The Problem with the Day-Year Principle
by André Reis | 21 October 2019 |
To Adventists everywhere, happy Great Disappointment Day!
In this anniversary commentary on Millerite history, I deal with the day-year principle (or year-day principle)—of which Seventh-day Adventists are the main proponent—which posits that any time period found in biblical prophecy must be converted to days and then to years, with every symbolic day standing for a literal year.
In preparation for next quarter’s lessons on the book of Daniel, this quarter’s Sabbath School lesson assumes the validity of this principle when it states:
“Daniel 9:25 states that ‘from the going forth of the command to restore and build Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince, there shall be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks’ (NKJV). … Since one week contains seven days, a prophetic week equals seven years (Num. 14:34; Ezek. 4:5, 6)” (p. 24).
I should briefly note that—as explored in my previous piece on this quarter’s lesson on this blog—the translation of Dan 9:25 in the Sabbath School lesson’s favored translation, the New King James Version, violates Hebrew syntax when it capitalizes what is not capitalized in the Hebrew and has an “anointed one” coming after a total of 69 rather than 7 weeks as intended in the Hebrew.
Here I discuss briefly three main problems with the day-year principle of prophetic interpretation.
1. The day-year principle is not really a hermeneutical “rule.”
In order for exegetes to establish a coherent, consistent hermeneutical principle of biblical interpretation which can be replicated across a body of literature, spanning millennia, various locations and authors, a certain set of controls need to be in place before one can––with any degree of certainty––state that a normative interpretive principle can be applied universally.
But as seasoned exegetes quickly realize, the Bible, by its very nature, does not expound on such principles of its own interpretation. We only see rare hints embedded into the text, or referred to by external witnesses. Even then, these principles—if we can call them that—can rarely, if ever, be superimposed on it universally, because each author’s intention must rise from his/her place in life (Sitz im Leben), time period, the target audience and other such vagaries.
One such task is to establish inner-biblical allusions: that is, the way one author either quotes directly, alludes to verbally (about five words or less) or simply echoes the thoughts of another author. These textual markers are found in the form of verbal and thematic parallels. For example, Matthew 27:9 quotes Zechariah 11:1–13 directly (although the text says it is quoting Jeremiah). Many New Testament authors quote, allude to or echo Psalm 110. However, John of Patmos never quotes, and rarely alludes to a single source of the Old Testament, and often mixes imagery, language and echoes from several Old Testament backgrounds in any given passage.
In all these cases, scholars working with the original texts have been able to establish whether the verbal and thematic parallels found in one book constitute a quotation, allusion or echo of a previous author, and whether we can say with any degree of certainty what source (or sources) lies behind an author’s statement.
The problem for the day-year principle is that there are no consistent controls which allow us to establish that different biblical authors are thinking of the same principle. There is no example of the use of such a principle by biblical authors. For example, does the word “day” need to appear in passages when conversion to “year” is expected? How do we know that other time periods (e.g., a time, times and half a time; 42 months; a half-hour; a “week”) are eligible for the conversion? How can we be certain that the biblical author actually intended such a conversion? How can we be certain that the original readers understood that the conversion was necessary?
These are important questions for biblical exegetes. When we start delving into what authors and readers should have known based on our modern-day assumptions, we are speculating about what they meant.
2. Neither Numbers 14 nor Ezekiel 4 involves a day-year “principle” of prophetic interpretation.
Numbers 14:34 deals with a divine sentence: just as you explored the land for 40 days and were unfaithful to me, now you will roam the desert for 40 years. There’s no prophecy in this passage, symbolic vision, no symbolic time period. Both data are literal spans of time.
So Numbers is out as far as establishing a “principle of prophetic interpretation.” What about Ezekiel?
The same is true in Ezekiel 4: there’s no symbolic vision involved, no symbolic time period, no prophecy. The relationship between the 390 days of witnessing by Ezekiel and the 390 years of Israel’s sin is typological/literal, not symbolic. One literal period stands as the literal type of the other: a period of sin by Israel is a type of God’s forbearance. The prophet’s lying down for 40 days is a type of Judah’s 40 years of transgression.
What we find in these passages is merely an equivalency between two literal—not symbolic—time periods. Neither Numbers nor Ezekiel establishes an actual principle of prophetic interpretation. Both are distinct cases of the use of typology: one literal period of time stands for the literal other. No statement that this “formula” should be used in perpetuity by the Jews is found in these passages. and there is no historical evidence that the Jews understood them as such.
3. Daniel 9 is not the final proof of the day-year principle.
Daniel 9 has long been considered a hermeneutical “city of refuge” for Adventists. If Numbers and Ezekiel don’t establish an interpretative principle per se, as some admit, Daniel 9 saves the day. It fits all the requirements!
Well, not so fast. Let’s look at what is going on there and attempt to apply the inner-biblical allusive methodology as proposed above.
Daniel 9 starts with the prophet revealing that he had understood by “the books,” including Jeremiah, that the devastation of Jerusalem would last seventy literal years. After a relatively long period of prayer, the angel Gabriel is sent to give him “wisdom and understanding” about a period of seventy weeks decreed for his people until a future deliverance would come about.
Adventists have capitalized on the fact that this messianic prophecy actually confirms the day-year principle because if “weeks” here meant 7 literal weekdays, 490 days from the time of Daniel would fall far short of the arrival of Jesus. So 490 days here must be converted to 490 years, thus erasing once and for all any doubts about the day-year principle! Bingo!
Well, not so fast. The first question to be tackled is: Is the word weeks applied to a “symbolic” period of 7 days which requires conversion to 7 years?
The short answer is: no.
The longer answer is more complicated.
First, in the context Gabriel is speaking about actual, not symbolic time and events: an actual decree is made, a certain “anointed one” is killed after 7 shabuim and a literal city and temple are once again rebuilt.
Secondly, Jews thought of a period of 7 days just as easily as they thought of a period of 7 years. In fact, both were actual, literal time spans for the Jews––no conversion was either necessary or attested in the Bible or Jewish literature. Like many things in Hebrew, the context determined what the length of time was.
This is easier to understand in Hebrew than in English: Hebrew does not have a word for “week”: that word is shabuah, “seven.” The word in Daniel 9 is the plural “shabuim,” “sevens.”
The concept of a “week/seven” (shabuah) of years was common to Hebrew thinking, having been first established in Lev 25:3–4: “Six years you shall sow your field, and six years you shall prune your vineyard, and gather in their yield; but in the seventh year there shall be a sabbath of complete rest for the land, a sabbath for the Lord…” Lev 25:8 comes the closest to using the expression “week of years” when it says: “You shall count seven sabbaths of years, seven times seven years, so that the period of seven weeks of years gives forty-nine years” (NRSV: cf. the NKJV: “seven sabbaths of years”). This gave rise to the “week of years” we find often in Jewish literature.
And the evidence gets more compelling. The connection between the 70 years of the Babylonian exile and the sabbatical year cycle is explicitly stated in 2 Chron 36:20–21:
“And those who escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon, where they became servants to him and his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. As long as she lay desolate she kept Sabbath, to fulfill seventy years” (NKJV, italics supplied).
Since both Daniel 9 and 2 Chronicles 36:21 are thematically parallel, the following construct is possible:
“In the first year of his reign, I, Daniel, perceived in the books the number of years that, according to the word of the Lord [davar yahweh] to the prophet Jeremiah, must be fulfilled [l’malot] for the devastation of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years [shib’yim shanah] // “to fulfill the word of the Lord [l’malot davar yahweh] by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed her Sabbaths. All the days that it lay desolate it kept sabbath, to fulfill seventy years [shib’yim shanah].”
This brief comparison of the Hebrew yields several exact verbal parallels, in addition to the obvious thematic correspondence between the two passages. It is in the context of the 10 sabbaths of years of captivity that Gabriel speaks of another period of sabbaths—or weeks—of years. The contextual connection is compelling: just as Jerusalem was left desolate for 70 years (10 sabbaths of years), Jerusalem and the temple would be rebuilt within 70 “sabbaths of years.”
What we have in Daniel 9, then, is a case of mistaken identity on the part of day-year principle proponents: the seventy “sevens” are not actually symbolic “weeks of days” but literal “sabbaths of years”!
As additional evidence, Daniel 10:3 supports this reading of a “week of years” when Daniel explains that he fasted for “three weeks of days” [sheloshet shabu‘im yamim]”. Here, the added yamim (“of days”) after shabuim (“weeks”) stands as an intentional differentiation between the “weeks of years” from the previous chapter. This is in fact how Jews understood this expression in Daniel 9, as evidenced by the Septuagint, which renders the Hebrew in v. 3 as “three weeks of days (treis hebdomadas ton hemeron).”
Armed with this “proof” from Daniel 9, historicists then retroactively apply the day-year conversion to the 2,300 evenings-mornings of Daniel 8. However, the word “day” does not even appear in Daniel 8:13–14, 26 but rather “evenings-mornings” and “the evenings and the mornings” (v. 26). This is not a mystery at all: it simply refers to the literal removal of the daily sacrifices (Heb. tamid) from the temple by the Greek “little horn” for a total of literal 2,300 evenings and mornings sacrifices = 1,150 literal days. Post-exilic Jews correctly interpreted this removal as the desecrations of the temple by the Greek “little horn” Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century B.C.E. Here again, the day-year conversion does not apply.
Therefore, it is much more sensible to accept the fact that the “sevens” of Daniel 9, in context, never really dealt with weekdays in the first place, but can perfectly mean “sevens of years” on its own, as was common in Jewish thinking.
In fact, there are several examples in Rabbinic literature (Mishnah Sanhedrin and Talmud, Seder Olam), as well as pseudepigraphal Jewish literature (Book of Jubilees, 4Q384-390 [Pseudo Ezekiel], 4Q387a [Pseudo Moses], 4Q226, Apocalypse of Weeks, 1QS 10.7–8 etc.), where “shabuah” or “shabuim” by themselves mean a 7-year cycle, without any so-called day-year conversion.
For example, Jubilees 48:1–2, which describes how long Moses stayed in Midian after killing the Egyptian, gives a glimpse of how the Jews calculated time in relation to a sabbatical cycle or “week of years.” I add “of years” to facilitate comprehension since this is the intended meaning: “And on the sixth year of the third week [of years, shabuah] of the forty-ninth jubilee you went and dwelt in the land of Midian five weeks [of years, shabuim] and one year and you returned to Egypt on the second week [of years, shabuah] in the second year in the fiftieth jubilee.” This equals 38 years, which is close to the 40 years reported by Stephen in Acts 7. Moses’ age while in the Egyptian court is given in Jubilees 47:12 as “three weeks of years” [sh’loshah shabuim].
The preceding analysis—built on a preponderance of the biblical evidence coupled with the important witness of the Jewish literature—shows that there is a perfectly sensible way to understand prophetic time periods without having to resort to this so-called day-year principle.
We must remember that Daniel, John and other biblical authors were not preoccupied with confirming our Millerite presuppositions. They address an ideal audience removed millenia from our time in vastly different geographical-cultural-political-religious contexts; these books were not written with us in mind.
In another essay, I discussed how Adventist prophetic interpretation is characterized by “interpretative exuberance.” But on the hermeneutical ground zero, where exegetes toil, immersed in the ancient world of defunct Semitic syntax, millenarian religious traditions and obscure sacred writings, making dogmatic pronouncements about the interpretation of complex prophetic writings is seen as puerile, naïve and even irresponsible.
The interpretation of biblical prophecy has become a victim of our self-preservation instincts. We’re content with the flimsy textual hooks where we hang the tools that built the doctrinal walls that enclose us.
The problem is that the day-year principle is not the sharpest tool in our shed.
- William Shea’s Selected Studies on Prophetic Interpretation (1990) in the DARCOM series, in which he trenchantly defends the day-year principle, is a casebook example of the deductive method: start with the conclusion and look for evidence to support it. But his thesis becomes less certain if one does not accept the day-year principle a priori. ↑
- See Ezek 45:2 where shabuah is used as the numeral seven: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month, you shall observe the Passover, a feast of seven days [“shabuot yamim”,]; unleavened bread shall be eaten.” ↑
- Cf. James H. Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Jubilees 47:12; 8:1–2. ↑
André Reis, Ph.D., has degrees in theology and music and has recently completed a PhD in New Testament studies at Avondale College.