Stump the Rector: Questions and Queries

As I am reading through the One Year Bible, I read passage after passage about keeping the Sabbath holy by not working, etc. What happened if a woman went into labor on the Sabbath? Not only is having a baby work, but those people around her who help are working. Was that a sin if a baby was born on the Sabbath? Just curious. Thanks!   Laura

Laura. The Sabbath laws do seem to be all encompassing and therefore easy to violate. The corrective that Jesus brought to our understanding of them was that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man made for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In other words these rules were meant to be a blessing and not a burden. After all, who doesn’t like a day off?

But even in the strictures of the Old Covenant, we can see grace. For example if someone owns an ox and it falls into a ditch, then it is permissible to engage in work to free the ox (Deut 22:4 w/ Mt  12:9-12). This was more broadly interpreted to include all those whose work is necessary on the Sabbath. “Necessary” was understood to be either leading worship (priests worked on the Sabbath) or performing a life saving function such as medicine, police or military. It only makes sense that it would not keep the Sabbath holy to not have worship or to allow the sick to die or the country to be overrun by criminals or enemies.

Therefore I believe that under the Old Covenant, a mother going into labor and those helping her would fall in the “necessary” category. The timing of the baby’s birth, like an ox falling into a ditch, was out of anyone’s control. The Sabbath laws were aimed at behavior and choices that we freely make.

When speaking of the need as Christians to honor the Sabbath and keep it holy, I heard an old preacher speak about the exception of having an ox in the ditch. He said, “We need to understand that is to be an exception so if it keeps happening to you, then you need to either sell the ox of fill in the ditch.” Wise counsel indeed.

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