sabbath in old testament scripture
Sabbath is not a term which most of us use in everyday life. It is one of those religious words that we ministers like to throw around…as if everyone else understands what we mean. So let’s begin with the most basic definition of Sabbath. In the Hebrew it is derived from the word “shavath” which means repose, or to cease exerting oneself. “Shabbat” which is the current Hebrew word for the Sabbath is a specialized form of shavath, and means a weekly cessation from work. Depending on one’s translation of the scriptures, Sabbath is used around 170 times in the Old Testament and almost 70 times on the New Testament. Thus it is one of the key concepts contained within the scriptures.
The idea of Sabbath is rooted in the story of creation. As Genesis begins, we read about God creating all that there is. For six days God created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. God created light and dark, the earth, plants, animals and finally humans. When God had finished creating God took a break. In Genesis 2:1-3 we read, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested (savath-ed) from all the work that he had done in creation.” The concept of rest then is grounded in the very essence of God. If God can rest, then so can the rest of creation.
Sabbath next appears in the Noah story when the ark comes to “rest” in the seventh month. Though this is not a direct reference to the Sabbath, it highlights how important Sabbath (and the seventh) had become in scripture. The next direct reference to keeping a Sabbath occurs during the Exodus. In the Exodus (the movement of God’s people out of slavery in Egypt into the wilderness and then into the land of promise) God provides the people with food and water. The food comes in the form of manna (a bread like substance that springs up at night and can be harvested in the morning) and quails. In the 16th chapter of Exodus the people of Israel are told that they are to collect manna for only six days and not on the seventh. The seventh day is in fact to be a day of rest. The gift of God is that the manna that comes on the sixth day will be adequate to feed the people on the seventh day as well.
The Sabbath becomes enshrined in the community when it is mentioned in the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20:8-11 we read, “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it.” Once again we see how the concept of Sabbath is tied directly back to creation. In a sense if we are made in the image of God then our lives ought to reflect God’s life…including that of a weekly rest. In the Book of Deuteronomy and its restating of the Ten Commandments, the reason given for keeping the Sabbath is two-fold. First it is to be kept because God commanded it. Second it is to be kept as a remembrance that the people of God were once slaves in Egypt and forced to work every day. The Sabbath becomes a reminder that God’s yoke is easier than that of Pharaoh.
The concept of Sabbath also applies to the land and indebtedness. In Judaism there is a sabbatical (Sabbath) year. This year occurs on the seventh year of a seven year agricultural cycle. In the Sabbath year the land was to lay fallow. No agricultural activity was allowed. In essence the land was not allowed to work just as people and animal were not allowed to work on the weekly Sabbath. At the same time, at the end of this year all debts, except those owed to foreigners, were to be forgiven. This was rest from working for others. The Book of Deuteronomy refers to it as “release.”
Summing up Sabbath, it is an intentional act of rest that is given to all of creation.
sabbath in the life of israel
Considering the importance of Sabbath in scripture, the question then becomes how important was the idea of Sabbath in the actual life and work of the people of God. There are some scholars who believe that Sabbath, while being a nominal part of the life of the community, was in reality a late addition to the theological landscape. This argument carries some weight because there is little or no direct mention of Sabbath in the books of Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I/II Samuel or I Kings; a period of about 500 years. However the two references in those books are significant and might imply that the Sabbath was so ubiquitous that it did not need mentioning. These references are first to David who, when hungry and fleeing from King Saul, ate the shew-bread. (I Samuel 21:6) The shew-bread was set out on the Sabbath to be eaten by the priests. The second reference concerns a woman from the town of Shunem who went to see Elisha the prophet, even though, as her husband puts it, “It is neither the new moon nor the Sabbath.” (II Kings 4:23)
Regardless of the lack of multiple references to the Sabbath in the Old Testament history books we can catch glimpses of the importance of the seventh day in the words of the prophets whose work overlaps much of the latter years of those same books. Amos (Amos 8:4-5a), writing around 787 BCE, refers to the Sabbath in his critique of the greed of Israel. “Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land, saying, “When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale?”
Isaiah (Isaiah 1:12-13) also refers to the importance of the Sabbath around 712 BCE when he declares, “When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and calling of convocation-- I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.”
Finally, Jeremiah (Jeremiah 19:21-23) writing around 600 BCE states, “Thus says the Lord: For the sake of your lives, take care that you do not bear a burden on the sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the sabbath or do any work, but keep the sabbath day holy, as I commanded your ancestors. Yet they did not listen or incline their ear; they stiffened their necks and would not hear or receive instruction.”
We see an increasing focus on the Sabbath in the writings and history following the Exile into Babylon. As the people attempted to come to grips with their national humiliation and as they attempted to retain their religious identity profaning the Sabbath became an explanation for their defeat and reinstituting the Sabbath a means to sustain their identity. We see this in the work of the prophet Ezekiel whose early prophecies (Chapters 20 and 22) contain indictments against Judah for desecrating the Sabbath and whose later prophecies (Chapters 44 and 45) offer images of a nation who keeps the Sabbath. In the historical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which describe the restoration of the nation of Israel after their return from exile, we see the lengths to which national leaders would go to insure Sabbath observance. In Nehemiah 13:19 we read, “When it began to be dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the sabbath. And I set some of my servants over the gates, to prevent any burden from being brought in on the sabbath day.” By shutting the gates foreigners could not tempt God’s people to engage in violations of the Sabbath (buying, selling, etc). This and other Sabbath protecting acts slowly became the norm for Israel and set the stage for some of Jesus most interesting confrontations in his ministry.
sabbath in the new testament
Sabbath was only loosely observed until after Israel’s return from the Babylonian Exile around 520 BCE. Sabbath became more important upon the return to the land of promise because it was one way for the Jewish people to maintain their cultural and religious identity (no other religions practiced Sabbath). Over time the Sabbath observance was regulated by a series of very specific rules and regulations concerning what a person should or should not do on the day of rest. We can see this today in Orthodox Jewish communities in the United States in that members of these communities live close to their synagogues so that they only have to walk short distances to worship on the Sabbath (in order to be obedient to Sabbath regulations).
When we move to the New Testament we are confronted by what appear to be a series of mixed messages about the Sabbath. On the one hand Jesus appears to observe the Sabbath by faithfully attending synagogue services. We can see this in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 4:16) where we read, “He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.” In this sense Jesus was a very pious Jew who understood that Sabbath required people to gather for worship which always included reading and reflecting on scripture. On the other hand Jesus was not a fan of some of the regulations which restricted what could be done on the Sabbath. His disregard for these regulations was the basis for many of his confrontations with the religious authorities. Among these disagreements were healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-3; Luke 6:8-10; Luke 13:9-16; Luke 14:1-13; John 5:1-18; John 7:21-24) and Jesus’ disciples plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath, which was considered work (Mark 2:22-28; Luke 6:1-3).
Jesus’ deals with the criticism he receives for violating the Sabbath in two ways. The first is that he offers up very good rabbinic arguments against his opponents. In terms of healing people on the Sabbath Jesus argues that since the Law allows for a farmer to get his ox out of a ditch on the Sabbath in order to save it, he ought to be able to save people who are more precious than oxen (Luke 13:15-17; 14:2-6). His arguments are not simply clever ways to get around the rules and regulations but were based on his understanding of the purpose of Sabbath. He declared that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). In other words the Sabbath was intended for the rest and restoration of humankind. Thus any actions that helped people (such as healing) were acceptable on the Sabbath. The second way in which Jesus responded to criticism of his Sabbath actions was to declare that “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.” (Luke 6:5; Mark 2:28; Matthew 12:8) The “Son of Man” was the title Jesus used to describe himself and by so doing made it clear that he was the one, and not the religious leaders, who defined what could or could not be done on the Sabbath.
The Book of Acts, which describes the creation, growth and expansion of the early church, does not spend time dealing with Sabbath controversies. Sabbath is only mentioned as the day of the week on which Jews would gather for worship at which time Paul or some of the other followers of Jesus would tell them the Good News of Jesus death and resurrection. In addition we can catch glimpses of the early church moving its worship (and perhaps Sabbath day) to the first day of the week (Sunday) which was the day of resurrection (I Corinthians 16:1-2; Acts 20:7). Paul addresses this change in two of his letters (Romans 14:5-6; Colossians 2:16-17) where he assures his fellow believers that one can worship the Lord on any day; that there is no need for a special Sabbath day.
sabbath in modern life
Several months ago I had a conversation with a pastor friend of mine who said that in 2012 he had not taken a single day of vacation and had taken only an occasional day off. The tone in his voice seemed to be one of pride and despair mixed together. The pride was that he loved his church and would give his all for it. The despair was that he was tired and that his congregation considered any time away as goofing off. Lest we think that this is something that only ministers do, consider that the average American will give back anywhere from 2-7 days of vacation time this year; or a whopping 226 million unused days, worth more than $34.3 billion dollars (CNN Money).
The reasons given by individuals for not taking their vacation time/days off include everything from a lack of income to take a meaningful vacation; to I will be fired if I take the time off; to I will be passed over for promotion if I am not constantly in the office; to I will appear to be lazy to my supervisor; to the firm cannot get along without me; to work is where I get my “strokes” so I want to be there; to a fear of being seen as occupying an position that can be eliminated. Even with all of these reasons for not taking time off at least these persons have vacation. I say this because almost 25% of American workers and 31% of low-wage earners in this country get no paid vacation at all (International Business Times). We have been referred to as the “No Vacation Nation” because we are the only industrialized nation without federally mandated vacation and holidays.
Walter Brueggeman, in his book “Mandate to Difference” (Westminster-John Knox Press, 2007), examines this phenomenon of the lack of Sabbath/time off. He argues that Sabbath was originally a gift of God to the people as they left the bondage of Egypt. In Egypt the people of Israel had been slaves working 24/7 to produce bricks and other goods for Pharaoh. They were merely human machines whose value was economic and not intrinsic. Once liberated, the people of God were given the opportunity to rest and refresh themselves as God had always intended.
This sense of Sabbath however was lost when Israel moved from being an agriculturally based community to a city centered society. In that move, King Solomon made it clear that the people in the rural areas were to produce not for their own good but for the benefit of the elite in Jerusalem (p. 23). He, and the kings that followed him, were the new Pharaohs demanding that people were to once again produce 24/7, which made the Sabbath an impediment to the work of human machines; thus Sabbath was ignored.
This view of 24/7 work and a lack of Sabbath is still with us because we live in a land of Pharaohs. We have work-Pharaohs who remind us that our only value is in what we can produce and so we are not to take time off. We have love-pharaohs who want us to believe that we have to earn love which requires continual work. We have religious-pharaohs who tell us that because the world does not yet look like the Kingdom of God we need to spend all of our spare time working for the transformation of that world. We have church-pharaohs who tell us that our spare time should be spent at the church because it needs us. We have activity-pharaohs who proclaim that any down time is wasted time. Finally we have our inner-demon-pharaohs that tell us we are not perfect and so we need to work harder and harder for all of our other pharaohs in order to be acceptable.
Jesus said, “Come to me all of you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Jesus is the un-pharaoh. Jesus calls us to Sabbath. Jesus calls us to rest and refreshment. Jesus calls us to not be anxious about anything. Jesus reminds us that we are beloved children of God with intrinsic value. Jesus calls us to embrace the Sabbath because it will help us to become fully human; fully capable of loving God and neighbor. The challenge for us is to not only worship on the Sabbath…but to take Sabbath; to take the time to rest and refresh as God intended.
The centrality of Sabbath in the scriptures will hopefully encourage us to practice it as well. This raises the questions of how ought we to live Sabbath in our lives and what are some practical applications of Sabbath? One place in which we can find some great suggestions is the Ten Principles from the Sabbath Manifesto (http://sabbathmanifesto.org/) offered by Reboot, a Jewish on-line community.
Principle One – Avoid Technology We begin with what is for many of us the most difficult of the ten principles, disconnecting from our wired world. This means not answering emails, texts or tweets; surfing the internet or playing video games. By so doing we allow our brains and fingers to rest.
Principle Two – Connect with Loved Ones This principle used to be one of the main stays of American life. Sunday for Christians and Friday/Saturday for Jews was a sacrosanct time for being with family; having some face-time. This allows us to truly nurture often lost relationships.
Principle Three – Nurture Your Health We live in an age in which our bodies are assaulted by the big three demons of early death; sugar, fat and salt. Our bodies crave them and we give in to them. By unplugging from these at least one day a week we allow our bodies a moment of physical refreshing. In addition, a nice Sunday walk can’t hurt either.
Principle Four – Get Outside This principle is a follow-up to our previous principle. If part of Sabbath is reconnecting with God there are few places better than God’s creation in which to do so. By walking or simply sitting outside we allow God’s beautiful creation to enfold us and remind us of God’s presence and love.
Principle Five – Avoid Commerce Many of us of a certain age remember when stores were not open on Sundays. We were offered a reprieve from acquisitiveness. Now the challenge is up to us to take time away from acquiring things at least one day a week.
Principle Six – Light Candles This principle may seem a bit odd, yet candles are reminders of God as the creating agent (Let there be light) and of Jesus (Jesus is the light of the world). Lighting candles allows us center ourselves in God.
Principle Seven – Drink Wine I think that this principle might be the favorite principle for many of us. Drinking wine (or grape juice) makes sense because not only do the Psalms (104:14) tell us that wine gladdens the heart but because wine is a Biblical metaphor for the chosen people of God; thus reminding us that we are special to our Creator.
Principle Eight – Eat Bread Once again we turn to Biblical imagery. Psalm 104:14 not only tells us that wine gladdens the heart but that it is bread that sustains the heart. Bread is the symbol of God’s beneficence toward humanity. Without bread (grains) civilization could not exist. In addition it reminds us that Jesus is the true bread of life.
Principle Nine – Find Silence We live in a noisy world. Whether it is in the car, at home or where we go to eat…noise is everywhere. Noise keeps us from resting and seeking inner peace. It distracts. By turning off the noise we have an opportunity to rediscover our inner selves.
Principle Ten – Give Back Jesus healed on the Sabbath because it showed the worth of human beings. By serving others on a regular basis we do the same. We connect with God through imitating Jesus’ actions and rediscover our own image of God.
The true gift of these principles is that they can be exercised on any day and in almost any place. They help us to understand that Sabbath is not simply a day, but a mindset, in which we practice connecting with God, neighbor, the self and the world.