Partial Draft of an Unpublished Article, August 30, 2017

About Time
by the Rev. Rhonda J. Rubinson

Note: The following material consists of preliminary material for a long essay, or perhaps a book, on the nature of time in the Bible. It is published here for the first time.

This is a true story. And I promise, it has a biblical point.

My great uncle Eddie (born Ezra), of blessed memory, was an interesting guy. He lived in Pittsburgh, and one of his favorite hobbies was writing letters to the editors of local newspapers. Very often he would write two on the same topic expressing support for contrary sides of an issue. Sometimes he would send them to two different newspapers; at other times he would send both to the same paper, using a pseudonym for one or both of the letters. He was a terrific writer and became a favorite of the local editors under all of his pen names, so he was frequently published.

One day, Uncle Eddie went to the corner store to buy, not surprisingly, that day’s newspapers. On the way there, he decided to visit his sister (my grandmother Bessie, who my brother Robert and I called Grandma Earrings – but that’s another story). So he got in his car and a few hours later showed up unannounced and unexpected at Grandma’s apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. The fact that he made it in one piece is a miracle in itself – Uncle Eddie was a horrific driver. Even his brother-in-law – our Grandpa Morris – wasn’t as bad, and he was such an awful driver that when we were kids, me and Rob thought it was normal to bounce back and forth between the concrete barriers at the on the entry ramp to the Belt Parkway. We also thought the bumper car ride at Coney Island was patterned after Grandpa’s driving since they were virtually indistinguishable, and Grandpa’s driving came first.

But back to Brooklyn. Uncle Eddie stayed a few days with Grandma, then got back in his car and drove home to Pittsburgh. Upon arriving home, his wife (our great-aunt Kate) greeted his return with fury. “Where have you been Eddie? I thought you were coming right back!!!” “I don’t know why you’re angry, dear,” he replied, matter-of-factly. “I did come right back. I just went to visit Bessie first.”

That’s a true story, and only one of many similar ones – Uncle Eddie had a habit of vanishing for everything from hours to days when he went out to do errands (which was why Aunt Kate didn’t call the cops to report him missing; this behavior wasn’t new). Also, I know what you are thinking: for the record, Eddie never suffered from dementia during his long life; he knew exactly where he was going and why. He simply had a different relationship to time than most of us have – his life wasn’t linear and directed, it more closely resembled the exuberant smears of oil colors on an impressionistic painting, or the meandering course of an ancient river.

It also resembled the verses of the Bible. As we read the Bible in our time and culture, our tendency is to assume both linearity (this follows that, in real time) and immediacy (this then that, right away). Ancients would have had no such assumptions, in fact they probably assumed the opposite: that events in the Bible were not necessarily presented chronologically, and that there was room even within clearly chronological events for the passage of a sometimes significant amount of time.[1]  A result is that for us moderns, our biases toward linearity and immediacy can strip the text of vital depth and meaning.

We will leave the topic of linearity for another time; today I wish to consider immediacy and the consequences of reading the Bible with that particular cultural bias, which are greater than we might imagine, especially in our hyper-driven, fast-food culture. To us, the Bible seems full of folks who get God’s message right away, have no (or few) doubts, and who jump the chasm from anonymity to hero or apostle in a nanosecond.

Where does this leave us ordinary, sluggish, doubting mortals? As a priest I’ve counseled many who feel guilty about wrestling with their faith. It is common to feel that doubt and doubt’s companion, delay, disqualifies us from claiming the identity mantle of “Christian,” and that poses a real danger, driving us away from the very places we need to be – in community, at worship, in prayer, dining at the communion rail. When we compare ourselves to the characters in the Bible whom we assume to be instantly obedient, we fail by that false standard. And we never think to question that standard, which might be the true problem.

It’s time to remedy that situation. So now let’s consider several familiar texts that present at least the possibility that more time passed within and between the verses than we might commonly assume, leaving room for pondering, questioning, and yes, even doubt.

Moses and the Burning Bush
I’ve had questions about immediacy in the Bible from the time I was a child, and this story is why. My mother had given me her childhood Golden Book of the Bible, a big tall book lavishly illustrated in grand 1930’s Hollywood style in both black-and-white and Technicolor. I was particularly captivated by the story of Moses and the Burning Bush. I would stare wonderingly at the illustration of a bulky, bearded Moses cowering before a huge angel emerging from what appeared to be a bonfire. (Oddly, in the color pictures of this book, Moses is depicted as a redhead, who knows why?) Once I could take my eyes off of the picture, I would read the text, which says:

At this time Moses was keeping the flock of Jethero (or Reuel), his father-in-law, the priest of Midian, and he led the flock to the far side of the desert and came to the mountain of God in Horeb. And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire from the middle of a bush. He looked, and saw that the bush burned with fire, but it was not destroyed.
Then Moses said, “I will turn aside now and see this great sight, and learn why the bush is not burnt.”[2]

If I were in school when I was reading this (which I never was), I would have raised my hand and shouted, “Teacher, I have a question! How did Moses know that the bush ‘wasn’t consumed’ if he wasn’t watching it for a really, really long time?”

Now as an adult I still think that is a very reasonable question. How long did Moses observe this “burning bush” that was on fire but not really burning (as in, “burning up”)? Did he walk back and forth in the valley below the side on the mountain where this bush was “on fire” while herding his sheep for maybe a few hours? A whole day? A week? A month? Longer? Did he go back to his tent in the evening and share with his wife Zipporah that this weird thing was happening on Mount Horeb, that the fire at the bush never waned and the bush never shrank? I don’t think this occurs to most of us. I think we assume the interval between Moses noticing the burning bush and turning aside to investigate it was short, a matter of minutes at most: first this, then that, immediately.

But for the wonder of the burning bush to truly sink in, the awareness had to dawn upon Moses over a period of time. As we dive deeper into this scenario, we can imagine Moses’ sense of wonder being accompanied by an increasing sense of dread and awe at what is becoming increasingly clear was a miraculous manifestation of supernatural power. Moses also may well have experiened dread in the personal sense: Why is this being shown to me? What’s going on here? Is someone calling me over there for some reason? Who could that be, and for what purpose?

All of this had to take time. The push-and-pull of the magnetic spectacle of the burning bush (plus an angel!) coupled with the fear of what this could mean for his life must have struggled in Moses’ mind and soul, for how long we will never know. But it is worth considering the strong possibility that his response was far from instantaneous.

It is interesting to note that there is no indication in the Hebrew text that suggests a pause in the action here (as sometimes, but rarely, there is – the occasional extra space or insertion of an unusual letter or mark), but consider the translation I quoted above see if you can detect the shadow of a lacuna in the story: a new paragraph begins between Moses noticing that the burning bush was not consumed, and his turning aside to take a closer look. Alone among the English translations I could find to examine, the Golden Bible understands that something complex transpired here; a definite change in the focus of the story, as well as quite possibly the passage of some time that merits the start of a new paragraph. Let me suggest to you that when reading this story either silently or aloud, please stop to breathe here, and let the majesty of that momentous struggle enlarge in your soul. That pause makes what follows even more potent and awesome than it seemed before.

Abraham Meets the Angels of the Lord by the Oaks of Mamre
I had not considered this episode for this article until I saw the Rembrandt painting of it that was on exhibition from a private collection at the Frick Museum here in New York City. Here is the story (Genesis 18:1-15) in the NRSV [3] translation:
The LORD appeared to Abraham by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the entrance of his tent in the heat of the day. He looked up and saw three men standing near him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent entrance to meet them, and bowed down to the ground. He said, ‘My lord, if I find favour with you, do not pass by your servant. Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. Let me bring a little bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.’ So they said, ‘Do as you have said.’ And Abraham hastened into the tent to Sarah, and said, ‘Make ready quickly three measures of choice flour, knead it, and make cakes.’ Abraham ran to the herd, and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to the servant, who hastened to prepare it. Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree while they ate.
They said to him, ‘Where is your wife Sarah?’ And he said, ‘There, in the tent.’ Then one said, ‘I will surely return to you in due season, and your wife Sarah shall have a son.’ And Sarah was listening at the tent entrance behind him. Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I have grown old, and my husband is old, shall I have pleasure?’ The LORD said to Abraham, ‘Why did Sarah laugh, and say, “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” Is anything too wonderful for the LORD? At the set time I will return to you, in due season, and Sarah shall have a son.’ But Sarah denied, saying, ‘I did not laugh’; for she was afraid. He said, ‘Oh yes, you did laugh.’

At first glance there doesn’t seem to be much room for time to expand here, but Rembrandt found an opening. He had treated this story before, in his most theatrical (dare I say, bombastic style) with the shock of the angels’ announcement (annunciation?) causing a sudden near-cataclysm: food is knocked over, Abraham is standing erect as though he had been jolted upright by an electric shock, and Sarah swoons in the doorway.

But in the small (5” x 9”) painting displayed at the Frick, hardly anything is happening. In this rendering, the three angels are depicted in startlingly different ways. The center of the composition is occupied by a glorious, shining angel, wings spread open. The angel to center angel’s right (our left) is only shining a little, caught in the act of eating! And the third angel, in near-complete darkness, is seated with his back towards us viewers, with his wings folded behind his back.

The beneficiary of all of this angelic attention, Abraham, is caught in a moment not of shock, but of stasis born of dawning awareness. He glows ever so gently in the reflected light of the shining angel, with the thumb of his hand on a slightly open pitcher (he is about to wash his guests’ feet). His face wears an expression that communicates the thought, “Waaait a second . . . what exactly is going on here?”

I love the way that the curator Joanna Sheers Seidenstein educes the meaning of the scene in the Frick’s introductory video for the exhibit:

In Rembrandt’s depiction of the scene, this revelation is not an instantaneous one; rather it unfolds gradually as conveyed by Rembrandt’s portrayal of the three visitors, and by his treatment of light. The angel with his back to the viewer largely retains the appearance of a traveler, with his walking stick laid beside him, and a dirty foot extending from beneath his robe. His wings are folded behind his back, visible to us but not to Abraham or Sarah. His sits in shadow, and light only grazes his forehead and cheek.

To his left, a second angel raises his wings and receives more light: his hand and chest glow brightly. Yet he eats, indicating that he, too, has not shed his earthly body. Finally, the figure at center spreads his wings and turns into light, no longer flesh and blood but entirely divine . . .This light spreads across the scene, but only begins to reach Abraham, shedding the faintest glow on his right arm and knee, while Sarah remains completely in shadow. Neither of them shows much of a reaction, as if they do not yet grasp what in unfolding before them. Suspended between darkness and light, they experience a delay in comprehension, a lapse between seeing and understanding. [4]

In the wonderful book accompanying the exhibition, Seidenstein states the same point a touch differently:

Neither (Abraham nor Sarah) has fully grasped what has been revealed . . . Rembrandt extends the dramatic moment, showing a lapse between action and reaction, between the reversal of fortune and the recognition. [5]

Wow. As the greatest artists often do, Rembrandt here has captured the deep emotional, psychological – and in this case, temporal – subtext of possibly the most crucial moment in the Hebrew Scriptures: after all, if God does not make a covenant with Abraham and Sarah, there is no Judeo-Christian or Islamic history. As Rembrandt’s angels’ wings brilliantly show, the moment, while not taking an hour, did not unfold in a split second. The world-changing majesty of this revelation demands an expansion of time in order to permit the overwhelming import of the moment to be revealed, not only to the protagonists, but to us as well.

People process information over time, a truth that is progressively lost in our increasingly electronics oriented culture. I’m reminded of journalist Thomas Friedman quoting Dov Seidman as saying: “When you press ‘pause’ on a computer, it stops. When you press ‘pause’ on a human, it starts.” [6]
What Rembrandt has done is depict what we commonly call “a pregnant pause,” and not only because the moment involves the prophecy of the birth of an actual child. A revelation, like a child, needs to gestate – its import must be implanted in our subconscious, grow in our awareness, and finally emerge into an understanding that we accept as reality. Without the full completion of any of these steps, any revelation – even one from God – is worthless, nothing more than a vague impression that evaporates as quickly as a drop of rain in a desert. But if a revelation grows to the point that Paul calls “the fullness of time,”[7] revelations from God enter our world, transforming it.

The Annunciation
If God’s covenant with Abraham is the seminal moment of the Hebrew Scriptures, the angel Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary is the crucial moment of the New Testament: there would be no Jesus the Christ without first the revelation of God’s plans for the Incarnation, followed by Mary’s submission. Presented only in the Gospel of Luke (v. 1:26-38), the story is rendered in powerful yet lyrical detail:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.’ But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?’ The angel said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ Then Mary said, ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.’ Then the angel departed from her.

This story is so familiar to us, and Mary such a revered figure across the Christian world that questioning Mary’s speedy submission to the angel Gabriel is a non-option for many. And yet, I can’t help but wonder how quickly Mary transitioned from fear, perplexity, and questioning to quiet, determined, and faithful agreement with the Incarnation.

Was Mary satisfied by Gabriel’s explanation right away, bowing her head and saying, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” without further ado? Or did she take time to consider the whole shocking proposition, trying to wrap her head and heart around what the angel had told her? I love the idea that Mary might have stayed awake through the night, praying for guidance, or perhaps simply for the will to say “yes.” Imagine the angel Gabriel staying with her as she prayed, quietly hovering or perhaps silently resting in a corner of Mary’s room, waiting for awaiting her decision. Or perhaps he “ministered to her” (in the manner of the angels who ministered to Jesus after his temptations in the wilderness), offering solace, comfort, perhaps even further conversation as a kind of heavenly sounding board for Mary as she worked her way through the process of accepting her role as God-bearer. Gabriel eventually departs, but not before not only the offer of the critical role in God’s salvation plan to Mary but her acceptance is accomplished.

We again turn to the world of art for possible support for Mary’s pause. The Annunciation is, of course, one of the most frequently depicted Biblical stories in the history of art, and it is instructive to note some surprising similarities among them. Although none are quite as richly expressive in terms of the passage of time as Rembrandt’s Abraham and the Angels, some contain hints of a pause. Byzantine icons often focus on Mary’s initial perplexity and refusal, one hand, palm forward, in the posture of pushing the angel Gabriel away. I love that these icon painters have decided that the crucial moment is not Mary’s ultimate submission but her initial reluctance, exalting her humanity, which thus immortalized serves as an example for all of us.


Ohrid Annunciation, Byzantine Icon, early 14th century, public domain

Many paintings show Mary at study or prayer, with an open Bible or prayer book nearby, as either the angel Gabriel appears in her room or rays of light enter from a window, occasionally both occurring together. The rays are particularly interesting – they of course represent the Holy Spirit, and usually envelope Mary. But in other paintings these rays seem to be aimed at her ear – as though hearing the Word of God acts as the fertilizing agent of the Incarnation.

Carlo Crivelli, The Virgin Annunciate 15th century, public domain

Clearly, at least some of the artists are taking pains to show that Mary was at the least prepared for her role in the Incarnation through a lifetime of piety, while some are going so far as to show her coping with the revelation communicated to her by Gabriel through prayer. In any case, the Annunciation to Mary is put into the context of the passage of time.

Please watch this website for further updated and expanded posts of this article. Thank you for reading!


[1] There are numerous examples of commentaries on the Bible that reflect strong traditions of long gaps between verses that seem closer together in time in a literal reading of the text. Many of these are in the Hebrew Scriptures; one short example will suffice here: Genesis 28:1-25, Jacob sets out to find a Jewish wife (at the instruction of his father Isaac and to get away from his angry brother Esau), so he heads to Paddan-Aram. After a short interval where the Bible speaks of Esau also taking a wife (v. – ), Jacob’s story is resumed: Jacob leaves Beersheba and heads to Haran, at which time he stops “at a certain place” and has the vision known as “Jacob’s ladder.” But many Jewish sages believe that after Jacob left Beersheba, he spent fourteen years studying Torah at the Academy of Eber before heading to Haran and having that famous vision. See ArtScroll Bereishis, p. 1217.

[2] The Golden Bible From the King James Version of the Old Testament, selected and arranged by Elsa Jane Werner, illustrated by Feodor Rojankovsky (New York: Simon and Schuster, no year given), p. 48.

[3] All Biblical quotations in this article are taken from the New Revised Standard Translation, unless otherwise noted.

[4] Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, Anne L. Poulet Curatorial Fellow, in the video “Divine Encounter: Rembrandt’s ‘Abraham and the Angels,’” May 30 2017, produced by the Frick Collection, available on YouTube.

[5] Joanna Sheers Seidenstein, Divine Encounter: Rembrandt’s ‘Abraham and the Angels, New York, 2017: The Frick Collection in association with D Giles Limited, p. 36.

[6] Thomas L. Friedman in the PBS episode of “Great Conversations” in which he is interviewed by Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Kentucky). Friedman quotes his friend Dov Seidman as saying: “When you hit the pause button on a machine, it stops. When you hit the ‘pause’ on humans, they start.” While Friedman is quoting Seidman in the context of the accelerating pace of societal and technological change, it is worth considering the quotation as it applies to time in the Bible.

[7] The Letter of Paul to the Galatians, 4:4. The full quotation about the birth of Jesus is Galatians 4:4-7:

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Note that there are two generations of children born through the power of divine revelation here: Jesus and us. The same process of taking time to gestate revelation must occur in both cases, although the length of time of course varies for every individual.