And God blessed the seventh day, and made it holy.
The idea that God both blessed and sanctified the seventh day in creation is so familiar to us that we have forgotten how radical and counter-cultural the reality of sacred time truly is.
In the biblical imagination, the act of blessing (the word used here is vayevarekh, from ברך) involves the pouring out of God’s life-giving power, filling the recipient for a particular purpose. In the creation account, God blesses the fish, the birds, the animals, and the humans, delegating to them all a share of God’s life-giving power, seen in the capacity to reproduce.
God also delegates creative power to the land and water, infusing them with the capacity to bring forth life (fish, birds, and animals). God’s blessings are always reproductive in that they participate in God’s abundance, and so they expand and grow as they are given and shared.
All of this we can readily understand and accept. Our experience confirms it. It is not hard for us to associate blessing and abundance with the physical world: people have babies, maples release millions of whirlybird seeds, aphids reproduce at astronomical rates (as Annie Dillard has written about), etc.
But the physical elements of creation are not the only ones blessed by God on the Bible’s first page. Time, too, receives God’s blessing. “And God blessed the seventh day.”
What’s that, you say? Time is filled with God’s life-giving, reproductive power? How’s that?
The creation poem goes a step further: God hallowed time as well; time is holy (qadosh). Qadosh is a very important word. This is its first appearance in the Bible, and the only time it’s used in the creation account. It is not used for sea grass or sea bass, hippos or humans. The seventh day is the only element of creation made holy by God.
“To make holy” is similar to “bless” in that God pours out God’s life-giving power into an object, filling it with God’s presence. Whereas the blessing in creation conferred reproductive power, “to hallow” is to empower for a sacred task.
This makes sense with an object we can see and touch, like Moses’ staff, the Temple or an altar. But here God fills a day with life-giving power to fulfill a sacred task. What does that even mean?
The creation poem’s claim is almost incomprehensible to us, because for us time is linear, entirely desacralized. It is a line composed of an unending sequence of moments, which we can cut up into fractions of seconds and (attempt to) manage to increase our efficiency and productivity. On the line we orient towards the future and strive to make progress. Failing to do so is tantamount to failing at life. Judith Shulevitz was certainly right to say that “we live in a temporally discombobulated society” (The Sabbath World, 19).
Thankfully, there’s nothing sacred about a timeline (pun intended). For the people of Israel, time was not linear; it was more like a flower. Imagine a Black-eyed Susan, with overlapping and interlacing petals, all connected around a center, from which they grow, and from which their vitality and stability come.
Or, look at this gorgeous painting by my wife, Mariah, titled “Shabbat.” Here, time is composed of overlapping loops that all converge in the center, where God dwells. Each loop is like a week, which begins and ends in Sabbath. As Norman Wirzba has said, Sabbath is “the week’s fulfillment and inspiration” (Living the Sabbath, 20). In this image time moves forwards and backwards. The joy and delight of Sabbath flow into the first half of the week, and the second half is spent in anticipation. Every week is advent when Sabbath is the center. And in this time-image, the point is not to “get ahead” as quickly as possible, but to spend as much time in the center as possible. As a wise former student of mine once said, “the whole purpose of time is to come close to God’s presence.”
The Sabbath apprentices us in the practice of present-tense living. It invites us to slow down, to abandon the rat-race for one day each week, to release our white-knuckle grip on our lives and lean into trust, to open our hearts to gratitude, to remember what brings us delight and then to do that.
But in order to do that, we have to do something else first. We have to move, as Simon Carey Holt has said,
from one experience of time to another; from time that is linear and sequential, purposeful and progressive, directed toward a goal, to a time that is not directional in shape, but a spherical whole that draws the pieces of yesterday, today, and tomorrow together. As such, Sabbath is about much more than ceasing work. It’s about reconnecting with our origins, living fully the present moment, and anticipating the freedom for which we are ultimately destined. It is time given to ‘being’ and ‘stillness’ over ‘production’ and ‘movement’. It is time for the soul.
I don’t know about you, but I long for experiences of this order of time in my life—experiences that reorient me to my truest identity, that remind me who I am and who my neighbor is, that pick up the shattered pieces of my soul and gently stitch them back together. The Sabbath offers this to us week in and week out, if only we would heed the call.
I will close with the words of travel writer Pico Iyer, who names well the urgency of a Sabbath reorientation. “In an age of speed, nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention. And in an age of constant movement, nothing is more urgent than sitting still” (The Art of Stillness).
Thanks for this stimulating piece on a Sunday morning. It augments well Jon Pott’s piece a couple of days ago. Reclaiming the Sabbath is very good for all of us. Your piece reminds me of Jon Levenson’s depiction of eternal life, on Mount Zion, in his book with Kevin Madigan on The Resurrection for Jews and Christians. I like your piece very much, but I’m not convinced. Maybe I’m too much influenced by Hendrikus Berkhof’s suggestions in his marvelous book, Christ the Meaning of History, and also in his lectures on eschatology, Well-Founded Hope. He too rejects the prison of the Cartesian timeline, and he too considers time to be one of God’s great gifts to us (and therefore to be expected in some way in “the life of the world to come,”), but if not with the Torah than at least with the prophets, time has a direction, a yearning, a longing, an expectation, and history is not a mirage. Judging by the two Hebrew tenses of the verb, isn’t time more like a moving wave that we are riding? But I will do my best to open myself to what you have written here, and with further contemplation maybe come around to it.
I wonder if this depiction of time necessarily contradicts the biblical presentation of history having a direction, goal, yearning, etc…? Perhaps the discovery of time’s relativity and connection to physical space is relevant? Perhaps God has something surprising in store for us when we finally confront the reality of eternity, and of our eternal sabbath?
Thanks for your thoughtful reading and response, Daniel. I think, perhaps, you may be reading more into what I’ve said than I meant—perhaps, too, I was not as clear as I could have been. On the one hand, no single metaphor will fully describe how the ancient Hebrews viewed time. I find the two images I offered here to be the most compelling, but they are incomplete, and at some point they both break down. Time did, also, have a linear character. History was certainly not a mirage. In fact, history was their link to God’s blessings, the horizon that oriented them. And time certainly had a destination. The destination was the center, where God’s dwelt, in the eternal present where past and future converged. The whole point of living was to get close to the center. Heschel said the Sabbath brought you “adjacency to eternity.” Each loop could be a week long—Sabbath to Sabbath. But a loop could be a year, from Yom Kippur to Yom Kippur. All of history could be a loop, even.
And other images also work well. Your image of the wave is nice. I’ve also thought of a mountain where the path wraps circularly around the base leading up to the top, so that each revolution brings you back to the spot where you started, but your vantage point has changed (Mark Twain was supposed to have said “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”), and the destination is the summit, the eschaton. So many psalms depict time as a path, and life/discipleship as walking on it (or, “rolling out your path” as the Hebrew image of Ps 37.5 has it). The options are manifold, and each offer different insights. To say time is “centered” as opposed to “linear,” though, is not to say that it’s cyclical or meaningless or without a destination or trajectory. The images we use to imagine time have significant implications for how we live our lives, and how we treat the earth and our neighbors. An unreflective linear view of time, rooted in capitalist economic values and buttressed by evolutionary ideals of progress creates a culture and a value system incoherent to the biblical imagination. The Sabbath, in my view, is the key difference between the two.
“The Sabbath apprentices us in the practice of present-tense living.”
… and not just the brief present tense we experience all the time (but mentally cannot seem to remain in) … but the continual present tense of God’s time …
Paul says we live there also …
Beautiful, both your writing and Mariah’s painting. Thank you.
Amen. Thanks for the reminder of the blessed sweetness of Sabbath.