Sabbath Book Reviews

In my article about how our life pace impacts our witness, I mentioned the importance of Sabbath in the rhythm of the local missionary. The Sabbath conversation is huge, and something that I’m still working through in my life in bivocational ministry (i.e., what does the Sabbath look like for pastors? Can we ask our people to take Sunday off when really, we as ministers have Sundays as a major work day? And is it biblical to celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday in the first place, or does it even matter which day it is?).

Here are two book reviews from my dear friend and pastoral colleague Rick Eitzen. My hope is that you will not only read Rick’s reviews of Brueggemann and Heschel, but will be inspired to pick up the books themselves.  ~ Cailey

forest with fog

Sabbath As Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now by Walter Brueggemann
Reviewed by Rick Eitzen

Using the Exodus as the context of the Ten Commandments, Brueggemann demonstrates that the Sabbath is a powerful practice of resistance and alternative to a society of anxiety, fear, restless productivity and slavery represented by Pharaoh. It shapes and defines Israel as Yahweh’s people who receive the gift of rest and God’s presence while protecting those vulnerable in their society. The Ten Commandments, given in the context of the Exodus and deliverance of God’s people from slavery to new life, govern how Israel relates to Yahweh and one another.

For Brueggemann, the Sabbath as the fourth commandment connects the first commandment (no idols) to the tenth (no coveting). It reaches back to the first commandment by providing a practice of trust, rest and resistance in a culture of commodification and endless acquisition (serving Master Money) and it reaches forward to the tenth commandment: no coveting, defined as the pursuit of commodity at the expense of the neighbour. “Sabbath is a big no for both; it is no to the worship of commodity; it is no to the pursuit of commodity. But it is more than no. Sabbath is the regular, disciplined, visible, concrete yes to the neighborly reality of the community beloved by God” (p 86). When we do not practice Sabbath we easily slip into covetousness, for life that consists of frantic production and consumption reduces everyone else to threat and competitor. In the Sabbath, anxious productivity is replaced with committed neighbourliness (p 27).

For Brueggemann, the Sabbath is primarily a social issue. He insists that the social power and relevance of the Sabbath requires it be practiced with neighbours, that we as Christians are to “sponsor a system of rest that contradicts the system of anxiety of Pharaoh, because you are no longer subject to Pharaoh’s anxiety system” (p 30). He does not outline specific ways or rules by which we might resist on the Sabbath but rather calls us to examine ways in which we participate in the anxiety of our socio-economic system and “are defined by busyness and by acquisitiveness and by pursuit of more, in either our economics or our personal relations” (p 31). He questions the value and the statement of allegiance we make in every action, from buying and selling (shopping) to sports and entertainment and kids activities. “Sabbath is a school for our desires, an expose and critique of the false desires that focus on idolatry and greed that have immense power for us. When we do not pause for Sabbath, these false desires take power over us” (p 88). Jesus said that we can’t love God and money and Sabbath is a practice that actively resists the lure of money and our obsession with acquisition. The Sabbath day is a gift and calls us to recognize that “we live by gift and not by possession, that we are satisfied by relationships of attentive fidelity and not by amassing commodities” (85)

I appreciate the social implications of Brueggemann’s emphasis on practicing Sabbath. It is always a crucial part of our faith to remember the marginalized, the immigrant, the orphan and widow, thereby actively showing ourselves to be Christ’s disciples, creating an alternative community with different values and a different identity. I’m unsatisfied with his definition of Sabbath as mostly something negative, as “restraint, withdrawal, or divestment from the concrete practices of society that specialize in anxiety” (P 85), as well as his emphasis that the Sabbath is primarily social in significance.

Social justice is important and often overlooked but it is not the most important facet of our faith or identity. Yes, we love our neighbour as ourselves and Sabbath can certainly help us “come out from them and be separate” (2 Corinthians 6:17), but to love neighbour properly we must love God first, which requires an imagination for what we are coming into, not just coming out of. And what we come into is not only a social alternative but the very holy, loving and transformative presence of Christ as a people with a new identity, new family and new calling. Otherwise we risk becoming just another good social service agency and miss the empowering and transforming presence of Christ.

Brueggemann comes closest to a positive definition in his description of Sabbath as gift – “Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes. It is the pause that transforms. Whereas Israelites are always tempted to acquisitiveness, Sabbath is an invitation to receptivity, an acknowledgement that what is needed is given and need not be seized” (P 45). It is an invitation to trust, to cease striving, to “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matt 11:29).

Sabbath As Resistance raises significant issues around social justice and the responsibility of God’s chosen people to daily choose whether they will serve Pharaoh and his system of anxiety and acquisition, or Yahweh and his way of trust, rest and new social order based on neighbourly community. It causes us to ask uncomfortable questions as to how our actions betray our worship and pursuit of commodity rather than love of God and neighbour.

Sabbath is a wonderful means of resistance, reshaping our identity and priorities and calls us out for the sake of the world, especially the vulnerable who do not thrive in a capitalistic system where striving to gain the world always comes at the expense of our souls.

The Sabbath by Abraham Heschel
Reviewed by Rick Eitzen

In 1951, Abraham Heschel, a Jewish rabbi and professor, wrote The Sabbath, a short and elegant book about its meaning for our modern age. Heschel begins and ends with a distinction between time and space.

Space
He argues that “we are all infatuated with the splendor of space…Thing is a category that lies heavy on our minds, tyrannizing all our thoughts” (Loc 172). God created the physical world and declared it good so although we are to enjoy the blessing of space/things, we are not to be obsessed or enslaved by them, for “life goes wrong when the control of space, the acquisition of things of space, becomes our sole concern” (loc 150). And although “there is happiness in the love of labor, there is misery in the love of gain” (loc 158).

Time
“However, the Bible is more concerned with time than with space…it pays more attention to generations, to events, than to countries, to things…time has a meaning for life which is at least equal to that of space…a significance and sovereignty of its own” (Loc 202). Time is the realm of the main themes of faith and meaning. Herschel is careful to avoid a sacred/secular divide in distinguishing between time and space, emphasizing rather that we are too preoccupied with space at the expense of time/soul/eternity and that Sabbath is the cure to keeping both in proper perspective.

Beginning with Creation, Heschel notes that “things created in six days God considered good, the seventh day He made holy” (p 63). He did not create a holy place but a holy day, holiness in time – the Sabbath. “The meaning of the Sabbath is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of the things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time, to turn from the results of creation to the mystery of creation; from the world of creation to the creation of the world” (Loc 248). It is a vision of a window in eternity that opens into time. In the Sabbath, “Eternity utters a day” (p 89). “The work on weekdays and the rest on the seventh day are correlated. The Sabbath is the inspirer, the other days the inspired” (p 10).

Sabbath is not a break from the week but its climax. “It is a palace in time which we build…made of soul, of joy and reticence” (p 2). God did not take a break on the seventh day; he finished His work. The Sabbath, just like the other six days, was an act of creation. “And God rested” – the word used is Menuha, which means rest, tranquility, serenity, peace and repose, “much more than withdrawal from labor and exertion, more than freedom from toil, strain or activity. It is not a negative concept but something real and intrinsically positive.” (p 10) (Note that “The Lord is my Shepherd…He leads me beside the waters of menuhot” – still, quiet, tranquil). Menuha was created on the seventh day which later became a synonym for the life in the world to come, eternal life. Much more than a day off, Sabbath is a glimpse into and opportunity to practice eternity.

Practicing the Sabbath
Even more significantly, Heschel declares that “who we are depends on what the Sabbath is to us” (p 89). So how does one practice Sabbath? Herschel gives very little practical advice, partly because he assumes a Jewish audience but mostly because his intent is to get at the significance, beauty, purpose and theology of the Sabbath. Certainly the day requires anticipation and planning, even to the point of orienting the week around the day. “Preparation for a holy day…(is) as important as the day itself” (loc 29).

What would it look like for Christians to practice Sabbath? Questions of date/time, practices of abstinence and engagement surface and certainly “there are some helpful Sabbath laws – those that require shutting off secular demands and refraining from work” (loc 114) which should be discussed and observed as communal practices (rather than private/individual) but the emphasis should always be on the spirit of the day and not the technicalities of the laws/practices (Jesus had much to say on this). Celebration of Sabbath is not routine or regulation but relationship and one should cease from work on the day just as one would cease from all other work on one’s wedding day. It should be practiced joyfully and with delight, although it “is not an occasion for diversion or frivolity…but an opportunity to mend our tattered lives; to collect rather than dissipate time” (p 5).

How does one rest on the Sabbath and what about all of the work that still needs to be done? “’Six days shalt thou labor and do all thy work’” (Ex 20:8) (note that both work and rest are commanded)…Does not our work always remain incomplete? What the verse means to convey is: Rest on the Sabbath as if all your work were done” (p 19).

Heschel’s concept of Sabbath with its distinct laws and rituals is of course Jewish and at times his personification and almost deification of Sabbath is uncomfortable but his emphases on the purpose, Biblical basis and reason for practicing Sabbath should be considered very carefully. There is something about the Sabbath that is biblical, rich, beautiful, and absent in many Christian circles. Not only is it the climax of creation and one of the ten commandments, it may also be “the answer to the problem of civilization: not to flee from the realm of space; to work with things of space but to be in love with eternity. Things are our tools; eternity, the Sabbath, is our mate. (We) are engaged to eternity” (p 37).

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