by Debbonnaire Kovacs

Have we as Seventh-day Adventists been misrepresenting the Sabbath for the century and a half that we’ve been in existence? Might the rest of the world have a better chance of understanding its blessings if we saw it in its fullness, ourselves? These questions were explored by one of the general session presenters at the recent Music and Worship Conference, held at Andrews University March 7-9, 2013.

Dr. Sigve Tonstad, a native of Norway, has an amazingly broad background and education. He has degrees in theology, medicine, Biblical Studies, and New Testament Studies, from Middle East College in Beirut, Lebanon, Andrews University, Loma Linda University, and the University of St. Andrews, besides studying at Duke University. He has worked as pastor, physician, theologian, and writer, sometimes all at the same time.

His two presentations at the conference will be the subject of two feature articles here at Adventist Today. The first was called “ ‘Or the alien in your towns: Sabbath and Justice in the Commandments.”

Dr. Tonstad began by talking about “resident aliens,” a subject of great controversy here in the United States and elsewhere. We divide them into “legal” and “illegal” aliens, but Dr. Tonstad pointed out that the most extreme example is a refugee. In the days before his presentation, news reports had stated that the number of Syrians fleeing their country had now passed one million—and that was only the registered ones. Dr. Tonstad’s daughter works with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, and had sent her father a copy of the speech the Commissioner had recently made. In that speech, the Commissioner referred to the fact that many faiths work to help refugees. “There is a sense,” said Dr. Tonstad, “in which people’s perception of God is someone who would be kind to refugees.”

And that would be the center of his talk. Numerous times in the Torah (he took attendees through several, reading aloud together, just in Deuteronomy alone) God says, “Remember that you were an alien” (italics supplied). He began with what he called “a quiz question,” and promised that the first one with the right answer, at the end of the session, would receive a free copy of his book, The Lost Meaning of the Seventh Day.

Is the radical message of the Sabbath in the Torah a more considerate view of the poor or a new view of the self?

Tonstad began by looking at the two iterations of the fourth commandment. In Exodus, the one with which most Seventh-day Adventists are most familiar, the Sabbath is given as a memorial of creation. Specific and exhaustive instruction is given as to just who gets the day off: “you,” (“thou,” actually, a lost English singular form of close personal “you,” used only to close family members and friends or to those who are younger or lower caste than the speaker), male servants, female servants, oxen, donkeys, cattle, and the aliens in your towns.

In Deuteronomy, rather than memorializing the Sabbath, the Sabbath memorializes deliverance. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt.” Tonstad thinks that Adventist emphasis on Sabbath as a memorial of creation, while vitally important, has left out equally important aspects of Sabbath. “The Sabbath has a socio-economic and a socio-ethnic dimension,” he said. “The economic dimension is about non-labor and is specific for slaves and the underprivileged. The socio-ethnic dimension is specific to resident aliens. It singles out and recognizes concern for these groups. Immigrants and the economically vulnerable have favored status in Sabbath. Equality that may not exist anywhere else exists on Sabbath.”

He believes that, just as the Sabbath is meant to remind us that we were created by God, then enslaved, and now delivered, so we are to remember that we may, in our turn, deliver. “The Sabbath,” Dr. Tonstad said, “is meant to create and uphold a sensitivity to the disadvantaged and displaced person. Networks of Sabbaths, from weekly Sabbaths to seven-year Sabbaths to the great year of Jubilee, were meant to “sabbatize” society. Especially the Jubilee, which re-equalizes the economic layers of society.”

Tonstad listed what he called the Sabbatarian tenets:
1—weekly Sabbath is rest and dignity for poor
2—Sabbath year is rest for land
3—jubilee is re-set to prevent huge inequalities from growing

“We don’t talk about economics much in our churches, but the Bible talks about it a lot, especially in the context of the Sabbath. Economic and political issues have somehow been washed out of Adventist theology.”

He said that the U.S. “housing bubble” came from whole idea that land has a monetary value and people can own it. In the Bible, God owns the land and it can’t be sold in perpetuity. He went on to speak of some of the increasing number of non-Adventist authors who are writing about the importance of the Sabbath. Here are a few:
Jurgen Moltmann, God in Creation
Walter Brueggemann, The Land: place as Gift, Promise, and Challenge in Biblical Faith (Tonstad pointed out that he disagrees “profoundly” with some of what Brueggemann, in particular has to say, but that concerning the Sabbath, “he is right on.”)
Norman Habel, Moral Ground

In conclusion, Dr. Tonstad said that the Sabbath has a socio-economic import that has not received its due. The Sabbath is a divine commitment more than a divine commandment—God commits himself to stand up for the poor.

A young person won the free book by saying that the answer to the “quiz question” was both—a radical new view of the self and of the poor. Dr. Tonstad agreed. “The Bible inscribes slavery on all believers. The one thing not to be forgotton, then, is who I am—who we are. Really, it’s a new view of God.”

Perhaps it's time for Adventists to catch up with others who are seeing Sabbath, not as a doctrine or thou-shalt-(not) but as a remedy for the problems of society.