Have I told the story of the time I got in trouble for losing my TV privileges? No? Okay, let’s open with that one. One Saturday morning when I was 8, I got my TV privileges revoked. I don’t remember what evil I had committed to incur such a penalty, but that morning when my parents took me to Queen City Fitness center, I wasn’t allowed to watch TV in the lounge. However, they hadn’t said anything about hearing TV. So, while my dad went swimming and my mom went to her aerobics class, I went behind the lounge couch and listened to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles with the couch blocking my view of the TV. When dad found me behind the couch, back to the TV set, I received a stern lecture about the letter and the spirit of the law. And I relate that story because 1) you’ve got to introduce your blog post somehow, and 2) the letter and the spirit of the law are what today’s passage from the prophet Amos are all about.
The second chapter of Hosea accuses Israel of violating the first commandment: “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:2). The indictment is set up as a divorce case between God the faithful husband and his adulterous wife. He gives her grain, new wine, oil, silver, and gold, which she turns around and offers to the pagan god Baal. For her sin, he vows to take away not only the gifts, but also her Sabbaths: “I will also put an end to all her gaiety, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her festal assemblies” (Hosea 2:11). This verse can easily be another record-scratch moment: is God putting an end to Israel’s obedience, in essence compelling her to disobey?
God’s message to Israel in the book of Ezekiel isn’t just judgment and wrath. Ezekiel also carries a vision of restoration for the temple and Israel, and that restoration encompasses Sabbath.
Like Jeremiah, the prophet Ezekiel is a man with a message from the Lord. God’s judgment on the Jewish people is a primary theme in his prophecy; in one of the most bizarre pieces of performance art inside or outside the Bible, he lays siege to a model of Jerusalem and bakes bread over a fire fueled by human feces (Ezekiel 4:1-17). And as Ezekiel relates, one of the many things for which God is judging his people is neglecting the Sabbath.
This past weekend, while my dad was back in town, he told me about the Greek city of Salonika. More commonly known as Thessaloniki, Salonika today is home to around 4,500 Jews, some 1.5% of its total population. But before the German invasion of Greece in 1941, Salonika boasted population of 55,200 Jews, a two-thirds majority of its total citizens (“Traces of History: The Jewish Community in Salonika,” Yad Vashem). Remarkably, the Jews of Salonika were so committed to keeping Sabbath that on Saturdays, port activity came to a virtual standstill. As most of the dock workers were Sabbath-keeping Jews, any ship that pulled into port on Saturday would be hard-pressed to find anyone to unload its cargo, no matter how much profit stood to be gained. Clearly, the Jews of Salonika considered freight handling and transport to be work. Perhaps they had in mind the words of the prophet Jeremiah.
There are three sections of Isaiah that discuss the Sabbath, and there are three lessons we can learn from them. Actually, there are probably a lot more than three, but I dug up an insight from each of the three passages today, so that’s what I’m sharing. Isaiah’s Sabbath lessons relate to rejecting empty rituals and practicing religion meaningfully, keeping Sabbath inclusively, and honoring God first in one’s rest.
Nehemiah is a book about restoration. Not only do Nehemiah and his crew restore the broken-down walls of Jerusalem, they restore the city culturally, and this includes the restoration of Sabbath practices. Perhaps I should say Sabbath non-practices, as Sabbath means stopping the work. But you know what I mean.
Once you get out of the Torah, a lot of the references to the Sabbath don’t shed a lot of new light on the Sabbath. For example, 1 Chronicles 23:31 tells us that the priests offer burnt offerings on the Sabbath and on the calendar festivals–and therefore that offering burnt offerings does not constitute work. Not super-useful info for those of us who aren’t at all involved in the offering of burnt offerings. But I did come to a passage in 2 Kings that may contain some useful insights.
Like Numbers, Deuteronomy is much more spare in its mentions of the Sabbath than I expected. One of them we’ve already visited and revisited: it’s the reiteration of the Ten Commandments in chapter 5. And by now you’re familiar with the story: six days do your work, rest with your whole household on the seventh, remember you used to be a slave in Egypt. On to the next.
The Sabbath receives mention in only two passages in Numbers. The first is narrative in nature, while the second is a commandment. And yes, that first passage is going to thrust our faces in the issue of the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath again, so let’s buckle up and get this thing moving.