By Stephen Terry
Commentary for the March 16, 2013 Sabbath School Lesson
“Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy.” Ezekiel 20:12, NIV
While some point to the seventh day of Creation as the creation of the Sabbath, some remarkable facts come to the fore regarding such claims. First, the Genesis account does not call the day created the Sabbath. The word “Sabbath” cannot even be found in the entire book of Genesis. This seems rather unusual if the Sabbath was created during creation week. No one, not Noah, Abraham, or Joseph is ever mentioned as observing any kind of Sabbath. Would these great patriarchs of God’s chosen race be neglectful of the day? Or is it possible that the Sabbath as we know it came about later?
Second, although the passage regarding the seventh day tells us that God rested on that day and blessed it, it does not contain a command for us to rest on that day. Again, nowhere in Genesis is there record of anyone other than God resting on the seventh day. Even Enoch, who apparently “walked with God,” is not mentioned as observing a seventh-day rest. Perhaps this can be excused because very little is written about the lives of those who lived prior to Noah beyond some names and life spans. But the post-deluvian patriarchs are not mentioned as resting in any way on the seventh day either.
No command to observe the Sabbath occurs until the Exodus narrative. By that time, the perspective regarding the seventh day appears to have changed. No longer is it about God resting, but rather it becomes a requirement that man rests, even under pain of death should he fail to do so. The day is now called the Sabbath, and not merely the seventh day of the week. Enshrined in the fourth commandment, it becomes an object of veneration to God by venerating the day. It is of perhaps more than passing interest that there are two competing commandments regarding the Sabbath. One is found in Exodus, chapter 20, and the other is found in Deuteronomy, chapter 5. While the Exodus commandment points back to the seventh day of Creation as the justification for observing the Sabbath, the Deuteronomy account does not. Instead, it relates the requirement for Sabbath observance to being set free from Egypt.
A foundational principle for textual criticism is based on the idea that scribes, if allowed to do so, will attempt to harmonize biblical passages rather than allow apparent discrepancies to persist. This practice is known as lectio difficilior potior. If this is the case, then perhaps, the Deuteronomy account is the earlier text and the Exodus account represents a later attempt to harmonize Sabbath observance with Creation. As one might expect from this, several scholars date Deuteronomy to the period of reform under King Josiah in the 7th century B.C., and Exodus to the later period of Babylonian captivity in the 6th century, B.C.. While some may wish for reasons of conformation to denominational dogma to insist on Moses as the author of these books, Moses could not very well have written the account of his own death in the book of Deuteronomy. If we accept that Deuteronomy is the earlier book then Moses may not have written Exodus either if it was written after those final verses regarding his death in Deuteronomy.
Whoever wrote the books, the word Sabbath is in the texts. It is mentioned at least sixteen times in Exodus and only three times in Deuteronomy. Even those three mentions seem rather chatty after the absolute dearth of the word in Genesis. That Exodus mentions it far more could be in harmony with it being the later text. But why would it be so much more prevalent in a text developed during the Babylonian captivity?
We can glean from the accounts in 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, and Daniel that the period of the captivity was a time of deep soul searching for the Jewish people. These books lay the blame for the captivity on spiritual apostasy. Even prophets such as Ezekiel in the text at the top of this commentary, and Isaiah, who lost his life for challenging the nation for its spiritual failures, raised the issue of the neglect of Sabbath keeping prior to the Babylonian exile. The Jews who returned from Babylon were naturally determined not to repeat that captivity experience. It is little wonder that any religious texts produced during that time would be filled with laws and rules intended to prevent recurrence. How seriously some took these requirements could be seen in the mentions of the practices of the Pharisees in the Gospel accounts. They became so obsessed with behavioral righteousness that they were even tithing the herbs they used. This behavioral righteousness, which today we call righteousness by works, could be described as a hallmark of the Babylonian captivity.
As human beings, we have a tendency to walk an extreme faith rather than a balanced one. Like a person who is bitten by a dog and then avoids all dogs as a matter of course, we can sometimes feel we must avoid even the remotest possibility of compromise. The world becomes very black and white. The person who was bitten may see the entire world as places with dogs and places without them. So the religious extremist may see the world as simply places and events that either represent compromise or not. There is little room for a middle road. For a person who has divided up the world like this, a person like Jesus, who claims to be in a relationship with God, but does not recognize the same boundaries, can be a challenge.
While the Bible tells us that Jesus customarily attended the Sabbath synagogue service, He and His disciples did not avoid the same things the Pharisees avoided on the Sabbath. He instead asserted that the Sabbath was made for man, not the other way around. What could this mean? Perhaps, it means that if man were made for the Sabbath then he would be required to live under its rule as servant to the Sabbath, but if the Sabbath was made for man, then it is a gift that every man might choose to observe as he will. Naturally, as with any gift, some might choose to reject the gift and in so doing also dishonor the Giver of the gift, but others will thankfully receive it and respect and honor the Giver.
There are those that might feel that creating a rigid set of rules regarding the Sabbath is the way to show honor to the Giver, but doing so means it is not a gift. It becomes something earned instead. Others might feel it more appropriate to honor the Giver with a heartfelt attitude of love and appreciation toward both the gift and the Giver. While that appreciation may be demonstrated in the actions, those acts do not produce the appreciation. It is the other way around. When one realizes this, it becomes apparent that there is no law for gratitude; there is only its natural expression.
When we see ourselves as being defined spiritually by laws and commandments, we can discover there is little room for faith. Instead, we might find only obedience and strength of will to obey. But when our relationship to God is driven by love and appreciation, there is little need for such commandments. Our feet will naturally want to walk the path of love and appreciation. This does not mean the path will always appear right to others, for Jesus was at times even called a servant of the Devil by those who judge others by laws and commands. If they did this to Jesus, how much more so will they to his followers? Nonetheless, a faithful heart knows its relationship to God, and its relationship is one of love. Would a God who is love make any law against love?
There are those who see correct Sabbath understanding only as a matter of laws and ordinances, and they would chain the individual to a tablet of stone as a burden to ensure their entry to paradise. Those who would do so may not be heading for paradise themselves and are possibly ensuring not only their loss of eternal reward but also that of every soul they convince to allow them to control them spiritually.
We are not to look to others for counsel on such an important matter, but to God alone. He will guide us into pleasant places and comfort and restore us. He will also walk with us through the darkest moments providing for our needs. We will naturally walk in the Sabbath as we walk with our loving God, just as Jesus did. Perhaps that is why there is no mention of Sabbath observance by the Genesis patriarchs. It simply did not occur to them that they would be walking by any law, only that they would walk in relationship to God. That beautiful relationship is the real blessing of God’s gift to us, not only on the Sabbath but every day we choose to walk hand-in-hand with God.
 Genesis 2:2
 Ibid., 5:21-24
 Exodus 20:8-11
 Deuteronomy 5:12-15
 “Lectio difficilior potior,” www.wikipedia.com
 “Book of Deuteronomy,” www.wikipedia.com
 “Book of Exodus,” www.wikipedia.com
 Deuteronomy 34:5-12
 Isaiah 58:13
 Luke 11:42
 Ibid., 4:16
 Ibid., 6:1-11
 Mark 2:27
 Ibid., 3:22
 Romans 13:8
 Matthew 15:14
 Psalm 23
 Hebrews 4:1-11