Sabbath Made for Humankind—Deuteronomy 5:12-15; Mark 2:23—3:6

Lectionary, The Politics of Scripture

Not merely a time for ‘leisure’ or ‘recharging’, the notion of sabbath involves deep concepts of justice.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15
12Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13For six days you shall labour and do all your work. 14But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day.

Mark 2:23—3:6
23One sabbath he was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ 25And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ 27Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

3 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ 4Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. 5He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.

In a 1930 essay, “Economic Possibilities For Our Grandchildren,” the economist James Maynard Keynes predicted that his grandchildren would work a 3-hour day, or a 15-hour week. While some studies have shown a slight decrease in work-hours for employed Americans—from 36.6 to 32.6 hours per week—accounting for the mid-century entrance of women into the workforce, throughout the second half of the 20th century, per capita hours-worked actually increased. We are far from the golden age of the 5-day weekend predicted by Keynes.

And while many decry the United States’ lack of federally-mandated paid vacation time—often contrasted with the 3-4 weeks annually of many Western European nations—the reality can be even more distressing in developing nations.

Workers at Foxconn, a company equally famous for building the iPhone and for installing suicide nets around their factories, still work 53 hours per week after work-hour reductions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, children as young as four regularly work 12-hour days gathering and mining the cobalt used in the batteries of phones, laptops, and electric cars. While companies like Sony, Microsoft, and Lenovo have done little to properly source their materials.

Simply put, globalized capitalism has produced a crisis of labor-without-end. But this is not the only or the inevitable vision of work. Indeed, the Biblical notion of “sabbath,” a scheduled period of rest, is central to both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures.

Yet sabbath should not be reduced to the mere notion of the weekend. Indeed, even in societies where the weekend or paid-time-off has been adopted, it has largely been absorbed into the schema of capitalist ideology. We do not rest, we recharge. The weekend, the holiday, and the vacation are not intended to serve the worker, but the employer. Thus, one finds a magazine like Forbes insisting that “not taking vacation time is a bad idea,” but not because of harms to health (mental, physical, or spiritual) or out of a sense of justice, but because “it harms productivity and the economy.”

In the biblical text, work is primarily associated with “creation,” but not production. Concerns for productivity—and therefore, accumulation—appear far from the mind of the Biblical authors. What one finds in the biblical theme of sabbath is an entirely distinct ideology of work. Work is subsumed under the demands of justice.

The sabbath is modeled on the seven-day creation cycle of Genesis 1. Thus, in Exodus 20, the sabbath is introduced in the following manner: “remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work … for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all this is in them, but rested the seventh day” (Exodus 20:8-11).

But, this is not only about abstractly modeling one’s time on God’s time. In fact, despite the concerns with the “consecration” of the sabbath, with its holy character, Jesus offers a strikingly anthropocentric—rather than theocentric—conception of the sabbath: “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

Certainly, this is not to efface the theological character of the sabbath, as he will continue, “the Son of Man is Lord even of the sabbath” (Mark 2:28). Instead, by drawing upon the apocalyptic language of Daniel 7 (“Son of man”), Jesus seeks to retrieve a prophetic or apocalyptic conception of sabbath. We are to model ourselves on God’s time, but God’s time is an apocalyptic time; God’s time is the “Kairos,” the moment of crisis, the Kingdom of God. As Jesus states, “the time [Kairos] is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15).

But once again, the modern reader requires a Biblical-hermeneutical intervention, for the notion of apocalypse and the kingdom of God have accrued meanings in modern Christianity that are totally foreign to their original context.

Quite apart from apocalypse simply standing for meaningless destruction, or the Kingdom of God for the heavenly location of souls, in the New Testament context these themes emerge from a Jewish literary tradition that emphasizes the unique activity of God within historical time, the in-breaking (advent) of the eternal into the temporal, with the specific aim of making right what has gone wrong, of bringing justice where only injustice reigned.

Therefore, we can extend our syllogism: God’s time is apocalyptic time, but apocalyptic time is the time of justice. Said otherwise, the sabbath is not about leisure. The sabbath is about justice. We therefore find, in the Old Testament lection: “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:15).

What we get here is a justificatory logic different, though hardly incompatible, with that of Exodus 20. The sabbath is a weekly recapitulation of the liberatory work of God, a time specifically intended to bring relief to the slave and the refugee: “you shall not do any work—you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you” (Deuteronomy 5:14). The sabbath is about rest, but it is also about care for those who are marginalized, particularly those who are economically marginalized. It is in this way that Jesus’ anthropocentric and theological readings of sabbath converge.

Read through this lens of justice, Jesus’ subsequent actions on the sabbath of Mark 2-3 are clarified. “Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. … And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” … and [he] said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored” (Mark 3:1-5).

When Jesus asks the Pharisees present, “is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” he is not merely condemning a lack of acute mercy. Rather, the “hardness of heart” that is here being condemned is linked to a fundamental misunderstanding of the sabbath itself. It is not merely that acts of mercy are permitted on the sabbath: the sabbath itself is about mercy and justice.

In this regard, the sabbath is completely incompatible with contemporary capitalist ideologies of work, wherein work is primarily devoted to production and accumulation—and not, as Bataille shows in The Accursed Share, consumption, nor even less, justice. What the Biblical theme of sabbath therefore offers is a model, or at least a glimpse, of a different ideological ordering—wherein work and accumulation are dethroned, subsumed under heterogeneous concerns.

This is particularly pressing today, for as anti-work theorists, such as Bob Black have sought to show, the absolute priority of work constitutes one of the only points of near-universal agreement among Western thinkers—both the right and the left. Thus, in “The Abolition of Work,” Black writes that: “liberals say we should end employment discrimination. I say we should end employment. Conservatives support right-to-work laws. Following Karl Marx’s wayward son-in-law Paul Lafargue I support the right to be lazy. Leftists favor full employment. Like the surrealists—except that I’m not kidding—I favor full unemployment.”

What Black offers in place of work—which he defines as “forced labor,” as “production enforced by economic or political means, by the carrot or the stick”—is a ludic economy, an economy of play. While the Biblical sabbath is certainly not equivalent to this anti-work theory, it nevertheless shares with it a key intuition—that work is not the highest end of humanity, that increased production and efficiency are not the best we can offer. Rather, to parody Jesus’ statement, what both the sabbath and anti-work recognize is that “work was made for humankind, and not humankind for work.”

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