The Sabbath, the Sign of the Covenant

31:12-18 and 35:1-3

    DIG: Before setting before the Israelites all the work that they had to do in building the Tabernacle, why did the LORD remind them about the Sabbath? If the project was the top priority, why not work overtime? 31:18 finishes what God had to say to Moses on Mount Sinai. What is the beginning point for these covenant terms?

    REFLECT: How do you view the Sabbath rest? A necessity or a luxury? When you relax, do you feel guilty? Why or why not? What duties crowd out your Sabbath rest? Would you say the Sabbath rest is as much a focus in your life as it was for the Israelites? Why or why not? What day of the week is your Sabbath rest?

    The Sabbath, or Shabbat, would become the sign of God’s covenant with Moses, just as the rainbow was the sign of God’s covenant with Noah (Genesis 9:12-17), and circumcision the sign of God’s covenant with Moses (Genesis 17:9-14). Before beginning to work on the Tabernacle and its furnishings, ADONAI reminded the people that they were not to work on the Sabbath in order to get it completed sooner. The continued building of the place of worship on the day of worship would be a great sin.477

    Moses assembled the whole of the Israelite community and said to them, this is what ADONAI commands: You must observe My Sabbaths every week. This will be a sign between Me and you for the generations to come. The purpose of the Sabbath is so you may know that I am the LORD, who makes you holy (31:12-13, 35:1-2). It is, in other words, a reminder of who God is and what His intentions are for His people. Despite the desire of God to build the Tabernacle, the work should not override the sanctity of the Sabbath. We also see here what Jesus meant when He said: The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). The regular keeping of the Sabbath helps us to understand God better and love Him more.478

    Observe the Sabbath, because it is holy to you. For six days they were to work, but on the seventh day they were to rest. This was not to be violated, even for something as holy as building the Tabernacle. It was a test of the nation's commitment to the LORD. Anyone who desecrates it was to be put to death.

    The seventh day is an armistice in man’s cruel struggle for existence, a truce of all conflicts, personal or social, peace between man and man, man and nature, and peace within man. It is an exodus from tension, a liberation of man from the muddiness of this life. In the stormy ocean of time and toil there are islands of stillness where we may enter a harbor and reclaim our dignity. The island is the seventh day. The Sabbath, then, is more than an armistice, more than an interlude; it is a profound conscious harmony of man and the world. It unites what is below with what is above. On that day all the world is brought into union with God.479 Therefore, whoever does any work on that day must be cut off from his or her people (31:14). Which would result in death.

    They were to observe the Sabbath even when building the Tabernacle. Because the nation was in a covenant relationship with Him, the people were to do as He had done. For six days, work is to be done, but the seventh is a Sabbath of rest, holy to ADONAI. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day must be put to death. Do not light a fire in any of your dwellings on the Sabbath day (31:15, 35:3). Moses reaffirmed God’s insistence that no work was to be done on the Sabbath – not even the lighting of a fire. If a man was caught gathering sticks on the Sabbath Day, he was stoned to death in Israel. To this day, orthodox Jewish communities retain the services of Gentiles to light cooking or heating fires for them on the Sabbath.480 These passages were obviously meant to warn the Israelites not to work on the Sabbath. They were to celebrate the Sabbath for the generations to come as a lasting covenant (31:16). To ADONAI, breaking the Sabbath was the same as breaking the covenant.

    It will be a sign between Me and the Israelites forever, for in six days ADONAI made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he abstained from work and rested (31:17). Sabbath rest is anchored not just in the written word, but also in the creation itself, because the LORD rested on the seventh day.481 This passage expressly says that the Israelites, not the Church, were to keep the Sabbath.482

    Moses had entered the Shechinah glory on Mount Sinai and had stayed there for forty days and forty nights. Now at the end of that time, what God spoke was then etched in stone. He then gave Moses the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments that He had promised in 24:12. Probably all Ten Commandments were written on each tablet, which was the common way suzerain treaties were written at that time. One was made for the suzerain and the other for the vassal. When ADONAI finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, His instructions regarding the Tabernacle and its priestly ministries were complete. The tablets of stone and the writing on them came from the finger of God (31:18), that is, He is the author and the source of them. That exact phrase is found earlier in 8:19 where the magicians of Egypt recognized that the plague of gnats came from the power of God.

    To put it another way, the Tabernacle was a holy space; the Sabbath, by comparison, was a holy time. By building the Tabernacle and setting apart one day in seven, God was truly recreating heaven in space and time. Weekly Sabbath worship was holy time on holy ground. There was no more holy spot on the face of the earth than the Tabernacle on the Sabbath. We can clearly see how important the Tabernacle, and later the Temple, was to Isr'el’s identify as God’s people. By entering the Tabernacle, Isra'el entered ADONAI’s house; by keeping the Sabbath, Israel entered God’s rest.483

    Of all the commandments in the Torah, none is dealt with more frequently in the TaNaKh than resting on the Sabbath. That fact underscores its great importance to the people of God. And it should be no less important for us today than it was in biblical times.484 It is part of our blueprint for living.


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