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The Sabbath Commandment Before Mount Sinai

The Sabbath Commandment Before Mount Sinai

When the question of the seventh-day Sabbath arises among Christians who do not keep it, one of the most common arguments to defend their position is that the seventh-day Sabbath was intended only for the Jews, who were only introduced to the Sabbath commandment at Mount Sinai. It is in Exodus 20, they argue, that the commandment was first revealed:

“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and hallowed it” (Exodus 20: 8–11).

Thus, they claim, because it was introduced at the establishing of the covenant between God and the Hebrew people, the seventh-day Sabbath was binding upon the Jews alone—and not upon Christians, who, under the New Covenant, now keep Sunday as the day of rest.

To Keep the Sabbath

This makes a recent blog on The Daily Jeffersonian—which provides local news for the Cambridge, Ohio, area—quite interesting; it offers a unique look at the Sabbath that may reveal more about the seventh day and the fourth commandment than the author had intended.

The blog was written by guest columnist Jeffrey Bergeson, pastor at the United Presbyterian Church in Cambridge. Titled “Many Churches, One Lord: To keep the Sabbath, we must practice,” it begins with Pastor Bergeson saying that he had just returned from a three-month sabbatical. 

“Sabbatical,” he says, “is simply an extension of the concept of the Sabbath. In the Ten Commandments, the people of God are commanded (and then reminded) to keep the Sabbath. But did you know that they had already been given the sabbath as a gift?”

Wait! The Sabbath had already been given to the Jews—before the Ten Commandments? Yes! He’s right.

This revelation is not generally offered by those who support and defend Sunday-keeping. Indeed, in most cases, they don’t even know about the Sabbath having “already been given … as a gift.” And even if they do know about it, they ignore the implications of it. After all, if the Jews had been given the Sabbath before Sinai, then the argument that it was first introduced at Sinai falls apart.

The Case of Exodus 16

Pastor Bergson explains, “In Exodus 16, the Lord promises to provide daily bread or manna, and a weekly day of rest to the newly freed slaves out of Egypt. These provisions are a gift, but they’re also a test. Will the people trust the Lord to provide all they need over six days to rest on the seventh, or is it too good to be true?”

The people were to rest on the seventh day? But, of course, these are the Jews, God’s ancient covenant people. The only problem is that this incident with the manna happened before they arrived at Mount Sinai—before they had been given the Ten Commandments.

Indeed, there are three more chapters of incidents—the lack of water (Exodus 17:1–7), the battle with Amalek (Exodus 17:8–16); the appearance of Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 18:1–27), and the arrival at Sinai (Exodus 19:1-2)—all before the giving of the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1–17).

This means that the Jews knew about resting on the seventh-day Sabbath before Sinai. However, some went to gather manna on the Sabbath day anyway. Notice what Moses said: “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My laws? See! For the LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you on the sixth day bread for two days. Let every man remain in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 16: 28–30, emphasis added). 

Thus, the Jews also knew about the Sabbath as a commandment before the giving of the Ten Commandments, which explains why, at Mount Sinai, the Lord began the fourth commandment with the word “Remember.” That makes no sense if, as many claim, the Sabbath was first given to the Jews at Mount Sinai.

Bergeson’s use of Exodus 16 to promote the “Sabbath” (Sunday for him) inadvertently undermines an argument against keeping the seventh-day Sabbath. But if Exodus 16 weren’t enough proof of the Sabbath existing before Sinai, and before the Jews even existed as a people, then Genesis 2: 2, 3, should be plenty evidence: “On the seventh day God ended His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.” 

Finally, however well meaning, Bergeson may also misunderstand something important about Sabbath-keeping. “Sabbath is not a religious duty to perform,” he wrote, “but a posture of rest and delight in the Lord. It’s not so much a law to be obeyed, as a blessing to be received.” Unless, of course, obeying the law is precisely how the Sabbath blessing is received: “If you turn away your foot from the Sabbath, from doing your pleasure on My holy day, and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy day of the LORD honorable, and shall honor Him, not doing your own ways, nor finding your own pleasure, nor speaking your own words, then you shall delight yourself in the LORD; and I will cause you to ride on the high hills of the earth, and feed you with the heritage of Jacob your father. The mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 58:13, 14).

This article contributed by Clifford Goldstein
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