"And this woman, who is a daughter of Abraham whom the Accuser has bound for -- look! -- eighteen years, should she not be released from bondage on this, the day of the Sabbath?" (translation: David Bentley Hart)
The clash between God and Pharaoh depicted in the book of Exodus is nothing short of a cosmic, mythic clash between the forces of life and death. Pharaoh is no mere despot, he is an agent of death with the hubris to claim that “the Nile is mine, I made it and it belongs to me”, and his attempts to stamp out the fertility and flourishing of the Israelites directly opposes God’s command to the people to be fruitful. This is no geo-political squabble, Pharaoh seeks to undo the work of creation and establish a reign of death. And so God acts mightily to release Israel from their bondage. God acts mightily to cast down Pharaoh and to establish Israel as his people.*
Having been released from Egypt, God issues commands. It is never just release from, it is release for. One command is to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy. The 10 commandments occur twice in the Torah, in Exodus and Deuteronomy and both times it is the Sabbath command that has the longest commentary. In Exodus the Sabbath is linked to God who created all things and then rested on the seventh day, in Deuteronomy it is linked to God’s act to liberate Israel from Egypt. Sabbath is about remembering that God creates and releases — Sabbath is about remembering a God of life!
Far from being a time to try and avoid activity and turn in on ourselves and our favourite hobbies; Sabbath is a time where we take stock of our lives, our communities, our world and seek to see that which is out of line with God’s will, that which holds us in bondage, that which is in opposition to God’s creative, liberative, and restorative work. When we come to such a state of awareness we draw near to God so we may be better postured for what God has released us for: participation in the making right of all that is wrong, every day of the week.
Sabbath then, is about unlearning Egypt - unlearning its economics which prized productivity over people. Sabbath is about unlearning Egypt’s misuse of power and reliance on fear, which sought to hold its status by robbing people of a future. Sabbath is about unlearning Egypt’s arrogance, personified in Pharaoh who held in his heart no fear of God - no fear that material blessings do not reflect divine blessings.
But more than unlearning, Sabbath is about learning what it is that God demands. We must learn to rest: it is not all up to us, and our worth is not found in our productivity, or busy-ness (This is why it can be helpful to think of days beginning at night, with rest, than in the morning, with work. Rest is not something we earn from our labour, it is a gift given to us, just because we are human, and it is from that place that we then turn to our labour). We must learn to organise our communities in a way that lets others rest - especially those who work jobs with less security, or those who have to work multiple jobs just to meet basic needs (this is why I am passionate about the campaign to keep Boxing Day a public holiday - the combination of Christmas and Boxing Day serve as the only time of the year in which people could be guaranteed two consecutive days off - those at most risk of losing that are the vulnerable). We must learn to let the earth rest - to let fields and fuels rest by being ready to relinquish the privilege of “everything now” (my daughter has eaten watermelon almost every day of her life, and while I am thankful for the option when all else is failing, it is also concerning that we have structured our society in such a way that a seasonal fruit is available all year round). Learning Sabbath is also bout learning Jubilee; Sabbath is about the justice and equality that comes through the redistribution of land, the setting free of slaves, the wiping clean of debt so that people will not be stuck in cycles of poverty, so that disparity in wealth, health, and opportunity will not be enshrined and past on across the generations. Sabbath is about learning to be a people whose lives are shaped by God and God’s reign - where the lowly are lifted up and mighty cast down, the last are first and first are last, where the poor are blessed and so too the peacemakers, and where the banquet halls will be filled with those who are never on anyone’s guest list.
This has been the power of Sabbath throughout history. James H. Cone writes about the Black Church during their racialised oppression in the US; after six days of the week living in a society that limited your worth and called you a nobody, the Black community would come together to hear God’s word that slavery (and latter segregation) contradicts God’s will - that the racism they faced is a sin, and that it was with their community that Christ was to be found. The Sabbath was a time to remember that you had been (and would be) freed and that despite the present circumstances you had been declared a somebody by God the one true voice in the world. All that gave hope and power and joy to survive and continue to work to see things change!**
Is is any surprise then, after all that has been said, that Jesus releases this woman from bondage on this, the day of the Sabbath?
Jesus is engaged in another cosmic, mythic battle between life and death. The Gospels do not present a scenario in which there are two actors (God and us) there are three (God, the Evil One, and us). Jesus’ exorcisms are a sign that he has not only inaugurated a clash with the dominion of Satan but that he is the victor in that battle. It is a sign that the Reign of God is at hand and that the reign of Sin (under which we were all held) has been done away with and no longer holds power over us!
As in Exodus, where the powers of Evil and Death took shape in the figure of Pharaoh and the empire of Egypt, in this story it is the religiosity of those who are more concerned with being right than seeing flourishing which stands on the side of the Accuser and which Jesus actively opposes. At other points in the gospels the occupation of Rome is identified with the demonic. Whatever it may be that binds, the kingdom of God is at hand, and - in keeping with the heart of the Sabbath grounded on God’s acts of creation and liberation - Jesus recognises that which is out of line with God’s good purposes for God’s beloved creation and acts decisively to see healing and restoration.
What have we seen thus far? God acts to release people from bondage. But this is not some abstracted releasing - the word implies another actor is in play - Pharaoh held Israel in bondage, the Accuser held this woman in bondage - God’s liberative acts are acts for us and against another. These actors who hold people in bondage can take many forms - as we’ve already seen they can take political forms by way of Empires and armies - they can also take the form of those structures and systems of racism, classism, and sexism that afflict our societies. And these forces can be aided and abetted by the actions of people and institutions - the religious leaders of this particular synagogue on this particular day aligned themselves not with God’s will that people would be released and restored but with the forces of Sin and Death - and this misalignment something the church has been sadly guilty of all too often. Yet, despite the presence of these powers to afflict and tempt - the good news of the Gospel is that in Christ’s death, Death has been swallowed up, and in Christ’s Resurrection the Power of Sin has been conquered, and in Christ’s return the Accuser will be vanquished. We are no longer under their bondage, and they have no power over us. Though we were under Sin we are now - all of us - under Christ! The kingdom of God is at hand and we await it with joy, so however misaligned our priorities may becomes there is no going back - we have been released, and not just from but for! We have received a Spirit of Adoption and invitation to participate in God’s rectification of the cosmos!
And so the Sabbath serves as reminder that the God who created the cosmos to flourish harmoniously is the God acts to liberate us from the forces of evil and exploitation. The Sabbath is not some abstracted time of rest (though it certainly calls us to rest) it is grounded in God’s identity and our identity as a people of God. Sabbath is time given so we may gather as a people to remember what God has done, what God is doing, and what God will do and to shape our identity after that story.
*My appreciation to Rabbi Shai Held’s The Heart of Torah for these insights.
** Cone addresses this in various places, I recommend The Spirituals and the Blues in this particular case.