The subject of Sabbath has been well studied and rehearsed in evangelicalism for some time. Of all the Ten Commandments and Old Testament laws, the call for Sabbath is perhaps more honored than any other. Of course most evangelicals seek not to murder or steal, but these are not overtly Jewish ideals. The Sabbath, however, is an inherently Jewish practice and, moreover, one never commanded by Jesus or the apostles. The fact that so many evangelicals then hold to this bit of Torah as a matter of moral responsibility both adds interest and importance to the question of what it really means.
Few evangelicals have ever held to the related Torah instructions to take a Sabbatical Year after every six years of agricultural production or a Year of Jubilee every seventh Sabbatical Year. It seems then that one cause for evangelical concern for a weekly Sabbath is not simply its presence in the Pentateuch, but rather its individual applicability. It has been shockingly popular in recent generations to approach the Mosaic laws by parsing them into the three categories of Moral, social, and ritual. While the cultic instructions pertaining to the temple and Levitical priesthood are deemed obsolete and the “social” instructions offering national governmental guidance to Israel as a theocracy are deemed more or less irrelevant, the remaining elements of the law construed as individual moral codes are considered active and enforced. Therefore, many Christian individuals are instructed from the pulpit about their responsibility to honor the Sabbath, while never being told at all about the parallel instructions of Sabbatical years and Jubilee.
Whether this hermeneutic is acceptable or helpful is not the point of this brief survey. Instead, this reality simply underlies the importance of understanding a Biblical theology of Sabbath. It will also guide the interpretation of how this meaning might be construed and applied.
I take a canonical approach, roughly tracing the progressive development of the Sabbath theme from Genesis to Revelation. Changes in Israel’s covenantal status over the course of this canonical chronology will be addressed where significant, but I will not be employing a specifically covenantal methodology.
The thesis outlined here is that Sabbath entailed both rest and responsibility. Both aspects were rightly deemed as blessings, gifts given by God for the good of His people and the world. As the original ideas and ordinances of Sabbath were later developed and eventually transfigured typologically in the New Testament, the tension between rest and responsibility is further elucidated.
Sabbath in the Pentateuch
Old Testament scholars such as John Sailhamerhave long sought to highlight the relationship between the narratives and ordinances contained in the Pentateuch. The unnatural sexual violence of the sons of God (Gen. 6:1-4), Ham (Gen. 9:20-24) and the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18-19) clearly relate somehow to the sexual prohibitions in Leviticus 18 and 20, as well as the fifth commandment to honor one’s parents (Exod. 20:12). Similarly, the story of Nadab and Abihu’s unauthorized sacrifice is presented in an obvious dialogue with the priestly instructions laid out in the first nine chapters of Leviticus. Though the precise logic of these relationships can be exceedingly complex, the point is that the commands derive their theological and moral significance from the narratives where they are presented. Similarly, the institution of a weekly Sabbath day (Exod. 16:23) and the 4thcommandment to honor this day (Exod. 20:8-11) is to be understood in light of the Pentateuch’s stories involving Sabbath.
The word Sabbath is a transliteration of the Hebrew term Shabbat, derived from a family of words meaning to cease, to end, or to rest. Though the word sabbathdoesn’t show up until the institution is given in Exodus, the Decalogue explicitly links the ritual to God’s resting on the seventh day after six days of the work of creation (Exod. 20:11). In resting this way, God “blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.” Therefore, Israel is to imitate this cycle of work and rest, “remembering” the Sabbath day by setting it apart as a holy day free of labor. The most basic early meanings of Sabbath then entail a day of rest from toil combined with a responsibility to devote this sacred day to the LORD.
We can expand further though by looking more closely at the nature of God’s creation and rest in Genesis 1 and 2. The relationship between these first two chapters of the Bible has occupied scholars for millennia. It suffices to say here that they cannot be seen simply as one single story, but must be interpreted as some kind of two-part narrative, whether prequel/sequel, competing accounts, or otherwise. It is noteworthy that Genesis 1 ends with the completion of the sixth day. In fact, the words “sixth day” (yom hashishi) are the last words of the Hebrew text. “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day” (Gen. 1:31). Then Genesis 2 opens with a kind of parallel repetition of the fact that God had completed his work, and only then asserts the significance of this seventh day of rest and holiness. These concluding lines about the 6thday and opening lines about the 7thday serve as the binding material between the two creation accounts. This highlights the significance that it was the creation and employment of mankind that completed God’s work in Genesis 1 (v26-31), but actually necessitated God’s further creative work of making Eve in Genesis 2 (v5, 15, 18-23). All this serves to instill that the primary theological and philosophical significance of God’s ceasing from creation on His day of Sabbath is that God delegated His own work of filling and forming the earth to mankind. God’s resting entailed humanity’s working and ruling in God’s stead. We will further examine this idea below.
First, however, we must address the second narrative linked to the Sabbath command. Don’t get lost in the chronology here: While the second mention of the Sabbath command (Exod. 20:8-11) addresses the earliest story of sacred rest (Gen.1-2), the first mention of the institution (Exod. 16:23) ties it to the second story of a sacred seven-day rest rhythm. After God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt and led them into the wilderness, the LORD provided for them with mysterious bread from heaven in the morning and quail in the evening (Exod. 16:1-36). The food showed up for six days, but not on the seventh. This occurred for Israel’s entire 40-year existence in the wilderness in order to test their faithfulness (Exod. 16:4) just as God had earlier tested Abraham’s reliance on God’s provision (Gen. 22:1-14). It seems that this weekly practice of toiling for food and then relying on God’s provision rather than toil serves as a kind of counter-balance to the premise of God’s own Sabbath. God’s Sabbath entailed Israel’s responsibility to work but God wanted the people of Israel to hold this idea in check with their own weekly decision to delegate back to God. In other words, the practice of Sabbath re-enacted weekly a kind of mutual delegation and mutually entrusting relationship between God and his people.
It appears that this balance between God’s own seventh day resting as well as His continuing work of Sabbath provision is necessary to understand Jesus’ later assertion that God “is always at his work” (Jn. 5:10). This idea is also reinforced by Moses’ expanded clarification of the Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy 5:12-15, where he adds a third linkage to God’s liberating action to free Israel from slavery. For four hundred years they had toiled endlessly, but God had brought them to 40 years of rest. Here, clearly, rest means freedom from slavery. In a strikingly similar passage, Israel is commanded to imitate God by loving the refugee among them, for they themselves were once refugees (Deut. 10:18-19). Here this imitation ethic based on Israel’s past suffering and God’s past rescue gets loaded into the ethical framework for Sabbath. Employers and parents and slaveholders are to imitate God’s merciful liberation by liberating their workers – even their animals – from toil every week. The promise of a free and prosperous life in the land of Canaan is also a part of this motif, as life in the Promised Land carries the weight of the hope for true rest from slavery. Until Israel has a sovereign life and home of its own, they await their true rest from a kind of toil in the wilderness.
The last points we should draw from the Pentateuch are that the Sabbath was deemed a “sign” of Israel’s covenant with the LORD (Exod. 31:12-17). When the nations looked upon Israel’s strange seventh-day practice, they were to see a very peculiar people inhabiting and acting out the drama of God’s delegation, provision and liberation. To see Israel practice Sabbath was to witness hope lived out. And this drama was to reach greater proportion than even the scandalous refusal to labor one day per week. Indeed, every seventh year Israel was to cease from work and trust the provision of food to God and the land (Lev. 25:1-7) and even more radically, every seventh Sabbath year was to be a Year of Jubilee wherein debts are cancelled and people were allowed to return to their ancestral land and property (Lev. 25:8-54). Here the drama of God’s provision and great liberation is to be radically acted out in the entire economic system of the nation, whereby the poor are allowed rest every seven years and are fully liberated and re-established to land ownership once every generation or so. This asserts that the meaning inlaid in the rituals of Sabbath was not merely individual or Spiritual but was actually meant to practically manifest God’s liberating grace within the life of his people.
Sabbath in the Prophets
One final point on Sabbath must be drawn from the Pentateuch. Immediately following an entire chapter devoted to the Sabbatical Year and Jubilee, the Sabbath is referenced in one of the many future-oriented warnings in the Pentateuch of blessing or cursing depending upon Israel’s obedience to these decrees. Specifically, if Israel acts out this drama of rest and liberation, they will remain free and will “lie down” (i.e. rest) in peace in their own land (Lev. 26:6). If Israel, however, refuses to give God a seventh of what He has given them, then He will punish them seven times over (Lev. 26:18, 21, 24, 27). Moreover, God threatens exile – the opposite of freedom and rest in the land – in a tragically poetic statement that their desolation from the land will serve to give the land the Sabbaths that they denied it (Lev. 26:34-35). Just as Israel’s keeping of the Sabbath was to be a sign to them and the world of their special covenant, God would respond to their disobedience by removing them from the land as a kind of tragic sign of their faithlessness to that covenant.
This threat of exile as a rest from their rest, or a payment of Sabbath for Sabbath due, runs through the bulk of the prophetic testimony on the subject. The promise of rest in the land and the threat of losing this promise grows increasingly important to Old Testament hope and theology. Indeed the idea of rest, which we must remember entails freedom and peace, becomes woven together with the land itself. To enter the land is to enter rest (Ps. 95:11, Neh. 9:28). As the threat of exile and the existential crisis that it entails looms and then befalls, the sign of Sabbath observance becomes more closely focus on the liberating love it was meant to act out and the idea of Sabbath as rest and peace in the land grows in an eschatological rather than historical hope.
Picking up what the Leviticus 26 idea of Sabbath as more than just a mandatory ritual, the great prophet Isaiah conflates “desecrating the Sabbath” with the evil of injustice (Is. 56:1-2). Just as Isaiah feels free to re-define true fasting as undoing injustice and liberating the oppressed (Is. 58:6), so too he expands the boundaries of Sabbath to include general obedience to God’s just and liberating ways, contrasting it with “going you own way” (Is. 58:13). Ezekiel follows suit, writing from exile himself that the Leviticus 26 threat has come true and Israel has indeed been exiled for forsaking the Sabbath (Ezek. 20:1-29). He repeats the language of “desecrating the Sabbath” and also overlaps the issues of idolatry and injustice with this Sabbath-breaking. Because the institution was a central sign and signifier of Israel’s identity, it is also a prominent signifier of their failure. It gives another metaphor by which the prophets make theological sense of the exile, as well as loaded language in which to guide Israel’s future hope.
Because God’s Sabbath rest in the land has failed, Israel and her prophets begin to look not within history but beyond history for the hope of ultimate rest. They look forward to a new Exodus when God will once again deliver them from slavery and into freedom and rest. However, Israel’s thorough failure leads the prophets to look forward to a fuller and more ultimate rest accomplished and safeguarded by God himself. As Jeremiah declared, a great Day of the Lord will one day come when God will “bring rest to [Israel’s] land, but unrest to those who live in Babylon” (Jer. 50:34). Zechariah even envisions a time when the entire world is “at rest and in peace” (Zech. 1:11).
Jesus and Sabbath
We often fail to note that Jesus identified his own mission and ministry as an enactment of the Jubilee Year (Lk. 4:14-2; Is. 58:6, 61:1-2). He is here to accomplish the “true fasting” of liberation that Israel was supposed to enact every 49 years with the Year of Jubilee. Just as the Jubilee was to be accomplished by a declaration of freedom from economic slavery, Jesus’ mission was in part accomplished simply by his announcement in the temple.
Jesus had come to enact the new Exodus, the Day of the Lord. To heal the sick on the Sabbath was not to disobey God’s command but to reenact God’s work of provision and liberation (Lk. 6:1-11, 13:10-17). It was not only to perfectly enact the drama as Israel had failed to, but it was actually to manifest the very thing which the drama had pointed to, mainly God’s liberating action. Apparently this lesson was so important to Jesus – presumably because Sabbath was such a meaningful idea – that on one occasion He preemptively challenged the Pharisees, establishing that to deem healing and rescuing on the Sabbath as a sin was to get the whole thing entirely backward (Lk. 14:1-6).
Jesus’ ministry began to rightly re-orient Israel to the ultimate meaning of Sabbath pertaining to the provision and liberation of God relating to the rest and vocation of God’s people. While Paul seems to have largely bypassed this theme in his preaching and epistles, the author of Hebrews took up Sabbath as a typological signpost pointing toward the peace accomplished by Christ. Just as the faith of ancient Israel was to be liberated from Egypt and then enter rest in the land, so too Christ’s followers are to practice obedient faithfulness in expectation of entering God’s rest (Heb. 3:7-4:11). Indeed Hebrews presents the entire wilderness story as an example of disobedience to warn us so that we may not fail to enter the rest as they did. The Promised Land home won by Joshua was not ultimate rest but rather a kind of foreshadowing, so “there remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.” (v4:9). The liberated life of peace that Jesus won for us is greater than a chunk of irrigable land in the Middle East, but is rather an eternal life with God.
As the Book of Revelation envisions, “there will be no rest…for those who worship the beast” but those “who die in the Lord from now on…will rest from their labor” (Rev. 14:11,13). Included too here is the single best explanation of what this all means for the Christian: “This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus” (Rev. 14:12).
I have tried to show that the idea of Sabbath is loaded with the ideas of God’s delegation to Adam (Israel, and eventually all mankind) to rule the world, Israel’s responsibility to safeguard this power by entrusting themselves regularly to God’s provision, and especially God’s loving actions to liberate Israel from Egypt and later the whole world through Christ from Sin, Satan, and Death. Genesis 1-11 depicts multiple tragic chapters of the world’s corruption. Beginning with God’s calling of Abraham in Genesis 12, the entire Biblical story is about God’s patient project to work with humanity to restore the world. The center of this restoration project is liberation from oppression. The idea of Sabbath commemorated that God liberated Israel in the past, provided for her in the desert, and would one day liberate and care for the entire world. Jesus inaugurated this rescue and new creation.
However, we can never forget that the very first story depicting rest in the Scriptures, which is linked to both the Sabbath commandment and the hope of eternal Sabbath rest (Heb. 4:4), tells of God resting from His work because He has handed it over to humanity. Entering God’s eternal rest entails an end of one kind of work and the beginning of another. To enter the life of rest Christ won for us is to begin to “reign with him” (1 Cor. 4:8, 2 Tim. 2:12, Rev. 5:10, 20:6, 22:5). After all, the whole point of God’s begetting Israel in the first place was to pick up the Adamic mantle and rule on God’s behalf. From Genesis 1 to Revelation 22, Sabbath is about rest and responsibility.
Loaded into the idea of Sabbath then is the tension between our work and God’s work, what God entrusts to us and what we must entrust to God. Our labor couldn’t accomplish our rest; Christ’s did. But our rest will not be idleness, but rather a participation in the original and good creative ruling work of God. Sabbath is both a return to the garden and transcendence into the working, resting life of God. Sabbath both pointed to Christ and also to what Christ shall lead us into. This should cause us to praise and worship, hope and believe, and also to rethink all of life in terms of preparation for the great task that lies ahead of us. Don’t you know, said Paul, that you will judge angels (1 Cor. 6:3)?
For example: Sailhamer, John H. The Pentateuch as Narrative (Zondervan, 1995) and The Meaning of the Pentateuch (IVP Academic, 2009)