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There are two main reasons given in the Old Testament as to why the Israelites are to observe the Sabbath. The first one is mentioned in Exodus 31:16-17 [KJV]:

16 Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.

17 It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.

From these verses it seems like the motive behind the Sabbath is to commemorate the creation (though I'm not quite sure what is the significance of such a commemoration).

In Exodus 20:10-11 the same reason is stated, but the emphasis is on the fact that God rested and not so much on the creation aspect, and the word "sign" is entirely omitted:

10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:

11 For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

From here it would seems like the purpose of the Sabbath observance is to emulate God's activity during the week and on the Sabbath when he rested.

The second reason is stated in Deuteronomy 5:14-15:

14 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, nor thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates; that thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou.

15 And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day.

Over here nothing about creation or God's actions are mentioned, the only reason given, is that God took you out of Egypt, that is why the Israelites must keep the Sabbath (perhaps this may serve as a reminder that they were once slaves in Egypt where they had no rest, similar to the observance of the Passover. Perhaps the idea is to encourage them to relieve their slaves from bondage temporarily).

Summary: two main reasons are stated in the Old Testament.

  1. To commemorate the creation, or to emulate God's actions during creation.
  2. To commemorate the exodus.

If it is possible to reconstruct I would like to know which of the reasons - cited above - was the original motive behind the Sabbath, and which were only added later? Secondly, what is the significance of commemorating the creation (mentioned in Exodus 31, cited above) and why is it so important?

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    The word "rest" features prominently in the verses you quote, but doesn't get a mention in your summary. – enegue Jun 9 '17 at 14:58
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    I think this is a great history question and I'd encourage you to ask it on Mi Yodeya. But fundamentally it's a question about a religious practice seeking the earliest textual/historical justification, it doesn't start from a specific text and seek to only understand that text. As such, I don't know that it's a good fit here. The question could easily be refocused on the text by focusing on Torah redaction and which is likely to be an earlier source between the two texts. – Dan Jun 12 '17 at 17:35
  • Things in scripture tend to repeat with a new meaning. It is actually fundamental to the way the scriptures work. – Ruminator Dec 28 '18 at 19:14
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According to the Documentary Hypothesis, the Decalogue in Deuteronomy chapter 5 is attributed to an anonymous source now known as the Deuteronomist, writing in the seventh century BCE. When he (they?) wrote Deuteronomy, the Book of Genesis was not yet complete and the creation in six days was a story yet to be told. This source attributed the tradition of resting on the Sabbath to the Exodus from Egypt.

The passages in Exodus 20:10-11 and 31:16-17 are likewise attributed to another anonymous source now known as the Priestly Source. The Priestly Source wrote around 500 BCE, long after the time of the Deuteronomist. The Priestly Source is also credited with writing the creation story that we find in Genesis 1:1-2:4a, so it is natural the same source would use his magnum opus as the explanation for the Sabbath.

There may have been earlier explanations for the Sabbath, that did not make it into the Bible, but original biblical explanation for resting on the Sabbath is the one found in Deuteronomy 5:14-15.

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    When you write answers from the perspective of the documentary hypothesis, please 1) name the model, 2) don't give the impression that it is a universal or even consensus position. Feel free to say that it is dominant within the religion departments of secular academic institutions, but don't present it as having generalised acceptance among all Jewish/Christian academia. – curiousdannii Jun 9 '17 at 23:53
  • How do we determine that both Gen 1 and Exodus 20, 31 are from the priestly source? There has to be more than the similar explanation, because that would be circular. A link or reference would improve this answer. – curiousdannii Jun 9 '17 at 23:55
  • @RevelationLad Thank you for your comments. As for Levinson's research, the DH does accept that Exodus was written before Deuteronomy but that the Priestly material was added later. – Dick Harfield Jun 10 '17 at 0:15
  • @RevelationLad .../Deut 5:15: And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the LORD thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the LORD thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day. – Dick Harfield Jun 10 '17 at 0:18
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    @curiousdannii At your suggestion, I declared the Documentary Hypothesis as the model used for this answer. – Dick Harfield Jun 10 '17 at 0:20

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