Why did God rest?
We often ask our Biblical texts questions that they were not designed to answer. This can be ok sometimes, and it can yield information that is good and helpful. But at other times it can result in us reading the text in ways that were never intended, potentially obscuring or even contradicting the original message.
In Genesis 2:2-3 we learn that God rested:
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. – Genesis 2:3
One is left to ponder why…
Was God very tired?
Should we suppose that God, who has just finished creating the entire universe, just needed a little breather? I mean, it can’t be easy speaking all the galaxies full of stars and planets, black holes and supanovas into existence, not to mention the lady beatles, the sea cucumbers, the llamas and the platypus!
So then, perhaps he was tired. Hopefully that sounds as silly to you as it does to me. God running out of puff is not a picture consistent with the Biblical revelation of God.
As an example?
Particularly among Sabbatarians (those Christian traditions who hold to the importance of observing the Sabbath regulations of Moses, including Seventh Day Adventists and some Messianics), there is a suggestion that what we have in Genesis 2 is the declaring of a perpetual holiday on the seventh day. God created for six days and rested for one, intending to set up a divine pattern of life for us.
Unfortunately for that theory, not only does God stop short of instructing Adam and Eve to follow such a pattern, none of the patriarchs do so either! In fact, the Sabbath as a weekly holiday is instituted in Exodus 16, as the Israelites are emerging from generations of seven-days-per-week slavery in Egypt.
In Exodus 20:8-11, the weekly Sabbath provision is one of the Ten Commandments. Again, the fact that God rested is used as the backdrop for it, but there is no indication that God instituted a weekly day of rest from the beginning. The day of rest is a later feature, which celebrates God resting on the seventh day.
As a type?
Particularly in the book of Genesis it is said that there are many “types”, which are patterns of spiritual fact, developed as themes throughout Scripture. For example, Adam and Eve were told that they would die if they ate the fruit, but when they did, God relented and saved them from their shame instead. This becomes “typical” of God’s salvation relationship with mankind throughout Scripture.
The suggestion here is that God’s rest in Genesis 2:2-3 is a type, pointing to the ultimate kingdom in which God’s people will “enter” his rest. This is supported by Hebrews 3:7-4:11, which quotes the Genesis 2 passage among others in that way. But is that why it was there in the first place?
In fact, Hebrews is referring to the time in the wilderness after Egypt, and before entering the Holy Land. Entry to the Holy Land was equated with entering God’s “rest”, and it is that precedent on which Hebrews builds the typography, arguing that the ancients never did enter into it, and therefore, “it still remains for some to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:6). Even more pointedly, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken later about another day…” (Hebrews 4:8).
We must then see the observation of the Sabbath as something from the time of Moses, which reminded the people that they are yet to have their proper rest. Now, of course (and in the time of the letter to the Hebrews), we can say, “let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest…” (Hebrews 4:11), because God’s rest is now available, through the ministry of Jesus.
Why still celebrate a Sabbath, then? That would imply that we had still not entered into God’s rest. This is why Christians, from the beginning, did not keep the Sabbath as a holiday except as part of normal Synagogue life. Once Christians were meeting apart from Synagogues (for various reasons), Sabbath observance was left behind.
Why was this “rest” an important detail?
The creation account was an oral one for many hundreds of years before it was ever written down. Every detail of what was preserved was very important, otherwise it would not have been preserved. What we need to ask ourselves is what this detail would have meant to the faithful during the period in which the story was preserved.
The religions of the nations surrounding Israel in the Ancient Near East had various stories concerning how the universe came to be created. One from the home country of Abraham, Mesopotamia, was called the Enuma Ilish. Thanks to archaeology we now have a full rendering of that story, and it would be easy to see the Genesis 1 and 2 account as being a refuting of that account, and a correction to it.
There are many aspects to the two accounts which could be characterised that way, but in terms of “God rested”, it suffices to note that the Enuma Ilish story from Abraham’s boyhood had depicted a god called Marduk exerting enormous effort to create the world and humanity. The Genesis account, by contrast, depicts God as merely speaking the universe into existence and then sitting back and enjoying it!
Other accounts include an Egyptian one, in which the primal elements of the creation are spat, sneezed, or masturbated into existence by Atum, the creator-god. By contrast, Genesis provides an account of creation by words, and being observably “good” at all stages of the process, culminating in a finished, “very good” product. This makes a profound difference in how the people perceive themselves, and their relationship with their creator. In one case they are syliva, mucus or semen, and in the other they are hand-crafted from the soil “in the image of God”, and given life from the breath of God.
The importance of mythology
These distinctions may sound trite, but in the 20th Century we saw what happened when our own conception of humanity shifted from “in the image of God”, to “an evolved ape”. Just one of the outcomes was a now completely debunked field called “eugenics”, by which some humans were said to be further evolved than others. Hitler’s campaigns against non-Arians was primarily informed by Eugenics, and culminated in millions of “sub-human” people losing their lives.
Everyone has a mythology, and that mythology determines how we think about important things. Things like God, Creation, Humanity, and the relationships between those things. The modern world has a mythology of a universe that started with a Big Bang and evolved from there. That mythology shapes the way people think about life. Whether it is objectively true or not is not the point here. The important thing iswhat kind of thinking it produces. For some, this results in fatalistic or hedonistic narcissism, which is potentially dangerous. For others, it facilitates a much more socially compatible way of thinking. Care must be taken to ensure that a healthy mythology is developed around any given set of historical facts that we might want to include in it. The value of mythology seems lost on the modern (or rather, post-modern) world.
The ancient Hebrews, for instance, were fiercely determined to defend their revelation of God as being good, transcendent, benevolent, interactive, salvific, etc. and who created mankind “in his image” to “have dominion” over creation (Genesis 1:26); in defiance of the other peoples of the Ancient Near East who considered that the humans had been created, as “savage” slaves, to serve the gods’ so that the gods might “be at ease”:
To impart the plan he had conceived in his heart:
“I will take blood and fashion bone.
I will establish a savage, ‘man’ shall be his name.
truly, savage-man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods
That they might be at ease!”
– Enuma Ilish VI:6-8
The Hebrews also kept on repeating the Adam and Eve story, in which mankind was created to act as stewards over God’s creation, but in which they failed God in their moral capacity. The Hebrews told the story so that their children would know that it was the fault of the people that there was sin and error in the world, and that it was the grace of God that was preserving the whole of humanity from their deserved fate – destruction. The Hebrews knew their God as superlatively good and morally pure, and they lived in humble and penitent submission as a result, because they saw their own sin as a failing and not something to be celebrated or exercised. They sought to emulate their God of goodness.
In other words, the Hebrew mythology forced them to take responsibility for their own sinfulness.
What questions should we be asking of Genesis 1-3?
The key question that is being addressed in this passage of Scripture is something like, “What is the nature of God, the Creation and Humanity, how do they relate to one another, and what the heck is this self-evident sin problem all about?”
That was the question that the ancient world was asking. Genesis 1-3 is the answer given by the Semitic tribe which came to be known as “Hebrews”.
In that context, what does “God Rested” mean?
Marduk needs a rest
Firstly, and very importantly, while the Enuma Ilish has the heavens and the earth made from the two halves of the corpse of a murdered Goddess, and accompanied by much effort, procreation between gods, intrigue, warfare, and so forth, Genesis depicts (the one and only) God simply speaking everything into existence. Marduk creates mankind to serve the gods so that a holiday can be experienced, but God simply clocks-off without having cracked a sweat, and his break has the effect of sanctifying the seventh day. Whereas Marduk fought for the right, and laboured for the resources, to create a holiday for himself, God simply stopped working because he was ready to.
Creation is not God
Secondly, God’s interaction with Creation was not required during the seventh day. This means that the Creation is capable of running along without constant attention from God. In the Ancient World, this was a statement about how the Creation is separate from God, and not some extension of God’s body or brain, or in any way part of God himself. Some of the surrounding religions were pantheistic and animistic, and those wordviews were being rejected by this “rest”. Creation is a wholly separate phenomenon from God, it is “good”, and it is real.
God chooses to involve himself in the Universe
Third, this opens the way for the startling account in the immediately subsequent passage, about God choosing to interact with his creation in a most personal and intimate way, strolling in the garden and talking with the humans! This is a mind-bending contrast between the God who transcends Creation even to the extent that he can rest without it falling apart, and the God who maintains a warm and personal relationship with his created creatures. This tension of “transcendence” and “immanence” continued to baffle and astound the Hebrews during the Old Testament period:
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? – Psalm 8:4
… culminating in the 1st Century “stumbling block” (1 Corinthians 1:23), which is the outrageous message of the divine man, the Son of God, the Christ, crucified! And this means God and sinner reconciled, the Jew and Gentile unified, the “unclean” sanctified, the Son of Man deified, all those of faith justified… In other words, the confounding Christian Gospel message in which God himself indwells the church and shines his light into the world through imperfect human beings.
Allowing the Boss to speak
Jesus put it this way, after being attacked for healing a man on the Sabbath:
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
– John 5:16-18
Can you see what Jesus did here? The Jews were “resting” because they thought that God had set an example of a weekly cessation of work. But whatever God was doing on that original resting day, God has certainly been busy ever since the time of Adam and Eve, because his work has been the salvation, redemption of mankind and all creation. Jesus was continuing that work, as demonstrated in his healing ministry.
At another time, Jesus put it this way:
Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”
But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”
Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”
“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”
– John 4:31-35
It’s not time to rest in the way that the Sabbatarians describe. It is time to do the work of God: salvation and redemption. But this work is our rest. It is rest for our souls (Matt 11:29).
Let’s not ask the Genesis text the following questions:
- “Did God get tired in Genesis 2:2-3?”
- “Did God institute a weekly holiday in Genesis 2:2-3?”
- “Is Genesis 2:2-3 there so that we can understand that we will have ‘a Sabbath rest’?”
It’s not that they are bad questions in themselves, but that they are questions which were not envisaged when the Ancient Hebrews repeated this story to one another. Lets ask instead:
- What does Genesis 2:2-3 say about the character and nature of God?
- What does Genesis 2:2-3 say about the nature of the Creation?
- What does Genesis 2:2-3 say about God’s relationship with the Creation?
- Why is this passage immediately followed by the Adam and Eve account?
- What does the Adam and Eve account say about the nature of humanity?
- What does the Adam and Eve account say about mankind’s relationship with Creation and with God?
These are the questions that the text was designed to help us with. These are the “right questions”. Other questions could result in drawing strange conclusions.