Old Testament Laws: Genesis 2:2-3 — God’s "Rest" and the Sabbath

Genesis 2:2-3 is sometimes used in an attempt to prove that Christians must keep the seventh-day Sabbath. It is important that we understand what this verse does and doesn’t say about the Sabbath rest. Further, we must ask what this verse tells us about the Sabbath when viewed
against the essential message of Scripture about our salvation in Christ.

Articles About the Sabbath

After the creation account in Genesis 1, we read the following in chapter 2, verses 2-3: “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.”

In chapter 1, the writer of Genesis used the seven-day weekly cycle as an organizing outline to make an important theological point: The one God of Israel is the true God—the Creator of all that exists in the heavens and on earth, including the human race. This was his answer to the myths of the nations that had spun fantastic stories of how their deities were responsible for the creation. Genesis 1:1-2:3 sets the record straight about creation. The God of Israel, Yahweh, is Creator.

Yet, the writer of Genesis ends this creation outline by adding the statement that the God of Israel “rested” after creation was complete. What theological point was he trying to make about God and his purpose in the creation? We shall see the answer unfold in this paper. The concept of the “rest” will prove to be a monumental part of God’s purpose, one the New Testament explains for us in a definitive way.

Sabbath rest in Genesis

Before we undertake to solve this mystery, we should consider the idea that Genesis 2:2-3 tells us God made the weekly Sabbath “holy time” at creation, and that this day has been and continues to be a sacred day for all peoples. We may begin by noticing that the verse does not say a physical Sabbath-day rest was to be observed by human beings. Genesis 2:2-3 contains no command for human beings to rest from their labor or to otherwise keep the seventh day as “holy time.” God is the one said to be “resting,” and by his act he creates something holy about the seventh day. But at this point in the story we haven’t been told what that is.

If the writer of Genesis wanted to make the point that God commanded the Sabbath to be a day of rest for humans since the creation, then he failed to support this idea in further chapters. He provided no evidence that any of the great patriarchs, Abraham included, kept the seventh day as “holy time.” Neither did he make any comments to the effect that humanity was breaking the Sabbath-day rest and thereby sinning against God between Adam and Sinai. Not until the old covenant is instituted with a single nation—Israel—does the Sabbath rest become a command (and then only for Israel).

If the Sabbath was commanded since the creation, then it is surprising that none of God’s faithful people kept it until Sinai. Conversely, we would also have to ask why evil people are not chastised for Sabbath-breaking during the ages before the giving of the Law of Moses.

However, Genesis 2:2-3 does tell us that God made the seventh day of creation week “holy.” What does this mean? For God to make something “holy” is for him to set it apart in some way for his special use, or to use something set apart to explain part of his purpose. For example, the temple had a Most Holy Place whose environs only the High Priest could enter, and that only once a year. The book of Hebrews explains that the “holiness” that God ascribed to this location was to show that a true entry into his presence was not yet available.

But Genesis 2:2-3 does not tell us what lesson we are to learn from the seventh day of creation being made “holy” or set apart through God “resting” from his work. We understand that God does not become tired. Nor is he affected by an earthbound reality in which the motions of the planet mark time. This would lead us to believe the writer of Genesis used a literary device when speaking about the “rest” of God. That is, the “rest” of God had a symbolic meaning for him. But what was that meaning?

Author’s point

The writer had already used the seven-day week as an outline on which he hung various creation events and by which he made his theological point. It’s not surprising, then, that he would use the metaphor of God’s “rest” to make another theological assertion about who this God of Israel was, and his purpose. We should remember that the writer lived under the old covenant. This would lead us to believe that his experience of God taught him something about his purpose with Israel, something that was explained by the “rest” concept.

“Rest” is a key idea in Genesis 2:2-3. Why did the writer use the concept? What did it mean to the writer, and what should it mean to us as Christians? We have already seen that the seventh-day rest follows all the creative acts of God that are summarized in Genesis 1. More than this, the rest of God follows the creation of humanity—male and female—in God’s own image (1:27-31).

The fact that this is mentioned in the context of the creation account implies that the writer understood that humanity has a special purpose beyond the other parts of the creation. First, all of creation is pronounced as being “very good” (1:31). Humanity is to “fill the earth and subdue it”—to be God’s representatives on this planet and caretakers of the creation (1:28). But all is not completely revealed to this point in Genesis about God’s aim in creating humanity. Is there no further purpose for the human race (and, from the writer’s point of view, of his choosing Israel to be his people) than to fill and subdue the earth?

The writer refers to God’s “rest,” and tells us that it is holy—set apart for some purpose. But for what purpose? And, how does this relate to humanity and Israel? That the creation of man and woman was announced just before the making of the holy rest could imply that this “rest” has something to do with the creation in general and humanity in particular. God, as it were, “sits back” after setting his creative purpose in motion and pronounces everything as being good. Since God doesn’t literally get tired, we can understand his “rest” as figurative, and as part of his creative purpose. We could see the “rest” as extending to humans (and Israel) in some way, since they seem to be the end object of God’s creative process.

Humanity’s loss

But whatever this rest is to signify, the ensuing Genesis story tells us it is not something that humans enjoy in a physical sense except, perhaps, for a brief interlude in the Garden of Eden. Almost immediately after creation, we read about the tragedy that befell Adam and Eve in the Garden. As a consequence of sin, they suffer increased labor rather than rest. The notion of labor, the opposite of rest, becomes an important motif in the Genesis account.

Eve must labor in childbearing. The Lord tells her, “I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children” (3:16). For mother Eve, childbearing becomes painful work. Adam will be forced to labor to eat. The Lord tells him, “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life” (3:17, emphasis ours throughout).

Their son, Cain, murders Abel. The latter’s blood figuratively finds no rest, as it “cries out” from the ground (4:10). For his sin, Cain will be forced to engage in backbreaking labor. The Lord tells him, “When you work the ground, it will no longer yield its crops for you” (4:12). More than that, Cain was to be a “restless wanderer on the earth” (4:12). He would have neither rest in his labor nor rest from enemies seeking to kill him because of his murder.

The “anti-rest” motif continues in Genesis. When Noah was born, a great hope was attached to his future. It was said of him, “He will comfort us in the labor and painful toil of our hands caused by the ground the Lord has cursed” (5:29). But humanity found no rest because “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was full of violence” (6:11). The only “rest” humanity could achieve was to rest in death.

In Noah, God restated and broadened the covenant made with Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28-30. He reissued his promise to neither curse the ground nor to destroy humanity despite the fact that he knew “every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood” (8:21; 9:8-17). Despite this covenant of promise, many generations passed during which humans became more alienated from God. The story of Nimrod and the Tower of Babel indicates the condition of the human race. Then God made a covenant with Abraham. This is first found in Genesis 12:2-3:

I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.

Israel in toil and slavery

We know the rest of the story from Genesis. Abraham had a son named Isaac, and he had a son named Jacob. (Jacob had to be saved by the Lord from 20 years of servitude at Laban’s hand—Genesis 31:38-42.) As Jacob said to Laban: “If the God of my father, the God of Abraham and the Fear of Isaac, had not been with me, you would surely have sent me away empty-handed. But God has seen my hardship and the toil of my hand (verse 42).

Jacob had 12 sons. The oldest ten sold their young brother, Joseph, into slavery. During a famine, they all moved to Egypt, where the family of Jacob grew into a great nation. But the Egyptians placed the Israelites into slavery and hard bondage. They, too, failed to find the “rest” of God. The first chapter of Exodus, verses 11-14, shows how Israel subsequently suffered as a slave people:

So they [the Egyptians] put slave masters over them [the Israelites] to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh…. The Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with hard labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their hard labor the Egyptians used them ruthlessly.

Israel rescued

The writer of Exodus was trying to make a point, again about the notion of “rest.” The Israelites were oppressed with hard and forced labor—and they had no rest for their souls. But help was on the way. We read in Exodus 2:23-24:

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac and with Jacob.

The savior of Israel would be Moses, who as a young man had seen his own people in slavery and “watched them at their hard labor” (2:11). Now, after his own exile of 40 years in the desert, the Lord appeared to him and said in Exodus 3:7-8:

I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.

Moses was to tell the Israelites about their impending freedom and physical rest:

Say to the Israelites: “I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God.” (Exodus 6:6-7)

A covenant of “rest”

This promise is the first intimation of a covenant between God and Israel. It is a covenant based on God providing freedom from slavery, and hence rest from unending labor. The “rest” of God mentioned in Genesis 2:2, which was not attained by humans because of sin, was now promised in a kind of second Garden of Eden—the Promised Land. The old covenant was a covenantal promise of peace, prosperity and security for Israel in the Promised Land (Leviticus 26:3-13; Deuteronomy 28:1-14). It contained all the elements that give human beings a feeling of well-being and “rest.”

In short, the old covenant was a promise of physical rest to God’s people, which (as shown in Genesis 2) was part of God’s creative purpose at the beginning. We will see how this purpose of “rest” unfolds, but we are getting ahead of our story. Let’s go back a moment to God’s promise
through Moses that he would provide freedom and rest to the people of Israel.

We know from the Exodus story that the Egyptian Pharaoh did not want to let the Israelites go free. He ordered that they should work even harder for their captors (Exodus 5). But God rescued the Israelites and brought them into the wilderness in preparation for their entering the Promised Land of freedom and rest. However, that generation failed to trust the Lord, and they were not allowed to enter. They died without coming into their rest.

The next generation of Israelites entered the Promised Land under Joshua. They were told to obey the covenant that had been made between the people and the Lord. All the tribes were told to help each other take possession of the land “until the Lord gives them rest, as he has done for you” (Joshua 1:15). We read that this promise was fulfilled. In a summary statement before Joshua’s farewell to the nation, it was said that “the Lord had given Israel rest from all their enemies around them” (Joshua 23:1).

Despite Israel’s lapses from faith and obedience, the Lord fulfilled his promise to give the nation prosperity and rest. The high point of this physical rest and well-being occurred during the days of King Solomon. “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, lived in safety, each man under his own vine and fig tree” (1 Kings 4:25). The nation of Israel had experienced the physical “rest” of God in abundance.

One of the hallmarks of the Law of Moses was an emphasis on the “rest” that God provided Israel. This included many physical blessings (Deuteronomy 7:10-12). God’s merciful grace in saving the nation from extreme toil and servitude in Egypt—and his giving the people bountiful physical blessings in the Promised Land—was to be memorialized in the religious practices of the nation. A weekly Sabbath of rest from work was a main feature of this rest memorial.

A good comparison for Christians is the Lord’s Supper. The bread and wine remind Christians that God has saved them through the redemptive work of Christ. On the other hand, the Israelites rested each week to remind them that God had saved them from Egyptian bondage and had blessed them abundantly.

Exodus 20:11 explains why God gave Israel the Sabbath day: “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.” (These are the same words the writer of Genesis wrote for the creation account.)

In a restatement of the Sabbath command in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, a related reason was given for the Sabbath “rest” command. “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” (5:15).

What had the writer seen here? Possibly, he saw that what God had done with Israel was the beginning of a restoration of God’s purpose for all humanity. His purpose, dimly seen in the Garden of Eden story, was that human beings should live in a relationship with him, through which they would be blessed. If they were one with God, then they would enter his rest because he would bless them physically. That was God’s intent, as the Garden of Eden story tells us. But human beings sinned and were cursed. Humans were cut off from the presence of God and the relationship with him was broken.

Reminder of blessings

With Israel, as the Exodus and old covenant show us, God had again moved to begin to bring the human race back into a relationship with himself. Israel would be the starting place. The nations would look at Israel, living in blessedness and loving obedience to Yahweh, and perhaps other nations might also someday come to love the Lord and find blessing as well (Deuteronomy 4:5-8). That was the ideal—just as the Garden of Eden had been an ideal. But as we know from the rest of the story of the Old Testament, the ideal was not achieved.

The reason Israel was to keep the seventh day as a rest period was because of a physical “rest” that was available to the nation. As slaves in Egypt, they had no rest for themselves, but toiled in harsh labor daily, at the whim of their taskmasters. God had freed them from this slavish labor and had given them freedom and prosperity in the Promised Land. Israel was supposed to remember the gracious freedom and rest they had been given—and they were to do this each week

The weekly rest was but one memorial of how God had saved the nation from Egyptian slavery and mindless toil. There were seven yearly “rest” days within three yearly festival seasons that also were celebrated by cessation from labor (Leviticus 23:7-8, 21, 25, 32, 35-36). These were harvest festivals when Israel could give thanks for the crops they had reaped—and when
they could rest from their labor. By contrast, in Egypt the Israelites had toiled ceaselessly for uncaring taskmasters.

Beyond that, the land was to lie idle and not be tilled every seventh year (Leviticus 25:1-7). This means that while the land rested, the people could also rest, because they did not need to sow or till. Whatever the land produced on its own could be eaten.

Also, each 50th year was a land rest (Leviticus 25:8-12). It was also a year of release, as we read in verse 10: “Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each one of you is to return to his family property and each to his own clan.” In Egypt, the Israelites had neither land nor inheritance. Now, God had given the nation the Promised Land, and each family was to enjoy its own parcel of ground.

While the Promised Land was not a place of idleness and ease, there was rest from backbreaking and meaningless toil on someone else’s land. On the other hand, the Promised Land would yield abundant produce because of the blessing of the Lord. The nation would rest from war and the fear of famine and disease. The inhabitants could breathe a sigh of relief—and they could “rest” both physically and psychologically in the sure knowledge that God was watching over them.

The meaning

Now we can understand why the writer of Genesis may have been so keen to divide the physical creation into a six-day format and then make the seventh day a day of God’s “rest.” It must have been driven home to him through his experience with the saving acts of the God of Israel, that God’s purpose was to rescue humanity from the curse that they had brought upon themselves. This curse had required backbreaking toil in unyielding soil. The curse had also brought famine and disease, fighting and war. Life was anything but restful.

The writer of Genesis must have seen the problem of the “curse” and the restless sorrow it had brought as having been solved specifically in the promises to the nation of Israel. Israel had once been in captivity and the people had been forced to toil incessantly under taskmasters. Life was neither prosperous nor restful. But God had purposed to fulfill his covenant with Abraham whereby he would rescue his descendants from terrible toil in slavery. The nation would find true prosperity, peace and rest under the protection and blessing of the Creator, the one true God. The nation’s religious practices, including various “rest” days and times, reminded the people that they had been saved from toil and slavery in Egypt and now rested in peace and prosperity under the loving hand of their God.

Genesis was written for Israelites who lived in the Promised Land, who were to commemorate each week the rest they had been given by the Creator. Their weekly experience of rest was then associated with the creation by the words of Genesis 2:2-3. The writer of Genesis was informed by and influenced by the weekly Sabbath as he wrote about the “rest” of God. He was writing from the point of view of an Israelite who had been saved from slavery and who enjoyed the “rest” God provided the nation. The writer understood that the various rest days commanded for Israel—the weekly Sabbath, annual festivals, and years of agricultural rest—reflected what God had done for the nation. God’s actions of providing “rest” signaled to the writer that in God’s creative purpose his creatures should find rest in him. In the world there was cursing and trouble, but in God’s kingdom—the Promised Land—there was prosperity, peace and rest.

Genesis 2:2-3, then, is not an early command for all people to keep the seventh day as holy time. It is a reflection of the writer’s understanding that humans should find their rest in God. For the nation of Israel, the old covenant specified that this was to be commemorated by a weekly physical rest on the seventh day. There is no command for other peoples to do the same. Other peoples did not have the physical “rest” of the Promised Land nor the command for physical rest on the seventh day. What the Israelites had was a physical image of a spiritual reality; other nations did not have this.

Future promise

The Old Testament shows that the restful state of affairs did not last very long for Israel. The nation sinned and the people suffered invasion, curses on their land and captivity. The old covenant between God and Israel failed because the nation did not live up to its promises to be faithful to God (Hebrews 4:2).

Later in Israel’s history, the prophets spoke of the need for a new covenant, based on better promises. Isaiah prophesied of a time when God would renew his covenant with Israel and give them a final rest. In chapter 11, Isaiah spoke of a Branch to come, upon whom the Spirit of the Lord would rest. The Spirit of the Lord would be upon him and he would bring justice, mercy and peace. The Branch would usher in God’s kingdom of righteousness and peace.

In soaring metaphorical language, Isaiah said of this new era: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat…the cow will feed with the bear…The lion will eat straw like the ox. The infant will play near the hole of the cobra” (verses 6-8). He summarized this future hope by painting the arrival of an idyllic worldwide kingdom of God: “They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full for the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (verse 9).

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“In that day,” when this future kingdom would be established, the Lord would bring his people Israel out from all the nations (verse 11). And what would he give his people? He would give them “rest.” Isaiah explains: “In that day the Root of Jesse will stand as a banner for the peoples; the nations will rally to him, and his place of rest will be glorious” (verse 10).

Jeremiah also spoke of the rest that the Lord would bring. “‘At that time,’ declares the Lord, ‘I will be the God of all the clans of Israel, and they will be my people.’ This is what the Lord says: ‘The people who survive the sword will find favor in the desert; I will come to give rest to Israel’” (Jeremiah 31:1-2).

It’s no wonder the Jews looked for a Messiah who would save them from their enemies and gather the nation. It was a beautiful vision of peace and prosperity. The Messiah would make the regathered clans of Israel in the Promised Land the people of the kingdom of God in which righteousness, justice and prosperity would know no bounds. The enemies of the Jews, whoever they might be, would be defeated and destroyed.

Jesus is our “rest”

The Branch, the Root of Jesse, the Redeemer Messiah, came as promised, in the person of Jesus. He offered the greatest “rest” the world would ever know, but it was not a physical rest of power and prosperity given to a single nation within certain geographic borders. Jesus brought the offer of “rest” of freedom from sin and death—and this was for people of all nations—and life in the eternal kingdom of God.

The notion of “God’s rest” found in Genesis 2:2-3 and the Old Testament was still alive and well. Yes, God would send the Deliverer, and his rest would be glorious. That rest, though, would be the result of the redemptive work of Jesus, and it would be commemorated not through the seventh day, but through Jesus. In Matthew 11:28, Jesus told his hearers: “Come to me, all of you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” What a glorious promise to a hurting humanity. Jesus was not necessarily promising physical rest and peace, but an eternal and spiritual rest.

Jesus said to his disciples: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives” (John 14:27). Jesus did not promise his disciples a Promised Land of peace, plenty and security. In fact, in his last talk with the disciples before his arrest, Jesus told them they would have anything but physical rest. “I have told you these things,” Jesus warned, “so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

The promise to Israel had been peace, prosperity and rest in the Promised Land in exchange for obedience to the old covenant and Law of Moses. The New Testament “rest” is a rest in Christ. It is the promise of the indwelling Holy Spirit and a spiritual rebirth that leads to eternal life in the kingdom of God. This is the ultimate “rest” of God. God’s purpose in Genesis 2:2-3, not completely understood under the old covenant, is now revealed and fulfilled in its final sense through Christ.

The theme of Sabbath-rest is also discussed in Hebrews 4. For a full-length discussion of that passage, click here.

Author: Paul Kroll


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