The Sabbath as a Key to Understanding Biblical Law, Part 2
Read part 1, on the ethical purposes of Sabbath.
The Sabbath was originally instituted as a sign and a condensed expression of the meaning of the Exodus: Israel had been released from bondage and hard labor to enjoy and communicate God’s rest. For a nation that had until recently suffered under grueling bondage in Egypt and lived hand to mouth, the principle of rest, and the trust in divine goodness, provision, and protection, would have been difficult to learn.
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From the beginning, Sabbath served to commemorate, memorialize, and recall historical acts and deliverances of God, most notably his creation and the Exodus. Every week that Israel celebrated the Sabbath, they were recalled to these great events of the past. Even before the institution of the Sabbath in its life, Israel’s release began with the seven-day feast of Unleavened Bread, an annual celebration preparing them for the weekly practice.
In Exodus 16, the Lord provided bread from heaven (“manna”) for his people in the wilderness. It was within the context of this provision that Israel was first instructed in the practice of the Sabbath. On the sixth day, Israel was commanded to gather twice as much manna, so that they would be able to rest on the seventh day. No manna was provided on the seventh day. While any manna left overnight on any other day was spoiled by the next morning, the extra manna gathered on the day before the Sabbath was miraculously preserved from spoiling. So, Israel had to trust that God would provide their daily bread, including for the Sabbath.
If the practice of the manna required trust in God’s provision, the practice of the pilgrim feasts would require trust in God’s protection. To leave one’s home unprotected three times a year to go up to the central sanctuary for the feast might have seemed foolish. However, in Exodus 34:24, the Lord assured his people that while they celebrated these feasts, none of their enemies would covet their land.
We have already noted the attention given to several other feasts under the rubric of the Sabbath. The way the Sabbath serves as the root principle of Israel’s festal calendar is most fully seen in Leviticus 23 and 25; all other feasts derive from it in various ways.
There are seven festivals in the year: Passover, Unleavened Bread, Weeks, Trumpets, Day of Atonement, Feast of Booths, and the day after the Feast of Booths. There are seven days of rest: the first and last day of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, the first day of the Feast of Booths, and the day after that feast. Most of the feasts occur in the seventh month. The feasts of Unleavened Bread and Booths, which frame the festal calendar, are both seven days long. The Feast of Weeks is based upon a Sabbath of Sabbaths, seven weeks of seven days.
In Leviticus 25, a seventh year of rest for the land, during which it was to lie fallow was prescribed. After seven sets of seven years, there would be a year of Jubilee, during which all families would have ancestral property restored to them.
When instructing Israel concerning these feasts and special years, the Lord also gives commands concerning the treatment of the poor of the land. In the context of the law of the Feast of Weeks, the Lord declares:
And when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap your field right up to its edge, nor shall you gather the gleanings after your harvest. You shall leave them for the poor and for the sojourner: I am the Lord your God.
While placing limits upon the practice of indentured servitude in 25:55 (cf. 25:42–43), he states:
For it is to me that the people of Israel are servants. They are my servants whom I brought out of the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.
The Lord repeatedly recalls his people to the fact of the Exodus: they were once in bondage and the Lord set them free: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God” (25:38). Recognition of this truth must both prevent them from placing their brothers in bondage and lead them to desire that all the children of Israel enjoy something of the liberty that the Lord gave his people.
The festal calendar began with the Feast of Unleavened Bread on the fifteenth day of the first month and concluded with the Feast of Booths, which began on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, exactly six months later. The Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorated the severance from the leaven of Egypt, a symbolic break with its former pattern and tradition of life. The Feast of Booths commemorated Israel’s departure from their old Egyptian settlements and dwelling in booths for the wilderness journey.
These commemorated events occurred on the same day in history! The feast at the end of the year returned Israel to the principle with which the year began. The Feast of Unleavened Bread involved a break with an old cycle of sustenance that leaven represents. It begins the festal year, but also the various harvests of the year. The Feast of Booths comes at the end of all Israel’s ingathering of its produce, at the time when Israel might be tempted to consider itself self-sufficient. It returns Israel to that first journey out from Egypt when, leaving the security and shelter of their old homes, they followed the Lord out into the wilderness.
The festal calendar expanded the root meaning of the Sabbath and more fully trained Israel in its meaning.
Sabbath as an Engine of History
Throughout the Exodus, the Lord established practices and institutions that would ensure that the Exodus never became a mere historical fact, vanishing in Israel’s rear-view mirror, but that it would remain the living engine and the formative principle of its continued life. Through the Law of Sinai, the liberty of the Exodus was supposed to become the DNA of Israel’s existence as a people and a polity.
The tabernacle was a sort of establishment and continuation of the Lord’s powerful appearance to and presence in the midst of the people at Sinai, the tabernacle functioning as a sort of movable mountain amid the people, with the glorious throne of the Lord and the tablets of the Law at its heart. Likewise, the festal calendar recalled Israel to the truth and principle of the Exodus at key moments in the agricultural cycle, training them in faith, thanksgiving, and active love for neighbor.
The festal calendar also trained Israel in hope. In the Sabbath and the feasts, past events functioned as statements of divine purpose and reality-filled promises of greater future realization of the liberation, rest, and communion that were enjoyed within them. Each Sabbath, each festival, each year of release, was like a wave by which the seismic event of the Lord’s past deliverance was felt anew in the present, bearing his people further toward his promised future. Each Sabbath, Israel’s eyes were raised from the immediacy of their labors, turned back to demonstrations of God’s power, love, purpose, and promise in the past, and forward to a future in which its most joyful expectations would come to pass.
Sabbath in History
Throughout Israel’s history, Sabbath can be seen as a governing principle. The Feast of Weeks—seven Sabbaths after Firstfruits—was associated with the time of the giving of the Law at Sinai. The counting of seven sevens also associates it with the logic of the Year of Jubilee, which involves a similar reckoning (Leviticus 23:15–16; 25:8). One could see the Feast of Weeks as a sort of miniature Jubilee (note the presence of a trumpet blast at Sinai, as at the Jubilee: Exodus 19:16, 19; Leviticus 25:9). The concern that the poor and the sojourner enjoy the produce of the land in the context of Weeks can be compared to the concern that the poor weren’t alienated from ancestral land in the Jubilee. The Lord set his people free, gave them a land to ensure that they remained free, and did not want this to be undermined.
In Joshua 6, the defeat of Jericho takes a sabbatical form, but in a manner that also evokes the Jubilee. Joshua and his men marched around the city once a day for six days, with seven priests bearing seven trumpets. On the seventh day they were to march around the city seven times and then blow the trumpets. The defeat of Jericho was symbolic of a sort of “Jubilee,” as the land was symbolically given into the possession of its rightful owners by an act of God, heralded with a trumpet blast.
The meaning of Sabbath appears on an even greater scale in the building of Solomon’s Temple. If we add up the numbers, we discover that the completion of Solomon’s Temple and its complex (of which Solomon’s own palace was a part) occurred exactly five hundred years—ten Jubilees—after the Exodus (cf. 1 Kings 6:1, 38; 7:1). In a narrative that, like that of the building of the tabernacle, is replete with allusions back to the original creation and to Eden, the Temple is implicitly framed as the Lord’s glorious Sabbath palace, his “house of rest” (1 Chronicles 28:2).
Sabbath is also a prominent and recurring principle in biblical prophecy. In Daniel 9:24–27, the years leading up to the end of the age are prophetically presented as “seventy weeks” (another tenfold Jubilee), a period that begins with an initial seven weeks of years, or Jubilee.1Even more arresting is the use of Sabbath and Jubilee themes and related numbers in the book of Ezekiel, especially in relation to the prophetic temple. Some of the Sabbath or Jubilee symbolism is more subtle, like the long cubits used for the six-cubits-long measuring reed (Ezekiel 40:5), which would have been around seven regular cubits in length (6+1 giving a sabbatical 7), or the design of the gates, with three side rooms on either side, followed by a larger vestibule, giving six regular rooms and one greater room for seven in total. The numbers 7, 25 (half a Jubilee), 49 (the number of years that would be counted up to the Jubilee), and 50 (the fiftieth year being the Jubilee) repeatedly appear in the measurements of the building and its courts and the numbering of various of its features. At other points Jubilee symbolism can be found in the dates. James Bejon has explored these in more detail. If the tabernacle is the Sabbath tent, Ezekiel’s Temple is the Jubilee house.
Israel’s history and Israel’s future bore the shape of the Sabbath, the impress of the completion of God’s creational purpose and the full flowering of his Exodus deliverance. The Sabbath was the principle at the heart of Israel’s past, present, and future, the liberation, joy, and rest of God to be extended through time and society.
The Sabbath as a Microcosm of the Exodus and Creation
Encapsulated in the Sabbath, we find the meaning of the Exodus and of the creation itself. Continued in the life of God’s people, the practice of Sabbath in its various forms perpetuates the force of these events and impels us towards their fuller realization in prayerful expectation.
Functioning on the level of weeks, months, years, decades, centuries, and even millennia, for God’s people the Sabbath is the great ruling principle of time. It is a time of gathering and assembly, where regular labors are put to one side and the great deeds and promises of the Lord are recalled, memorialized, and declared. It is a time when we assemble in Sabbath “places,” places set apart for the service of the Lord. As the Exodus released Israel from its bondage, the Sabbath ensures that man’s toil never becomes unceasing, but that all enjoy some rest.
The extension of the principle of Sabbath in Israel’s economic life in laws concerning gleaning, debt, charity, and the return of land means that the liberation from Egypt never becomes a mere fact of history, but that the Lord’s liberation of his people is the living principle of its life, constantly being extended to the needy. As the Lord visited Israel in its distress, the Sabbath calls Israel to give rest to others, visiting the poor and those without anyone to act on their behalf in mercy and kindness. The Sabbath ensures that Israel’s life is repeatedly punctuated by thanksgiving for God’s goodness, acts of charity, and enjoyment of God’s gifts, acting as a social bulwark against the sin of covetousness and spurring all to love of God and neighbor. In rightly observing the Sabbath, we are trained in the observance of the whole Law.
Though every Sabbath day can display some facet of each of the elements of the Sabbath principle, no single day can contain its power as a principle of life. The Sabbath, in setting apart certain times, transforms the entire fabric of time and society, permeating all with its remembrance, hope, liberty, communion, thanksgiving, joy, and charity.
1. Even more arresting is the use of Sabbath and Jubilee themes and related numbers in the book of Ezekiel, especially in relation to the prophetic temple. Some of the Sabbath or Jubilee symbolism is more subtle, like the long cubits used for the six-cubits-long measuring reed (Ezekiel 40:5), which would have been around seven regular cubits in length (6+1 giving a sabbatical 7), or the design of the gates, with three side rooms on either side, followed by a larger vestibule, giving six regular rooms and one greater room for seven in total. The numbers 7, 25 (half a Jubilee), 49 (the number of years that would be counted up to the Jubilee), and 50 (the fiftieth year being the Jubilee) repeatedly appear in the measurements of the building and its courts and the numbering of various of its features. At other points Jubilee symbolism can be found in the dates. James Bejon has explored these in more detail. If the tabernacle is the Sabbath tent, Ezekiel’s Temple is the Jubilee house.
Image created by Rubner Durais
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