Christians commonly connect the whole idea of “sabbath” with the Genesis accounts of creation. God labored for six days (speaking metaphorically and symbolically rather tha literally, of course!), then rested on the seventh. And that’s why we should do the same. It’s right there in the Ten Commandments, after all:
Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 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. 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 NRSV
There’s a second version of those Ten Commandments. The writers and editors who put together the book of Deuteronomy (most likely during or right after the period known as the Babylonian Captivity) apparently didn’t think the creation account was enough of a reason on its own when they produced this:
Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 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. 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 accounts specify six days for toil and a seventh for rest. Yet, Deuteronomy 5:15 explains that the reason is because God redeemed the Israelites from Egyptian slavery as part of the exodus experience. Therefore, the people are to honor the Sabbath as a way to remember that once they were slaves in Egypt but now they are free. Even today, Jews recite a prayer before and after the Sabbath meal which includes these words: “Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we are free people.”
The idea of a sabbath ran counter to all other “non-Israelite” cultures and religions in the ancient world. Interestingly, both the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts relate that resting from work is not just for Israelite males. It is extended to everyone: male and female, free and slave, human and animal, alien and citizen. (I hear strong hints of Apostle Paul’s words in this, explaining how we Christians are “one body in Christ Jesus.”) Perhaps even more interestingly, by recalling its own period of slavery under the hands of Egyptians, Israel commands rest for all creation.
Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez connects how important this instruction regarding freedom is with his comment that, “We have to observe the Sabbath, to rest (and make sure that others also rest), and to acknowledge that God is the source of our existence (Deuteronomy 5:12). However, we must not forget the reason for this rule: the liberation from the slavery endured in Egypt (verse 15).”
All this is useful and important background in dealing with the two short accounts in Mark’s Gospel in this week’s lectionary:
One sabbath he was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” –Mark 2:23-28
Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him. –Mark 3:1-6
It’s tempting, of course, to focus our attention–and wrath–on the Pharisees. But that misses the point here. Besides, most good stories need a villain, a foil, a bad guy, and for Mark that job typically falls to this group of learned, well-respected Jews who held an important place in ancient Judean society because of their devotion to scripture and religion. In John’s Gospel, by contrast, the bad guys are simply designated as “the Jews,” which has led to centuries of unfortunate and often tragic consequences culminating in the Holocaust.
Nor is this a simple contrast between Law and Grace (something else we Christians are fond of doing). Better to read both these accounts with the Deuteronomic understanding of sabbath as a reminder of freedom for a people who once were slaves–and most importantly of all, who it was that provided them that freedom. Jesus’ comment, then, makes even more sense that, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.”
It’s obviously easy to get hung up on keeping the rules for sabbath observance, as well as for a whole lot of other matters within religion. However, for us Christians the bottom line is that our freedom as human beings, as children of a loving God, comes through God’s saving activity in Christ Jesus. Nothing is more important than that.
My most recent book, Speak to the Bones: How to Be a Prophetic People in a Time of Exile, is up on Amazon in both print and e-book formats: 161-page Book ; Kindle e-book. The ancient Hebrew prophets can serve as guides for modern-day prophetic communities to engage in actions for peace and social justice. Each of the 10 chapters includes questions for reflection and discussion, making this great for class use. My previous book What Was Paul Thinking? is also available on Amazon in both print and Kindle e-book editions.