Today’s Passages: Nehemiah 9:13-15, 10:31 -33, 13:15-22
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.
After the wall is rebuilt, a census is taken of the returned exiles, and the Feast of Booths is reinstated, the leading Levites deliver a poetic recollection of God’s work in Israel’s history. This includes not only calling Abraham out from Ur, liberating the people from Egypt, and bringing them into the Promised Land, but also giving them the Torah. The priests sing: “So You made known to them Your holy sabbath” (9:14). It’s like the Sabbath is a secret to be revealed. Like people wouldn’t know to stop working if God didn’t tell them to–especially after decades of nonstop work in Egypt. The Sabbath is an important part of the Jews of Nehemiah’s generation relearning what it means to be Jewish.
So the people make a promise. “We will not buy from [foreign merchants] on the sabbath or a holy day; and we will forego the crops the seventh year and the exaction of every debt” (10:31). Whether you’re doing labor for money or exchanging that money for stuff, commerce constitutes work. The people also commit to “contribute yearly one third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God” (10:33), including Sabbaths and festivals.
But over time the people slip and forget and neglect. It comes to the point where Nehemiah sees people “treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sacks of grain and loading them on donkeys…all kinds of loads” (13:15). Moreover, they’re buying stuff from foreign merchants on the Sabbath. So Nehemiah hashes it out with the nobles of Judah, telling them, “You are adding to the wrath on Israel by profaning the sabbath” (13:18). He posts guards at the city gates so that no one brings in any merchandise on the Sabbath, and he himself chases off the foreign traders who wait at the gates. Eventually he gets the Levites to stand watch as gatekeepers on the Sabbath. As noted in yesterday’s post, guard duty does not appear to constitute work, or at least receives some sort of exemption.
Interestingly, no one is put to death for these violations of the Sabbath. The return to Torah apparently does not entail a return to the death penalty for breaking the Sabbath as mandated by the Torah. I’m not sure what to make of that.