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The Sabbath: A sanctuary in time

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The Sabbath: A sanctuary in time

Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura, MA, is a freelance writer residing in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

 

In the Psalms we encounter Israel at worship, a worship that often took place on the Sabbath, “a sanctuary in time.”1 This concept, of sanctuary in time rather in a place, represents a radical restructuring of pagan cosmology. Pagan gods revealed themselves in places and through elements of nature. But the God of Israel is holy, qadosh, which means “separated.” He is separate, independent of all created reality. And the locus of His encounter with humans is in time, on the Sabbath, and through history. As Abraham Heschel acutely pointed out, “when history began, there was only one holiness in the world, holiness of time.”2

Indeed, the primacy of time over space as the locus of worship can be inferred also from the fact that the building of the tabernacle (sacred space) was prefaced with a reminder to keep the Sabbath holy (Exod. 35:2). The Sabbath also prefaces the com­mand to reverence the sanctuary (Lev. 19:30; 26:2). This privileging of time devalues or desacralizes space. Elements in nature become matter, mere objects, the creation of God. They cease to be gods or mediums of the divine. Desacralized, they are now able, “in their own special way, in a language that is neither percep­tible to the ear nor understandable to human beings,”3 to declare the glory of God and proclaim themselves as the work of God’s hands (see Ps. 19:1). Indeed, when we read in Psalm 19 that “the heavens declare the glory of God,” we hear a voice “that mocks the beliefs of Egyptians and Babylonians,”4 especially their deification of the sun, moon, and stars. Not only so, but in verses 7–11 the psalm consciously shifts to the torah the judicial-moral powers that the Egyptians and Babylonians ascribed to the sun.

It is fascinating, too, that in the three angels’ messages of Revelation 14, these basic principles resurface amid the final conflict in earth’s history.

The Moral Order

Although nature declares the glory of God in majestic ways, nature­ whether in heaven or earth—cannot provide moral values or spiritual direc­tion to humans. The amorality of nature is the reason why Psalm 19:7–11 turns to the torah for moral direction. All the judicial-moral powers and even the descriptive terminology employed in the praise of the torah echo the liturgy of the solar cults, but the “appropriated vocabulary has been emptied of its pagan content and has taken on a new life. It is not YHVH, God of Israel, versus the sun god, but His Torah that is the focus of the contrast.”5

In other words, the polemic against paganism is really over God’s law and its sovereignty over the individual. And in verse 11, the psalmist, by calling himself God’s servant, personally sub­mits to the sovereignty of the torah.

To grasp what this submission entailed, we must recall that the giv­ing of the law at Sinai was preceded by “a double exodus—the patriarchs’ exodus from Mesopotamia and the great exodus from Egypt.” In both cases it constituted “a vehement repudiation of both the Egyptian and Mesopotamian versions of cosmic order.”6 Accordingly, at Sinai, we see God creating a social order for the nation of Israel that mirrored the struc­tural modalities inscribed in creation. In Genesis 1, God created through a process of separation and distinction. He separated light from darkness, heaven from earth, land from water, and filled them with distinct species of plants and animals; created Adam, and then Eve from a rib separated from Adam. Capping it all, He separated the seventh day from other days and made the Sabbath holy.

The Creation story ends with the Sabbath; the Decalogue explicitly refers to the Creation in the fourth com­mandment (Exod. 20:11). The Sabbath therefore is the historical link between Creation and the Decalogue or the Sinai covenant, pointing to God as the origin of both. Indeed, the phrase “Remember the Sabbath day” assumes the Sabbath to have been an established practice  mention that “in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them” (v. 11, NIV) directly alludes to and underscores the separations and distinctions that God inscribed in creation and that He reenacted at Sinai.

Separation between the holy and the profane 

The divine intent here was a new moral order, one established and suffused with holiness. That is why in Leviticus, whose key theme is holiness, the separations extend to mundane activities. “ ‘ “Do not mate different kinds of animals.” ’ ‘ “Do not plant your field with two different kinds of seed.” ’‘ Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material” ’ ” (Lev. 19:19, NIV). The crux here, as Lucien Scubla rightly noted, is “men should not unify the things God separated in creating them. For there is a close relationship between the creation of the world in Genesis and the prohibitions in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. . . . Divine creation is the process of going from disorder to order. Therefore, prohibitions prohibit the return of disorder out of order, mixing together the things that God himself divided from each other.”7

Indeed, paganism’s gross immoralities and grotesque monstrosities stem from its mixing of the sacred and the profane, the human and the divine, the human and the animal, the natural and the supernatural. In short, it was reversing the order of creation. By mixing what God separated, it recreates the primeval chaos. And this chaos is evinced in the moral sphere. Without distinctions between the sacred and the profane, everything is pronounced sacred and moral. Iniquity is presented as piety. Obliterating distinctions between the sacred and the profane leads to unbridled wickedness. “‘Her priests do violence to my law and profane my holy things; they do not distinguish between the holy and the common; they teach that there is no difference between the unclean and the clean; and they shut their eyes to the keeping of my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. Her officials within are like wolves tearing their prey; they shed blood and kill people to make unjust gain. Her prophets whitewash these deeds. . . by divinations. . . . The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor . . . and mistreat the alien, denying them justice’ ” (Ezek. 22:26–29, NIV).

Thus, to ignore the Sabbath is, in fact, to refuse to worship God, to reject Him as the ground of origin and being. To be sure, “God’s claim to reverence and worship, above the gods of the heathen, is based upon the fact that He is the Creator, and that to Him all other beings owe their existence.”8 And “the fourth commandment is the only one of all the ten in which are found both the name and the title of the lawgiver.”9 The Sabbath shows God’s ownership of the earth; thus, to abolish it is to usurp divine prerogatives.

The all-inclusiveness and egalitarianism of the Sabbath is demonstrated by Isaiah 56. Aliens and eunuchs who hold fast to His covenant and keep the Sabbath holy will become, says God, full members in the congregation of Israel, enjoying its full spiritual blessings: “‘for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations’” (v. 7, NIV). If this recalls the Abrahamic promise of universal blessing (Gen. 12:3), this blessing finds its fulfillment in Revelation 14:6, 7, in the eternal gospel proclaimed to every nation, tribe, language, and people. And in worship, the many become one. Just as the Abrahamic promise was an implicit negation of Babel’s totalitarian bid to achieve a primeval unity against God, the first angel’s message negates a similar bid by Babylon the Great (v. 8).

Three angels’ messages

Significantly, the Sabbath is the crux of this negation. The “direct verbal parallel between Revelation 14:7 (‘made heaven and earth, and sea’) and Exodus 20:11 (‘made heaven and earth, the sea’) . . . along with thematic and structural parallels, shows that the later portion of the first angel constitutes a clear, direct allusion to the fourth commandment of Exodus 20:11.”10 And the fourth commandment, in turn, directly alludes to creation; to divinely ordained distinctions that polemicize against the all-embracing pagan cosmos, and its confusion of the human and the divine, the material and the spiritual, the religious and the political. 

The intimate link between the Sabbath and holiness is what makes the Sabbath the testing truth in the final battle between good and evil, Christ and the antichrist. Indeed, since “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19, NIV), to enter into the Sabbath is to move from one moral universe to its opposite. And to refuse to move, to enter the Sabbath, is to refuse to worship the Creator God. That is why the three angels’ messages are set in the context of judgment and accompanied by dire warning of the impending outpouring of God’s wrath. And the warning is one of mercy—that we may escape “ ‘the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ ” (Matt. 25:41, NIV). 

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Notes:

1 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath: Its Meaning for Modern Man (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 29.

Ibid., 9.

3 Nahum M. Sarna, On the Book of Psalms: Exploring the Prayers of Ancient Israel (New York: Schocken Books, 1993), 80.

4 Henri Frankfort et al., The Intellectual Adventure of Ancient Man: An Essay on Speculative Thought of the Ancient Near East (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 363.

Ibid., 92.

6 Peter L. Berger, The Sacred Canopy: Elements of a Sociological Theory of Religion (New York: Anchor Books, 1967), 115.

7 Lucien Scubla, “The Bible, ‘Creation,’ and Mimetic Theory,” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture 12–13 (2006): 16.

8 Ellen G. White, Patriarchs and Prophets (Nampa, ID: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1958), 336.

9 Ibid., 307.

10 John T. Baldwin, “Revelation 14:7: An Angel’s Worldview,” in Creation, Catastrophe and Calvary, ed. John Templeton Baldwin (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 2000), 19.

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