Understanding the Sabbath (Part 3): Sabbath for Israel

Understanding the Sabbath (Part 3)

Sabbath For Israel

The word for Sabbath in Hebrew, shabat, is related to the word seventh, shevi'i. The first mention of the Sabbath in Scripture does not occur until Exodus 16:23. This occurrence of Sabbath focuses on the Jewish custom of using the Sabbath as a day of rest. The way the leaders of the congregation approached Moses, it appears that the Jews were already familiar with the Sabbath in Exodus 16:23 and were observing a day of rest.

Language that parallels the creation account later in the Pentateuch, relating God’s Sabbath with Israel’s Sabbath can be found in Exodus 39:43a (Gen 1:31); 39:32a (2:1); 40:33 (2:2); and 39:43b (2:3a) (Matthews, The New American Commentary – Genesis 1-11:26, p. 177). This was done with intentionality by the author of the Pentateuch to create a link in the text to weave everything together. The institution of the Sabbath may not have been mentioned in Scripture until Exodus 16, but the Jewish audience of Scripture would have been familiar with all of the Torah, especially the Sabbath rest. God rested on the seventh day of Creation and since then, man had been faithful to Him by observing it as well.

The Sabbath has always been connected to creation, and in Exodus 20:8-11, Jews were commanded to obey the Sabbath for all people and livestock. In Exodus 23, Moses also mentions weekly rest being important to slaves and farm animals. According to JPS, Exodus 31:13, 16, and 17 define the Sabbath as “distinctively Israelite” and as “a token of the eternal covenant between God and Israel” (Sarna, The JPS Torah Commentary - Genesis, p. 14).

Another layer to the significance of Israel observing the Sabbath involves the land. God created the land and gave it to man to keep and to watch over. By man observing a Sabbath once a week, it allows the land to have a mild reprieve from being worked. In addition to a weekly Sabbath, the Lord also instilled a Sabbatical Year once every seven years and a Year of Jubilee every fiftieth year. These observances allow the land to rest and have an opportunity to be renewed. Sabbaths are to occur regularly.

Originally the Sabbath in Israel was a day of rest, not a day of worship. In the exilic period, the observance of the Sabbath announced a person’s faith in the one true God. This act was an act of defiance against all other gods and religions. The Sabbath was a way for Israel to celebrate faith in a God that was confident enough to rest, for He is in control. Brueggemann explains that the Sabbath “was then and is now an assertion that life does not depend upon our feverish activity of self-securing, but that there can be a pause in which life is given to us simply as a gift” (Brueggemann, Interpretation – Genesis, p. 35).

Hirsch provides a unique take on man’s interpretation of the weekly Sabbath. Assuming that the week was spent doing work in the service of God, Hirsch implies that a man could consider himself at every Sabbath as having reached the goal set before him. He can rest in peace because he has ceased work because he has done what he needed to do, according to the Will of God. Man, “with the entry of the Sabbath can lay down the completed six days’ work in homage at the feet of God – his Sabbath is a true shabat” (Hirsch, The Pentateuch Volume 1 – Genesis, p. 46).

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