SABBATH (שַׁבָּת, H8701, cessation, rest; LXX σάββατον, G4879, sabbath, week).
Teaching of the Bible
Sanctification of the seventh day at creation
The Hebrews did not claim to be the creators of this unique institution. They affirmed that God Himself was its creator. The record of its origin which they preserved for us is in the Bible. The divine origin of the sabbath is described in the opening chapters of Genesis. The first two chapters describe God’s creative activity during six days and His sanctification of the seventh day by His cessation from His creative work (
The grouping of the creation narrative into six periods called days, followed by a seventh day of rest, seems to have been done purposefully to establish a weekly sacred day. Later scriptural teaching on the sabbath seems to corroborate this.
The fourth commandment of the Decalogue, as recorded in Exodus, gives as the reason for the Israelites’ observance of the sabbath the fact that God “in six days...made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it” (
The words of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (
It seems clear, therefore, that the divine origin and institution of the sabbath took place at the beginning of human history. At that time God not only provided a divine example for keeping the seventh day as a day of rest, but also blessed and set apart the seventh day for the use and benefit of man. There is no mention of the observance of the sabbath by the patriarchs, although a period of seven days is mentioned several times in the account of Noah and the Flood (
The ordinance concerning the manna
The first mention of the word “sabbath” is in
The next day Moses commanded the people to eat what had been kept over, and added, “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” (
This passage shows that the sabbath was certainly made known to Israel before the giving of the law at Sinai. The Israelites did not arrive at Sinai until the following month (
The fourth commandment of the Decalogue
The fourth commandment itself does not purport to be the first promulgation of the sabbath. Its introductory words, “Remember the sabbath day” (
The fourth commandment made the sabbath a distinctive Hebrew institution. It formed an integral part of the covenant which God made with Israel at Sinai. The covenant consisted of “the ten commandments” uttered by the Lord Himself from the mount (
At the same time it is evident that the fourth commandment contains principles which are applicable to all people. It recognizes the moral duty of man to worship his Creator, for which stated times and places for worship are needed as well as surcease from the ordinary employments of life. It recognizes also the basic need of man for a weekly day of rest. Man’s history has demonstrated his need for the recuperation of his physical and mental energies once in every seven days as well as his need for a day of the week set apart for spiritual devotion and instruction. The sabbath command provided for these needs of the ancient Israelites.
History of the sabbath
The sabbath of the Mosaic legislation
The regulations for the observance of the sabbath in the Mosaic legislation are relatively simple. The sabbath was to be observed on every seventh day; it was to be observed by all: the servants, the humble beasts of burden, the members of the Hebrew household, and the guests who were staying within their gates were all commanded to cease from labor on that day (
The humanitarian aspect of this freedom from toil on the sabbath is especially emphasized in Deuteronomy, where the deliverance of Israel from the oppressive bondage of Egypt is given as the reason for the keeping of the sabbath (
The sabbath, however, was not a day of total inactivity. The priests carried on their duties about the Tabernacle. The bread of the Presence was to be set on the table in the holy place on the sabbath day (
The sabbath in the historical and prophetical books of the Old Testament
The first mention of the sabbath in the historical books is in
Visiting a prophet on the sabbath would necessarily be limited to the few. There is evidence that visiting the Temple on the sabbath was a more widespread custom. There are a number of references in Chronicles to the ritual performed in the Temple on that day (
During the period of the Exile, the sabbath rose in prominence as compared to the other religious festivals of the Jews, since it was independent of the Temple in Jerusalem, whereas the other festivals were in part dependent on that religious center. In the period of the return from exile, sabbath observance was revived in Palestine, in large measure through the reforms of Nehemiah. On his return to Palestine, he was shocked to see the widespread desecration of the holy day. People labored in the fields, gathered the harvests, and bought and sold publicly on the sabbath day. Nehemiah rebuked the nobles of Judah and ordered the gates of Jerusalem closed during the sabbath (
The sabbath in the inter-testamental period
In the years following the reforms of Nehemiah and Ezra, their successors, the scribes, developed an elaborate code of regulations and restrictions governing sabbath observance. These were intended to safeguard and preserve the spirit of the sabbath, just as the shell protects the kernel. They were an attempt to “hedge in” the law so that its proper observance would be guaranteed.
Two whole treatises in the Talmud are devoted to the details of Sabbath observance. One of these, the Shabbath, enumerates the following thirty-nine principal classes of prohibited actions: sowing, plowing, reaping, gathering into sheaves, threshing, winnowing, cleansing, grinding, sifting, kneading, baking; shearing wool, washing it, beating it, dyeing it, spinning it, making a warp of it; making two cords, weaving two threads, separating two threads, making a knot, untying a knot, sewing two stitches, tearing to sew two stitches; catching a deer, killing, skinning, salting it, preparing its hide, scraping off its hair, cutting it up; writing two letters, blotting out for the purpose of writing two letters, building, pulling down, extinguishing, lighting a fire, beating with a hammer, and carrying from one property to another. Each of these chief enactments was further discussed and elaborated, so that actually there were several hundred things a conscientious, law-abiding Jew could not do on the Sabbath.
For example, the prohibition about tying a knot was much too general, and so it became necessary to state what kinds of knots were prohibited and what kind not. It was accordingly laid down that allowable knots were those that could be untied with one hand. A woman could tie up her undergarment, and the strings of her cap, those of her girdle, the straps of her shoes and sandals, of skins of wine and oil, of a pot with meat. She could tie a pail over the well with a girdle, but not with a rope.
The prohibition regarding writing on the Sabbath was further defined as follows: “He who writes two letters with his right or his left hand, whether of one kind or of two kinds, as also if they are written with different ink or are of different languages, is guilty. He even who should from forgetfulness write two letters is guilty, whether he has written them with ink or with paint, red chalk, India rubber, vitriol, or anything which makes permanent marks. Also he who writes on two walls which form an angle, or on the two tablets of his account book, so that they can be read together, is guilty. He who writes upon his body is guilty. If any one writes with dark fluid, with fruit juice, or in the dust on the road, in sand, or in anything in which writing does not remain, he is free. If any one writes with the wrong hand, with the foot, with the mouth, with the elbow; also if any one writes upon a letter of another piece of writing, or covers other writing” (Shabbath, xii. 3-5). Jesus had things like this in mind when he said, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them” (
The efforts of the scribes to promote a regard for the Hebrew sabbath were successful. The sabbath became so deeply rooted in Jewish consciousness and so treasured by individual Jews, that at the beginning of the Maccabean war, Jewish soldiers allowed themselves to be massacred rather than profane the Sabbath by fighting, even in self-defense. After one thousand Jews were slaughtered in this way, they decided that in the future it would be permissible to defend themselves if attacked on the sacred day, but not to engage in offensive operations (
The ruling of Mattathias is significant because it was the first of many such rulings designed to liberalize the restrictions of sabbath observance. Many ways were found to get around the letter of the law. The motive for the extended casuistry on the sabbath was undoubtedly to make the law more practicable, but it led to many fanciful and far-fetched interpretations. For example, from the rabbinical interpretation of the command in
One of the outstanding features of this period was the rise of the synagogue. The synagogue became the center of the religious life of Judaism, not only in those places which were far removed from Jerusalem, but also alongside the Temple in Jerusalem. Attendance at the synagogue became customary on the sabbath day (cf.
The sabbath in the New Testament period
Jesus and the sabbath
At the beginning of the New Testament period, the true meaning of the sabbath had been obscured by the multitudinous restrictions laid upon its observance. Sabbath observance had largely become external and formal. Men had become more concerned for the punctilious observance of a day than for the poignant needs of human beings. It was inevitable that Jesus should come into conflict with the Jewish leaders over the sabbath. It was Jesus’ custom to attend the synagogue on the sabbath (
In His teaching He upheld the authority and validity of the Old Testament law (
Jesus expressed anger over those Jews at the synagogue in Capernaum who showed more concern for the punctilious observance of the sabbath than for a human being who was deprived of the use of a hand, and proceeded to heal the man before them all (
The remaining two occasions when Jesus’ action on the sabbath brought Him into conflict with the Jewish leaders are recorded by John. One was the healing of the impotent man at the pool of Bethzatha (
In all of these instances, Jesus showed that He placed human need above the mere external observance of the sabbath. Jesus never did or said anything to suggest that He intended to take away from man the privileges afforded by such a day of rest. On the other hand, it cannot be said that Jesus intended to perpetuate the Hebrew sabbath or extend its application to all men. As far as the record of the gospels is concerned, He never made mention of the fourth commandment. By emphasizing the principles which lay back of the law, the spirit and purpose of the law instead of its formal and external regulations, He prepared the way for the abolishing of all the external laws and ordinances of the Old Testament.
Paul and the sabbath
When Gentiles were brought into the Christian community, a problem arose with regard to their relation to the Jewish law. There were those who insisted that it was necessary for them to submit to the rite of circumcision and keep the law of Moses, which would, of course, include the sabbath command (
Paul provides no grounds for imposing the Hebrew sabbath on the Christian. The Christian is free from the burden of the law. The Spirit of Christ enables him to fulfill God’s will apart from external observance of the law’s demands. The author of Hebrews likewise speaks of the Hebrew sabbath only as a type of “God’s rest,” which is the inheritance of all the people of God (
The sabbath in the post-New Testament period
The Early Church Fathers of the 2nd and 3rd Christian centuries were practically unanimous in their view of the Hebrew sabbath. Some insisted that it was completely abrogated; others emphasized its typical character; but all agreed that it was not binding on the Christian.
Ignatius, the disciple of the Apostle John, and the bishop of Antioch, wrote to the Magnesians in the early years of the 2nd century: “Be not deceived with strange doctrines, nor with old fables. For if we still live according to the Jewish law, we acknowledge that we have not received grace”; and then goes on to categorize his readers as “those who were brought up in the ancient order of things” but who “have come to the possession of a new hope, no longer observing the Sabbath”The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, pp. 62, 63.
apologist around the middle of the 2nd century, explains in his Dialogue with Trypho why the Christians do not keep the law of Moses, submit to circumcision, or observe the sabbath. He asserts that:, the first great Christian
Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons during the latter part of the 2nd century, viewed the sabbath as symbolical of the future kingdom of God, “in which the man who shall have persevered in serving God shall, in a state of rest, partake of God’s table”Against Heresies, Book IV, Chap. 16, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 481. He cites Abraham as an example of one who believed God “without circumcision and without observance of Sabbaths”ibid..
Tertullian, at the beginning of the 3rd century, says: “We have nothing to do with Sabbaths or the other Jewish festivals, much less with those of the heathen”On Idolatry, Chap. 14, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, p. 70. In another work he says that those who would contend for the continued obligation of sabbath-keeping and circumcision must show that Adam and Abel, Noah and Enoch, and Melchizedek and Lot also observed these things. He goes on to say that the sabbath was figurative of rest from sin and typical of man’s final rest in God. It, together with the other ceremonial regulations of the law, was only intended to last until a new Lawgiver should arise who should introduce the realities of which these were shadowsAn Answer to the Jews, Chap. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, pp. 153, 155, 156.
The Hebrew sabbath has, of course, continued to be observed by non-Christian Jews to the present time. During the first centuries some Jewish Christians also continued the practice of observing the seventh day of the week as well as the assembly for worship on the first day of the week. But their influence on Christianity, though discernible for several centuries, especially in the East, dwindled rapidly after the destruction of Jerusalem in a.d. 70P. Cotton, From Sabbath to Sunday, pp. 58-63. The testimony of the ante-Nicene fathers is that for the vast majority of Christians, the sabbath was a Jewish institution which was not binding on Christian believers.
Views of the Christian’s obligation to keep the sabbath
The “Christian sabbath” view
This view holds that Sunday is the Christian sabbath, the observance of which is a moral obligation based on the fourth commandment of the Decalogue. , the church historian of England, calls it the “Anglo-American theory” because it has been so widely held in Great Britain and the United States. He traces its origin to the Puritans at the close of the 16th centuryP. Schaff, History of the Christian Church, Vol. VI, p. 494.
This view emphasizes the divine institution of the sabbath at the close of creation. God’s blessing and sanctification of the seventh day is taken to mean that He intended one day in seven to be observed by all men in all ages as a sacred day of rest and worship. The fourth commandment of the Decalogue, which alludes to the primeval institution of the sabbath, is regarded as a moral command, and therefore of universal and perpetual obligation. It is argued that the day of the week on which the sabbath is to be kept was not of the essence of the law, but rather the observance of one day in every seven. Jesus affirmed that He was “lord even of the sabbath” (
Sabbatarians insist that Jesus intended to perpetuate the sabbath and extend its application to all men. Much stress is laid on the statement of Jesus, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (
This view has appealed to many Christians because it seeks to establish a firm Scriptural basis for the observance of Sunday by grounding its observance on the fourth commandment. The Bible does teach that God instituted the sabbath at the close of creation (
The basic weakness of this theory is the teaching that a change was made in the day of the week to be observed as the sabbath. There is not the slightest hint in the New Testament that Jesus transferred the sabbath to another day of the week, nor that anyone else did so. Furthermore, if one insists on the perpetual and universal obligation of the fourth commandment, and at the same time recognizes that there is no New Testament ground for a change in the day of its observance, the only logical position to which he is forced is to maintain that the seventh day of the week, and not the first day, should be observed as the sabbath, as the fourth commandment stipulates. This is precisely the position which is taken by the Seventh-day sabbatarians.
Theories of Sabbath Origin
It is generally agreed that the origin of the sabbath is closely related to the origin of the week. In the 19th century it was commonly believed that the use of a seven-day week arose out of the ancient veneration of the seven planets. In ancient Babylonian astrology these included the sun and the moon, and five of the heavenly bodies known as planets today—Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, and Saturn. The days of the week then were named after the planets or the gods associated with the planets. The names of the days of the week used today reflect this ancient regard for the planets. Sunday is named for the sun; Monday for the moon; Tuesday for Mars (cf. French mardi); Wednesday for Mercury (cf. French mercredi); Thursday for Jupiter (cf. French jeudi); Friday for Venus (cf. French vendredi); and Saturday for Saturn. There is no proof, however, that the names of the planets were applied to the days of the week until the beginning of the Christian eraWilly Rordorf, Sunday, pp. 24-27. Besides, there is no certain knowledge that the recognition of these seven “planets” led to the formation of a seven-day week. Consequently, this theory had been almost entirely abandoned before the close of the last century.
The most popular theory at the close of the 19th century, especially among the more liberal historical critics, was that the Hebrew institution of the sabbath was directly traceable to Babylonia. During that century there were discovered a large number of Babylonian cuneiform tablets. In several of these tablets, the word shabatum appears. The word was used to designate the fifteenth day of the month, or the time of the full moon in the Babylonian lunar month. In one tablet it is described as the um nuch libbi, which has been interpreted to mean “a day of appeasement of the heart,” or a day of pacification of the god.
Other Babylonian tablets indicate that the seventh, fourteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of certain months were observed as unlucky or evil days. On these days the king was forbidden to eat meat roasted on coals or any food touched by fire. He was also forbidden to ride in his chariot, to change his clothes, or to discuss affairs of state. On these days the priests were not to consult the oracles, and the physicians were not to treat the sick. On these days, according to another series of Babylonian clay tablets, special sacrifices were offered to the godsJohn R. Sampey, “Sabbath,” ISBE, p. 2630; A. E. Millgram, Sabbath: the Day of Delight, pp. 340, 341.
While there are remote resemblances between the dietary and travel restrictions imposed on the Babylonian king on these days and some of the Biblical laws regarding the sabbath, the differences between the Babylonian days and the Hebrew sabbath far outweigh any resemblances. The Babylonian days were reckoned from the beginning of the month; the Hebrew sabbath was observed every seventh day. The Babylonian restrictions applied to only certain classes of the population; the Hebrew sabbath was a day of rest for all the people. There was no cessation of business transactions on the Babylonian days, but they were considered more favorable for such activity; no work of any kind was permitted on the Hebrew sabbath. Furthermore, the term shabatum was not applied to these days, but was restricted to the fifteenth day of the month.
The Pan-Babylonian theory of the origin of the sabbath was based not only on the alleged resemblances between the Babylonian evil days and the sabbath, but also on alleged similarities between the Babylonian creation tablets and the Biblical account of creation. Alexander Heidel has shown that the Babylonian epic, Enuma elish, while presenting a number of analogies to the first two chapters of Genesis, is essentially different from the Biblical story of creation, and concludes that no incontrovertible evidence can be produced for any Babylonian borrowings in the Biblical recordThe Babylonian Genesis, p. 117. Walter Maier is more positive and emphatic: “If there is any connection between the Babylonian epic and the first chapter of Genesis, then the cuneiform poem must be a demoralized, degenerate, vague, and mythological reëchoing of the revealed truth of the Bible” “Mimeographed Notes on Genesis,” p. 14.
Lunar festival theory
Another ingenious theory, closely related to the Pan-Babylonian, that the Hebrew sabbath is a survival of an ancient lunar festival which may or may not have been derived from Babylonia, seems to have some support in the Bible. The Bible frequently associates together the sabbath and the new moon, in each case mentioning the latter first (
The four phases of the moon occur approximately every seven days. It was thought that the days on which the new moon, the full moon, the half moon, and the waning moon appeared were observed by sacrifices to the lunar god, and later by rest from work R. J. Floody, Scientific Basis of Sabbath and Sunday, pp. 44, 45. The following considerations support the idea that there was some kind of relation between the observance of the moon phases and the observance of the weekly sabbath:
The Hebrew sabbath, however, was not connected with the phases of the moon. It occurred at the end of a seven-day periodic week which was independent of both the lunar month and the solar year. Millgram concludes:
The question still remains—how could or how did the ancient Semitic observance of the new moon and the full moon, or the observance of the four phases of the moon as evil days, become the periodic week with its humanitarian Sabbath? This question cannot be answered satisfactorily. The only conclusion that may be drawn is that the seven-day Hebrew week, with its humanitarian rest day as we have it now, is a unique creation of the Hebrew religious genius, and is one of the most valuable Hebrew contributions to the civilization of mankindA. E. Millgram, Sabbath: The Day of Delight, p. 342.
The seventh-day sabbath view
This view, held by the Seventh-day Baptists who originated in England in the 17th century, and by the who originated in America in the 19th century, insists that Christians are obligated to keep the seventh day of the week as the sabbath. In support of this position, they appeal largely to the Old Testament, especially to the language of the fourth commandment, which, they point out, clearly states that the seventh day is the sabbath, appointed by God to commemorate His work of creation. The are referred to as “the law of God,” to be distinguished from the ceremonial and civil laws which are called “the law of Moses”A. L. Baker, Belief and Work of Seventh-Day Adventists, p. 74.
Since, according to the Seventh-day Adventists, it is useless to search for the change from seventh day observance to first day observance in the New Testament, they assert that this change was made by the Roman Catholic Church. They teach that, during the early centuries of the Church, a great apostasy set in, in which the pagan festival of Sunday was gradually substituted for the ancient sabbath by “unconsecrated leaders of the Church” and by the half-pagan emperor ConstantineE. G. White, The Great Controversy, pp. 58, 59.
Criticism of the Sevent-day Adventists
The insistence of seventh-day sabbatarians on the wholly moral character of the fourth commandment and on its perpetual and universal obligation is based upon statements which find no support in the Bible. They ignore the clear statements that the fourth commandment was addressed to the Israelites whom the Lord had delivered from Egypt. Moreover, the distinction which they make between “the law of God” and “the law of Moses” is not supported by Scripture. Likewise, their interpretation of the words of Christ and of Paul which are quoted in defense of the perpetuity of the sabbath command, if pressed to its logical conclusion, proves too much.
The word “law” as used by Jesus and Paul refers to more than just the Ten Commandments. Seventh-day sabbatarians do not insist that all the laws of the Mosaic legislation are meant to be observed by Christians in this age. But, they fail to see that Paul definitely included the sabbath command among those ordinances which were done away in Christ. Their claim that the Roman Catholic Church changed the sabbath from the seventh day to the first day of the week is without foundation. In spite of some Roman Catholic writers that claim that such a change was made by “the Catholic Church,” the evidence from the Early Church Fathers is conclusive that these early church leaders did not regard Sunday as a continuation of the Hebrew sabbath.
While later writers came to think of Sunday as bearing some analogy to the Hebrew sabbath, and others called the Christian holy day a sabbathEusebius, Commentary on the Ninety-first Psalm, quoted by J. A. Hessey, Sunday, pp. 299, 300; Alcuin, Homily 18, post Pentecost, quoted by A. E. J. Rawlinson, The World’s Question and the Christian Answer, p. 78; P. Alphonsus quoted by Hessey, Sunday, p. 903, they grounded its observance more on the authority of the Church than on the fourth commandment. The Reformers, although they advocated the Christian observance of Sunday, did not base its observance on the sabbath command.