This post is part 4 in a series of reviews of John H. Walton’s Lost World of Adam and Eve (pt. 1, pt. 2, pt. 3). I purchased the book with my own money because I was interested to read it, so you can trust my opinions on the text to be entirely unbiased.*
Ancient peoples, the Israelites included, are more interested in why things are here than how they got here. That is, the origins stories in Genesis 1-2 are about how things, and especially humans, have purpose rather than where and when the material that comprises those things came to be.
We saw that the first six days of creation in Genesis 1 are all about God putting a chaotic world in functional order, with humans finally situated at the top of the order chain, as it were, commissioned to govern the whole shebang.
But then there’s that bizarre seventh day. What to do with a day in which nothing happens, except, that is, God hitting the snooze button? Does God need a nap? And if so, why tell us?
Walton, for his part, sees Day 7 as the point of the whole story, and he has a lovely analogy to help explain how it all works.
Imagine you’re in the market for a new house. You search and search until you find just the one. When you see it, however, it isn’t staged, but completely empty. This is the world described in Genesis 1:2—it’s empty and void.
Now, if we were modern interpreters of this house, empty and void would mean that the house didn’t exist at all. There would be no foundation, no frame, no roof, no walls. But for the ancient Israelite, empty and void means that the house stands, but without purpose. There is no furniture and no people within. It needs to be put in order.
You buy the house and have all your stuff sent over. When you arrive, the furniture is everywhere and so are the boxes. The house is a mess. Chaos reigns. Work has to be done. What happens next are the first six days of creation. Rooms are named for what they will become—bedrooms, living room, dining room, kitchen. The appropriate furniture is set up according to its proper “habitat”—beds in the bedrooms, sofa in the living room, book cases in the study.
Again, to an ancient Israelite, these are the acts of creation. It is the process of God assigning purpose and function to everything within the house, and then going about the work of ordering it to be so.
But then comes the all important Day 7. I just recently helped my brother-in-law move house a few weeks ago, and once everything was transferred into the new place, I indeed felt like a nap. But the real heart of what happens after everything is neatly arranged in the house is the ongoing process of actually running the household, or making the house a home. That is what God’s rest is all about in Genesis 2:1-3. The rest he takes is like slipping into his throne to go about the business of ruling over the creation he just established.
Rather than the cessation of all work, divine rest is about the commencement of a different kind of work: governing. The creation story tells us how God made the world into a suitable place for him to reside as king among the vice-regents he created—humankind.
(Incidentally, this is why Jesus can make the argument that it is OK for him to do the work he does on the Sabbath. It is a partnership with the divine work of governing that has been going on ever since the dawn of Day 7.)
Among the great beauties of seeing the account in this light is the balance it gives with the Genesis and Exodus stories together, and, beyond that, the entire biblical story. See, God establishes an ordered world in which he can dwell among humanity. That communion gets lost rather quickly, and God immediately goes to work reestablishing some kind of connection with the human race for the purpose of regaining, retaining and extending his peace-filled kingdom. This he does through Abraham and eventually Israel. Notice, then, how Exodus concludes. God has again established a people for himself and he instructs them to construct the tabernacle, a singular space where God can live and reign among his people (Exo. 40). Later, this becomes the Temple, becomes the Christ, becomes the church. And still to come? The promise of the Lord again dwelling among the pinnacle of his creation, with no need at all for any kind of temple (Rev. 21:22).
Ultimately, rest (what we might call shalom) in an ordered world, with the Creator residing and ruling side by side with humanity, is the goal of all God’s (and our) creative endeavors.
* Nobody’s opinions are unbiased. Obvi.