Why bother resting?

Richard Briggs writes: Something strange happened when the Bible was split up into chapters: certain texts were bound together and others were suddenly thrust apart. The very first example of chapter division in Genesis raises some interesting questions, concerning what is now Gen 1:31 and Gen 2:1. The first three (or three and a half) verses of Gen 2 really belong with the Bible’s opening chapter. But here they stand now, kicking off chapter 2. It is as if the two great panels of ‘Genesis Creation Stories’ do not quite join up. What light shines through where the join should be?

Here I want to read these three (and a half) verses looking backwards, to Gen 1, and then looking forwards, to what comes after. Since these verses were part of a continuous text, pre-chapter-divisions, it should not be surprising that they work both ways. Also, along the way, and to avoid sounding like a grumpy ‘expert’ complaining about something that everyone normally just gets on with, I will say a word about, and in favour of, chapter divisions.

Three and a Half Verses of Rest

Six days in to the Bible’s most famous and most poetically majestic creation account, with the earth now formed and filled in wondrous, life-bursting, and blessing-giving ways, we turn the page (I did once have a Bible that reached the end of Gen 1:31 at the bottom of its first page, in fact), and behold, a change of pace:

Gen 2:1-3a  Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude.  2 And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  3 So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.  4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created. (NRSV)

A few details: ‘multitude’ (v.1) is a typically cloth-eared and earnest NRSV translation of the gloriously awkward Hebrew word tsava’, ‘host’, as in all those KJV-shaped hymns that celebrated ‘Yhwh Sabaoth’ (or however it was spelled) – the Lord of hosts, as named in the English translations of Luther’s ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’, no less. So here is the vast array of all that God hosts, one might say – all completed.

Verse 2 emphasises that God has done it. And it is finished, to borrow a phrase. John 19:30, ‘it is finished’, uses the verb teleō; here it is sunteleō once it gets translated into Greek (in the Septuagint, LXX). The link is to do with completion – though of course you could make that point by reading the Bible in English and noticing what is going on. A bit more interesting in the LXX here is that the Greek translators of Genesis evidently got nervous that Gen 2:2 sounds like it is saying: God was still finishing up on the seventh morning. So they changed the verse to read ‘on the sixth day God finished the work that he had done’. I think they are drawing out the point that was being made in the Hebrew original, really.

More significant is the verb used in v.2 and v.3: shabat, to stop, or rest. From which we get ‘Sabbath’ – a stopping. The classic Hebrew lexicon BDB (Brown-Driver-Briggs, no relation) rather engagingly begins its definition of shabat as ‘cease, desist’ – which conjures up for me the image of God sounding the klaxon around the world and commanding ‘cease and desist; step away from your work with your hands raised in praise …’. In any case God makes, and when it is done, God stops. I do wonder if we are supposed to read v.3 as saying that it is precisely in the stopping (‘sabbathing’) that God blesses the seventh day. The text reads as if it is the absence of divine work that makes the day holy, rather than the blessing being another thing that God did as well as stopping.

Verse 4a is either the wrap up of the first creation account, the headline of the second one, a bit of editorial glue to hold them together, or some or all of these. I have read strong opinions on this matter, but I do not have one myself.

Looking Back: The Climax of Creation?

Not so very long ago it was common to find commentators saying that the creation of the first human (“the ‘adam”; Gen 1:27) was the climax of the opening Genesis creation account. And clearly it is supposed to be a very impressive step. Notice how 1:27 seems to put the story on hold to break out into poetic celebration of this development, before getting back to the story in 1:28. It would be strange to deny that the 6-day structure of forming and filling reaches some kind of goal here.

But 6 is most famous in the Bible for being one short of 7, and it is the seventh item in any list, or simply the fact that a list has seven elements, that is significant. A good example is the list of what is not to be coveted in the ten commandments, Exodus 20:17 – which includes seven elements. It achieves this by making the seventh item ‘anything’! The parallel in Deut 5:21 also includes the same seven elements, but was nervous about the order, so changed it around a bit. We might one day get to these passages in their own right, but they will come up again in a minute below.

So here, sadly, the very first chapter division in the Bible misleads us. It refocuses our attention away from God’s rest as the climax of creation, and directs it to the creation of humans instead. I am tempted to say: you can tell that chapter-division was a human project … look where it put the emphasis. In fact the division of the Bible into chapters and verses is a somewhat complex issue, and I will let it have one paragraph all to itself. Feel free to skip this next paragraph if Genesis is your main interest.

How Bible Chapters and Verses Came to Be

There is actually some dispute about whether this first chapter division was a deliberate attempt to reorientate later readings of Gen 1 away from emphasising day 7. Was day 7 seen as tending to emphasise a Jewish practice that the Christian chapter-dividers were less enthusiastic about? This is possible, although I have never seen it conclusively demonstrated. (People who do not get out much are invited to point us to evidence in the comments ….) Chapter division is usually first attributed to Stephen Langton, working on the Latin text (the Vulgate), in the early 13th Century, some time before he became Archbishop of Canterbury and got more involved in implementing ecclesial renewal and reform programmes. Jewish tradition did make some changes to the chapter divisions when applying it to the Hebrew text, but it is noticeable that this first division was not changed. On the whole, despite this awkward opening example, it turned out that the chapter divisions were simply enormously helpful, and I think we should be grateful for them, in general. While we are here: verse divisions in the Hebrew text go back as far as we can see – they are built in to the way the text is written and copied. Verse numbering, of course, came later, once chapter divisions were in place. But in the Old Testament, at least, it is very rare to have a case where we can say ‘the verse division here misleads us’.

Looking Forward: Rest is Built into Creation

Meanwhile, back in Genesis 2: God is resting on day 7. The significance seems to be: all of creation is geared towards finding our rest in God’s rest. And this is still true today. Yes, we are created to live and work for God, to be in relationship with one another, and to take care of the animals and the plants, and so forth, but ultimately we are created to enjoy resting with God. This is why – in a range of ways – we celebrate every seventh day as special, Saturday for Jews, Sunday for Christians, Monday for vicars, but always one in seven: we set aside all our cares and concerns, our ‘work’, and we focus on God’s presence with us, and we rest safe in God’s presence. Our worship is built into the rhythm of creation.

Anyone who has read the ten commandments knows this. It is the reason given in Exodus 20:11 for why we are to stop one day in seven, because even God did this: sabbathing, blessing, and making it holy. According to Exodus, it is as simple as that. Although once again Deuteronomy adjusts its version of the ten commandments on this point, saying that the sabbath reminds us of how awful the alternatives were – relentless work as slaves in Egypt, when you never got a day off of any sort. I confess I have never seen any tension or contradiction here: the blessing of stopping is referred back to creation by Exodus, and to the evidence of what goes wrong if you don’t do it by Deuteronomy. Both these things are true, but at any given time one or the other might be the most important reason to recall.

Now of course we all know that it does not work out this simply. Astonishingly, when God rounds off the opening creation account with the gift of sabbath, humans find ways down through the centuries to major on arguing about its precise applicability or specifications. (Christians and Jews have largely comparable records on this matter, in my opinion.) What to do?

I think we can say this: God enjoys the creation, and wants us to enjoy it too. There are some delightful phrases in Gen 1 that I think lose something in translation: v.11 has the earth sprout with sprouting things, plants that seed seeds, fruit trees that do fruit; while in v.20: let the waters swarm with swarming things, let flying things fly, let the crawling things crawl, and so on …. God even creates great sea-monsters (v.21), perhaps just to show that it could be done. God is enjoying it all. My modest suggestion: part of the point was that we are to enjoy it too.

How strange then that we so often spend our time with the Genesis creation accounts arguing about how God did it, or when, or how accurate it all is. It is like going to someone’s house for cake, and they serve you a great homemade cake, and you spend all your time asking about ingredients and baking times, or how many calories it is, and whether it would have been better with dates and walnuts instead of chocolate. God says: I made you a cake! You’re supposed to eat it, not argue about it. (There is no truth in the rumour that this is the version of Jesus’ teaching that lies behind Luke 7:34 … it is simply a parable from the gospel according to Richard.)

Bothering to rest

Six days we will be too busy to remember this; too busy in fact to recall that everything we do is gearing up towards our final rest with God. This ‘busy-ness’ may be paid employment, or it may be Christian ministry, or it may be the demands of home and (extended) family, or it may these days be keeping up with social media, which are conspicuously absent from Genesis 1 – there is no Hebrew phrase for ‘this is the tweetable creative moment, folks’, and not just because there were no folks around to tweet anything until day 6. Work is good, and work can be fulfilling, and there is always work to be done. That’s not the issue. Work is not busy-ness, and sabbathing is not reserved for moments when there is nothing left to do. Failure to grasp this will wear us out. In all sorts of ways.

I wonder if God thought: I’ll put ‘rest’ up front as the climax of the first story of all. Oh, they’ve chopped it out of chapter 1. OK, I’ll put it right at the head of chapter 2, and then follow it with a story about creation in the garden – pastoral peace and creative joy. Ah, they read straight on into the bit about the snake. OK, I’ll throw in a reminder about Eden by echoing it all in the last book of the collection, Revelation, as a return-to-Eden theme. Well, they seem to argue about Revelation even more than they argue about rules for Sunday trading.

So God says: In the event that you do ever stop long enough to notice, there will be cake. And the rest – as we might say – is history.

Revd Dr Richard Briggs is lecturer in Old Testament at Cranmer Hall, St John’s College, Durham and an associate vicar in two parishes just east of Eden—er, Durham. Richard’s previous post explored the theme of ‘goodness‘ in Genesis 1.

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9 thoughts on “Why bother resting?”

  1. Lovely article to start off the week – thank you.
    My questions on the issue of God’s resting …
    1. Why would God need to rest? It seems unlikely that he got a bit worn out. That doesn’t seem to work with our ideas of an omnipotent eternal being. However grand creation is surely God can just do it in a heartbeat and then do it another 1000 times over before breakfast. So why rest? … I think Richard perhaps suggests that the resting is a model for us to follow … it is WE who need to rest, and to stand back as God did “and see that it is good.”
    2. Is there perhaps something about God giving us/creation rest from Himself and his awesome powers? Is this the first glimpse of what being in relationship with God is like? He COULD do more, but actually He gives us space just to be ourselves and to make our own way, and our own creation. The omnipotence of God emptying itself of potency … just for a moment … in order to give us room to grow and to breathe on our own … as any parent does for their children.

  2. There is a depth to resting, a satisfaction, a pleasure, a delight. God is deeply satisfied, in what is declared good, not tired.
    A poster directed us there, in a small N York’s village to an artist in residence: it was in her front room, a display of her paintings. She was also a teacher of art. It was a good question she said that I’d asked – how do you know when a painting is finished – is it when you are satisfied with it? It is, was the answer.
    That takes us to the contention over Jesus and the Sabbath. He is our Sabbath rest, just as the Father is satisfied with Christ’s finished work, we will find rest in our satisfaction with Christ’s finished work.

  3. Thank you, I really enjoyed this article. I have always sensed that our resting was important in showing our dependence on God and not our own efforts. Personally, I have been pretty poor at this through much of my life but am learning now (I think!).
    It is often the case that until burnout breathes down a persons neck, the need to slow down, rest properly and trust God for the outcomes is never fully realised.

  4. Jesus said that His Father never ceased working. I have never heard an explanation of this apparent contradiction of Genesis 1/2. But thank you for a lovely article, and interesting information about chapter divisions!

  5. Days one to six all end with the motif “there was evening, there was morning, the Nth day”. Does this pattern of night then day illustrate the emergence of the creation on each day.

    But day seven has no such motif. Is that because creation is complete, and so there is no symbolic dawn? Or might it be because this day is a different kind of day? The writer to the Hebrews (chapter 4) speaks of a future rest – a “sabbath rest for the people of God”. Does this seventh day speak of our eternal time with God?

    The irony is that we should “make every effort to enter that rest”.

    • Is it not hearing the voice of Jesus, on the Sabbath, saying, “Come to me…and I will give you rest…”?
      Is that an effort? It may well be an initial, a daily, and lifelong effort?

  6. I like to split the creation account into chunks headed by each ‘And God said’.
    The narrative is then foccussed on God instead of the work in progress.
    It then closely mirrors the ten commandements and the Spoken Word.
    Ten is symbolic of full power, Hands on.
    We spend too much time on the Seven symbolism. We need to see Gods hand and finger at work.

  7. Thanks Richard, I read this delightful article after an afternoon nap, having spent the morning on zoom. The zoom was not a particular delight, but the rest was!


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