The Decalogue and the Sabbath Discrepancy

The Ten Commandments, given by God at Sinai, have played a vital role in both the Jewish and Christian faiths ever since. Indeed, given that they reflect God’s character and enshrine is perfect will for the ordering of the human race in its entirety, these ten ‘words’ have impacted the nations among which God’s people have lived and had an influence.

Considering their weight and profile, it is hardly surprising that these same laws have been the focus of much debate throughout their history – notably as to whom they apply and how they should be applied in different settings. These issues have been widely documented and discussed in many places; but there is one detail that is worth highlighting here because it is often overlooked. It is what might be described as the [apparent] ‘Sabbath discrepancy’.

It stands out starkly when the two versions of the Decalogue (Ex 20.1-17; Dt 5.1-21) are compared. In the Exodus version, given by God on Mt Sinai, the Fourth Commandment reads,

Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy (Ex 20.8-11).

However, as Moses was preparing the Israelites for their entry into the Promised Land at the end of their journey, he reiterates the commandments, but with a significant alteration in the Fourth. In this instance it reads,

Observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy, as the Lord your God has commanded you. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your ox, your donkey or any of your animals, nor the alien within your gates, so that your manservant and maidservant may rest, as you do. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day (Dt 5.12-15) – italics added.

In light of these differences, it needs to be asked why God’s laws – which were inscribed in stone when originally given – could appear to be altered in any way.

The different wordings themselves provide the best clue. In the Exodus version, God’s rationale for the Sabbath is linked back to creation and God’s institution of the seventh day to be a Sabbath that was not only holy unto the LORD, but also uniquely blessed by him (Ge 2.1-3). Whereas, in the Deuteronomy version the rationale is linked to redemption: God’s deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt that was now on the verge of consummation when they would enter the Land of Promise.

In his book, Who Shall Ascend the Hill of the Lord,[1] Michael Morales explores this theme at length in conjunction with other studies. He argues, notably, that the climax of the days of creation in Genesis is not the creation of man on the sixth day; but, rather, the consecration of the seventh day as the Sabbath.[2] The chief end of man is located in this day as being set apart for communion with God and worship. This important insight helps us to make sense of the apparent discrepancy between the versions of the Decalogue in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

Given its place and function in the creation account, the Fourth Commandment as recorded in Exodus relates back to things as they were intended to be before sin entered the world. In that sense, the Sabbath was not merely a ‘creation ordinance’, as it is often described, but it was built into the very fabric of creation normality. Prior to the fall it had always been God’s intention that humankind should not merely ‘exist’ for his glory as his image-bearers; but that we should also ‘express’ his praise consciously and corporately in worship. This is further emphasised by the fact that time itself is an integral part of creation – seen in the repetition of ‘morning and evening’ – and its seven-day structure as marking out the perfect rhythm of life established by God for creation’s well-being.

Quite rightly, therefore, the Sabbath rationale in Exodus links the hallowing of the day to the celebration of God’s original creation in all its facets. This was how things were meant to be and, by implication, this is what they one day will be at the restoration of all things.

How, then, does this link to the change of vocabulary and focus in Deuteronomy? It does so by the hope of redemption and restoration that God revealed in the aftermath of the fall. Despite the gravity of God’s word of curse in response to Adam’s sin, the promise of rescue and restoration carries the greatest weight. So, if there is to be meaningful Sabbath celebration, it cannot merely be in the wistful memory of how things might have been if sin had never entered the world; it must include the joy of God’s salvation and where it will finally lead.

In that sense we can see the theological logic in the different but related angle on the Sabbath found in Deuteronomy. The deliverance through water at the Red Sea, God’s daily provision for his people through the wilderness and the prospect of ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’ – a new ‘Eden’ – just over the horizon all pointed to God as the Great Redeemer. Israel had every reason to rejoice in the Lord on his day because of his grace to them in salvation.

In light of all this, the wording of the Deuteronomy Sabbath command which links it to deliverance from Egypt should not make us think it is locked into the Old Covenant epoch. Quite the opposite, it should make us appreciate even more how the ultimate release from bondage and liberation to a whole new life is found in Christ. More than that, to see how these two versions of this same command converge in Paul’s declaration: ‘If anyone is in Christ: new creation!’ (2Co 5.17). There is no greater reason to gather for worship on God’s day!

[1] Morales, M., Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (Apollos, IVP; Nottingham) 2015, 39-74

[2] Ibid, 46-49


Mark Johnston