I had been traveling for a couple of weeks. So when I was back in my home church Sunday, I had to reorient myself. I had been gone on Pentecost Sunday, and did not think about it being Trinity Sunday until I realized that the colors, scripture readings and prayers all took in the theme of the Trinity.
When I was active clergy I would have been much more aware of the church calendar. In fact, I was sometimes the “calendar police” enforcing the proper colors on the chancel and otherwise ensuring that the calendar was kept.
This is to say that the religious calendar is often more a concern of clergy than of others.
So when we try to understand the large parts of the Pentateuch or the Hebrew Bible as a whole that have a “priestly” background (P), we should expect the calendar to be something those people cared about. We know that it became a huge issue in the centuries before Christ. We see this in the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Enoch literature and the Book of Jubilees.
There is a Swiss scholar who has departed from the usual literary analysis and attempted to understand the P by recognizing that it had particular calendar concerns.
Phillippe Guillaume argues that the priestly narrative, beginning with the story of the seven days of creation, is largely about supporting a Sabbatical calendar instituted by priests returning from the Babylonian exile and trying to displace the Babylonian lunar calendar. For his article, TRACING THE ORIGIN OF THE SABBATICAL CALENDAR IN THE PRIESTLY NARRATIVE (GENESIS 1 TO JOSHUA 5) see here.
When the Babylonians had conquered the land, they had replaced Jerusalem as the capital with Mizpah (see Jeremiah 40:6 ff.). But the priests who came home from Babylon opposed the administration at Mizpah and sought to reestablish Jerusalem. Part of their program was to undermine the Babylonian administrative calendar used at Mizpah with a new religious calendar suited to festivals and pilgrimages to Jerusalem.
According to Guillaume, the P narrative follows a seven-day structure that includes other complex calendar related structure.
1 Creation Gen 1:1-2:4 –seven days, basis for the Semitic week.
2 Violence Gen. 5:1-6:10–seems to use the number 6, symbolic of incompletness and destruction
3 Re-creation Gen. 6:11-8:19–more septets, for instance, it took 7 months from the “resting” of the ark on Mount Ararat to the opening of the ark.
4 Exiles Gen 9:1-11:3 –I did not understand Guillaume’s discussion of the pre-patriarchal era and the counting of those years. Perhaps he is suggesting that this material comes from a pre-exilic source that was not so concerned about the Sabbatical calendar. Into this the post-exilic priests seem to have introduced their system of intercalating one year every 7 sabbatical years.
5 Exodus Gen. 12:1-Ex 40:35 — Guillaume sees this period as a movement from Haran, where there was a sanctuary to the moon god, to the wilderness where there was a tabernacle filled by YHWH. This corresponded to the move away from a lunar calendar.
6 Wandering Ex. 12:40-Josh 4:19 –This period from the rejection of the 12 spies to the camp at Gilgal was one of purification. It was 40 years minus 3 days, which corresponded to the priestly system of intercalating a week every fifth sabbatical year.
7 Shabbat Josh. 18:1 — The tabernacle established at Shiloh and the land subdued is interpreted as a concluding Sabbath rest.
This is just an outline of his interesting proposal. For some scholars P means a source document existing before the final editing of the Pentateuch. Others see it as added for the purpose of making that edition.
Note that Guillaime’s extension of P into Joshua is a minority view.
I am sure that P material existed during the time before the exile. The Silver Scroll with its Aaronic blessing is proof of that. I also think that Hosea 12 draws on P’s Jacob narrative, although Hosea takes a much more negative view of Jacob. Jeremiah also seems to know P material, particularly the opening of the creation story (Jer. 4:23). Moreover, Jeremiah knew about scribal activity of the priests and did not always approve (Jer. 8:8).
This does not mean that there was not a reediting of the material at the beginning of the Persian period. In fact, Ezra’s work shows that there certainly was. P was both an old narrative strand and a new redactional reinterpretation.
Guillaime’s proposal is speculative, as he acknowledges. But it has value for understanding that the times and numbers given in the Pentateuch are symbolic. The scribes did not care about historical and chronological precision, but they did care about the religious calendar.