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Bible Dictionaries

Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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1. Origin of the Sabbath . The name ‘Sabbath’ (Heb. shabbâth , from a verb shâbath , meaning ‘to desist’) might be applied to any sacred season as a time of cessation from labour, and is so used of the Day of Atonement, which was observed annually on the tenth day of the seventh month ( Leviticus 16:31; Leviticus 23:32 ). But in usage it is almost confined to the day of rest which closed each week of seven days, the cycle running continuously through the calendar without regard to the month or the year. The origin of this institution, and its early history among the Israelites, are involved in much obscurity. That it has affinities with certain Babylonian observances is obvious; but the differences are very marked, and a direct dependence of the one on the other is difficult to understand. It is known that in two months (possibly in all) the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th days (those in which the moon enters a new phase), and also the 19th (the [7×7th =] 49th from the beginning of the previous month), were regarded in Babylonia as unlucky days, on which certain actions had to be avoided by important personages (king, priest, physician). The name shabattu has also been found in the inscriptions, where it is explained as ûm nûḥ libbi = ‘day of the appeasement of the heart’ (of the deity), in the first instance, therefore, a day of prayer or atonement. But that the five unlucky days mentioned above were called shabattu has not been proved, and is, indeed, rendered improbable by the more recent discovery that shabattu was a name for the day of the full moon (the 15th of the month). When we turn to the early references to the Sabbath in the OT, we find a state of things which seems at first sight to present a parallel to the Babylonian usage. It is a singular fact that except in the expansions of the Fourth Commandment in Exodus 20:9-11 and Deuteronomy 5:13-15 (which are evidently no part of the original Decalogue), there is nothing in the pre-exilic literature which explicitly indicates that the word ‘Sabbath’ denoted a weekly day of rest . In the kernel of the Decalogue ( Exodus 20:8 , Deuteronomy 5:12 ), the observance of the Sabbath is enjoined; but neither the manner of its observance nor the period of its recurrence is prescribed. Where, on the other hand, the weekly rest is inculcated ( Exodus 23:12; Exodus 34:21 ), the name ‘Sabbath’ does not occur. In the prophetic and historical books ‘Sabbath’ and ‘ new moon ’ are associated in such a way as to suggest that both were lunar festivals ( Amos 8:5 , Hosea 2:11 , Isaiah 1:13 , 2 Kings 4:23 ); and the attempt has been made to trace the transition from the Babylonian institution to the Hebrew Sabbath by the hypothesis that originally the Sabbath in Israel was the feast of the full moon, just as in Babylonia. This theory, however, is little but an ingenious paradox. It is arbitrary to deny the antiquity of Exodus 23:12 or Exodus 34:21; and if the word ‘Sabbath’ is not found in these passages, yet the related verb shâbath is used in both, as is rarely the case except in connexion with the Sabbath. Moreover, the way in which the Sabbath is isolated from all other sacred seasons (Decalogue, 2 Kings 11:5 ff; 2 Kings 16:18 ) goes far to show that even in the pre-exilic period it was a festival sui generis , and had already acquired something of the prominence which belonged to it in later times. How little force there is in the argument from the connexion of ‘new moon’ and ‘Sabbath’ may be seen from Isaiah 66:23 , Colossians 2:18 f. The most reasonable conclusion is that the weekly Sabbath is everywhere presupposed in the OT, and that, if it be connected historically with Babylonian institutions, the development lies behind the range of Israelite tradition, and in all probability was a feature of Canaanitish civilization when the Hebrews settled in the country. It must be remembered, however, that the hypothesis of a Babylonian origin does not exhaust the possibilities of the case. Although a regularly recurring day of rest is neither necessary nor possible for pastoral nomads, it is quite conceivable that some form of Sabbath observance, depending on the phases of the moon, was practised by the Hebrews in the desert, and that the transformation of this primitive lunar festival into the Sabbath as we find it in the OT was due to the suppression of its superstitious associations under the influence of the national religion of Israel.

2. Religious significance of the Sabbath . The distinctive characteristics of the Hebrew Sabbath were mainly these two: it was, first, a day sacred to Jahweh, and second, a day of rest. In the earlier period cessation from labour may have been merely a consequence of the festal character of the day; although the reinforcement of the ceremonial sanction by humanitarian motives in the legislation ( Exodus 23:12 , Deuteronomy 5:14 ) shows that already the religious mind of the nation had grasped the final justification of the Sabbath as an institution made for man, and not one for which man was made. This conception of the Sabbath underwent a radical modification in the age of the Exile. It is hardly accurate to say that the change was entirely due to the fact that the Sabbath was one of the few religious ordinances by which the Israelite in a foreign land could mark his separation from heathenism. The idea of the Sabbath as a covenant between Jahweh and Israel, which is elaborated in Ezekiel and the code called the Law of Holiness, is foreshadowed in Deuteronomy 5:15; and even the more imposing conception of it as a memorial of the Creation finds expression in Exodus 20:11 , which is quite possibly of older date than the Priestly account of Creation in Genesis 1:1-31 . The truth is that in this, as in many other cases, the real turning-point was not the deportation of the people but the suppression of the popular ritual by Josiah’s reformation. None the less it is important to observe that, for whatever reason, a profound transformation of the character of the Sabbath emerges in writings of the Exilic and post-exilic period. The obligation of rest, from being a necessary concomitant of acts of worship, or a means to a higher end, becomes an end in itself, a form of self-denial, pleasing to the Deity as an act of implicit obedience to His positive command. The whole of the subsequent legislation proceeds from this point of view. In Ezekiel and the Law of Holiness the Sabbath (as has just been observed) is conceived as an arbitrary sign of the covenant between Jahweh and Israel, and of the individual’s fidelity to that covenant. The Priestly Code not only exalts the Sabbath by basing its sanction on the example of the Creator ( Genesis 2:2-4 , Exodus 31:17 ), but seeks to enforce its observance by the imposition of the death penalty ( Exodus 31:14 , Numbers 15:32-36 ), and sets the example of guarding its sanctity by prohibitive regulations ( Exodus 35:3 ). The memoirs of Nehemiah reveal at once the importance attached to the Sabbath as a mark of the distinction between the faithful Jews and their heathen neighbours ( Nehemiah 10:31 , Nehemiah 13:15 ), and the stern determination which was necessary to compel obedience ( Nehemiah 13:17 ff.). In post-exilic prophecies there are several allusions to Sabbath observance as a supreme religious duty, and a condition of the fulfilment of the Messianic expectations ( Jeremiah 17:19 ff., Isaiah 56:2 ff; Isaiah 58:13 f., Isaiah 66:23 ). At the commencement of the Maccabæan revolt, regard for the Sabbath was so ingrained in the mind of the people that strict Jews allowed themselves to be slaughtered by their enemies rather than use arms for their own defence ( 1Ma 2:31 ff.); though after one incident of this kind the maxim was laid down that defensive operations in war were legitimate on the Sabbath ( 1Ma 2:41 ).

3. The Sabbath in the NT . The Gospels show that by the time of Christ the casuistry of the scribes had hedged round the Sabbath with many of those petty and vexatious rules which are preserved in the Rabbinical literature, and which completely eviscerated the institution of any large principle of religion or humanity. Accordingly the Sabbath law was (next to His own Messianic claims) the chief subject of contention between our Lord and the Pharisees (see Matthew 12:1 ff., Matthew 12:10 f., Luke 13:14 ff; Luke 14:1 ff., John 5:5 ff; John 7:23; John 9:14 ff., etc.). As regards our Lord’s own attitude, it is enough to say that it combined reverence for the ordinance, in so far as it served religious ends ( Luke 4:16 etc.), with a resolute vindication of the principle that ‘the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath’ ( Mark 2:27 ). Similarly, in the Pauline Epistles the Sabbath is relegated, either inferentially ( Romans 14:5 f., Galatians 4:9 ff.) or expressly ( Colossians 2:16 f.), to the category of things morally indifferent, with regard to which each man must follow the dictates of his conscience. It is significant also that the decree of the Council of Jerusalem does not impose the observance of the Sabbath on the Gentile Churches ( Acts 15:29 ). On the later Christian observance of the first day of the week, and its assimilation to the Jewish Sabbath, see Lord’s Day.

J. Skinner.

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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Sabbath'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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