Day of Rest
A series on Sabbath
Part 1 - The Sabbath in Antiquity
"Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy". How many, reading those words, realise just how far back in history we must go to find when men began to keep one day in seven a day of rest? Some think of Sunday as a somewhat tiresome and awkward kind of day. Others frankly have never thought of it as anything else but a day to be given over to the pursuit of amusement. Still others use it for the advancement of self-interest ‑ continuing to conduct their business affairs or perhaps labour at their craft for the sake of the double pay usually associated with Sunday work. Many unfortunate ones are compelled to serve their employment on Sunday as well as on weekdays because modern society demands that it shall be so. Probably very few have ever paused to enquire how it was that Sunday came to be instituted at all.
Professing Christians often associate the day with recollections of the Law given to Israel at Sinai. They are conscious of a prohibition against engaging in any kind of labour, and of an obligation to devote the day to worship and religious observance. Religious observance in the days of our immediate forefathers had a tendency to be gloomy and morbid. So it may not be altogether surprising that few could find it in their hearts to say with the Psalmist: "This is the day which the Lord hath made; we will rejoice and be glad in it." Perhaps it was for the same reason that men did not enquire particularly into the reasons underlying the giving of the Fourth Commandment, and so failed to realise that it is a fundamental necessity for all men to enjoy a periodic day of cessation from labour.
The custom of observing this weekly rest from the normal occupations of life did not begin with the giving of the Fourth Commandment. That law only stated in formal terms what men had known and practised from much earlier times. Long before Israel existed as a nation the peoples of Sumer and Akkad, the lands which afterwards became Babylonia and Assyria, had incorporated Sabbath observance into their national life. The earliest record of its observance now extant dates back to the days of Sargon of Agade, a ruler whose kingdom extended over the lands bordering the Tigris and Euphrates five or six hundred years before Abraham. In a calendar of the period the word "Sabbattu", as the day was called, is explained as meaning "completion of work, a day of rest for the soul," and this day was to be observed five times in each month, viz., the 7th, 14th, 19th, 21st and 28th days. On these days it was unlawful to transact business, labour for gain, cook food, or conduct civil, political and military functions. The whole life of the community came to a stop, just as did that of Israel in the wilderness many centuries later.
There are in existence inscribed tablets dating from the time of Abraham which give a Babylonian version of the work of creation. The fifth of these tablets describes the establishment of the heavenly bodies and the ordering of the calendar, and accredits the institution of the Sabbath to God in this wise: "every month without fail he (God) made holy assembly days . . . On the seventh day he appointed a holy day, and to cease from all business he commanded."
Shem, Terah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob must all have been familiar with the keeping of the Sabbath, even although no direct mention of the fact is made in the early books of the Old Testament. That the months were divided into weeks we know from Gen. 29. 27-28, and can infer also from Job 2.13 and Gen. 7.10. Since the people of whom Abraham came were regular Sabbath keepers, he himself must also have observed this ordinance, which he must have known was hallowed by God at the time of creation.
These Babylonian records are probably greatly distorted versions of the same historical facts which are set down with such accuracy in the early chapters of Genesis. The extract given above is reasonably harmonious with Gen. 2.2-3: "… he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made; and God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it; because that in it he had rested from all his work …" In these few words in Genesis we have the earliest written reference to the institution of the Sabbath. They teach that the first to "keep Sabbath" was the Most High himself ‑ surely the supreme example! The meaning of the term "Sabbath" ‑ Hebrew "Sha-bath" ‑ is that of ceasing or resting from activity or labour, to observe as a day of rest. It is used in the Bible not only in respect of men, but also of beasts and the land. The ground itself, which is made to bring forth food for man, must have its periodic times of rest, during which it may recover strength and fertility. This is the basic principle behind the observance of one day in seven as a day of rest and worship. Man, no less than the land from which he draws life, needs a periodic cessation from the daily round, that his physical and mental vitality may be recuperated. Without this recuperation he cannot continue to function at normal efficiency, and this fact is well known to medical men and to industrial leaders. A seven-day working week has been proven impracticable, and eventually leads to breakdown.
In the Divine arrangement this necessary break from daily routine has been made the opportunity for greater attention than would otherwise be possible to the chief need of human nature ‑ communion with God. The dependence of men upon their Creator is not often acknowledged nowadays, but the need is there, and spiritual separation from God is a potent factor in the progressive degeneration of the human race. Our Lord Jesus derived his strength by continual communion with his Father, and men will eventually learn to do the same. The Sabbath day of rest, because of its freedom from everyday cares and interests, becomes the natural day for communion and worship in ways which are not so practicable on the other days of the week.
It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the children of Israel were already Sabbath-keepers when they left Egypt. The evidence for this conclusion is to be found in Ex.16.22-30, in which it is recorded that after crossing the Red Sea and entering the wilderness of Sin (so called after Sin, the Babylonian Moon-god), they commenced to gather manna. Upon each day they gathered enough for that day only, speedily finding that it would not keep overnight (v.20). But on the "sixth day" (v.22) it appears that they gathered two days' supply, quite spontaneously and without being so bidden, and the rulers of the assembly came to Moses in some concern over this action.
Why did they gather two days' supply on the sixth day, when they already knew that the manna would not keep overnight? Surely it was that they were already in the habit of observing a sabbath of rest, and their faith told them that they must gather two days' supply on the sixth day and trust God to preserve it that night. In the following verse, v.23, Moses confirmed the correctness of their action, and laid down the rule that on every sixth day they should gather sufficient for two days.
It appears that some of the Israelites did go out on the Sabbath to gather, and found none (v.27) and in consequence the Lord's words came to Israel through Moses: "How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws?" This, be it noted, was before the Law was given at Sinai. It seems clear, therefore, that Israel already regarded the Sabbath as a Divine institution, and the Law at Sinai merely confirmed the rule.
Perhaps the great feature of the Fourth Commandment given at Sinai was the revelation of a relationship between the Sabbath ordinance and God's own work in creation. Ex.20.8-10 bade the people of God to remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. It also told them that "in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it." This connection of the two themes is important, for at any rate it shows that man is bidden to do that which God himself has already done. It is even more striking to observe that when, upon a later occasion, God repeated this injunction to Moses, He told him that "in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and was refreshed" (Ex.31.17). Does this mean that even the Almighty Himself must "cease" from his creative activity for a time, in order to concentrate his great power for some other creation at some future time? We are quite unable to enquire sufficiently closely into the attributes of Divinity to say, although there is no doubt at all about the meaning of the expression. It is used in Ex.23.12, where the servants and domestic animals were to be "refreshed" by the keeping of sabbath, and in 2 Sam. 16.14, where David and those with him, weary with their journey, came to a place at which they "refreshed" themselves. (The word is "naphash," meaning primarily to take breath, as when fatigued by heavy labour; to breathe or pant strongly; being, in fact, the root from which "nephesh"—breath—is derived). We can content ourselves with the reflection that after six days of incessant creative activity , culminating in the emergence of man, the Most High "ceased" from creating, not for ever, but for a span of time, and from a human standpoint He "rested, and was refreshed." After his seventh day of rest, God surely commences to labour again, although of that labour the Scripture tells us nothing.
(To be continued)