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ESV Exodus 31:

14 You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you.
[1] Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death.
[2] Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

Are there two different cases or just one same punishment?

What is the difference between profaning the Sabbath and working on it?

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  • 1
    Profaning or 'defiling' the sabbath is punishable by death. Working on the sabbath is punishable by removal from Israel. There are two different 'cases' and two different punishments.
    – Nigel J
    Dec 30, 2022 at 16:30
  • Thanks. I added a follow-up question.
    – user35953
    Dec 30, 2022 at 19:00

3 Answers 3

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In Israel, when used regarding a punishment for violation of the Law, it meant a cutting off in death. Some rabbinic scholars believe that it merely constituted expulsion from the congregation of Israel, though they differ widely in opinion.

By examining the Scripture texts naming the offenses for which this punishment is prescribed, it can be determined that it has reference to the death penalty, executed either by the authorities in Israel or by God himself. The crimes for which cutting off are prescribed are those of a most serious nature. They include disrespect of Jehovah (Israel’s God and King), idolatry, child sacrifice, spiritism, desecration of sacred things, and such disgusting practices as incest, bestiality, and sodomy. In some instances the death penalty is specifically mentioned in connection with the offense for which ‘cutting off’ is decreed as the sanction.​—Ex 31:14; Le 7:27; 18:6, 22, 23, 29; 20:3-6; 22:3, 4, 9; 23:28-30; Nu 4:15, 18, 20; 15:30, 31; see also Ex 30:31-33, 38. (excerpt from Insight vol 1 "Cutting Off")

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The Sabbath commandment states this:

Ex 20:8-11 - Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God, on which you must not do any work—neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant or livestock, nor the foreigner within your gates. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth and the sea and all that is in them, but on the seventh day He rested. Therefore the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and set it apart as holy.

Notice the careful wording here that has the following elements

  • instruction to keep the Sabbath holy/distinct
  • definition of what constitutes holy vs desecrate/profane is the idea of working on the Sabbath, AND
  • desecration also involves not worshiping God as Creator/Savior (see also Deut 5:12-15), but worshiping idols/foreign gods

Thus, idol worship constituted a desecration of the Sabbath. Note the following:

  • Eze 20:12 - I also gave them My Sabbaths as a sign between us, so that they would know that I am the LORD who sanctifies them.
  • Eze 20:16 - because they kept rejecting My ordinances, refusing to walk in My statutes, and profaning My Sabbaths; for their hearts continually went after their idols.
  • Eze 20:20 - Keep My Sabbaths holy, that they may be a sign between us, so that you may know that I am the LORD your God.’
  • Eze 20:24 - For they did not practice My ordinances, but they rejected My statutes and profaned My Sabbaths, fixing their eyes on the idols of their fathers.
  • Jer 17:27 - But if you do not listen to Me to keep the Sabbath day holy by not carrying a load while entering the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day, then I will kindle an unquenchable fire in its gates to consume the citadels of Jerusalem.’ ”
  • Isa 58:13 - If you turn your foot from breaking the Sabbath, from doing as you please on My holy day, if you call the Sabbath a delight, and the LORD’s holy day honorable, if you honor it by not going your own way or seeking your own pleasure or speaking idle words,

Thus, the Sabbath could be broken/defiled by either:

  • doing common work on the Sabbath
  • worshiping other idols, even during the week

Consequences

The prescribed punishment(s) for breaking Torah laws are set out several times in the Torah. Those crimes requiring someone to be "put to death" included:

  • Ex 21:12, 14, 15, Num 35:19, 30 - murder
  • Ex 21:16 - kidnaping
  • Ex 21:17 - cursing parents
  • Ex 21:29 - the owner of an ox that has a habit of goring and killing
  • Ex 22:19 - bestiality
  • Ex 31:14-17, Num 15:32-36 - desecrating the Sabbath, either by working or worshiping other gods
  • Lev 20:2 - worshiping a foreign god
  • Lev 24:16 - blasphemy
  • Num 3:38 - foreigners (who had not joined themselves top the LORD) who approached the sanctuary
  • Deut 13:5, 17:6 - false prophets

On the other hand, some crimes were to simply result in people being "cut off from his people", ie, expelled from the covenant community. Such crimes included:

  • Gen 17:14 - lack of circumcision
  • Ex 30:38 - making a perfume like the sacred sanctuary perfume
  • Lev 7:20 - eating sacred food while the person is "unclean"
  • lev 7:25 - eating fat
  • Lev 7:27, 17:13, 14 - eating blood
  • Lev 17:3-8 - ritually slaughtering an animal outside the camp
  • Lev 18:29 - deviant sexual practices
  • Lev 23:28, 29 - not keeping the Day of atonement holy by working
  • Num 15:30 - sinning defiantly

Thus, it appears that defiling the Sabbath, whether by doing common work, OR by worshiping a foreign god had BOTH consequences of being cut off from the covenant community, AND being put to death.

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  • +1 Great. How would you explain Matthew 12:5 have you not read in the Law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane [H953] the Sabbath and are guiltless?
    – user35953
    Dec 30, 2022 at 23:30
  • @TonyChan - Jesus explained that at the time - the priests have to work on Sabbath which would normally desecrate/profane the sabbath BUT, because they are priests and required to do this by the LAW, they are guiltless.
    – Dottard
    Dec 31, 2022 at 1:10
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They are not the same punishment. One is physical, the other spiritual. Cutting off expels the person from the covenant community. The death penalty in itself does not do that. There are cases when the "cutting off" (also called excision) is part of a death sentence, and other cases where it is not. For example, an Israelite who is not circumcised is to be "cut of from people" but is not to be put to death:

Any uncircumcised male who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin shall be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant. (Genesis 17:14)

On the other hand, there are cases where a death penalty does not carry with it an expulsion from the covenant. For example:

If he struck him down with an instrument of iron, so that he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. 17 And if he struck him down with a stone in the hand, by which a man may die, and he died, he is a murderer; the murderer shall be put to death. (Num. 35:16-17)

There seem to be cases where being "cut off" implies a death penalty without stating it, such as the case of human sacrifice. And there are others when the sentence is unclear, such as a man having sex with his wife during her menstruation. (Lev. 18:19-21)

Conclusion: to be "cut off" means to be expelled from the covenant community. It sometimes implies a death sentence, but not always. Moreover, a death sentence does not always carry the penalty of being cut off.


@Tony Chan added a follow-up question: "What is the difference between profaning the Sabbath and working on it?" This depends on the definition of "working." A good example is the "Sabbath's Walk" (Numbers 35:5), in which a short walk was permissible but not a long one. The rabbis, including those in Jesus' day, discussed the definition of work often. Is it "work" to heal someone, for example? Is it work to have sexual relations (the Samaritans said yes, the rabbis said no)? Is it work to buy something? How about blowing out a candle or cooking a meal? Does it count if a non-Jewish servant or friend does the work? Can you press an elevator button to get up to your apartment? (This is why many elevators in Israel stop on every floor on Sabbath days). Many of these issues are not addressed in the Bible directly, and much ink was used in the Talmud and by modern rabbis in attempts to resolve the issues.

Generally the answer is that it is work that profanes the sabbath. However, we should keep in mind that by the time the rabbis addressed the definition of work in detail, the law was no longer enforced requiring that a person might be put to death and/or cut off from the people for violations of sabbath law.

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  • +1 Thanks. I added a follow-up question.
    – user35953
    Dec 30, 2022 at 18:59
  • see also answers here. I will address your follow-up in my answer Dec 30, 2022 at 23:55

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