Death was the penalty for breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), which God commanded to be kept over a hundred times. The Gospels focus on the Sabbath twice as much as money and sex. It even made its way on top ten list of the commandments, along with adultery and murder! Really? Above all, don’t kill and especially don’t forget to take a day off? The Sabbath is a huge deal in the Bible, but most people don’t know why.
Theologians have guessed about this for millennia, so there are lots of options out there. Many think it has to do with devoting Sunday (or Saturday) for attending church – or at least for doing something ostensibly religious. Others think it’s about taking time off to recuperate and relax. Some wonder if it’s to meditate about God, give thanks, or guard against idolizing money. There are many popular theories about the Sabbath – and they’re almost all wrong.
Some are just silly. Does it really make sense that God would have someone executed for not taking a day off – that he would destroy their bodies for not taking care of their bodies? That’s like the Jigsaw murderer from Saw who massacred people because they didn’t appreciate life. I hope our understanding of God is better than that! It can’t be about religious exercises either, because even the land was supposed to take a Sabbath – (Leviticus 26:34). Land can’t be religious, otherwise, churches should give their parking lots a day off. What Jesus said about the Sabbath is even more intriguing.
He never hints at the Sabbath being about a break from labor, whether for religiosity, or recuperation, or reflection, or whatever. Not once. In fact, whenever Jesus mentions the Sabbath, it’s in response to Him healing people. One time, He even rubs it in the Pharisee’s faces by saying that he intentionally works on the Sabbath (John 5:17). He sort of contradicts the Sabbath.
No, these theories won’t do. The Sabbath remains shrouded in mystery – until the ancient context is excavated to reveal the forgotten meaning, then it’s surprisingly sensible.
Why Would an Omnipotent God Need Rest?
After making the universe, God “rested from all the work that he had done” (Gen. 2:3). This became the Israelites’ model to structure their time by. They followed the cycle of six workdays plus one day off, “for in six days the LORD made heavens and earth…and rested on the seventh” (Exodus 20:11). This is why our word sabbath comes from the Hebrew word for rest (shaw-bath).
Yet this raises more questions than it answers: why did God rest, was He tired, did He need a nap, or did His back hurt? And why take seven days? Why not three, or one, or none? These are actually cryptic clues to the hidden meaning of the Sabbath.
The picture of rest here is not about being leisurely. At all. The Hebrew concept of rest is a double entendre that can mean inactivity, but in Genesis 2, it’s an ancient figure of speech for something else.
“Heaven is my throne”, declares God, “and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you will build for me, and what is the place of my rest?” (Isaiah 66:1). This is one of the other uses of rest. Can you guess what it is?
The passage paints a mural of Yahweh as a king ruling over the cosmos, sitting on a throne chair, the heavens, with his feet on a footstool, the earth. Rest comes from the action of the king sitting – or resting – on his throne. Rest was a Hebrew (and Mesopotamian) figure of speech for the king’s reign. Did you catch it? Isaiah is saying that God is the king of the universe. Rest equals reign. What about the seven days?
The Invention of a Week
A seven-day cycle didn’t exist back then; that started with the Jews, based on God’s creation week. This isn’t an accident, nor is it random. It’s another clue. Back then, when a pagan god was commemorated as a king, they held a ceremony that was exactly seven days. Everyone knew that seven was the symbolic number for divine reign.
Temples are where the commemorations took place because gods were thought to reign via temples – that’s why Isaiah 66 speaks about God’s rest in a “house”, which is His temple (Daniel 5:3). That’s why Israel’s temple was built in seven years (1 Kings 6:38). That’s why it was dedicated on the seventh month, for seven days (1 Kings 8:31-55). That’s also why the Jews read the seven-day creation account as a description of God building a giant temple (more on that another time).
Rest and seven are arcane clues, hidden to us, but obvious to the ancient audience. Is the picture coming into focus yet?
Making Sense of the Sabbath
Yahweh built creation in exactly seven days, then rested to indicate – here it is – that He was the King of it all. The Master of His masterpiece. The Emperor of the universe.
If this is about God’s reign, then what does His reign look like? That’s the main point: what kind of king is God? To find out, we have to go to the place where His kingship was unchallenged: before people rebelled against it. To the beginning we go!
Genesis recounts a utopia where there was no death, pain, shame, or sorrow. But strangely enough, it focuses on the fact that people didn’t have to work for food. Why? It was always available: “There was no man to work the ground, but a mist went up from the ground to water all the land” (2:5-6). The ecosystem of paradise was self-sustaining. It didn’t need to be cultivated (contrary to popular belief). Adam and Eve had jobs, but preparing food wasn’t it! They could freely eat from the buffet of nature, since God made “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). The free food was an indication of God’s reign. It displayed what kind of king He is: that He is a kind king.
That’s why Israel wasn’t supposed to work on the Sabbath: work was about securing future meals – something that doesn’t exist when God rules. Israel was to take a day off from working for food to reenact the pre-sin paradise when meals were plentiful for the plucking. It was to remind them what it looks like when God is king. This is what the Sabbath is about.
The Sabbath wasn’t for rest for the sake of rest. Like chewing Jesus’ symbolic body in communion bread, it was a living metaphor to remember the kindness of God’s kingship. They were to rest (literally from work) to remember God’s rest (signifying his reign), because when he reigns, we are blessed. God wants to see how He cares about us, not how He’s like the Jigsaw killer.
Every Sabbath, families would slow down the hustle of farming and herding to feast and fellowship on God’s kindness. When the kids asked why they did this, the parents could say, “Our Creator cares about us so much, did you know that? He made us to bless us, and he made all things for our enjoyment. You see, this is a taste of what life was like before God’s rule was interrupted. And this is a shadow of what it will be like when His reign is unquestioned. That’s why we serve Him. He’s kind to us. The Sabbath reminds us of that.”
Doesn’t this make so much more sense? The Sabbath wasn’t about something weird and petty. It was about the most important theme of the Bible; the reason God made us in the first place: to use his position of power to benefit us (Genesis 1:22). He commanded a weekly celebration to gorge on his gifts to commemorate His kind kindship. This is the Sabbath rest.
How do we practice the Sabbath today? What did Jesus mean by “Come to me and I will give you rest”? How is the Sabbath about social justice? Check back for the answers to these questions in the next post.