The universal division of time into past, present, and future is expressed in Hebrew (as in other Semitic languages) by a spatial metaphor. Contrary to Western usage, the past is what lies ahead (Hebr. qedem) and is therefore known; the future is unknown and is behind (Hebr. ʾāḥôr; ʾḥărôn).
There is no clear evidence for division of the day into smaller, equal parts in ancient Israel, though such systems were known elsewhere in the ancient Near East (and see perhaps Neh. 9.3). By the Roman period, a system of twelve hours of daylight was in use (3 Macc. 5.14; Matt. 20.3–6). Generally in the Bible the term “hour” is used in a nonspecific sense. The day was either the period of sunlight, contrasted with the night (see John 11.9) or the whole period of twenty‐four hours, although not defined as such in the Bible. In earlier traditions a day apparently began at sunrise (e.g., Lev. 7.15–17; Judg. 19.4–19), but later its beginning was at sunset and its end at the following sunset. Thus, in Genesis 1, the six days of creation are each described as follows: “there was evening, and there was morning.” It should be stressed that this clear description makes impossible any understanding of the days of creation in Genesis 1 as longer periods, such as geological eras. This system became normative (see Exod. 12.18; Lev. 23.32; Neh. 13.19) and is still observed in Jewish tradition, where, for example, the Sabbath begins on Friday evening at sunset and ends Saturday at sunset. The word “day” can also be used metaphorically, referring to a critical time, such as the day of birth or death (Eccles. 7.1), the day of the Lord, and the day of Christ (Phil. 1.10). The plural form can be used in a looser sense, equivalent to the general notion of time, as in phrases like “in those days” and “days of old.”
The week consisted of seven days, the last of which was the Sabbath, the only one to be named. The first six days are designated by ordinal numbers.
The two Hebrew words for month (yeraḥ and ḥodeš) are both related to the moon and its cycle (cf. yārēaḥ “moon” and ḥādāš “new”). Different names are used for the months in different periods, as follows (those in parentheses are not attested in the Bible but are found in other ancient sources):
|CANAANITE NAME||BABYLONIAN NAME||MODERN EQUIVALENT|
Four of the months have Canaanite names: Abib, used only in connection with the Exodus and its commemoration in the festival of unleavened bread or Passover (Exod. 13.4; 23.15; Deut. 16.1), and the remaining three in the account of the dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings (6.1, 37–38; 8.2). The Babylonian names are used in texts dating from the sixth century BCE on. Often months are simply indicated by their ordinal number, with Abib/Nisan being the first (Exod. 12.2), at the time of the vernal equinox. But this also seems to be a relatively late innovation, patterned after the Babylonian system; earlier traditions imply that the new year was celebrated in the fall, at the autumnal equinox (see Exod. 23.16; 34.22), apparently in agreement with Canaanite practice. A tenth‐century BCE calendar from Gezer lists the agricultural activities characteristic of twelve months, beginning with the fall harvest.
The year was apparently based on the lunar cycle and consisted of twelve months (1 Chron. 27.15; Rev. 22.2), apparently of twenty‐nine or thirty days each. The use of an intercalary month is disputed but may have occurred (see 1 Kings 12.33). It is possible that there was also use of a true solar year, although the evidence is fragmentary.
No absolute system of chronology is used in the Bible, most systems referring either to the regnal years of various rulers or to key events (e.g., 1 Kings 6.1), although the figures given in various sources are frequently inconsistent. Contrary to modern practice, in totaling units both the first and the last were usually counted.
Michael D. Coogan