Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Sabbatarianism: Few if any actually observe the Sabbath to the letter

“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. (Ex. 20: 8-11)

Readers of my blog would have known that I oppose strict Sabbatarianism, although I am a sabbatarian of kinds in the sense of recognizing that the Sabbath is to be observed as being part of the moral law.

Recently, I have been conversing via email with a guy regarding this issue of the Sabbath. It is in this light that I would like to offer up a more comprehensive post on this topic. Before I look at the issue of the Sabbath from a more holistic perspective, I would like for us to see what it is like to insist on strict Sabbatarianism.

Strict Sabbatarianism, according to the letter

The idea of Sabbatarianism is to set aside one day out of seven unto the Lord. Seventh-Day sabbatarians insist on keeping the original seventh day, Saturday, as the Sabbath. Strict sabbatarians of all stripes insist that not only must one day out of seven be set aside for the Lord, we are to focus the entire day on either reading the Bible, worshipping God, serving in the church, and nothing else besides. Furthermore, we are to cook/prepare our own meals instead of eating out since we are not to support the violation of the Sabbath by others who work on that day.

Yet it is my opinion that most strict Sabbatarians are not truly keeping the Sabbath according to the letter as they seem to be insisting, which I will show as follows.

On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. 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.”

On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. (Ex. 16: 22-27)

In this passage, we can see that God provided manna for Israel for six days. On the sixth day, they are to collect twice as much food and prepare part of it for consumption over the Sabbath as there was none to be collected on the Sabbath.

It is to be noted that some of the people who clearly did not obey Moses' commands did not take what is sufficient for their manna consumption for the Sabbath, and went out on the Sabbath expecting the manna to be present as it had been for the previous 6 days. As we can expect, they did not find any manna at all, and would therefore go back hungry.

Sabbatarianism in Old Testament times therefore means that one must prepare his food for the Sabbath ready for consumption before the Sabbath, otherwise one goes hungry. Furthermore, the food is to be prepared already for eating, not prepared on the Sabbath itself. This rules out all forms of cooking (cf Ex. 35:3), which contextualized in our present times means no microwaving and/or usage of an electric hot plate.

So, a question for all strict sabbatarians to consider:

1) Do you prepare your food before the sabbath, and eat it as it is on the Sabbath without any form of heating up/cooking? If not, then aren't you breaking the Sabbath?

In Ex. 35:3 which has been referenced before, the Israelites are told not to kindle any fire "in their dwelling places". Now, fire was the only way to produce light and heat during those times. Contextualized for our times, this means we are not to have any heating/cooling and lighting (besides natural lighting from the sun).

So here is another question for the strict Sabbatarians:

2) Do you switch on the heater/air-con on the Sabbath? Do you light a fireplace on the Sabbath? Do you use any form of non-natural lighting on the Sabbath? If so, why can't it be considered that you are violating the Sabbath?

In Num. 15:32-36, a sabbath breaker was executed because he did not rest on the Sabbath but instead worked outside in the form of gathering sticks. The sticks were likely to be used for firewood and therefore an essential resource for life then.

Contextualized for our time, this translates to the fact that we are to buy and get whatever items we need for the Sabbath before the Sabbath, having six days to do our purchasing and borrowing anyway. Any form of purchasing or even borrowing from others on the Sabbath is to be strictly prohibited. For example, it is imperative to ensure that the car has enough fuel such that a trip to the petrol kiosk is not needed. Oh, actually, it may not be possible to drive a car, because the car requires ignition and burning of petrol which translated to a fire being kindled anytime an engine is started and run. Maybe we should use a horse?


3) Do you purchase or borrow anything (short of a life-threatening emergency where medicine is needed to be purchased) on the Sabbath? Do you drive a car on the Sabbath? If so, why aren't you considered to have broken the Sabbath?

Since we are not to make others break the Sabbath or encouraged them to, we should not take any form of public transport either, since they all require kindling of fire of some kind, with the possible exception of the electric car (which was charged by yesterday's electricity). Therefore, I guess strict sabbatarians should not take any public transport at all!

With these three questions based upon the principles in the Torah, I would guess that few if any actually follow these guidelines to the letter. This goes to show that the strict sabbatarians are inconsistent in their sabbatarianism, deciding which aspect of the OT law to be made moral and which ceremonial in a most arbitrary manner and imposing the rules they come up with as being THE proper way of keeping the Sabbath.

It must be noted that all three passages that I have quoted from deals with the seventh-day Sabbath proper, not any of the ceremonial Sabbaths like the Sabbath year in Lev. 25:1-7. The questions raised therefore cannot be resolved by a surface level appeal to the distinction between the moral law and the ceremonial law, as if Moses wrote that distinction down in the Torah (the distinction is made through reading the Torah in light of the NT, not by reading the Torah by itself).

Yes, it can be said that this is a ridiculous straining after gnats, and it is. But these are the sort of things that strict sabbatarianism must deal with. Since they refuse to look at the Sabbath motif in the light of Scripture and insist on strict rules of what is and is not allowed to be done on the Sabbath, they must contend with such seemingly trivial questions. We haven't even looked at the issue of deciding the time and duration of the Sabbath. As I have asked, what happened if an airplane for example crossed the International Dateline (a totally arbitrarily decided line) from US to Australia at 12 midnight Friday (for a seventh-day sabbatarian) or Saturday (for a first-day sabbatarian). Assuming the case for a first-day sabbatarian, 1 minute before that was 11:59pm Saturday night, and 1 minute after that was 12:01am Monday morning, which therefore translates to a Sabbath effectively lasting 1 second or less! Does this therefore mean that the person on board does not have to observe the Sabbath for that week?

It can be clearly seen that strict sabbatarianism is totally impractical, and is not even consistently practiced by the strict sabbatarians themselves. Strict sabbatarianism of any kind is impractical and, as we will see later, unbiblical. The rules in the Torah are meant to convey deeper concepts regarding the keeping of the Sabbath, instead of being kept literally as it is.

In the next post (of this short series), we will look at the Sabbath motif and what Scripture teaches regarding it.

[to be continued]


Brandon said...

Daniel, I would encourage you to read some more on this topic as your questions are addressed by many writings. In particular I recommend A. W. Pink's "The Holy Sabbath" which you can find in PDF or HTML online. That said, you raise good questions. Here are my thoughts

1) We cannot make the particular commands and situation of Israel part of the moral law. Pink notes:
"How is a happy medium in Sabbath observance to be obtained? What will preserve us from undue laxity on the one side, and unwarrantable severity on the other? Where shall we turn for that much-needed guidance which will deliver us from the grievous yoke of Pharisaical excess, and which will also prevent us from degenerating into the lawlessness of our Moderns? We have searched long and diligently for a satisfactory answer to this question, but (amid much that was helpful on other branches of our subject) have failed to meet with anything clear and definite. Personally our firm conviction is that we shall be kept from going wrong in this matter, if we, first, adhere strictly to the letter of the Fourth Commandment; and second, apply that commandment to the details of our lives in the spirit of the New Covenant."

2) I believe Ex 35:3 read in its context is referring to the contributions for and construction of the tabernacle. Moses was reminding them not to work on the Sabbath in their excitement to construct the tabernacle.

3) If you have access to it, see Robert Reymond "Lord's Day Observance: Mankind's Proper Response to the Fourth Commandment" In part, Reymond notes:
"The 'work' of the Sabbath violator described in Numbers 15:32-26, I would argue, could have been a "work of necessity" and therefore appropriate if the man involved had possessed a proper heart attitude toward the Sabbath regulation; but the placing of this incident in the ancient account immediately after the stated penalty for sins committed with a "high-handed" defiance of God's Word (v30-31) suggests that the incident is to be construed as an example of "sinning with a high hand"; the man, in other words, had deliberately conducted himself in conscious and spiteful disregard for God's Sabbath commandment."

I agree that we should not rely on others to work for our transportation on the Lord's Day.

I look forward to your remaining posts. I hope you don't go NCT on us.

Daniel C said...


sure, I would definitely read more on the topic.

1) I totally agree.

2) Perhaps, but that was not my point of quoting Ex. 35:3. In fact, I have not even exegeted any of the passages I have quoted.

3) I will check Reymond's Systematic and see if he has anything on it. That would be the easiest.

No, I am not NCT. I haven't even started with any posts saying how the Sabbath is to be observed, only how it is NOT.

Brandon said...

Very sorry, forgot to mention that Reymond's article is actually in his book "Contending for the Faith"

Daniel C said...

Hi Brandon,

no problem. I have read that book but currently do not have it with me. I am fine with Reymond's approach at least in that book. Unfortunately, I cannot refresh myself of its contents unless I get another copy over here.