The God of sabbath

June 30, 2008

The God of Israel and of Jesus is the God of Exodus who leads His
people from the desert to the promised land, from a dry and dusty land
to a well-watered garden, from slavery toward sabbath.

Jesus
condemns the Jewish leaders for being tone-deaf to the tune of the
times. “This generation,” the generation that witnessed the ministry of
John and Jesus, can’t keep in step. When John sings a dirge, they
dance; when Jesus hosts a feast, they decide to mourn. “He who has ears
to hear, let him hear,” but this generation doesn’t seem to have ears.
They need a Savior who restores hearing to the deaf.

“This
generation” reminds us of the generation of the Exodus that forgot
Yahweh’s works and rebelled repeatedly in the wilderness. Confronting
“this generation,” Jesus is a new Moses, offering to lead Israel out of
oppressive bondage to sin and Satan. Like Moses, he comes with a yoke
yet promises rest to those who receive him.

A river flows
through the garden of Eden, and later splits into four rivers, which
flowed to the corners of the earth. For the inhabitants of the arid
ancient near east, water is a restoration of Eden.

Before it
is destroyed with fire from heaven, Sodom is a “well watered” place,
“like the garden of Yahweh” (Gen. 13:10). As Israel journeys through
the wilderness, Yahweh leads them to oases (Exo. 15:27), or, failing
that, creates oases from burning rocks and sand (Exo. 17:1-7). Yahweh
gives Israel a land that drinks rain from heaven (Deut. 11:10-12), and
John closes the Bible with a vision of an Edenic river city (Rev.
22:1-2).

In the Bible, if you’ve found abundant water, you’ve found your way back to paradise. If you find water, you’ve entered sabbath.

In
The Art of Biblical Narrative, Robert Alter points to biblical “type
scenes” that occur at wells, and these too are restorations of Eden.
Genesis 24, the first betrothal scene since Genesis 2, is the Bible’s
first romance, and it reverberates with echoes of Eden. Abraham’s
servant arrives at a well with his animals, where he finds the woman
who will marry his master’s son. It’s the garden all over again, with
Rebekah playing the role of Eve and Isaac the new Adam. Abraham is a
new Adam, his seed a new humanity.

Paul too longed for sabbath,
and expresses the anguish of that longing in Romans 7. Discussion of
Romans 7 has often focused on the identity of the “I.” Is Paul
describing his own experience? Is he talking about himself before his
conversion, or his experience as a Christian struggling with sin?

Valuable
as they are, these sorts of questions miss the function of Romans 7 in
Paul’s argument. Though Paul doesn’t ignore individual experience, his
main goal in Romans is to show how the righteousness of God revealed in
Jesus (1:16-17) is compatible with Israel’s rejection of her Messiah
(Rom. 9-11). Romans justifies the ways of God with Israel.

Torah,
Paul says, is glorious, but ultimately a ministry of condemnation and
death (Rom. 7:9-11; cf. 2 Cor. 3:5-7, 9). There is no flaw in the law;
the problem is that the spiritual law kills the fleshly man (Rom.
7:14). Torah administers death by dividing the fleshly man in two.
While he serves the law of God “with my mind,” he is in the flesh and
thus also serves the “law of sin” (v. 25).

If he is going to
be whole, he has to be as spiritual as the law. If he is going to be
whole, he needs to be brought from the desert of flesh to the garden of
Spirit.

Thanks be to God: Jesus and the Spirit liberate from
the law of sin and death, so that we can take the yoke of Jesus not
only in mind but in action (Rom. 8:1-4). Paul’s gospel is this: The
righteous God of Romans is the God of Israel, who is the God of Exodus,
the God of sabbath.