Once, when we were in India, our host planned a day of sightseeing before the mission team was to present an evening program. In typical fashion, everything took much longer than anticipated and we arrived at the church over an hour and a half late — at least from our point of view. To the team’s surprise, the congregation was seated quietly, patiently awaiting our arrival. They watched as we rushed about and set up our equipment. All of us were flustered and embarrassed, but those who had come to see our program on a weeknight didn’t appear to be bothered at all. They were gracious and polite and seemed to appreciate the service even though it lasted late into the evening.
I remember imagining the tongue-lashing we would have received from anyone who might have scheduled us in the U.S. had we been so insensitive to people’s schedules. I guarantee we would have arrived to a dark and locked church building too. No one would have waited around. Our ministry would have lost respect. As far as I know, however, there were no negative repercussions from our tardiness.
Yet most people who have lived abroad will tell you that time is one of the ways cultures are most different. In the West, time is a hot commodity. Most of us consider it a limited resource. Sure, there are twenty-four hours in a day. We struggle to fit all of our responsibilities — work, family, hobbies, leisure — into our busy schedules. We prove that other people are truly important to us when we “find time” or, better yet, “make time” for them. Because time is both limited and important, we talk about it as if it were a commodity that can be saved, traded or spent like money. Indeed, we are convinced that “time is money.” We are sensitive to the fact that other people value their time, so we try not to “monopolize” their time or, perhaps worse, waste our own. We even develop strategies for “time management,” which help us get maximum productivity out of this most limited of resources.
…While we fret and wring our hands about the demise of time, many non-Westerners don’t. My Indonesian fishermen friends seem to have all the time in the world. I have deadlines. The end of the month is looming. I’m running out of time. I can hear my fishermen friends laughing. How can you “run out of” time? In their world, “there is always tomorrow until one day there’s not [i.e. you die], and then it won’t matter.” For them, procrastination is a virtue. Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow? When tomorrow comes, you might find you didn’t need to do it at all. This gives many Westerners hives, because the sand is running out of the hourglass! The clock is ticking!
What we value determines how we talk about time. Therefore we in the West have precise terms for time and our language itself distinguishes verb tenses quite specifically in terms of when an action takes place. On the other hand, the authors note some languages that have no verb tenses at all! Time is distinguished by using words like “today” or “tomorrow” that give whatever specificity might be needed.
In the West, correct time is connected to the measurements of a timepiece. However, many non-Western cultures proceed by what some have called an “event” orientation, which stresses the quality of the event rather than identifying it by the chronological period it is designed to fill. Relationships are more important than schedules and the sense of time is much more elastic and seen through the lens of organic development.
How do different perspectives on time affect the way we read the Bible?
The Bible does recognize chronological time and has an overall teleological framework — it starts in “the beginning” at creation and moves to “the end of days” and the new creation. Chronos time marks the hours, days, and years of this history and the various authors stress the importance of some of those markers along the way through the Bible.
Almost twice as frequently, the Bible uses kairos to refer to the more qualitative aspect of time. This kind of time focuses not so much on the hours and days involved, but rather on what is happening and what it means.
For example, we can recognize the differences between the way the books in the Hebrew Bible are arranged vs. the way we have them in our English Bibles. Our Bibles (going back to a tradition begun with the Greek Septuagint) are organized by historical chronology. The Pentateuch is followed by the “Historical” books, which include Ruth and Chronicles. These are followed by Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, which come next in historical order. So, our Old Testament is arranged as a history from creation to the return of Israel to the land after the Babylonian Exile. We then put poetic and wisdom books together in a group and the prophetic books in a group, and they are organized primarily by the length of the books.
In the order and structure of our Bibles, the emphasis is on what happened when and in what sequence, with the “commentary” to follow.
The organizing principle of the Hebrew Bible is quite different.
- The first five books are known as the “Torah” — a word that signifies “instruction.”
- The next section (Joshua/Judges/Samuel/Kings) is called the “Early Prophets” — which stresses not their historical character but their prophetic significance.
- Then come the “Latter Prophets” (the writing prophets), whose writings also shed light on the meaning of what happened in Israel and what it meant for their future.
- Then come the “Writings” — which are arranged differently and also include books like Ruth, Daniel, and Chronicles, put here because of their emphasis on wisdom and interpretive themes. One example of the thematic way the books in the Writings are organized would be the “Five Scrolls” — Ruth, Song of Solomon, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther. All five of these books follow Proverbs, which ends with the acrostic poem of the “Noble Woman.” Subsequently, each of these books has a main character with a feminine name who personifies and exemplifies Wisdom.
Even in this brief overview, you can see that the Hebrew Bible is much more concerned with interpretation and meaning than it is with history and chronology. Of course the events themselves are important, but what is stressed is how we should understand those events and what they signify.
If one were to examine the texts themselves, the same emphases would be seen.
Genesis 1 is one of the best examples of this. We in our chronologically and scientifically oriented culture want to read literal description into such things as the seven-day scheme, but the text is full of numerical patterns that can only be intentional and our task as readers is to discern the significance of those patterns. For example, Gen. 1:1 has seven words, 1:2 has fourteen words (7×2), the seven-day week is described in seven paragraphs, each of the three main nouns in verse 1 is used throughout the chapter in a multiple of seven – God (35), heavens (21), land (21), and so on. The seventh paragraph alone — about the Sabbath (the seventh day) — has 35 words, and also contains three sentences of seven words each. In the very middle of the verse is the phrase, ”the seventh day.” It’s pretty clear that there is more going on here than the simple desire to say that God created in seven days.
Another area where time issues can be confusing to Bible readers is in the Gospels, where the chronology of Jesus’ life and ministry is sometimes difficult to understand. The Gospel writers often use topical arrangement rather than chronological order. For example, Matthew combines Jesus’ teachings into five major “sermons” or “discourses” and alternates between narratives and discourses to highlight particular themes, within a general chronological scheme. The structure and development of each of the four Gospels must not simply be assumed when we approach them. Each author was not only telling the overall story of Jesus, but also highlighting particular events, teachings, and themes, and this led Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to adapt chronology and other details to suit their authorial purposes.
This can also help us understand why there may be what we might consider to be “discrepancies” or even “contradictions” in the Gospel accounts. The authors simply weren’t as concerned about chronological precision as we are. What mattered was bringing out the themes they were trying to communicate. That may have led them to tell the story in a different way or to use a different sequence.
…the biblical authors, like many non-Westerners, were less concerned with clock or calendar time (chronos) and more concerned with the appropriateness and fittingness of events (kairos). You might say they were more concerned with timing than with time.
…When the preacher in Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a “season” for everything, he isn’t talking about a calendar.