Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Sabbath Commandment as a Hermeneutical Guide for Understanding the Seven Day Structure of Genesis 1:1–2:3

The length of the days in Gen 1 has been the subject of much debate, particularly over the last 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species. In the light of this debate, it is interesting to think about how Gen 1 would be understood from the point of view of the implied reader or listener of the text, which I take in the first instance to be a Hebrew-speaking member of ancient Israel of orthodox belief.

It is important to realize in this regard that Genesis (for all its importance) is really only the prologue to the exodus and the establishment of Israel as a nation in covenant with Yahweh. Genesis is, in effect, the prologue of the Pentateuch. The implied reader or listener would understand Genesis, therefore, through the prism of Israelite cultural knowledge, prominent within which would be the idea of Israel’s election and Israelite religious tradition and practice.

The implication of the existence of such cultural presuppositions in the mind of the implied reader is that the implied reader would approach the creation account in Gen 1:1–2:3 with a knowledge of the weekly pattern of six days’ work and one day’s rest as part of their cultural “baggage.” This means that the concept of God working to order and fill the world over six days, then resting on the seventh when everything was complete, would most naturally have been understood by the implied reader in terms of a cycle of normal 24-hour days, on analogy with the Hebrew custom of six day’s work, one day’s rest.

The initial impression that the implied reader would have received on reading or hearing the creation account is that God’s activity fits our own pattern of activity. We work for six days and then enjoy our Sabbath rest, and so does God! But it is not a case of God imitating the Hebrews. Further reflection would involve the application of the truth of the fourth commandment to the creation narrative:
Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exod 20:8–11).
Knowledge of the fourth commandment and the Hebrew custom of resting from one’s work on the seventh day would effectively function as a hermeneutical guide for the the way in which Gen 1:1–2:3 would be understood. Hence the conclusion: it is not a case of God imitating us, but us imitating God! We Israelites work for six days and rest on the seventh, because that is what God did.

In this way the implied reader would come away from his or her reading of Gen 1:1–2:3, not only with an assumption that the days of the creation week were normal 24-hour days, on analogy with one’s own experience of work and rest; but more importantly, with the knowledge that God himself is the analogue for human work and rest. This idea has important ramifications for how the creation mandate of Gen 1:28 is to be understood.


John Thomson said...


Totally agree with this analysis. If that argues for a young earth how do we deal with the insistence of many in science, including many believers, that a maturely created creation plus a universal flood is not sufficient to explain various fossils and other cosmic ohenomena?

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello John,

I think in this whole debate there needs to be humility on all sides.

For Christians, we need to be able to say that God could have created a mature world in the blink of an eye if he wanted to. If we cannot say that, then there is something wrong with our view of the power of God. In other words, we need humility in the face of God’s creative power.

There is also a need for humility on the part of the scientists and those who are inclined to agree with the current popular view. Science is a human activity. The laws of science (as far as we know them) are really just conclusions that are generalizations based on the results of human observation. Scientific theories and paradigms come and go. Science itself is always in a process of evolution. I often think that those outside the halls of scientific academia do not realize the degree to which science is a theoretical business where the results of science are still up for grabs. Christians need to beware of giving too much credence to theories that are the product of human endeavor and still under investigation.

Without humility, true science is not possible. Humility means that authority lies with the evidence, that the evidence must critique our theories rather than vice versa. Scientists must always be prepared to test their theories and to examine other possibilities. They should also be prepared to acknowledge the limitations of the scientific endeavor. When it comes to the age of the earth, what would humble science say? It should say: “According to our current theories involving radiometric dating, the earth looks like it is 4.5 billion years old.” To say, however, that “the earth is 4.5 billion years old” is to go beyond science into the realm of ideology.

And for those who are inclined to believe in a young earth, what does humility in the face of the biblical and scientific evidence, along with the limitations of human exegetical and theological reflection, mean for us? We can definitely say: “It looks like Gen 1 would be understood by an orthodox Israelite as teaching that God ordered the original chaotic mass of the planet over six 24-hour days.” We can also say as a consequence: “At face value, Genesis 1 looks like it is teaching that God ordered the original chaotic mass of the planet over six 24-hour days.” But how much further can we go? I suspect that there is a point when theology likewise is in danger of becoming ideology.

John Thomson said...

A good answer. One I agree with wholeheartedly.