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Father Sky, Mother Earth

And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it. Exodus 20:26

An altar of earth you shall make for me and sacrifice on it your burnt offerings and your peace offerings, your sheep and your oxen. In every place where I cause my name to be remembered I will come to you and bless you.

If you make me an altar of stone, you shall not build it of hewn stones, for if you wield your tool on it you profane it.

And you shall not go up by steps to my altar, that your nakedness be not exposed on it.’

Exodus 20:24-26

The Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians all had sacred prostitutes or somehow mixed sex with worship. In fact, I’d be surprised if there was any culture on earth that hadn’t dabbled in “sacred sex” at some point in their history.

In a very real sense, God is our father and the earth is our mother. The God of heaven took a bit of earth to fashion a man and then breathed his spirit into it, creating a being in his own image. This fact in combination with the astounding miracles of reproduction, of putting seeds in the ground so that they will sprout and produce more seeds, of a man and woman joining their bodies to create a new person in their own image, could easily lead people into the ideas manifested in fertility cults. If imitation is the sincerest flattery, how better can we worship the Creator than through an act of creation?

The command to make an altar of earth in order to worship the God of heaven re-emphasizes our creation from these two. However, there are two more commands attached to this one that strongly imply God does not approve of sex as an act of worship.

In the first command, God says we are not to build the altar with cut stones. We might have ideas about how to make a more beautiful altar, but God has said he will prepare the stones. We get to select them and place them, but the materials and format are strictly up to him. God wants his worship his way, not ours. He has told us how he is to be worshiped, and, although we might have a great deal of leeway in some of the details, we are not free to improvise however we choose. He commanded us to reproduce, but he did not command us to worship him through the reproductive act.

In the second command, God says the altar should be placed so as to avoid even accidental exposure of the priest’s nakedness. If there was any doubt as to whether nudity should or should not be a part of overt worship, that should quell it.

In other places, Torah is quite clear that temple prostitution is an abomination to God. He doesn’t seem to have left much room for debate on this issue among people who accept the Hebrew scriptures as divinely inspired.

When a man and woman become one, they image Elohim by creating a new life and God frequently compares his relationship with his people to that of a husband and wife. The Hebrew and Canaanite word for “husband” is ba’al, which the Canaanites also applied to their chief deity as a proper name. The sex act can be a physically, emotionally, and even spiritually intense experience. Incorporating it into the worship of a god, a divine ba’al, makes intuitive sense. Yet God hates it. He wants no sex, no alcohol, no nakedness in his worship.

Yet another illustration of how “follow your heart” is frequently the worst possible advice.

Parsha Yitro – Apostolic Readings, Links, and Videos

New Testament readings and links to articles and videos for Torah portion Yitro.

Readings

  • Exodus 18:1-20:23
    • Matthew 4:25-5:20
    • Matthew 17:5-9
    • Mark 9:6-9
    • Mark 10:17-27
    • Luke 9:34-37
    • Luke 18:18-27
    • 1 Timothy 3:1-13
    • Titus 1:5-9
    • Hebrews 12:18-29
    • Revelation 19:6-16
    • Revelation 21:1-11

More Reading on Parsha Yitro

Related Video Teachings

  • Proverbs 15:22 and Identifying Good Counsel – Proverbs 15:22 says that success depends on good counsel, but how do you know who to lean on? Proverbs 14:33 has something to say about that.
  • Parents Just Don’t Understand! – Why did Solomon have so much to say about parenting and marriage? Because he had so much experience! Age and experience gives perspective, knowledge, and wisdom. Pay attention to your elders. They’re not completely ignorant.
  • Shavuot: Be Still and Hear the Voice of God – Most of us are comfortable praying for healing or a new job–sometimes even a reasonable parking space–but we’re comfortable with these prayers because if we don’t get what we ask for, then maybe it just wasn’t God’s will. It gets a little dicier when we start asking God open ended questions, like “What do I do now?” in a really difficult personal situation. When we do send a prayer like that, we might read the Bible and meditate, but how seriously do we expect God to answer?
  • Proverbs 22:1 and Choosing a Good Name – A “good name” doesn’t have anything to do with what’s printed on your birth certificate. You can choose a good name by behaving in ways that enhance your reputation as a representative of YHVH, and thereby honoring HIS name too.
  • Honoring Your Parents (even the bad ones). Proverbs 2 – The Book of Proverbs says to heed the advice of your parents. The 5th commandment says to honor them for a long life. How does listening to your parents improve your life? What if you have terrible, cruel parents?
  • The Wisdom of Our Fathers, Proverbs 4:1-4 – Wisdom endures through foolish generations and, if you listen to her, so will you.
  • Ensuring Your Legacy by Honoring Your Parents, Proverbs 11:29 – There is a recurring theme in Scripture of first born sons being replaced by their younger brothers because they did not honor their parents. You can protect your legacy by ensuring the legacy of your parents.
  • Social Justice vs God’s Justice – Universities, entertainers, and HR departments relentlessly push the ideas of social justice. There are daily riots and political demonstrations in favor of social justice. Black Lives Matter riots, gay pride parades, women’s rights marches…. Everyone is talking about justice, but does anyone know what it is? Proverbs 28:4-5 tells how anyone can fully comprehend justice.

Patriarchy, Feminism, and the Government of a Godly People

The antidote to feminism isn't patriarchy, but repentance.

And I will make boys their princes, and infants shall rule over them. And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor; the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable. For a man will take hold of his brother in the house of his father, saying: “You have a cloak; you shall be our leader, and this heap of ruins shall be under your rule”; in that day he will speak out, saying: “I will not be a healer; in my house there is neither bread nor cloak; you shall not make me leader of the people.”

…My people—infants are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, your guides mislead you and they have swallowed up the course of your paths. The LORD has taken his place to contend; he stands to judge peoples. The LORD will enter into judgment with the elders and princes of his people: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard, the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?” declares the Lord GOD of hosts. The LORD said: Because the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet, therefore the Lord will strike with a scab the heads of the daughters of Zion, and the LORD will lay bare their secret parts….Your men shall fall by the sword and your mighty men in battle. And her gates shall lament and mourn; empty, she shall sit on the ground.

And seven women shall take hold of one man in that day, saying, “We will eat our own bread and wear our own clothes, only let us be called by your name; take away our reproach.” In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.

Isaiah 3:4-4:6 (abbreviated)

A Nation of Weak Men

This prophecy in Isaiah concerned the ancient nations of Israel and Judah as well as the coming Messiah and His Kingdom, but there are still lessons for us to learn from the example. Look at the sins that brought about this punishment from God: men refusing to take leadership, teachers leading the people astray, oppression by selfish rulers, oppression of neighbor against neighbor, promiscuity, vanity and dominion of women.

When the men God called to leadership refuse to take it, women, children, and fools take it instead. God brings down the proud and avenges the oppressed. He will not sit idly by forever. In time, God will purge His people so that only those worthy and those willing to accept His ways will survive. Men will accept the role that God assigned to them as the heads of their families and the leaders of their people. Women will accept the role that God assigned to them as their husbands’ assistants and supporters.

“In that day, seven women will take hold of one man,” the prophet says, and today’s western Christian immediately recoils in horror at the thought. “What!? Women subjecting themselves to the authority of a man?” But this is not a part of the sin, this is a part of the healing process. When men turn to God and accept the leadership He desires for them, and when women turn to their men and accept the headship that God has placed over them, then we will begin to truly see what God can do with His people.

The Symptoms of Decline

These things are specifically listed in Chapter 3 as being good things that God would take away as punishment for their sins; they are the support and sustenance of a nation:

  • Food and water
  • Strong men and soldiers
  • Judges, prophets, administrators, elders, military commanders, honorable men, skilled craftsmen, and eloquent speakers

These things are listed as either sinful or the terrible consequences of the absence of those things listed above:

  • Government by women, children, and weak-minded men
  • Infighting
  • Disrespect for elders
  • Elevation of the disreputable above the honorable
  • Prideful and vain women

The pattern should be obvious. The first list is typical of a well-ordered, patriarchal society. The second is typical of a feminized democracy. Except for the judgeship of Deborah when no man was willing to stand up for the whole people, God’s mandated leadership throughout all of Israel’s history was masculine. Every one of God’s specially appointed kings, priests, elders, and judges (with that one exception) was a man. The only times when women led the nation were times of turmoil and weak-willed men.

Feminism Is an Effect, not the Cause of Trouble

I do not mean that no woman should ever be in a leadership position, or that it is somehow a sin for a woman to have authority over men. Some women are well suited for leadership, and some leadership positions are best occupied by women, and there is no command in God’s Law against women holding leadership positions. We should thank Him that there are competent and willing women available to take charge when all of the men have advocated their responsibilities!

None the less, any society with a significant percentage of its leadership positions–civil, business, family, or religious–occupied by women is already in serious trouble. A healthy society will always be governed primarily by godly men.

Humble Righteousness Is the Cure

If weak and selfish men are the disease and feminism a symptom, what is the cure?

Repentance.

In Isaiah 4, the healing begins with the repentance of women, but if that’s as far as it went, then there would have been no real healing at all. Ultimately, national healing requires the humble repentance of men.

We could take back the reins of power, take the vote away from women, and re-establish men-only universities and clubs… But without godliness, that would only replace one tyranny with another.

The solution to crime, corruption, and decaying public morality isn’t patriarchy in itself, but humble, righteous men picking up their divinely appointed staffs and mantles in their homes, churches, and synagogues. Be the men that God intended for you to be. Live righteously. Keep the commandments. Ensure justice for the oppressed–the legitimately oppressed, not people who merely imagine themselves to be oppressed–the widows and orphans.

When we obey God, when we follow his standards in our personal lives and in our homes, the rest will fall into place naturally.

How to Keep the Sabbath

How to keep the weekly Sabbath

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 to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and 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

God had a lot to say about the Sabbath in the Bible, and I don’t think God wastes words. If we take the Bible seriously, we can’t deny that the Sabbath is important. He said “Do it because I did it. Do it because it’s a sign of the covenant between you and Me. Do it because you were a slave and those who work for you deserve a day off too. Do it because it honors me. Do it because it’s my day, and I want you to.”

Work six days. Take the seventh day off. That sounds easy enough. It’s a single day of rest each week, from sunset on Friday until sunset on Saturday. How hard can that be?

Pretty hard, as it turns out.

We thank God for Fridays as we leave the office on the last work day of the week. We kick back, spend some time with family and friends, maybe watch a little television…and then we go back to work on Saturday morning.

That grass won’t cut itself, after all. The car won’t fix itself. The windows need washing, the bills need paying, and you’ve got a pile of papers leftover from the office to sort through. Who’s got time to take a day off?

You do.

In fact, you can’t afford not to take the seventh day off, and let me tell you why.

The Sabbath belongs to God, and he commanded us to keep it. However, Yeshua said that the Sabbath was made for us. Does God need to rest? Probably not, yet he rested on the seventh day of creation as an example for us. Like sleep, friendship, and love, rest from labor is an essential ingredient to human fulfillment.

Seven is the number of completion, and we can’t be complete without the seventh day Sabbath. We can never fully realize all of the good that God has for us without it.

Earlier, I wrote about how we can know that the day we call “Saturday” now, the seventh day of the week, is the real Sabbath. Once you see the facts laid out, that part’s not so difficult. Keeping the Sabbath the way God intended is something else entirely.

Part 1: Why is it so hard to keep the Sabbath?

I think there are three reasons it can be hard to keep the weekly Sabbath.

First, some people just hate God and everything he does. They want to do everything God said not to do, and nothing that he commanded. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably not one of them, so I’m not going to spend any more time on that.

Second, it really is difficult to break the momentum of life. Everything has to change on this one day. Did you drive a truck all week? Crunch numbers? Make nice with frustrated retail customers? Full stop. On the Sabbath you don’t do that. That kind of shift requires deliberate effort and some major habit changes.

I’m probably not the best person to help you make a change in mindset or habits, but there are many out there who are expert at it. A supportive family and community will probably be more helpful to you in this respect than anything else.

Third, most people simply don’t know how to keep the Sabbath. There are bad teachers and false teachers. There are things we’ve heard and things we’re just “sure” the Bible says, but can’t remember where.

What does it mean not to do any work? What about cooking? Maybe you’ve heard that you’re not supposed to turn a light switch on. What if you’re on call or you work in a hospital? Isn’t this all just for the Jews anyway?

Should We Just Keep the Sabbath Like the Jews Do?

There are a lot of traditions about how to keep the Sabbath. The rabbis have spent thousands of years accumulating rules about what you can’t do and how much of what you are allowed. Even in Yeshua’s day, the multitude of rules had become overbearing. An Orthodox Jewish rabbi can spend years studying the laws of Shabbat, and still not learn everything there is to know about it.

It seems to me that if your day of rest is more burdensome than a regular work day, you must be doing something wrong.

I don’t mean to totally dismiss rabbinical learning regarding the Sabbath. They are the heirs of more than 3000 years of learning, practice, and tradition regarding God’s Law. While I believe they have gone overboard in many respects, they have put an enormous amount of consideration into the matter, and their teaching is often profound in its depth and elegance. It shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

But it’s easy to get lost in the complexity and to lose the distinction between commandment and tradition, and some of it really is just nuts. We have families, communities, and businesses to run. Very few of us have years to invest in mastering a set of religious rules whose connection to God’s commandments is tenuous.

Ninety percent of tradition regarding the Sabbath probably isn’t relevant to your life and a significant portion of the rest is nonsense. I don’t want you to give up because you the essential truth is buried beneath centuries of extraneous tradition.

How Are We Supposed to Keep the Sabbath?

In preparing for this article, I searched the scriptures for every reference to the Sabbath and did my best to distill it all down to what really matters. Unfortunately, I am going to have to discuss some do’s and don’t’s. God was very clear that some things aren’t allowed and that some other things are required. There’s no way around that.

I have organized the Biblical Sabbath injunctions into three categories:

  1. Positive commandments: Are we supposed to go to church? Take the day off? Sit silently all day?
  2. Negative commandments: What constitutes work? Are we allowed to cook? Use a computer? Light a fire?
  3. Gray areas: Is it OK to drive to church or synagogue? What if we’re away from home and we’re hungry? What about people who have to work on Saturdays?

That third category is necessary because God doesn’t spell everything out for us. He expects us to think carefully about his Law and to work out the ambiguities in our communities, families, and consciences. I believe that’s part of his plan for building character in his people. I’ll try to point you in the right direction, but you’re going to have to make some decisions for yourself.


Part 2: The Positive Commandments

When we think about the weekly Sabbath, we usually think about what we are not allowed to do: don’t work, don’t kindle fires, don’t buy and sell, etc., but God also had a lot to say about what we are required to do on the Sabbath.

In this email, I have listed the positive Sabbath commandments with scriptural references for each, as well as discussing what each one means for us today.

Keep the Sabbath holy

(Genesis 2:2-3; Exodus 20:8, 31:14, 35:2; Deuteronomy 5:12; Isaiah 56:2, 58:13-14; Jeremiah 17:19-27; Ezekiel 20:11-24, 22:8, 23:38, 44:24-25, 46:1-3)

God said to “keep my Sabbath’s holy” so many times that its importance to him cannot be overstated. We must keep the weekly Sabbath separate (the literal meaning of “holy”) from other days.

Paul’s discussion about days in Romans 14:5-6 is about whether it’s better to fast on one day or another, and not about keeping the Sabbath. Likewise, his discussion of holidays in Colossians 2:16 is about man-made rules, not about God’s commandments.

The Sabbath is sacred, and no one is authorized to change that. It must be kept sacred primarily by two methods.

First, we sanctify the Sabbath by very deliberately moving the focus of our attention away from our own needs and labors to the needs of God and, by extension to the needs of his creatures, especially those who were also made in his image. We stop thinking about paying bills and making deals, and instead we think about our relationship with our Creator, as well as with our neighbors.

Second, we follow God’s instructions as outlined in the rest of this article. On every other day of the week, we may work, play, and conduct our lives in almost any manner we choose, but this day is different. On the Sabbath, we stop doing all of those other things, and instead we study the Scriptures, pray, fellowship, and ease one another’s burdens.

Keep the Sabbath for God’s sake

(Leviticus 19:30, 26:2; Numbers 15:30-36; Nehemiah 9:14; Isaiah 58:13-14, 66:23; Ezekiel 20:11-24, 23:38)

The Sabbath was made for man (Matthew 12:11-3; Mark 2:27-28; Luke 6:5), but that doesn’t mean God gets no benefit from it. Like any good parent, he wants us to do those things which are best for us, and he wants to have a close relationship with us. The Sabbath enhances both. It’s important to God that we keep it, therefore we keep it not only for our sake, but for his.

Assemble on the Sabbath

(Leviticus 23:1-3)

There is only one explicit command to assemble on the Sabbath, and it is a general command for all of God’s appointed times:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the LORD that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the LORD in all your dwelling places…
Leviticus 23:1-3

Although this instruction is only given once, it is exemplified by the actions of the prophets and apostles throughout Scripture, and by related prophecies in Isaiah and Ezekiel.

In Isaiah 66:23 and Ezekiel 46:1-3, God said that all people and the people of Israel, respectively, will one day gather to worship him on the days of the new moon and the weekly Sabbath.

In 2 Kings 4:23, a conversation between a woman and her husband hints that it was common practice to gather for teaching on the weekly Sabbath, and 2 Kings 16:18 talks about a covered walkway constructed at the Temple for the king’s private use on the Sabbath, indicating that the weekly gatherings were important enough that the king made a point of attending.

Yeshua made a lifelong habit of attending the local synagogue for Torah readings and teachings every Sabbath. (See Matthew 12:9; Mark 1:21, 3:1, 6:2; Luke 4:16-30, 4:31-37, 6:6-10, 13:10.) Paul also attended synagogue every Sabbath. (See Acts 13, 15:21, 16:13, 17:1-3, 18:4.)

There’s nothing wrong with gathering for worship on any other day of the week, so long as we don’t neglect gathering on the seventh day Sabbath.

Relieve suffering

There is no direct command to relieve the suffering of others on the Sabbath, but there are commands to relieve the suffering of others in general. Most notably, Leviticus 19:18 says to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and this obligation doesn’t stop on the Sabbath. This was a continual point of conflict between Yeshua and the Jewish religious experts of his day.

When the Master and his disciples were passing through a grain field, the disciples plucked heads of grain and ate as they walked. Not only did Yeshua not rebuke them, but he defended their actions. They weren’t harvesting by any normal standards. They had no blades or bags. It can’t even be said that they were gleaning as the poor were allowed to do behind the regular harvesters. They were homeless and hungry, so they ate. To refuse them would have been needlessly harsh and would have created the added burden of hunger to their journey. (See Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28, Luke 6:1-5.)

On numerous other occasions, Yeshua made a point of healing the sick, handicapped, and oppressed on the Sabbath. Although the Pharisees and Sadducees objected, he pointed out that they rightly have no objection to performing circumcisions on the Sabbath, and none of them would hesitate to rescue an animal from a ditch on the Sabbath. How much greater is it to relieve the sick from their oppressive burdens? Healing is not only allowed on the Sabbath, it is an even greater good than otherwise, as it allows more people to rest and no payment can be asked in return. (See Matthew 12:9-14; Mark 1:23-28, 1:30-31, 3:2-5; Luke 4:31-39, 6:6-10, 13:10-17, 14:1-6; John 5:1-17, 7:22-24, 9:1-16.)

Perform essential Temple & Covenantal duties

(Leviticus 24:1-9; Numbers 28:9-10; 2 Kings 11:5-9; 1 Chronicles 9:32, 23:31; 2 Chronicles 2:4, 8:12-13, 23:1-11, 31:2-3; Ezekiel 46:1-3; Matthew 12:5-6; John 7:21-24)

There is no Temple, so the instructions for Sabbath sacrifices don’t apply to us directly, but we can learn from them by example. The essential functions of the Temple and Covenant included sacrifices, replacing the Bread of the Presence, performing circumcisions, and rotating the contingents of guards and priests on duty. The common factor among all of these activities is ensuring the ability of other people to keep the Sabbath.

Equivalent activities today (and probably in the first century as well) include preparing our meeting places, providing security in various ways, conducting religious services, etc. All of these things can involve burdensome labor, but they must be done to some extent if people are to be able to gather for worship as the commandments require.

Note that the guards and priests serving at the Temple were rotated from one week to the next. This ensured that nobody would have to work every Sabbath, and I think that’s a good practice to follow whenever possible, especially if you are in a position to set schedules for other people. Also remember that a good leader doesn’t require his people to do what he is unwilling to do himself. If you must assign others to work on the Sabbath for some reason, you should put yourself in the rotation with them.

Keep even essential work on the Sabbath to a minimum and spread the load whenever possible.

Rest

(Exodus 31:15, 34:21, 35:2; Leviticus 23:3; Luke 23:56)

Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.
Exodus 34:21

The Hebrew for “rest” in this and other verses about the Sabbath is “Shabat”, which, according to Brown-Driver-Briggs literally means to stop. It means that, whatever you normally do to earn your living on other days, you will stop doing it on this day. The added “in plowing and harvest” means that considerations of business or harvest conditions are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter to God whether Saturday is your busiest, most lucrative day of the week. He said to stop and rest. Even if it is the first day in weeks that the fields have been dry enough to plow or harvest, you will rest on the Sabbath rather than work. Sometimes God sends a break in the storm so that you will have a greater opportunity to exercise your faith in him.

You will take a day off from work. You will relax. You will contemplate the goodness of God manifested through his Creation, rather than working to tame or manipulate the Creation through your own efforts.

The Sabbath is not a day to prepare for your old age or to worry about bills and groceries. It takes an effort to set those things aside, but this is a command of God. You will enjoy what he has given you, no matter how great or meager, and you will spend time in his presence, trusting in his Providence rather than worrying about your own.

A Positive Sabbath

As you can see, the Sabbath is intended to be a positive experience, an opportunity to refresh ourselves and our relationships with God and our community. While the shift in habits and attitude can be difficult, it isn’t a burden. In the long run, the Sabbath enhances our lives not only by taking away our labors, but by adding gratitude and joy.

The Sabbath was made for man, after all, not man for the Sabbath.


Part 3: The Negative Commandments

Sabbath Day taboos were a frequent point of conflict between Yeshua and the Jewish religious leaders of the first century. The Sadducees and Pharisees placed severe restrictions on what a person could and couldn’t do on the weekly Sabbath, what he could carry, how far he could walk, etc. Yeshua, on the other hand, said that these rules were themselves a violation of the Sabbath because of the heavy burden they placed on people.

The Judeo-Christian world has fragmented since then into a thousand different interpretations of the Sabbath, how to keep it, and whether we ought to keep it at all. One person will refuse to work at his job, but he will pay someone else to work at theirs. One person goes to church, while another won’t leave his house. One person won’t push a button or turn on a light, while another person says the Sabbath is obsolete and we should treat all days exactly alike.

The Jewish rabbis have continued to add volumes of restrictions to Sabbath, so many in fact, that they long ago had to organize them into thirty-nine types which can be grouped under six general headings: field work, making cloth curtains, making leather curtains, making the beams of the Tabernacle, assembling and disassembling the Tabernacle, and inaugurating the Tabernacle.

Why do curtains get two headings? And how does carrying a bed roll or long distance walking fit into this scheme?

Despite initial appearances, those six categories do make a sort of sense when you examine the reasoning behind them, but in my opinion, they have over-thought the issue into absurdity. If you ever find yourself seriously wondering whether pushing a wheelchair through a patch of dirt might be a violation of the Sabbath because the resulting ruts look suspiciously like furrows plowed in a field…then I think you have missed the point of the Sabbath.

I don’t believe that God has canceled the Sabbath that he instituted in the very first week of Creation, but I also believe that it shouldn’t be so complicated to keep that a person can spend months or years mastering the details. God gave us a day off from our concerns, not a day of agonizing over the minutia of daily life.

Unfortunately, since there is widespread disagreement over what is and is not acceptable on the Sabbath, we still have to talk about it. Most importantly, we must continually return to the Scriptures, God’s instruction manual for life, to remind ourselves what God actually said.

In preparing for this series, I compiled a list of Sabbath-related scriptures, which you can view here: Bible Passages about the Weekly Sabbath. I encourage you to read and study them yourself, and if you find that I am missing anything, please let me know in the comments on that blog post.

Rather than dividing up the negative commandments of Sabbath into thirty-nine categories or even six, I think they can be reduced to seven simple restrictions and summarized in two statements. I am confident that every capable adult can understand these rules and interpret them for their own lives and circumstances.

Let’s take the seven restrictions first.

The Sabbath’s Seven Restrictions

1. Do not gather manna

…Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none….The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.
Exodus 16:1-30

When God gave the Hebrews manna in the Wilderness, he instructed them to gather it for six days only, gathering twice as much on the sixth day, and none at all on the seventh. If anyone gathered extra on the other days, it rotted before morning, but the extra manna gathered on the sixth day would remain fresh and edible through the seventh. No manna fell at all on the seventh day, so anyone who disobeyed and went out to gather manna on the Sabbath came back empty-handed. Anyone who didn’t gather extra on the sixth day because they expected it to rot before morning as on other days would go hungry on the seventh.

The manna stopped when Israel entered the Promised Land, so this command no longer applies to us directly, but God was teaching eternal principles to them that we can still learn from in any age. The main principle is this: Obey God even when it doesn’t make sense. God does not make arbitrary rules. Every single statute and precept was given for our benefit. Trust him.

We might think that we will lose economic advantage if we close our shops and offices on the Sabbath, but it’s a lie. God provides for his faithful and rewards their obedience. Those rewards might not be in the form or in the time that we would prefer, but if we trust his judgment, they will always be in the form and time that is best suited to our needs.

2. Let no one go out of his place

See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.
Exodus 16:29

Although this command is actually part of the instructions for not gathering manna on the seventh day, I include it as a separate restriction because it is often understood as a general command not to travel more than a certain distance from one’s home. Through some convoluted eisegesis, the rabbis variously set this distance at 2000 cubits, 4000 cubits, or 8000 cubits (.5 to 1.5 miles), depending on the rabbi, the century in which the rabbi lived, and the circumstances of the person in question. A person who lived in a city might be allowed to travel a little further than someone who lived in a small village, and even further if his destination was in the countryside on the opposite side of the city.

However, the command was given within the context of gathering manna, and I don’t believe it was intended to apply to all travel, let alone to set a specific distance that one may “go out of his place”, when it plainly says that each person is not to leave his own place, not the collective “place” of the whole wilderness camp.

The Hebrews didn’t have to walk very far, let alone 2000 cubits, to gather a few liters of manna. It fell on the ground everywhere. They only had to step outside their sukkot (tents) and collect it from the ground right at their feet. If the intended meaning was “Don’t go outside to collect manna”–and it seems quite clear that it was–then it must mean not to step foot outside at all.

But it doesn’t mean that either, at least not in a general sense. “Remain each of you in his place” was given in the context of gathering the manna which stopped falling more than three thousand years ago. It wasn’t a command not to leave one’s sukkah (tent) for any reason at all, but not to go out to collect manna.

The command is about going out to find sustenance, not about going outside your house. In other words, don’t harvest, don’t collect rent, don’t accept payments, but by all means, go out to visit with your neighbor. Gather for worship. In fact, we are commanded to gather for worship on the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:3), which cannot be done without leaving our homes.

On the other hand, I’m also not saying that one should plan a journey on the Sabbath…but more on that later.

3. Do not work during plowing or harvest time

Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.
Exodus 34:21

Whether Old Testament or New, prophets or epistles, all of Scripture was written in the context of agrarian cultures. From behind our computer screens and air conditioned houses, it is easy to forget that, until the 20th century, almost everyone in the world worked in only four industries–farming, herding, fishing, and war–frequently in two or more of them at the same time. There were many other industries, of course, but those who made their living through masonry, carpentry, shipping, etc. were relatively few, and nobody at all worked in electronics.

In ancient Israel, everything revolved around the agricultural cycle. The Biblical feast days, invasions, migrations, trade routes…nearly anything you could think of was profoundly affected by plowing, planting, and harvesting. “In plowing time and in harvest” is a statement very similar to “the alpha and the omega”. It refers to the beginning and the end and everything in between.

So when the Torah says, “In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest,” it means that, no matter what you are doing, whether you work directly in agriculture or not, no matter what season of the year it is, you will rest on the seventh day of the week and refrain from your normal work. Every kind of work that a person might do to feed, clothe, and house himself, must cease on the Sabbath.

4. Do not do physical or menial labor

Six days you shall work (abad), but on the seventh day you shall rest….
Exodus 34:21

Six days you shall labor (abad) and do all your work…
Deuteronomy 5:13

See also: Matthew 24:20, Luke 13:16, Luke 23:54-56.

There are two Hebrew words commonly translated as work or labor in the Torah: abad and melakah. Abad refers to the kind of work which is frequently done by servants and hired laborers.

Obvious examples include harvesting, landscaping, plumbing, manufacturing, and house cleaning. Any task that you might hire someone else to do for you because it is demanding, dirty, unpleasant, etc., could be called “abad“, and we are not to do those things on the Sabbath.

Less obvious examples include arduous travel and bearing emotional and spiritual burdens or placing them on others. This is why Yeshua told the residents of Jerusalem to pray that they wouldn’t have to flee the city on the Sabbath (Matthew 24:20). A strict adherence to the command would require that they leave behind all of their possessions and not move harder and faster than they absolutely must to preserve their lives.

It is also why Yeshua frequently healed and delivered the oppressed on the Sabbath. If God does not want us to burden ourselves on this day, how much more must he approve of releasing others from their burdens, especially when it costs us nothing but a blessing or a prayer?

5. Do not transact business or engage in your occupation

Six days you shall labor, and do all your work (melakah), but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work (melakah), you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates.
Exodus 20:9-10

See also: Exodus 31:14-15, Exodus 35:2, Leviticus 23:3, Deuteronomy 5:13-15, Nehemiah 10:31, Nehemiah 13:15-22, Isaiah 58:13-14, Matthew 28:1, Mark 15:42-47, Mark 16:1.

The second Hebrew word that is commonly translated as work in the Torah is melakah, and it refers to commercial activity or a person’s occupation. Melakah is anything that a person might do to earn a living or to obtain greater wealth, and isn’t restricted to only laborious work.

The most obvious characteristic that distinguishes business from other activities is the element of trade. If the activity involves trading goods or services, including all of those tasks which are necessary to prepare and support the trade, such as accounting, marketing, and public relations, then it is forbidden on the Sabbath.

Not only are we not to engage in business ourselves, but–according to Nehemiah–we are not to patronize those who do. See Nehemiah 10:31,13:15-22.

6. Do not prepare for business

Six days work (melakah) shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.
Exodus 35:2-3

See also: Numbers 15:30-36, Isaiah 58:13-14.

The command not to kindle a fire on the Sabbath is usually understood to mean “don’t light a fire on the Sabbath”, and–depending on who you ask–might be applied to lighting candles, starting a car, or starting a gas stove.

I have titled this section “Do not prepare for business” instead of “Do not kindle a fire” because, as I examined all of the Sabbath-related Bible passages, I became convinced that the command was not about kindling any and all fires, but kindling fires in a specific context.

Moses didn’t arbitrarily tag an unrelated specific instruction (verse 3) on to the end of a general command (verse 2), but rather as a directly-related clarification. Let me rephrase the passage to better illustrate what I mean.

You have six days in the week to engage in your chosen occupation, but the seventh day is reserved as a solemn rest, set apart for God’s purposes alone. Whoever does business on the seventh day shall be put to death. Do not use the Sabbath to prepare for resuming your occupation after the sun sets, not even so much as kindling a fire.

Or to put it more succinctly…

Conduct business on six days of the week, but don’t even think about it on the seventh day. Don’t even think about thinking about it.

In the ancient world, almost every occupation required the kindling of fires for one reason or another. A smith must have a fire, of course, but farmers, carpenters, fishermen, and scribes also use fire in their businesses.

The intent of the command in Exodus 35:3 is to keep our minds on the Sabbath so long as the Sabbath lasts. We are not to use that time for planning and preparing to “hit the ground running” as soon as the sun sets. Although the Sabbath was created for man’s benefit, the entire day belongs to God.

It doesn’t seem like work to turn the home office computer on and write out a to-do list for after sunset, but to do so on the Sabbath is to rob God of time that he has set apart for our restoration. Resting from all our mundane cares on the Sabbath pleases God. It makes him happy. To use his day to get a jump start on the worries of the rest of the week is to rob him of that pleasure.

If the house is cold, I think it’s okay to light a fire in the fire place or to heat up some hot cocoa on the stove, but let the work week take care of itself. Don’t watch for the sunset, anxious to review that presentation, to fill that order, or to do whatever else it is that you do for a living.

Relax and enjoy the day off. Rest while you can. You know that you don’t get enough during the week.

7. Do not allow your family, servants, hirelings, guests, or animals to work

Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On 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 livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, 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 from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.
Deuteronomy 5:13-15

See also: Exodus 31:14, Nehemiah 10:31, Nehemiah 13:15-22, Luke 13:15, Colossians 2:16-19

God rewards obedience. His rewards aren’t always monetary or even tangible, but they are real all the same. Keeping the Sabbath is no different from other commandments. If we keep it, we will be rewarded. The Sabbath is a blessing.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” is also a commandment, and it is superior to all commandments that you might keep in order to gain rewards for yourself. In fact, it is such an important commandment, that Yeshua ranked it as the second most important of all, right after the command to hear, obey, and love God.

It is more important to love your neighbor than to keep the Sabbath.

I will go even further and say that, if you don’t love your neighbor then you cannot keep the Sabbath, because Sabbath-keeping requires you to give your family, your employees, and even your animals the day off too. If you don’t do that, you might as well just go back to the office yourself.

We are commanded to see that those under our authority keep the Sabbath.

But don’t be too zealous about it. Don’t put unnecessary burdens on people through extra-biblical regulations that might cause more stress and turn the day into yet another onerous chore. Be understanding and consider that other people won’t always agree with your interpretation and application of God’s instructions. Sometimes they’re right.

In modern America, we don’t own slaves, and we can’t order our employees to follow God’s instructions on their own time, but we can make sure that we aren’t living or doing business in such a way that we require–or even encourage–others to break the Sabbath. We can close our offices. We can ask landscapers, housekeeping, and others to schedule their visits on other days. We can eat at home instead of going to a restaurant. There are a thousand little ways we can change our lifestyles to help others keep the Sabbath.

Even if the people who labor on our behalf don’t want to keep the Sabbath and will bus someone else’s table if we don’t go to their restaurant, at least we will know that we didn’t contribute to their actions. We didn’t encourage, bribe, or extort them into working on the one day that God set apart just for their benefit.

However, this restriction introduces some interesting conflicts that might require us to do some work on the Sabbath that we wouldn’t otherwise.

If you have animals that require food, water, or shelter, then take care of them even on the Sabbath. If you don’t, you will be placing a burden on them that they wouldn’t have on another day, turning their rest into labor.

Do you have guests in your home on the Sabbath? Don’t make them uncomfortable by refusing to serve them and making them fend for themselves in your kitchen and bathroom, especially if they are unaccustomed to keeping the Sabbath in their own home. It doesn’t take much work to change sheets, fetch towels, make tea, and so on. Don’t expect them to know or understand or even accept your traditions. Just be a good host. Love your visitors and be grateful that they have chosen to visit you. They have given you an opportunity to perform a good deed by unburdening them on the Sabbath, so take advantage of it.

Two Summaries of the Seven Restrictions

Keeping the Sabbath shouldn’t be complicated

Don’t labor. Don’t do business. Don’t make other people work. Don’t put burdens on others.

The seven restrictions I discussed above are pretty straightforward, but let me simplify them even more with two summarizing statements.

Statement One: Do not provide or arrange for the future or ongoing physical needs of yourself or others.

Whether it’s gathering manna or trading stocks on Wall Street, the Sabbath is not for providing for the mundane needs of tomorrow. The seventh day is about spiritual needs. Remove the burdens of care and labor for just this one day and focus on rest, restoration, and being in unity with your community and especially with your Creator.

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
Matthew 6:25

And that goes doubly for the Sabbath.

Statement Two: Do not place burdens on yourself or others.

Labor takes more forms than just working with your hands. There are burdens of the mind and spirit that weigh more heavily than any bag of cement mix.

Do that which brings you joy. Don’t do that which causes you distress.

Maybe working in the vegetable garden isn’t appropriate on the Sabbath, but if getting your hands a little dirty brings you peace and facilitates fellowship with Yahweh, then plant some flowers during the week that you can care for on the Sabbath. I wouldn’t turn over a new bed, but a little pruning and weeding doesn’t seem to me like much of a burden, and unless you’re a florist or horticulturist, it’s hard to call that doing business.

Remember that no one bears the same burden in the same way. What seems easy to you might be crushing to someone else. Be sensitive of the needs of others. Don’t put them in a position to have to work at their occupation on the Sabbath, but also be careful of putting them under burdens which are less physically tangible. Be kind and considerate. Be cautious with your words and sparing with discipline, scolding, and condemnation.

The seventh day Sabbath is a sign by which God’s people are to remember that they are his (Exodus 31:13), and the Sabbath is characterized, more than anything else, by the loosening of burdens and cares.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Matthew 11:28-30

What sort of god gives his people a yoke of slavery and impossible rules as a special sign of their relationship to him? Not mine.

On the contrary, the Sabbath is a blessing and a sign that our God truly loves us and his Law is a profound and thorough expression of that.


Part 4: The Gray Areas

The Bible is a big book with a lot of words, but it still doesn’t spell everything out. How could it? Detailed instructions for every moral dilemma that a person might encounter would fill up more books than have ever been written. This is not to say that the Bible doesn’t have something to say about every question in life–it does–but primarily it informs rather than dictates.

The purpose of the Bible, at least as it pertains to our daily behavior, isn’t to make our decisions for us, but to give us guidelines and principles by which we can learn to make sound decisions for ourselves. Like any child, we need to have some things spelled out for us, but we shouldn’t remain as children. Eventually, the rules need to be internalized and understood so thoroughly that we are able to navigate moral obstacles for which we have no prior experience and no direct instructions.

Most Christians have been taught all their lives that the Sabbath was thrown out with our sins, that having been forgiven by God for not following his rules, we are free to…not follow his rules. Despite the logical absurdity of such a doctrine and despite the total lack of any Biblical support, this is the assumption of almost all Christians in America today.

Those of us who have begun hearing the Spirit’s call to return to God’s ways of life over the last few decades are like infants just learning to walk. Fortunately, we can get some guidance to those who have more experience keeping the Sabbath, like Jewish rabbis and Seventh Day Adventists, and there can be no doubt that they have much to teach us. However, their teachings–especially those of the rabbis–are heavily weighted toward tradition over commandment. Rabbinic teaching on the Sabbath can be quite helpful from a philosophical standpoint, but it frequently lacks something on the practical side…or perhaps I should say that it doesn’t lack enough. We won’t gain any ground if we simply replace one set of man-made traditions with another.

In this article, I discuss God’s explicit instructions about the Sabbath as they were given through Moses and the prophets, but we are separated from the cultural context of the Bible by a very long span of time. There were no computers, no automobiles, and no emergency rooms when the Scriptures were written. Today we don’t live in a culture that recognizes the Sabbath, let alone honors it.

We have some gray areas, to say the least. I can’t address them all, but I can discuss some common questions and provide some guidelines for helping you to make your own decisions in your peculiar circumstances.

Before we can see clearly enough to judge shades of grays, we need to consider the nature of Sabbath and why God wants us to rest on the seventh day of the week. This will give us more light to push back that fog.

The Positive and Negative Commandments

Let me quickly review some of what I’ve discussed above.

God never said, “Here’s the real deal behind the Sabbath.” He gave us patterns and stories instead. He said, “I rested, so you will rest too. You were slaves in Egypt, so you will let others rest with you.” And he gave us explicit rules, some positive and some negative, to tell us how he means for us to rest.

The Positive Commandments

  1. Keep the Sabbath holy for God’s sake
  2. Assemble on the Sabbath
  3. Rest and allow others to rest
  4. Perform essential Temple and Covenantal duties

The Negative Commandments

  1. Don’t provide for yourself or others through labor or trade
  2. Don’t place burdens of any kind on yourself or others

The specifics of what God told us to do and not do on the Sabbath tell us much about the day’s purpose.

The Nature of Sabbath

There is a large literary structure (known as a chiasm) in Exodus that links the weekly Sabbath to the wilderness Tabernacle.

  • 24:12-18 – The glory of God on the mountain
    • 25:31-11 – Construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings
      • 31:12-17 – The Sabbath
        • 31:18-34:35 – Stone tablets, golden calf, commandments, God’s glory
      • 35:1-3 – The Sabbath
    • 35:4-40:33 – Construction of the Tabernacle and its furnishings
  • 40:34-38 – The glory of God on the Tabernacle

The events surrounding the golden calf are walled off from the rest of Torah, first by the Sabbath and second by the Tabernacle.

There are two reasons for this:

First, the Tabernacle and the Sabbath are both places set apart for interacting with God. The Tabernacle is set apart in space, while the Sabbath is set apart in time. Our interactions with God aren’t restricted to these places–we ought to pray and serve him in every place and on every day–but these places are especially holy, reserved for God’s purposes and not our own.

Second, both the Tabernacle and the Sabbath were given by God to restore his people to healthy relationship with him. The Tabernacle separated us from sin and death because those things are anathema to God’s presence. We were created to live in harmony with God’s order. The Sabbath separates us from worry and oppression because these too are not how God wants us to exist. He wants us to live in faith and freedom.

Consider that, no matter what day of the week you believe Yeshua was crucified, we know for certain that he was in the grave for the whole seventh day. It seems to me that the Sabbath would be the perfect day to restore a person to life, and that’s exactly what he did. But he didn’t restore himself to life on that day; he restored us! He remained in the grave on the Sabbath day to show that all of our spiritual burdens were crucified with him and permanently removed from our souls. When he rose at the start of the first day, he left those burdens behind so that we could remain free.

David Wilkerson once said that “Breaking the Sabbath is simply carrying your burdens that belong on his back.

On just this one day of the week, God wants us to trust in him. Yes, we could make more money if we worked that extra day, but we earn more where it really counts–in God’s ledgers–by trusting him even when we don’t see the point. Through obedience and faith, we are brought back just a little bit closer to our origins in the Garden of Eden, where we walked with God in harmony with one another and with his Creation.

The Sabbath is a day for restoring life, for easing burdens, for building trust in God, for repairing what has been broken, and for rebuilding the relationship between Man and God.

Standing in God’s presence on the weekly Sabbath is as close to Eden as we will ever get in this life.

So on the seventh day of every week, we leave labor and business behind. We refrain from doing those things that increase burdens, provide for ourselves, or cause others to have to work for their own futures. We rest our bodies, minds, and spirits, and we refresh ourselves in worship, Bible study, and fellowship.

Can I Do This on the Sabbath?

With all of this in mind, let’s consider some activities that can be difficult to judge.

Business-Related Activities on the Sabbath

The impact of Sabbath on physical labor and business are fairly easy to understand, but what about activities that are related to business, but don’t directly affect your bottom line? Business conferences, professional education, and reading professional publications, for example.

Even though we might not be paid directly for our time spent in these activities, money isn’t the only capital at play. Time, connections, and knowledge are also business resources that can be traded and used for material gain.

Maybe you find technical manuals and trade journals relaxing. That seems unlikely to me, but it’s possible. However, if you’re doing something primarily for your economic well-being, no matter what it is, I don’t see any way around it being “business”, and God said not to do business on the Sabbath.

Entertainment on the Sabbath

God wants the seventh day to be different than the other six days of the week. He wants our minds primarily focused on him.

Isaiah 58:13-14 says we should call the Sabbath a delight instead of doing our own pleasure on that day.

Does that mean we can’t do anything fun on the Sabbath? No, it means that we shouldn’t do we want instead of keeping the Sabbath. It does not mean that we can’t do anything that gives us pleasure. It’s fine to play games or watch a movie, depending on the game and the movie.

Watching television is potentially a more complicated matter. Modern technologies like digital programming and Internet streaming certainly require fewer people to be at work for you to watch television on the Sabbath than it used to, but what about the technicians that monitor the equipment and the power company employees who maintain the electrical grid?

This line of inquiry could be endless. Exactly where you end it is up to you. I would discourage you from watching live events, like sports, that require many people to be at their occupations on the Sabbath, but I wouldn’t worry about power company employees and others who maintain the infrastructure of civilization. Even if everyone turned their televisions off, most of those people would still be at work. (That raises another question about job requirements, but I’ll get to that below.)

To know whether or not a fun pastime is compatible with the Sabbath, ask yourself if it involves strenuous physical activity or work, if it requires anyone else to work, and if it dishonors God. If you can answer no to those questions, then it’s probably alright.

Sports and Athletics on the Sabbath

I know that what I have to say about athletic activities on the Sabbath will be unpopular, but I’m not here to validate your desires. I’m writing to help you see God’s will for your life.

If you are you a professional athlete, this question becomes much simpler. Your sport is your occupation. If you are paid to play basketball, then don’t play basketball and don’t do any of the drills and other activities that you might otherwise do to train on the Sabbath.

If you don’t make money from playing a sport, whether or not it violates the Sabbath depends on the sport and on your physical condition. The primary questions become:

  1. Is it physically strenuous? Rest is a positive commandment. We are required to take it easy on the Sabbath, but what “rest” means will vary from one person to the next. If you’re a triathlete, then a bit of badminton probably isn’t much work, but that won’t be true for everyone or every activity. What is casually relaxing to one person might be more demanding on another.
  2. Does it cause anyone else to work? Are you going somewhere that requires paid staff on site? Golf might not be hard work, but if playing requires other people to engage in their occupations, then you will be causing them to violate the Sabbath.

You will have to consider these questions carefully, for yourself and for anyone else who might want to join you.

Housekeeping on the Sabbath

Housekeeping might not seem like a gray area to many people, but it’s not as simple as it seems.

For some people, a cluttered and dirty space can be very stressful. It could also be unpleasant for guests. What if your congregation shares a building with a Sunday church and the youth group left a mess the night before your meeting? Should you clean up or ignore it? Like other gray areas, this can be a very personal issue and difficult to judge, so let me give you some guidelines, and I’ll leave the details to you.

  • If housekeeping is one of your responsibilities during the week, avoid it on the Sabbath as much as possible.
  • If it’s only a matter of personal comfort, consider changing your location instead of cleaning.
  • If it’s a matter of making guests feeling welcome and being a good host, do what you have to do, but no more than you have to do.
  • Many hands make light work. If your shared space is dirty or cluttered, working together will minimize the work for everyone.
  • Straightening up and putting the dishes away might not be work. Scrubbing definitely is.
  • Ask yourself, does this really need to be done right now? Are you absolutely certain it can’t wait until after sunset?

Cooking on the Sabbath

It seems to me that cooking is very much like athletics and housekeeping, at least on the Sabbath. Whether or not cooking a meal is a violation really depends on what’s involved in the process and how you feel about it. Avoid big, complicated productions, and if cooking is one of your daily responsibilities, then you should avoid it on the Sabbath as much as possible.

On the other hand, it’s hard to see how scrambled eggs and toast is work unless you’re cooking for the whole family or a large group. Whenever possible, have food prepared ahead of time, and if you have to cook, keep it simple and easy. Distribute the workload by letting someone cook for you or letting everyone fend for themselves.

Intellectual Activities on the Sabbath

I don’t know of anyone who would say Bible study breaks the Sabbath, but there must be some point at which mental activities become real work. As with physical activities, that point is subjective. What strains my brain might not strain yours.

There are some intellectual exercises that clearly cross the line, though. Homework, accounting (even if it’s strictly personal finances), scientific research, computer programming, professional studies… All of these things require significant brainpower, are usually done as part of a professional occupation, and serve to take our minds far from the purpose of Sabbath, which is to restore spiritual balance and enhance our relationships with God and man.

Everything that a person might do requires some amount of thought, so there will always be a gradient between what is and is not appropriate. Intellectual activities are no different than physical ones in that respect. Referring back to the positive and negative commandments of Sabbath will help you clear up most of the questions.

What If My Boss Wants Me to Work on the Sabbath?

Most people work for employers who do not keep a seventh day Sabbath as God commanded, and very few are able to quit their jobs whenever they want. We have families and financial responsibilities and losing a job could be catastrophic.

We should do what we can to be off of work on the seventh day. Explain the situation to your boss. Tell him how important it is to you to have that day off, but if you are ultimately faced with a choice between working and losing your home or letting your family go hungry, then keep going to work while you look for another job. It’s important that you don’t give up and assume you can’t change your situation. Until you find another source of income, go to the office or shop or job site cheerfully. Don’t be resentful, but use it as an opportunity to bring a little bit of Sabbath to the people you work with. God provides for those who believe in him.

If your job involves maintaining critical infrastructure or providing medical or other vital services, then don’t feel bad about working on the Sabbath. You don’t necessarily need to look for a different job, either. Preserving life and treating the sick and injured takes precedence. These are good things to do on the Sabbath. Rest on another day and try to rotate the Sabbath with coworkers so that no one person has to be at work every weekend.

Gradients of Gray

I can’t address every possible scenario. The specific circumstances that any person might encounter are infinite. Fortunately, after going through the general categories of activities above, some helpful patterns and questions should become clear. If you can answer yes to any of the following questions, then you should seriously consider not doing that activity on the Sabbath.

  • Does this activity materially benefit me or my family today or in the future?
  • Does this activity involve strenuous physical activity?
  • Does this activity involve doing business or engaging in my occupation or does it encourage anyone else to work?
  • Does this activity put unnecessary burdens on myself or anyone else?

Since nothing we do is one dimensional, we also need to consider mitigating factors. If you can answer yes to any of these questions, then it might be OK to keep doing what you’re doing.

  • Does this activity preserve life or maximize the rest and restoration of myself or others?
  • Does this activity facilitate the gathering of believers to worship and study together?
  • Would not doing this activity cause severe consequences to anyone’s well-being?

Many things that we find ourselves wanting to do on the Sabbath (cleaning, cooking, fueling the car, etc.) would have been done ahead of time. These are habits that we need to work on. Don’t beat yourself up about getting some things wrong now and then. Just keep moving in the right direction.

Ultimately, I can only tell you what the Bible says. Everything else is just my opinion. You are the one living in your own skin and in your own house. You have to weigh all the factors and weight your priorities in order to decide for yourself what is acceptable and what isn’t.

If someday you discover that you need to change your behavior, then change it. Repent and move on. God is faithful and eager to forgive those whose trust is in him. Don’t waste time feeling guilty about honest mistakes, and don’t let other people judge you over matters of tradition and opinion. (See Colossians 2:16-23.)

If someone wastes time and energy accusing you of violating commands that exist only in their personal interpretation of Scripture, then they are putting unnecessary burdens on people and disrupting the restoration that ought to be their focus on Sabbath. They are putting themselves squarely in the camp of the Pharisees who replaced God’s commands with their own traditions, and they are aligning themselves with Satan, whose primary function is to falsely accuse the faithful.

Don’t argue with them. Bless them, pray for them, and then ignore them.

Many questions will not have clear answers. God doesn’t draw big, neon signs in the air to point us in the right direction, and this is part of his plan for our growth. Maturity comes through friction and hard choices. Pray, study the scriptures for yourself, ask for advice, and move forward in your own spiritual development.

Shabbat shalom!

Will the Real Sabbath Please Stand Up?

There are a lot of crazy ideas out there about what day is the real weekly Sabbath, but it's not that complicated.

And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.
Genesis 2:2-3

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 to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made heaven and 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

Remember the Sabbath Day to Keep It Holy

God rested on the seventh day, blessed it, and separated it from other days (made it holy). Then he commanded Israel to “Remember the Sabbath day” in order to keep it separate through refraining from our work. God’s work during the first week was creation, so on the Sabbath, he stopped creating. He very deliberately made that day different from the previous six days, and commanded Israel to continue what he had begun by resting every seventh day.

Almost everyone around the world believes that the day we call Saturday in English is the seventh day of the week and, therefore, the Sabbath that God said to remember. In fact, many languages from different linguistic families and regions have a name for that day that is very similar to our word Sabbath, which comes from the Hebrew word Shabbat. Here are just a few examples:

  • Hebrew – Shabbat
  • Spanish – Sabado
  • Russian – Subbota
  • Somali – Sabti
  • Javanese – Sabtu
  • Arabic – Alsabt

Across Europe, Asia, and Africa, people of many different tongues use a word very similar to the Hebrew word, Shabbat, to describe the day we call Saturday, and some of those words can be traced back to the most ancient texts of the language. While this doesn’t prove that Saturday is the original Sabbath, it does show that people all over the world have believed so for thousands years.

However, billions of people believing something doesn’t make their belief true, and there are some competing theories. For example, despite calling the seventh day some variation of “Sabbath”, for almost 2000 years, most Christians have actually kept the first day of the week, Sunday, as the “Christian Sabbath”.

After so much time has passed, does it really matter all that much?

God thought the Sabbath was so important that he mandated the death penalty for Israelites who refused to take the day off from their work. The Bible says that those who love God will keep his commandments. So it seems to me that every Israelite who loves both God and his own life ought also to consider keeping the Sabbath a very important matter, and how can you keep it if you don’t even know what day it is?

Competing Claims for the Sabbath

Despite the linguistic and traditional evidence that Saturday is the Sabbath that God wants us to remember and keep, there are at least three competing theories that claim otherwise.

1. The Unknowable Sabbath
2. The Lunar Sabbath
3. The Christian Sabbath

Before I address these different ideas, I want to make a vital point. Don’t skip this. Everything else depends on it.

Yeshua kept the Sabbath and kept it perfectly. If he didn’t, then he wasn’t sinless, wasn’t the Messiah, and died for nothing.

Nothing.

Yeshua kept the same Sabbath that all Jews of his day kept. We can know this because he had many arguments with the lawyers and teachers of his day about the Sabbath, but all of their arguments were about how to keep the Sabbath. They never argued about when. Therefore, we know that the Jews of Yeshua’s day kept the Sabbath on the right day because they kept it on the same day that Yeshua did.

Can We Really Know Which Day of the Week is the 7th Day?

The Egyptians had a calendar, the Babylonians had a different one, and the Greeks, Romans, Chinese, and Hebrews all had theirs. Today, most of the world uses a calendar derived from the Romans, mostly due to their 600 year dominance of the western world. However, our calendar is only superficially similar to the one used by the ancient Republic. It used to have 304 days and 10 months until Julius Caesar corrected it to the 365 days and 12 months that we still have today. More corrections were made over the centuries to fine tune the calendar year to sync with the actual time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun. The most recent significant update was the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which the British Empire, including America, didn’t adopt until 1752.

So with all of these calendar changes, how do we know that the day we call Saturday is the same as the day the ancient Jews called Shabbat? The answer is actually quite simple…perhaps too simple to satisfy some of the more conspiracy minded readers.

We don’t need to track the week all the way back to creation. As I stated above, we only need to establish how Yeshua did it. If today’s seventh day is the same as the seventh day of Yeshua’s time, then that’s all we need to know.

The calendars of the Ancient Near East, including Babylon, Assyria, and Israel at the very least, have used a seven-day week since before the Assyrian invasion of Israel in the eighth century BC. At that time, Rome was using an eight-day week, but in the first-century BC, Rome began using the continuous seven-day week as well (“continuous” meaning that the seventh day of one week is always followed by the first day of the next week), only renaming the days after their own gods.

By the time of Christ, the seven-day week was in common use from Britain to Persia. From the writings of various Roman and Jewish historians, we know that the day that the Hebrews called Shabbat was the same that the Romans called Saturn’s Day, what we call Saturday. (See the list of ancient sources at the end.)

Paperwork is the hallmark of all bureaucracies everywhere, and bureaucracy was one of the greatest secrets of Roman success. They were famous record keepers. The further back in time one goes, of course, the sketchier the records get, but by the first century AD, Rome was writing nearly everything down.

Over the ensuing centuries, with so many cultures adopting the Roman calendar, including the seven-day week that Rome had adopted from the Near East, it became impossible to make any changes without reams of records and massive coordination across thousands of miles, dozens of administrative borders, and armies of bureaucrats. Calendar changes were big deals. They had to be debated, analyzed, discussed, and planned before they could be implemented. They left league-long paper trails, and so every calendar change left its mark in history.

The most significant factor in all of these calendar changes for our purposes, is that the continuous cycle of the days of the week was never impacted. Not even once. And believe me, we would know if it had been. The week went from Saturday to Sunday every single week for more than two thousand years without a single break.

Can you imagine the confusion that would have resulted from one city being on Monday and the next city being on Tuesday on the same day? Even at the depths of the so-called Dark Ages, scribes, merchants, and bureaucrats kept voluminous records, and although they certainly had to deal with the days of the week having different names in some regions, (e.g. Shabbat vs Saturday), they never had to deal with one day being Friday and the next day being Thursday.

We would know from a hundred different sources if the cycle of the days of the week had been interrupted anytime in the last two thousand years, and it hasn’t. The day we call Saturday is the same day of the week that the Romans called Saturn’s Day, and is therefore still the seventh day of the week today.

Of course, some will insist that the conspiracy to hide God’s true Sabbath must have involved erasing all of the records from history, but that would require digging up all of the records no matter how insignificant, forging them using the original papers, inks, and carbon content, and then re-hiding them in their original locations so they could be found by historians and archaeologists centuries later. If you believe that, you might as well believe that the world was created the day you were born and all of history was manufactured just for you. A person can imagine anything they want and make up fantasies to justify it, but I think I’ll stick with the available evidence.

Is the Lunar Sabbath the Real Sabbath?

All ancient peoples defined a month as a single lunar cycle, from new moon to no moon. The word, month, comes from the word, moon. Among the variations of the seven-day week in the Ancient Near East, there were some calendars that divided each lunar month up into three seven-day weeks, plus a fourth week of seven to nine days, depending on when people were able to see the new moon.

There is a theory in some circles that the continuous cycle of seven-day weeks without any connection to the lunar cycle is a Babylonian invention, while the original Hebrew week was linked to the moon. According to this idea, the first week of the month began on the day after the new moon, or on the same day, depending on who you ask. The day of the new moon would be a Sabbath, then the seventh-day Sabbath would be seven days later, typically on the eighth day of the month, and again each seventh day after until the next new moon reset the clock. So the first, eighth, fifteenth, twenty-second, and twenty-ninth days of each lunar month would be Sabbaths. If there was a day or two between the twenty-ninth day and the first day of the next month, those would be extra days or non-days, again, depending on who you ask.

Here is what a sample month on a lunar Sabbath calendar might look like. If the New Moon falls on a Sunday, then all of the Sundays in that month would be “seventh day” Sabbaths. Notice that the second New Moon at the bottom of the calendar is on a Tuesday. All of the weekly Sabbaths for that month/moon would then fall on Tuesdays.

SunMonTuesWedThursFriSat
1
New Moon
Sabbath
234567
8
Sabbath
91011121314
15
Sabbath
161718192021
22
Sabbath
232425262728
29
Sabbath
301
New Moon
Sabbath
2345

The obvious problem is that there isn’t a single place in the entire Bible that even hints at such a scheme. Except for the Feast of Trumpets, there is no command to rest on a new moon, and except for other high Sabbaths (Yom Kippur, Sukkot, etc.), there is no command to rest on any day except the seventh. While the Bible refers to the Sabbath as “the seventh day”, it never refers to it as the seventh day of the month, or the eighth or fifteenth day of the month or anything else of that sort. It is always and only “the seventh day”, and never of the month.

There is only one place in the Bible on which a weekly Sabbath can be pinpointed to a date in a month: Exodus 16, which describes the first time God gave the Hebrews manna to eat in the wilderness. The story begins on the fifteenth of the month, which is indeed a Sabbath, but that single instance isn’t evidence (let alone proof!) that every fifteenth of every month must therefore be a Sabbath. In the traditional, continuous seven-day week, the weekly Sabbath will fall on some fifteenth day of some month, many, many times.

On the other hand, there are several places that the Bible strongly hints that the first and fifteenth days of every month are not normally Sabbaths, and there is one place that makes the lunar sabbath idea impossible.

To the first point, Israel was commanded to rest on the first day of the seventh month for the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:24), and on the fifteenth days of the first and seventh months for the Feasts of Unleavened Bread (Numbers 28:18) and Sukkot (Leviticus 23:39), respectively. If those days of the month were always Sabbaths, there would have been no need to tell anyone to rest. Everyone would already be resting for the weekly Sabbath.

To the second point, according to Leviticus 23:15-16, the Feast of Shavuot (aka Pentecost) is calculated by counting seven Sabbaths (or weeks) from the day after the first Sabbath of Unleavened Bread. The day after that seventh Sabbath is Shavuot, itself a special Sabbath day, and must be the 50th day of the count. In the lunar sabbath calendar, it would be impossible to count seven sabbaths plus one day to reach 50 days. A lunar month is always longer than 28 days, so the count after seven Sabbaths will always be greater than 50 days.

A third proof comes from the Jewish and Roman historians I mentioned earlier.

Josephus was a Jewish historian who wrote to a Greek and Roman audience and frequently referred to the Jewish day of rest as “the seventh day” or “Sabbath”, but never as the eighth or fifteenth day or in relation to a new moon. Since the Greeks and Romans didn’t tie their week days to the lunar cycle, surely he would have been obligated to explain what he meant by “the seventh day”. He didn’t, which means he assumed his readers would know what it meant, which means it almost certainly wasn’t tied to the lunar cycle.

Cassius Dio and Sextus Julius Frontinus were Roman historians who wrote of the first century BC conquest of Judea. Both of them recorded that the Jews rested every week on the day that the Romans called “Saturn’s Day”. If the Jews of that time kept a lunar Sabbath, then their week could not have been synced to the Roman week, and their Sabbath would not have been identified with Saturn’s Day any more than with the Sun’s Day (Sunday) or Mercury’s Day (Wednesday), because the Sabbath could have been on any of those Roman days depending on when the new moon came around.

These facts seem to me to be conclusive proof that the lunar Sabbath is incorrect.

Is the “Christian Sabbath” the Real Sabbath?

By far, the most common objection I have heard to our Saturday being the same as God’s commanded Sabbath day is that the Sabbath has been changed to Sunday as the new “Christian Sabbath”.

I have one, simple request: Show it to me in the Bible.

These are the facts that you will find in the New Testament regarding the first and seventh days of the week:

1. Yeshua kept the weekly Sabbath on the seventh day, including attending synagogue and studying the scriptures.
2. Yeshua, Paul, and others denounced man-made doctrines concerning the Sabbath that placed excessive burdens on people that God did not intend.
3. Keeping the Sabbath is not a prerequisite for obtaining eternal salvation.
4. The Apostles frequently attended synagogue or Temple services on the seventh day.
5. The Apostles frequently gathered for prayer, worship, teaching, and fellowship on the first day of the week.
6. Neither Yeshua nor any of the Apostles mentioned anything about a “Christian Sabbath” or changing the weekly Sabbath from the seventh day to the first day.

Meeting, worshiping, studying, fasting, feasting, or resting on any day of the week doesn’t make it the weekly Sabbath. It only means you’re doing those things on another day of the week.

However, there are two passages in the Old Testament that talk about men who try to move one or more of God’s appointed times, such as the Sabbath, to a new day.

In 1 Kings 12, King Jeroboam of Israel needed to break the hold of the Temple over the rebellious northern Kingdom of Israel to cement his power and prevent the people’s loyalties from returning to Rehoboam, King of Judah. He used the same tactic that the Roman Catholic Church has used in converting pagan peoples to Christianity. He created an alternative holiday with all the same themes and traditions, but changed the date and location. Instead of going to the Temple in Jerusalem in the seventh month for the Feast of Tabernacles, he made his people go to a new altar and temple in Bethel in the eighth month. He claimed the authority to change God’s appointed times, but he was only a man, and a wicked man at that.

In Daniel 7, a prophesied eleventh king, a type of anti-Christ, “shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High, and shall think to change the times and the law…” Attempting to change the appointed times of God is the habit of wicked kings, not of righteous servants. If anyone claims to have the authority to change the Sabbath from the seventh day to the first, then he is in league with this wicked king of Daniel 7:25, and not on the side of the righteous.

In short, there is no Christian Sabbath in the Bible, and creating one puts the creator squarely in the camp of all of the anti-Christs of history.

What Day Is the REAL Sabbath?

We can be certain that Yeshua kept the Sabbath on the correct day and in the correct way. According to Scripture, sin is transgression of God’s Law, which includes violating the Sabbath. Also according to Scripture, Yeshua lived a perfectly sinless life,  We know beyond any reasonable doubt on which day of the week he kept it, and we can also be certain–as certain as anything historical can be–that the seventh day of the week in the first century BC is still the seventh day of the week in the twenty-first century.

Yeshua told the Pharisees that they must not elevate their own traditions above the commandments of God, but that doesn’t mean that all traditions are bad. Without some traditions–historical and linguistic understandings, especially–we wouldn’t even be able to read the Scriptures. Although I wish we could change the names of the days of the week to remove references to pagan gods, the order of the days of the week is still sound.

Sunday is the first day of the week. Saturday is the seventh day of the week and still the Sabbath that God told the Israelites to keep as a sign of his covenant with them.

ANCIENT SOURCES FOR THE JEWISH SABBATH DAY IN THE 1ST CENTURY

Josephus, Cassius Dio, and Sextus Julius Frontinus are the most prominent ancient historians that discussed the Jewish Sabbath in relation to the Roman calendar. See the following works:

  • Josephus
    • Antiquities of the Jews
      • Book I, chapters 1 & 19
      • Book III, chapters 5, 6, 10, & 12
      • Book XII, chapters 1, 5, & 6
      • Book XIII, chapters 1, 8, & 12
      • Book XIV, chapters 4 & 10
      • Book XVI, chapters 2 & 6
      • Book XVIII, chapter 9
    • Against Apion
      • Book I & II
    • Wars of the Jews
      • Book I, chapters 2 & 7
      • Book II, chapters 8, 14, 17, 19, & 21
      • Book IV, chapter 9
      • Book VII, chapters 3 & 8
  • Cassius Dio
    • Roman History
      • Book XXXVII, chapter 16
      • Book XLIX, chapter 22
  • Sextus Julius Frontinus
    • Stratagems
      • Book II, Part I

Men Who Fear God: Yitro’s Rules for Leadership

Jethro's qualities of leadership

Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.
(Exodus 18:21)

In this passage, Jethro (Hebrew: Yitro) had observed Moses working himself to death by attempting to address every complaint of the millions of Hebrew refugees by himself. He wisely suggested that Moses needed some help and gave some specific instructions on how to select his helpers. His instructions were essentially the same as those Paul gave to Timothy and Titus many centuries later:

Therefore an overseer must be

  • above reproach
  • the husband of one wife
  • sober-minded
  • self-controlled
  • respectable
  • hospitable
  • able to teach
  • not a drunkard
  • not violent but gentle
  • not quarrelsome
  • not a lover of money
  • manage his own household well
  • keeping his children submissive
  • not a recent convert
  • well thought of by outsiders

(From 1 Timothy 3:2-7)

…able men… These men were to be “able” or chayil. They must have proven their ability by success in business, community, family, and war. They should be men of both knowledge and ability. They don’t need to be supermen, but their families should be well ordered, their businesses more successful than not, and their personal finances in order. Untried men should not be placed in positions of authority.

…men who fear God… Ability alone is not enough to make a great leader of God’s people. He must also be a man of God. He should have high personal standards, a healthy prayer life, and not embroiled in sordid controversies. There are many fine atheists and agnostics in the world–at least by the world’s standards–but they are not qualified to lead God’s people.

…who are trustworthy… Not men who are apt to deceive their way into office. The pathological dishonesty of the vast majority of modern politicians is obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. They lie and they lie and they lie, bolder every year, yet they remain in office. That we continue to elect such men and women into leadership is proof of the old adage: We get that government which we deserve.

…hate a bribe… Offices with power are rife with all sorts of opportunities to advance one’s own interests. It is a good thing to desire to lead God’s people, but not to desire it overly much. Remember Yeshua’s words: The first will be last, and he who would lead must serve. Any system resembling a democracy, unfortunately, must favor dishonest seekers of power and fortune.

There are no perfect people in the world. Everyone has flaws. Everyone has weak moments when we make poor choices, set a poor example, and think terrible thoughts. But it’s one thing to be flawed and something else entirely to be a liar, a thief, or a murderer.

The Covenant Foreshadowed in Jethro and Zipporah

The relationship between God and Israel is often portrayed as a marriage by the prophets.

If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples. Exodus 19:5

For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name. Isaiah 54:5a

Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Jeremiah 2:2

The covenant at Sinai is universally recognized by theologians as a marriage contract. If a marriage is a serious, lifelong commitment–and we know that it is–how much more serious must a marriage be between a God and a nation?

I had thought that the covenant at Sinai was the first real indication that the relationship was to be a marriage. But while studying this last week’s Torah reading (Exodus 18-20), I noticed some remarkable patterns just prior to the covenant, and I had to share it with you. The Scriptures are full of hidden gems like these–the Torah more than most other portions–and finding them are among my favorite aspects of study. Sometimes you have to work to find them, and you need to be careful not to read anything into them that is counter or foreign to God’s intent. But despite the effort, they’re worth it!

This post will be a little different than what I usually do at AmericanTorah. It’s a little…um…geeky? I don’t have any particular exhortation and no direct life application this time, just some really cool stuff about how the Bible is put together “under the hood”, so to speak. Bear with me. I think you’ll like this.

If you haven’t read it recently, I suggest you read Exodus 18 now and then come back. I’ll still be here…

Now, while it’s fresh in your mind, did you notice a lot of repetition in the text?

  • Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law…Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law…Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law…
  • Zipporah and her two sons…Zipporah and her two sons…Zipporah and her two sons…
  • The LORD delivered them…the LORD delivered them…the LORD delivered them…

Whenever God repeats something, you can count on it being important, so let’s take a closer look.

The first thing I noticed is that Jethro tells Moses three times that he has come to bring Zipporah and her sons to Moses in the Wilderness.

  1. v2 Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home…
  2. V5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was encamped at the mountain of God.
  3. V6 And when he sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her,”

Then he and Moses take turns–again three times–saying that God brought Israel out of Egypt.

  1. V8 Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the LORD had delivered them.
  2. V9 And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians.
  3. V10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

Verses 1-11 comprise a chiasm in which Jethro bringing Zipporah out to meet Moses is juxtaposed with Moses bringing Israel out to meet God with the meeting of Jethro and Moses in the center. Chiasms and parallelisms often act like margin notes embedded in the text in order to highlight thematic connections or to hint at deeper meanings for those who care to dig.

One thing that this chiasm seems to be telling us is that Jethro and Zipporah are–at least in some ways–like Moses and Israel. Another pattern that seems to point to the same idea is in the Hebrew word translated as “father-in-law”. The word is khatan and doesn’t mean exactly father-in-law. It would probably be more accurate to translate it as just “in-law”, as it can refer to anyone related only by marriage. In this passage, Jethro is introduced as Moses’ in-law in verse 1, so why does it keep repeating? In fact, Jethro is called “Moses’ in-law” twelve times! (See verses 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 14, 15, 17, 24, and 27.)

Twelve. As in twelve tribes of Israel.

Jethro only brought one small family–a mother and two sons–out to meet Moses at Sinai, while Moses brought twelve entire tribes out to meet God. To symbolically balance this discrepancy, Jethro’s relationship to Zipporah is pointed out once for each of the tribes of Israel.

But if the relationship to Zipporah is the focus, why use the word for “in-law” to make this point when “father” would have been simpler. Because Moses isn’t the father of the Hebrews. He is, however, a relative. In the marriage at Sinai, Moses acts as the closest male relative of the bride, Israel, presenting her to God. He is God’s khatan, His “in-law”, and he is related to each of the twelve tribes of Israel in the same way.

So yet another repetition is used to highlight the parallels between Jethro and Zipporah on one side and Moses and Israel on the other. All of this was done to build a prophetic picture. Remember that God doesn’t do anything significant without revealing it to his prophets first, and Moses was among the greatest of prophets.

If you look back at verse 8 where the two protagonists meet at the center of the chiasm, you’ll see something else odd. Jethro and Moses greet each other, talk, and disappear into the tent. Moses hadn’t seen Zipporah or his children in over a year, but he doesn’t appear to have taken any notice of them. He and Jethro carry on as if they aren’t even there. In all likelihood, Moses did greet his wife and sons, but it just wasn’t recorded in this passage. Why not? Because something very similar was about to happen on Mount Sinai.

When Israel gathered around the foot of the mountain, God told them to spend three days preparing themselves first. (Hmm. There was a paired repetition of three statements in the chiasm.) At the end of that period, God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel with thunder and lightning, but it was too much for them! They were afraid they would die, so they asked Moses to speak to God for them. (Exodus 20:19) So Moses ascended the mountain to speak to God alone within the cloud, just as Jethro met with Moses alone in the tent.

That God arranged this prophetic meeting between Jethro and Moses shows that he knew all along what Israel was going to do. He knew that their hearts were still too hard to accept his Law and that he would have to work through Moses, but that didn’t stop him from making a permanent covenant with them. And just like Israel, he knew from the very foundation of the world that our flesh would rebel against his rule, that our hearts would be hard and our minds corrupt, yet he still committed–even in the Garden–to sending his own Son to shed his blood to seal a covenant of life with us.

Clearly when I said I didn’t have any specific exhortation to make, I was wrong. I don’t always know where these things are going when I first sit down to write.

This fact comes back to me over and over in all my studies: God knows us and yet he still wants us. God knows how you will fall even before you take your first step, but he loves you anyway. What a crushing, humbling truth to comprehend! I know me too, and all I can say is “Why, God? Why would you want me?” But who cares? The “why” is not our concern! Our job is to fall on our faces, humbly accept the forgiveness and mercy that he offers, and then to obey.

All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Exodus 19:8

God knows you!

In the Presence of God, Destruction is Inevitable

Exodus 20:20 “And Moses said to the people, Do not fear, for God has come to test you, and so that His fear may be before your faces, so that you may not sin.”

If we are meant to fear God, why did Moses tell the people not to fear?

Many times our lives pass through the same cycle that Israel experienced in Torah. We find ourselves in the wilderness again and again. Each time, God brings us there to test and refine us. Whenever a person is confronted by God, he may respond in one of two ways: He could fall back as in John 18:6 or he could fall on his face as in Genesis 17:3. In the presence of God, destruction is inevitable. Those who resist fall back and are destroyed, given over to death. Those who surrender are destroyed also, but are resurrected to new life one step closer to the perfection which God desires for us.

Life is hard enough already, and the constant tests and refinement to which God subjects his people sometimes seem unbearable. Relax. Surrender and you will find peace. You will never be perfect in this life, but you can draw ever closer to your Creator and find peace in the continuous cycle of death and rebirth which is intrinsic to true Life.

The stars, they circle and dance in the sky. Tinkling bells flow in harmony, spin and scatter and come ’round again. The stars in the sky, they circle and dance.

You are a singularity, a star alone like no other. The stars they glitter, they sing and dance and draw into you. In all their brightness and glory they cannot compare to you. You draw all things into you. Dwelling on the mountain fastness, far in deep darkness and none can approach your greatness, your fierceness and fury. In darkness you outshine them all, and nothing escapes the gravity of your majesty, your love for us, the merest specks in a vast nothingness, outshone by the dimmest of stars, but the focus yet of all your energy, your radiative purity, washing all that comes near, blotting out the dimness in which we glory, making us infinite through you, your transcendent power transmitted to us instantaneously no matter the distance, the space we occupy. These are nothing to you, beside you, Creator, Destroyer, Remaker of worlds. We submit ourselves to you, surrender to your inevitable will. We are nothing in nothing. May all we are and all we will ever be, be subsumed in your all encompassing sphere. May our horizons grow from the illusion of infinite expanse to the infinite reality of constriction within you. May our death in you be our reawakening in life and love and everlasting spirit.

Peace we find in sublimation to your infinite mass.

Zipporah and the Hebrews

Chiasmus in Exodus 18:1-11
Chiasmus in Exodus 18:1-11 comparing Jethro bringing Moses’ family and Moses bringing God’s family.

Moses & Zipporah had been married for almost 40 years by the time God sent him back to Egypt. His children were probably grown men (or else they were miraculously conceived), which puts a whole new twist on the family donkey ride across the desert interrupted by mom performing a late circumcising. But why did they continue to tag along with Mom instead of going on to Egypt with Dad? Surely it wasn’t just about their safety.

In Exodus 18:2-6, we’re told 3 times that Jethro cared for Moses’ family, bringing them to meet him in the wilderness. Then in 18:7-10, we’re told 3 times that God delivered the Hebrews from Egypt, with Moses leading them out to meet Him at Sinai. Clearly we are meant to see a parallel between Moses’ wife and sons leaving Midian to meet him and the Hebrews leaving Egypt to meet God.

  • Moses brings Israel into the Wilderness to meet God at Sinai.
  • Jethro brings Moses’ family into the Wilderness to meet Moses at Sinai.
  • Moses and God greet one another on the mountain and speak privately in the tent.
  • Jethro and Moses greet one another publicly and speak privately in the tent.

Jethro restoring Moses’ family to him at Sinai is a living metaphor of Moses restoring Israel to God at Sinai. Israel is God’s family.

One reason that Moses’ wife and sons (who were probably grown men) were separated from him was so that God could give us this metaphor of how he feels about us. We are God’s family and He wants us to leave Egypt and go out to meet with Him in the wilderness.