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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields: Was God Tired and in Need of Rest after Creation?

Categories Hebrew and You

I suspect the answer to this question is obvious to most who might read this column. Hopefully, however, demonstrating the answer will prove helpful.

Genesis 2:1–3 is the conclusion of the first part of the creation story. (The second part, Gen 2:4–25, focuses in on the creation of mankind, of course.) After the six days of creation, in Gen 2:1 we read that the heavens and the earth and their host were completed. Most English translations render the verb in the second half of verse 2 as rest: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his labor which he had done.”

As I write this, my wife is working an extra day on the weekend. Just before she left, she asked, “What are you going to do while I’m at work?” I told her I was going to work as well. If she should call me and ask how I am doing, and I say, “I’m resting from my labor, which I have done during the past week,” she will get an image in her head that does not correspond to what I told her I would be doing while she was working.

In the same way, when people read that God “rested” from his work, they might think he grew tired, so he needed to sleep or relax. But did all that massive work of creation really tire God? Let’s look at three things: the Hebrew word behind the English “rest,” the nature of translation, and the larger context of Scripture.

The Hebrew Word Translated “Rest”

The Hebrew word translated “rest” in Gen 2:2–3 is the שָׁבַת (šābat) in the Qal stem. Remember that there are five main Hebrew verb stems, combining Piel-Pual and Hiphil-Hophal. Each of these five stems must be treated as a separate word. So, to study a Hebrew word requires finding all the occurrences of the root in the Qal stem. It is also necessary to pay attention to collocations, that is, words that often go together. שָׁבַת in the Qal occurs 27 times and can be categorized into four collocations.

  1. Used absolutely (i.e., without any modifying phrases) with subject having an implied action (Gen 8:22; Isa 14:4, 4; 24:8, 8; 33:8; Prov 22:10; Lam 5:15; Neh 6:3)
  2. Used absolutely with subject having no implied action (Lev 26:34, 35a; Josh 5:12; 2 Chr 36:21)
  3. Modified by a prepositional phrase with מִן, min (Gen 2:2, 3; Jer 31:36; Hos 7:4; Job 32:1; Lam 5:14)
  4. Modified with the direct object Sabbath, whether explicitly (Lev 23:32; 25:2; 26:35b [in relative clause]) or implicitly (Exod 16:30; 23:12; 31:17; 34:21, 21)

After reading through all these passages, we see two clear meanings. The first is “cease an action.” In all the occurrences of use 1, שָׁבַת means the action implied in the subject ceases. In use 3, שָׁבַת means that the action expressed by the object of the preposition מִן ceases. The second meaning is “celebrate Sabbath.” This is true even in the Exodus passages, though the direct object Sabbath is only implied.

In use 2, Josh 5:12 is speaking of the cessation of the manna appearing. Only Lev 26:34 and 2 Chr 36:21, parallel expressions, are possibly ambiguous; the meaning of the English translation rest might mean recovering from weariness. However, since in all the other occurrences שָׁבַת must refer to the cessation of some action, then without confirmation that these two passages mean recovery from weariness, it is best to take them to mean cessation. At any rate, the meaning of the word in Gen 2:2–3 is clear. God did not rest, because he was tired. He ceased from his work, because it was finished (but see the PS at the end of the blog for an interesting consideration).

On the Nature of Translation

So what is happening? One of the reasons to learn the biblical languages is because knowing them helps (1) eliminate interpretations based on a translation that the original does not allow and (2) suggest interpretations based on the original that may not appear from the translation. In the figure below, the shaded circle of meanings for שָׁבַת represents legitimate choices. The unshaded area of the circle of meanings of English rest must be rejected. The meaning “celebrate Sabbath” is not suggested by the English word rest.

Overlapping Meaning Ranges of Sabbath and Rest

sabbath-rest

(View the full image, here)

There are some translations that have made the clarification: God’s Word translation, “he stopped the work” he had been doing; GNB, “stopped working”; NET, “he ceased.” The translation “rest” is not wrong, but it can be misleading. If that is true, we might wonder why most of the more recent English translations do not render with something more clear. I can only guess, but here is a possible explanation. This verse is well-known by people, even those who are not familiar with the Bible. If a modern translation changes a text too much from the commonly heard version, readers may become suspicious. Suspicion may reduce the number of people using the version. So, since the translation is valid, it stands. Please do not begin to think this pragmatic decision is evil or poorly motivated. In foreign Bible societies preparing Bibles for cultures that do not have the Word of God, translations must have the quality of acceptability to the target readers. This is equally true in English-speaking regions.

Other Contexts

The meaning of שָׁבַת given above is confirmed by passages such as Ps 121:3–4. God never grows weary. His strength is infinite. A seemingly difficult text is Exod 31:17, which says, “and on the seventh day he ceased [שָׁבַת] and he was refreshed [from the root נוח, nwḥ].” In light of what we have seen, Exod 31:17 must be understood as an anthropomorphism. Exodus 20:8–11 shows that the purpose of Sabbath is to honor God as creator. The violation of Sabbath is a denial of that honor to God. That is why the penalty is so severe (Exod 31:14).

That there is associated with the Sabbath the benefit of recuperation for man and beast is a side benefit and a blessing from God (Deut 5:14). He knows that we do get tired and he created us to rest (נוח). He teaches us by his own example, hence the stark anthropomorphism of Exod 31:17.

The Israelites were under Sabbath law. All people, though perhaps not under specific Mosaic ordinances, are obligated to honor God as creator (Rom 1:21). It may be permissible for Christians to garden or mow on the seventh day, or even the first day of the week (Rom 14:5), but part of honoring God means acting according to God’s intended design. That includes taking care to cease from labor and remember God as creator. In this way God has provided the Sabbath to strengthen us both spiritually and physically.

PS

The first half of v. 2 reads, “And God completed on the seventh day his work, which he had done.” Does this mean that God completed his work on the seventh day, i.e., he worked also on the seventh day and then rested, or does it mean that his work was finished on the sixth day? If the latter, then the seventh day is actually the day the Lord ceased from his labor. The Septuagint actually reads God completed his works “on the sixth day”! So they made it clear that God did not work on the seventh day. If the former, then vv. 2b-3 describe the work God did; namely, he ceased (perhaps from his creation of material things) and created Sabbath itself and then blessed the seventh day and set it apart.

Perhaps you would like to follow the procedure done here and see if you can determine the meaning of וַיְכַל בּ, from כִּלָּה, killâ, collocated with the preposition בּ, b.

________________________

Lee M. FieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee's innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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