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Israeli Olympian Faces Sabbath Test

Israeli Olympian Faces Sabbath Test

An Israeli woman called the “Marathon Mom” was a contender for the marathon at the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. Then, event organizers switched the event from Sunday, the first day of the week, to Saturday, the seventh day, known as “Shabbat” (Sabbath) in Hebrew. The Jerusalem Post first reported on the issue.

Beatie Deutsch, an Orthodox Jewish woman, emigrated to Israel from the United States just 10 years ago and only began running in 2015, after giving birth to four children in just six years. According to another Jerusalem Post article, Deutsch felt a need to get back into shape after her pregnancies and found training for a marathon to be the perfect solution. 

Even when pregnant in 2016, Deutsch didn’t stop running. In 2018, she won the woman’s division at the Jerusalem Marathon with a time of 3:09:50, and she won the 2019 National Championships Marathon with a time of 2:42:18, setting records each time. These consistent victories put her in a prime position to represent the Jewish state at the famed quadrennial games.

“I felt like I was punched in the stomach this morning,” Deutsch wrote on her Facebook page the day she learned of the rescheduled marathon. “But the truth is I'm more than OK. There have been several other competitions that were on Shabbos [Sabbath], but it's never even been a question for me.”

Deutsch says she will work to get the date of the race changed, but no matter the outcome, the Marathon Mom vows to remain faithful to her religious beliefs. “I may not make it [to] the Olympics,” she adds. “I may not make the standard or I may not be able to run a race that is on Shabbat [Sabbath]. But one thing I do know is that I will continue to proudly represent what it means to be an Orthodox Jewish woman and [a] professional runner for Israel.”

Olympic Glory or Faithfulness to God?

Right now, it’s impossible to predict what will happen to Deutsch’s race. But her story and her determination to put her love for God ahead of potential glory not only support a Bible truth but also recall another famous Olympic athlete whose dedication to his faith centered on his understanding of the Sabbath.

That athlete was named Eric Liddell, and the Olympics in which he competed occurred in 1924. Though born in China, he was of Scottish nationality and competed for the United Kingdom. Dubbed the “Flying Scotsman,” Liddell’s talent was in running the 100-yard dash, a race in which he’d already set a British record. So it was only fitting that Liddell was expected to compete in the Olympics’ near equivalent, the 100-meter race. 

But because the 100-meter race was to be held on Sunday, the day which the devoutly Protestant Liddell considered to be the Sabbath, the Scotsman refused to compete. Instead, he trained for the 200-meter and 400-meter races, ultimately winning gold and setting a new Olympic record in the 400-meter and winning bronze in the 200-meter.

After his victories, Liddell returned to China as a missionary. He was interred by the Japanese during their occupation of China in World War II and died at age 43, five months before his prison camp was liberated. (Liddell’s story was recounted in the Academy Award-winning movie Chariots of Fire.)

Although Liddell didn’t acknowledge the Bible’s seventh-day Sabbath, his dedication to God ahead of a quest for athletic honors won him wide acclaim and a lasting place in history.

Not everyone who takes a stand for the Sabbath, of course, is a marathon runner or a heroic missionary. Nor does every Sabbath-keeper have a major motion picture made of his life story. Indeed, the overwhelming majority of those who keep the seventh day holy, as God commands in Exodus 20:8–11, are people whose lives are quiet and anonymous.

Those Who Honor Me I Will Honor

Yet whether someone is a famous athlete or a rural homemaker, their devotion to putting God first is noteworthy, not least to God: In 1 Samuel 2:30, God says, “those who honor Me I will honor,” the very words on a note pressed into the hand of Liddell by a well-wisher moments before that 400-meter race, where the “Flying Scotsman” outpaced the rest of the field by a significant margin.

That Beatie Deutsch and Eric Liddell both are trying and tried to follow, to the best of their understanding, God’s will regarding the Sabbath is not only commendable but worth imitating. Let each of us in our personal sphere of influence be a proud witness for God and His commandments.

A few years ago, Pastor Doug Batchelor wrote about Eric Liddell’s story and the meaning of the biblical Sabbath: “Eric Liddell firmly believed in obeying God no matter the cost—and that meant following every one of His Ten Commandments, including the fourth. For him the Sabbath commandment was no less important than the ones that say, ‘Do not murder’ and ‘Do not commit adultery.’ It’s very difficult for most people to wrap their minds around that idea, but I also believe it is absolutely true.” He goes on to describe the importance and relevance of the Sabbath for our lives today. 

Pastor Doug also gives a presentation, called “The RESToration of Life,” on the health benefits of the Sabbath. This free video, available online, will encourage you to run your own race in following God and keeping the Sabbath holy!

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