Word of the Day: WEEK

Word of the Day: WEEK

Let’s suppose that you are the sacred author of Genesis, and you are inspired by God to describe, in liturgical form, the creation of the world. All narratives require time. There is no way that a human culture without the heights of philosophy can conceive of God’s action unless as action-in-time, with a beginning and a middle and an end. They did not have the vocabulary for action-outside-time. But I could say more. The very idea that there could be action-outside-time was inspired by Scripture, especially that first chapter of Genesis.

In any case, what would you do? Or rather, what might God inspire you to say? Perhaps it’s best to ask what God would, by His direction, prevent you from saying. Whenever we think of human agents, we form “pictures,” setting a scene, giving the agent some stuff to work with, and having him do things with his hands, or with some instrument. None of that happens in Genesis. God speaks, and there is light: the embodiment of immateriality, if I may be permitted the paradox. He speaks, and there are the dry land and the seas. He speaks, and there are the fish and the birds and so on. The creative actions themselves are portrayed as not taking any time at all: they are as instantaneous as the utterance. So the sacred author, using the odd Hebrew verb “bara,” which might in other contexts suggest sculpture, notably refrains from having God sculpt anything at all, till we get, in Genesis 2, to the wonderfully symbolic forming of Eve from the rib of Adam.

Notice that God does not get around to creating the heavenly bodies until the fourth day, which is to poke a finger in the eye of every pagan Big Thing In Sky Worshiping system; and he creates “the stars” almost as an afterthought. Take that, you Chaldeans. And that prompts me to ask, “Why a WEEK?”

It won’t do to answer, “It took God a week to do it,” because, as Augustine can teach us, time itself is one of God’s creations, and He is not subject to it. Augustine allows for the answer, which is not the one he himself approves, and as far as I can see he is typical among the Fathers in this regard, that the actual duration of the events described was one WEEK. But if we think about it, we understand the YEAR from something clear that happens in the sky; and for those of you who have gone to modern schools and never been outside, that means that the sun at its rising returns to the same place, makes the same arc, and sets in some other same place. We understand the MONTH from the phases of the moon: the English word is related to MOON.  We understand the DAY — a child understands the DAY. But the WEEK?

That’s a little tricky. The lunar MONTH may be divided conveniently into four, and that would give us the WEEK, but still, it is not something that we easily observe. It seems instead that the WEEK would be a measure of time that is NOT clearly bound to the rhythms of the world. It is a divine measure: and that helps also to explain the prevalence of WEEKS in Jewish and Christian poetry and mysticism: see Du Bartas’ La Semaine, THE WEEK, a great influence upon Edmund Spenser, who indulges in his own tremendous heptameral work, in the Mutability Cantos. Christians — other than SEVENTH Day Adventists, I guess — look forward to that Sabbath beyond the Sabbath, the Eighth Day, which as Augustine says is the day of resurrection, the completion, beyond time, of the seventh day of rest, that seventh day which is also the day of the Lord and of the consummation of the world.

The word that gives us WEEK is common in the Germanic languages: German WOCHE, Icelandic VIKA, Swedish VECKA; our W is original, and their V-sound is derivative. We don’t have cognates for WEEK in the Romance languages: Latin has instead SEPTIMANA, a SEVENTH; hence Italian SETTIMANA, Spanish SEMANA, Romanian SAPTAMANA. (Welsh, by the way, has WYTHNOS, EIGHTH-NIGHT. Don’t ask me; I don’t know why.) My source tells me that the ancient root for WEEK has to do with TURNING about; hence German WECHSELN, to EXCHANGE. If you can be turned, it may be you are not strong; hence English WEAK. If that’s so, WEAK and WEEK would give us a doublet whose members must have been separate from one another in meaning many centuries before Anglo Saxon was ever written down.