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Creation, Sabbath and Social Justice


Growing up in a Seventh-day Adventist home, Sabbath was by far the best day of the week: Dad was home from work, Mom prepared a delicious meal, and my sister and I were done with our studies for the week. Sabbath also meant going to Sabbath school and church, an opportunity to see our friends and possibly to have guests for lunch. Sabbath afternoons often included hikes in the woods, walks on the beach, or riding our bicycles on bike trails. It was a wonderful day for family, worship, and enjoying God’s creation.

When I went to college, a new dimension of Sabbath opened up to me: Sabbath rest. Never before had I appreciated the command to set aside work, which in my case consisted of a part-time job and a full-load of Theology classes, to rest and relax. I relished Friday evening vespers and church on Sabbath, but for a sleep-deprived college student, the real highlight was a Sabbath afternoon nap.

In recounting these stories of my childhood and college Sabbaths, I now realize they smack of self-centeredness. Sabbath was a great day for me—never mind that the sweatshop workers around the world who work seven days a week, never mind the single mother who has to choose between keeping the Sabbath and keeping food on the table. I realize I have been guilty of reading about the Sabbath in the creation account and concluding God wants me to enjoy Sabbath with Him, when in fact, Genesis speaks to the fact that Sabbath is for everyone: the land, animals, and human beings.

The belief that Sabbath is for everyone is expounded upon in Exodus 20: 8-11:

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work,but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lordyour God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your male or female servant, nor your animals, nor any foreigner residing in your towns. For in six days the Lordmade the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lordblessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (NIV).  

Here God links creation and the social implications of Sabbath. It’s not we alone who are financially stable that should rest—it’s Walmart workers. It’s not the farmers alone who need a break from tilling the soil or harvesting their crops—it’s the land that needs rest, too. Sigve Tonstad, in his book The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day, writes along these same lines when he says, “Legislation of this kind in the ancient world prioritizes from the bottom up and not from the top looking down, giving first considerations to the weakest and most vulnerable members of society. Those who need rest the most—the slave, the resident alien, and the beast of burden—are singled out for special mention. In the rest of the seventh day the underprivileged, even mute animals, find an ally,” (emphasis mine).[1]

Sabbath is meant to be more than family time, attending church, and taking nature walks, as wonderful as all those activities are. Sabbath is meant to act as an equalizer; Sabbath is meant to suspend our socio-economic social order every week. Author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “When the Walmart cashier and the bank president are both lying on picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart. When two sets of grandparents are at the lake with their grandchildren feeding ducks, it is hard to tell the rich ones from the poor ones.”[2]Sabbath is not just for people who can afford to “take a day off;” it is a gift for everyone, for all of creation.

The connections between creation and Sabbath and social justice do not end in Exodus, however. The Hebrew prophets also pick up the theme in places like Isaiah 58 and Amos 8. Here Sabbath is not to be merely a day of worship or a day where socio-economic status is suspended; the seventh-day is to become a Sabbath way of life. Granted, these passages are not shining examples of Sabbath keeping. Both Isaiah and Amos were admonishing their audiences for their sins in failing to keep the Sabbath and for their exploitation of the poor, which are inextricably linked. Yet the vision of Sabbath is present: Sabbath is for everyone, rich and poor, slave and free, humans and animals alike.

Sabbath is still my favorite day of the week. I still love going to church, visiting with friends, and yes, even taking an occasional nap. But I now know that Sabbath is not primarily about me, or even God’s relationship with me, and Sabbath is not even just for Seventh-day Adventists. Sabbath is for everyone and I want to embody Sabbath equality and justice to make it so.

[1]Sigve A. Tonstad, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh day. Berrien Springs: Andrews University Press, 2009. (p. 126)

[2]Barbara Brown Taylor, An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith. NewYork: HarperOne, 2009.  

(p. 131)

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