The Sabbath and the Work People Do for Us

Bible Commentary / Produced by TOW Project

Of the few variations between the two versions of the Ten Commandments, the majority occur as additions to the fourth commandment in Deuteronomy. First, the list of those you cannot force to work on the Sabbath is expanded to include “your ox or your donkey, or any of your livestock (Deut. 5:14a). Second, a reason is given why you cannot force slaves to work on the Sabbath: “So that your male and female slave may rest as well as you. Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 5:14b-15a). Finally, a reminder is added that your ability to rest securely in the midst of military and economic competition from other nations is a gift from God, who protects Israel “with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deut. 5:15b).

An important distinction between the two texts on this commandment is their grounding in creation and redemption, respectively. In Exodus, the Sabbath is rooted in the six days of creation followed by a day of rest (Gen. 1:3-2:3). Deuteronomy adds the element of God’s redemption. “The Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15). Bringing the two together, we see that the foundations for keeping the sabbath are both the way God made us and the way he redeems us.

Dinnertime Sabbath at Bandwidth.com

Bandwidth.com, a telecommunications company based in North Carolina, has a policy that everyone should leave work by 6 pm in order to spend dinner time with the people they love. If necessary, people may work from home after 8 pm or so, but workers are expected not to work or communicate with one another between 6 and 8. Co-founder Henry Kaestner says the biblical Sabbath is an inspiration for the policy, not because of its religious particularity, but because it gives everyone time for rest and relationship.

Kaestner doesn’t claim the policy would work everywhere, but says it has been embraced by workers at Bandwidth.com regardless of religious affiliation.

Henry Kaestner, panel discussion at Movement Day, New York City, October 10, 2013.

These additions highlight God’s concern for those who work under the authority of others. Not only must you rest, those who work for you—slaves, other Israelites, even animals—must be given rest. When you “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt,” it reminds you not to take your own rest as a special privilege, but to bring rest to others just as the Lord brought it to you. It does not matter what religion they follow or what they may choose to do with the time. They are workers, and God directs us to provide rest for those who work. We may be accustomed to thinking about keeping the Sabbath in order to rest ourselves, but how much thought do we give to resting those who work to serve us? Many people work at hours that interfere with their relationships, sleep rhythms, and social opportunities in order to make life more convenient for others.

The so-called “blue laws” that once protected people—or prevented people, depending on your point of view—from working at all hours have disappeared from most developed countries. Undoubtedly this has opened many new opportunities for workers and the people they serve. But is this always something we should participate in? When we shop late at night, golf on Sunday morning, or watch sporting events that continue past midnight, do we consider how it may affect those working at these times? Perhaps our actions help create a work opportunity that wouldn’t otherwise exist. On the other hand, perhaps we simply require someone to work at a miserable time who otherwise would have worked at a convenient hour.

The fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A is well known for being closed on Sundays. It is often assumed this is because of founder Truett Cathy’s particular interpretation of the fourth commandment. But according to the company’s website, “His decision was as much practical as spiritual. He believes that all franchised Chick-fil-A Operators and Restaurant employees should have an opportunity to rest, spend time with family and friends, and worship if they choose to do so.” Of course, reading the fourth commandment as a way to care for the people who work for you is a particular interpretation, just not a sectarian or legalistic one. The issue is complex, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer. But we do have choices as consumers and (in some cases) as employers that affect the hours and conditions of other people’s rest and work.



    Our free online resources depend on your support! For a limited time, all donations will be matched dollar-for-dollar, up to $100,000. Don't miss this opportunity to help Christians connect the Bible to everyday work.

    Donate