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Sabbath and soil

December 5th, 2018 | 2 min read

By Matthew Loftus

Years ago, when I first studied Isaiah 58, I found its call to honor the Sabbath mingled with the call to do away with violence and injustice odd. I suppose that I had grown up thinking of Sabbath-keeping as a more arcane and less relevant rule. The older I get, the more integral that the idea of Sabbath — the need for rest, limits, and structure in human existence — is to the whole enterprise of moral formation and an ethical life. Here is Norman Wirzba reflecting on this subject in the creation story:

Scripture’s second creation account begins in a garden with the divine creator thoroughly immersed in the delights of soil. With knees on the ground and hands in the dirt, God scoops up soil (adamah), kisses it and breathes into it so as to make the first human being (adam). In this story, creatures come to be and flourish because God relates to them as a gardener who plants, nurtures, protects and enjoys the beauty of things (Eden, after all, means “paradise”). Apart from gardening work, and all the skill and understanding this work implies, life and the world simply fall apart. This is why God places the human in the garden, and instructs the adam to till and keep it (2:15). Gardening is not an optional task, nor is it a form of punishment. It is a primordial way of being that gives meaning and purpose to life. The point of freedom, and the proper exercise of power, is to come into the presence of fellow creatures in various modes of attention, patience, care and celebration. Authentic freedom seeks the nurture and liberation of those it engages.

As the story develops, we discover that human beings resist the work of care. They seek to be exempt from the demands of creaturely need and help, and desire to rise above their soil-bound condition so as to assume a divine-like position deciding good and evil. Again, a mountain of commentary has been devoted to the meaning of Adam and Eve’s eating of the forbidden fruit. What needs to be highlighted here is how the eating of the fruit signifies the abolition of limits. To consume the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is to install oneself as the arbiter of good and evil, or, to use a Nietzschean phrase, beyond good and evil.

The story suggests that it is the desire to live without limit or constraint that is the fundamental human problem. To fail to know and honour limits is to bring about needless pain and suffering, and eventually even murder. If people are to live properly, which means to live in ways that affirm their rootedness in soil and their dependence upon and need of fellow creatures, they must humble themselves by becoming the caretakers of others. This is what the story of Noah is fundamentally about.

Matthew Loftus

Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at