It is said the Sabbath is a bride. Her groom
is darkness risen. She never marries,
is never jilted. Like Penelope at her loom
she weaves and unweaves her weekly sorrows.
Her dowry is the fading light.
She lets down her hair as a hive lets loose its bees.
Her hair is dark as anthracite.
At her second day of dusk she flees.
She snuffs the candles out, she pours the wine.
She is conversant with angels.
She is the last flower left on the vine.
Before evening is over all fall to her spell.
She has been to Babylon and back year by year—
you must bury your face in her long black hair.
— “Sabbath,” by Valerie Wohlfeld
The idea of Sabbath was prominent in my Christian upbringing. Getting stressed out at work? That’s because you’re slaving away to conform to societal norms – take a Sabbath, says the Church. Always on your smartphone, always connected – take a technology Sabbath. Need rest and rejuvenation, take a Sabbath.
Sabbath does not have to be a certain day of the week either, I was taught. It just has to be a time of rest from work. But, obviously, there’s Sunday, which is like Christian Sabbath (just ask Chick-fil-a). I mean, God rested from creation on day seven, right?
So where does the idea of Sabbath come from? What was its function? Was it really a day for rest, and why? This post will explore these questions on the basis of Exodus 16. But first, some background.
The Sabbath is, according to the Documentary Hypothesis, a central idea for the Priestly Writer. It is a sign of Yahweh’s covenant with all of Israel. This covenant, according to Bandstra, “marks the last defining moment of divine-human bonding in the Priestly history” (Bandstra, 29). It is through this covenant that all of Israel is designated as Yahweh’s chosen people.
The Sabbath, as a sign of the covenant, is of special importance if we accept that the Priestly source was created in the exilic or postexilic periods (Bandstra, 29). In the absence of political sovereignty and the Jerusalem temple, the Sabbath was one practice available to the Judeans under Babylonian or Persian occupation that set them apart from other religious and ethnic groups, preserving their distinct identity (Stanley, 296).
Exodus 31:12-17 introduces the Sabbath law, and is the passage I most associated with the Sabbath based on my early Christian education. As an aside, there is some question as to whether this passage is attributable to the Priestly Writer or to another source. The Holiness Code (Lev 17-26), which was possibly from a separate “Holiness” source and later incorporated into the Priestly writings by the final redactors (not the Priestly Writer, in this case), contains reference to the Sabbath in Leviticus 23:3. On this basis, some have tied the Exodus 31:12-17 passage to the Holiness source rather than to the Priestly source (Olyan, 202). In any case, it is still appropriate to evaluate the material through a postexilic lens because the final redaction of the Torah took place during this timeframe (Stanley, 296).
But Exodus 31 is not the first mention of Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible. For that, we have to turn to Exodus 16, specifically verse 23:
“he [Moses] said to them [the Israelites], “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy sabbath to the Lord; bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.’”
This passage puts the Sabbath in a weekly context, as the seventh day of the week, and apparently specifies rest. But let’s back up and look at the chapter as a whole, in conjunction with Geller’s article interpreting the Sabbath, to get a better idea of what’s gong on.
Exodus 16 appears to be a combination of the Deuteronomic and Priestly sources. Each of these sources has a different objective, which will be explored further below.
To the Deuteronomic source, Exodus 16 shows Yahweh giving the Israelites a novel law as a test of their ability to remain loyal (Geller, 9). In response to their complaining, Yahweh provides manna for the Israelites to eat, but commands that they gather twice as much on the sixth day and rest on the seventh day. The goal of the Deuteronomic source is to demonstrate the testing of the Israelites. Would they remain loyal to Yahweh, trusting Yahweh to provide and thus not going out to collect manna on the seventh day? From the perspective of the Deuteronomic source, the primary meaning of the Sabbath in Exodus 16 is testing, rather than resting (Geller, 10). “Loyalty to the Sabbath is loyalty to God, and disloyalty to the Sabbath is apostasy and breach of the covenant” (Geller, 11). In the postexilic context, the Judeans could take hold of the Sabbath as a sign of their covenantal loyalty to Yahweh.
The Priestly source, however, is concerned with a different message. Sabbath in Exodus 16 is linked, through delicate word choice, with the seventh day, thus recalling the creation story of Genesis 1-2 (Geller, 13). Reading the Genesis account and Exodus 16 together reveal that the Priestly source is looking “forward to the establishment of a cult that does not exist yet but which is foreshadowed at creation” (Geller, 13). In other words, Exodus 16 is not necessarily linking Sabbath with “rest” as we might think of it, and its linkage with the seventh day is for the purpose of paralleling the creation story.
It is not necessary for the Israelites to cease gathering manna on the seventh day because Yahweh does not provide manna on that day anyway. Geller argues that the real theological meaning of the Sabbath in Exodus 16, according to the Priestly source, is to link human inactivity (ceasing to gather manna) with divine inaction (not providing manna) (Geller, 14). Therefore, the true purpose of the Israelites’ “rest” on the Sabbath is to imitate the divine: “be holy, for I [Yahweh] am holy” (Lev 11:44). In Geller’s words, the Priestly source “is aiming not at recreation but at re-creation. Observant humanity makes each Sabbath a shared act of creation with God [emphasis added].” What a profound and radically different interpretation than merely a day of rest from life’s business!
For me, the modern reader, this interpretation revolutionizes the idea of Sabbath rest. I can now view Sabbath not simply as a break from my daily labor, but also as a comfortingly stable connection to the divine and an invitation into the re-creation cycle.
The summary above elucidates some of Geller’s main points, but also sweeps past a lot of deep analysis in the interest of brevity. I highly recommend checking out his article, which can be accessed through the United Library system for Garrett students (see the bibliography below).
Let’s look at some of our big ideas to round this one out.
“The Bible is a library of composite texts that are substantively diverse in their understandings of God and the world.” This was thoroughly demonstrated in the analysis above, where we can see the Deuteronomic source’s emphasis on Yahweh’s testing of Israel’s covenantal loyalty vs. the Priestly source’s desire to link the cultic aspects of Israelite religion to the Sabbath.
“Can conflicting narratives or claims both be true?” Deuteronomy 5:12-15 clearly links the Sabbath with humanitarian purposes: “so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you” (v 14). But our reading of Exodus 16 yielded a much deeper theological perspective. Which is correct? Why not both? It makes sense, based on the character of Yahweh, to desire a day of rest for laborers as well as to link the unit of time known as a “week” with the divine act of creation. In this way, both can certainly be true.
I hope this blog has shed some light on the idea of Sabbath rest. I chose the topic because, for me, it has been a concept that I simply accepted but never really understood. I have no doubt that there are many more gems hiding amid the rich text of the Hebrew Bible, and am excited to uncover them as I continue my faith journey!
Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.
Geller, Stephen A. “Manna and sabbath: a literary-theological reading of Exodus 16.” Interpretation 59, no. 1 (January 2005): 5-16. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 5, 2016).
Olyan, Saul M. “Exodus 31:12-17: the Sabbath according to H, or the Sabbath according to P and H?.” Journal Of Biblical Literature 124, no. 2 (2005 2005): 201-209. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 5, 2016).
Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.
Wohlfeld, Valerie. “Sabbath.” Christianity And Literature 60, no. 4 (2011): 612. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed May 5, 2016).