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Course on the Pentateuch – Exegesis of Genesis 2:1-4 – (The Seventh Day)

imageThus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made. These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens …

Verse 1 is a kind of first closing of the first tale of creation (see also 2:4a …  These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth …). Of particular interest is – comparing Gen 1:1 in the beginning God created the heaven and the heart – that the author adds to the heaven and earth the phrase and all the host of them. The hebrew word is tsebà that indicates both the heavenly divisions of the angels as well as the military deployments, that is, the armies. Here the expression indicates that not only heaven and earth were created, but also all that is in them, i.e. angels and men. Therefore I think that the exact translation is: heaven, earth and their worlds, that is, everything that belongs to the heaven and everything that belongs to the earth.

The seventh day. The number seven has a strong symbolic value. It indicates the totality and, in this case, a complete action. After to have worked for six days, the seventh day which represents the crowning of the work done by God. The hebrew word that corresponds to the number seven – shevà‘ – has a sound similar to the central theme of these verses – i.e.  to cease from work, to rest – expressed by the hebrew verb shavàt. So the author binds the seventh day to the theme of God’s rest, which is then the seventh day. In addition, as a whole, the text of creation is included in the sevenfold structure of the week.

When did Israel reach the consciousness of the shabbat as the culmination of the week? At the time of the great deuteronomic reform accomplished in Judah (520-515 BC) during the rebuilding of the Temple. However the origin of the week is to traced back to Mesopotamian culture, where the calendar was based on lunar phases that determined the length of a month. If a lunar month lasted approximately 28 days, then it should consist of four seven-day periods, i.e. a week. Within this calendar, the seventh day was called shibutum and it merely indicated the crescent moon quarter. Later and in a Jewish environment, it assumed a ritual value, becoming the shabbat. However, as in Babylon, even in Judea, the settenary structure with the Sabbath as its fulfillment has a reference to cosmological order, i.e. to God (or gods) and to what God does over time.

The Jews abandoned the mythological character of the ebdomadarian structure inherited from Babylonian culture. For Jews the stars were not gods, as in the East. To cyclical time  – linked to the cycles of nature – Jews prefer the finalist structure of time: human activity aims at the seventh day, that is, to a fulfillment. So the week is completely stripped of the references to the lunar phases on which the Babylonian calendar was pinned. There are still in the Bible references to a monthly celebration of the shabbat (see Os 2:13, Am 8:5, Is 1:13).

Some scholars maintain that the theme of the Sabbath in Dt 5:12-15 – the second commandment – preceded the ebdomadic formulation present in Genesis. So the theological element of the seventh day as the summit of the week comes from the Deuteronomy. On the other hand, the text of the second commandment in Exodus 20:8-11 comes from the the theology of shabbat in Genesis.

The seventh day is not meant to be a day of idleness. The Shabbath day is the day of the fulfillment of God as it is indicated by the verb to bless. The hebrew verb qadashto sanctify – reveals instead that the shabbat belongs to God. In this sense there is a Shabbath of God and a Shabbath of man. God’s Shabbath is the fulfillment of the history. The Saturday’s celebration is a ritual anticipation of that fulfillment. Probably this is the meaning of the God’s rest in Hebrews 4.

The 6 + 1 structure also returns in a very important text, i.e. Es 24,12-18. In it, God commands Moses to climb the mountain and for six days the cloud covers the mountain. On the seventh day YHWH calls Moses and he talks to him. Therefore the seventh day is devoted to the dialogue with God and it is also the day in which God manifests his glory – in Hebrew kavod – as is shown in Exodus 24:17-18.

From all this it emerges that the shabbat – as it was conceived in Judea at the end of the sixth century. B.C. – was a day of rest and praise. Resting as a sign of the final rest in the glory of God, praising and praying as a response to the manifestation of God’sglory.

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Simone Venturini

Writer and Researcher at Vatican Secret Archives, Professor of Bible at Pontifical University of the Holy Cross od Rome

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