The Seventh Day: Genesis 2:1-4a

Synopsis:

Creation is completed on the sixth day and marked with phrase “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” This is important because, unlike the previous six days of creation, the seventh is not terminated!  With this in mind, note that the seventh day is blessed and made sacred not because it marks the end of the creation story but because it is the beginning of mankind’s reign over God’s creation. 

Before presenting the commentary, the word-choices of some of the more well-known commercial Bibles (but not all) bear some explanation. For example, the KJV and NRS versions of Genesis 2:1-2 have God completing His work on the seventh day and then resting. In other words, these two Bibles assert that God worked on the seventh day and then stopped!

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. 2And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made (KJV).

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 (NRS).

A plain reading of the KJV’s or NRS’s text describe God’s work as ending on the seventh day followed by resting. God worked on the seventh day if only to tie up loose ends.

The NIV differs substantially. Its claim is that God finished on the sixth day and rested on the seventh:

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. 2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work (NIV).

The difference between the NIV and the KJV/NRS Bibles arise from the Hebrew grammar. In the KJV and NRS versions, the translators chose to render the Hebrew verb  יְכַל (yəkhal) as a simple, English past tense verb (“ended” or “finished”, respectively). By contrast, the NIV translators rendered yəkhal into the English past perfect tense (“had finished”). Recall how, from the discussion of the past perfect tense used in Genesis 1:1-2, the author used the past perfect tense of “to be” (had been) to describe a primordial substrate already present when God performed His first creative act – the creation of light.

In these verses, the NIV translators took a similar approach and used the past perfect tense, “had finished”, to express the idea that God had completed His work on the sixth day, not the seventh day.  Unfortunately, the problem with the NIV’s rendering, while faithful to conventional wisdom, is its lack of grammatical support. The grammar rules for translating a past perfect from any arbitrary Hebrew verb vary in their certainty. Zevitt’s rule (used in Genesis 1:1-2), for example, is quite definite and a translator can be reasonably confident that translating a sentence that follows Zevitt’s rule into a past perfect is correct.

Another alternative, not discussed in this book, is subject-verb ordering. This is somewhat of an informal rule, but when a Hebrew sentence occurs with the subject first, the translator should check for two different possibilities. The first possibility arises from the practice of ancient Hebrew authors to begin a parenthetical statement by reversing the order of the subject and verb. The second possibility is that the author means to convey the idea that some action completed in the past – in other words, a past perfect tense. The context in this verse does not suggest a parenthetical statement and so the past perfect is preferred.

Gordon J. Wenham and most other modern scholars recognize that the KJV and NRS incorrectly suggest that God actually worked on the seventh day1)(Wenham, Word Biblical Commentary: Genesis 1-15 1987) p. 35. But changing it to be more explicit, he argues, spoils the threefold repetition of “seventh”. Wenham observes that the text of Genesis 17:22, 49:33, and Exodus 40:33 are semantically parallel to the closing verses of Genesis 1, but they use a past perfect construction. Accordingly, translators should recognize the semantic parallelism of these other verses and render Genesis 2:1-3 as if constructed as a past perfect. My translation follows Wenham’s suggestion and expresses the past perfect where necessary. As Wenham and other suggest, this allows translators to preserve the three-fold emphasis of the repetition (and emphasis) of the “seventh day”.

Genesis 2:1-2

… and were completed (וַיְכֻלּוּ  vayəkhullu): The root of vayəkhullu is כָלָה (kala) and is associated with completion. In this particular form (its pual stem), the emphasis of yəkhal is placed on the completion of all six steps of creation.  More specifically, its connotation carries with it the idea of the process having been completed in full2) (Harris, Archer and Waltke 2003) 0519.0. For example, this verb is never used to describe the actions of a person who arrives at a certain point in a process and suspends his or her activity. In other words, while the worker may be finished for the time being, the process is not complete and one would not expect to find yəkhal describing the worker’s status. Elsewhere, this verb is used to describe the completion of the temple (2 Chronicles 8:16), of speaking (Gen 17:22), of eating (1 Kings 1:41), of harvesting (Ruth 2:21) and so forth.

… and all their hosts: often translated as “in all their array”, the Hebrew phrase in question, וְכָל־צְבָאָֽם (vəkhol shəvaam) is viewed by scholars3)(N. M. Sarna 1989) p. 15 as a figure of speech called a Zeugma (also sometimes referred to as a Syllepsis).  Here are two examples:

  • Eggs and oaths are soon broken
  • He took his hat and his leave.

The word shəvaam would normally apply only to hashamayeem (the heavens), since the hosts (as in heavenly hosts) is tightly associated with heaven. Here, however, shəvaam is applied also to haaretz (the earth) as well.

In the context of the ANE, the use of this figure of speech, makes concrete the Semitic perception that the number seven as the epitome of perfection. In biblical Hebrew the idea of perfection does not mean without error. It means complete. A process is perfected when it is complete4)In many commercial translations, “perfect” is translated from Hebrew words having the root  תָמַם (tamam). Tamam is more commonly understood as complete. Or, said another way, perfect in the sense of being complete. For example, in the song of Moses, Deuteronomy 32:4 uses the Hebrew phrase tameem paalo which is uniformly translated as “His work is perfect”. This phrase literally reads “complete is His work”. It does not mean God’s work is without error (which it may well be, but that is not what the author means to convey in this package). and that is precisely the sense that the imagery of the seven days means to convey.

…and He ceased (וַיִּשְׁבֹּת, vayyeeshbot): the root of this verb is שָבַּת  (shabbat). The meaning of this verb, however, depends on its stem. Only in the Qal stem does it mean “he rested”. In its other forms (the Pual stem in this case, but also the Niphil and Hiphil stems), its meaning is “he ceased”, “he abstained”, “he severed”, “he put an end-to”, and so forth.  Completion, not rest, is clearly in view.

In this respect, Cassuto points out that while ceasing one’s work may indeed result in rest5)In Hebrew, the verb nuach also means rest as in the ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat (Gen 8:4). This is more than a distinction with a difference, for example, one can obtain rest (nuach) by ceasing or stopping (shabbat) some strenuous activity., there is no meaningful reason to assume that this is always the case, nor what was required or intended here.  A better assumption is to understand that to cease work after its completion is more likely a cause for expressions of satisfaction, if not outright exultation. This emphasis on completion coupled with its association with satisfaction of a job well done, suggests that perhaps the author is advancing the seventh day as a day of commemoration and celebration6)The Judeo-Christian institution of the Sabbath is not in view here. Not only is there no reference to Shabbat (the noun meaning Sabbath), but Exodus 31:13, 16, and 17 describe the Sabbath as a strictly Israelite institution. In Genesis, the Sabbath is relevant for, and pertains to all, mankind..

With this in mind, many scholars suggest7)(N. M. Sarna 1989) p. 14 that the creation story follows a seven day, “six-plus-one”, literary pattern in which the seventh day is qualitatively different than the previous six days and the distinction between the seventh and the previous six is critical.  Constructed as it is, the seventh day serves as a literary coda. Charles Burkhat, a professor and musical theorist from Queens College in Great Britain, argues8)See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coda_(music)#cite_note-4 that codas serve to close off, say a sonata, by changing the momentum and trajectory of the piece. For example, where the main body might be compelling and forceful, the coda is often peaceful and contemplative. Codas, no matter how designed, set off the main body by being obviously distinctive in one or more ways.

But codas serve a second purpose. They announce the end of the piece. The seventh day of creation, like a musical coda, announces the end of the symphony of creation by separating the reader from the crescendo of the sixth day and the tranquility of the seventh. The change in narrative pace is linguistically jarring. And not without purpose. Its abruptness calls our attention to what we have just experienced. When reading through the six days of creation, its literary design has carried us inexorably forward to the sixth and final day. But now, on the seventh day the cadence is gone. The narrative trajectory has terminated and we find ourselves looking back and wondering what has just happened.

And something else is going on here. In these two verses days one through six have been separated from the seventh by virtue of God’s change in activity. He actively creates on days one through six. On day seven the created world quiesces. God’s work has ceased and the turmoil of creation is gone. However, this particular separation event is not a creation event. The change of pace signals something altogether different and directs our attention away from the notion of creation and compels us to direct our reflections more deeply. What is the nature of the seventh day that sets it apart from the previous six days? Is the answer as simple as rest and relaxation?

Certainly God ceases work on the seventh day, but this is a change in God’s behavior, not in the nature of the particular day. God’s inactivity on the seventh day reveals nothing about the character of the seventh (or any other) day! The transition from activity to inactivity occurs at the boundary between the sixth and seventh days. But this merely establishes a point in space9)Recall that yom is a spatial concept, not a temporal one. See, for example, the discussion of the allegorical meaning of yom in the commentary for the first creation day and does not explain why the seventh day is different. The distinction between the work of creation and its cessation seem simply to be the means to an end. The idea of the seventh day as a day of rest , while important, seems to miss the point. Something else is going on.

Genesis 2:3

So Elohim blessed the seventh day then made it holy, because by that day Elohim had finished all the work that He had begun in creation

Elohim blessed the seventh day: The biblical concept of blessing (yəvarekh, in this verse), as discussed earlier10)See the discussion of verse 1:22, connotes the flourishing of that which is blessed. As will be remembered, a blessing is usually tranmitted from a person of greater status to one of lesser  status (father to son, God to His chosen, etc.,). Blessings were both predictive (“you will flourish”) or descriptive (“you are flourishing”). In either case, the blessing is an explicit acknowledgement from the giver of the blessing of favor directed toward the recipient.

And here we run into something of a puzzle. Days, whether representing the passage of time or squares on a chessboard, are inanimate. They do not flourish. They are not fecund. What then might be the purpose of blessing the seventh day?

The answer may reside in the Hebrew understanding of the word for curse (אָרַר, arar) which, in biblical Hebrew, is the opposite of bless. In the Bible, to curse someone or something is constrain or restrain it. Cursing, in biblical Hebrew at any rate, is synonymous with binding, blocking with obstacles, or rendering powerless to resist11)(Harris, Archer and Waltke 2003) Ref 0168.0, (168a). For example, the first use of curse occurs in Gen 3:17 when God informs Adam that the ground is cursed so that the soil will only produce thorns and thistles. The correct way to think of this is not that the ground is being “punished”, but that it is being constrained in a way as to require significant effort for Adam to eek out a living.

This suggests that a blessing, being the opposite of curse, can be understood as a prediction of (or description of) liberation. And this may well be the meaning that explains God’s purpose in blessing the seventh day. The seventh day is to be a day free from the constraints of survival (i.e., the curse of working to survive). In this context, the seventh day is not a day of rest or ceasing. Rather, it becomes a day whose purpose is other than to serve the requirements of life’s exigencies. It becomes a day of liberation.

Then made [the seventh day] holy: Like blessing, we need to understand what it means to make a day holy. The Hebrew word for holy,  קֹדֶשׁ (qodesh), means to set apart. Qodesh is also variously translated as hallowed, sanctified, consecrated, and so forth. In the Bible, and in other works of the ANE, there seems to be no limit on what can be made holy. In the various faith traditions, including the traditions of the pagan tribes surrounding the Hebrews, we find holy music, holy objects (e.g., idols), holy places, holy prayers, art, foods, gestures, and practices. But only in the Bible of the Hebrews is a day (i.e., the seventh day) made to stand apart. The faith literature of no other culture sanctifies time12)R.E. Friedman cites A. J. Heschel, a renowned and preeminant scholar at the Jewish Theological Seminary as having argued that the significance of the seventh day was that it sanctified time. (Friedman 2001) p.15. Why?

One reason might be that, as the commentary for the first day suggested, the Hebrew creation days represent linear time. Because the days never, ever repeat, important, signifcant events – events that will never, ever occur again, can at least be commemorated. In this sense, a seventh day is to be set aside for commemoration because it cannot be relived. The seventh day becomes, therefore, an occasion for liberation from the exigencies of life and a reflection on the previous days’ accomplishments just as God reflects on His creative accomplishments at the close of the sixth day.

We have, at last, a sense of purpose for the seventh day. God explicitly sets the day apart from the others to commemorate the six days of creation.  By blessing the seventh day God relieves mankind of the obligations of the work week – if only for a day – that they might properly commemorate God and His achievements. As Cassuto writes…

Every seventh day, without intermission since the days of Creation, serves as a memorial to the idea of creation of the world by the word of God…13)(Cassuto 2012) Kindle Location 1546

We now know, the cultures of the ANE, notably the Babylonians and Assyrians long before the ancient Hebrews appeared, also lived according to seven day cycles. Unlike the ancient Hebrews, however, the pagan cycles were tethered to, and reflected,  the natural cycles of the moon. They set aside the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of the lunar months. These days were named the sabattu or sapattu (in their languages). Among the pagans, but especially the Babylonians, the sabattu were days of fasting, ill luck, days on which one avoided pleasure and events of great moment. These were days of propitiation; a day that provided the means by which the worshipper could petition for better treatment in the coming week.

By contrast, the seventh day, when it eventually became enshrined as the Jewish Sabbath, was completely independent of all ties to the cycles of nature. The Jewish Sabbath, like the seventh day of creation, was not tethered to nature but to nature’s Creator. Its calendar was completely dissociated from the cycles of the heavenly bodies, commemorating instead the achievements of the One who stood above and beyond mankind’s activities. For ancient Hebrews, the seventh day became a day of peace and blessing, a day of joy and refreshment, a day on which the celebrant would put aside for the moment the requirement of toil and becoming, like God Himself, separated from the workaday world. At peace. Hallowed. Apart.

The divine author, then, seeks to connect the idea of sanctification to the idea that a parallel exists between the accomplishments of human effort and the accomplishments of divine creation. In the creation story, like the human work week, each day points to the next and ultimately to the seventh and last day. In God’s Sabbath model, and its parallel our work week, the six days of work point toward a special day of the week.

Excurses

Genesis 1 was not intended to give us a scientific understanding of the material origins of the universe. On this, most scholars today agree. However, a small but growing body of evidence have suggested to some scholars, notably professor and Old Testament scholar John H. Walton, the seven days of creation is instead a cosmic temple inauguration ceremony describing the functional beginning of our world.

To explain by way of analogy, consider the creation of a shopping center and ask, at what point is a shopping center created? Is it when the buildings go up? Is it when the stores open for business? Or is the shopping center considered complete once the mayor comes and cuts the ceremonial ribbon and the commencement ceremony ends?

Professor Walton’s proposal is that the first creation story is not a narrative explaining when matter began to exist. The narrative concerns the functional origins of God’s creation, i.e., when the world actually began to function the way God intended for human creation to flourish. In his book, The Lost World of Genesis One, he writes,

“I believe that people in the ancient world believed that something existed not by virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function in an ordered system.” (p. 26)
In case some might wonder if Walton is denying the doctrine of creation ex nihilo (out of nothing), he clarifies:

I firmly believe that God is fully responsible for material origins, and that, in fact, material origins do involve at some point a creation out of nothing. But that theological question is not the one we are asking. We are asking a textual question. What sort of origins account do we find in Genesis 1?” (p. 44)

Walton’s proposal has much to commend it and I recommend the book unreservedly. As those of you who have read my commentary know, I believe that the first creation story is about God and His essential transcendence over nature. Like Walton, I do not believe that the story to be dependent on time or history. Time, as I read the text, is analogized by the author to confront and confound the pagan conception of time as cyclic. That being said, Walton’s view of God’s assumption to His throne of creation is not opposed to the view expressed in this translation.

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