Sabbath in the Bible

Before writing an update on how to observe Sabbath, I decided to do a word study on Sabbath and related terms. I wanted to find every reference in both the Old and New Testaments where the Hebrew and Greek words occurred, no matter how they were translated. I wanted to see the context in which they were used, see where they are used the most, and observe where they are not mentioned at all.

So, this preliminary study is basically a fact-finding mission. It starts with the words “Sabbath” and “Sabbaths” as found in the New American Standard Bible, 1995 Update.

Sabbath is a noun. The Hebrew word translated as “Sabbath” in the Tanakh, the Old Testament, is שׁבּת, shabbat, Strong’s number H7676. There are two exceptions, which I will address a little further down. In the New Testament, “Sabbath” is a translation of σάββατον, sabbaton, Strong’s number G4521 – again with two exceptions. Here are the Brown-Driver-Briggs and Thayer’s definitions for these two words:

BDB 7676    שׁבּת
1) Sabbath
.   1a) sabbath
.   1b) day of atonement
.   1c) sabbath year
.   1d) week
.   1e) produce (in sabbath year)
Part of Speech: noun feminine or masculine
A Related Word by BDB/Strong’s Number: intensive from H7673
Same Word by TWOT Number: 2323b

Thayer Definition: G4521    σάββατον
1) the seventh day of each week which was a sacred festival on which the Israelites were required to abstain from all work
.   1a) the institution of the sabbath, the law for keeping holy every seventh day of the week
.   1b) a single sabbath, sabbath day
2) seven days, a week
Part of Speech: noun neuter
A Related Word by Thayer’s/Strong’s Number: of Hebrew origin H7676

In Hebrew, nouns are usually derived from verbs. The noun shabbat is derived from the verb shabat, meaning to cease, desist, and rest.

BDB H7673    שׁבת
BDB Definition:
1) to cease, desist, rest
.   1a) (Qal)
.      1a1) to cease
.      1a2) to rest, desist (from labour)
.   1b) (Niphal) to cease
.   1c) (Hiphil)
.      1c1) to cause to cease, put an end to
.      1c2) to exterminate, destroy
.      1c3) to cause to desist from
.      1c4) to remove
.      1c5) to cause to fail
2) (Qal) to keep or observe the sabbath
Part of Speech: verb
A Related Word by BDB/Strong’s Number: a primitive root
Same Word by TWOT Number: 2323, 2323c

I began by making a list of all the passages (not just individual verses) where the noun “Sabbath” occurs. That complete list is at the end of this article. After examining all passages in the list, I started making notes about some of the things I found. In this study, I am not attempting to find doctrinal conclusions or make any kind of analysis as to how we should observe the Sabbath day. These are just a few straightforward facts.

In The Hebrew Bible – The Old Testament

The first occurrence of the word Shabbat is in Exodus 16. It might come as a surprise that there is no mention of Sabbath in Genesis. To be fair, the verb from which the shabbat is derived, shabat, occurs twice at the end of the first creation account. However, there is no indication in Scripture that anyone ever kept the Sabbath or that God ever commanded a Sabbath observance prior to Israel leaving Egypt.

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.
(Genesis 2:1-3)

The first instruction to observe Sabbath is given when God provides manna for the Israelites. (We must acknowledge here that “Israel” is not limited only to descendants of Jacob. When Israel left Egypt, they were a “mixed multitude” of people who have come together to follow the one true God – Exodus 12:38.) This happened sometime after the parting and crossing of the sea and before arriving at Mount Sinai and receiving the Ten Commandments.

Now on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for each one. When all the leaders of the congregation came and told Moses, then he said to them, “This is what the LORD meant: Tomorrow is a Sabbath observance, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over put aside to be kept until morning.” So they put it aside until morning, as Moses had ordered, and it did not become foul nor was there any worm in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.”

It came about on the seventh day that some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. Then the LORD said to Moses, “How long do you refuse to keep My commandments and My instructions? See, the LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore He gives you bread for two days on the sixth day. Remain every man in his place; let no man go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.
(Exodus 16:22-30)
(I have capitalized the word Sabbath here. It is not capitalized in the NASB 1995 but is capitalized in the NASB 2020.)

The first time we read the word Sabbath in Scripture, it is not the Hebrew word shabbat. The two words “Sabbath observance” translate the single Hebrew noun שׁבּתון shabbaton, Strong’s number H7677 (one of the two times I mentioned that Sabbath is not translated from shabbat H7676). Brown-Driver-Briggs defines this not as the Sabbath, but as the observance of the Sabbath.

BDB H7677    שׁבּתון
BDB Definition:
1) Sabbath observance, sabbatism
.   1a) of weekly sabbath
.   1b) day of atonement
.   1c) sabbatical year
.   1d) of Feast of Trumpets
.   1e) of the 1st and last days of the Feast of Tabernacles
Part of Speech: noun masculine
A Related Word by BDB/Strong’s Number: from H7676
Same Word by TWOT Number: 2323d

The next time Sabbath comes up in Scripture is at Mount Sinai when the Ten Commandments are given.

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)

These are words directly spoken by God. In Deuteronomy, Moses repeats these commandments, and this one reads just a little differently.

Observe the Sabbath day to keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you. ‘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 or your male servant or your female servant or your ox or your donkey or any of your cattle or your sojourner who stays with you, so that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you. ‘You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the LORD your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm; therefore the LORD your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.
(Deuteronomy 5:12-15)

An interesting thing to note is that all the instructions for how to remember/keep/observe the Sabbath are in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), excluding Genesis. A possible exception to this is in Isaiah 56 and 58 where God reiterates that Sabbath is for all people choosing to follow him, even those identifying as “foreigners.”

After arriving in the Promised Land, Sabbath is not mentioned again until Kings David and Solomon start assigning duties to priests in the new Temple. That doesn’t mean Sabbath wasn’t observed after it was initially commanded, only that there is absence of any discussion of it in the early history of Israel. There is no record of Sabbath observance during the time of the Judges or the reign of King Saul.

The second instance of the word “Sabbath” in the NASB Old Testament translating something other than shabbat (H7676) is in 2 Chronicles 36:21. This time, the phrase “kept sabbath” is from shabat (H7673), the verb meaning to cease, desist, and rest.

Those who had escaped from the sword he carried away to Babylon; and they were servants to him and to his sons until the rule of the kingdom of Persia, to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, until the land had enjoyed its Sabbaths (H7676). All the days of its desolation it kept Sabbath (H7673) until seventy years were complete.
(2 Chronicles 36:20-21)

Sabbath in the New Testament

In the New Testament culture, however, Sabbath observance the accepted practice in Israel. Yeshua is criticized for healing on the Sabbath at least five times. All three synoptic Gospels record the instance of Yeshua and his disciples picking and eating grain on the Sabbath. And on at least two occasions Yeshua is specifically mentioned as teaching in the Synagogue on the Sabbath.

At the time of the crucifixion and resurrected, Yeshua’s body was not to remain on the cross during the Sabbath (John 19:31), which was also referred to as a “high day” possibly in reference to the first day of Unleavened Bread. The two Marys bought spices (Mark 16:1) after the Sabbath, which again could reference the feast day. The account of the Marys visiting the tomb is interesting, in that the same Greek word sabbaton is translated two different ways.

Now after the Sabbath (G4521 plural), as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week (G4521 plural), Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave.
(Matthew 28:1)

When the Sabbath (G4521 singular) was over, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James, and Salome, bought spices, so that they might come and anoint Him. Very early on the first day of the week (G4521 plural), they came to the tomb when the sun had risen.
(Mark 16:1-2)

In both of these passages, “day” is not in the Greek text. Literally it reads “the first of the Sabbaths” (see Young’s Literal Translation). The same is true in John 20:1 and John 20:19.

The term “a Sabbath day’s journey” is used in the first chapter of Acts. No further explanation is given, so it must be assumed that in this culture people knew what the term meant. This phrase is not in the Hebrew Bible, and probably reflects rabbinic ruling at the time.

Acts tells us Paul and his companions were in the Synagogues every Sabbath. Twice Acts records that Moses and the Prophets are read in the Synagogue every Sabbath. However, in his letters Paul mentions the Sabbath only once in Colossians 2:16. The word sabbaton is used in 1 Corinthians 16 in the phrase “first (day) of the week.”

There are two times in the NASB New Testament where “Sabbath” is not a translation of sabbaton. One is a compound word that includes sabbaton (G4521), prosabbaton (G4315), meaning “before the Sabbath.”

When evening had already come, because it was the preparation day, that is, the day before the Sabbath (G4315)…
(Mark 15:42)

The second is in Hebrews 4:9 with the word sabbatismos (G4520). Thayer’s says this means “a keeping sabbath,” thus it is similar to the Hebrew sabaton (H7677), a Sabbath observance. This is the only place in the New Testament where this Greek word is used.

So there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God.
(Hebrews 4:9)

Other than once in Colossians and once in Hebrews, Sabbath is not mentioned in any other New Testament letter or the Revelation.

Sabbath That Isn’t Sabbath

Two passages in the Torah clearly describe the Sabbath day without using the word Sabbath. I mention the absence of the word here just to complete the study.

You shall sow your land for six years and gather in its yield, but on the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the needy of your people may eat; and whatever they leave the beast of the field may eat. You are to do the same with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days you are to do your work, but on the seventh day you shall cease from labor so that your ox and your donkey may rest, and the son of your female slave, as well as your stranger, may refresh themselves.
(Exodus 23:10-12)

You shall work six days, but on the seventh day you shall rest; even during plowing time and harvest you shall rest.
(Exodus 34:21)

One final note should be made on the Hebrew word shabbaton (H7677). This word is always used in conjunction with the word shabbat (H7676), indicating a Sabbath reinforced with a Sabbath observance. The only exception to this is in Leviticus 23 describing Yom Teruah (the Feast of Trumpets) and the first and eighth days of Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles). They are described as a shabbaton Sabbath observance, but are not called by the name shabbat Sabbath. Neither of the words shabbaton or shabbat are used to describe any days during matzot (the Feast of Unleavened Bread) or Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks, Pentecost).

So there you have it, every usage of the words for Sabbath in the Old and New Testaments. With this as a foundation, we can now set out to find just what the Sabbath is and how to observe it.

Unless marked otherwise, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible (NASB) © The Lockman Foundation

H7676 שׁבּת

Exodus 16:23,25,26,29
Exodus 20:8,10,11
Exodus 31:13-16
Exodus 35:2-3
Leviticus 16:31
Leviticus 19:3,30
Leviticus 23:3
Leviticus 23:11,15,16
Leviticus 23:32
Leviticus 23:38
Leviticus 24:8
Leviticus 25:2,4,6,8
Leviticus 26:2
Leviticus 26:34,35,43
Numbers 15:32
Numbers 28:9-10
Deuteronomy 5:12,14,15
2 Kings 4:23
2 Kings 11:5,7,9
2 Kings 16:18
1 Chronicles 9:32
1 Chronicles 23:31
2 Chronicles 2:4
2 Chronicles 8:13
2 Chronicles 23:4,8
2 Chronicles 31:3
2 Chronicles 36:21
Nehemiah 9:14
Nehemiah 10:31,33
Nehemiah 13:15-19,21,22
Psalm 92:1
Isaiah 1:13
Isaiah 56:2,4,6
Isaiah 58:13
Isaiah 66:23
Jeremiah 17:21,22,24,27
Lamentations 2:6
Ezekiel 20:12,13,16,20,21,24
Ezekiel 22:8,26
Ezekiel 23:38
Ezekiel 44:24
Ezekiel 45:17
Ezekiel 46:1,3,4,12
Hosea 2:11
Amos 8:5

H7677 שׁבּתון

Exodus 16:23
Exodus 31:15
Exodus 35:2
Leviticus 16:31
Leviticus 23:3
Leviticus 23:24
Leviticus 23:32
Leviticus 23:39
Leviticus 25:4
Leviticus 25:5

G4521 σάββατον

Matthew 12:1,2,5,8,10-12
Matthew 24:20
Matthew 28:1
Mark 1:21
Mark 2:23,24,27,28
Mark 3:2,4
Mark 6:2
Mark 16:1,2,9
Luke 4:16,31
Luke 6:1,2,5-7
Luke 13:9,10,14-16
Luke 14:1,3,5
Luke 18:12
Luke 23:54,56
John 5:9,10,16,18
John 7:22,23
John 9:14,16
John 19:31
John 20:1,19
Acts 1:12
Acts 13:14
Acts 13:27
Acts 13:42,44
Acts 15:21
Acts 16:13
Acts 17:2
Acts 18:4
Acts 20:7
1 Corinthians 16:2
Colossians 2:16

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