What About the Sabbath? Part 2

Yesterday we looked at some key Old Testament passages regarding the Sabbath. Today, we’ll look at the inter-testamental period, as recorded in the Apocrypha. (If you’re new to the Apocrypha, you can read my intro here.)

Regardless of your feelings about the inspiration and canonicity of the Apocrypha, it does provide insight into the development of some themes in post-exilic Judaism. The Sabbath is not mentioned extensively, but 1 & 2 Maccabees do give us some points to ponder.

1 Maccabees 2 tells the story of Mattathias, who defied the Gentile King’s orders and refused to offer sacrifices to idols or defile the Sabbath. He fled Jerusalem with his followers and was pursued. About 1,000 of his followers were attacked by the Gentiles on the Sabbath and they chose to die instead of violate the Sabbath (2:33-38). Mattathias learns of this slaughter and mourns for the slain. Then he and his followers do some analysis.

“If we all do as our brethren have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against every man who comes to attack us on the sabbath day; let us not all die as our brethren died in their hiding places.”

1 Maccabees 2:40-41 (RSV)

This raises interesting and important questions about Sabbath observance that are not addressed in the Pentateuch. Armed conflict is certainly work; the exertion of hand-to-hand combat is complete. Yet in all the conflicts with the Philistines, or even the occupation of the promised land, Sabbath regulations are never mentioned.

In the period of the Maccabees, however, there is a renewed emphasis on the Sabbath. Whether rightly or wrongly, the returned exiles from Babylon held Sabbath observance in high regard. (See Nehemiah 10 and 13.) Sabbath-keeping, always a distinctive feature of Judaism, became even more important to those trying to re-establish Israel.

One further passage offers a bit more light on the question of war and the Sabbath. 2 Maccabees 8:24-29 gives us an instance of the Jews on the offensive achieving a decisive victory against the Gentiles. But, they cut off their pursuit of the defeated army because of the arrival of the Sabbath.

There is much that could be made of these incidences, and applications drawn from them, but I want to restrain our discussion of how we should observe the Sabbath until we have looked at the whole counsel of Scripture. Instead, I will leave you with some questions for reflection.

What do you make of the willingness of 1,000 men to die in 1 Maccabees 2? Were they “putting the Lord to the test” or honoring God? We don’t read that they expressed any hope of miraculous deliverance. Is that a lack of faith or a sober assessment of their situation? When Mattathias and the rest of his followers made a conscious decision to defend themselves on the Sabbath, did they demonstrate a lack of faith or wise judgement?

Pondering these life-and-death questions related to the Sabbath help us to consider our application of the fourth commandment. They also give us insight into the conflicts between Jesus and the Pharisees over what is proper on the Sabbath day, but that’s for another day.

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