After creating humans in his image, God gives them what theologians call “the creation mandate” (Genesis 1:28). The mandate gets a lot of press and not without reason—it is repeated throughout Scripture, half a dozen times in Genesis alone. But before his newly created beings can set about multiplying and filling the earth and holding sway over creation, God adds another command—a command that re-appears not dozens but hundreds of times in Scripture. “Behold” (Genesis 1:29).
Addressed to Adam and Eve but inescapable also for us, readers of the creation narrative, this simple word (hin·nêh) demands attention. However eager they might be to begin the work that God has laid out for them, Adam and Eve are required first to pause, to consider, to behold the world God created. And for us reading the account, with its cycles of creation and affirmation, its accumulations of sound and substance (the word “and” appears almost 100 times in the first chapter of Genesis), behold, the regular rhythms of the familiar story are suddenly staccato, our glazed-over eyes snap back to focus on the creation that God will declare to be “very good” (Genesis 1:31).
The command to behold creates a pause in our work of reading and knowing, of multiplying and subduing, of being fruitful image-bearers of God.
But why pause in our work? And what does the pause look like? Feel like?
One answer is that in the pause we replicate God’s own rhythm of creation. After each day, God stops, looks over his work, and pronounces it good. After the sixth day, the pause is extended and formalized into a day of rest. In the Mosaic law, this Sabbath rest comes after the completion of work, just as in the covenant that God makes with Israel sins are atoned for after they have been committed (Exodus 19:8–11). But in the new Covenant that we have in Christ, our sins have already been forgiven; we enter into work from a posture of rest. We work from the pause, rather than pause from the work.
To pause, in our work, is to work from a moment of wonder, from the breath-taking vision of our place at the center of God’s creation, from the marvel that God continues to use us despite our brokenness. When God creates Adam, he blows the breath of life into his nostrils. The command to behold momentarily takes that breath away. To read aloud the initial ‘h’ of the Hebrew word hin·nêh or to voice the flanking punctuation of the English, behold, is literally to breathe out. This is the pause, the emptying of voice and of self, that Jacob experiences before seeing angels ascending and descending a ramp to heaven (Genesis 28:12–15); that prepares Joseph to describe and interpret dreams (Genesis 37 & 40); that brings Moses to a halt before God at the burning bush and again on Mt. Sinai (Exodus 3:2 & 19:9). It is as well the pause of the Israelites averting their gaze from the awful brilliance of Moses’s face when he returns from that mountain (Exodus 35:30).
For to pause, in our work, is also to work from a moment of uncertainty, from the fear and trembling of not knowing what comes next. This is the pause, the agonizing silence, of the Akedah, when Abraham stands above Isaac, knife raised, before lifting his eyes to see a ram that God has provided as a substitute for his son (Genesis 23:13); it is the pause of Elijah waiting in the stillness after wind, earthquake, and fire to hear God speak (1 Kings 19:11–12); and it is the pause of Jesus in Gethsemane after crying out, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42).
Somewhat closer to our own time and place, to pause, in our work, may be to cry out to God like John Milton in line 8 of his sonnet, “When I consider how my light is spent,” asking how he is supposed to continue his work as a writer now that he is blind. To pause, in our work, may be to sit in uncertainty with George Herbert, who having long desired to enter the ministry, finally left his prestigious post as Latin Orator at Cambridge in 1629 and moved to a tiny parish in southern England, where he quickly began to question his decision:
Now I am here, what thou wilt do with me
None of my books will show:
I reade, and sigh, and wish I were a tree;
For sure then I should grow
To fruit or shade: at least some bird would trust
Her houshold to me, and I should be just. (stanza 10 of “Affliction, I”)
But to pause, in our work, is finally to trust God as the redeemer of our work. Having marveled at and lamented the work God has given and taken away, having questioned and waited in silence for an answer, we might follow Herbert to the final lines of the final poem of his collection The Temple, an achingly beautiful poem on the Lord’s Supper. After 16 lines of conversation and negotiation between Love and the poem’s speaker, Love has the final word: “You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.” The colon that punctuates Herbert’s verse is like the command to behold: to pause, in our work, is to sit and eat. And as we taste, may we also see that the Lord is good. That, as John writes in his vision of heaven: “Behold (ἰδοὺ), I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5).