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Sabbath

Sabbath [N] [E] [S]

The origin of the Hebrew sabbat [t'B;v] is uncertain, but it seems to have derived from the verb sabat, meaning to stop, to cease, or to keep. Its theological meaning is rooted in God's rest following the six days of creation ( Gen 2:2-3 ). The Greek noun sabbat [savbbaton] translates the Hebrew noun sabbat [t'B;v]. The noun form is used primarily to denote the seventh day of the week, though it may occasionally refer to the Sabbath week ( Lev 23:15-16 ) at the end of every seven Sabbaths or fifty days, or the Sabbath year ( Lev 25:1-7 ) in which the land was to be at complete rest.

The Old Testament. The observance of the Sabbath is central to Jewish life. Of the eight holy days (Shabbat, the first and seventh days of Pesach, Shavout, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and the first and eighth days of Succot) proscribed in the Torah, only the Sabbath is included in the Decalogue. Though not holier than other holy days like Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, the Sabbath is given special attention because of its frequency. Yet despite any significance that accrues on the basis of its frequency or inclusion in the Decalogue, its importance rests ultimately on its symbolic representation of the order of creation. For, according to the Genesis narrative, God himself rested on the seventh day, thus making it sacred ( Gen 2:1-2 ). For the pious Jew, keeping the Sabbath holy is a mitzvah, or duty, before God. Indeed, The Old Testament takes Sabbath observance so seriously that profaning it results in the death penalty ( Exod 31:14 ; 35:2 ; Num 15:32 ).

The meaning of the Sabbath institution comes to light against the background of several key facts. First, Exodus 20:8-11 makes a clear connection between the Sabbath day and the seventh day on which God the Creator rested. Sabbath observance therefore involves the affirmation that God is Creator and Sustainer of the world. To "remember the Sabbath" meant that the Jew identified the seven-day-a-week rhythm of life as belonging to the Creator. This connection is particularly important in light of the Jewish doctrine that human beings are co-partners with God. They receive the world in an unfinished state so that they may share with God the purposes he seeks by continuing to fashion and subdue the creation. If the Creator stopped his creative activity on the seventh day, then those who share in his creative work must do the same. Sabbath contravenes any pride that may accompany human mastery and manipulation of God's creation. In ceasing from labor one is reminded of one's true status as a dependent being, of the God who cares for and sustains all his creatures, and of the world as a reality belonging ultimately to God.

Second, the Sabbath is an affirmation of Israel's identity. The words of Moses to the people in Deuteronomy 5:12-15 demonstrate that, however much its rhythm reflects the order of God-created life in general, the Sabbath functions also to remind Israel of her specific origins. "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day." Here the acknowledgment that God is the Creator of life is intensified by the acknowledgment that he is also the saving presence in the history of the Jewish people, and by that means of the entire creation. Israel's keeping of the Sabbath was a reminder of her very identity as a people liberated from slavery to the Egyptians and for a special role in the cosmic drama of human salvation. As such it was a cherished gift of God, "a sign between me and you for generations to come" ( Exod 31:12-17 ), testifying of God's faithfulness to his covenant throughout the generations. The covenant relationship demands Israel's sanctification, and by keeping the Sabbath holy Israel is reminded continually that the God who sanctified the seventh day also sanctifies her.

Third, the Sabbath is a day of rest and worship given as a gift from the restless condition of slavery. The prohibition of work extended to all those living within Israel, including slaves and animals ( Exod 20:10 ), even during the plowing season ( Exod 34:21 ). This necessitated additional work on the sixth day ( Exodus 16:5 Exodus 16:23 ). What constitutes rest and work? In the Torah there are only two explicit prohibitions concerning work on the Sabbath. No fires were to be kindled in Jewish dwellings ( Exod 35:3 ), and no one was to leave their place ( Exod 16:29 ). However, more can be inferred from other texts. For example, Moses instructed the people to bake and boil the manna and put it aside until morning ( Exod 16:23-24 ), hinting that cooking was not fitting for the Sabbath. A man found gathering sticks on the Sabbath was stoned to death ( Num 15:32-36 ). The carrying of a burden or bringing it by Jerusalem's gates was prohibited ( Jer 17:22 ). Nehemiah closed the city gates to the merchants who were said to profane the Sabbath by carrying their goods and selling them ( Neh 13:15-22 ). Most important is the Torah's placement of the laws concerning the Sabbath directly adjacent to the instructions for building the tabernacle (Exod. 31), implying that each of the many varieties of work associated with tabernacle construction was prohibited on the Sabbath.

Just as joy is more than the absence of sorrow, the Sabbath is more than cessation of labor. Resting in bed all day does not amount to a keeping of the Sabbath. The Sabbath is to be a delight and joy ( Isa 58:13 ). Noteworthy is the fact that the fourth commandment ( Exod 20:8 ) places the positive command to keep the Sabbath holy before the negative prohibition to cease working. As worship, additional sacrifices were offered ( Num 28:9-10 ) at the temple, and the special shewbread was to be set out "sabbath after sabbath" to signify Israel's commitment to the covenant ( Lev 24:8 ). During and after the Babylonian exile, worship became a more prominent part of Sabbath observance. In Jewish homes the benedictions of kiddush (Friday evening) and habdalaha (Saturday evening) were recited, and there were morning and afternoon services at the synagogue. The joyous character of the Sabbath is reflected in, among other things, the Jewish tradition of eating richly, which derives from its inclusion in the list of "festivals of the Lord" ( Lev 23 ) the prohibition of fasting, and the forbidding of outward expressions of grief and mourning.

In the prophets, observance of the Sabbath becomes the touchstone for Israel's obedience to its covenant with God. The future of Jerusalem depends on faithful Sabbath keeping ( Jer 17:24-27 ). One's personal well-being is also at stake ( Isa 56:2-7 ). Those who honor the day will find joy, riding on the heights of the earth and being fed with the heritage of Jacob ( Isa 58:14 ). As God once desired to destroy his people in the desert because of their Sabbath desecration ( Eze 20:12-14 ), so he now counts this among Israel's present moral failures ( Eze 22:8 ) for which there will be purging and dispersion. Amos issues a stern warning to those merchants who endure the Sabbath, anxious only to get on with the selling of grain ( 8:5 ).

The consistency of the prophets' call to honor the Sabbath testifies in part to the growing need, especially during the exilic period, to preserve Jewish identity in a pagan environment. In this sense prophetic aims are continuous with those of the Mosaic period. But scholarly consensus finds in the prophetic writings a subtle transformation wherein the Sabbath, formerly a social institution of festivity, rest, and worship, became above all a religious mark of personal and national holiness vis-a-vis the Gentiles.

The New Testament. The Gospels record six cases in which Jesus' action resulted in controversy over the Sabbath, and two more that did not. Jesus faces the accusation that his disciples have broken the Sabbath by picking grain and eating ( Matt 12:1-8 ). He is interrogated concerning his healing of a man with a withered hand ( Matt 12:9-14 ), a crippled woman ( Luke 13:10-14 ), a man with dropsy ( Luke 14:1-6 ), a sick man by the pool of Beth-zatha ( John 5:1-18 ), and a blind man ( John 9 ). Neither the healing of Peter's mother-in-law ( Mark 1:29-31 ) nor Jesus' synagogue address in Nazareth seems to have occasioned any opposition. Just how Jesus regarded the Sabbath is a matter of discussion. Some argue that Jesus deliberately broke the Sabbath commandment in order to call attention to his messianic character. Others contend that Jesus violated not the Sabbath commandment but only the casuistry of the Pharisees as contained in the halachah. In the final analysis, a comprehensive statement about Jesus' attitude toward the Sabbath would require an investigation into his attitude toward the Law in general.

But even in the face of interpretive difficulties, the particular nature of Jesus' response to these controversies make two things quite clear. First, by his statement "the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath" ( Matt 12:8 ) Jesus claims that the authority of the Sabbath does not exceed his own. Hence, the Son of Man as Lord decides the true meaning of the Sabbath. In two Johannine accounts in particular, the authority by which Jesus' Sabbath healings are performed is linked directly to God the Father, according both to the blind man's ( 9:33 ) and Jesus' own witness ( 5:17 ). Second, by stressing that the Sabbath was made for humankind and not humankind for the Sabbath ( Mark 2:27 ) Jesus gives an indication as to its true meaning. That is, he places it against the universal horizon of God's intent that it benefit all creation and not just Israel. Jesus' healings on the Sabbath underscore this beneficent character, for "it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath" ( Matt 12:12 ). By his response to the religious leaders in two Lukan incidents, one gathers the impression that what is ultimately at stake is the health (physical and spiritual) of those healed. Just as naturally as one would lead an ox or donkey to water ( 13:15 ) or rescue a child who has fallen into a well on the Sabbath ( 14:5 ), Jesus Acts, with eschatological urgency, in the interest of life and salvation.

Among the several references to the Sabbath in Acts ( 1:12 ; 13:14-44 ; 15:21 ; 17:2 ; 18:4 ; 20:7 ) there is little evidence to suggest that the earliest Christian communities deviated from the traditional Sabbath observed on the seventh day. The lone reference to a gathering "On the first day of the week" ( 20:7 ) most likely reflects an emerging Christian consensus that the first day was an appropriate day on which to meet for worship and celebrating the Lord's Supper.

In his letters Paul shows concern for certain restrictions placed on his converts ( Rom 14:5 ; Gal 4:10 ; Col 2:16 ), among them Sabbath keeping no doubt. In his characteristic refusal to allow such things to become a basis for judging fellow believers, Paul seems, especially if Romans 14:5 refers to Sabbath keeping, a claim not unanimously accepted, to support one's freedom either to observe or not observe the Jewish sabbath, though he evidently continued to observe it for himself ( Acts 17:2 ).

Hebrews anticipates an eschatological "sabbath rest" (sabbatismos [sabbatismov"]) that remains for the people of God ( 4:1-11 ). The term sabbatismos [sabbatismov"] appears nowhere else in the New Testament, and may be the writer's own creation to indicate the superiority of the coming rest to that of the seventh day. Though a superior quality of rest, it is still marked chiefly by the cessation of labor patterned after God's rest on the seventh day.

Craig J. Slane

See also Lord's Day, the

Bibliography. N. A. Barack, A History of the Sabbath; S. Baron, The Jewish Community; D. A. Carson, From Sabbath to Lord's Day; S. Goldman, A Guide to the Sabbath; A. Heschel, The Sabbath; P. Jewett, The Lord's Day.

Baker's Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology. Edited by Walter A. Elwell
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
Baker Book House Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan USA.
All rights reserved. Used by permission.

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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
[S] indicates this entry was also found in Smith's Bible Dictionary

Bibliography Information

Elwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Sabbath'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology". . 1997.