This is a rough paraphrase of the explanation from Dr. John Walton on Genesis 2:1-2. Dr. John Walton is a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Studies at Wheaton College. If you would like to read more about Dr. Walton's interpretation, I would strongly urge you to buy The NIV Application Commentary: Genesis.
Questions About The Seventh Day
The seventh day is the most important part of the creation account in Genesis. You might have thought in the past that day seven is sort of a letdown. After all, why would God need to rest? And what difference does that make to us? What does God resting have to do with creation? In fact, we often hear it called the six days of creation because we don’t know how the seventh day fits in. We tend to think of it as an afterthought, kind of a theological moment, maybe an application to some practice in the ancient world. But it doesn’t seem to us to have anything to do with creation. That’s especially true if we’ve thought of the account as having to do with objects and material, because, of course, there’s nothing material going on in day seven.
A Temple Account
This only shows us how our outsider status has prevented us from understanding this account. There’s something here that any insider would understand without a second thought and that we don’t get at all. Whether the insider was an Israelite or a Babylonian or an Egyptian or an Assyrian, it wouldn’t matter. They would see something in this text that we don’t see. In fact, if they were to read this text, they would complete it, and then they would say, “This is a temple account.” And we would be puzzled. We would say, “How can it be a temple account? I don’t see any reference to a temple here. How can you say it’s a temple account?” Then they would say, “It’s really very obvious.” And then we’d say, “It’s not obvious to us.” See, this is an insider-outsider problem going on here. It’s perfectly clear to them. And so they would have to explain it to us. They would say, “If God is resting, it’s a temple.” And we would still say, “Where in the world do you get that? How would you come to that conclusion?”
So we would have to be instructed to learn that in the ancient world gods rest in temples, and temples are constructed for gods to rest in. The whole equation holds together. So if a deity is resting, it’s got to be a temple account. That is not something that is inherent in our thinking, because we’re outsiders.
Image shared from Logos Bible Software
Not only is the temple the place where a deity rested, but we also find out that his resting in the temple doesn’t really have to do with relaxing. His resting in the temple has to do with the ruling because the temple is not just his personal private residence. The temple is the command center of the cosmos. It’s the control room. This is where the cosmos is run from. That’s why in the ancient world, often when they have a cosmology, the organizing, and ordering of the universe, then they have a temple building because you need headquarters—headquarters from which control is going to be exercised, where the deity is going to rule over that place that he has ordered. The temple is a place where God rests; that is, He takes up residence in order to rule over the ordered system that has been set up.
Now, we would even understand this better if we understood the theology of rest in the Bible. When God tells the Israelites that he’s going to give them rest from their enemies—book of Joshua, book of Deuteronomy. He’s going to give them rest from their enemies. Do we ever for a moment think that He’s talking about giving them more leisure time or giving them a chance to take a nap? We know that’s not the issue. The fact is they’ve been plagued by invasion and by foreigners coming in to take their lands, burn their crops, and God is going to give them rest from that chaos, from that anarchy. He’s going to give them rest, meaning that He’s going to bring some order and stability to their lives.
And that’s what was so exciting about what God was doing, that rest that he was going to bring. When Jesus says, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” That’s not, “I will give you a nap.” It doesn’t talk about relaxation because the very next line is, “Take my yolk upon you.” That rest that Christ is talking about is the order and stability of life in the kingdom, doing God’s kingdom work. When Hebrews talks about, “You have not yet entered that rest” in Heb 4, it is not saying it is not nap time yet. It is saying there is still a higher level of order and stability to come.
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Taking Up Residence to Rule
So if we understood the biblical theology of rest, we wouldn’t get so confused about what is going on in the Bible. God ceases—sabbath, cease. God ceases His ordering activity, He rests from that, in order to take up His rest in sacred space. Sacred space exists when God is there. God’s presence makes for sacred space. And when God is there, God is in control. God is ruling and He’s now in command. He’s occupying the command center.
When our presidents run for office, they’re not trying to get into the White House so they can sleep in the Lincoln bedroom or have a new place for their family to watch TV. They want to get into the White House so they can reside there not as personal living space, but to sit in the oval office behind the desk and rule the country. It’s not about relaxation. It’s about more than a residence. It’s about rules.
Now we can see that same kind of concept developing in the biblical text itself. When we look at Psalm 132: “Let us go to his dwelling place”—you can see that it’s talking about the temple. “Let us worship at his footstool”—the ark. “Arise, O LORD, come to your resting place”—the resting place is the temple. “You and the ark of your might”—His ability to do battle to protect His people among whom He lives. “For the LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his dwelling.” Again, His dwelling place. “This is my resting place”—He says—“forever and ever. And here I will sit enthroned.” God rules in His resting place, in His residence. And so we find that this is a temple account. This is about the house becoming sacred space, a place for God to reside, and to rule. It has that function of being sacred space and that’s what makes it so important.