Spiritual sources for thinking about the Sabbath: The Hebrew Bible

Posted Jun 04, 2014 | Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs

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By Robert C. Saler


Robert C. SalerAs I indicated in my last post, for the next several months we will be considering some of the spiritual sources from the Christian tradition as a way of theologizing about sabbatical. However, we should not forget that Christian sabbath practices are in fact derived from the Hebrew Bible and the Jewish faith in particular. Indeed, it is fair to say that sabbath-keeping has played a far more central role in the Jewish tradition, both past and present, than it has in most Christian settings. Next month, we’ll consider a classic text on the theology of Sabbath from a Jewish perspective; for this month, however, we’ll turn to the Bible itself.

In my thinking about how the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament is a foundational text for both Jews and Christians when it comes to keeping sabbath, I have been greatly aided by the recent publication of a new book by popular scholar and teacher, Walter Brueggemann. Brueggemann’s new book Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now is helpful for a number of reasons, not least because the author offers a trenchant critique of how contemporary social trends and practices place such material and existential demands on contemporary global citizens that to “leave off” from production and achievements is itself a deeply countercultural act. In the book, Brueggemann writes:

… a contemporary circumstance in our society that generates and endless pursuit of greater security and greater happiness, a pursuit that is always unsatisfied, because we have never gotten or done enough…[This restlessness] is grounded in a theological desire for an ultimate reality of total satiation that is no reality at all.

However, as an Old Testament scholar, Brueggemann is also able to show how the central vision of sabbath-keeping in both the Old and New Testaments sets up a kind of “alternate economy” of achievement, one in which our self-worth is not caught up in the anxiety of the need to constantly produce, but is rather grounded in the peace of God. Moreover, this peace “creates a people,” Israel, that is defined by its inclusiveness of outsiders—the foreigner, the stranger, the widow, the orphan—who are called into taking part in this alternative economy of divine satisfaction.

Brueggeman continues:

That is because Sabbath represents a radical disengagement from the producer-consumer rat race of the empire. The community welcomes members of any race or nation, any gender or social condition, so long as that person is defined by justice, mercy and compassion and not competition, achievement, production, or acquisition.

And it is precisely these former virtues that regular sabbath-keeping instills in a people, thus forming them for God’s healing of God’s world.

To the extent that sabbaticals, such as those supported by the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary, have at their root such Old Testament notions of sabbath-keeping, then they in fact bear witness to shared Jewish-Christian convictions that living into the joy of God’s alternative economy of worth is still a live possibility for the faithful today. In this sense, perhaps congregations supporting sabbath practices—sabbaticals included—is itself a kind of ministry, one needed now more than ever.

Robert C. Saler is Research Fellow and Director of the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary. He is an ordained minister of Word and sacrament in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA).

The Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Programs at Christian Theological Seminary (CTS) seek to strengthen Christian congregations by providing opportunities for pastors to step away briefly from the persistent obligations of daily parish life and to engage in a period of renewal and reflection. To request permission to repost this content, please contact clergyrenewal@cts.edu.

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