Keep My Sabbaths
January 18, 2021

The seven speeches of Exodus 25-31 conclude, fittingly, with a reiteration of the Sabbath law (Exodus 31:12-17). It’s one of the clearest indications that the tabernacle is a new creation. After Moses, the sub-creator, has completed the tabernacle, he enters into Yahweh’s Sabbath, ceasing as Yahweh ceased. This concluding speech is a hint of the difference between Yahweh and the gods of the nations. Pagan gods make men to serve them, keeping them busy in their temples. Yahweh makes men to share in His enthronement and rest. The tabernacle is of course a place of priestly labor. More fundamentally, though, it’s a place of Sabbath; it is Sabbath transformed from time into space.

The creational justification for the Sabbath is given in verse 17: Israel is to keep Sabbath “for in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, but on the seventh day He ceased and was refreshed.” Israel isn’t excluded from Sabbath because it’s Yahweh’s day; Israel doesn’t keep Sabbath in spite of Yahweh’s Sabbath. Israel keeps Sabbath because Yahweh does.

The final speech has a roughly chiastic structure:

A. Observe Sabbath as sign, 31:13a

B. That you may know Yahweh sanctifies you, for it is holy, 31:13b-14

C. Whoever profanes is put to death, 31:14b

D. Six days work, but cease on Sabbath, 31:15a

B’. Holy to Yahweh, 31:15b

C’. Whoever profanes is put to death, 31:15c

A’. Do Sabbath has covenant sign, imitating Yahweh, 31:16-17

For the first time, shabbat is plural (Exodus 31:13; cf. Leviticus 19:3, 30; 23:15, 38; 26:2). The plural doesn’t refer to the fact that the Sabbath is repeated. It suggests that there is more than one weekly day of ceasing for Israel. It hints that all of Israel’s festivals come under the umbrella of “Sabbath,” because all are days of ceasing, all days in which Israel enters into Yahweh’s enthronement over creation. Passover, Pentecost, and Booths are as much “sabbaths” as the weekly Sabbath. They too must be observed.

Twice, Yahweh describes the Sabbath as a “sign” (Exodus 31:13, 17), loosely identified as a sign, like circumcision, of Yahweh’s covenant with Israel (cf. Exodus 31:16-17; beriyt ‘olam concludes v. 16, and v. 17 begins with beyniy uven beney yisra’el ‘ot). Earlier in the Old Testament, the rainbow (Genesis 9:12-17) and circumcision (Genesis 17:11) are described as signs of covenants, and Passover is described as a sign (Exodus 13:7-9), though not explicitly as a sign of the covenant. Israel’s Sabbaths are a sign of her elevated status, her participation in the Sabbath ceasing of the Creator. Like the rainbow, Sabbath-keeping is a sign to Yahweh, a reminder fo keep His covenant, specifically His promise to bring creation and new creation to fulfillment. Unlike the rainbow, Sabbath keeping isn’t a static thing but an action (or an inaction), a ritual sign. Israel offered a memorial to Yahweh by doing (not doing) the Sabbath. The Sabbath is also a sign to Israel, a ritual designed to reveal Yahweh to Israel, “that you may know that I am Yahweh who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13; nod to Dru Johnson’s work here).

The dynamics of holiness are intriguing here. Twice we’re told the Sabbath is holy (qadosh; Exodus 31:14, 15). Holy things are things claimed by God. Holy times are Yahweh’s times, when He determines what Israel does with their time. But the God who claims the Sabbath as His own also “sanctifies” (qadash) Israel (Exodus 31:13). Yahweh claims the day; Yahweh claims Israel. And the juxtaposition of the two acts of sanctification suggests that Yahweh claims Israel to share in His holy day. Once again, we are drawn to the conclusion that Sabbath is a particular privilege of Israel, the holy people, who have been caught up into Yahweh’s own time, who share already in the day of Yahweh.

Sabbath-keeping is enforced with the death penalty. The penalty is repeated twice, a double witness like the Edenic double witness of “dying, you shall die” (Exodus 31:14-15; cf. 35:2). It’s not the first capital crime in Exodus. Forms of murder and man-slaying demand the death penalty (Exodus 21:12, 14), as do cursing parents (Exodus 21:15, 17), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), and bestiality (Exodus 22:19). To our minds, the penalty for Sabbath-breaking seems extreme; the other capital cases are crimes, but violating the Sabbath is a religious infraction. The fact that Yahweh requires capital punishment for profaning the Sabbath indicates that the Sabbath is public law. The rationale for this severe penalty has to do with the day’s holiness. It is Yahweh’s holy day; doing your own thing on Yahweh’s holy day is an act of sacrilege, a profanation (Exodus 31:14; the word is challal). Attacking the image of God is a terrible crime, but Sabbath-breaking attacks Yahweh directly, as a trespass on His holy time.

Sabbath-breaking is also a self-alienating crime. At a practical level, Sabbath-breaking does damage to the Sabbath-breaker; instead of being refreshed on Yahweh’s day, he continues with the slog of labor. More deeply: Israel is the holy people, rescued from slavery and brought to share in Yahweh’s rest. To refuse that rest is to refuse everything Yahweh has done for Israel. To break Sabbath is, in effect, to say, “I am not Israel.” It is, in effect, the same sin of those who wanted to return to the incessant labor of Egypt. It’s a kind of apostasy, and the Sabbath apostate receives the same severe penalty suffered by those who wanted to abandon Yahweh in the wilderness to return to slavery.

(What constitutes Sabbath-breaking? That’s a complicated question, and not fully clear in Torah. James Jordan’s Sabbath-breaking and the Death Penalty is an ingenious discussion of the issue.)

The seven speeches end with Yahweh delivering the tablets of the law to Moses, “after He had finished speaking” (Exodus 31:18). “Finish” translates the Hebrew verb kalah, the same verb used at the end of the creation account (Genesis 2:1-2) and at the completion of the tabernacle (Exodus 40:33), It’s yet another indication that the seven speeches are intended as a repetition of the seven days of creation. And this conclusion looks ahead to a later speech, when the incarnate Yahweh stands on a Mountain and delivers the words of new creation to His disciples, until He has “finished speaking” (Matthew 7:28).

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