Today’s Passages: Exodus 23:10-12, 31:12-17, 34:21, 35:2-3
The issue of the Ten Commandments from Mount Sinai isn’t the only place in Exodus that God commands the Hebrews to keep the Sabbath. There are four more injunctions to seventh-day rest throughout the rest of the book. Exodus 34:21 and Exodus 35:2-3 briefly mention the Sabbath, the former noting “even during plowing time and harvest you shall rest,” and the latter adding “You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the sabbath day.” The other two passages have a bit more to say about the Sabbath.
Exodus 23:10-12 contains a command to give one’s arable land a Sabbath year. It states, “On the seventh year you shall let [the land] rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat” (11). The purpose of laying off during the seventh year isn’t for agricultural benefits or to keep from overworking the land. It’s to give the needy a chance to eat! Not being a farmer, I don’t know how this would work or what the needy are supposed to do during the other six years. I’m guessing on a given year farmers would keep most of their fields in use and rotate which one was taking its seventh year off, so as to keep producing food every year, and their fallow fields would be available for the poor to scavenge from. If any of you who are reading this post have a clearer idea of how this works, please let me know.
But in the same way that giving the land a year off isn’t so that the land can be more productive, your keeping of the Sabbath isn’t only for you. The passage elaborates: “On the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves” (Ex. 23:12). It’s to give everyone a chance to rest. As mentioned yesterday, if you’re taking your day off but insisting that those who work for you keep working, you’re no better than the taskmasters of Egypt. And this is an open question for me, a restless feeling at the back of my mind: when I go out to eat on Saturday, am I contributing to a disordered system where our days off are individualistic, irregular, scattershot, with no chance to share a communal rest? Does my waitress work two jobs just to pay the bills, is she always working at least one of them on any given day? And to what extent am I complicit in our society’s anarchic approach to rest and rhythm, which denies downtime to the poor who can’t afford a day off?
And if I hoped that the last major mention of the Sabbath in Exodus would settle my questions and give me some peace of mind, tough cookies for me. The injunction states: “Whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall surely be put to death” (31:15). And it’s God himself laying this law down. Aren’t the natural consequences of not keeping the Sabbath enough to deter a person from nonstop working: anxiety, fatigue, constant distress? In this system, it becomes impossible to work yourself to death, because they’ll kill you long before the extra work does. I’m not a fan of our society’s anarchic approach where everyone rests whenever they can/whenever they want to, but doesn’t this swing to the other extreme? I don’t know what to do with this verse, and I’m going to have to put it on the back burner as we continue through this study.
Question of the Day: How do you react to God issuing the death penalty for working on the Sabbath?