Commandment 4: the Sabbath

We typically think of the Sabbath as a religious rule rather than a social one. Along with church tradition, of course, we have some biblical reason to think this way for sure:

8 Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. 9 Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. 11 Because the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Exodus 20:8-11 CEB)

We also, however, have this reason given for the Sabbath:

12 Keep the Sabbath day and treat it as holy, exactly as the Lord your God commanded: 13 Six days you may work and do all your tasks, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. Don’t do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your oxen or donkeys or any of your animals, or the immigrant who is living among you—so that your male and female servants can rest just like you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in Egypt, but the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That’s why the Lord your God commands you to keep the Sabbath day. (Deut 5:12-15 CEB)

Of course, it’s not as if the two are contradictory. You can remember the Sabbath out of honour for God’s creative work and out of the value brought to humanity through its practice.


Here, though, we are going to focus on why it is a beneficial law from the perspective of justice. Jesus emphasizes this idea when he says that the Sabbath was meant for humanity, not humanity for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). A purpose of the Sabbath, then, was to make ourselves and the world around us better. Why would that be the case?

Let’s go back to the context of the Law. Remember that they are recently-escaped slaves. The impulse would be to very quickly assert their own strength by conquering other nations and enslaving other people. That’s just what people do: find ways to put ourselves above others. Yes, there is still slavery allowed in the Law, in many ways more benevolent than average for the time (I’ll discuss more on that soon). I know what my impulse would be: day off for me! I’ll make my servants take care of things for me! They would be working extra hard that day. The Law, though, makes sure even the slaves get the day off.

Those with more wealth to spare could easily take time off, and most likely already do, but the Sabbath is particularly vital for the slaves, the poor, and the overworked in general. Typically, those with power are not working 7 days a week anyway. It is generally those on the underside of society who are trying to climb out by working extra time, as we generally tell them to do. This is as true now as it was then. Requiring a Sabbath for everyone, then, including slaves and the lower-class, creates a levelling of the playing field for just one day.

We could also look at those with power who do work 7 days a week, the “workaholics.” There is actually an amazing amount of research pointing out that after you hit about 35 work hours in a way, you get less productive as well as see increases in stress, declines in health, and more. I don’t just mean less productive per hour, but you’ll actually accomplish less in a 50 hour work week than you would in a 35 hour work week. There are a couple of qualifiers: a variety in the work that uses different parts of your body and brain will stretch that number out, and you could exceed the number for one or two weeks at a time before your productivity suffers. But the principle is there in Scripture long before scientific research discovered this: we are not designed to work excessive hours.

It’s a principle that we don’t accept very easily in our culture, just as it wasn’t accepted very easily in the Ancient Near East, but it is one practical to not only set aside time for God but also to make sure everyone is getting the rest that is needed. Christians implement this principle in different ways, and it is best to work through with those close to you. For the Ancient Israelites it largely meant working in the fields. Since most of my work involves sitting in a chair at a computer desk – something that can be both mentally exhausting and problematic for my health – an important thing for me is to take some time each week where I do not go near the desk, not even for casual browsing or entertainment. I also generally try to have one day a week where I am doing neither my Bible Society work or any of my side projects. Specifics for you will probably be different, though, so I’d invite you to talk to some friends or family about what it is that you most need a break from and how you could implement it in a way that makes sure others, particularly the less fortunate, still get their needed break.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.