“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy."Exodus 20:8-11 ESV
Even as a Christian, it is easy to forget that the Sabbath is the fourth of the Ten Commandments, which God gave to the Israelites in the Bible. Compared to commandments like “don’t murder” or “don’t steal”, which underlie the fabric of Western civilization, the commandment “don’t work one day a week” seems trivial at best. But then why is the Sabbath one of the Ten Commandments?
What is work in the first place? Back then, around a few thousand millenia BC, work probably consisted of mostly physical work—in agriculture and the like. Now, it may vary more considerably. But no matter what the work looks like, work plays a similar role in our lives: to provide for our livelihoods.
In 12 Rules for Life, Jordan Peterson proposes an interesting evolutionary interpretation for the nature of work as described in Genesis. In Genesis, Adam and Eve eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which God told them not to eat, and because of their sin, God banishes them from the garden of Eden. God says,
“By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, from which you were taken"Genesis 3:19 ESV
When Adam and Eve eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, Peterson likens that action to Adam and Eve gaining consciousness, or at least some cognitive enhancement, so that they can now think about the future. When you think about the future, you realize the very real possibility that you may not have the means to live. Thus, you have to work to guarantee the means to your future survival.
Whether or not Peterson’s evolutionary account is correct, you cannot ignore this existential aspect of work. That is, people work hard so that they increase the chance of their future success and avoid their demise. Personally, as a PhD student, I work in order to publish papers so that I have a better chance of getting a better job. I find myself working harder and harder to guarantee my future success. I assume that others find similar experiences in their lives.
So, now that we have established the existential aspect of work, why should one regularly abstain from work? The explicit reason is that God rested and we should also rest. Exodus 20:11 says, “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” And Genesis 2:3 says, “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”
The subtext of the Ten Commandments points to an additional reason. That is that the Sabbath is about God and not about work. See the three preceding commandments: (1) “You shall have no other gods before me”, (2)”You shall not make for yourself a carved image”, and (3) “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. And immediately following these three is the Sabbath commandment, “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God”.
So, why abstain from work? Work, and our desire to quell the existential anxiety about our future, can easily become an idol that we put before God. Thus, the commandment is telling us to put God before work and our existential anxiety. Whether you are a Christian or not, the Sabbath highlights an important issue: are you sacrificing the things that really matter to you for things that ultimately don’t?
Further, the Sabbath puts principle into practice. One of the principles behind the tithe, for example, is that your money isn’t your money; it’s God’s. By giving the tithe, you are acknowledging that fact and entrusting God with your future. The Sabbath has a similar structure: the principle is that God has ultimate power over your future and that you are entrusting God with your future over your own efforts to avoid doom. Of course, the Sabbath is not a prescription to leave everything to chance; indeed, the Sabbath is one day of rest after six days of work. Rather, it is putting into practice the principle of remembering the things that really matter to you.
The takeaways from this essay may be two-fold: (1) Remember what really matters to you, and (2) Act out your principles. And perhaps for Christians, a reminder to keep the Sabbath holy, a day set apart from our daily lives.