Toward a Paradigm of the Old Testament Sabbath

Here is a paper that I wrote about a decade ago (I feel old now) – it is one of the spiritual disciplines that I not only studied, but also subsequently applied in my personal life (and the relational and spiritual benefits have been amazing!):

“[There is] as basic moral principle which pervades biblical ethics – namely that the service of God and mutual human care are inseparably bound together. God will not be worshipped acceptably by those who neglect justice and compassion.”1

Throughout the history of God’s people, the nature and purpose of the sabbath has consistently caused considerable disagreement and confusion. For some, it has provoked many nightmares of legalism (eg., do I eat at home or in a restaurant? do I observe it on Saturday or on Sunday?). For others, the sabbath is some vague concept that became irrelevant and outdated centuries ago.┬áIn the Old Testament, however, the sabbath plays a fundamental role, and its influence appears throughout the text. The Hebrew term shabbath occurs 104 times2 in the Old Testament (most frequently in priestly and prophetic sections and never in wisdom literature), and it is not surprising, therefore, that the importance of the sabbath is picked up in the writings of the New Testament, especially as seen in the actions of Jesus.

When considering the origin and purpose of the sabbath, it is interesting to note that although “seven-day periods were well known in the ANE [Ancient Near East], … there is no clear indication of a similar seventh day of rest outside of Israel.”3 The unique Old Testament concepts of creation, God and humanity are profoundly inter-related and they form a unique understanding of life. In addition, not only does the sabbath directly relate to the human-divine relationship, it also speaks to the Biblical concept of acceptable human-human relationships.

It is almost impossible to have a discussion about the sabbath without first considering the account of creation in the first chapters of Genesis. Although the Hebrew term used in Genesis 2:2-3, which is usually translated as ‘he rested’, is a verb (shabath) rather than the noun (shabbath),4 it is generally accepted that this is the first instance in the Bible (in it’s canonical form) of the seventh-day sabbath. The creation pericope includes six days of God’s creative activity followed by a seventh in which God is said to have ‘stopped’ from all his work (Gen 2:2-3). That God’s activity (and resting from activity) is to be modeled by humanity is proposed by many biblical scholars, including Stanley Jaki, who wrote “the six-day creation story … is a parable with the primary purpose of setting up God as a model in the role of resting after a six-day work. But precisely because the resting is done by God, it symbolizes full spiritual activity. As such it can and should be imitated by man.”5 In the same way, Waldemar Janzen recognizes the exemplary and universal nature of God’s actions and notes that “it is precisely the powerful polarity of work and rest – modeled in God’s own creative activity followed by divine sabbath (Genesis 1:1-2:3) – that governs human life.”6

That God’s people are expected to follow God’s example is self-evident throughout the Old Testament (eg. “be holy for I am holy” – Lev 11:45). It is another matter, however, to determine what exactly it is that God is modeling for the sake of humanity. Exploring the Old Testament theology of work, Janzen concludes that there is always a human tendency toward self-assertive control (ie., work), and therefore rest functions as the ‘weaker partner’. As a result, “the polarity of work and rest needs to be safeguarded by powerful divine sanction insuring the sabbath rest.”7 The Old Testament nowhere portrays work as inherently wicked or bad, but rather that “[w]ork is properly directed at human achievement for the purpose of human benefits [although it] … has a tendency to crowd out concentration on God. Therefore a limit is set.”8

Further, the Genesis model of ceasing after experiencing a time of working is not given primarily for the purpose of self-recuperation or restoration, but rather as a means of maintaining the proper perspective of work and creation. Also, as will be discovered in the next section, “[t]he [fourth] commandment does not call humans to celebrate their own work on the seventh day, though they may rest from it, but to co-celebrate God’s work.”9 Therefore, the Genesis creation account does not present a reason why humanity should work, but rather, it presents a general reason why humanity should stop from work.

The Decalogue
The Ten Commandments have traditionally been understood as a central, and perhaps the central, collection of laws in the Old Testament. Because of their significance, “[i]t is noteworthy that the sabbath is the only festival of ancient Israel held significant enough to be included in … the Decalogue.”10 It is equally as important, however, that “[t]he Decalogue does not contain a work commandment, but only a sabbath commandment.”11 In fact, there is no work commandment to be found anywhere in the Old Testament. Therefore, although “[t]he reason for the fourth commandment is grounded in creation representing God’s activity and rest as a divine paradigm for man”,12 the Old Testament does not promote a strict paradigmatic cycle of work-rest-work-rest, as is often assumed,13 but rather promotes the necessary establishment of a sabbath (or rest) in the midst of the ongoing work that is taken for granted. That is, the reality of work (and its potentially oppressive nature) cannot be avoided, therefore the practice of the sabbath must be externally imposed in order to ensure its practical expression.

In the contexts of the various versions of the Decalogue, it is not generic work that is seen as necessitating the sabbath, but instead, it is oppressive labour that is presented as the catalyst requiring periodic rest. According to Janzen, the Exodus and the Torah not only look forward to the Promised Land, they also function as a perpetual reminder that “God’s central paradigmatic act as saviour or redeemer in the Old Testament is an act of redeeming human beings from the enslavement of work”14 (eg. from their Egyptian slave masters).

For a new people, soon to be living in a new land, the fourth commandment of the Decalogue informed the Israelites that “the Sabbath [was] grounded in the redemption of Israel from their sojourn as slaves in Egypt. The Sabbath recalls the memory of Israel’s redemption by God by including the slaves in the day of rest … [this] demand applies to all of humankind (the free and the slaves) and even to animals.”15 The establishment of the sabbath was both an evaluative look back to the past and also a prescriptive look forward to the future – the Israelites were not to be like the Egyptians from whom they were delivered. C.J.H. Wright concludes that “God had freed them from relentless forced labour … so they must preserve the right of regular sabbath rest for themselves, their families, employees and even their animals.”16 In the formative period during and after the deliverance from Egyptian slavery, Israel’s national identity was formed and it was “the [creation] sabbath [that] anticipated the most vital of all relationships, the Siniatic covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel.”17 The sabbath was fundamental to the covenant, and it served as a socially and economically liberating paradigm for Israelite life. Just as the LORD would not permit perpetually oppressive labour under the Egyptians, so too the Israelites were to resist subjecting their own slaves and animals to perpetually oppressive labour.

Other Old Testament Use
Of course, the importance of the sabbath is not limited to only the first few books of the Old Testament. In fact, “[t]his motif of granting rest, reprieve, and human treatment in imitation of God the redeemer is deeply imprinted on the Old Testament’s social legislation”18 (eg. sabbath year, jubilee year, prohibition of harsh conditions on slaves, proper treatment of other Israelites, etc.). The weekly reminder of the sabbath was started during pre-Promised Land times and continued throughout Israelite history. Throughout their history, it functioned as “a sign of the covenant and Israel is set aside as a special people (Exod 31:13,16-17; Ezek 20:12,20).”19 There were many dimensions to the uniqueness of the LORD’s chosen people, one of which was the establishment of the sabbath. In fact, “[t]he whole range of economic requirements in the Old Testament demanded trust in the providential sovereignty of God over nature and a readiness to obey him”;20 the sabbath was only one of the requirements of the people of Israel.

The sabbath’s message of social justice is clearly carried over into the prophetic writings of the Old Testament as, according to Wright, the “sabbatical institutions were concerned with the interests of workers … [n]eglect of the ‘sabbaths’, in this sense, corresponds to the accusations of injustice and exploitations of the poor which is so common in the prophets.”21 The sabbath stood as an agent of restoration, health, and wholeness for Hebrew society … [and] is evident in the strong social humanitarian themes which further came to be attached to the sabbath commands in the course of time.22 Just as the Decalogue clearly identifies the sabbath as a means of relief from oppressive labour and slavery, so too the prophets continue to defend the rights of the poor and others unable to defend themselves from economic and social injustices.

Jesus and the Gospels
The Hebrew shabbath is translated as the Greek sabbaton in the New Testament and occurs almost exclusively in the Gospels.23 Not surprisingly, it is Jesus’ words and actions that are at the centre of almost all of the controversies concerning the nature of the sabbath. Of the six Gospel passages24 in which Jesus’ (non)observance of the sabbath is explicitly stated, one has to do with the disciples eating food, and the other five are situations in which he healed someone whom the Pharisees would/could not heal. In each instance, it was the Pharisees who demanded Jesus’ inactivity in order to meet certain legal demands. However, on each occasion, it was Jesus who stepped in on behalf of those in need. It appears that all of Jesus’ sabbath controversies were in the context of social justice, and consequently resulted in the intentional liberation of oppressed people (economically, physically, etc.).

Jesus seems to have the Old Testament sabbatical concept of social justice and liberation fully in mind when he states in Mark 2:27 that “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.” In fact, D.A. Carson identifies Jesus’ attitude toward the prevailing understanding of the sabbath and notes that “[i]t appears that much … of Jesus’ explicit treatment of the Sabbath is not so much in terms of positive formulation as in terms of negative formulation.”25 As with so many other pharisaic (mis)interpretations of Old Testament ethics and law, the Jewish leaders once again seemed to turn the sabbath paradigm into an oppressive legalistic system instead of a truly liberating reality.

The message of the Old Testament indicates that, left on their own, humanity will eventually self-centredly concentrate on their own work (and kingdom) at the expense of others who are able to be exploited for the benefit of those currently in power. Thus, God’s example, and corresponding legal establishment, of the sabbath was an intentional safe-guard against this unjust pattern of life. Israelite life was intended to be lived before God in it’s entirety, not just in the realm of ‘religion’. As such, “[t]he general character of the Sabbath points to the presence of God among his people as a whole and not only in the midst of priests or at the sanctuaries.”26 As seen earlier, the intent of sabbath observation is not primarily for passive admiration and praise of God and his work, but for active application of God’s model of deliverance and defense of the physically and socially oppressed.

Therefore, for the people of God, the precise legalities of what can/cannot be done during the sabbath observation (eg. the Pharisees) should not be the goal of understanding the Old Testament text. Instead, priority should be placed on practically living out the sabbath paradigm for the sake of the holistic liberation of all humanity (ourselves and others). Truly, God desires to help those who cannot help themselves, whether their oppression is primarily spiritual or physical in nature.


  1. C.J.H. Wright, An Eye for an Eye, (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1983), p. 156.
  2. Lev 24x; Ezek 15x; Exod 14x; Neh 14x; 1-2 Chr 8x; Isa 7x; Jer 7x; 2 Kgs 5x; Nm 3x; Deut 3x; Ps, Lam, Hos, Amos 1x (NIDOTE Volume 4, p. 1157).
  3. “Sabbath”, NIDOTE Volume 4, p. 1158.
  4. “The relationship between the noun … and the verb … remains disputed. Scholars have argued that the noun derived from the verb … or that the verb derives from the noun” (Gerhard F. Hasel, “Sabbath” ABD Volume 5, p. 849).
  5. Stanley L. Jaki, “The Sabbath-Rest of the Maker of All” The Asbury Theological Journal Volume 50, Number 1 (Spring 1995), p. 47.
  6. Waldemar Janzen, “Theology of Work from an Old Testament Perspective” The Conrad Grebel Review Volume 10, Number 2 (Spring 1992), p. 123.
  7. Janzen, p. 123.
  8. Ibid., p. 124.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Roger W. Uitti, “Health and Wholeness in the Old Testament” Consensus Volume 17, Number 2 (1991), p. 53.
  11. Janzen, p. 123.
  12. Glenn N. Davies, “The Christian Sabbath” The Reformed Theological Review Volume 42, Number 2 (May-August 1983), p. 34.
  13. The example of the LORD working for six days and then resting for one is often appealed to. However, the Lord’s creative activity was neither cyclical nor repetitive, but rather, it was a one-time event – there was no ‘eighth day’ when he started working again.
  14. Janzen, p. 130.
  15. “Sabbath”, NIDOTE Volume 4, pp. 1158-1159.
  16. Wright, p. 143.
  17. Uitti, pp. 54-55.
  18. Janzen, p. 131.
  19. “Sabbath”, NIDOTE Volume 4, p. 1159.
  20. Wright, p. 61.
  21. Ibid., p. 79.
  22. Uitti, p. 54.
  23. Matt, Mark, Luke 38x; John 11x; Acts 9x; Col, Heb 1x (NIDOTE Volume 4, p. 1161).
  24. Mt 12:1-8; Mk 2:23-28; Lk 6:1-5 – plucking grain for food, Mt 12:9-14; Mk 3:1-6; Lk 6:6-11 – healing a leper, Lk 13:10-17 – healing a crippled woman, Lk 14:1-6 – healing a man with dropsy, Jn 5:1-18 – healing the leper by the pool, Jn 9:1-41 – healing the blind man.
  25. D.A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord’s Day (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), p. 85.
  26. “Sabbath”, NIDOTE Volume 4, p. 1159.

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