Friday, March 24, 2006

The Sabbath, the Tabernacle, and Creation

Exodus 31:12-17 (abridged)
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, saying, Surely you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you.
You shall keep the Sabbath, for it is holy to you; the one who defiles it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off….
Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord….
Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath… throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant.
It is a sign between me and the people of Israel forever, for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day he ceased and rested.

Here, at the completion of the plans for building and furnishing the tabernacle, a reminder of the Sabbath commandment has been inserted. Likewise, at the beginning of the section which describes the actual construction of the tabernacle, another reference to the Sabbath commandment occurs:

Exodus 35:1-3
And Moses gathered all the congregation of the people of Israel together, and said to them, These are the things that the Lord has commanded, that you should do them.
Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy day, a Sabbath of rest to the Lord; whoever does work on it shall be put to death.
You shall not kindle a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.

The creative aspect of work

Is the juxtaposition of these passages coincidental, or did the author intend for a connection to be made between the work (m’lachah, Exod. 36:7) performed in the construction of the tabernacle and the command not to perform any work (m’lachah, Exod. 31:14, 35:2) on the Sabbath? The term work, which means more precisely craftsmanship, occurs most often in these two contexts, the tabernacle and the Sabbaths (including certain festival days). It is the creative aspect of work which finds expression in this term: not only the creativity of a skilled craftsman, but the way that all work alters the available materials to make them more useful and therefore more valuable, from the manual labor of the “woodcutter and waterdrawer” (Deut. 29:9) to the specialized artistry of the “engraver and designer and embroiderer.” (Exod. 35:35)

Add to this another connection: the same hand that wrote about the construction and furnishing of the tabernacle also wrote the opening section of Genesis concerning the creation and furnishing of the world (1:1-2:3), which just happens to conclude with an allusion to the Sabbath. Other parallels between these passages have also been noted, such as the term Spirit of God (Gen. 1:2, Exod. 31:3, 35:31), the name Betsalel (in the image of God) and various words related to work and creation.

Since the Torah prohibited work on the Sabbath, how was that term to be defined and delimited? If a community is to observe any set of rules, the terminology must be made concrete. The Sabbath is not observed in the abstract, but in practical life. The rabbis' solution of using the work on the construction of the tabernacle as their model was reasonably based on Exodus 35-36 where that term is repeated many times in the process of describing how the tabernacle was built. The tabernacle model allowed them to i) avoid ad hoc decisions on the matter and ii) appeal to the Torah as their constitutional authority.

The result? Thirty-nine categories of work prohibited on the Sabbath, as enumerated in the Mishnah:

Sowing, Plowing, Reaping
Binding sheaves, Threshing, Winnowing
Selecting, Grinding, Sifting
Kneading, Baking
Shearing wool, Washing wool, Beating wool, Dyeing wool
Spinning, Weaving
Making two loops, Weaving two threads, Separating two threads
Tying, Untying, Sewing two stitches, Tearing
Trapping, Slaughtering, Flaying, Salting meat
Curing hide, Scraping hide, Cutting hide up
Writing two letters, Erasing two letters
Building, Tearing a building down
Extinguishing a fire, Kindling a fire
Hitting with a hammer
Taking an object from the private domain to the public, or transporting an object in the public domain.
(Mishnah Shabbat, 7:2)

The Sabbath and Doing Good

These activities are not prohibited on the Sabbath because they are bad things to do; they are good things to do. Those men and women (35:25) who participated in preparing the Tabernacle for the service of God were doing good and very skillful work, and their contribution was highly valued and highly praised. But on the Sabbath even that good work has to cease.

In the Christian’s New Testament there is an account of Jesus choosing to heal a man on the Sabbath, and the justification for his act is given: “Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:12b) What curious terminology for a son of Israel to use regarding the Sabbath–even more curious when compared with the LXX of the creation account in Genesis. The key words are do (poien) and good (kalos).

On six days God performed the work of creation, on the seventh day God rested. Comparing Greek with Greek, we find that:

a. On the first day, after creating light, Gen. 1:4a, “And God saw that the light was good (LXX, kalon).”

b. On the third day, after forming the land and the seas, Gen. 1:10b, “And God saw that it was good.”

c. Again on the third day, after bringing forth plants and trees from the land, Gen. 1:12b, “And God saw that it was good.”

d. On the fourth day, after placing lights in the sky to mark hours and days and seasons, Gen. 1:18b, “And God saw that it was good.”

e. On the fifth day, after making creatures to fill the sea and sky, Gen. 1:21b, “And God saw that it was good.”

f. On the sixth day, after making creatures to move on land, Gen. 1:25b, “And God saw that it was good.”

g. Again on the sixth day, after making man, Gen. 1:31a, “And God saw all that he made, and, behold it was very good.”

From these verses we can see that God was engaged in doing good on the six days of creation–specifically he was doing the kind of creative work which is forbidden Israel on the Sabbath. As the text continues:

Genesis 2:2, based on LXX: And God completed on the sixth day his work* which he had been doing (epoiesen), and he ceased on the seventh day from all his work* which he had been doing (epoiesen).

Genesis 2:3, based on LXX: And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it because on it he ceased from all his work* of creating which God had done (poiesai).

So when the account has Jesus argue that doing good is lawful on the Sabbath, I must argue to the contrary: It is precisely doing good that is forbidden. Even ‘doing the work of the Lord’ must cease!

*his work, Heb., m'lach'to (same term as found in Exodus in the contexts of the Sabbath and the tabernacle)


A. The Laws of the Sabbath in the Torah (aside from “keep” and “remember”)

1. Rest (Exod. 23:12; cf. 34:21)
2. Sanctify (Exod. 20:8; cf. Deut. 5:12), by implication at its onset and termination

1. Not to work (Exod. 20:10; cf. Deut. 5:14)
2. Not to go (travel) beyond permitted limits (Exod. 16:29)
3. Not to kindle a fire (Exod. 35:3)

B. The Torah as the source (authority) for additional Sabbath legislation:

Gen. 2:1-3 Not to pursue any "creative" activity (e.g., writing)
Exod. 16:22-30 Food for the Sabbath to be prepared on Friday
Lev. 23:3 Assemble for worship (miqra-qodesh=sacred assembly?)
Exod. 35:1 Assemble for instruction
Num. 28:9-10 Sabbath offerings
Exod. 35:4ff The categories of work defined by analogy to construction of the tabernacle

C. The Laws of the Sabbath honored elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible

Isa. 56: 2, 6 The Sabbath proclaimed as one of the essential practices that define Israel
Isa. 58:13-14 The Sabbath to be honored by not pursuing our business affairs, etc. (cf. Amos 8:5)
Jer. 17:21-24 Not to carry a load or bring it through the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath
Neh. 13:15-22 Various prohibited activities listed; gates of Jerusalem to be shut on the Sabbath

Actually the two passages from Isaiah, along with Exod. 31:12-17 (which, among other things, declares the Sabbath to be an everlasting covenant), are what make the Sabbath indispensable in my opinion.


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