By Fr. Patrick Reardon
Christians over the centuries have reflected deeply on the meaning of the Lord's Sabbath rest after the six days of Creation. Since no serious person imagines the Lord needed to alleviate the fatigue of His labor, the true meaning of the Lord's rest must reside in its symbolic character. Both Isaiah (40:28) and the Psalmist (121 :3-4) insisted that God does not grow weary. Nor did the Creator simply abandon Creation to its own natural forces. Against this thesis of Deism, we have the testimony of Jesus, "My Father has been working until now" (John 5:17).
That is to say, the true meaning of the Lord's rest must be something beyond its
literal sense. From earliest times, therefore, Christians have considered the Sabbath
with respect to its symbolic value. Seeing it as prophetic, for example, St. Paul
included the Sabbath within the "shadow of things to come" (Colossians 2:16), and in
the Epistle to the Hebrews the Lord's day of rest became a type of the eternal rest of
His people (4:1-11). Other Christian writers developed this apocalyptic symbolism
(e.g., Origen, On Numbers 22.4).
In the Book of Exodus, the Lord's seventh day rest bears chiefly a social and moral
sense, serving as an example to man, a model for his imitation: God rested in order
to affirm something important about man's moral and social life. It served as a
symbol of human freedom and dignity (20:10-11).
This much is clear enough in the Torah's large provision for human rest--an entire
day each week. First of all, adherence to this commandment placed a guaranteed
limit on the exploitation of human labor. This guarantee is considered so important to
human existence the Lord Himself provided the model for it.
I believe there is further sense, moreover, in which the Lord's original day of rest is a
symbol of human freedom and dignity: In His Sabbath rest God "backs off" from
Creation, so to speak, as though to let the creatures themselves have a hand at it.
Having established their varying natures--"each according to its kind"--the Lord gives
creatures room to "be and do" according to their innate dispositions. This is only
symbolically suggested, of course, because in fact God continually preserves His
creatures in existence.
Nonetheless, the Lord's "taking a day off" indicates an important aspect of this
preservation, as though Creation can get along without training wheels. That is to
say, God gives creatures room to be themselves and to act according to their varying
The assertion that God respects the differing dispositions of created things applies to
human nature in a unique way, inasmuch as freedom of thought and volition is an
essential and defining quality of man's being. God's day of rest is a symbolic
assertion of that freedom. He steps back, as it were, to affirm human freedom.
I am not the first to suggest that the Christian religion is radically different from
Islam in this respect, because Christians have long recognized that the biblical
doctrine of Creation differs rather radically from that of Islam: According to Muslim
theology God's omnipotent will, which continually brings forth all things from
nothingness, is sovereignly imposed on Creation. There is no level of separation
between God's creating act and the natural being of things. The distinguishing
properties of creatures are not determined by their created natures, but by God's
continued disposition of them according to His sovereign will. That will is immediately
imposed on all created things, thus causing them to exist. The sole responsibility of
man's will is to submit to the divine sovereignty.
In Christian theology, on the contrary, the creating will of God is mediated through
the Logos that causes created things to be what they are. Thus, within God's creating
activity, the Logos provides "room" for creatures to act according to their nature.
This is the "space" within which human beings, by reason of their nature, are free.
Although Islam--like all the major religions--proclaims a "natural law" in the structure
of the world, that law is rooted immediately in the will of the Lawgiver, not in the
world's natural structure. It is no accident, then, that the Qu'ran says nothing about
God resting on the seventh day. Consistent with this silence, it does not prescribe a
weekly day of rest.