What Work Is Forbidden on the Sabbath?

In my last post, we saw that the man supposedly killed by God for picking up sticks on the Sabbath was actually a picture of Jesus. In the New Testament, we see that Jesus, that is God, heals rather than kills on the Sabbath. Jesus, that is God, gathers his people rather than casting them out on the Sabbath. Instead, it was Moses, Aaron, and the congregation that stoned the man for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. While there was no specific law against gathering sticks on the Sabbath, Numbers 15.32-36 indicates that Moses, Aaron, and the congregation came to a mutual decision that the man should be killed.

How did they determine that the man gathering sticks on the Sabbath should be killed?

They based their decision on what Moses thought he heard from God.

“And the Lord said to Moses, ‘You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, “Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, 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, that soul shall be cut off from among his 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 people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 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 32.12-17)

Moses, Aaron, and the congregation deemed that gathering sticks on the Sabbath was doing work. Working on the Sabbath profaned the Sabbath as the Sabbath was to be a day of solemn rest. The Sabbath was a day of solemn rest because the Lord made the heaven and the earth in six days and rested on the seventh day. By working on six days and resting on the seventh day, Israel would be imaging, emulating, mirroring God. If one’s life did not image God, then their soul should be cut off from the people and they should die.

But, is this what God really instructed Moses and Israel to do?

Did God really say to Moses that anyone who gathered sticks on the Sabbath was profaning the Sabbath by working on it and should be put to death?

Or, did Moses misunderstand God?

Does Jesus help us understand God, work, and the Sabbath differently?

In John 5.1-17, Jesus comes across a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. Every day the man would lie by the pool at the Sheep Gate so that when the water was stirred he could get in the pool and be healed. But, you had to be the first one in the pool, and someone always beat him into the pool. Even though it was the Sabbath, Jesus told the man to get up, take his bed with him, and walk. At once the man was healed, but carrying his bed on the Sabbath was against the law. This man was profaning the Sabbath by doing work. Further, Jesus was profaning the Sabbath healing the man. Verses 16-17 say, “And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

Jesus is clearly saying that the Father works on the Sabbath. “He is working until now.” Therefore, because the Father is working on the Sabbath, Jesus says, “I am working.”

What is going on here?

Exodus 32.12-17 is clearly referring back to the creation accounts in Genesis 1-3. Verse 17 says, “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 he rested and was refreshed.” Genesis 2.1-2 says, “Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done.” The two passages are quite similar.

But, there is something very interesting about the seventh day of creation that you might not have noticed.

It never ended.

Each of the first six days of creation had a clear ending.

  • “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1.5)
  • “And there was evening and there was morning, the second day.” (Genesis 1.8)
  • “And there was evening and there was morning, the third day.” (Genesis 1.13)
  • “And there was evening and there was morning, the fourth day.” (Genesis 1.19)
  • “And there was evening and there was morning, the fifth day.” (Genesis 1.23)
  • “And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” (Genesis 1.31)

But, in Genesis 2.1-3, this phrase is not stated regarding the seventh day. In other words, for God the seventh day, the day of solemn rest, the Sabbath, has continued forever without end. So, Jesus said that even though it is the Sabbath, and always has been the Sabbath for God, “My Father is working until now, and I am working” because I am the image of my Father.

Hold on.

Genesis 2.1-3 says “on the seventh day God finished his work…he rested on the seventh day from all his work…God rested from all his work that he had done in creation.”

So, which is it?

Did God stop working or not?

In Genesis 2.1-3, the Hebrew word for work is melakah. This word does mean work. But, it can also mean possessions, or what is owned by the expenditure of work. The idea behind melakah seems to be that when you work to create something you own what you have created. God worked to create for six days. At the end of six days, God rested from the kind of work that creates. There was nothing left for God to create and own. All of it had been made. And, God owed all of it. But, God did not stop working altogether.

Exodus 32.14-15 says, “Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his 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 shall be put to death.” Three times the word work is used and three times it is the word melakah. Therefore, the work that is forbidden on the Sabbath is the work of creating to take ownership of what is created.

Why?

Because God had created and owned everything on the first six days of creation. As the seventh day of creation never ended, there was nothing left to work to create and own. God had created the earth, all the land, and given it to man. Man was merely a steward of what God had created. Man did not own the land himself. Therefore, for man to work to own the land on the Sabbath would profane the Sabbath, or profane the work God had already done in creation and rested from.

When man was created he was living in the seventh day, the day of rest that never ended. Yet, man was given work to do. Genesis 2.15 says, “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.”

Wait a minute.

How did God put the man in the garden “to work it” when God had rested from his work?

The Hebrew word for work in Genesis 2.15 is not the same as in Genesis 2.1-3. Here the Hebrew word for work is bod, which primarily means to serve. Also, the Hebrew word for keep is samar, which also means to watch over or guard. In other words, man was to serve and keep, guard, or watch over what God had created as his own possession. Again, man was a steward not an owner.

Some food for thought. These two Hebrew words, bod and samar, are regularly used of the priests serving in the Tabernacle. The priests, by the way, worked on the Sabbath as sacrifices still had to be offered. And, Jesus tabernacled among us (John 1.14) and was always working as God’s servant.

In a restatement of the 10 commandments, Deuteronomy 5.12 says, “Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.” The word observe is the Hebrew word samar. Also, Exodus 32.12-17 says, “you shall keep my Sabbaths…you shall keep the Sabbath…the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath.” Each time the word keep is the word samar.

Therefore, on the seventh day, the Sabbath, Adam was to serve and keep, guard, or watch over the garden. Similarly, Israel was to keep the Sabbath in the same way as Adam. There was still work to be done, just not the kind of work that would take ownership of what the work produced.

Exodus 32.12-17 says “everyone who profanes it shall be put to death” and “whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death.” The phrase “shall be put to death” is the same phrase that we find in Genesis 2.16-17 after Adam was given the command to bod and samar the garden of Eden in Genesis 2.15. Genesis 2.16-17 says, “And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, ‘You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.”

So, Adam was to work and keep the garden. As long as Adam did that, he could eat from everything in God’s garden, including the tree of life, which meant he could benefit from what God created and owned. But, if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil instead of the tree of life, then Adam would surely die. In other words, Adam was to work and keep the garden to extend it throughout the earth. And, he would do this as long as he did not try to own anything himself. In this way, Adam would spread life throughout the earth. But, if Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge good and evil, if Adam stepped outside his role as steward so as to make his own judgments and own what was not his, then he would surely die.

Perhaps, this is why in the beginning of Solomon’s book on wisdom, which is Jesus, who is the tree of life, Proverbs 1.18-19 says, “But these men lie in wait for their own blood; they set an ambush for their own lives. Such are the ways of everyone who is greedy for unjust gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.” To be greedy for unjust gain is to work to own that which is not rightfully yours. As we have seen, that is what is meant by working to create on the Sabbath, which profanes the Sabbath. Men that try to possess land that is not theirs through violence are working to own that which is not theirs. It results in death.

Further, we see an allusion from the life of Jesus back to the command God gave Adam to work and keep the garden to spread life throughout the earth and the command to keep the Sabbath. However, if Adam ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, then he would surely die.

“On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, ‘Come and stand here.’ And he rose and stood there. And Jesus said to them, ‘I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?’ And after looking around at them all he said to them, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ And he did so, and his hand was restored. But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.”

Jesus’s work of healing on the Sabbath was an one of working, or serving, and keeping the garden of God by restoring or extending its life. Because the man’s hand was withered, he was not able to fulfill the command God gave to Adam. Therefore, the man was not able to image God, which meant that he could not express God’s life. Knowing that the scribes and Pharisees believed it was wrong to heal, to work, on the Sabbath, Jesus asked if he could do good or give save life on the Sabbath. He was asking not if he could work to create so as to own the fruits of his labor but if he could work and keep the life that God had created and owned. Jesus was seeking to liberate the life that God had created. To not do this kind of work on the Sabbath, to not extend God’s kingdom and the life it brings, would be to do harm and to destroy life, to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

So, through the lens of Jesus, I think we can see that not all work was forbidden on the Sabbath. Working to own the produce of our work was forbidden. But, if that work was the kind of work that saved life, restored life, and extended God’s kingdom then that work was not only allowed but actually commanded by God to be performed. This is the kind of work that God still performed on the Sabbath according to Jesus. Therefore, it was the kind of work Jesus did on the Sabbath since he only did what he saw his Father doing. In this way Jesus imaged God. As we enter back into that day of rest, the day of rest without end, meaning every day is a day of rest, this is the same kind of work that we are to do. And, we are to do everything as if we are doing it for the Lord. In other words, everything should we do should be an act of serving and keeping God’s garden. It’s all work on the Sabbath. Then we to will image God and be his sons.