The Canaanites lived in the land between Egypt and Mesopotamia, and at various points in their history their calendar adopted the features of both major cultural regions. In this post I’ll examine the calendars of Canaan, including calendar(s) of the ancient Israelites.
There is insufficient evidence to determine whether the Canaanite calendar originally followed a Mesopotamian lunisolar model or an Egyptian solar one. If the early Hebrew calendar is any indication, the Canaanites originally followed the lunisolar model. In later periods, however, Canaanite peoples adopted their calendars to a purely solar model (Stieglitz, 217–19). The year apparently originally began in the fall (Steiglitz, 213).
Assuming a lunisolar model, intercalation was probably handled on an irregular schedule. The intercalary month may have been added before MP‘ (called MP‘ LPNY [“former MP‘”]).
Scholars have long accepted that the calendars of Israel and Judah began at different points of the year. Most scholars, following Thiele, believe that Judah observed a fall New Year, while Israel’s New Year began in the spring. (See, however, Galil, who argues the opposite.) The numbering of the months in the Hebrew Bible reflects a spring New Year (see Exod 12:2). Intercalation was apparently based on agricultural observation: if the crops had not reached a certain stage of ripeness in the 12th month, an extra month was added so that the feast of first-fruits could be suitably observed in the first month. This means one would only know if there would be a leap-month in the closing days of the 12th month of the year.
A. Canaanite Calendars
|Canaan||Israel (IA)||Ugarit (LBA)|
|Jun||ZBḪ ŠMŠ||?||Itibu, Dubuḫana|
|Aug||ṢḤ (?)||Ṣaḥ (?)||?|
’TNM, ḤYR, and KRR are Hurrian loanwords. In the Canaanite calendar, the month ḤYR was the twelfth month counting from the spring (Stieglitz, 214–15; Fleming, 171). The same month in the calendar of Nuzi was the eighth month counting from the spring (Fleming, 171).
A few Hebrew pre-exilic month-names are found in the Bible. Presumably, the others were cognates of the Canaanite names. More often, months were simply numbered (counting from the spring). Days of the month were divided into seven-day intervals with the seventh day of each week set apart as the Sabbath.
Both Israel and Judah used a regnal-year dating system. According to Thiele, Israel used non-accession reckoning (antedating, like Egypt) for most of its history, while Judah used accession-year reckoning (postdating, like Mesopotamia).
Rarely, the Hebrew Bible uses an epochal system for counting years. First Kings 6:1 refers to “the four hundred eightieth year after the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt.” Rabbinic tradition asserts that the reference to the “thirty-sixth year” in 1 Chronicles 16:1 counts from the epoch beginning with the division of the Hebrew monarchy.
B. The Gezer Calendar
The Gezer Calendar is a brief (seven lines) inscription, written on a limestone tablet in Paleo-Hebrew script. It dates to the Iron Age and describes the agricultural year in ancient Israel. Based on the crudeness of the script, some scholars suggest it is a schoolboy’s exercise, perhaps the words of a popular folk song. Others believe it was an administrative calendar for the collection of taxes on farmers.
|Oct–Nov||’TNM–BL||Two months of harvest (olives?)|
|Dec–Jan||MRP‘[M]–[PG]RM||Two months of planting (cereals?)|
|Feb–Mar||P‘LT–ḤYR||Two months are late planting (vegetables?)|
|Apr||ZW||One month of hoeing/flax harvest|
|May||MTN||One month of barley-harvest|
|Jun||ZBḪ ŠMŠ||One month of harvest and festival (grain?)|
|Jul–Aug||KRR–ṢḤ||Two months of vine-pruning/grape-harvesting|
|Sep||MP‘||One month of summer fruit (picking or drying figs?)|
C. Jewish Calendar (after 587 BC)
During the Exile, the Jews adopted Neo-Babylonian month-names. They observed a religious year that began in the spring alongside a civil year beginning in the fall. Biblical references to numbered months consistently count from Nisan in the spring.
- Gershon Galil, The Chronology of the Kings of Israel and Judah (Brill, 1996).
- Holger Oertel, “Several Calendars.”
- Robert R. Stieglitz, “The Phoenician-Punic Menology,” Boundaries of the Ancient Near Eastern World (Sheffield, 1998) 211–222.
- K. C. Hanson, “The Gezer Calendar.”
- Edwin R. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, 4th ed. (Kregel, 1994).