Sabbath in the Old Testament: Meek

                       Journal of Biblical Literature 33 (1914) 201-12.

                                             Public Domain.





                                    (Its Origin and Development)



                                   THEOPHILE JAMES MEEK




THE question of the Hebrew Sabbath is still one of the vex-

in, problems of Old Testament study, despite Langdon's

declaration that "the origin and meaning of the Hebrew Sabbath

are philologically and historically clear" (Sumerian and Baby-

lonian Psalms, p. XXIII). The conclusions presented in this

paper may not be without their difficulties, but to the writer, at

least, they seem best to represent the evidence as at present

known. It may be of interest to note that they were arrived at

quite independently of Zimmern, Meinhold and others, with

whose conclusions it was afterwards found they are in general


It was Zimmern in 1904, in the "Zeitschrift der Deutschen

Morgenlandischen Gesellschaft", who first suggested in print

that the Sabbath was originally the day of the full moon. Mein-

hold followed him in 1905 with a more elaborate treatment of

the thesis, Sabbat und Woche im A. T., and again in 1909

in the "Zeitschrift fur Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft". The

hypothesis has been accepted by Beer (Sabbath: Der Mishna-

tractat Sabbat) and by Marti (Geschichte der Israelitischen

Religion, etc.), but has not received the consideration from

English-speaking scholars, I believe, that is its due.


Sabbath in Babylonia


The origin of the Sabbath is certainly not to be found with

the Hebrews themselves. Ultimately it is  to be traced back





to those nomadic ancestors of the Hebrews and the Canaanites,

who paid chief homage to the moon, whose benign light guided

them in their night journeys over the plains of northern Arabia"

(Kent, Israel's Laws and Legal Precedents, p. 257). The Sabbath

most probably harks back to the remotest Semitic antiquity and

like taboo, sacrifice, ancestor-worship and the like, was evidently

an institution shared by all.

The name, Sabbath, first appears in Babylonia and as an in-

stitution may, in fact, be traced back to the early pre-Semitic

inhabitants of that land, the Sumerians. In a bilingual tablet,

K. 6012 + K. 10684, containing a list of the days of the month, the

equation U-XV-KAMI = sa-bat-ti (line 13) appears, i. e. the 15th

day of the month was known in Babylonia as the sabattu, and

further, it is the only one of the month that is so named (see

Pinches, PSBA, 1904, pp. 51 ff.). Now the Babylonian month

was a lunar month of approximately 30 days and the 15th day,

or the middle of the month, would be the day of the full moon.

We would infer, then, that the sabattu was identical with the

day of the full moon and with it alone.

This is further suggested by all the references to the Sabbath

in Babylonian literature that are at present known. In another

bilingual text, C. T. XII 6, 24, we have the equation U (Sumerian

for "day") = sa-bat-tu, i. e. the Sabbath was to the Babylonians

"the day par excellence, one of the great festival days of the

month. In the Creation Story, Tablet V 18, the signs,  XXXXX

are evidently, with Pinches and Zimmern, to be read sa-bat-tu,

instead of [um]u XIV-tu as formerly. The usual determinative

after numerals in this tablet, as elsewhere, is kam not tu

(cf. Creation Story, Tablet V 17, VII-kam; Gilgames Epic,

Tablet X col. 111 49, umu XV-kam; etc.). With this restoration

line 18 would read: "On the [Sa]bbath thou (the moon) shalt

be equal (in both) halves". Likewise in the Gilgames Epic,

Tablet X col. III 49 the 15th day or the Sabbath is evidently

the day of the full moon.

The sabattu was not a day of rest, on which work was pro-

hibited, for many contract tablets are dated on that day (Kuchler,

Die Christliche Welt, 1904, p. 296; Johns, Expositor, Nov. 1906;

Wilson, Princeton Theological Review, 1903, p. 246). In C. T.



XVIII 23 it is called um nuh libbi i. e. a day for the pacifi-

cation of the anger of the deity, an appropriate day for penance.

The Sabbath used to be, and by many scholars still is, iden-

tified with the Babylonian "favorable, unfavorable days", which

for the intercalary month of Elul fell on the 7th, 14th, 19th,

21th, and 28th days, (IV R. 32f.), but there is absolutely no

evidence that these have any connection whatsoever with sabattu.

Indeed, as we have noted, there is as yet no evidence anywhere

that sabattu was applied to any day other than the 15th, and

to assign this term to other days, as Jastrow1 and many scholars

do, is the purest assumption and is based upon a preconceived

idea as to what the Sabbath was. Neither is there any evidence

that the terms sabattu and nubattu have any connection with

each other.

With the Babylonians the Sabbath was manifestly a full

moon festival and the etymology of the word would seem to

confirm this. The root sabatu in V R. 28 e. f. is equated with

gamaru, "to complete, fulfill, bring to an end", or intransitively,

"to be complete". Sabattu, then, could mean the day on which

the moon was complete or full.

Sabbath in Early Israel


If the Sabbath was the day of the full moon with the Baby-

lonians, we would expect it to be the same with the early

Hebrews, to whom it was more or less indirectly communicated.

Here again the evidence would seem to confirm our expectations.

The word tBAwa is probably contracted from t;t;Bawa (so Ols-

hausen, Konig, Driver, W. R. Smith, Cook, ecl.). The root

tbw (cf. Isa. 14:4, 24:8) in its transitive form means "to sever,

put an end to"; in its intransitive form "to desist, come to an

end, be at an end, be complete" (Arabic, XXXXX "to cut off,

intercept"). The grammatical form of tBAwa, according to some,

suggests a transitive sense, "the divider", i. e. apparently the

day that divides the month, the 15th or the day of the full

moon. Meinhold (ZATW XXIX, 101) takes it in the intran-

sitive sense and argues for tBawa the meaning "the complete,


     1 E. g. in A. J. Th., II, pp. 312ff.



the full" moon. So many derivations of the word, however, have

been given (for a summary see Beer, Sabbath, p. 13, note 3),

that little help can be expected from the word itself, until More

positive evidence is forthcoming. It is, at any rate, not to be

identified with HaUn, "to rest, repose". The idea of rest is a

later meaning that was read into the word.

All our evidence would seem to indicate that the Sabbath in

early Israel had nothing whatever to do with the seventh day

of the week. The observance of the seventh day was probably

early, for it is prescribed in both J (Ex. 34:21) and E (Ex. 23:12),

but it could not possibly have been earlier than the settlement

of the Hebrews in Canaan, when they began first to engage in

agriculture. A periodic rest for a nomadic people is an im-

possibility, but an economic necessity for a people engaged in

agriculture and the like. It probably had no relation to the

moon and with the Hebrews came to be arbitrarily designated

as every seventh day because of the sacredness attached to the

number seven and the sense of completeness which it expressed

(see further Meinhold, Sabbat, pp. 13-14; Hehn, Siebenzahl und

Sabbat bei den Babyloniern und im A. T.). In Ex. 20:8ff. and

Dt. 5:12ff., where the Sabbath is identified with the seventh day,

all modern scholars are agreed that the law stood originally,

observe (variant ‘remember’) the Sabbath to sanctify it”. Ex.

20:9-11 is the addition of a late P redactor and Dt. 5 by the large

majority of scholars is placed in or near the Exile. In any case

it is a late amplification of the earlier, more simply expressed

law. In no other passage in the pre-exilic literature of the Old

Testament is it even suggested that the Sabbath is to be iden-

tified with the seventh day. Jer. 17:10-27, since the time of

Kuenen, has been universally regarded as a scribal gloss from

a period as late as the days of Nehemiah. The only other re-

ferences to the Sabbath in pre-exilic literature (with the excep-

tion of those mentioned in the following paragraph), II Kings

11:16, 18, throw no light upon its origin.

On the other hand the Sabbath in early Israel is very in-

timately connected with the new moon and is uniformly coupled

with it, e. g. Am. 8:4ff., Hos. 2:13, Isa. 1:13ff., II Kings 4:23 (cf.

also the reminiscences of this association in the later literature,



Ez. 45:17, 46:3, Ps. 81:3, Neh. 10:34, Isa. 66:23, I Chron. 23:31,

II Chron. 2:3, 8:13, 31:3). Just so in Babylonian literature the

first and the fifteenth days are grouped together (Radau, Early

Babyl. History, p. 315; Pinches, PSBA, XXVI, 09). The

Harranians had four sacrificial days in each month, at least two

of which were determined by the conjunction and opposition of

the moon (Encycl. Brit., 11th edition, XXIII, 961). The ancient

Hindus observed the new moon and the full moon as days of

sacrifice. The full moon as well as the new moon had evidently

a religious significance among the ancient Hebrews (cf. Ps. 81:3),

for, when the great agricultural feasts were fixed to set dates,

the days selected were the full moons.

"Wenn nun in alter Zeit in Israel Neumond und Sabbat

neben einander genannt werden, so kann der Sabbat damals

nicht der Tag der 4 Mondphasen gewesen sein. Denn dann

ware ja auch der Neumond ein Sabbat! Auch konnte der Sabbat

nicht schon der vom Mondwechsel getrennte letzte Tag der

siebentagigen Woche sein. Denn dann fielen ja Neumond und

Sabbat gelegentlich zusammen: es sind aber verschiedene Feste!

Dana bleibt also fur den Sabbat nichts anderes ubrig, als im

Unterschied zum Neumond an den Vollmondstag zu denken"

(Beer, Sabbath, p. 12; cf. further Meinhold, Sabbat and Woche,

pp. 3 ff.). Eerdmans' objection, that the Sabbath is not expressly

called the full moon, is of little moment, for tbw is as explicitly

full moon as wdH is new moon.

To give further credence to this hypothesis, there is evidently

in Lev. 23:11 (P) a trace of the fact that the 15th or the day

of the full moon was at one time known as the Sabbath. "Denn

dernach dem Sabbat' (tbwh trHm) kommende Tag, an dem

der Priester beim Mazzenfest die Erstlingsgarbe fur Jahwe

weiht, kann nur innerhalb der 7tagigen Festwoche vom 15.-21.

des 1. Monats fallen. Ware der Sabbat hier der letzte Tag der

7tagigen Woche, und fiele ein Sabbat auf den 14., der aber

noch nicht zu der Festwoche zahlt, so wurde der erste Sabbat

der Festwoche selbst erst auf den 21., also den letzten Tag der

Festwoche fallen, so dass der ‘Tag nach dem Sabbat' gar nicht

mehr zu der Festwoche gehoren wirde! Ganz anders, wean

eben der 15. als der Vollmondstag der Sabbat ist. Dann ist



der 16., als ‘Tag nach dem Sabbat’, am besten geeignet fur die das

Fest einleitende Weihe der Erstlingsgarbe" (Beer, Sabbat, p. 13).

The fact that Ezekiel so roundly rebuked the previous gener-

ations for desecrating the weekly Sabbath (Ez. 20:13, 16; 21:24,

22:8, 26; 23:38) indicates very clearly that it was not observed in

the earlier period, probably because it was unknown. Just so

Deuteronomy condemned the Hebrews of his day for worshipp-

ing at high places, regardless of the fact that he was the first

to prohibit such worship.

The full moon would constitute a most appropiate occasion

for a sacrificial feast, for the moon has always had a large place

in Hebrew thought, indeed in Semitic thought generally (cf.

Baudissin, Mond bet den Hebraern). It was supposed to exert

both a good and a bad influence on plants, animals and men

(cf. Ps. 121:6). As nomads and shepherds, the Hebrews regarded

the night as benevolent, the day with its withering heat as male-

volent. Most of their journeyings, as with the Arabs today,

were made at night, and it was natural, then, that they should

pay homage to the moon that lighted their way. In Jer. 7:18

8:2; 44:17ff. we have references to the worship of the moon (cf,

also Judges 8:21, 26, Isa. 3:18, II Kings 23:5, Dt. 4:19; 17:3, etc.).

The ancient Semites universally worshipped the moon and the

stars, (cf. Hommel, Der Gestirndienst der alten Araber; B. D.,

III, 434, etc.). The old non-agricultural Germans observed the

new moon and the full moon as religious festivals (Tacitus Ger-

mania II). The Passover was set to the full moon in the spring

(Ex. 12:22) and probably had some connection with the moon

originally (see Meinhold, Sabbat und Woche, p. 30). The Hebrew

traditions connect the early movements of the race with a number

of places intimately connected with moon worship, e. g. Ur and

Haran (where the moon-god, Sin, was worshipped); the wilder-

ness of Sin, which the Hebrews are said to have entered on the

15th (the full moon) day of the month (Ex. 16:1)! The new

moon was always observed as a religious festival (I Sam. 20,

II Kings 4:23, Am. 8:4f., Hos. 2:13, Isa. 1:13ff., etc.). It is not

at all unlikely, therefore, that the full moon was similarly ob-

served (cf. Ps. 81:3), and that this full moon festival was known

as the Sabbath.



Gressmann (Mose und seine Zeit, pp. 461ff.) believes that

the origin of the Sabbath is to be found in Ex. 16:23ff., which he

regards as an ancient saga of the Hebrews. But this passage

is universally regarded as part of the late priestly writings. Its

account is so completely out of harmony with all the ancient

sources which we have noted, that it can scarcely be believed

that we have an old tradition preserved here. It is P's inter-

pretation of an incident in Israel's history and is quite in line

with his views elsewhere.

The manner in which the Sabbath was observed lends further

support to the belief that it was originally a full moon festival

and differentiates it very sharply from the Sabbath as we know

it in post-exilic times. The older laws only demand such

cessation from daily toil as among all ancient peoples naturally

accompanied a day set apart as a religious festival. "The

Greeks and the barbarians have this is common that they ac-

company their sacred rites by a festal remission of labor"

(Strabo X 3:9). On both the new moon and the Sabbath there

was a remission of general business (Am. 8:5). The animals and

servants were not needed for ordinary toil and could be used

for other purposes (II Kings 4:22f.). But the Sabbath was not

a day of absolute rest, for it was on this day that the guard in

the Palace and Temple were regularly changed (II Kings 11)

and Jehoiada carried through a revolution against Athaliah on

the Sabbath and considered it no desecration of the day

(II Kings 11). Like the new moon it was one of the stated

religious feasts of the Hebrews and was a day of joy and festi-

vity (Hos. 2:11, cf. I Sam. 20:4ff.); it called men to the sanctuary

to make sacrifice (Isa. 1:13); it was a good day to visit a prophet

(II Kings 4:22f.). So many people were accustomed to visit the

Temple on that day that soldiers were required to police the

crowds (II Kings 11, cf. Isa. 1:11ff.). It was in a much later

period that the idea of rest and complete cessation from all

labor was attached to the Sabbath. Like so many of the other

religious institutions, which the Hebrews held in common with

their Semitic kinsmen (e. g. circumcision, sacrifice, new moon, etc.),

it came in time to acquire with them distinguishing features of

a marked kind and to assume a new character.



Sabbath in the Pre-Exilic Prophetic Period


The Sabbath continued essentially the same through the pre-

exilic prophetic period, except in one particular. Both it and

the new moon seem to have fallen into disrepute with the pro-

phets, evidently because of their association with the moon.

The prophets were the mighty mouth-pieces of the Yahweh

religion and looked askance upon any institution that savored

of heathen association. Hence all forms of astral religion were

denounced by them (Am. 5:21, Hos. 2:13, Isa. 1:13, Jer. 8:2, 19:13,

Zeph. 1:5, cf also Isa. 47:13);--were absolutely prohibited by

Deuteronomy (Dt. 4:19; 17:3); and Josiah, stimulated thereto by

Deuteronomy, attempted to stamp it completely out of the land

(II Kings 23:5). This antipathy of the prophets to astral religion

even went to the extent of causing them to give historical ex-

planations for the feasts, e. g. in the case of the Feast of Un-

leavened Bread and Passover (Ex. 23:15, 34:18, 12:1ff., Dt. 16:1ff.).

The New Moon festival is completely ignored by Deuteronomy

or struck out altogether and yet up to that time it was con-

sidered a most important feast (cf. I Sam. 20:4ff., II Kings 4:23,

Am. 8:5, Hos. 2:13, Isa. 1:13). Deuteronomy proper (i. e. Ch.12-26),

nowhere mentions the Sabbath and this is particularly striking

in view of the fact that he gives a very complete calendar of

feasts in Ch. 16. "Es ware ja geradezu unerhort, dass eine

schon auf Mose zuruckgehende, das gauze Volksleben durch-

ziehende Einrichtung, namlich die siebentagige Woche mit einem

Sabbat genannten Ruhetag am Schluss, die in nichts mehr den

Zusammenhang mit dem Mond verriet, so ganzlich von den

deuteronomischen Gesetzgebern ignoriert ware'' (Meinhold, Sab-

bat and Woche, p. 8).

The prophets were great social reformers and little interested

in the ritual. With them the element of rest, that was attached

to the Sabbath, was given first place, that of worship was made

secondary, evidently because of its heathen association. In this

probably is to be found the beginning of a movement whereby

the Sabbath was separated altogether from the moon and iden-

tified with the seventh day and complete rest prescribed for its

observance (cf. Dt. 5:13ff.).



Sabbath in the Exilic Period


From what has been said about the attitude of the prophets

to the Sabbath, it might be expected that the institution would

have disappeared altogether in the period of the Exile. But

the very reverse is the case. It was emphasized as it never was

before. And this is a fact not hard to explain. The exilic

period was in many respects a reaction against that immediately

preceding it. Under the influence of the priest-prophet Ezekiel

and his school the ritualistic feature of the Yahweh religion was

tremendously emphasized. The Yahweh religion stood in such

dire peril that it seemed necessary to accentuate its peculiar

forms and institutions in order to perpetuate its existence.

Hence we have in this period the production of such legalistic

writings as the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26 in large part) and

the Book of Ezekiel (particularly Ch. 40-48)--the forerunners of

the elaborate Priestly Code of later years. These legalistic

writers, in contradistinction from the prophets, were careful to

preserve all the institutions of ancient Israel and in their old

ritualistic form.

Another reason for the important place given to the Sabbath

during the Exile grew out of the Deuteronomic reform. That

had closely bound all the religious feasts to the now-destroyed

temple and sacred city. Hence they necessarily, for a time at

least, fell into abeyance in so far as their observance was con-

cerned. The Sabbath Deuteronomy had not mentioned and it

alone could be observed by all the exiles wherever they were.

It met a deep need and kept alive their faith in the Yahweh

religion. Indeed for many it became the symbol of the ritual

as a whole. Its observance became the distinctive mark of a

loyal member of the race and was one of the few things that

remained to differentiate them from their heathen neighbors.

No wonder, then, that it bulked so largely in their thought and


It was in the Exile or in the years immediately preceding it

that the Sabbath became dissociated from the moon and came

at length to be identified with the seventh day (Ez. 46:1, cf.

Ex. 31:15 Hp). We have already noted what was probably the



beginning of a movement in that direction. The prophets had

vigorously denounced all astral religion. Hence such feasts as

the New Moon and Sabbath became odious to them. On the

other hand an observance like the seventh day as a period of

rest and worship was quite acceptable. The exilic leaders were

as much concerned as the prophets to differentiate Israel's

religion from all others but they chose to do it in a different

way, viz. by a revival of the earlier ritualistic conceptions. Ac-

cordingly they were careful to preserve all of the old but dis-

sociated from anything that savored of heathen practice. Hence

it was that the Sabbath was revived but now in a new association.

It became identified with the seventh day and in course of time

grew to be one of the most ritualistic of Jewish institutions.

It is not difficult to conceive how this change came about.

It was exactly in line with the general tendencies of the times.

The similarity of the words Sabbath (tbw) and seven (fbw)

might have had something to do with it, and likewise the mean-

ing of the word Sabbath. In any case it is no more difficult to

understand how the term could have been taken over from the

full moon festival and applied to the seventh day than it is to

understand why it should have been taken over from the seventh

day in Christian times and applied to the first day. With the

Christians it received a significance radically different from what

it previously had and its earlier connection was soon completely

lost and forgotten.

The observance of the Sabbath in the Exilic period was al-

together in harmony with what we have already said about the

period. The primitive ritualistic conception was revived and

enlarged, and the necessity of abstaining from labor emphasized,

not for man's sake, as the prophets would have put it, but as

an element of worship--an end in itself. It was regarded as a

sign between Yahweh and his people (Ez. 20:12, 20, Ex. 31:13 HP);

it was-to be observed as a holy day (Ez. 44:24, Ex. 31:14 HP) and

was not to be desecrated as it had been by former generations

(Ez. 20:13-24; 22:8, 26; 23:38); it was to be strictly observed (Lev.

19:3b, 30; 26:2) and to that end sacrifices were prescribed for it

(Ez. 44:24; 45:17; 46:1-5, 12). It was altogether a day of abstinence

and no longer one of joy and festivity.



Sabbath in the Post-Exilic Period


In the post-exilic period the ritualistic character of the Sabbath

was accentuated to a greater degree than ever and it was very

definitely connected with the seventh day (Ex. 35:1-2, 31:15-17,

Lev. 23:3, Ex. 16:22-26, all from the P document). The tendency

was to make the Sabbath a central and saving institution, until

in the Mishnah it was given first place among the feasts. The

restrictions with regard to its observance became ever more and

more detailed and casuistical, e. g. it was unlawful for one to

leave his house on the Sabbath (Ex. 16:29) or to carry burdens

(Jer. 17:19-27); one could not make a fire on the Sabbath (Ex.

35:3); what food was needed for the Sabbath must be prepared

on the day previous (Ex. 16:23); in fact all manner of work was

prohibited (Ex. 20:10, Lev. 23:3). It was to be a day of com-

plete rest and cessation from all toil and business of every kind

(Neh. 10:32; 3:15ff.). Indeed the priestly law-givers did not cease

until they had made labor on that day a capital offence (Ex.

35:2, Num. 15:32-36). Not only was it a day holy to Yahweh

(Ex. 16:23; 31:15; 35:2), but its consecration was a law which

Yahweh had promulgated at creation (Gen. 2:2f., Ex. 20:11). In

this connection, however, it is of interest to note that P never

represents the patriarchs as observing it or being at all cognizant

of its existence. He probably believed that it was not commun-

icated to the Hebrews until it was delivered by Yahweh to

Moses at Sinai (cf. Neh. 9:14). As a holy day the Sabbath was

to be kept holy by the people and free from all profanation

(Ex. 20:10-11, Lev. 23:3, Isa. 56:2, 4, 6; 58:13), and special offerings

were prescribed for its observance (Num. 28:9f., I Chron. 23:3f.,

II Chron. 2:4, 8:13, 31:3; Neh. 10:33).

It is just a little surprising that the Sabbath is nowhere

mentioned in the Psalms or in the Wisdom Literature of the

Old Testament. It may be that these writers followed more

nearly in the footsteps of the earlier prophets and to them, as

to the prophets, the priestly emphasis upon the ritual was more

or less repugnant and they would have none of it. Their sym-

pathies, at least, were decidedly not with the movement whereby

the Sabbath lost completely its early joyousness and festivity



and came finally to be the severest kind of burden, fettered by

every manner of restriction and loaded down with ritual. Little

wonder that Jesus found the Sabbath of his day unbearable

and continually rode rough-shod over its absurd restrictions and.

by one stroke swept them aside : "The Sabbath was made for

man, not man for the Sabbath", (Mk. 2:27).



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