On the Sabbath

Christians had have a mixed and sometimes confused relationship with the Sabbath. I remember as a child associating the Sabbath, and the command to keep the Sabbath, with Sunday and going to church. At a certain point I became aware that the Sabbath had originally been on Saturday; that the Jews still consider Saturday to be the day of the Sabbath. Being a conscientious child, I wondered if my family should go to church on Saturday instead of Sunday. (I didn’t come across Justin Martyr’s explanation of why Christians worship on Sunday until college). Thus the significance of Sabbath was obscured under questions about special days (Rom 14:5-6, Col. 2:16) and going to church.

One of the difficulties in understanding the Sabbath comes from its connection with Old Testament law. Because the law is a part of Scripture, we believe that it is important. However, the Church has never come to a consensus on how it should interpret the law. Indeed, the law has been the subject of Christianity’s most creative Scriptural interpretations. What this means is that a brief explanation of how I approach the law will be necessary before I explain how I interpret the Sabbath.

The law takes the form of a contract or treaty between a king and his vassals. This structure is especially visible in Deuteronomy, which is a restatement of the law for the generation of Israelites about to enter the promise-land. Yahweh is the great king and the Israelites are his vassals whom he has captured from Egypt. Deuteronomy contains an introduction, conditions, and a statement of benefits and punishments that will follow if the Israelites obey or fail to obey the conditions. For this reason, I do not think the law applies to Christians. We are not the physical descendants of the Israelite people and therefore are outside the bounds of the original contract.

This does not mean that the law is worthless to Christians. After all, the law contains God’s instructions to the Israelites on how to form a just and holy society in their cultural context. We can learn a lot about the character of God and his expectations for human beings from the law. The interpretive task of Christians is to look for the reasoning behind individual laws; what God is saying about Himself and ourselves through them.

Thus Christians do not need to worry about wearing clothes with two types of fabric (Lev. 19:19). We need to understand why God would make such a commandment in that particular context. Two possibilities arise. One is that the mixing of two different kind of thread was a kind of sympathetic magic practiced by the tribes in Canaan in order to increase fertility. Another is that it is a concrete expression of the larger theme of set-apartness which God was trying to impress on the Israelites. Intermarriage between the Israelites and the native Canaanites almost always led the Israelites into idolatry and syncretism. A foreigner could join the people of Israel and acquire the full rights of a native Israelite, with a few specific exceptions (Exo. 12:48; Deut 23:2-7). Those who have interpreted this and similar passages as prohibiting interracial marriage completely miss the point.

When Christians approach the Ten Commandments, they tend to lift them outside of the surrounding context, to arbitrarily apply them differently from the laws which precede and follow them. My approach is to look at them in the same way as I would the other laws. For example, the commandment “You will not kill” was not given in a vacuum. It recalls the fact that man is created in the image of God. To kill a man is to violate the image of God and God himself. As Genesis 9:6 says, “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.” Each command tells us something about God and ourselves. This interpretative approach is not perfect, but I think it is more logically consistent than other approaches I have seen.

This brings us to the fourth commandment. Why does God require the Israelites to stop working on one day of the week? Two reasons are given within the context of the commandments. In the Exodus version of the Ten Commandments, God points to his resting on the seventh day. If God rests, even though he does not need to, then man, who does need rest, should rest. The Deuteronomy version reminds the Israelites that they were once slaves in Egypt. The Sabbath commemorates their liberation from slavery by God. Deuteronomy’s version also uses this to emphasize that the Sabbath should apply equally to the Israelite’s servants and slaves. Unlike the brutal slavery of the Egyptians, the Israelites must give their slaves and servants rest.

Jesus comments on the Sabbath several times during his ministry. One statement in particularly cuts to the heart of the commandment. The Pharisees criticize Jesus for letting his disciples pluck grains of wheat to eat on the Sabbath. Jesus tells them that, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”(Mk. 2:27) The Pharisees had approached the commandment to keep the Sabbath as they did the rest of the commandments, in a strictly legalistic way. The laws were an end in themselves.

An example of this mindset is, “We must not murder because the law prohibits murder.” In other words, murder is wrong because the Bible says so. This ignores the underlying purpose of the commandment and its connection to imago dei. Jesus both criticizes and corrects this type of interpretation in the Sermon on the Mount. There he says that anger towards one’s brother can be equivalent to murder (Matt. 5:21-22). Both anger and murder are an attack on the image of God in man and by extension God (cf. Jam. 3:9). Jesus calls attention to the purpose behind the commandment. But back to the Sabbath.

Man needs rest. The Sabbath is there for the benefit of man, not the other way around. The deeper question we must ask from this is “Why would God need to command humans to stop working? The answer, I think, will soon become clear if we examine our own lives. Humans are constantly in motion. The darker side of the “Protestant work ethic” is that we may come to find our worth in the work we do. We are always running hither and thither in frenzied activity. We will even work at a job we hate. If we have the luck to live a life of leisure we may force other people to work. In fact, our leisure may depend on the work of others. We (particularly we Americans) will wring as much profit out of 24 hours as we can. (I think there is an important connection between the command to observe the Sabbath and the command not to harvest to the edge of your field). This is the reason why we have labor laws in the United States. We will literally work ourselves and others to death if not stopped. If not death then there is the toll that overwork takes on our own bodies through stress and the harm it does to our personal relationships. If God who is infinite rested, than we who are finite and limited, must rest.

There are also spiritual dangers that arise from work. Work can distract us from God. When we are constantly busy, we are more likely to forget about him. Slowing us down gives us a chance to stop focusing on what we have to do and to remember God. Even pastors and ministers can fall into this trap, becoming so busy doing stuff for God that they forget about Him. Work is always in danger of becoming an idol. Because it is a source of security, if can become a source that rivals our trust in God. There is the often stereotyped character, usually a man, who buries himself in his work so that he doesn’t have to face personal and family problems. In other words, busyness can eat our souls if we don’t set boundaries. God places the fourth commandment as a giant stop sign in our lives. It forces us to trust on him. If we work less we make make less money. Our financial security decreases as does our freedom to do what we want. We are forced to rely on him more.

This is why I don’t think it matters on which day we observe the Sabbath or even if the Sabbath is a day. “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” To work to exhaustion six days of the week only to be left catatonic on the seventh is to miss the point of the Sabbath because it makes the Sabbath an end in itself. The Sabbath is about rest, about stopping what we are doing. Were are not designed to always fire on all cylinders all the time.

Observing the Sabbath will look different for different people. There are obviously seasons in our lives when we are more or less busy, e.g. parents with a new-born, graduate students, retired people. The point is to set boundaries, limits, and margins. We may have time to do something, but that doesn’t mean we should. The result of this is that we may get less done. (Paradoxically, being intentional about rest can actually increase productivity by preventing exhaustion and burnout.)

The reverse side of this emphasis on the individuality of the Sabbath is the value of observing the Sabbath in community. A healthy life is going to take into account individual and communal practice. I have very little idea of what it would look like for a community to practice Sabbath together. It has been hard enough to work on incarnating it in my own personal life. Still I will put the idea out there for better minds than my own.

The Sabbath is a little like deep waters, one approaches the bottom only to find that the bottom is farther down. It isn’t even the only day on which work is prohibited in the law. There are several required feast days or celebrations in the Israelite religious calendar. However, I will content myself with one more application of the Sabbath. Isaiah 58 discusses fasting and then concludes with a few comments on Sabbath. Fasting and Sabbath are interrelated ideas. Both involve depriving ourselves of something, fasting usually of food, the Sabbath of work. In Isaiah 58 God criticizes the Israelite’s practice of fasting. They have the form of fasting down, eating less and wearing sackcloth, but have missed the point.

Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure,
and oppress all your workers.
Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to hit with a wicked fist. (Isaiah 58:3-4)

The prophet then re-orients the Israelite’s understanding of fasting:

Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness,
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

Fasting itself is a good practice, but not when we miss the deeper purpose. Ultimately, the fasting that God requires is a fasting from sin. The sins that he focuses on in this passage center around how employers treat their workers, personal conflict, and poverty. We need not limit ourselves to these, but it is enough of a start for anyone. Indeed, Jesus heals someone on the Sabbath and justifies “doing work” by calling it a releasing from burden. If one would untie a donkey on the Sabbath, why not release a human being from bondage.

The Sabbath should involve a break from sin. In this it looks forward to God’s final Sabbath, when God’s peace and rest are as established on Earth as they are in heaven. Only then will we have complete rest from sin. In celebrating the Sabbath we look forward to this greater Sabbath. May it come soon.

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