“Do your work for six days but rest on the seventh day so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave as well as the resident alien may be refreshed.” (CSB – Read the chapter)
One of the virtues that lies – in theory – at the heart of the United States is equal treatment before the law. The idea is that the law is supposed to be a level playing field. Everyone who comes before it is before the same law and should expect to be treated the same way by that law. The law does not consider matters of social standing or economic prowess or national origin or ethnic identity. If you are before the law, you are before the law, and that is that. In this passage we see that this idea was something God first introduced to the world a very long time ago. Let’s talk about it.
One of the things scholars trying to ferret out what modern followers of Jesus are supposed to do with the Hebrew law have done is to break it up into three different categories. Some laws are ceremonial, some are civil in their focus, while some are moral. Ceremonial laws are things like the various commands about the sacrificial system and ritual, religious purity throughout Leviticus. Civil laws regulate interpersonal behaviors like the commands detailing what should be done if you were to accidentally kill your neighbor’s ox. Moral laws, on the other hands, are all about personal purity before God.
This is a helpful distinction in many respects. It allows us to make arguments like that while ceremonial laws don’t apply to us any longer, moral laws still do. Thus, we don’t sacrifice animals any longer, but we do practice not murdering one another. This whole effort has been undertaken by scholars who are sincerely committed to understanding how the Scriptures apply to our lives better and is laudable in that effort. But it suffers from a couple of rather significant snags.
For starters, while followers of Jesus can and should learn from the Hebrew law given by God through Moses to the people of Israel, we don’t have to worry ourselves about keeping them. Jesus fulfilled the Law and the old covenant it detailed, and replaced it with the new covenant. We are not liable to the old covenant any longer. As the writer of Hebrews noted, it is obsolete and passing away.
That’s a significant enough problem for modern attempts to figure out which laws still apply and which don’t. But there’s an even more fundamental problem than that. We’re not totally certain which laws are which. Some laws seem pretty obviously ceremonial, yes. And some are clearly governing civil behavior. Still some others are unquestionably moral in their outlook. But some laws seem to have at least a toe in more than one category. When a law is ceremonial in its form, but civil and moral in its application, does it still apply? Can we split hairs with the Scriptures like this? You see the problem here, I hope.
The various Sabbath regulations like we see here are a perfect example of this issue. On the one hand, this had a great deal to do with the people’s worship, and was thus clearly ceremonial. On the other hand, there was a clear moral element to this command as it had a direct impact on an individual’s standing before God. And yet you need still a third hand here because of the obvious civil tone to this command. Do we reject the whole thing? Accept the whole thing? Find a way to subdivide it into smaller bits?
I think the better way forward is to remember that Jesus fulfilled the law – especially the Sabbath laws by His own admission – stop trying to worry about how to keep this, and focus our attention on the heart of God behind this command. This command does not offer direct application for us. But what it reveals about God’s character does matter.
The Sabbath commands for Israel were among the hardest for them to keep. This is not because they were particularly difficult to understand or burdensome to apply, but because they arguably took more faith to enact than any of the others He gave. In a day long before refrigeration or effective, long-term food storage was a thing, when banks were non-existent and most people kept their savings in a hole in the dirt floor of their house, working was something you did every single day. There was no such thing as a weekend then. There weren’t holidays. Yes, there were occasional festivals and feast days, but those were rare. Most people worked hard every day until they died, which was probably happening between the ages of 30-50. That was life. It was short, hard, and tedious. But you had to do it because if you didn’t work, you didn’t eat. Most people wanted to eat every day just like they still do now, so they worked every day.
Then God commanded them to take a day off.
He wanted them to put their trust so fully in Him that they were willing to do something that made no practical sense at all because of their unwavering belief that He would provide for them what they could not provide for themselves. In taking a day off, they were saying, “We trust in you and your ability (not to mention willingness) to provide for us more than we trust in our ability to provide for ourselves.” For poor people, this was almost unimaginably difficult. For rich people, though, they could make this happen because they could afford to hire servants to do the work for them on the Sabbath. Even for poorer people, though, they would try to find workarounds like having their animals do the work on the Sabbath. In both cases, they were fulfilling the letter of the law by not working, but they were still getting done the work they needed to do. They were trusting in God on the outside, but not on the inside. The appearances were good, but the heart wasn’t there. This loophole also created two different sets of cultural expectations and legal outcomes depending on your standing in society.
Yet this was not the kind of society God was trying to build in Israel. This was a reflection of the same unjust culture that all the nations around them already had. God was doing something different. He was creating a place where the dignity of all people, and even all creatures, was properly acknowledged and honored. He wanted a place where there would be equal treatment under the law. He was creating a society that was supposed to be just. So, instead of simply telling the people to take a day off, He went beyond that. He told them to give everyone a day of rest. Their servants couldn’t work. They couldn’t exploit the immigrants by making them work. They were not even to work their animals. It was to be a day of trusting rest for everyone in Israel. The law was to treat everyone equally. This was what justice demanded.
God highly values justice. This is because He is just. Justice is fundamental to His character in a way that goes beyond our understanding. We are not just. We may play at it in fits and starts, but we are quick to carve out loopholes and exceptions that reflect our cultural and political and ethnic biases. God, however, calls us to something higher than that. If we are going to be properly reflective of His character in our lives, we have to reach for this higher ideal. As followers of Jesus, we must be always on the lookout for places where justice is not being achieved and work to see it brought about. As a church, we must be in tune with our communities so that if there is a place where injustice is flourishing, we can get involved in righting that wrong.
If we are going to be known by the name of Jesus, we must be known by the character of Jesus. Pursing justice is an integral part of that character, and so we must commit ourselves to it. Nothing less will do.