Sabbath in the Old Testament—Exodus 20

The term Sabbath probably derives from the Hebrew verb shbt, “to stop, finish, to end,” and refers to the last day of the seven-day week, the only one bearing a name in Scripture. Ancient Israel referred to the other weekdays by numbers.

Since the nineteenth century, archaeological discoveries have revealed a seven-day pattern in Mesopotamian written sources. However, the Mesopotamian practices primarily involved ritual and mythological astral events and nothing like the scriptural Sabbath. The biblical observance was a fundamental aspect of the ordinary person’s life. Furthermore, scholars have abandoned the concept that the Sabbath originated from some other religious day, in particular from the Babylonian shapattu (“a day of evil“). Rather, Scripture clearly traces the Sabbath back to the day that God rested on after the six days of Creation (Gen. 2:1-3), a reality confirmed by one of the laws in the Decalogue (Exod. 20:8-11) that explicitly refers to the creation Sabbath. The Pentateuch frequently speaks of the Sabbath (i.e., Gen. 2:2, 3; Exod. 20:8-11; 23:12; 31:12-17; 34:21; 35:1-3; Lev. 19:3; 23:1-3; 26:2; Deut. 5:12-15). Transgression of the Sabbath law could result in the death penalty (Exod. 31:14, 15; 35:2). Because of the Sabbath’s importance, Scripture carefully defined that law’s stipulations (Exod. 35:3; Num. 15:32-36; Isa. 58:13; Jer. 17:21-27; Neh.10:33; 13:15-22).

The Sabbath has vast theological implications. As God rested on that day, so humanity should follow His example and use it as a time of physical rest from all work. According to Amos 8:5, Scripture forbids any commercial trade on the Sabbath. Numbers 28:9-10 indicates that the weekly Sabbath was also a day on which the people were to offer sacrifices.

Some in Israel considered the Sabbath to be a favorable day to seek counsel from a seer or prophet (2 Kings 4:23). Even more significant, it could be an occasion to do something involving the peoples‘ allegiance to God. For example, Jehoiada staged his revolt against the pagan tyranny of Queen Athaliah on Sabbath (2 Kings 11:5-9). Notice the allusions in 2 Kings 11 to the presentation of the Decalogue at Mount Sinai with its affirmation of the Sabbath. Both narratives, Mount Sinai and the Jehoiada revolt, contain the themes of covenant (cf. Exod. 19:5 with 2 Kings 11:4, 12, 17), the avoidance of any transgression of the sacred (spaces: cf. Exod. 19:12, 13 with 2 Kings 11:7, 8, 15, 18), persons (God [Exod. 19:21-24] and the anointed king Joash [2 Kings 11:8, 11, 12), and the blowing of trumpets (cf. Exod. 19:13; 20:18 with 2 Kings 11:14), a biblical sign of divine presence or activity. Thus 2 Kings 11 captures the profound significance of God’s confirmation of the Creation Week Sabbath at Sinai and uses it to stress the importance of Judah’s rejection of the idolatry introduced by the pagan queen Athaliah and the people’s return to the covenant with God.

During the exile, the people of Israel came to see the Sabbath as especially necessary as a symbol of the covenant between God and Israel (Ezek. 20:12, 20; cf. Exod. 31:13, 17), something that made the nation different from their neighbors and summoned them to a special responsibility to the nations (Gen. 12:3). Israel had only one God whom it especially acknowledged and worshipped on the one day that He had assigned to humanity from the beginning (Gen. 2:2, 3; Exod. 20:11).

The divine day of rest was given for God’s people to participate in the rest of God on that day. Since God rested on the seventh day from His works of creation, He sanctified and blessed the seventh day (Gen. 2:2, 3) and directed His people to keep it holy (Exod. 20:11; 31:17), which means that the Sabbath should be observed entirely different than the other days of the week. The Sabbath reminds us that God wants to make us holy (Ezek. 20:12). His people are not to live by their own efforts alone, but by the grace and power of God, just as He had delivered Israel from Egypt (Deut. 5:12-17), something the nation could not have accomplished by itself. The Sabbath declares that all salvation can only come from God alone.

In addition, the Sabbath is meant to be a joyful day on which we delight in the Lord because we refrain from doing our “own pleasure.” Breaking the Sabbath meant a rejection of the covenant that God had instituted with His people Israel (Isa. 58:13, 14). However, the Sabbath would also be recognized by many people from other nations. Just as the Sabbath points to the fact that God created all humanity, He invites all humanity to worship in the House of God on His Sabbath. It is “a house of prayer for all nations” to worship and experience the joy that the Lord intends it to be (Isa. 56:2-8). The Sabbath will also be a fundamental part of the new world that God has frequently promised through His prophets (Isa. 66:22-23).


Strand, The Sabbath in Scripture and History.

Hasel, “Sabbath,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary.