Artistry and Architecture in the Fourth Commandment: New Proposals on the Context, Structure, and Beauty of Israel’s Sabbath Law

“The Sabbath was God’s good gift to a weary people, and all who embraced it enjoyed its beauties, mysteries, and delights.” – Timothy R. Valentino

hebrew-bible-text-lightBelow is a link to my latest academic article, “Artistry and Architecture in the Fourth Commandment: New Proposals on the Context, Structure, and Beauty of Israel’s Sabbath Law,” published in the Fall 2015 volume of the Evangelical Journal.

The introduction and thesis paragraph are reproduced here, and a link to the full article follows below:

The fourth commandment (Exod. 20:8–11) occupies a unique and exalted place among the laws of the Decalogue. Rabbi Bahya ben Asher, a medieval scholar, called it “the primary commandment given to Israel,” and “the first principle of faith, as weighty as all the rest of the commandments combined.” Other sages have described the Sabbath as the “bride” of Israel, elevating its status to the intimacy and mystique of marriage. In his classic treatise on the significance of Sabbath, Heschel goes so far as to say, “The Sabbath is the presence of God in the world, open to the soul of man.” So important is the Sabbath law to Judaism that some rabbis have placed it on par with the entire Torah. To keep it is to keep the whole law, and to break it is to break the whole law.

Historically, the Sabbath was God’s gift to a weary people. For more than four-hundred years, the Israelites had lived and labored as slaves down in Egypt, a nation organized around a ten-day workweek with no regular day off.5 Into such a world came the surprising text of the fourth commandment. The people who first heard it would have received it gladly. Their grueling and oppressive workweek had just been shortened from ten days to seven, with the seventh being a day of rest. In the text of this unique commandment, then, Yahweh reveals his compassion toward his people. His kindness and generosity are on display, as are his care and concern for all creation.

Centuries of scholarship have aided our understanding of the Sabbath law. What is often missing, however, is a detailed look at its literary context and internal arrangement. Such an omission is due primarily to the claims of higher criticism that the law has been embellished over time; therefore, its present form must be unoriginal and therefore untrustworthy. This paper challenges that claim. It proposes, instead, a sharpened arrangement for the Decalogue, and a new literary structure for the Sabbath law, showing how its internal architecture reinforces its meaning. Our investigation will reveal that (1) the fourth commandment constitutes its own unit within the Decalogue, and (2) the commandment itself is chiastically arranged. It is an exquisite text that defies any attempt to attribute its canonical form to scribal misadventure, editorial emendations, or other evolutionary developments. Indeed, the Decalogue is said to have been written “on tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God” (Exod. 31:18). As such, God’s artistry is on display in the Sabbath law. Not surprisingly, its literary presentation befits the beauty of its message, which we will also briefly consider.

The full article can be found here:

“Artistry and Architecture in the Fourth Commandment: New Proposals on the Context, Structure, and Beauty of Israel’s Sabbath Law” by Timothy R. Valentino. Published in Evangelical Journal 33/2 (2015): 49–67.

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