Uniform 12.06.2015: A True Sabbath


Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-16

Before you read further, stop and name everything on your to-do list—all the little everyday concerns that add up to create a relatively smooth life for you and those in your care.

Want to read my list? Pick up clutter. Vacuum floors. Wash laundry. Fold laundry. Change sheets. Wipe down bathrooms. Work on editing project. Wrap two newest Christmas gifts. Put out Christmas decorations. Give my daughter her last breathing treatment of the day to help her fight a severe cough. Cut the children’s nails. Buy about five more presents. Call the vet to schedule the dogs’ annual checkup. Check the kids’ sock supply and buy more if needed. Plan dinner for the next few nights. Shop for groceries if necessary. Call the car insurance company. Clean bird feeders and restock with seed. Set up for Santa shop at school and pick a day to work it. I could go on and on and on in a way that would get quite ridiculous.

And this is not a busyness competition. I’m sure your list is as never-ending as mine. Today, as I write, it is Thanksgiving. This is one of the first years I can remember when my family did not travel. No one came to us, either. So we spent a beautiful day together—just the four of us. We ate what we wanted (pigs in a blanket, macaroni and cheese, green beans, and pumpkin bread). We refrained from cleaning house. We relaxed and watched a movie. We played outdoors in the 70-degree weather. It was glorious.

I write all of this knowing that, right now, at 6:46 pm, there are people shopping. There are people lined up outside stores, eager to be one of the first in the door on Black Friday. There are people staring at their computer screens or phones in search of the best online deals. The mere thought of it makes me feel anxious. I am not discounting anyone’s decision to participate in Black Friday. It’s a personal choice. Most people I know who enjoy it have a fun day, loving the hustle and bustle and even the long lines. For them, it’s all part of the excitement.

My point is that it’s difficult to take true a Sabbath. It’s tough to pull away from the demands of daily life, the to-do lists, the holiday rush, the overwhelming sense of needing to get something done RIGHT NOW. But when I am able to take a true Sabbath, to “rest” as God commands in Exodus, it does wonders for me. I am calmer. I am freer. I am more relaxed. When I pause and let go of my list, when I focus on what really matters—the laughter of my girls, the kisses from my husband, the excitement of dogs ready for a walk, the brightness of blue sky behind golden yellow leaves—I get to the root of what it is to be a child of God: a heart full of gratitude.


1. What’s on your to-do list? How often do you think about it? What is it like for you to cross something off…only to add three or four more things?
2. Do you think the pace of life is busier now than in the time of Moses? If you answered yes, why do you think so? What evidence does Scripture offer for your answer? What evidence does life today offer?
3. What are your holidays usually like? Do you like them this way? If not, is there anything you can do to change them?
4. In our text, God says that “everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people” (Ex 31:14). Why do you think God is so protective of this time of rest? While we may not die, how could failure to rest affect us physically and emotionally? How could it harm our relationships?
5. What does Sabbath mean to you? How can you observe it each week?

Reference Shelf

The humanitarian benefit of Sabbath observance is that slave and resident alien “may get their breath back [np¡ ]” (23:12). A vivid anthropomorphism now applies this motive to YHWH (v. 17), the only time that the Hebrew Bible so uses this verb.

The structure of 31:13-17 heightens distinctive developments and emphases. Verses 13ab-14 address the Israelites as “you” plural throughout. Verses 15-17, however, speak of “the Israelites” in the third person. Thus, direct address gives way to general explanation (against NRSV’s continuation of the quotation marks down to v. 17). This double structure explains the sometimes word-for-word repetitions between vv. 13-14 and vv. 15-17: “keep my Sabbaths/the Sabbath” (vv. 13, 16); “a sign between me and you throughout your generations” (v. 13; cf. v. 17); “holy for you” (v. 14)/“holy to the LORD” (v. 15); “whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death” (v. 15; cf. v. 14).

This culminating speech gives three reasons for Sabbath observance:

1. The Sabbath is “a sign” (vv. 13, 17). As such, it takes its place in a succession of “signs” in the P-narrative. It is the weekly celebration of the immutability of Israel’s status as freed slaves. Israel is to observe it “throughout your generations” (v. 13; in Exodus 1–19). Its fundamental purpose is “to make known that I, the LORD, sanctify you”: the infinitive “to make known,” without personal pronoun “you,” implies, against NRSV, that not just Israel but humankind universally will come to recognition (for the motif of acknowledgment, see 6:3-7).

2. The Sabbath is “holy.” This celebration separates Israel off and makes them distinctive (for “the holy” as, fundamentally, that which is set apart, see in Exodus 1–19). In a reciprocity of holiness, it is holy both “for you” (v. 14) and “for YHWH” (v. 15). Israel sets apart for the honoring of God the time that God has set apart. As God hallowed the Sabbath as the culminating day of “rest” as Creator (Gen 2:3), so YHWH hallows Israel to participate in this divine “rest.” The goal of P’s theology of sanctification is Israel’s unique privilege of sharing in the realized equilibrium of God’s completed and perfected creation. Verse 15 uses the intensive noun derived from Sabbath, meaning “complete rest,” as in 16:23 (the only times in Exodus, along with the parallel in 35:2).

3. Because of this reciprocity, v. 16 appropriately terms Sabbath observance “a covenant”. The concept of a privileged community of covenant partners explains the severity of the language in v. 14: “everyone who profanes [the Sabbath] shall be put to death . . . shall be cut off from among the people.” By the profanation of the sign of the covenant, the perpetrator has committed an act of automatic self-excommunication from kith and kin (the word “people” is here plural, giving an inclusive sense, with personal pronoun “her [i.e., that person’s],” a usage common in Leviticus, e.g., Lev 7:20). Even more awesomely, God disavows that person as covenant partner. The phrase “to be cut off ” (already used in 12:15, 19) implies that God in person is the agent of death (as explicitly in Lev 17:10; 20:6; see Exod 4:24). The protective “sign” has lost its potency for the desecrater (v. 14, the opposite of “sanctifier”). A further factor indicates the pivotal role of 31:12-17: its intimate connection with Ezekiel 20. The opening of the address to Israel in Exodus 31:13 seems to be a direct quotation from Ezekiel 20:12: “Moreover I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, so that they might know that I the LORD sanctify them” (see also Ezek 20:20). Ezekiel 20 is an extended meditation on the pattern of Israel’s history as apostasy, where Israel’s desecration of the Sabbath is the recurrent element. In that review, the wilderness takes on typological significance. Israel was unfaithful to YHWH first “in the wilderness of Egypt” (Ezek 20:36), then in the wilderness of the journey to the promised land (Ezek 20:10), then, after the apostasies of the monarchical period, in Israel’s continuing exile in “the wilderness of the nations” (Ezek 20:35). The allusion to Ezekiel 20:12 in Exodus 31:13 prepares for the account in Exodus 32–34 of Israel’s apostasy in the wilderness in the golden calf incident, which foreshadows the apostasy of the entire monarchical period (see Exod 32:4, 8).

William Johnstone, Exodus 20–40, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 338-40.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters (ages 10 and 8), and watching television shows on Netflix. Her goal for 2015 is to tackle the bass clef on the piano.


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