#171. Was the law of the Sabbath known before Sinai OR was it only given at Sinai? (Ex 16:23-30 vs Ex 23:12, 31:12-17, 35:1-3)


This entry looks to be our last contradiction for the book of Exodus. Like others, this one appears repeatedly in the scholarly literature.

The particular textual peculiarity is: While Exodus 31:12-17 and 35:1-3 officially present Yahweh giving the commandment to observe the Sabbath for the first time in P (but in E, already at Ex 23:12), Exodus 16 not only speaks of the Sabbath but presumes that the people already know the Sabbath commandment (Ex 16:28). Indeed, the Sabbath commandment would have been known, however, to the audience of this 6th-5th century BC text.

Additionally, the mention of the Sabbath in Exodus 16 occurs in the midst of the manna/quails story. Yet, as we have seen (#125), the Bible preserves duplicate traditions of the manna story. It is probable that it was the choice/reasoning of the redactor to place one of the manna stories before Sinai (Ex 16) and the other after (Num 11). The duplicate tradition in Numbers 11 is actually the older tradition, and it is from the Elohist source. What is striking about this story’s rendition is that nothing is mentioned about the Sabbath. The other tradition is from the Priestly writer (Ex 16), and we visible understand why this later author added the mention of the Sabbath in his telling of the manna story. This should come as no surprise since it was the Priestly writer who transformed the Sabbath observance not only into a covenant, one of three covenants, but made it part of God’s sacred time created at creation. Any nonobservance of this sacred day profaned and rendered impure God’s holy creation and by extension God himself according to the Priestly writer.

The Sabbath was known to all the authors of the Pentateuch. The Priestly writer, however, transferred the Sabbath into both a covenant obligation and a holy day. By presenting the Sabbath as part of the sacred time that God himself created at creation, the Aaronid Priestly guild made it sacred, holy, and pure. Not observing the Sabbath was considered an act which profaned, blasphemed, and rendered unholy/impure the sanctity of the cosmos as God initially created. It was a profane act that threatened the sacred created order! The penalty was death (Ex 31:15).

Second, the Sabbath become one of three covenants in the Priestly literature: circumcision (Gen 17), the Sabbath (Ex 35), and the priesthood (Num 25). Only in the Priestly source are these three presented as God’s “eternal” covenants. Conversely, they are not mentioned as covenantal obligations in E, J, or D!

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