Review: The Liturgy of Creation

liturgy of creation

The Liturgy of CreationMichael LeFebvre, foreword by C. John Collins. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: An argument that Genesis 1:1-2:3 should be understood in light of the calendars in the Pentateuch, particularly as instruction for our work and sabbath, rather than for science.

This book examines an area I’ve never studied before: the significance of the calendars of the Pentateuch, and the importance of reading Genesis 1:1-2:3 within this context. Michael LeFebvre is a scholar-pastor who noticed how calendar references run through the Pentateuch, studied these, and became convinced that they offer an important clue to understanding the beginning of Genesis.

The first part of the book looks at Israel’s calendars, and how they are shaped by day, month (lunar) and year. He notes the significance of cycles of seven. Days in the week are fairly obvious. Less obvious but striking for me is that all Israel’s major festivals fall in the first seven months. There are also cycles of seven years, and the seven times seven of Jubilee.

He then studies the different festivals and one of the most significant discussions here is between dates of occurrence and dates of observance (we have this in our own calendar with the observance of Washington’s birthday on President’s Day, which never falls on the day of his actual birthday, February 22. Often, difficulties of chronology arise because of failure to observe this distinction. It also means that because a date of observance may differ from a date of occurrence, this does not mean the occurrence did not happen.

Finally, he argues that the creation week is a calendar narrative. The struggles, for example, to explain evening and morning before the creation of the sun and moon on the fourth day is not a problem if we understand this narrative as a calendar narrative having a liturgical purpose rather than describing an actual chronology.  LeFebvre admits that this may be frustrating for those who have worked out apologetic systems to reconcile the narrative with known science, but his contention is that science was not the point but rather the worship of the God who works six days and rests, establishing a model for his creatures to follow in their work and rest as the fourth commandment indicates. He contends this makes good sense in reading Genesis as part of the Pentateuch, where sabbath is a weekly feast observance, a break of rest and celebration in the people’s rhythm of work. It is consonant with the rest of Pentateuch, and evident to any reader of the text without extensive theological and ancient cultural background, or apologetic expertise. As a corollary to this, he contends for the removal of this text for use in controversy in science and that it be used as Paul commends in 2 Timothy 3:16 for training in righteousness–in this case the proper rhythm of work and rest modeled after the first great worker–God.

No doubt, those who have made an intellectual, or even a remunerative occupation of defending a particular position with regard to Genesis 1 and scientific accounts of origins, LeFebvre’s account is inadequate. LeFebvre does distinguish between idolatrous naturalism, and the carefully delimited practice of science, which may be done by both believers and non-believers apart from philosophical or theological commitments. He remains somewhat agnostic about scientific accounts of origins, while affirming the important of scientific engagements in the study of evolution and cosmology so long as the conclusions affirmed are physical and not metaphysical. He just doesn’t believe Genesis is intended to give an account of origins reconcilable with science. That is not what it’s for. Thus, he does not incline here toward any of the apologetic models of origins on offer. None, he thinks, read the text literally enough.

LeFebvre’s book is important for understanding the calendar of Israel, the significance of festival observance dates, and so forth. His charts of all this are very helpful. Most of all, to pay close attention to the sanctity of work, a creation made to be fruitful and to foster the flourishing of God’s creatures, and the vital practice of sabbath and rhythms of work and rest–all of this offers much for Christians in their worship, practice, and rhythms of daily life. With so much of worth, why press these texts to answer and teach things they were not intended to teach?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known

The God Who Makes Himself Known (New Studies in Biblical Theology), W. Ross Blackburn. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2012.

Summary: A study of the theology of the book of Exodus contending that it reflects God’s missionary purpose to make himself known to the nations through Israel.

The God Who Makes Himself Known typifies the purpose of the New Studies in Biblical Theology of which it is a part. It both articulates the theological themes arising from the book of Exodus, and connects that to the theology of the Bible as a whole. In this case, Ross Blackburn explores how God’s concern to make himself known to the nations, which Blackburn describes as “missionary” is reflected in God’s dealings with Moses and the people of Israel in this book.

The organization of the book follows the biblical text of Exodus. I will highlight the key idea Blackburn elucidates in each portion:

Exodus 1:1-15:21. In the first part of Exodus, centering around 6:3, the focus is on the declaration, “I am the LORD” and what this means in the light of the deliverance from Egypt showing both the supremacy and redeeming character of God to the nations.

Exodus 15:22-18:27. This section focuses on the training of Israel in the wilderness, that they would “learn obedience” by which they reflect God’s supremacy in daily life, and their dependence upon the redeeming God to sustain them.

Exodus 19-24. These passages are concerned with the giving of the law. Blackburn reflects upon how Gospel precedes Law and how the Law is given to flesh out Israel’s calling to make known the name of the Lord to the nations in how they live, and what this reveals of the greatness and goodness of God.

Exodus 25-31. Blackburn looks at the instructions for the Tabernacle, showing the progression in the quality of the materials as one approaches the Holy of Holies, the parallel between Eden and Tabernacle that reveals God’s redemptive purpose, and God’s intention to dwell in the midst of his people.

Exodus 32-34. I found this section the highlight of Blackburn’s discussion as he explores the idolatry of the people, even while God is in the midst of giving instructions for his dwelling place in their midst. He highlights how Moses intercession is heard on the basis not of his attempt to substitute for the people’s sin but on the basis of God’s name and purpose, and how this will be jeopardized should God’s presence depart from them.

Exodus 35-40. Blackburn explores why we have this second description of the Tabernacle, downplayed by many commentators. He argues that the canonical order of this text after Israel’s sin shows how the Lord responds to sin, and how God restores a repentant people and so reveals his glory, greatness, and redeeming character to the nations as he indwells the Tabernacle.

The biggest question that may be raised is whether Blackburn is reading New Testament perspectives into Exodus. Certainly, he is reading Exodus in a New Testament light, but his argument of concerning the missionary heart of God revealed through Israel’s deliverance and wilderness encounters with God is one rooted in both the data of the text and a discussion of the canonical structure of Exodus. What Blackburn does is make an argument for the coherence of Exodus as a whole, as well as for its place within the canon.

This work strikes me as a helpful adjunct to exegetical study of Exodus, offering a larger framework useful for teaching or preaching the book as Christian scripture. While interacting with scholars discussing the meaning of texts like Exodus 34:6-7 and how God both forgives and punishes sin, Blackburn also offers insights into the lavish greatness and goodness of God that leads us into worship, and the life of faithful obedience against God’s gospel purposes for the nations. Like other monographs in this series, Blackburn exemplifies how scholarly rigor and devotional warmth may walk hand in hand.