Earliest biblical calendar references go back to the book of Genesis, but as far as an exclusive Hebrew system is concerned, the first mention is found with instructions given to Moses at the time of the Exodus. This was the calendar that was employed during the Judges and Kingdom periods of Israel. It begins here:
“This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.” (Exodus 12:2)
It was the month of Abib (later renamed Nisan) and what is being said here is clear; the first of Abib was to become New Year’s Day. It begs the question: If Moses was given a new start to the year, when was New Year under the calendar from which they had come? The Egyptians called it the “opening of the year” and it started with the star, ‘Sirius’, which appeared in the sky in July when the first season was ushered in by the flooding of the river Nile. They associated the life-giving inundation of their crops with Sirius, bringer of new life. In mentioning this I do not mean to discuss the Egyptian Sothic cycle. I only wish to make the point that the Hebrew calendar was not copied from Egypt. The Bible’s calendar was unique in its operation and different from neighboring countries.
The next thing to be noticed is how units of time were distinguished by Sabbath time measurement. The week was seven days, and the years were grouped into heptads. By contrast, the Egyptian 30-day month was divided into three ‘decans’ of ten days each, but the Hebrew calendar was strictly sabbatical. The following is a breakdown of time measurement in it:
- a ‘week’ of days (7 days)
- a ‘moon’ (one month)
- a ‘time’ (one year)
- a ‘time, times and half a time’ (31/2 yrs)
- a ‘week’ of years (7 years)
- a ‘jubilee sabbath’ (49 years)
- a ’70-week jubilee’ (490 years)
The ‘week of years’ was akin to our ‘decade’, and ‘jubilee’ might be likened to our ‘century’, albeit shorter. The longer ’70-week jubilee’ is alluded to in both Testaments (Daniel 9:24, Matthew 18:22) and is also mentioned in fragments of manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. (Scroll 11Q13)
A ‘moon’ (lunar month) is typically 29 or 30 days, so when the year was completed it only reached 354 days, about eleven days short of the Sun’s 365¼ day rotation. As a result, the year slipped back each season, and an extra (thirteenth) month had to be inserted every so often. It was added at the end of Adar, according to a sabbatical formula if my proposition is correct – not according to primitive observation of seasons as it is usually assumed to have been done.
As mentioned before, confusion arises from an assumption that the modern Hebrew calendar is the same as the ancient one. It isn’t. The misunderstanding is not helped by rabbinic experts either, who make the same claims as everyone else. It’s a good calendar, it’s luni-solar, and it works. Why look for another? Also, a false credibility bolsters the assumption since the modern Hebrew calendar is not really modern. It is similar to, and can be traced back to the Greek, Persian, and Babylonian empires. Now, that is old.
But it is not as old as the one of which we speak; it goes all the way back to Moses. In my next post, we will look at some strange and interesting references to a ‘lost’ calendar.