Sabbath and Ten Commandments

Dr. Sashipokim Jamir

OTS, Dimapur


Tom Peters writes, “If you’re not confused, you’re not paying attention” (Peters, 1987).1 In recent times, Nagas have been going through some sort of confusion or perhaps, should I say paying attention over the issue of observing Sabbath (or Sunday) in our context. This confusion actually is not bad in itself provided we take it positively as a means to do some constructive learning.2

In this present article, I will provide “an” understanding of Sabbath from the Old Testament perspective. First, I will give an interpretation of Exodus 20: 8-11 and Deuteronomy 5: 15-18. Second, basing on the biblical interpretation, I will provide a contemporary application.

However, before embarking on my intentions let me clear some pertinent doubts in relation to Sabbath in a general manner out of necessity. Some later articles in the series will deal specifically with the subject matter of the movement from Jewish observance of Sabbath on the seventh day (Saturday) of the week to the Christian adherence of the Lord’s Day (or Sunday) on the first day of the week. The debate as to when the Sabbath observation moved from the seventh day to the first day of the week ranges from the time of Jesus and his disciples i.e., 1 CE (Common Era) to the period of Roman emperor Constantine (4 CE). The fact is that the early Christians recognized Jesus as the Messiah and celebrated his resurrection, which fell on the first day of the week, Sunday. In the Old Testament, Sabbath is established on the seventh day, which celebrates the completion of creation. But creation became tainted with sin, and it was no longer perfect. The good news is that Christ came to redeem creation, to restore it to all that it was intended to be and even more. So as Christians, we affirm the fundamental truths of the Sabbath in a celebration of the redemption of creation. However, today we do that at the beginning of the week because on that day the Lord Jesus rose to new life for himself, for us, and for all creation, and on that day the Spirit of God came to live that new life in all of us.Thus, our Christian celebration of Sabbath on Sunday does not nullify the Old Testament understanding of Sabbath but because of Jesus and his work, we celebrate Sabbath on Sunday with its fuller understanding.

Sabbath: Exodus 20: 8-11

Sabbath as a law was not instituted during the creation as perhaps one might surmise. In Genesis 2: 2-3, it is said that God completed the creation work and rested on the seventh day. God, then, went on to bless and consecrate the seventh day. We do find in Exodus 16: 22-36 Moses instructing the Israelites about the Sabbath; but perhaps this was a sort of training Israel received on Sabbath in anticipation of the Ten Commandments (Dressler, 1999).3 Thus, it is safe to assert that Sabbath was established in the wilderness when God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelite. Of course, when God gave the Commandment to the Israelites concerning the Sabbath, He precisely had the creation account in mind. The word Sabbath does not simply mean “rest” but it means “to cease” or “to stop” as in stopping from work.

In order to understand the meaning of Sabbath we need to consider the context of the passage of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20: 1-21): When was the Commandments given to the Israelites? And why?

God gave the Ten Commandments to the Israelite after delivering them from the slavery of the hands of Pharaoh. The Scripture clearly shows that Israelites suffered miserably as slaves making bricks for the Egyptians; and when the Israelite slaves demanded freedom they were forced to make more bricks without straws (Exodus 5). However, after the mighty acts of God, Pharaoh ultimately succumbed to the power of the Almighty God of Israelites and finally, released the Israelites to go free. According to the biblical narrative, the Ten Commandments were given when the Israelites were stationed beneath the Mt. Sinai after crossing the Red/Reed Sea (where they camped for a year or so).

Why was these commandments given? This is a crucial question not just for the present article but also to understand the whole of biblical theology. We have to understand that when God created this universe His intention was to have perfect fellowship with his creation – both human and ecology. But it did not turn out to be because of our human disobedience. With this as a bigger picture, God was once again initiating to “renew” the broken fellowship as He had promised to Abraham (in Genesis 12). So, God was making a covenant with Israel – the liberated slaves – that He might through Israel recreate anew the broken fellowship and the whole cosmos (Romans 8: 22).

From this perspective, Sabbath is not just another ceremonial law but it is tightly connected to the purpose of God himself. In other words, we have to understand Sabbath as one of the ways through which God tries to recreate this world afresh in relation to his chosen people (Peter Enns, 2000);4 and we as his people should reflect this “holy” intend of God. Exodus 20: 8 reads: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The word holy in its original Hebrew word is connected to our human character and action. Therefore to keep Sabbath holy means to reflect God’s intention and character through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

From this perspective, Sabbath is not just another ceremonial law but it is tightly connected to the purpose of God himself. In other words, we have to understand Sabbath as one of the ways through which God tries to recreate this world afresh in relation to his chosen people (Peter Enns, 2000);4 and we as his people should reflect this “holy” intend of God. Exodus 20: 8 reads: “Remember the Sabbath day, and keep it holy.” The word holy in its original Hebrew word is connected to our human character and action. Therefore to keep Sabbath holy means to reflect God’s intention and character through our thoughts, words, and deeds.

Sabbath is also neatly connected with the very identity of God himself: First, through the observance of Sabbath, the Lord is suggesting that He is the master of our time! Knowing this would make one realize that we live in God’s history and not human history. What liberating it is to know that this world is under God’s responsibility? Second, Sabbath observance teaches that God provides us with our needs and not us! This does not mean we have to become legalists like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who would not carry something in their pockets on the Sabbath day because that might mean they were carrying a load. It simply means that we refuse to make this day like every other day. We do things on the Sabbath that remind us that our time is a gift from God and that he, not we, is the supplier of our needs.

Sabbath: Deuteronomy 5: 12-15

Another passage where we find the Ten Commandments is Deuteronomy 5: 12-15. Here the Sabbath law is repeated with some significant changes toward the end: 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 out-stretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day (v. 15). It is to this change in emphasis I will focus mostly in this section.

Deutero means second and nomos means law and therefore Deuteronomy means Second Law. According to the narrative, Moses read this second law from the plains of Moab as they were getting ready to enter into the Promised Land. Thus, the (second) Ten Commandments in general and the Sabbath law in particular were given to remind the new generation of Israelites about their God and His mighty acts and their roots as once a slave in Egypt. Moses knew that once his people enter into the land of “milk and honey,” they would be exposed to many temptations such as economic exploitation and idolatry. Thus, Moses in anticipation of these temptations reformulated the Sabbath law (Brueggemann, 2017).5

Moses, in his reformulation, was cautioning Israelites that they might become like another Egypt wherein they might extort the common people. Therefore, Israel is invited to give liberally (Deuteronomy 15: 10; 14). Moses also exhorts on the basis of Sabbath to be attentive to the needs of the widows, orphans, and immigrants (Deuteronomy 24: 17-22).

Sabbath is a day for reimagining our social life away from oppression and manipulation to compassionate solidarity. Such compassionate solidarity is imaginable and possible only when our restlessness to gain wealth through manipulation or greed is broken. Sabbath, thus, is not simply taking rest to refresh but it is the rest that transforms our thoughts, mind and deeds. Israelites were always tempted to acquire more wealth either through exploitation or greed; but Sabbath is an invitation to openness, sharing one’s wealth with the needy; Sabbath is also an acknowledgment that God is the provider as stated above and therefore, one need not be too anxious for more wealth.

Contemporary understanding of Sabbath: New Creation and Justice

What does it mean to practice Sabbath in today’s Naga context? In the light of the scriptural interpretation, Sabbath has deep theological meaning, which is inherently connected to practical living. Sabbath definitely means stoppage from work and taking a rest. But if one ends his/her reflection of Sabbath there, our contextual confusion on Sabbath will not find any meaningful conclusion.

Sabbath is more than ceasing from work or taking a break. It is also more than simply attending Sunday devotional worship service. Sabbath is an occasion wherein we as Christian should intentionally contemplate about: how we could participate in God’s intention of renewing his creation? And how we could reflect God’s character of justice in our lives? The answers to these questions form the core theological essence of being a true Christian. To observe Sabbath means to ask these questions, to contemplate on them, to digest them and no matter how hard they might be as a Christian we must try to put them into practice.

It is an irony to observe Sabbath with so much zeal only to see our public spaces in shamble and unjust practices in every nook and cranny of our land. Sabbath observance is to remind us that we as Christians are special chosen people of God and that we have some special role to play in the unfolding of the plan of God’s kingdom.

New Creation: Observing Sabbath in the true sense would mean being a steward to God’s creation, which is also in need of redemption (Romans 8: 22). The Sabbath law as found in Exodus 20 indicates this vividly. There is a tendency among the Naga Christians to think that being a Christian means acquiring a ticket to heaven. However, if we read Revelation 21: 1-4 it is clear that at the end God will unite both the new heaven and new earth and He will build His kingdom in our midst. In other words, this earth will not go waste but will be renewed and reunited with the new heaven. All this suggests that we as Christians have responsibility both for evangelism as well as to be good steward to the environment we live in.

Thus, to observe Sabbath means making Nagaland an ecological friendly place. Right now, Nagaland appears to be a monstrous dustbin. People do not care about throwing their waste such as wrappers, papers, spit, etc., anywhere they like. We do not have proper public urinating spaces and therefore, people go for nature call instinctively. Our deplorable roads create so much of air pollution, which obviously harm us but it also destroys the vitality of the environment where we live in. These are just some few examples and the list can go quite long but the important questions are: As Christians, what is our response to the need of our ecological transformation? What does the church need to do? Does our Sabbath observation inform us to be good steward of God’s creation? We cannot observe Sabbath without having a sense to renew the ecology we live in. We need to remember that God created this universe and said, “It is good.” Unless our Sabbath observation does not make us sensitive towards our ecology our debate of the closure and non-closure of shops on Sunday is merely a skin-deep theological reflection of Sabbath.

Justice: Observing Sabbath also means doing justice. Sabbath does not call for enforcing fines but it calls for opening our lives to share with people who have little or nothing. It invites us to compassionate solidarity. In other words, observance of Sabbath should teach us to love kindness, humility, and willingness to help others. As public servants, are we making use of the money that come for public project wisely? Or are we taking advantage of the money for ourselves?  Do we treat our household workers, widows, orphans, and immigrants in our society justly? How are we witnessing our mighty God to the powerless section of our society? What are we doing as a Christian and as a church to ensure that God’s justice is implemented through the observance of the Sabbath in our land?

To reiterate, Sabbath observation is the rest that brings transformation to our lives, which in turn transforms our society. If Naga Christians reduce Sabbath observation to a mere one day holiday of attending worship service, our understanding of Sabbath will easily fall into observing a Christian tradition devoid of God’s purpose. 

The Scripture clearly reminds us “now” (just as “then” to the Israelites) that Sabbath observance forms our core theological understanding of God and his intention for his people and his creation. Therefore, let us be careful not to oversimplify our understanding of Sabbath.

End Notes:

1. Thus, this article is one of the first among a series to follow, which aims to try and dig deeper the understanding of Sabbath from different perspectives such as: biblical (Old and New Testament), theological, ethical, historical, medical, counseling, social activism, legal, and entrepreneurial.  

2. Tom, Peters, Thriving on Chaos: Handbook for a Management Revolution (New York: Harper

Perennial, 1991).

3. Harold H. P Dressler, “The Sabbath in the Old Testament,” in From Sabbath to Lord’s

Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (ed. D. A. Carson. Eugene: Wipf and Stock, 1999), 21-42.

4. Peter Enns, Exodus: The NIV Applicatory Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000).

5. Walter, Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance (Louisville: John Knox, 2017).

Dr. Sashipokim Jamir, teaches Old Testament Interpretation at Oriental Theological Seminary.