In various passages, God calls the Sabbath a "sign" (Hebrew, אות‎) between Him and Israel (all NKJV, emphasis mine):

"Speak also to the children of Israel, saying: 'Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it is a sign [Hebrew, אות‎] between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you.'" (Exodus 31:13)

"Therefore the children of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to observe the Sabbath throughout their generations as a perpetual covenant. It is a sign [Hebrew, אות‎] between Me and the children of Israel forever; for in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested and was refreshed." (Exodus 31:16-17)

"Moreover I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign [Hebrew, אות‎] between them and Me, that they might know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them." (Ezekiel 20:12)

"I am the LORD your God: Walk in My statutes, keep My judgments, and do them; hallow My Sabbaths, and they will be a sign [Hebrew, אות‎] between Me and you, that you may know that I am the LORD your God." (Ezekiel 20:19-20)

What does it mean that the Sabbath was a "sign" (Hebrew, אות‎) between God and Israel? Is the meaning that the Sabbath would distinguish Israel as the nation God sanctified and the nation whose God is Jehovah, perhaps in contrast to the Gentile nations?

2 Answers 2


The operative word, אוֹת (oth) used in Ex 31:13, Eze 20:12, 20, and correctly translated, "sign" is used of various things such as miracles, etc, see appendix below.

However, in all the instances quoted by the OP, the word is used in the technical sense of a sign/pledge of a covenant promise. In this case, the relevant covenant is the Israelite covenant as set out in Ex 19-23 involving the 10 commandments. This was distinct from the Levitical covenant (Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27 , Num 3, 4, 8, 18, 25:10-13, Deut 33:8-11, Neh 13:29, Mal 2:4-8).

All divine covenants had such "signs" such as:

  • The Noahide covenant sign was the rainbow, Gen 9:12,13,17
  • The Abrahamic covenant sign was circumcision, Gen 17:10, 11, 13
  • The Israelite covenant involving the 10 commandments (Ex 34:27, 28, Deut 9:9, 11, 15) had as its central object the "Ark of the Covenant" (Num 10:33, 14:44, Deut 10:8, 31:9, 25, 26, Josh 3:3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 17, 4:7, 9, 18, 6:6, 8:33, etc) or, “Ark of the Testimony” (Ex 25:22, 26:33, 34, 30:6, 26, 31:7, 39:35, 40:3, 5, 21, Lev 16:13, Num 4:5, 7:89, Josh 4:16, etc) is described thus precisely because it contained the stone tablets inscribed by the finger of God (Ex 31:18, Deut 9:10) with the Israelite Covenant of the 10 Commandments. 1 Kings 8:9, 2 Chron 5:10.

[This is conformed by the introduction of the term in Ex 24:7, the “Book of the Covenant” as already existing, ie, Ex 20:22 – 23:33. It served as an expansion and legal context in which to place the Israelite Covenant of the 10 Commandments.]

The Sign of the this Israelite covenant was the Sabbath, Ex 31:13, Eze 20:12, 20, and usefully helped to distinguish Israel from the surrounding nations as because of what they kept.

NOTE: The extent to which Israel was alone in keeping, or at least recognizing the Sabbath is debated as numerous European peoples and their various languages have also preserved the same result. For example, observe the word for “Saturday” in each of the following languages which means “Sabbath”: Subbota (Morduin), Subota (Permian), Szombat (Hungarian), Sabbaton (Greek), Sabato (Italian), Sabado (Spanish), Sabbado (Portuguese), Samedi (French), Sobota (Polish), etc, etc. Numerous ancient peoples (more ancient than Jesus and the apostles) similarly preserve Saturday as the seventh day, eg, Coptic, Kabyle, Pashto, Persian, Armenian, Kurdish, Brahuiky, Turkish, Lazen, etc, etc.

APPENDIX - Brown-Driver-Briggs entry for אוֹת

אוֺת noun masculine79 Exodus 4:8 (feminineJoshua 24:17) sign (Arabic , plural , Aramaic אָתָא, ) — ׳א Genesis 4:15 +; construct Genesis 9:12 +; plural אוֺתוֺת Exodus 4:9 #NAME?

1 sign, pledge, token Genesis 4:15 (J); אוֺת אֱמֶת true, token Joshua 2:12 (J); of blood of passover Exodus 12:13 (P); אוֺת לְטוֺבָה token for good Psalm 86:17; pledges, assurances of travellers Job 21:29.

2 signs, omens promised by prophets as pledges of certain predicted events 1 Samuel 10:7,9 + 1 Samuel 10:1 where ׳א insert ᵐ5 ᵑ9, see We Dr; especially phrase זֶה הָאוֺת לְ Exodus 3:12; 1 Samuel 2:34; 1 Samuel 14:10; 2 Kings 19:29; Jeremiah 44:29; Isaiah 7:11,14; probably also Isaiah 44:25 (of false prophets).

3 sign, symbol of prophets Isaiah 8:18 compare Ezekiel 4:3.

4 signs, miracles, as pledges or attestations of divine presence & interposition Exodus 4:8 (twice in verse); Exodus 4:9 (J) Exodus 7:3 (P) Exodus 8:19 (J) Psalm 74:9; 2 Kings 19:29; 2 Kings 20:8,9 = Isaiah 37:30; Isaiah 38:7,22; with עָשָׂה Exodus 4:17,30; Numbers 14:11,22; Joshua 24:17 (all J E) Deuteronomy 11:3; Judges 6:17; with צִוָּה Exodus 4:28 (J); with שִׁית Exodus 10:1 (J); with שִׂים Exodus 10:2 (J) Psalm 78:43; Isaiah 66:19; הָאוֺת וְהַמּוֺפֵת (see מוֺפֵת) Deuteronomy 13:3; compare Deuteronomy 28:46; Isaiah 20:3; ׳אוֺ מ ׳א Deuteronomy 13:2; אוֺתוֺת וּמוֺפְתִים Deuteronomy 4:34; Deuteronomy 7:19; Deuteronomy 26:8; Deuteronomy 29:2; Jeremiah 32:31; with נָתַן Deuteronomy 6:22; Nehemiah 9:10; with שִׂים Jeremiah 32:20; Psalm 105:27; with שָׁלַח Deuteronomy 34:11; Psalm 135:9.

5 signs, memorials, stones from Jordan Joshua 4:6 (J); metal of censers Numbers 17:3 (P); Aaron's rod Numbers 17:25 (P); עוֺלָם ׳א Isaiah 55:13 probably also Ezekiel 14:8 ("" מָשָׁל); signs on hands, etc., Exodus 13:9,16 (J) = Deuteronomy 6:8; Deuteronomy 11:18, probably belong here; also memorial pillar in Egypt Isaiah 19:20.

6 sign, pledge of convenant, הַבְּרִית ׳א (see ברית) e.g. rainbow, of Noachian convenant Genesis 9:12,13,17 (P); circumcision, of Abrahamic convenant Genesis 17:11 (P); the sabbath Exodus 31:13,17 (P); Ezekiel 20:12,20.

7 ensigns, standards Numbers 2:2 (P) Psalm 74:4.

8 signs, tokens of changes of weather & times Genesis 1:14 (P; of heavenly luminaries) אוֺתוֺת הַשָּׁמַיִם Jeremiah 10:2 (changes of the heavens as omens to frighten the nations) compare Psalm 65:9.

  • That makes sense. The Sabbath is connected with the covenant to Israel. This would seem to suggest that the Sabbath would be ended if the Ten Commandments were ended, just like circumcision would end if the Abrahamic covenant ended.
    – The Editor
    Commented Dec 18, 2021 at 21:52
  • @TheEditor - agreed. Note Jesus remarks about the law not changing in Matt 5:17-19 because the Israelite Covenant is eternal (1 Chron 16:17, Jer 50:5, Ps 105:8). But note the many cases where the 10 commandments are quoted as binding in the NT. The Levitical Covenant is eternal (Lev 24:8, Num 25:10-13, Ps 106:30) - Jesus is now High Priest. The Davidic Covenant is eternal (2 Sam 23:5, 1 Kings 9:5, 2 Chron 13:5, Eze 37:25, 26) - Jesus is now King. The Abrahamic Covenant is eternal (Gen 17:9, 13, 19) - the Jews still occupy the land of Israel. The Noahide Covenant is eternal (Gen 9:16)
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 18, 2021 at 23:00
  • 1
    The covenants being eternal does not necessitate the accompanying signs must continue in a literal sense, does it? For instance, the Abrahamic sign of circumcision is revealed as a spiritual circumcision of the heart and not of the flesh. Perhaps Jesus is our Sabbath rest all day every day. Commented Dec 18, 2021 at 23:15
  • I think @MikeBorden is right. There's a Sabbath rest that remains for us, one we must be diligent to enter (Hebrews 4:9-11). It appears the old covenant was replaced with the new (Hebrews 8:8-13). Romans 7:1-4 says we've become dead to the law, and verse 7 says the law taught, "You shall not covet," suggesting that even the Ten Commandments are part of the law we've become dead to (since the Ten Commandments are where the command, "You shall not covet," comes from). 2 Corinthians 3:7 even seems to call the Ten Commandments the ministry of death. So I don't think we're under old covenants.
    – The Editor
    Commented Dec 18, 2021 at 23:31
  • 1
    Comments should not be used for extended discussions. These questions are verging on systematic theology and might be the subject of a series of separate questions.
    – Dottard
    Commented Dec 19, 2021 at 0:25

A sign is a pointer, to get us looking in the direction to which the sign points. The sign is not the reality - the thing to which it points is the real point. The Sabbath was a sign, indeed, as shown by the 4 Old Testament verses you quote. As with circumcision (a physical sign of the covenant), so Sabbath-keeping combined to set God's covenant people apart. Yet in the New Testament we learn of the true significance of the circumcision sign, so we need to go there to learn of the true significance of the Sabbath sign.

I have little word-study info on the Hebrew but more on the Greek for 'sign' ('semeion' which corresponds to the Hebrew 'oth' so lessons can apply equally.) Here is a quote on the Greek.

'Semeion'- a sign; mark; or signal. It is the word from which our English semaphore is derived, indicative of signs made with flags... sign language. The Greek semeion occurs 7 times in the book of the Revelation. Miracle and wonder are not the same thing as 'sign', being far more excessive in description... A sign is not the thing signified. It is not the reality: it is an allegory. It is not the substance: it is a visionary shadow..." (The Revelation of Jesus Christ p276, John Metcalfe)

That is why Jesus said that the Sabbath was not made for man, but man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). Given that Jesus self-identified as Lord of the Sabbath in the very next verse, this gives the supreme answer to your question. It ultimately points to rest obtained by entering into God's heavenly rest, available only to those who rest from their own works (including literal sabbath-keeping as a means of obtaining salvation). That is why, in the O.T., Sabbath-laws also applied to the land, not just to people in the covenant. The land was also part of the covenant, being given to God's covenant people, and it was to literally rest every 7th year (for a year) and every 50th year. Then it would keep giving bountiful produce (Leviticus 23:15).

In the Bible, God's signs either point to something better which is to come (the sabbath-rest under Christ), or (as in the book of the Revelation) enable us to see spiritually what cannot be seen literally (e.g. the great red dragon who only reveals himself when that other great sign in heaven, the woman giving birth, draws him forth.) Perhaps a clear indication of this is the healing of the man let down through the roof by his friends.

At first Jesus says ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven’ but when the Pharisees begin to murmur about this Jesus challenges them; "Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'?" Jesus then proceeds to cure the paralysed man physically because, ‘I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins.’ The miracle was a sign that pointed to the authority of Christ on earth (Matthew 9:2-6).

Going back to the O.T. and your question: the sign of the Sabbath would only identify the nation of Israel as a people set apart by God to be holy bearers of his name for as long as they kept it. To the extent that they failed to keep the Sabbath, the reality of the Sabbath sign would fail to be seen, therefore the whole point of the Sabbath would be lost, especially when legalistic stances were taken.

Summary: The words 'sign' and 'miracle' (whether in English or Greek or Hebrew) are not interchangeable.

Miracles can be significant.

Yet miracles can be done by God or by demonic power.

Signs in heaven are sent by God.

The Sabbath sign was one such but for as long as people look to the sign and not the thing signified (entering into God's rest) they will miss the whole point of that sign.

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