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Book Review “Living the Sabbath” by Norman Wirzba

Wirzba_Living the Sabbath Cover

Book Review of Living the Sabbath by Norman Wirzba

Wirzba’s “Living the Sabbath” is a book with unexpected interpretations and analyses. From the outset, he explains that “[t]his book lays out the case for Sabbath observance that does not depend on the cultural sanction of complete rest for one day of the week” (p 14). He continues by asserting that though a weekly rest is desirable, sometimes we need alternative rituals to practice during the week to help us realize the ultimate goal of Sabbath keeping. His “expanded” Sabbath seems to touch upon every area of life, from recycling and lobster harvesting to daily worship and delight. So this book is not really about the weekly Sabbath, but about Wirzba’s “greening” and hyper-spiritualizing of some quotidian Sabbath-creation ideal.

Not that this is totally off kilter, because the Sabbath institution invited the Israelites to look to the prelapsarian world for the context for keeping it. Therefore, there is a link between the symbolism of Sabbath-keeping and the pristine world with Adam and Eve living in harmony with creation and their God. But that link must be understood in the context of redemption and have as its focus the person of Jesus Christ. To be specific, the Jews were commanded to refrain from work on the seventh day of the week in view of the fact that God refrained from work Himself during the first week of history. This new holy day called the Sabbath was an iteration of the Lord’s rest that took place thousands of years before: “For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day” (Ex 20:11). The Jews were not told to remember the works of Gods in creation, but they were commanded to bring everything to a stop and reflect on the fact that sin interrupted the harmonic and peaceful state that Adam and Eve enjoyed but for a moment. That thought alone would cause any sincere Sabbath-keeper to look forward to the day when the Lord would again perform the mighty work of redemption to bring about that wonderful state of rest again. Yes, God deserves praise for His glorious might and power as displayed in the beauty and expanse of creation; however, that praise must come from a redeemed people.

But there is a significant difference between the Lord’s solitary week of creation that ended with triumphant rest and the Jew’s recurring week of sin ending with the Sabbath and the sacrifice of two additional lambs. In fact, the differences are so striking, that it should make us wonder why the Lord would design this connection. In my opinion, the connection is that both the creation week and the sabbatic week are both symbolic of redemption. This is why the Lord plans to make a new heavens and a new earth, because the first creation was made with the sovereign knowledge that sin should enter the world. The first world is made obsolete so He may establish the second. This is the law of redemption.

But Wirzba does not explore this aspect of the relationship between creation and the Sabbath. For him, the Sabbath references creation, therefore, the Sabbath is all about nurturing creation, and creation is all about everything, so the Sabbath is all about everything. Wirzba seems to imagine a world in which man is in harmony with nature and God, and then he puts all of his applications under the rubric of “Sabbath-keeping.” The book is better entitled: “A Christian Philosophy of Earthly Stewardship,” or “Recapturing Eden,” even “Spiritual Reflections on a World at Rest.”

The cover of the book pictures an empty hammock tethered to a mighty trunk by a chain, perhaps inviting the reader to partake in a menuha (“rest”) free of the concerns for the world. However, he states that “[t]he Sabbath is not simply about taking a break from our busy routines” (p 15). The Subtitle “Discovering the Rhythms of Rest and Delight” seems to imply recurring periodic applications of Sabbath-keeping, but again, his idea of Sabbath-keeping is a daily occurrence. Perhaps “rhythm” means lifestyle. While other reviewers are more forgiving of these non sequiturs, this reviewer finds it difficult to accept a position that redefines the Sabbath in order to provide a platform for a pet ideology.

The Sabbath is defined by Scripture (i.e., by God) with specific properties, qualities, and designs.

  • It was established for the nation Israel while in the wilderness
  • It is related to God’s rest on the seventh day
  • It is related to Israel’s experience of redemption from Egypt
  • It takes place on the seventh day of the week perpetually, presumably for 24 hours
  • It begins in the evening of the 6th day
  • It is observed by rest, i.e., the discontinuation of work
  • The work prohibition extends to household members, working animals, and servants
  • It specifically prohibited igniting a fire
  • It restricted both commerce and travel
  • Failure to observe the Sabbath was punishable by death
  • Priestly duties on the Sabbath included the sacrifice of two additional lambs and the baking of showbread according to a strict formula

For four hundred years, theologians who believed in the morality of the Sabbath wrote exhaustively about the application of Sabbath law to contemporary culture, but Wirzba believes he is uncovering something that has eluded the best of minds. “The central significance of the Sabbath. . . has mostly been lost to us” (p 14).

Wirzba speaks hyperbolically of the errors and sins of humans in relationship to nature, institutions, and each other as if these are all violations of Sabbath law. But they are really violations of love and of conscience, and sometimes they are sins of ignorance. I read Population Bomb as a teenager and likely hold many of the same ecological values as Wirzba. I am overly concerned for the environment, I don’t like being in debt, I think it is healthy to have a garden to care for, and I am a rabid recycler. But I did not come to these conclusions because of the Sabbath; instead, they are informed by a growing knowledge of God’s plenary word and an understanding of environmental science. It is thoughtless and lazy to litter, it is greedy and wasteful to catch more fish than you can consume, and it is unloving and unjust to pollute someone else’s water or to underpay your employees. These are not violations of Sabbath law, but of the law of love. It is wise to prune a vine to encourage more growth, it is common sense to refill your own container with water rather than purchasing crates of bottled water, and it just makes sense to buy local in order to keep the tax dollars in your own community. These also are not violations of Sabbath law, but of common sense and scientific knowledge.

Interestingly, the few readers who read his book and provided online reviews seemed pleased with his approach. What he manages to accomplish is to convince like-minded environmentalists that they have a biblical rationale for every idea or goal to help the planet and its people through a loose interpretation of the Sabbath. If I refrain from purchasing water bottles, then I am a Sabbath person. If I plant a garden, then I am following the Sabbath way. If I not only read the label on products I am purchasing, but know the manufacturing and delivery process, then I reflect a Sabbath sensibility. If I use technology less and relate to family members more, then I have a Sabbath home. If I sing a hymn while washing the dishes in the company of another, then I have the Sabbath spirit. He tells us there’s a Sabbath sense, a Sabbath education, a Sabbath environmentalism, Sabbath practices, a Sabbath code, Sabbath responsibilities, a Sabbath economy, a Sabbath direction, Sabbath teaching, a Sabbath point of view, a Sabbath life, and a Sabbath potential. Because he makes the Sabbath mean everything, in the end it means nothing. The Sabbath shouldn’t be invoked when he can very well make his case with common sense stewardship of our homes, education, environment, and the economy, or for applying the Lordship of Jesus Christ over every area of our life.

Wirzba provides his exegesis of the biblical texts dealing with the Sabbath in Chapter 2 entitled “The Meaning of the Sabbath” and in Chapter 7, “Work and the Sabbath.” He discusses the Lord’s Day in Chapter 3 entitled “From Sabbath to Sunday.” Let us first search for an anchor in his viewpoint about Christian community worship on Sunday, the Lord’s Day, and then we will look at Chapter 2.

“Sunday is the Lord’s Day, which means that on this day we set aside time to make sure that Christ is indeed the Lord of our living and not we ourselves. We gather together so that we can better learn what Christ’s lordship means for us in the midst of our everyday living… Sunday is the day when Christ’s followers most visibly gather to pledge their allegiance to the ways of Jesus. ” (p 49)

Given the centrality of Christ and His resurrection on the first day of the week and the implications of the advent of a new creation vis-à-vis the old creation, what relationship does Wirzba see between the Sabbath and Lord’s Day?

“[H]istorical evidence shows that the development of the Christian Sunday was not simply a gospel way of observing the Fourth Commandment…[W]e should insist on continuity between the Jewish Sabbath and the Christian ‘feast day’…Sunday is an intensification of the Sabbath.” (p 42, 49)

In one sentence he asserts that the Lord’s Day was not tied to the Sabbath, but then states that the Sabbath informs the Lord’s Day. He quotes Moltmann who deemed that Sunday does not abolish the Sabbath and then quotes Gregory the Great who believed that Jesus abolished the Sabbath by being its fulfillment, “For us, the true Sabbath is the person of our Redeemer.”

I read this chapter at least five times and still cannot make sense of it. It is full of religious sounding assertions that are not necessarily related. His summary paragraph begins, “Sunday, far from being the obliteration of Sabbath teaching, represents a profound rearticulation of God’s overarching purpose and plan for creation.” His point seems to say that the Sabbath represented an articulation of God’s purpose and plan for creation and that Sunday rearticulates the same thing. Now it is a puzzle to me, that if the Sabbath did such a good job articulating God’s overarching purpose and plan for creation, why should that job be given to Sunday? He continues, “Sunday is our day of joy, for here we remember our memberships one with another and commit ourselves to the health and wholeness—the salvation—of physical and social bodies, of communities and creation, made possible by Christ’s resurrection power and redeeming love.” But if Sunday represents a better articulation of God’s overarching purpose and plan for creation because we now have the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection (which the Sabbath merely shadowed), then why is the book not called “Living the Lord’s Day”? It is just unclear why the Sabbath should have so much to expound about everything when we are living in the power of the resurrection and have the fullness of God’s word and the indwelling of His Spirit.

Surely, Christ’s death and resurrection ushers in the new creation. We experience it in part (1 Cor 2:10), but have little comprehension just how magnificent it will be at the consummation (1 Cor 2:9). Just because a new cosmos is coming, we do not have the right to squander resources, mistreat ecosystems, or put our needs first. But again, the Sabbath has no voice in these matters.

So what does the Sabbath mean to Wirzba? His section headings to Chapter 2 identify four areas that would help frame our understanding: 1) creation, 2) freedom, 3) rest and peace, and 4) justice. Like other Sabbatarians, Wirzba promptly draws attention to the death penalty to highlight the gravity of ignoring the Sabbath. And like other Sabbatarians, he views the death penalty as merely a “what goes around comes around” sort of thing, rather than an act of justice for disobeying the commandment of God. Given his notion that Sabbath-keeping applies to everything, if he were to apply capital law to the same degree he does other Sabbath laws, we would certainly have a better world with real Sabbath-keepers. Unfortunately, he does not explain why the death penalty should not be taken literally when the Sabbath for the land should be taken literally.

Wirzba adopts Heschel’s postulate that the Lord created menuha, or “rest”, on the seventh day. This interpretation comes from Genesis 2:2 that says, “On the seventh day God finished His work,” which ancient Jewish interpreters believed implied that some other work took place on the seventh day. But of course, the whole idea of resting on the seventh day is that all the creative work was accomplished by the end of the sixth day. The midrashic theory is that God worked to create rest, an idea that should be recognized as oxymoronic. Heschel also stated that “The Sabbath preceded creation and the Sabbath completed creation,” a view that is biblically indefensible, but sure sounds spiritual. The point is, Wirzba adopts the oxymoronic, pious-sounding theories of spiritually discerned ancient rabbis instead of giving deeper thought to Sabbath-creation relationship and the seventh-day non-creative work.

Next, Wirzba properly identifies the Sabbath-redemption link promulgated in Deut 8:2-3 and the Sabbath-manna link. The Lord said to Moses, the reason He gave them Manna is “in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that come from the mouth of the Lord.” Wirzba then begins to discuss food and digestion, clean air and anti-profiteering. He missed the opportunity to proclaim redemption in the name of Christ and the surety of it by the power of His word.

The third aspect of the Sabbath is rest and peace. I truly appreciated the first-hand observation how Sabbath-keeping could jeopardize the livelihood of agriculturalists. This was especially true for the Israelites who had even less control over their crops than we do today. Thus, as Wirzba correctly points out, to obey the Sabbath is an expression of trust. The problem is, the Lord is not commanding us to stop all work on the Sabbath or any other day of the week. Wirzba says, “We must learn to live by the generosity of manna falling all around us. But there is no manna. The double-portion of manna on the sixth day is no longer falling from heaven. However, Wirzba spiritualizes the manna to mean any blessing we receive any day of the week. So why shouldn’t “resting from work” be spiritualized to mean daily resting in the salvation that Christ provided us through His work on the cross (the meaning that the author of Hebrews attached to the themes of rest)?

Lastly, Wirza associates the Sabbath with “justice,” in that “everyone should rest together.” He surmises that “the rest of one person should not be at the expense of another’s exhaustion or toil.” It is unclear what he means by “rest,” because the remainder of the chapter he denounces the accumulation of wealth, which he believes, frequently comes from the exploitation of human and natural resources. If rest means any benefit or blessing that we receive, then it is hard not to receive a benefit that isn’t the result of someone’s work or sacrifice, i.e., a massage, a medical procedure, or a meal. Most people’s wealth is accumulated over the years as a result of their own manual and/or intellectual labor. If rest-wealth is restricted to rich CEOs, who Wirzba implies are like the Egyptian taskmasters, then the answer should be for the ordinary worker to be liberated from their job. But all Wirzba suggests (in the later chapter “Sabbath Economics”) is to join a community-supported agriculture project. Furthermore, resting together is not justice, it is equality. The state is the seat of justice, as Rushdooney argued in “Law and Society.” Sabbath justice is implementing the death penalty for non-compliance.

But like Rushdooney, Wirzba falls into a trap attempting to define contemporary applications from ceremonial laws given to Israel well over two thousand years ago. When Rushdooney examined the sabbatic laws of the land, he simply dismissed any consideration that they were completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ. “Clearly,” he said, “we have something more than ‘shadows’ here.” But Wirzba doesn’t even acknowledge the possibility that these ancient God-given laws spoke of Christ and His redemption rather than this present world and our right to own land and be debt-free. Sure, you can be “slave” to the institution that lent you money; but you can be a slave to your entrepreneurship, your 8-5 job, your home, your garden, even your pious ideas of Sabbath-keeping. And that is the overwhelming shortcoming of this book. It is all about trying to effect menuha in this world’s institutions, connections, and relationships rather than exulting in the soulical menuha in Jesus Christ.

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1 Comment

  1. Manfred says:

    I’ve never been comfortable in a hammock. Your review of this book makes it likely I would not find much comfort in it, either. Ah, but fixing my mind on the work of Christ to fulfill the law’s demands and credit ME with His righteousness – that brings me comfort! It also awes me as I realize the high price God the Father requires for people to be reconciled to Him. The rest that Jesus earned for the called-out ones is beyond price!

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