Balancing Acts

Shabbattom b

By Tom Beutel

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work. Exodus 20:8-10 (NIV)

I was recently reminded that God commands His people to observe Shabbat, or Sabbath, ceasing from productive work one day a week. This reminder came from an unexpected source, an e-mail newsletter from Mother Earth News (, the gardening and natural living magazine

The writer of the article, Nan K. Chase, does a good job of explaining the benefits of Sabbath. It is a time for rest, reflection, and heightened awareness; a time to enjoy the fruits of our labors, a time of “just being…being…in the garden, with the garden, and among the living creatures and the plants.” The article is written from the point of view of gardening in particular, but applies generally to the work we, as humans, do.

Chase’s description of the benefits is poetic:

“What happens when you’re not allowed to pull a weed or deadhead a spent blossom, not allowed to mow the lawn or prune the shrubs or spread compost … you start to see more and more in the garden that you miss in the everyday rush of ‘getting it done,’ things like individual grains of pollen, or droplets of dew just before they evaporate.”

The idea of Shabbat goes back to early times and is considered integral to the Abrahamic faiths including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As stated in Exodus, the Sabbath day is meant to be holy, or set apart. Observing Sabbath is a way of honoring God, who “rested” on the seventh day of creation and who sustains us through the creation today. It is an opportunity to simply “be” as Chase says, experiencing and reflecting on God’s provision and the beauty and wonder of God’s creation.

To understand Shabbat better it may be helpful to think about its counterpart, the Sabbath year, described in Deuteronomy 15. Every seven years the Israelites were to observe a Sabbath year at which time debts were cancelled, and “fellow Hebrew[s], a man or a woman” who had sold themselves into slavery were set free. Slaves were not only to be set free, but the law states, “when you release him, do not send him away empty-handed. Supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress. Give to him as the LORD your God has blessed you.” (Deuteronomy 15:13-14)

This description of the Sabbath year gets at an underlying purpose of Shabbat; it is a matter of justice. According to Glen Stassen and David Gushee in their book Kingdom Ethics, justice as it is used in the Bible is delivering justice, or community-restoring justice. It is redemptive. Or, as Perry Yoder says in Shalom: The Bible’s Word for Salvation, Justice, & Peace, justice provides what is needed rather than what is deserved.

This can be seen easily in the concept of the Sabbath year. Those who have fallen on hard times, for whatever reason, and sold themselves into slavery, have the need to be free once again, able to try to produce and provide for themselves and their families. They need resources with which to get started and food to get by until they get back on their feet, hence the command to “supply him liberally from your flock, your threshing floor and your winepress.”

Likewise, we might consider that the Sabbath day, a day to cease from doing and just “be” – to rest, reflect, notice, and enjoy – might be something that we, as humans, need. The Sabbath can provide needed rest from labor, from the drive to get things done. It can provide time not only for worship, but time to be with family, or time to be alone; time to contemplate, or time to relax. It can, and probably is meant to, be a time of “re-creation.”

If we accept that the idea of a Sabbath is valid and that it can provide something that we need as humans, the question arises as to how best to incorporate Sabbath into our lives. Some will make the point that the idea of Sabbath can be incorporated into our daily lives and schedule, taking times throughout the day to “rest” and to “be.” Others will assert that it is necessary to set aside special time, such as a Sabbath day, if for no other reason than that we, as humans, find it hard to do something if there is not a time set aside for it. Perhaps one way is best for some, another way for others, or even different ways at different points in our lives.

In Romans 14:5 Paul says, “One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” There is room for different views about a Sabbath day, but it seems that Paul is assuming that each one has considered the idea and intentionally determined to observe the Sabbath in a particular way.

Typically, the new year is a time to consider changes we might wish to make in the way we do things. We make New Year’s resolutions in this vein. Perhaps, this would be a good time to consider how we think about the Sabbath and how we might observe it.


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