The Sabbath System

We highlighted that Leviticus 17-27, like its counterpart in Exodus (20:22-23:19), reiterates and elaborates on the Ten Commandments, and that it pays special attention to adultery (Leviticus 18:6-30; 20:10-21). Since Leviticus as a whole is concerned with the functioning of the Tabernacle and the ritual system, this passage pays even more attention to the Sabbath commandment in the context of the functioning of the Tabernacle (Leviticus 21-27).

This commandment is incorporated and elaborated here in terms of “the appointed times that you shall proclaim as holy convocations” (Leviticus 23). These are holy days (holidays) of the nation. Other than the weekly Sabbath rest-day (verse 3), there were annual holy days. These include the annual Sabbath rest-day (verses 23-25), the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths, all of which involved offering sacrifices at the Tabernacle (later the Temple). The types of offerings needed are further elaborated in Numbers 28-29. For three of these annual holy days all adult males were required to be present (Exodus 23:14-17; 34:18-26; Deuteronomy 16:1-17).

Meaning of observing the holy days

The fact that the Sabbath day is listed together with the annual holy days makes it unmistakable that all holy days were applications of the Sabbath commandment. The presence of God through the Tabernacle made the Holy Land a sacred space. The Sabbath, being holy (Genesis 2:3), is sacred time. Human beings live in space and in time. Hence observance of the holy days within the Holy Land was a whole-and-complete (holy) experience of being a holy people serving the Holy God. Thus observing the Sabbaths was integral to the functioning of the Tabernacle (Exodus 31:12-17; 35:1-3). This explains why the Sabbath was the sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 31:13).

For Israel the Sabbath commemorates not only the creation of the world (Exodus 20:11) but also their redemption from Egypt (Deuteronomy 5:15). The Passover and the Feast of the Unleavened Bread required them to eat unleavened bread for eight days to commemorate their leaving Egypt in haste. The Feast of Booths required them to live in tents for a week to commemorate their journey from Egypt to Canaan. And the Feast of Weeks required them to present the firstfruits of their harvests in recognition that their material blessings came from God. While the Day of Atonement accomplishes spiritual redemption, the Feast of Weeks commemorates their physical redemption out of Egypt into Canaan. For redemption out of slavery and material need is not complete without redemption into freedom and material blessing.

Since the holy days commemorate God’s creation of the world and their redemption from Egypt, if the nation observed them in spirit and in truth they would sense that they were living in the narrative or story of Creation and God’s redemptive plan. This was a serious matter; for it is crucial which story we are, consciously or unconsciously, living in. If we are living in the story of Evolution it means we live as though there is no God, no spiritual reality, and no life after death. The moral and economic implications are far-reaching. The power of living within a story was highlighted in a morning talk-show in 2007 in the United Kingdom when an “expert panel” was discussing the problem of youth gangsterism in response to a recent spate of senseless killings. One of the panel members asked:

What has happened to us? How did we get here? When I was growing up as a young boy, we did lots of things that were wrong, but nothing like this. Back then [he’s talking about the late fifties and early sixties], we all lived inside a way of knowing what was right and wrong. We all knew the story of Jesus, and there was a Christian background. It didn’t mean we went to church, but we all knew the same story. These kids today have nothing like that anymore! There’s no common story shaping us. How did that happen? (Cited in Roxburgh 2010: x)

Actually there is a common story shaping us: the narrative of the free-market (read: consumer) economy, a plot within the story of Evolution. It is about “the struggle for success, the greed, the getting-and-spending in a [consumeristic] world.… Most of us have made this so thoroughly ‘our story’ that we are hardly aware of its influence” (White 1998; cited in Bartholomew 2000: 2).

Enough has been said in this exposition as to why (Genesis 3) and how (modernity) we got here (Chapters 2 and 3). Our focus now is how to get out of here: consciously living within the story of Creation and God’s redemptive plan. And we just noted that if Israel would observe the holy days in spirit and in truth they would cultivate the sense that they were living in this (true) story of the world. Now that the holy days are not directly relevant to us (Galatians 4:8-11), how then can we cultivate the sense that we are living in the story of God’s plan for humanity that began with Genesis 1:1?

We already have this story, from creation all the way to the consummation of history, narrated between the covers of the Bible. Historically we are located between the two comings of Jesus Christ, somewhere in the Biblical story between the end of Acts and the end of Revelation. We just need to familiarize ourselves with at least a broad outline of this story and immerse ourselves in a meaningful way in this overarching narrative as the true story of the world. For believers in Christ this immersion is the most meaningful. For even Gentile believers have been “grafted” into the Abrahamic Covenant (Romans 11:24) through Baptism (the New Testament equivalent to circumcision). Hence the narrative of redemption in the Old Testament is like their personal “family history.” And through the Lord’s Supper (the New Testament equivalent to the Passover) they commemorate their redemption in Christ as well as look forward all the way to His Second Coming (1 Corinthians 11:26).

However, in modernity this is the problem, even for believers who study the Bible:

Many of us have read the Bible as if it were merely a mosaic of little bits—theological bits, moral bits, historical-critical bits, sermon bits, devotional bits. But when we read the Bible in such a fragmented way, we ignore its divine author's intention to shape our lives through its story. All human communities live out of some story that provides a context for understanding the meaning of history and gives shape and direction to their lives. If we allow the Bible to become fragmented, it is in danger of being absorbed into whatever other story is shaping our culture, and it will thus cease to shape our lives as it should. Idolatry has twisted the dominant cultural story of the secular Western world. If as believers we allow this story (rather than the Bible) to become the foundation of our thought and action, then our lives will manifest not the truths of Scripture, but the lies of an idolatrous culture. Hence, the unity of Scripture is no minor matter: a fragmented Bible may actually produce theologically orthodox, morally upright, warmly pious idol worshippers! (Bartholomew and Goheen 2004: 12).

Biblical theologians tend to dichotomize what a Biblical text “meant” to the original audience in the ancient world and what it “means” (its relevance) to us today. Thus what is normative for us is only “what it means to us” and not what it meant to them. This approach fails on two counts (cf. Wilson 2001: 255-58).

Firstly, when we use words to express truth the outcome is always historically and culturally bound. For example, even the “timeless truth” that “God is holy,” though always true, must be understood in its historical and cultural context. For to some people today “holy” simply means “morally good” and nothing more. We saw that the two sons of Aaron dropped dead before God because they did not treat God as holy. But how could a “morally good” God strike them dead just for not following a ritual (non-moral) instruction? Hence we must understand “holy” as understood in the Biblical context. Thus to understand even a “timeless truth” (“what it means to us”), we still need to understand “what it meant to them” by entering the narrative world of the Bible. This will help ensure that the “truth” that we grasp and apply corresponds adequately to reality.

Secondly, it fails to see that the overarching narrative of Genesis to Revelation, as a whole and in its parts, is a medium to help us experience or encounter the reality that the truths refer to. That is, the Bible is a medium through which we access Biblical reality. As demonstrated in our exposition on the Tabernacle, to catch a glimpse of the holiness of God while reading about the sudden death of Aaron’s two sons, we need to read it from the Biblical perspective that informed how the Israelites understood what happened. We need to experience what it meant to them by participating in the narrative world of the Bible. That is, experience what it means to us when we get into their skin and think their thoughts and feel their feelings. Otherwise instead of seeing God as holy we may see Him as hot-tempered, or even barbaric.

Hence when we immerse ourselves in the narrative world of the Bible and read texts in that context, our thinking and feeling can actually be shaped according to the teaching of Scripture that is expressed or embodied in the text (see further the exposition of the Psalms on Kingdom Worship). For instance in the story of Ruth we see how the godly Boaz practiced the Old Testament law (Leviticus 23:22) of allowing the “needy and the alien” (Ruth was both) to glean in his field. How do we apply this law as lived out by Boaz? What does it mean to us today in a postindustrial society?

Since this law is an application of God’s command to love our neighbor as ourselves, we can certainly think of an equivalent way to take care of the needy today. But we will miss something important if we do not dwell on what it meant to them and be changed by it. If we put ourselves into the shoes of Boaz and learn to think and feel like him, our thinking and feeling can be shaped in such a way that it is natural for us to do something similar in our context. Otherwise, all we have is a nice proposition of how we can practice the principle embodied by this law today (what it means to us) and do nothing about it. This transforming effect of the Bible is similar to (but not exactly) that of a well-written novel or a well-made movie that embodies a powerful message.

In other words, we cannot extract and use Biblical truth the way we extract and use coconut milk. We need to taste the Biblical milk by chewing the kernel and consume it all.

Meaning of keeping the Sabbath holy

We now move on to Leviticus 25, where the elaboration of the Sabbath Commandment continues. We have highlighted in our exposition on the Creation Mandate that the goal of this commandment is to curb covetousness, and that this is best seen in Leviticus 25. For we see here that the Sabbath Day is not only extended to the Sabbath Year (the seventh year), when the land is to rest for a year (verses 1-7; Exodus 23:10-13), but also to the Jubilee Year (the seventh Sabbath Year), when land that was sold would be returned to the original owner. Moreover those who were sold into slavery because of debt would be set free during the Sabbath Year (verses 39-41; Exodus 21:1-11; Deuteronomy 15:12-18). Deuteronomy 15:1-6 also prescribes the remission of debt on the Sabbath Year. In fact the return of land is practically also a remission of debt.

Hence the Sabbath Commandment embodies the Great Commandment to love one’s neighbor as oneself in a way that would be hard to put into practice without the other half of the Great Commandment—to love God with all of one’s soul (Matthew 22:34-40). For the love of God sets us free from the love of Money (Matthew 6:24) to love people. In other words the Sabbath Commandment sums up the Mosaic Law. We have already shown in our exposition on the Ten Commandments that this commandment, being a commandment to curb covetousness, unites the first three commandments with the last six, so much so that Isaiah could just refer to it when he obviously meant the Ten Commandments (Isaiah 56:1-8).

So when Israel failed to observe the Sabbath Year and Jubilee Year, it is not surprising, for they fell into the temptation to worship idols and hence failed to love God with all their heart. This happened in spite of Leviticus 26, which specifically promises material blessings if Israel would keep the Sabbaths and “fear” the Tabernacle, and not worship idols, and warns of punishments with increasing severity if they violate the Mosaic Covenant. Yet Israel failed to keep both the Sabbath Year and the Jubilee Year.

It is important to recognize that violating the Mosaic Covenant is much more than breaking God’s commandments. God did not expect Israel to keep His commandments perfectly; no fallen human being can do that. That is why built into the Mosaic Covenant itself is the Sacrificial System to provide for the forgiveness of sins. Israel violated the Mosaic Covenant by refusing to repent when they sinned, and then showing no “fear” of the Tabernacle by offering sacrifices without repentance (Amos 5:21-24). Note that the warning against violating the Mosaic Covenant is here expressed in terms of violating the Sabbath; and the ultimate punishment—exile from the Promised Land—is measured in terms of how many times they failed to keep the Sabbath Year (verses 34-35, 43; cf. 2 Chronicles 36:21).

Thus keeping the Sabbath was a matter of life and death for Israel. For violating it amounts to violating the Ten Commandments. What then would life be like if they observed the Sabbath Commandment in spirit and in truth, which amounts to upholding the spirit and the truth of the Ten Commandments? In other words, what would life be like if they observed the Tenth Commandment against covetousness through keeping the Sabbath holy?

Leviticus 18:1-5 commands the nation to observe God’s commandments and laws, and promises that if a person does them, “he will live through them,” which means, “he will enjoy life through them…. For the OT writers, life means primarily physical life. But it is clear that in this and similar passages more than mere existence is being promised. What is envisaged is a happy life in which a man enjoys God’s bounty of health, children, friends, and prosperity” (Wenham 1979: 253).

In other words one will experience shalom (Psalms 119:165), which means wholeness in every aspect of life and peace in every relationship, with God and people, as well as with circumstances. Obviously an individual experiences this to the extent that others are also observing the commandments and laws of God. And it does not need much imagination to see why shalom is the reward of keeping the Ten Commandments. For those who commit murder, theft, adultery or perjury, whose actions are manifestations of covetousness, cannot experience shalom. Also a covetous soul already cannot be at rest, for it cannot be satisfied (Ecclesiastes 6:7-9). Hence one cannot experience shalom without overcoming covetousness through keeping the Sabbath as holy.

In fact one cannot experience shalom without experiencing true Sabbath rest. What then is true Sabbath rest? “Rest on the Sabbath as if all your work were done…. Rest even from the thought of labor” (Heschel 1951: 32). That is, not only the body rests, the mind also rests. However, unless one is relatively free from covetousness, even when one stops working physically one’s mind is still not at rest. And since the body and the soul are a functional unity, the body cannot really rest if the soul is not resting. Hence there is no way a covetous person can experience true Sabbath rest and thus shalom.

There is far more to keeping the Sabbath holy than most people have ever imagined. For though true Sabbath rest (from work) can be experienced weekly, and even daily, it is purest and richest when we have accomplished our mission in life (when all our work is done) and know that we are about to depart to a “much better” place.

This is well illustrated in the experience of the apostle Paul. When he was under house arrest in Rome he faced the possibility of execution (Philippians 1:12-26). He tells us he did not know whether to desire life or death. For to him, to live is Christ (fruitful labor in the world), and to die is gain (blissful rest in the presence of Christ). He struggled between desiring the “much better” (death) and the “more necessary” (life). He felt it was more necessary to remain only because he believed he had not yet completed his mission. He was later released from the house arrest. About five years later when he was writing his second letter to Timothy, he was in prison and again facing the possibility of execution. This time there was no struggle at all: “the time has come for my departure. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:6-7). His work was done; he had no desire to stay longer than necessary. Paul did not survive this imprisonment.

This means when we enjoy true Sabbath rest while living within the Biblical narrative, which ends with eternal life with God, we are experiencing “the taste of eternity or eternal life.” For “the Sabbath possesses a holiness like that of the world to come” (Heschel 1951: 73-74). The world to come in the New Heavens and the New Earth (Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 21-22) is the ultimate and perfect fulfillment of the Creation Mandate. Even the Mosaic Covenant, epitomized here by the Sabbath, was intended to fulfill the Creation Mandate (nationally) in this present world. If the nation of Israel practised the Great Commandment, with God dwelling in her midst and ensuring material blessings, would the Holy Land not be “heaven on earth,” a foretaste of Heaven? This was possible only if they had an adequately God-fearing heart to overcome covetousness in order to enjoy true Sabbath rest and thus experience shalom.

Leviticus closes with Chapter 27, which consists of instructions on fulfilling vows. In view of the focus on the Sabbath Commandment in Leviticus 21-26, this is a sensible way to conclude the book. For vows are made voluntarily to God and one who vows is accountable only to God to fulfill the vow. So whether one fulfills a vow, which is usually costly, is an indication whether one truly fears God as well as whether one has overcome covetousness.