Last time we talked about getting a grasp of the overarching Old Testament story. We looked specifically at the way the invasions and conquests of the Assyrians and Babylonians (detailed in 2 Kings) dramatically changed the course of Israelite history and the way these events generated many of the books of the Old Testament. For this exercise we are going to zero in on a related but slightly different category, a text that was added to an older Old Testament story in light of the Exile event.Genesis 1 is one of the most well known texts in the entirety of Scripture. Short of certain specific sayings of Jesus (like the Beatitudes or the Sermon on the Mount) or the Ten Commandments it might be the best known specific section of Scripture. Its also the center of a great deal of debate, especially at the intersect of faith and science. But as with any text we read we have to keep certain parts of the context in mind. When we read a specific section of Scripture we actually have three different layers of text going on.
1) The words themselves. When we read Scripture we are interacting with the specific words of the Bible (or usually a good English translation of the actual Hebrew or Greek). This element doesn’t really change. The words are the same today as they were a decade or a century ago.
2) The context of the words. Every word of Scripture is written for a time and place different than the one in which we currently live. Paul wrote to largely Gentile Christian churches in the 1st century Mediterranean world. Isaiah and his students wrote for exiled Jews in approx. the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. Revelation is written to 1st and 2nd century AD Christians suffering under specific Roman persecutions. These contexts help us to understand imagery and language which is unfamiliar today. By looking at other writings in the same period and understanding the worldview of those communities we can better translate those texts to today’s terms.
3) Our own context. Whenever we read Scripture we’re bringing our own world into it. Scripture is historically specific but in God’s consistent character (the God of the earliest OT is the same God as the God of the NT and the God of today) we learn about God’s vision for us and our world. Scripture is also a product of God’s work as well as a human author. The original context is important (or it wouldn’t have been written that way) but God’s Spirit breathes life into the words in ways that go beyond another historical document. So God’s word also speaks to where we are today and the situations we face.
These three pieces together help make up a good reading of Scripture. So how does our Old Testament timeline help us understand Genesis 1? Well Genesis 2 is actually the older version of the story. It existed long before the Genesis 1 version. So why did the Israelite communities need a new version? Well based on specific phrases in the text and the historical record of texts (the way ancient collections of the biblical texts show slight changes over time) we can date Genesis 1 to the Israelite community in exile in Babylon, around the 7th or 6th century BCE.
The Israelites needed a new text because they had been utterly defeated. In the ancient world getting defeated didn’t just mean your army was weak, it meant your gods were weak. The Israelite poets and priests and sages had been taken away into a foreign land, surrounded by towering idols and they were being mocked and harassed day after day, told that the idols had triumphed over their god. That they were abandoned now and with the temple in ruins, far from home, their god could no longer hear them.
Lament over the Destruction of Jerusalem
1 By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
2 On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
3 For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
4 How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
5 If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand wither!
6 Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy.
They were defeated in a way that had never happened before. The old words had been shattered just like the walls and the temple. The old words had been ground into dust and sand during an endless captive journey from Israel to Babylon. The old words had been silenced by the songs of Marduk and Nebo, the Babylonian gods who had delivered the Israelites to the Babylonians. And it was not just any song. The Babylonians had their own Creation song. The Enuma Elish. Which told of how the great god Marduk violently conquered the waters and brought forth the creation from the blood and gore of dead gods. Of how Marduk set all the stars and lights in the sky for the gods to reside there. And it gave it in a day by day account.
We read Genesis 1 and hear a story about science books and big bangs and evolution. Because we come to the text with only the first and third layer, the words themselves and our needs and concerns. We are prone to seeing science because that is the culture we’re coming from. But when we add in the middle piece, the context, and we look at the words and phrases in light of where they come from the meaning shifts. The storyteller and author isn’t worried about literal days and scientific processes.
This song is a resistance song, a song of rebellion against violence and idolatry. The Israelites are answering a question.
“Where is your god? Why have you been abandoned? What meaning is left for you in the world when our gods of violence have delivered you into our hands?”
And they reply with Genesis 1. “Our God is the God of all the Creation, He made the promised land and the desert in which we wandered and Babylon where we have been exiled. This world and all its beauty was spoken into life and order by the voice of our God, not the violence of yours. We are all of us made for dignity and true life, made in the image of our God. We were not born to be slaves of you or your gods. God created everything, the earth and the seas and the stars and they are good but they are not God. We are not alone or abandoned even here in Babylon”
Their new song answered new questions. And those answers, when we see them in their original context, still speak to our world today. The world around us is fundamentally good (even when it is skewed by brokenness), people are beloved by God and good (even when they too are skewed by brokenness). The world is intended for peace and growth, not violence. It doesn’t help us much with dinosaurs and cosmological events but these words still speak to us today, rooted in what they first meant to a people struggling to find God in suffering in a distant time and place. When we can bring together the words of Scripture, the world in which they were written and read and our concerns today we find that Scripture is still alive and speaking to us, ancient words coming to life in new ways (informed by the old!) to answer and teach today.
31God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.
2Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. 2And 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. 3So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth and the seas and skies and everything that creeps, crawls, lopes, swims and soars upon them. For six days God engages in the greatest work that has ever been, shaping the formless swirling nothingness into the living Creation. For six days great walls of water are shoved aside, mountains rise, stars move, life is breathed into dust and the living plants and animals spring up from the ground.
And then. God rests. After six days of noise and movement and effort, the Creation goes silent as God rests.
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 10But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.
I was not a great student. I would often, through laziness, trap myself in cycles of exhaustion and anxiety. I’d procrastinate instead of doing work, being conscious the whole time that I had something important hanging over my head. So I’d go out with friends, watch TV, play games etc. but never really enjoy them like I wanted to because my to-do list hung over my head. Then when something absolutely had to be done I had to work on it 24/7 as hard as I could because otherwise it wouldn’t get finished. It was not fun. And it was exhausting. I found myself napping all the time because I was always either stressed or sleep deprived. I was going week after week with no structure.
Life without structure starts to fray and come apart at the edges. This is why we often talk about Sabbath as a rhythm. It’s not just a day for rest but a way of organizing time every day, all week. We have a time for rest because we also have time for work. So when we work we truly work and when we rest we truly rest. God separated land and sky and sea. God separated day and night. And finally God separated work from rest. Even Jesus who critiqued the Pharisees for their corruption of Sabbath, affirmed the importance of it and often rested away from the crowds (and if you think you’ve got something so important to do you can’t rest ask if it’s more important than the ministry of Jesus).
Though it might not seem like it when you look at it now, life is only going to get harder to keep organized. There will always be more to do. There will always be one more thing. One more assignment. One more project. You can bury yourself in a pile of just one more. But unlike Egypt which forced endless toil on its people and its foreigners God gives His people rest. Doesn’t just give it but demands it.
And that’s important. It reminds us that God is bigger than all the works we can pile up. There are greater things in the world than stuff, grades, jobs and evaluations. God reminds us that we have other priorities. It’s no coincidence that God immediately moves from you keep the Sabbath to also all those around you. When we are willing to exploit ourselves with endless work we lose sight of the damage we can do to other people when we demand the same.
So how do you integrate Sabbath in your life? Does it mean worship? Does it mean rest? Or silence? Or stillness? Well it means all of those things. When we try and order our disordered lives there isn’t a simple one size fits all. But we are called to begin.
Find a little way that to live Sabbath every week.
Designate a homework free day. (But get it done the rest of the week!)
Or take a few hours one day a week to read a good book.
Set aside a few moments each day to do a devotional or read your bible.
Start to stake out some Sabbath in your world. Show priorities. Find a rhythm for your life.
We’ll come back to Sabbath in a couple of months and hit it again in a big way. So between now and then try to start finding little places for Sabbath in your life.