Sunday Meditations: Biblical Ethics, Part I – The Sabbath

So, yesterday’s post was a tee up for what I have been thinking about since the Nashville Statement came out: how is ethical reasoning presented to us in the Bible?

It might be tempting to use a model like, “God says it, so people do it.”  However, this isn’t actually how Jesus, the apostles, or even biblical writings that come later in church history actually handle instructions we find in the Bible.  I admit that I bristle a little when groups like the Nashville Statement signers refer to their position as “biblical,” because if they mean, “there’s stuff in the Bible that sounds like our position,” then yes, their position is biblical.  If they mean, “Our position reflects the ethical reasoning on this issue that is employed in the Bible,” then they’re actually not very biblical at all.

I want to say at the outset that how we as a church respond to the (mostly) contemporary phenomenon of homosexual men and women genuinely wanting to express their sexuality in a manner faithful to their Lord is a complex issue as the broad range of views indicates.  I’m still working through it (although, I want to add, if I make an error, it will be on the side of loving my neighbor as myself, fyi), and it would have been helpful if the “scholars” who signed the Nashville Statement would have done something more along the lines of research or, I don’t know, actually asking gay theologians for their thoughts on being gay and Christian and how they’ve reconciled that as part of crafting a statement on what it means to be gay and Christian.  Maybe later, a bunch of evangelical men could issue a statement on abortion without consulting any women!  Ha ha… ha… uh… hrm.

Anyway, what follows is not an apologetic.  It’s a look at some test cases in biblical law and ethics and their evolution over time.  Homosexuality in the church will be my referent, but this is ultimately about how we use the Bible to determine ethics for anything.

Case 1: Abstaining from Work on Saturday

In Genesis 2, God completes creation on the seventh day and rests.  He blesses it and hallows it.  This is a part of creation before the Fall.  It is the theological justification attached to the fourth commandment of the Decalogue:

Remember the sabbath day, and 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; 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. 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.

Exodus 20:8-11 (NRSV)

Yom shabbat is Saturday.  It is not “one seventh of the days” or anything like that.

Here is an elaboration where the death penalty is specified as well as the Sabbath being a permanent ordinance:

The Lord said to Moses: You yourself are to speak to the Israelites: “You shall keep my sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the sabbath, because it is holy for you; everyone who profanes it shall be put to death; whoever does any work on it shall be cut off from among the people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the Israelites shall keep the sabbath, observing the sabbath throughout their generations, as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.”

Exodus 31:12-17 (NRSV)

In the life of Israel, this commandment was (and is) taken with utmost seriousness.  Here, we read about the community executing a man who gathered sticks on Saturday:

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation. They put him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, “The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.” The whole congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Numbers 15:32-36 (NRSV)

A man is gathering sticks on Saturday and, allegedly, God commands Moses to kill him, so they all do.

In 1 Maccabees 2, we read of a group of Jews attacked by Antiochus Epiphanes’ men on the Sabbath, and the Jews do not defend themselves so as not to violate the Sabbath.

The significance of this commandment in Israel’s history is hard to overstate.  It carries the death penalty so, as you might imagine, a fair amount of midrash is spent on figuring out what you can and can’t do on Saturday.  To modern Christians, these long, detailed lists of what counts as “work” may seem like legalism, but keep in mind – you’re executed if you work on Saturday.  So, you’d probably be a little concerned about this issue as well.

Even when Israel is in the wilderness, God sends them double manna on Friday so that they will not have to gather manna on Saturday.  Keep that in mind – God Himself thinks that them picking bread up off the ground is a violation of the Sabbath.  This will be important, later.

Here are the things we’ve seen about the commandment so far:

  • It is grounded in creation and not a post-Fall development.
  • It is intended to be a perpetual observance (for Israel, at least).
  • “No work” is not exhaustively defined, but it at least includes picking up sticks or bread from the ground.
  • The penalty for violating the Sabbath is death.

Seems very straightforward, does it not?  And there is much, much more biblical data on the Sabbath than there is on homosexuality (very little) or monogamous same-sex marriages (none).

And yet, even in the confines of the Old Testament, things don’t shake out quite so clearly.

The prophets will target the Sabbath and explain that God hates the Sabbath observance of Israel because Israel has become unjust.  This shows up in Amos 5, Hosea 2, and Isaiah 1:

When you come to appear before me,
    who asked [for animal sacrifices] from your hand?
    Trample my courts no more;
bringing offerings is futile;
    incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—
    I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.
Your new moons and your appointed festivals
    my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me,
    I am weary of bearing them.
When you stretch out your hands,
    I will hide my eyes from you;
even though you make many prayers,
    I will not listen;
    your hands are full of blood.
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean;
    remove the evil of your doings
    from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,
     learn to do good;
seek justice,
    rescue the oppressed,
defend the orphan,
    plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:12-17 (NRSV)

That’s a solid list of things God commanded Israel to do that He is sick of them doing because they have failed to do justice.  The sacrifices are how atonement is made for Israel’s sin.  The Sabbath is a perpetual ordinance; the penalty for not observing the Sabbath is death.  Yet, God hates these things and is tired of them because Israel will not pursue justice.

This introduces a new wrinkle into ethical reasoning.  Sabbath-keeping in that particular context is at the very least a matter of indifference to God if not outright offense.  Keeping the Sabbath and making atonement sacrifices is actually making God angrier.

How well do you suppose that message was received by the biblical scholars of Isaiah’s day?

An important thing we need to keep in mind as we use the Bible for ethics is that it didn’t drop out of the sky fully formed.  What we are looking at are writings that were eventually collected together, but originally were produced over time.  The original audience of Isaiah 1 does not have the benefit of New Testament commentary on the Sabbath or Thomas Aquinas’ handy division of the Law into ceremonial, civil, and moral.  To them, it’s all a ball of wax, and here comes someone telling them that their faithful observance of those commandments are offensive to God in light of their failure to love their neighbor as themselves.  In the practical, lived out experience of the faith community, nobody can turn to the book of Isaiah and go, “Oh, yeah, totally.  There it is.  Good point, Isaiah.”  There’s just some dude claiming to speak for God telling you this and the people are expected to accept that warning over and against the written code they have.  They are expected to go, “Ok, let’s stop our Sabbaths and sacrifices and repent as a nation over this other issue and institute justice, and then let’s engage in our acts of worship that will henceforth be pleasing to God.”  And why are they expected to?  Because a prophet is telling them to, not because it’s in the Bible.

Let’s fast forward to the New Testament.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.” He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. For the Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Matthew 12:1-8 (NRSV)

I wrote about this passage not too long ago, so it’s still fresh in my mind.

Here, Jesus and his disciples are in a grainfield, and they start picking the grain to eat.  Lest you think this doesn’t count as a Sabbath violation, let me remind you that picking up manna and gathering sticks are both considered Sabbath violations by God Himself.  In terms of the act, there is nothing different between what Jesus and his disciples are doing and an Israelite gathering manna on the Sabbath or that guy picking up some sticks.  Nor does Jesus defend himself by saying that picking grain doesn’t really count as “work.”

This is a full blown violation of Saturday.  Keep in mind that, at this point, there are no Scriptures that cast what you do on Saturday as a matter of indifference, or something that changed in the New Covenant, nor do they have the Westminster Confession of Faith to inform them that works of necessity and mercy are legal on the Sabbath.  What they have are the Old Testament scriptures and rabbinical teaching.

In other words, the Pharisees are dead on correct in their accusation.

Look at how Jesus defends himself.

First, he appeals to a story of David and his men being hungry, so they eat the Temple shewbread that only the priests should eat.  Since the shewbread is changed on the Sabbath, perhaps David ate the bread on the Sabbath, but we aren’t told.  We’re just told it was bread that had been removed from the presence of the Lord.  That adds an interesting point to this example, because what Jesus focuses on is the shewbread laws, not the Sabbath laws.  David and his men are hungry, so they break the shewbread laws (although they have to convince Ahimelech that they haven’t had sex that day, so it’s not a perfect example).

Jesus’ point is not that the need of David and his men transcends the Sabbath laws; his point is that their needs transcended the Law.  Sure, we could say David isn’t just any average Israelite, and maybe we could even work out some complex typology, here, but Jesus does not do any of that.  David and his men were hungry, so they ate bread in violation of the Torah, and God was ok with it, the high priest was ok with it, and the Pharisees accusing Jesus are ok with it.  Loving one’s neighbor as oneself took precedence over the requirement of the letter.

Second, he refers to the priests working in the Temple as breaking the Sabbath.  Technically, this is true.  If picking up sticks is breaking the Sabbath, then surely moving furniture around, killing animals, etc. is breaking the Sabbath.  Assuming Jesus is correct in his judgement, he has found a contradiction in the Law.  The Law requires all abstaining from work on Saturday.  The Law also requires the priests to perform work on Saturday.  One directive from the Law functionally overrides another directive.  You can’t keep laws X and Y if you don’t break law Z.  Keep in mind, this is Jesus’ call, here.  He is the one saying that priests break the Sabbath.  You can reason all you like about how the priestly laws are not actual violations of the Sabbath so there is no contradiction, but this is not what Jesus says.  In Jesus’ view, priests break the Sabbath.  God is ok with it, priests are ok with it, the Pharisees are ok with it.

If interested, I’d encourage you to read my post on this passage to see how the Son of Man thing fits in, but that specific part is an area of reasoning that does not really apply to anyone who is not the eschatological figure who receives the kingdom from God in Daniel.

In Mark’s version of this story, though, Jesus offers a different reason than “one greater than the Temple is here,” which is relevant for this discussion.  Mark says that Jesus says:

“The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath”

Mark 2:27 (NRSV)

In other words, the Sabbath – creational ordinance though it is, carrying the death penalty – was made for the benefit of people.  People were not created to keep the Sabbath.  The argument, here, is that the laws about Saturday are subservient to the needs and benefit of the people.

Creation ordinance, perpetual observation, death penalty – Jesus says all of that plays second fiddle to the needs and benefit of the people.  The laws exist for their benefit, so their benefit trumps the laws.

The next Sabbath episode is also interesting:

He left that place and entered their synagogue; a man was there with a withered hand, and they asked him, “Is it lawful to cure on the sabbath?” so that they might accuse him. He said to them, “Suppose one of you has only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath; will you not lay hold of it and lift it out? How much more valuable is a human being than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

Matthew 12:9-14 (NRSV)

Here, Jesus miraculously heals a man, which I grant is going to be difficult to categorize, but look at Jesus’ defense.  Jesus points out that, if you have only one sheep and it falls into a pit on the sabbath, you (Jesus’ accusers) would pull it out.  If picking up a stick or a piece of bread constitutes work on Saturday, then hauling your sheep out of a pit surely constitutes work on Saturday, yet Jesus points out that anyone would do this because of the value of the sheep, so how much more ought we to work on Sunday if it helps a person?

So, once again, the very clear cut Sabbath law is violated on the grounds of helping a person (or even a sheep) in need.  According to Jesus’ Bible, there is no text that actually permits this on the Sabbath or even implies in a roundabout way that this is acceptable.  The Pharisees are specifically banking on this.  If the Old Testament permits the work Jesus is doing on the Sabbath, then they’re really wasting their time.  The whole reason this is a trap is because the Bible at the time does not permit the kinds of things Jesus is doing.

Nevertheless, Jesus does them, and his argumentation does not depend on cross-examining verses.  “True, that verse implies that no work is to be done on the Sabbath, but this verse over here says some work is ok.”  There is no other verse like that.  Instead, Jesus draws his defense from the regular instances of human need.  Those instances trump the Scriptures – the very Scriptures that Jesus obviously reveres.  Jesus says to us, “Yes, the Bible says not to pick up sticks or bread on the Sabbath, but if you have a sheep in a pit, you’d pull it out, anyway, right?  Well, I’m helping this guy.”

As we move further into the New Testament, something kind of startling occurs.  There begins to be an observation called “the Lord’s Day,” which is Sunday, not Saturday.  Keep in mind that yom shabbat is Saturday.  That’s what the phrase “the Sabbath” designates.  The Shabbat.  Saturday.  Everywhere in your English bibles you read “the Sabbath,” you could replace that text with “the Saturday” and be literally correct.

There are zero texts or first century prophetic visions or any recorded apostolic declarations that make Sunday a special day or Saturday not a special day.  Enter Paul’s advice to the Roman church:

Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.

Romans 14:5-6 (NRSV)

Keep in mind that Paul did not read this in the Bible, somewhere.  Rabbinically-trained super-Jew I-used-to-execute-people-for-blasphemy Paul is drawing this reasoning out from the contemporary (to him) experience of the church under the Lord Jesus Christ.  Jews in a church in Rome are getting a letter where some guy is telling them that observing the Sabbath (or the Lord’s Day, for that matter) as a special day is a matter for each person to decide for themselves, and as long as they have made their decision to honor the Lord, it’s all good.

This does not at all square with the Bible as Paul’s audience knew it.  There is NOTHING in there that even remotely suggests this and EVERYTHING in the Bible up to that point strongly countermands it.  The Gospels haven’t been written yet, either, so even speculating about a proto-canon doesn’t really help us out, here.

And yet, like Isaiah’s Israel, the faithful people of God are expected to read Paul’s letter and go, “Ok, sure.  This seems like what Jesus would want.”

The Bible says that the Sabbath was created to be holy to the Lord and to abstain from all work, even gathering food.  That is clearly what the text says, means, and historically has been practically applied.  That is orthodoxy in the first century – orthodoxy for literally millennia.  First century Jews may disagree about the Resurrection or the existence of angels, but they all agree on keeping Saturday work-free.

But Paul, going off of no Scriptural references at all, writes to the Roman church which is surely experiencing tensions over the whole Sabbath/Lord’s Day/any other day issue and says, “Hey, do whatever you think is right as long as you’re doing it to honor the Lord, and you can’t judge each other for that.”

WHAT?  You’re supposed to execute people for that.  Paul has just taken an item of covenant identity and orthodoxy and, with a stroke of a pen, made it adiaphora – a matter of indifference over which Christians can simply agree to disagree and honor each other’s efforts to serve the Lord.

To us, what Paul wrote is holy Scripture to be considered in the collection of “Sabbath data,” but to the church in Rome, it was a letter they received.  There was no New Testament.  There was no Gospel of Mark.  All the biblical data is against Paul on this, but there he goes.  So, now, the congregation has to decide what to do with this liberal theologian who clearly does not care about the authority of Scripture.  Paul is just not biblical on this point.

The interesting thing is, however, that God is actually speaking through Paul, and He wants the church to listen up.

The reason Aquinas had to invent the triparte division of the Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial is precisely to explain the multivocality we find in the Bible about ethical codes.  Some appear to never be reexamined, some get adapted to Israel’s changing circumstances, some are directly countermanded, and some become matters of indifference.

Assuming that most of the signers of the Nashville Statement neither conduct their worship services nor totally abstain from work on Saturday, they have also made a decision about this issue.

My point is this: the idea that an ethical injunction in the Bible settles the issue is not an idea that is present in the Bible.  Here, we have a law that is clearly intended to be perpetual, is part of the created order, and carries the death penalty, but by the time we get to early faith communities in the mid-first century, it’s something you do if you think it honors the Lord, but you also have to accept that others won’t and that’s ok, too.

Laws prohibiting homosexual behavior in the Bible are not the end of a discussion on how the church today should handle the issue; they are the beginnings of that discussion.  They are, as Paul himself says, “useful.”  They do not set down universally once for all how the faithful people of God are supposed to operate.  There was a group who believed that, and Jesus set himself against that group.

Does that mean that everything is up for grabs, then?  In the sense that everything is morally acceptable, no.  In the sense that everything is up for discussion and figuring it out together, yes.