October 25, 2020

Time? or Timing?

MisreadingOne common area of cultural misunderstanding involves the perception of time.

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?

timeOne of the simplest ways to think about this, the authors tell us, is to recognize the general difference between two Greek words: chronos and kairos.

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.


  1. Kyle In Japan says

    For what it’s worth, Eastern cultures are not uniform. Japan has much in common with the eastern cultures described in the book, but Japan is probably more obsessed with time than most western countries.

    • Much as I hate being enslaved to the clock, it seems evident to me that cultures that are not on clock time remain relatively poor economically; they don’t use time as a value commodity, and so do not benefit from it economically. Japan is prosperous partly because it pays attention to the clock. One of the projects of Communist China, horrible as it was and is, was to make people pay attention to the clock in order to make the economy profitable for more people. Having said that, I think that it is very important to understand the difference between kronos and kairos when reading the Bible; but it is difficult to know where one applies and the other doesn’t. It’s not as if the text signals which one should be applied in any given passage.

      • Your observation is correct, Robert F., but I wonder how Bhutan, with its indicator of Gross Domestic Happiness, would measure punctuality. I admit that punctuality makes me happy and tardiness doesn’t, but I would be curious how Gross Domestic Happiness rankings would align with rankings of punctuality.

        • Ah, yes, the old “Quality of Life” vs. “Standard of Living” debate. It’s a good topic to think through. I do think that our western “prime directive” of most efficient consumption of goods is lacking. On the other hand, it allows us access to some of the most advanced medicine and unbroken food supply. I think a major factor in happiness is philosophy.

      • You have a very good point about being “enslaved to the clock”, Robert F. I remember back in my early teens in the 70s reading optimistic forecasts of the wonderful future technological advances were going to provide. People would be on a three-day work week, and their only problem would be what to do with all their leisure!

        As we can all see, that hasn’t worked out. When typewriters came in and meant that a stenographer could do in a morning what a clerk would take all day or even two days to do, it did not mean that employers said “Well, that’s your day’s work done, go home now and we’ll pay the same wages.” It meant “We can do more work, so we can be ahead of our competitors!”

        And now, instant access by mobile phone means that, instead of finishing your workday at five or six and no matter how urgent the emergency, no way of contacting you until eight or nine the next morning, people are available twenty-four hours. Sunday working has gone from an exceptional thing to a commonplace.

        Are we really that much better off materially? We may have more disposable income, but prices and scarcity and expectations have risen right along with that.

        There’s an Irish proverb that goes “When God made time, He made plenty of it.” It may or may not be telling that I haven’t heard it quoted much lately, particularly in our boomtime Celtic Tiger years.

        • Martha,
          What all this frenetic chronos business buys us is mobility. The most important commodity that technological culture and market economies buy us is the ability to move away from the traditional societal structures in which extended kinship groups define the parameters of existence, and confine us within webs of relationships which in effect are traps when things are dysfunctional, either systemically or personally. This is why the large majority of people always opt for more mobility in their lives when a society develops the ability to offer it.

  2. Mary Anne Dutton says

    This is excellent and enlightening instruction that we need and are not getting. Thank you!

    • As long as we don’t fall into the trap of….
      all things eastern – good
      all things western – bad.

      • I’m not likely to do that, flatrocker, after having waited six or seven hours after the time I was invited to dinner to actually be served dinner. In Kyrgyzstan, the host shows his respect for the guest by preparing the food from scratch before the guest’s eyes. This means that at the guest’s arrival a boy is sent up to the mountainside to find the sheep or goat for the meal. Sometimes it takes a while to find the boy, too. Then the animal is brought back, ritually slaughtered, cut up, and cooked. It is generally late into the night before the guest eats.

        This suggests that the Kyrgyz have a relaxed attitude to the passage of time, which they do, but they also can hurry people. Often the invitation to dinner consists of someone coming to your door and telling you that you are invited NOW. Sometimes there is a car running in the background. If you’re in the middle of painting the house, or have guests yourself, you are still supposed to come right away.

        I guess the biggest cultural difference in the case of hospitality is not time but the importance of the host over the guest. I found much that was admirable about eastern ways, but their culture was like ours flawed by sin.

        • Damaris, that is very interesting. Thanks for sharing from your experience.

          Could you expand on the idea of the “importance of the host over the guest”?

          • The importance of the host over the guest: Generosity is valued in Kyrgyzstan, at its best because of the pleasure associated with giving. At its worst generosity becomes a way to show off, manipulate guests, and protect against the fear of the evil eye. The guest is then valued not as himself but as the substrate for the host’s display of wealth. The result is what visitors have called, not really joking, “terrorist hospitality.”

            We experienced many examples of true hospitality while we were there, though — I don’t mean to be too negative. Interestingly, the small groups of Christians in rural Kyrgyzstan have been rethinking these cultural assumptions. Many of them were delightful to visit — poor but willing to share what they had without apology for their poverty.

          • Wow. I will remember that. Fascinating to see again how sin and ego corrupt even the best things in human culture.

            Thanks for taking the time to expand.

      • That’s right flat rocker. Again, remember the purpose is to recognize differences so we can read the Bible better, not say one cultural pattern is better or worse.

  3. I had a conversation with our fellowship’s youth pastor yesterday about time. Neat that you are broaching the topic too…
    What fascinates me is not only bonding people to the concept of time, but how believers bind God and theology to time as well. We should examine our theology in this light to see if we are making God less in attribute on account of a view of time. God is not bound by time at all. When Paul said “we have been raised together in Heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6), I believe the fulfillment of this reality is already experienced by God who does not have to wait. We are the ones who are bent when we have to wait for something. We are part of the “creation on tiptoe waiting for the manifestation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). We are the ones who begin to worship the created thing (time) over the creator. This is one more thing needing to be repented of even if it makes someone more wealthy because we see the value of it. Are we valuing time when it comes to the Kingdom of God or just for our own kingdom’s sake? That is a question we need to ask ourselves.
    Thank you for sharing the story of the mission church who waited patiently for your arrival. Patience is a fruit of the spirit much of the American church could use these days…

    • David Cornwell says

      Michael, I’ve thought a lot about this exact same thing. I’ve never made a study of it as far as theologically or biblically, but I do know it can stretch one’s thinking. I’m not sure we can ever fully understand the concepts of time and eternity as it has to do with the mind of God. But when we think of the resurrection only in terms of what we call the “future” we may be missing something. The doors of time and eternity were pushed open when Christ rose from the dead, and will never again be closed. We don’t know what happens when we die, except we know we are safe in Christ. “We have been raised together in Christ…”

      When we have the luck to sleep a deep sleep and then awaken, it sometimes feels as if we are in another world. For a few seconds time means little. We may not be totally aware of the actual time, or even space. Then, of course, reality sets in. What will it be like when Christ awakens us from our “sleep?” Will we be aware of lapse in time? I doubt it. Or—is it so far from any reality we know that our imagination cannot even begin to inform us? What’s beyond chronos and kairos?

  4. Next time I’m late for work I will tell my boss I live by kairos time.

  5. “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.”

    Not to be picky, but since the verse divisions are not original, wouldn’t a couple of your points be weakened? I do agree with your overall point that the repetition of sevens is not random but symbolical and theological.

    • I wondered about the same thing …is the word count identical in the original Hebrew? I suspect not. My understanding is that chapter and verse distinctions didn’t come about until the 14th or 15th century. For example, the 23rd Psalm was originally one text along with Psalms 22 and 23.

      I do know that the number 7 is used to structure a rhetorical device or matrix that is used in Isaiah, Luke and elsewhere to emphasize events of particular significance. However it is simply a device used by the authors and doesn’t carry any supernatural meaning or import. Kenneth Bailey refers to it as the “prophetic rhetorical template.”

      I also suspect it is possible that the “numerology” of the Bible might have been crafted by later generations of scribes and translators for reasons only they would know. CM, lacking the original manuscripts of these ancient texts, can we really be confident that any of these numerical patterns were intended by the authors? In any event, given all our modern translations, these patterns would be obliterated and lost to all but the the most ardent scholars.

      • …oops. Psalms 22, 23 & 24 were a single text.

      • When I’m talking about word count here, I’m talking about Hebrew words, not translations, and these are insights gleaned primarily from Jewish scholars and commentators. There are far too many numerical and poetic patterns in a passage like Genesis 1 to be accidental or to be present because of manuscript problems.

        • Do you suppose that these numerical and poetic patterns serve a rhetorical purpose or a spiritual one? If spiritual, does that indicate that subliminal messages are incorporated within the text as we read it? Bible codes? I would love to hear you expand on this topic, CM, maybe in a future post.

          In light of your belief that much of the OT was either rewritten or originally composed during the Babyonian captivity, it would be interesting to learn whether or not such patterns were also present in either Babylonian or Persian literature and if the meaning of such paralleled their use by the Hebrews. My impression has been that the Hebrew culture largely imposed itself on the Babylonian (as did the Greek upon the Roman), but, perhaps, some things crept in from the other direction.

          Thanks for your comments!

    • Sometimes the verse structure actually represents the structure of the text.

  6. For those of us who believe in the Real Presence in the Eurcharist, kairos might explain why passages in the gospels dealing with the Last Supper describe Jesus saying “This is my body, given for you….This is my blood…poured out for the forgiveness of sins” even though his physical body and blood was there holding the bread and wine and had not yet been crucified and dead, that is, poured out; the gospel writers were thinking in kairos, not chronos.

  7. petrushka1611 says

    A Geography of Time, by Robert Levine, is the most fascinating book I’ve read on this subject. It’s also the only book I’ve read on this subject. 😉