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Exodus 31:14-15 NKJV

14 You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you. Everyone who profanes it shall surely be put to death; for whoever does any work on it, that person shall be cut off from among his people. 15 Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh is the Sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

God says "whoever does any work".

Matthew 12:10-14 NKJV

10 And behold, there was a man who had a withered hand. And they asked Him, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—that they might accuse Him.

11 Then He said to them, “What man is there among you who has one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep? Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and it was restored as whole as the other. 14 Then the Pharisees went out and plotted against Him, how they might destroy Him.

As God is all-knowing, what I'm wondering is:

Is there anything in the text that lends itself as a reason why God did not include "doing good" as an exemption from work on the Sabbath in Exodus?

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4 Answers 4

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Yes, there were allowed exceptions to the Sabbath rest law. It’s known today within certain forms of Judaism, as the spirit or heart of the law. Preventing harm and death of humans or animals is and was allowed, even on High Holy Days. Even in Jesus’ day. That was a known and applied valid interpretation.

Consider that this command applied also on a Sabbath:

Thou shalt not see thy brother’s ass or his ox fall down by the way, and hide thyself from them: thou shalt surely help him to lift them up again. Deut 22:4 KJV

Note that as Jesus did with God’s commandments (lust with the eyes = adultery in the heart), He took things a step further, and included “doing good” as the OP also noted in Matt 12:10-13.

Consider too this second example by Him of interpretation of the Sabbath rest law and it’s exceptions:

And he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And, behold, there was a woman which had a spirit of infirmity eighteen years, and was bowed together, and could in no wise lift up herself. And when Jesus saw her, he called her to him, and said unto her, Woman, thou art loosed from thine infirmity. And he laid his hands on her: and immediately she was made straight, and glorified God. And the ruler of the synagogue answered with indignation, because that Jesus had healed on the sabbath day, and said unto the people, There are six days in which men ought to work: in them therefore come and be healed, and not on the sabbath day. The Lord then answered him, and said, Thou hypocrite, doth not each one of you on the sabbath loose his ox or his ass from the stall, and lead him away to watering? And ought not this woman, being a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan hath bound, lo, these eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the sabbath day?” Luke 13:10-16 KJV

As to the OP’s question of why “doing good” wasn’t specifically included in God’s original directives concerning Sabbath rest: that mystery may have opinions, but won’t truly have an answer.

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  • That was a good example. +1
    – Jason_
    Commented Mar 3 at 8:39
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To add to the previous answers:

The Sabbath

God was very, very serious about His command in Exodus 31:13-17 (and others). Violators were to suffer the death penalty! So, what is the Sabbath?

There are two key words in the commandment:

• The word, Holy, is qodesh (SH 6944), which means set apart, dedicated.

• The word, work, is melakah (SH 4399), which means occupation, work

A lot depends on the definition of work. Notice the deliberate parallelism in the commandment to God’s creation and our seven-day week! We are, after all, made in the image of God, including God’s creativity on a tiny scale. A question that might be considered is whether our keeping of the Sabbath is in respect and reverence to God’s six days of creation and the day of rest on the seventh.

Also notice that no specific examples or explanations were included in the command–unlike the tenth commandment, about not coveting. I believe this omission was also deliberate to discourage legalistic application, which was done anyway. All 613 commands of Torah were contentiously expanded to thousands of laws, including “fences” around each law to prevent accidental infringement. For example, is it okay to wear dentures on the Sabbath or turn on a light switch? The answer to both cases is they are absolutely not permitted. Don’t believe me?

“In summary, all permanent bridgework, or cemented or wired (i.e., permanent) braces do not constitute an interposing barrier (chatzitzah) and therefore do not hinder the regular process of tevilah. However, removable dentures, removable braces, removable bridges and the like must be removed before tevilah. The application of a surgical dressing to the gums during extensive gum work may require a delay in the time of tevilah. Rabbinic consultation should be sought in such cases as each case must be adjudicated based upon the particular circumstances of that case.” – from jlaw.com

Now, imagine the mental state and attitudes resulting from successfully and strictly complying with all these laws. Did you know that the Essenes prohibited the work of defecation on the Sabbath? Remember, the specified penalty for violation was death!

Several Responses from Jesus

Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat.” He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?

You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’”

But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” – Matthew 15:1-3, 7-9, 18-20 ESV

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. – Matthew 5:17,18 ESV

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lustful intent has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matthew 5:27,28 ESV

“For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” – Matthew 5:10 ESV

Ouch! Jesus is implying that the strict observance of Torah by the scribes and Pharisees was not adequate in God’s sight!

Conclusion

"Doing good" on the Sabbath was not included in Exodus because God’s stated intent was to set the Sabbath apart from the other days for us to rest from the work we perform every other day to produce something of value. God called the seventh day a day of “rest” in remembrance of His day of rest. We can see by example that during the exodus from Egypt, God instructed the people not to do the work of gathering and cooking food on the Sabbath, but to save up enough manna on the sixth day to last through the seventh day.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day's portion every day, that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.” – Exodus 16:4,5

He [Moses] said to them, “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’ – Exodus 16:23 ESV

To reconcile these assertions by Jesus leads us to conclude that we cannot achieve justification by means of Torah, but rather by trusting in God to provide our justification by means of the work of Jesus.

Let me also note that the role of Torah in the lives of Gentile believers was the subject of significant controversy in the early church, culminating a letter from the apostles and elders to the church at Antioch found in Acts 15:23-29. The role of good works as the fruit of our transformed lives is affirmed in several places in the New Testament, not the least of which is in the letter from James.

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  • +1. That was a very informative read.
    – Jason_
    Commented Mar 3 at 8:35
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Although there is no permission given to "do good [work]" generally on the Sabbath, the text does indicate that there were exceptions to the rule about "no work.". Specifically:

Numbers 28:9

On the Sabbath day, make an offering of two lambs a year old without defect, together with its drink offering and a grain offering of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour mixed with olive oil.

Leviticus 6:12-13 NASB

12 The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it. It shall not go out, but the priest shall burn wood on it every morning.

These, of course are exceptions based on positive commandments related to the Temple ceremonies. But regarding other types of work, the text does not make exceptions.

In a sense, the issue here is not what is in the text but what not in the text: namely a definition of "work." As time went on the practice of the Torah law went through centuries of refinement and interpretation. Eventually the rabbis more or less settled on thirty-nine forbidden categories of work although there remain both major and minor differences of opinion on these.

Despite Sabbath violations being a capital crime in the Torah, this was rarely enforced. By the time of Jesus and for centuries before this, we have no evidence of anyone being put to death for working on the Sabbath - and especially not for doing good on the Sabbath. So the law appears to have been substantially relaxed. However, there were indeed debates about this issue among the rabbis, Jesus being one of them. The school of Hillel took a more liberal stance on Sabbath observance, while the school of Shammai took a stricter line. Written sources are scarce outside of the NT but here are a few examples:

Acts of Charity:

Shammai says: ‘Contributions for the poor are not allotted on the Sabbath in the synagogue, even a dowry to marry an orphan young man to an orphan young woman. Quarrels between husband and wife are not adjudicated and one does not pray for the sick on the Sabbath.’ The house of Hillel permits these activities.” (Tosefta Shabbat 16:22)

Ridding one's home of vermin:

Beth [the House of] Shammai says: ‘One does not kill a moth on the Sabbath.’ Beth Hillel permits. The Shammaite view is elaborated upon by one of its most distinguished adherents, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus... “He who kills a vermin on the Sabbath is as if he slew a camel.”

Treatment of the sick and mourners

Beth Shammai... forbids visiting the sick on the Sabbath. The house of Hillel rejects the Shammaite view in these matters... Beth Shammai [also] prohibits the consolation of mourners on the Sabbath (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 12a)

Jesus comforted and prayed for the sick on the Sabbath, thus healing them. This would have been opposed by the followers or Shammai, but approved of by the disciples of Hillel.

Conclusion: The Torah specifically allows "doing good" works on the Sabbath only in regard to observances in the sanctuary. However, the definition of "work" was not entirely clear. By the first century, rabbinical authorities had various views on how strictly the Sabbath laws must be upheld in this regard.

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  • Definitions! Definitions. I'm honestly surprised that they didn't have a definition for 'work'. I feel like it makes the command from God more difficult to understand. Especially if one thinks that they are saved by works of the law! +1
    – Jason_
    Commented Mar 3 at 8:38
  • @Jason_ The rabbis taught that God continued to reveal the Torah through "the traditions of the elders" - also called Oral Torah. Commented Mar 3 at 17:31
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Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor תַּֽעֲבֹ֔ד֮, and do all thy work מְלַאכְתֶּֽךָ֒: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God ...
Exodus 20:8-10 (KJV)

  • תַּֽעֲבֹ֔ד֮ - shalt thou labor (from Strong's H5647 ʿāḇaḏ), i.e. 'serve your own needs'.

  • מְלַאכְתֶּֽךָ֒ - thy work (from Strong's H4399 - mᵊlā'ḵâ), i.e. to do 'your own work' or conduct 'your own business'.

If for six days one's own needs are served, and one's own business is conducted, surely it obvious whose needs are to be served, and whose business is to be conducted on the Sabbath.

This is what flabbergasted Jesus concerning the religious leaders of his day:

5... Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?
Luke 14:5 (KJV)

They were moved to go to the aid of a beast in need of help on the Sabbath day, but had no heart to do the same for their own people.

Isaiah records:

Say to them that are of a fearful heart, Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. Isaiah 35:4-6 (KJV)

When Isaiah wrote, "Say to them...", who was he commanding to speak? For whom were the words, "Be strong, fear not," to be an encouragement? The beasts?

Matthew records Jesus words to John's disciples:

... Go and show John again those things which ye do hear and see: The blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them.
Matthew 11:4-5 (KJV)

The fulfilment of Isaiah's words were being played out in plain sight of the religious leaders. God had come to them just as he said he would.

Conclusion:

The bounds for serving one's own needs, and conducting one's business were fixed in the law, but so too were God's needs, and God's business:

  • And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
    Deuteronomy 6:5 (KJV)

  • Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself: I am the LORD.
    Leviticus 19:18 (KJV)

Surely on the Sabbath day (at the very least), "doing good" should not have been an issue for one who knew and understood the Law.

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  • I think that this is a good answer! Good details. +1
    – Jason_
    Commented Mar 7 at 0:28

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