Sabbath Keeping, the Most Gloriously Arbitrary Commandment

Paterson Store

Blue Laws

Bergen County’s blue laws — the rules that keep most of the county’s stores closed on Sundays — are being scrutinized for signs of weakness by groups that believe the time is right to repeal them.

Politicians have generally considered the blue laws to be invulnerable since 1993, when county residents voted, by a wide margin, to keep them in place. But recent attacks on the laws have caused opponents to question the need for them.

“These are 19th-century laws. Wake up. We’re in the 21st century,” said Rosemary Shashoua, a Westwood grandmother has started a grass-roots campaign to repeal the blue laws.

Any attempt to eliminate the laws, however, will have to overcome strong opposition from residents of Paramus, and other Bergen County residents who say the Sunday laws have nothing to do with religion and everything to do with their right to have one weekend day free of traffic.

“As long as I am mayor I will continue to protect them,” Paramus Mayor Rich LaBarbiera told The Record of Woodland Park. “They are the integral thread to our quality of life in Paramus.”

Bergen County is the last county in the state to retain blue laws, which prohibit sales of certain goods on Sundays, and keep all of the county’s department stores and malls closed, with the exception of mall restaurants and movie theaters. Paramus has even more restrictive laws that prohibit all work in the borough on Sunday.

Truth by Calendar

The most telling line in that piece is the Rosemary’s comment “Wake up. We’re in the 21st Century!” as if the calendar is what determines what’s right and wrong.  That idea that it is in fact the calendar that determines right from wrong is so common and so deep within our assumptions that it colors nearly everything we think about right and wrong. The logic goes like this. “Today we know so much more about things than previous generations did. Science and technology proves it. We have clearly evolved or progressed beyond the dim, unenlightened assumptions of our ancestors and so much morality is in fact self-evident to us.

Christian Smith, a sociologist has done in-depth research on the religious, spiritual and moral assumptions of American youth. You can read his findings in Soul Searching and the follow up Souls in Transition. Tim Keller summarizes his findings  in three characteristics.

1. American youth have very strong moral feelings. Very much against injustice, violation of rights, exploitation of the poor, etc.

2. They are moral relativists. They will repeated say that no one has the right to say what is right or wrong for someone else. There are two aspects to this moral relativism.

a. Morality is person specific, you don’t have the right to choose for another.

b. Morality is culturally relative: every culture has the right to decide what is right for them.

3. They believe that morality is self-evident.

It doesn’t take too much thought to realize that these positions are incoherent. Keller goes on to note that it you ask a young person whether it is wrong for some countries to withhold driver’s licenses from women they’d say it is wrong, they just know it and it is always wrong.  That of course, violates their idea that morality is culturally relative.

Christian Smith notes this.

Like many of the adults who are socializing them, they also often readily proffer decisive judgements as obvious facts that they take as self-evident to any reasonable person, such as, “Well, obviously you shouldn’t hurt someone else” or “It’s totally wrong to have sex with someone you don’t really care about.” What almost all U.S. teenagers—and adults—lack, however, are any tools or concepts or rationales by which to connect and integrate their radical relativistic individualist selves, on the one hand, with their commonsensical, evaluative, moralist selves, on the other. So teens continually seesaw, with little self-awareness that they are doing so, between their individualist Jekyll and moralistic Hyde selves, incapable of reconciling their judgments with their anti-judgmentalism, and so merely banging back and forth between them.

Smith, Christian; Denton, Melina Lundquist (2005-01-25). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Kindle Locations 3078-3084). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

So Rosemary determines the rightness or wrongness of Bergen County to allow or disallow shops to open for business based on what century we’re in? The youth have learned this from the adults.

“This is exactly what’s wrong with religion”

In our world of all-god, no-god, which-god this might be the most arbitrary looking commandment of them all.

Exodus 20:8–11 (NET)

8 “Remember the Sabbath day to set it apart as holy.9 For six days you may labor and do all your work,10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, or your male servant, or your female servant, or your cattle, or the resident foreigner who is in your gates.11 For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.

As true believers in the myth of progress it is easy for modern Westerners to dismiss hosts of religious teaching as someplace between manipulative control and sheer superstition. While we might find reason in commands to not kill or lie observing a “holy” day because some Near Eastern storm god wants to link to a creation poem seems obviously dismiss-able. It makes less sense than having Paramus Park mall closed one day in seven.

Part of what makes a lot of people scratch their heads about this commandment is in fact the number seven itself. While new year celebrations and new moon celebrations are tied to obvious rhythms in nature where would the Hebrews come up with this notion of the seven day week. It is the one element in our calendar that seems to have zero relationship with anything practical or applicable to material human beings.

Wisdom Found

Now that our supremely progressed world has clearly conquered sometimes we look back at even arbitrary commandments and wonder if there isn’t some ancient wisdom that we might employ to make our lives better, like some herbal remedy or root potion where perhaps some basis can be found in science to validate.

Most contemporary treatment of this commandment tends to focus on the wisdom of taking a day off a weak. This is time-honored wisdom. “All work and no play make Jack a dull boy.” Doctors and TV advice givers will talk to us about stress and the way it destroys the quality of our lives and makes us susceptible to diseases. This commandment seems even to tie longevity with taking this day off. Less stress, longer life, wonderful. Good advice, take a day off.

Another take would be to notice the egalitarian aspect of this commandment. Not only are the upstanding Hebrews to whom the command is given supposed to take time off but they must also give time off to their children, employees and even their animals. This is fair indeed.

In the narrative of Solomon Northrup  who, although born a free man was kidnapped into slavery. His first master was a good Christian man named William Ford. Northrup makes the remarkable comment that if he had had to live as a slave he could have endured the cruel institution if he had remained in this man’s employ. Each Sabbath William Ford would give his slaves a day of rest, something most of the other slave owners would not do.

We usually spent our Sabbaths at the opening, on which days our master would gather all his slaves about him, and read and expound the Scriptures. He sought to inculcate in our minds feelings of kindness towards each other, of dependence upon God— setting forth the rewards promised unto those who lead an upright and prayerful life. Seated in the doorway of his house, surrounded by his man-servants and his maid-servants, who looked earnestly into the good man’s face, he spoke of the loving kindness of the Creator, and of the life that is to come. Often did the voice of prayer ascend from his lips to heaven, the only sound that broke the solitude of the place.

In the course of the summer Sam became deeply convicted, his mind dwelling intensely on the subject of religion. His mistress gave him a Bible, which he carried with him to his work. Whatever leisure time was allowed him, he spent in perusing it, though it was only with great difficulty that he could master any part of it. I often read to him, a favor which he well repaid me by many expressions of gratitude. Sam’s piety was frequently observed by white men who came to the mill, and the remark it most generally provoked was, that a man like Ford, who allowed his slaves to have Bibles, was “not fit to own a nigger.

Wisdom Yes, Commandment No

While contemporary people might find wisdom in the old command our protest would be that once it becomes something more than a suggestion it does us harm. Christian Smith notes this attitude in our children, an allergy to being told what to do.

For most teens, nobody has to do anything in life, including anything to do with religion. “Whatever” is just fine, if that’s what a person wants. Consequently, certain traditional religious languages and vocabularies of commitment, duty, faithfulness, obedience, calling, obligation, accountability, and ties to the past are nearly completely absent from the discourse of U.S. teenagers. Instead, religion is presumed to be something that individuals choose and must reaffirm for themselves based on their present and ongoing personal felt needs and preferences.

Second, most U.S. teens are at least somewhat allergic to anything they view as trying to influence them. They generally view themselves as autonomous mediators or arbitrators of all outside influences; it is they themselves who finally influence their own lives. Other people and institutions provide information that youth see themselves as filtering, processing, and assimilating. Based on this information, they then make their own decisions for themselves. Or so the story goes.

Smith, Christian; Denton, Melina Lundquist (2005-01-25). Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Kindle Locations 3056-3064). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Again, the children get this from the parents. Some of us grew up in an age where backed by blue laws in some cases mandatory “Sabbath observance” was enforced by religious authority and church peer pressure. It is within my lifetime that these things have evaporated and my feelings about this evaporation are definitely mixed.

From Sabbath to Sunday

In the home I grew up in there were a few Sunday rules that were mostly assumed and seldom challenged. We didn’t shop on Sundays (helped by New Jersey blue laws), we didn’t watch TV until after we came home from the evening service and we didn’t go out to eat. I didn’t challenge these restrictions, they were just the things we did and didn’t do.

Having recited the Ten Commandments every Sunday in church I simply assumed that our few “Sabbath” restrictions were a direct result of the commandment. It wasn’t until I got a bit older that I began to question the connection. “Sabbath” was Saturday, not Sunday. Why did we not observe “Saturday” rules but instead apply them rather strangely to Sunday. Furthermore my father was a minister so he worked every Sunday. We didn’t buy groceries on Sundays but if I was selling lightbulbs for a church Calvinist Cadet cadre doing that at church was OK.

When I would ask about the Saturday vs. Sunday thing people would tell me “Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday so Christians celebrate Sabbath on Sunday.” and I left it at that.

As I learned more about the Bible I also began to realize that for the Hebrews the Sabbath was NOT a day to “go to church”. Then they were told to NOT work they didn’t work OR go to the Tabernacle in the desert of the temple in Jerusalem. Practices changed over the centuries obviously, but the command is stark in its simplicity. You shall not labor or work.

The Heidelberg Catechism fills in the gap a bit and invites us into further investigation.

103 Q. What is God’s will for you
in the fourth commandment?

A. First,
that the gospel ministry and education for it be maintained,^1
and that, especially on the festive day of rest,
I regularly attend the assembly of God’s people^2
to learn what God’s Word teaches,^3
to participate in the sacraments,^4
to pray to God publicly,^5
and to bring Christian offerings for the poor.^6

that every day of my life
I rest from my evil ways,
let the Lord work in me through his Spirit,
and so begin already in this life
the eternal Sabbath.^7

^1 Deut. 6:4-9, 20-25; 1 Cor. 9:13-14; 2 Tim. 2:2; 3:13-17; Tit. 1:5
^2 Deut. 12:5-12; Ps. 40:9-10; 68:26; Acts 2:42-47; Heb. 10:23-25
^3 Rom. 10:14-17; 1 Cor. 14:31-32; 1 Tim. 4:13
^4 1 Cor. 11:23-25
^5 Col. 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:1
^6 Ps. 50:14; 1 Cor. 16:2; 2 Cor. 8 & 9
^7 Isa. 66:23; Heb. 4:9-11

So somewhere along the line Christians started using Sunday to do their church thing, and some Christian traditions (not all) also began applying the Sabbath work cessation command to that same day in some particular ways.

Jesus and the Sabbath

Part of where this story gets strange is about the abundance of material on the canonical gospels about Jesus violating what had become the rules of the Jews surrounding the Sabbath. Jesus, it seemed, regularly got into trouble with the religious authorities over what he would do on the Sabbath.

By Jesus’ time Sabbath observance came to include synagogue services and on a number of occasions in the synagogues and at the temple he would choose to heal someone publicly. It wasn’t as if the deaf and the lame were unavailable during the other days of the week, he did plenty of healing on those days too, but he often made special point of healing on the Sabbath and drew attention to it.

The Sabbath and Creation

The Jews, who had been working through these ancient texts a long time had developed a good amount of theology around them. They had long established that God worked on the Sabbath, sustaining his creation, etc. and so that was sometimes the point that Jesus made on doing his work on the Sabbath. Jesus is God, but the story doesn’t end here.

The Exodus commandment ties the prohibition to the Genesis 1 creation account of God resting on the seventh day. This again was something that always confused me. Why would the story make such a point about the seventh day and resting, and what about the 8th day.

John Walton is an expert in the Old Testament and other cultures of the Ancient Near East. He notes that the original audience for Genesis would have clearly understood what the business of “rest” on the seventh day was about.

IN THE TRADITIONAL VIEW THAT Genesis 1 is an account of material origins, day seven is mystifying. It appears to be nothing more than an afterthought with theological concerns about Israelites observing the sabbath-an appendix, a postscript, a tack on.

In contrast, a reader from the ancient world would know immediately what was going on and recognize the role of day seven. Without hesitation the ancient reader would conclude that this is a temple text and that day seven is the most important of the seven days. In a material account day seven would have little role, but in a functional account, as we will see, it is the true climax without which nothing else would make any sense or have any meaning.

How could reactions be so different? The difference is the piece of information that everyone knew in the ancient world and to which most modern readers are totally oblivious: Deity rests in a temple, and only in a temple. This is what temples were built for. We might even say that this is what a temple is-a place for divine rest. Perhaps even more significant, in some texts the construction of a temple is associated with cosmic creation.

What does divine rest entail? Most of us think of rest as disengagement from the cares, worries and tasks of life. What comes to mind is sleeping in or taking an afternoon nap. But in the ancient world rest is what results when a crisis has been resolved or when stability has been achieved, when things have “settled down.” Consequently normal routines can be established and enjoyed. For deity this means that the normal operations of the cosmos can be undertaken. This is more a matter of engagement without obstacles rather than disengagement without responsibilities.

John H. Walton. The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate (Kindle Locations 676-686). Kindle Edition.

This then sheds light on language in Exodus about the promised land, the land of “rest”. In various passages the children of Israel were promised “rest” from your enemies. What this meant was that the things that plagued them would be put down and exiled so that life the way it was supposed to be could commence. “Rest” was something synonymous with “well-being” or “shalom” or the way life is supposed to be.

Miracles and Sabbath

Now we might be starting to put some pieces together. Jesus didn’t do miracles to display his power, nor to simply fix the problems of the people of his day. If Jesus wanted to heal a lot of people he could have either given lectures on the importance of sanitation and clean water or given them the recipe for penicillin. Jesus healed a lot of people but everyone who he healed or even raised from the dead would eventually die again. Jesus’ miracles were preaching and teaching illustrations, samples of the age to come.

When you go to Costco there are often people giving out samples there. They want you to try out new foods so that you will buy them. Jesus’ miracles are in a sense samples of what is to come, demonstrations that in him the age of decay is ending and a new age is dawning, one in which disease is dismissed, hunger is banished and death dies. When Jesus did miracles on the Sabbath he emphasized that this was the BEST day on which to do miracles because Sabbath itself was supposed to make the same point as the miracles.

Sabbath was to be a day in which animals, children and slaves didn’t need to labor for their masters but could be free. Sabbath was a day in which men and women who are striving to make ends meet could sample freedom from the curse of thorns and frustration given in the curses of Genesis 3. Sabbath is designed to be a foretaste of the age to come, one day a week. It seems the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism were in fact barking up the right tree.

Sabbath in a Broken World

If we get a sense for how Sabbath connects with the creation story we might get a sense for how counter-intuitive this command is right from the beginning. The reason we want to work seven days a week, and make those who are in our employ work seven days a week is because the world is broken. Weeds grow seven days a week. SMUD charges for Sunday power. We get sick seven days a week. The broken world doesn’t observe Sabbath so how can we afford to? This has obviously been the struggle with the commandment right from the start. Why would God give us such an impractical command?

As I mentioned before religions major in what seem to be arbitrary prohibitions that seem to make no practical sense, and as I noted Jewish communities have wrangled with this commandment longer than any and the various Jewish traditions along with Christians have struggled to apply it in different ways.

In debating Roman Catholic prohibitions like their prohibition on contraception Ross Douthat is conversing with other columnists about what religion does with these prohibitions. Sociologists have noted that religions that seem to employ NO seemingly arbitrary prohibitions fairly quickly become extinct. Cognitive dissonance it seems is necessary to continue to believe in something you cannot see.

He notes that a Jewish writer points out something between Conservative and Orthodox Jewish communities. “Conservative” Jews (who were actually more liberal) allowed their people to drive their cars to their services on the Sabbath. Orthodox Rabbis (who were more conservative) prohibited their people from doing so. Even though it would seem like the harder, seemingly arbitrary prohibition would send Jews to the Conservative Rabbi, the Orthodox group had more staying power and cohesion. The dissonance itself helped make God more believable.

Conservative Judaism was never sufficiently aspirational. Instead of insisting that halakha might give congregants aspirational ideals, it recalibrated Jewish practice for maximum comfort. It failed to recognize that the space between the “is” and the “ought” is where we grow deeper.

What this commandment invites us into is to live, at least one day a week AS IF the Adam’s curse has not made the ground and in it the world the enemy of our survival. It is to invite us ONE DAY a week as if we are in the world as it was meant to be. It is to invite us to try one day A WEEK to sample the life of the age to come, even while weeks grow and thieves break in and steal.

This was why Jesus celebrated the miracles he did on the Sabbath most of all, because it was a double teaching. It was an invitation to believe that in his presence and in his power the kingdom had arrived and it MUST be celebrated.

If You Do What Jesus Did You Will Get What Jesus Got

If you’ve heard or read other things of mine you know where I’m heading with this. Jesus lived the dissonance between the age of decay and the age to come. Jesus said insane things like “turn the other cheek” and “love your enemies” and we all roll our eyes. This is the way to get hit twice and to get brutalized by people who want to do us harm. If you think the Sabbath command is impractical look at the rest of what Jesus says. The world says “seize the day” but Jesus says “take the back seat and let someone else exalt you.”

If you do what Jesus says to do you will in fact get what Jesus got, bloody, brutalized, dead. Jesus did miracles for other people but he wouldn’t save himself. He wouldn’t rescue himself from either the age of decay or our brutality.

Sabbath, like Jesus, seems counter-intuitive and arbitrary but it is an island in the middle of the age of decay that says “What is gripping this world will not last forever. Stake out this time and protest the brutality, death and fear that everyone assumes must win. Joy and love will conquer fear and death and for that reason I won’t work, fear or fret today.”


Sabbath means that even if the days are evil one day a week you should live in the invitation that the evil days will not endure. One day a week you should remember that death has received a deadly blow and will not reign forever. One day a week you should practice gratitude for a deliverance you may struggle to feel today.

Sabbath as a Bright and Shining Star 

Sabbath is like that moment when Sam Gamgee saw the star above the blocking clouds of Mordor.

Many who have seen the Lord of the Rings movies comment that the part of the movie they most dislike is with Sam and Frodo on that miserable journey to Mordor to destroy the ring. The journey just goes on and on and on without a break. You should feel that way about that part of the story, Tolkien designed it so and that is for many what life is like. It is day after day of struggle, pain, and toil that seems both unbearable and interminable.

In the midst of that dark story Tolkien gives us this moment.

There they sat and made such a meal as they could. Keeping back the precious lembas for the evil days ahead, they ate the half of what remained in Sam’s bag of Faramir’s provision: some dried fruit, and a small slip of cured meat; and they sipped some water. They had drunk again from the pools in the valley, but they were very thirsty again. There was a bitter tang in the air of Mordor that dried the mouth. When Sam thought of water even his hopeful spirit quailed. Beyond the Morgai there was the dreadful plain of Gorgoroth to cross.

‘Now you go to sleep first, Mr. Frodo,’ he said. ‘It’s getting dark again. I reckon this day is nearly over.’

Frodo sighed and was asleep almost before the words were spoken. Sam struggled with his own weariness, and he took Frodo’s hand; and there he sat silent till deep night fell. Then at last, to keep himself awake, he crawled from the hiding-place and looked out. The land seemed full of creaking and cracking and sly noises, but there was no sound of voice or of foot. Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach. His song in the Tower had been defiance rather than hope; for then he was thinking of himself. Now, for a moment, his own fate, and even his master’s, ceased to trouble him. He crawled back into the brambles and laid himself by Frodo’s side, and putting away all fear he cast himself into a deep untroubled sleep.

J.R.R. Tolkien (2009-04-17). The Lord of the Rings (p. 922). Harper Collins, Inc.. Kindle Edition.

Sabbath is that rest. It is that vision of a star above the clouds that worry your heart. It is the discipline to once a week say “no” to the age of decay and rest in a gift you can only receive.

The command to do it is now a practice of gratitude where we focus on that break in the clouds and are reminded of the deeper reality that the curse, the striving, the frustration, the death are all only a small and passing thing compared to the glory that is near.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in On the way to Sunday's sermon and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Sabbath Keeping, the Most Gloriously Arbitrary Commandment

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