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The Edenic Origin of the Sabbath

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Archives / 1963 / February



The Edenic Origin of the Sabbath

Desmond Ford

Desmond Ford,  Australasian Missionary College, Cooranbong, New South Wales


To be able to convince honest inquirers of the Edenic ori­gin of the Sabbath is vital for every Seventh-day Adventist min­ister. If the Sabbath was insti­tuted by God for the first man, then it was probably also intended for the last man, and for all in between; whereas, if the world could do without the Sabbath for the millenniums be­fore Sinai, there is no reason why it could not again do without it in the era after the cross. The opponents of the binding obligation of the Sabbath have clearly seen the importance of this question. William Paley, archdeacon of Carlisle, wrote as follows:

If the Divine command was actually delivered at the creation, it was addressed, no doubt, to the whole human species alike, and continues, unless repealed by some subsequent revelation, binding upon all who come to the knowledge of it. If the command was published for the first time in the wilderness, then it was immediately directed to the Jewish people alone; and something further, either in the subject or circumstances of the command, will be necessary to show that it was designed for any other. It is on this account that the question concerning the date of the institution was first to be considered. The former opinion precludes all de­bate about the extent of the obligation: the latter admits, and, prima fade induces a belief, that the Sabbath ought to be considered as part of the peculiar law of the Jewish policy?

At first sight, Genesis 2:1-3 would seem to so conclusively settle the matter that further study into the question seems unnecessary. However, it should be recognized that many Bible exe­getes consider this passage of Scripture to be proleptic in nature—written in the time of Moses after Sinai, and therefore anticipating in the Genesis record what is later to be told in detail in Exodus. What shall we say of this exposition, which is universally held by all who oppose the Seventh-day Sabbath? The answer suggested in this article will include quotations from non-Adventist writers to save us as Ad­ventists from the accusation of "special plead­ing."

It should be noted that this exposition of prolepsis had its modern revival in the work of the skeptical higher critics of the nineteenth century.

The origin of the Sabbath is usually referred to Moses by the German critics . .. on the ground that Gen. ii, I cannot be accepted as a testimony to its earlier institution, since this whole account of the creation, whole date and author are unknown, is plainly designed for the very purpose of presenting the Sabbath to us as an immediate divine ordinance.2

This quotation assures us that it was men who believed in the Wellhausen hypothesis regard­ing the origin of the Pentateuch who endorsed the interpretation under discussion at the time when the claims of the fourth commandment were being urged afresh upon the world by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Often the early Church Fathers are quoted as saying that the patriarchs observed no Sab­bath, and that they also believed that Genesis 2:1-3 applied by way of anticipation only. The probable meaning of most of such quotations is that given by Blunt in his Undesigned Co­incidences. He says, for example, concerning one of the Fathers, "that Justin Martyr's mean­ing was by no means that the Patriarchs kept no Sabbath at all, but that they did not observe them according to the peculiar rites of the Jewish law." This is cited approvingly by Wordsworth's Commentary, and the position is there further elaborated by references from the early Fathers.

While the number of authorities does not prove a disputed point, it should be remem­bered that the great majority of evangelical scholars through the centuries have believed that the proleptic interpretation of Genesis 2: 1-3 is forced and unnatural. Says the learned Fairbairn:

The leading divines of the Reformation, and the immediately subsequent period, were of one mind regarding the appointment of a primeval Sabbath. The idea that the Sabbath was first given to the Israelites in the wilderness, and that the words in Gen. ii. only proleptically refer to that future cir­cumstance, is an after-thought, originating in the fond conceit of some Jewish Rabbins, who sought thereby to magnify their nation, and was adopted only by such Christian divines as had already made up their minds on the temporary obligation of the Sabbath.'

The orthodox viewpoint has perhaps never been better expressed than as presented by a writer in the Bibliotheca Sacra in 1856. Be­cause the arguments employed are pertinent, we quote at length:

Who that had no such theory to defend, would imagine the sacred writer here to describe a trans­action, which, according to the supposition, had not. occurred for two thousand five hundred years after­ward? It would not be asserted by him, or any of those who occupy the same side in this controversy, that the interpretation thus given to this passage is the one which would naturally present itself to any one of ordinary intelligence upon the first perusal of it. We will not allege, indeed, that the obvious, or seemingly „obvious, import of the passage is al­ways the true one. But if there be no dispute respect­ing the terms employed (and there is none here), and if the subject matter be of easy comprehension (as in the present instance), then the onus probandi rests upon those who would reject the obvious for the more recondite construction.

Here is a historical statement: and the only ques­tion is, Does Moses, after describing the work of six days, suddenly, and without any intimation, alter his style when he comes to describe the pro­cedure of the seventh day? and using a highly rhetorical figure, does he set down in connection with the record of this procedure an event which did not take place until twenty-five centuries had elapsed? We have said, without intimation, but it should be added also, in the face of the fact that the whole, being a plain narrative, would inevitably be differently understood by all who might read it apart from the light of such an hypothesis as the one now under examination. This, assuredly, is not what we might have expected to discover in any book, written beneath the guidance of the divine Spirit, and intended for the instruction of the un­sophisticated in all ages.

We utterly deny, then, that "it was natural in the historian, when he had related the history of the creation and of God's ceasing from it upon the the seventh day, to add" the words in question, unless they are expressive of an event which actually occurred at the creation. And to state in the way of argument that Moses does "not assert that God then blessed and sanctified the seventh day," but simply that he did so for a certain reason, is to be guilty of a species of sophistry very unworthy the gravity which becomes the discussion of such a theme. How could he have conveyed more lucidly the idea that this was done then, than by recording it, as he does other things, in the past tense, and also in immediate connection with that very cessa­tion from work on the part of God which it was designed to commemorate? True, he assigns the rea­son for this consecration; but he does this in such a manner as to imply that as the reason existed from the beginning, so also did the consecration. And it is but natural to ask, What ground could exist for the appointment of such a memorial in after ages, which did not operate "from the foundation of the world"?

On the whole it does appear to us that until all the principles of sound criticism are abandoned, and we are at liberty, by a dexterous and convenient ap­plication of the figure prolepsis to convert history into prophecy at our pleasure, we cannot adopt the interpretation which this writer has so strenuously advocated. We can understand what is meant by the total rejection of this inspired record, or by the re­duction of it to the rank of a mere myth; but we are at an utter loss to understand the position which accepts its divine authority, and acknowledges the opening portion of Genesis to be the narrative of real transactions, and yet, to serve the purpose of a theory, would mutilate and distort its obvious mean­ing, and that in gross violation of all the laws which guide the historian and chronologist's pen.4

Let us now elaborate the basic reasons for interpreting this key passage of Scripture as applying to the Sabbath's Edenic origin.

1. Such an interpretation is obviously the most natural. There seems to be no evident reason for separating the blessing and the sanc­tifying referred to from the resting recorded in the same passage. All admit that the resting did transpire on the first seventh day, and the blessing and sanctifying seem to issue naturally from that event. Says Wardlaw on this point:

It is the language of history. And what the his­torian relates about the seventh day, he relates as done at the time, with the very same simplicity with which he relates the associated transactions of crea­tion as done at the time. There is no hint, no change of construction, nothing whatsoever in the slightest degree indicative of its being a mere allusion to something that took place at a future and distant age.'

2. In Genesis 1:20, 22, 24-26, 28 we have mention of God's immediate blessing of the work of earlier days in that first week. Genesis 2:2, 3 seems an obvious parallel to these verses, and if so, the blessing of the Sabbath must have taken place on that very day.

3. In the fourth commandment itself we have another parallel between what took place on the first six days and the events of the sev­enth day. Note the tenses employed in Exodus 20:11: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, . . . and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it." All four verbs are in the past tense. No one disputes that the first two apply to Creation week. The correlation of divine acts as here portrayed clearly indicates that the blessing and the hallowing took place at the same time as the resting. If the alternative interpretation be the correct one, the fourth commandment would have been more correctly worded in this section as follows: "For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and rested the seventh day, wherefore the Lord now blesses the sabbath day and now hallows it." The very first word of the commandment sug­gests that the natural understanding of this ex­tract from the Decalogue is the true one, and the last phrase "and hallowed it" has no sig­nificance unless the Sabbath was proclaimed at Creation.

4. It should also be noted that the fourth commandment affirms that the seventh day was already the Sabbath at the time God hallowed it. "God blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it." It did not become the Sabbath 2,500 years later.

5. A close study of the Creation story sug­gests, as even higher critics have perceived, that the record regarding the Sabbath is the seal on the entire account of Creation. The pre­ceding daily steps led to this crowning one, and Genesis 2:1-3, far from being proleptic, is the planned climax to which the earlier verses move. Indeed it is hard to suggest any reason for Creation's taking six days other than that of paving the way for the divine example of Sabbathkeeping. Thus the Sabbath of Genesis is woven into the very fabric of the universe. The Almighty, who could have spoken all into existence in a split second, condescended to attentuate His processes in order to give His endorsement to the keeping sacred of each sev­enth day.

6. Genesis 2:3 by its reference to the bless­ing and sanctifying of the day on which God had already rested, indicates that the day blessed was not merely that first seventh day but each one yet to come, and the meaning of the Hebrew verb translated "sanctified" (ha­desh) supports such a conclusion. According to lexicons this word means not only "to pro­nounce holy" but also "to institute any holy thing, to appoint." (See Gesenius.) In such passages as Joel 1:14; 2:15; Joshua 20:9; and Exodus 19:12, 23 the word applies to a public proclamation. Says Lange's Commentary:

If we had no other passage than this of Gen. ii.3, there would be no difficulty in deducing from it a precept for the universal observance of a sabbath, or seventh day, to be devoted to God, as holy time, by all of that race for whom the earth and its nature were specially prepared. The first men Must have known it. The words "He hallowed it," can have no meaning otherwise. They would be a blank unless in reference to some who were required to keep it holy!'

7. The information given us in Genesis, chapters 2-4, establishes the fact that man was both a worker and a worshiper. On both counts, the need existed for a special time for rest and adoration of the Creator. Why should this need be denied until Sinai?

Considering Adam was restored to favor through a Mediator, and a religious service instituted which man was required to observe, in testimony not only of his dependence on the Creator, but also of his faith and hope in the promise, it seems reasonable that an institution so grand and solemn, and so necessary to the observance of this service, should be then existent?

8. There is no instance in Scripture of a memorial being instituted millenniums after the event it is to memorialize. Exodus 20:8-11 clearly declares that the Sabbath is a commem­oration of God's work of Creation, and the logical time for the memorial to begin to func­tion would be with the event to which it would ever point back. The Passover, for example, began at the time of the deliverance it sym­bolized, and the twelve memorial stones in Jordan and the twelve on the bank were erected on the occasion of the miraculous crossing. The situation is the same with the Lord's Supper. Imagine that the beginning of the communion service had been planned by God to be post­poned for as long as opponents of the Sabbath say that this memorial was postponed—the Christian church would not begin to observe the memorial supper until nearly six more centuries had rolled by!

9. Our Lord Himself has spoken on this mat­ter of the time of the appointing of the Sabbath. He declared: "The sabbath was made for man" (Mark 2:27). He is referring back to Creation, the time when things were "made," and He declares that at that time the Sabbath was instituted for the benefit of all men. The Greek has "made for the man," and the article in such cases refers either to a specific individ­ual or to a species. Christ here has in mind Adam as an individual, or as the representative of all mankind.

This seems to teach that the Sabbath was made for man not as a Jew or as a Christian, but as man, and therefore entitled to his regard in all conditions and through all ages. . . When Christ, then, de­clares that the Sabbath was made for man, we can only understand him as teaching that it was in­tended and instituted for our common humanity, and that it is to be so employed as to conduce to man's highest or spiritual good.'

10. The account of the Sabbath in Exodus 16 further supports the Edenic origin of this holy day. The reference is far too casual to rep­resent the introduction then for the first time of such an important institution. A study of the chapter shows that its main theme is the provi­sion of the manna rather than Sabbath observ­ance, and the latter comes in only incidentally. Notice that in verse 23 Moses does not say that the Lord had commanded that every seventh day henceforth should be kept holy. He merely states: "Tomorrow is the rest of the holy sab­bath unto the Lord." Certainly this was not the enunciation of a new law, even though the record implies that Israel had become careless in all her religious observances. It is clear that the fourth commandment does not assign the falling of the manna as the reason for Sabbath observance.

II. In Hebrews 4:1-11 the inspired writer distinguishes between the "rest" of Canaan, and a sabbatical rest "entered into" from the time when "the works were finished," that is, from Creation. The argument of this section of the chapter is that "from the foundation of the world" there has been a spiritual experi­ence of rest offered to believers. Both the rest of the first Sabbath and the rest from pilgrim­age in Canaan are symbols of the blessing offered to those who cease to rely on their own works and trust in the finished work of Christ. Thus this chapter not only assures us of the primeval origin of the Sabbath but also of the spiritual import of that holy memorial inviting man from his very creation to find rest through fellowship with his Maker.

12. It should be stressed that the moral na­ture of the Sabbath command indicates its Edenic origin. All agree that the other com­mandments of the ten were binding on all men from the time of Creation. We might there­fore say in this regard what Jesus said in an­other: "What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Mark 10:9). Did the Omniscient One err by slipping a temporary command into the heart of a set of eternal laws?

The test of an eternal moral law is whether it grows out of original relationships between God and man. Certainly this one does. The fact that we are the work of God's hand is the foun­dation of all worship and morality. The reason assigned in the fourth commandment for the Sabbath is not Jewish, but one universally ap­plicable, and therefore one would expect the command to be in force for all men so long as there is an earth beneath their feet and a Cre­ator in heaven above. (The reason given in Deuteronomy 5, where the commandments are paraphrased, is an additional reason why re­deemed beings should be Sabbathkeepers.) In the words of Fairbairn:

It seems, indeed, as if God, in the appointment of this law, had taken special precautions against the attempts which He foresaw would be made to get rid of the institution, and that on this account He laid its foundations first in the original frame­work and constitution of nature. . . . The Lord has thus honored the fourth commandment above the others, by laying for it a foundation so singularly broad and deep.9

In conclusion, two popular objections to the primeval Sabbath should be considered. First, that Genesis contains neither precept nor ex­ample of Sabbath observance among the patri­archs, and second, that Nehemiah 9:13, 14 de­clares that God first made known the Sabbath at Sinai.

In answer to the first objection, it is obvious that Genesis is neither a book of legislature nor a detailed history. No law for sacrifice or tith­ing is found therein, yet both were practiced by Abraham and others. Nowhere is it recorded in Genesis that men were commanded to love God with all their hearts and their neighbor as themselves, and no laws can be found forbidding idolatry, blasphemy, disobedience to parents, adultery, theft, lying, or covetousness. Yet such references as Genesis 4:7; 18:20; 26:5; 39:9; et cetera, indicate the existence of these precepts. As regards the omission of Sabbathkeeping ex­amples in Genesis, Fairbairn says:

Even in the later and fuller accounts, it is usual, through very long periods of time, to omit any ref­erence to institutions which were known to have been statedly observed. There is no notice, for ex­ample, of circumcision from the time of Joshua to the Babylonish exile; but how fallacious would be the conclusion from such silence that the rite itself had fallen into desuetude! Even the Sabbath, not­withstanding the prominent place it holds in the decalogue and the institutions of Moses, is never mentioned again till the days of Elisha (nearly seven hundred years later), when we meet with an incidental passing allusion to it. Need we wonder, then, that in such peculiarly brief compends of his­tory as are given of antediluvian and patriarchal times, there should be a similar silence?"

Nowhere does the Old Testament record the observance of either the jubilee or the Day of Atonement, and yet both were prescribed for Israel more than one thousand years before the close of the Old Testament canon, and were undoubtedly observed. It is interesting also to notice that the Sabbath is not mentioned in the books of Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesi­astes, and Song of Solomon, and yet no one contends that the Sabbath was ignored during the period when these books were written.

The argument based on the phrase "madest known" in Nehemiah 9:14 if applied to Eze­kiel 20:9 would prove that not only the Sab­bath but God Himself did not exist prior to the Exodus. The Hebrew word yadci sometimes has the sense of bringing back to mind some­thing known before (see also Eze. 39:7).

As one distills the Biblical argument for the Edenic origin of the Sabbath, the conviction grows that in this matter the evidence, while not demonstrative, is abundant. Thus the be­lief in the primeval Sabbath is akin to other disputed theological positions such as the exist­ence of God and the truthfulness of His Word. For the honest in heart, the light, while not blinding, is yet sufficiently illuminative for guid­ance.

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1 William Paley, Paley's Whole Works, in one volume (London: T. Nelson and Sons, 1852), p. 92.

2 Art. "Sabbath, Jewish," M'Clintock and Strong's Cyclo­paedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1880), vol. 9, p. 192.

3 Patrick Fairbairn, The Typology of Scripture (London: Oliphants Ltd., 1953), vol. 2, p. 110.

4 Cited from Facts for the Times (Michigan: Review and Herald Publishing Co., 1893), PP. 111, 112.

5 R. Wardlaw, cited from The Christian Sabbath (Lon­don: The Religious Tract Society, 1856), p. 13.

5 John P. Lange, A Commentary of the Holy Scriptures (New York: Charles Scribner and Co., 1868), on Gen. 2:3, p. 197.

7 M'Clintock and Strong, op. cit., p. 194.

8 Ibid., pp. 195, 196.

9 Fairbairn, op. cit., p. 109.

10 Ibid., p. 114.

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