Friday, July 3, 2015

Book Write-Up: Christ in the Sabbath, by Rich Robinson

Rich Robinson.  Christ in the Sabbath.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2014.  See here to buy the book.

Rich Robinson is a Jew who believes in Jesus and a researcher for Jews for Jesus.  He has an M.Div. from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and a Ph.D. in biblical studies from Westminster Theological Seminary.  Going through the notes at the back of the book, I noticed that Robinson wrote his dissertation about the Sabbath.  That would explain how he knows so much about the subject, which certainly shows in his book, Christ in the Sabbath!

Robinson explores the Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament, Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, and Christianity (patristic, and even Puritan).  Robinson does not believe that Christians are required by God to observe the Sabbath, either on Saturday or on Sunday, but he does maintain that the Sabbath teaches important principles, such as setting aside time for rest and worship.

The book’s advantages are many.  Whereas many Christian authors are negative in their depiction of Judaism, Robinson tells readers what Jewish leaders’ rationale was in coming up with certain rules regarding the Sabbath, and he does so with empathy.  Robinson also notes parallels between Jesus’ humanitarian stance towards the Sabbath and certain Jewish teachings.  Robinson is academic and thoughtful in his presentation, but he also incorporates stories about his Jewish background and his experience of Sabbath rest.  There were details in the book that I found particularly interesting: Robinson’s discussion of a rabbinic reference (b. Yeb. 90b) that states that a true prophet can nullify a biblical law, and Robinson’s discussion of post-biblical attempts to obey the biblical law of letting the land lie fallow every seventh year (and Robinson in an endnote attempts to account theologically for why such attempts have not resulted in the abundance that the Torah promises).  I appreciated some of Robinson’s insights: that outward observance of God’s commands is good but not sufficient (in contrast to Christians who imply that we should not bother with outward observance if our heart is not in it, or if our intention is wrong), and that all of the laws of the Torah have a moral component (in response to Christians who rigidly divide the Torah’s laws into ceremonial, civil, and moral categories).

I did not always agree with Robinson.  Robinson argues that the seventh day in Genesis 1 was not an actual day, since it does not end with evening and morning, but rather was an Edenic experience of God, which the Fall disrupted.  Robinson argues that the Sabbath is about recapturing Eden and foreshadows an eschatological Eden, and Robinson refers to rabbinic references to support his position.  Many Christian interpreters have noted that the seventh day in Genesis 1 (unlike the other days) does not end with evening and morning, but I was never clear about where exactly they were going with that observation.  At least Robinson took that observation somewhere, to his credit.  But I was not entirely persuaded by his argument.  I believe that the view of the documentary hypothesis that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2-3 are by different authors should be taken seriously.  I also have my doubts that eschatology was part of the worldview of the priestly author of Genesis 1, even though I do acknowledge, like Robinson, that there are parallels between the Tabernacle and creation (in the Genesis 1 story).  Moreover, while Robinson, in denying that the Sabbath was a creation ordinance, argues that the Sabbath was not a literal day in Genesis 1, I think that Exodus 20:9-11 indicates the opposite: I agree with Desmond Ford that Exodus 20:11 is saying that the seventh day became the Sabbath when God blessed and hallowed it after creation.  That does not necessarily mean that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance for all humanity, however, for God, within the Hebrew Bible, could have rested on the Sabbath after creation while only requiring Israel to observe it later on, as Jubilees affirms.

Robinson argues against the view of the late Seventh-Day Adventist scholar Samuele Bacchiocchi that Sunday observance emerged in response to Roman anti-Semitism.  For Bacchiocchi, many Christians kept Sunday instead of the Sabbath to distance themselves from the Jews, whom Romans regarded as troublemakers.  For Robinson, by contrast, Christians (even Jewish Christians) as early as New Testament times were meeting on the first day of the week, and many Jewish Christians observed the Sabbath while also meeting with believers on Sunday.  Robinson questions whether the early church fathers saw Sunday as a substitution for the Sabbath, contending that there were not “Sunday vs. Saturday” arguments at this time.  Robinson may be correct in his larger argument, for he does refer to evidence about early Christians observing both the Sabbath and Sunday.  But I do think that there were “Sabbath vs. Sunday” arguments even in early patristic writings.  Barnabas 15:8-9 and Ignatius’ Epistle to the Magnesians 8-10 (at least one version of it) do seem to contrast the Sabbath with Sunday.  Robinson may account for such passages when he later argues that certain church fathers were concerned about Gentile Christians adopting Jewish customs, but I still found his argument that there were no “Sabbath vs. Sunday” arguments in early patristic writings to be a bit shortsighted.

While I did not always agree with Robinson, I did find even the arguments that did not convince me to be judicious, balanced, and informative.

In terms of the book’s negatives, there were times when Robinson was rather elliptical, particularly when he was trying to explain the significance of the shewbread in the Tabernacle and the law against lighting a fire on the Sabbath.  Robinson tried to help readers in pronouncing certain terms by coming up with cute rhymes, and that could be annoying, even if it may have been necessary.  While Robinson did helpfully document a lot of what he was saying, he did not always.  Robinson also depicted the Sabbath as a time for service, even within Judaism, and I wondered how that was the case, with the restrictions that Orthodox Judaism puts on Jews on the Sabbath, particularly on travel and carrying things.  (Perhaps Robinson was not referring to Orthodox Judaism, but he could have said more about Judaism’s view of service on the Sabbath, and how that practically plays out.)

I still give this book five stars, for I enjoyed it more than I enjoy many books that I have awarded with five stars.  I found it to be informative and profound.

Moody Press sent me a complimentary review copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.

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