Editor’s note;

The answer belos is a response to a very long and involved question which
comes down to this. What is the definition of work in the Old Testament
and how were people to know what constituted or did not constitute work?
For the entire question, go to the bottom of my answer.


I am afraid you are asking me to do what I already told you I will not do,
which is define the term work. I believe that the term work is not
defined in a legalistic way in the Old Testament and that this legalistic
definition is left off on purpose. If “work” was defined by a set of
specific rules you would find that somewhere in Leviticus, but you do not
(with the minor exception you mention below involving the lighting of a
fire). Let me give an example. Jeremiah commands that people not bring a
burden into Jerusalem on the Sabbath. In this sense, Jeremiah does provide
a little bit of definiton of “work”, but not much! What is the weight
limit to define a load? Would ten pounds be a load? What if one has a
pen in his pocket? Is that a load? Let me give you a definition of a
burden from Jeremiah: an amount of cargo which a common sense person
would assume would violate the command to not do work on the Sabbath.
Carrying one’s baby into Jerusalem is not work. Carrying clothing to
change into is not a burden. Carrying an entire cart of farm produce into
Jerusalem is work. Not too hard.

The Jews went to ridiculous lengths, which Jesus ridiculed in Matthew, to
define every conceivable aspect of work on the Sabbath, which did not do a
single thing to help people get close to God. Mark 2:27 makes it clear
that “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” The purpose
of the Sabbath was not to provide more rules and regulation for behavior,
but so that it would cause people to stop working and worship God. Even
the Jews acknowledged that if an animal fell into a ditch, they would help
him out of the ditch, which is “work” by any definition (Matthew 12:11).
Jesus made it clear that doing good supercedes obeying the Sabbath, at
least in some cases. In Matthew 12:12 he says “It is lawful to do good on
the Sabbath.” The law of doing good supercedes, at least is some cases,
the law of not doing work.

It is true that there was the potential for capital punishment for working
on the Sabbath. Common sense tells us that your effort to define work
would not be relevant in this case. Surely, if anyone was ever killed for
working on the Sabbath it was going to be an extremely obvious and
eggregious violation of the law–for example a person who went out and
spent the entire day laboring in his fields. If grey areas exist, and I
am sure they do, then such examples would never cause the death penalty to
be invoked. One does not need a definition to know that putting in a ten
hour day working on the Sabbath is a violation of the law. I believe that
Matthew 23:1-36 is sufficient indictment on those who were more interested
in defining and creating rules for everything, yet ignored the weightier
matters of the law, which is loving people and serving God. Like Jesus
asked, “You blind men! Which is greater: the gift or the altar that makes
the gift sacred?” Like Jesus said about the laws in Leviticus in general,
“You should have practiced the latter (the regulations) without neglecting
the former (the important matters of the Law, which is to clean the inside
of the person). All this is in Matthew 23.

The “point” of the Sabbath was to worship God. If one follows the “rules”
(which are not even defined anyway) but does not worship God, then
following the rules is of no value whatsoever. God said to his people
that “I hate, I despise your religious feasts; I cannot stand your
assemblies. EVen though you gring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.” (Amos 5:21). Of course, God wanted these
things. He had commanded them. However, if one worships idols (Amos
5:26), then such rule-following is of no value. God wanted his people to
respect the Sabbath, which was relatively easy to do. Do not do major
work on the Sabbath!!! However, what he really wanted was for his people
to worship him on that day. Is it work to clean your dishes on the
Sabbath? Hard to say. Why spell that out in detail? God decided not to
define this, and I believe we ought to trust God’s wisdom on this and not
create our own definition.

You are right in saying that defining the meaning of work does not
necessarily take away from the primary meaning. That is true.
Nevertheless, God chose not to define work and I am going to trust him on
this. If he felt it was important to define work, then I suppose he would
have provided a definition, but he did not. Anyway, you asked me to
define “work.” My answer is that God does not define this in a specific
way. If you do not accept my answer, then perhaps you ought to do your
own study. Perhaps you will be able to find the scriptures that I have
not found. I have read the Old Testament a number of times and thus far
I have not found a specific legal definition of work, so I have a feeling
you will not be able to do so either, but I invite you to search for

I will concede that “lighting a fire” does constitute a rule. You do have
a specific example here. I am not a Jew, so I can light fires on any day
of the week. However, if I were a Jew under the Law of Moses, I suppose
that I would not light a fire on that day. The best I can tell, lighting
a fire does not violate the PRINCIPLE of doing work, but there may be
something specific for the Jews in that day which would explain why God
included this rule under the general heading of work. Perhaps maintaining
a fire was not work, but starting a fire was. To be honest, I am not sure
what is going on here, but an expert scholar on this topic may be able to
help you.

A question for you. Given that for Christians the Law of Moses does not
apply for us, as the requirements of the Law were fulfilled by Jesus
(Matthew 5:17), why are you so concerned to define laws which Christians
are not subject to. If you were a Jew, I could understand to some extent
your desire to define such things, but given that you are not under the
Law of Moses, but under the Law of Christ, what is the source of interest
in finding an exact definition of a law which you do not need to follow?

I tried to go in order on your questions, but might have failed to some

John Oakes

Here is the entire question:

Thank you very much for another reply Dr.Oakes. I appreciate your
kindness in giving of your time to answer my questions and help me learn
more about Christianity.

I found your comments to my four questions very interesting as well as
insightful. I definitely want to continue discussing some of the points
you mentioned (especially in your response to #4) and learn more about
Christian philosophy and theology. However, before we get to those
matters, I would like to finish our discussion of the undefined Sabbath
term “work” in the Old Testament… In response to my initial question
you wrote:

“I believe that it was on purpose that God did not give an exact
legalistic meaning to the word work. Of couse, I assume you know that the
Jews did exactly what God did not want them to do. The Jews, like many of
us, are looking for legalistic rules or definitions. Is it legal to go
out and plow your field on the Sabbath? Well, obviously not. What about
leading your cattle out to water or milking your cows, which is necessary
for the cows to live? Obviously, that is OK. Is it “work” for mom to
ake dinner on the Sabbath? Well, it depends on whether she opens a can
or not. If she opens a can, it is work, but if she just opens the
refrigerator it is not work. Is it work to clean the house on the
Sabbath? Yes. Well, what about cleaning the dishes? If we do not clean
the dishes it can attract flies and become unhealthy. OK, I guess it is
OK to clean the dishes on the Sabbath. Well then, is it OK for a
professional dishwasher to work on the Sabbath? No! Why is it OK to do
dishes at home, but not at work? Do you see the problem here? If you
want a definition of work, you miss the point, and you risk becoming a
Bottom line, God made the Sabbath for man and not man for the Sabbath!!!
(this is a quote from the Bible, not from people trying to avoid obeying
the command). God wanted his people to stop work, to rest and to worship
him one day a week. Thus he instituted the Sabbath. I think that ALL of
us know what work is. We do not need a definition, such as how far we can
walk or how heavy a load we can pick up. All these things were defined to
ridiculous extent by the Pharisees, which is exactly what Jesus opposed.
God did not define work because what is important about the Sabbath is
the heart. What is work for one person may not be for another, but common
sense is sufficient to answer 99% of all questions. The rest is probably
not worth arguing over. The Sabbath was a law, but all along God wanted
it to teach a principle, which is the need to stop, rest, and contemplate
our God. Christains (including myself) can learn a lot from the Jewish
Sabbath. One thing for sure, it is not about legalism. For example, if
my neighbor is in great need, I will help him or her on the Sabbath,
regardless of whether it is “work.” The principle of helping people can
take precedence over the need to not work.
In summary there is not strict definition of work in the Old Testament for
a reason. The Sabbath is a principle of not working, not a rule of not

I noticed several points you mentioned which I do not yet see eye-to-eye
with you on. I will list some of these points below:

1) You wrote: “Do you see the problem here? If you want a definition of
work, you miss the point, and you risk becoming a legalist.”

I’m not sure I see the problem. Firstly, how does it follow that if one
defines the laws of a certain activity then one will “miss the point” of
the activity? The “point” of driving a car is to travel to a
destination. If one defines (and even implicates) the laws of traffic,
that will not cause him to “miss the point” of driving and never reach his
destination. The exact opposite is true, it is the defined laws of
driving which allow “the point” of driving to be achieved. Or what about
a game of basketball… The point of a game is to have fun. A game of
basketball has legalistic rules. If these rules would not be defined,
each player could do what he pleases, the game would be very disorderly
(if not fall apart altogether) and fun – the “point” – will not be

Secondly, even if we would suppose that defined rules do detract from
one’s achieving the “point”, it doesn’t follow that these rules will now
become one’s primary focus. To define “work” does not dictate that
abstaining from work must become the primary “point” of the day. One
could abstain from the defined forms of work and still have his primary
focus on worship.

Due to these two reasons ( #1. It logically does not follow that defined
laws cause “the point” of an activity to be “missed”. #2. One can surely
maintain a primary focus on a certain goal while simultaneously having an
awareness and obedience to rules.) I fail to see how you have logically
shown that defined Sabbath law is a “problem”.

2) You wrote: “…God wanted his people to stop work, to rest and to
worship him one day a week. Thus he instituted the Sabbath. I think that
ALL of us know what work is. We do not need a definition, such as how far
we can walk or how heavy a load we can pick up.”

The prophet Jeremiah says (17:21,22,27) “Beware for your souls; do not
carry a burden on the Sabbath day to bring it into the gates of Jerusalem.
And do not bring a burden out from your houses on the Sabbath day; you
shall not do any work… But if you do not listen to Me, to sanctify the
Sabbath day and not to carry a burden and enter the gates of Jerusalem on
the Sabbath day, then I shall set fire to its gates which will consume the
palaces of Jerusalem and not be extinguished.”

It seems that according to your understanding of the Sabbath, these verses
in are incoherent… The prophet clearly specifies that it is the
carrying in order to transfer a burden from outside the gates of Jerusalem
to the inside which is forbidden. So too, the prophet says that
transferring a burden from one’s house outside is forbidden. This clearly
implies that one is permitted to carry a burden not for the purpose of
transferring it. (This is implied #1. From the plain meaning of the
verse: nowhere does the verse forbid general carrying #2. From the words
of the prophet: the prophet specifies carrying for transferring is what is
forbidden, no other type of carrying #3. From a logical deduction: if
carrying alone – not for the purpose of transferring – were also
forbidden, the prophet need not say “…do not carry a burden on the
Sabbath day to bring it into the gates of Jerusalem.”(17:21) – obviously,
if carrying alone is forbidden, so is carrying for the purpose of bringing
it into Jerusalem!… So let the prophet just say “You shall not carry a
burden” and we would certainly know that carrying and transferring is
forbidden – for in order to transfer one must also carry!) If so, it
comes out that the prophet is saying the opposite of what you have said
Dr.Oakes… “God wanted his people to stop work, to rest and to worship
him one day a week. Thus he instituted the Sabbath…”. There can easily
be much more work involved in carrying a burden than there is in simply
moving it from the inside of one`s home to the outside! And yet here is
an open prohibition against “transfer-carrying”, while general carrying
remains permitted?

3) You wrote: “What is work for one person may not be for another, but
common sense is sufficient to answer 99% of all questions. The rest is
probably not worth arguing over.”

The Sabbath desecrator is punished with death, Exodus (31:14,15). Your 1%
gray area seems far too high to be left over by a Divine source. This
means that 1 out of every 100 convicted Sabbath desecrators may have been
killed unjustly! A Divinely established definition of work would be a

4) You wrote: “The principle of helping people can take precedence over
the need to not work.”

Firstly, can you please provide an Old Testament source for this important
allowance to perform work.
Secondly, one who works to support one’s family is surely helping them.
Does this mean that such a person does not have to abstain from working on
the Sabbath? Or what about someone who’s occupation itself is helping
others: a doctor, nurse, psychologist, social worker, care-giver etc.
According to your statement, such a person would never have to abstain
from working on the Sabbath?

5) You wrote: “The Sabbath is a principle of not working, not a rule of
not working.”

The Old Testament says Exodus (35:2,3) “On six days, work may be done, but
the seventh day shall be holy for you, a day of complete rest for The
Creator; whoever does work on it shall be put to death. You shall not
kindle fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day.” How does the
act of lighting a single match – thus kindling a fire – violate
the principle of not working?! It is very clear that not kindling a fire
is a rule.

Since the Sabbath is an extremely important institution and testimony to
the Divine creation of the world, I would like to hear your response to
each of the points upon which my understanding differed from yours and
hopefully gain a greater understanding of your view.
One last request, if you could please answer each of these questions
separately it would help me keep this information organized.

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