Stewardship Resource

Living in God’s Abundant Grace: Sabbath as a Source for an Abundant Life, Session 2 Sabbath: God’s Gracious Intrusion and the Principle of Justice

Bible Study  Bible Study
  • Author: Rev. Dr. Rolf Jacobson is assistant professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary. To learn more click on Profile.
  • Updated: 06/23/2006
  • Copyright: A joint project by Center for Lifelong Learning and Stewardship in the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minn.

This session is grounded in selected texts from Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Key themes in this study are:

  • "The Sabbath is more than just a day a week, it is a principle and it is about justice."
  • "The sabbatical principle includes God's intrusion into the bondage of life on earth."
  • "The sabbatical principle is about who God is: God is a liberator, one who frees us and blesses us."

-- Rolf Jacobson


Living in God's Abundant Grace: Sabbath as a Source for an Abundant Life, Session 2

Sabbath: God's Gracious Intrusion and the Principle of Justice

Leader's Guide

Goal: For learners to make the connection between the Sabbath commandment and God's grace in the form of justice.

How to use this guide:

This leader's guide is a road map that charts the terrain of God's sabbatical principle. In what follows, you will find:

  • A lesson outline
  • Key texts identified
  • Learning objectives for each text
  • Background information about each text
  • Sample mini-lecture components related to some texts (emphasis on "sample")
  • Sample discussion questions (emphasis on "sample")
  • You will not find step-by-step instructions on what to say or do with each text, such as "have participants open their Bibles and ask for a volunteer to read .... " That will be left up to your own intelligence and creativity. One hint, however: The less that students hear your voice and their more they use their own tongues and brains to read texts and make connections, the better.

I. Gathering and introducing the topic

  • Open with prayer
  • Ask the group to reflect on questions such as: "What do you remember from our first session? What did you learn from looking at the Book of Exodus last time?"

Hint: Emphasize two things. First, that God's work through the Sabbath is consistent with how God normally works, coming to us from outside of ourselves, intruding graciously into our bondage. Second, that Sabbath worship is something that God does for us, not something that we do for God. God regularized the intrusion of the Sabbath in order to have a regular worship time in which to work on us.

II. First texts

Exodus 20:8-11 "Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 10 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work-- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it."

Deuteronomy 5:12-15 "Observe the sabbath day and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work. 14 But the seventh day is a sabbath to the LORD your God; you shall not do any work-- you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. 15 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."

Objective: To help participants see the Sabbath commandment as a gracious intrusion into a world of bondage.

Sample question:
The 10 Commandments are given twice, once in Exodus 20 and once in Deuteronomy 5. The only commandment with any significant difference is the Sabbath commandment. Compare the two versions of the command. What is the difference.

Hint: The answer is that the motive clause in the two commandments is different. Exodus has a theology of imitation: God rested so we rest. Deuteronomy has a theology of response: Because God freed us when we were slaves, we should free our workers to have a day off once we are in the position of being like Pharaoh.

Sample mini-lecture
Imagine that you have been a slave all of your life, with never a day or weekend or holiday off. And then God frees you from slavery and says this: "The first rule is that you HAVE to take one day off from work in every seven."

You might respond, "Have to? HAVE TO?! You don't have to tell me that twice, it's more like GET TO!"

Offering a day off each week to someone who has never had one is something like commanding a starving man that he has to eat or a woman dying of thirst that she has to drink.

"And not just you," said God, "but you, or your son or your daughter, or your male or female slave, or your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock, or the resident alien in your towns, so that your male and female slave may rest as well as you."

In other words, you also have to make sure that you don't live in such a way that you make it so that others don't get a day off.

In Session 1, we talked about how the Sabbath is like a fence around a value and that one value that the Sabbath protects is the value of regular time with God. But a fence can surround more than one thing and as it turns out the Sabbath law is also God's way of protecting another value. That value is justice.

Notice that in the Sabbath laws stated above, there is an emphasis on the slaves getting a day off. God says, remember that you were a slave once who never got a day off, so from now on, not only do you get a day off, but all slaves and average workers do, too.

Here is the point. God's Sabbath law is about God's grace. Last session we looked at the sort of grace in which God creates regular time to make us holy. But the Sabbath law is also about God's grace in creating a kingdom where justice is the norm.

The people had been slaves in Egypt. God graciously intruded into that bondage and freed the people. But there is more than one kind of bondage. If you have to work every day as a slave for a master, that is bondage. But if you have to work every day for your parents, or for your business, or for yourself, then that also is a form of bondage. "Not where I am Lord," is God's response. And so God regularized this intrusion of grace. God said, "I am going to make it a regular part of every week that everyone gets a day off from the bondage of toil and trouble." So God threw a wrench into the economic gears of our human world that want to churn away day after day and God said, "No rest? No! Rest!" This is the principle of what the Sabbath is all about. The Sabbath is about God's way of intruding into our bondage to free us and grant us grace. God made the Sabbath a regular part of our routine. By doing so God made it so that all might live under the banner of God's gracious justice.

But making the gift of grace a routine part of life is not universally popular. Human nature is a stubborn thing. Some people soon came to see the Sabbath as an imposition, especially where it intruded on their ability to make money. Perhaps you remember the scene at the start of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol in which Scrooge resents having to give his nephew Christmas Day off:

"You'll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?" said Scrooge.

"If quite convenient, sir."

"It's not convenient," said Scrooge, "and it's not fair. If I was to stop half-a-crown for it, you'd think yourself ill-used, I'll be bound?" The clerk smiled faintly.

"And yet," said Scrooge, "you don't think me ill-used, when I pay a day's wages for no work."

The clerk observed that it was only once a year.

"A poor excuse for picking a man's pocket every twenty-fifth of December!" said Scrooge, buttoning his great-coat to the chin. "But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier next morning." (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, Chapter 1. Public Domain.)

Scrooge represents that voice in all of us that resists God's grace, especially that part of God's grace through which God wants to extend the rule of justice. Scrooge is like Pharaoh, he would rather cling to the false gods of silver and gold -- especially where the labor of those who owe him sweat is concerned. And, perhaps, that is exactly why God made a day off to worship and rest a regular part of life in God's kingdom.

Sample discussion questions

  • Do you keep the Sabbath because you are imitating God, because you are responding to God's grace, or for any other reason?
  • Are there any "sons or daughters, male or female slaves" in our world today for whom you are not providing a Sabbath?
  • What does justice have to do with the Sabbath?

III. Second text
Deuteronomy 15:12-18 "If a member of your community, whether a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you and works for you six years, in the seventh year you shall set that person free. 13 And when you send a male slave out from you a free person, you shall not send him out empty-handed. 14 Provide liberally out of your flock, your threshing floor, and your wine press, thus giving to him some of the bounty with which the LORD your God has blessed you. 15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you; for this reason I lay this command upon you today. 16 But if he says to you, "I will not go out from you," because he loves you and your household, since he is well off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl and thrust it through his earlobe into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. You shall do the same with regard to your female slave. 18 Do not consider it a hardship when you send them out from you free persons, because for six years they have given you services worth the wages of hired laborers; and the LORD your God will bless you in all that you do."

Objective: To help learners see that the Sabbath is more than just one day a week, but a principle of life in God's kingdom.

Sample mini-lecture
So, God works like this: God intrudes graciously into the bondage of our lives to free and bless us. In the ancient world, like in our world, the most widespread form on bondage was financial or economic bondage. In the ancient world, slavery was about economics and was an economic reality -- do not confuse slavery in the Bible with the bond slavery of American history. In the biblical world, slavery was more like the indentured servitude of American history, it was not life-long slavery. If people were in financial trouble with heavy debts, they might have to sell themselves into slavery in order to pay off their debts.

Exodus 22:3 says that if a thief is caught and cannot pay back to the property owner the penalty for what he stole, then he shall be sold into slavery to pay the restitution.

2 Kings 4 tells the story of how Elisha helped a woman whose husband died before he could pay off his debt and how a creditor came to claim her two children as payment for the loan.

So here is what God said: "Where I rule, such bondage shall not be permanent. After serving six years, slaves shall go free in the seventh year." That is, God was saying that the principle of God's gracious intrusion into the realities of human bondage will extend to the problem of economic bondage. This is what God said. So God made provision in God's kingdom for regularized intrusion into economic bondage.

Notice one other thing. Sometimes, certain forms of "liberty" actually are less "free" than certain forms of service, such as a wife or a child who is kicked out with no means of supporting themselves or a slave who is sent on his way with no means to make a living or get started.

Therefore God commanded two things. First, the Israelites could not send out slaves "empty-handed" at the end of six years. To go forth with no means of support might be nothing other than a death sentence. Second, if they slaves wished to remain in their masters' households, the slaves could choose to do so. If so, the slave would be figuratively joined to the master's house through a ceremony in which an ear was pierced and the slave became a part of the household. But the choice in the matter was left up to the slave! The master -- the one in economic and political power -- was not the one given the choice. That choice was given to the powerless one. That is God's idea of justice. And that is part of what God was protecting when God set up the Sabbath laws.

Sample discussion questions

Do we have any ways today of protecting the economically disadvantaged? What does our congregation do to help the poor?

IV. Third text
Exodus 23:10-11 "For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; 11 but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard."

Objective: To emphasize for learners that the Sabbath is not just about one day a week, but that it is a pattern of God's gracious intrusions into our sphere.

>b>Sample mini-lecture
In this text from Exodus 23, notice what gets to rest now every seven years and for whose benefit this rest exists! The land gets to rest. Every seven years fields, vineyards and orchards were given rest. This was for the renewal of those fields, vineyards and orchards.

But who was to benefit? The "poor of your people" and "the wild animals." So notice again the connection between God's gracious and intrusive commandments and God's principle of justice. God commanded rest for the land for the sake of the poor! How else would the poor eat, after all?

And there is a sense also of ecology here, a sense that God cares about nature and creatures outside of the human sphere. As we human beings fulfill God's command to subdue the earth (Genesis 1), we are to do so in way that cares for the wild animals -- we are to provide for them, as God commands here in Exodus 23. God's concern for the poor is seen in other laws from the first five books of the Bible, also. In Deuteronomy 24:19-22, God uses language very similar to what we have seen in the Sabbath laws to speak of provision for the poor: "When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the LORD your God may bless you in all your undertakings. 20 When you beat your olive trees, do not strip what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not glean what is left; it shall be for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. 22 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I am commanding you to do this."

V. Fourth text
Deuteronomy 15:1-2, 7-11 "Every seventh year you shall grant a remission of debts. 2 And this is the manner of the remission: every creditor shall remit the claim that is held against a neighbor, not exacting it of a neighbor who is a member of the community, because the LORD's remission has been proclaimed. 7 If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted toward your needy neighbor. 8 You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. 9 Be careful that you do not entertain a mean thought, thinking, 'The seventh year, the year of remission, is near,' and therefore view your needy neighbor with hostility and give nothing; your neighbor might cry to the LORD against you, and you would incur guilt. 10 Give liberally and be ungrudging when you do so, for on this account the LORD your God will bless you in all your work and in all that you undertake. 11 Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.'"

Objective: To emphasize for learners that the Sabbath is not just about one day a week, but that it is a pattern of God's gracious intrusions into our sphere.

Sample mini-lecture

God has one more surprise for you, showing that God's plan of gracious intrusion into the bondage of life goes even further.

Here, in Deuteronomy, God commands something that modern, capitalistic Americans can hardly understand. God commands that all debts be forgiven every seven years. Have you ever heard of such a crazy thing? And God warns the people, if it is the sixth year and your neighbor needs some money, you cannot do the math and realize that you won't get paid back. You have to lend it. "Be ungrudging when you do so," says the Lord. Do not be tight-fisted and miserly.

Now, of course, this law would not work today, because we live in a capitalist economy. Ancient Israel's economy was much different. They were not a capitalist free-market economy. For better or worse (and I think it is clearly for the better) we live in a different system, but the issue is still this: What can we learn from this law in Deuteronomy 15? Cannot we still learn to be ungrudging and not tight-fisted? Doesn't it still tell us that God demands that we care for our neighbors?

So notice God's sabbatical pattern of gracious intrusion:

  • Every seven days, God commands release from work for all, including slaves
  • Every seven years, God commands release from bondage for slaves
  • Every seven years, God commands release from production for the land, for the purpose of feeding the poor and the wild animals
  • Every seven years, God commands release from debt for the poor.

It should be clear by now that God's Sabbath principle is not just about rest or worship, but about God's value for justice. And God has regularized and institutionalized this love of justice in God's laws.

Sample question
We don't live in Israel's system, but how can we "keep" God's sabbatical laws in our own way?



Permission granted by Centered Life Learning and Stewardship In the 21st Century, Luther Seminary, for use in congregations.



Click on the following for other sessions:

Sabbath: God's Gracious Intrusion and the Principle of Time with God, Session 1

Sabbath: God's Sufficiency and Our Generosity, Session 3

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