution of the week which can be found in the Bible.
Adopting this course, we have to deal with the fact that the division of days by seven is both ancient and widespread. If, as has been held by good authorities, the method be of Chaldean origin, the notion that the number seven is connected with the heavenly bodies at once presents itself to our minds as probable; in fact, when we remember that to the early observers of the heavens the planets were seven in number—namely, the Sun, the Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn—and that the names of these planets were in divers countries connected with the several days of the week, the conclusion that the measuring of days by sevens took its rise from the physical fact that seven planetary bodies are visible to the naked eye must seem to be almost irresistible.
The reader may be referred upon this subject to a lucid article, s.v."Week," in Smith's "Dictionary of the Bible." The writer says:
The argument contained in these passages is somewhat weakened by the mixture of other considerations with those of an astronomical origin. The reference to the diatonic scale, for example, appears to be anything but a help—the more so, as the diatonic scale was unknown to the ancient people of the world, and is unrecognized in the East at the present time. Still more injurious is the indefinite reference to "many other things naturally attracting observation." The connection of the number seven as determining the division of time with celestial phenomena comes with a much greater air of probability when presented pure and simple: the rising and setting of the sun determined the days; the waxing and waning of the moon determined the months; and the position of the sun among the fixed stars divided the years. So that when it is suggested that the number of planetary bodies settled the length of the week, it is impossible to deny that the proposal comes before us with much a priori probability.
It is not necessary to refuse all sanction to the notion that the happy fact that 4x7=28, or that four weeks, each of seven days, roughly constitute a month, and that so, the artificial division of weeks had a convenient relation to the natural division of months, had something to do with stamping the number seven as the basis for the counting of days. Nor would it, perhaps, be possible to entirely deny the position of one who should argue that this convenient quadri-partition of the month was first in order of time, and that the dedication of the seven days of the week to the seven heavenly bodies followed afterward. I do not suspect that this actually was so; yet if it were asserted to be the more probable course of things, I do not know that the assertion could be positively disproved. But, whichever may have been the actual order of proceeding, what I desire now to enforce is equally true, namely, that the two astronomical considerations, namely, the number of planetary bodies known to the ancients and the period of the moon, may be regarded as co-operative, and as tending together to fix more distinctly the number of days in the week.
It would be entirely in accordance with the spirit of ancient religion, or superstition, to connect the days of the week, when once settled down to the number seven, with the thought of dedication to different deities, rather than with the mere fact of the existence of seven planetary bodies; and this state of things we find in the days of the week as used in the Roman Empire and among our Norse and Saxon ancestors. One may perhaps venture to guess that such an adaptation as this would naturally take place in any polytheistic country, which adopted the division of the days by seven; the more so, as several of the seven jilanets are not conspicuous as phenomena; and so the number seven, as derived from the heavens, would commend itself chiefly to the few who carefully observed, and would not be deeply impressed upon the people at large. The few would observe the planets, and dedicate the days to planetary deities; the many would know nothing about the planets, would regard the days as sacred to their gods.
Having thus far dealt with the week on general grounds, I now pass on to make some remarks upon it in connection with Holy Scripture.
In the first place, as has been remarked by the commentators, and as is apparent to careful readers, it would seem that some notion of the week of seven days was current among the people whose history is recorded in very early times; that is to say, at a date long preceding Moses or any of the books written by him. The proof of this is to be found in such passages as the following: Genesis xxix, 27, where Jacob is desired by Laban to "fulfill her week," that is, Leah's week, in order that he might also receive Rachel. The week appears to express the time given up to nuptial festivities. So afterward, in Judges xiv, where Samson speaks of "the seven days of the feast." So also on occasion of the death of Jacob, Joseph "made a mourning for his father seven days" (Genesis 1, 10). But "neither of these instances," as remarked in the article to which reference has been already made, "any more than Noah's procedure in the ark, go further than showing the custom of observing a term of seven days for any observance of importance. They do not prove that the whole year, or the whole month, was thus divided at all times, and without regard to remarkable events." They do not, indeed, prove this, but they suggest the division as common and familiar, and in some early period recognized as an institution.
When, therefore, the children of Israel went down to Egypt for what proved to be a very long sojourn in that country, they possibly were familiar with the practice of dividing time by weeks, and at all events the notion of seven days as a convenient portion of time for the affairs of life would not seem altogether strange to them. It is exceedingly probable that on arriving in Egypt they found the week established by the practice of the country. It will be observed that it was in Egypt that Joseph mourned seven days for Jacob; and it is possible, though there seems to be no necessity to assume the fact, that in so doing he was conforming to the custom of the country, as he did with regard to the embalming and chesting of his father's remains. But independently of any such consideration, it would seem highly probable that the Israelites found themselves in Egypt among a people who divided the time by weeks of seven days. We know that they did so at a later period; why might they not have commenced as early as before the sojourn of the Israelites? The Egyptians were in fact a people very likely to be advanced in such a matter as this; order and government, both ecclesiastical and civil, were undoubtedly in a remarkable state of perfection at the time to which reference is now made; and it would seem much more probable than otherwise that so convenient an institution as the subdivision of the month into short periods had already been established.
It may be noted, with reference to the number seven and its recognition in some form or another as a special number among the Egyptians, that we have incidental evidence in the dream of Pharaoh; the special form of the dream, as presenting seven fat and seven lean kine, may be supposed to have been connected with some familiarity in Pharaoh's mind with the number seven during his waking hours.
And as regards the Israelites, it may be observed that the period of seven days is introduced into the most solemn event of their Egyptian sojourn, namely, the ordinance of the Passover: "Seven days shall ye eat unleavened bread; even the first day ye shall put away leaven out of your houses, for whosoever eateth leavened bread from the first day until the seventh day, that soul shall be cut off from Israel. And in the first day there shall be an holy convocation; and in the seventh day there shall be an holy convocation to you; no manner of work shall be done in them, save that which every man must eat, that only shall be done of you" (Exodus xii, 15, 16). And a little farther on, in the chapter from which the preceding passage is quoted, there is an apparent reference to the division of the month into four weeks, as the recognized method of division: "In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month at even, ye shall eat unleavened bread, until the one-and-twentieth day of the month at even. Seven days shall there be no leaven found in your houses" (Exodus xii, 18, 19). Here we have seven mentioned as well as its multiples: seven, fourteen, twenty-one, and the month or twenty-eight days. It is difficult not to believe that either in consequence of Egyptian custom, or their old Syrian tradition, or both combined, the Israelites were at this time familiar with the notion of a week of seven days.
But there is evidence that not only was the week known to the Israelites, but also the ordinance of the Sabbath, early in their wanderings. The Sabbath does not appear to have been ordained for the first time when promulgated from Sinai. In Exodus xvi we read concerning the manna, "To-morrow is the rest of the holy Sabbath unto the Lord." Again: "Moses said. Eat that to-day; for to-day is a Sabbath unto the Lord; to-day ye shall not find it in the field; six days ye shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is the Sabbath, in it there shall be none." And, once more: "See, too, that the Lord hath given you the Sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day." Thus the promulgation from Sinai was only the republication, and confirming by more solemn sanction, of that which existed already. It should be observed, however, that the appointment of the Sabbath and the institution of the week are two different things: the week might be, and perhaps originally was, a merely secular division of time, like the month and the year; what was done by the teaching connected with the manna, and subsequently more explicitly by the fourth commandment, was to take one day out of the seven and impress a peculiar character upon it. Man, so to speak, made the week, but God made the Sabbath: the week was secular, the Sabbath was religious. If I may venture so to express myself, the task of Moses in forming his horde of Egyptian slaves into "a holy nation, a peculiar people," was a good deal facilitated by this course of proceeding; if the people, when, in God's providence, he first took them in hand, had been simple barbarians, having no measure of time but the phases of the moon, it would manifestly have been less easy to secure for rest and for religious purposes each seventh day. Why each seventh day? Why not the fourth or the fourteenth? But if the people had their almanac ready-made, and if they had been accustomed in Egypt to measure the time by weeks and to find each day of the week as weary as the rest under their cruel taskmasters, they would readily accept and rejoice in a law which made the concluding day of each week a day of rest and rejoicing. And in fact we find in the Deuteronomy version of the fourth commandment this pertinent exhortation: "Remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand, and by a stretched-out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath-day" (Deuteronomy v, xv).
Let us now turn for a moment to this same commandment as we find it in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, and as it is commonly cited. The most remarkable feature in the commandment, as here given, is the reference to the six days' work and the seventh-day rest of the Almighty Creator. Upon this work of the creative week I shall have more to say hereafter; but at present let me observe that the form of the commandment, beginning "Remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy," seems to imply that previous knowledge of the week and the Sabbath, of which we have already found evidence. It is very unlikely that the notion of a seventh-day Sabbath would have been announced for the first time in such fashion; in fact, we have already met with distinct teaching on the subject. Let it be added, however, that it has been supposed, and the supposition is reasonable, that the argument for keeping holy the Sabbath-day, founded upon the history of the Creation, which appears in the twentieth chapter of Exodus, does not belong to the original form of the commandment. The fact of its omission in Deuteronomy, and the addition in that version of the commandments of an appendix to the law of the Sabbath-day, which does not appear in Exodus, seems to set us free to suppose that both the one addition and the other were made subsequently, and did not belong to the commandment when given from Sinai. Indeed, there is much internal probability to recommend the suggestion of Ewald (approved by Canon Cook in the "Speaker's Commentary" as "deserving respect"), that the ten commandments were originally given in the following terse form:
1. Thou shalt have none other God before me.
2. Thou shalt not make to thee any graven image.
3. Thou shalt not take the name of Jehovah thy God in vain.
4. Thou shalt remember the Sabbath-day to keep it holy.
5. Thou shalt honor thy father and thy mother.
6. Thou shalt not kill.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
8. Thou shalt not steal.
9. Thou shalt not bear false witness.
10. Thou shalt not covet.
Certainly, so far as the fourth commandment is concerned, it is highly improbable that in its original promulgation it should have been enforced by an argument depending upon knowledge of the creative week, contained in a book, of the existence and publication of which at that time there is no kind of evidence.
I lay stress upon this point, because I believe, and desire to suggest to the reader, that the actual history of the week and of the Sabbath is by no means that which the mere reading of the Bible, commencing with the first chapter of Genesis, might suggest to our minds. The book of Genesis describes the first condition of things, and speaks of the Creator as having spent six days in making the universe, and as having then rested on the seventh day, and having hallowed it; from which description it might seem natural to infer that we have here the history of the institution of the week and of the Sabbath as the close of it; and there are in fact writers who suggest that this institution was delivered to Adam, and came down from him by tradition to subsequent generations of men. Thus, in the "Speaker's Commentary," on the words of Genesis ii, 1, "God blessed the seventh day," Bishop Harold Browne remarks, "The natural interpretation of these words is that the blessing of the Sabbath was immediately consequent on that first creation of man, for whom the Sabbath was made." This may be so; but when we endeavor to realize what is meant by the creation of man and the institution of the Sabbath being coeval, it is difficult to express the meaning in intelligible language. The keeping of the seventh day as a day of rest, involves the counting of six days, and then the dealing with the seventh day in some manner different from that in which the first six have been dealt with. Can we quite conceive of such a course in the case of the first man? Supposing him to have come into instantaneous existence in all the perfection of his human intelligence—a supposition which is beset with difficulties and is opposed to the belief of almost all who have studied the subject—is it possible to conceive of the newly formed man as at once comprehending the division of days into weeks, and the consecration of one day above another; or is it possible to conceive of him as capable of receiving a revelation which should convey this knowledge to his mind? If, as all the phenomena of history and of science indicate, the growth of man in knowledge of all kinds has been slow and gradual, then it must be reckoned as incredible that so refined and comparatively complicated arrangement as the division of time by weeks and the keeping of a Sabbath should have been the property of the earliest representative of our race.
So far as Holy Scripture itself is concerned, it will be observed that it is nowhere hinted that Adam had the knowledge imputed to him. The hints of something resembling the knowledge in patriarchal times have been already noticed, but these may very well be explained by reference to the natural growth of human knowledge, rather than to the hypothesis of a primeval tradition.
Having laid the foundations which are to be found in the previous part of this paper, I now address myself to the consideration of the week as we find it in the opening of the book of Genesis.
I propose to argue that the week did not take its rise from the sacred history, but that, contrariwise, the form in which that history was cast depended upon the knowledge possessed by the writer of the division of time by weeks, and of the institution of the Sabbath.
It will probably be admitted by all that the account of the creation given in the book of Genesis was not the result of scientific investigation. I am not wishing to raise the old question how far the account is consistent with scientific truth—this question does not now concern us—but am only asserting that the creative history can not be regarded in the same manner as that in which we regard a scientific treatise. It is either a speculation, or a poetical picture, or the record of a vision accorded to some gifted seer. Whichever it be, when the author of the written document which we possess came to put down in words his speculation, or his poem, or his vision, he would have to consider, or rather he would instinctively know, what kind of framework he should adopt in order to convey his thoughts to others. Compare the case of Moses, or the author of the original document which Moses used, with that of St. John the Divine. In the Apocalypse St. John speaks of things which he saw in his vision: there were candlesticks, and thrones, and choirs clothed in white garments, and the city of Jerusalem, etc.; all these were things with which he was familiar, and so his vision adapted itself to and formed itself upon these familiar things. No one will for one moment maintain the objective existence of these earthly things in that heaven into which St. John was permitted to peep through the open door; the vision was, in fact, of necessity to a great extent subjective; it is of the very nature of visions that this should be so. If, therefore, a vision of so absolutely transcendental an event as the creation of the universe be permitted to the mental eye of mortal man, that vision, when imparted to others, must clothe itself in such knowledge as the man himself possesses. And as the man, when he comes to record his vision, will instinctively use his own language—Hebrew, Greek, Latin, whatever it may be—to express himself, so also all other furniture of his mind will be naturally put into requisition in order to describe what he has seen.
This being conceded, let us suppose Moses himself to have been the speculator, poet, or seer to whom the vision of creation was for the first time vouchsafed, and let us suppose that the division of time by weeks was a matter of familiar knowledge to Moses. Then, this being so, it is quite intelligible that the successive works of creation, beginning with light and culminating in man, should fit themselves, as it were, into the framework which the division of the week supplied. Some framework would manifestly be required, and this framework would be ready-made.
There would be an advantage in this presentation of the week, which would be analogous to that which belonged to the whole Mosaic cosmogony, as a testimony against idolatry. The tendency, to which the nations almost universally fell victims, was to worship the heavenly bodies; but the story of creation, as given to the ancient church, distinctly asserted the creature character of these bodies, and with great and emphatic distinctiveness man's superiority to them all; the first chapter of Genesis was an eloquent protest against the worship of the host of heaven; and so, if there was a tendency to connect the days of the week with this same kind of false worship, by giving one day to the sun, another to the moon, and so on, nothing could more effectually cure this error than the appropriation of the days as representative of the stages of operation in the creative work of the one supreme God. The days did not belong to the planets, owed no allegiance to them, and were not influenced by them, however it might be true that the method of reckoning them was due to the number of these bodies; they were simply the first, second, third... days; all were alike except the seventh, upon which a special character was impressed. And it may be remarked in this connection that the Israelites never adopted the heathen practice, almost if not quite universal, of designating the days of the week by the names of the planets or of deities; to an Israelite Sunday was the first day of the week, and nothing more; the seventh day was the Sabbath, and the sixth was the day of preparation, but no taint could be found the whole week through of anything which could be twisted or perverted to idolatrous ends. The Christian Church has not thought it necessary to take so much precaution; bearing in mind that through her Lord the idols have been "utterly abolished," she has not feared to suffer to remain in her nomenclature some of the relics of the heathen past. When the Society of Friends endeavored to substitute the Jewish system for that which is current in Christendom, it was felt that the effort was unnecessary and unprofitable, and it has consequently failed outside their own body. The mongrel method of denoting the days of the week, which prevails throughout Europe, varying from one country to another, but mongrel in all, can not be defended upon any except antiquarian principles, but may be acknowledged to be free in common use from all taint of superstition or any danger of bringing in idolatry.
I shall be quite prepared to find that the view which has been taken in this essay of the relation of the seven days of Genesis to the seven ancient planets, will by some be regarded as objectionable, on the ground that it appears to conflict with what appears to such persons to be the literal interpretation of Holy Scripture. It may be said that the sacred writer plainly informs us that God created the universe, the planets included, in six days, and rested on the seventh, and that the number of these days can, therefore, have no dependence on the heavenly bodies which were created upon one of the days. And I quite admit that this kind of difficulty is prima facie very plausible; I have felt it strongly myself; I do not wonder that others should feel it. But it may be observed that, when we speak of the "literal interpretation" of this portion of Holy Scripture, we are using language which, when examined, has no definite meaning. The whole history of creation is necessarily supra-literal. "The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters." "What literal meaning is there here? "God said, Let there be light, and there was light." How can this grand description be taken literally? "God said. Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." How can we assign to such transcendental language any sense which can properly be called literal? And so on throughout the whole creative history. Consequently the literal theory must be simply and completely given up, as in the very nature of things impossible; and the question arises, "What shall we put in its place? The answer seems to be, that such a picture or sketch of the origin of things was accorded to the sacred writer, and placed at the head of Holy Scripture, as was fitted to the comprehension of man, and fitted to introduce the subsequent portions of the "Word of God. The tenacity with which a large number of persons adhere to what they regard as the "literal meaning" of the first chapter of Genesis, proves with what wonderful skill the chapter has been written; but when we come to consider what the literal meaning of the phrase "literal meaning" is, we find that the words are in their nature totally inapplicable to such a composition as that with which we are dealing; and having realized this fact, we may, perhaps, find that there is another mode of interpretation which is more reasonable, more free from difficulties, and which yet deprives the sacred narrative of no particle of its meaning. To supply such a mode of interpretation is the purpose of this essay; if any of those who read it find that it has thrown light upon a dark subject, and assisted them to see their way through a difficulty connected with Holy Scripture, my purpose in writing it will have been abundantly accomplished.—Contemporary Review.
- I have taken the counting of sheep as an example, not merely because such counting would necessarily take place in the earliest times, but also because we happen to know that the reckoning of sheep by tens or by scores was effected in olden days, and is effected still in many places far distant from each other, by the help of numerals; which appear to be appropriated to this sole purpose. In a paper headed "Sheep-scoring Numerals," and published in vol.iii, p. 385 of the "Transactions of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Antiquarian and Archæological Society," may be found no less than fifteen varieties of these sheep-scoring numerals as used in Coniston, Borrowdale, Millom, Eskdale (Cumberland), Kirkby Stephen, Epping, Knaresborough, Middleton (Durham), Cornwall, Brittany; in Hebron, Maine, and Cincinnati, among the North American Indians; and in some other places. There is a curious resemblance among the greater number of these numerals, and they all agree in counting by ten.
- The device of place, according to which the successive figures in writing numbers represent units, tens, hundreds, thousands, etc., as we proceed from right to left, is of Indian origin. The Romans, with all their practical cleverness, did not discover this simple and ingenious device; but they equally testify to the use of ten—or rather of five and ten—as the basis of calculation by their notation of numbers I, V, X, L, C.
- Biot, "Astronomic Physique," vol.i, p.69.
- Nothing that is here said contradicts the principle of St. Augustine's treatise, "De Genesi ad Litteram." The literal meaning, in St. Augustine's sense, is in antithesis to the spiritual or allegorical. I do not think that the great Christian philosopher would have found fault with the views contained in this paper.