If we look for an original context for Israel’s Sabbath observance, I believe the evidence points to agriculture; the prohibitions of the day of rest were first directed to such activities as plowing, sowing, tilling, irrigating, and harvesting.
This supposition explains the extension of the Sabbath rest to the benefit of farm animals. The beasts that pull the plow and the wagon, after all, arguably work harder than the farmer himself. (Robert Palmer, in The World of the French Revolution, records how France’s brief experiment with a ten-day week caused extreme fatigue and a high death-rate among draft animals. Nine straight days of labor was too deadly to last long.) So dominant is farming in considerations of the Sabbath that a variant of it was imposed even on the soil (’adamah), which was to lie fallow every seventh year.
Genesis says that agriculture was man’s first form of labor: “Now the Lord God took the man and placed him in the garden of Eden to work it and to guard it.” After the Fall—and because of it—man’s care and cultivation of the soil became exceedingly onerous: “Cursed be the ground (’arurah ha’adamah) because of you. . . . You shall eat bread in the sweat of your face until you return to the ground (’el-ha’adamah).” Henceforth, an ongoing struggle with weeds was added to the daily burden, until man himself, at the end of his labors, would return to the soil.
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Patrick Henry Reardon is pastor emeritus of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, Illinois, and the author of numerous books, including, most recently, Out of Step with God: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Numbers (Ancient Faith Publishing, 2019).
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