Anytime I’ve heard someone preach or teach on Sabbath, the main point has focused on the need to take a Sabbath. However, what I find striking is how the Bible emphasizes the importance of giving Sabbath. In today’s blog, I want to investigate this further. What we’ll see is that the Sabbath principle reflects God’s love and concern for all of his creation, not just people. By extension, those who are truly God’s people are characterized by the same love and concern. God’s people are not merely those who observe the Sabbath by taking Sabbath. They are also those who observe Sabbath by giving Sabbath.
Among God’s instructions to Israel in Torah, we find the Big 10 (not the NCAA conference). We call them the Ten Commandments. These instructions were so important that they were recorded twice, first in Ex. 20:1-17 and then in Deut. 5:1-21.
Number 3 on the list is the command to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. This command is grounded in God’s own Sabbath practice, found in Gen. 2:2-3. God himself established a pattern of working for six days and then ceasing from his work on the seventh, last day of the week.
Every Sabbath, the Israelites were to abstain from doing any work. This command extended to their children, their slaves, and even their animals. In fact, according to Ex. 23:10, once every seven years even the land was to enjoy a Sabbath rest.
Sabbath was so important to God that, according to Ex. 35:2-3, violation of the Sabbath was a capital offense, punishable by death.
So why was Sabbath so important that it made it into the Big 10? Why was violation of Sabbath so offensive that it should warrant the death sentence?
To understand Sabbath, we must first understand God’s priorities. God loves his creation. He wants his creation to experience blessedness and to flourish. People who believe that God is harsh, severe, and angry aren’t reading the Bible very closely. The God I encounter in the pages of scripture is a God whose default stance toward his creation is love. His anger is aroused when his good creation is corrupted at the hands of wicked people.
Second, I believe we find a clue to Sabbath’s design in the version of the commandment found in Deuteronomy. In Deut. 5:15, God reminds the Israelites that they were slaves in the land of Egypt. In the ancient world, slaves were generally considered living tools. They were nothing more than a resource to be exploited. Slaves were worked beyond the point of breaking. If a slave died from work, it didn’t matter. There were plenty more to take his or her place.
It is noteworthy, then, that the Sabbath principle was not limited to free Israelites. God specifically tells them that even their slaves are to get a day off. Now I understand that some readers will immediately find fault with the fact that Israelites owned slaves at all. Those who do will fail to grasp how unprecedented and, frankly, progressive this command was in its ancient context.
God wanted Israel to be characterized by love and concern for all of his creation. Unlike the exploitive practices of their neighbors, Israel was to practice mercy. As I wrote in a previous blog, the biblical definition of mercy is “kindness or concern for someone in serious need.” God reminded Israel that, while they were slaves in Egypt, their taskmasters showed them no mercy. No one showed them any kindness or concern. They were worked to death.
God wanted Israel to practice an unprecedented concern for all of his creation. All Israelites and non-Israelites living in their land were to be given rest, irrespective of status. Their sense of love and compassion was to extend to their animals and even the land. God wanted them to shun the exploitive attitudes and practices that characterized the rest of the world. People, animals, and the land were not resources to be used up until nothing was left. God wanted Israel to be known as a merciful people.
By giving Sabbath, Israel not only showed mercy, that is, kindness and concern. It also showed its wisdom. When people, animals, and the land enjoy regular cycles of work and rest, they are able to experience recovery and renewal. They are able to maintain their strength, live fruitfully, and flourish.
Sabbath as Witness
In Deut. 4:6, God says to Israel that if they observe his statutes and ordinances, it will show their wisdom and discernment to the nations. Thus, wise and discerning people practice Sabbath. In so doing, Sabbath becomes a key component to our witness.
By not merely taking Sabbath, but also giving Sabbath, we show that we are a merciful, loving people. It shows that we love all of God’s creation. We don’t merely love ourselves, by taking Sabbath, but we also love others (people, animals, the land) by giving Sabbath.
Later in Israel’s history they came under God’s judgment for violating their covenant with God. Among the many indictments brought against them was profaning the Sabbath (Ezek. 22:8, 22:26, 23:38; see also Amos 8:4-6; Isa. 56:1-8, 58:13-14; Jer. 17:19-27). I believe that we can reasonably conclude that this was not merely a matter of individuals failing to take a day off. Israel was not giving Sabbath either. They weren’t showing kindness and concern for people, animals, or the land. They were exploiting them, working them to the point that they had nothing left to give.
Not only is this merciless, it’s foolish. Israel’s function as a witness to the nations was compromised. They had become just like the nations. Rather than showing wisdom and discernment, they fell into the same foolishness and merciless exploitation of their neighbors. They stopped showing God’s love. Without rest, recovery, and renewal, their people, animals, and land were put a path of diminishing returns. Fruitfulness and flourishing would cease.
Giving Sabbath in the 21st Century
Since most of us are not farmers, we may struggle to find ways to practice giving Sabbath. I would suggest that one major takeaway is to reorient our attitude toward the people and resources in our lives. We give Sabbath every time we act with mercy so that someone or something can experience refreshing and renewal. Thinking Sabbatically means renouncing exploitation (dare I say, consumerism). Look for ways to become an agent that helps others renew their strength rather than take it away. In so doing you will be a Sabbath giver.
Best of all, you will be the witness God wants us to be. You will show wisdom and discernment to the people around you.