08. Genesis 1-2 part 8

I. A. 2. continued

e) The Sabbath (Genesis 2:1-3)

The Sabbath day is another metaphor that God uses for revelation, but it is a very different sort of metaphor than sexuality. Human sexuality is a metaphor built into the creation itself, internal to it. But the Sabbath is entirely artificial, external to the creation. Marriage is a metaphor that was instituted by God into human behavior as an addition to sexuality and buried in our psychology. But unlike marriage the Sabbath day did not arise from anything in nature. There is no instinct or inclination to observe the Sabbath. Except in the cultures directly under the influence of the Bible, there is no impulse to observe a Sabbath at all. Adam and Eve might have observed the  Sabbath, simply because God suggested it; but if He hadn’t said anything, it wouldn’t have happened.

But the Sabbath is like sexuality in one important respect. They both happened because God gave the word. In the case of sex, it came into being because God said “Let there be…” In the case of the Sabbath, it began to be observed because of a different kind of word: a description and then a prescription; more like “Here’s what happened, and what you should do about it is…” Nonetheless, both came about by a Word, which means that both came about directly by the will of God, of His choosing. Similarly, they are both held in existence by the Word being spoken. Sexuality as a part of human nature is maintained by God on a day by day basis and continues as long as it is in His will.  The Sabbath as a part of human practice is also maintained by God on a day by day basis and continues as long as it is His will.

It may be that He didn’t say anything at this point; it is not recorded that He ever spoke to Adam or Eve regarding the desirability of keeping a regular Sabbath. It could be that the oral tradition, which was begun after the Fall to keep alive the knowledge of the beginnings, was the first to mention the Sabbath, that the blessing of the Sabbath was part of the revelation given after the Fall to prepare the way for later revelation on the subject. Other peoples than the Hebrews had some traditions of a cycle of seven days, or of seven years. The Romans divided the sequence of days into sevens but they had separated the cycle of sevens from the creation of things and do not seem to have understood the seventh day as being holy. But the Romans were very late in history; two or three thousand years before the Christ, the Canaanites divided the sequence of years into sevens; this was not an idea connected to the creation of things and did not seem to invoke any special sanctity on the seventh year. Where the ancient seven-fold temporal cycles came from is not clear but it is certainly possible that the oral tradition after the Fall kept some aspects of the creation lingering in people’s minds even if most of the details were lost to most people.

At any rate, the keeping of the Sabbath Day was not given in Eden as a commandment to Adam and Eve. There was no blessing offered for keeping it, and no threat of punishment for not keeping it. In fact, there was no indication of any kind at this point as to exactly how God intended the Sabbath to be honored. All that was said is that the Sabbath represented God’s resting from the work of creation, and so on that day it would be natural to remember His rest. Nothing else was spelled out, and there was no indication that God would have been upset if something had happened and our first parents had forgotten to take the day off. It is not even clear what resting would have meant to our first parents since it is not clear what working meant to them. The results of sin which turned work into drudgery as described in chapter 3 suggest that the work in the Garden was not the kind of work which wears a person out, not the kind of work which would require any rest. Nor is there any reason to imagine that our first parents would have needed a day to focus their attention on God, as if He were as difficult to remember then as we find Him to be now. So the setting apart of the Sabbath was an entirely superfluous act, not required by the conditions of life, but only and purely God’s choice.

But if it played so unimportant a role in Eden, then it was intended for the future; and if the future, then the ultimate future. From the beginning of the world, from the point at which Adam first opened his eyes, there was an eschatological dimension to life. Even in Eden, the Sabbath was a sign of incompleteness, not of completeness. We need only get into Genesis 2 and the creation of Eve to see that God had not stopped work on the “Seventh Day” of Genesis 1. He mentioned the Sabbath, He mentioned the Seventh Day, to reveal to us that something had been left out, and to give a hint of what had been left out. It was a hint of the future need for rest, not only for us, but for God who had not quit working yet. It was a hint of the disaster that was about to transform work into something we would need a rest from. It was a prophecy and a promise, a revelation, as sexuality was also, of meanings that would not be apparent for a long long time. It also shows that the Fall did not take God by surprise.

If the Sabbath was a metaphor of the revelation, what did it symbolize? To Adam and Eve, probably nothing. The whole text of Genesis 1 and 2 would not have existed, even as an oral tradition, until after the Fall. Only after the Fall was an oral tradition needed to keep memory alive, to preserve knowledge, to remember God. All Adam and Eve knew was that God had created, that He was happy with how it had turned out, and they were happy with it too. The Sabbath was the sign of completion only after everything began to unravel. The Sabbath then was the very first promise that the destruction of the original creation would not be allowed to stand; that indeed there would come a day when all that work of those six days was repaired and everything of God’s purpose was restored. It was a commitment from God that His work would always be finished, perfected, never abandoned.

We can now make some observations about the Sabbath from hindsight. First we need not take the seventh day of creation as being a literal day. In the next section we will take up the interpretation of the days and nights of creation, but at this point there are good reasons not to think of the first Sabbath as an ordinary twenty-four day, though of course it would have to be literally observed in ordinary twenty-four hour days. We recognize the language instituting the Sabbath as metaphorical language as soon as it mentions God resting. Though it is only much later on in Scripture that it is denied that God can get tired, it is doubtful that Adam or Eve ever imagined that He could be in need of rest. Secondly, in the New Testament, in chapter 4 of his book, the author of Hebrews speaks of the Sabbath rest of God as something that is yet in the future. Finally, when the Pharisees criticized Jesus for working on the Sabbath He replied, “My Father is working until now, and I Myself am working” (John 5:17). All of these parts of Scripture together strongly suggest that the Seventh Day of creation in Genesis 2 was not a literal twenty-four hour day, nor even something that occurred in any sense in time at all. They suggest that it was a metaphor whose meaning reaches all the way to the next creation, the new heavens and the new earth.

The Sabbath was a sign of the end, the completion, the fulfillment of all of God’s designs and purposes in creation. It was also a promise of completion, a promise that all of God’s will would ultimately be established. The Sabbath, if it was verbalized to our first parents at all, was a hint that the Fall was coming and that God knew there would be more to be done in order to establish what He had made. He knew that the promise which the Sabbath conveyed was going to be required, that there would be days of hard labor which would grind His people back into dust unless He gave them some promise of rest. And so, without giving away the plot of history, He put His promise into the foundation of the world, ready to reassure our first parents as soon as reassurance was needed, that however hard the labor and however great the pain might become, there would be an end to it. Neither Adam and Eve nor their children for many generations would have thought it all through like this, but it was there for them to carry along until people did begin to see what it meant.

From the beginning God took a long-term approach to making Himself known. Relationships and mutual understanding cannot be hurried and God showed at every point in the creation what great care He intended to take in arranging the revelation. He was quite ready, from the very beginning, with a symbol that could not even be partially understood for thousands of years. Adam and Eve, even after the Fall, would not have had any clear idea of what the Sabbath meant, but they would have been able to feel some of the hope in it. As history unfolded, the promise became more sharply focused on the hope of the world that is to come. The Sabbath was a promise of the fulfillment of God’s Creation, particularly the fulfillment of the goodness of Creation. All will be well, and all manner of things will be well. That is the meaning and promise of the Sabbath.


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