Observing the Sabbath … in creation

One of the common mistakes made about Genesis 1 is that it teaches a six-day creation, the seventh day being a day off for God. But in fact it teaches a seven day creation in which the seventh day is the aim and culmination of the first six. I want to concentrate on this seventh day today, and argue that it presents a theology of the present state of the world that ought to be foundational for Christians, but often isn’t. 

It should be pretty axiomatic for those calling themselves Evangelicals that the Scriptures are an authoritative guide. The problems appear over the interpretation of that authority. Thus BioLogos‘ major battle, or so it seems, is against a literal historical interpretation of the creation account that, quite clearly, drives a coach and horses through the scientific evidence we have.

For this reason they have rightly welcomed the work of John H Walton which has shown pretty conclusively that such a literal material account was never intended by the author of Genesis at all. To summarise what I’ve said in a number of posts before, and which is anyway better understood by reading Walton, Genesis 1 presents a functional creation account in the form of a recognisable ancient near eastern temple inauguration text.

The most radical departures from the ANE models are (a) One God as sole Creator and Lord of all (b) the entire cosmos as his temple and (c) mankind as the pinnacle of his creation, made in his image and designated as his co-regent and steward of the lowest, but still “very good” part of creation, the earth. The parallels between the “cosmic temple” and ANE temples are close and profound, not least of which is the seven day period of building/dedication pretty common in the ancient texts.

As Walton points out, the seventh day is not to be understood as a well-deserved rest for an anthropomorphic deity, but the beginning of the untroubled reign of God after his inauguration work of forming the universe. It’s the equivalent of the pagan installation of a god’s image in his house, so that he can now receive worship and dispense blessings – only in this case, the only divine image in the world was humanity.

I could go on to explain how this relates to the whole system of sabbath observance in the Old Testament, as a sign and commemoration of Israel’s living as free people under God’s blessing – a blessing that was extended to servants, livestock and even the land itself in the sabbatical years and Jubilees. But that’s not my purpose, which is to note the implications for creation as it surrounds us today.

For God’s sabbath rest isn’t just a historical or mythic recollection: it is the situation that came to be as the creation was completed, and that has remained the case since. Just as a pagan deity rules in his earthly temple over a city or nation, or just as a successful king (like the biblical David) rests from his enemies and reigns from his palace, so Genesis 1 presents God as totally in charge of the house – the cosmos – which he has built by his own word of power, and pronounces to be “very good.”

And so in Psalm 95 (expounded at length in Hebrews), the exclusion of the rebellious Exodus generation of Moses from the promised land, where God would dwell with them, is described as the failure to “enter his rest.” And as Hebrews concludes, “there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God,” – not a one-way ticket to heaven, but a living priestly relationship with the God who still, alone, rules in his whole cosmos.

How does the Fall of mankind affect this? Fundamentally, not at all. Not only is the concept of a ruined creation not taught in Scripture, but it makes no sense on scriptural principles. On the Genesis 1 model, the Fall means only that the temple priesthood has become defiled and guilty. The Eden story of Genesis 2-3 presents the Fall occurring through a specific pair in a more localised sacred space – the garden. But when they sin, the garden does not fail to be Yahweh’s temple. Adam and Eve are simply expelled from it, to the wider earth outside – which is still part of the cosmic sanctuary of Genesis 1. There is no change in the divine dedication, and it is not God who is expelled or who ceases to reign.

The ensuing chapters of Genesis (indeed, of the Bible) go on to catalogue the increasing defilement of that sacred space through the shedding of innocent blood and other sins. But it is far more of a spiritual defilement than a material destruction. We may, as Peter Harris’s series shows, now have it in our power to cause serious neglect and damage to parts of our ecosystem. But the world still remains as the footstool of God’s temple, and the heavenly regions above (as it were the inner sanctuary) are completely unaffected. Imagine it as a cathedral which has become ritually corrupted through mercenary clergy or careless worshippers: it remains a cathedral nevertheless. Repair and reform are necessary if it is to serve and honour God as it should, but the structure and iconography remain intact throughout.

As Psalm 24 says:

The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it;
for he founded it on the seas
and established it on the waters.

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.

In such a context, if it ever made any sense to Christian theology, the idea of a creation full of things God never created or approved, or of things not under his Lordship, simply makes no sense. The fundamental message of Genesis is not a Young Earth Creationist chronology, and TEs are right to reject that – but they are at fault if they fail to dig deeper than that interpretation. To speak of an autonomous “Nature” participating, imperfectly, in its own creation doesn’t even see as clearly as the YEC version does. For God (through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit, of course) created the universe as his own temple. What is in it is largely for the blessing of its inhabitants – and on earth, that blessing especially includes us, though we were also created to bless it. But it might also contain things that give warning, exercise judgement, excite awe or even terror – because its purpose is primarily to glorify its maker, the triune God. It was made for his sake, not its own.

If we don’t look at the cosmos as the sacred temple which God created for his own glory and in which he reigns supreme, then we’re not looking at it as his worshippers, but as apostates.

earth

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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3 Responses to Observing the Sabbath … in creation

  1. GD GD says:

    Jon,

    I enjoyed this contribution; perhaps you and others may enjoy a couple of verses from my poem “Salvation”(c):

    He corrected its orbit and tilt,
    Giving it summer, autumn, winter, and spring.
    The sun shone brilliantly in clear blue skies
    Seas gently lapped golden shores
    Vegetation covered the land with emerald green
    Embroidered with a rainbow of flowers
    Magic beams of moonlight lit the night
    The day filled with a chorus of sounds
    From animals in pasture
    Oceans swarmed with a myriad of creatures.

    The sapphire planet hung in the velvet night of space
    Rejoicing under the care of it’s Creator.

    Angels marvelled and sang;
    God took a lump of earth,
    Shaping into a man
    Breathing into him the spirit of life.

    In God’s image was Adam created
    To live on the beautiful planet.
    He made a companion for man
    To further all life in joy,
    He made them male and female
    For love, for happiness, for ever.

    • GD GD says:

      Heck I forgot to include the most important verse (me and my typing skills):

      When God completed His work He rested
      Feeling refreshed He blessed that day
      The Sabbath rest brings peace to the weary
      The faithful receive joy from the LORD.

      • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

        Thanks for the quotation, GD. Any description of creation that doesn’t at some stage lapse into the poetic isn’t doing it justice… a danger in such discussions.

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