"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 the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11)
The Old Testament record contains few compliments about Israel’s faithfulness to the Sabbath. But during the Intertestamental Period, Jewish Sabbath observance became legendary. Keeping the Sabbath was considered so important that on one occasion 1000 men, women and children allowed themselves to be slaughtered rather than risk breaking the Sabbath.
The Jewish historian Josephus tells the story of when Pompey successfully besieged Jerusalem. After the incident noted above, the Jews had decided that it was permissible to defend themselves on the Sabbath against those who first attacked them. But there was a loophole which Pompey exploited. When the Sabbath arrived, the Romans simply ceased attacking, and concentrated on building the earth bank and moving their siege engines forward. Since they weren’t technically attacking, the Jews offered no resistance.
You might think all this was a little ridiculous, but it illustrates the kind of zeal the Jews had for the Sabbath. They were willing to die, rather than break it. They were serious about keeping the Sabbath.
In their desire not to break the Sabbath, they formulated rules. These man-made rules became known as the tradition of the elders. They were an authority placed alongside Scripture, which sought to interpret and apply God’s word. Breaking the Sabbath tradition was considered tantamount to breaking God’s Sabbath law.
The most rigorous tradition is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls and came from a bunch of Jews known as the Essences. For them Sabbath no-noes included such things as carrying children, giving help to birthing animals, or rescuing animals that had fallen into a pit.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were a little less strict. Some of their prohibitions were plowing, hunting, butchering, reaping, tying or loosening knots, sewing more than one stitch, or writing more than one letter.
This background sets the scene for Jesus’ disputes over the Sabbath, which we will look at in the upcoming devotions. Did Jesus do away with the Sabbath? What is the Sabbath about anyway? How do we keep the Sabbath? Is the Sabbath something to savour or suffer through? That is what we shall find out.