The Sabbath Rest of God


Gen 2:1–3: Striking differences exist between scriptural and Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) concepts of divine respite.[1] According to Enuma Elish, Marduk was given control of the other gods and the entire cosmos after defeating Tiamat. In gratitude to him, the other gods built the sacred city of Babylon so that Marduk could rest:[2]

The [gods] opened their mouths and said to Marduk, their lord, “Now, O lord, you who have caused our deliverance, what shall be our homage to you? Let us build a shrine whose name shall be called ‘Lo, a chamber for our nightly rest’; let us repose in it! Let us build a throne, a recess for his abode! On the day that we arrive we shall repose in it.” When Marduk heard this, brightly glowed his features, like the day, “Construct Babylon, whose building you have requested, let its brickwork be fashioned. You shall name it ‘The Sanctuary.’”[3]

Unlike Marduk, God does not require recovery from any kind of disturbance. Nevertheless, he sought a dwelling place of rest (Ps 132:7–8, 13–14; Num 10:33–36).[4]

Both the tabernacle and the temple were constructed as replicas of the cosmos (Ps 78:68–69). Indeed, nearly identical language describes the creation of the cosmos, the tabernacle, and the temple (cf. 1:2 with Exod 40:43; Gen 2:1 with Exod 39:32; Gen 2:2 with Exod 40:33; and Gen 2:3 with Exod 39:43). The glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle, the temple, and all the earth (Exod 40:34–35; 1 Ki 8:8–13; Isa 6:1–3). Echoing Gen 1, the description of the construction of the tabernacle centers upon seven distinct commands (Exod 25:1; Exod 30:11, 17, 22, 34; Exod 31:1, 12). Finally, Solomon’s temple was built in seven years, and dedicated in the seventh month during a seven-day festival (1 Ki 6:38; 1 Ki 8:1–2, 65).[5]

In ANE literature, taking seven days to build or dedicate a temple occurs fairly often. According to poetry about Baal and Anath, “On the seventh d[ay], the fire dies down in the house, the f[la]me in the palace. The silver turns into blocks, the gold is turned into bricks…Baal exults, ‘My h[ouse] have I built of silver. My palace, indeed, of gold.’”[6]

Similarly, when Gudea built a Sumerian temple, the construction lasted seven days: “It took one year to bring the great stones in slabs and it took another year to fashion them, although not even two or three days did he let pass idly. Then it needed a day’s work to set up each one but by the seventh day he had set them all up around the house.”[7]

In the ANE, temples are places for divine rest. They are sanctuaries of sacred space (Lev 19:30; 2 Chron 6:41–7:1).[8] For God to inhabit his place of rest signifies his being enthroned, taking his rightful place as the sovereign ruler of the universe (Ps 93; Ps 104:1–4).[9] Thus the Lord’s seventh day continues even now, for he still inhabits his temple (1 Cor 3:16; 2 Cor 6:16; 1 Pet 2:5).[10] In this epilogue of creation, the phrase “evening and morning” is noticeably absent,[11] indicating that the Lord remains in his state of Sabbath rest.

“Then God blessed the seventh day and set it apart because on it he ceased from labor, from all of his work which God created in order to make [the cosmos].”[12] The apex of creation occurs on the seventh day, rather than taking place on the sixth. Prior to this, the Lord called all of the days “good” or “very good.” In contrast, God designated the seventh day as “holy.”[13] This word also means “set apart,” “observed as holy,” “consecrated,” “honored as sacred,” and “dedicated.”[14]

Although people are by no means the center of the cosmos, the Lord has also prepared it for the benefit of humanity.[15] The participation of humans in God’s rest is a unique concept within the ANE.[16] It appears that Israel first observed the Sabbath during their time in the wilderness (Exod 16:22–30).[17] By consecrating the Sabbath, the Lord divides days into ordinary time and holy time, creating a dichotomy between days of work and of rest (Exod 20:8–11).[18] Those who observe it shall enjoy God’s blessing.[19]

The number seven was important throughout the ANE. Mesopotamians restricted what could be done on the 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st and 28th days of each month. However, unlike in Israel, the day with the greatest prohibitions was the nineteenth. Furthermore, Ugaritic Tablet 3, which dates from Moses’s era, specifies certain rituals and sacrifices for each day, with special emphasis upon the seventh.[20]

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, the protagonist met a man who survived the flood. He recalled:

“Six days and [six] nights blows the flood wind, as the south-storm sweeps the land. When the seventh day arrived, the flood [-carrying] south-storm subsided…The sea grew quiet, the tempest was still, the flood ceased.” After the ship ran aground, “When the seventh day arrived…Then I let out [all the people and animals] to the four winds and offered a sacrifice…Seven and seven cult- vessels I set up.[21]

According to the Ugaritic Legend of King Keret, he marched for six days and arrived at the city at dawn on the seventh. After six days of battle, the besieged king made a pact with Keret in exchange for plunder. Keret fell asleep and awoke on the seventh day to sacrifice a lamb and a dove to El, the god who helped him.[22]

However, within the ANE, only Israel set the seventh day apart for rest.[23] Ceasing from daily activities on the Sabbath is a sign of God’s covenant with his people (Exod 31:12–17).[24] In fact, God’s pattern of work in Gen 1:1–2:3 forms the basis of the fourth commandment.[25] Since God ceased from his work, so should those created in his image.[26]

When we keep the Sabbath, we assert that God is in charge of the cosmos and we are not. Taking a day off from working to provide for our needs enables us to regain the Lord’s perspective (Isa 58:13–14).[27] Furthermore, by ceasing to subdue the earth on every seventh day, we confess our allegiance to God.[28]

Although the Bible describes the sacrifices that Israel was to offer on the Sabbath (Num 28:9–10; Ezek 46:4–5), we have very little information concerning what one was to do on that day of the week. Most of what we know centers upon what we should not do. Worship does not appear to be the Sabbath’s most important aspect in ancient Israel.[29]

By the time of Christ, Sabbath observance on the seventh day of the week included the reading and discussion of the Old Testament (Mark 1:21; Luke 4:14–21; Acts 13:13–15; Acts 15:21; Acts 17:1–3).[30] First Corinthians, a letter written during 54–55 AD,[31] indicates that Gentile congregations met together for worship, not on the Sabbath, but on the first day of each week. This practice originated in recognition that Jesus had risen “on the first day of the week” (Matt 28:1; 1 Cor 16:1–2; Acts 20:7).[32]

Read Gen 2:1–3. What evidence do we have that the whole cosmos is God’s temple? Why did God cease from work on the seventh day?  What are the implications of the Lord’s blessing the Sabbath and making it holy for our lives?

[1] Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 143.

[2] John H. Walton, Genesis (NIVAC; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 150.

[3] E. A. Speiser, trans., “The Creation Epic” (Enuma Elish) in The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures, 3rd Ed. (ANET), James B. Pritchard, Ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), tablet 6:47–58, 68. Italics mine.

[4] Victor H. Matthews, Mark W. Chavalas, and John H. Walton, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), Gen 2:3, electronic ed.

[5] G. K. Beale, The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 60–1.

[6]H. L. Ginsburg, trans., “Poems About Baal and Anath,” in ANET, 6:131–8, 134.

[7]Oxford University Faculty of Oriental Studies, “The Building of Ninĝirsu’s Temple (Gudea, Cylinders A and B),” in The Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature, 617–22.

[8] Walton, Genesis, 151.

[9] Ibid., 148–9.

[10]John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Vol. 1 (trans. James Anderson; Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 157.

[11] Bruce K. Waltke and Cathi J. Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 68.

[12] Where an excerpt of the Bible appears in quotation marks, this is my translation from the Hebrew Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. In order to preserve the emphasis of the biblical author, I have retained the word order whenever possible. Hebrew authors placed what they considered most important first in the sentence or clause.

[13] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 143.

[14] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver, and Charles A. Briggs, “קָדַשׁ” (qadhosh), Enhanced Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon (BDB) (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 2000), 872.

[15] Walton, Genesis, 152.

[16] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 143.

[17] Gordon J. Wenham, Genesis 1–15 (WBC; Dallas: Word, 1998), 36.

[18] Hamilton, The Book of Genesis, Chapters 1–17, 143.

[19] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 36.

[20]Cyrus Herzyl Gordon, “The Biblical Sabbath: Its Origin and Observance in the Ancient Near East,” Judaism 31, no. 1 (Winter 1982): 12–6, 13–4.

[21] E. A. Speiser, trans., “The Epic of Gilgamesh,” in ANET, 11:127–9, 145, 155–7, 94.

[22]H. L. Ginsberg, trans., “The Legend of King Keret,” in ANET, tablet 3, 144.

[23] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 71.

[24] Walton, Genesis, 153.

[25] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 71.

[26] Wenham, Genesis 1–15, 36.

[27] Walton, Genesis, 152–4.

[28] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 67.

[29] Walton, Genesis, 153–4.

[30] Waltke and Fredricks, Genesis: A Commentary, 71.

[31]Roy E. Ciampa and Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter to the Corinthians (PNTC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010), 3.

[32]Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, Rev. Ed. (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2014), 899–900.

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