Main Street Community Church

Sabbath: Exodus 5

This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The talk is long.

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A transcript is available lower down the page.


Last week, we remembered that August is often the month for holidays and family time and time to rest. We went right back to the creation story to the seventh day when God rested and considered all that he had done. The God who doesn’t need to rest. The God who never sleeps nor slumbers doesn’t need to take a break. We talked about what it was that it meant that God ceased creating the universe in its perfect state. This may have been the only Sabbath rest that God ever took.

This morning, we’re going to be having a look at what happened to God’s people. The Israelites in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Old Testament, when they were refused rest and recuperation. Imagine that, no time off at all.

Maybe you know what it’s like to be exhausted from the lack of sleep or overwork, or maybe you had a boss who had no compassion at all about any ideas how to handle a difficult situation. Perhaps you know what it’s like when big changes are forced upon you, such as a work shift or redundancy or an unplanned retirement being forced upon you. When what you know as a massive part of your identity changes and you have no idea how to move on.

In our Bible verses today, we find God’s people working as slaves in Egypt. It’s about 1400 to 1300 BC, and Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has all the people that had escaped famine in their own land into his. This was thanks to Joseph that you’ll probably remember. He of the Technicolour Dreamcoat inviting them to Egypt, where there was plenty of food. The problem was that after Joseph had died, we’ve got new Pharaohs, I guess as well, and this Pharaoh had forgotten.

They had forgotten that these were originally God’s people. He decided that, in fact, instead of being guests of Egypt, they should become slaves to Egypt. Putting slave drivers over them, he forced them to make bricks so that walls and pyramids and the like could be built for his glory. We pick up the story in Exodus that Martin read, Exodus 5:4-18. I wonder, do you remember what your Sundays were like as you were growing up? Were there things that you were forbidden from doing? Maybe you weren’t allowed to play games, visit friends, or go shopping because it was the Sabbath.

I remember as a smallish child not really being allowed to go out and visit friends because Sunday was a day of rest for family and for worship. Certainly, visiting Nana meant that we could use the main living room with the uncomfortable woollen sofas but being very much aware of not to drop a biscuit crumb on the carpet. I’m sure that in the days before mine, people were even perhaps more draconian about ensuring the Sabbath was kept.

For the Israelites in captivity as slaves in Egypt, they could only dream of a day off. Walter Brueggemann writes extensively on Sabbath and says this. In Exodus chapter 5, the system was designed to produce more and more surplus. In this system of slavery and brick-making for the Pharaoh, it’s an all-consuming event. No longer can there be days off for festivals to celebrate goodness. Days off aren’t allowed. Here in Exodus 5, there’s even less time to take off as the new rule is that the Israelites have to find the straw to which to bind the mud to make the bricks and yet not be given any more time to do the job. Then the slave drivers demand why the people hadn’t made their quota of bricks.

You would have thought that the answer is simple. You would have thought the answer is before them. There are still only 24 hours in a day. Given that the slave drivers are driving too hard by putting them to even harsher work, putting extra hard work upon the hard work that the people are already doing, is not going to endear them into working even harder. The people aren’t lazy, this Pharaoh points out, they’re tired. They need to physically rest in order to do anything and everything that is required of them. They are but human.

We hear today that there are more people in modern slavery than ever before and even multinational companies treating their staff like robots in order to meet their quotas of deliveries in the vans or picking orders from the massive storehouses, and we wonder, has anything really, really changed?

Those at the top in charge think that they can speak down to the workers and treat them as anything less than human. When I hear or read about people being treated in this way, I ponder the words of Jesus to treat others how I would want to be treated. Why is this such a hard thing to do? In the system of the Israelites in the brick-making, there is no Sabbath. There is no rest for the Israelites. Neither is there any rest for Pharaoh, actually, because he needs to know each moment of the day, whether the bricks are being fulfilled, the bricks quotas and criteria are being fulfilled.

The taskmasters and the slave drivers have no rest either because they know that their jobs and their lives are on the line if they don’t crack the whip down to those who are fetching the straw and making the bricks. The whole system, from top to bottom, is caught up in this endless grind of production. Walter Brueggemann in his book Sabbath as Resistance then satisfyingly reports into this system of hopeless, weakness, and weariness erupts the Gods of the Burning Bush.

That God heard the despairing fatigue of the slaves resolved to liberate the slave company from the exploitative system and recruited Moses for the human task of emancipation. This God is subsequently revealed as a God of mercy, steadfast love, and faithfulness, who is committed to covenantal relationship rather than commodity, that is brick-making, and at the centre of it all is the willing of this God to rest.

The Sabbath rest of God is the acknowledgement that God and God’s people in the world are not commodities to be dispatched for endless production. Rather, they are subjects situated in an economy of neighbourliness. We all as humans need to rest, as much as our world needs to have Sabbath too. We are endlessly reminded by our media and regularly by folk here as well that our world needs our help as well. If we continue to cut down swathes of rainforests or build acres upon acres on floodplain or continue to hunt down great numbers of specific animal species, then what will be left with our world to love? All of this involves neighbourliness, loving our planet as we want to be loved ourselves.

Later on, in the Hebrew Scriptures, we are introduced to the notion of Jubilee. Every 49th, 50th year, slaves are set free and the world is in a way reset. Sadly, there’s no record of the Earth being allowed to rest, certainly in the Scriptures. Even today, many of us, myself included, treat the world as a commodity. We require much of our planet to give and to give and to give.

Now we know that we need to give it space to replenish its energies in the same way that employers need to give to their employees. That we need to offer people, staff, volunteers rest periods too. The fact that we are created to work and to rest seems to be programmed into us as humans, and we would be good to remember this. As we saw last week, the pattern of humanity is to follow the pattern of God. As creatures, we need to rest.

God being very nature God doesn’t need to rest. He doesn’t need to sleep, but right at the beginning of the end of that creative process, God still took time to sit back and look at all that had been created and ceased from creating in that moment. Aeons later, after the Israelites are taken into Egypt, there’s no plan from the powers to be able to allow them to rest. Now God becomes aware of the situation and sees that they need someone to intervene.

I don’t know whether you’ve got personal experience of the grind of work. The relentless need of the powers that be to Lord it over you and to use their power position to force you to work harder or faster or longer. I don’t know whether you remember what it’s like to be in that situation or how or whether you dealt with it. If you have, then you’ll have a glimpse of what it was like for those Israelites, to know how tired and worn out and frustrated and exhausted they were because there was no letter from the demands of the Pharaoh.

Then and to God, and to the God who designed the Sabbath rest, and to the God who, as we shall discover next week so come along, puts into place for the people group who he calls His own, to take a day off in every seven. And to the God who at length delivers his chosen people from the works of the Pharaoh, the people are delivered from such hard and heartless work ethic of the Pharaoh, and even to this day, Jewish people celebrate what God has done for them.

That’s why Sabbath today is important for the Jewish faith. God has come through. God has set a precedent. He rescues his people from this relentless straw gathering and brick-making and says to his people, “You are worth more than this. You were never designed to be slaves to either Pharaoh or to the unfair practices and principles of this world. You were designed to steward creation, to take care of it, and therefore to take care of one another as well. That’s the way it should be.”

“Let me,” says God, “show you, my people, how to live a best life.” Moses takes centre stage and we see the 10 plagues of Egypt play out that God sends to soften Pharaoh’s hearts. But each time there’s no let-up. Each time when Moses steps in and makes a request of Pharaoh to let my people go, the reply is much the same: “No.” “These people are my slaves,” says Pharaoh, “to do my bidding as when I want them to.” This is Pharaoh. His empire-building dehumanising the human race.

How do we in our day dehumanize one another? How do we afford the respect that one another deserves by the dint of the fact that each one, male and female, Black and white, gay and straight, disabled and non-disabled, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Muslim, atheist, each is made in the image of the God who created them? I find it difficult to acknowledge somehow that just because people are different through skin colour, financial situation, or immigration status, or nationality that they’re treated differently because we find ourselves looking down upon them.

I have conversations weekly with some folk, on the market often, who see the world quite differently to me. It does make me wonder what it is that makes someone so unlike the God that created them. How do I re-humanise a person who I find difficult to get on with? That person maybe who hurt me, that I find so hard to forgive. That group of people that I find so hard to reconcile my beliefs with theirs. Those folk I don’t see eye to eye with. We are all human. We all struggle with something or other.

To do a Pharaoh and treat another as less than human, degrades both them and our own identity as someone who is made in the image of a loving God. Each of us, of course, have our own preferences on who we get on with and why. Our cultural backgrounds and life experience help or hinder these. The media that we consciously or unconsciously allowed to influence our views and opinions all contribute towards who we are and perhaps who we’re becoming.

Are we becoming weary of the same stuff that we see on the news bulletins? Are we becoming disengaged from our communities because they don’t look like us any more? Am I resting in the history of my own theological interests, not looking or loving the other as I want to be loved. Coming back to the Israelites’ plight, they were in slavery. They had nobody to come to their aid until Moses, the man who’d been brought up in Pharaoh’s court, but not forgotten his roots, was called to stand up to Pharaoh, to call upon him to let the people go. This was the start of the call of God’s people to Sabbath to reflect their identity in God again.

God was going to have to do everything for them because they could do nothing as slaves or to do something that they didn’t want to do. This is why their freedom from Egypt was so dramatic and remembered so vehemently by the Israelites. It ended up with them going into almost any covenantal relationship with perhaps almost any God, because let’s face it, anything was going to be better than what they were escaping from. They needed a much desired physical break. Their worn-outness had become too much. They had passed breaking point and they were on their knees.

Next week, we will be looking at the importance of the fourth commandment, keeping the Sabbath, with the context of God rescuing his people from the clutches of evil Pharaoh’s brick-making slavery scheme. God’s people consider the 10 commandments, the 10 words as things which help them make sense of a new world, a new kingdom, a new way of understanding the world around them, a new normal, a new way of loving God who loves them.

You might want to think about how your Sabbath has been in the past, how important it’s been, and maybe why it’s important now, as we reflect upon the importance of Sabbath, not as a religious thing, but as something that draws us together as humans, as being made in the image of God. May we know that Sabbath is for our good, and perhaps it’s for this reason that Jesus invites us to come to him if we’re heavy and-- if we’re tired and heavy-laden, not if we’re heavy, for he will give us another lighter load, an opportunity to rest.

We’ll leave it there for today. Next week we’ll be looking more at the fourth commandment, what it is and why it’s important for a Sabbath rest. May God bless us today.

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References and sources

Brueggemann, Walter. Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017.


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Scripture quotations marked NIVUK or NIV UK on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version® Anglicized, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Scripture quotations marked NIV on this page and in the audio are from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright © 1979, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.