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Exodus 31 – From Sabbath to Sabbath

The Sabbath commandment is nothing new to Exodus 31. We have seen mention of Sabbath earlier in Exodus 16, 20 and 23 (not to mention in Genesis as well!). The reappearance of the command in Exodus 31 is a bit surprising at the end of the section on the Tabernacle instructions, but the sermon today made a point to discuss why it might be located there.

Apart from the creational shape of Exodus 25-31 (see the sermon), there are a few new emphases in 31:13-17 that we don’t see in the earlier Sabbath passages. When we put the passages side-by-side to compare them, we will best be able to discover the similarities and differences. (Exodus 16 is not included in the chart below, mainly because it is more of a narrative that demonstrates Sabbath in a unique circumstance – the giving of manna – instead of a law that commands it for all future generations).


EXODUS 31:13-17 (ESV) EXODUS 20:8-11, 23:12 (ESV)
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.'”

8 “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.


23:12 “Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest; that your ox and your donkey may have rest, and the son of your servant woman, and the alien, may be refreshed.


First, we see that there are many similarities between these passages. Both passages (mainly focusing on chapters 31 and 20) command the Israelites to “keep” the Sabbath (31:13, 16 // 20:8), and make a point to note that the Sabbath is a “holy” day (31:15 // 20:8, 11). Both passages make an explicit contrast between what should be done on days 1-6 and what should be done on day 7 (work/labor vs rest/refreshment; 31:15 // 20:9-10; cf. 23:12). Both passages also connect the idea of Sabbath with Creation (31:17, 20:11), though we will see that their emphases are slightly different.

It is to these differences and emphases that we’ll now turn. There is a subtle difference between the two accounts seen in the way that 31:13 uses the plural “Sabbaths” instead of the singular “Sabbath.” The plural is used to emphasize that the observance of Sabbath is a repeated endeavor. It’s not that chapter 20 doesn’t recognize the continual observance of Sabbath, but the use of the plural here merely draws attention to the fact that they will keep it over and over again.

Along with this, the Exodus 31 passage also has a new emphasis on the need to observe Sabbath(s) throughout all the generations of Israel (31:13, 16). Twice the passage adds that Sabbath is a “sign” (31:13, 17), explicitly mentioning the covenant in verse 16. Putting these two elements together, chapter 31 has a greater focus on the future generations and their need to continue to keep and observe the Sabbath as a sign of their covenant relationship with Yahweh. To put it another way, the Israelites would have a weekly opportunity to show the world and especially the younger members of the family (the next generation) just how committed they are to Yahweh. Every time the Sabbath is kept, it provides testimony to their relationship with the Lord.

The idea of the “sign” is connected in two ways in chapter 31. It is connected with the knowledge of Yahweh (one of the theme phrases in Exodus – “that they may know that I am Yahweh”; cf. 6:6-8) and the sanctification of the people in verse 13. Sabbath is proof of God’s sanctification of Israel. Remember, the word “sanctify” comes from the same Hebrew root as the word “holy.” To sanctify is to make holy. Sabbath is a holy day. So part of the holy function of Sabbath is to make people more holy, to sanctify them.

The “sign” of Sabbath is also connected with Creation in verse 17. Just as God worked for six days then “rested” and “was refreshed,” so Israel should follow this creational pattern and do the same. Chapter 20 also emphasized the creational aspect of Sabbath (20:11), as does 23:12. 23:12 uses the word “refreshed” to describe the experience of the people/animals on the Sabbath, and here in 31:17 that word is used, but applied to Yahweh. This is a shocking anthropomorphism (a way to describe God in human terms), for we don’t expect an omnipotent God to need to be refreshed. But the nature of an anthropomorphic description like this is that it is purposefully describing God in human terms, not in unattainable heavenly language.

Finally, chapter 31 has the additional strong twofold warning of the death penalty attached to breaking the Sabbath (31:14-15). The manna passage in Exodus 16 had a penalty for disobedience – wormy bread or a hungry stomach. But chapter 31 goes far beyond that slight annoyance and looks beyond the time of the giving of manna. As a sign of the covenant, as a means of sanctification, as a way to demonstrate to the next generation the importance of our commitment to God, Sabbath is all-important for the Israelites (and us!). So important, in fact, that it warrants the death penalty if it is ignored (in the OT).

Comparing these passages helps us get a full picture of why God took a Sabbath and commands us to continually observe it ourselves. It is essential for us to make sure we are passing down our faith and living out our full commitment to God week by week. This is the fourth time we have seen the Sabbath command in Exodus (which attests to its importance), and it won’t be the last, either.

How committed are you to keeping Sabbath?


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