Texts: Deuteronomy 5:1-7; 12-15; Mark 8:31-38
Before Sabbath was a holy day, a noun, it was a verb, with nothing particularly holy about it. To sabbath means to cease, to desist, to rest. Verbs are action words, and sabbath is an action word meaning, basically, to refrain from action. Sabbath is the un-verb.
The first four times the word appears in the Bible it is in verb form. It’s mentioned twice in Genesis 2, where the Creator Elohim famously and somewhat mysteriously ceases, rests, sabbaths from all creative activity. This happens on the seventh day, which is not yet called the Sabbath. The seventh day is declared holy because on it Elohim sabbathed.
It’s mentioned nowhere else in the book of Genesis, and so we’re on to Exodus, chapter five, where Pharaoh is scolding Moses and Aaron for daring to ask for a three day holiday for the Hebrew slaves. Holidays and paid vacation leave were not a part of the slave memorandum of understanding. Rather than give them a break, Pharaoh makes their work more difficult, demanding the same quotas for brick production, while making them provide not just labor, but some of the materials. From now on, the Hebrews will have to gather their own straw to mix with clay. Pharaoh says to Moses and Aaron, “Why are you taking the people away from their work. Get to your labor! Now they are more numerous than the people of the land and yet you want them to stop working!” It’s that very last phrase that translates Sabbath. To sabbath = to stop working. Pharaoh is anxious about the demographic shift of the foreign slaves starting to outnumber native born Egyptians, and yet Moses wants them to sabbath? How could this possibly help Pharaoh’s bottom line? In Pharoah’s economy, sabbath is an absurd request.
Sabbath is also a verb in Exodus 12, when the Hebrew people are to put away, to sabbath, all the yeast in their homes as a part of the weeklong observance of Unleaven Bread leading up to Passover – a remembrance that the people exited Egypt so quickly their bread didn’t even have time to rise.
Sabbath is first mentioned as its own day, the seventh and final day of the week, in Exodus 16, regarding manna collection in the wilderness, the passage we read last week.
It’s next mentioned in Exodus 20 as one of ten Divine commandments etched in stone tablets. Remember the Sabbath, a whole day that comes around every seven. A day of sabbathing.
If sabbath is first of all a verb, and if this verb means to cease, to desist, to rest, it raises the question: From what shall we cease? From what shall we rest?
These are questions I’ve done some thinking about in my own life. I’m in my twelfth year of being a pastor, or in verb form, pastoring, and if there is one thing I can point to that has most sustained me through these years, it is having a Sabbath. Holy Monday.
But here’s the thing. What my Sabbath looks like is likely very different than what others might consider sabbathing. When I sabbath, I cease from pastoring. Aside from the quarterly BREAD gatherings, which seem to be firmly established on Monday evenings, etched in stone, I check out from church on my Sabbath. I let go of responsibilities, don’t check email. I blissfully release the idea of being needed and useful. I love you all, but on Mondays my mind is elsewhere.
But lest this start sounding like I’m an exemplary Sabbath keeper, I don’t think my Sabbath fits the biblical and rabbinical model very well. With farm boy blood flowing strong in my veins, I still find it surprising how much sitting, and living in my head I do throughout the week. It’s head and heart work, relational work, organizational work, but not so much body work. If I would treat Mondays like a spiritual retreat for meditation and study, it would feel way too much like work…at least in this stage of my life.
So for me, I find physical activity to be essential Sabbath practice. I cease from sedentariness…with space for an afternoon nap, if so moved, and not having too much of an agenda. Runs, bike rides, and remodeling projects all fit into my Sabbath groove. That latter one likely undermines my real Sabbath cred, so I guess I’m being confessional at this point. My point is that it’s not pastoring. And these are things I find freeing and restorative. A sanctuary in time, to use the Heschel phrase.
One Sabbath moment that stands out was a couple years back when I was pushing Ila in the jogging stroller on the Olentangy Trail. It was the middle of a Monday morning, I was at a particularly beautiful part of the trail, and no one else was around. If you’ve ever found yourself alone in a beautiful part of the world, maybe you’ve had a similar thought as I did then: Over seven billion people in the world, and I can’t believe I’m the only one seeing this right now. What could be so important as to miss this? The givenness of this place. My complete non-involvement in having created it. It felt like a Sabbath gift. I guess your odds of having moments like this increase when your Sabbath falls on a day when most other people are back to work.
Still, of all the Ten Commandments, Sabbath feels like the most optional. Like, maybe extra credit for the over-achievers. Or just for when you feel like you need it, rather than a weekly built in rhythm of life.
Perhaps as a direct counter this thinking, Hebrew Bible scholar Walter Brueggemann calls Sabbath keeping the most radical commandment for our time. The title of his book about this says just as much: Sabbath as Resistance. Which provokes the question: When we Sabbath, what is it we are resisting?
The Ten Commandments are presented twice in the Torah, once in Exodus 20, and again in Deuteronomy 5. As one might imagine, seeing as how they are reportedly written in stone, the two versions are quite similar. There are, however, some notable differences. The commandment that differs most between the two versions is the Sabbath. Perhaps it anticipates our question about why this is important, because two different reasons are given for keeping Sabbath. Mark will address the Exodus version next week. This week we’re on Deuteronomy. In both versions, it’s the longest commandment, the one that gets the longest airtime, the most scroll space, the largest hunk of stone.
This is the full Sabbath commandment in Deuteronomy:
12 Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 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. 15 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.
In Deuteronomy the reason for Sabbath observance is that you’ve been delivered out of slavery in Egypt. In Egypt there were no Sabbaths, and sabbath-ing was condemned as laziness by the people who sat atop the pyramid scheme and counted the brick per slave ratio and quarterly earnings reports. In Pharaoh’s economy, Sabbath keeping is nonsensical because people are viewed as brick making machines rather than divine-image bearing beings.
Sabbath is the creation, the introduction, the gift, of an alternative economic arrangement. One which places life and the blessedness of being, rather than endless production, at the center.
Brueggemann emphasizes that Sabbath is first and foremost work stoppage. Stop working. Cease and desist. Because we can. Because we’re not in Egypt anymore. Because we are more than what we do. Because otherwise we are in danger of becoming a mere function of the production economy which will take over our life and make us its slave. Slavery in Egypt was not a choice. Sabbath is an opting out of voluntary slavery. Which is why it’s presented as a command. Otherwise the Israelites, and dare I say we, might treat sabbath-ing as optional.
Which, of course, it is.
And not only does sabbath-ing free us from voluntary enslavement, but it frees up our relationships with our neighbors, and other creatures. Resident aliens who don’t own land and are dependent on their own labor to gain wealth are included in Sabbath. Debt slaves get to cease. Ox and donkeys who have been domesticated and bred for the very purpose of increasing human productivity, are also sabbath-worthy creatures.
To sabbath is to cease. The Sabbath is a ceasefire in our continual conquest of the material world. It’s a sanctuary in time, holy for its own sake. We are freed up to be enjoyers rather than just producers and consumers.
As a final thought, it’s a step in the right direction to ask ourselves, From what shall I cease? When we Sabbath, what are we resisting? It’s a step in the right direction to form personal Sabbath practices that move us away from the bondage of Egypt, and into the liberation of the promised land.
But there is also a certain sense in which Sabbath has to be a collective commitment in order for it to work. It’s hard to have a Sabbath when you’re earning minimum wage and need to make rent. It’s hard to find Sabbath rest when you’re a parent of a one and three year old and don’t have family around to help with child care. It’s hard to share a Sabbath with loved ones when our weekly work rhythms don’t coincide.
This is our world. These are the times in which we choose what Sabbath means for us, in which we join in solidarity so that all may have Sabbath opportunity. Sabbath is an act of resistance.
Sabbath is primarily a matter of Divine grace, a way for us individually and collectively to live in to this strange and wonderful gift of existence.