You may be surprised to learn that the first occurrence of the Sabbath is not in Genesis but in Exodus. It is not until the days of Moses when the people are coming to Mount Sinai that God reveals his Sabbath law.
On the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers each. And when all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, 23 he said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” 24 So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. 25 Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. 26 Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” (Exodus 16:22–26 ESV)
The Sabbath was commanded to Israel as a day of solemn rest, holy to the Lord (16:23). With the first Sabbath command we learn that the Sabbath was not because humans get tired and everyone needs to take a break. God’s view of the Sabbath was not so that there would be a physical benefit for the people of Israel. Rather, there was to be a spiritual benefit. This was a solemn rest and a day committed as holy to the Lord. Shortly thereafter, the Lord gave the Sabbath command in the Ten Commandments.
“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. 9 Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, 10 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. 11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8–11 ESV)
Here we learn why the seventh day was selected as the day of rest instead of any of the other days of the week. On the seventh day God rested from his creation labors so this would be the day when Israel would rest from its labors. Just as the Sabbath was not given because humans need rest, God did not “rest” from his labors because he needed a break when he was creating. Physical rest is never the point nor purpose of the Sabbath. While at Sinai God gave more explanation for the giving of the Sabbath.
And the LORD said to Moses, 13 “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the LORD, sanctify you. 14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. 16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. 17 It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” (Exodus 31:12–17 ESV)
Verse 13 explains that the Sabbath was to set the people apart (sanctify) from the rest of the nations. This lack of work on the seventh day would be perceived by the world as different, showing them to be the people of God just as their food laws set them apart. Further, notice that the Sabbath was commanded only to Israel (31:16). The Sabbath was a covenant sign with the people of Israel alone to show that God was in relationship with Israel and that Israel was God’s chosen people. The Sabbath was not commanded before the existence of Israel and was never commanded to any other group of people except Israel. Because of Israel’s disobedience the people were not allowed to enter into Canaan. The book of Numbers records their disobedience and failure. God promised that they would not enter the promised land. Therefore the nation wanders in the wilderness desert for 40 years until the next generation arose and was ready to take the land. The book of Deuteronomy records the giving of the laws to Israel’s next generation, Moses’ final appeal to the people. Notice how God describes the Sabbath command to them.
“Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. 13 Six days you shall labor and do all your work, 14 but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God. On it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter or your male servant or your female servant, or your ox or your donkey or any of your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates, that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.” (Deuteronomy 5:12–15 ESV)
We have already noticed that the Sabbath was commanded as a solemn rest for spiritual reflection (cf. Leviticus 16:31). Moses explains that the people were to remember that they were slaves in Egypt and that God brought them out with a mighty hand (5:15). This verifies that the Sabbath was only given to Israel because they were the only ones were slaves in Egypt that God delivered by miracles. The Sabbath was not for the people to rest physically, but to reflect spiritually on their slavery and how God had set them free. Therefore, an important distinction must be made. The reason God gave the Sabbath was so Israel would remember that they were slaves in Egypt and God delivered them (Deuteronomy 5:15). The reason God chosen the seventh day instead of the other days for this memorial was because the seventh day was also the day when God rested (Exodus 20:11).
In the next article we will examine if there is a Christian Sabbath and if Sunday is the Sabbath for Christians to keep.