Sabbath: Exodus 20
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church and on the Internet. The Bible reading and talk is long.
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The reading is taken from Exodus chapter 20. “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in the six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honour your father and your mother so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour. You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife or his manservant or maidservant, his donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.”
Sabbath rest. Sabbath rest is one of those things that we hear about in the Bible quite a bit. Over the past year and a half, some people have enjoyed perhaps quite a lot of rest, and some people have been working a lot harder. The government’s furlough scheme has had nearly 12 million people being paid to stay at home whilst other key workers had found other ways of working. Perhaps even finding extra child care so that they can keep on working, keep the country going.
Now, with the end of furlough in sight, some who are waiting to return might find it difficult to go back to work, some may have been made redundant, or some have been working all the way through. It makes me think of that notion of the Sabbath, time to restore and to refresh and to cease from working.
It’s something worth doing on a regular basis so that folk can either overcome by too much work without stopping or that they’re fed up with their own company and bored of doing nothing all day. The idea of a Sabbath is a balance, and that’s attractive to me. I think it is to most people as well.
In our summer series on Sabbath, say that with your false teeth out. In our summer series on Sabbath, we’ve already looked at the fact that after God had created the world, he ceased. He rested. We saw that this pattern became instituted in human life too. Last week, when we looked at what happens when people don’t have an opportunity to rest or Sabbath when people like Pharaoh just don’t allow others time to recharge.
Work psychologists and others know how important it is for people to take rest and to look after one’s emotional health. Even in recent weeks, high-profile figures such as the American gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from some of her events, citing her need to take care of her mental well-being. If COVID has taught us anything in the West, it is that we need to look after our inside selves.
We saw during our service last week how God intervened using Moses to finally get Pharaoh to release God’s people from Egypt and so they knew that God had actually delivered them from slavery into a new way of understanding life. Today, we’ll be looking a little bit more at that life. How it began, how it was to be sustained, and what it was to endure a whole new life that was connected to God and one another?
We often look at the Ten Commandments as God’s way of telling us, “This is the way to live,” but as with everything in Scripture, there’s a basis for it. God didn’t just come up with an idea of having 10 rules to live by so that he would be pleased by his people knowing how to live by them and obey them. Somehow, they’ve been simmered down into perhaps a bunch of rules to live by and updated for our times. Perhaps less about donkeys and things. What if they were actually an integrated theological and social program for our living our best lives?
I mentioned last week Walter Brueggemann and his book, Sabbath as Resistance. Here, he sets out a background to understanding the Ten Commandments from a Hebrew point of view. Noting first that God had brought the Israelites out from the slavish work of Pharaoh. For centuries, the people there, the Israelites, had been under harsh working conditions, making bricks and making bricks and making bricks and making bricks. They had been dehumanized as slaves.
Now, after the miraculous parting of the Red Sea, the slave-driving Egyptians had been swallowed up by the returning currents, and the newly freed Israelites had to find a new way of being, a new way of living. After hundreds of years in captivity and being exploited, they were now free. What was their new normal going to look like? How are they going to live in the light of all of this newfound freedom?
Soon after the Exodus from Egypt comes the meeting with God at Mount Sinai. Moses meets with God and the nation of Israel comes to the mountain to embrace the rule of God of the covenant as an alternative to the rule of the Pharaoh. The experience of being slaves to the Egyptians is still mightily fresh in their minds. They want a new way of being and of living.
Even before God comes to Moses and presents him with the Ten Commandments, the people are pleased to accept almost any new regime, for, surely, nothing could be as bad as what they just experienced. Without knowing what was required, they had no doubt it would be better than what Pharaoh demanded. In Exodus 19:8, we read that the people all answered as one, “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do.” This is before the Ten Commandments. “Everything the Lord has spoken we will do.”
Moses reported the words of the people to the Lord. The first thing we noticed this morning is that even before any covenants, any agreement before God and his people is made, God takes them at their word. Of course, this can be a very dangerous gamble if we don’t know what the new way of living is going to be, but if the people were that eager to get rid or be rid of Pharaoh, then maybe that’s what they wanted.
Moses is thus given, amongst the other laws, the Ten Commandments. In our English translations, we know them very much as almost “demandments.” You shall have no gods before me. You shall not make an image. You shall not misuse the name of God. When we look into the reasons why these were important for the people, we begin to understand how it is that the people need to be loved and feel secure and appreciate just how much God has done for them in bringing them out of Egypt.
They’ve just come from that land where the gods demand everything in terms of life and of work. The Pharaoh and his slave-drivers have been part of the issues where the invented gods want them to work and work and produce stuff. Because the Egyptian gods never rested, Pharaoh’s system never rested, and so bricks had to be made on a relentless conveyor belt.
Now, God says to his people, “It’s just me.” No other gods mean we are in communion with one another. It’s as if the one God reminds his people that they alone are enough. Not their work, not what they do, but who they are. This one true God is unlike all the gods the slaves had to work under in Egypt.
The first three of those Ten Commandments, not having any other gods, not making any images of other gods, because they were hundreds in Egypt, and not misusing the name of God were there to remind the people that the one true God wanted a covenant relationship with them. It was this God who had rescued them, this God who had the best in mind for them, and this God who so desired that they had an ongoing relationship with him.
He had done this for them. The reminder, of coming out of Egypt, was that the other gods and the ways that the other gods had introduced to them were now over. No other gods. No need to make images. No need to use God’s name wrongly. Truth, love, unity, relationship with the one God will replace all of that.
Then we have the fourth commandment. It is of importance to us today, is the one that has more explanation than all the others. It’s a reminder that the people are no longer slaves at all. Is the one that bridges those first three commandments with the other six. You see, these first three commandments are all about how the people address and approach God. The others are about how the community works and lives best together. How it is that living in relationship with family and neighbours connects us well together.
How trust is built when neighbours are together. When we don’t steal things from one another.
How it is that life is sacred and that murder is never a good idea. How it is that people keep to their own wives and husbands. How it is that telling truths builds trusts and bonds communities. These commandments are about developing and building deep-rooted communities where the other is put first. All these are massively different ways of living life from the ways that the Egyptians had taught the Israelites.
When the 10 commandments are given, they are given so that whole communities thrive and flourish. Walter Brueggemann points out how strange it is that the most airtime at the mountain focuses on the Sabbath command. He says this must have come with quite a shock to the Israelites. Says, “Beforehand, back in the old way, there had been no rest, no Sabbath. In their spare time, they had to gather straw, and now there’s a commandment to stop, to cease, to desist, to be committed to neighbourliness through Sabbath,” because everyone does this, sons and daughters, males and females, animals, even foreigners. This is a wholly new and radical way of living. One whole day, every week to rest. Really? Wow. Where did that idea come from? Certainly not the Egyptians.
Then someone will recall the account of creation that on the seventh day God rested. Because everything was good God ceased creating. It was as good as it was going to be. There was no more need to create. It was finished. As Brueggemann says, God did not show up to do more. God absented God’s self from the office. God did not come in and check on creation in anxiety to be sure it was all working. God knows the world will hold, the plants will perform, and the birds and the fish and the beast of the field will prosper.
God, he reminds the people, is not a workaholic. God is not a Pharaoh. Moses and God have the 10 commandments to remind people who they are. Created in God’s image, so there’s no need to dishonour parents or murder or commit adultery or steal or lie or covet. God invites the ones that Sinai to a new life of neighbourly freedom. Such faithful practice of work stoppage is an act of resistance. It declares that they will not work the world harder than it needs. That they will not be consumed by overwork or busyness or anxiety because none of this helps them or helps the world.
All they knew before in their former lives as brick makers in Egypt was work, exhaustion, slavishly doing the same thing day after day after day after day. This was no life. Now here at the mountain of God, the promise of release from all these tensions, including the commands to take one day off in every seven, God had already set the precedent and the people were now committing themselves to keep these and other commandments. This new normal could be a good thing if only they were able to keep their side of the bargain.
The fourth commandment links the commandments that are all about God who rested on the seventh day with the ones that are all about building, developing, maintaining excellent community relations. The notion of regular rest times for resetting isn’t just for fun. Maybe it is just for fun. It is for the good of all creation. To let the land life fallow, to have a year of Jubilee where slaves are set free, Sabbath rest is, in this way, at the centre of a new way of being.
For a while during the pandemic, people talked about the new normal, what life would be like afterwards. We’re still waiting for it, really. How more people might work from home, which would give more time to, perhaps, family activity, less time to commutes, which may well cut down on pollution.
The government wants to build back better. The Archbishop of Canterbury says we need to build forwards better. It seems that God is reminding us that one way of doing all of this is to look back to his initial idea of rest. Taking regular time to take time out, enjoy creation, love the community that you’re in, and allow others to follow the pattern of community and wanting what is best for your neighbour. This is a less anxious way to live.
Jesus says of his disciples in Matthew chapter 5 that we can’t add a single hour to our lives by worrying. He speaks here of the natural: birds not worrying about their food or where their clothing comes from. He points out that God clothes fields of grass, which has no real longevity, so why not relax into his presence and breathe in the beauty of creation, relax into the pattern of life, which requires us to stop, take stock, be thankful, and start again as refreshed members of the community?
The commandment to Sabbath is one that stretches across the Old Testament into the New. It’s something that marks out Judaism’s commitment to God and God’s commitment to humanity. The challenge to each of us today is taking Sabbath seriously in our life. Is taking a Sabbath at all seriously in our lives happening at all?
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.