CHAPTER IV: THE SABBATH IN THE LAW OF MOSES – Exodus 31:12-17
The following discussion reviews Chapter IV of Dr. Fruchtenbaum’s book “The Sabbath.” In this section of Chapter IV, Dr. Fruchtenbaum exposits Exodus 31:12-17.
(12) And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying,
(13) Speak thou also unto the children of Israel, saying, Verily my sabbaths ye shall keep: for it is a sign between me and you throughout your generations; that ye may know that I am the LORD that doth sanctify you.
(14) Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.
(15) Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the LORD: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.
(16) Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant.
(17) It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.
According to Dr. Fruchtenbaum:
There are seven observations concerning these verses. First, this passage follows the instructions concerning the Tabernacle. The work on the Tabernacle was holy work, but the law of the Sabbath still applies and supersedes, so they could not even do this holy work on the Sabbath day.
Secondly, the Sabbath is now called an ot, meaning a “sign” between God and Israel. The Sabbath is a sign that it is God who sanctifies or sets Israel apart from all other nations. It is a sign that God ceased to work after six days and rested on the seventh. As a sign, it could only be meant for Israel. It is a memorial of Creation. It is a sign of God’s covenant-relationship to Israel.
Thirdly, the Sabbath is a perpetual covenant, for it is a sign of the Mosaic Covenant. It is perpetual , meaning it was to be in existence as long as the Mosaic Covenant was in effect.
Fourthly, the penalty for disobedience was death.
Fifth , the specific command was cessation from work.
Sixth, profaning the Sabbath meant to work on the Sabbath and thus consider the Sabbath like any other day. They were to do no work, but to stay at home. And seventh, there is no command for corporate worship.
Dr. Fructenbaum asserts that “as a sign, [the Sabbath] could only be meant for Israel” because it signifies God setting them “apart from all other nations.” Yet, nowhere in the bible is the Sabbath restricted from also being a sign between God and others who seek to be sanctified by Him. God does not declare the Sabbath to be a sign between Him and any other nation, but it does not follow from this observation that Israel has a monopoly on the Sabbath. In fact, after the Sabbath became a sign between God and Israel, this did not prevent the Sabbath from also applying to Gentiles who resided in the area. Verses such as Leviticus 20:26 and Deuteronomy 7:6 confirm that God did indeed set Israel apart from the other nations, yet, the Scriptures also indicate that God did this so that Israel, through the keeping of His statues and judgments, would be an example to the world of holiness in dedication to God. This is why Deuteronomy 4:6 says:
Keep therefore and do [God’s statues and judgments]; for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the nations, which shall hear all these statutes, and say, Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.
This is also why Paul in Romans 2:17-20 says:
Behold, thou art called a Jew, and … art confident that thou thyself art a guide of the blind, a light of them which are in darkness, An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form of knowledge and of the truth in the law.
This is also why in Ezekiel 5:5-7 God tells us that He placed Israel “in midst of the nations and the countries” that were around her. Yet, the same passage reveals that rather than being an example, Israel served as an embarrassment to God. Israel did not “wrought any deliverance in the earth”(Isaiah 26:18) as might have been expected, for in Ezekiel 5:5-7 we read:
Thus saith the Lord GOD; This is Jerusalem: I have set it in the midst of the nations and countries that are round about her. And she hath changed my judgments into wickedness more than the nations, and my statutes more than the countries that are round about her: for they have refused my judgments and my statutes, they have not walked in them. Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Because ye multiplied more than the nations that are round about you, and have not walked in my statutes, neither have kept my judgments, neither have done according to the judgments of the nations that are round about you…
Nevertheless, the fact that God wanted the other nations to also join themselves to the Him and even gave Israel instructions regarding which gentiles were allowed to join His congregation (Deuteronomy 23), demonstrates that He wanted the the other nations to also keep his statues and judgments. Otherwise, why else would God require Israel-dwelling Gentiles to also keep the Sabbath in Exodus 20:10 and Deuteronomy 5:14? Why also does Leviticus 24:22 and Numbers 15:15 confirm that the Israelites and their Gentiles neighbors were required to keep the same laws? Why did God give Israel authority to enforce Sabbath observance upon these Gentiles (Nehemiah 13:16, 20-21) if the Sabbath only belongs to the Jews?
Those who have dutifully studied the Scriptures know Fructenbaum’s assertion to be false and not only because of the aforementioned verses, but also because Christ plainly declares in Mark 2:27 that the Sabbath was created for man (and not just the Jews). However, it is also worth noting that the moral injunction against the crime of murder was clearly in effect (Genesis 4:7-11) ever before God (in Exodus 34:28) used the Ten Commandments as the basis for a special covenant between Himself and Israel. Yet, no one would therefore argue that the sixth commandment suddenly became an exclusively Jewish commandment when Israel received the Decalogue at Mount Sinai. If the world coeval to the Hebrew Exodus had wrongly ignored the Sabbath as a creation ordinance, this would seem like the perfect opportunity for God to command the Israelites to “remember” the Sabbath so as to distinguish themselves from the other nations who had forgotten it. Their observance of the Sabbath would be a compelling sign to all nations that these were God’s people. Therefore, the student of Scripture must conclude that the Sabbath as a sign between God and Israel does not invalidate it’s applicability to the rest of the world, but rather confirms it!
Moreover, in Isaiah 56:1-8, God is seen thrice asking Gentile believers to keep His Sabbath (in verses 2, 4 & 6), thus any argument claiming that the Sabbath is exclusive to the Jews is not an argument derived from a clear reading of the Scriptures.
An Invisible Sign?
Regarding Dr. Fruchtenbaum’s second observation that the Sabbath ordinance is a sign, in order to properly see why this is an inadequate observation, the reader must first understand what it means for something to be a sign (biblically speaking), then determine whether this verse is espousing the idea that the Sabbath ordinance itself is the sign, or that the Israelites observance of the Sabbath ordinance is the sign. Unfortunately, Dr. Fruchtenbaum has glossed over this important distinction. It is this writer’s contention that the reader will come to find that only one of these two ideas is represented in the Exodus 31 passage. The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon defines the Hebrew word for sign—ot—as “a distinguishing mark” or a “remembrance.” This definition corresponds with WordWeb dictionary’s definition of a sign as “a perceptible indication of something not immediately apparent” or a “visible clue that something has happened.”
Now, if the Sabbath ordinance (as opposed to its observance) is indeed a sign between the Israelites and the Almighty, then this would mean that whether it was actually obeyed or not, the mere act of pondering on the Sabbath ordinance would always signify God’s sanctification of the Israelites as a people. The obvious problem that arises from this peculiar interpretation of Exodus 31:12-17 is that no actual Sabbath keeping is required if one is to merely regard the Sabbath ordinance as a sign. It is hard to imagine that this is what the Writer had in mind since in verse 13, He clearly requires that the Sabbath ordinance be kept. This is why in Ezekiel 20:20, God reminds the Israelites that it was the hallowing of His Sabbaths that was meant to be the sign.
Furthermore, how can the Sabbath ordinance be a sign to anyone if it isn’t capable of being seen or perceived by the senses? An empirically perceptible indication must be perceived by the senses but an ordinance is incorporeal–having no material form or substance. One can surely see and know that a group of people are Sabbath keepers; for every seventh day, their collective and visible absence from the rest of society would betray this practice. However, how does an onlooker observe an invisible concept like the Sabbath; it is merely an abstraction. Abstractions are not unobservable. There are many other signs in the bible; a few are: the “lights in the firmament of the heaven” (Genesis 1:14-15), the rainbow (Genesis 9:13-16), circumcision (Genesis 17:11), Aaron’s rod (Numbers 17:10), the 250 men swallowed by the earth (Numbers 26:10), and the twelve stones in Joshua 4:6. Now, what is it that all these signs have in common? Is it not that they are all visible and are thus capable of signifying something that isn’t? But how does one perceive with the senses an immaterial ordinance? On the other hand, and as mentioned earlier, one can easily see people keeping the Sabbath. A foreigner who saw Sabbath keepers refraining from work on the same day each week, would consequently remember that these people were in someway different from the rest; thus, the Israelites’ Sabbath keeping would serve as a sign to the foreigner of their peculiarity. We must therefore conclude that the Exodus 31:13 sign is not the Sabbath ordinance itself, but rather, the Sabbath ordinance’s observance by the Israelites.
For more information about the distinction between the Sabbath ordinance and its observance, the readers should examine the objection that is raised in regards to the Sabbath’s depiction as a sign in the review of Deuteronomy 5:12-15 [link to follow when published].
Was the Mosaic covenant a perpetual covenant?
The third point mentioned by Dr. Fructenbaum has many difficulties. First of all, Fructenbaum says that the reason why the Sabbath covenant is perpetual is because it is a sign of the Mosaic covenant. However, the bible clearly demonstrates the Mosaic covenant was anything but perpetual. Hebrews 7:18 tells us that “because it was weak and ineffective, the former commandment [covenant] has been annulled” while Hebrew 8:7 tells us that “if that first covenant had been faultless, then should no place have been sought for the second.” So we see that the Mosaic covenant was not perpetual in design nor practice. This means that the Sabbath covenant’s perpetuity can have nothing to do with its alleged signification of the Mosaic covenant.
Secondly, Dr. Fructenbaum says that the word perpetual in Exodus 31:16 means that the Sabbath covenant was to be in “existence as long as the Mosaic Covenant was in effect” but according to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew lexicon, the word “perpetual” (“olam” in Hebrew) actually means “forever”; so there is no basis for assigning such a disparate definition to a very clear term. Moreover, Fructenbaum’s argument that the perpetuity of the Sabbath covenant is tethered to the perpetuity of the Mosaic covenant (also known as the Sinai covenant), is unsubstantiated in this passage of Scripture. Unless we have a verse that specifically ties these two covenants together, there exists no basis for making the Sabbath covenant’s longevity depend upon the that of the Mosaic covenant. This is important because the Mosaic covenant is defined as a conditional covenant in Exodus 19:4-5 as evidenced by the “if … then” clause used to describe it; while the Sabbath covenant was defined as an everlasting covenant in Exodus 31 as evidenced by the word “perpetual” used to describe it. These definitions are substantiated later on in the Scriptures. The Mosaic covenant was subsequently broken by the Israelites (Jeremiah 31:31-33) and replaced by God (Hebrews 7:18, 8:7-13, 9:15, 12:24); while the Sabbath covenant not only continues until this present day, but is envisioned in the Scriptures as persisting into the millennial reign of Christ (Ezekiel 46:1) and into the eternity of the new heaven and earth (Isaiah 66:22-23).
Signs then, are by definition, visible clues that are supposed to remind us of invisible things such as a proposition. In Exodus 31:13, God puts forth the proposition that it is YHWH Who sanctifies the Israelites. This very proposition would be the answer that was given to anyone who wondered why the Israelites ritualistically refrained from work every last day of each week. The Sabbath ordinance in and of itself is a concept and is therefore not visible so it cannot serve as a sign. To be clear, the Sabbath ordinance is not what was written on the tablets that Moses received; the written words on the tablet that tell us about the Sabbath are themselves signs that point us to the actual Sabbath ordinance which is invisible. Moreover, merely thinking about the Sabbath ordinance without regard to anyone actually keeping the Sabbath does not remind anyone that it is God that sanctifies Israel. The undeniable conclusion is that the sign referred to in Exodus 31:13 is not the Sabbath ordinance as Dr. Fructenbaum has alleged, but is the act of keeping or obeying the Sabbath ordinance. Furthermore, the longevity of the Sabbath covenant is unrelated to the longevity of the Mosaic covenant since these two covenants aren’t coextensive. In fact, there is nothing tethering these two covenants together that appears in the Exodus 31:12-17 passage of Scripture. Of course, if the Sabbath’s longevity were tied to that of the Mosaic covenant as Fructenbaum suggests; since the bible tells us that the Mosaic covenant was superseded (Hebrews 7:18), it follows that the Sabbath is no longer in use as well. However, the problem with that conclusion is that Ezekiel 46:1 and Isaiah 66:22-23 tell us that the Sabbath is expected to continue up into the millennial reign of Christ and though out eternity. Therefore, we see that the Sabbath is indeed a perpetual covenant just as the bible tells us in Exodus 31:13.