[On Sabbath] Exodus 5:1-9: No-Sabbath Zone

Bible opened to Exodus 5 with Theo orange 70 percent dark chocolate on white plate

Today’s ChocolateTheo Orange 70% Dark Chocolate

Today’s PassageExodus 5:1-9

In our study on the Sabbath today, like yesterday, we’re looking at a letter-for-letter appearance not of the English word “Sabbath,” but of the Hebrew word shabath“to rest.” When Moses and Aaron are pushing for Pharaoh to let the enslaved Hebrews celebrate a feast to the Lord, Pharaoh uses the word when he denies their request. He repudiates Moses and Aaron: “Look, the people of the land are now many, and you would have them cease from their labors!” (Exodus 5:5). The word translated “cease” here is shabath. Pharaoh forbids them from stopping: not only are they denied a weekend, they are denied a vacation. Welcome to Egypt, the No-Sabbath Zone, the Labor Hole.

The Hebrew word translated “labor” isn’t one we’ve seen before. It’s not melakahPharaoh’s not focusing on the Hebrews’ productivity or the product of their work. He uses the word siblahmeaning “burden.” A burden takes effort to carry; it demands sweat and pain. Pharaoh knows how hard the work is, and he doesn’t care. He won’t let his slaves stop for anything.

In Sabbath as Resistance, Walter Brueggemann identifies the role of the Egyptian gods in legitimizing Egypt’s No-Sabbath Zone. He writes:

We may imagine, moreover, that the “Egyptian gods” also never rested, because of their commitment to the aggrandizement of Pharaoh’s system….  The economy reflects the splendor of the gods who legitimate the entire system, for which cheap labor is an indispensable footnote! (Sabbath as Resistance 5)

YHWH, the God of the Hebrews and creator of everything, stands in contrast to these gods. He took a Sabbath after creating the universe. He created human beings in his own image, with mind and emotions and will, with value beyond what products they can churn out. He instituted a day of rest for them, and he passes judgment on any system that denies them rest and reduces their value to the commodities they produce.

What does this mean for our picture of Sabbath? Perhaps we can see a parallel to Egypt’s No-Sabbath Zone in our own society, or in corporate subcultures. To the extent that the world we inhabit denies us rest and exploits us as means to an end, we’re living in Egypt. Do we reject one regular day of rest for ourselves or others? Do we squeeze every bit of work we can from our employees, sacrificing them on the altar of profitability? Do we, assuming the role of our own taskmasters, exploit ourselves to bring home a bigger paycheck at the end of each pay period? To the extent that we do, we’re complicit in the Egypt of our day–and we can expect that the God who offers us rest and value is not pleased.



2 thoughts on “[On Sabbath] Exodus 5:1-9: No-Sabbath Zone

  1. I am interested in qualifiers (adjectives, prepositional phrases, etc.) connected to the word shabbath.

    For example: Psalm 62.5 (rest for the soul) “in God alone” (qualifier)


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