The Fourth Commandment – Keep the Sabbath Holy
There is a modern parable about two wood-choppers who were given a fair amount of wood to chop by their boss with a dead-line of the end of the day.
It was a large amount of wood, and so the one wood-chopper set to work quickly and worked without a break all day. He started off quickly, but as the day went on, he chopped less and less wood, becoming more and more unproductive.
The second wood-chopper also set off quite quickly, but at regular intervals he would disappear for about 20 minutes at a time.
The boss observed what was happening, and despite the regular intervals when the 2nd wood-chopper would disappear, he seemed to be making much better progress than the first wood-chopper. In fact, in the end, he managed to finish his allotted task an hour earlier than the first wood-chopper.
When the boss and the first wood-chopper asked him what he was doing every time he disappeared for 20 minutes, he replied that he was taking time out to rest his body and also to sharpen his axe.
This little parable I believe speaks almost as a commentary on the 4th Commandment as we find it in Exodus 20:11. In the Exodus 20 version of the 10 Commandments, the Israelites are commanded to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy by not doing any work on it. And the justification for doing so is based on the opening creation narrative in Genesis 1 where, after creating everything in 6 days, God then rested on the seventh. It ends with the words, “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy”. The sense that one gets from the Exodus 20 version of the 10 commandments is that God has set an example of a pattern and a rhythm of work and rest that human beings would do well to learn from. It is almost as though it is suggesting that the rhythm of work and rest is built into the very fabric of creation, going back to the very beginning. To live in harmony with God and with the way things are it is important to remember the importance of rest.
Wendy has recently been listening to a few podcasts on the importance of sleep. She has been quite struck by how important sleep and rest are both in terms of our emotional well-being, but also in terms of our physical well-being. She said that one virologist when asked what the most important thing people can do to protect themselves from Covid, said that they should make sure they get a good night’s sleep, because sleep and rest strengthen the immune system. Such a perspective reinforces the wisdom of the fourth commandment as we find it in Exodus 20 that encourages us to keep a healthy rhythm of work and rest.
What is interesting however is that the Deuteronomy 5 version of this commandment is not only worded slightly differently, it also gives a different reason or justification why the Israelites should observe the day of rest.
While Exodus 20 justifies the day of rest by emphasizing that God rested on the 7th Day of Creation, by contrast, Deuteronomy 5:15 justifies the day of rest based on the story of the exodus from Egypt. The hearers of the passage are instructed to remember that they were slaves in Egypt and how the Lord their God had brought them out with a mighty and outstretched arm. It ends with the words “Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath Day.”
Connecting the commandment to observe a day of rest with the experience of having been liberated from slavery in Egypt certainly has enormous social and political and even ecological ramifications.
To be a slave is to have no time for yourself. And the experience of most slaves in history is that they have been treated as less than human, meaning that slaves have often been required to work without rest seven days a week while their masters have rested freely. That is the nature of being a slave. Time is not your own.
But for a people who had once lived as slaves, there is a recognition of the inhumanity of this and the recognition that no human being should ever be made to work non-stop without a break and without proper rest. We need to recognize this 4th commandment as growing out of that experience of slavery.
What the 4th commandment did was to enshrine in law that no Israelite should ever have to live under the conditions of slavery again and the safeguard given was that they should be given the gift of being able to rest at least 1 day a week. Commandment 4 becomes a way of safe-guarding the freedom of a people who had once known the suffering and oppression of slavery.
But the 4th Commandment goes even further and deeper than that. This is a commandment not just meant to protect the Israelite people, but it is also extended to the male and female servants of the Israelites and even to foreigners living in their towns. This is quite revolutionary. Not only is the 4th Commandment a safe-guard against the Israelites living like slaves again, but it is also designed to ensure that the Israelites themselves never became perpetrators of the kind of oppression they were forced to live under while in Egypt.
This commandment represents a major step forward beyond a purely tribal religion. The gift of being able to rest once a week is extended not just to Israelites, but also to foreigners and servants. This is one of the earliest examples of something resembling a universal declaration of human rights, for it seems to recognise a common human dignity that needs to be respected whether a person is from one’s own tribe or not. It also recognises a common human dignity regardless of economic status.
This really is politically very radical and far ahead of its time. I wonder how many British and American slave owners who regarded themselves as practising Christians took these instructions in the 4th Commandment seriously and actually implemented them? I imagine not many.
But there is something even more radical in the 4th Commandment which is visible in both the Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 versions, and that is the recognition that even animals are to enjoy the gift of a day of rest at least once a week.
Just last week on William Crawley’s lunch-time show on BBC radio Ulster, there was a heated discussion about animal rights. But here in an ancient religious text from a few thousand years ago, we already see an early recognition that animals should be treated equally with human beings when it comes to observing a day of rest.
The Exodus 20 version simply mentions animals in general, but the Deuteronomy 5 version very specifically names animals that would have been considered work animals: donkeys and oxen.
I wonder what we can learn from the 4th Commandment as contemporary people?
Covid-19 has certainly presented us with enormous challenges, but it has also presented humanity with some opportunities. It has been a disrupter of our business as usual. And in disrupting our business as usual, it has presented humanity to space for reflection? Do we really want to get back to business as usual, or has Covid-19 created enough space for us to reconsider how we are living in this world? One of the questions it has raised is how we engage with work and rest? Is it right that economic considerations are the most important by which we measure success as human beings?
Has our obsession with material wealth and profit made us economic slaves driving us all to work way beyond what is healthy for any human being? I found an article online that says, studies of how the brain works show that offices can only facilitate creative thinking if they offer spaces for both focused work and restorative activities. (in other words rest and play).
Secondly, does our economic wealth come at the expense of foreigners who have become modern slaves, working without rest for very little money so that we can enjoy cheap products?
And thirdly, does our economic wealth come at the expense of the well-being of animals and the natural world? This is the question not only that the 4th Commandments raises for us, but even in the past 2 weeks, the Gupta report suggested that we need a radical change in our economic thinking to include the value of nature and the environment in any economic cost analysis and system.
These are profound questions that come to us not just from contemporary moral and economic philosophy but even out of the 4th Commandment?
In closing, a commandment to rest, I believe is a commandment of love. If we are to build a more loving world, and to become people of love, (as I believe our faith in Jesus calls us to do), in what way can we become part of a world, and an economic and political system that creates space for even the lowest paid in our world and even for animals and nature to be afforded the opportunity and the dignity of rest?