Friday, September 16, 2016

Why did God Give Ancient Israel the Sabbath - Managing your Time through the Sabbath

At 2nd Reformed Presbyterian Church I am teaching a class on the Sabbath. Last week we looked at the question “Why did God rest?” This week we are asking the question, “why did God give ancient Israel the Sabbath?”
The general goals of the class are:
  1. To know why God rested 
  2. To know how Legalism and Antinomianism creeps into our Sabbath 
  3. To process our redeeming the time through the Sabbath 
  4. To perceive the Sabbath as the reference point for how we use our time 
  5. To prepare our hearts and minds for worship 
This week we’re going to pay special attention to the second goal, specifically through Israel’s response to God’s command to “remember the Sabbath.”

1. Israel’s Heart Toward the Sabbath

It says in Amos 8:4-6:
Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?
Amos was written near the end of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Rather than having hearts and minds for God, Ephraim turned its hearts were greedy. Consequently, the Sabbath became a burden to them. It was something they wanted to throw off. 

The Northern Kingdom’s attitude is very different than when God first gave the command, “Keep the Sabbath Day.” The writer of Exodus describes the state of Israel when they were slaves in Egypt:

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel—and God knew… Then the LORD said, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings... (Exodus 2:23-25 and 3)

Israel did not rest while they were enslaved. In his last public address, Moses reminds the Israelites that they are to “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you.” Because “You shall 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.” (Deuteronomy 5:12 and 15)

When Israel first received the law, the Sabbath reminded them of their former slavery in Egypt and the freedom God gave them in the promise land.

2. God’s command to Israel

The command of God to Israel, to “not do any work,” on the Sabbath was strict. The command goes as far as to say, “Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.” (Exodus 35:3) Why did God give a strict structure to the Sabbath?

It was to give Israel a break. Bruce A. Ray explains in Celebrating the Sabbath:
A man is refreshed when, having exhausted himself, he recovers his breathe. The Sabbath, therefore, is a God-given opportunity to catch our breath in the midst of our weekly routine of work. It is intended to be a break, an opportunity to pause and be refreshed, to catch our breath before going back to work. (61)
In order to give people the chance to “catch our breath” We need boundaries. The purpose for not even “kindling” fire on the Sabbath is to show that keeping the Sabbath takes preparation. Work needs to be done on the six other days. Fires need to be kindled before the Sabbath, not during the Sabbath. In Psalm 42, David remembers what it was like to keep this solemn and holy day:
These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I would go with the throng
and lead them in procession to the house of God
with glad shouts and songs of praise,
a multitude keeping festival. (Psalm 42:4)
David remembers the Sabbath day as a day of keeping festival, full of joy and shouts of praise. The boundaries set up by God for Israel created a space for Israel to celebrate and have a joyous occasion. 

3. Israel’s Response

While wandering through the wilderness a man is caught collecting sticks on the Sabbath. Here is what happened:
While the people of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation. They put him in custody, because it had not been made clear what should be done to him. And the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death with stones, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Numbers 15:32-36)
Israel’s response to the Sabbath is to follow God’s command. They are willing to take a man’s life for breaking God’s law. But why did God command the stoning of a man for just picking up sticks, and why the whole community?

The context is helpful in answering the first question, why did God command the stoning of a man for just picking up sticks? Just prior to to the story in the text, instructions about people who intentionally break God’s law and unintentionally break God’s law are given:
If one person sins unintentionally, he shall offer a female goat a year old for a sin offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the LORD for the person who makes a mistake, when he sins unintentionally, to make atonement for him, and he shall be forgiven. You shall have one law for him who does anything unintentionally, for him who is native among the people of Israel and for the stranger who sojourns among them. But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him. (Numbers 15:27-31)
Israel was chosen by God as a holy people. To be pure before the Lord. For them to have one who intentionally sins against God and to “revile the Lord” is to have someone who is a traitor to their country. Just like any country would put a traitor to death in our day, so Israel did the same. There is also a deeper reason.

The man was not just picking up sticks. He was creating a different culture in the camp that would have made it more difficult for others around him to keep the Sabbath. This is why the whole community participated in his execution. Keeping the Sabbath is a communal activity. You cannot keep the Sabbath alone. The man was participating in an economic activity would have put him a step above other competitors in his profession. This would have created pressure for others to start working on the Sabbath as well.

How we spend our time on the Sabbath, as in any other day, has an effect on people around us. In fact, the decision of how we spend our time is an ethical decision. Judith Shulevitz in The Sabbath World says:
The Sabbath – God’s claim against our time – implies that time has an ethical dimension. We rest in order to honor God and his creation, which suggests that not to rest dishonors both. So must we say that the speeding up of everything is not only psychologically harmful but morally wrong? (24)
Ultimately, Israel’s strong response to dwindled. By the time of Zedekiah’s reign, Israel did not keep the Sabbath:
Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he began to reign, and he reigned eleven years in Jerusalem. 12 He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God. He did not humble himself before Jeremiah the prophet, who spoke from the mouth of the Lord. 13 he also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God. he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the Lord, the God of Israel. 14 All the officers of the priests and the people likewise were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations. And they polluted the house of the Lord that he had made holy in Jerusalem. 15 The Lord, the God of their fathers, sent persistently to them by his messengers, because he had compassion on his people and on his dwelling place. 16 but they kept mocking the messengers of God, despising his words and scoffing at his prophets, until the wrath of the Lord rose against his people, until there was no remedy. (2 Chronicles 36:11-16)
Consequently, Israel was taken into captivity for their disobedience. All the while, God spoke to them by the prophets, warning them to turn their hearts toward him:

“If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” (Isaiah 58:13-14)

Israel had rejected God’s blessing of the Sabbath. Rest brings life and the Sabbath is a day of “keeping festival.” Instead of receiving this wonderful blessing, Israel returned to slavery and exile from the promise land. Eventually, Israel was allowed to return to the promised land and the faithful began to keep God’s law.

What’s interesting, prior to their exile is how Israel stopped keeping God’s law. Then, they began to keep God’s law but it got to the point where they kept it the extreme. After the fall of Jerusalem, The Talmud was written. In it, as a way of clarifying God’s law, additional regulations and rules were added to the Sabbath. Eventually, about 1,500 regulations were added to explaining what it meant to keep the Sabbath. Israel flipped from not keeping God’s law to adding to God’s law.

The danger is that we begin to fall back into a list or set of rules that are not of scripture and even if they are of scripture, we give them higher priority than what scripture speaks of in general (helping the poor, giving to those in need, loving others,) and that is actually an act of pride. We’re putting ourselves in control of the Sabbath and not recognizing God’s sovereignty over the Sabbath – that he in his omnipotence has chosen one 24-hour period for a day of rest. 

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Is there a time in your life where you have seen yourself swing from antinomianism to legalism or vice versa? 
  2. Keeping the Sabbath takes discipline and work. What are ways where how we spend our time will influence our Sabbath? 
  3. Why does it take a community to keep the Sabbath? 

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thank you for your comment, I'll review it as soon as I can!