Sabbath: A “Day” of Freedom

Sabbath in ancient Israel is about justice and liberation. The cessation of work on Sabbath is not meaningless ritual required to pad a divine ego. Rather, it is a lesson to humanity on how to live in community with fellow beings in ways that facilitate liberation. This becomes evident as one observes that in the Hebrew Bible, Sabbath is not only about the seventh day. It is also the seventh year, and the seven-times-seventh year. After six years of planting, the land must rest. After six years of service, the slave must be emancipated and given enough provisions to start over. Jubilee comes at the end of seven cycles of sabbatical years falling on the fiftieth year. According to Leviticus 25:10, the fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone receives back foreclosed property, slaves return home to their families, and the land rests.

Sabbath is a lesson that beyond the hurry scurry of everyday life, above the many attempts to identify ourselves as individual persons, classes, groups and species, there is only One in which we are all bounded through grace; and the more we become conscious of this reality, the less unfree we become. Outside of this understanding of Sabbath, a seventh-day observance amounts to mere idolatry.

Close reading of the fourth commandment in both the Exodus 20:8–11 and Deuteronomy 5:12–15 versions indicates that Sabbath is about solidarity in community. Everyone must rest, including the livestock and the slave. The Exodus version reminds Israel that all creation comes from One. And the Deuteronomy version reminds Israel that they were slaves in Egypt—they were once outcasts on the margins of society. It is a comprehensive call for solidarity to do to others as you would have them do to you.

The Seventh Day Is (a) Sabbath

It is also important to note that in both the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 version of the fourth commandment, it says the seventh day is Shabbat—not the Sabbath. There is no article there. Like the seventh year and the Jubilee year, the seventh day is Shabbat or a Shabbat. This is to say that observance of the seventh day is emblematic of the entire message of justice and liberation that characterizes the story of salvation.

Shabbat Is Justice/Righteousness.

In prophetic ideal, Sabbath is the basis of justice and justice is the actual meaning of the word translated righteousness in both old and new testaments. In Isaiah 58, to cease from trampling Sabbath by pursuing “your own interests” is to cease from exploiting the poor and vulnerable. “Look, you serve your interests on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.” (Isaiah 58: 3b). In Isaiah 56, it is the basis of including the foreigner and the stigmatized and outcast (eunuch), and so this chapter begins by defining Sabbath observance as maintaining justice and doing what is right. In this context, it means that the foreigner and the eunuch must be included in Sabbath observance, and thus be part of God’s covenant of justice.

Jubilee

Jubilee is the “year of the Lord’s favor” or “the acceptable year of the Lord” as the KJV renders it. It comes at the end of seven cycles of sabbatical years. The trumpet sounds throughout the land (Lev. 25:9), slaves are released, foreclosed properties returned, and the land rests. It is ultimate Sabbath because it summarizes all that Sabbath is about—liberation in creation. It is emblematic of the practice of justice which is the focal theme of Hebrew prophecy. It is in this sense that Isaiah describes his mission as the proclamation of Jubilee (proclamation of Shabbat):

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the broken hearted, to proclaim freedom to the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…. (Isaiah 61:1–2, NIV)

In Luke, Jesus Messiah reads from this very passage in the synagogue when, after His baptism, and filled with the Spirit, He returns to Galilee to begin His ministry:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:16–20 NRSV)

According to Luke, Jesus then hands back this Isaiah scroll to the synagogue attendant and declares: “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke portrays Jesus Messiah as the one who takes up from where Isaiah leaves off in the call to observe Sabbath—to resurrect Sabbath buried underneath the quagmire of Judaic dogmatic self-indulgence. Thus, Jesus declares “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath….” (Mark 4:27, NRSV).

The Sabbath was Made for Humankind

The statement: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath” is absent from Matthew’s version of Jesus’ transgression of the Sabbath boundaries regarding gathering food (See Exodus 16:16–18). But only Matthew has Jesus concluding the defense of His law-breaking disciples by quoting from the prophet Hosea (6:6): “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” The word for mercy is hesed—“steadfast love.” This is the true definition of justice. Matthew uses this to clearly explain Mark’s concluding statement: “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”

To set ritualistic boundaries upon the seventh day, regardless of the needs of humanity in the struggle for healing and freedom, is to offer up sacrifice to an idol, namely, a day. A truly Sabbath-observing community must be on the forefront of justice, advocating against the greed for power and possession that perpetuates suffering and excludes and stigmatizes based on difference. A Sabbath-observing community practices mercy and justice in the name of the one who made Sabbath, not merely for narcissistic ritual, but for the liberation of all the suffering, oppressed, stigmatized, and marginalized people of the world.

Having said all of that, someone may ask, “Are you saying we do not need to observe the seventh day?” Often such a question comes from a place of fear, the same fear that motivated Jesus’ own religious community to plot His execution because of His teaching regarding Sabbath (Mark 3:6). For them, Sabbath was about a religious/cultural self-identity that blinded them to its deep significance in justice and liberation: “in everything, do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matthew 7:12)

Sabbath as Love

Jesus critiqued an approach to Sabbath that regards it as ritualistic law of prohibition. This ritualistic approach contravenes and runs counterintuitively to the meaning and purpose of Sabbath. As stated above, Sabbath is about hesed—steadfast love—justice. Jesus defends His hungry disciples who were being condemned for picking grain on the Sabbath day. He references the bread of the presence in the ancient Hebrew sanctuary, how David and his men on the brink of starvation went into the Holy Place of the sanctuary, a place where only the priests were allowed to enter, and ate the forbidden bread of the presence. This is to say that ritual law restricts and confines. It seeks the minimum requirement to maintain authenticity. Love on the other hand is boundless and open and frees us to be our best selves. It is love that binds all creation as one in all its multifaceted and diverse forms and experiences. In this is liberty—boundless life. This is the call of Sabbath across the cosmos and across the ages.

Conclusion

When Sabbath observance begins, it becomes the instrument of God’s power unto salvation. So yes, like Jesus, we observe the seventh day, but if that observance is merely a ritual, void of its foundation in steadfast love/justice, then it amounts to vain idolatry. Sabbath is about taking up the prophetic task to bring in jubilee—ultimate Shabbat:

good news to the oppressed,

healing for the broken hearted

liberty to the captives

release to the prisoners.

recovery of sight to the blind.

Sabbath is about the extent to which we accept the freedom of amazing Grace upon which the entire creation hangs and embrace the responsibility to struggle for and affirm the liberty of the other. Outside of that we are all shackled and chained, forever yearning to be free.

Dr Olive J. Hemmings teaches at Washington Adventist University in the areas of New Testament Bible and Greek, World Religions, Social, Biblical, and Theological Ethics, and Dogmatic Theology both in graduate and undergraduate programs.

Illustration by Pieter Bruegel the Elder – Wikimedia Commons

We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9741
2 Likes

Transporting that definition into the “new covenant” relationship we have with God, that justice and liberation can only come from Christ. No observance of any “day” will automatically usher in justice or liberation. In fact, the Hebrews were bound to heir rituals - which God declared He hated.

Yes. As Jesus invited us to receive true rest from Him, the/a Sabbath can only have meaning when it is tied to that invitation. There is no other rest or justice to be found in the ritualistic keeping of any day.

Just to broaden this discussion - it is a prime example of Charles Scriven’s post with regard to Christ -based hermeneutics.

4 Likes

So why has Adventism made it a burden like the Jews of Christ’s day. “Get your killing done before the Sun goes down”

2 Likes

Amen!

I couldn’t agree less with this statement. It makes no sense to me at all.

2 Likes

What is “Sabbath observance” according to the author? The answer to that question will help one to make sense of the statement.

3 Likes

My point is, that I don’t see Sabbath observance as “the instrument of God’s power unto salvation”. The Sabbath is not an observance that is given to anyone but Israel. I understand it’s what the author believes, I just disagree with the Sabbath being important now, it is only a shadow, the reality is in Christ. Why continue with the shadow when the reality has come?

I’ve stated this before, the observing of Sabbath in the SDA church isn’t restful.

7 Likes

Sabbath observance, according to the author, is the practce of justice, not the observance of a day.

3 Likes

The seventh day sabbath is part of the entire complex of sabbath times throughout the Torah. The entire covenant, of which they were a part and a sign of, was meant for Israel, and marked out the terms of their relationship with YHWH.

With the entrance of Gentiles into the NT church, Paul, in many ways, says that this covenant is over. The signposts have served their purpose, because the vehicle has reached its destination. That destination is Christ, and the giving of his Spirit, that inaugurated a new creation, a diverse multi ethnic body of Jews and Gentiles, accepted each as they are, in equality and unity around Christ.

This is what the law and its observances always pointed to as a shadow. This is why Paul could say that the faith that had come was actually the fulfillment of the law, why Christ truly was the endgoal of the law for righteousness (right covenant standing) for everyone (Jew/Gentile) who believes, why bearing each others burdens and caring for the needs of the other, and not observance of its letter, were the fulfillment of the law in the hands of Christ, and more specifically related to this topic, why the Sabbath, and all observance of holy times, were a shadow of things to come, but the reality is Christ. They pointed to him, and the freedom, love, and release he would bring to the oppressed.

Self giving love, and the practice of justice and mercy to those in need by Christians and the church as a whole, is thus non-negotiable. It is part and parcel of, and central to, life in the empire of God. This is sabbath practice, so to speak. However, holy times and their observance are not central to Christian life and identity. Let every person be convinced in their own mind.

Thanks…

Frank

10 Likes

As a teacher of an adult Sabbath School class, I feel like I am always swimming upstream, since so many SDAs are adamant, and in my mind, highly legalistic about ‘the’ Sabbath…particularly as it pertains to the observance of ‘the’ Sabbath. Notice that as I state their reference to Sabbath, it always includes the article. And it seems like in almost every quarterly, there is at least one lesson about the Sabbath, whether it pertains to the topic or not. (A notable exception is the lesson for tomorrow, where it is highly relevant.) I used to like to show up with a Starbucks cup with tea and set it prominently on the table up front when I stood up to teach. The folks in my class are at least guileless enough to admit, in response to my question, that they wondered if I bought it on my way to church and were visibly comforted when I indicated I had just brought it from home with my own decaf tea in it…and there would be nervous laughs.

So I recognize the ritualistic and judgmental place we’ve put ourselves over the years. And that is anathema to me.

Having said that, for my own part, the Sabbath is nonetheless, central to my belief structure. If asked to share my belief about salvation in just a few words, I would say that for me, Sabbath is like the fulcrum holding up the old-timey see-saw…the thing in the middle on which the see-saw can be balanced. On one end is my belief that God created me and the whole world…and because I believe in that, I can also believe in God’s creative power to save me…the other end of my belief spectrum And Sabbath is the central belief that represents them both and also holds them together. I want to be able to enter in to God’s perfect rest (Hebrews 4) by relying on Him to cover me with His righteousness. And Sabbath is my weekly reminder and joy of participation…even here on earth.

5 Likes

If you were to replace “Sabbath” with “Christ” I would agree. This is the problem with “creation vs the Creator” worship. The creation is not a salvational vehicle you ride to heaven on. The displacement of Christ is where the problem lies in Adventism IMO (see @frank_merendino post above).

7 Likes

Jesus said He was ‘Lord of the Sabbath’…of course He is central to salvation, rather than some works-based approach. He is in essence, the fulcrum, in my little illustration, through the provision of Sabbath, which God Himself said was to remind us of His creative power, and His saving power, when the commandment was given to the children of Israel (Exodus 20:8-11 and Deut. 5:12-15) In my mind, there is no displacement of Christ. However, I don’t think I need to disavow Sabbath in order to accept His salvific act. But thank you for your comment…I think we are closer in belief that perhaps you imagine.

3 Likes

The Hebrew word – “HESED”
A good read on the meaning of this word is by Michael Card.
“INEXPRESSIBLE – Hesed and the Mystery of God’s Lovingkindness.” [2018]
209 different ways to translate the word HESED in the Old Testament.
He has a chapter on Jesus using Hesed and recorded in the Gospel story.
He brings out that the New Testament writers THOUGHT in Hebrew, and WROTE
in Greek.

1 Like

Thank you for this article, Dr. Hemmings. It seems to me this is what Abraham Joshua Heschel argues in his beautiful book THE SABBATH, i.e., that the Sabbath is not meant to be merely a one-day rest from six days of work, a day filled with pietistic ritual, but a call to the life God means for his children to live every day. The symbolism of “7’s” you cite is compelling. Shabbat became meaningful in our family when we began to understand its gifts in the way you describe. Life giving – for the giver and for the receiver and for the whole. A-men.

2 Likes

Linda –
Rabbi Heschel’s book is a wonderful study on HOW to approach the
Sabbath, beginning on Friday evening prior to Sundown.
Traditions and Rituals to Welcome the Sabbath Bride and to mark
the Bride’s presence. A mini-Communion service with the blessing
and partaking of the “wine, or grape juice” and the “grain” in the form
of bread.
I have a handicapped Jewish friend I have been taking to Friday
evening services. Our Rabbi is the son of a Rabbi who had Rabbi
Heschel as one of his teachers.
In the Jewish mind [at least as related in the Conservative Jewish Book
of Common Prayer – Siddur Sim Shalom] the Sabbath has a much
larger meaning than just remembering the 7th day of creation, or the
4th commandment. It is a state of mental well-being, a relationship
with God, a relationship in community.
A whole different realization than what we Seventh-day Adventists have
been exposed to for WHY we stop on Friday evening and Saturday.

2 Likes

The importance of the Sabbath is because it is/represents Christ’s rest in Him. It is not a means of salvation/reward but a reminder that Christ only Christ saves us as we rest from our works in Him. A day cannot save, but the original Sabbath in creation was given for us. Some say it is about worship, creation, health, the law, etc. but these are all marginal reasons. The real reason is what the Sabbath means–rest in Christ. The Jews rejected His rest (Heb 4). It is His righteousness (by faith) we celebrate not our own. When one is convicted of this truth, they will not see it as legalistic but as Christ for us. We are not saved by a day but by the seal of the Holy Spirit–Christ in us.

1 Like

Hi Steve,
Thank you so much for your thoughtful note. I would surely enjoy meeting and learning from you, your Rabbi, and your Jewish friend.

And yes, this is just the message I have received from Heschel. Heschel, of course, is well aware of Aristotle’s articulation of “eudaimonia”, an idea he explores in many of his writings. A good life, he argues, is one lived in balance throughout all of one’s activities and includes rest from activity. Having been somewhat enamored of Aristotle’s notion of balance, I was struck by Heschel’s objection to Aristotle; namely, his assertion that the Sabbath is not a mere cessation of activity, and not, as you note, simply a ritual observance, but a deeply inner “state of well-being, a relationship with God, a relationship in community”.

And Yes, Heschel does invite his reader into a very different world of Sabbath keeping than I have been exposed to in my decades of living in the Seventh-day Adventist faith community. His is a theistic vision to which I feel drawn and through which my soul is truly enlivened. Thank you so much for sharing your story with me.

I might restate the idea by saying —When we truly enter the spiritual rest of faith, we rest from our own works as simportant or necessary and rest in the perfect acts of the Lord’s grace mercy. So in this sense we act by faith on his dying and doing, we begin to experience His Hebrews 4 kind of salvic rest. Or as the gospel song says
“Jesus I am resting, resting
in the joy of what Thou art
I am finding out the secret
Of thy loving heart”

I agree. I (we) rest in Christ’s finished work everyday.

Are you an SDA member?
Do you attend SDA churches regularly?

I learned this evangelical/Calvinistic bible warping at a mega-non-denom church in the early 1970’s

Compare EZ 45:17 with Col 2:16 and Heb 8:5 & 10:1 with Col 2:17

Then think of how Christian clergy for 2000 years supposedly maintained their shadow observance,on the pagan SUNday