The Sabbath laws were critical in ancient Israelite worship.
God rested on the seventh day of Creation, and His example set a precedent for how the entire nation was to conduct its business. Remembering the Sabbath made it into the Ten Commandments. Several chapters of Torah are devoted to explaining its inner workings. When Sabbath wasn’t kept, Israel faced judgement (Ezekiel 20:21). And God even forced a Sabbath on the land when it wasn’t observed. A part of Him sending Israel into exile under Babylon was so that the land could once again experience rest (2 Chronicles 36:21).
Sabbath was critical to ancient Israelite worship. But, as believers who are no longer under the old covenant, what importance does Sabbath still have for us today?
And, how might it help us in the midst of this COVID-19 quarantine?
The Function of Sabbath in Israelite Society
In order to answer that question properly, we first need to have a basic understanding of the Sabbath laws in the Old Testament. So, here’s a summary level explanation of the Old Testament’s idea of Sabbath.
On the seventh day of creation, God rested.
He did not need to do so but chose to do it as an example for creation to follow. Genesis 1-2 also paint a picture of a God who enjoys what He’s made. He looks back upon His work and deems it “good.” This is another an example for creation to follow. We too shouldn’t work relentlessly but take time to enjoy the goodness of God’s world.
The next time this Sabbath idea is picked up is within the Ten Commandments given to Moses.
But we need to remember that the Ten Commandments weren’t given in a vacuum. Israel had just been rescued from Egypt. Pharaoh had been working his Hebrew slaves to the bone. The Egyptian gods required relentless work in order to satiate their unending hunger. And the Exodus event is as much about defeating these Egyptian deities as it is about saving Israel from slavery. No longer would God’s people be forced to work as slaves, but through plague, the LORD made a fool out of the Egyptian deities and proved that He is the one true God.
The Ten Commandments arrive at a time in the biblical story in which God is re-wiring how He want’s Israel to think. No longer were they to operate with Egyptian socio-economic models of stress and slavery. They were to now reorient their lives around YHWH’s socio-economic model of goodness and rest.
Sabbath, at its most basic level, meant that Israel was to set aside the seventh day of the week for rest. They weren’t to gather food, but God would provide for their needs doubly on the day before. It was to be a sign of God’s strength, power, and provision.
But Sabbath is even further expounded upon later in Torah. It wasn’t meant to just be a weekly practice.
According to Leviticus and Deuteronomy, every seventh year the people were to take an entire year off from working in their fields and vineyards. God would provide their food needs that year and the land itself would be able to experience rest (Leviticus 25:1-7). If an Israelite became an indentured servant within that seven-year period to pay off debts, they were to be let free, their debts wiped clean, and given a lavish gift of produce stock (Deuteronomy 15:7-18).
And then, on the 50th year, another Sabbath-rest type of year was commanded to take place. This “Jubilee” year came with an even greater rest and release of debts. No one was to work on this year or sow any crops. God would provide their needs. More than this, if any family had to lease or sell their land to make end’s meat, that family’s land was to be returned to them in the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25:8-12).
When Israel was rescued from Egypt and brought into the Promised Land, each family was given an allotment. This Jubilee law made sure that no one person could take power like Pharaoh and create a slave-powered monopoly.
So, all in all, the witness of the Hebrew scriptures is that Sabbath-rest was both a good thing and following it was meant to be a symbol of the goodness of God.
The Necessity of Sabbath for the Christian during this Covid-19 Quarantine
Obviously, us Christians aren’t really supposed to follow these Sabbath laws any longer (Galatians 4:10-11). We can’t, actually. We don’t live in the land of Israel. We don’t have specific family allotments. We don’t have a government that allows us one particular day we can take off as rest. And Christians aren’t under the Mosaic covenant but a new one.
In a certain way, Jesus himself has become our Sabbath within which believers can find rest. Because Christ’s death fulfilled the requirements of the Mosaic law, we can find rest in not having to continue to sacrifice animals to atone for our sins. And His ministry was a declaration of the once and final rest coming for all of those who put their trust in Him.
Nevertheless, there is a sense in which we are still supposed to adhere to the “heart” of these Sabbath laws.
That is, we as Christians are still supposed to live in such a way that makes clear to others that we serve a God who cares for us lavishly. And our lives are to be a symbol of God’s goodness just like the Sabbath was for ancient Israelites. That doesn’t mean we can’t work on Saturdays.
So, what might that look like in March 2020?
In what ways could we exemplify the heart of the Sabbath during this quarantine? How might we show God’s goodness and provision even now?
1. Don’t Stockpile – Trust in God’s Provisions: The Israelites weren’t to collect extra resources to last them through their Sabbath cycles. Instead, God promised to provide for their needs. Of course, this wasn’t a blanket statement endorsing laziness or negligence. But not stockpiling was meant to show trust in God’s provision, and act as a witness to others of His goodness.
We also cannot be irresponsible. If we have needs, God has provided us with grocery stores that have stocked shelves. But we too shouldn’t stockpile resources as it symbolically announces the opposite of what Sabbath did. Instead of stockpiling, we should consider buying our normal amount of groceries and simply trust that God will provide any other need we might have above that.
2. Don’t Be Stingy – Share with Those in Need: Ancient Israelites knew what it meant to live in serious scarcity. They knew what it meant to go without. They knew what it felt like to have deep anxiety over where their meals might come from next. Pharaoh made sure of that. But God declared that He was sovereign over all and powerful enough to care for their needs. They didn’t need to hoard, but trust in the One who longs to provide.
And part of that providing came from neighborly love. Debts didn’t just get magically forgiven. Land wasn’t just automatically redistributed. Neighborhoods and individuals had to agree on such practices to make them reality. They had to make the conscious choice to move from an exploitive system to one of flourishing.
We do too.
If you’ve got extra food or toiletries, consider sharing it with someone who doesn’t. If you have extra monetary resources, consider sharing it with someone who doesn’t. And, if you’re able, continue to give to your local church so that they can help ease the burden of those hurting in these ways.
3. Don’t Worry – Have Hope in God’s Ultimate Rest: If the Israelites obeyed God and kept these Sabbath laws, the Lord promised to care for their needs. Sabbath was meant to function kind of like a socio-economy stress reducer. However, it wasn’t meant to be the be-all-end all. God had something better in mind.
When Jesus showed up on the scene, His life and death “fulfilled” the Sabbath.
Jesus became our rest by dying on the cross and meeting the work-requirements for salvation. Furthermore, His announcement of God’s kingdom come came with the promise of a once-final eschatological rest. While we strive and toil here on earth currently, those of us who believe can have great hope in the day coming soon where sin, death, and the affects of the Fall will be done away with.
So, are there things we are doing currently that keep us in a state of worry and distract us from the Source of peace?
Are we spending too much time on social media? Are we watching too much news? Consider limiting these things during this quarantine time and replacing them better, more calming things like scripture reading, prayer, writing postcards to friends, etc.
While Christians no longer have to follow the particular Sabbath laws as laid out in Torah, we should still exemplify the “heart” of Sabbath.
We don’t have to worry because God provides for our needs even now. We shouldn’t sit by idly but instead care for our neighbors who might be in need. And those of us who are in Christ can have great hope in the future rest in God’s coming kingdom.