The Sabbath as sign of the Mosaic Covenant
And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Ex. 31:12-17)
The issue of the Sabbath takes on an additional layer of meaning in the myriad laws given by God and Moses to the Israelites following the giving of the Decalogue. While previously we have looked at the Sabbath as it develops through the creation motif, the Decalogue also serves as the beginning of what we come to know as Law — the many laws passed to Israel given by God to govern His people. As their King and Judge, the laws serve to show forth to Israel what was expected of them as God's subjects. All God's laws are to be obeyed as the laws governing their society as like the laws of any country. [As an aside, how such obedience is related to salvation in the Christian sense is not explicitly mentioned in this entire narrative. Rather, Israel is to remember the proto-evangel in Gen. 3:15 and reason from there and the entire oral tradition which was later codified by Moses into the book of Genesis (and maybe Job) to get a proper perspective of salvation which is by grace alone through faith alone, but I digress]
Alongside the creation motif therefore was superimposed a new thread of thought in the Law. Beginning with the Decalogue (which acquires a double use in light of redemption history, as both Moral Law and legal covenant document), the Sabbath acquires a new use as a sign of the Mosaic Covenant, as we can see in Ex. 31:12-17.
It may be asked why the Sabbath was made a sign of this particular Covenant. The question is not answered in the context, which merely state such to be the case. It must be noted however that no other historical covenant made the Sabbath as a sign of the covenant. When we note that the use of a sign is to mark the covenanted people as being God's covenanted people who will also make up a distinct nation, it is highly likely that the choice of such a mark is due to the fact that none of the other nations keep the Sabbath. Furthermore, the Sabbath is intricately tied up with the worship of God, and surely the worship of YHWH marks Israel as worshipers of the true God as opposed to the false gods of the nations.
The Law motif that is now added to the idea of the Sabbath opens up the other dimensions of Sabbath keeping as to its practicality and application in civil and ceremonial settings of the theocratic state (its civil and cultic element). Being a distinguishable mark in civil life, it is necessary for the details of Sabbath keeping to be spelled out as concretely as possible.
The Sabbath year — Ex. 23
For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the beasts of the field may eat. You shall do likewise with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard.
“Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed. (Ex. 23:10-12)
The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the Lord. For six years you shall sow your field, and for six years you shall prune your vineyard and gather in its fruits, but in the seventh year there shall be a Sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a Sabbath to the Lord. You shall not sow your field or prune your vineyard. You shall not reap what grows of itself in your harvest, or gather the grapes of your undressed vine. It shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. The Sabbath of the land shall provide food for you, for yourself and for your male and female slaves and for your hired servant and the sojourner who lives with you, and for your cattle and for the wild animals that are in your land: all its yield shall be for food. (Lev. 25:1-7)
The necessity of the Sabbath functioning as such a mark thus spill over into religious observances such as the Sabbath year described both in Ex. 23:10-12 and Lev. 25:1-7. While much can be made of the practical benefits of letting the land lie fallow once every seven years, the rationale for the giving of this law is more for Israel to remember God and the institution of the Sabbath. They are to remember that God is their creator and their redeemer (which we will cover later), and trust that God will provide even though they do not plow or reap in that year, even as God has provided for them in the wilderness with manna and quail (Ex. 16:12-14).
[to be continued]