The symbolism of the Old Covenant’s weekly day of rest, the Sabbath

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This article belongs to a series on the Old Covenant’s holy days. This present part considers the symbolism of its weekly day of rest, the Sabbath.

The first ‘sabbath’.

The book of Genesis records that the Lord rested on the seventh day. In that way, he “sanctified” that day – that is, he set it apart, made it special, different or separate.

Obviously, there must have been some symbolism in that. It is reasonable to assume that the Lord’s act of resting on the seventh day was prophetic and pointed to things and events that were to come. But, the Scriptures do not tell us what it symbolised. And, it would not be very meaningful to build speculative theories in regard to that matter.

In contrast to that, the Bible does state the reason why the Lord, circa 2500 years later, told the Israelites to keep a day of rest.

The symbolism of the weekly day of rest which the Israelites were told to keep.

The first time when people are told to keep a weekly day of rest, is recorded in Exodus 16:23. That is also the first passage where the Hebrew text of the Old Testament contains the noun sabbath.

(The old Hebrew noun shabbath meant “rest”. The related verb shabath meant “to rest”.)

Exodus 16:23 with its context talks about a time when the Israelites were in the Arabian desert, after the Lord had freed them from slavery in Egypt. The Lord had just began providing them manna, for food.

Exodus 16:23 And he [Moses] said to them, Jehovah has said: Tomorrow is a solemn rest, a holy rest to Jehovah. Bake what you want to bake today, and cook what you want to cook, and what is left over, put aside, to be kept until morning.

Again, that is the first mention in the Old Testament, of people being told to keep a day of rest. That happened after the Lord had freed the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. When he freed those people, he gave them “rest”, after their hard toil in Egypt. As a reminder of this, he told them to keep a weekly day of rest. We read:

Deuteronomy 5:15 ‘And you shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the sabbath day. (NASB77)

Another translation:

Deuteronomy 5:15 Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God brought you out of there with a strong hand and an outstretched arm. That is why the Lord your God has commanded you to keep the Sabbath day. (HCSB)

As you can see, the reason why the Israelites were told to keep that weekly day of rest, was that it was to be for them a reminder of the fact that the Lord had in a miraculous way freed them from slavery in Egypt [and given them rest].

More: The Lord was taking them to the Promised Land. That land is in several bible-passages called “rest”.

So, that was the symbolism of the weekly day of rest which the Israelites were told to keep.

The following considers certain other things which have some connection with that day of rest.

The meaning of the mention of the day of rest in Exodus 31:13.

Some have claimed Exodus 31:13 to mean that the keeping of a weekly day of rest is a “sign” which shows who are God’s people. Is that correct? Let us consider this matter.

As we all know, the Old Covenant’s “sign” was the circumcision of males. In contrast to that, the weekly day of rest was something that reminded the ancient Israelites of what the Lord had done for them – that he had freed them from slavery in Egypt [and given them rest]; see Deuteronomy 5:15 which was discussed above.

Then, let us consider Exodus 31:13.

Exodus 31:13 “Tell the Israelites: You must observe My Sabbaths, for it is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, so that you will know that I am the Lord who sets you apart. (HCSB, highlighting added)

“So that you will know that I am the Lord who sets you apart” – many translations have “sanctifies” or “makes you holy”, but just as the above-quoted HCSB makes it clear, the actual meaning is that when the Lord took the Israelites out from Egypt, he set them apart, separated them from the other nations. That is, he made them his own people.

Please note that those people were not set apart by keeping a day. It was the Lord who set them apart. The day of rest was only a token which reminded the Israelites of what the Lord had done for them.

Again, the Old Covenant’s “sign” was the circumcision of males. Even the New Covenant has a “sign”, a sign which shows who are God’s people: The “circumcision of the heart”, that is, the receiving of the Holy Spirit. The article nca070.htm has some notes on the Holy Spirit as the New Covenant’s “sign”.

The meaning of Hebrews 4:9, the words ‘so then, there remains a rest for God’s people’.

The article nxa100.htm has more on Hebrews 4:9 and its context and some related passages, but here are some notes on that matter.

Those who study Hebrews 3 and 4 more closely, in some of the more literal translations, can see that verses 15 and 18 in chapter 3 and verses 1, 3, 5, 8, 9 and 11 in chapter 4 refer to a place of rest, a Promised Land, and not a day of rest. The apostle Paul was warning the Jewish saints regarding a certain matter. For that purpose, he quoted parts of this passage in the book of Psalms:

Psalms 95:7 […] Today if you will hear His voice, 8 harden not your heart, as in the day of strife, as in the day of testing in the wilderness; 9 when your fathers tempted Me, tested Me, and saw My work. 10 For forty years I was grieved with this generation, and said, It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they have not known My ways; 11 to whom I swore in My wrath that they should not enter into My rest. (MKJV, highlighting added)

The “rest” which Psalms 95:11 refers to, and which Paul mentioned (Hebrews 3 and 4), was the Promised Land. – Those passages refer to an event in the days of Moses, recorded in Numbers 13–14. Here is a short summary of what happened back then:

After the Exodus, when the ancient Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses sent twelve men into that land as spies. When those men returned, ten of them gave a bad, discouraging report. This caused the Israelites to turn their backs on that land. They rejected the Promised Land, and they rejected even the Lord who was about to take them there. They said, “Let us select a leader and return to Egypt” (Numbers 14:4, NKJV). Through this, they broke the covenant which they had just made with the Lord. The Lord was greatly angered by this. The end result was that those Israelites who were of adult age at that time, were never allowed to enter the land of promise. That is what Psalms 95:11 and Hebrews 3:11 and 18 and 4:5 refer to.

Later, those people changed their mind, but then it was too late. The whole nation had to stay in the Arabian desert, until the provokers had died. Psalms 95:11 and Hebrews 3:11, “I swore in my wrath that they should not enter into my rest”, and Hebrews 3:17, their “bodies fell in the desert”. Only their children were taken to the Promised Land, forty years later.

The apostle Paul wrote that letter (“the epistle to the Hebrews”) to some Jewish saints. He was citing Psalms 95:7–11 and explaining that that passage could be seen as a warning in regard to those saints’ own situation. He urged them to be wiser than their ancestors had been. In other words: He was urging those saints not to turn their backs on their rest and inheritance – the heavenly Promised Land where the Lord Jesus was about to take them. (Then nxa100.htm has more on this.)

Again: Psalms 95:11 and Hebrews 3:15 and 18 and Hebrews 4:1, 3, 5, 8, 9 and 11 refer to a place of rest, and not a day of rest. The article nxa100.htm has more on that matter, including a thorough explanation of Hebrews 4:9 and its context.

Why does Hebrews 4:3–4 mention the Lord’s act of resting on the seventh day, Genesis 2:1–2?

Even that matter is considered in the article nxa100.htm.

The Decalogue and its rule regarding a rest day.

Here, it can be good to know that the word “decalogue” is derived from the old Greek phrase tous deka logous which means “the ten words”. That comes from the Greek Septuagint version (LXX) which has that phrase in Exodus 34:28.

The Hebrew text of that verse talks about “the words of the covenant, the ten words”. The actual “ten words” are recorded in Exodus 20, but it is in Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 that they are given a “name”. Here is the first of those three passages, as the 1917 Jewish Publication Society translation has it:

Exodus 34:28 And he was there with the Lord forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables the words of the covenant, the ten words. (JPS1917, highlighting added)

Deuteronomy 4:13 and 10:4 contain a shorter form, “the ten words” (JPS1917).

The highlighted phrases above are correct translations of the Hebrew text. (The English wording “the ten commandments” which came into use in the Middle Ages, is in fact a mistranslation.)

Here, one must keep in mind that those “words of the covenant, the ten words” were a part of and belonged to the covenant which was made by Mount Sinai. The Old Covenant.

That covenant was a temporary arrangement. It was “added because of transgressions”, Galatians 3:19, and it was to last “until the Offspring would come to whom the promise had been made”, same verse – that is, until Jesus came. The “added law” of Galatians 3:19 was the Old Covenant, all of it. When Jesus the prophesied Offspring of Abraham then came, and made his Sacrifice by giving his life in place of others, it became possible to launch the New Covenant. When that happened, the Old Covenant had served its purpose and was set aside. The article nca080.htm clarifies this matter.

Important: The fact that the Old Covenant came to its end, did not in any way mean that all moral principles would have become void.

The article nga080.htm studies the matter of righteousness, including what new-covenantal righteousness is and consists of.

The article nca050.htm contains a more detailed study on the matter of the Decalogue.

For more on the matter of the two covenants, old and new, look under the heading “Covenant, covenants” on the page key12.htm.

Summary.

Deuteronomy 5:15 tells us the symbolism of the weekly day of rest which the Israelites were told to keep. It was to be for them a reminder of what the Lord had done for them – that he had freed them from slavery in Egypt [and given them rest].

In that context, it can be good to keep in mind that also the Promised Land was called “rest”.

See also the “recommended reading” section, below.

Please send or mention the address to this site to others. You can also link to these pages. The address to the table of contents page is biblepages.net/articles.htm

Recommended reading here at the Bible Pages, on related as well as other matters

An explanation of the short names for the bible-translations that are quoted or mentioned at this site. → nsa090.htm

Covenant signs, including the sign of the New Covenant which shows who are God’s people. → nca070.htm

Hebrews 4:9, the sabbatismos or rest which the saints were to enter – a clarification of its actual nature. → nxa100.htm

On the Decalogue, “the words of the covenant, the ten words”. → nca050.htm

On Galatians 3:17–19 and what the apostle Paul meant by “added law”. → nca080.htm

The New Covenant is indeed something new, and not a “renewal” or “modification” of the Old Covenant. → nca090.htm

What does the word “righteous” really mean? What does the Bible say about righteousness? → nga080.htm

Should the Old Covenant’s Sabbaths, the annual ones and the weekly one, be kept today? → nxa090.htm

Where can one find the rules of the New Covenant, in written form? → nca060.htm

Worshipping God. What does the Bible say about worship, in connection with the New Covenant? → naa040.htm


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