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The topic of the Sabbath is not an easy one. While the other 9 commandments can be easily discerned to be moral laws, the idea of setting aside one day out of seven and consecrate it unto God seems more like a Christian duty at best, with nothing inherently moral in it. After all, it is just a duration of one day/ 24 hours/1440 minutes, and what makes one day more special than others?
We have two ends of the spectrum regarding the Sabbath. The strict Sabbatarians are those who insist on keeping the Sabbath to the letter if possible, banning all kinds of activities to be done on the Sabbath. Seventh-day Sabbatarians especially are adamant that Saturday is the original Sabbath and that nobody has the right to change the Sabbath day as it is instituted by God, with the Seven Day Adventists as seen in the person of Walter Veith making outrageous claims that the changing of the Sabbath from Saturday to Sunday is the sign of the beast. On the other hand we have New Covenant Theology (NCT) with its denial of the continuity of the Law of Moses. Instead, only those commandments which are repeated in the New Testament are to be embraced by Christians. According to them, the 9 commandments are repeated throughout the New Testament but the command to keep the Sabbath is not, therefore keeping the Sabbath is not a command for Christians nowadays.
In this series, I would like to go through some of the major mentions of the Sabbath, and establish a working theology of the Sabbath through looking at the development of the Sabbath motif through the whole of Scripture.
The Sabbath before Moses?
And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. (Gen. 2:2-3)
A surface reading of the Scriptures seems to indicate that the idea of the Sabbath originates with Moses with the giving of the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai. Yet certain inconsistencies creep up upon further study. The case of Ex. 16 is one such example which we shall cover later. However, even before that, we can see a possible allusion to the Sabbath in the Genesis creation account.
In the Creation account, God made the world in 6 days and rested on the 7th. Gen. 2:2-3 concludes the chronological creation account with God resting on that day. Not only did God rest on the first 7th day, He also made that day holy, thus elevating that one day as being especially holy and set apart for him.
We must however temper our observation with the fact that nowhere in this passage is the word "Sabbath" used. The fact that God chose the 7th day and made it holy is certainly significant, but by itself it does not say that such is a pattern for us to follow. What we have here is a possible allusion to the Sabbath which must await further revelation to make clear.
With regards to the Sabbath practice, this possible allusion to the Sabbath makes it plain that the 7th day, being made holy by God, was set apart for God (the definition of holy). If indeed this is the first creation Sabbath, then the Sabbath motif refers primarily to the setting aside of a day for the Lord. Being a creation ordinance, it must be universal to all of mankind, but I digress.
Exodus 16 — the Sabbath before Sinai
On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, he said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.”
On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. And the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The Lord has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day. (Ex. 16: 22-30)
The book of Exodus belongs to the genre of historical narrative. As opposed to Deuteronomy which is essentially the last words of Moses to the Israelites before his death, Exodus narrates the events approximately as they occur chronologically. The 10 plagues happened before the parting of the red sea for example.
In like manner, the events in Ex. 16 happened before the giving of the 10 commandments at Mount Sinai as narrated in Ex. 20. Ex. 16 also happened to be the first time the Sabbath was mentioned explicitly in Scripture, and it is to this episode that we now look.
In this episode in Ex. 16, God graciously gave to Israel food to satisfy their hunger. The Israelites have walked out of Egypt and have crossed the Red Sea. In the desert with no civilization in sight, the Israelites soon ran out of food and became hungry. In response to their grumbling, God provided them food in the form of manna in the morning daily 6 days per week. On the 6th day, Moses informed the Israelites to collect twice as much manna as there would be no provision of manna on the 7th day. Instead, the 7th day was a Sabbath unto the Lord and the Israelites are to rest on that day, ceasing from all their labor on that day — neither collecting, preparing or cooking their food.
The fact that the Sabbath was mentioned early on before the giving of the 10 commandments is a problem for New Covenant Theology. Unless Dispensationalism is to be embraced, or the Mosaic covenant is read retrospectively into Ex. 16, it is a mystery why the Sabbath is mentioned and commanded to be observed in Ex. 16 before the giving of the Law, as the Sabbath seems to be not totally identified with the Mosaic Covenant. The Sabbath therefore in the OT seems to have some form of independence from the Mosaic Covenant, although of course there is significant overlap between the two in the later parts of the Pentateuch and the Old Testament.
With that stated, we move on to the next event, the giving of the law itself.
[to be continued]
 For more on New Covenant Theology, see Tom Wells and Fred Zaspel, New Covenant Theology (Frederick, MD, USA: New Covenant Media, 2002), John G. Resinger, Tablets of Stone and the History of Redemption (Frederick, MD, USA: New Covenant Media, 2004), and Resinger, Abraham's Four Seeds (Frederick, MD, USA: New Covenant Media, 1998).
Sometimes I wondered why Christians thought that it is a must to observe the Sabbath and keep it holy, since I was taught that it was not reinstituted in the New Testament, but now I know that it is an issue to consider.
indeed it is.
I have been reading your blog for a while. This series is informative as I and my wife are now arguing over the issue.
God Bless you
you're very welcome. God bless you and your wife.
Two questions regarding the before Moses section:
1. Why did God chooses to create the world in six days and rest on the 7th? Certainly God could have chosen to create the whole world in one day if He had chosen to do so. There must be some reason why He chose to do it over six days and then rest on the 7th. Isn't the obvious answer that God chose to do so in order to establish a pattern for Adam and Eve (humanity) to follow? Doesn't He follow creation by giving Adam the mandate to exercise dominion over the earth (hence, work) and yet blessing the 7th day as a day of rest.
2. Doesn't Genesis 4 seem to indicate that the original family knew of this Sabbath principle? The Hebrew says that Cain and Abel came to give sacrifices to God "at the end of days". What days? Considering what has come before, wouldn't it make sense that this is the end of the week and that they are worshiping God on the Sabbath?
Just some things to consider.
One more thing: isn't the most obvious reason why Israel would know of the Sabbath prior to the law is that it had been established prior to the law (at creation?) and had been continually observed by the faithful remnant of God from then till that very day?
1. No, it is not obvious. Just from Gen. 1-2 alone, there is no way anyone can deduce anyting regarding the Sabbath. Of course God could have chosen to do anything, but we are not discussing what God can do but what God did command.
To see anything in creation as a de facto pattern is IMO to read into the text. There may indeed be a pattern there (and I did write something about it in my next installment), but we cannot deduce that pattern from the pure narrative of Gen. 1-2, but from didatic passages elsewhere in Scripture.
2. I don't see that in my ESV translation but it could be such in the original Hebrew which I can't read yet. Let's assume that that is indeed the proper translation of the text. Even then, we can only see a possible allusion not a definitive text.
And no, it isn't obvious why the fact that Israel would know of the Sabbath before the giving of the Law would mean that the Sabbath was established at creation. We can see that Ex. 16 marked the first time the Israelites celebrated the Sabbath. This incident was before the giving of the Law in Ex. 20, and we can see from the indicent that the Israelites weren't used to celebrating the Sabbath. After all, we have Israelites who insisted on going out to collect manna on the Sabbath, hardly a picture of a peoeple used to keeping the Sabbath.
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