Wildcard Wednesdays: Is Shabbat Especially Israel's Possession?

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Let’s look today at some disputes and some biblical teachings about the Jewish people and their relationship to Shabbat.  I am defending the position that the Shabbat is uniquely the possession of the Jewish people and a covenant sign between them and God. Further, I think it disrespectful for people to ignore this.

I am NOT forbidding gentiles to keep a seventh day sabbath. Who am I to do such a thing anyway? Rather I am seeking to preserve the status of the Jewish people as a set-apart [holy] nation, with shabbat as their set-apart [holy] covenant sign. The Jewish people deserve a dignity fast eroding in our day. And shabbat has something to do with it.

1. The Jewish people and Shabbat share a unique relationship

The Torah has this statement about Shabbat:

You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the LORD. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31:14-17 ESV)

Yet, there are many people who, for various reasons, want to declare that the seventh day Sabbath is a universal ordinance. The tension for me is that God says that this is a covenant sign, like a wedding ring, between Himself and Israel. But others deny, or even resent that. Hmm. Let’s look at it for a moment.

2. That others enjoy the seventh day Shabbat does not diminish it’s special givenness to Israel 

Let’s say for a moment that non-Jews like and enjoy the seventh day Sabbath. Not hard to imagine. And that is fine. No one should forbid such a thing. But this does not diminish that shabbat is especially given to Israel and that this special relationship must be respected and preserved.

Just because others benefit from something does NOT diminish its special givennness to a particular group.  For example, the New Covenant is made with the House of Israel and the House of Judah [see Jer 31]. That Gentiles partake of its blessings does not change the fact that it is a covenant with the Jews. Gentiles also partake in the blessings of the Abrahamic covenant without thereby inheriting the Land of Israel!


3. The Sabbath being made for man does not diminsh these arguments.

Some argue that Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man,” as if this indicates its universality. Weak argument. When Jesus says that the sabbath was made for man, he was not saying it is the possession of humankind, but was rather arguing that the sabbath was not given to enslave people but restrict them in a harmful way, but rather as a blessing to them. But the people to whom the sabbath was given are the Jews. It is a covenant sign between Israel and God.


4. The creation account does NOT establish that shabbat was given to all humanind independent of God’s law at Sinai

Another argument that the Sabbath is given to all, and not especially to the Jews, comes from the Creation account in Genesis. The argument holds that the Sabbath was established prior to the establishment of the Jewish people, and that it therefore belongs to everyone. Let’s look at that for a moment.

First, the Jewish perception or Torah is that these earlier chapters are so structured as to set up the call of Abraham and of the Jewish people. The 11th century Jewish commentator Rashi, for example asks this question:

The Torah should have started from the verse in Exodus, “This month shall be your first month’ (12:2), which is the first commandment given to the people of Israel. Why, then, does the Torah open with ‘In the beginning, God created heaven and earth . . .’?” The reason is that “God revealed to His people His glorious creation so that they could receive their rightful inheritance from the nations of the earth.” (Psalms 111:6) In other words, should the nations of the world accuse the Jewish people of being robbers who have unlawfully taken the Land of Canaan from the seven nations (native to that land), the Jewish people can respond: ‘The entire world belongs to God. He created it and He has distributed portions of it in accordance with His plan. Just as He exercised His authority in granting the Land of Canaan to the seven nations, He exercised that authority in granting the Holy Land to us.

So you can see that these opening chapters of the Bible may, and I believe should, be seen with a view toward God’s intentionality for Israel, because it is THROUGH a blessed Israel that the nations are blessed.

Further evidence of the Israel-centiric and Torah-centric intentionality of the earlier parts of Torah even prior to Sinai are multiple. One should suffice which is for me, and many others, determinative. In Genesis 26, speaking to Issac of his father Abraham, God says this: “I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” Of course these words about Abraham keeping God’s commandments, statutes, and laws, pertain to the commandments, statutes and laws of Torah, given later on Mt Sinai. The Hebrew terms and categories are straight from Sinai and post Sinaitic legislation.

Because Genesis is one of the five books of MOSES it is unavoidable that Genesis, and the story of the seventh day Sabbath, was of course written from a Mosaic/people-of-Israel-centric point of view. Again, it is one of the five books of MOSES, and therefore it is logical and clear that even the creation account, and also the story of Abraham, who lived about eight hundred years prior to Moses, should be written with a Mosaic/Torah/Israel point of view. There is no alternative since Moses is the implied human author.

And the fact that the Bible begins with the first man and woman, demonstrates that all humankind shares a fundamental unity, but it is a unity in diversity, as first eleven chapter narrow down to one man, Abraham, who becomes the seed of that people upon whom the Older Testament will focus as the covenant bearers for the benefit of all. Unity in diversity. Diversity in unity.  These must both be maintained and kept in creational tension.

5. Shabbat is Saturday and it belongs especially to the Jews 

images-2I am not arguing against a Saturday Sabbath. Saturday is shabbat, and not Sunday. But in accordance with Scripture, “It is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested, and was refreshed.” Here in Exodus 31:17, the text even links shabbat as a creation ordinance to the Jewish people, Shabbat being linked also to our celebration of no longer being slaves in Egypt, and being made a test-case of Jewish covenantal faithfulness in the Torah and the prophets. I am not disallowing Christians from resting on shabbat. It is just that Scripture specifies it as a covenant sign between God and the Jews. It is like a wedding ring. You might try on your friend’s wedding ring, but to presume you can wear it any time you want and any way you want because you like it is just that, presumption.

Here is the underlying issue that causes much confusion:  All Christians become children of Abraham by faith. But they do not thereby become Jews. That is where the confusion lies.  Clear that up and everything else can be worked out.

I recognize that this is an emotional issue for some people, and I have learned that in such cases making a biblical argument makes no difference and only makes emotionalized people upset. So I am saying what I say not to convince but to establish what I believe to be true. I am also trying to preserve the dignity of God’s people Israel, in a day when it is being shredded either by disparagement, or by people adopting idiosyncratic Torah-ish behaviors and claiming to be biblically Jewish in the name of “Yahuaweh,” etc. This is surely not all or most gentiles, thank God. But the phenomenon is too widespread and is disrespectful to a holy people, their holy things and their holy God.


6. The mixed multitude argument.

Another argument I have heard is that there was a mixed multitude that received the Torah at Mt Sinai, so the Torah legislation was not given uniquely to the Jews. There are lots of problems here as well. First of all, the other authors of the Older Testament did not get the message. They keep insisting that Shabbat and Torah is the legacy of the Jewish people in contradistinction to any other people. They don’t make this “ mixed multitude argument.” The mixed multitude coming out of Egypt was a unique, one time situation, with these other people being absorbed as a one-time-only part of the political entity Israel in its wilderness wanderings, partaking in Israel’s blessings yes, but only there because they latched onto Israel when the Exodus happened. There was nowhere else for them to go other than back to Egypt. This is NOT parallel to the situation today when a Gentile believer is NOT joining a religious-political entity, and when he does and wants to observe Torah, there is a conversion process to legitimize that . . . or not. And besides, what people seem to miss is that Gentiles now become part of the people of God AS Gentiles through the work of Christ, and God’s designated place for them to go is the Church, of which we read what is now widely forgotten in the rush toward religious elitism: “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” [Ephesians 5]. Apparently he didn’t get the memo that the church is an apostate entity “beause they don’t celebrate the feasts,” an entity to be abandoned when and if one finds an elite substitute.

Paul says the inclusion of Gentiles in the people of God is a NEW THING, not something that started with the mixed multitude at Sinai. He says it is a mystery hidden until the time of its first century revelation, so he fails to confirm this shaky but sincere line of reasoning.


7. The One New Man.

Paul takes great pains in Ephesians to maintain the balance between UNITY and DIVERSITY. It is not uniformity, all being the same, nor is it unanimity, all agreeing, but unity in diversity. Paul expresses it this way in Ephesians 3:6 – “the Gentiles are fellow heirs and fellow members of the body, and fellow partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel,” This use of “fellow” three times in the Greek [sun] underscores that the Gentiles are NOT Jews, but have a partnering relationship with the Jews–but partnering is not the same as amalgamation. And the diversity must be maintained for God to be glorified in it.

The miracle of the One New Man is that God takes two entitites that formerly existed in contradistinction to each other and in enmity, and makes them to live together in peace, while yet remaining different. Part of the problem is that MANY Gentiles today have a naive view that “the church is apostate because they don’t celebrate the feasts,” and they are therefore looking for a new home, which they view to be special and elite–the MJ Movement. This is MOST unfortunate because its assumptions are false, and its aspirations naive. Messianic Judaism is NOT God’s more perfect religion, and the church is not a categorically apostate institution!


8. The creation account and the God who makes distinctions.

The entire creation account sets the stage, where we see that God’s creative activity is in making distinctions. This is crucial, because so much of the Bible’s talk about chosenness and holiness has to do with distinctions. It is foreshadowed in Genesis where we read, “And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. (Genesis 1:4 ESV), And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God made the expanse and separated the waters that were under the expanse from the waters that were above the expanse. And it was so.(Genesis 1:6-7 ESV); And God said, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens to separate the day from the night. And let them be for signs and for seasons, and for days and years, and let them be lights in the expanse of the heavens to give light upon the earth.” And it was so. (Genesis 1:14-15 ESV). The Jewish liturgy picks up on this, referring to God as “Hamavdil bein kodesh l’chol–the God who distinguishes what is holy from what is ordinary.” The Havdlah liturgy, where we separate the shabbat from the other six days of the week, speaks of God who distinguishes between light and darkness, between the holy and the profane, between Israel and the other nations, and between the six days of the week and shabbat.

In our postmodern age, making any kind of distinction is regarded as intrusive or biased. But this is not the Bible’s view, nor mine, nor should it be yours. Making a distinction is not prejudice–it is faithfulness to the warp and woof of creation and to the Creator’s intent. Neither does making a distiniction mark one enetity as inferior to another: just as different. And the Shabbat is uniquely God’s gift to his people Israel. That distinction is made in the Bible by a God whose nature it is to both unify and make distinctions.

And I for one prefer to play by God’s rules, and also to be respectful, and respectfully disagree with, those who read those rules differently.


1 Comment

  1. Great article on a hard subject, thanks!

    I’ve had difficult discussions with gentile friends in MJ about just this very thing. Often, I get a long silence, with a weird look. You’ve articulated well, in a non-threatening manner, your points of view.

    However, i think to avoid any possible equivocation, your language could have been stronger in one point, “the covenant sign between them and God.” Because you don’t repudiate a seventh-day sabbath for non-jews, and you repeat that Saturday/Shabbat is a “covenant sign between them [Israel] and God,” perhaps you might clarify that covenantal duty of making the Sabbath holy, that would distinguish or characterize the service of Israel from that of the gentile.

    Fun wildcard!

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