According to the first chapter of Genesis, the initial creative process spans seven days: six for God’s acts of creation, and a final day on which the Lord rests from all that work. This seven-day period is more significant than most modern Bible readers may realize. While contemporary debates tend to focus on when these days occurred or whether they constitute 24-hour periods, the ancient Israelites would have understood the timespan in a much different way; namely, as the traditional period in which temples were constructed. The outset of Genesis uses the seven days to suggest that God’s creation of the world is a temple-building project; whereas other gods erect their temples in seven days, the God of Israel fashions the entire world as a divine temple.
In ancient literature of Israel’s neighbors, narratives exist that present temple construction projects that last seven days. For example, the so-called Baal Cycle (an ancient text found in the ancient city of Ugarit in northern Syria) describes the temple of Baal being established in a week’s time: “Of cedars [Baal’s] house is to be built, of bricks is his palace to be erected…. Behold, a day and a second, the fire eats into the house, the flame into the palace. A fifth, and sixth day, the fire eats into the house, the flame into the palace. Behold, on the seventh day, the fire departs from the house, the flame from the palace…. Baal rejoices, ‘My house I have built of silver; my palace I have made of gold.’” (KTU 1.4 VII). In this case, the chief Canaanite deity seven days to set up his temple. Yet, the biblical God rests “on the seventh day” (ביום השביעי; bayom hashvi’i) from all the work of creation. This number is no accident; in the literature of the Ancient Near East—including Israel’s Scriptures—seven is the number that symbolizes completeness or perfection.
When the God of Israel fashions the world, the priestly writer of Genesis 1 frames that creation within a seven-day framework to suggest that everything we see around us is part of the Lord’s temple. An ancient polemic is imbedded into this imagery: whereas gods like Baal take seven days to create a single temple in a single city of Mesopotamia, Israel’s God takes the same amount of time to establish the entire earth. While other gods may have dominion over their limited sacred spaces, the God of Israel holds sway over the entire created order. It is in the context of this theological claim that Isaiah has a divine vision in the temple as seraphim sing of God, “Holy, holy, holy, the whole earth (כל־הארץ; kol ha’arets) is full of his glory” (Isa 6:3). In Genesis, the precise temporal parameters of the seven days are not the main point; instead, Scripture is concerned with the Lord’s superiority over other deities and the view of our world as the sacred abode of God.