I’ve been in Israel over the last couple of weeks, along with Tucker (which is why we took a break from posting for a little bit). It was, of course, an amazing trip. We learned a ton about Scripture, archaeology, Judaism, the modern Israeli-Palestianian conflict, and more. We saw King David’s palace, Jesus’s tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, and about a hundred other places talked about in the Bible. As our tour guide, Assaf, told us a couple of times, Israel is the only place on earth where you can open your Bible and point to where things happened.
One of the the experiences that will stick with me for a long time was sharing a Shabbat (Sabbath) meal with an orthodox Jewish family. These kind people welcomed me and fifteen other seminary students into their home, fed us a multiple-course meal, and taught us about their Sabbath prayers and liturgies. To prepare for that evening, I reread The Sabbath by Abraham Joshua Heschel, a prominent twentieth-century American rabbi. The book gives a beautiful presentation on what the Sabbath means, why it is so important, and how it is to be embraced in these modern times. Though Heschel is Jewish and writes for a Jewish audience, I believe Christianity has a lot to learn from its “older brother” in this arena.
This is the first of a three-part series on The Sabbath. Today, I’ll give a little introduction on time and rest. Next week, I’ll talk more in-depth about how Heschel defines and characterizes rest. The final post will deal with Christianity’s take on the Sabbath. Why Sunday instead of Saturday? Stay tuned to find out.
Rabbi Heschel begins The Sabbath by explaining that, in Judaism, the sanctity of time is much more important than that of space. Before there are any sacred spaces—burning bushes, altars, tabernacles, or temples—there is a sacred day:
“So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.” (Gen. 2:3)
Heschel even goes so far as to say that Judaism is fundamentally concerned with the “architecture of time.” Judaism—and Christianity after it—is a faith that remembers. The Israelites remember that God freed them from slavery in Egypt; that they lived in tents in the desert for forty years; that God saved their people, through Esther, from Haman’s plot to destroy them. The Sabbath is the first day set apart by God, from the very beginning of the world.
The Sabbath is, of course, set apart for rest:
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep 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, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Ex. 20:8-11)
At this point in the book, Heschel brings something to light that I’ve never noticed before. This passage in Exodus says that God “rested on the seventh day”—but take a look at how Genesis 2:2 describes it: “And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.”
If God rested on the seventh day, wouldn’t that mean that God finished his work on the sixth day? But Genesis says that on the seventh day God 1) finished his work and 2) rested. From this, the rabbis concluded that there must have been an act of creation on the seventh day: Rest itself is part of the created order.
Though this is an imaginative take on the biblical narrative, I don’t think this takes too much liberty with the text. Understanding rest as part of creation helps to give it a positive identity, instead of merely defining it as refraining from labor. For the Jewish people, rest is much, much more than not working. Rest has a character of its own—it is something you do. We’ll talk a little more about what that looks like next week.