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Work, Play, and Worship – An Excerpt from A Doubter’s Guide to the Ten Commandments

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"If you’re someone who enjoys a weekend, you owe it to Moses" says John Dickson in A Doubter's Guide to the Ten Commandments. In today's excerpt, Dickson explains the fourth commandment and reveals how a weekly day of rest was a completely unique idea in the ancient world and that it was especially designed for our benefit.


doubters-guide-ten-commandmentsIn the fourth commandment we find a little relief from the seriousness of the first three. In fact, it is all about relief, or rest from work. If you’re someone who enjoys a weekend, you owe it to Moses:

(Exodus 20:9 – 11; see also Deuteronomy 5:12 – 15)


The Sabbath day of rest is a historical mystery. After decades of searching, specialists have been unable to find any precedent or parallel that might have prompted the ancient Jews to propose a day off every seven days. There were days in pagan calendars when some forms of work were forbidden. Hesiod, one of the earliest known Greek writers (700 BC), tells us that no one should sow seed on the thirteenth day of a moon cycle, or plant crops on the sixteenth day, and so on. Legal business was also forbidden on certain days in the Greco-Roman world. These were all considered “unlucky” days and were associated with lunar movements. They had nothing to do with promoting rest and recuperation. As much as it galls some historians to concede, it really does look like those ancient Jews invented the tradition of a weekend off for all. (For the theologically minded, I should of course say that God invented it.) The authoritative Anchor Bible Dictionary acknowledges:

In spite of the extensive efforts of more than a century of study into extra-Israelite sabbath origins, it is still shrouded in mystery. No hypothesis commands the respect of a scholarly consensus. Each hypothesis or combination of hypotheses has insurmountable problems. The quest for the origin of the sabbath outside of the OT [Old Testament] cannot be pronounced to have been successful. (ABD 5:851)

Wherever the Sabbath day of rest came from, it seems to have caught on. By at least the first century AD, more than a millennium after Moses, some Greeks and Romans had borrowed aspects of the Jewish day off. An aristocratic Jewish resident of Rome in the late first century wrote:

The masses have long since shown a keen desire to adopt our religious observances; and there is not one city, Greek or barbarian, nor a single nation, to which our custom of abstaining from work on the seventh day has not spread. (Josephus, Against Apion 2.282)

Josephus is exaggerating. Plenty of nations and cities ignored Jewish customs. But there is something in what he says. People were adopting the Jewish custom in Greco-Roman times. This only increased with the rise of Christianity.


As hard as it is for many Westerners to understand, weekly scheduled rest was a novelty in the ancient world. For most of history, the elites of a society tended to work as little as they possibly could, and the peasants worked pretty much all the time, week in, week out. The Sabbath command corrects both pagan traditions.

On the one hand, the fourth commandment strongly endorses work: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work.” This is phrased like a command. Work is strongly affirmed. Jews took labour and output very seriously. Elites and peasants were both expected to live productive lives. In the biblical perspective, work is not a “necessary evil.” It was part of the blessing of being a creature in God’s good world. In the garden of Eden before the “fall” into sin Adam was productive: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it” (Genesis 2:15).

Productive work is part of the blessing of creation. And so the fourth commandment begins with a reminder of its importance. The idea of not contributing in some way to the productivity of the world is very far from the Bible’s idea of the Good Life. The goal to “retire by 50” is quite contrary to the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, which celebrate work as part of our purpose as human beings. The strong correlation between unemployment and depression today will be partly explained by loss of income and partly by the loss of a sense of usefulness.

The main point of the Sabbath command, however, is to urge rest from work: the word sabbath itself comes from the verb “to cease, rest.” The instruction offers a corrective to overwork. You honour God not only by working but also by resting. The fourth commandment — in the version in Exodus, anyway — drives this home by pointing back to the creation story itself: “in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day.” Leaving aside the thorny question of six-day creationism, discussed at length in my Doubter’s Guide to the Bible, these words appear to be added to provide a powerful rationale or motivation for adherence to the command: God himself works and rests, he creates and enjoys. (Deuteronomy gives a different rationale, as we will see in a moment.)

There is a curious twin purpose of Sabbath rest. It honours God and benefits humankind (the twin purposes of the whole torah). Moses emphasises that “the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God.” The day of rest is meant to have a Godward dimension. In the course of history, Jews have expressed this by making the Sabbath — which runs from Friday sunset to Saturday sunset — a day of study and prayer. I guess the Christian parallel is Sunday church attendance.

But there is also a “humanitarian impetus for such an institution,” says Old Testament expert Carol Meyers (Exodus [Cambridge University Press, 2005], 132). Sabbath is about us. It mandates rest for workers. And notice that all are to rest. This is not just for elites and landholders. It is for sons and daughters, male and female servants, foreigners, and even animals. The version of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy seems to lay stress on the humanitarian purpose of the Sabbath. All are forbidden to work, “so that your male and female servants may rest, as you do.” Sabbath is a gift to humanity, just as much as it is a duty.

There is a sense in which all of the Ten Commandments are intended for our good: living God’s way puts us in harmony with his world and with his purposes for our lives. It is following the “manufacturer’s instructions.”


doubters-guide-ten-commandmentsBuy A Doubter's Guide to the Ten Commandments today at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Christian Book.

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