The Seventh Day of  Creation: Rest

Today we are talking about the final day of creation, the day when God decided to rest. After six days of creating everything in the universe, God decides to take the final day off. This may seem like a strange thing for God to do. Afterall, if God is in charge of the universe, how can God take any time off? Isn’t being God a 24/7 role? In our time, there are many theologians who have argued that as soon as the universe was created, God stopped acting in human and natural affairs all together. God has just been watching the universe unfold ever since, not intervening or participating in any way. This God is a weak God.  

That idea of a powerless God would have made no sense at all to the people who wrote our scripture passages today. They saw God at work everywhere – in the weather, in earthquakes and floods, in every battle, in the birth of every child. So, when they said that God rested on the seventh day, they meant that God was doing something different from what God usually does. We are meant to pay attention here, and wonder. How could God take a break?  

And it is not just God who should rest on the seventh day, it is humans, too. Many years later, God rescues the Israelites from their captivity among the Egyptians. This happens in a highly interventionist way – plagues, bloody rivers, all sorts of God-sent disasters. Once they are safe in the desert, God gives this people a set of mitzvahs, rules that are advice for thriving in this life. They are like when you teach your child to drive and insist that they wear a seat belt. It is a good idea, it will keep them safe, even if it weren’t a law. Those mitzvahs are what we now call the ten commandments. And the fourth one is “you shall not do any work” on the Sabbath.  

The commandment was obviously rooted in God’s decision to rest on the seventh day. And it has been taken very seriously, then, and now. If you have any orthodox Jewish friends, you may be aware of how much work can go into taking this day off. No work is to be done on the Sabbath Saturday. In some buildings, the elevator is set so that it automatically stops on every floor, so no buttons need to be pushed. No work is to be done – no looking at emails, no shopping. A traditional Sabbath day is a time to go to synagogue to learn about God’s plan for humanity, and to spend with family, resting. Like Christians, Jews observe their religious instructions in varying degrees of intensity. But the goal is clear: no work on a Sabbath day.  

Christians, too, used to observe our sabbath Sunday very seriously, too. Sunday was for church, family, and not much else. Stores were closed, offices were shut down. There was so little to do that some people went to church twice a day. It was only in 1992 that Bob Rae’s NDP government allowed stores to open on Sundays. Spin forward to our time, and Sunday is identical to Saturday – a time for shopping, playing, and often, answering a few emails, even ones from work, or catching up on some work that didn’t get done during the week. We prefer to take Sunday off entirely, but it doesn’t always happen. And if we do something workful on a Sunday, like yard work, office work, or cooking some meals, no one worries about getting in trouble with God. In our modern society, most of us no longer observe the Sabbath that God began on the seventh day of creation and wrote into the ten commandments. The sky has not fallen, the rivers have not turned to blood – it appears that ignoring the Sabbath rules will not get us in trouble.  

But that all depends on how you define trouble. Our society is open 24 hours a day now. Someone is always working. If you want to go shopping at 2 o’clock in the morning, there won’t be many physical stores open, but Internet sites are always open. It would be very bizarre indeed if you went to Amazon’s website and saw a sign, “closed until 9 a.m.”. The internet never rests, it is always working, which means that we can always work and shop, too.  

In the 20th century, capitalism made a promise to workers: technology will allow us to work shorter work hours than ever before.  

New technologies would improve productivity at the office  

And at home. All that spare time was supposed to turn into leisure.    

There would be no reason to keep working 40 hours a week.  

In 1930, the British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted that technology would increase productivity so much that the workweek would be shortened to 15 hours a day.[1] The reality turned out to be different. Since 1960, a computer revolution has taken place, robotics have been introduced. We have seen the advent of artificial intelligence and the Internet. Nonetheless, the work week stays pegged at 40 hours a week.[2] In 1960, most households had only one full paid worker; now many have two. More technology has not translated into more rest.  

That is literally, true, too. We sleep much less than we used to. Up until a few centuries ago, most people went to bed shortly after the sun went down. It was common to wake up around midnight for a while, some people prayed, wrote letters for a while, others made love. After an hour or two, they had their second sleep, which lasted until dawn.[3] In our time, that sounds impossible. Scientists tell us that adults need seven to eight hours of sleep a night.   

Yet, 35% of working adults under the age of 65 are getting less than seven hours of sleep a night. This is also true for seniors.  

Retired people need 7-8 hours of sleep, but as we age, our body shifts the best time for sleeping. We tend to wake up earlier, which means our bodies need us to go to sleep earlier. But many will stay up watching the news or reading until 11, and then wake up at 5 or 6, an hour or two short of sleep. Chronic fatigue can exacerbate existing health conditions. Sleep is how our bodies repair damage, and many of us are not getting enough. [4]   The digital revolution is playing a role in our inability to rest. Many people spend their evenings interacting with screens – playing video games, reading an e-book, watching TV, doing something on the computer. Your doctor may have told you to avoid this – the blue light from these devices sends a signal to our brains that it is still daytime. We need the orange light of sunset to tell us to get sleepy. Nonetheless, many of us stay up until 11 or later bathed in this blue light.  

We have created a modern lifestyle that has placed rest and sabbath time as a low priority, but it is not clear that we are better off for it. We aren’t well rested, we feel work can always get to us, even on vacation and at the cottage, which now often has internet access. There are fewer and fewer places where we can truly unplug and rest. And we are feeling the effects.  

The divine command to rest in Genesis was written at a time when the Israelites were in trouble. Israel has been conquered by the Babylonian empire. The temple was destroyed, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem had been sent into exile. Many ended up in Babylon, where the Jews were a captured, demoralized people, working for their conquerors. The Babylonians were pagans, they worshipped massive statues that represented their gods. During the captivity, the Jews wrote this creation story, the account of the universe being created in seven days.[5] The last day was imagined as a day of rest for God, and for us.  

In suggesting that the seventh day of the week should be for rest, the Israelites created a new idea of the sacred. For pagan people, places were sacred. A grove of trees or a spring might be considered the place where a spirit or God lives, so it is sacred. Temples were sacred because gods lived there and demanded sacrifices. Places were sacred. But in the Genesis account, there are no sacred places on earth. Instead, what becomes sacred is time. The seventh day is God’s Day, a sacred time that humans are invited to observe each week. The Jews had seen their physical temple destroyed, so they shifted the sacred from space into time.[6]  

Why should a day of rest be sacred? It has to do with how we construct meaning. Imagine that you have a job that you used to like. But now, it is hard to get yourself to work in the morning, and you can’t wait to leave at the end of the day. Your lack of enthusiasm is a sign that something about this job is no longer appealing. But how do you know why, or whether you should leave? You start thinking about how this job fits into the rest of your life.  

Any time we want to figure out the meaning of something, like a job, we need to put it into a much bigger context. We place that job in the context of our entire life, now and in the future. Do I like the work, am I learning, do I like the people I work with? How long do I want to do this? How much of my free time does this job take up? Meaning is found through comparisons, which is only possible if you can step back and take a look at the big picture.  

That’s what the Sabbath is all about. God did not need a day off because God was tired. God doesn’t get tired. No, God stopped creating, so that God could look back on creation to ponder it. If God had kept creating nonstop, there would have been no way to assess how it was going. You need a period to make a sentence – no period, and the words just keep going and going, no meaning, just more words. God gets perspective on creation by having a day of rest, a day which is qualitatively different from the other days of creation. The seventh day is the day that gives the other six days meaning. Indeed, the Bible tells us that this is the only day of creation that God blesses and calls holy. This day is holy because it is the one that gives meaning to all the others. Without the seventh day, the universe would have no meaning, no bigger context to fit into.  

When God suggested that human beings take a day off each week, it was so we could participate in this process of getting perspective. This is different than just having a day off to recover from work. That’s not what God is after. God wants us to be able to sit back and not just recover, but to ponder what we are doing here, in our own life and as humanity. The ancient Jews who practiced the Sabbath day were expected to go to the synagogue where they would learn more about God, and God’s way of being.  

The sabbath is about immersing ourselves into the meaning of life itself, so we can be recreated, replenished, and be reflective about what our life means. Are you just a worker, or are you a human being with dreams and desires beyond the task they pay you to do? If we work all the time, work will be meaningless because there will be nothing to compare it to – nothing to give it to. Rest is ultimately more important than work, something your boss will not tell you, but the Bible will.  

This question of the meaning of your life becomes particularly acute when we retire. Our society is defined by work, so retirement is presented as a reward for working so long. But that defines retirement in terms of work. When people retire, they are faced with the question of who they are now that they cannot be defined in terms of work. That can be a hard question to answer if life is defined by work. But, if life has always been about more than our jobs and duty to family, then it gets easier. If rest is about finding meaning, then retirement can be a time to find and create meaning, for yourself and others. Take up hobbies, volunteer, read that dusty Bible with others. Only you can know what your life means, but in this long sabbath time, you are invited to take it seriously, because you were never just a worker, no matter how much you may have enjoyed your job or raising a family. You have always been a precious child of God who knows every hair on your head, and wants you to be you, for your sake and the good of others.  

In a truly meaningful life, these big questions about our identity are not left until the final years but are considered all the way through. In the busy-ness of everyday life, with work and family to deal with, we may need regular reminders to stop and look back. Humans being who we are, we probably won’t do this voluntarily, we will forget, we will put if off so we can meet the next deadline or get the kids to the next game. If we are really going to stop and reflect, we may have to make it a rule, something we’ll have to abide by, even when it doesn’t seem convenient. We might just have to make it mandatory, that one day a week, say, we stop and reflect. That might work. Worked for God. Perhaps it could work for us, too.  


[1] [2] [3] [4] [5] M.S. Smith, The Priestly Vision of Genesis 1. (Minneapolis, 2010), 41. [6] Abraham Joshua Herschel, The Sabbath (Shambhala: Boston, 2003), p.xv. (the whole book is about this)