The first time we hear of the Sabbath in the Bible, we are reading the creation account in Genesis 2:1-3, which talks straightforwardly about how God rested on the Sabbath day and made it holy, the justification for our remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy in Exodus 20. Yet this passage is not the only one that gives implications concerning the Sabbath and its broader context. When the Bible discusses the fourth day of creation in Genesis 1:14-19, the lights in the firmament of the heavens, as it is poetically discussed, also relate to various aspects of the Sabbath in their larger context. Let us therefore examine both of these passages in turn and examine their context, so that we can draw the proper implications from the fact that God rested and wants us to rest as well.
Genesis 1:14-19 reads: “Then God said, “Let there be lights in the firmament of the heavens to divide the day from the night; and let them be for signs and seasons, and for days and years; and let them be for lights in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth;” and it was so. Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. And God saw that it was good. So the evening and the morning were the fourth day. “
Although the sun and the moon had already been created before the fourth day of Creation came about, and that the first three days of creation had been marked with an evening and a morning, we see something about the fourth day of Creation that makes the sun, moon, and stars more visible and the distinction between day and night more marked and clear. The passage also states that the lights are to be for signs and seasons, and for days and years. It is this particular context that gives us the framing for why biblical time is organized the way it is. The day is defined from sunset to sunset, the month is defined from new moon to new moon, the year is defined in a lunar-solar way that preserves the annual festivals of God in a month that is either twelve or thirteen months long and that keeps the feasts in their proper season, something that the Islamic calendar, to give an example, does not do, and the years themselves form larger cycles, specifically mentioned in the Bible in terms of the Sabbath years every seven years and the Jubilee years after seven cycles of seven years.
This is profound, because when we think of the Sabbath in isolated terms, in only weeks, we fail to realize the level of complexity that God offers us in the Sabbath. The first level of Sabbath is weekly, the one unit of time that is not determined by any sort of heavenly marker. Instead, the Sabbath is defined by God’s action in resting on that day, rather than setting a sign in the sky to account for it. His example was sufficient to make it a sign for His people, regardless of where they live and when they have lived. Remembering the fact that God’s cycles are multiple in nature helps us to recognize the cycles within cycles that serve as reminders of God’s purpose and plan for humanity, and for the fact that we not only need rest from our daily labors, but that we also need to recognize our part of larger elements and a larger story. It is in this larger purpose and the larger story that the Sabbath serves as a blessing.
Genesis 2:1-3 reads: “Thus the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them, were finished. And on the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” When we examine God’s rest from our own particular context, it can be difficult for us to understand the nature of God’s rest and its significance in light of the cultural context. It should go without saying that the Bible was written in a context that was familiar with the way that a conquering king whose empire had been expanded and who had no challenges to his rule at home or abroad was able to rest. For this reason, for example, we see David as a bloody king, because he had to establish his kingdom through force, while Solomon was able to rest because David had subdued the enemies of Israel for a generation. It is also for this reason that it was unsettling that David rested in Jerusalem in 1 Samuel 11 when his armies were still at war against Rabbah (contemporary Amman, Jordan), given that a king should not rest until his realm is at peace. The fact that God rested from His labors was not a sign of being tired, or lazy, but was a sign that He had completed what He set out to do. His job was done, and He could rest with a sense of accomplishment. That is the way that the Sabbath should be for us.
The implications of God’s action for our own observance of the Sabbath are important. For one, it means that our normal weeks should be filled with labor, labor that provides a sense of accomplishment, an understanding that it is a job well done, something to be proud of, in a good way. For another, the Sabbath is a sign of our kingship, our rulership, a reminder to us that we are rulers of our domain, even if that domain is only our own person. This is an important fact for us to remember, because rest and leisure are generally considered to be appropriate for elites and rulers, but not for the commonfolk upon whose labor societies depend, and who are often ruthlessly exploited for a pittance for their labor so that others may profit. The Bible reminds us that we are all kings, and deserve the leisure that comes from having done a good job that reflects well on us, and that we all deserve to be at peace from the pressures and anxieties and worries of this life. Let us never forget that.