Friday, October 2, 2009

When does Sabbath begin in the Arctic?

Recently a friend wrote to me regarding an email he'd received from a friend of his. The topic was, when does the Sabbath begin (and end). I have thought and studied long on this subject, since we are living in the Arctic region and sunset comes so early (or so late) here. I ended up writing a long response to him, and I have edited it into an article for your enjoyment (and hopefully edification) here.

First, no matter where you are on earth there is a 24-hour cycle. How that cycle is measured may differ. At the poles, in mid-winter (Around December 21), you will observe a slight decrease in the darkness every day. That should correspond to Sunrise, Noon, and Sunset, all at once (though the sun will never actually rise). In mid-summer (Around June 21), you would observe a slight decrease in the light every day as the sun dips in it's cycle around the horizon. That should correspond to midnight.

In the Arctic regions in mid-summer, the sun will visibly travel around the horizon, from North (midnight) to East, to South, to West, and back to North. In mid-winter, the sun (if you are far enough south to even see it) will appear briefly over the Southern horizon then dip back over the horizon.

Before the advent of railroads, people's time was actually more correctly kept by the sun. You could set your clock to 12 noon when the sun was high overhead. But that was inconvenient for railroads to keep track of, because if you traveled some distance your pocket watch would be off by some unknown number of minutes and you would end up missing appointments, etc. The railroad decided to use time zones, so when you arrived in a new time zone you could reset your watch by a whole number of hours, instead of some unknown number of minutes.

In the process of using time zones, governments have put an unnatural influence on the time system, which God intended to be based on the sun. While it is convenient, it is completely artificial to have time zones as we do today. For instance, when Alaska first was "time zoned" there were three different time zones, based on dividing the width of Alaska by the distance covered by the sun in one hour. Since the earth is about 24000 miles in circumference, the distance in each time zone should be about 1000 miles. Alaska is not 3000 miles across but it is more than 1000 miles across, so part of Alaska was in each of three time zones (with the majority of it in the middle time zone). However, for convenience' sake the government has now put all of Alaska into the same time zone. This means that the sun is highest in the sky for us, not at noon (as it should be) but about 2 pm.

Dr. Samuele Bacchiocchi, before his death due to cancer, wrote an article dealing with this subject. I recommend reading it before you continue reading this post. I highly respect Dr. Bacchiocchi, but I differ with him on several points.

First, considering how the government has played with time zones, not only in Alaska but in other areas where it is convenient, it is clear that the "time" does not always correspond to the actual "sun time". This is especially true when Daylight-saving Time (DST) is in effect.

Due to this, I differ with Dr. Bacchiocchi's argument that in polar regions the Sabbath should be kept from 6 pm to 6 pm. (Though I might see some sense in keeping it from the average Sunset to Sunset-- which would actually be about 8 pm in our region due to the skewed time zones).

Bacchiocchi also makes a couple of other points I differ with:

1. Bacchiocchi appears to claim that the Old Testament does not specify when Sabbath should begin, and that we only have New Testament custom to determine that. He does mention the "even to even" specified regarding the Day of Atonement (Leviticus 23:32) but seems to think that the other Sabbaths' starting/ending times would have gone unspecified. I have a hard time believing God was that vague. He specified the day as "The Evening and the Morning" for the first through sixth days (Genesis 1:31) and rested the Seventh day (Genesis 2:2-3), so the evening-to-evening specification of a day seems clear enough.

2. Bacchiocchi makes a quite a point of needing to work the other six days according to the fourth commandment, as though we'd be breaking that commandment if we are unable to work for an employer because of our Sabbath observance. There are a number of flaws in this argument:

God never commanded us to work for an employer. We could take Jesus question "Are there not twelve hours in the day" and combine that with "Six days you shall labor". If Bacchiocchi is right, we should be laboring for 6x12=72 hours a week, and Bacchiocchi implies that it must be for some employer other than ourselves (otherwise, we could simply ask for Friday off and work for the Lord, preparing for the Sabbath). The real issue is, doing that would be inconvenient for most people living in the temperate zone, much less in the arctic.

There is nothing wrong with asking your employer for two days off, especially since God designed the sixth day to be the Preparation for the Sabbath. Maybe we really should not be working for an employer on that day anyway. That would leave us free to keep the Sabbath from Sunset to Sunset wherever we live. At least, we should make sure we are prepared for Sabbath before Sabbath begins.

If you take Bacchiocchi's argument as true, people living even as far south as Seattle would be working until after the Sabbath began, since Sunset this year (2009) in Seattle is as early as 4:17 pm. How far do you want to take this argument? It doesn't make sense to advocate 6 pm to 6 pm for the arctic region, but not for Seattle as well. If you make that claim, then we might as well all observe Sabbath from 6 pm to 6 pm.

I think it is better to take the Bible as it reads, even if it is inconvenient for our schedule-driven society. It's a good reminder that our schedules are subject to God, not our own wills. Yes, it may be inconvenient in Seattle to ask to get off as early as 4 pm (3 pm if you want to get home before Sabbath, in traffic, Noon if you want to have any Preparation time). Here in Selawik, it's also inconvenient when the sun sets at 2:41 pm. Farther North in Barrow, you don't even have any actual sun. You might have to use the lightest point in the day (dark as it is) as your sunrise, noon and sunset all in one. (For reference, the earliest ending of twilight in Barrow in December 2009, is at 2:54 pm).

Now that I've made my counter arguments, I want to make it clear that I don't think God is so much interested in us measuring the precise moment the sun goes over the horizon, as the principle of letting God rule our schedule. Your horizon might differ from mine, depending on how high a hill you live on, and how high the mountains are between you and the sun. But God can still be master of your life and mine if we let Him.

I believe there are several practical reasons God had for starting the day in the evening. Bacchiocchi brought out some of them, such as a family gathering from their work. I also think there is a psychological start to your day in the evening. If you go to bed with your secular thoughts, you will likely awake with them as well. God wanted us to retire for the night, having already welcomed the Sabbath, so when we awake, we would be ready to commune with Him in a special way.

As for how our family celebrates the Sabbath, we have decided to keep Sabbath for more than 24 hours. In the summer, we begin Sabbath observance at our supper meal, even though the sun will not set until 2 am Saturday morning. This is because of the aforementioned psychological reason I believe God had for the Sabbath beginning before you go to bed. We want to make our Friday evening meal a special one even if it is not technically Sabbath yet.

In the winter, though Sabbath may be technically over as early as 2:41 pm, we may not have finished potluck yet, and we certainly don't want to stop celebrating and enjoying the Sabbath hours. So we end up celebrating it until later in the evening. Since Sabbath is a delight to us, we do not see any reason to limit it to a mere 24 hours, though I wouldn't try to keep it all week as some Sunday keepers claim they do. Clearly there is a place for the 6 days of labor, but I don't think that should mean we cannot keep a few extra hours of Sabbath to guard it's edges.

In conclusion, I've outlined my scientific, Biblical and practical reasons behind how we observe Sabbath as a family. However, I also feel it is important to leave some of these details up to the conscience of others. While I am happy to share my reasons and beliefs with others, I wouldn't want to impose my specific method on others. I would rather that others find Sabbath to be a delight, than that they burden it down with legalistic rules for when it should begin and end. I hope that by my example, others can find the joy of true Sabbath observance, which begins in the heart, with a relationship with the Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus Christ.