Did Abraham Observe the Sabbath?
by Ernest L. Martin, Ph.D., April 1975
Edited and expanded by David Sielaff, January 2010
Read the accompanying Newsletter for January 2010
Some denominations insist that Abraham and all the patriarchs kept the 7th day Sabbath. Their main reasoning centers on two sections of Scripture. For one, we are told that God rested on the 7th day of the week of creation and sanctified that day (Genesis 2:1–3). Coupled with this is a verse which says that Abraham “obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). The combination of these two Scriptures has given confidence to some that Abraham must have kept the 7th day Sabbath because he was an obedient man who kept all of God’s commandments.
This proposition may seem plausible on the surface, but a close inspection shows some serious deficiencies. To begin with, the text says that God rested only on that 7th day, the last day of creation. Nowhere does it dogmatically state that each succeeding 7th day was to be a rest day for God or man. Indeed, it can be shown that God did not rest any of the subsequent Sabbaths. God never wearies and He did not need to rest:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard, that the everlasting God, YHWH, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faints not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.”
Christ was challenged on this and answered His critics:
“And therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay him, because he had done these things on the sabbath day. But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father works hitherto, and I work.’”
This statement by Christ was uttered on the Sabbath day. Clearly, God was working on the later Sabbaths.
We are told that Abraham obeyed God’s voice, charge, commandments, statutes and laws, but where in the Book of Genesis did God relate a charge, utter a commandment, issue a statute, or legislate a law that demanded that each 7th day of the week must be observed? Nowhere did He do so! One might say that God’s example of rest on the 7th day should be taken as a command. But this is not proper reasoning.
If one day was an example, one may as well try to duplicate what God did on the previous six days because all of them must have been examples. Could mankind create trees every Tuesday, expose the heavenly bodies to view every Wednesday, make sea creatures every Thursday, and generate man every Friday? No one could consider the first six days as Godly examples for man to follow. Why should the 7th day be an example?
Furthermore, there is nothing in Genesis which shows that God was giving an example of a 7th day rest for mankind to follow. Just because God did things at certain times is not proof that man should perform the same — unless God commands it. As a matter of illustration, God was married to two women at the same time, Israel and Judah (Ezekiel 23:1–49; Jeremiah 3:6–10). It was a polygamous union. Is there anyone who would seriously suggest that God was showing this polygamous relationship as an example for man to follow? Of course not! We must be careful not to read all Bible illustrations as commands for us. Many of them simply do not apply.
There is one other point to consider concerning God’s rest on the 7th day of Creation. All real commandments or laws always have punishments associated with them if they are disobeyed. 1 If there are no penalties, such commands lack any force. Where in the Book of Genesis are there penalties for not resting on the 7th day of the week? There is not a syllable about any such thing. Had the Sabbath been a command, then punishment must have been connected with its disobedience. Yet nothing in Genesis shows any retribution for Sabbath breaking,
Some still feel that a command to keep the Sabbath and that punishments for non-compliance were in effect during the period covered by the Book of Genesis even though the text does not mention it. They imagine that Genesis is not explicit in such matters; it only skims events of history prior to the Exodus and that Moses had no time to record a Sabbath command or its punishments. This reasoning is impossible. One major fact must be understood concerning the Book of Genesis. The book is not a simple historical narrative; it is something far more. Genesis is a book of law, that is certainly true. The Book of Genesis is as much a part of the Law as Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, or Deuteronomy. Indeed, the Jews have customarily called the first five books of the Old Testament by the name “The Torah” which means “The Law.” Genesis is nothing less than a codification of law in historical form.
This fact can be proved from the New Testament. Paul said to the Galatians: “Tell me, you that desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?” (Galatians 4:21). Paul then mentioned Abraham and two mothers of his children, Hagar and Sarah (Galatians 4:22–31). The references of Paul were to the Book of Genesis, and he said those illustrations were in the law. The Book of Genesis is as much law as the other books of Moses! Christ said that circumcision was given by the fathers, but also the rite was found in the Law of Moses (John 7:22–23). Moses wrote Genesis which shows the introduction of circumcision, and it was part of Moses’ law. The ceremony was a part of the Torah.
What does this fact have to do with the Sabbath question? Much in every way. Since all of Genesis is a book of law, all its many statements must be reckoned as laws. They cannot be interpreted as mere vague assumptions, as implied declarations, or as supposed propositions. As a book of law, Genesis shows exact legal definitions which governed people under the dispensation of time which it covered. And in all fifty chapters of that book of law there is not one command showing that the Sabbath had to be observed like the Sabbath which Moses commanded in the time of the Exodus. Unless distinct commands are shown in Genesis there can be no force of law for such assumed commands as claimed by some Christians.
Some have read the later commands of Moses (those given at the time of the Exodus) and have tried to read those laws back into Genesis. But this is not proper, nor is it legal. That is like saying the United States celebrated Lincoln’s birthday as a legal holiday in the time of George Washington. Such propositions are absurd, and using them is not being fair with the scriptural revelation.
The truth is, nowhere does the Book of Genesis show the Sabbath as a command for mankind to keep. Nor does it say there are punishments for not observing it. Since Genesis is a book of law, we should not step out of its legal bounds and assume that such commands or punishments are there. The patriarchs did not wrest the law through such assumptions.
Let us look at the commands of Joseph who lived long before Moses. Did he subject the Egyptians or the Israelites to keep the Sabbath? There is not a word to suggest that he did. Actually, after Joseph died the Israelites became slaves of the Egyptians and they were completely under Egyptian (Gentile) control. Is there any hint in Genesis, or in the early parts of Exodus, which shows that Israel stopped work every 7th day during their Egyptian servitude? There is nothing. Indeed, all evidence points the other way.
Moses asked Pharaoh to let Israel go three days into the wilderness to have a feast to the Lord (Exodus 5:1–3). “And Pharaoh said, ‘Behold, the people of the land now are many, and you [Moses] make them rest from their burdens’” (Exodus 5:5). Pharaoh accused Moses of making the people of Israel idle in wanting a feast and to journey three days into the wilderness (verses 8, 17). Their “idleness” had nothing to do with resting one day of the week. And though Pharaoh said that Moses was making them rest [“keep sabbath”], their rest was not the 7th day of the week because their time off involved a three day journey into the wilderness, with certainly a three day journey back. Their “rest” (or idleness) was lasting at least six days. 2
Had Moses been telling the Israelites to rest every 7th day, Pharaoh would no doubt have criticized their weekly idleness as bad for the Egyptian economy because the Egyptians had no scruples over such observances. Pharaoh was angry because they wanted to rest (“keep sabbath”) for a whole week in the wilderness. There is nothing in the text which suggests that Israel was observing a 7th day Sabbath.
We are told precisely when the Sabbath day became a command of God. This legislation to Israel is recorded in Exodus chapter 16, about three weeks before the code of the Ten Commandments was given (Exodus 16:22–31). This is why the fourth command said, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy” (Exodus 20:8). The Sabbath day had been commanded only a short time before and they were to remember it. Israel had not known that the 7th day was to be kept — without any work being done on it — until it was revealed in Exodus chapter 16.
Nehemiah made this plain. Recalling the early history of Israel, he reminded the Jews of his time (5th century BC), how God had revealed the weekly Sabbath to their ancestors at the Exodus. “And made known unto them [at that time] your holy sabbath …” (Nehemiah 9:14). Nehemiah knew that Israel only received the Sabbath as a command at the Exodus. That was when it was made known to them!
The prophet Ezekiel said practically the same thing as Nehemiah. Speaking of the time of the Exodus, God said through Ezekiel:
“Moreover also I gave them [Israel] my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them [Israel], that they might know that I am YHWH that sanctifies them.”
The Sabbath did not become a “sign” until the time of Moses. That is what Ezekiel says, and Moses recorded the same thing (Exodus 31:13–18). Before the time of Moses, the Sabbath was not a law of God that He demanded be kept. The Book of Genesis shows the original 7th day of creation as a rest period for God. Man had been created only the day before and needed no rest from labor because he had done no work. Later, in the time of Moses when the Sabbath was made known to Israel and it became a command, it was not meant to dominate man even though there were severe penalties for breaking it. Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). This shows that the Sabbath was intended as a blessing to physical Israel even when it became a command.
In the Book of Genesis, however, there were no directions from God that the 7th day had to be observed. And though we are told that Abraham obeyed God’s voice, charge, commandments, statutes, and laws, the Sabbath was not within the compass of those words. Look at the words carefully.
In the Book of Genesis Abraham kept God’s voice, charge, commands, statutes, and laws. But those commandments and laws which Abraham observed were not the Ten Commandments code given to Israel in the time of Moses. To say this is to do a great injustice to scriptural revelation. There is not a hint in Genesis that the codified Ten Commandments as a legal document was in force. This would be reading into an earlier text what is not there. Again, it is like saying that Lincoln’s birthday was a national holiday of the United States in the time of George Washington. Though several principles of the Ten Commandments were laws that Abraham followed, as a single legal document it was not in force.
Abraham had to obey only what God had specifically commanded, and the Sabbath was not demanded in the period covered by the Book of Genesis. And what was not required of Abraham was of major significance to the Apostle Paul. Circumcision became a very important command to ancient Israel, but Paul made it clear that Abraham became the father of the faithful, even before he was circumcised (Romans 4:9–13). One does not have to be circumcised to be a Christian.
It is also true that Abraham became the father of the faithful long before God commanded the Sabbath to be kept. We can all be Christians without being circumcised, and we can also be Christians without keeping the Mosaic Sabbath. This does not mean that one should denigrate the Sabbath as a day of rest. But all must understand that its observance or non-observance has nothing to do with the salvation afforded by Christ. Abraham became the father of the faithful — the father of the Christian faithful — long before the Sabbath became a physical requirement for the nation of Israel. We can follow in the footsteps of Abraham and have his same type of faith for salvation without keeping the Mosaic Sabbath. The word of God makes this plain. 3
It is hoped that all of us are willing to walk in that word and in the faith of Abraham. Salvation is guaranteed to us through Christ without any physical ceremony being necessary.
Ernest L. Martin,
Edited by David Sielaff, January 2010
1 The first commandment God gave anywhere in Scripture was His commandment to Adam in Genesis 2:16–17 regarding the trees of the Garden, specifically that Adam should not eat of the tree of good and evil because he will die if he does so. DWS
2 The ordinary word sabbath in Hebrew is not always associated with the 7th day of the week. It simply means rest or cease. The context must determine whether the reference is to the 7th day of the week. ELM
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