Sabbath in the Hebrew Bible
God created rest
In the beginning of Genesis we find the account of the creation of the world. The Hebrew name for Genesis is `Bereshit' which means `In the beginning'. God created the world and everything in it in seven days. Each day started in the evening (`And there was evening and there was morning - the first day' Genesis 1:5). Once the heavens and the earth were created, Genesis continues:
By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done (Genesis 2:2-3).
The English word `Sabbath' is a direct transliteration of the Hebrew. Sabbath is an intriguing word because it comes from a Hebrew root verb `Shabbat' meaning `to rest' but also contains echoes of the Hebrew word for seven, `Sheva'.1 Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that the rabbis believed that this seventh day of rest was also something that God created, `After six days, what did the universe lack? It lacked rest. So when the seventh day came, rest came and the universe was complete'2
We do not find the Sabbath day mentioned again in the Bible until the book of Exodus where it is commanded as a day of rest for the Israelites. No indication is given as to whether it was observed as a rest day before this time. It is first outlined in Exodus 16 where the instructions are given for manna and quail. Each day there would be enough food for that day only and if any were saved it would go bad. On the sixth day, however, the Israelites were commanded to collect a double portion, which would stay fresh for two days. In this way the Sabbath could be observed as a day of rest. Jewish people still remember the double portion of manna by placing two Sabbath loaves on the table for the eve of Shabbat.
A sign of the Covenant
The culmination of the Exodus instructions for the Sabbath came in the Ten Commandments given to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Exodus 20:8-11).
This passage reveals the strong community element to the keeping of Sabbath and in this it is highly humanitarian. It was not simply the head of household who should keep the Sabbath for religious purposes, but the whole household should have rest, including the servants and even extending to the animals. This continues the Genesis command to be stewards of creation.
Most importantly, it should be noted that the Israelites were commanded to keep the Sabbath holy, not to make it holy. The implication is that God created it as a holy day and we need to honour it as such. When reflecting on the wilderness experience of the Israelites, Ezekiel saw this commandment to keep the Sabbath as a sign of God's covenant with Israel: `I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so that they would know that I the Lord made them holy'(Ezekiel 20:12). Not only did God make the Sabbath holy, but he also made the people of God holy.
Ignoring the Sabbath
Once Sabbath became established as a command of the covenant, it also became a sign of obedience to the covenant. Inevitably this would lead to Sabbath violation and this came under judgement both of the people and of God. Ezekiel continues:
Yet the people of Israel rebelled against me in the desert. They did not follow my decrees but rejected my laws - although the man who obeys them will live by them - and they utterly desecrated my Sabbaths' (Ezekiel 20:13).
In Numbers 15:32-36 we find the first example of Sabbath violation. An Israelite was found gathering wood on the Sabbath. They were initially not sure what to do with him but after seeking the Lord, they stoned him to death. This seems a very severe penalty indeed and shows the seriousness with which Sabbath was taken at that time. Once in the land, it did not seem to be taken quite so strictly and people used to travel to visit Jerusalem or to enquire of a holy man (2 Kings 4:23). In Babylon, Sabbath developed as a far stricter day of rest, but on the return from exile, Nehemiah found that in Jerusalem the Sabbath was treated as an ordinary day of trade. Both Jews and people from Tyre were bringing merchandise into the city on Shabbat to sell. Nehemiah (13:15-22) spoke against this. His solution was to close the gates of the city just before the Sabbath started and not to open them again until it had ended.
Today in Jerusalem a siren sounds to announce the start of Sabbath. For many people it is a complete day of rest and worship, but some cafes open and there are still cars on the roads. Many of the passing Orthodox Jews will shout `Shabbas Shabbas' at the car drivers. There is tremendous tension between the very strict communities, the moderately religious and the more secular people. For most people in Israel Saturday is their only day off work in the week. They would like to spend the day in leisure activities but many of these - such as driving to the beach, or even to a religious meeting, involve violating the Sabbath. To some extent this mirrors the situation in the Old Testament. The prophet Isaiah considered that:
If you keep your feet from breaking the Sabbath and from doing as you please on my holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight and the Lord's holy day honourable, and if you honour it by not going your own way and not doing as you please or speaking idle words, then you will find your joy in the Lord (Isaiah 58:13).
The problem throughout history has been the tension between observing the Sabbath properly but also making it truly a delight. A person's inner attitude is all-important. Amos (8:5) discovered that people were just waiting for the Sabbath to end so that they could reopen their businesses. He realised that it was not sufficient to simply keep the Sabbath outwardly but also to honour it inwardly. This deeper reflection on the meaning of Sabbath developed through the Second Temple period and it was one of the theological debates of Jesus' day.