Exodus 31:12-17 (NIV) reads:

12 Then the Lord said to Moses, 13 “Say to the Israelites, ‘You must observe my Sabbaths. This will be a sign between me and you for the generations to come, so you may know that I am the Lord, who makes you holy.

14 “‘Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. Anyone who desecrates it is to be put to death; those who do any work on that day must be cut off from their people. 15 For six days work is to be done, but the seventh day is a day of sabbath rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day is to be put to death. 16 The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. 17 It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’

Similarly, Ezekiel 20:9-12 (NIV) says:

9 But for the sake of my name, I brought them out of Egypt. I did it to keep my name from being profaned in the eyes of the nations among whom they lived and in whose sight I had revealed myself to the Israelites. 10 Therefore I led them out of Egypt and brought them into the wilderness. 11 I gave them my decrees and made known to them my laws, by which the person who obeys them will live. 12 Also I gave them my Sabbaths as a sign between us, so they would know that I the Lord made them holy.

Galatians 3:15-18 (NIV) adds some complementary remarks:

15 Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

So, was the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy given for the first time ever at Mount Sinai, along with the rest of the law, 430 years after Abraham, to the Israelites only?

  • 1
    The commandment at Sinai was given at Sinai for the sons of Israel and for the sons of aaron. Is your question if there were other prohibitions to keep the sabbath at other times and in other cultures, or whether the commandment at Sinai applied to non-Israelis (for that the answer is they applied to those in the group whether sons of israel or others who travelled with them) – Robert Feb 14 at 0:28
  • @Robert - I'm actually interested in both dimensions: scope/applicability in both time and space/culture – Spirit Realm Investigator Feb 14 at 0:31
  • I think the key phrase is "made known to them my laws", which implies that the laws already existed, and Moses simply presented them to the Israelites. ¶ Similarly, "gave them my Sabbaths" doesn't imply newly created. The weekly sabbath day for instance was created in Genesis 2. ¶ I've seen claims that the Isaac sacrifice and Moses's request to sacrifice (Ex 5:3) were part of what is now called Passover. – Ray Butterworth Feb 14 at 17:39

In terms of other nations observing a sabbath, this is divided into two questions

  1. Which nation observed a seven day week. Once you have the week, you will mark the seventh day as a special day with prescriptions and prohibitons on that day. Indeed, that's what it means to observe a week.

  2. Of those required observances, how similar were they to the Mosaic regulations?

Seven Day Week

The seven day week goes at least far back as ancient mesopotamia, with the first recorded example of a general seven day week proclamation issued by Sargon of Akkad. But even that proclamation was a reform aimed at standardization, so we must assume there were weekly observances that were not harmomized when Sargon expanded his empire. Thus the week is likely far older than Sargon's reign and there is evidence it predates it:

The earliest evidence of an astrological significance of a seven-day period is connected to Gudea, the priest-king of Lagash in Sumer during the Gutian dynasty, who built a seven-room temple, which he dedicated with a seven-day festival. In the flood story of the Assyro-Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, the storm lasts for seven days, the dove is sent out after seven days, and the Noah-like character of Utnapishtim leaves the ark seven days after it reaches the firm ground. [c] Counting from the new moon, the Babylonians celebrated the 7th, 14th, 21st and 28th as "holy-days", also called "evil days" (meaning "unsuitable" for prohibited activities). On these days, officials were prohibited from various activities and common men were forbidden to "make a wish", and at least the 28th was known as a "rest-day".

In Mesopotamia, however, we must understand the week to be a subdivision of the month rather than as an independent unit. A quarter of the lunar mont (e.g. when the moon goes from dark to half full) is 7.375 days, and indeed in Babylonia they would extend the last week with extra days as needed to keep the weekly calendar synced up with the lunar calendar so that one lunar month was four weeks.

Another conjectured source of the week was from astronomy, with the days given in honor of the sun, moon, and five planets. Indeed many days of the week are named after these seven heavenly bodies.

These two conjectured sources may not be in conflict - perhaps the units were chosen as a subdivsion of the month and merely named after the heavenly bodies. But this is speculation.

But most belive that a seven day week originated in ancient Sumeria, then spread out to Assyria and then the other cannanite tribes and Israel. It would certainly make sense that Abraham, growing up in Babylonia, would be familiar with the week and then pass it on to his descendants. Indeed the word for "week", and "rest" are all closely related in ancient semitic languages to the common word for seven or "sheba" and all semitic cultures viewed this as a holy number, and would thus view the seventh day as a holy day.

the seven days reckoned as the length for eating unleavened bread in all likelihood represents the heritage of Canaanite culture, which in this instance, however, functions merely as the mediator for a notion found everywhere in the OT, since all the cultures in the OT environs understand the number seven as a sacred number and as an expression of perfection.

Haag, E. (2004). שַׁבָּת. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. W. Stott (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 14, p. 390). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

The Hebrew noun šabbāṯ occurs as a loanword in Aramaic (st. abs. šabbāʾ, st. determined or emph. šabbeṯāʾ pl. šabbayyāʾ), Syriac (st. abs. šabbā, st. emph. šabbeṯā, pl. šabbîn), Arabic (sabt), and Ethiopic (sg. sanbat, pl. sanābet and sanbatāt).

Haag, E. (2004). שַׁבָּת. G. J. Botterweck, H. Ringgren, & H.-J. Fabry (Eds.), D. W. Stott (Trans.), Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (Revised Edition, Vol. 14, p. 389). Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

In Assyria also, the common units of time were the day, the week (hamuštum), half-month and month.

The commonly accepted value of the hamuštum, a week, was computed by K. R. Veenhof in 1996. The calculation of its length was made possible from a few texts that give at the same time the amount of the debt, the interest rate, the amount of the interest and the number of hamuštum for which the interest is due after the settlement date has expired. The result could be compared to the unique hamuštum almanach, Kt g/k 118, which seems to give a complete list of 50 to 52 hamuštum corresponding to a single year led to a hamuštum period of a seven-day week. Each hamuštum of this list is named for two merchants.

Source: https://halshs.archives-ouvertes.fr/halshs-00642826/document

Differences between Hebrew and Babylonian week

In Babylon, the final week of the month was extended as needed to match the lunar month, so the holy days could be 7, 14, 21, 29. It was these types of strategies that required standardization in Sargon of Akkad's reforms.

In the Mosaic law, the week was always seven days and allowed to drift away from the lunar month. So the holy days would be: 7, 14, 21, 28 and they would have separate lunar sabbaths that would be inserted (say on the 29th or 30th day) that didn't fall on the seventh day. Indeed, holy days were considered "sabbaths" whenever they fell, and there is evidence that the original feast days were celebrated according to lunar reckoning, so here too there is some conflict between the number 7 and the lunar cycle, but in the Mosaic Law the conflict was resolved by adding in more sabbaths rather than removing some as the Babylonians did.

The Sabbath day and rest

It was common to prohibit work on the holy day, for obvious reasons -- e.g. it was a holy day. But for the Babylonians work was prohibited because the day was considered unlucky, and thus bad for work. On the other hand, the Mosaic Law has a more positive description, emphasizing rest for the sake of resting.


All of the Mosaic Law should be viewed as reforming existing practices that were widespread rather than inventing brand new practices out of whole cloth. For example circumcision is practiced all around the world and dates to the stone age (hence the use of flint knives). All of the animal sacrifices, for example, were already in widepsread practice, especially in Canaanite religion. The use of cherubim in the temple, the concept of a most holy place, holy garments for priests, sacred numbers, the notion of an "ark", the idea of feast days to commemorate harvest, the new year, etc. These were all widespread, as was the week and the concept of a sabbath at the end of the week. The same held for purity laws, divorce laws, etc. We should view the revelation of Moses as reforming existing practices that were well known to everyone involved, which is why you don't need explanations on what circumcision is or how to do it, or you don't have a lot of explanations about animal sacrifices or how to calculate new moons -- people throughout the region were already well-versed in all these things. What Moses did was regulate and refine these practices, putting them into a coherent Law that directly tied into Israel's position as the bride of Yahweh.

Indeed this is consistent with the Biblical view that the Sabbath was instituted at creation, and thus known to Adam, and passed on through his descendents, together with the traditional notion that Revelation has been declared to the whole world (Psalm 19), but for the revelation declared to the whole world, it is mediated through a veil of visions and dreams and voiceless speech, whereas the revelation to Moses was clear and direct:

Numbers 12:5-8

And Yahweh went down in a column of cloud and stood at the doorway of the tent, and he called Aaron and Miriam, and the two of them went, and he said, “Please hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I, Yahweh, will make myself known to him in a vision. I will speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses; in all my house he is faithful. I will speak to him mouth to mouth, in clearness, not in riddles; and he will look at the form of Yahweh. Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?”

  • "So the holy days would be: 7, 14, 21, 28 and they would have separate lunar sabbaths that would be inserted (say on the 29th or 30th day) that didn't fall on the seventh day." Are you referring to the New month festival mentioned in Numbers 28:11? Why are you calling them sabbath? This is quite confusing. Can you elaborate more on this? – Bach Feb 14 at 20:06
  • Ancient Israel celebrated the lunar month and that was a more important holy day than the end of the week. Modern judaism, not so much. Many differences in holy days celebration between post-exilic judaism and the biblical era, and some of the celebrations were entirely forgotten (e.g. Judges 21.19). 'Sabbath' can refer to a holy day other than the end of the week. – Robert Feb 14 at 21:14

There are several things going on in this question that I will attempt to separate and a few assumptions that should be challenged.

1. Which Law?

Note that even a casual glance at the book of Genesis and Job suggests that the 10 commandments were well known, enforced and understood, even in places and countries before the Israelites existed, well before their formal documentation at Sinai. See appendix below. Therefore, Paul, in Gal 3:15-18 could NOT mean the giving of the law of the 10 commandments because it was known so much earlier.

Thus, "The law, introduced 430 years later" (Gal 3:17) was the Levitical law concerning the rites, ceremonies and temple procedures. It was these ceremonial laws and the temple that made the Jews to proud and legalistic and which were so roundly condemned, eg, 1 Sam 15:22, Ps 40:6-8, 51:16, 17, Prov 15:8, 21:3, Isa 1:10-17, Jer 6:3-6, 20, Hos 6:6, Micah 6:6-8 - The Jews confused the moral and ceremonial laws.

The various "laws" actually date from different times:

  • Edenic law (Gen 1:26, 28-30, 2:16, 17) dates from the time of Adam and Eve in Eden
  • Noahide law (Gen 8:20 – 9:17) dates from just after the flood
  • Levitical Law (also called the ceremonial law, Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27 , Num 3, 4, 8, 18, 25:10-13; see also Deut 33:8-11, Neh 13:29, Mal 2:4-8) dates from Sinai
  • Davidic or Royal law, or Jewish civil law (2 Sam 7, 23:5, 1 Kings 6:11, 12, 8:25, 1 Chron 17:11-14, 2 Chron 6:14-16, 7:17, 18, 13:5, Ps 89:4, 29, 34, 39, 132:11, 12, Jer 33:21, Eze 37:15-28) dates in part from Sinai and mostly from the time of David.

While the Israelites formally received the law of the 10 commandments at Sinai, people in many places were aware of them long before as the appendix below documents. This means that the moral law was known from creation as documented in Gen 2 & 3.

2. Application

The fact that the 10 commandments, or more correctly the moral law was so well known and enforced by God well before Sinai begs the question about it origin, which is not stated in the Bible.

Now, there have been numerous attempts and many theories about the Jews developing their moral code from one of the surrounding nations, such as from Hammurabi, etc. I will not dignify these theories with any discussion but take the Bible record at face value and conclude that the inspired author(s) of Genesis and Job clearly intended that the moral law existed from creation and was applicable to all people.

3. Other nations

Historically, the above is very difficult to prove from extra-biblical materials, but Robert has listed a summary of the available material in another answer. I will supply a few more hints by way of the language around the Sabbath commandment.

It is well-known that the seven-day week is almost universal and has been so from very early times (there are a few exceptions). The names of the days of the week fall into two broad camps:

(a) Those that name the days of the week after various sky gods (as in English and most Germanic cultures)

(b) Those that usually number the days of the week and call the seventh day "Sabbath" or some variant. These languages include:

  • Koine Greek (the language of the NT and 1st cent. Roman empire)
  • One form of Latin and the languages derived from its such as -
  • Old Portuguese (pre 6th cent), Galican, Asturian, Spanish, Italian, Neapolitan, etc.
  • Other for far flung languages such as - Mirandese, Tetum, Armenian, Somali, Malay, etc.

Now, the extent to which any of these cultures that used these languages actually observed Sabbath is an entirely separate matter - very few observed the Sabbath, but this survey shows that a knowledge of Sabbath was wide spread and ancient.

If the Sabbath was intended only for the ancient Israelites, then it would have presumably be unknown anywhere else, but this is obviously untrue. The fact that it was given in Creation week and sanctified suggests that its observance was intended to be widespread as a celebration of the Creator and His works.

APPENDIX - Ten Commandments or moral law, before Sinai

The following (far from exhaustive) list shows that people knew of the ten commandments well before the formal giving at Mt Sinai. Indeed, we have the very general comment –

  • Gen 26:5, because Abraham listened to My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.

Commandment #1 – Worship only YHWH:

  • Gen 22:5, 24:26, 48, 52 all describe worship of the true God of heaven, YHWH.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #2 – Idolatry prohibited

  • Gen 31:32-35 – Jacob clearly understood that idolatry was forbidden.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #3 –Cursing and taking the name of the LORD in vain prohibited

  • Job 1:5 – When these celebrations ended—sometimes after several days—Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, “Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.

Commandment #4 – Sabbath worship

  • Gen 2:1-3 – Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. And by the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on that day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on that day He rested from all the work of creation that He had accomplished.
  • Exo 16 also records the incident with manna and that collecting manna on the seventh-day Sabbath was forbidden

Commandment #5 – Respect for parents, elders and authority

  • Gen 28:6, 7 tells of the story of Jacob following his mother’s advice. Respect for parents is built into the very fabric of the patriarchal stories in Genesis.

Commandment #6 – Sanctity of Human life

  • Gen 4:8-12, 15 records Cain’s punishment for the sin of murder
  • Gen 9:5, 6 records that murder was prohibited under the ancient Noahide covenant

Commandment #7 – Adultery prohibited

  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for almost tricking a pagan king into committing adultery
  • Gen 19 records the appalling events involving attempted pack-rape of the two angels
  • Gen 39:7-9 – Joseph calls Potiphar’s wife proposal “a great evil and sin against God”.
  • Gen 49:4 – Reuben is scalded for his sin of incest
  • Gen 34 – the story of Dinah records a heinous incident involving her defilement (plus murder and lying)

Commandment #8 – Stealing prohibited and respect for property

  • Gen 30:33 – Laban and Jacob discuss the problem of stealing of wages and property
  • Gen 31:32-35 – Laban is angry about the sin of stealing the household gods

Commandment #9 – Lying prohibited; insistence of honesty and integrity

  • Gen 4 – the story of Cain being punished, among other things for not being honest with Abel and God in his statements
  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for lying to a pagan king about their marital status
  • In the story of Jacob, he is pejoratively called Jacob = “deceiver”, Gen 27:36.

Commandment #10 – Coveting prohibited

  • Gen 3:6 – the woman is tricked by the serpent using the sin of covetousness

Other Laws

Even the probation against eating blood is listed among the requirements in the Noahide covenant, Gen 9:4, 5.

  • if keeping the Sabbath holy is a moral imperative for all human kind, why does God claim it to be a sign of a lasting covenant between Him and the Israelites only? Did Abraham keep the Sabbath? – Spirit Realm Investigator Feb 14 at 14:52
  • @ Dottard...what a comprehensive and excellent answer. Please also include Revelation 14.12 "Here is the patience of the saints: here are they that keep the commandments of God, and the faith of Jesus" – Adam Feb 14 at 17:56
  • @apiritrealm....absolutely Abraham kept the Sabbath! – Adam Feb 14 at 17:58
  • @Adam - any evidence that Abraham kept the Sabbath? – Spirit Realm Investigator Feb 14 at 18:52
  • @SpiritRealmInvestigator - The texts that you quoted support the idea that the Sabbath and the rest of the 10 commandments are the sign/symbol of God's covenant people. But where do you get the idea that this applies to the Israelites "ONLY"; especially in view of the fact that even Egyptians were aware of the law in places like Gen 12:19-20? – Dottard Feb 14 at 19:54

To understand the ‘sabbath’, you use the New Testament. And, Hebrews 4 outlines this understanding. And, the sabbath always was. God instigated and demonstrated it as part of Creation. And, importantly, Man was created for it! Or more correctly, ‘it’, (Sabbath) was created for man.

What happened at Sinai was that the sabbath, which is foundational, and is absolutely integral In reflecting who God is, was [therefore obviously] an integral part of that covenant. And was part of the commandments.

So, to your question, “was the commandment to keep the Sabbath” [snip] to the Israelites only”. YES. As were all the commandments. But, what may confuse some is that the Sabbath is for all believers. It’s integral. Pivotal. So they ‘assume’ that the commandment is for all. But as we said, Hebrews 4 clearly outlines that the Sabbath is for all, and/but Galatians also clearly says the commandments aren’t.

And, your question specifically asked about the commandment.

  • Hi Dave. Can you please elaborate on this?: "And, importantly, Man was created for it!" – Ruminator Feb 14 at 23:56
  • In the pre-Moses myth of Enuma Elish, man was created to take the job of caring for the earth so the gods wouldn't have to! oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145/lecture-3 – Ruminator Feb 15 at 1:19
  • What do you think of the idea that the flood reversed the curse? – Ruminator Feb 15 at 17:32
  • What about this? [Gen 8:21 NKJV] (21) And the LORD smelled a soothing aroma. Then the LORD said in His heart, "I will never again curse the ground for man's sake, although the imagination of man's heart [is] evil from his youth; nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done. – Ruminator Feb 15 at 17:53
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – Ruminator Feb 15 at 18:23

2 points: #1a) Certain Sabbath laws were given in the Sin Desert as recorded in Ex 16 which according to the dates given there are prior to Sinaitic revelation.

#1b) The Deut Decalogue has the phrase "as God commanded you" in verse 12 (and also 16, but not generally) indicating a prior knowledge, probably referring to the Sin Desert Sabbath laws.

#2) The Ten commandments per se were given to the Israelites leaving Egypt but no exclusivity is mentioned there. To the extent that exclusivity is indicated it would come from the repetition of the Sabbath requirement of abstention from work in Ex31:12-17 which introduces the terms "sign" and "covenant". "Sign" (of a unique relationship) and "covenant" would indicate exclusivity.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.