The Sabbath day (Dec. 6, 2015)

Scripture passage and lesson focus: Exodus 20:8-11; 31:12-16

Our study of Scripture now moves to the Hebrew Scriptures, which Christians have traditionally called the Old Testament. We begin with the book of Exodus, one of the five writings that are attributed to Moses and referred to as the Torah or the Pentateuch. This seminal document is a theological interpretation of the story of Israel’s escape from the slavery of Egypt and the establishment of a covenant people.

Scholars generally agree that the Pentateuch gradually developed over several centuries and incorporated oral traditions that were gradually gathered in written form and edited over many years. While some of the traditions in the book of Exodus are among the oldest contained in Scripture, the Sabbath commandment in our passage is expressed in language associated with the 6th century BCE compilers of the priestly source of the Pentateuch. The proper observance of the Sabbath was of paramount importance to the priestly writers.

Exodus 20:8-10 — Remember the Sabbath 
The Sabbath command is the fourth commandment. While many of the 10 commandments have parallels in the legal traditions of other nations in the Ancient Near East — laws against lying, stealing, murder and adultery were widespread — only Israel’s law mandated the observance of the Sabbath day. Other societies had occasional days of rest or mandated days of religious observance, but only Israel’s law “gives the Sabbath divine sanction in perpetuity and makes its observance both an unchanging obligation and inalienable privilege” according to Jewish commentator W. Gunther Plaut.

The 10 commandments are placed in the context of the covenant between God and Israel. They are not the conditional basis for establishing the covenant, since God has already graciously entered into a special relationship with Israel by rescuing the people from slavery in Egypt. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2). Instead, they are the fundamental standards God expects the redeemed people to obey. They are not 10 suggestions!

The Sabbath day is to be remembered, that is, it must be kept in mind and given careful attention. Remembering is more than an intellectual exercise, however. To remember in this context means to live in accordance with the intended purpose of the Sabbath, namely to cease from work and to follow the creator’s example of resting.

Equally important in this passage is the corollary requirement to keep the Sabbath day holy. To be holy is to be set apart for specific God-honoring purposes. Thus the Sabbath day is a special day unlike the other six days of the week. It should not be a day of burdensome restrictions, although in some Christian traditions that is how the Sabbath has been perceived and practiced.

Exodus 20:11 — God blessed the Sabbath 
The Sabbath day is rooted in the divine example of the creator’s rest on the seventh day after the work of creation was finished. Having completed the work of creation, God rested. God blessed the Sabbath day and consecrated it. God gave the Sabbath day a sacred purpose, for that is what consecration means.

Exodus 31:12-16 — God makes Sabbath keepers holy 
The Sabbath command is repeated here in language very reminiscent of Genesis 2:2-3. Here the Sabbath is “a sign between me and you throughout your generations, given in order that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you.” Keeping the Sabbath makes the people holy, that is, dedicated to living in community according to God’s law.

The Sabbath day is a sign of the covenant. Its importance in the eyes of the priestly writer is indicated by the seriousness of the penalty for doing work on the Sabbath. “Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death” (31:15). This may be an example of priestly hyperbole, however, for there is no evidence that this punishment was carried out.

In both the Jewish and Christian traditions, the Sabbath is designated as a day set aside for rest, joy, prayer and study. All of these purposes come together in the worship of God the creator, who rested on the seventh day.

In our secular society, relatively few Jews or Christians keep the Sabbath day holy.


JAMES A. BRASHLER is professor emeritus of Bible at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.