What does not Kindling a Fire on the Sabbath really mean?
Does God want us to Freeze on the Sabbath? Does YHWH not want us to light a lighter, turn on a light, plug in a heater, etc. on the Sabbath?
Some people reject the idea of observing the Sabbath because of Exodus 35:3 which states…
“You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day.”
Their objection usually goes something like this…
“I don’t have to observe the Sabbath because if I lived at the North Pole, and my fire went out, I wouldn’t be able to start a fire to keep from freezing to death. So that proves I don't have to keep the Sabbath!"
While at first glance this might seem to be the case, but we never see God establishing a commandment that harms His people. So is there something we might be missing?
Remember YHWH delivered His people (Hebrews and foreigners) out of Egypt. There were multiple false gods and their whole lifestyle centered around their ways. When YHWH delivered His people out of Egypt He gave them His instructions (Torah) and ways on how to love Him and their neighbor.
So what does “kindling a fire” mean back at the time it was given? Here is where we will be "getting off the highway and going off an exit for a bit" as Matthew Vander Els would say, so stay with me.
In Egypt, the festivals for their false gods involved the baking of bread and cakes, lots of bread and cakes. They also drank a lot of alcohol (beer and wine) too. The majority of Egyptians observed over 60 festivals during a year. Many were considered a time of indulgence. At Ramesseum, the three week long Opet festival, 11,400 bread loaves were baked and eaten. The ten-day Sokar festival lasted ten days with a consumption of 7,400 loaves of bread. Apparently making bread for their gods was a big deal.
It should be noted many of the Egyptian gods were associated with fire, such as Ra (fire god of the sun), Sekhmet (protective lioness/goddess of the sun and fire) and Wadjet (protective serpent goddess who sends fire to burn her enemies). The Canaanite gods that associated with fire were Ishat, Moloch and Shapash. The Hittite god Arinitti and the Mesopotamian gods Gerra, Gibil, Ishum and Nusku were also involved with fire, sacred flames, etc.
In light of this information, it could be a reason why YHWH forbade the kindling of fire on the Sabbath. In Egypt the worship of false gods involved fire, baking and offerings. Remember that YHWH also told His people the following...
"... take heed to yourself that you are not ensnared to follow them (false gods) after they are destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire after their (false) gods, saying, "How did these nations serve their gods? I also will do likewise. You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way; for every abomination to the Lord which He hates they have done to their gods; for they burn even their sons and daughters in the fire to their gods." Deuteronomy 12:29-32
Perhaps instead of the people making bread and petitioning their false gods, YHWH turned the tables and provide bread from heaven for His people instead.
Another scripture in Jeremiah shows the relationship to “kindling fires and making bread” to idol worship (and God it provoked God to anger)…
“Do you not see what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? 18 The children gather wood, the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, that they may provoke Me to anger. 19 Do they provoke Me to anger?” says the Lord. “Do they not provoke themselves, to the shame of their own faces?” Jeremiah 7:17-19
Another reference to kindling a fire and how its associated with idolatry…
“He cuts down cedars for himself, and takes the cypress and the oak; He secures it for himself among the trees of the forest. He plants a pine, and the rain nourishes it. 15 Then it shall be for a man to burn, For he will take some of it and warm himself; Yes, he KINDLES it and bakes bread; Indeed he makes a god and worships it; He makes it a carved image, and falls down to it. 16 He burns half of it in the fire; with this half he eats meat; He roasts a roast, and is satisfied. He even warms himself and says, “Ah! I am warm, I have seen the fire.” 17 And the rest of it he makes into a god, His carved image. He falls down before it and worships it, Prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” Isaiah 44:14-17
So its seems that lighting a fire to keep oneself warm is not breaking the Sabbath commandment. Rather the prohibition to not ‘kindle a fire’ is directly related to idolatry. With that said, I’m pretty sure you can turn up the furnace, plug in a heater and start a fire on the Sabbath to keep you and your family warm (as long as it doesn’t become idolatry).
We also have to remember that the Talmud and the rulings of the Jewish sages added fences around the commandments of YHWH so there would no chance of transgressing His commandments. Its kinda like telling a child to 'not touch the stove' (thats a commandment). However to ensure the child doesn't become tempted the parent might add 'don't come in the kitchen' (a fence that is around the original commandment).
The problem is many don't look or search the scriptures to see how it defines things, such as 'kindling a fire'.
I hope this helps.
*Note: info on Ancient Egypt was taken from "The World of Ancient Egypt: A Daily Life Encyclopedia" by Peter Lacovara, wikipedia and reshafim.org.il.