Commentary on Deuteronomy 5:12-15
The Sabbath is usually only associated with rest. However, the Sabbath also emphasizes freedom from enslavement.
Most young people living in the U.S. today have probably never lived in a community with “blue laws” or “Sunday laws.” Although blue laws vary from county to county, they usually ban or restrict conducting business on Sundays. These laws, which are intended to enforce the observation of the Sabbath Day, are based on the third commandment (or fourth depending on the religious tradition) among the Ten Commandments or Decalogue (Greek for “ten words”; see also Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13; 10:4).1 God mandated that Moses should instruct the Israelites to keep the Sabbath as a day set apart for rest. Although what activities are considered permissible (worship only?) on the Sabbath, the statute decrees that its adherents should refrain from doing any work.
Law versus instructions or teachings
The Decalogue can be found in the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Torah or Written Torah is the first division of the Jewish Tanak, commonly referred to as the Hebrew Bible in academic circles. Christians refer to the Torah as the Pentateuch, a Greek word meaning “fivefold” volume. The translation of the Hebrew noun torah as “law” often leads to the term being misinterpreted, especially in Christian traditions, as a strict legal code and Judaism as a legalistic religion. However, the term is more accurately translated “instruction” or “teaching.” Therefore, torah is better understood as a collection consisting of both narratives and legal texts that comprise the core teachings for Jewish life and practice.
Although the Decalogue is included in the Torah, some Christians mistake the Decalogue for the Torah, and regard it as the core of God’s instructions. Despite differences of interpretation, many Jewish and Christian readers regard the Torah or Pentateuch as the law of Moses or Mosaic law because of the tradition that God revealed the law to Moses on Mount Sinai (also called Horeb). However, modern biblical scholarship has largely questioned the literary unity of the Torah and overall supports the theory that the Torah is a combination of material from different literary sources.
Different versions of the sabbath
There are two distinct versions of the Decalogue. The version most cited is Exodus 20:1-17, however Deuteronomy 5:6-21 is a lesser-known close parallel. Structurally, there is little difference between the two. Both open with the historical prologue giving the occasion for the covenant: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2; Deuteronomy 5:6). Both offer a list of stipulations. However, they are at variance with each other regarding the Sabbath.
Of all the statutes in the Decalogue, the commandment to observe the Sabbath maintains a place of centrality in the lives of Jews and Christians. Scholars are unsure whether the Hebrew noun shabbat for Sabbath is related to the Hebrew verb shabat, “to rest,” “to cease.” Nevertheless, the earliest mention of a day set aside for rest in the Bible is found in the first creation account (Genesis 1:1-2:4a). The rationale for the sabbath in Genesis 1 is that after God finished speaking creation into existence over a six-day period, God rested (shabat) on the seventh day, blessed it and set it apart from the other days (Genesis 2:2-3). Likewise, humans in imitation of God (imitatio Dei), are expected to honor every seventh day as set apart from the others by divine fiat.2
“Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we are free people”
The differences between Exodus 20:8-11 and Deuteronomy 5:12-15 initially appear to be insignificant. Exodus 20:8 states, “Remember (zakar) the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” In contrast, Deuteronomy 5:12 has “Observe (shamar) the sabbath day, and keep it holy, as the LORD your God commanded you.” The choice of the writer to use shamar, which also means “to keep,” is perhaps intentional given that “to remember” suggests naming or calling something to mind, while “to keep,” implies to habitually continue or cause to continue a course of action. However, the motive for keeping the Sabbath in Deuteronomy 5 is significantly different.
Both versions allot six days for laboring (Exodus 20:9; Deuteronomy 5:13). Yet, Deuteronomy 5:15 explains that the reason is because of God’s redemptive act on Israel’s behalf during the exodus experience rather than because God rested on the seventh day. The people are to keep the Sabbath in remembrance of their enslavement in Egypt. The Jewish prayer before and after the Sabbath meal expresses this viewpoint by including the words “Once we were slaves in Egypt, now we are free people.”
Both Exodus and Deuteronomy stipulate that rest from work is extended to everyone — male and female, free and slave, human and animal, citizen and alien (Exodus 20:10; Deuteronomy 5:14), a radical departure from common practice in the ancient world. However, Israel, in recalling its own labor under Egyptian taskmasters, demands rest for all creation. Theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez conveys the importance of freedom in the Deuteronomic instruction by stating that, “We have to observe the Sabbath, to rest (and make sure that others also rest), and to acknowledge that God is the source of our existence (Deuteronomy 5:12). However, we must not forget the reason for this rule: the liberation from the slavery endured in Egypt (verse 15).”3
- The numeration of the ten words also differs depending on the faith tradition – Jewish tradition considers the prologue as the first word, while several Christian traditions, including Lutherans and Catholics regard the prohibition of worshiping other gods as the first command – yet Christians and Jews recognize ten words or commandments.
- Which day is considered the seventh or sabbath – Saturday or Sunday – differs between Jewish and Christian traditions and even among Christians.
- Gustavo Gutiérrez, Sharing the Word through the Liturgical Year, trans. Colette Joly Dees (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 156.