Ancient Near Eastern Concepts of Divine Rest

The biblical world is not our world. The biblical text was written to communicate to original recipients (Israelites in the wilderness, Christians at Rome, etc.) using the language, thoughts, and images of their time. This means that we must do some work to understand what the text meant to the original readers. The fancy and intimidating name for this is historical, grammatical exegesis. Do not let that scare you. This refers to “unpacking” the text by understanding the word meanings, syntax and grammatical context of the verse or paragraph that one is studying. The historical (cultural) setting also sheds light on the meaning of the words, phrases, and concepts.

One example of this is what does it mean that “God rested” in Genesis 2:1-3? Rest in our time and place communicates taking a nap, leisure time, maybe a vacation. That is not what the Ancient Near East thought of when people of that time read about divine rest. The following is an excerpt from one of John Walton’s publications that helps the contemporary reader understand what “divine rest” communicated to the original readers.

THEOLOGY OF REST IN THE BIBLE in John H. Walton, The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2–3 and the Human Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2015), 47–52.

When God tells the Israelites that he is going to give them rest (nwḥ) from their enemies (Deut 12:10; Josh 1:13; 21:44; 2 Sam 7:1; 1 Kings 5:4), he is not talking about sleep, relaxation or leisure time. The rest that he offers his people refers to freedom from invasion and conflict so that they can live at peace and conduct their daily lives without interruption. It refers to achieving a state of order in society. Such rest is the goal of all the ordering activities that the Israelites are undertaking to secure their place in the land.

When Jesus invites people to “come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28), he is not offering a nap or leisure time. He is inviting people to participate in the ordered kingdom of God, where, even though they have a yoke, they will find rest. Furthermore, when the author of Hebrews refers to the rest that remains for the people of God (Heb 4:10–11), he is not referring to relaxation but to security and order in the kingdom of God.

In light of this usage, we can discern that resting pertains to the security and stability found in the equilibrium of an ordered system. When God rests on the seventh day, he is taking up his residence in the ordered system that he has brought about in the previous six days. It is not something that he does only on the seventh day; it is what he does every day thereafter. Furthermore, his rest is not just a matter of having a place of residence—he is exercising his control over this ordered system where he intends to relate to people whom he has placed there and for whom he has made the system function. It is his place of residence, it is a place for relationship, but, beyond those, it is also a place of his rule. Note Psalm 132:7–8, where the temple is identified both as God’s dwelling place and as his resting place. Psalm 132:14 goes on to identify this resting place as the place where he sits “enthroned.” The temple account in Ezekiel 40–48 also identifies this element clearly: “Son of man, this is the place of my throne and the place for the soles of my feet. This is where I will live among the Israelites forever” (Ezek 43:7).

When Jesus talks about the Sabbath, he makes statements that seem unrelated to rest if we think of it in terms of relaxation. In Matthew 12:8, he is the Lord of the Sabbath. When we realize that the Sabbath has to do with participating in God’s ordered system (rather than promoting our own activities as those that bring us order), we can understand how Jesus is Lord of the Sabbath. Throughout his controversies with the Pharisees, Jesus insisted that it was never a violation of the Sabbath to do the work of God on that day. Indeed, he noted that God is continually working (Jn 5:17). The Sabbath is most truly honored when we participate in the work of God (see Is 58:13–14). The work we desist from is that which represents our own attempts to bring our own order to our lives. It is to resist our self-interest, our self-sufficiency and our sense of self-reliance.

ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN CONCEPT OF DIVINE REST

It would not have been difficult for a reader from anywhere in the ancient Near East to take one quick look at the seven-day account and draw the conclusion that it was a temple story. That is because they knew something about the temples in the ancient world that is foreign to us. Divine rest in ancient temples was not a matter of simply residence. As we noted in Psalm 132, the temple was the center of God’s rule. In the ancient world, the temple was the command center of the cosmos—it was the control room from where the god maintained order, made decrees and exercised sovereignty. Temple-building accounts often accompanied cosmologies because after the god had established order (the focus of cosmologies in the ancient world), he took control of that ordered system. This is the element that we are sadly missing when we read the Genesis account. God has ordered the cosmos with the purpose of taking up his residence in it and ruling over it. Day seven is the reason for days one through six. It is the fulfillment of God’s purpose.

In the ancient world, a god’s place in his temple is established so that people can relate to him by meeting his needs (ritually). That is not the case in Israel, where God has no needs. He wants to relate to his people in an entirely different way. Despite this difference, it is the temple that remains the focus of this relationship as elsewhere in the ancient world. When God entered the temple, he established sacred space. Sacred space is the result of divine presence and serves as the center and source of order in the cosmos. In this “home story,” God is not only making a home for people; he is making a home for himself, though he has no need of a home for himself. If God does not rest in this ordered space, the six days are without their guiding purpose. The cosmos is not just a house; it is a home.

These ideas are supported not only by biblical theology, by lexical semantics and by comparative study with the ancient Near East; they are supported by the connection to a seven-day period. If this cosmic origins story has to do with the initiation of the cosmos as sacred space, then we should inquire as to how sacred space is typically initiated in the Bible and the ancient world when a temple is involved.

Solomon spent seven years building the house to be used as the temple of God in Jerusalem. When the house was complete, however, all that existed was a structure, not a temple. It was ready to be a temple, but it was not yet functioning like a temple, and God was not dwelling in it. Consequently the temple did not exist even though the structure did. What constituted the transition from a structure that was ready to be a temple to an actual functioning temple? How did the house become a home? This is an important question because there is a comparison to be drawn if Genesis 1 is indeed a temple text.

We find that in both the Bible and the ancient Near East there is an inauguration ceremony that formally and ceremonially marks the transition from physical structure to functioning temple, from house to home. In that inauguration ceremony, the functions of the temple are proclaimed, the functionaries are installed and rituals are begun as God comes down to inhabit the place that has been prepared by his instruction. It is thus no surprise that in Genesis 1 we find the proclamation of functions and the installation of functionaries. More importantly, we should note that in the Bible and the ancient world, the number seven figures prominently in the inauguration of sacred space.

If we therefore ask about the significance of seven days in the account, the biblical and ancient Near Eastern background provides the key. It is not that God decided to build the house in six days and added a Sabbath to make a theological point. We must remember that the audience of this account is Israel, not Adam and Eve. We might imagine a scenario in which Moses communicates to the Israelites in the wilderness (hypothetically, realizing that the book makes no such claims). This shift in our perspective is extremely important. Expanding on that idea, we can imagine not only a setting (Moses communicating to Israelites); we can imagine an event. As a thought experiment, let’s consider the scenario of Moses sitting down with the elders of the people on the eve of the tabernacle dedication at the foot of Sinai.

He is trying to help the Israelites understand the gravity of what is about to happen. They are ready to establish sacred space defined by the indwelling presence of God for the first time since Eden. So he explains to them that God had planned for the space.

Reading the chapters as a home story allows the emergence of rich theology that is obscured by reading the text as a house story. We learn that, even though God has provided for us, it is not about us. The cosmos is not ours to do with as we please but God’s place in which we serve as his co-regents. Our subduing and ruling are carried out in full recognition that we are caretakers. Whatever humanity does, it should be directed toward bringing order out of non-order. Our use of the environment should not impose disorder. This is not just a house that we inhabit; it is our divinely gifted home, and we are accountable for our use of it and work in it.

If you desire more information about this, you can also consult:

Divine Rest and Temples in Cosmogonies from John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 110–119.

Hurowitz, V. A. I Have Built You an Exalted House. JSOTSup 115; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992.

John H. Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 196–199.

John H. Walton, Genesis 1 as Ancient Cosmology (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2011), 178–184.

Andreasen, N.-E. The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-Historical Investigation. SBL Dissertation Series. Missoula, Mont.: Society of Biblical Literature, 1972.

Laansma, J. I Will Give You Rest. Tübingen: Mohr, 1997.

John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009), 71–91.

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