The Seven-Day Week

Where did the seven-day week come from?


Published: 5 May 2022 (GMT+10)

Around the world today, people observe a seven-day week. Why do we have the concept of a week at all? Where did the seven-day week come from? Bible-believers know the answer—God set the pattern of six days of work followed by a day of rest (Genesis 1:1–2:3) and he embedded this pattern into the Moral Law (Exodus 20:8–11)

God could have created the entire universe in an instant. While this is true, the main reason that he created over a period of six days and rested on the seventh to contemplate his creative work (Genesis 1:31), appears to be to set an example for mankind—“It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:17). Man’s week is a standard derived from God, and our week is to have seven days—with six days for labour and one day for reflecting on the glory and majesty of our Creator in worship.

Ancient attempts to change the seven-day week

The seven-day week has not always been an observed practice. From the beginning of time, men have challenged God and have done what they believed to be right in their own eyes (Genesis 6:5; Judges 17:6). Attempts have been made, whether deliberate sin or out of sinful ignorance, to overrule the creation ordinance of a seven-day week. For example, the ancient Egyptians appear to have used a form of a week with ten days (i.e., one-third of a month).1 The Babylonians appear to have used a quasi-seven-day week (with rest days falling on every seventh day of the month)2 but they would have had to make adjustments because lunar months are not exactly 28-days in duration. Later, the Romans apparently varied their weeks between seven or eight days to divide a lunar month into quarters.3

Recent attempts to change the seven-day week

More recent attempts to dispense with the seven-day week are better attested. In 1793, after the Revolution, the government of France introduced a ten-day week. But the citizens objected because they had to work for nine days before they could take a rest day. Napoleon reverted the country to the seven-day week in 1806.4 Likewise, attempts were made in former Soviet Russia to standardize on a five-day week and then a six-day week. The elimination of Sunday, with its strong religious associations, was one purpose of Stalin’s experiments. In 1940, they returned to the seven-day week.5

The unbelieving world claims that the seven-day week is nothing more than an artifact of ancient culture. So, the idea that there is a universal innate sense that we are required to rest one day in seven appears to be ludicrous to them.

Why seven days?

An article that appeared in The Economist6, speaks about the history of the week, stating [abbreviated]:

Why does The Economist appear every seventh day? The answer is because we still regulate our lives by a septimal law that Mesopotamian star-gazers framed, and local warlords imposed, more than 40 centuries ago. … [W]hy should the Sumerian system have not merely endured but become an almost universal conqueror? … The year, the day and (not quite so obviously) the month are natural divisions of time. The week is an oddity. … The Sumerians … worshipped seven gods whom they could see in the sky. Reverently, they named the days of their week for these seven heavenly bodies … For the Sumerians themselves, seven was a very special number. They conceived of a seven-branched Tree of Life, and of seven heavens … In spite of all that, Ur’s seventh day was not holy. On the contrary, it represented danger and darkness. It was risky to do anything at such a time. So it became a day of rest. Ever since the time when Abraham trekked westward from Ur, Mesopotamian influences had helped to form Hebrew traditions. The Jews got the story of the Flood from Sumeria. They got the seven-day-week idea early enough to use it in the account of the Creation given in Genesis. But there may have been some garbling in the transmission. The Sumerians would not have depicted the Creator as just sitting back, satisfied, on the seventh day; to them, he would seem to have stopped work, wisely, because anything attempted on that day must end in tears. The week reached India from Mesopotamia more than 2,000 years ago, in time to get into some of the Hindu scriptures. … They never accepted a Sabbath … Elsewhere, new names have been showered on the old gods and their planets. Yet, to an astonishing extent, they have retained their identities—and kept their places in the order of the days of the week. … Seven is a thoroughly awkward number. It gives us a year of 52 weeks (another awkward number), plus the annoying extra one or two days which force us to keep buying new calendars. The seven-day system’s ability to challenge and, in time, overlay all others has always rested on its religious inspiration, not on its practical value.

This Economist article is biased against the belief that Scripture is the Word of God. Specific mistakes in the article that need to be noted, include:

  • Abraham and the Jews did not copy the Sumerians. The Jews had access to the account of the institution of the week (now recorded in Genesis) from before the Flood. It could have also been delivered to the Sumerians, who followed the creation pattern.
  • While it is true that the knowledge of the seven-day week came out of the Middle East, it is an unsupportable assumption that the contents of Genesis 1–2 was first recorded after the time of the Sumerians. It is always in vogue to accept other historical documents and dismiss the Bible’s early manuscripts and origin.
  • The article does not document why the idea that the seventh day of the week represented danger and darkness in Ur and that this is the origin of ceasing from activity and resting on the seventh day. Regardless, this contradicts the explicit statement in Genesis 2:3, where we read that God blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
  • The Sumerian cosmology included five planets visible without a telescope in ideal viewing conditions (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn) and the sun and moon—seven extra-terrestrial objects. However, it is equally possible, and more probable, that the seven-day week was known in ancient Sumer, and they named the days after their astrological gods, rather than creating a week around the objects in the sky.

The Economist article mentions that all cultures (ancient and modern) have accepted the seven-day week. It also notes that attempts to overrule the seven-day week have failed. This points to the fact that the seven day week we experience is derived from a phenomenon that is not the result of observing the sky—but rather given through divine revelation.

Created for a purpose

The anomaly of a seven-day week, which does not fit any natural cycle (year, month, day), clearly points to God’s creation ordinance. All attempts to explain why the week has seven days, without accepting God’s Word will fail. All people know innately that the seven-day week is from God (Romans 1:19–20). They may not wish to observe the Sabbath, but they are faced each Sunday with the start of a new week that declares God’s creative work, his salvific work, and his day of rest.

References and notes

  1. O’Neill, W.M., Time and the Calendars, Sydney University Press, Sdyney, p. 66, 1975. cited in, Seven day cycleReturn to text.
  2. Richmond, B., Time Measurement and Calendar Construction, E.J. Brill, Leiden, pp. 39, 40, 42, 1956; cited in, Seven day cycleReturn to text.
  3. Colson, F.H., The Week, Greenwood Press, Westport, p. 92, 1974; cited in, Seven day cycleReturn to text.
  4. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, French republican calendar, britannica.com/science/French-republican-calendar, accessed 3rd May 2022. Return to text.
  5. Frost, N., For 11 Years, the Soviet Union Had No Weekends, August 30 2018, history.com/news/soviet-union-stalin-weekend-labor-policy. Return to text.
  6. “Chronicles of chronology: The power of seven,” Economist, 2001-12-20; www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2001/12/20/the-power-of-seven Return to text.