Sabbath in the Tanakh (Old Testament)

1. Genesis 2:1-3. This is the first text in the Bible where something is identified as holy. In Genesis two, the word “Sabbath” is not used, but God sets apart the seventh day as holy. He ceases from creative work. His cessation from creative work is a cue for us. If God discontinued creative work in order to commune with man, it is logical that we must discontinue creative work during the Sabbath hours in order to focus on worshiping Him.

2. Exodus 16:1-36. The people were still thinking of the food of Egypt. They complained. God chose to demonstrate His power by providing food for them. They were instructed to gather for themselves every morning, and on the sixth day, double. They were do all their cooking on the sixth day (Exodus 16:23). Then, on the seventh day, God would provide none; He had already provided double on the sixth. This was a test provided by God to see whether the people would follow His instruction. (The primary meaning of “law,” TORAH, is “instruction.”) God commanded them to minimize labor on the Sabbath (16:29, 30). The lesson is not obscure. We are to accomplish the necessary preparation for Sabbath before the Sabbath, and we have been given six days to do so.

3. Exodus 20:8-11. This is the fourth commandment. The statement begins with a positive: remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy. The command reiterates—no work during the Sabbath hours—not only for us, but for our family members, employees, or those who sojourn with us.

4. Exodus 31:12-18. The Sabbath is to be kept as a sign to remind us that God sets us apart. It is to be observed as a covenant. Those who profane it are cut-off from Israel. Those choosing to work on the Sabbath (during the time of the Hebrew theocracy) were to be killed. If we know what God requires, and choose to disregard it even in part, then we must ask ourselves: will we truly understand that it is God who sanctifies us? Disregard for the Sabbath leads to disregard for personal holiness. It leads us to forget God.

5. Exodus 35:1-3. Moses assembles all Israel for instruction, and the first item on his list is the Sabbath. We are to do our work during the six days but not on the seventh. On that day, no work, no fire. Some have puzzled over the fire prohibition, but we recall Exodus 16:23, where the Israelites were commanded to bake and boil their food on the sixth day. That is, they were to kindle fire for cooking on the sixth day. But the Exodus 35:2 prohibition against fire is a prohibition against cooking on the Sabbath.

6. Leviticus 23:3. Immediately before outlining the various ceremonial Sabbaths, the weekly Sabbath is presented as distinct from them. It is a day for holy convocation. That is, the Sabbath is not only a day for personal cessation from work, but it is a day for gatherings of believers. In our case, we should not absent ourselves from church on the Sabbath (see also Hebrews 10:24, 25).

7. Leviticus 24:8. The priest placed the showbread in the sanctuary on the Sabbath. Here is a positive activity that occurred during the Sabbath. Some Sabbath injunctions are positive. (See also 1 Chronicles 9:32.)

8. Leviticus 26:1-46 (2). There is a general truth associated with the Sabbath as well—that God blesses obedience but sends trouble when we disobey. The blessings for obedience listed in this passage are: (a) plentiful harvest, (b) peace and safety in the land, (c) victory over enemies, and (d) God will dwell among His people. But, if they are disobedient, God brings the opposite. Applying this general truth to God’s interaction with His church today, it is not difficult to understand why we need Sabbath reform. Our own disobedience in keeping Sabbath is key to preventing God from blessing us. If we seek His blessings in general, so that the Korean union can have God’s blessing and afford to employ more pastors and grow and be witness for the truth of Jesus, then we must return and obey.

9. Numbers 15:32-40. Israel is in its camp, observing the Sabbath according to the commandment (“Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day” Exodus 16:29). Now, just looking at the text, two options: either the man was an Israelite or not; it is not specified. If he is an Israelite, he is more guilty. In any case, a man appears within sight of the camp collecting sticks. Perhaps he is gathering in order to build a fire and cook food. Men apprehend him. Instruction comes down: God says that he must be killed. He is executed. Immediately following, God gives Israel an aid to help them remember His commandments—He commands them to sew blue tassels to the fringes of their garments. The stick man could not have been unaware that within his sight, millions in the camp were quietly engaged in a holy observance. The Israelites understood that even non-Hebrews who dwelt near them were subject to God’s command to the community not to profane the Sabbath. The lesson for us is to be careful to maintain in and around our community, so much as possible, the sanctity of the Sabbath.

10. Deuteronomy 5:12-15. Here we have the Sabbath command as in Exodus 20:8-11, but this is later and Moses includes slaves among those who may not do work on the Sabbath. Deliverance of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt is mentioned as a reason for Sabbath observance. “Therefore the Lord your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (vs. 15). If we are Christians, then we have been delivered by Jesus. In the strength of God we are enabled to keep the Sabbath day holy. We are witnesses to the power of God. Others are made in God’s image and He wants to deliver them too. Not just we ourselves but all are to be free. If we engaged others to work for us during the Sabbath we would be denying this. We must completely avoid all secular work during the Sabbath, not only for ourselves, but work we might ask others to engage in.

11. Nehemiah 10:31. Here is explicit prohibition against engaging in commerce—buying and selling—on the Sabbath day. Occasions for buying and selling on Sabbath had been few in the desert waste. In Nehemiah’s time, however, Israel had entered Canaan; they are now a nation with cities. Engaging in commerce during the Sabbath hours is destructive to maintaining a sense of its holiness. The lesson for us? Like Israel, we must be aware that changes in situation sometimes require additional safeguard behaviors in order help us preserve the holiness of God’s Sabbath day.

12. Nehemiah 13:15-22. Nehemiah observes people treading wine-presses, carrying loads, and engaging in commerce inside Jerusalem on Sabbath. While Nehemiah directly warns the perpetrators, he also forthrightly confronts Jerusalem’s leaders. “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath” (vv. 17, 18). Nehemiah charges those possessing influence with the profanation of the Sabbath. Because they could have prevented it, the leaders share strong responsibility for the people in these sins. Sabbath-breaking actively draws God’s wrath upon Israel. He commands that the gates of the city be closed during the Sabbath hours and sets guards at the gates to keep the Sabbath holy. But the merchants camp outside the walls of the city. Even this, Nehemiah forbids, warning that if they do it again, he will send men out after them. This passage teaches us that those who find themselves in positions of influence toward God’s people are responsible to exercise that influence to guard the sanctity of His holy day. They are especially responsible for helping guide the covenant community aright, that His wrath may be avoided and His blessing upon it encouraged.

13. Isaiah 56:1-8. Keeping the Sabbath is here paralleled with refusing to do evil. Even the foreigner, if he embrace the Sabbath, is included in Israel. Sabbath is presented as an agency of integration, so that others may be included in God’s covenant community. The non-Jew may join Israel. Joy is explicitly connected with Sabbath observance. Isaiah refuses to limit the Sabbath to ethnic Jews. The Sabbath is a bridge into God’s covenant community. This passage helps us to understand that the Sabbath must not be minimized; it is nothing to be ashamed of, hidden from others, or downplayed. On the contrary, it is among the most evangelistic of Bible institutions. God sanctified the day before ever there was a Jew. Sabbath is a day for all who would seek Him. Rather than downgrading the day, we must upgrade it. The Sabbath day with all that pertains to it is a positive help, and barriers to its profanation must be upheld. We are to close the gates to Sabbath profanation in the midst of the covenant community.

14. Isaiah 58:1-14. Isaiah warns. He identifies the sins of Israel, among them, superficial religiosity, quarreling, and self-centered pleasure-seeking. But true believers will release the oppressed, help those in need, aid the afflicted, and guard the Sabbath. They will refuse to engage in doing their own things, their own business, even speaking their own words on God’s holy day. If we would experience the blessings of Sabbath, we too must guard its sanctity. There should be no overlap between secular business and God’s holy day, or talk that pertains to worldly matters mixed with talk that pertains to the worship of a holy God.

15. Isaiah 66:23. This text states that Sabbath observance will continue in the new earth and throughout eternity. All will be Sabbath-keepers. Sabbath is essential to man, in past, and in future. We do not advance beyond Sabbath observance; we return to it.

16. Jeremiah 17:19-27. Why are we to keep the Sabbath? For the sake of our lives (17:21). The promise is given that if the Sabbath is kept holy Jerusalem will stand forever, but if the Sabbath is profaned, Jerusalem shall be burned. The same issues are mentioned as before: working and bearing burdens on Sabbath. This prophecy explains why Jerusalem was burned and the temple destroyed in 70 A.D. The Sabbath is a benefit for us; its violation is a lightening rod for disaster. This was true in the past and it is true for believers today.

17. Ezekiel 20:1-49(12-26). The Sabbath is a sign so that God’s people might remember that He sets them apart. But Israel ignored this sign, and Sabbath violation is one of the stated reasons for the Hebrews’ divine sentence to forty years of wilderness wandering. In this passage, God warns them about the temptation to follow tradition and convenience more than His ways. Listen: “And I said to their children in the wilderness, Do not walk in the statutes of your fathers, nor keep their rules, nor defile yourselves with their idols. I am the Lord your God; walk in my statutes, and be careful to obey my rules, and keep my Sabbaths holy that they may be a sign between me and you, that you may know that I am the Lord your God” (20:18-20). The lesson for us is to consult God’s commands and refuse to be trapped in any tradition or practice presuming to obey His rules so that it conveniences us but destroys the sanctifying effect of the Sabbath.

18. Amos 8:5. This text warns against an attitude of disregard for the Sabbath. Those obsessed with commerce wait impatiently for Sabbath to end, that they may engage in buying and selling. Indifference, even hostility toward the Sabbath, marks a pattern of injustice and oppression that will ultimately result in God’s judgment poured out upon the land. Feasts and observances will be turned into lamentation and the insincerity of the people rejected by God (See also Lamentations 2:6, 7). God does not discontinue His Sabbath, but turns their Sabbaths into mourning, and causes the apostate to forget the Sabbath.


Even but a brief review of these 18 Tanakh passages is remarkably fruitful and clarifying. Tanakh is rich in instruction about Sabbath and how to observe it in a spiritually healthy manner. But there is more!


2 thoughts on “Sabbath in the Tanakh (Old Testament)

  1. Pingback: Resources for Leviticus 26:1 - 46

  2. Pingback: Resources for Exodus 31:12 - 18

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