EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is an excerpt from 40 Questions about Christians and Biblical Law by Thomas R. Schreiner (Kregel Academic & Professional).

Believers today continue to dispute whether the Sabbath is required. The Sabbath was given to Israel as a covenant sign, and Israel was commanded to rest on the seventh day. We see elsewhere in the Old Testament that covenants have signs, so that the sign of the Noahic covenant is the rainbow (Gen. 9:8-17) and the sign of the Abrahamic covenant is circumcision (Gen. 17). The paradigm for the Sabbath was God's rest on the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3). So, too, Israel was called upon to rest from work on the seventh day (Exod. 20:8-11; 31:12-17). What did it mean for Israel not to work on the Sabbath? Figure 5 lists the kinds of activities that were prohibited and permitted.

The Sabbath was certainly a day for social concern, for rest was mandated for all Israelites, including their children, slaves, and even animals (Deut. 5:14). It was also a day to honor and worship the Lord. Special burnt offerings were offered to the Lord on the Sabbath (Num. 28:9-10). Psalm 92 is a Sabbath song that voices praise to God for his steadfast love and faithfulness. Israel was called upon to observe the Sabbath in remembrance of the Lord's work in delivering them as slaves from Egyptian bondage (Deut. 5:15). Thus, the Sabbath is tied to Israel's covenant with the Lord, for it celebrates her liberation from slavery. The Sabbath, then, is the sign of the covenant between the Lord and Israel (Exod. 31:12-17; Ezek. 20:12-17). The Lord promised great blessing to those who observed the Sabbath (Isa. 56:2, 6; 58:13-14). Breaking the Sabbath command was no trivial matter, for the death penalty was inflicted upon those who intentionally violated it (Exod. 31:14-15; 35:2; Num. 15:32-36), though collecting manna on the Sabbath before the Mosaic law was codified did not warrant such a punishment (Exod. 16:22-30). Israel regularly violated the Sabbath—the sign of the covenant—and this is one of the reasons the people were sent into exile (Jer. 17:21-27; Ezek. 20:12-24). 

FIGURE 5A: WORK PROHIBITED ON THE SABBATH 

Kindling a fire                  Exod. 35:3
Gathering manna              Exod. 16:23-29
Selling goods                   Neh. 10:31; 13:15-22
Bearing burdens              Jer. 17:19-27 

FIGURE 5B: ACTIVITIES PERMITTED ON THE SABBATH 

Military campaigns          Josh. 6:15; 1 Kings 20:29; 2 Kings 3:9
Marriage feasts               Judg. 14:12-18
Dedication feasts            1 Kings 8:65; 2 Chron. 7:8-9
Visiting a man of God     2 Kings 4:23
Changing temple guards  2 Kings 11:5-9
Preparing showbread and putting it out   1 Chron. 9:32
Offering sacrifices           1 Chron. 23:31; Ezek. 46:4-5
Duties of priests and Levites  2 Kings 11:5-9; 2 Chron. 23:4, 8
Opening the east gate      Ezek. 46:1-3 

During the Second Temple period, views of the Sabbath continued to de­velop. It is not my purpose here to conduct a complete study. Rather, a number of illustrations will be provided to illustrate how seriously Jews took the Sab­bath. The Sabbath was a day of feasting and therefore a day when fasting was not appropriate (Jdt. 8:6; 1 Macc. 1:39, 45). Initially, the Hasmoneans refused to fight on the Sabbath, but after they were defeated in battle they changed their minds and began to fight on the Sabbath (1 Macc. 2:32-41; cf. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 12.274, 276-277). The author of Jubilees propounds a rig­orous view of the Sabbath (Jubilees 50:6-13). He emphasizes that no work should be done, specifying a number of tasks that are prohibited (50:12-13). Fasting is prohibited since the Sabbath is a day for feasting (50:10, 12). Sexual relations with one's wife also are prohibited (50:8), though offering the sacri­fices ordained in the law are permitted (50:10). Those who violate the Sabbath prescriptions should die (50:7, 13). The Sabbath is eternal, and even the angels keep it (2:17-24). Indeed, the angels kept the Sabbath in heaven before it was established on earth (2:30). All Jewish authors concur that God commanded Israel to literally rest, though it is not surprising that Philo thinks of it as well in terms of resting in God (Sobriety, 1:174) and in terms of having thoughts of God that are fitting (Special Laws, 2:260). Philo also explains the number seven symbolically (Moses, 2:210).