The perfect seven. Seven being a number that signified completion. The seventh day is not a day for creating but for resting. You could say that rest is God’s invention.
The principle of Sabbath is written right into this story, into its very structure. This emphasises its importance in the story and identity of Israel. Repeatedly Israel is told to observe the Sabbath day; it even makes it into the Top Ten of Exodus 20. It’s so important that in this story of creation, even God does it.
Sabbath has one primary function: rest. Rest for everyone: ‘Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates.’ – Exodus 20:9-11. The fourth commandment even harks back to this Genesis account in order to show how important it is: God rested on the seventh day, and so he blessed it and made it holy.
The rest of Sabbath was for everyone – animals included. No one was to work while the favoured few put their feet up. That missed the point. The Sabbath affected everyone, because it was ordained by YHWH himself, and it was holy. Jesus had things to say about the Sabbath too, and it’s clear that in the New Testament it does not have the same dominance. I’m not going to go into this here as I want to reflect on it more widely at a later point in my main blog.
The Sabbath is holy because it takes its pattern from how God works and creates. It’s one of those areas we can struggle with if we don’t take a literal view of seven 24 hour days and yet still hold a high view of scripture and its truth and meaning. I’ve decided, in my life of faith and exploring theology, not to be afraid or alarmed of struggles and challenges. I live within them, experiencing the excitement of a God whose mind is so vast I will never grasp it. There’s no doubt that the Sabbath references later in the OT refer back explicitly to this Genesis story as a reason for the Sabbath. But this doesn’t need to overly-perplex us.
Genesis one tells us something magnificent about God, a God who created the earth and seas, the skies and stars, the birds and the animals, human beings. A God who programmed a rhythm to life, where we would wake in the morning and go to sleep in the evening. Rest is his invention, and he carved out a special place for it. The perfect seven was a stopping of all work. It was the completion of it.
We may not practise Sabbath in the same way today, but we can certainly appreciate the need for it in a life that is often harried and frazzled. And the Sabbath principle is holy – a sign of dedication to God, something different among days, and it is also compassionate – allowing all, tall or small, masters and servants, strangers, friends, even mules and donkeys, to rest.
We are creatures designed to need rest. And rest can be far more than simply not doing something. An elongated pause gives us space to grow in ways that we are simply too busy for at other times.