By Stephen Terry
Commentary on the January 19, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me, if you understand. Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know! Who stretched a measuring line across it? On what were its footings set, or who laid its cornerstone—while the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy?” Job 38:4-7, NIV
Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Seventh-day Baptists, Seventh-day Churches of God and several others find a special sacredness in setting apart the seventh day, commonly called Saturday, for worship and reflection. One of the reasons for doing so is found in Exodus, where we are reminded to ““Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Exodus 20:8-11, NIV
In this passage, this seventh-day worship is linked to the concept of a six-day creation followed by a seventh-day Sabbath. Therefore it would seem that one could not separate the idea of Sabbath observance from a literal understanding of the Genesis creation account. However, Deuteronomy gives an entirely different reason for observing the Sabbath. ““Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns, so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.” Deuteronomy 5:12-15, NIV
So which account is correct? Perhaps both are. Perhaps neither is. Perhaps there are far deeper reasons for a seven day rest cycle that are not even addressed in the Bible. A Google search for the word “circaseptan” will reveal over eleven thousand entries addressing the idea that mankind and nature have some circadian style biological rhythms that operate on seven day cycles. This may shed light on an age old question of where the weekly cycle comes from.
Some have pointed out that while a year is roughly based on the Earth’s transit around the sun, the month likewise is based on the moon’s orbit around the earth, and the day is based on the Earth’s rotation, the week is based on no discernible celestial mechanics. They reason therefore that the only basis for a weekly cycle is the creation account in Genesis. But perhaps it is only an assumption to believe that such a cycle must be based on the movement of planetary bodies. What if the cycle is hard-wired into us? What if the circaseptan cycle is something our biology demands as opposed to a discretionary recognition of the creative acts of deity? At the very least, this might free us from a too literal interpretation of the Genesis creation account while still acknowledging the importance of a seven-day cycle of work and rest.
This might also deliver one from a too literal definition of Sabbath observance as well. Few today take the extreme views that require that lights be turned on before Sabbath or they must remain on, or if one wanted to carry a handkerchief on the Sabbath it must be pinned to one’s garments so it could be considered a part of one’s clothing as opposed to an extra “burden” which was prohibited. However, when one sees the Sabbath as fiat to be understood and observed as opposed to simple recognition of what is, one might seek to define every aspect of that commandment in order not to fail in observance. But if the Sabbath is simply a part of what we are biologically, then those biological rhythms will instruct us regarding the boundaries of what we should or should not do. Perhaps this is what Paul meant when he wrote “…when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.” Romans 2:14-15, NIV Maybe the Sabbath is written on our hearts in the form of these septacircan rhythms.
When I look at Genesis and Creation, I see music and poetry. Each day is like the stanza of a song with a repeated chorus of “And God saw that it was good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the (first through sixth) day.” Like the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” each stanza builds upon what has gone before. Throughout the stanzas of creation we move from simple to complex. But within this overall theme we have a parallel poetic development that appears to link the creation of the first day with the luminaries of the fourth, the sea and sky of the second day with the fish and birds of the fifth, and the dry land of the third day with the vegetation and animals of the sixth. The overall theme ascends like a simple line while the interior theme is more like a spiral staircase. Both of these ascend to the pinnacle of creation—man.
Everything is made for man. Man is made in God’s image. Man is given dominion over everything. Even the Sabbath was made for man when God set it apart. Jesus affirmed this when He said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Mark 2:27, NIV Perhaps rather than being a burden of obedience to be born while watching the clock and counting the moments until one is free of that burden at sunset, the Sabbath was instead intended to be a gift to enable man to address the needs of his circaseptan rhythms in a context he could understand.
What a dramatic contrast the Genesis account must have presented to the people compared to the generations of slavery they had endured in Egypt. As slaves, they had little value beyond the labor they could perform, but Genesis revealed that they were created to rule the Earth and everything on it. The Sabbath of Genesis also revealed that all should be treated equally. They had experienced inequality in Egypt but the Sabbath reminder in Deuteronomy, chapter five, reminds them not to treat others the way they were treated. Foreigners, servants and livestock were to enjoy the rest of the Sabbath, too.
Some who take a more literal approach to Genesis and the Sabbath would have us believe that God is sitting in heaven with nothing better to do than to watch the edges of the Sabbath and if He finds transgressions, He takes his sharpened pencil and writes their names down on a heavenly “naughty or nice” list. His purpose for doing so is to build up a list of reasons to exclude the “naughty” ones from heaven. Sadly some of these who watch the edges of the Sabbath so closely are also those who think nothing of waiting at someone’s door until sunset in order to not miss a moment of being able to transact business. This perverts the meaning of the Sabbath. It was made for man to be a blessing and not a burden. Perhaps this was why Jesus freely blessed and healed on the Sabbath. The church leaders took a dim view of all the work He was doing on that day, but as “Lord of the Sabbath,” (Matthew 12:8) He knew its true purpose.
Unfortunately, few of the gifts that God has given to man have not been used to oppress and control either man or nature. This is true of the dominion man was given over the Earth and the same is true of the Sabbath. Many of us know how unpleasant this can be. We may have known or even lived with someone who is always pointing out our flaws to us, not with a desire to help us, but in order to control us through guilt. A too literal understanding of the Genesis creation account beyond its poetic affirmation of man’s harmony with the cosmos can be construed by literalists as a tool for judgment and control as well. When we turn it to such dark purposes, it is hard to picture the angels singing for joy to the beautiful music of Creation. Perhaps this is why God’s first words in the Bible were “Let there be light.”