Summary: On keeping the Sabbath, recognizing it as a gift from God, a temporary lifting of the curse of labor and economic utilitarianism.
Before I became a Christian I got into a lot of New Age stuff, from Tarot to numerology. I didn’t spend a lot of time on numerology, I didn’t really start enjoying numbers until I got my computer, but I did find out that my personal number was seven. I don’t remember exactly how the formula goes but it has something to do with assigning numerical values to the letters of your name. It didn’t make a great deal of sense to me at the time, I was more into palmistry and astrology, but a lot of the people I hung around with really put a lot of stock in numbers, seeing significance in the most amazing places.
And recently I was talking to some friends whose children are planning a big do on Friday the 13th, and we were all joking about being extra worried because of the date, and then agreeing, of course, that as Christians we don’t put any stock in that sort of thing.
But it may come as a surprise to you that numbers have a great deal of significance in Scripture. A lot of them have to do with perfection, or completion. One is God’s number.
Anybody remember the old song, "Green grow the Rushes, Ho"? It’s an old English song full of medieval folk religion. Much of it is quite Biblical:
"I’ll give you one, Ho, (Green grow the rushes, Ho)
"What is your one, Ho? One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so."
One is the number for God, the one, the only, the unique. Three, of course, is the number of the trinity, but it is also the number of days Jonah was in the whale and the number of days from Jesus’ death to his resurrection. It signals completion of a particular task or event. Four also means completeness, but it’s not often used with time. There are four winds and four letters in God’s name and four evangelists. There were ten commandments and ten plagues. Ten times four gives you forty, which is the length of a generation, and it’s the way history is measured in Scripture, from genealogies to the rules of various kings, are given in multiples of 40. The most famous, of course, is the 480 years of Egyptian captivity, which is twelve generations. Twelve is the number of the tribes of Israel, and later the apostles, and it signifies election, the totality of God’s chosen and the working out of God’s purposes.
But of all the numbers meaning completion, seven has the highest place. Not only does it mean that something is complete, it means that it is perfectly fulfilled. The number seven was used to establish the pattern of Israel’s religious life. The number seven pointed the Israelites first to creation, and then to redemption as God established his worship in their midst. The wording of the commandment, "in six days YHWH made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore YHWH blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it" shows that the seventh day is more than a symbol, a number chosen out of the blue. The Sabbath is an integral part of the divinely ordained cosmic order. It is filled with blessing and sanctity by God himself, and is entirely independent of any human effort.
And the surprising thing is that there is absolutely no known analogy anywhere in the ancient world to the idea of a seven-day week - or indeed a any period of time - marked by a halt to economic activity.
Not that there isn’t any significance to the seventh day. There is. In Ugaritic and Assyrian and Sumerian mythology, all predating Abraham’s departure to Canaan, all kinds of important things happen in seven-day cycles. But most of them are bad. And the 7th, 14th or 21st of some lunar months were unlucky; many people thought that demons had special powers on those days.
Furthermore, and this is truly astonishing, whereas all major units of time in the Ancient Near east, the year, the month and the week, were all based on the phases of the moon and the solar cycle, the Israelite 7-day week is totally independent of either. It is completely independent of the movement of the celestial bodies. This is just another confirmation of the fact that God has already emphasized in the previous three commandments: that YHWH God, Israel’s God, is entirely outside of and sovereign over nature. He is lord of time as well as Lord of space. In a very real sense, then, the institution of the sabbath day constitutes a suspension of time.
But even more than simply a suspension of time, the institution of the Sabbath implies a suspension of the curse.