In my last post, we explored the dicey relationship between Christian interpretation about the meaning of God’s Law and our freedom as the Spirit filled body of Christ for the world. My overall point was that our discussions about Law v. Gospel rely upon caricatures of what the Law meant for Israel. The Law — listening to it and following its commands — was given for the express purpose of healing, restoration, mercy and life. For ancient Israel, the Law was life because the Law was the living, breathing word of God upon which they patterned all their relationships in mercy, righteousness and love.
Nowhere is this more clear than when it comes to the command to observe the Sabbath. Consider two instances of this command:
8 Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it. -Exodus 20:8-11
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. -Deuteronomy 5:12-15
Both instances are clear that the people are not to labor on the Sabbath because God commanded it; it is a day of rest “to the Lord your God.” However, both texts give seemingly different rationales for the establishment of the command. Exodus roots this command firmly in the soil of the creation story found in Genesis 1, while the account in Deuteronomy establishes the command on their memory of having been slaves in Egypt.
Interestingly, both these texts regarding the Sabbath command converge when looked at from the perspective of healing, restoration and completion. In short, the Sabbath is about life and its fulfillment of purpose, form and meaning in the providential care of God. Sabbath is about shalom, God’s restorative peace wherein the unity, purpose and health of the created order may be found.
In Exodus, God remembers God’s covenant to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (Israel) when God hears the people’s cry from Egypt, and so begins the process of liberating them. (Exodus 2:23-25) In hearing their cry and “noticing” them (v. 25), God calls Moses and tells him that the Lord knows the suffering of His people, and will now deliver them so as to bring them “to a good land.” (3:8) This act will fulfill the covenant promise to Abraham that his seed will inherit the land. (Genesis 15:18-21) By doing this, the Lord will bring to completion a story begun many generations ago, and in that act of completion/fulfillment, God will restore the fortunes of the people because the Lord is the One “who heals you.” (Exodus 15:26)
In a way, this story of remembrance, act and restoration is a recapitulation of the creation story of the world, bringing creation one step closer to God’s final redemption. Just as God acted to bring the world into existence from formlessness (Genesis 1:2), God now brings a covenant people into being from the offspring of a barren couple. (Genesis 11:30) It will now be through this peculiar covenant people that the nations of the earth will be blessed and restored, and God’s purposes in creation brought to its fulfillment. (Genesis 12:3b)
When the nation experiences this fulfilled purpose, the earth will resound with the glory of God as a newly made garden wherein righteousness and praise will spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61:11) Israel’s covenant relationship with God, along with all its ordinances and commands, envisions healing and blessing for the whole world. You have only to read the prophet Ezekiel who sees the Temple set next to a re-envisioned garden of paradise, with water flowing from the Temple to trees that bear fruit and “leaves for healing.” (Ezekiel 47:12) Such an act of creation and completion brings with it the demands for true rest, true contentment — for shalom — in the goodness of both creation and God’s redemptive purposes.
In short, such a grand vision of the grace, mercy and love of God demands a Sabbath. In that rest, all that lives and breathes enjoys and gives praise for its existence. On the Sabbath, one can rest filled with the knowledge of the glory of God. We see this rest at work in God’s creative satisfaction with the world upon completing creation on the seventh day, and now perpetually in observance of the fourth commandment.
Deuteronomy picks up on the same theme. The peoples’ liberation from the harrowing ordeal of slavery is an act of divine deliverance that leads them to the banks of the Jordan as the people anticipate the rest, healing and restoration to come. As they attend to Moses’ final commands wherein he repeats the statutes and ordinances of God, it is clear that the Law is given to seal the people as God’s “very own possession.” (4:20) As God’s own, the commands and ordinances not only set up the boundaries of covenantal relation, they are for the welfare and health of the people. (6:24)
In short, if they will observe the Law, they will belong to God and avoid the patterns of domination, abuse and exploitation amongst each other that they experienced in Egypt. God’s liberating act has become an expression of God’s restorative shalom that will pattern their future together as a community. Accordingly, the Sabbath is a day of rest the regularly reenacts God’s restorative purposes in liberating them from Egypt. In calling that liberation to mind, the people remember the peace in which they are to act justly towards one another, and in justice and love they anticipate God’s ongoing and future healing of the nations through them. In short, the Sabbath represents the preservation of life, past, present and future, and the calling of the people to this restorative task.
The Sabbath was always meant to be about rest, true rest, wherein life flourishes, people are restored, and all God’s creatures joyfully praise the goodness of the gift of life we have received in all its glorious freedom. In fact, one could argue that this was the intent of God’s giving of the statutes and ordinances of the Law. The Law was to serve life for it was given by the source of all life, yidyeh asher yidyeh, I am that I am, the name of God which takes its root from chai, Hebrew for “life.” (Exodus 3:14)
Of course, this is no revelation to our Jewish brothers and sisters. The rabbis have always seen the truth of this. In the Talmud, for example, you can see them wrestle with exactly this point, especially in regards to the observance of the Sabbath. In Yoma 85b of the Talmud, the great rabbis go back and forth on the question on when and under what circumstances one may break the Sabbath. While there are some points of disputation here and there, they are clear that the preservation of life overrides all other concerns. The reason that the preservation of life demands even the breaking of mitzvot (commands) is that the Law is given to preserve life, and by it live rightly. To quote Rabbi Shimon ben Menasya’s interesting use of Exodus 31:16:
It is stated: “And the children of Israel shall keep Shabbat, to observe Shabbat” (Exodus 31:16).The Torah said: Desecrate one Shabbat on his behalf so he will observe many Shabbatot.
In other words, observance of the Law, specifically the command to keep Sabbath, is done with an eye towards preserving life so that God’s people may perpetually live in obedience to God’s commands. As such, the command to rest contains within itself the seeds of life and anticipates God’s restorative, healing purposes for the world for which we strive in our obedience. Mitzvot (commands), Sabbath observance, and all other forms of obedience are built on the foundation of shalom.
So, where do we go wrong? Where did Israel go “wrong” in its keeping of the ordinances, if we are to read along with Paul in Romans 2:24, which he takes from Isaiah 52:5 and Ezekiel 36:20? If the Law was given to preserve life and for its flourishing in righteousness, can the Law become an impediment? Or rather, can the keeping of the Law, as in the case of Sabbath keeping, become a stumbling block to the shalom that we all seek and God intends for creation? Is the Law eternally counterposed to the Gospel?
We will take up this question in the next post…