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The Sabbath: Sign of the Covenant

Covenant sign Sabbath signs token old covenant Moses Mount Sinai tablets of the covenant

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Now that we understand that the Sinai covenant is a renewal of the Covenant of the Lord made originally with Abraham and it is not the Old Covenant, it is worthwhile looking specifically at another aspect of this covenant. The Sabbath seems to hold a special place in the Sinai covenant.

At the time of Abraham, God set the token of His covenant as circumcision. Although some think the Sabbath was a covenant unto itself (Ex 31:16), it is just as likely that the Sabbath was simply the outward token by which the keepers of the Sinai covenant would be identified. "Surely My Sabbaths you shall keep, for it [the keeping] is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. 14You shall keep the Sabbath, therefore, for it is holy to you" (Ex 31:13-14). Note vs. 17-18, "It is a sign between Me and the children of Israel forever; ...And when He had made an end of speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave Moses two tablets of the Testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God."

This is a direct and immediate connection with the Sinai covenant. God reminded Moses of the importance of His Sabbaths in the Sinai covenant and then gave him the tablets of that covenant that He had just written with His own finger.

This conversation took place about forty days after the confirming of the covenant in Exodus 24. Israel had already agreed to keep the weekly Sabbath and three major annual Festivals (Ex 20:8, 23:14-16). It seems much more likely that keeping the Sabbath was referred to in the context of a covenant (Ex 31:16), simply because it was the sign or token of the covenant to which they had just agreed. This is similar to the way circumcision was named as the token of ‘My covenant’ in Genesis 17. God simply chose to emphasize something different this time.

Note the importance Mr. Klein attaches to the sign of the Covenant of the Lord. "As a further detail in the parallelism of external appearance it is tempting to see in the sabbath sign presented in the midst of the ten words the equivalent of the suzerain's dynastic seal found in the midst of the obverse of the international treaty documents. Since in the case of the Decalogue the suzerain is Yahweh, there will be no representation of him on the seal, but the sabbath is declared to be his "sign of the covenant"(Ex 31:13-17). By means of his sabbath-keeping, the imagebearer of God images the pattern of that divine act of creation which proclaims God's absolute sovereignty over man, and thereby he pledges his covenant consecration to his Maker. The Creator has stamped on world history the sign of the sabbath as his seal of ownership and authority. That is precisely what the pictures on the dynastic seals symbolize and their captions claim in behalf of the treaty gods and their representative, the suzerain."

We should take a little time to examine the annual Sabbaths. Where the Sabbath is discussed in Exodus 20:8-11 it seems to be specific to the weekly Sabbath. However, Exodus 23:10-11 includes the land Sabbath in the Sinai covenant. I would never have understood the need for a land Sabbath based on Exodus 20:8-11. However, these items discussed after Exodus 21:1 are judgments and statutes instructing us in how to apply the Words of the Covenant of the Lord, the Ten Commandments to various situations.

Apparently, God understood that the observance of a land Sabbath was not intuitively obvious based on Exodus 20:8-11. So He was careful to mention it in Exodus 23. Also in Exodus 23 three major annual festivals are enjoined, but not all annual festivals are mentioned. "14Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: 15You shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty); 16and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in the field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field."

Given that during Moses trip up Mt. Sinai he received the first set of the tablets of the covenant, it makes sense that God might clarify or remind Moses of some of what was stated in the covenant itself. (If not for Israel’s benefit, perhaps for ours.) So we saw that before repeating His instruction on the weekly Sabbath, God states that all SabbathS are to be kept (Exodus 31:13).

If this was not enough, this same feeling is closely mimicked in Exodus 34:10-28 where God writes the second set of tablets. Again God repeats the need to observe the three harvest festivals and the weekly Sabbath. "22 And you shall observe the Feast of Weeks, of the firstfruits of wheat harvest, and the Feast of Ingathering at the year's end. 23 "Three times in the year all your men shall appear before the Lord..." (Ex 34:22-23). The festival of Unleavened Bread is enjoined in verse 18. The weekly Sabbath is enjoined in verse 21. Note verse 27, "Then the Lord said to Moses, "Write these words, for according to the tenor of these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel." Certainly the Feast of Unleavened Bread, Feast of Weeks and Feast of Ingathering (Tabernacles), which is commanded just 4 verses before, is an integral part of the Sinai Covenant.

So when God says, "Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (Ex 20:8). He not only means the weekly Sabbath, but the land Sabbath, the pilgrimage Sabbaths and how can we eliminate His other annual Sabbaths, Atonement, Trumpets and the Last Great Day? The latter are not fully detailed for us until Leviticus 23. When they are detailed each is presented as a day of holy convocation. No customary work is to be done, just as with the other Sabbath Festivals of the Lord. Why would they be treated differently than the other Sabbaths?

Interestingly, the Hebrew word usually translated ‘day’ in Exodus 20:8 is ‘yowm’. Its primary meaning is indeed ‘day’. However, it carries with it secondary meanings of ‘time’ and ‘year’. In the immediate context of Exodus 20:8-11 certainly ‘day’ is a reasonable translation. However, in the larger context of the entire Sinai covenant including especially Exodus 23:8-16 ‘time’ is just as valid a translation. That would have Exodus 20:8 saying ‘Remember the Sabbath time to keep it holy’.

Although Exodus 20:9-11 seems to be specific to the weekly Sabbath, these verses draw authority from the creation. The purpose and plan of the creation is pictured in the annual Sabbaths. So it is not a great stretch to understand that Exodus 20:8 was intended to include every Sabbath of the Lord, i.e. every day in which no work was to be done as detailed in the law. All Sabbath time.

Technically, Exodus 31 and 34 would not be part of the legal document of the Sinai covenant, since it was written later. However, Moses and God undoubtedly communicated to each other more detail than is recorded for us in Exodus 20-23 (Ex 19:7, 16:28). It seems apparent, because of its close association with the tablets of the Sinai covenant, that God expected at the time He spoke the Words of the Covenant in Exodus 20, that Israel would observe His Sabbath, every Sabbath of His. Exodus 31 & 34 are just reminding and emphasizing to Moses what God had already told him.

Chapters 31 & 34 in Exodus are simply clarifying for us the intention of the words of the Covenant of the Lord. They do not really add anything to the Sinai covenant. They simply clarify and reinforce what had already been agreed upon. Since it is mentioned so often it seems it must have been of great importance to the Creator. Can we ignore these occasions and still claim the blessings of the Covenant?

Holy day history

Since "Abraham obeyed my voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws" (Gen 26:5). It follows that Abraham kept the same law that God asked Israel to keep with the Sinai Covenant, the Covenant of the Lord. The basic covenant was the same. It was the ‘My Covenant’ (Ex 19:5, Deu 4:13), which is the same 'My law' (Hos 8:1, Ps 78:10, Eze 22:26) that will be written on the heart of those who embrace the New Covenant (Heb 8:10).

If that were the case, Abraham would have observed the annual Holy Days as well as the weekly Sabbath. The annual holy days are just as much a part of that covenant as is the weekly Sabbath itself. However there are some who find this hard to believe since they find no hint that Abraham observed the annual Holy days.

Of course for that matter, there is no specific mention that he kept the weekly Sabbath either. Many will allow that Abraham kept the Sabbath because it was clearly established in Genesis 2:2-3.

Those who keep the Holy days recognize that in them is contained an understanding of God's plan of salvation. This includes momentous events from the rescue of Israel out of Egypt to the return of Christ and God the Father establishing his residence with man on a renewed earth. Of course we know that plan was determined before the world was created (I Pet 1:20).

Notice Ezekiel 20:12. "Moreover also I gave them my Sabbaths, to be a sign between them and Me, that they might know that I [am] the LORD who sanctify them".  If one is to really understand who God is and how He works among His people one will probably need a first hand knowledge of these Sabbath days.

The Passover was a memorial of Israel's deliverance from Egypt. It was also celebrated in anticipation of Jesus sacrifice. Christ would die to redeem us on this very day some 1500 years after the Passover of Egypt.

Actually Jesus birth may have been anticipated in the day of Trumpets or the Festival of Tabernacles. The Festival of Trumpets is more associated with Christ's second return, but it could fit His first coming too. Tabernacles pictures when God will tabernacle with his people. Certainly Jesus began to do this when he was born. The Hebrew word that would have been used to describe the manger in which Jesus was born is 'succoth'. Succoth is also the Hebrew name for the Feast of Tabernacles.

Anyway, if God knew Jesus was going to be required to come to earth and die for mankind (I Pet 1:17-21), He must have known the other events pictured in the Holy days would need to occur as well.

Although it is really not critical that we resolve this for sure one way or the other, it is nevertheless worth a little time. Is there indeed no hint that Abraham was aware of, or respected the annual Holy days?

We saw in Exodus 12:40 that Israel sojourned 430 years before they came out of Egypt on the first day of Unleavened Bread, also known as Passover. We saw that based on the Septuagint of Exodus 12:40 and based on Galatians 3:16-17, this 430-year sojourn was from the promises that God made to Abraham.

At least some of these promises are recorded in Genesis 15:13-16. Here God tells Abraham that his children would be strangers in a strange land. They would serve the rulers of that land and be oppressed. Then God would bring judgment against that land and the children of Abraham would come out with great possessions. That sounds like a promise to Abraham.

Exodus 12:41 adds an interesting bit of information to the picture. "And it came to pass at the end of four hundred and thirty years - on that very same day - it came to pass that all the armies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt."

Was this from the 'very same day’ that Israel went into Egypt? No, they were only in Egypt about 250 years. The 'very same day’ is tied to the 430 years. Therefore, considering Galatians 3:17, it is from the very same day the promise was made to Abraham in Genesis 15.

This was the very same day that God made the covenant with Abraham (Gen 15:18). The day Israel left Egypt described in Exodus 12:40-41 was the first day of Unleavened Bread. The Jews typically describe it as Passover or the first day of Passover. So the covenant that God cut with Abraham was cut on the evening beginning the first Holy day of Unleavened Bread, 430 years to the day before Israel left Egypt! Certainly God had His annual Holy day plan well in mind from the time He knew what Christ's role would be.

Would God initiate His covenant with Abraham on an annual holy day of His (Lev 23:2, 4 6) and make no further note of it to Abraham? "Shall I hide from Abraham what I am doing, since Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him?" (Gen 18:17-18). God didn't hide his plan for Sodom. Why would He hide His plan for all mankind in particular Abraham's own Savior?

We forget sometimes that God does not necessarily make all details in which we are interested perfectly clear. Remember the account of the rich young ruler and Jesus (Mat 19, Mark 10, Luke 18). It would have clarified the importance of the Sabbath for some if Jesus had included, "keep the Sabbath" in his comments. He did not.

When Jesus was asked why he spoke in parables he indicated that he didn't intend to teach some things in a manner everyone could understand (Mat 13:10-11). Why didn't he want everything to be perfectly clear? At this point my best answer is Hebrews 11:6. "But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek him." If God laid everything out very clearly would we need to be diligent? What kind of diligence would we develop if everything were laid out clearly? How could God give us the benefit of the doubt if we knowingly rejected crystal clear instruction?

God told Moses that Abraham kept His law. In Exodus 20 God again detailed His law to all Israel. Exodus 21-23 lists other major points of that law and some details we would probably not otherwise understand. Can we believe that was the same code of conduct by which Abraham and for that matter, probably all the prophets lived? I Chronicles 16:15-18 is quite clear that His covenant, the Ten Commandments (Deu 4:13), was made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the nation of Israel.

Abraham was in need of a savior just as much as all the rest of us. Why would God hide His plan as pictured in the annual Holy days from the father of the faithful? At the least, God and Abraham must have memorialized this covenant between them, which occurred the first day of Passover 430 years before the Passover that was first named to us. The annual Festivals are God's, not Israel's nor the Jew’s, and have been so since the beginning.