In Genesis chapter 1, God creates a beautiful and ordered world out of chaotic darkness, all in six days. And on the seventh day, God rests. Modern conversations about these seven days usually focus on historical and scientific questions. People have been debating how these seven days relate to our own modern conceptions about the timing and processes of the universe's origins for generations. And while it’s a fascinating question, it’s hijacked all of our attention. There’s a more fundamental question: What did the biblical authors, in their own ancient cultural context, mean by describing the origins of the cosmos in a seven-day sequence?
If we can put our modern controversies aside and ask what the seventh day meant to ancient Israelites, a whole new world opens up, literally and metaphorically! The seventh day is a common biblical theme that is repeated in dozens of stories and poems throughout the Hebrew Bible. The number seven is spelled with the same letters as the Hebrew word "complete" or "full," and it’s an image of complete goodness. Seven is also a number with strong symbolic connections to the ancient Jewish calendar and to the sacred space of the tabernacle and temple. In the Bible, when something happens in a pattern of seven, it usually involves God rescuing his people out of darkness and death and into a period of abundance or rest in his presence. This is why Jewish people celebrate this seventh-day rest, or the Sabbath, every week and why the festivals of the Jewish calendar revolve around this pattern of seven. It’s about resting in the presence of God, mirroring the sequence we see in Genesis.
Jesus was activating all of these symbols of seven when he launched his public mission on the Sabbath, announcing that the ultimate year of Jubilee was beginning through him (Luke 4:14-20). He said that he was "lord of the Sabbath," releasing the divine goodness of seventh-day rest out into the world and bringing healing and life (Matthew 12:1-13). Jesus timed his conflict with Jerusalem's leaders to take place during Passover, a seven-day Jewish festival (Mark 14:12). He was executed and placed in a tomb, where his body lay during the Sabbath (Mark 15:42 and 16:1). And when Jesus raised from the dead, it was the first day of a new week (Mark 16:2), that is, a new creation pattern of seven!
Jesus' resurrection marked the beginning of a new age where God's light and life shone into the darkness and brought hope of the ultimate seventh-day rest of the new creation. When we take time to set our modern assumptions aside, we see the rich symbolism of the seven-day sequence and Sabbath rest of Genesis 1 and how this symbolism is woven throughout the entire biblical story leading to Jesus’ sacrifice and resurrection.