PLEASE NOTE This post should be read in conjunction with the following:
It is often argued, by those who wish to make Sabbath-keeping a requirement for New Testament Christians, that Sabbath-keeping was instituted at creation when God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and hallowed it (Genesis 2:1-3). If God’s resting, blessing, and hallowing the seventh day was intended as an institution of the Sabbath command, then one would expect that Adam and Eve would have kept the Sabbath in Eden and beyond.
However, I will argue that, even though God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and hallowed it, there is no reason to believe that Adam and Eve kept the Sabbath because there is no command that they should keep the Sabbath and there is no mention of them ever doing so.
Before looking at the specific issue of Adam and Eve’s keeping of the Sabbath, let’s look at the one text in the creation narratives used to support the belief that the Sabbath was instituted at creation - Genesis 2:1-3. It reads:
Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation. (Ge 2:1-3, NRSV)
The question is whether these verses constitute the institution of Sabbath-keeping as a repetitive, weekly practice. If all we had were the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2, we would have to conclude that they do not. Genesis 1 describes a series of six individual creation days that declare one-time acts of God. When we get to Day 7, we are told that God had finished the work of creation and rested on that day. The most that can be deduced from these two verses is that God rested on this specific seventh day, blessed this specific seventh day, and hallowed this specific seventh day. There is no indication in the text of any repetitive keeping of seventh days. There is no command and, unlike the other days, there is no ’evening and morning’ boundary - it is as if the day is open and unending - God rests from God’s work of creating and goes on resting because it is, indeed, finished. As Knowles (2001) comments, ‘By blessing the day, God invites the whole of creation to share his satisfaction and enjoy his peace.’ Elwell (1989) also makes the point that
The absence of the phrase and there was evening, and there was morning—the___________day after the seventh day indicates that God is not resting because he is exhausted but is desisting from his work of creation. It is not so much a date as it is an atmosphere.
The author of this narrative is not concerned about a repetitive practice of weekly Sabbath-keeping. Instead, on this day following the completion of creation, God invites all that exists to celebrate a finished work.
In addition to the absence of any command or practice related to Sabbath-keeping in these verses, there is no command anywhere else in the creation narratives or after the Fall that required Adam and Eve should keep the Sabbath. God does require a number of things from Adam and Eve, but Sabbath-keeping is not one of them.
The first of God’s requirements is that Adam and Eve should ’“Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”’ (1:28b)
The second expectation is that they till and keep the garden of Eden (2:15). Both of these expectations are positive requirements that God had of Adam and Eve. These were the responsibilities they had to fulfil. In addition, there was a negative command - something they were to not do. It is found in 2:16:
And the Lord God commanded the man, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” (Ge 2:16-17, NRSV)
In the entire creation narratives, only three things are mentioned that are required of Adam and Eve. Sabbath-keeping is never mentioned. Even after the Fall described in Chapter 3, Sabbath-keeping is never stated as a requirement for Adam and Eve.
Surely, if Sabbath-keeping was to be universally significant for all time for all people, Adam and Eve would have been asked to keep it. They never are. There is no command - no hint of a command - to keep a Sabbath anywhere in the creation and fall narratives. Further evidence that God did not command Sabbath-keeping in Eden is in the book of Nehemiah:
You [God] came down at Mount Sinai and spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and instructions that were just, and decrees and commands that were good. You instructed them concerning your holy Sabbath. And you commanded them, through Moses your servant, to obey all your commands, decrees, and instructions. (Neh 9:12, NLT)
It is clear, from all this evidence, that no command was given to Adam and Eve, by God, to keep a regular Sabbath day.
In addition to the absence of a command requiring Adam and Eve to keep the Sabbath, there is no mention of them actually doing so. The only character in the narratives who "does" anything related to the seventh day is God. Throughout the seven days of creation, God is the only actor. Adam and Eve "awaken" to a world where all the work is done and they live in the already-begun rest of God.
So although God rested on the seventh day and hallowed it, Adam and Eve are not described as keeping the Sabbath. First, there is no command that they should keep the Sabbath. And secondly, there is no mention of them keeping the Sabbath.
Why is this an important issue? The reason is that universalising a Sabbath command on the basis that it was instituted at creation and required of Adam and Eve is to diminish and obscure the true Sabbath rest now available in Christ.
The author of Hebrews reminds his readers of the special rest that still awaited God’s people (4:8). It is explicitly linked to the rest of God on the seventh day of creation (4:4). It is a rest that we need when, like Adam and Eve, we stand naked before God in our weakness. This rest occurs when we ‘come boldly to the throne of our gracious God ... [to] receive his mercy, and ... find grace to help us when we need it most (4:16, NLT).
Notice that the writer of Hebrews doesn’t refer his readers back to the ten commandments. Instead, he takes them back to the very beginning. It is because Jesus is greater than Moses (Hebrews 3) and greater than the old covenant (Hebrews 8-9) so only the perfection of God’s rest at creation will do.
According to the author of Hebrews, even though Israel kept the Sabbath every week they still did not enter the rest that God really wanted them to have. Even though they kept the Sabbath every week, their unbelief kept them from God’s rest.
But we can enter into that rest. That rest is Jesus. Jesus is the reality that all the symbols and rituals of the old covenant pointed to. When Jesus came he made God’s rest available to every person. A rest, not of ritual, but of freedom from the labour of working for salvation; a rest of freedom from sin and guilt.
Imagine that you have just met someone and fallen in love. You spend every moment with them because you love to be in their presence. But your employer requires you to travel to another country to work for a year. You are separated from your lover. But while you are away, you agree that, every week, on Thursday, you will have a video conference call to catch up with each other. You look forward to it every week. You plan everything around it. When the time comes for your video conference you drop everything to spend that time communicating with your lover. Nothing is allowed to encroach on that time.
When the year is finished, you return home. What do you do? Do you continue to have the video conference call on Thursdays? No! You are back home. You communicate and relate every moment of every day. The video conference calls are no longer needed. You abandon them in favour of the reality of direct, ongoing relationship with the one you love.
When Adam and Eve woke on their first day, all the work of creation had been done. All they needed to do was live in the already completed work of God and celebrate their lives in God. But because of their disobedience, they were separated from God. Years later, God gave Israel a symbol -- the weekly Sabbath -- to remind them of that rest they had with God; a deep and intimate relationship that was direct and immediate. It was also to foreshadow the rest to come when Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ would come and make available again that true rest in God and God would once again have a direct and intimate relationship with God’s people.
When the sin that had entered the world through Adam and Eve had been removed in Christ, then humanity could rest once again in the true seventh day -- Jesus himself. God gifts those God loves with the Holy Spirit which enables intimate and ongoing relationship every day, every hour, every minute. The re-creation has been completed. And now the new humanity - you, me, and every other person on the planet, can be reborn into a new “seventh day” that, like the original seventh day of creation, is unending rest in the work of God. Every day is a rest in Jesus. As Jesus himself said:
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” (Mt 11:28-30, NLT)
We are the new Adam and Eve. Rest forever in Jesus - your true Sabbath.
Knowles, A. (2001). The Bible guide. Includes index. (1st Augsburg books ed.) (23). Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg.