[b-hebrew] Genesis 41: 1: "Two Years of Days"

JimStinehart at aol.com JimStinehart at aol.com
Thu Jul 16 11:01:48 EDT 2009

The subject of the calendars of ancient Canaan is complex.  In this short 
post, let me just set forth a few of the basics.
1.  Jewish Calendar
The Jewish calendar of today in many respects reflects the calendars of 
ancient Canaan.  It is most famous for having an intercalary 13th month about 
every third year, as was the case for many calendars in the ancient world.  
But for our purposes here, the most important aspect of the Jewish calendar 
is that it has the first day of the New Year in the fall, but the first month 
of the New Year in the spring.  The year number is increased only at the 
fall New Year.
“The "first month" of the Jewish calendar is the month of Nissan, in the 
spring, when Passover occurs.  However, the Jewish New Year is in Tishri, the 
seventh month, and that is when the year number is increased.”  
_http://www.jewfaq.org/calendar.htm_ (http://www.jewfaq.org/calendar.htm) 
2.  Hebrew Names of Months
The Hebrew names of months that you mention are not very helpful, because 
they are so very late, dating to the Ezra era.  As noted at that same website 
“The names of the months of the Jewish calendar were adopted during the 
time of Ezra, after the return from the Babylonian exile. The names are 
actually Babylonian month names, brought back to Israel by the returning exiles. 
Note that most of the Bible refers to months by number, not by name.”
Note that month #1, Nissan, is in the spring, even though the year number 
changes in the fall (in month #7), which is the first day of the New Year.
3.  When Year Number Changed
The spring New Year is famous throughout the ancient Near East.  That was 
when the year number increased in Mesopotamia.  After the Hebrews had more 
contact with foreigners, they eventually decided to increase the year number 
only once every 12 months.  But to preserve their tradition of having a New 
Year in the fall as well as a New Year in the spring, the Hebrews increased 
the year number in the fall, even though most of the rest of the world 
increased the year number in the spring.  A recent post on ANE-2 noted this fact 
in passing, in talking about the 8th century BCE:
“Israelite years begin in autumn and Assyrian years begin in spring.”
4.  Gezer Calendar
The Gezer Calendar is old, but its interpretation is controversial.  Here 
is one mainstream interpretation of the Gezer Calendar, based on W. F. 
Albright’s old translation of the 10th century BCE Gezer Calendar, to which have 
been added in brackets the approximate months in question, based on our 
current calendar:
“His two months are (olive) harvest,  [September-October]
His two months are planting (grain),  [November-December]
His two months are late planting,  [January-February]
His month is hoeing up of flax,  [March]
His month is harvest of barley,  [April]
His month is harvest and  f-e-a-s-t-i-n-g,  [May (but see alternative view 
His two months are vine tending,  [June-July]
His month is summer fruit.”  [August]
Quoted at p. 383 of Mark E. Cohen, “The Cultic Calendars of the Ancient 
Near East”, CDL Press, Bethesda, Maryland (1993).  For some of the 
controversial issues regarding translation, see S. Talmon, "The Gezer Calendar and the 
Seasonal Cycle of Ancient Canaan", Journal of the American Oriental Society, 
Vol. 83, No. 2 (Apr-Jun., 1963), at pp. 181-182.
Regardless of the various translation issues, one thing that is clear is 
that the Gezer Calendar begins a New Year in the fall.  (The first day of the 
New Year in the Jewish calendar is in the fall, unlike most other calendars 
that do not originate in Canaan.)   Yet we also know that some other 
calendars from Canaan begin a New Year in the spring.  "At the very end of a list 
of 'ordained times' the author of 1QS [in the Dead Sea Scrolls] enumerates 
the main four seasons of the year [in Canaan] in the following order:  …'the 
season of reaping, (the season) of summer (fruits), the season of sowing (the 
season) of vegetation.'  …[W]hile the [Gezer] Calendar starts off with the 
annual fruit-harvests [in the fall,]…the Qumran document [of the Dead Sea 
Scrolls] lists the grain-harvests first [in the spring]…."  S. Talmon at p. 
As to the famous Gezer calendar, at footnote 48 on p. 183, S. Talmon 
suggests that the word Albright translates as "feasting" may mean "to terminate, 
to end", or pursuant to a 1909 translation may mean "measure".  Another view 
is that the meaning is "to complete".  If May is a month of "termination" or 
"end" or means "to complete" (or if the word "measure" is understood in 
that sense), then since the Gezer Calendar begins in September (or 
thereabouts), that might suggest the termination or end or completion of one 6-month 
"year" in early May, and the beginning of a new 6-month "year".  That New Year 
would be celebrated by a New Year "feasting" in early May (or perhaps 
earlier, in March or April, as noted below), with the next New Year feasting then 
to occur about 6 months later, in September or so, which is clearly a New 
Year in the Gezer Calendar (since that is when this calendar starts).  Thus a 
translation of either "feasting" or "festival" or "termination" or "end" or 
"to complete" may all have roughly the same significance for purposes of a 
calendar, signaling a second New Year in one 12-month period.  
But consider this alternative interpretation.  The word "two" in each above 
traditional translation of "two months" has been challenged as actually 
simply meaning "and" (or, less literally translated:  "that there is").  If so, 
then only 8 months would be chronicled in the Gezer Calendar, and the above 
traditional correlation with our modern months may well be off by several 
months.  Accordingly, the month of "feasting" or "termination" could be 
March, with there being no description supplied for several of the uneventful 
long months of the hot summer and for one uneventful month in winter.  Rather 
than supplying a formal name of each of 8 months, the Gezer Calendar seems to 
be describing 8 periods of specific agricultural activities throughout the 
course of one 12-month period.  As such, it would make some sense to leave 
out 3 months of summer inactivity and 1 month of winter inactivity, while 
carefully chronicling the 8 months of the year, focusing on the spring and 
fall, that are very important for agricultural activities in Canaan.
It’s clear that the Gezer calendar begins in the fall, which is very 
important.  There is also a month of “feasting” in the spring, which may be a 
second New Year.  What is clear is that some calendars from ancient Canaan 
started the New Year in the fall, and some started the New Year in the spring.  
More controversial is whether some of these calendars reflect there being 
two New Years every 12 months.
5.  Two Annual Harvest Seasons in Canaan of Equal Importance
A New Year generally began with the most important harvest season.  But 
Canaan had two annual harvests, of equal importance:  the harvest of grains in 
the spring, and the harvest of fruits in the fall.  The Hebrews got about 
half of their caloric intake from each of these two harvests.  Oded Borowski, “
Agriculture in Iron Age Israel” (Jerusalem: American Schools of Oriental 
Research, 1987), pp. 7 and 37.
*       *       *
Karl, this post is already too long, yet I’ve barely scratched the surface. 
 If you look into calendars from ancient Canaan, you will find some 
calendars with a New Year in the spring, and some calendars with a New Year in the 
fall.  That’s because Canaan had two annual harvest seasons of equal 
importance, in the spring and in the fall.
By the Iron Age, the Hebrews had bowed to international practice and only 
increased the year number, and everyone’s age, once every 12 months, though 
the Hebrews uniquely did this in the fall (not the spring).
The best evidence that the early Hebrews had originally thought of their 
own ages in terms of 6-month “years” is the manner in which the received 
Hebrew text of the Patriarchal narratives sets forth ages, beginning at Genesis 
11: 26, as we have been discussing on this thread.  
Jim Stinehart
Evanston, Illinois

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