Was the Sabbath a New Command at Sinai?

Is the Sabbath a creation ordinance that existed before Sinai, or was it a new command at Sinai? Upon examining Scripture, it is clear that the Sabbath is a creation ordinance that existed before Sinai.

This article heavily utilizes [https://www.heritagebooks.org/products/the-christian-sabbath-its-redemptive-historical-foundation-present-obligation-and-practical-observance-martin.html The Christian Sabbath, by Robert Paul Martin].

Scriptures

Exodus 20:8-11

8 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 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. 11 ”’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

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

12 “‘Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the Lord your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 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. 15 ”’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.

Deuternomy 5:12-15

Interpretation

The Sabbath Was Instituted at Creation, Not Sinai

In Exodus 20:8-11, when God commands the Sabbath, he points to creation, saying, “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.”

In a Sense, the Sabbath Was “New”

Although it is clear that the Sabbath was first instituted at creation, there is still a sense in which the Sabbath was “new” at Sinai. Roger Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott write this:

Since the sabbath had first been given to man, he had fallen into sin, and the institution had been corrupted or forgotten virtually everywhere except among the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Even among them, there had been generations of bondage in Egypt, during which they had doubtless been unable to rest on the seventh day. In practice, therefore, the restored institution was peculiar to Israel, and was relatively new even to them.

Roger T. Beckwith and Wilfrid Stott, ”The Christian Sunday” (reprint ed., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 13.

Answers to Objections

Exodus 20:11 Is Not a Revelatory Explanation of Genesis 2:3

Harold Dressler, in ”From Sabbath to Lord’s Day”, says that Exodus 20:11 is not “a revelatory explanation of Genesis 2:3.” Instead, he says that though “the Sabbath commandment is based on a previous historical event,” it is actually based upon the Israelite nation’s deliverance from Egypt. He says, “because God rested then, therefore He has blessed the Sabbath now—because God rescued you out of Egypt then, therefore He commanded you at Sinai to keep the Sabbath.”1 To respond, we note the following: First, the statement, “Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy,” clearly refers to what God did at creation and not to any historical event in Exodus, since it parallels the statement in Genesis 2:3, “So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy.” Second, although Deuteronomy 5:15 refers to the deliverance from Egypt, the deliverance from Egypt has the same meaning for the fourth commandment as it does for the other nine commandments; both Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 are prefaced with the deliverance from 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

“‘I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

Deuternomy 5:6

Dressler’s interpretation singles out the fourth commandment as being different from the other nine commandments, but we see that his reasoning for grounding the Sabbath in a historical event in Exodus applies to the other nine commandments, as well. The proper interpretation is that the Israelites have ”’two”’ motivations for obeying the Sabbath: #God blessed and made the seventh day, the Sabbath, holy at creation (Genesis 2:3) #God delivered the Israelites from slavery—relentless work—in Egypt Today, Christians can replace the second motivation with God delivering them from slavery to sin, since God delivering the Israelites from Egypt was a type of God delivering believers from sin.

Ezekiel 20 and Nehemiah 9

The Argument

Some argue that Ezekiel 20 and Nehemiah 9 teach that the Sabbath was new at Sinai.

10 So I led them out of the land of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. 11 I gave them my statutes and made known to them my rules, by which, if a person does them, he shall live. 12 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… 20 and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God.’

Ezekiel 20:10-12, 20

William Paley argues, “the Sabbath is plainly spoken of as ”given”, (and what else can that mean, but as ”first instituted?) in the wilderness.”2

13 You came down on Mount Sinai and spoke with them from heaven and gave them right rules and true laws, good statutes and commandments, 14 and ”’you made known to them your holy Sabbath”’ and commanded them commandments and statutes and a law by Moses your servant.

Nehemiah 9:13-14

Answer: Ezekiel 20

The Ezekiel passage does not say that the Sabbath ”began” at Sinai, but rather, that at Sinai God made it a ”sign” that it is “the Lord who sanctifies them.” Robert Martin writes this:

Through Ezekiel, the Lord commands the Israelites to sanctify his Sabbaths, so that these holy days will be what he intended them to be under the Mosaic Covenant, ”i.e.”, a sign that he was their God who sanctified them. It is the Sabbath as a covenant “sign” that is new at Sinai (”cf.” the treatment of Exod. 31:13 in the next chapter).

Martin, Robert Paul, ”The Christian Sabbath: Its Redemptive-Historical Foundation, Present Obligation, and Practical Observance” (Trinity Pulpit Press, 2016), 85.

Exodus 31:13, 17 speaks of God making the Sabbath a ”sign” of his sanctifying the Israelites, and in the very same context, it says that this “sign” arises from creation.

13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for ”’this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you”’. … 17 ”’It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.”’’”

Exodus 31:13, 17

Ralph Wardlaw responds to Paley’s argument above concerning Ezekiel in this way:

If an example is desired of the term ”given” being used in application to what had a previous existence, we have a decisive one at hand. It occurs in John vii. 22. “Moses therefore ”gave unto you” circumcision (not that it is of Moses, but of the fathers) and ye on the Sabbath-day circumcise a man.” Here circumcision is represented as ”given” to the Jews by Moses, while, in the very same sentence, it is mentioned as having been “of the fathers.” What becomes, then, of Paley’s question, “What else can ”given” mean ”than first instituted”?” Might we not say of the Sabbath, with the same propriety as of circumcision—”Moses therefore gave unto you the Sabbath—not that it is of Moses, but of the fathers,” and of the fathers even from the beginning? It is clear from this example, that such terms are too strictly interpreted, when they are made with certainty to signify ”original institution”.

Ralph Wardlaw, ”Discourses on the Sabbath” (Glasgow: Archibald Fullarton & Co., 1832), 27.

Answer: Nehemiah 9

Although the language of Nehemiah 9 seems more definitive in that it says that God “made known” the Sabbath, we should recognize that Nehemiah 9 has certain parallels with Ezekiel 20 that suggests it may simply be a restatement of Ezekiel 20. The phrase, “rules, which if a person does them, he shall live by them,” only occurs in Leviticus 18:5, Ezekiel 20:11, 13, 21, and Nehemiah 9:29, which suggests that Nehemiah 9 is parallel to, or a summary and restatement of, Ezekiel 20. Thus, it is reasonable to believe that Nehemiah 9 is also speaking of the Sabbath as being “new” at Sinai in the sense that this was when God gave the Sabbath as a “sign” of his sanctifying the Israelites.

Read More

  1. ”From Sabbath to Lord’s Day”, 38. []
  2. William Paley, ”Moral and Political Philosophy”, in ”The Works of William Paley” (Edinburgh: Thomas Nelson and Peter Brown, 1831), 91. []

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