Biblical Theology Articles


Andrew Shead

Sabbath in the Pentateuch

Genesis 2:1-3

‘Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their array, so that on the seventh day God had completed his work which he had done. He ceased on the seventh day from all his work which he had done, and God blessed the seventh day, and he sanctified it, because on it he ceased from all his work which God had created by making it' (author's translation).

There is no mention of the Sabbath here, nor of rest. Instead we read of the ‘seventh day' of creation, and of God ‘ceasing' from his work. We should be careful not to read back into this passage more than it actually says.

The passage begins by describing all the work of creation as ‘complete', and associates this completion with the Seventh Day (the capitals differentiate this Day from any other seventh day). God's ‘work' is always carefully defined: the retrospective phrase ‘which he had done' refers to the previous six days' work only, as does the verb ‘created' ( br ), which is picked up from 1:1 and reused to close the account. Was God doing another type of work on the Seventh Day, such as the work of sustaining his creation? We are not told (but cf . John 5:17).

‘Blessing' is associated in Genesis 1 with fruitfulness and dominion, both of which are expressions of what it means to be created in the image of God ( 1:26 , 28 ). We may conclude from its use in v. 3 that, just as God blessed what he created, he also blessed the fact of his creation: its completeness and its ongoing existence.

When God ‘sanctified' the Seventh Day because on it he ceased creating, he was not celebrating or commemorating days one to six, but declaring his new state of not creating to be blessed and holy . This is suggested by the close link between ‘God had completed' and ‘he ceased'. The end of God's creative work brought about a new type of time, blessed and set aside, presumably in order that what was created could now be. The Seventh Day was to be a day for fruitfulness, for dominion, for relationship.

The created order is not commanded to sanctify the Seventh Day; the reason given involves God alone. The creation simply moves into the Seventh Day by default.

Exodus 16:21-30

The word ‘Sabbath' first appears in Exodus 16:23: ‘Tomorrow is a Sabbath feast, a holy Sabbath to Yahweh.' This was arguably the first Sabbath; the lenience shown in verses 27-29 suggests that the Sabbath-breaking was a first offence (cf . Num. 15:32-36). No explanation is given for the command. The statement in v. 30 that ‘the people stopped working [ šaba? ] on the seventh day' is the closest parallel to Genesis 2:1-3 .

The fourth commandment

The biblical tradition of interpretation of Genesis 2:1-3 begins with the fourth commandment in Exodus 20:8-11, and is continued by Deuteronomy 5:12-15 .

Exodus 20:8-11. The phrase ‘the Sabbath day' appears only at the start and close of the commandment; the Sabbath day which Yahweh sanctified ( v. 11b ) is none other than the regularly recurring day which the Israelites were to sanctify ( v. 8 ). The import of verse 11 thus becomes clear. First, Exodus 20:11 does not simply cite Genesis 2:2-3, but explains it. Where Genesis 2:2-3 says that God ‘ceased ( šaba? ) from all his [creation] work', Exodus 20:11 uses the word ‘rested' ( nw? ). Secondly, verse 11b is a quotation of Genesis 2:3a, but with the significant alteration of ‘seventh' to ‘Sabbath'. This alteration binds the two days closely together, but we should beware of the simple equation of the Seventh Day with the first Sabbath day. The Sabbath mentioned in verse 11b is, as we have seen, the Israelites' weekly Sabbath, the subject of the commandment. The altered quotation compares the Israelite Sabbath to the Seventh Day, not in order to equate those two days in every respect, but rather to show that God's action of blessing and sanctifying applies equally to both. Verse 11b is a shorthand way of saying, ‘which is why Yahweh blessed not only the seventh day, but also the Sabbath'.

Four conclusions follow. First, this commandment is not a mandate for Sabbath observance by all humanity, for the lesson of creation is applied narrowly to the Israelite Sabbath. Secondly, the basic reason given for Sabbath observance is the imitation of God. God's example of work which finds its completion in rest should be the model for Israel. Thirdly, because there is no concept in Genesis 2:1-3 of a cycle of work punctuated by rest, its lesson is not that rest is good as a regular relief from work or as a means of making work more efficient, but that there is more to life than work; rest is the goal and the fulfilment of work. Fourthly, it will become clear that ‘rest' is not inactivity. It involves living (and working) in fruitful harmony with God, as Adam did in the garden (cf. Amos 9:13-15). Thus the use of this word in verse 11 suggests that God did not ‘cease' from all his activity either.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15. In Deuteronomy Moses interprets the law, expounding it to the new generation of God's people. The first addition to the Exodus text ( v. 12b ) refers back to the original giving of the fourth commandment. The additions in verse 14 stress that the cattle must not work, and explain why. Deuteronomy 5:12-15 explains Exodus 20:8-11, just as the latter explains Genesis 2.

The first imperative of Exodus 20:8, ‘remember!', is changed to ‘observe!' This is a leitmotif in Deuteronomy 5-6, and its regular partner, ‘to observe' (a different word in Hebrew), occurs in verse 15b. The implication of the opening and closing lines is that this is not so much a fresh command to remember the Sabbath day, as an injunction to obey the Sabbath commandment of Exodus 20. It follows that verse 15b means, ‘that is why Yahweh gave you the Sabbath commandment'. In other words, verse 15 provides the reason for the law given in Exodus. The word ‘remember' introduces the new material in both texts.

What, then, is the reason for the law? An analogy is drawn between Israel's six days of ‘slaving' (‘labour' in v. 13 translates ‘bd ) and the time spent as ‘slaves' in Egypt (‘a slave' in v. 15 translates ‘bd ); thus the seventh, work-free day symbolizes Israel's redemption . Deuteronomy 5:15 is therefore answering two questions. With respect to verses 13-14, it explains why Israel was to keep the Sabbath: it was a memorial of their redemption out of a toilsome existence into a blessed existence as God's covenant people (cf. Deut. 5:1-6). And with respect to Exodus 20:11 , it explains why the Seventh Day is the basis of the Sabbath day: there is a fundamental similarity between what God did on the Seventh Day (he rested) and what he did in the Exodus (he brought Israel out of Egypt).

Three conclusions follow. First, whatever God's goal was in creating humankind was also his goal in redeeming Israel. Israel was to live as the image of God, bearing fruit and ruling over a good creation. Secondly, Deuteronomy 5:15 makes explicit the implicit restricting of the scope of Genesis 2:1-3 by Exodus 20:11. That is, the primeval blessing of the Seventh Day, which had all humanity in mind, is fulfilled in the redemption of a single people, so that the only mandate attached to it is that given to the redeemed. Thirdly, the blessing of the Seventh Day in Genesis 2 is fulfilled when Israel occupies the Promised Land (i.e. enters into rest).

A covenant sign

In Exodus 31:12-17, the Sabbath is called a ‘sign [ ... ] that you may know that I am Yahweh who sanctifies you' ( v. 13 ). The Sabbath is holy to Israel ( v. 14 ) and to Yahweh ( v. 15 ), a perpetual covenant ( v. 16 ) and a sign for ever ( v. 17 ). The covenant made with Abraham contained a threefold promise of land, offspring and blessing ( Gen. 12:1-3 ; 15:1-21 ), and although the land is the explicit goal of the fourth commandment, all three promises are implicit in it; the latter two are found in Genesis 2:1-3. The aptness of the Sabbath as a summary of the whole covenant relationship is reinforced by the rare reference to the sanctification of Israel in Exodus 31:13 , which points back to God's sanctifying both of the Seventh Day and of Israel ( Exod. 19:10-15 ). This verse prepares for the idea that Sabbath observance is as much about righteousness as it is about rest.

The sabbatical year

Leviticus 25:1-7 legislates for a year in which the land itself was to observe a Sabbath to Yahweh. Crops were not harvested, but left in place for the benefit of the landless poor (cf. Exod. 23:10-11). The sabbatical year reinforced the fact that Israel had been set apart by God for rest ( Lev. 25:12 ), and that this goal involved the way they lived as well as the place where they lived. Moreover, even the land itself was only a foretaste of what God had promised.

The covenant curses in Leviticus 26 speak of the exile as an opportunity for the land to enjoy the Sabbaths denied it by the people while they lived there ( vv. 34-35 , 43 ). The breaking of not just the Sabbath laws but the entire law is in view, suggesting that the land is denied Sabbath rest when the people are unfaithful to God.

Sabbath in the Prophets

The former prophets provide only incidental material about the Sabbath and its observance, mentioning in passing various activities which were performed on the Sabbath (e.g. Judg. 14:12-18; 2 Kgs. 4:23; 11:5-9). In contrast, Sabbath theology is developed significantly.


The idea of Sabbath ‘rest', whether God's ( Exod. 20:11 ) or Israel's ( Deut. 5:14 ), is tightly bound to the land. ‘To give/have rest' usually refers to Israel's possession of the land arising from victory over her enemies ( Deut. 3:20 ; Josh. 1:15 ; 1 Kgs. 5:4 ); the noun ‘rest' can refer to the land itself ( Deut. 12:9 ; cf . Ps. 95:11 ). It is a paradoxical idea, because rest is both achieved and not yet achieved. In part, this means simply that new enemies will arise, but it also reflects the theological idea that peace is tied to covenant faithfulness and the loss of rest is God's judgment (cf . Neh. 9:28 ).

Sabbath in the latter prophets

Unsurprisingly, looming exile precipitated a sabbatical crisis. For Isaiah, true Sabbath observance expresses solidarity with God's justice, salvation and righteousness (56:1-2). The Sabbath is not a day for pursuing one's own immediate ends, but for taking delight in Yahweh. Only thus can one inherit the blessings of God's promise to Jacob ( 58:13-14 ). The book opens and closes with contrasting references to ‘Sabbath' and ‘New Moon', two festivals whose abuse brought down God's judgment ( 1:13 ), but which will be truly celebrated by all humankind in the new heavens and the new earth ( 66:23 ).

In Ezekiel 20:10-26, the profaning of Yahweh's Sabbaths is the direct cause of Israel's downfall, and the content of this profanation is idolatry ( v. 16 ). Israel were called by Yahweh to make the sanctification of his Sabbath the sign of their renewed faithfulness (v. 20 ). In Ezekiel 46:1-12 the proper observance of the Sabbath is a central feature of the worship offered up by the Prince. The Sabbath thus stands for the nation's entire relationship with God, one which awaits restoration in the future.

It is not surprising that faithful Sabbath observance was such a big issue in Nehemiah's time ( Neh. 13:15-22 ), given the recurrence of exactly the behaviour which had precipitated exile in the first place, including profanation of the Sabbath. But by the time of Jesus, the primarily salvation-historical and eschatological focus of the prophets had been blurred by a halakhic debate which attempted to eliminate every hint of Sabbath violation. The emphasis of the latter prophets, that the heart of Sabbath-breaking was idolatry, was lost.

Sabbath in the OT: Conclusions

The OT presents a consistent theology of the Sabbath, but one which moves with the flow of salvation history. The original goal of a perfect (complete) creation in which humankind would rule fruitfully under God was never abandoned. The promise to Abraham pointed in the same direction: the fruitfulness in offspring and the blessing of a covenant relationship with God were to find a locus of expression in the Promised Land. The sacred time of the Seventh Day becomes the sacred place of the land; each in its own way is an expression of God's rest. The fourth commandment exhorted Israel to imitate God's creative and redemptive aim by living for a goal which transcended daily toil through fellowship with their covenant Lord.

Subsequent development was driven by the historical failure of Israel's possession of the land to achieve this goal. This failure was attributed on a political level to continued military struggle (the former prophets), and on a deeper level to idolatry (the latter prophets). Israel's real troubles were not military, but religious; her true debts were not economic, but spiritual. Rest was still in the future. A Sabbath day which would bring blessing was yet to dawn. Isaiah 66 hints at a universal Sabbath celebration, which takes us back to the original goal of Genesis 1-2.

Sabbath in the NT

The Gospels

When accused by the Pharisees of breaking the Sabbath law, Jesus did not point out that he was only breaking the oral tradition. Instead, he made the astounding claim that, just as King David and the priests were ‘above the law' in certain respects, so he was not subject to the Sabbath law, but Lord over it ( Luke 6:1-11 ; cf . Mark 2:23-28 ). Not only does this imply that Jesus has an authority at least as great as that of the Mosaic law, it suggests that Jesus is the one who will finally bring the blessings of the Sabbath to Israel.

The pericope in Matthew 12:1-8 reinforces the point by virtue of its position, following Jesus' call to the weary to find rest in him rather than in the Mosaic law ( 11:28-30 ). In the light of this, Jesus' taking authority over the Sabbath both wrests it from the legal framework in which it previously stood and realizes the rest which God's people were always intended to enjoy.

In all three Synoptics, the subsequent miracle is an example of what Jesus' lordship of the Sabbath will mean in practice: people delivered from the shadow of death and restored into the unblemished image of God.

John's Gospel pursues the Christological implications of Jesus' Sabbath activity. In the climactic statement, ‘my Father is working until now, and I am working' ( 5:17 ), Jesus claims that the exemption from Sabbath law which applies to God applies to him also; it is the Father's work which the Son does. The discourse which follows reveals that God will realize his goal for humanity in the person and work of his Son. It is the Son who will give life to the dead, judge all people, and bring honour to himself and to the Father. He will realize the Sabbath by bringing an end to human rebellion and the reign of death. He participates with the Father in a second great work of creation, begun after the fall, from which there will be no resting until it is completed.

Paul, the Sabbath and the law

The Sabbath does not feature prominently in Paul's writings, except negatively. For the Galatians to observe it as if they were still subject to OT law would be to descend into gospel-denying slavery ( Gal. 4:9-11 ); for the Colossians to observe it as part of a syncretistic system would be equally fatal ( Col. 2:16 ). For the law belonged to an earlier era, and since the coming of Christ it is no longer binding ( Col. 2:17 ). Even Sabbath observance ‘for the Lord' was tolerated only for the sake of those whose faith was weak (Rom. 14:1-12 ). In short, those in Christ are beyond the jurisdiction of the OT law, which has been fulfilled in Jesus.

The Sabbath in Hebrews

Hebrews 3:7-4:11 continues the trajectory of interpretation begun in Exodus 20. Ever since the Seventh Day, there has always existed something called ‘God's rest' ( 4:3-4 ). This rest is entered by responding to the good news of salvation ( 4:2 ), and was the true goal of God's redemption of Israel from Egypt. However, it was not attained by their entry into Canaan, since in David's time it still lay in the future ( 4:6-9 ). For Christians, therefore, God's rest is still a future hope, although unbelief will blight this hope as surely for them as it did for Israel ( 4:2 , 11 ).

However, in two respects the trajectory is discontinuous. First, Psalm 95 referred to the Promised Land and the temple as the place of God's rest. But in Hebrews these copies have given way to the heavenly realities within which Christ now dwells (e.g . 9:11-12 , 23-28 ). Secondly, and crucially, after centuries in which people failed to enter God's rest, one man now has entered his rest and ceased from his works as God did from his (4:10). And it is because Christ has already gone before that the writer can speak of Christians' present possession of this rest (4:3: ‘we who have believed enter that rest'). They therefore ‘observe the Sabbath' ( sabbatismos , 4:9 ) by entering into God's rest (by faith, v. 3 ) and resting from their works ( v. 10 ). This is a reference to those ‘dead works' from which they turned to serve the living God ( 6:1 ; 9:14 ), although ultimately the Sabbath rest will involve the undoing of the curse on work.


In its original setting, the fourth commandment anticipated rest by prescribing rest, so that one kept the Sabbath by resting. However, the command soon escaped these confines, in part through its role as a sign of the whole law, and in part through the failure of Israel to find rest in the land. The stress in the prophets on faithfulness as the heart of Sabbath observance was taken up in the NT, but there it was viewed in the light of what Jesus had done. As God's perfect human, Jesus lived the Sabbath day for God, releasing his fellow humans from bondage, bringing them into blessing, and at the last entering himself into God's rest. Ultimately, as Lord of the Sabbath, Jesus made it possible for others to follow him into that rest. This means that the Christian's task is no longer to keep the Sabbath (Jesus has done that already) but to believe in him.

In its final setting, then, the fourth commandment is no longer a commandment for God's people, but its intent remains. The ‘law of Christ' anticipates rest by prescribing belief, but now rest has been realized.

Postscript: The Sabbath and Sunday

We have said nothing about the Christian Sunday since we are convinced that there is no theological connection between Sabbath and Sunday, despite occasional attempts to prove the contrary (e.g. R. T. Beckwith and W. Stott, This Is the Day). There are hints in the NT that the first day of the week was set aside for evening worship, including the Lord's Supper ( Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 16:2 ); Revelation 1:10 refers to ‘the Lord's Day'. There is, however, absolutely no indication either that the ‘first day' replaced the ‘Sabbath day' in practice (the first Jewish Christians continued to attend the synagogue on the Sabbath), or that there was a transfer of Sabbath theology to Sunday worship. The Sabbath was a day of rest rather than a day of worship, and Sunday became a day of worship but was not initially a day of rest. Regularity, for which the seven-day week provided a ready-made framework, distinguishes (Sunday) worship (e.g. Heb. 10:25); completion, which was (and is) a final goal, distinguishes the Seventh Day. The Sabbath day, then, was a sign of this eschatological rest, whereas Sunday is not presented in the NT as a sign of anything, despite its connection to the resurrection. It is simply a well-chosen day upon which to gather to encourage one another in daily, unceasing striving to enter the Sabbath rest ( Heb. 4:11 ). The only gathering which can truly be described as sabbatical is the gathering of the bond-servants who will reign with the Lamb for ever in the new creation ( Rev. 22:3-6 ).


R. T. Beckwith and W. Stott, This is the Day: The Biblical Doctrine of the Christian Sunday (London, 1978); D. A. Carson ( ed. ), From Sabbath to L ord's Day: A Biblical, Historical, and Theological Investigation (Grand Rapids, 1982); G. N. Davies, ‘The Christian Sabbath', RTR 42, 1983, pp. 33-41; G. F. Hasel in ABD 5, pp. 849-856; M. Tsevat, ‘The basic meaning of the biblical Sabbath', ZAW 84, 1972, pp. 447-459; C. J. H. Wright, ‘Jubilee, Year of', in ABD 3, pp. 1025-1030; idem , ‘Sabbatical Year', in ABD 5, pp. 857-861.

This article is taken from the New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, eds. T. D. Alexander and Brian S. Rosner (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press and Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2000), pp. 745 -750, and is used with permission. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form, or by any means, without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information on IVP visit:

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