Chapter 7: The Sabbath — The Meaning of Time

The Living Commandments
by John Shelby Spong

Chapter 7: The Sabbath — The Meaning of Time

"Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy"—this is Commandment number four. I think it is essential that the biblical setting of these words be kept in mind. The scene is still Sinai, and the Hebrew people are encamped at the foot of the mountain. It is the moment of Covenant.

God, Yahweh, who had acted in history to bring this people out of slavery in Egypt, was now going to bind this people to himself and in the Covenant to make Israel a holy nation, a royal priesthood. Upon the twin themes of Exodus and Sinai the whole Book of Exodus turns. There is first the grace of the redemption that was Exodus, followed by the law of God’s command that was Sinai. The selection by God of this people—Exodus-—was followed by a call to obedience—Sinai. Exodus is always followed by Sinai. Grace is always followed by law. You are loved, then you respond with obedience. Love must always be accompanied by duty and discipline or it dissipates into a thin, vapid nothing.

It is in this setting and context that Israel hears what Yahweh, the God who has chosen them, now requires of them. The Ten Words sound like the tolling of a bell, vibrating into every corner of human life. They have stood the test of time.

Commandment number one: I am Yahweh. Simply the proclamation of God’s being. I am, so you must respond.

Commandment number two: I am exclusive. You shall have no other gods. You shall make no images. You shall allow no loyalties that usurp my place. No other loyalty can be primary, not to a loved one, a clan, a nation, a church, not even to a creed. God is exclusive—radically exclusive.

Commandment number three: My name is holy. You who bear my name must not defile this name by being false with one another. Your word as my people is always spoken in my name. When you violate your word you take my name in vain.

Now we arrive at Commandment number four: the Sabbath is holy—you must remember it and you must observe it.

As we begin to explore this Commandment I hope you will put from your mind all of your previous connotations. For the Sabbath, like the subjects of the other Commandments, has had a long history of development. It has reflected the traditions of many ages and because of that, the substance and the profundity of what the Sabbath originally meant to the Jews is ofttimes lost.

I would like to get into this Commandment by starting not with its origins and coming forward, as we have done with the others, but rather by starting with its present traditions and corruptions and working backward to its origins, peeling off the layers in the process.

In the home in which I was raised the word "Sabbath" was applied to Sunday. That was a distortion, but that was my family’s tradition. Sunday was to me the most unpleasant day in the entire week. It seemed to me that all the forces converged on me that day in a conspiracy to keep me from being a normal little boy. I had to wear special clothes—not school clothes or play clothes, but Sunday clothes—fancy, stiff, restrictive clothes that I dared not get dirty or torn. In these special clothes I was taken to Sunday school by my mother, who herself seldom went. My father never went.

Sunday school and church got communicated to me as something that kids had to do and naturally I looked forward to growing up so I too could do what I pleased on Sunday morning like my father and my mother.

Sunday school was a chore for me. I am in the ordained ministry in spite of my Sunday school training and not because of it. The thing I enjoyed most was getting my perfect attendance medal. I remember one or two of my teachers, but I can honestly say that I remember very little else.

Even though we did not stay for church and normally got home about 11 o’clock, still Sunday did not improve for me. I could not change my clothes and I could not get my clothes dirty. I hated those clothes. It was very difficult for me in that restrictive binding ever to break the Sabbath. I could not play marbles; I could not play tag or baseball; I could not even play roll-a-bat. As I looked around with my childish eyes, the adults who were in my world seemed to be doing the things that they wanted to do; only the kids seemed prohibited on the Sabbath. Maybe only kids have to keep the Sabbath I thought. Maybe Sabbath is like an allergy that can be outgrown in time. Movies were out. Games, especially card games, were the work of the devil. Television was not yet invented. Watching the Charlotte Hornets in the old Class B Piedmont League play baseball was making others work and thereby breaking the Sabbath, or so I was told. On occasion I would disobey and sneak out to Griffith Park in Charlotte to see the game anyway. I was usually caught, but if it was a doubleheader I considered it a worthwhile risk.

Sunday dragged on like eternity for me, boring me beyond endurance. I could visit relatives and I could read. I was strongly encouraged to read the Bible but those thin little golden-edged pages would constantly stick together or bend or tear. They seemed never to turn for my little fingers. And the language of that book, with the "thees" and "thous" and "asketh" and "beggeth," was to me incomprehensible at best and silly at worst. I am positive that part of my negativity toward the King James Bible was born on those Sunday afternoons.

Besides, I really did not like God. To me God was a stern heavenly father who spent his time telling you what you could not do or punishing you if you ever did it. I was convinced that God had never been a boy. He did not know what fun was. He never smiled beneath his long beard. I knew this because one day I asked my mother why Sundays were so different, so dull and boring. "Well, dear," my mother responded, "Sunday is the Lord’s day." Well, in my mind anyone who had a day like that just could not be very nice.

Of course, I could not admit that, for I had had a healthy dose of the fear of God instilled in me by my mother. I grew up forced to do the religious thing and hating every minute of it. My weekends were ruined because Sunday was a part of every weekend. Imagine my delight and my surprise when I discovered that there is not one biblical injunction anywhere in any of the sixty-six books of Holy Scripture that prohibits working on Sunday—not one. For you see, Sabbath and Sunday are not the same. They never have been the same.

The Sabbath was the Jewish day of rest and was identified late in Hebrew history with the creation story in which God rested on the seventh day. But Sunday was never the seventh day, the day of rest.

Sunday was the Christian day of resurrection. It was the day on which God acted and it was the first day of the week, not the last. Sunday was originally, as a Christian holy day, marked not by withdrawal and rest but by celebration, festivity, and parties. The Holy Communion service, which very quickly became the service of worship designed for Christian people on the holy day, took on the original festive character of that Sunday. That is why that service was and is called a "celebration" of Holy Communion.

Early in Christian history both the Jewish Sabbath—the day of rest and the last day of the week—and the Christian Sunday—the day of celebration and the first day of the week—existed side by side. Early Christians observed both and the two were never confused. Sabbath had its emphasis on rest and Sunday its emphasis on festivity. But as Christianity moved away from its Jewish roots and into the Gentile world, the Sabbath day of rest faded and only the Sunday of celebration remained. For the first 1500 years of Christian history, Sunday’s festive, celebrative nature was affirmed in Christendom.

Then along came John Calvin. John Calvin must have been exactly like my childhood image of God. Stern, long-faced, somber, boring, rigid, and no fun. He was undoubtedly one of the great minds of Christian history, but never one of my favorite theologians. His personality was that of a man who sucked sour persimmons for a hobby or who was constantly bothered by indigestion and gas pains. This man seemed to me to love rigid legalistic rules and regulations. He, more than anyone else in Christian history, dug back very deep into the Old Testament Sabbath day tradition with all of its restrictions, its admonitions to rest, and, taking them out of the Jewish tradition, he dropped them down on the Christian Sunday. In the process he merged the two days and transformed the character of the Christian Sunday into that of the Jewish Sabbath in the most legalistic way. It was not the biblical Sunday but rather it was John Calvin’s creation that I experienced on the first day of each week as a child. John Calvin’s Sunday: rest from your labor; no fun today; church is a somber experience where if you laugh you must be sinful, where worshipers act as though they have lost their last friend; be quiet; this is God’s house; stiff clothes; no marbles; no Charlotte Hornets. John Calvin’s creation. None of that was originally part of the day of the resurrection.

What joy to discover that this kind of Sunday was rooted in John Calvin, not in the Bible, not in the Christian faith, not in the early tradition. Thus the first layer of tradition, the first layer of corruption and distortion of the concept of the Sabbath, is peeled back from this Commandment. The Christian Sunday is not the Jewish Sabbath and need not be observed by withdrawal from life or by refraining from raking your leaves or cutting your grass.

Some time ago, I was mowing my backyard on a Sunday afternoon when one of my neighbors, obviously a Calvinist, walked out of her house and spoke to me. I turned off the lawnmower to hear what she was saying. I should have left it on.

"You’d better be careful," she admonished. "I knew a minister several years ago who was cutting his grass on Sunday and be had a heart attack and died."

I smiled and allowed as how I had always heard that the good die young and I was sure she would live to a ripe old age.

Having separated the Christian Sunday from the Jewish Sabbath, we still need to explore the meaning of the Jewish Sabbath. Literally, in the Exodus account, it was identified with the seventh day of the week and tied in with the story of the creation. The seven-day story consumes Genesis One and the first four verses of Genesis Two. This is the second layer to which we must go. We know from our critical analysis of the Bible that the seven-day creation story of Genesis 1:1—2:4 is from the pen of the Priestly writer which is the last strand of Old Testament material to achieve written form. The Ten Commandments, as we have them in the Book of Exodus, are from the Elohist document, antedating the Priestly writer by at least two hundred years, but the Elohist account of the Ten Commandments has clearly been edited by the Priestly writer. There is doubt that a Sabbath tradition in Hebrew history was originally tied in with the story of the creation. Rather it seems that the Sabbath day rest injunction was added by the Priestly writer many years after the simple Commandment "Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy" became a part of the Jewish consensus of the Ten Words. It is only in the editorial expansion of the Priestly writer that the Sabbath tradition is identified with the creation story.

In the version of the Ten Commandments given in Deuteronomy, for example, the Sabbath is identified not with the creation, but with the Exodus, and this version is perhaps 150 years older than the Priestly tradition. The Deuteronomic writer enjoins the Sabbath day of rest upon Israel and upon every life that the people of Israel touch, both fellow Israelites and slaves, both human beings and beasts of burden, because, says Deuteronomy, rest is essential to life. Human beings of every station and even animals must not be exploited. Do not forget, says the Book of Deuteronomy, that you were slaves, victims of exploitation in Egypt. Do not fail to recognize that periodic rest from labor is a right of every human being and every living thing. It is not a privilege that one generously bestows. It is a right guaranteed by God. Thus we uncover a second layer of tradition on the Sabbath.

If we drive the Sabbath back even deeper into Hebrew history, it appears not to have been originally associated with a day of the week at all, but with a celebration of the new moon. It was originally a monthly festival. It was a time when the whole tribe required a change of pace, a time of withdrawal and rest. The word Sabbath comes from the Hebrew verb form that meant "to rest." The Sabbath grew into a weekly festival, anthropologists suspect, because of the influence first from the Sumerians and later from the Babylonians. It was the means by which the Hebrews reminded themselves of the holiness of time, all time. On the Sabbath the Hebrew people deliberately and self-consciously, in the words of the old hymn, "took time to be holy." Sabbath thus originally gave their life a rhythm, a self-conscious quality of worship. That was its origin and from that it grew into its present shape, first moving from a monthly festival to a weekly festival, then becoming identified with the creation story, and finally being laden with injunctions of very rigid forms of rest.

There is no doubt in my mind that the present Jewish observance of the Sabbath derives from the period of the Exile, not earlier, which we can date from 597 to 539 B.C.; and I believe that the present Jewish observance of the Sabbath is the creation of the Priestly writer. The Sabbath met very specific needs in the Exile community, needs for self-identification, survival, and so on. The Exile community had been ripped from their native soil, torn away from their sacred tradition, separated from their temple, their worship, their homeland. They were prisoners of war. The deepest threat they faced was the threat of assimilation, losing themselves in the dominant culture of Babylon. It was under the leadership of men like Ezekiel and the exiled Temple priesthood that two customs were resurrected and made the very marks of Judaism. One was circumcision and the other was a rigidly enforced observance of the Sabbath day, a weekly ritual. The seven-day creation story was written at that very late date to undergird this new emphasis. It was written to help the Sabbath achieve this new status. The Jews observed the Sabbath and then created the seven-day creation story to give it a theological basis in its origins.

The two customs, circumcision and Sabbath observance, made the Judaism of the Jews obvious. On the body of every Jewish male was the sign of his Judaism, and every seventh day every Jew became publicly discernible, for he or she engaged in no commerce and did no labor. Under pressure from the Jewish leadership, then, this restrictive attitude, this benchmark of Judaism, was defined and redefined. Thirty-nine different kinds of work were specifically prohibited. No medical attention for chronic or nonemergency situations was allowed. In the New Testament recall how Jesus was castigated by the authorities of the Jewish priesthood for healing the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. A withered hand is a chronic, not an emergency situation, and therefore when Jesus healed the man with the withered hand he broke the Sabbath. Broken bones could not be set on the Sabbath for, even though it might be painful, a broken bone in the arm or leg would not normally be the cause of death.

There was also no embalming of the dead on the Sabbath. This too is apparent from the life of Jesus. He was taken from his cross on Friday so his friends could avoid defiling the Sabbath, which begins at sundown on Friday. There was no time to embalm. Jesus was wrapped in a linen shroud and placed in the tomb. The sole reason that the women came to the tomb at dawn on the first day of the week bearing spices was to do the work of embalming, for this was the first moment beyond the Sabbath that this work could be done.

One could only walk three-fifths of a mile on the Sabbath. Any more walking was considered a violation of the injunction to refrain from work. Three-fifths of a mile was the distance a priest had to walk to do his priestly duties in the Temple on the Sabbath day. The Book of Acts refers to the Mount of Olives as a Sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem, that is, three-fifths of a mile.

Observance of the Sabbath came to be the holiest liturgical practice in all of Judaism. But please understand, every liturgical practice grows out of a deep perception of human need. This Commandment ultimately has to do with the necessity for worship. It demands that the human spirit put away routines and take time to relate to that which creates its life, that which undergirds its being.

I believe a case can be made for the activity of worship as that which finally separates humanity from lower animals. I believe that life is holy, all of life—plants, animals, human beings. Life is that throbbing, beating, growing, expanding reality that binds both the simplest and the most complex organisms into a common experience. All living things share in the deepest, holiest power of the universe, the power of life itself, which is mysterious and wondrous, intriguing and divine. Yet human life is more. Human life has evolved to a stage of development that enables the human being to commune with the source of life, to stand in awe of it, to feel both alienated or out of touch with it, and in communion with it, and that is worship. Worship requires time. It requires self conscious practice. It was this that the Sabbath was originally designed to provide in the life of the Hebrew people.

The Sabbath was institutionalized in Judaism to enable this quality of rest and communion with the divine to become obvious, real, and a part of Jewish life. When the Jews finally settled on a seven-day week ending in the Sabbath to make people self-conscious about the rhythm of life, they numbered the other days with reference to the Sabbath. So Monday was the second day after Sabbath, Thursday was the fifth day after the Sabbath, and so on. Then once the Sabbath, with its human yearning and its sense of communion with the ultimate, was defined, once it became the liturgical center of life, then the tradition of how it was to be observed developed. Finally the observance distorted the meaning, and rigidity set in. The Sabbath of my youth, thus, became obvious and apparent, but the Sabbath of my youth is not the Sabbath of God. When we look deeply enough we discover that every people needs a Sabbath, a day of withdrawal from life’s normal routines, a day to contemplate the holy self-consciously. I cannot support blue laws on the basis of some supposed biblical injunction against working on Sunday, for there is no such injunction. I am thus a cause of despair to certain local lawmakers and certain fundamentalist clergy. But I can support blue laws on a psychological and a spiritual basis. People need the rhythm of work and rest, and people need a time set aside for worship and for searching within for life’s holiest dimension. It is that element of the Jewish Sabbath which is and must be a part of the Christian Sunday, and this is essential, I believe, for the emotional health and well-being of human life and for our spiritual maturity.

The Jews understood that rest and withdrawal were rights guaranteed to all of life by their creator, hence, these were written into their holy Law. These were not privileges acquired but rights which could not be abrogated. In their observance is a clue to the meaning of life.

Finally, the worship that is focused on the Sabbath for Jews and on Sunday for Christians is an attempt to open our eyes to see the holiness of all time. Sabbath in its ultimate sense is not so much a day as an attitude. Jews on Saturday, Christians on Sunday, all celebrate self-consciously in worship the holiness of God in every moment of life. We cannot make life holy until we, by living, become people who are aware of the source of life. We cannot make love real unless we, by loving, reveal ourselves to be in touch with the source of love. We cannot participate in resurrection unless we do so by our caring, our giving, and our sharing in the act of making all life and all time new. That is what lies behind Sabbath.

All life and all time are experienced as holy. Every experience is a way through which God can be perceived. Our need is to take time to develop eyes that can perceive and hearts that can respond to this understanding of life and worship. This is the ultimate meaning of Sabbath. It is also the ultimate meaning of Sunday. Here and here alone they are one.

Remember then, we are commanded, "Keep holy the Sabbath of God."