Saturday, January 15, 2011

Come unto Me, All Ye that Labor and Are Heavy Laden . . .

. . . and I will give you rest. This is the promise of Matthew 11:28, but what does that promise mean? In the very next verse Jesus invites us to "[t]ake my yoke upon you," which hardly sounds like an activity or a posture we would typically associate with "rest."

In this particular case, Christ is using the word rest in the same sense that Alma uses that word when describing the post-mortal life to his son, Corianton: "And then it shall come to pass, that the spirits of those who are righteous are received into a state of happiness, which is called paradise, a state of rest, a state of peace, where they shall rest from all their troubles and from all care, and sorrow" (Alma 40:12). In both of these scriptural examples rest is used to signify a state of emotional and spiritual release, freedom from sin as opposed to freedom from work.

We know, in fact, that the postmortal life will involve a great deal of work for those who have taken Jesus Christ's "yoke upon" themselves; while describing his vision of the postmortal world the prophet Joseph F. Smith taught that "the faithful elders of this dispensation, when they depart from mortal life, continue their labors in the preaching of the gospel of repentance and redemption, through the sacrifice of the Only Begotten Son of God, among those who are in darkness and under the bondage of sin in the great world of the spirits of the dead" (D&C 138:57). Clearly, the rest that Alma envisioned and that the Savior promised does not preclude labor.

But the Savior's invitation in Matthew, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (11:28) signifies something else as well. The book of Matthew was, most scholars agree, first written in Hebrew. Matthew was written primarily for Jewish readers and depicts Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies; we presume that it was translated into Greek so that it would be more widely available to the early Christian church who, thanks to the missionary efforts of Paul, were an increasingly cosmopolitan group that spoke more Greek than Hebrew.

In this particular case, translation has obscured Matthew's original meaning. I'm sure that "I will give you rest" is a valid rendering of the original Hebrew, but I also suspect that there are other nuances which have been lost in translation. In the Authorized Version of the Old Testament the English word rest is used to to represent more than 10 different Hebrew nouns and verbs: nuwach, shaqat, manowach, damam, shalowm, nachath, demiy, margowa, puwgah, shabbathown, shabath, etc. The original Hebrew word that has now been rendered rest from the Greek might have been any of these--but I suspect that it was one of the last two--shabath or shabbathown

As Eric Huntsman explained in the December Ensign, Matthew has an interest in portraying Jesus as a second Moses--that is, at least in part, why he tells the story of the Herod slaughtering the babes of Bethlehem (a parallel to Pharoah killing all the Israelite boys) and sets Christ's delivery of the new law in a "sermon on the mount" (reminiscent of Moses delivering the original law on Mount Sinai) while Luke claims that those same teachings were delivered on a plain. Well, when Moses comes to Pharoah, he demands that Pharoah release the Israelites from bondage, and Pharoah replies: "Wherefore do ye, Moses and Aaron, let the people from their works? get you unto your burdens. And Pharoah said, Behold, the people of the land now are many, and ye make them rest from their burdens" (Ex. 5:4-5). Moses demands that Pharoah release the people from their burdens and give them rest (shabath); it makes sense to me that Matthew would have used the same language to describe Christ's invitation to lay down burdens. 

Why does it matter whether Matthew's original used the word nuwach or dayim or shabath? It matters because shabath is also the Hebrew word that we translate as Sabbath, the Lord's day designated day of rest. What I am suggesting, then, is that when Jesus Christ invites us, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest," he's also saying, "Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you the Sabbath" (Matt. 11:28). His promise to give us rest--one of the most frequently quoted in scripture--depends at least in part on us honoring the Sabbath; he's already done his part by designating the day and appointing blessings for honoring that day, but it is still a conditional promise. Want rest and release from your burdens? Honor the Sabbath. 

As a side note, I should also point out that our current chapter divisions in the Bible are frequently misleading. Verses 28-30 of Matthew 11 really belong with verses 1-13 of chapter 12, where Jesus demonstrates that the sabbath is a day of physical and spiritual restoration by disregarding Mosaic law while harvesting corn for food and healing the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. 

Here's a challenge: go read Matthew 11:28-12:13 in preparation for your Sabbath. Take the easy yoke of the Sabbath upon you, and see if you don't "find rest unto your souls" (11:29). 


Jenny said...

and homework, too!
I'm off to prepare...

Jo Jo said...

i CAN HANDLE THAT kind of homework assignment. I know from whence your inspiration for this topic cometh. It's very sweet, thanks for working and sharing. Rest tomorrow. Love you guys.

Anonymous said...

I love it, lexicography is so very intruiging. As a side note to perhaps help you, the fist chapter divisions occured for either the Tynsdale Version of 1584 or the one after, I can't remember. Until then, it was paragraph form.


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