Was the Sabbath Kept Before Moses?
Some have argued that what God hallowed at Creation was only the very first seventh day-not a weekly Sabbath. Hence, they believe, the Sabbath was unknown and unobserved during the 2500 years from Adam to Moses.
It must be granted that there is no direct reference to Noah, Abraham, Joseph, or other patriarchs keeping the Sabbath. But we do know that they were men of God. And we know that God said of Abraham that he, "...obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and my laws" (Gen. 26.5). What were those commands, decrees, and laws? Could they have included the Sabbath?
It can be demonstrated quite easily that before the time of Moses the spiritual precepts of the Ten Commandments were in effect (though probably not codified as ten commandments). For example, it was sin for Cain to murder Abel (Gen. 4); King Abimelech knew adultery was wrong, as did Joseph (Gen. 20 and 39); Jacob knew stealing was wrong (Gen. 31).
Can we suppose that nine of the Ten Commandments were codifications of existing spiritual laws, but that the Fourth Commandment introduced a brand new law? Why should we expect that one to be any different from the others?
References to the Weekly Cycle
References to periods of seven days occur frequently in Genesis. A number of seven-day time sequences are mentioned in connection with the Flood (Gen. 7.4, 10;8.10-12). Jacob served Laban for two seven-year periods for his wives; and he was told by Laban regarding Leah, "Fulfil her week..." (Gen. 29. 27-28, KJV). Apparently the week was a routine part of their measurement of time.
Secular sources also indicate that the seven-day week was recognised in Near Eastern cultures from earliest times - unlike other cultures, which used 3, 4, 5, 6, or 8 day weeks (Encyclopaedia Britannica, llth ed., articles "Week" and "Calendar"). If a seven-day week was used during these patriarchal times, it seems likely that the Sabbath would have been part of that cycle.
Introduction of Sabbath to Israel
There are two possibilities relative to the introduction of the Sabbath to Israel:
1. The Sabbath was a completely new institution and law; it was unfamiliar to them since it had never been kept during the 2500 years from Creation to Exodus; or,
2. The Sabbath was familiar to Israel. And although they may not have kept it as slaves in Egypt, they simply had to be reminded of what they already knew.
The weight of evidence rests solidly with the second of these possibilities.
The very first place the Sabbath is mentioned in connection with Israel is in Exodus 16. This introduction is quite incidental to the main point of the chapter, which is instruction about manna. According to Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary, "...in short, the Sabbath [email protected] mentioned incidentally in considering the miraculous supply of manna and not the slightest hint is given of its being instituted for the first time on that occasion" (See on Ex.16.23). God told Israel that they should gather and prepare twice as much on the sixth day so their food would be ready for them on the seventh. Moses told the people simply:
This is what the Lord commanded: 'Tomorrow is to be a day of rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord. So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning' (Ex. 16.23).
God wanted them to be free from mundane physical responsibilities on the Sabbath. He wanted them to be free to rest and to worship Him.
Of course, some of the people couldn't believe that their efforts of six days could suffice for seven, so they went out looking for manna on the Sabbath. God upbraided them sternly for not believing Him. Many Christians today have the same problem. They don't think they can survive economically on what they earn in six days-they feel they have to moonlight, working on all seven days, dedicating only a few hours (if any) to worship and fellowship.
The way in which the Sabbath is introduced in Exodus 16 stands in stark contrast with the way the Passover is introduced in Exodus 12 and 13. Israel knew nothing about the Passover. It was completely new, so God had to give them detailed regulations and instructions about how and why they should observe it. The fact that major portions of two chapters are devoted to the introduction of the Passover points up the incidental nature of the discussion of the Sabbath in chapter 16.
Conclusion: the Sabbath was familiar to Israel; the Passover was not.
Wording of the Fourth Commandment
Another indication that Israel was familiar with the Sabbath is found in the very wording of the Fourth Commandment. "Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy" (Ex. 20.8 KJV).
Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown Commentary says of this, ... Remember implies that it was well-known and recognised" (See on Ex. 20. 8-1 1). And this opinion is very much in harmony with the fact that the other Commandments were not new to Israel. It seems very improbable that nine of the Commandments would be codifications of precepts already familiar to Israel, but that one (the Fourth) should introduce a completely new law.
All the evidence points to the conclusion that the Sabbath was a day of rest and worship from Creation to Exodus. Indeed, when God thundered the Decalogue from Mt. Sinai, He referred back to the seventh day of Creation:
Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Ex. 20.1 1).
Note that it was not just the first seventh day God made holy. It was the Sabbath-as a weekly day of freedom and rejuvenation. It was His wonderful gift and blessing to all His creation, to all mankind-long before He began dealing with Israel.