Sabbath As Resistance
Saying No to the Culture of Now
Westminster John Knox Press 2014
From the publisher:
In this book, popular author Walter Brueggeman writes that the Sabbath is not simply about keeping rules but rather about becoming a whole person and restoring a whole society. Importantly, Brueggeman speaks to a 24/7 society of consumption, a society in which we live to achieve, accomplish, perform, and possess. We want more, own more, use more, eat more, and drink more. Bruggemann shows readers how keeping the Sabbath allows us to break this restless cycle and focus on what is truly important: God, other people, all life.
This is a relatively short book – six chapters and less than 100 pages, easily read in one or two sittings. The author gets right to the point, and the entire treatise is a contrast between restlessness and restfulness. In this context, there is one word occurs over and over throughout the book: acquisitiveness. It isn’t a normal word in my vocabulary so I looked it up just to be sure.
acquisitive adj. 1. Characterized by a strong desire to gain and possess. 2. Tending to acquire and retain ideas or information: an acquisitive mind. –acquisitively adv. –acquisitiveness n.
(The American Heritage Dictionary)
In our culture we have the driving desire for acquisition, not just for stuff, but also for achievement. Even when we pause our acquisition on the Sabbath, most of the time we are still thinking about it, planning for it, making lists and checking them twice, and waiting for the Sabbath to end so we can continue our quest for acquisition.
“When will the Sabbath end, so that we can start selling again?” (Amos 8:5 GNB)
Chapter 1 – Sabbath and the First Commandment
Chapter 2 – Resistance to Anxiety
Chapter 3 – Resistance to Coercion
Chapter 4 – Resistance to Exclusivism
Chapter 5 – Resistance to Multitasking
Chapter 6 – Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment
Brueggemann makes the case that the fourth commandment – the Sabbath – looks back to the first three and the character of God while also looking forward to the last six and how we function in community. In fact, chapter 1 is titled “Sabbath and the First Commandment” and chapter 6 is titled “Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment.” He contrasts the restlessness of Pharaoh to acquire, forcing the Israelites to participate and make more bricks with less straw, with the restfulness of God, providing manna every day with double on the sixth day so that it need not be acquired on the seventh day.
With this, the author goes on to reveal how Sabbath is to be a pause from acquisitiveness. He concludes that “Sabbath is a practical divestment [of the drive to acquire] so that neighborly engagement, rather than production and consumption, defines our lives” (p.18).
The middle four chapters address “resistance” as the book title suggests. He discusses resistance to anxiety, coercion, exclusivism, and multitasking (multitasking includes our thinking about the things coming up in the week while we say we are observing Sabbath!) These he views as important aspects of our relationship in community, which is as much the focus of Sabbath as is our worship. That took me a little by surprise, as I hadn’t really considered that the fourth commandment (both in Exodus 20 and in Deuteronomy 5) never mentions worship, only community.
“Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For 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; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”
(Exodus 20:8-11 NASB)
“Observe the sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. ‘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.”
(Deuteronomy 5:12-15 NASB)
The author makes the observation that, if we do this, keeping the remaining commandments is natural “because you are able to depart the exploitative system” (p.31)
A Point of Disagreement
Brueggemann tends toward contemporary social justice topics, something I think a lot of us in this movement either avoid or give more talk than action. Sometimes we even oppose it. And here, I am going to strongly disagree with the author’s conclusions.
In the chapter on Resistance to Exclusivity, he references the passage in Isaiah 56 regarding foreigners and eunuchs who keep the Sabbath and claims that Isaiah is “correcting” Moses, who excluded certain individuals. “Most remarkably, the conditions of admission clearly do not concern ethnic qualifications… Most spectacularly, there is only one condition spelled out – keep Sabbath!” (p.54). With this I wholeheartedly agree, but do not see this as correcting Moses. Those who left Egypt and joined with Israel are described as a “mixed multitude” of many different ethnicities. He goes on to say, “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. There is no mention of purity, only work stoppage with a neighborly pause for humanness” (p.55).
Hold the phone.
Thus says the LORD,
“Preserve justice and do righteousness,
For My salvation is about to come
And My righteousness to be revealed.
“How blessed is the man who does this,
And the son of man who takes hold of it;
Who keeps from profaning the sabbath,
And keeps his hand from doing any evil.”
Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say,
“The LORD will surely separate me from His people.”
Nor let the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the LORD,
“To the eunuchs who keep My sabbaths,
And choose what pleases Me,
And hold fast My covenant,
To them I will give in My house and within My walls a memorial,
And a name better than that of sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name which will not be cut off.
“Also the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD,
To minister to Him, and to love the name of the LORD,
To be His servants, every one who keeps from profaning the sabbath
And holds fast My covenant;
Even those I will bring to My holy mountain
And make them joyful in My house of prayer.
Their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be acceptable on My altar;
For My house will be called a house of prayer for all the peoples.”
The Lord GOD, who gathers the dispersed of Israel, declares,
“Yet others I will gather to them, to those already gathered.”
(Isaiah 56:1-8 NASB, emphasis mine)
It does matter how a person behaves. Moral purity is important. You can’t just do whatever you want, as long as you cease working and are neighborly on the Sabbath. Over the next few paragraphs, Brueggemann slips in that homosexuality (an act that is a moral choice) is equivalent to race or ethnicity (which is neither an act nor a choice). This flies in the face of Torah, purity, and morality. Resistance to exclusivity in the community cannot excuse and accept willful sin.
Clearly there are thoughts presented in this little book with which I would take issue. Overall, though, it is one I would recommend reading to those of us who profess to be Sabbath keepers. The author goes beyond what might be perceived as the mechanics of observing Sabbath, and to some extent suggests those mechanics are actually a distraction.
My (not Brueggemann’s) Final Thoughts
If the author practices what he writes, he is a Sabbath keeper. However it would seem certain from some of the things he says that he is not a seventh-day Sabbath keeper. This gives rise to a very interesting question – which is more important, how you observe Sabbath, or when you observe Sabbath? Before thinking too hard on the answer, I have to point out that this question is flawed.
Imagine that you find yourself needing open-heart surgery. Which is more important, performing the internal operation correctly or making the initial incision in the right place? It doesn’t matter which one is more important, both are absolutely essential. You might even say that making the incision in the right place is part of correctly performing the operation.
So it is with Sabbath keeping. Doing it on the right day is part of doing it right. But if we don’t follow through with God’s intent of Sabbath rest, then having the right day is only mechanical. We must seek to please the Father in both when and how we observe Sabbath.
I would never discourage someone who believes Sunday to be the Christian Sabbath from following the principles in this book. Most readers on this site will already understand the Sabbath to be the seventh day of the week. I hope Brueggemann’s “Sabbath As Resistance” will inspire you to think beyond what is typically thought of as Sabbath keeping.
Note: I do not have the new edition with study guide, and therefore cannot review this portion. There may also be revisions to the text of which I am not aware.
Below is the 2014 edition.