Sabbath Rest as Cultural Firewall by Brueggemann


Walter Brueggemann.  2014.  Sabbath as Resistance:  Saying NO to the Culture of Now.  Louisville:  Westminster John Knox Press.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

One of the characteristics of the period since the demise of the Bretton Woods System in 1971 and reduction in barriers to international trade has been the increasing importance of the law of one price.  From economic trade theory, the law of one prices says that only one price for a commodity can exist in an open market economy, adjusting for shipping, storage, and policy interventions.

The law of one price hypothesizes that the price of a Big Mac should be the same worldwide.  The same is true for wages and salaries.  Because everyone competes with everyone else, no one relaxes (enjoys healthcare, summer vacations, a clean environment, a spouse at home with the kids, and so on) without losing competitive advantage.  The market is the formidable taskmaster.


In his discussion of Sabbath rest in the Pentateuch, Walter Brueggemann offers a fairly sophisticated understanding of Moses’ response to the market’s devaluation of human life.  Under penalty of death (Numbers 15:32-35), nobody, no way, works on the Sabbath provided a cultural alternative (xiv) to Pharaoh’s relentless pursuit of wealth.   Bruggemann writes:  YHWH governs as an alternative to Pharoah, there the restfulness of YHWH effectively counters the restless anxiety of Pharaoh (xiii).  Sabbath rest appears in the creation accounts because God balances work and rest.  The Egyptian gods, by contrast, never rested (5).

Pharaoh Versus Moses

Today we would call Moses’ Sabbath rest prescription a government-sanctioned monopoly.  Brueggemann (3) observes that:  the God of Sinai…is never simply a “religious figure” but is always preoccupied with…socioeconomic practice and policy.  Because no one works on the Sabbath, no one can chisel—cheat and make more money by quietly disobeying the law.  Sabbath rest defines the ultimate human right—the right to live a humane life.  Because exhausted people only think about themselves—they neither love God nor their neighbor (contra Matthew 22:36-40), Sabbath rest is a cultural firewall against market intrusion into family, community, and religious life.  For this reason, Sabbath rest is the only creation mandate also found among the Ten Commandments and, as the fourth commandment, it is also the longest (27).  This means that the Bible treats it as an emphatic commandment!

In contrasting the YHWH economy with Pharaoh’s economy, Brueggemann provides an interesting insight into the Ten Commandments.  Those who keep the Sabbath need not:

  • Dishonor mother and father,
  • Kill,
  • Commit adultery,
  • Steal,
  • Bear false witness, or
  • Covet (31).

In other words, do detestable things for the sake of money.  The unending race to pursue wealth (or defend one’s lifestyle) normally pushes us individually and collectively to neglect or break these commandments—the law of one price has led us to chisel on each one of these commandments in recent years.


Brueggemann’s short book (89 pages) breaks into six chapters, including:

  1. Sabbath and the First Commandment;
  2. Resistance to Anxiety (Exodus 20:12-17);
  3. Resistance to Coercion (Deuteronomy 5:12-14);
  4. Resistance to Exclusivism (Isaiah 56:3-8);
  5. Resistance to Multitasking (Amos 8:4-8); and
  6. Sabbath and the Tenth Commandment (vii).

These chapters are preceded by a detailed preface which serves as a helpful introduction.


While some might chide Brueggemann for offering a political analysis of the Pentateuch, it is more correct to say that wherever two or more are gathered together politics will be present!  By contrast, if the Pentateuch is spiritualized, it can easily be recast to suit one’s own prejudices.  For example, Brueggemann notes that the Pentateuch attends vigorously to the triad of vulnerability—widows, orphans, and immigrants (44).  How do we treat them today?  Today we might refer to them with labels—welfare queens, the unwanted unborn, and the undocumented—inviting scorn rather than assistance.  Judged by the Law of Moses, we fail.  Grace always allows us to be forgiven, but the Gospel in Jesus Christ fulfills the law—it does not repeal it!

Brueggemann’s book is probably the most important book on Sabbath rest since Abraham Heschel’s The Sabbath (New York:  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2005).  I hope that Christians will read and act on it.

Sabbath Rest as Cultural Firewall by Brueggemann

Also see:

Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

Vanhoozer: How Do We Understand the Bible? Part 1 

Books, Films, and Ministry

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