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Read: Exodus 31:12-18

The LORD said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you.
Exodus 31:12-13

Some years ago I remember thinking, “I need to work harder at keeping Sabbath.”

The irony of this observation was not lost on me. Still, the resolution was fleeting—as so many resolutions are.

Then I read an article by Ellen Davis that made me think again about the consequences of being a Sabbath scoff-law. The title alone got my attention: “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers?” Really? I thought. Is the choice that stark? (“Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” Anglican Theological Review 83 (2001).

Judge for yourself.

Davis points out that the book of Exodus offers two powerful examples of work. There are thirteen chapters of “bad work” (slavery in Egypt), and thirteen chapters of “good work” (the instructions and construction of the Tabernacle).

The differences between this “unmatched pair” are instructive, to say the least. But one of the most striking contrasts is that good work has limits. The consequences of ignoring these limits are stunning. To put it bluntly: work without Sabbath is slavery.

That’s the view of Exodus from thirty thousand feet. Let’s lose some altitude and look more closely at the passages that cluster around the “good work” of the Tabernacle.

When God finishes giving Moses the instructions for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25-31, God makes it clear that good work makes room for celebrating the Sabbath (31:12-17). God reiterates this at the beginning of the Tabernacle’s actual construction (35:1-3).

Think for a moment how important—and freeing—this would be to a group of former slaves. It’s as if God is saying, “I freed you from Pharaoh’s industrial killing machine, but there’s still work to do. It’s good work, but even good work needs to have limits. Look at me! Even I rested after the six days of creation! So you must rest as you work on the Tabernacle.” Obviously, this is a paraphrase! (I owe Ellen Davis for the phrase “industrial killing machine.”)

Even good work needs to have limits. What a wonderful shock that must have been for those former slaves. But it’s a wonderful—and sobering—shock for us as well.

One of the hardest things for us to get our minds around as Christians is that there can be too much of a good thing, even where good works are concerned. No one will dispute that preparing meals, taking our kids to their sporting events, preaching a sermon, or volunteering at the soup kitchen aren’t good—and important—things to do. Yet, even good things need limits. If our lives are so crammed full of good deeds that there is no room left for Sabbath, then something is seriously wrong.

It’s more than a little unnerving to realize that we may have allowed ourselves to slip back into a kind of slavery—even if we’re filling our time with things that are intended to honor both God and our neighbor. How have so many of us allowed this to happen? The answer to this is probably too complex to answer here. But I suspect these three things may play a part:

  • First, we don’t think that Sabbath applies to us as Christians.
  • Second, we are part of a culture that increasingly equates “busy-ness” with “worth,” and
  • Third, we genuinely want to do good.

Yet, for whatever reason, many of us find ourselves back in Egypt, trying to make bricks without straw.

As one busy pastor remarked, “I feel like my life has no margins. Ministry has become my master.”

In another context, Paul put it this way: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

So, how about it? Do you need to work harder at keeping Sabbath, too? Instead of a resolution, let me suggest beginning that “work” with this prayer from the Book of Common Worship. It is intended for the end of the day, but it as good a start to Sabbath as any I know.

Prayer: O God our Creator,
by whose mercy and might
the world turns safely into darkness
and returns again to light:
We give into your hands our unfinished tasks,
our unsolved problems,
and our unfulfilled hopes,
knowing that only those things which you bless will prosper.
To your great love and protection
we commit each other
and all those for whom we have prayed,
knowing that you alone are our sure defender,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Carol Bechtel

Carol M. Bechtel teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She has taught there for forty days and forty nights. (That's Old Testament code for "a really long time.") She asked to write this series on Sabbath not because she is good at Sabbath, but because she knows she needs it. You can learn more about her and read more of her devotions at her web site, Manna: Bread for Your Spiritual Journey


  • mstair says:

    Thought provoking article!

    “First, we don’t think that Sabbath applies to us as Christians.”

    Led to this thought … hearing Jesus say, “Oh but it does … this little part of the prayer I taught you, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven – ”
    requires a lot of listening time. The Sabbath is perfect for that – as if it were made for it …

  • Jeff Carpenter says:

    Abraham Joshua Heschel’s best work, in my opinion, is his book _Sabbath_, and how the day observed informs the rest of the week.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Carol, for this article on Sabbath keeping. It sounds to me that you come pretty close to being a Sabbatarian, one who applies the principles of the 4th commandment to the Lord’s Day. That would be a matter of following the guidance of the Westminster confessions rather than the Heidelberger. John Calvin had said the fourth commandment was unique among the ten commandment in that it was a command to keep one of the ceremonial laws (rather than moral laws) of the Old Testament which have been abolished in Christ. Colossians 2:16,17 says, “ Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Certainly there are worthy principles to many of the Old Testament ceremonies, but be careful of inflating their importance within a New Testament economy, which sees a new reality in Jesus.

  • Well said. I hope that we all start listening.

  • Debra Rienstra says:

    This is a much-needed balm, Carol. Thank you. I would add that another reason we don’t rest from work is that we don’t really trust God to run the universe without our efforts. Ridiculous hubris that I often need to call out in myself. More often than I do…

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