#245. Is the Sabbath an eternal covenant decreed by Yahweh that must be kept under penalty of death OR not? (Ex 31:12-17, 35:2; Num 15:32-36; Matt 5:18-20 vs Acts 15:29; Rom 14:5-6; Gal 3:23-25, 4:9-10; Col 2:16)

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All of the Torah’s Sabbath laws, including the account of its consecration as a holy day by God himself at creation (Gen 2:3), were penned by the same author or priestly guild!—what scholars have come to label as the Priestly source. Indeed the Sabbath itself has a much earlier origin than the writings of this 6th century BCE elite priestly guild. Thus the Sabbath is found in the earlier Yahwist and Elohist traditions and even listed as a central part of the Ten Commandments (see also #134):

Remember the Sabbath day: to make it holy! Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the 7th day is a Sabbath to Yahweh your god. You shall not do any work! (Ex 20:8-10)

But it was the Aaronid priests themselves who converted this 7th-day observance into an “eternal covenant” punishable by death! The Sabbath only appears as one of Yahweh’s eternal covenants in this Priestly literature (see #169). Of course, per ancient literary techniques this was legitimated and sanctified by presenting it as Yahweh’s direct and final word on the matter.

And Yahweh said to Moses, saying: “And you, speak to the children of Israel saying: ‘You shall observe the Sabbath because it is a sign between me and you through your generations: to know that I, Yahweh, make you holy! And you shall observe the Sabbath because it is a holy thing to you. One who desecrates it shall be put to death!… Six days work shall be done, and in the 7th day is a Sabbath, a ceasing, a holy thing to Yahweh. Anyone who does work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. And the children of Israel shall observe the Sabbath, to make the Sabbath through their generations, an eternal covenant!‘” (Ex 31:12-16)

These are the things that Yahweh commanded to do them: “Six days work shall be done, and in the 7th day you shall have a holy thing, a Sabbath, a ceasing to Yahweh. Anyone who does work in it shall be put to death!” (Ex 35:1-2)

And the children of Israel were in the wilderness, and they found a man collecting wood on the Sabbath day… And Yahweh said to Moses: “The man shall be put to death! All the congregation is to batter him with stones outside the camp!” And all the congregation brought him outside the camp and battered him with stones and he died, as Yahweh commanded Moses. (Num 15:32-36)

Before we look at certain—not all—New Testament authors who urged their non-Jewish converts in Christ that Torah stipulations no longer needed to be observed, we need to take a closer look into this Aaronid priestly guild’s own world and properly understand it! A task and understanding that most Christians are both negligent and ignorant of.

Sabbath violations were sternly punished with death. No exceptions! The above story—a narrative created to exemplify this—is presented in the most trivial of matters: collecting wood. Yet this and other stories were created to convey a powerful, even if disturbing, lesson: that under no circumstances is any work of any sort to be done on the Sabbath! Any such violation would be punished with a swift death “as Yahweh commanded!”

Why was working on the Sabbath such an offense to this priestly guild and its god? An offense, furthermore, punishable by death, no exceptions!

To answer this question, to understanding why the priests who penned these texts and had Yahweh speak as their spokesperson fiercely and violently believed this, we have to enter into their worldview. Ancient priests were naturally concerned with issues pertaining to the sacrificial cult and ritual purity. That was how they perceived the world. The book of Leviticus for example—the core legislation of this priestly guild—is presented as a collection of instructions (torahs) on how to distinguish the pure from the impure, and in cases where an individual inadvertently came into contact with impurity (i.e., committed a sin), the book detailed the sacrifice necessitated to restore that individual’s, and the community’s, purity. See #175, #183, #187 for example.

In other words, priests of the ancient world saw their world as divided up into sacred and profane space and acts, pure and impure deeds, foods, processes, health, sex, bodies, etc. These categories of pure and impure were inherently part of the cosmos, of the (super)natural order of the world, and for these priests this order, this demarcation between the pure and the impure was of divine origin.

This is precisely why the Aaronid priests who penned this corpus of literature can present Yahweh declaring: all menstruating women are impure and need to be separated out from the community during their impurity; all persons with skin diseases and leprosy are likewise impure and must be taken outside the community; and ditto for those with any bodily emission, those who have come into contact with a corpse, those who have eaten rabbit, pork, clams, mussels, scallops, etc. And then of course there are the stricter penalties which “Yahweh” ordains of being permanently “cut off” from the community or even put to death for breaching the boundary between the sacred and the profane, the pure and the impure in such matters as: eating blood or the fat of a goat, lamb, or cow; eating a sacrificial meal in a state of impurity; eating leaven during the Festival of Unleavened Bread; not fasting on the Day of Atonement; not observing the Day of Atonement, Passover, and especially the Sabbath; not being circumcised; partaking of the Passover while uncircumcised; having tattoos; practicing homosexuality, adultery, or bestiality; and knowingly committing any sin or transgression!

All these laws and commandments, in other words, are predicated and founded upon the priestly writer’s worldview—that the world existed, was created at creation by the creator god himself, as unique separable uncontaminated spheres of pure and impure, sacred and profane space, deeds, bodies, etc. Moreover, these ancient Israelite priests understood Yahweh’s people as a holy people—that is their person, body, and communal space were all conceived of as occupying this sacred space together with their god, Yahweh! See #151, #175, #217 for example.

With respect to our immediate concern, this worldview not only extended to its space, bodies, and deeds, but especially to its time as well! That is to say, time too was demarcated by God himself at creation as sacred, pure, and holy, or profane and common, according to the views of this priestly guild. This is no where more apparent than in this Priestly writer’s creation account where it is relayed that at creation God himself created the 7th day as a sacred, holy, and consecrated time, or day, and furthermore created the moon and the stars “as signs” for keeping Yahweh’s appointed sacred times, days, and years (Gen 1:14). I have discussed Yahweh’s sacred appointed times which were to be kept as binding eternal holy festivals elsewhere: #194-197, #198-204 and #205-208.

In other words, that the 7th day was holy and consecrated was viewed by this priestly guild as an inviolable part and essence of the very fabric of creation itself, created by the creator deity as holy at its creation! For the priestly writers and their god, this holy day was inherently and essentially a part of the very fabric of the cosmos as the law of gravity is for us post-Newtonians! You can’t interpret this away. Or say that it no longer needs to be observed. Our text and its beliefs must, in other words, be understood on their own terms and from within their own, here, priestly worldview and belief system. To claim that one no longer needs to observe this holy day which God himself created as holy, embedded into the very fabric of the cosmos itself, is comparable to saying that the law of gravity no longer needs to be followed!

Our task here is to be honest to these texts and the beliefs which their authors had—to understand them, not interpret them away. Obviously the law of gravity cannot be broken or interpreted away. It is part of the cosmos and its workings. But the analogy serves us well because this is exactly the same idea that our Priestly writers had concerning the Sabbath and other holy days, and why the punishment for nonobservance was so severe!

You cannot break an inherit and god-created essential part of the cosmos. That is what the priestly writers and their god were getting at. Profaning a day, sacred time, that was created and consecrated as holy and pure by God at creation was an act that was not tolerated by this sect and by its god. Doing profane or common work on the Sabbath not only blasphemed the very day that the creator god created in its essence and nature as holy, but it also blasphemed the creator god himself who deemed and declared it holy, to himself and to his people! You cannot change or interpret away the intrinsic and supernatural nature of the cosmos. I’m inclined to say, with our priestly writers, that there’s nothing more blasphemous!

This, then, is understanding the text, its worldview, beliefs, the whys and hows of its beliefs, and its historical context on its own terms, on the terms of the text’s author(s)—not on our terms, nor the terms and beliefs of later readers. Moreover, I am not advocating that we share in these beliefs or worldview; for that is impossible! The beliefs themselves, legitimated by presenting them as divinely-ordained, are founded on a priestly worldview that is no longer viable nor shared by us post-Newtonians. But rather I’m advocating that we be honest to the text, its beliefs, worldview, and finally its author(s) by understanding these things on the terms dictated by the text itself and from within its own cultural world.

Now, what happens in the letters of Paul and for the authors of Acts and Colossians is, unfortunately, a hermeneutic act of exactly this—of interpreting away the Sabbath observance, as well as a number of other god-given “eternal laws” and “eternal covenants” (see #31, #118, #183, #186, #222-223, and #244). How can this happen?

This happens primarily because the worldview endorsed and believed by our 6th century BCE priests is no longer shared nor believed—nay not even imaginable nor understandable—to these 1st century CE writers (e.g., #94, #183). Pure and impure, sacred and profane space and time were no longer categories describing the intrinsic, essential, and divine nature of the cosmos as it was for these earlier 6th century BCE priests and their god, Yahweh! Nevertheless, like our 6th century Aaronid priests, the worldview believed and perceived by the New Testament writers was also legitimated and sanctified by presenting it through the mouthpiece of its god or via divine revelation. Or in some cases through the counsel of men, as in Acts 15.

In many regards, when New Testament writers attempt to re-interpret Jewish law and customs concerning issues of purity and impurity, as Luke does in the parable of the good Samaritan, they also fail to understand how and why these categories were essential and divine parts of the cosmos according to the authors that penned these Old Testament passages and more so according to their god, Yahweh.

If we were likewise attempting to be honest to the views and beliefs of these centuries later New Testament texts and their authors and worldviews, we would have to say that they no longer shared in the beliefs and worldview of these older priestly authors. Now the thorny issue is how to “interpret away” Yahweh’s “eternal laws” and “eternal covenants” as they were presented in the earlier, now deemed authoritative, texts? First, by essentially ignoring them, by doing hermeneutic acrobats with other passages, by not understanding them properly—thinking that they are laws to be discarded later when in fact, at least in the case of the Sabbath, they are (super)natural and inherent essences of the cosmos, created at creation by its god—and lastly by legitimating one’s, a culture’s, new beliefs and views of the world and authenticating these new beliefs and worldviews by divine decree!

We continue to do the same thing today. Rather than be honest to these ancient texts and their authors, we continually interpret their laws and their god away! No one now believes that the world is intrinsically, inherently, and divinely created of sacred and profane spaces, times, bodies, and deeds—and this especially needs to be said against the most current infectious rash of ignorance and hypocrisy to plague our planet, these modern so-called Creationists!

We, as a culture, no longer believe what the authors of these ancient texts did, and reading these texts at face-value, no longer believe what their god, Yahweh, believed as well! Rather, we have built, live day-to-day in, a vastly different world founded on a radically different and contradictory worldview. We have, in effect, created a new god—one which legitimates and sanctifies our own worldview, beliefs, values, etc. but we as a culture on the whole dishonestly, ignorantly, and hypocritically claim, against the texts!, that god Yahweh intended that he would later change the compositional makeup of the cosmos and declare that space, time, and bodies are no longer pure and impure. The next step in this divine revelation, I suppose, is for god Yahweh to declare that the law of gravity is no longer to be followed, that heavenly bodies are now free to move about as they wish.

No, rather the fact is that humans evolve, their perceptions of the world change, their attitudes, beliefs, moral codes, values, and ideologies all change due to extenuating circumstances and perhaps natural processes. And another verifiable phenomenon, humans legitimate these changing perspectives, subjective beliefs, values, and ideologies by placing them on the lips of God or a god and a book that has for better or worse become authoritative for our culture. Again, I launch a plea among my fellow mammals to start being honest to ourselves, these ancient texts and their authors!

3 thoughts on “#245. Is the Sabbath an eternal covenant decreed by Yahweh that must be kept under penalty of death OR not? (Ex 31:12-17, 35:2; Num 15:32-36; Matt 5:18-20 vs Acts 15:29; Rom 14:5-6; Gal 3:23-25, 4:9-10; Col 2:16)

  1. After a quick scan of information on the web, I came across references to an Assyrian system of “prohibitive days” every seventh day in that ancient culture. Prohibitions included riding chariots, making wishes, various political prohibitions, etc. Though certainly not as extensive as the shabbat instructions of ancient Israel/Judah, it does show that there were similar systems in place around the Levant.

    Speculation of course, but I wonder if the shabbat restrictions of the ancient Hebrews was in fact a purposeful way of strengthening the priesthood and temple. A day of rest can make some logical sense, but then I wonder if over time it became more and more restrictive in an effort to burgeon the influence of Yahweh (and thus the leaders of the faith).

    “Histoire du peuple hébreu”. André Lemaire. Presses Universitaires de France 2009 (8e édition), p. 66

    Eviatar Zerubavel (1985). The Seven Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-98165-7.

  2. I would very much like to see you delve into why exactly the seventh day was determined/needed to be holy. In other words, the origins of the sabbath. It seems like you start to tackle why the sabbath was deemed holy, but you then move into pure/impure categories of the cosmos as viewed by the priests of ancient Israel. Of course, we may lack a real answer to that question at this time, but I find it very interesting nonetheless. Menstruating women and people with disease are easy to figure out as to why the ancients would view them as impure… but a seventh day as pure and the others not?

    1. Excellent question. As far as I am aware, and I’m no expert on the subject, scholars just are not sure where the idea or practice originated. Of course the biblical literature itself gives us to 2 etiological stories of its origin, see #4. But they tell us little, or merely reveal the perspectives and beliefs about the Sabbath of these independent authors.

      Scholars more involved in the cultural background of the ancient Near East have observed that the Akkadians observed a similar festival, the shapattu, translated as “a day of the resting of the heart.” But unlike the Israelite shabbat, this was a lunar festival tied to the moon, and perhaps vastly different in its content and orientation. The similar idea of “a day of rest,” however, does make us look to the ancient Near East as the most probable source for the Sabbath observance. However, and speaking speculatively, even if its origins reside in older cultures of the ancient Near East, Israelite scribes most likely not only adopted it, but modified and transformed it into something unique to Israelite culture and religion.

      At any rate, all the sources/texts of the Hebrew Bible mention the Sabbath. So its practice was a deep rooted tradition, even if the Israelites themselves knew nothing of its origins. It is additionally the only holiday—holy-day—commanded in the Ten Commandments. The argument above, following my more learned colleagues, is that the literature strongly suggests that the Aaronid priests took the Sabbath to heart, transformed it, and gave it a ritual and cosmological backing. Indeed, they—that is only in the Priestly source—made it into one of Yahweh’s “eternal covenants” punishable by a swift death. My explanation and goal above, as you point out, was to explain why the non-observance of this day inviolably led to that individual’s death—because of the sacred and holy character—essence—of this day, created as such by the creator deity at creation, as this group of Aaronid priests perceived it. For them, it was a divinely-created inherent part of the fabric of the cosmos, not a law per se that could be (re)interpreted away at some later point in time. In sum, I find their thinking about this completely fascinating! It is such an intriguing worldview, with a radically different orientation than our own worldview, or those of later reading communities.

      [Edit]As an added note, the Sabbath was not the only holy-day whose observance was commanded “by Yahweh” because of its sacred character. There were other “holy assemblies” or “Yahweh’s appointed times” that were also the expression of the idea that parts of the fabric of time, the repeated progressions of the moon, were deemed holy, pure, and consecrated by Yahweh and therefore were to be observed by his people. See Leviticus 23 and Numbers 28-29 for example, or my posts (above) that deal with these chapters.

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