Unlike our previous articles that focused on the background of a particular Scripture text, this installment is going to look at the idea of biblical time. Why spend time talking about time?
Well, the Bible is sacred history, and if you’ve read a lot of Scripture, you’ve probably noticed how different events often seem eerily similar. It’s almost as though Scripture’s view of time is a little different than our own.
This idea of “biblical time” is perhaps best explained by comparing and contrasting the pagan and modern views of time.
The pagans understood time to be cyclical. According to this view, everything that has happened will happen again and again into eternity. For most of us, this worldview isn’t very appealing; after all, if everything repeats, then everything is fated to happen and there is nothing you can do to prevent it. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the pagans generally denied the existence of free will. For them, we are all just pawns in an endless circle of life.
The modern view of time, on the other hand, is as a straight line of events, one linked to the other by a series of causes, never to be repeated. While current events may shape future events, ultimately the road ahead is open to possibilities. While this worldview does break us out of the pagan prison of repeating cycles, the drawback is that this view might see two distant events in history as completely unrelated.
This forgets, however, that God also acts in history. Indeed, he is the Lord of history. Although two distant historical events might seem totally unrelated to us, they are related in God’s providence. Because Sacred Scripture unveils the religious meaning of history, it gives us a deeper perspective on how events might relate to each other.
Biblical time is neither an unbreakable cycle, like the pagans believed, nor a straight line like we see things today. Rather, time unfolds in Scripture much like an ascending spiral. For example, while Moses’ exodus out of Egypt was a one-time event, the pattern of the exodus does seem to repeat itself in different and more spiritually revealing ways, culminating with Jesus, the New Moses, establishing a new Passover (the Mass) and freeing us from the slavery of sin and leading us into the new Promised Land, heaven. Moses and Jesus are two different persons, but both events are related.
We saw another example of this “unfolding spiral” in an earlier installment of “Behind the Bible,” which examined how Noah’s flood and its aftermath are described in Scripture using elements from the Creation narrative in Genesis 1-2. Although the creation of cosmos and Noah’s flood are two entirely distinct events, nevertheless, Scripture sees Noah’s flood as an echo of what occurred in the first chapters of Genesis.
The spiral view of sacred history is of great benefit to us today. It makes the sacred past applicable to how we ought to live today. For example, Paul teaches that Moses and the people during the exodus also underwent a kind of baptism and ate spiritual food, yet nevertheless disobeyed God and died in the desert. Such things are not relics of the past, but, as he says, they are examples for us and for our instruction (1 Corinthians 10:1-12).
Sacred history also gives us great confidence in God’s mercy. From it we learn that in whatever situation we find ourselves, God is faithful. As Sirach 2:8-9 says, “Study the generations long past and understand; has anyone hoped in the LORD and been disappointed? Has anyone persevered in his fear and been forsaken? Has anyone called upon him and been rebuffed?”
,hr/.Gary Michuta is an apologist, author and speaker and a member of St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Livonia. Visit his website at www.handsonapologetics.com.