Our culture is about production, not rest. Even still, our work is designed to have weekends, holidays and vacations. We know these are important to our well-being. What we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us. This is the key to the identity of the people of God.
The history of the Sabbath dates all the way back to the beginning of the world. In Genesis 1, God creates the heavens and the earth, and it happens over seven days. God creates the light and darkness, the sky and water, the land and sea, the sun, moon and stars, the birds and fish, and animals and people. God also gives man an elevated status and creates work. In Genesis 1:28-29, He gives humans rules over everything. In Genesis 2:15, God puts man in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. Our job, if done for the service of humanity, is sacred. Work is a good thing. Genesis 1:31 states that God saw all He had made and it was good.
In Genesis 2:1-3, God introduces the idea of the Sabbath. By the seventh day, God had finished with His creation and He rested. He blessed the seventh day and made it holy. Holy means set apart and made different. Nothing in the Bible is ever holy in of itself, except for time. It is holy because God says it is.
God created an economy of peace in the garden. Ultimately, people rebelled because we wanted more. In Genesis 3:17-19, God says cursed is the ground because of you and through painful toil you will eat; by the sweat of your brow you will eat food. At this point, work becomes a struggle. Now civilization is man’s conquest over space. There is no harmony so man’s goal is to establish authority over everything and everyone.
Later in the Old Testament, Egypt creates a pyramid system. The people on the bottom work for the people at the top. This creates an economy of production and consumption. The Hebrew people are living in Egypt as slaves. Exodus 1:14 says they made their lives bitter with harsh labor; the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly. There are several other examples. Exodus 5:4 – why are you taking the people away from labor? Get back to work! Exodus 5:17 – Pharaoh calls the Hebrews lazy. Exodus 5:10-11 – I will not give you any more straw, but your work will not be reduced. This is a constant restless cycle. Our present day economy is just like this and it is why we cannot rest.
God breaks into time and frees His people. God destroys the system so that Pharaoh finally lets the people go. Soon after, at Mt. Sinai, God gives Moses the law, including the Ten Commandments. He reminds the people in Exodus 20:2 that I am the Lord, your God, who brought you out of Egypt and out of slavery. The first three commandments have to do with the people’s relationship with God. The last six have to with how to connect with people. The fourth is the bridge between the two.
Exodus 20:5-8 – Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. There shall be six days of labor, but on the seventh, this is the Sabbath to the Lord. There is more time discussing this commandment than any of the others. With this commandment, God brings it back to an economy of peace. Exodus 34:21 states that on the seventh day, you shall rest, even during plowing and harvest. God made it clear that there was no excuse for not taking a Sabbath.
The Sabbath is important because it restores our humanity by removing us from the economy of production and consumption. Creation is a gift and I have been given everything I need. The Sabbath creates equality among people and allows us to live in genuine community with each other. We surrender our lives to God and the Sabbath allows us to live in harmony with creation. In Matthew 11:29, Jesus says take my yoke on you and learn from me and you will find rest for your souls. The Sabbath should be both unproductive and inefficient, which is incredibly hard for most people. However, it is through this time that we can replenish our soul and allow us to meet God.