The Sabbath is a celebration of both work and rest. Certainly, the Sabbath celebrates God’s work, not human work, and humans are the blessed recipients of a day of rest to commemorate God’s work. But the question is, Does the Sabbath concept contribute to our understanding and performance of ordinary, everyday, human work? This essay argues that the fourth commandment Sabbath sanctity is not only about a day’s rest but also about total commitment to God seven days a week. The seventh-day Sabbath can be kept holy only by working as God intends the other six days.
The gods of some ancient societies shunned work. The Mesopotamian Atrahasis epic of the first and second millennia B.c. describes how the gods, wearied from work and fighting with each other over who was to do it, created humans to solve the problem.1 The Greek Hesiod, writing in the eighth century B.c., suggested that gods created humans to do their work as punishment for stealing fire. They sent their “gift” Pandora, who unstopped her jar and let out all the grievous toils and sickness that have plagued humanity since.2 In such religious systems, work was seen as not fit for gods, who were meant to luxuriate in eternal leisure. Humans still share with the ancients the illusion that leisure is the ultimate happiness.
Against this background, the God of the Hebrews is triumphantly described as working. The first information the Bible offers about God is that He worked, and moreover, He worked to make a beautiful world for humans (Gen. 1:1–2:3). Humans, made in the image of God, were lovingly offered the gift of work (Gen. 1:26–28; 2:15). The Sabbath celebrated God’s own creation work. Made for blessing and holiness, the Sabbath hints at a connection between God’s work and human lives (Gen. 2:2, 3).
The Ten Commandments endorse the Creation narrative that God works on behalf of humans. God wrote on stone that the rationale for the fourth commandment was God’s creation of the world and that He decreed that the seventh day be kept holy and restful by humans as a memorial of this creation activity (Exod. 20:8–11). When Moses reiterated this command in his farewell sermon, he added the work of redeeming Israel from the slavery of Egypt (Deut. 5:15) as a rationale for the Sabbath rest. Thus, both forms of the fourth commandment assert something that ancients who were contemporary with Israel would have seen as a shocking concept: that God works on behalf of humans.
But the Sabbath commandment also recognizes the work of humans. Human work is acknowledged, and provision is made that the landowner and family, with their male and female servants (employees), and even the animals used to help humans, have opportunity for rest. Moreover, all labor for all people was to cease: work could not simply be passed on to unknown foreign migrants (Exod. 20:10; Deut. 5:14). The Sabbath was for the benefit of all Israelites and also the “strangers in their gates.”
Thus, the fourth commandment offers a threefold rationale for Sabbath’s holy rest opportunity: first, the Sabbath commemorates God’s work for humanity; second, its provision is for all living creatures; and third, it recognizes the dignity of human labor.
A Hebrew literary perspective
In the Genesis account of the Sabbath inauguration, the verb “to sanctify” is in the piel form that indicates intensification and repetition of action.3 The intensification implies sanctification had an immediate effect, and repetition implies that the blessing of the Sabbath would be repeated for all the posterity. The Sabbath did not come into being purely as a Jewish blessing.4
A single Hebrew letter, the waw, generally acts to add something to the text and is translated as “and” or similar. Sometimes this simple word contrasts meaning and is translated “but” or similar.5 For most Bible translators the waw that occurs in the fourth commandment between the injunction for humans to work for six days and then remember the Sabbath has seemed to act as a contrast, and therefore has been translated as “but” (see Exod. 20:10 in KJV, ESV, NKJV, RSV). However, it can justifiably be translated as “and” and is presented thus by Jay Green in the Interlinear Bible.6 The Sabbath contrasts human work with divine work, but the change in waw translation would consequently not contrast human work with the Sabbath but could indicate God’s intention to connect the Sabbath blessing intimately with human daily work, just as He blessed His creation work (Gen. 1:22, 28). Work, of course, was God’s intention for humans even in Eden (Gen. 1:26; 2:15).
The perspective of Jesus
One of the principles of His kingdom that Jesus sets forth in the Sermon on the Mount is, “ ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them’ ”(Matt. 5:17, NIV). Yet, many times during His earthly ministry Jesus seems to have been at odds with the religious leaders of His day over keeping the Sabbath. His recurrent offense was healing, an activity regarded as work. Although these healings hinted at creative ability, Jesus defended Himself by simply noting it was lawful to do good on the Sabbath (Matt. 12:12). Yet, when Jesus healed the man by the pool of Bethesda, He made a shocking declaration: “ ‘My Father is working still, and I am working’ ” (John 5:17, RSV). Jesus seems to present God as breaking His own Sabbath command!
Jesus’ seemingly contentious approach to Sabbath keeping suggests that He was trying to teach something about the purpose of the Sabbath day that was not understood by the Jewish people of His time. He declared that the Sabbath was for doing good, that it was a gift, made for humans, and most shockingly, that it connects God and human work.
Immanuel: God with us
The Sabbath is a regular reminder that God intended to be present with humanity from the very beginning. The world was not made in six days, but in seven (Gen. 2:2). Certainly God’s material creative activity occurred in six days, at the end of which time He saw everything He had made and pronounced it “very good” (Gen. 1:31). The heavens and the earth were finished (Gen. 2:1), but on the seventh day God finished His work, not the earth and the heavens, by making something immaterial but vital, a day blessed and sanctified (vv. 2, 3). The commandment notes the day was made holy, and what makes anything holy is the presence of God. The rest provision of the commandment allowed the day to be one for fellowship between God and humans whom He had made without the distraction of daily work.
When humans chose to try to manage the world by their own work efforts, by their own knowledge that they hoped would be as good as God’s but soon found was not (Gen. 3:1–7), God did not abandon them. He was still there to work on their behalf and “bring them out of the house of slavery.” God’s first act for post-Edenic humans was to make them durable clothing because their own choice of fig leaves was inadequate (v. 21). Thus, the text shows people could not successfully clothe themselves nor later redeem themselves from slavery without the help of God.
Some have seen erroneously the present imperfection in the world to mean that God’s creative work is still unfinished, and humans are called to finish it. Human work is said to be a “continuation of the creative work of God,” that humans “continue God’s work by turning earth into heaven,”7 and that humans have been designated to complete God’s work and bring the world into perfection.8 But the Sabbath shows that it is God who is working for and with us. Although the original purpose of the Sabbath was to indicate God’s ongoing presence in the perfect world He had made, a beautiful memorial of God’s creative activity, and His desire for human fellowship, Deuteronomy reminds us that a work of God was required not only to create humans but also to redeem them from (sin’s) slavery (Deut. 5:15).
While the creation activity of God is presented as virtually effortless—God merely speaks to bring the world into existence—the work of redemption from slavery is presented as physical and demanding: “ ‘ “The LORD your God brought you out from there [Egypt] with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” ’ ” (v. 15, NKJV). God has not retreated to leave humanity to try to clean up the world of sin, but He wants to be present with His mighty hand and outstretched arm to redeem. Further, Israel was reminded to “not forget” (reminiscent of the Sabbath command) that it was God who brought them out of Egypt, and they were especially warned that, as they flourished in Canaan, they were not to attribute to their own power the prosperity they would experience (Deut. 8:11–19).
Thus, the Deuteronomy Sabbath commandment presents beautiful assurances that God still works on our behalf. Rather than handing over the world for us to complete for Him, He is present to support us in both our need of eternal salvation and our daily work. And God reminds us that He, not we, will make all things new (Rev. 21:6).
The resurrection of Jesus was an amazing event that clearly demonstrated the power of God over death. But this triumphant work of God cannot be separated from His commitment to work for the entire created order, to create and redeem it, and finally to remake it. To do so tragically truncates our appreciation of the majesty of His creative and redemptive work for us. It is not for humans to judge what is the most important work of God. He has chosen the Sabbath as the memorial of all His work in this world, and we question His choice at our peril.
The yoke of Christ
Six days of our work have an “and” that connects them to the Sabbath, the memorial of God who works tirelessly with and for His people. God made the Sabbath not just to provide humans with rest but also to assure them that He was with them, a sign between Him and His people (Ezek. 20:20). Humans need physical rest; that is a given. But Jesus recognized the human need for a deeper rest, expressed in the beautiful words: “ ‘Come to Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest.’ ” Rest not just for your bodies but “ ‘for your souls’ ” (Matt. 11:28, 29, NKJV).
By taking Christ’s yoke, we recognize our inability to achieve on our own. But yoked with Him, we can rejoice in the work He does in and with us. God working with us allows our work to be a blessing. God blessed the original couple (Gen. 1:28). After the Flood, God again blessed Noah and his family (Gen. 9:1). When God called Abram, He promised not only to bless him but, more amazingly, that He would make him a blessing (Gen. 12:2).9 This would seem a very onerous, indeed preposterous demand, unless the covert promise of Jesus is remembered: “ ‘Without Me you can do nothing’ ” (John 15:5, NKJV). Without Jesus nothing indeed will happen, but yoked with Him the command to be a blessing can be fulfilled.
The Sabbath is thus a beautiful celebration of work. While primarily God’s creative and redemptive work on our behalf is celebrated, the Sabbath also contains a wonderful promise that God’s presence will enable us to carry out our daily work in a manner of blessing. The Sabbath ennobles our concept of work. While humans are furiously trying this and that method to save the planet, prolong life, and destroy abuse of all types, God promises that adding His Sabbath worship into our thinking of our daily work, as a complete sanctified day committed to Him, will enable us to be a blessing. The God of the Sabbath is God, the Great Worker. We are privileged to be included in His plans. “Keeping” the Sabbath means more than having a day of rest, it means factoring God into every aspect of our working lives.
The Sabbath thus gives us a yardstick by which to measure the value of work done. Evaluation of His own work was a pre-Sabbath activity of God, and He pronounced it “very good” (Gen 1:31–2:3). In the light of the Sabbath blessing, all human work can be assessed. The criterion is simple: Has the work been a blessing, performed in the strength and under the yoke of Jesus? If it has, we can look forward to hearing “ ‘ “Well done, good and faithful servant. . . . Enter into the joy of your master” ’ ” (Matt. 25:21, 23, RSV), the eternal Sabbath rest made real by the presence of God.
1 Quoted in Norbert Lohfink, Great Themes From the Old Testament, trans. Ronald Walls (Edinburgh: T&T Clark 1982), 204, 205.
2 Hesiod, “ ‘Theogony’and ‘Works and Days,’” trans. M. L. West (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 38, 39.
3 Ethelyn Simon, Irene Resnikoff, and Linda Motzkin, The First Hebrew Primer, 3rd ed. (Berkeley, CA: EKS Publishing, 2005), 255.
4 See an example of the presentation of the opposite view in Lohfink, Great Themes, 216.
5 David J. A. Clines, ed., The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), 95.
6 Jay Patrick Green Sr., ed., The Interlinear Bible: Hebrew-GreekEnglish, 1986 ed., (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1986; reprint, 2011), 65, 159.
7 Lohfink, Great Themes, 220.
8 Pope John Paul II, “Laborem Exercens,” (1981), section 25.
9 The Hebrew of this passage is a command, not a promise; see Laurence Turner, Genesis (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 64; and W. Lee Humphries, The Character of God in the Book of Genesis (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 83.