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Understanding the Sabbath (Part 1)

Next quarter, our church will begin studying the first 25 chapters of Genesis in Sunday School. Over the next several weeks as we prepare to work through the beginning of the Bible, I will be posting several blog posts relating to the book of Genesis.

In the beginning of Scripture is the start of the Pentateuch, the book of Genesis. This beginning explains the creation of the heavens and the earth, and all that fills the earth. The first chapter of Genesis tells of God creating everything in six days, and then resting on the seventh. An analysis of Genesis 1:1-2:3 shows the author’s intention behind the explanation of the creation account.

Structurally, the first six days of creation can be cleanly divided:

Day 1 Light Day 4 Luminaries

Day 2 Sky Day 5 Birds

Day 3 Water Day 5 Fish, water creatures

Land Day 6 Animals and humans

Fruit trees Fruit trees, green shrubs

The author of Genesis uses repetition throughout the first six days of creation. Days one through six begin with “then God said”, yet day seven begins, “By the seventh day God completed His work that He had done” (Genesis 2:2). Also, the seventh day lacks the concept of completing a day that was prevalent to the prior six days which ended saying, “it was evening, and it was morning” and then would identify which day in the sequence of six days the event was occurring during.

The seventh day was made unique by the author because the absence of a refrain signifies the rest was to be enjoyed without ceasing, though human sin interrupted this rest. The seventh day is the only day of the week God blessed, and the author mentions the seventh day on three separate occasions in close proximity. In addition, the seventh day is accented by a Hebrew literary pattern known as X + 1, which puts special emphasis on the final day (Matthews, New American Commentary – Genesis 1-11:26, p. 176).

In the beginning God created everything, and then He rested. For generations this account has been passed down. The act of God resting provides significant value towards the past, the present, and the future. Claus Westermann defines the significance of God’s rest in the creation account explaining that “it establishes an order for humanity that organizes time into the everyday and the holy. This separation ends the Creation that began with three separations. It comprises not only an anticipation of the Israelite Sabbath, but beyond that a gift of the Creation (he blesses it) to humanity” (Westermann, Genesis – A Practical Commentary p. 12).

Sabbath Word Study

A proper study of the term shabat provides a better understanding of the significance of God’s rest on the seventh day. Westermann defines shabat as meaning ‘cease, desist’. This is a fairly common definition for the term shabat and is also defended by James McKeown. McKeown supports this definition by citing other passages in Scripture where shabat is found. He cites Genesis 8:22, “day and night shall not cease”, and Jeremiah 31:36, “then shall the offspring of Israel cease from being a nation” as a defense of this position (McKeown, Genesis – The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, p. 28).

According to Samson Hirsch, the concept of shabat simply meaning “rest” does not do justice to the fullness of the meaning of shabat. He considers it “the cessation of, leaving off, an activity that has been going on until then.” For Hirsch, a better definition would be “a ‘halt’ in an activity, through which persons and things are kept in the position, the setting, in which they should be, which is due and proper for them” (Hirsch, The Pentateuch Volume 1 – Genesis, p. 45).

John MacArthur defines shabat in similar terms, as God abstaining from creative work in relation to Genesis 2 (MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Commentary, p. 12). McKeown does add to his initial assessment of Westermann that “[a]lthough the noun ‘Sabbath’ is not used in relation to this period of rest, the use of the cognate verb shabat means that the idea of Sabbath is clearly implicit. God keeps a Sabbath to set an example to human beings and to provide a model that they should follow” (McKeown, Genesis – The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary, p. 28).

The Septuagint translates shabat as katepausen in the Greek translation. “The verb katepausen is somewhat unusual in the intransitive sense of ‘rest,’ though it is used to render shabat three times in Gen (also v.3 8:22) and three times in Exodus” (Wevers, LXX – Notes on the Greek Text of Genesis, p. 20-21). John Weavers noted that katepausen should probably be defined as “he desisted (from all his work)” (Wevers, LXX – Notes on the Greek Text of Genesis, p. 20-21).

When Did God Finish Creating?

Another important factor to research in regard to the concept of rest in Genesis 2:1-3 develops in an attempt to determine when God completed his work. The Masoretic Text records God as finishing his work on the sixth day and yet again on the seventh day. Translators of other versions had difficulty with this concept. The seventh day is supposed to be made holy and used for resting; yet God was still creating?

Wevers attempts to work out this difficulty through explaining the process through which other translations determined how to proceed with this difficulty in the text. The Septuagint, the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Peshitta all made similar adjustments to the text. They accepted that creation was completed on the sixth day, as the end of chapter one and the first verse of chapter two stated. Therefore, they changed the first clause of verse two in chapter two to reflect this already implied statement by replacing “on the seventh” with “in the sixth”.

This circumstance would not have been a problem to the original Hebrew audience as they might have read verse two in context to the prior verses and translated it as pluperfect, “were completed…and had completed on the seventh day…and so desisted.” Another option Wevers suggests translates the verse as “having finished his work by the seventh day, he rested…” (Wevers, LXX – Notes on the Greek Text of Genesis, p. 20).

The Septuagint made an effort to simplify the text by stating, “on the sixth day” followed by “but on the seventh day” to create a contrastive sense. Gerhard von Rad disagreed with this translation and countered their implication suggesting that creation was in fact finished on the seventh day (von Rad, Genesis, p. 60).

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