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The first creation account ­— a poem based on number seven and the holiness of the Sabbath

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Counterintuitive as it may seem, the first creation story is not primarily about the creation of the universe. Rather, it is a poem about God’s institution of the Sabbath. Like a movie leading us along a path towards a magnificent vista, this entire chapter is leading us step by step towards the institution of the Sabbath, a foundational aspect of the Torah.

 

The final paragraph in this chapter about the Sabbath reads as follows:

 

(Sentence #1): Thus, the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their hosts. 

 

(Sentence #2): And Elokim finished on the seventh day 

His work which He had made;

 

(Sentence #3): And He rested on the seventh day 

from all His work which He had made. 

 

(Sentence #4): And Elokim blessed the seventh day and sanctified it;

because in it He had rested from all his work which Elokim created and made. (Genesis 2:1-3)

 

The Sabbath day is instituted on the seventh day of the creation of the universe. Therefore, the first chapter of Genesis can be regarded as an exquisitely constructed poem built around number seven and the seven days of the first week of creation.

 

Numbers had meaning in the ancient world. The number seven was recognized as representing the perfection of the Divine. In ancient Mesopotamia, the divine would have been pagan gods. The ziggurat in Babylon on which the biblical tower of Babylon story is based had seven stories. On the seventh story, closest to the heavens, was the temple of Marduk, the chief god of Babylon. The Armana letters found in an archive in Egypt were written on clay tablets, and consist primarily of 382 diplomatic correspondences between the New Kingdom Egyptian administration and its representatives in Canaan and Amurua, or neighboring kingdom leaders, written between about 1360 to 1332 BCE. Two of the letters mention the writer falling before the Egyptian Pharaoh seven times seven times. This would be acknowledging the godliness of the Pharaoh.1 The Gilgamesh myth mentions the number seven many times. Some are indicative of nothing more than a week, but others have religious implications in relation to pagan gods.

 

Interestingly, the first sentence of this story, which also happens to be the first sentence of the Bible, has seven Hebrew words.: 

 

Bereishis boro Elokim et hashomayim ve’et ho’oretz - In the beginning, G-d created the heaven and the earth.

 

The second sentence of the Torah has 14 words, and is therefore also a multiple of seven (2 x 7):

 

Veho’oretz hayeso tohu vovohu vechoshech al pnei sehom veru’ach Elokim merachefes al pnei hamoyim -  And the earth was without form (tohu), and void (vohu); and darkness was upon the face of the deep.   And the spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2).

 

For those Jews who had a written version of the Torah, these two sentences were meant to emphasize that the Torah is a profound document, that this chapter is an essay about number seven, and that everything that was created is related to the One who is represented by the number seven — namely, God Himself. 

 

It is worth noting, incidentally, that the opening sentence of the Bible has unusual wording in that its first Hebrew word bereishit is in the construct form, meaning “in the beginning of …”   However, the subject of the “of” is missing!  The usual way of saying “in the beginning” in Hebrew is barishona, meaning first of all, not bereishit. 

 

Many Jewish commentators consider this first sentence as being a general introduction to the creation story with an implied subject — i.e., “In the beginning of (everything).“ 

 

When they were written, these stories would have been transmitted primarily orally. I consider this first sentence as a wake-up sentence: “In the beginning of, God created the heaven and the earth.” What do you mean “in the beginning of”? This sentence makes no sense. In the beginning of what? “In the beginning of everything” of course!

 

The last paragraph of this chapter has a wonderful lilt to it. This is best appreciated in Hebrew, although it is also present to a degree in English. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the middle of each of the three sentences above which are labeled #2 to #4 contain the words “bayom hashevi’I” or “yom hashevi’I,” which mean “on the seventh day” or just “the seventh day.” This phrase therefore acts as a refrain for the passage. In addition, each of the sentences #2 to #4 contains seven words. Finally, the end of sentence #4 is a summary of the end of sentences #2 and #3. All these features provide a structure and rhythm to this paragraph that makes it stand out as a fitting ending to this chapter.

 

And those studying the Torah text in detail rather than listening to it orally might well have noted that this passage contains 35 words, again a multiple of seven.

 

Just as the Divine was conceptualized in the ancient world in terms of number seven, so the natural world was represented by the numbers six and 60.6 

 

We have vestiges of this system even today in our 12-month year (6 x 2) and 24-hour day (6 x 4). There is no scientific reason that the number of hours in a  day be a multiple of six. It is a made-up construct based on Mesopotamian convention. A sexagesimal system, i.e., a number system based on 60 (6 x 10), was also used in the ancient world. We also have vestiges of this system today with our 60-minute hour, 360-degree circle (60 x 6), and 180-degree triangle (60 x 3).  Again, this is an arbitrary system with no scientific foundation.

 

Within the number-six system framing the creation account one finds an expression of the order of God’s creative activities and hence order within the universe. This begins from the very beginning of creation and is emphasized by the Bible’s use of six days of creating. Hence, in Genesis I, God begins creating from “day one.” The notion of order is further emphasized by a poetic refrain found at the end of most days of creation — “And it was evening and it was morning the . . . day”).

 

Obviously, the universe was not created in six days. It was created in millions of years. Nor can these millions of years be chopped up into six phases of creation. Rather, this chapter reflects in a poetic manner the order and design pervading creation. Plus, it leads to the seventh day of creation by means of a numerical system whose meaning would have been familiar to people living in those days.

 

To biblical critics, the first creation account is just one of several manuscripts that found its way into what we know as the Bible. Others see the situation much differently. This chapter with its description of the institution of the Sabbath is like a small sapling that is spreading its branches throughout the Torah. Details of the Sabbath are found in all the so-called sources of the Torah and are progressively developed within these books. The point I am making is an important one. The chapters of Genesis should not be considered as isolated units. Rather, they are the introduction to topics that are developed in much greater detail later in the Torah.

 

The institution of the Sabbath is embedded deeply and irrevocably within creation. It is as much a part of creation as say the creation of the waters and the dry land. It cannot be changed to another day of the week as the Christians did.

 

The institution of the Sabbath also introduces to us some philosophical truisms. Adam had already been created before the seventh day, and there is no implication in the Bible that God’s sanctification of the Sabbath affected him in any way. Nevertheless, the creation of the Sabbath implies that God will continue to be involved in the affairs of humanity and they will not be left on automatic pilot. More than this, this chapter already implies the need for a people in history that will celebrate the sanctification of the Sabbath. In other words, the formation of an eternal Jewish people is already written into the very first chapter of the Bible.

 

The sanctification of the seventh day of creation also introduces to us aspects of God.

 

The Book of Leviticus states:

 

YKVK spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel and say to them: “You shall be holy, for I YKVK your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:1).

 

An overriding fundamental of Jewish law and ethics is the imitation of God. The Jewish people are to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5) because God Himself is holy. God is holy because he made a universe designed for holiness.

 

Holiness is about separation. A person who is holy in his behavior refrains from immersing him or herself in everything the universe has to offer, but rather makes separations between the holy and the profane. God Himself was the first to make separations that enabled the institution of holiness. He did this by creating days, and finally by resting and ceasing from creating on the seventh day. This is why God is holy.

 

The Sabbath will subsequently receive multiple mentions in the Torah and the details of its observance will be elaborated upon in each of the books of the Torah. A prominent mention is in the Ten Commandments, which uses much of the wording of Genesis 1. As God abstained from creating on the Sabbath day, and sanctified and blessed this seventh day, so should the Jewish people do so in their habitations.

 

This section of the Ten Commandments has an obvious chiastic structure. Chiastic structures are common in the Torah and it is helpful to recognize them. Firstly, it explains repetitions within a passage. Secondly, it is helpful to recognize the centerpiece of a chiasmus, since this is the main point that is being made in this literary form. In this instance, line C is the centerpiece, this being the total cessation of work within a household and a total reliance on God for its sustenance:3

.

A1. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it.

B1. Six days shall you labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is Sabbath to YKVK, your God.

C. You shall not do any work ­­— you and your son and your daughter, your slave and your maidservant and your animal, and the stranger within your gates —

​B2. For in six days YKVK made the heaven and the earth, the sea and all that is in them and He rested on the seventh day.

A2. Therefore, YKVK blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it (Exodus 208-11).

 

A further dimension to an understanding of the nature of the Sabbath is provided later in the Book of Exodus when the Sabbath is discussed in relation to the building of the Sanctuary. The Sabbath is now described as an indicator or a “sign” of a special relationship between God and the Jewish people and the means through which they become a holy people. Grossman points out that this passage is also is in the form of a chiasmus, with its apex at F:3

 

A1. Nevertheless, you must keep my Sabbaths

B1 for it is a sign between Me and you for your generations

C1. that you may know that I am YKVK Who sanctifies you.

D1. You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you;

E1. those who profane it shall be put to death, for whoever does work on it, that person shall be cut off from among its people.

F. Six days may work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a Sabbath of complete rest, holy to God;

E2. whoever does work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.

D2. The Children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath

C2. to make the Sabbath an eternal covenant for their generations.

B2. It is a sign forever between Me and the Children of Israel

A2. for in six days YKVK made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He ceased   from work and was refreshed (Exodus 31:13-17).

 

Grossman points out some differences between the first and second half of this chiasmus.3 The first half is directed at the individual, in the second person singular, while the second half is directed to the Children of Israel that they become sanctified as a holy people through the sign of the Sabbath.

 

This passage is connected to the construction of the sanctuary, and that the holiness of the Sabbath has to preserved during its construction. The Bible is hereby introducing the concept that the holiness of time is extended to the holiness of place and that the latter does not override the former. The holiness of time will be extended with the introduction of the festivals. The holiness of time and place will coalesce with the shemita cycle and the resting of the land during the seventh year. With this comes the notion that the Land of Israel itself is holy. Finally, it will be apparent from the Book of Leviticus that keeping the entire Torah, including especially laws relating to society and not just Jewish ritual, brings holiness to the Jewish people.

 

But why is the Sabbath so important that it constitutes the opening chapter of the Bible? An answer is that it testifies that on six days Elokim created the heavens and the earth, i.e., the entirety of the universe. In our modern era, and with our knowledge of science, it is difficult to hold that everything we see around us came into being by chance. Nevertheless, this was not the case in prior centuries. Moreover, it is easy to become so familiar with the nature around us that we forget that it all has a Creator. This Creator also has ethical demands on the Jewish people and the rest of humanity. Without awareness of the omnipotence of Elokim, these demands become meaningless.

 

The grains of all these concepts are implanted in the very first chapter of the Bible.

 

References:

  1. Armana letters in Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amarna_letters.

 

  1. Seventh Paragraph. Introduction in A Commentary on the Book of Genesis. Part One. From Adam to Noah by U.Cassuto, p 15. The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, 1998.

 

  1. “Shabbat of Sinai, Shabbat of the Mishkan” by Rav Yonatan Grossman in Torah Mietzion. New Readings in Tanach. Shemot. Eds: Ezra Bick and Yaakov Beasley. Maggid Books. Koren Publishers Jerusalem Ltd, p489, 2012.

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