“In our own contemporary context of the rat race of anxiety, the celebration of Sabbath is an act of both resistance and alternative. It is resistance because it is a visible insistence that our lives are not defined by the production and consumption of commodity goods.”
This is a book about Sabbath – the command that the people of God rest by setting aside a day to recognize that life is a gift. In our hurried, fast paced and anxious world this is a timely book that invites us to give up our false gods and put our trust in the God who creates and the God who liberates the enslaved.
Chapter 1 – Sabbath and the First commandment.
According to Brueggemann the Sabbath commandment found amongst the ten commandments (Exodus 20) is a kind of bridge between the first three commandments that are about God and the last six that are about neighbour. This first chapter focuses on how the Sabbath commandment is linked to the commandment to “have no other gods before me.”
The story of the Exodus is a story in which God delivers the people of Israel from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt. The gods of Egypt and Pharaoh are gods who “demand endless produce and who authorize endless systems of production that are, in principle, insatiable.” Pharaoh is the manager constantly driving the slaves in Egypt to feed the system of production for the glory of the Egyptian Empire. Here there is no rest, there is constant toil. Pharaoh is the hard taskmaster and people are a commodity.
The God of Israel (YHWH) intervenes to set the people free from this slavery. This God is different. This God is relational, not a God of commodity. “The divine rest on the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.” The God who delivered Israel from slavery is to be worshipped as the one and true God. The second commandment to have no “graven images” is related to the first commandment to worship YHWY alone. To produce an image of God is to risk commodifying God. So why Sabbath? Sabbath is a “decisive, concrete, visible way of opting for and aligning with the God of rest.”
Jesus in his teachings makes the point that “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Matt 6:24)
Brueggemann says: “The way of mammon (capital, wealth) is the way of commodity that is the way of endless desire, endless productivity, and endless restlessness without any Sabbath. Jesus taught his disciples that they could not have it both ways.”
We have a choice says Walter. It is one or the other. In our context it is a choice of “restlessness or restfulness.” Brueggemann points out the epidemic of restlessness in our society. The individualism that makes us think that we must “make it”, the consumeristic world in which we live in a culture of commodity, and the abuse of our land that comes with the restless acquisitiveness of consumer goods are all ways we see this manifest itself. There is also a violence that is at the heart of our restless anxiety to have what we demand as ours.
Sabbath invites us to step outside of this restless system. Sabbath is “not an idea but a practical act… Sabbath is a practical divestment so that neighbourly engagement, rather than production and consumption, defines our lives.”
Chapter 2 – Resistance to Anxiety.
This chapter reflects on how the people of Israel came to Sinai very much with the memory of Egypt on their minds. They had been formed by the systems of Egypt and couldn’t forget. This formation produced an anxiety in the people. Egypt was about competition and others were a threat:
“If one is a slave, one has anxiety about the brick quotas. If one is a Pharaoh, one is anxious about the food monopoly. In fact, Pharaoh and slave colluded in a common enterprise that made neighbourliness impossible.”
At Sinai YHWH commands neighbourliness in six of the ten commandments. “The odd insistence of the God of Sinai is to counter anxious productivity with committed neighbourliness. The latter practice does not produce so much; but it creates an environment of security and respect and dignity that redefines the human project.”
God is not anxious about creation, but rather rests on the seventh day and the people are called to do the same. In a workaholic and driven world, when we practice Sabbath we might be reminded to live less competitively and instead live in neighbourly community.
Chapter 3 – Resistance to Coercion
Brueggemann tells the story here of how Israel left Sinai and wandered toward entering the promised land. In the book of Deuteronomy we see instructions as they journey, perhaps which could be summed up as “don’t forget!” It is easy for the people then (and for us) to forget what God has done.
As the people inherit land there comes a warning – “Watch out! Or the land in its productivity will transform Israelites into producers and consumers and will destroy the fabric of the covenantal neighbourhood.” Sabbath is therefore intended to be a day of equality, a day in which everybody rests. It doesn’t matter how productive one is, it isn’t based on performance, this is rest for all. Brueggemann says “Sabbath breaks the gradation caused by coercion.” His example for today:
“On the Sabbath:
-You do not have to do more.
-You do not have to sell more.
-You do not have to control more.
-You do not have to know more.
-You do not have to have your kids in ballet or soccer.
-You do not have to be younger or more beautiful.
-You do not have to score more.”
Sabbath isn’t just a rest, it is a way of formation against acquisitiveness and competition and for compassion, justice, and solidarity.
Chapter 4 – Resistance to Exclusivism.
Membership in the community of Israel was known by keeping Torah (the law). Membership in Israel was determined by “the maintenance of purity, the practice of neighbourliness, and adherence to Torah.” He also says, “Rigorous conditions must be met in order to gain admission to the community” and “the formula (the commandments in Deuteronomy) mandates the brutal expulsion of those who violate commandments and so jeopardize the community.” This expulsion or inclusion was often determined by ethnicity or concerns around purity.
Isaiah 56 paints a picture of a much more inclusive understanding of membership which advocates for welcoming the foreigner. Alongside the general requirement to “keep the Torah”, the central condition for membership here in Isaiah seems to be keep the Sabbath!
“They made Sabbath the single specific requirement for membership. That is because Sabbath represents a radical disengagement from the producer-consumer rat race of the empire. The community welcomes members of any race or nation, any gender or social condition, so long as that person is defined by justice, mercy, and compassion, and not competition, achievement, production, or acquisition.”
Chapter Five – Resistance to Multitasking.
Chapter five considers “prophetic critique in the Old Testament of Israel’s compromised, inadequate ways of keeping Sabbath.” He uses Solomon as an example of the acquisition of wealth in the building of the temple, full of gold and riches. Then Amos (amongst other prophets) is given as an example of a prophetic critique of the acquisitive ways of the people of God. Amos critiques their over indulgence, comfort, and paying mere lip service to Sabbath.
Amos 8:5 – “saying, When will the new moon be over so that we may sell grain; and the Sabbath, so that we may offer wheat for sale? We will make the ephah small and the shekel great, and practice deceit with false balances.”
Here the people can’t wait till Sabbath is over so they can get on with commerce. Walter notes, “All the while they keep Sabbath, they are in fact, in their imaginations, buying and selling and trading and bargaining. The appearance is one of rest, but, says the poet, the social reality is one of restlessness.” Multitasking creates a “divided self, with full attention given to nothing.” This is an issue we are all too familiar with in our modern world and our resistance to Sabbath too.
Chapter Six – Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment.
The tenth commandment is to “not covet.” Brueggemann defines coveting as “an attitude of craving and forceful action to secure what is craved.” Not to covet is to respect ones neighbour, including their space and property. The tenth commandment particularly protects the vulnerable form the “unchecked acquisitiveness of the powerful.” The counter attitude to greed is thanksgiving. We can see examples of greed vs thanksgiving in Ephesians 5 and Luke 12. Sabbath gives space for thanksgiving, it is “the arena in which to recognize that we live by gift and not by possession.”
This book on Sabbath reminds us of the idols that we take for granted in contemporary society. It helps us see the anxiety, acquisitiveness and competitiveness with which we often live and it calls us to embrace a different way – the way of Sabbath. “Sabbath is taking time…time to be holy…time to be human.”