So on the Seventh Day God Rested From His Work

Title: So on the Seventh Day God Rested From His Work

Text: Genesis 1:27, 33, 2:2

Date: February 15th, 2010

Since the beginning of the New Year I’ve been working my way through the first chapter of the Book of Genesis and dealing with common issues that arise while reading this section of the Bible. But one of the main issues that I haven’t dealt with directly, but which is especially important, is the whole topic of how we should interpret the Bible. The simple answer to the question of how we should interpret the Bible is – we should interpret it the way the authors, or should I say, Author, intends for it to be interpreted in any given instance. That will be different in different contexts because the Bible is made up of different kinds of writings, not just one form. For example, the Book of Proverbs is made up of short aphorisms, pithy saying, small and memorable general truths. But the prophets, such as Isaiah, Jeremiah or Ezekiel are different kinds of writings altogether. We need to read each book of the Bible in its own context and interpret it in light of the type of writing it is. So then it would be impossible to say categorically then that we should interpret the Bible literally or figuratively or a combination of both, because that would be too general a statement. Each book should be interpreted in the manner appropriate to its writings; but even more than that, each section or paragraph within each book should be interpreted according to its type of writing. Because after all, an individual writer can change the form in which he writes depending on his subject matter or what he is intending to communicate. So the question about how the Bible should be interpreted is tricky. Now in respect to the Book of Genesis, and specifically in respect to the first two or three chapters of it, we face the same question – how should it be interpreted? This is particularly relevant as it relates to the topic of Creation, Man and the Fall, which we find in the first three chapters of Genesis. There are some people today who view the Bible generally, and these first three chapters specifically, as essentially symbolic or figurative. Then there are others who take the Bible, including Genesis 1-3 as entirely literalistic. And still others see the Bible and Genesis as probably a combination of the two, at times literal descriptions and at other times figurative to some degree or another. So which view is correct? This is very important because how we interpret Genesis will largely determine how we see God and Creation, and also how we view Man and the Fall. So today, I’d like to outline the three main ways that people approach the Book of Genesis and how these different ways affect the way they see how everything came to be. As you can tell by the way I’ve treated the Book of Genesis so far, I hold to a general literal principle of interpretation, but as you’ll see today, I try to let the specific passage control the principle of interpretation used instead of trying to impose my own will upon the text. I may not always be successful in this, but it’s my goal. So with that, let me explain what I believe is the safest and best way to interpret the Book of Genesis, specifically chapters one, two and three.

First, there’s the figurative or symbolic method of interpretation. Genesis 2:2, “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.” There are some people who basically see the entire Book of Genesis as essentially figurative or symbolic. For example, in the passage above it mentions that God “rested” from his work of creation. What can we say about God resting? Do we really believe that God as Spirit – “and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” Genesis 1:1 – needs to rest as we humans do when we work and grow tired? “See,” say those who favor symbolic interpretation of the Bible, “See, this is obviously symbolic or figurative language to indicate that God finished or stopped his initial creative work. It doesn’t literally mean he took a nap after being exhausted from creating.” And from this instance and others like it in Genesis and the rest of the Bible, these people assert that almost the entire Bible should be seen as symbolic. Under this method of interpretation, the only thing that we can gather from reading the Genesis account of Creation is that God was in some sense present and responsible for it. None of the details described can be literally trusted because they are seen as entirely figurative language. Because some parts are obviously symbolic, all parts are probably symbolic or at least not to be taken literally – so goes the argument. What can we say to this? Well, I would agree that some parts of the Bible, specifically some parts of the Book of Genesis are to be taken symbolically or figuratively. I think the example of Genesis 2:2 is a case in point. I know of nobody who thinks that God literally takes a nap or rests – or even needs to take a break in anything he is doing. That would imply that he has a body that can grow weary. God in human form, in Jesus Christ, indeed did grow weary and needed rest, but the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the Three in One, needing rest? No. Nobody believes that. So then how do we interpret Genesis 2:2? We see it as the author of Genesis, the one who put it to writing, Moses, wanted to communicate – God stopped his initial creating. We can agree with those who see this as figurative not literal. But we must disagree with them that this is the correct way to interpret the whole Bible or even specifically how Genesis should be interpreted entirely. We should seek to interpret Genesis the way the author intended for it to be interpreted in each instance. In this instance, figuratively, but in another instance, literally, and so on. How do we know which parts should be interpreted literally and which parts should be interpreted figuratively? By the context, although sometimes it’s difficult to tell. Nevertheless, that should be our goal. We should always let the context determine how we interpret the Bible and never seek to impose our own interpretation on it. The problem with taking all of Genesis figuratively is that we end up knowing little or nothing about how creation happened, we gain little or no insight into the nature of mankind, and we learn nothing about how sin entered the world. So then what good is a Bible, revelation, or God’s Word if it tells us nothing about anything? If it’s all symbolic, that’s what it boils down to. No. There is more here than symbolism. That’s why I reject an all-symbolic approach to the Bible.

Second, there’s the literal method of interpretation. Genesis 1:27, “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” This passage in Genesis must be interpreted literally in order to understand our special relationship with God as humans. If we are not created special, distinct from the lower animals, especially from the monkeys and apes, then we really are no different, then in fact we really are nothing more than highly evolved animals. But this is totally contradicted by everything taught in the whole Bible. God looks upon and treats men and women as special, and the basis for this special treatment is first explained here in the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. We can discuss and debate the details of what created “in the image and likeness of God” really means to us as humans, but as far as the teaching, it must be taken literally as true or else it’s saying nothing at all. So this verse must be taken literally in context. But what about other verses in Genesis 1, 2 and 3? Like I mentioned before, we’d want to interpret Genesis 2:2 in a more symbolic way, God “resting” as a metaphor, meaning, “God stopped creating.” Now the big question that divides even Bible- believing conservative Christians is, should the “days” of Genesis 1 be taken literally? “And there was evening and morning – the first day,” Genesis 1:3. “And there was evening, and there was morning – the second day,” Genesis 1:8. And so on, culminating in Genesis 2:2-3, “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.” There are many Christians who feel that the “days” of Genesis should be taken literally as 24-hour days, and this is certainly a possibility because it is within the power of God to create in such a short period of time, but there is also the possibility that the reference to “day” in Genesis is symbolic of an undetermined period of time. How is this possible? Genesis 2:4 (KJV) literally states, “These are the generations of the heavens and earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens.” Here, the word “day” obviously means more than a literal 24-hour day; it obviously means the whole of creation – “in the day the Lord God made the heavens and the earth.” So then the word “day” is already being used in a non-literal way early on in the Book of Genesis. Coupled with this is the later biblical teaching that “a thousand years is as a day to the Lord,” Psalm 90:4, 2 Peter 3:8. All of these factors give us reason to question a literal 24-hour “day” interpretation of the early chapters of Genesis. Not to mention the difficulty in fitting all the activity of creation into six literal days. For example, in the sixth day alone, imagine all that must take place under a literal 24-hour day scenario: God makes all the land creatures, and then God makes man, and then God puts man in the Garden to work it, and then God brings all the animals to man to name, and then in response to man’s loneliness God creates woman. Like I said before, the proper interpretation of any passage is the one that best communicates the intent of the author – what the writer was trying to say. Maybe the “days” of Genesis were never meant to be taken literally, although, again, there is still that possibility.

Third, there’s the contextual method of interpretation. Genesis 1:31, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning – the sixth day.” For very good reasons, I’ve shown that considering the entire context of the early chapters of Genesis, it best makes sense to interpret the references to “days” as not meaning literal 24-hour days, but rather periods of time, the lengths of which we do not know. This shouldn’t seem strange, because after all, even with the Creation account in Genesis, even with all the information we are given by God, there is still so very much we don’t know about how things began. We are told enough, evidently, through the use of literal and figurative language to communicate the essential truths we need to know, but there is a whole lot we simply don’t know about the universe, the earth, mankind, and other things long ago. The contextual method of interpretation doesn’t determine beforehand to interpret the Bible either literally or symbolically but lets the particular context determine how it should be interpreted – hopefully the Bible itself is clear enough as to the context to help us determine the meaning of any particular passage. Using this contextual method might mean we stick to a literal reading of the biblical passage unless there is some reason to suspect the context might want us to change to a more symbolic meaning. That’s what we see happening in the early chapters of Genesis. For example, in the passage that talks about God “resting” – that’s clearly metaphorical, symbolic, figurative language, as I’ve pointed out before. But the reference to the final stage of God’s creative activity, that’s a literal description: God began to create at a certain point and at certain point later he stopped creating. A reference to God “resting” is an indication that he stopped creating. Later on in the Book of Genesis, we’ll come to the passage in the Garden of Eden that describes man’s temptation and the Fall into sin. We will have to decide again as to the context and how to interpret this account. To give you a hint today – I see no reason to depart from a literal interpretation for the whole temptation and Fall scenario; at least the context doesn’t demand any departure from a straight-forward understanding of the text. Even though some very strange things occur, for example, a talking snake! That alone doesn’t necessarily require some kind of symbolic interpretation; stranger things have happened! But again, in interpreting the Book of Genesis – or the whole Bible, for that matter – it’s the context that determines how to interpret each individual passage. And if there’s nothing in the context that leads us away from the straightforward, literal interpretation, we should follow the literal way. But if there are good reasons to depart from the literal interpretation, we shouldn’t stubbornly cling to it simply out of tradition. Remember, the Bible should be interpreted in context, which sometimes means literally and sometimes means figuratively.

So where does this get us in knowing how to interpret the Bible? It requires of us to reflect deeply upon the Bible when we read it. It requires that we not say ahead of time, “I interpret the Bible literally,” or “I interpret the Bible symbolically,” but rather, “I interpret the Bible in context.” Now I’m not claiming that I always correctly interpret the Bible in context. I’m sure that I get it wrong sometimes, as does everyone, even the best of us. As the Apostle Paul says, “Now we see through a glass darkly; but then face to face; now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known,” 1 Corinthians 13:12. Now with that in mind, as we approach the relationship between the Bible and modern science, we want to avoid two extremes. The first extreme is to always assume that modern science is correct and then accommodate the Bible to it. Unfortunately, that’s what many do in respect to the theory of evolution. Science teaches that all living things began from a common ancestor and gradually, slowly, through variations evolved into higher forms of life culminating in humankind today. Some Christians take that as their starting point and then go to the Bible and reinterpret it in light of the theory of evolution. That is shameful capitulation. They make everything in the Genesis Creation account symbolic because that way they can say it doesn’t mean anything it says but only that God was there and present and connected – although they can’t say how – with the whole thing somehow. That’s an extreme that should be avoided. But on the other hand, there are some who start with the Bible and refuse to give any reference to science at all, or if they do refer to science, use bit and pieces that seem to fit the totally literal interpretation of Genesis. Now these people may have it right, but in order to have it right nearly everything of modern science must be ignored or discredited. But we need to be careful at this point because we must remember that we need to interpret the Bible, just as we need to interpret nature through science. In the end, the truth of God’s Word and the truth of true science will always be in harmony. But for now, just as Paul said, “We see through a glass darkly,” which also goes for our seeing of the Bible, that is, of our interpreting the Bible. I agree that much of modern science is mistaken, incorrect and blinded by a secular, materialistic bias, but I can’t see that all of it is incorrect. And I can also say that there are Christians who are mistaken in their reading and interpreting of the Bible. If you doubt that, just ask a room full of Christians to explain the Book of Revelations and you’ll see as many different interpretations as people. What does this prove? It proves that we have to approach the Bible and interpret it with humility, not thinking we “know it all.” There are some things that are so obviously fixed and settled that few differ in their interpretation, but on the other hand, there are some passages that require careful examination — and finally humility. I’m pretty confident I know what the Bible is describing, what Genesis is saying, about creation, I’m less confident in what science is saying about how things came to be, but I’m interested in listening because I just might learn something that helps me understand the Bible a little better. I think that’s the proper approach.


2 Responses to “So on the Seventh Day God Rested From His Work”

  1. Michelle Pugh Says:

    This reading was excellent and precise. I only wish that more authors would write in a manner of wanting the reader to understand their point. Today were living in a time where God’s word must be able to reach people. Therefore, this article is a benefit to those wanting to understand the Word God. In fact, this article helps an individual differentiate between Biblical truth and scientific truth. Overall, I enjoyed the article and found it to be helpful for my research paper.

  2. jeffshort Says:

    Michelle, I’m glad you found this message helpful. God bless.

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