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The Origin of Sabbath Observance

Anthony Buzzard

Does the observance of the Saturday Sabbath represent the ultimate in God’s will for His people today? Much has been written on the important subject of the function of Old Testament law in the New Testament. Despite the nervousness of many Sabbath-keepers, those who do not rest on the weekly Sabbath are not of the opinion that Christians can disobey God with impunity. The vital question is: What does obedience mean in the New Testament under the New Covenant?

A primary difficulty for adherents to Saturday Sabbath-keeping arises from a misunderstanding of the origin of obligatory Sabbath observance. Based on Genesis 2:2, 3 and Exodus 20:8-11, it is argued that the Sabbath day was instituted at creation as a weekly rest for all mankind from Adam onwards.

This account of the origin of weekly Sabbath-keeping overlooks the following biblical facts:

1. Exodus 16:23: The Sabbath day is revealed to Israel by God. The Lord says, “Tomorrow is a Sabbath observance, a holy Sabbath to the Lord.” There is no hint here that the seventh-day rest had been in force since creation. God did not say: “Tomorrow is the [well-known] Sabbath given to all nations from creation.” Indeed Moses adds: “See, the Lord has given you [Israel] the Sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day” (Ex. 16:29). If God gave the Sabbath to Israel in Exodus 16, was He removing it from mankind in general? It is most strange that if Sabbath keeping was revealed as divine law from creation for every nation God would now specify Israel as the nation obliged to keep the Sabbath.

2. Nehemiah 9:13, 14: The origin of weekly Sabbath observance is not at creation, but at Sinai: “Then You came down on Mount Sinai, and spoke with them from heaven; You gave them just ordinances and true laws, good statutes and commandments. So You made known to them Your holy Sabbath, and laid down for them commandments, statutes and law, through Your servant Moses.”

3. Nehemiah 10:29-33: The weekly Sabbath is part of God’s law given through Moses and thus part of the whole system of Sabbatical observances revealed at Sinai:

“[The people] are taking on themselves a curse and an oath to walk in God’s law, which was given through Moses, God’s servant, and to keep and to observe all the  commandments of God our Lord, and His ordinances and His statutes…As for the peoples of the land who bring wares or any grain on the Sabbath day to sell, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or a holy day; and we will forego the crops the seventh year…We also placed ourselves under obligation to contribute yearly one third of a shekel for the service of the house of our God: for the showbread, for the continual grain offering, for the continual burnt offering, the Sabbaths, the new moon, for the appointed times, for the holy things and for the sin offerings to make atonement for Israel, and all the work of the house of our God.”

Notice that Israel was bound to a whole system of Sabbaths and holy days.

4. The purpose of the Sabbath, though it reflects God’s rest at creation (Ex. 20:11), is specifically to commemorate the Exodus of the nation of Israel from Egypt. That is why the fourth commandment was given: “You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you [Israel, not mankind from creation] to observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).

5. The covenant made with Israel at Horeb was not made with the fathers (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob). The ten commandments cannot therefore represent some universal law given to all mankind. The statement in Deuteronomy 5:3 is specific: “The Lord did not make this covenant with our fathers.” The Sabbath was given to Israel as a sign of God’s special relationship with Israel, “that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them” (Ezek. 20:12). This would have no point if the Sabbath was required of all nations. It is a particular mark of God’s dealing with one nation, Israel.

6. The Jews should be credited with some understanding of the origin of their national Sabbath. In Jubilees 2:19-21, 31 we learn that: “the Creator of all things…did not sanctify all peoples and nations to keep Sabbath thereon, but Israel alone.”

Confirmation of the biblical texts we have cited above comes from rabbinical literature. Genesis Rabbah states that the seventh day of creation was God’s Sabbath, but not humanity’s. In the Mishnah under Shabbata, we find that “if a Gentile comes to put out the fire, they must not say to him, ‘do not put it out,’ since they [Israel] are not answerable for his keeping the Sabbath.” The reason for this is that “the Sabbath is a perpetual covenant between Me and the children of Israel, but not between Me and the nations of the world” (Melkita, Shabbata, 1).

From these passages it is clear that the whole system of laws, including the weekly Sabbath, the holy day Sabbath of the seventh week (Pentecost), the holy day Sabbath of the seventh month (Trumpets), the new moons and the other holy days, the seventh-year land Sabbath and the Jubilee after forty-nine years, were all part of a Sabbatical system given to Israel through Moses. The weekly rest was a commemoration of Israel’s Exodus (Deut. 5:15). Thus Ezekiel states that God “took [Israel] out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. I gave them My statutes and informed them of My ordinances, by which, if a man [i.e., an Israelite] observes them, he will live. Also I gave them My Sabbaths [plural] to be a sign between Me and them [Israel], that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them…Sanctify My Sabbaths; and they shall be a sign between Me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God” (Ezek. 20:10-12, 20).

From this data it could not possibly be deduced that the Sabbatical system was enjoined on mankind from creation onwards. All these passages of Scripture, confirmed by other Jewish writings, point to the Sabbaths as a special sign of God’s relationship with one chosen nation.

Since Deuteronomy 5:15 traces the origin of the Sabbath to the Exodus, why does Exodus 20:11 connect it with creation? The answer is that God did indeed rest on the seventh day at creation. However, the text (Gen. 2:3) does not say that He then commanded Adam and mankind to rest every subsequent seventh day. If He had said this, the Sabbath could not be a memorial of Israel’s Exodus (Deut. 5:15). The fact is that many misread the text in Genesis 2:3 to mean that God rested on the seventh dayand blessed every following seventh day from then on, commanding mankind to rest on that day. Actually it was only God who rested at creation and only on the one seventh day which ended His creation. It was not until thousands of years later that He used His own seventh-day rest at creation as a model to introduce the every seventh-day Sabbath given to Israel. God alone rested on the first seventh day and much later revealed the seventh day to Israel as a permanent Sabbath observance (Ex. 16). The weekly Sabbath appears in the ten commandments, which summarized the law given through Moses to Israel, but it is not to be separated from the whole system of Sabbatical rest given to Israel, weekly, monthly, yearly, seven-yearly and at the Jubilee.

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