The Sabbath: Rest, Purpose and Blessing

Even though in the Six Days of Creation there are certain implicit elements that appear to be out of sync with God’s plan, such as darkness and chaos[1], at every stage of creation God defines it as “good” (Hebrew tov). At the end, Genesis 1:31 states that “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.”

The six days of creation in Genesis 1 makes an important theological point: God the Creator is the true God of all that exists in the heavens and on earth, including humankind. As we saw in the previous series on the Six Days of Creation, this is an implicit yet clear answer to Ancient Near Eastern pagan cosmogonies.[2] The creation cycle is completed in the act of God “resting.” Furthermore, the act of “rest” becomes part of God’s overarching plan for humanity.[3] The word “rested” comes from the Hebrew word shabat, which means to cease or to end. The English word “Sabbath” is a derivative of shabat. Sabbath, or the seventh day of the cycle, will become a pivotal day for Jews and Christians later[4], but in the creation passage there is no commandment to keep it as a holy day. We are told, however, from Genesis 2:3 that God blessed or sanctified that day in creation: “So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.” In the creation account, there are no instructions about how mankind is to keep the Sabbath. We are only told that the Sabbath is to be kept because it is a holy day. The significance of the day of rest will not come to light until the book of Exodus and the figure of Moses on Mount Sinai.[5] It will be part of God’s covenant with his people Israel. Neither Adam nor Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Joseph treat the Sabbath as a blessed and holy day. Thus, the commandment of keeping Sabbath is reserved for later time, but the seed of this important idea is planted in Genesis 2:2-3. The nature of this special day, its purpose will come to light in due time.

In Genesis, the notion of “rest” applies to God alone, but the statement that God “rested from all the work that he had done” should be understood metaphorically[6], as God does not get tired. Instead, God’s “rest” represents a landmark that separates his great creative acts from the new period, when God’s “coworker” – man – begins acting in the world.[7] There is certainly no rest for God’s overarching plan for creation: as Jesus says in John 5:17: “My father is still working, and I also am working.”

The theological message in God’s “rest” concerns God himself, his relationship to mankind and other creations, and his overarching plan. The creative acts of God in Genesis 1 culminate in the creation of man in God’s image and likeness. The creation of man crowns the other great creative acts of God after which God “rests,” emphasizing man’s not-yet-fully-known purpose in God’s plan. Genesis 1:28 states that man is “to fill the earth and subdue it” to have dominion over it. In this way, man becomes a delegate of God, a steward of all God’s creation.

Immediately following this completion of the creation and God’s instruction to man, the author of Genesis tells us of God’s “rest,” being a holy, sanctified, and blessed seventh day. How exactly is it holy, and how is this holiness relevant to the creation and humanity? We certainly know it is relevant, because in the future it will be one of the most essential markers of God’s people. The Sabbath day becomes a crown, a purpose, a commandment, a blessing, and a promise for humanity. Amazingly, very soon after the completion of the creation, the “anti-rest” motif[8] comes in.

Following the fall and the consequences imposed by God, human life becomes filled with work, toil, and labor. Adam was made to toil in the sweat of his brow; Eve was given labor in childbearing. Work and pain become conjoined. Genesis 3:17: “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life.” Also, after Cain’s murder of Abel, Cain is told by God: “When you till the ground, it will no longer yield to you its strength.” Painful work and labor followed the fall in the Garden of Eden.

This labor motif culminates in the book of Exodus with Israel toiling and suffering at the hands of the Egyptians.[9] Exodus 1:11-14 states, “Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.”

God sent Moses to rescue his people from the suffering of labor and bitterness. God then gave a covenant to his people, making them his people and gave the commandment to observe the Sabbath day “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”[10] We have already seen these words in the Creation account!

In Deuteronomy 5:12-15, a related reason was given for the Sabbath “rest” command.[11] Moses repeated the words of the Lord who said, “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” The theological connection here should not be missed: what God had done with Israel was the beginning of a restoration of God’s purpose for humanity at large. If humans were to be one with God, they would enter his rest and his Sabbath.

The promise of physical rescue and rest, however, does not exhaust the meaning of Sabbath. Sabbath is not simply the crown of the Creation but also a prototype of God’s Kingdom after the earthly life full of toil and cаrеs: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them,’” Revelation 14:13.[12]

In addition to the posthumous benefits, Sabbath is a wondrous social institution.[13] Starting with the ancient times, Sabbath would present the opportunity of rest to anyone who had labored hard, including slaves. The instructions regarding the observance of Sabbath are not limited to physical rest alone: they also presuppose laying aside of the material things for the sake of the spiritual ones: Sabbath must be dedicated to God, to the study of his commandments, and to works of mercy.[14] This great, beneficial, communal institute has been inherited by all nations, by both the Christians and the Muslims. The Christians merged its significance with the Lord’s Resurrection, observing it on a Sunday, and the Muslims keep it on Friday.[15] The Sabbath of the future as the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God is described in the Book of Isaiah. There, the prophet speaks about the creation of the new heaven and the new earth in which the truth will dwell, as well as about the purification and the recreation by God of all his creation that had been defiled by sin.[16] The great promise about the creation of the new heaven and the new earth, the restoration of the world in its primordial purity and beauty is based on the description of the Six Days of creation from the Genesis account. The end of the great creative acts in the Six Days of Creation is joined with the commandment of the Sabbath day.[17]

  1. Mobley, Gregory. The Return of the Chaos Monsters: and other Backstories of the Bible. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2012, p. 20.
  2. Levenson, Jon D. Creation and the persistence of evil: the Jewish drama of divine omnipotence. Vol. 566. Princeton University Press, 1994, p. 151.
  3. See Haynes, Matthew, and P. Paul Krüger. “Creation rest: Exodus 20: 8-11 and the first creation account.” Old Testament Essays 31.1 (2018): 90-113.
  4. Bud, Paula. “CONSIDERATIONS ON THE SHABBAT BEFORE THE LAW. AN ATTEMPT TO RECONCILE THE OPPOSITES.” Studia Universitatis Babes-Bolyai-Theologia Orthodoxa 58.2 (2013): 39-49.
  5. See de Villiers, Pieter GR, and George Marchinkowski. “Sabbath-keeping in the Bible from the perspective of biblical spirituality.” HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies 77.2 (2021).
  6. Batto, Bernard F. “The Sleeping God: An Ancient Near Eastern Motif of Divine Sovereignty.” Biblica (1987): 153-177.
  7. See the discussion in Mbatha, Ziphozonke Oscar. “A biblical narrative of the theology of work.” A BIBLICAL NARRATIVE OF THE THEOLOGY OF WORK (2022).
  9. Dozeman, Thomas B. Exodus. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2009, p. 1.
  10. Exodus 20:11.
  11. See White, Sidnie Ann. “The all souls Deuteronomy and the Decalogue.” Journal of Biblical Literature 109.2 (1990): 193-206.
  12. Revelation 14:13.
  13. See Shulevitz, Judith. The Sabbath world: Glimpses of a different order of time. Random House Trade Paperbacks, 2011.
  14. See Isaiah 58:13-14, cf. Matthew 12:10-12.
  15. Ringwald, Christopher D. A day apart: How Jews, Christians, and Muslims find faith, freedom, and joy on the Sabbath. Oxford University Press, 2007.
  16. Isaiah 66:22-23.
  17. A nice discussion of this in: Kwall, Roberta Rosenthal. “Remember the Sabbath day and enhance your creativity.” U. St. Thomas LJ 10 (2012): 820.