#4. Is the origin of the Sabbath to be found in God’s rest on the 7th day OR the manner in which Yahweh gave rest to the Hebrews when they were slaves in Egypt? (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11 vs Deut 5:12-15)


The origins of the Sabbath are obscure; there are no contemporary parallels in ancient Near Eastern practices. On the other hand, the Bible gives two contradictory accounts for its origin. Both Genesis 2:2-3 and Exodus 20:8-11 claim that its origin is

because for six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them, and he rested on the seventh day. On account of this, Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.

The last sentence here is a direct reference to the Priestly creation account (Gen 2:3). Whoever authored this origin for the Sabbath—bear in mind that Ex 20:11 is merely a part of its immediate context, the Ten Commandments (Ex 20:1-17)—was familiar with P’s text or the textual tradition from which P itself was composed.

Deuteronomy 5:12-15, however, which is a part of a duplicate rendition of the Ten Commandments in the Deuteronomic source (Deut 5:6-18), accredits a different origin to the Sabbath:

you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt and Yahweh, your god, brought you out from there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. On account of this, Yahweh, your god, has commanded you to do the Sabbath day.

The different explanations given for the origin of the Sabbath observance reflects yet again the fact that these two accounts were penned by different authors. In the end it may be that neither author was familiar with the reasons behind the establishment of the Sabbath, and that both authors merely culled their responses from two different traditions: the 7th day of rest from the creation account and the Exodus tradition. Furthermore, Deuteronomy’s explanation of the origin of the Sabbath stresses the covenantal relationship between Yahweh and the Israelites. It is secular and humanitarian in nature, an act of remembrance that the community is obliged to reenact out of covenantal obligations. This stress on secular and humanitarianism is a common theme throughout the Deuteronomic literature and we will see more of it when we get to this book. This explanation additionally correlates well with the Deuteronomist’s general emphasis on the covenantal obligations inherit in the Exodus narrative. The phrase “Yahweh, your god, who brought you out from Egypt with a strong hand and an outstretched arm” only occurs in the Deuteronomic corpus.

The explanation giving by the author of Ex 20:11, following Gen 2:2-3, stresses the sacred character of the Sabbath, understanding it as holy, consecrated, and woven into the fabric of the universe itself. See #1 for more about the Priestly conception of the Sabbath.

Coincidence or divine providence, but as I write this post Friday evening, Jan the 4th, the Sabbath has just commenced. Yea, that’s right, the Sabbath is Saturday! Don’t fret, wordpress will automatically post contradiction #5 tomorrow so we won’t miss a beat.

See also #171.

10 thoughts on “#4. Is the origin of the Sabbath to be found in God’s rest on the 7th day OR the manner in which Yahweh gave rest to the Hebrews when they were slaves in Egypt? (Gen 2:2-3; Ex 20:8-11 vs Deut 5:12-15)

  1. I wanna give this question a simplistic answer. The Genesis/Exodus and Deuteronomic passages cited have one thing in common. They are referring to divine creativity. Israel’s deliverance is a creative act that reinforces the sanctity of the Shabbat. Nothing more and nothing less … :-)

  2. If you’re studying the texts through a philisophical/academic lens that exactly what you’re gonna get.it just doesn’t jive when read that way If you view each text as a single piece that totally throws out what the tanak is intended for btw. lots of crap in the tanak is not gonna make sense. for one its an account of the Hebrew god revealing himself to the chosen people half the time they didn’t even know what the hell was going on …. Also, what you’re doing is the same thing you accuse bible study people of doing to justify or support their beliefs. Viewing texts as a spiritual document..guess what that’s exactly what you’re gonna get…you’re right in a way when you replied to Catherine, but again you’re kinda going a long the same avenue but with an academic interpretation…but nice website all the same

  3. I don’t see a contradiction with this one. Exodus says why the seventh day while Deuteronomy says why Israel has to obey that command. Basically because God owns them now. They are not both origin stories for the Sabbath day.

    Before the Exodus, Israel, I don’t think, was given any command to keep the Sabbath. After they are commanded, the author of Deuteronomy says, “Remember why you are to keep this. Because Yahweh brought you out of Egypt”

    “On account of this, Yahweh, your god, has commanded you…” Past tense, “commanded”. This implies, to me, that the Deuteronomist was aware of at least the Exodus tradition because he somewhat alludes to a command that has already been given.

  4. As a prophet, I can tell you that there are no contradictions when one remembers that the Bible is a library of the words of the prophets. And to look at something as multifaceted as a “creator god,” of course every creator of this god is gonna have something unique to say. The underlying tenets are a temporal cultural reflection of something best described in the tao. My story anyway…

    Speaking of my story, I take the fourth commandment to mean “step away and spank the monkey,” a colorful way of saying no job gets completed by work alone; the job supervisor’s gotta stand back and appreciate the process of creation.

    1. As a scholar who has devoted his life to the texts, their authors, and the historical and literary worlds from which they wrote—all before the “Bible” was ever dreamed of—I can assure you that such theological, i.e., NON TEXTUAL, claims as “the Bible is a library of the words of the prophets” is a later, centuries later, literary and theological invention. Might want to ask anew What is the Bible?

  5. I’m up to contradiction 29 now, and am beginning to understand where I have been going wrong all these years. I started ‘studying’ the Bible about 30 years ago,and my study entailed trying to make sense of conflicting verses. You see, I was taught that the bible was trustworthy, and that the OT and NT were in union etc. So, I accepted the Bible as a text that I could try and understand, and hence why I shared my prior understanding of the Sabbath. The apostle Paul seemed to be doing what all the other ‘bible students’ (myself included) were doing ie making sense of the OT in light of the NT stuff. It now turns out that the hours and hours invested in trying to make sense of the bible, was never going to make sense of it as I didn’t know about these scholarly issues that you are bringing to us. I don’t know Hebrew of Greek, or know of the ancient histories or texts that are similar or all other influences that you mention. My smattering of technical knowledge was gleaned from a book called ‘The Jerome Conspiracy’ and that was a book regarding universal reconciliation, and so goes into the meaning of words like ‘olam’ and ‘aionios’. I am very ignorant of what really matters when trying to understand the bible and how it was formed and how it has been interpreted. This site is an amazing find and its like all these years of trying to find answers which pastors couldn’t answer, are finally at my fingertips. I’m struggling to understand a good bit of what you are saying, because these matters are quite technical. It seems that you have to be quite the detective in sorting through the ‘evidence’. I just wanted to clarify why my reply was so ignorant. I didn’t know it was so ignorant and it was very upsetting and crushing to be told this in such a strong way.

  6. Until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know ANYTHING about the P and J stuff or the interpretive frameworks. I can’t believe what I am learning. They don’t teach you this stuff in church. I’m only on the 4th contradiction and so still learning about this technical stuff. I’m not learned in these matters and my understanding of the bible is a world away from what you are presenting. Sorry if my remarks were a joke. I’ll keep my thoughts to myself. I’m really upset that my comments would cause such a reaction.

    1. No, don’t take it that way Catherine. I was merely trying to make a point: the interpretation you put forward, even if you still don’t or never did follow it, is abusive to the texts themselves. All of the details and terms of that “interpretation” are taking from later interpretive frameworks, beliefs, and theological constructs—NOT from the texts themselves, nor their historical and literary contexts.

      As you noted in your other comment, the MO for many modern Christian “study” groups is to interpret the OT through the NT or through the beliefs of later Christianity. These are all practices that neglect the actual texts on their own terms and their contexts. One of the interests that I have here is examining the Bible’s texts on their own terms, i.e., before there ever was a “Bible.” If what these texts on their own terms and in their own historical and literary contexts do not mesh with our beliefs, values, and worldviews (and frankly why should they? They are 3,000-2,000 year old texts!), then there is the conversation to be had. But most “Bible study” groups merely use the Bible to vehicle their own beliefs, contexts, and concerns, regardless of those of the authors of these texts. Indeed Paul himself was sort of doing this, and this interpretive practice has a long history.

      As for the technical stuff, trying reading some of the material under Essential Reading. I’m glad you’re here and enjoying the site.

  7. This is how I would understand this ‘sabbath contradiction’: the Sabbath’s spiritual meaning is what is described in the creation account. That day was going to have significance in the future hence why it was made holy. A physical application of humans resting on this day, didn’t happen until Moses and the Exodus. The importance of the Sabbath and hence why it’s mentioned in the creation account, is not really to do with humans taking a weekly rest, but what this ‘Day of Rest’ foreshadows for a future time in the ‘age to come’. Paul mentions entering into the Sabbath rest, which I assume is him referring to the Messianic reign. The weekly rest that the Israelites were ordered to observe was a foreshadow or rehersal of the future Rest. Their freedom from slavery is a ‘type’ of humans being freed from sin and death etc. The number 7 (7 days of creation) seems significant in that from Adam to Jesus is 4 days (4000 years). 2 days have passed from Jesus to now, so we’re nearing the end of the 6th day and nearing the 7th, or the ultimate Sabbath Rest. Well, that’s what many Christians believe. I used to believe this, as it all seemed to fit. I’m a newly ‘ex’ Christian by the way. That’s how I discovered your amazing site, on Ex Christian.net.

    1. You’re joking with this, right? This is a good example of what we’re not doing here, and what I would label as abusive to both texts and authors. It is an example of appropriating and co-opting the text to suit the reader’s agenda with little to no concern for who wrote the text, to whom, why the author made such and such claim, etc. As I’m sure you’re well aware of, these types of interpretive maneuvers attempt “to read” these texts via later interpretive frameworks, later theological agendas, and later cultural and/or religious beliefs or concerns – in other words they are all reader oriented, where the readers’ theological beliefs and context trumps those of the authors. In the present case, the two different explanations of the Sabbath’s origin can be completely understood by examining the text of Deuteronomy more closely as a whole and understanding this author’s agenda, emphases, and theology on a broader scale, conversely the same with the Priestly writer and his text.

      To think of this and other contradictions as some sort of mysterium dei that needs to be solved by readers living 3,000 years after these texts were written is nothing more than playing into one’s own interpretive whims and fantasies. Indeed, such interpretive premises are used as a means to justify the appropriation and misinterpretation of these text by their centuries-later readers.

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