The Figurative Nature of God’s Rest in Genesis

15th-century BibleThe ongoing debate about Genesis creation largely comes down to whether the first chapter of Genesis should be taken literally or figuratively. It’s common for Exodus 20:11 to be referenced because it seems to clearly reinforce a six-day timeframe. However, it’s helpful to also consider Exodus 31:17. That verse mentions the six-day timeframe in the same way, but adds the surprising detail of God being refreshed by His rest.

In this post, we’ll take a look at both relevant verses that mention six days, and see what they tell us about the possibility of a figurative interpretation. I believe that when they are both looked at carefully and their contexts are taken into account, we can see how God was talking, and it becomes clear that Genesis 1 is intended to be taken figuratively. We may also begin to understand why it’s so difficult for us to see this truth. Of course, the fact that the creation narrative is figurative does not necessarily tell us what it means, but it’s a start in that direction.

The two passages which mention the six-day timeframe point back to God’s rest at the end of the creation narrative. So that seems a reasonable place to start.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested (shabat) on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested (shabat) from all his work that he had done in creation.
Gen 2:1-3 (Here and throughout this post, some original Hebrew words are added in parenthesis.)

This comes at the end of the creation account, and tightly associates the creation timeframe with the Sabbath. Several points are driven home by repetition: the focus on God as creator, the 7-day time-frame, the sense of completion, and the subsequent rest. Note that the seventh day is holy specifically because that was the day that God rested. This time-frame and rest become the pattern for the human week and Sabbath: we are to work six days and then rest, just as God did.

What does it mean to say God rested? It turns out that the word used for “rest” here (shabat) generally means “cease”. That seems a more reasonable meaning because we know that God did not need to rest in the sense of getting His energy back. On the other hand, few translations use the word cease in this particular passage, and some scholars point out that when shabat is used elsewhere in a Sabbath context, it does mean rest for refreshment.[1] If some sort of recovery were meant here, then it would clearly be a figurative reference. So which is it?

This is where looking at the other passages can help us see what’s going on, by letting Scripture interpret Scripture.

Both passages outside Genesis 1 that mention the six day timeframe are in Exodus, with the first one in the Ten Commandments. This is where the Law is first described at the beginning of the Mt. Sinai narrative.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested (nuah) on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Ex 20:8-11

The fourth commandment clearly links the Sabbath to the six-day creation narrative. The same two items we saw earlier are echoed here: the six day narrative, and the fact that the seventh day was special because of God’s rest. Interestingly, the word used for “rested” here is not the same as in Genesis. Rather, it is “nuah“. This word is most commonly used to indicate cessation of motion, as in one thing resting on another. For example, it is used to describe the ark resting on Mt. Ararat. When used in the Sabbath context, however, it seems to take on a different flavor. Consider its use elsewhere in this same Exodus context:

“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest (shabat); that your ox and your donkey may have rest (nuah), and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.”
Exodus 23:12 (ESV)(But note the NASB translation [2])

This reference to the Sabbath is embedded in details of Law, along with other items of the sacrificial system, relationships, and so on. In this verse, both shabat and nuah are used. The reference to God’s rest is obvious, especially given the context, even though it is not talking about the Lord directly.

Essentially, this verse says that the people are to cease work in order to have refreshment. This is one of the examples of shabat being used in reference to the Sabbath in a way that includes the sense of getting one’s energy back. In addition, nuah is clearly used to describe this rest that brings refreshment. If the same sense of nuah were meant in verse 20:11, then it would be stating that God was refreshed, a clear anthropomorphism. In other words, the subtle change in the Hebrew word used for “rest” suggests that the proper way to interpret Genesis 2:1-3 is that God ceased and was refreshed.

The suggestion of figurative language in Genesis is subtle, but reasonable when looked at closely. However, it entirely disappears in English translations that obscure the word changes.

After the Law was given, Moses received confirmation from the people that they would obey, then he went back up to the mountain to receive more instruction from the Lord. That time, he received details for building the tabernacle and associated items such as the clothing and preparation of the priests. At the end of this section, the workmen who were to do the actual construction were identified and then the Sabbath was reinforced once again:

And the LORD said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested (shabat) and was refreshed.’ ”
Ex 31:12-17

Here, the Sabbath is reinforced again with another clear reference to the creation account, but now with an added detail: God was refreshed as a result of His shabat rest. This clarifies what was meant in Genesis 2:2-3, and parallels the suggestion in Exodus 20:11 and 23:12. When we first looked at the Genesis 2 passage, there seemed to be several possible interpretations of “rest”. However, consideration of both Exodus 20:11 (in the original language) and 31:17 make it clear. It seems that God is telling us that the way to interpret shabat in Genesis 2:3 is as a rest that gave refreshment. This is clearly a figurative reference in the creation account.

Now, think about this for a moment. Because no human was present at creation, Genesis 1 had to have been supernaturally revealed — it is a sort of divine oracle. Although such things are most commonly figurative, that doesn’t necessarily prove anything. But add to this the clearly figurative element that God highlights, and it becomes pretty tough to insist that the whole passage is literal. If one chose to ignore verse 31:17, then it would be much easier to draw that conclusion (especially if focused on English). But that would be prooftexting.

Discerning the figurative nature of Genesis 1 doesn’t necessarily give its meaning, however. It only tells us that it is not a physical narrative. A number of different interpretations have been suggested over the years such as framework views, temple construction models, etc. The intent here is not to suggest any one of those, but simply to describe one argument for the figurative nature.

[1] Harris, R. Laird, Gleason L. Archer, and Bruce K. Waltke. “2323 (shabat) cease, desist, rest.” Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament. Chicago: Moody, 1980. 902-03. Print.

[2] The NASB uses slightly different wording that distinguishes the two words: “Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.” Note that shabat is translated “cease”.

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