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The Sabbath: From Test to Gift


I am intrigued by the fact that a lesson on “Sabbath” is included in this series on “Education.” Maybe because university life is so intense, the editor decided that it would be good to focus on the blessing of the Sabbath. I recall a story from one of my colleagues in the English department at Walla Walla University.

One Friday afternoon in graduate school, she had been studying with a group of fellow students. As sundown approached, she began to put her books away. Her colleagues were puzzled. Why? they asked. “It’s my religion,” she said. “I have been given a 24-hour relief from constant work. It is a day of rest, a Sabbath.”

They were intrigued, amazed, and a bit envious!

I almost hear an echo of Moses’s comment about the blessings experienced in the keeping of God’s law. As he urged his people to be faithful to the divine commands, he noted that the people of other nations would also be impressed: “You must observe them diligently,” he urged, “for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’” Deut. 4:6, NRSV).

Israel’s neighbors were impressed by the laws God had given to his people. We can have the same powerful witness today when we show that the Sabbath is a blessing, not just a test. Others will be attracted by our witness. But when I see an email banner declaring, “The Sabbath Is Not Important,” I know that it reflects an experience with the Sabbath as test, not as gift. And I don’t see how the Sabbath can be experienced as a gift when it is first of all a test.

So under six headings in this lesson, we will survey some highlights about the Sabbath that can help us experience a gracious and grace-full creator who wants his children to revel in his gifts.

1. A blessing and an example, but no Sabbath command. According to Genesis 2, the first time the Sabbath is mentioned in Scripture, God blessed the Sabbath and rested on it, but gave no command: “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 from all the work that he had done in creation” (Gen. 2:2-3, NRSV).

If we can see the Sabbath in terms of divine blessing and divine example and the absence of command, it would be easier to see the Sabbath as a gift, not just as a test.

2. Manna: rediscovering the Sabbath. After Genesis 2, the Sabbath is not mentioned again until after Israel was leaving Egyptian slavery. The story of the manna provides an example of how God brought a neglected command once more to the attention of his people. Here are the key lines from Exodus 16: “On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, and they found none. The Lord said to Moses, ‘How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and instructions? See! The Lord has given you the sabbath, therefore on the sixth day he gives you food for two days; each of you stay where you are; do not leave your place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day” (Exod. 16:27-30, NRSV).

3. Two versions of the Sinai Decalogue: Exodus and Deuteronomy. For those who are inclined toward verbal inspiration, the fact that there are two different editions of the Decalogue can be a great perplexity. These commands were written by the very finger of God. Yet we have no way of knowing exactly what God wrote. And when it comes to the Sabbath command, even the verbs are different. A thoughtful comparison of the two editions can be rewarding.

Exodus 20:8-11 (NRSV): “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.”

Deut. 5:12-15 (NRSV): “Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 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, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

The Exodus version of the Decalogue celebrates creation, the Deuteronomy version redemption from slavery. One line in Deuteronomy is noteworthy: “that your male and female slave may rest as well as you.” One-time British Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan is reputed to have said that the Deuteronomic law is “the first and greatest worker protection act in History.”[1]

4. Calling the Sabbath a delight. Isaiah 58, a famous Sabbath chapter, lays out a tantalizing paradox for us. We are invited to call the Sabbath a “delight” yet are told that we are not to be pursuing our own interests and our own affairs. Here are the key lines:

Isaiah 58:13-14 (NRSV):

13 If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,

 from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;

if you call the sabbath a delight

 and the holy day of the Lord honorable;

if you honor it, not going your own ways,

 serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;

14 then you shall take delight in the Lord,

 and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;

I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,

 for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

This chapter in Isaiah does not tell us how to make the Sabbath a delight. The earlier verses in the chapter call Israel to social justice. Could that be a significant part of the delight?

5. The Sabbath was made for human beings. After Israel went into Babylonian captivity, the people finally realized that the Exile had come upon them because of their disobedience. So they determined to keep the law, and with enthusiasm! One phrase they used to indicate their commitment to obedience referred to “building a fence about the law.” Their practices were intended to function like a second fence at a dangerous cliff, protecting the people from getting too close.

Two quick examples can illustrate the point. One involves the third command: “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Exod. 20:7, NASB). Rather than pondering just how one might take YHWH’s name in vain, the rabbis simply decided not to use his name at all. One rabbinic source, for example, lists ninety synonyms for God.[2]

Another illustration involves an incident when Jesus and his disciples were walking through a grainfield on Sabbath and the disciples plucked and ate some of the heads of grain. On any other day, that would have been fine since the law allowed anyone to eat from standing grain as long as no sickle was used (Exod. 23:24). But the rabbis had erected a fence about the Sabbath law. Thousands of regulations had sprung up, organized under 39 major headings. In satisfying their hunger, the disciples had transgressed four of those major prohibitions: reaping, threshing, winnowing, and preparing food.

Jesus’s response is found in Mark 2:27-28 (NRSV): “Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’” For Jesus, human need always took precedent over the letter of the law.

But an unnamed New Testament colleague of mine made a radical suggestion that is worth pondering. Jesus’s favorite title for himself was “son of man,” the title that is used here. In Aramaic, the street language Jesus’s day, the phrase “son of man” is simply the word for “human being.” Following that line of thinking, the line could be translated: “the human being is lord of the Sabbath.” Such an interpretation seems to be lurking in Jesus’s attitude. But of the 51 English translations found on Bible Gateway, none is brave enough to give that translation. The Common English Bible comes closest: “This is why the Human One is lord even over the Sabbath.”

6. The Sabbath as a time for community. The official study guide brings together several passages from the book of Acts that show how the apostles worshiped with the believers on Sabbath (Acts 13:14-45; Acts 16:13-14; Acts 17:1-5; Acts 18:4). In our day, we often have to settle for a Zoom session in order to find community. But that’s better than nothing. And that wonderful Sabbath fellowship is a constant reminder that the Sabbath is a gift, not simply a test.


Notes & References:

[1]. Chris Wright, “Deuteronomic Depression,” Themelios 19:2 (January 1994), 3.

[2]. A. Marmorstein, The Old Rabbinic Doctrine of God (New York: KTAV, 1927, 1968), 90.


Alden Thompson is professor of biblical studies at Walla Walla University.

Photo by Pixabay from Pexels


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