Celebrating the Sabbath: Sabbath and Slavery

Read: Exodus 31:12-18


The LORD said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you (Ex. 31:12-13 NRSV).

Some years ago I remember thinking, “I need to work harder at keeping Sabbath.”

The irony of this observation was not lost on me. Still, the resolution was fleeting—as so many resolutions are.

Then I read an article by Ellen Davis that made me think again about the consequences of being a Sabbath scoff-law. The title alone got my attention: “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work.”[1] Really? I thought. Is the choice that stark?

Judge for yourself.

Davis points out that the book of Exodus offers two powerful examples of work. There are 13 chapters of “bad work” (slavery in Egypt), and 13 chapters of “good work” (the instructions and construction of the Tabernacle). The differences between this “unmatched pair” are instructive, to say the least. But one of the most striking contrasts is that good work has limits. The consequences of ignoring these limits are stunning. To put it bluntly: work without Sabbath is slavery.

That’s the view of Exodus from thirty thousand feet. Let’s lose some altitude and look more closely at the passages that cluster around the “good work” of the Tabernacle.

When God finishes giving Moses the instructions for the Tabernacle in Exodus 25-31, God makes it clear that good work makes room for celebrating the Sabbath (31:12-17). God reiterates this at the beginning of the Tabernacle’s actual construction (35:1-3). Think for a moment how important—and freeing—this would be to a group of former slaves. It’s as if God is saying, “I freed you from Pharaoh’s industrial killing machine, but there’s still work to do. It’s good work, but even good work needs to have limits. Look at me! Even I rested after the six days of creation! So you must rest as you work on the Tabernacle.”[2]

Even good work needs to have limits. What a wonderful shock that must have been for those former slaves. But it’s a wonderful—and sobering—shock for us as well.

One of the hardest things for us to get our minds around as Christians is that there can be too much of a good thing, even where good works are concerned. No one will dispute that preparing meals, taking our kids to their sporting events, preaching a sermon, or volunteering at the soup kitchen aren’t good—and important—things to do. Yet, even good things need limits. If our lives are so crammed full of good deeds that there is no room left for Sabbath, then something is seriously wrong.

It’s more than a little unnerving to realize that we may have allowed ourselves to slip back into a kind of slavery—even if we’re filling our time with things that are intended to honor both God and our neighbor. Still, it’s a little like that old science experiment with the frog and the hot water. No self-respecting frog would respond well to being dropped into a beaker of hot water. But if the frog is placed in cool water that’s gradually heated up, it may stay put until it’s too late.

How have so many of us allowed this to happen? The answer to this is probably too complex to answer here. But I suspect that there are three things that combine to “turn up the heat” for most of us:

  • First, we don’t think that Sabbath applies to us as Christians.
  • Second, we are part of a culture that increasingly equates “busy-ness” with “worth,” and
  • Third, we genuinely want to do good.

Yet, for whatever reason, many of us find ourselves back in Egypt, trying to make bricks without straw. As one busy pastor remarked, “I feel like my life has no margins. Ministry has become my master.”

In another context, Paul put it this way: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1).


So, how about it? Do you need to work harder at keeping Sabbath, too? Instead of a resolution, let me suggest beginning that “work” with this prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. It is intended for the end of the day, but it as good a start to Sabbath as any I know.


Prayer:             O God our Creator,

                        by whose mercy and might

                        the world turns safely into darkness

                        and returns again to light:

                        We give into your hands our unfinished tasks,

                        our unsolved problems,

                        and our unfulfilled hopes,

                        knowing that only those things which you bless will prosper.

                        To your great love and protection

                        we commit each other

                        and all those for whom we have prayed,

                        knowing that you alone are our sure defender,

                        through Jesus Christ our Lord.




Introduction to the Celebrating the Sabbath series:

Why on earth would contemporary Christians want to explore what it means to celebrate the Sabbath? Even the word “Sabbath” sounds like something from another century. And for the most part, it is! To the extent that we hear the word at all any more, it’s used as an old-fashioned way of referring to Sunday—the “Sabbath Day.” Unless, of course, we have Jewish friends or live in close proximity to Jewish communities—in which case we may overhear an occasional “Shabbat Shalom” greeting on the way to the parking lot after work on a Friday afternoon. Or, if you’re like me, you may have found yourself puzzling over the “Sabbath” setting on your new stove. In all of these instances, Sabbath may strike us as something strange or old-fashioned—something that doesn’t have much to do with us as contemporary Christians.

Or worse, some people have negative associations with Sabbath. For them, it conjures up unhappy memories of rigid rules and endless hours stuck inside as a child—forbidden to play or make any noise. One woman told of how she first met her neighbor. On her first Sunday in their new house, she had put some clothes in the dryer. The next thing she knew there was a knock on the door. Her neighbor had come across the street to say that she’d noticed the steam coming out of the dryer vent and wondered if the newcomer had forgotten that it was the Sabbath Day!

Hopefully, stories like these are becoming things of the past. But just because Sabbath sounds like something from another century doesn’t mean we don’t need to recover God’s invitation to Sabbath for our own century. In fact, everything points to our desperate need to recover God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, our email is ever with us; friends and colleagues get testy when we don’t reply right away. Like Downton Abbey’s Dowager Countess we find ourselves wondering, “What is a week end?” Sporting events, grocery shopping, homework, television, and social engagements crowd into every “leisure” hour. And if we are at all involved in church we may experience Sundays as the most exhausting day of all.

In this series, we will explore the largely unopened gift Sabbath. Read it if you long to recover—or discover—God’s well-designed rhythms of rest and delight.

[1] Ellen F. Davis “Slaves or Sabbath-Keepers? A Biblical Perspective on Human Work,” Anglican Theological Review 83 (2001).

[2] This is obviously a paraphrase. I owe Ellen Davis for the phrase, “industrial killing machine.”