Rest to remember

July 30, 2007 at 7:59 am 2 comments

[Read part 1]

Back in the days of Samuel, Israel once fought a series of three battles at a particular spot a few miles south of Gilgal. After being defeated in the first two battles and losing the Ark of the Covenant to the Philistines, Israel finally won the third battle and recovered the Ark.

In commemoration of the victory, the biblical account states that Samuel “took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer” (1 Samuel 7:12).1

Translated literally, Ebenezer means “stone of help.” In erecting his Ebenezer, then, Samuel was raising up a sort of altar, a physical memorial to remind the Israelites of God’s presence, His aid, and His continuing goodness to them.

Sabbath: An Ebenezer

creation.jpgSabbath is like Samuel’s Ebenezer. The weekly pattern of stopping and resting for 24 hours is a memorial and a reminder, a physical practice to keep fresh in our memory God’s care for us.

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy,” God said to the Israelites (Exodus 20:8).

Remember what, exactly? Remember that “in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day…” (vs. 11).

The practice of Sabbath, then, is first of all a ritual modeled first by God Himself to memorialize His creative power, to remind us of who we are and where we came from. Resting helps us act out the easily forgotten truth that we need add nothing to God’s work: we rest because God has already done everything that needs to be done.

But Sabbath-keeping also memorializes something else besides God’s creative power. It also signifies His redemptive power, or His re-creative power. In the version of the Ten Commandments given in Deuteronomy, the reason given for Sabbath-keeping is not God’s creation, but Israel’s deliverance from Egypt:

“You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day.” (Deut. 5:15)

The act of rest not only gave the Israelites time to contemplate their redemption, but it also reminded them that they didn’t save themselves. God saved them Himself; they only rested in the work already done on their behalf.

Memory and identity

Sabbath practice, then, is intimately tied up with memory.

Why, exactly, is it so important to remember? Mark Buchanan makes a suggestion in his book on the Sabbath, entitled The Rest of God:

Memory is identity. Memory grounds us in who we are, where we’ve come from. Memory shapes us and guides us….Future identity and destiny, in other words, flower from a remembrance of things past. (195-6)

The relation of memory to identity is of course most obvious in an encounter with someone who has lost his or her memory: Alzheimer’s patients lose their grasp on humanity precisely at the point that they lose their memory. Similarly, we lose our grasp on humanity as we forget what God has done for us in the past.

Practicing the Sabbath, then, is a guard against this forgetfulness, against the collective amnesia that would deprive us of our identity and our history.

So God tells us to stop to remember: Stop to recite God’s creativity and His actions of redemption, to celebrate the fact that we need to add nothing to His finished work, to contemplate the knowledge that who we are is grounded in who He is. By enabling us to remember, the ritual enables us to live.

1Now you know, if you didn’t before, what the second verse of “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” means when it says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer; Here by Thy great help I’ve come…”

Entry filed under: Uncategorized.

Sabbath 3 Seconds

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Stephen  |  August 4, 2007 at 10:46 am

    Scholars (who don’t believe Genesis was written by Moses) maintain that the Exodus was the core “remembrance” of Israel; i.e., the account of God as Creator was a later development. I believe the relevant part of Genesis was supposedly written in Babylon, 6th century BC. (Though it may have been based on ancient tradition, the document as we know it took its final shape at that time.)

    In other words, the Sabbath as remembrance of deliverance from slavery in Egypt came first: it is older than the Sabbath as remembrance of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation. Feel free to reject that opinion — I’m just telling you what the scholars’ perspective is.

    Moreover, Sabbath rest became a mechanism for preserving Israel’s identity: a boundary marker which set them apart from the surrounding pagan community (on the assumption that the Israelites were in exile in Babylon at the time when these texts took their final shape). Hence the solemn emphasis on the Sabbath command had a social / religious function: it sought to preserve Israel as a distinct community.

    In any event, the point you’re making in the post is sound enough. Just as Jesus gave us the Lord’s Supper as a tangible memorial of his sacrifice, so Israel passed on the Sabbath as a tangible memorial of (1) deliverance from slavery and (2) God’s creation of the cosmos.

  • 2. Jamie  |  August 5, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    I am not well versed in scholarly perspectives on the evolution of Israel’s religious understanding, so I can’t offer much in the way of direct response to your comments.

    However, given that your comments have the general effect of undermining the integrity of the OT, I think it’s worth noting that not all scholars share the same opinions. I am aware that the majority of OT scholars don’t think highly of the historical reliability of the OT in general (especially the Pentateuch).

    But a minority of legitimate scholars do believe the documents have a high degree of historical reliability. (I’m thinking in particular of Kofoed and Kitchen, who both defend various aspects of the historicity of the OT.)

    Anyway, even though I accept the reliability of the OT in general and the Pentateuch in particular, I wouldn’t be surprised if you are right and Sabbath was at first primarily identified with deliverance from Egypt.

    This would make sense, because the most obvious event in Israel’s history at the time the Ten Commandments originated was the exodus, not the creation. So it is totally consistent that Israel would think of God more as a deliverer than as a creator, and that their understanding of Sabbath would be shaped accordingly.

    Moreover, Sabbath rest became a mechanism for preserving Israel’s identity: a boundary marker which set them apart from the surrounding pagan community

    On one hand, I tend to resist that point, because it makes Sabbath keeping look isolationist.

    On the other hand, it’s true that Sabbath was a means of preserving Israel’s distinct identity and setting them apart from other nations. And that’s not a bad thing, either, so I guess I shouldn’t resist it.


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profile.jpgI am working on my M.A. in Religion at Andrews University in Berrien Springs, Michigan. Besides having a big interest in theology, history, ethics, and the deep stuff of life, I am also very fond of Mediterranean food, snow, and the color red.

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