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Wednesday, June 28, 2023

God, Israel and the Sabbath

Herbert Armstrong chafed at the characterization of the Sabbath as a Jewish institution. However, Scripture makes very clear that the Sabbath was a prominent part of God's covenant with the children of Israel. In the Torah, the Sabbath enjoys a prominent place and is portrayed there as playing a central role in God's covenant with His chosen people. Indeed, we find the Sabbath woven into the very story of creation recorded in the first book of the Pentateuch (Genesis 2:1-3)! Even so, of particular interest to us in this connection, the Sabbath is not mentioned again until after Moses had delivered the children of Israel from slavery in the land of Egypt.

Thus, we see that the Sabbath is reintroduced in the telling of the story about God supplying manna (the bread of Heaven) to the children of Israel to sustain them in the wilderness. In the book of Exodus, we read: "Then the Lord said to Moses, 'Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily." (16:4-5, ESV here and throughout this post) Notice, that God used the concept of the Sabbath rest to test the susceptibility of the Israelites to obeying His commandments. Later, we read: "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." (16:22-30) This test, of course, anticipated God incorporating the Sabbath into the terms of His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai.

At Sinai, we read that God included the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments which He gave to Moses. We read: "Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." (Exodus 20:8-11) Thus, we see that the Sabbath was incorporated into the fundamental law of God's covenant with Israel.

Indeed, this commandment is reiterated and reinforced throughout the Book of the Covenant. In that same book of Exodus, the Sabbath is identified as a sign between God and the children of Israel (31:13, 17). In the book of Leviticus, we read: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 'Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places." (23:1-3) Likewise, in the book of Deuteronomy, we read: "And Moses summoned all Israel and said to them, 'Hear, O Israel, the statutes and the rules that I speak in your hearing today, and you shall learn them and be careful to do them. The Lord our God made a covenant with us in Horeb. Not with our fathers did the Lord make this covenant, but with us, who are all of us here alive today." (5:1-3) Continuing, we read: "Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day." (5:12-15) Interestingly, in this incarnation of the Sabbath command, it isn't referenced as a memorial of creation. Instead, it is specifically tied to the children of Israel's experience as slaves in the land of Egypt.

There are also a number of prohibitions in Torah regarding certain kinds of work as related to the Sabbath. In the book of Exodus, we read: "Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest." (34:21) This reminds us that Israelites were a primitive people whose livelihood was based on agricultural pursuits like crop farming and livestock husbandry. In short, these agricultural pursuits are understood by any serious student of the Hebrew Scriptures to be an integral part of God's covenant with Israel. Indeed, the Jews have identified some thirty-nine categories of work forbidden to be performed on the Sabbath. Among these, we find things like plowing, sowing, reaping, making sheaves, winnowing, threshing, grinding, shearing, slaughtering, skinning, tanning etc. Anyway, you get the picture. The primitive nature of Israelite society is further underscored by several injunctions to refrain from starting a fire or gathering firewood on the Sabbath (Exodus 35:3 and Numbers 15:32-36).

Finally, there were sacrifices and rituals attached to the Sabbath in Torah. Aaron was commanded to arrange the sacred bread before the Lord's altar in the Tabernacle (later, the high priest in the Temple) every Sabbath (Leviticus 24:5-8). The priest was also required to sacrifice two male lambs and a grain offering to the Lord each and every Sabbath (Numbers28:9-10). Moreover, these practices apparently continued into the kingdom period (I Chronicles 9:32, 23:31, II Chronicles 8:12-13, 31:3).  Hence, we see that the Sabbath was also intimately connected to the framework of the Levitical priesthood and its practices as outlined in the terms of God's covenant with Israel.

In terms of the prophetic writings of the Hebrew Bible, along with idolatry, desecration of the Sabbath is identified as one of the primary ways in which the people of Israel and Judah had violated the terms of God's covenant with them. In the book of Isaiah, the proper observance of the Sabbath by the Israelites is singled out as a sure way to the gain the Lord's favor and blessing. We read: "If you turn back your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on my holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, or seeking your own pleasure, or talking idly; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride on the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken." (58:13-14)

In the book of Jeremiah, the prophet made clear that failure to properly observe the Sabbath was one of the primary sins of the Kingdom of Judah. We read there: "Thus said the Lord to me: 'Go and stand in the People's Gate, by which the kings of Judah enter and by which they go out, and in all the gates of Jerusalem, and say: Hear the word of the Lord, you kings of Judah, and all Judah, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, who enter by these gates. Thus says the Lord: Take care for the sake of your lives, and do not bear a burden on the Sabbath day or bring it in by the gates of Jerusalem. And do not carry a burden out of your houses on the Sabbath or do any work, but keep the Sabbath day holy, as I commanded your fathers. Yet they did not listen or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck, that they might not hear and receive instruction. But if you listen to me, declares the Lord, and bring in no burden by the gates of this city on the Sabbath day, but keep the Sabbath day holy and do no work on it, then there shall enter by the gates of this city kings and princes who sit on the throne of David, riding in chariots and on horses, they and their officials, the men of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And this city shall be inhabited forever. And people shall come from the cities of Judah and the places around Jerusalem, from the land of Benjamin, from the Shephelah, from the hill country, and from the Negeb, bringing burnt offerings and sacrifices, grain offerings and frankincense, and bringing thank offerings to the house of the Lord. But if you do not listen to me, to keep the Sabbath day holy, and not to bear a burden and enter by the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle a fire in its gates, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem and shall not be quenched.'" (17:19-27)

In the book of Ezekiel, the prophet shared God's perspective on the Sabbath's role in Israel's sins. We read: "I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. Moreover, I gave them my Sabbaths, as a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them. But the house of Israel rebelled against me in the wilderness. They did not walk in my statutes but rejected my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live; and my Sabbaths they greatly profaned." (20:11-13) Hence, in all of these references to the Sabbath within the prophetic writings, the Sabbath's role as one of the things which distinguished the Israelites as God's people is strongly affirmed.

Indeed, when some of the exiled Israelites were later allowed to return to the land of Israel, Sabbath observance was one of the primary things which was attended to by the leaders of the community. Looking at their present circumstances through the lens of their past, we read in the book of Nehemiah: "In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food. Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself! Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, 'What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.' As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day. Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice. But I warned them and said to them, 'Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.' From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath. Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love." (13:15-22) Clearly, the Sabbath was still regarded as one of the principal hallmarks of God's covenant with the Jews.

Thus, in spite of Mr. Armstrong's misgivings about associating the Sabbath with the Jews, it is clear that Scripture makes the Sabbath an integral part of His covenant with His people. In short, the Sabbath was a Jewish/Israelite institution, NOT a Gentile one. The Gentile world's only awareness and/or experience of the Sabbath was through the Jews/Israelites. Hence, as observant Jews, it is no wonder that we would find Jesus, his disciples, and the early Jewish Christian Church observing it! There is, however, NO Scriptural evidence that Gentiles were EVER required to observe the Sabbath!* And, any appeal to the Hebrew Scriptures (or what Christians refer to as the Old Testament) to impose the Sabbath on Christians falls flat. Once again, as we have seen, those Scriptures clearly portray the Sabbath as a wholly Jewish/Israelite institution!

* Unless, of course, they were living or trading among the Israelites. Also, in this connection, we should note that someone will inevitably mention a prophecy in Isaiah (66:18-23) which seems to suggest future Gentile observance of the Sabbath. However, if we take a closer look at this passage, the sense is that Gentiles will one day worship God continuously - "From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the Lord." At any rate, I hope that everyone would at least be willing to acknowledge that this passage does NOT, in ANY WAY, suggest that Gentiles were/are obligated to observe the Sabbath then/now.

My sources for this post:

The English Standard Version of the Holy Bible

EliYah Ministries' Strong's Concordance (KJV)

my Jewish Learning's Shabbat in the Bible

torah.org's The Sabbath

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