The Sabbath Under Crossfire:
A Biblical Analysis of Recent Sabbath/Sunday Developments

Part 2: Objections to the Creation Sabbath

Index | Chapter 1 | Chapter 3 | Chapter 4 | Chapter 5 | Chapter 6 | Chapter 7

Part 1a
The Creation-Sabbath in Jewish and Christian History
Part 1b
The Creation-Sabbath in Jewish and Christian History - Continued
Part 2
Objections to the Creation Sabbath
Part 3
The Creation Week is a Human Week


The preceding survey of the controversy over the creation versus Mosaic origin of the Sabbath has set the stage for examining the main objections against the creation origin of the Sabbath, advanced especially by former Sabbatarians. Their objections reflect the radical Lutheran distinction between the Old and New Covenants. On the basis of this distinction, as we have already seen, the Sabbath is not viewed as a creation ordinance for humanity but as a Mosaic institution for the Jews which Christ fulfilled and abolished. Consequently, so-called "New Covenant" Christians are free from the observance of any special day.

The four major objections used to negate the creation origin of the Sabbath are the following:

1) No command to keep the Sabbath is given in Genesis.
2) No example of Sabbathkeeping is recorded in Genesis.
3) No mention is made of the word "Sabbath" in Genesis.
4) No formula of "and there was evening and morning" is used for the seventh day.

(1) No Command to Keep the Sabbath Is Given in Genesis

Absence of a Command.
The first argument used to negate the creation origin of the Sabbath is the absence of an explicit command to observe the seventh day in Genesis 2:2-3. The Worldwide Church of God formulates this argument by means of six rhetorical statements: "There are several things that Genesis does not tell us:

1) It does not say that humans rested.
2) It does not say that humans were told to follow God's example.
3) It does not say that humans were told to rest.
4) It does not say that God taught Adam and Eve on the Sabbath.
5) It does not say that God created the Sabbath.
6) It does not say that humans kept the Sabbath.79

Dale Ratzlaff uses the same argument, saying, "There is no command for mankind to rest in the Genesis account."80 "Nothing is expressly mentioned regarding man in the seventh-day-creation rest."81 For him, this fact indicates that the Sabbath is not a creation ordinance binding upon humanity, but a temporary institution introduced by Moses for Israel alone.

Reasons for "No Command."
There are several possible reasons for the absence of an explicit command to keep the Sabbath in Genesis 2:2-3. First of all, we must remember that Genesis is not a book of commands but of origins. None of the Ten Commandments are ever mentioned in Genesis, yet we know that their principles were known because we are told, for example, "Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws" (Gen 26:5). It is evident Abraham knew God's commandments and laws, though no reference is made to them in the book of Genesis. The reason is that Genesis is a book of beginnings; it tells us how we get from the creation of this planet to the creation of God's people in the book of Exodus.

Another possible reason for the absence of a command to keep the Sabbath in Genesis is the cosmological function of the seventh day in the creation story. The divine act of resting on the seventh day is designed to tell us how God felt about His creation. It was "very good," and to dramatize this fact, twice we are told that "He rested" (Gen 2:2-3)-that is, "He stopped." No finishing touches were to improve His perfect creation.

In the Near Eastern creation myths, the divine rest (technically called otiositas), which usually implies the establishment of a secure world order, generally is achieved either by eliminating noisy, disturbing gods or by creating human beings.82 For example, in the Babylonian creation epic Enuma Elish, the god Marduk says, "Verily, savage-man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods, that they might be at ease!"83 In the creation Sabbath, however, the divine rest is secured not by subordinating or destroying competitors, nor by exploiting the labor of mankind, but by the completion of a perfect creation. God rested on the seventh day, not to conclude His work of creation, but rather because His work was "finished . . . done" (Gen 2 :2-3). As stated by Niels-Erik Andreasen, "It is not the rest (cessation from work) which concludes creation, but it is the concluded creation which occasions both rest and the Sabbath."84

The Function of God's Rest.
Any responsible artisan works on a product until it is brought it up to the ideal; then the work stops. In an infinitely higher sense, God, having completed the creation of this world with all its creatures, desisted from creating on the seventh day. This is essentially the meaning of the Hebrew verb sabat which is twice translated "rested." Its more accurate rendering is "to stop, to desist, to cease from doing."

To express the idea of rest from physical exhaustion, the Hebrew employs a different verb, namely nuah, which is also generally translated in English "to rest." The latter, in fact, occurs in Exodus 20:11 where God's pattern of work-rest in creation is given as the basis for the commandment to work six days and to rest on the seventh. In Genesis 2, however, the verb sabat is used because the function of God's rest is different. It fulfills a cosmological rather than an anthropological function. It explains to us not why people should rest but rather how God felt about His creation: He regarded it as complete and perfect; and to acknowledge it, He stopped.

This function of God's rest has been recognized by numerous scholars. Karl Barth, for example, remarks: "We read in Genesis 2:2 that on the seventh day God, the Creator, completed His work by 'resting.' This simply means that He did not go on with the work of creation as such. He set both Himself and His creation a limit. He was content to be the Creator of this particular creation-to glory, as the Creator, in this particular work. He had no occasion to proceed to further creations. He needed no further creations. And He had found what he created very good' (Gen. 1:31)."85 "When creation ended with man, having found its climax and meaning in the actualization of man, God rested on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. It was to this that He looked in the recognition that everything was very good and therefore did not need to be extended or supplemented."86

Dietrich Bonhoeffer similarly explains that "in the Bible 'rest' really means more than 'having a rest.' It means rest after the work is accomplished, it means completion, it means the perfection and peace in which the world rests."87 We might say that by confronting His creation with His cessation-rest, God proclaimed the Good News that there was no need to put additional finishing touches on what He had created, since He regarded all of it "very good" (Gen. 1:31). God's cessation from doing expresses His desire for being with His creation, for giving to His creatures not only things but Himself.

An Example Rather Than a Command.
The fact that the Sabbath is established in the creation story by a divine example rather than by a divine commandment could also reflect what God intended the Sabbath to be in a sinless world-namely, not an alienating imposition but a free response to a gracious Creator. By freely choosing to make themselves available for their Creator on the Sabbath, human beings were to experience physical, mental, and spiritual renewal and enrichment. Since these needs have not been eliminated but heightened by the Fall, the moral, universal, and perpetual functions of the Sabbath precept were repeated later in the form of a commandment.

What is it that makes any divine precept moral and universal? Do we not regard a law moral when it reflects God's nature? Could God have given any stronger revelation of the moral nature of the Sabbath than by making it a rule of His divine conduct? Is a principle established by divine example less binding than one enunciated by a divine command? Do not actions speak louder than words?

The argument that the Sabbath originated at Sinai makes Moses guilty of distorting truth or, at least, the victim of gross misunderstanding. He would have traced the Sabbath back to creation in the Sabbath commandment, when in reality it was his own new creation. Such a charge, if true, would cast serious doubts on the integrity and/or reliability of anything else Moses or anyone else wrote in the Bible.

(2) No Example of Sabbathkeeping Is Recorded in Genesis

The oldest and perhaps the strongest argument against the creation origin of the Sabbath is the absence of an explicit reference to Sabbathkeeping after Genesis 2 for the whole patriarchal period up to Exodus 16. For example, in his doctoral dissertation on "Sabbatic Theology," Roger Congdon writes: "There is absolutely no mention of the Sabbath before the Lord said to Moses, 'Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you . . . On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily' (Ex 16:4-5). These words indicate that the event was bound to the Decalogue of Sinai. . . . The first mention of the Sabbath in the Bible and the first chronological use of the word in all history is in Exodus 16:23."88 In a similar vein the Worldwide Church of God affirms that Genesis "does not say that humans kept the Sabbath."89

Not Observed?
The absence of explicit references to Sabbath-keeping between Genesis 2 and Exodus 16 does not necessarily mean that the principle of Sabbathkeeping was unknown. The apparent silence could mean that between Adam and Moses, the Sabbath, though known, was not observed. The non-observance of the feast of the Booths between Joshua and Nehemiah, a period of almost a thousand years, would provide a parallel situation (Neh 8:17).

Taken for Granted.
A more plausible explanation is that the custom of Sabbathkeeping is not mentioned simply because it is taken for granted. A number of reasons support this explanation.

First, we have a similar example of silence regarding the Sabbath between the books of Deuteronomy and 2 Kings. Such silence can hardly be interpreted as non-observance of the Sabbath since, when the first incidental reference occurs in 2 Kings 4:23, it describes the custom of visiting a prophet on the Sabbath.

Second, Genesis does not contain laws like Exodus but is rather, a brief sketch of origins. Since no mention is made of any other commandment, silence regarding the Sabbath is not exceptional.

Third, throughout the book of Genesis and the early chapters of Exodus one finds circumstantial evidences for the use of the seven-day week which would imply the existence of the Sabbath as well. The period of seven days is mentioned four times in the account of the Flood (Gen 7:4, 10; 8:10,12).

Apparently, the "week" also is used in a technical way to describe the duration of the nuptial festivities of Jacob (Gen 29:27) as well as the duration of mourning at his death (Gen 50:10). A similar period was observed by the friends of Job to express their condolences to the patriarch (Job 2:13). Probably all the mentioned ceremonials were terminated by the arrival of the Sabbath.

Lastly, the Sabbath is presented in Exodus 16 and 20 as an already existing institution. The instructions for gathering a double portion of manna on the sixth day presuppose a knowledge of the significance of the Sabbath: "On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily" (Ex 16:5). The omission of any explanation for gathering a double portion on the sixth day would be inexplicable if the Israelites had no previous knowledge of the Sabbath.

Similarly, in Exodus 20, the Sabbath is presupposed as something already familiar. The commandment does not say "Know the Sabbath day" but "Remember the Sabbath day" (Ex 20:8), thus implying that it was already known. Furthermore, the commandment, by presenting the Sabbath as rooted in creation (Ex 20:11), hardly allows a late Exodus introduction of the festival.

To speculate on how the patriarchs kept the Sabbath would be a fruitless endeavor since it would rest more on imagination than on available information. Considering, however, that the essence of Sabbathkeeping is not a place to go to fulfill rituals, but a set time to be with God, ourselves, and others, it is entirely possible that the patriarchs spent the Sabbath holy hours within their households, engaged in some of the acts of worship described in Genesis such as prayer (Gen 12:8; 26:25), sacrifice (Gen 12:8; 13:18; 26:25; 33:20), and teaching (Gen 18:19).

(3) No Mention Is Made of the Word "Sabbath" in Genesis

The absence of the term "Sabbath" in Genesis 2:2-3 is seen by some as an indication that the Sabbath as an institution did not originate at creation but later at the time of Moses. For example, Robert Morey emphatically states: "But isn't the Sabbath creation ordinance found in Genesis 2:1-3? No, the word 'Sabbath' does not appear in the text."90

Harold Dressler makes a similar statement: "Genesis 2 does not mention the word 'Sabbath.' It speaks about the 'seventh day.' Unless the reader equates 'seventh day' and 'Sabbath,' there is no reference to the Sabbath here."91 In a similar vein, Dale Ratzlaff writes: "There is no mention of the word 'Sabbath' in the Genesis account; nothing is said about man resting; in fact, man is not even mentioned in connection with this seventh-day-creation rest."92

Verbal Form.
It is true that the name "Sabbath" does not occur in the passage, but the cognate verbal form shabat (to cease, to stop, to rest) is used and the latter, as noted by Ugo Cassuto, "contains an allusion to the name 'the Sabbath day.'"93

Moreover, as Cassuto sagaciously remarks, the use of the name seventh day rather than Sabbath may well reflect the writer's concern to underline the perpetual order of the day, independent and free from any association with astrological "sabbaths" of the heathen nations.94

Perpetual Order.
It is a known fact that the term shabbatu, which is strikingly similar to the Hebrew word for Sabbath (shabbat), occurs in the documents of ancient Mesopotamia. The term apparently designated the fifteenth day of the month, that is, the day of the full moon. By designating the day by number rather than by name, Genesis seems to emphasize that God's Sabbath day is not like that of heathen nations, connected with the phases of the moon. Rather, it shall be the seventh day in perpetual order, independent from any association with the cycles of heavenly bodies.

By pointing to a perpetual order, the seventh day strengthens the cosmological message of the creation story-precisely that God is both Creator and constant controller of this cosmos. In Exodus, however, where the seventh day is given in the context of the Genesis, not of this cosmos, but of the nation of Israel, the day is explicitly designated "sabbath," apparently to express its new historical and soteriological function.

(4) No Formula of "and there was evening and morning" Is Used for the Seventh day

The omission in the creation account of the formula "and there was evening and morning" in connection with the seventh day indicates to some that the Sabbath is not a literal 24-hour day like the preceding six days, but a symbolic time representing eternal rest. For example, Dale Ratzlaff writes: "The Genesis account does not mention an end to God's seventh-day rest. Rather it is presented as an ongoing state by the omission of the formula 'and there was evening and morning, a seventh day.'"95 He interprets the absence of this formula as indicating that "the conditions and characteristics of that first seventh day were designed by God to continue and would have continued had it not been for the sin of Adam and Eve."96

Eternal Rest.
Both Rabbis and Christian writers have interpreted the absence of any reference to "the evening and morning" in connection with the seventh day of creation as representing the future, eternal rest of the redeemed. Augustine offers a most fitting example of this interpretation in the last page of his Confessions, where he offers this exquisite prayer: "O Lord God, grant Thy peace unto us . . . the peace of rest, the peace of the Sabbath which has no evening. For all this most beautiful order of things, 'very good' . . . is to pass away, for in them there was morning and evening. But the seventh day is without any evening, nor hath it any setting, because Thou hast sanctified it to an everlasting continuance; . . . that we also after our works . . . may repose in Thee also in the Sabbath of eternal life."97

This spiritual, eschatological interpretation of the creation Sabbath has some merits because, as shown in chapter 4, the vision of the peace, rest, and prosperity of the first Sabbath inspired the prophetic vision of the peace, delight, and prosperity of the world-to-come. This interpretation is also found in Hebrews 4 where believers are urged to strive to enter into the Sabbath rest that remains for the people of God (Heb 4:9, 11).

Literal Day.
The symbolic interpretation of creation's seventh day which has no evening does not negate its literal 24-hour duration for at least four reasons:

First, the seventh day is enumerated like the preceding six days. Note that in the Bible whenever "day-yom" is accompanied by a number it always means a day of 24 hours.

Second, the Decalogue itself clearly states that God, having worked six days, rested on the seventh day of creation week (Ex 20:11). If the first six days were ordinary earthly days, we must understand the seventh in the same way.

Third, every passage which mentions creation's seventh day as the basis of the earthly Sabbath regards it as an ordinary day (Ex 20:11; 31:17; cf. Mark 2:27; Heb 4:4).

Last, the commandment to keep the Sabbath as a memorial day of the creation-Sabbath (Ex 20:11) implies a literal original 24-hour Sabbath. God could hardly command His creatures to work six days and rest on the seventh after His own example if the seventh day were not a literal day.

The omission of the formula "and there was evening and morning, a seventh day" may be due to the fact that the seventh day is not followed by other creation days. The formula serves to separate each of the first days of creation from the following ones. The seventh day, being the last day of creation, did not need to be separated because there was no "eighth day" to follow. By marking the termination of the creation week, the seventh day did not need to be defined in terms of its termination because there were no further creation days.

Another suggestion discussed in chapter 4 is the possibility that the Sabbath was blessed with extraordinary light. For example, referring to the Messianic age, Zechariah remarks that "there shall be continuous day . . . not day and not night, for at evening time there shall be light" (Zech 14:7). Here we have a probable allusion to the seventh day of creation which in Genesis has no mention of "evening and morning." Such a detail was interpreted by the rabbis as signifying that the Sabbath was especially blessed by supernatural, continuous light.To this we return in chapter 4.

Chapter 2, Part 1b
Chapter 2, Part 3


Notes to Chapter 2, Part 2
Dies Domini: Pope John Paul II's Pastoral Letter regarding the Sabbath.

79. "What Do the Scriptures Say About the Sabbath? Part 1: The Books of Moses," Bible Study prepared by the Worldwide Church of God and posted in their Web page -, September 1998), p. 1.
80. Dale Ratzlaff (note 3), p. 25.
81. Ibid. p. 26.
82. R. Pettazzoni, "Myths of Beginning and Creation-Myths," in Essays on the History of Religion, trans. H. T. Rose (New York, 1954), pp. 24-36. A brief but informative treatment is found in Niels-Erik A. Andreasen, The Old Testament Sabbath, SBL Dissertation Series 7 (Missoula, MT, 1972, pp. 174-182. For examples of texts, see Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 1950 (UT krt A 206-211), pp. 5, 61, 69, 140.
83. Pritchard (note 82), p. 68.
84. Andreasen (note 82), p. 189.
85. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, ET (Edinburgh, 1956), vol. 3, part 2, p. 51.
86. Ibid., part 1, p. 213.
87. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Creation and Fall. A Theological Interpretation of Genesis 1-3 (New York, 1964), p. 40.
88. Roger D. Congdon, "Sabbatic Theology," Th. D. dissertation, Dallas Theological Seminary (Dallas, 1949), p. 122.
89. "What Do the Scriptures Say About the Sabbath? Part 1: The Books of Moses," (note 79), p. 1.
90. Robert A. Morey, "Is Sunday the Christian Sabbath?" Baptist Reformation Review 8 (1979), p. 6.
91. Harold H. P. Dressler, "The Sabbath in the Old Testament," in From Sabbath to Sunday, A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation, ed. Donald A. Carson (Grand Rapids, 1982), p. 28.
92. Dale Ratzlaff (note 3), p. 21.
93. Ugo Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis (New York, 1961), p. 63.
94. Ibid., p. 68.
95. Dale Ratzlaff (note 3), p. 24.
96. Ibid., p. 22.
97. Augustine, Confessions 13, 24, 25, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids, 1979), vol. 1, p. 207.

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Written by: Samuele Bacchiocchi, Ph. D., Andrews University