May 21, 2019

Radical Sabbath

“When taken seriously, the Sabbath has the power to restructure not only the calendar but also the entire political economy. In place of an economy built upon the profit motive – the ever-present need for more, in fact the need for there to never be enough – the Sabbath puts forward an economy built upon the belief that there is enough. But few who observe the Sabbath are willing to consider its full implications, and therefore few who do not observe it have reason to find any value in it.

The Sabbath’s radicalism should be no surprise given the fact that it originated among a community of former slaves. The 10 commandments constituted a manifesto against the regime that they had recently escaped, and rebellion against that regime was at the heart of their god’s identity, as attested to in the first commandment: ‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ When the ancient Israelites swore to worship only one god, they understood this to mean, in part, they owed no fealty to the pharaoh or any other emperor.

It is therefore instructive to read the fourth commandment in light of the pharaoh’s labour practices described earlier in the book of Exodus. He is depicted as a manager never satisfied with his slaves, especially those building the structures for storing surplus grain. The pharaoh orders that the slaves no longer be given straw with which to make bricks; they must now gather their own straw, while the daily quota for bricks would remain the same. When many fail to meet their quota, the pharaoh has them beaten and calls them lazy.”

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