Developing sabbath spirituality: resting in God’s image

How is it that we who are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27) are normally identified by what we do? Imagine an obituary describing leisure pursuits in more than a sentence at the end…

Developing sabbath spirituality: resting in God's image Archdiocese of Wellington Sometimes we hear an elderly person say, ‘I keep myself busy by…’ almost as if doing nothing is wrong. In contrast others wail, ‘I’m sooo busy!’, or ‘I’m exhausted!’ The biblical story of our origins, however, permits all of us to take a break: ‘So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation’ (Gen 2:3).

From the outset then God is defined by more than just work — God also rested! How is it that we who are made in God’s image and likeness (Gen 1:27) are normally identified by what we do? Imagine an obituary describing leisure pursuits in more than a sentence at the end; or a form including space to list relaxation/rest in addition to the usual ‘occupation’; or someone asking where you recreate (re-create) instead of where you work or once worked.

Last month I described aspects of life today that have caused serious disruption to our natural rhythm of work and rest. This month I will explore one particular resource for restoring this rhythm: the biblical tradition of Sabbath. Next month I will suggest practical ways of re-appropriating this tradition for today.

While its origins are uncertain, the Sabbath is the most important of all the Old Testament holy days. The Hebrew word for Sabbath, shabat, had two meanings: ‘to cease’ and ‘to rest’. Its actual length varies greatly: 24 hours for the weekly seventh day Sabbath; 48 hours for the Sabbath of Pentecost; the one-year-long seventh year Sabbath; and the Jubilee Sabbath of the fiftieth year which could extend for as long as two full years.

References to it are either in legislation or historical accounts, indicating its ancient nature. As the people’s circumstances changed, both the theological significance of the Sabbath and its surrounding legislation expanded and developed. Over time it became a sign of Israel’s covenant with God reminding the people of their identity as a community through rest and worship. Sabbath was a time of joy and praise of God.

Sabbath observance was central to Israel’s religious practice. Each of the law codes containing it acknowledges its importance, but its actual purpose differs in each code. In Exodus 20:8-11 and in Genesis 2:2-3, the reason given for keeping the Sabbath is to imitate God who rested on the seventh day after creation. We find the same purpose in Exodus 31:12-17 with additional theological significance. The Sabbath now becomes a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites.

Whereas the Exodus commandment is to ‘Remember (zachor) the Sabbath day and keep it holy’ (Exod 20:11), the Deuteronomic version (Deut 5:12-15) is to ‘Observe (shamor) the Sabbath day and keep it holy’. Here Sabbath observance is to remind the Israelites of their freedom from slavery and thus their responsibility to treat their own slaves with justice and allow them to rest.

When the Israelites were exiled in Babylon, liturgical worship became an explicit feature of Sabbath observance (Lev 23:3; Num 28:9-10). Without the traditional supports for their faith (land, temple, king), the priests encouraged the people to celebrate the Sabbath as a day of rest and worship wherever they could, thus reminding them of their identity as God’s chosen people in a foreign land.

Just as the purpose and theological understanding of the Sabbath changed and developed so, too, did its regulations. Because it was to provide rest for humans and animals (Exod 20:10; 23:12; Deut 5:14), particular types of work were forbidden, e.g., wood gathering (Num 15:32), fire lighting (Exod 35:3), food preparation (Exod 16:23), unnecessary movement from place to place (Exod 16:29), and engaging in business (Amos 8:5). The principle used to determine which work was forbidden related to its purpose.

Work signifying human control over the world through using one’s intelligence and skill, or human power over nature, violated the restful intent of the Sabbath. In keeping the Sabbath the people recognised their dependence on God as the ultimate creator and sustainer. However, worship (Lev 23:3), sacrifice (Num 28:9-10), and putting out of fresh showbread (Lev 24:8), were all practices the regulations encouraged.

Sabbath observance became a unifying practice for the Israelites. It celebrated their identity and symbolised their relationship with God. Characterised by a concern for justice to slaves and celebrated liturgically, it was essentially a teaching about the sacredness of time.

As I explored last month, we are often prisoners of time. It squeezes life out of us as we try to achieve more and acquire more. The biblical sense of time challenges this view because time belongs to God. We are challenged to decide what is important and how to conduct our lives.

Next month I will explore some practical suggestions for living sabbatically today. What do we need to ‘cease’ doing and how can we ‘rest’? As the NZ Bishops remind us we need time to lift our sights above daily pressures to higher goals and to glimpse life’s ultimate purpose. We need space to heed those yearnings of the human spirit for refreshment and reflection – yearnings too often suppressed by frantic and competitive activity. We need occasions to be recreated.