Sleep and Darkness in Biblical Times

Our conception of things often changes over time. What we assume today might not be the case back in biblical times! Believe it or not, sleep is a perfect example of this kind of historical-cultural issue.

Nowadays, we usually view sleep as a means to an end. We sleep in order to feel rested for work the following day. If we don’t get sleep, then that throws off the balance of our life. We yearn for more hours in the day, hoping to squeeze in enough hours of rest to offset busy schedules.

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In the ancient world, however, sleep was not always the most “restful” sort of idea. In Greek mythology thousands of years ago, the god Hypnos was a devious sort of figure (as you can guess, we get the word hypnotize from him!). Hypnos would allegedly lure humans and gods with sleep, eventually overpowering them. His brother was Thanatos, or the Greek god of death. In fact, in writings like Homer’s Iliad, it is Hypnos who ushers people into the underworld. So in the ancient world, sleep isn’t exactly the most calming or nourishing thing. Sleep could actually lead you to death!

With these ancient traditions, many people assumed that daytime was the safest possible period of the day. Night was filled with uncertainty. You literally cannot see the in the darkness. Betrayal, deceit, and disaster can happen at night. And death can come, too–think of someone who falls asleep but doesn’t wake up the following morning.

So back in biblical times, sleep often was connected to death. People did not understand the science behind sleeping or death itself, so many noted the similarities to dying as well as falling asleep. In 1 Thessalonians 4:13, Paul refers to the dead as “those who have fallen asleep.” This clearly reflects the logic of the day (and Paul offers a profound, countercultural message of hope regarding death–but that’s another blog post for another day!).

With all this said, Acts 20 has an interesting meaning when it comes to sleep and darkness. Many people assume that God cannot work in the darkness. After all, we find many examples of how God is associated with light, while evil is associated with darkness.

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But the author of Acts radically subverts this assumption. God is not limited to the daytime. In fact, the apostles are doing their work in the middle of the night! God is actually using the darkness to bring about light. Paul preaches all through the night, and even whens someone falls asleep, falls, and dies, Paul raises the young boy back to life.

For years, many assumed that daytime was only associated with God’s work. Truth be told, we also have this assumption, too. We frequently think God cannot work in a certain situation. We write off other people as “hopeless” or “too far gone.” We don’t think that hope could ever grow in darkness.

That’s not what we find in scripture. Even though you walk through the darkest valleys, God is with you. You don’t have to be afraid. This passage teaches us that God can and will work, even in moments of utter darkness.

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