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Divine Rest for Human Restlessness #5

Perfect Creation - the number 7


by Samuele Bacchiocchi PhD



     The value of an object is often determined by its origin.
The original Last Supper of Leonardo da Vinci in Milan is valued
far more than the thousands of similar productions, even though
they usually show fewer cracks and more color. Why? Because da
Vinci's original, in spite of its poor state of preservation,
represents unsurpassed artistry. Similarly the value of our world
and of our lives is to be found not merely in their present state
of disorder and decay but rather in their original perfection and
in their ultimate restoration. The Sabbath serves to remind us of
both. This chapter focuses on the former: The Sabbath, Good News
of Perfect Creation.
     In the preceding chapter we found that the Sabbath is rooted
in the creation event, marking its completion and inaugurating
human history. But, what does the creation Sabbath tell us about
the character of the Creator, the quality of His creation, and
the relationship between the Creator and His creatures? These
questions will be examined in this and subsequent chapters.



l.   The Scope of the Creation Sabbath

     Before considering the glad tidings of the creation Sabbath,
it may be helpful to take a quick preliminary look at some of its
roles within the Scriptures. In four different places the Sab-
bath is explicitly related to creation. The first occurrence is
found in Genesis 2:2-3 where the seventh day is presented as the
majestic conclusion of the creation event: "And the seventh day
God finished his work which he had done, and he rested on the
seventh day from all his work which he had done. So God blessed
the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from
all his work which he had done in creation."
     The other three references (Ex.20:11; Ex.31:17; Heb.4:4)
depend upon this first account of the creation Sabbath, but
fulfill different functions. In Exodus 20:11 the creation Sabbath
is presented as the theological basis for the Sabbath commandment
which ordains work during six days and rest on the seventh: "For
in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that
is in them, and rested the seventh day, therefore the Lord
blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it."
     In Exodus 31:17 the creation Sabbath is given as the ground
not only of its unceasing obligation ("throughout your
generations" -vv.13-15) but also of a "perpetual covenant"
relation ship: "It is a sign for ever between me and the people
of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on
the seventh day he rested and was refreshed" (v.17). Finally, in
Hebrews 4:4, part of Genesis 2:2 is quoted ("And God rested on
the seventh day from all his works") to establish the
universality of the Sabbath rest which includes all the blessings
of salvation to be found by entering personally into "God's rest"
(Heb.4:1,3,5). The fact that an appeal is made to the creation
Sabbath to justify the importance of the work-rest commandment,
the seriousness of the covenant, and the universality of the
blessing of salvation, all of these indicate what vast
significance the Bible attributes to the creation Sabbath. Why
has the creation Sabbath played such a vital role in the course
of salvation-history? To begin answering this question
consideration will first be given to the meaning of the Sabbath
in the story of creation, and to its implications for a
divinehuman relationship.

2.   Good News of Perfect Creation

     An obvious function of the seventh day in the creation
account is to conclude God's creation by proclaiming it
absolutely complete and perfect. This meaning is expressed
especially through the septenary structure of the narrative, the
terms used and the function of God's rest. Let us therefore
examine each of these three elements in the order mentioned.
Septenary structure. The story of creation (Gen.1:1 to 2:3)
reveals an amazing symmetry built around the number seven (and
multiples) which is used both to structure the narrative and to
relate many of its details. For example, in Hebrew Genesis 1:1
has seven words, and the second verse fourteen-twice seven. The
three nouns that occur in the first verse, namely God ('Elohim),
heavens (samayim), earth (eres) are repeated in the story as
follows: God thirty-five times, that is, five times seven; earth
twenty-one times, that is, three times seven; similarly heavens
(or firmament--ragia), twenty-one times, that is, three times
seven. There are also seven references to light ('or) in the
account of the fourth day (Gen.1:14-18) and seven times the
expression it was good occurs (note the seventh time is very
good--[Gen.1:31]). It is particularly significant that the
seventh and last section (Gen.2:2-3) which deals with the seventh
day, has in Hebrew "three consecutive sentences (three for
emphasis), each of which consists of seven words and contains in
the middle the expression "the seventh day."

     And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had
     done (v.2a --seven words in Hebrew).
     And he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he
     had done. (v.2b--seven words in Hebrew). 
     So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it (v.3a--seven
     words in Hebrew).

     It is noteworthy that the number seven not only is a
recurring motif in the story of creation, but it also provides
the actual frame for the structure of the whole narrative. After
the introductory statement (Gen.1:1), the story is arranged in
seven sections, each corresponding to one of the seven days of
creation. The recurring sentence "and there was evening and there
was morning, one day .... a second day ... a third day ... etc.,"
marks the logical division of the story that reaches its climatic
moment in the seventh day. The latter is repeated three times,
undoubtedly to emphasize its function as the goal, conclusion and
perfection of the whole creation. The following diagram may help
one to appreciate the function of the septenary structure:

Literary Structure of the Creation Story - Genesis 1:1-2:3

And there was evening
and there was morning . . . . . . . . . one day (1:5)  
And there was evening
and there was morning . . . . . . . . . a second day (1:8)
And there was evening
and there was morning . . . . . . . . . a third day (1:13) 
And there was evening
and there was morning . . . . . . . . . a fourth day (1:19)
And there was evening
and there was morning . . . . . . . . . a fifth day (1:23)
And there was evening
and there was morning . . . . . . . . . a sixth day (1:31)

And God finished his work . . . . . . . on the seventh day (2:2a)
and He rested  . . . . . . . . .  . . . on the seventh day (2:2b)
So God blessed . . . . . . . . .  . . . the seventh day (2:3a)

     This organization of the story in six days which reach their
culmination in the seventh day (which is repeated thrice for
added emphasis) shows, as Nicola Negretti persuasively demon-
strates in his comprehensive structural analysis of this section,
that the purpose of the septenary structure is to finalize into
the seventh day the accomplishments of the six intermediate days
a The seventh day, as Negretti points out, "concludes, brings to
perfection and overcomes the preceding six days." 

     Why are the structure and many of the details of the
creation story based upon the number seven? The reason is to be
found in the symbolic meaning which this number had both for the
Israelites and for the Gentiles. Recent studies on the usage of
the number seven reveal that this number was used both in
Biblical and ancient Near Eastern literature to express the
meaning of completion and perfection. How did the number seven
come to acquire such a meaning? Most probably as a result of its
association with the seventh day of creation. In other words, the
completion and perfection denoted by the seventh day of creation
could easily have been extended to the general use of the number
     Various examples have been found in the Sumero-Akkadian and
Ugaritic epic literature where the number seven is used in
different schematic arrangements to bring any given action to its
climax and completion! An Ugaritic tablet, for instance, provides
an example of an antithetic structure (sequence of six days
contrasted with the final, resolutive action of the seventh day)
somewhat similar to the story of creation: "March a day and a
second: A third, a fourth day; A fifth, a sixth day--Lo! At the
sunrise on the seventh: Thou arrivest at Udum the Great, Even at
Udum the Grand."
     This passage reminds us of the story of the taking of
Jericho, when armed men followed by seven priests with seven
trumpets marched around the city for seven days. "On the seventh
day they rose early at the dawn of day, and marched around the
city in the same manner seven times: it was only on that day that
they marched around the city seven times. And at the seventh time
... the people shouted, and the trumpets were blown ... and the
wall fell down flat" (Jos.6:15,16,20; emphasis supplied). The
conclusive function of the septenary structure is obvious.
Walking around the city walls on the first six days serves as
prelude to the dramatic conclusion experienced on the seventh
day. The completion of the operation is emphasized not only by
means of contrast between the action of the six days and that of
the seventh, but also by the sevenfold circuiting of the city
walls on the seventh day. The act is repeated seven times on the
seventh day, undoubtedly to summarize and conclude the activity
of the previous six days. This is indicated by the fact that it
is "at the seventh time ... [that 7 the people shouted, the
trumpets were blown ... and the wall fell down" (Jos.6:16, 20).
     Numerous other Biblical examples could be cited where the
number seven is used to express totality, completion and
perfection. Peter, for instance, expected to be commended by
Christ for proposing to extend forgiveness to his brother up to
seven times, that is, as far as the number of perfection. Christ
replied utilizing the same number, but admonishing Peter to
multiply it "seventy times" (Matt.18:21-23). The lesson is
obvious: perfect forgiveness knows no numerical limitations.

     This brief excursus into the symbology of the number seven
should suffice to explain why this number forms the recurring
motif and the frame of the story of creation. Being the symbol of
completion and perfection, its frequent recurrence is designed to
heighten the function of the seventh day as the herald of the
perfection of God's original creation.


     This message of the Sabbath is further enhanced by the terms
employed to describe the celebration of the first Sabbath (Gen.
2:2-3). For the sake of clarity, the frequency of the words used
will be listed in the following diagram.

Words in Genesis 2:2-3 - Frequency

God (Elohim)........................three times 
Seventh day (yom hassebi'i).........three times   
His work (mela'kto) ................three times
Done (asah).........................three times 
Rested (yisbot).....................two times 
Finished (yekal) time 
Blessed (yebarek) time 
Hallowed (yegaddes) time 
Created (bara) time

     The diagram shows that the first four words, namely God,
seventh day, work, and done, have the highest frequency, each
occurring three times. Why did the writer repeat these four terms
thrice? Obviously because they are central to the message of the
passage. Threefold repetition is used in the Bible to emphasize
the importance of an action. The Aaronic benediction, for
instance, contains threefold blessings to emphasize their
fullness (Num.6:23-26). In this case the threefold emphasis is
on "God" and on what He did on "the seventh day" with reference
to "his work" of the previous six days. What is said about God's
view of "his work" on the seventh day? Three verbs characterize
God's assessment of His creation on the seventh day as being
fully "done" (repeated thrice), "finished," "created." Another
three verbs describe how God celebrated His magnificent
accomplishments: "He rested ... blessed ... and hallowed" the
seventh day. The significance of these latter verbs will be
considered subsequently. For the present, notice that the verbs
emphasize that on and through the seventh day God proclaimed the
good news that His creation was "finished" and fully "done."

The rest of God.    

     To dramatize the importance of such glad tidings, the
passage tells us that God did something special on the seventh
day. What did He do? Twice it says in Genesis 2:2-3 that God
"rested." In the Near Eastern creation myths, the divine rest
(technically called otiositas), which usually implies the
establishment of a secure world order, is generally achieved
either by eliminating noisy, disturbing gods or by creating
mankind. For example, in the Babylonian creation epic "Enuma
elish" the god Marduk says, "Verily, savage--man I will create.
He shall be charged with the service of the gods, that they might
be at ease!" In the creation Sabbath, however, the divine rest is
secured not by subordinating or destroying competitors, nor by
exploiting the labor of mankind, but rather by the completion o f
a perfect creation. God rested on the seventh day, not to
conclude His work of creation, but rather because His work was
"finished ... done" (Gen.2:2-3). As stated by Niels-Erik
Andreasen, "it is not the rest (cessation from work) which
concludes creation, but it is the concluded creation which
occasions both rest and the Sabbath." 

     Any responsible craftsman works on his product until he has
brought it up to his ideal and then he stops working on it. In an
infinitely higher sense, God, having completed the creation of
this world with all its creatures, desisted from creating on the
seventh day. This is essentially the meaning of the Hebrew verb
"sabat" which is twice translated "rested." Its more accurate
rendering is "to stop, to desist, to cease from doing." In fact,
to express rest from physical exhaustion the Hebrew employs a
different verb, namely "nuah," which is also generally translated
in English "to rest." The latter, in fact, occurs in Exodus 20:11
where God's pattern of work-rest in creation is given as the
basis for the commandment to work six days and to rest on the
seventh. In Genesis 2, however, the verb "sabat" is used because
the function of God's rest is different. It fulfills a
cosmological rather than an anthropological function. In other
words, it serves to explain not why man should rest but rather
how God felt about His creation: He regarded it as complete and
perfect, and to acknowledge it --God stopped.

     This function of God's rest has been recognized by numerous
scholars. Karl Barth, for example, remarks: 

"We read in Genesis 2:2 that on the seventh day God, the Creator,
completed His work by 'resting.' This simply means that He did
not go on with the work of creation as such. He set both Himself
and His creation a limit. He was content to be the Creator of
this particular creation, to glory, as the Creator, in this
particular work. He had no occasion to proceed to further
creations. He needed no further creations. And He had found what
he created 'very good' (Gen.1:31)." 
"When creation ended with man, having found its climax and
meaning in the actualization of man, God rested on the seventh
day from all the work that He had done. It was to this that He
looked in the recognition that everything was very good and
therefore did not need to be extended or supplemented."

     Dietrich Bonhoeffer similarly explains that "in the Bible
'rest' really means more than 'having a rest.' It means rest
after the work is accomplished, it means completion, it means the
perfection and peace in which the world rests." 

     We might say that by confronting His creation with His
cessation-rest, God proclaimed the Good News that there was no
need to put additional finishing touches on what He had created,
since He regarded all of it "very good" (Gen.1:31).

     Did God spend the seventh day merely standing motionless
before His marvelous and active creation? It is hard to believe
that a dynamic God would spend a day in a static posture. The
next chapter will show that God's cessation from doing expresses
His desire for being with His creation, for giving to His
creatures not only things but Himself. Our immediate concern,
however, is to note the glad tidings that the Sabbath proclaims
in the creation narrative by the use of the number seven,
emphatic terms and the imagery of God's rest. It is the
reassuring Good News that this world and all its creatures came
into existence, not in a deformed state by chance, but in a
perfect way by a personal act of God.


To be continued

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