Sabbath and Jubilee

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Richard H. Lowery, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000)

This is not an easy read. Written by a professor of Old Testament, Sabbath and Jubilee is a study of biblical references to Sabbath and jubilee. The subject is complicated by many factors: roots in a subsistence rural economy, uncertainty concerning origins of the Sabbath, educated guesses as to original meanings, uncertainty as to what was practice and what was ideal. “Jubilee laws [on slavery and land redistribution] are…mostly impractical as social policy. But they establish important and revolutionary theological and ethical principles” (p. 77).

“By celebrating a divinely ordered cosmic order, built on natural abundance, self-restraint, and social solidarity, Sabbath critiques the oppressive consequences of a royal imperial system built on tribute, forced state labor, and debt slavery” (p. 3). Households are honor bound to help the vulnerable, like orphans, widows, and the poor. Those who do not are like the hard-hearted pharaoh.

“In Genesis 1 the world as God intended it is a world of overflowing abundance, shared power, self-restraint, and universal leisure” (p. 63). “The underlying assumption that Yahweh owns both land and people reorients economic assumptions and lays the moral foundations for a just society” (p. 70).

The last two chapters—on Jesus’s actions and words concerning Sabbath and on modern application—are, to me, much more accessible and helpful. Lowery relates Jesus’s actions to the Old Testament stories of Joseph, exodus, and manna. Jesus does not lessen the importance of Sabbath, but names its central message as about generosity and hospitality, not purity. (The understandings of Sabbath represented by Pharisees in the Synoptic Gospels are not the principal first-century Jewish views of the Sabbath.)

The Sabbath is central to Jewish identity because it is about the character of God. The Hebrew God—unlike other gods, who demand grunt work from people—offers abundance and rest.

Review by Hermann Weinlick, retired Moravian pastor. He serves as the ecumenical officer for the Moravian Church in North America. His work as a free-lance editor includes copyediting the Feasting on the Word lectionary commentary.

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