Israel gathers at Sinai on the third day of the third month after leaving Egypt (Exod. 19:16). From the cloud, Yahweh speaks what the Bible calls the “Ten Words” (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13).
He has spoken ten words before. “And Elohim spoke” occurs ten times in the creation account. And the Lord has spoken on the third day before. On the third day of creation week, in the seventh of ten creation words, God calls the land (‘eretz) to bring forth (yatza’) grass yielding seed and trees yielding fruit (Gen. 1:11). From Sinai, Yahweh reminds Israel that he brought them (yatza’) from the land (‘eretz) of Egypt. Israel is the first fruits of the harvest of nations, the first to rise from the land on the third day. Israel is a new creation, spoken into being by ten divine words.
There’s a grammatical oddity. God speaks to all Israel, but the verbs are masculine in gender and singular in number. The King James Version, with its choice of pronouns, gets it right: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”; “Thou shalt not kill”; “Thou shalt not steal.”
The grammar might be intended to emphasize that each individual Israelite must keep these laws; perhaps the laws address Israelite men. But there’s a deeper rationale. Israel is the son of Yahweh (Exod. 4:23). That kin relation is the legal basis for Yahweh’s demand to Pharaoh: “Israel is my son. You have no right to seize my son. Let my son go.” When Pharaoh refuses, Yahweh assumes the role of a kinsman redeemer and forces the issue. In an act of eye-for-eye justice, he takes Pharaoh’s son.
God’s first command was given to his son, Adam. From Sinai, he speaks to his new-Adamic son, Israel. The Ten Words are a Father-son talk, like Proverbs.
The Sabbath command is a case in point (Exod. 20:8–11). Sabbath-keeping is more an elevation than an obligation. It speaks of Israel’s filial participation in paternal privileges. Sabbath is a sign of Israel’s deification.
The Sabbath is revolutionary social legislation, unparalleled in the ancient world. As Joseph Ratzinger has noted, it is “the heart of all social legislation,” because it anticipates “the society free of domination, a foretaste of the city to come. On the Sabbath there are no masters and no servants; there is only the freedom of all the children of God and creation’s release from anxiety.” Threatened by its social import, Seneca and Juvenal mocked the Sabbath as a symptom of Jewish laziness.
The Sabbath doesn’t just require Israel to rest. It requires Israel to give rest. Sabbath erodes the classical distinction between the leisurely rich and the working poor. It treats slaves and animals as more than machines. It prohibits Israel from organizing its time for 24/7 productivity.
The sociology of the Sabbath is grounded in its theology. The Sabbath is a day of joy that includes enjoyment of creation and the fruits of labor. But it isn’t mere “time off” or leisure. It’s the Lord’s day, a holy day of prayer and worship that opens earthly time to heaven.
In ancient myths, the gods make human beings to serve them in their divine leisure. The Sabbath, by contrast, is premised on an analogy between God’s work and human work. The Sabbath assumes that the Creator is himself a workman, a craftsman, a manual laborer. The Lord of Sabbath is the God who planted a garden and formed the first man from the ground. The Sabbath also points to an analogy between divine and human leisure. On the Sabbath, all Israel, including slaves and animals, mimics the rest of God. Like Father, like son.
“Analogy” and “mimic” are too weak to capture the thrust of the Sabbath. Sabbath is Yahweh’s rest. By ceasing work on the Sabbath, Israel shares his Father’s Sabbath. This is sheer gift. Yahweh stops working because he has completed his work (Gen. 2:1–4). Israel hasn’t finished. After the Sabbath, Israel goes back to work, but he works with the Sabbath satisfaction of a job done.
Keeping Sabbath, Israel expresses confidence that his Father will bring his work to completion, that he will give time to finish. Sharing Sabbath, Israel participates in the divine pleasure of bringing things to their end.
Yahweh takes rest as king. After battle with Pharaoh, the divine warrior enjoys his victory; after his palatial tent is built, the king assumes the throne; having trampled grapes, Yahweh mixes a cup of wine. As king, Yahweh also gives rest by delivering Israel from the drudgery of service in Pharaoh’s house and bringing them to Sabbath at Sinai.
And so the theology of the Sabbath circles back to sociology. By extending Sabbath to Israel, Yahweh raises his son to kingship. Enthroned in Sabbath glory, Israel participates too in his Father’s rest-giving.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.