““Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the LORD your God; in it you shall not do any work, you or your son or your daughter, your male or your female servant or your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you. For in six days the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day and made it holy.”
Exodus 20:8-11 NASB
YHWH gives this Sabbath command for the people. This is more of an invitation to stop being restless and live in a restored relationship with YHWH, as at the beginning of creation. Not only is this invitation (command) for the people, but also for all of creation (animals, vegetation, land) to allow the created order to flourish, through times of rest, as designed by YHWH.
The Sabbath command is placed within the middle of the Decalogue, giving it significance to what YHWH finds important as well as show a balance in how to fully live out the relationship with YHWH (commandments 1-3) and with people (5-10). It is as if YHWH is saying, we are not able to accomplish this unless we take the time to rest (cease from normal work) and take the time to praise, celebrate, and glorify God on this holy day. “…the Sabbath would communicate that Israel’s whole life was to be lived in imitation of the Lord.” (Blackburn, 71) The covenant YHWH is making with Israel is working to set Israel apart, making them holy. This is something the people are to teach to their children, grandchildren, and through the generations.
זָכ֛וֹר֩ (remember) is used to begin this section of this commandment. The active state of remembering o keep the Sabbath day holy (set apart) is an act of keeping YHWH as the only God Israel would pay attention to and live for (commandment number one). “The force of the Sabbath, then, is not simply in remembering the fact that God created the heavens and the earth, but also remembering how he created the heavens and the earth, through establishing an order that brings blessing and ensures Israel’s well-being.” (Blackburn, 111) Again, this commandment is set here as a reminder (an invitation) to step into the creative work YHWH has done, is doing, and will do in the world. It is a command to live in such a way that Israel has a completely whole relationship with YHWH, not like the other nations who worship other gods. “Remember” is a key theme throughout the Pentateuch and the rest of the Old Testament. There were many times when Israel “forgot” YHWH and his law and chose to go their own way. But “remember” is also important with YHWH because he never forgets his people or his promises, something Israel was supposed to embody. “Remembering” the seventh day, as a day of rest, is a tangible reminder of what Israel was to be about—the work of God in the world as his priests and a holy nation to the rest of the world. ““Remembering” is more than a mental act, it is an active observance (see God’s remembering in 2:24).” (Freitheim, 229)
The seventh day (symbolic of the day YHWH rested) is a שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ (Sabbath to the LORD your God). This was to be a day different from the other six days of work. The Sabbath day is a day to stop doing “normal”, “everyday” work. “Derived from a verb meaning “to cease, stop,” especially from work, the sabbath day was patterned on the divine rest from labor at the termination of creation. It was a day of rejoicing and feasting, related particularly to creation (Ex 20:8-11).” (Alexander, 304) When Israel ceased from work, they were being set free from the burden of having to work for everything as the other days of the week. Stopping normal work allows Israel the opportunity to remember they need to rely on YHWH to provide for them, and to celebrate all that YHWH has done and has provided. “Not having to work freed the people from their material burdens so that they could celebrate their relationship with God and their families. On a holy day, numerous sacrifices were offered at the sanctuary to honor God and to provide an abundance of meat for feasting. Israel was commanded to make each *sabbath holy by observing it as a day of rest (Ex 20:8; Deut 5:12; cf. Ex 31:15; 35:2).” (Alexander, 425)
לֹא-תַעֲשֶׂה (you shall not) is expressed as an action that should not be taken in the future. YHWH giving this command, for future Sabbath days, is setting it apart and making it holy, making this day something different from the rest of the week. Brevard Childs writes, “Throughout the Old Testament the Sabbath is described as holy (Ex. 16:23, Lev. 23:3, Neh. 9:14, Is. 48:13).” (Childs, loc. 929) YHWH is working on making his people holy. At the same time, YHWH is using this command as a teaching moment to demonstrate the rhythm of creation. “God’s resting is a divine act that builds into the very created order of things a working/resting rhythm. Only when that rhythm is honored by all is the creation what God intended it to be.” (Fretheim, 230) As we have seen earlier, this command (invitation) is not just for the people; it is also for the created order (animals, vegetation, land). If Israel does not live into this command, then there will be consequences, and the consequences will bring chaos because there is not a time of rest. Not keeping the sabbath is a violation of the created order; it returns one aspect of that order to chaos. What the creatures do with the sabbath has cosmic effects.” (Fretheim, 230)
The Decalogue, Ten Commandments, teaches how Israel was supposed to live in the world. If Israel obeyed and kept this covenant, they would be blessed and be regarded as YHWH’s “treasured possession”. (Ex. 19:5) The people of Israel would experience the blessing(s) YHWH has in store for them. For Israel to experience the blessings this covenant would bring require them to be obedient to the voice of YHWH and keep their end of his covenant. If they do not keep this covenant, or obey his voice, the people will be like restless wanderers not able to find the rest, completeness, and identity they have in YHWH. “Restless wandering is a result of sin and its punishment. Thus *Cain was sentenced to be a “restless wanderer” (Gen 4:14 NIV), no longer able to settle and facing the insecurity of threats from enemies…Rest is therefore about more than safety and settlement; it also concerns restored relationships with Yahweh. It is an objective reality and an inner state.” (Alexander, 688)
Following the commands, and living into the invitation of YHWH’s rest allows Israel to live in a complete, restored relationship with YHWH. Israel as priests to the world would be the examples of how the rest of the world could enter into this kind of relationship with YHWH. “It is to this that Exodus 20 appeals, inviting Israel to participate in a weekly sabbath modeled on the original, very good creation (so also Ex 31:12-17).” (Alexander, 697)
Arnold, B. T., & Choi, J. H. (2003). A guide to biblical Hebrew syntax. Cambridge University Press.
Alexander, T. D., & Baker, D. W. (2003). Dictionary of the Old Testament : Pentateuch. InterVarsity Press.
Blackburn, W. R. (2012). The God who makes himself known : the missionary heart of the book of Exodus. Apollos.
Childs, B. S. (1986). Old Testament theology in a canonical context (1st Fortress Press ed.). Fortress Press.
Fretheim, T. E. (1991). Exodus. John Knox Press.