The number seven is a big deal in the Bible. Why? It’s a symbolic representation of key concepts in the Bible. Tim outlines the symbolic usage of seven and sheds new light on how a person’s practice of taking a sabbath or resting every seventh day is “woven into the fabric of the universe.”
“Genesis 1 isn’t just telling you about what type of world you’re living in; it’s showing you, as a Israelite reader, that your life of worship rhythms are woven into the fabric of the universe.”
Welcome to our second episode tracing the theme of seventh-day rest in the Bible!
In part 1 (0-18:30), Tim shares some of the numeric symbolism in Genesis 1. The opening line of Genesis 1 has seven words, and the central word, untranslated in English, is two Hebrew letters, the first and last letters of the Hebrew alphabet: aleph and taw.
When one isolates the theme of time in Genesis 1, another design pattern emerges that provides a foundation for all of Israel’s rituals of sacred time.
Tim points out that there are many other ways the number seven is symbolic in the Genesis narrative: there are seven words in Genesis 1:1, and fourteen words in Genesis 1:2. There are seven paragraphs in Genesis 1:1-2:3 marked by “evening and morning.” The concluding seventh paragraph in Genesis 2:1-3 begins three lines which have seven words each (Gen 2:2-3a).
In part 2 (18:30-28:30), Tim summarizes a series of details about the literary design of Genesis ch. 1 from Umberto Cassuto's commentary on Genesis:
"In view of the importance ascribed to the number seven generally, and particularly in the story of Creation, this number occurs again and again in the structure of our section. The following details are deserving of note:
(a). After the introductory verse (1:1), the section is divided into seven paragraphs, each of which appertains to one of the seven days. An obvious indication of this division is to be seen in the recurring sentence, And there was evening and there was morning, such-and-such a day. Hence the Masoretes were right in placing an open paragraph [i.e. one that begins on a new line] after each of these verses. Other ways of dividing the section suggested by some modern scholars are unsatisfactory.
(b–d). Each of the three nouns that occur in the first verse and express the basic concepts of the section, viz God [אֱלֹהִים ʾElōhīm] heavens [שָׁמַיִם šāmayim], earth [אֶרֶץ ʾereṣ], are repeated in the section a given number of times that is a multiple of seven: thus the name of God occurs thirty-five times, that is, five times seven (on the fact that the Divine Name, in one of its forms, occurs seventy times in the first four chapters, see below); earth is found twenty-one times, that is, three times seven; similarly heavens (or firmament, רָקִיעַ rāqīaʿ) appears twenty-one times.
(e). The ten sayings with which, according to the Talmud, the world was created (Aboth v 1; in B. Rosh Hashana 32a and B. Megilla 21b only nine of them are enumerated, the one in 1:29, apparently, being omitted)—that is, the ten utterances of God beginning with the words, and … said—are clearly divisible into two groups: the first group contains seven Divine fiats enjoining the creation of the creatures, to wit, ‛Let there be light’, ‘Let there be a firmament’, ‘Let the waters be gathered together’, ‘Let the earth put forth vegetation’, ‘Let there be lights’, ‘Let the waters bring forth swarms’, ‘Let the earth bring forth’; the second group comprises three pronouncements that emphasize God’s concern for man’s welfare (three being the number of emphasis), namely, ‘Let us make man’ (not a command but an expression of the will to create man), ‘Be fruitful and multiply’, ‘Behold I have given unto you every plant yielding seed’. Thus we have here, too, a series of seven corresponding dicta.
(f). The terms light and day are found, in all, seven times in the first paragraph, and there are seven references to light in the fourth paragraph.
(g). Water is mentioned seven times in the course of paragraphs two and three.
(h). In the fifth and sixth paragraphs forms of the word חַיָּה ḥayyā [rendered ‘living’ or ‘beasts’] occur seven times.
(i). The expression it was good appears seven times (the seventh time—very good).
(j). The first verse has seven words.
(k). The second verse contains fourteen words—twice seven.
(l). In the seventh paragraph, which deals with the seventh day, there occur the following three consecutive sentences (three for emphasis), each of which consists of seven words and contains in the middle the expression the seventh day:
And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which
He had done.
So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it.
(m). The words in the seventh paragraph total thirty-five—five times seven.
To suppose that all this is a mere coincidence is not possible.
§ 6. This numerical symmetry is, as it were, the golden thread that binds together all the parts of the section and serves as a convincing proof of its unity against the view of those—and they comprise the majority of modern commentators—who consider that our section is not a unity but was formed by the fusion of two different accounts, or as the result of the adaptation and elaboration of a shorter earlier version."
U. Cassuto, A Commentary on the Book of Genesis: Part I, From Adam to Noah (Genesis I–VI 8), trans. Israel Abrahams (Jerusalem: The Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, 1998), pages 13–15.
Tim says all of this numerical symbolism is completely intentional. The authors want us to learn that seven represents both a whole completed creation and a journey to that completeness.
In part 3 (28:30-41:00), Jon asks why the number seven became so symbolic in ancient Hebrew culture. Tim says the origins of the number seven being associated with completeness is likely tied to the lunar calendar of moon cycles. The biblical Hebrew word for “month” is “moon” (חדש). Each month consisted of 29.5 days, and each month consisted of four 7.3-day cycles, making a “complete” cycle of time. However, the sabbath cycle is independent of the moon cycle, and sabbaths do not coincide with the new moon. It is patterned after creation, and stands outside of any natural cycle of time.
Tim then makes an important note on Hebrew word play. Seven was symbolic in ancient near eastern and Israelite culture and literature. It communicated a sense of “fullness” or “completeness” (שבע “seven” is spelled with the same consonants as the word שבע “complete/full”). This makes sense of the pervasive appearance of “seven” patterns in the Bible. For more information on this, Tim cites Maurice H. Farbridge’s book, Studies in Biblical and Semitic Symbolism, 134-37.
In part 4 (41:00-52:30), Jon asks what it means for God to rest?
In response, Tim says there are two separate but related Hebrew concepts and words for rest.
The Hebrew word shabat means “to cease from.” God ceases from his work because “it is finished” (Gen 2:1). Compare with Joshua 5:12, “The manna ceased (shabat) on that day….”
The Hebrew word nuakh means “to take up residence.” Compare with Exodus 10:14, “The locusts came up over the land of Egypt and rested (nuakh) in all the land.” When God or people nuakh, it always involves settling into a place that is safe, secure, and stable. 2 Samuel 7:1 says, “Now when King David dwelt in his house, for Yahweh had provided rest from his enemies….”
The drama of the story, Tim notes, is the question as to whether humans and God will nuakh together? All of this sets a foundation for later biblical stories of Israel entering in the Promised Land, a land of rest.
In part 5 (52:30-end), Tim asks what it means that God blessed the seventh day?
Tim cites scholar Mathilde Frey:
“Set apart from all other days, the blessing of the seventh day establishes the seventh part of created time as a day when God grants his presence in the created world. It is then his presence that provides the blessing and the sanctification. The seventh day is blessed and established as the part of time that assures fruitfulness, future-orientation, continuity, and permanence for every aspect of life within the dimension of time. The seventh day is blessed by God’s presence for the sake of the created world, for all nature, and for all living beings.” (Mathilde Frey, The Sabbath in the Pentateuch, 45)
Tim says in Genesis 1, the symbolism of seven is a view that the “seventh day” is the culmination of all history. Tim cites scholar Samuel H. Balentine.
“Unlike the previous days, the seventh day is simply announced. There is no mention of evening or morning, no mention of a beginning or ending. The suggestion is that the primordial seventh day exists in perpetuity, a sacred day that cannot be abrogated by the limitations common to the rest of the created order.” (Samuel H. Balentine, The Torah’s Vision of Worship, 93)
Tim also cites scholar Robert Lowry: “The seventh-day account does not end with the expected formula, “there was evening and morning,” that concluded days one through six. Breaking the pattern in this way emphasizes the uniqueness of the seventh day and opens the door to an eschatological interpretation. Literarily, the sun has not yet set on God’s Sabbath.” (Richard H. Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, 90)
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