The seventh-day Sabbath has the twofold function of witnessing the historicity of the past event of Creation and also of starting human history.
Genesis 2:1 to 3 contains the first biblical text on the seventh-day Sabbath, which is also the first whole day of human history, as it comes chronologically at the end of the whole event of Creation when humans were created. This is therefore a foundational text for the historical and theological understanding of the seventh-day Sabbath for humankind. Analysis of this first text on the seventh-day Sabbath suggests a theology of the seventh-day Sabbath. What does this day mean in itself—as the seventh day, as a Creation day, as a historical day, and as a different day? What does this day mean for humans—as a delight day, as an eschatological day, and as a worship day? Lessons may be drawn regarding the historical connection between the seventh-day Sabbath and the preceding six Creation days.
Seventh Day More Than Shabbat
Although this is the foundational text that reports the origin of Sabbath, the name shabbat (“Sabbath”), which is generally used to designate this day is absent in this text. This abnormal absence suggests the intention of the biblical author to distinguish clearly the seventh-day Sabbath from the other “feasts of the Lord” that are also called “sabbaths” or days of rest (Lev. 23:15, 24, 32, 38). It is indeed significant that in the list of the “feasts of the Lord” given in Leviticus 23, the seventh-day Sabbath appears outside of the “feasts of the Lord,” in a separate place (vs. 3, NKJV).1 The mention of the observance of the seventh-day Sabbath precedes the list of the “feasts of the Lord,” which are identified as such in its beginning (vs. 4) and in its end (vs. 44).
The Jewish festivals, or “holy convocations” are proclaimed by the people themselves (vs. 2) and their sanctification depends on the Jewish national community; whereas the seventh-day Sabbath is proclaimed only by God Himself (vs. 3). Whereas the feast days (other sabbaths) are related to the life in nature and were astronomically dependent, the seventh-day Sabbath depends only on God. From this distinction, 19th-century Jewish philosopher Samson Raphael Hirsch concluded that the seventh-day Sabbath “is given as the starting point and climax of all the holy days.”2
The Rhythm of Seven
The three-time repetition of the phrase “seventh day,” within a rhythm of seven Hebrew words for each line, shows a literary construction through which the author intends to emphasize the importance of the “seventh day.”
“And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done [seven words in Hebrew] And he rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done [seven words in Hebrew] Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it [seven words in Hebrew].”
This stress on seventh should not be overlooked or underestimated. It is intentional to draw the attention to important theological lessons. First, this is a literary way to emphasize the Sabbath connection with history. The Sabbath is not an abstract spiritual truth that may be applied to any day. It is essentially the “seventh day” (Ex. 20:10). It is precisely situated in the chronological flow of time. The “seventh-day” qualification places religion in the flesh of history. Second, the use of the ordinal number seventh following the preceding ordinal numbers (first through sixth) reinforces the understanding that the six days of the creation account are of the same historical temporality. They are all solar days (from sunset to sunset). Third, the phrase “seventh day” highlights the non-accidental happening. The seventh-day specification time of Creation is not submitted to whims of chance that are a part of the evolutionist paradigm. Fourth, the specification “seventh day” refers to the existential dimension of faith in the flesh of human existence, in time. The “seventh day” refers to a truth that is not just a dogmatic statement to think about, or to believe in our hearts and minds; it is a real and concrete part of the rhythm of life, marked precisely on the “seventh” day, with an exact point of beginning and end. More, the emphasis on this unique day rather than on any day—another day or all the days—strongly signifies the monotheistic character of the biblical religion. That God rested on the seventh day expresses the reality of this particular God—the unique God with whom we are supposed to entertain a personal and unique relationship.
The Symbolism of Seven
Among the Hebrew numbers, seven is probably “the number most frequently used in connection to sacred matters.”3 It is a sacred number often used in various ritual and religious contexts (ceremonials, feasts, sacrifices, etc.). Among the numerous symbolic uses of the number seven, “the most comprehensive generalization that can be made is that seven denotes completeness, perfection, consummation.”4 The “seventh day” means, then, that we are in a religious context, in a sacred time, implying God’s presence and involvement. This means that creation is not the result of chance; for humans, it means worship and awe. The “seventh day” means also that God’s creation is finished and perfect and does not need to progress. That the number seven contains symbolic and spiritual references does not mean that it refers to non-real or non-historical entities. Prophecy often uses symbolic numbers, especially the number seven, to predict specific events of salvation (Gen. 41:26; Jer. 25:11, 12; Dan. 4:16; 9:25).
The Creation Day as Witness to Creation
The seventh-day section refers explicitly to Creation, using the same technical verbs expressing God’s act of creation (translated “create” or “make”), the same object of creation “heavens and earth”), and the same subject of creation (“God”).
The number seven of the seventh day points also to God’s creation in seven days. In fact, the seventh day refers not only to the seven days of creation; it also, more essentially, refers to the rhythm of seven that constitutes the very texture of the event of Creation itself, as exemplified in the following instances:
● Seven days: The Creation week has seven days.
● Seven words: The first verse has seven Hebrew words translated as “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). The second verse is likewise composed of 14 (seven times two) Hebrew words.
● The keyword translated as “create” occurs seven times in the Genesis Creation account.
There are seven refrains: the key phrase translated as “God saw . . . that it was good” occurs seven times.
● The key phrase “and it was so” occurs seven times.
These emphatic echoes on seven between the seventh-day section and the six-day Creation account suggests an important historical connection between the two times of creation: The seventh day and each of the six days share the same historical quality and quantity of time. Both the seventh day and the six days are historical, and both are evening-evening days.
The seventh day is linked with Genesis 1:1, the introductory verse that refers to the creation of the whole universe. Both passages refer to the creation of the “heavens and the earth,” an expression that implies the totality of the universe. Also, the two passages are linked through the chiastic structure:
A. God created B. the heavens and the earth (1:1)
Bi. The heavens X and the earth X Ai. Which God had created (2:1–3)
Note that the introductory line of Genesis 2, “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished” (vs. 1), does not belong to the sixth day. It is instead the introduction of the paragraph dealing with the seventh day (Ex. 20:11). Two clues mark the seventh day: (1) this line follows the refrain “evening-morning,” which always marks the end of the preceding day (Gen. 1:5, 8, 13); (2) the verbs translated “were finished” and “ended” echo each other, a stylistic way to indicate that they belong to the same paragraph. This literary connection suggests that the seventh day embraces not only all that has been created in the course of the creation week—namely, “the earth” (1:2)—but also the creation of the whole universe, including the heavens of God that had been created before that week. The seventh day contains not only a historical lesson reminding us that God created us and our world. It also carries a cosmic lesson: This God who created us is the same God who created the infinite universe. Thus, the Sabbath is not only relevant and meaningful for the Earth, which was created in a week’s time; it is also significant for the whole universe, because it is a reminder that all has been created by God. In fact, the word translated as “all” is repeated three times, just as is the number seven, in the paragraph on the Sabbath (Gen 2:1–3).
The historicity of the seventh day in the biblical Creation account is indicated not only through its name, but also expressed through grammatical, linguistic, and stylistic features.
Definite article. The use of the definite article only for “the sixth day” (Gen. 1:31) and “the seventh day” (2:2) reflects the historical character of these two days, the only days when humans were present. The Hebrew definite article has a demonstrative force pointing out the particular condition “present to the speaker.”5 These two days are lived by the first humans as the first human time, the beginning of human history.
Evening-morning. The absence of the regular phrase “so the evening and the morning”) in the seventh day does not imply a spiritual timelessness of that day “viewed as eternal,”6 but expresses, and even highlights, on the contrary, the historical, present, and concrete experience of this day, the only whole day when humans are present and experience that historical reality, and therefore the only whole day when the mention of “evening-morning” is not necessary. Furthermore, it should be noted that the ordinal number seventh implies that this day follows chronologically the preceding six days and implies that it refers to the same unit of time (from evening to evening: 24 hours) as the preceding six days.
Genealogy. The section of the seventh day in the Creation account in Genesis 1 and 2 is immediately followed by the line translated “This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created” (Gen. 2:4). This phrase defines the literary genre (or style) of the entire Creation account, as a genealogy that is in fact a literary way of affirming its historical genuineness. Being the last link of the genealogy, the seventh day comes as the ultimate product of that genealogy and is thus identified as the actual, present, historical witness to the historical reality of the Genesis Creation account that generated it. This intention is also reinforced by its literary unity with the other genealogies of the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which articulate the rest of the book. From a historical-critical perspective Edmond Jacob points out, “The same priestly author uses the term toledot for the creation of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 2:4) as well as for the genealogy of the patriarchs and still today the Jews express this unity of creation and history by dating their calendar from the creation of the world.”7
This is why, when we separate the Creation account from the rest of the narratives of the Book of Genesis, we go against the intention of the biblical text itself, as Bernhard W. Anderson warns: “Often, we detach ‘creation’ from this historical context and consider it as a separate ‘doctrine’ (which happens usually in discussions of the relation between science and religion). But this violates the intention of the creation stories. They want to speak to us primarily about history. Accordingly, the greatest weight must be given to the form of these stories: they are ‘historical accounts’ and as such, are part of the historical narration.”8
Ignoring the historical character of the genealogy of the Creation account or of its last link, the seventh day amounts to questioning the historical character of all the other genealogies, and of all their final respective links to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph.
The seventh day is fundamentally different from the other days, an observation that prompted medieval scholars to place the dividing point between chapters 1 and 2 at precisely this verse. The regular catchphrases that appear in the other days (“God said,” “so the evening and the morning,” and “it was good,”) are absent. Even the creation is different. The seventh day has no corresponding day in the previous sections of Creation, as is the case for the other days, where days 1, 2, and 3 correspond to days 4, 5, and 6. The seventh day stands, then, outside the 3 // 3 pattern of the creation week.
This does not mean that the seventh day belongs to another literary context that would be outside of Creation, implying another order of time and space. The seventh-day Sabbath also is a part of God’s creation. The Sabbath is not of human or cultural Hebrew/Jewish origin. It rather has “supra-human authority”9 (contra the historical-critical explanation of Sabbath). This means that this day is still an inherent part of Creation, but that it is the counterpoint to the works of creation, implying a special connection with each of the other days of Creation.
A supplement. The coming of the seventh-day Sabbath follows immediately God’s evaluation that “everything He had made. . .it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). So far, the qualifying statement that marked God’s daily work of creation was only “it was good,” which appears six times (vss. 4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). The fact that the phrase “very good” is the seventh occurrence suggests its association with the seventh day. The addition of “very” implies the idea of totality, for “all” is now included, and therefore concerns the Sabbath, which is precisely the day that concerns the “all,” and which is the “seventh day” implying completeness. But the Hebrew word translated “very” refers to more than a “complete” quantity. This word refers essentially to a non-quantifying qualification; it is used to characterize the unique relationship of love with God: “you shall love the Lord your God. . . with all your might” (Deut. 6:5, NRSV). This is a quality that cannot be quantified and expresses rather “an intensity of inwardness . . . the desire to describe the engagement of a person’s whole personality.”10 This additional qualification suggests that there is something so precious in the seventh-day Sabbath that only a wordless intensity of emotion could somehow evoke it—just as poetry, music, or even silence could do.
What this day contains is beyond “good,” “right,” and “needed”; it is something that pertains to God’s grace and generosity. David refers to that supplement when he wrote, “My cup runs over” (Ps. 23:5), an experience that he qualifies as “goodness and mercy” (vs. 6). This extraordinary grace does not exist by itself; it comes from God.
A gift. The Hebrew verb translated as “give” is used in the Creation account on the fourth day to refer to God’s first gift of time, the day and the night (Gen. 1:18), and on the sixth day for the gift of food (vs. 29). The first human experience of God’s grace took place on the seventh day, the Sabbath, that the “Lord has given” (Ex. 16:29). Furthermore, the association of the first human experience of time on the seventh day with God’s first gift of the food should make us aware of the importance of the dimension of celebration and enjoyment of God’s gift of the food on the seventh-day Sabbath. It is a day that celebrates God’s creation and God’s gift of the food. This is why fasting on Sabbath, the day that celebrates God’s gift of the food, is an inappropriate tradition that was encouraged by some Gnostics like Marcion and some church fathers who encouraged the early Christians to fast during the seventh day to manifest their rejection of the seventh-day Sabbath.
Note that the historical experience of extra-intense enjoyment lived on that day does not mean that the seventh day refers to a reality that is different from the creation that is lived on the other week days. The delight experienced in this day does not take us out of the earthly reality; on the contrary, it causes us “to ride on the high hills of the earth” (Isa. 58:14, NKJV). The seventh day’s reference to creation is more intense, more “historical,” than what is contained in the other days of the week. On this day, creation is supposed to be more real than on any other day.
Time of end. Coming at the end of the week, the seventh-day Sabbath is the first eschaton of human history. This weekly eschaton points to the ultimate eschaton, the end of human history with all its pain and evil. The eschatological quality of the Sabbath is rendered through the emphatic repetition of the verb translated “finish” (Gen. 2:1, 2), which implies the total end of suffering when “God will wipe away every tear from their eyes; there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying. There shall be no more pain, for the former things have passed away” (Rev. 21:4). From the point of view of the weekday, the time of the Sabbath is a time that God’s creation longs for “the whole creation groans and labors with birth pangs together until now” (Rom. 8:22).
Time of nostalgia. The Sabbath is also a time pointing back to the far past. It contains the remembrance of the first Sabbath when humans were totally happy in the perfect Garden of Eden with the tree of life and when God was actually present. This idea is in fact implied in the fourth commandment of the Decalogue, which urges us to “‘remember the Sabbath day’” (Ex. 20:8). The call to remember does not just concern the fourth commandment, since much of the terminology of the commandment echoes the seventh-day section in Genesis 2:1 to 3. It is also more directly a reference to the first day of human history, the seventh day of creation in Genesis 2:1 to 3.
Time of salvation. The “end” of the week on the beginning of Sabbath reminds that the process of salvation requires the cosmic event of creating a new heaven and new earth, which necessarily implies the end of this one (Isa. 65:17; Rev. 21:1). It is noteworthy that the phrase “finished the work” that characterizes the time of the seventh-day Sabbath is found again at the end of the seven stages of building the sanctuary in the desert (Ex. 40:33) and at the end of the seven years of building Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 6:38; 7:51). The sanctuary-temple is thus identified with God’s creation of the world (Ps. 78:69). As Levenson points out, the construction of the temple is presented as a parallel to the construction of the world,11 a significant hint at the cosmic process of salvation.
The seventh-day Sabbath is essentially a time and an act of worship: historically, because it is the time that responded to the event of creation, as reported in Genesis 2:1 to 3, and theologically, because the act of worshiping the divine Creator is the natural and logical response to God’s act of creation, as affirmed in the Bible in general and in the Psalms in particular.
Sabbath response to Creation. That Sabbath responds to Creation is indicated in the Creation account through three facts. First, the seventh-day Sabbath (Gen. 2:1–3) follows immediately the six days of Creation (1:1–31). Second, the Sabbath text echoes the creation text (rhythm of seven, parallels, linguistic links). Third, the biblical text reports the Sabbath as a historical event that responds to God’s works of creation as a time of “rest.” Note that Sabbath worship is the response to God’s Creation act in history. It is not the other way around, as some have suggested, arguing that the cult, the practice of worship, brings forth the idea of creation.
Worship response to Creation. In the Bible in general and in the Psalms in particular, creation is always given as the essential reason for worship. Ellen G. White’s comment on this matter is explicit “The importance of the Sabbath as the memorial of creation is that it keeps ever present the true reason why worship is due to God. . . the true ground of divine worship. . . is found in the distinction between the Creator and His Creator.”12 It is because “it is He who has made us and not we ourselves” (Ps. 100:3); because He is “our Maker” (95:6); because we have been created, designed, for worship (102:18); but also because God created the universe (95:1–5; Neh. 9:5, 6; Rev. 14:7). Note that the technical word translated “prostrate” or “worship,” which occur 15 times in the Hebrew Bible, is 10 times directly related to creation and five times indirectly in the context of the sanctuary, the place of worship that symbolizes creation (Ps. 78:69).
The Four Paradoxes of Sabbath—Spiritual and Practical Applications
God’s actions on the seventh day are recorded in four verbs that appear in two parallel lines. The first two verbs in the first line describe what God did on this day: “God ended” and “God rested.” The next two verbs in the second line describe what God did to this day: “God blessed” and “God sanctified.” These four verbs present four paradoxes that carry important lessons about the spiritual life and the practice of the Sabbath.
God “ended” His creation on the seventh day. God has just evaluated His creation as “very good” at the end of the sixth day (Gen. 1:31). The comprehensiveness of this end is expressed through the verb translated “finished” (2:1), using for the first time the passive form, a way to emphasize that the goal of Creation has finally been reached. Yet, the completion of Creation really occurs on the seventh day, and the word “finish” is repeated, but this time with God as the subject (2:2)—as if God invested Himself personally at this stage. For the first time the word translated “work,” which refers to skilled work of the finished product, is used and repeated three times, in echo to the phrase “seventh day.” This paradox (apparent contradiction) means that without the seventh-day Sabbath, this moment of grace and faith in the God who works for us and completes our deficiency, our work will never be complete, will never succeed. This also suggests a philosophy of work: Since the fruit of our work depends on God, we should not worry and be stressed, or maneuver politically and unethically, to reach the final product, as holy and important as this goal may be.
God “rested” on the seventh day. However, God does not need to rest (Ps. 121:4; Isa. 40:28). Only humans need to rest. The lesson of this paradox is twofold, depending on whether this applies to God or to humankind. On God’s level, this means God’s move to the needy human sphere, as if God becomes incarnated into human flesh. The divine rest becomes the human rest; God’s rest is thus shared with humans who are invited to enter His rest (Matt. 11:28, 29; Heb. 3:18; 4:1–11). The seventh-day Sabbath is thus the manifestation of “God with us” (Immanuel), the only human time of the creation week when God rests to make Himself available to humans. On humanity’s level, the rest of the seventh-day Sabbath means that humans rest from a work they did not do. Humans did not need nor deserve to rest, since they did not work during the creation week; God worked for them while they were still absent. The Sabbath is in that sense the affirmation of the theology of righteousness by faith. We are saved by God’s work for us and not by our own works for God (Gen. 15:3; Rom. 4:3; 8:3; Eph. 2:8, 9; Gal. 2:16).
God “blessed” the seventh day. The word translated “bless” implies fruitfulness and a successful future (Gen. 1:22, 28). And yet, this is the only day of no work and no production, while the other days, which are days of work and production, are not blessed. We can learn from this paradox that success and production depend more on God than on our own work. Faith is an important component in the success of our effort. Besides the belief in the miracle that God will do what we are incapable of doing, the rational explanation for this wonder resides in the efficiency of a healthy, stress-free approach to work. Also, placing our work in the divine perspective of eternity will provide the wisdom and the ethic that will give future to our human limited effort.
God “sanctified” the seventh day. This is the first time that the word translated as “sanctify” is used in the Bible. As David Shapiro notes, “holiness . . . makes its entrance into the world through the Sabbath.”13 With the seventh day, we move from the sphere of things to the sphere of time, from the appreciation of the “what,” the object of creation which was qualified as “good,” “beautiful,” and “useful,” to the experience of the sanctification of the “when,” the time which is bound with its content—that is, life. To say that a time is holy means that during this moment of life, our life is holy, we are holy. This is why the qualifying holy is an attribute of God (Lev. 21:8), Who is called “the holy one” (Ps. 71:22; Isa. 6:3) or to the people (Ex. 19:6) whom God “made holy, “sanctified,” meaning to set apart, to consecrate, “to surrender to God as a possession.”14 What makes the Sabbath a paradox is the fact that by being holy, set apart, it relates to the other days and makes the other days holy. Thus, the seventh day, which is the only day that is separated and different from the other days, is also the only day that has an impact on the other days, and also the only day on which the other days have an impact. Practically, this means a two-way current of holiness. In one direction, the Sabbath brings holiness into our weekdays; it has an educational function in the sanctification of our life. In the other direction, the weekdays prepare and anticipate the forthcoming Sabbath day. In other words, the holiness of the life of the people on the Sabbath depends on the holiness of the life of the people during the weekdays; conversely, the significance of the weekdays depends on the holiness of the Sabbath. Another implication of this understanding is the other paradox concerning relationship: The holiness that separates is also the holiness that relates (with humans and with God). Holiness separates for relationship. Hence the emphasis on social justice and the family bond in connection to the Sabbath (Ex. 19:3; 20:10).
Genesis 2:1 to 3, which concludes the Creation account with the seventh-day Sabbath, the first day of human history, contains many important, rich, and profound truths that are worth being meditated upon. The seventh-day Sabbath is not just a dogmatic truth to be believed and observed. The seventh-day Sabbath is more than about the right day to be kept. Because it is the seventh day (and not another one), it is a day that is full of special meaning. This is the day that takes us out of the worry of this busy and broken world. This is the day that gives us hope, the day that gives us a foretaste of the kingdom of peace, life, and love, the kingdom of God’s presence. This is the day of worship, not as a cultural affirmation or of self-promotion, but as a move toward Him, to worship Him, a day of holiness. This is a day of separation, a different day. But this is also the day that connects us with time, with history, with life, with humanity, with the concrete beauty and taste of God’s creation, and with our unique and personal God, the day of “God with us.” This is the day when the grace of God through His gifts is proclaimed and enjoyed.
Genesis 2:1 to 3 highlights the historical connection between the seventh-day Sabbath and the six-day Creation. The seventh day comes chronologically after the six days, and thus belongs to the same event of God’s act of creation in six days. This is also the only day of the Creation account, and the first day of human history, when humans are present and witness to their first sunset and their first sunrise. The seventh-day Sabbath is thus situated at the hinge between the past event of Creation and the forthcoming human history and belongs to both slices of history. The seventh-day Sabbath has the twofold function of witnessing the historicity of the past event of Creation and also of starting the human history. It belongs to both of them. Questioning the historical substance of the event of the six days of Creation would therefore amount to questioning the historical substance of the seventh day. In fact, the seventh-day Sabbath is the actual tangible and experiential evidence of the historical reality of the six days of Creation. To observe the seventh-day Sabbath while dismissing the historicity of Creation that it proclaims and to which it belongs therefore shows contempt toward the biblical testimony.
Jacques Doukhan, DHebLett, ThD, is Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis at the Seventh‑day Adventist Theological Seminary and Director of the Institute of Jewish‑Christian Studies at Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan. U.S.A.
NOTES AND REFERENCES