God’s Sabbath Rest and YEC Claims

In an earlier post, we looked at Genesis 2:1-4 and saw how the description of God’s rest agrees best with other Scripture when it is interpreted as “repose” — a picture of ceasing work and being refreshed. This became clear when considering the immediate Sabbath context of the passage, as well as both Scripture passages that refer to the creation timeframe. However, that analysis was a little abstract and, at least for me, didn’t really convey how a reader of that time might have interpreted the text. In this essay, we’ll try to bring those details together in a way that paints a better picture, and then take a look at how something that’s really quite clear in Scripture can be so misrepresented in YEC writings.

To start with, it’s often pointed out that context determines meaning, and this is a good example. In the Torah, whenever the Sabbath is mentioned and work is “ceased”, the text also makes it clear that the result is refreshment. In other words, whenever activity is ceased in the Sabbath context, the result is a refreshing rest. Note that it’s possible for a passage to talk about the Sabbath without really mentioning it, by including hints that people will recognize. For example, stopping work at the end of a six-day stretch would bring the Sabbath to mind to anyone very familiar with the Old Testament Law.

In other words, if I was talking to someone who was very familiar with the Sabbath laws and said that I was looking forward to stopping work after being at it for six days, they would assume that I was talking about the Sabbath. And if getting one’s energy back was generally considered an aspect of the Sabbath, then they would also assume that I was looking forward to “recharging my batteries”, even if I didn’t say anything about that.

So when Genesis stated that God ceased His work after six days of activity in Genesis 2:1-4, the Sabbath would naturally be in view, along with the idea of God being refreshed. In other words, the statement that God “rested” or “ceased” is also communicating the idea of God’s refreshment. This interpretation of Genesis 2:1-4 is consistent with the the rest of Scripture.

But one could argue that He is an exception, and that even though we are to pattern our rest after His, His wouldn’t include recovery since He doesn’t actually tire. That might make sense except for Exodus 31:17. That verse specifically states that He was refreshed as a result. Both consistency with the rest of Scripture and the explicit statement in Exodus 31:17 agree with this point.

But how can this be? We know that God does not really tire, so how could the the Bible make such a statement? The answer is that Genesis 2:1-4 is an anthropomorphism — a type of figurative writing in which God is given human attributes in order to make some point. The technique is very common throughout the Bible, and this is a typical example.

So, ancient readers of Genesis 2 would have strongly associated refreshment with ceasing work on the Sabbath, because of the association being exhibited throughout Scripture, and would naturally have read Genesis 2:1-4 with that in mind. Anyone who struggled with such a reference to God could have simply recognized it as another example of anthropomorphism, or they could have assumed a more literal interpretation by taking it out of the Sabbath context.

If this is so clearly stated in Scripture, why is the use of refreshment so unusual in Genesis 2:1-4? Perhaps one reason is the common YEC descriptions of this text are very biased when they attempt to use Scripture to interpret Scripture. There are two different verses that mention the six days, and they are not the same. They are in different contexts, use different wording for similar concepts, and include different details. Proper Bible study technique would use both to develop an understanding of the Genesis passage. However, it’s very common for YEC writings to focus on only one, and dismiss the other with no real reason.

One way to see this happening is to look at the relative uses of both verses on popular YEC web sites. For example, searching ICR’s website (the Institute for Creation Research at icr.org) gives 130 results for “20:11”, and 15 results for “31:17”. Searching AIG’s site (Answers in Genesis at answersingenesis.org) gives 324 results for “20:11′, and 50 results for “31:17”. Although one would have to carefully analyze the results to know for sure what is going on, there certainly does seem to be a bias.

Books on creationism provide more examples. For example, consider “Coming to Grips with Genesis” edited by by Terry Mortenson and Thane Ury. There are 14 references to Exodus 20:11, generally used to reinforce several concepts related to literal interpretation. There are only 4 references to Exodus 31:17, in lists purporting to argue the same thing. The fact that Exodus 31:17 also contains a clearly figurative reference is nicely avoided by actually quoting only it one time. In that case, they start by claiming that “refreshed” really means “delighted” (even though there’s no Scriptural support for that), and then go on to address only a very specific observation about that verse, focusing on some arguments about the seventh day specifically.

Another thing that obscures the figurative aspect of Exodus 31:17 is the way it is sometimes translated. For example, consider the popular NIV translation. Most popular conservative translations end the verse either with “he rested and was refreshed”, or “he ceased and was refreshed”, but the NIV says “abstained from work and rested”. Although “rested” can include the sense of being refreshed, that is much more obscure when stated this way. Anyone studying this popular translation could easily miss the blatant anthropomorphism.

These three examples illustrate the approach typically used in YEC arguments: start with the desired outcome (ie, a literal interpretation), then carefully select and reinterpret texts to produce that outcome.

Bringing these together, we see that using all of Scripture to interpret Genesis 2:1-4 points to a meaning that only makes sense if it is taken figuratively. Those who are uncomfortable with this approach avoid it by selectively using Scripture to produce the meaning they want. This techniques may make some people feel better about reading the passage, but ends up creating a veil over the text.

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