Can some of the most ancient texts in our Bible still speak to our modern culture about the need for rest and renewal?
Over the last few months, I have explored with various congregations in my area the meaning and importance of ‘the Sabbath’. This is a concept referred to throughout our scriptures, which has been a prominent part of Jewish and Christian religious practices for thousands of years. But what relevance, if any, does the idea of a ‘day of rest’ still have for us today in our 24/7 world? Well, quite a lot, I believe.
In the beginning … was the Sabbath
The idea of some sort of sabbath rest appears on practically the first page of our Bible, when we read about God’s work of creation. In six days, we are told, God has created the world and all that is in it. On the seventh, though, God does something different (Genesis 2:1-3):
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.
Whatever our views on the creation narratives in Genesis, the belief that somehow God rested on the seventh day of creation had a profound effect on the Israelites’ understanding of themselves and their deity. How God could ‘rest’ at all is, of course, a profound mystery. How can an omnipotent, eternal God, who stands outside all human notions of time and space, possibly take the day off? This is a debate that has raged for millennia, and was an active intellectual topic at the time of Jesus. (Indeed, it probably lay behind some of the stories in the gospels that centre on sabbath controversies.)
We should be careful about reducing God to the status of a created being, who needs time to potter round the garden or have a Sunday afternoon nap in front of the TV! Yet, we are clearly told that God somehow chose to rest after his work of creation. As one member of my congregation in Roehampton observed, in an inspired moment: “And God created rest!”.
Crucially, this single verse reveals a wonderful piece of good news for us all. It means that humans should have a time of rest too because we are made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). This is the most important truth of the Genesis narrative. Not the trivial sideshow about evolution vs creationism, but the fact that we are made in the image of our creator and have something of God’s divine spark within us all. And that means we need to take God’s message about rest seriously!
Sabbath rest for everyone
A few pages later in our Old Testaments, we find one of many passages that speak about how the Sabbath should be observed, which flow directly from the creation of that seventh day of rest in Genesis. Here we find it enshrined in one of the most important of the Israelites’ legal codes, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:8-11):
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your 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 Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
The people were commanded to remember God’s great gift of creation by setting aside one day a week and making it special – “holy” – for the Lord. It was a day for remembering all that God had given them: plants, animals, even the very air they breathed. It was a day to remember their special place in creation, and their status as creatures made in the very image of God.
What is so remarkable about this injunction, though, is its all-encompassing nature. It was not just rich, religious men who were to enjoy sabbath rest. It was everyone: women, children, slaves, servants, foreign visitors, even the animals! Time and again, in fact, the Old Testament makes clear that all parts of God’s creation, including the animal kingdom, should enjoy the blessings of God’s gracious commandments.
Importantly, we know that this commandment was obeyed. We not only have the evidence of the New Testament – where Jesus repeatedly got into trouble for breaking the sabbath in minor ways – but written records from non-Jewish sources (Greeks, Romans, etc.). Many of them remarked about the extraordinary practice of the Jews in not working on one day a week and how it marked them out from their contemporaries. Indeed, in the inter-testamental book of 1 Maccabees, we even find Jewish armies getting into terrible trouble because they refused to fight on the Sabbath! (1 Macc. 2:28-38)
Sabbath of sabbaths
The Bible does not stop there, though, when speaking about sabbaths. In Leviticus, we find the same concept applied to ‘sabbath years’ (Leviticus 25):
The Lord said to Moses at Mount Sinai, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘When you enter the land I am going to give you, the land itself must observe a sabbath to the Lord. For six years sow your fields, and for six years prune your vineyards and gather their crops. But in the seventh year the land is to have a year of sabbath rest, a sabbath to the Lord. Do not sow your fields or prune your vineyards. …
Count off seven sabbath years—seven times seven years—so that the seven sabbath years amount to a period of forty-nine years. … It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. The fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; do not sow and do not reap what grows of itself or harvest the untended vines. For it is a jubilee and is to be holy for you; eat only what is taken directly from the fields.
The regulations go on to detail how this concept of sabbatical and jubilee years will work in practice. It includes provision for those who have had to sell their family land or property because of debt or misfortune. They must have the opportunity to reclaim it in the year of jubilee. Similarly, anyone who had had to sell themselves into slavery or indentured labour (something that still happens today) should be made free in the jubilee year.
Biblical scholars are unsure whether or not any or all of these regulations were ever put into practice, unlike those relating to the sabbath day. However, as with the verses from Genesis, the theological truth behind the text is much more important than the historical details. It speaks, again, of God’s desire that creation should have rest but in this case, not just humans and animals – the land should have rest too. And not only should people have rest from their labours, but rest from their debts and rest from their misfortunes too. These are truly radical verses!
Sabbath over time
The sabbath has remained a vital part of Jewish life up to the present day. I spent some time in Jerusalem a couple of years ago and was amazed at how rigidly it was observed there. As sunset on Friday approached, you could see people rushing home to enjoy shabbat with their families. Shops closed, the trams stopped and on Saturday morning the streets were absolutely deserted. My flight home from Tel Aviv airport was actually on Saturday afternoon and I had enormous difficulty even getting there!
In the Christian world, Sunday soon became regarded as the ‘Lord’s Day’ after Christ’s resurrection on the first Easter Sunday. For some time, many faithful Christians continued to observe the Jewish Sabbath but gradually, most came to regard Sunday as the new sabbath day. Cæsarius of Arles (470-543) observed that:
the whole glory of the Jewish Sabbath had been transferred onto Sunday, so that Christians had to keep it holy in the same way as the Jews had their own day of rest.
Most of the rigid dictates of the Old Testament regarding working on the sabbath, though, were not regarded as applying to Christians.
The major change in Christian teachings about the Sabbath in fact came during the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century. It was then that ideas about Sunday being treated in the same way as the Jewish sabbath – with businesses and shops closing, and an abstention from all forms of work and ‘unsuitable’ activities (drinking, theatres, etc.) – really began to emerge. This ‘Sabbitarianism’ would have a massive effect on Protestant Christian culture down to our own time.
Many older members of my congregations grew up with this kind of reality. For most of them, they reported, Sabbath conjures up memories of the days when nearly all the shops were closed on Sundays and the only forms of entertainment permitted were visiting relatives, sleeping off the Sunday lunch or attending church (at least twice!). When we discussed this practice many expressed regret about the way in which Sunday had become “just like any other day”. They spoke about their sadness over the loss of this day of rest and relative calm, and the busy-ness of Sundays now, with grandchildren engaged in numerous activities that took them away from church.
There were, however, those who admitted that Sundays could be extraordinarily dull when they were young. They were days when there was little to do, and all sorts of ‘fun’ activities were prohibited. Many were also well aware that they had been sent off to afternoon Sunday Schools by parents keen for a bit of peace and quiet! One, when asked to describe Sunday afternoons in his childhood, said it could be summed up by the Sickert painting Ennui – boredom!
It is certainly arguable that some of the Sabbath observances of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came close to the legalism that Jesus railed against. When he and his disciples were criticised by some Pharisees for the seemingly innocuous picking of a few heads of wheat on the sabbath (Mark 2:23-28), he gave his famous epithet on their stiff-necked judgement:
The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.
As a faithful Jew, Jesus observed the Sabbath but clearly felt that the spirit of the festival was more important than its minute regulation. In the same way, hearing some of my older folks’ stories, I find it hard to believe that the Lord would be truly offended by children playing games on a Sunday, or even having a good time! Too often the focus on ‘Sabbatarianism’ seemed to miss the larger point. For example, as we observe the centenary of the end of World War One, it is interesting to note that amidst the mass carnage and horrendous suffering, one of the military padres’ chief concerns was flying on Sundays by the newly-formed RAF!
The Sabbath today
What does this mean for us today? Arguably, nothing at all. Ancient commandments about a day of absolute rest do not sit comfortably with our 24/7 – 365 day a year culture. We live in a society that increasingly relies upon people working on Sundays, and indeed actively expects them so to do. Most people are no longer paid extra for working on Sundays and regulations limiting the Sunday opening of shops have been steadily eroded in recent decades. Mobile apps and the internet do not observe a Sabbath: why should we?
Interestingly, though, almost all of the people to whom I spoke in my congregations agreed that the concept of rest as being somehow ‘sacred’ remained important. Several made the link between the words ‘rest’ and ‘reset’: the Sabbath functioning as a much-needed opportunity to pause and reflect in a hectic world. They were impressed too at the extension of the concept to other parts of creation in the Bible, and many immediately saw the relevance with so modern concerns and scientific discoveries about the human body’s need for regular rest.
We discussed how, in so many ways, we have had to rediscover ancient truths about the need for rest. Matthew Walker, a professor of sleep, presented an unanswerable case for the absolute necessity of proper rest for human welfare in his 2018 best-seller, Why we sleep?. Agriculture has rediscovered ancient ways of letting the land rest in order to replenish its essential nutrients and the dire consequences of simply exploiting it without interruption. The Jubilee 2000 movement, and subsequent Jubilee Debt Campaign, was directly inspired by the teachings of Leviticus and its message of hope for those enslaved by debt. Working across boundaries, it successfully liberated thousands of people from the curse of unfair debt in the developing world.
Together, we thought about what the concept of sabbath rest might look like for all of our creation:
- low-paid workers – struggling to make ends meet and either unable to take a proper break or not allowed proper time off by companies desperate to maximise returns and minimise overheads.
- people in debt – desperate for a break from excessive interest rates, stuck on a treadmill of ever-increasing indebtedness.
- families – coping with ever-lengthening work days, with women and men often holding multiple jobs or working on insecure ‘zero hours’ contracts, desperately trying to keep food on the table and a roof above their heads.
- children at school – facing more and more testing and homework, with teachers leaving the profession everyday owing to overwork.
- refugees – desperate for a place to lay their head and a chance to rest in peace and security.
- animals – factory farmed to produce ever greater yields.
- the land – pumped with chemicals and artificial agents in order to allow ever greater exploitation.
I am sure you could add many more to the list, and could think of new applications. In my role as a minister, I meet too many people who desperately need a rest – from work, from worry, from guilt and so much more. More than ever before, I feel it vital that we as Christians affirm wholeheartedly God’s gracious gift of rest. Even if we could, the stories in our Bible tell us that we are not meant to work every hour God gives. We are made in the image of God and are meant to enjoy the rest that he has hard-wired into his creation. Let us reject contemporary notions that base people’s worth solely on what they produce and how many hours they work. The Lord of the Sabbath offers all his creation the precious gift of rest. Let us treasure it and share the good news with all the world!