Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the LORD…It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
Exodus 31.15a, 17
You can’t talk about the Sabbath without talking about work. Six days shall work be done. To speak of one is to refer to the other. Work and Sabbath are two halves of a single whole, which is an integrated, healthy life.
But these days, the balance is all out of whack.
Many of us have no limits to our work, and our lives are a flurry of activity: 24-hr access to email, rushing from this appointment to that one, calling clients, refining designs, checking inventory. Never making time for sustained rest, we are always on the verge of exhaustion.
Others of us, particularly throughout the pandemic, have the opposite problem: too much time and not enough work. Our days are filled with Netflix, social media, or other numbing practices. It allows us to avoid the feelings of shame, loneliness, or disappointment that might overwhelm us if we paused to listen to our lives.
Still others of us are in a socioeconomic situation that simply does not allow for Sabbath rest. Our job doesn’t pay a livable wage or provide health insurance. It has to be supplemented with other jobs to even begin to make all the ends of our lives meet, leaving us always exhausted, stressed, and anxious.
Our culture of work is shaped by a linear view of time and rooted in capitalist economic values. It prioritizes productivity, achievement, efficiency, increased profit margins, competition, speed, and unlimited growth over all else.
All of this is a recipe for exhaustion and anxiety. Indeed, our collective exhaustion and anxiety is a barometer of burnout in a culture in which Sabbath has been abandoned, greed is king, and the market is god.
Speaking of god(s), Walter Brueggemann has shown that the values embedded in a society’s economic structures are the tangible expressions of the character of its god(s). If this is true, then there is no other conclusion to make than that we in North America are perilously aligned with the gods of Egypt — demanding unceasing labor to support unhindered growth to enable unlimited acquisition to sustain insatiable consumption, irrespective of the cost to human, creature, or creation along the way.
After emancipating Israel from the tyranny and oppressive work-culture of the Egyptian economy, the God of Israel instituted the Sabbath in the book of Exodus. For Brueggemann, this reveals that “the God who rests is the God who emancipates from slavery and consequently from the work system of Egypt and from the gods of Egypt who require and legitimate that work system” (Sabbath as Resistance, 2).
The seventh day draws the boundary dividing “work” from “slavery.”
With the Sabbath, God institutes a new work system, reflecting God’s character and priorities. A Sabbath-shaped work system would be characterized by gratitude, justice, dignity, reciprocity, generosity, collaboration, delight, shared suffering, and neighborliness. In a word, shalom.
Remember that, in the larger context of Exodus 31, God is instructing Israel on the designs and dimensions of the Tabernacle. No more sacred or important work could be imagined than the work of building the house in which the Creator of the universe would dwell. And yet, even work on the Tabernacle must yield to Sabbath rest.
Crucially, it was not only the “leaders” or “important” people — or even just Israelites — who “earned” the right to Sabbath rest. Every member of the community of creation, by virtue of their existence as God’s beloved creation, deserved the right to refreshment.
And what is meant by “refreshment”? Vayinaphash, “to be refreshed,” is the final word in Exodus 31.17, the end toward which the whole passage moves.
Its root is the word nephesh, which refers to the whole embodied being-ness of a person (or animal). The nephesh is the life of the person, in all its fullness (breath, body, personality, relationships. Its most common translation is “soul,” but in Hebrew you don’t have a nephesh, you are one. It is the true self, held fast in the heart of God.
One way to think of vayinaphash, then, is to be “re-nepheshed.” It is the broken pieces of your heart being gently stitched back together. It is what the Sabbath does when we “keep” and “remember” it. Interestingly enough, in Exodus 31.17, the Sabbath does this for God. God is the subject of the verb! God is, mysteriously, “re-nepheshed” by the Sabbath! And we can be, too.
Vayinaphash appears in only one other place in the Pentateuch, Exodus 23.12. Here the subject is not God, but the lowest of the low in Israelite society: “the child of your slave, and the immigrant.” Their nephesh, too, is precious to God. And they have as much of a right to Sabbath as a king or a patriarch.
If the statement “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is true — and I believe it is — perhaps a corollary statement is also true: denying the Sabbath to anyone compromises the integrity of Sabbath for everyone. Until all are given the possibility to experience Sabbath rest and joy, all of our Sabbaths will be incomplete.
It’s looks like we have some work to do.