Updated: May 27
Death was the penalty for breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 35:2), so why was it so important?
The Bible is oddly focused on the Sabbath:
God commanded it to be kept over a hundred times
The Gospels focus on the Sabbath twice as much as money and sex
The Sabbath even made its way on the top ten list next to adultery and murder
Really? Above all, don’t kill and especially don’t forget to take a day off? The Sabbath is a huge deal in the Bible, but there has been a lot of confusion about its meaning.
Theologians have guessed about the significance of the Sabbath rest for millennia, so there are lots of options out there. The most common views think the Sabbath is about:
Devoting Sunday (or Saturday) for programs or preaching in a "church" building
Meditating about God, giving thanks, praying, or doing something ostensibly religious
Taking time off to recuperate and relax from physical stress
Guarding against idolizing money by not overworking
There are many popular theories about the Sabbath–and most of them have skipped right over the point.
Some are just silly.
Ask yourself this: Does it really make sense that God would have someone executed for not taking a day off for the sake of their physical health? That he would destroy a person's body to punish them for not taking care of their bodies?
People seem to hear this explanation and think, "Well, yes that does sound a bit outlandish and cruel, but God's ways are above our ways so as devilish as it might seem, it's totally accurate."
That’s like the psychopathic Jigsaw murderer who massacred people because they didn’t appreciate life enough. I hope our understanding of God is better than that!
It can’t be about religious exercises either, because even the land was supposed to take a Sabbath (Leviticus 26:34). Land can’t be religious; otherwise, churches should give their parking lots a day off.
What Jesus said about the Sabbath is even more intriguing.
Jesus never hints at the Sabbath being about a break from labor, whether for religiosity, or recuperation, or reflection, or whatever. Not once.
He even seemed to contradict the Sabbath. One time, as if to egg them on, he rubbed it in the Pharisees' faces by saying that He deliberately works on the Sabbath (John 5:17). In fact, whenever Jesus mentioned the Sabbath, it was in the context of healing or serving humanity. This is a clue that has often not been properly analyzed.
No, these theories won’t do.
The Sabbath remains shrouded in mystery and bad explanations; that is, until the ancient context is excavated to reveal its forgotten (and surprisingly sensible) meaning.
Why Would an Omnipotent God Need Rest?
After making the universe, God “rested from all the work that He had done” (Gen. 2:3). This became the Israelites’ model to structure their time by. They followed the cycle of six workdays plus one day off, “for in six days the LORD made heavens and earth…and rested on the seventh” (Exodus 20:11).
This is why the English word, sabbath, comes from the Hebrew word for rest (shaw-bath).
Yet this raises more questions than it answers:
Why did God rest
Was he tired?
Did he need a nap?
Was His back sore?
Why did it take seven days?
Why not three, or one, or none?
These are actually cryptic clues to the hidden meaning of the Sabbath.
The picture of rest here is not about being leisurely, at all. The Hebrew concept of rest is a double entendre that can mean inactivity, but in Genesis 2 and other places, it’s an ancient figure of speech for something else.
“Heaven is my throne”, declares God, “and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you will build for Me, and what is the place of My rest?” (Isaiah 66:1).
This is one of the other uses of rest. Can you guess what it is?
The passage paints a mural of Yahweh as a King ruling over the cosmos, sitting on a throne, the heavens, with his feet on a footstool, the earth. Rest comes from the action of a king sitting, or resting, on his throne.
Rest was a Hebrew (and Mesopotamian) figure of speech for the king’s reign. Did you catch it? Isaiah, in the above verse, is saying that God is the King of the universe.
Rest equals reign.
What about the seven days?
The Invention of a Week
A seven-day cycle didn’t exist in ancient Mesopotamia; that started with the Jews, based on God’s creation week. This isn’t an accident, nor is it random.
It’s another clue. Back then, when a pagan god was commemorated as a king, they held a ceremony that was exactly seven days. Everyone knew that seven was the symbolic number for divine reign.
Temples are where the commemorations took place because gods were thought to reign via temples–that’s why Isaiah 66 speaks about God’s rest in a “house”.
God's house is His temple (Daniel 5:3), which was commonly understood all over the Ancient Near East.
Israel’s temple was built in seven years (1 Kings 6:38).
And dedicated on the seventh month, for seven days (1 Kings 8:31-55).
The Jews read the seven-day creation account as a description of God building a giant temple (more on that here).
Rest and seven are arcane clues, hidden to us, but obvious to the ancient audience, pointing to a beautiful truth about God's design for creation.
The picture is slowly coming into focus.
The Importance of Food on the Sabbath
Yahweh built creation in exactly seven days, then rested to indicate–here it is–that He was the King of it all. The Master of His masterpiece. The Emperor of the universe.
Doesn't that make much more sense!
The next question we should be asking is: if the Sabbath is about God’s reign, then what does His reign look like?
That’s the point: what kind of King is God?
To find out, we have to go to the place where His kingship was unchallenged, before people rebelled against it. We have to go to the beginning of it all.
Genesis recounts a utopia where there was no death, pain, shame, or sorrow. But strangely enough, it focuses on the fact that people didn’t have to work for food. Why?
It was always available: “There was no man to work the ground, but a mist went up from the ground to water all the land” (2:5-6). The ecosystem of paradise was self-sustaining. It didn’t need to be cultivated (contrary to popular belief).
Adam and Eve had jobs, but preparing food wasn’t it. They could freely eat from the buffet of nature since God made “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Genesis 2:9).
The free food was an indication of God’s reign. It displayed what kind of King He is: he is a kind king.
That’s why Israel wasn’t supposed to work on the Sabbath. Work was about securing future meals–something that doesn’t exist when God's perfect reign covers the world like water covers the oceans.
Israel was to take a day off from working for food to reenact the pre-sin paradise when meals were plentiful for the plucking. It was to remind them what it looks like when God is King.
This is what the Sabbath is about.
The Sabbath wasn’t about rest for the sake of rest. Like chewing Jesus’ symbolic body in communion bread, it was a living metaphor to remember the kindness of God’s kingship. They were to rest literally to remember God’s rest metaphorically (the rest that signified his reign) because when He reigns, we are blessed.
God wants to see how much he cares about us: that he cherishes every human more than we could imagine. More than we ever do.
Every Sabbath, families would slow down the hustle of farming and herding to feast and fellowship on God’s kindness. Then, when the kids asked why they did this, the parents could say:
“Our Creator cares about us so much, did you know that? He made us to bless us, and
He made all things for our enjoyment. You see, this is a taste of what life was like before
God’s rule was interrupted. And this is a shadow of what it will be like when His reign is
perfected again. That’s why we serve him. He’s kind to us. The Sabbath reminds us of
Doesn’t this make so much more sense?
The Sabbath wasn’t about something weird and petty. It was about the most important theme of the Bible—the reason God made us in the first place— to use his position of power to benefit us (Genesis 1:22).
He commanded a weekly celebration to gorge on His gifts to commemorate His kind kingship. This is what the Sabbath rest is all about.
God doesn't make arbitrary rules then threaten to execute anyone who doesn't follow them. God's not like some bully on the playground who'll beat you up for not wearing his favorite color.
This still leaves us with a lot of important questions:
How do we practice the Sabbath today?
What did Jesus mean by, “Come to me and I will give you rest”?
How is the Sabbath about social justice?
These are answered in the next article.