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Spiritus: A Journal of Christian Spirituality 2.2 (2002) 210-216

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Wilderness as a Sabbath for the Land

Scott Russell Sanders


"The protection of Earth's vitality, diversity, and beauty is a sacred trust."

The Earth Charter

If you honor the sabbath in any way, or if you respect the beliefs of those who do, or if you merely suspect there may be some wisdom bound up in this ancient practice, then you should protect wilderness. For wilderness represents in space what the sabbath represents in time—a limit to our dominion, a refuge from the quest for power and wealth, an acknowledgment that the Earth does not belong to us.

In scriptures that have inspired Christians, Muslims, and Jews, we are told to remember the sabbath and keep it holy by making it a day of rest for ourselves, our servants, our animals, and the land. This is a day free from the tyranny of getting and spending, a day given over to the cultivation of spirit rather than the domination of matter. During the remainder of the week, busy imposing our will on things, we may mistake ourselves for gods. But on the sabbath we recall that we are not the owners or rulers of this magnificent planet. Each of us receives life as a gift, and each of us depends for sustenance on the whole universe, the soil and water and sky and everything that breathes. The sabbath is yet another gift to us, a respite from toil, and also a gift to the Earth, which needs relief from our appetites and ambitions.

Honoring the sabbath means leaving a portion of time unexploited, relinguishing for a spell our moneymaking, our striving, our designs. Honoring wilderness means to leave a portion of space unexploited, to leave the minerals untapped, the soils unplowed, the trees uncut, and to leave unharmed the creatures that dwell there. Both wilderness and sabbath teach us humility and restraint. They call us back from our ingenious machines and our thousand schemes to dwell with full awareness in the glory of the given world. By putting us in touch with the source of things, they give us a taste of paradise.

The instruction to honor the sabbath appears as the fourth of the commandments announced by Moses after his descent from Mount Sinai, as reported in the Book of Exodus in the Hebrew Bible: [End Page 210]

Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work. But the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God; you shall not do any work—you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your livestock, or the alien resident in your towns. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and consecrated it (Ex. 20: 8-11). 1

If the Lord quit shaping the Earth after six days, looked at what had been made, and saw that it was very good—as chronicled in the Book of Genesis—then who are we to keep on reshaping the Earth all seven days? On the sabbath we are to lay down our tools, cease our labors, set aside our plans, so that we may enjoy the sweetness of being without doing. On this holy day, instead of struggling to subdue the world, we are to savor it, praise it, wonder over it, and commune with the Creator who brought the entire world into existence.

The Book of Deuteronomy provides another reason for resting on the sabbath: "Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the sabbath day" (Deut. 5: 12-15). By reminding the Hebrew people of their own liberation from bondage, the sabbath calls on them to...


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pp. 210-216
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