I often forget to read the Old Testament laws in light of the socio-historical context in which they were given. Let me tell you, that’ll flat put a clog in your understanding-God’s-grace plumbing! We have to remember that when our heavenly Father initially enforced the guidelines regarding the Sabbath in Exodus 16:27-30, the Israelites—the people group God chose to establish as a theocracy and set His favor on to illustrate His covenantal love for humanity—had just followed Moses out of Egypt after 400 years in captivity. They were as wobbly as newborn calves when it came to this whole liberation thing, having no experience or understanding of what freedom felt like. For as long as their grandparents and great-grandparents and great-great-grandparents could remember, they’d existed as slaves under the mostly cruel ownership of the Egyptians. A Jewish slave’s sole purpose in Egyptian culture during that era was to do the brutal, backbreaking work—like mixing mud and straw to make bricks and hauling heavy stones in the oppressive Middle Eastern heat—their overseers didn’t want to do. And there was no such thing as vacation days or sick leave. A slave’s workday began early and ended late every single day.
There was no clear light at the end of the tunnel for an Israelite slave during the Egyptian captivity. Their only practical hope was for a master who wasn’t overly abusive.
Enslaved no more
He texted Moses through a flaming topiary and set in motion an audacious plan to rescue His people. The plan included plagues that would surely traumatize even the most experienced pest control person and added a supernatural exclamation point of the sea doing splits! I can only imagine how shell-shocked those Hebrews were by the time they set up camp at the base of Mount Sinai shortly after watching the Egyptian army—who was in hot pursuit of them—get swallowed up by the Red Sea. Their entire lives had been spent in captivity, and now, suddenly, their chains were gone. Manna was raining down like donuts from heaven, and Yahweh was hovering over them like a protective parent.
Perhaps they had been enslaved for so long that they completely forgot what freedom felt like.
Now meditate on these words in The Living Bible paraphrase:
“Remember to observe the Sabbath as a holy day. Six days a week are for your daily duties and your regular work, but the seventh day is a day of Sabbath rest before the Lord your God. On that day you are to do no work of any kind, nor shall your son, daughter, or slaves—whether men or women—or your cattle or your house guests. For in six days the Lord made the heaven, earth, and sea, and everything in them, and rested the seventh day; so he blessed the Sabbath day and set it aside for rest.” – Exodus 20:8-11
Sounds more like a much-needed reprieve than a punitive rule, doesn’t it? As does the reiteration of God’s protective parameters in Leviticus:
“God spoke to Moses: ‘Tell the People of Israel, These are my appointed feasts, the appointed feasts of God which you are to decree as sacred assemblies. Work six days. The seventh day is a Sabbath, a day of total and complete rest, a sacred assembly. Don’t do any work. Wherever you live, it is a Sabbath to God.'”- Leviticus 23:1-3, MSG
It was like God was saying: “You matter so much to Me that I’m not willing to allow you to work your fingers to the bone any longer! Therefore, I’ve established a 24-hour, no-labor time period so that you can relax and be refueled by leaning into My presence. I want you to sleep late and have the luxury of sitting at the dining table with your family and lingering over a great meal and laughing at your children’s jokes. You are My beloved, and every single moment of your life exists under the canopy of My grace. But you need to take regular breaks from your busyness to focus on Me and My gifts in order to remember that.”
The Bible was never intended to be used as a club. If we make the mistake of reading it as a rule book, we’ll whack the joy and peace out of ourselves and others pretty quickly. If we don’t take the time to marinate in the context and life-giving intent behind the words God spoke, we may inaccurately apply it with soul-sucking consequences. But when we do take the time to meditate on how incredibly redemptive God has been throughout human history, even the seemingly harsh parts of it can begin to bring us joy and contentment!
Read Matthew 12:1-8:
“At that time Jesus passed through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “’See, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.’
“He said to them, ‘Haven’t you read what David did when he and those who were with him were hungry: how he entered the house of God, and they ate the bread of the Presence—which is not lawful for him or for those with him to eat, but only for the priests? Or haven’t you read in the law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.’”
When Jesus was asked a question about the Sabbath, why do you think He deferred to a narrative—a story—from the Torah rather than to the legal sections of the Torah? Jesus wasn’t trying to debate the Pharisees about the veracity of the Law. He wasn’t challenging the Law itself, just their interpretation of it. The religious leaders had made the Law confining. Jesus brought in the compassion element. This wasn’t about restrictions but freedom.
This post was adapted from Lisa Harper’s new Bible study, How Much More: Discovering God’s Extravagant Love in Unexpected Places.