Bible: Sabbath-keeping, empire-breaking
December 6 — Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-16; December 13 — Leviticus 22:17-25, 31-33
I’ve never been very good at keeping the Sabbath. To my knowledge, this is the only case where public admission of habitual commandment-breaking might actually get one a raise. We moderns have a term for compulsive productivity: job security.
In the Hebrew Bible, Sabbath-breaking belongs to an elite category of crimes meriting a sentence of death. But the seriousness of the offense may seem clearer than the logistics of avoiding it. How the Sabbath is properly kept depends on how one interprets its central purpose.
Some of us grew up in a different time of strict Sabbath rules. Forbidden on Sundays: movies, baseball, laundry, mowing, fast music and anything resembling a joke (so much for my sermons). Few subjects have inspired more clerical creativity than the rules of Sabbath-keeping.
But even the most inventive Christian preacher has nothing on the ancient rabbis. Their list of Sabbath prohibitions included such often-overlooked labors as frying, dyeing, tying, tearing, writing and erasing.
For many Christians, Sabbath-keeping is primarily a liturgical concern — a kind of standing reservation for church activities. Yet the context of its origins in the exodus gives the practice of Sabbath a different resonance.
Just a few weeks before Moses scaled the mountain to receive these instructions from God, the Israelites were living in Egypt — a civilization famous for its wealth, power, prestige and technological innovation. But the Israelites were slaves, driven day after day to the endless production of bricks while someone cracked a whip behind them and shouted, always, “More!”
There is nothing uniquely evil about Egypt. This is how all human empires are built: by convincing citizens it is always in their interest to work harder, longer, faster. By coercing those who cannot be convinced into laboring endlessly for little to no wages simply to keep their children alive.
God rescued the Israelites from an empire to form a new nation under God. But the last thing God wanted to be was another pharaoh, reducing people to production potential. The last thing God wanted Israel to be was another Egypt, amassing wealth and building glory on the backs of foreigners and their own most vulnerable citizens.
Sabbath-keeping in this context is a shocking form of economic rebellion. It is God’s definitive announcement that no more will human beings be mere cogs in the empire’s brick-making machine. No longer will lives be consumed by the empire’s insatiable need to build, accumulate, achieve. One day in seven, the relentless cycle of production and consumption will stop, and every man, woman, child and beast will take the time to simply be.
The Sabbath laws were a safeguard for the vulnerable whose blood and sweat compose the mortar of empires. They were a witness against the economy of Egypt and its compulsion to grow at any human expense. They were a declaration that the value of human life extends beyond its capacity for labor. They were an acknowledgement that even land and animals are prized by God quite apart from their economically derived utility.
True Sabbath-keeping constitutes so much more than a song and a sermon and prayer. It involves a prophetic interrogation of the empire’s imperatives. It’s a chance to hear the empire’s relentless cry for “More!” and declare to it, “No, by God’s grace, that is enough.”
Sabbath asks who (or what) is vulnerable in our own economic system and what mechanisms defend their worth as more than instruments of consumption. It is a witness against exploitation. It is a bold declaration that land is more than what it produces, that life is more than what it consumes. Sabbath is the ultimate declaration of earth’s liberation from slavery.
In the end, Sabbath-keeping that is not empire-breaking is not really Sabbath at all.
Meghan Good is pastor of Albany (Ore.) Mennonite Church.
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