Beckett: Exodus 31:12-18 Commentary – The Sabbath

Exodus 31:12-18 (Translation)

12, And Yahweh said to Moses,
13, “You are to speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘Above all you shall keep My Sabbaths, for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, Yahweh, consecrate you.
You shall preserve the Sabbath, for it is holy for you. Whoever desecrates it shall surely be put to death. All who do 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 rest, holy to Yahweh. All who do work on the day of the Sabbath shall surely be put to death.
16, The sons of Israel shall preserve the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations as a covenant forever.
17, It is a sign forever between Me and the sons of Israel that in six days Yahweh made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day He rested, and He was refreshed.”
18, When He had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave to Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.


Disclaimer: Comments on historical criticism are not my personal beliefs. I don’t find historical criticism particularly helpful or faithful in most cases, but the issues presented by historical critical scholars are still worth discussing. Full understanding of this article also requires ability to read Greek and Hebrew and familiarity with historical criticism, as this was originally an academic paper.

31:12-17     Durham calls this section the “conclusion to the whole series of instructions concerning the media worship [which began in 25:2], a conclusion designed to call attention to the importance of stopping to reflect on the reality of the Presence of Yahweh, of providing a regular time for honoring that Presence in worship” (Durham, 412). Rather than presence, Dozeman says “the Sabbath brings the knowledge of God to the Israelites” (Dozeman, 677), which is acceptable language to use since Yahweh makes Himself known via His presence—that is, the sons of Israel gain knowledge of Yahweh via Yahweh’s active presence among His people.

Stuart brings into question the placement of the Sabbath in this pericope. Why bring it up at all? Was it not sufficiently covered in 16:23-19:25? Stuart gives a satisfactory answer, “The answer is that the tabernacle was for worship; worship occurred weekly, on the Sabbath; and if the Sabbath were not properly observed, worship would not properly take place; so therefore the tabernacle would not be properly used” (Stuart, 653). 

In other words, the placement of the Sabbath in this pericope functions as a reminder to Moses, and by extension of Moses, to the sons of Israel. Now that Yahweh was on the issue of the locus of worship since 25:2, and now that Yahweh was nearing the end of His instructions for worship, it was necessary for Him to repeat the utmost vitality of properly preserving the Sabbath. After all, the punishment for desecrating the Sabbath is not only ostracisation, but also death (as we will see later). That seems something worth repeating. Yahweh’s repetition of the Sabbath instructions, then, was not for the sake of Yahweh, but for the sake of Moses and the sons of Israel, lest they die (see comments on vv. 13-14).

In historical criticism, source H is concerned with the Holiness Code; such passages as Leviticus 11:43-45 and 16:29-34 are attributed to H. Critical scholars Israel Knohl and Jacob Milgrom attribute this pericope to source H. Knohl also attributes v. 18 to H. Olyan, however, argues Exodus 31:12-17 is a composite text of sources H and P (Priestly source). Olyan warrants this for two reasons:

First, it enriches our knowledge of Priestly Sabbath rhetoric and ideology because it provides the scholar with additional Priestly material on the Sabbath. Second, it raises serious questions about the editorial process that resulted in the production of a fused P and H, since it can be argued that the P verses of the Sabbath passage as well as the transitional v. 18 are a supplement to the H material preceding them. (Olyan, 202-203.)

This is not a new argument. Those who accept this composite view have not come to a consensus in how it is to be divided. Olyan advocates for the division of vv. 12-15 as the first unit belonging to H and vv. 16-17 as the second unit belong to P. His reasoning for this is because the “second masculine plural form of address” in vv. 12-15 (שַּׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ and וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת) and “the third person form of vv. 16-17” (וְשִׁמְרוּ בְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשַּׁבָּת) are indicators of the pericope’s composite appearance.

Furthermore, Olyan believes the most compelling indicator of this doublet is the purpose for preserving the Sabbath. Both aforementioned divided units call the Sabbath a sign, but in v. 13 the purpose for preserving the Sabbath is that Yahweh might “sanctify” (ESV), “consecrate” (Tanakh), “set apart” (Durham) Israel, whereas in v. 17 the purpose is that it might be a sign “forever” (ESV), “in perpetuity” (Durham), “for all time” (Tanakh) (Olyan, 204).

Olyan sees these as indicators of the pericope being attributed to two different historical sources, but as I view most historical criticism, I do not find it entirely convincing. Who is to say that Yahweh could not have set a dual purpose in His commanding Sabbath preservation? Why limit Yahweh to a single purpose in His speaking? It is not improbable or impossible that Yahweh, in a single speech, gave two purposes for His command of preserving the Sabbath: to consecrate the sons of Israel and that His name might be known forever.

I would argue Yahweh commanded Sabbath preservation so that He might consecrate the sons of Israel so that His name would be remembered throughout all the ages. Indeed, this is quite true. The world throughout every age has not only recalled this account of God with the sons of Israel, but the sons of Israel are also ultimately consecrated/sanctified/set apart in Christ, who is Lord of the Sabbath (Luke 6:1-5). This typology I have proposed deserves further investigation, but space does not allow me to cover it here.

Knohl and Milgrom attribute this pericope to H because of similar language used alongside the Holiness Code (“I, Yahweh, consecrate you”). However, as Olyan notes, this idiom occurs only in vv. 13 and 15; they fail to account for the disparate idiom in vv. 16-17 (Olyan, 205-206). Olyan has no problem attributing vv. 12-15 to H, but he attributes vv. 16-17 to P because the pericope “refers  to the Sabbath itself as ‘an eternal covenant’ (ברית עולם), a characteristic unmentioned in Gen 2:2-3. Exodus 31:16-17 is therefore the only Priestly Sabbath passage that refers to the Sabbath as a covenant, and the only one that does not mention the Sabbath’s sanctification.” Furthermore, “The eternal covenant of Genesis 17 is the covenant between YHWH and Abraham and his descendants, while in Exod 31:16-17, the Sabbath itself is the eternal covenant. Nevertheless, the fact that ‘eternal covenant,’ used in Exod 31:16-17, recalls P’s central covenantal passage is itself of significance and worthy of further exploration” (Olyan, 206).

31:13     this is a sign — Yahweh calls the Sabbath a general sign (אוֹת) to the sons of Israel that they may always know Yahweh’s presence as a reminder of their experience with Him, the centre of which for Israel is the recent exodus event. Yahweh does not designate the Sabbath for Himself as if He needs their worship. Rather, He designates the Sabbath for the sons of Israel that they might remember Yahweh’s presence in the realm of their experience. For the sons of Israel, Yahweh’s presence is grounded in history—past (the exodus), present (the Sabbath for worship), and future (this “media of worship,” as Durham labels it, to be passed down generation to generation).

31:14     shall be put to death… shall be cut off — Yahweh has strict consequences for desecrating the Sabbath because disregard for the Sabbath “is disregard for Yahweh: and disregard for Yahweh is disregard for the reason and the possibility of Israel’s existence as a people” (Durham, 413). In other words, if the sons of Israel disregard the Sabbath by not keeping it in some manner, it is ultimately a disregard for Yahweh’s presence and their given identity as Yahweh’s people.

The sons of Israel are not to keep the Sabbath for the Sabbath itself, but for their own benefit that they might know Yahweh’s presence—a people set apart for Yahweh. Yahweh does not list here specific examples of how the Sabbath can be desecrated, but it is clear that if they desecrate the Sabbath, there is a dual punishment: one social and one temporal.

Since by disregarding the Sabbath they disregard their identity as Yahweh’s people, they are cast from the community: they are “cut off” (ESV, Tanakh) or “ostracised” (Durham) (כרת). Also, since by disregarding the Sabbath they disregard Yahweh Himself, they are put to death.

31:15     Six days shall work be done… shall be put to death — This verse appears “chiastically” at the beginning of the Tabernacle’s construction (Exodus 35) (Klein, 265).

31:16     a covenant forever — Durham’s translation of עוֹלָם is notably different than most other translations, “forever” in the ESV and NET and “for all time” in the Tanakh, both denoting eternity in a somewhat abstract sense. Durham, however, uses “perpetual/perpetuity,” denoting a physical, present continuation. 

It is common, I believe, that when readers today read “forever” or “for all time,” we read it as an abstract understanding of time with a “from above” view in God’s perspective. In other words, it brings the reader to look above and wonder of eternity from God’s perspective, a thing impossible for the human mind to grasp (theology of glory).

Durham’s use of “perpetuity,” however, is a “from below” view and helps bring it down to earth—to our perspective. God’s presence in the Sabbath is not a perspective from God’s throne, but our perspective as we gather before God as a physical community on the physical ground of the earth.

31:17     He rested, and He was refreshed — Though Durham does not explicitly say it, one can get the sense that Yahweh rested not because He needed to rest as though He had limited power and energy in which He can experience fatigue as a human does, but that He rested in order that His people might rest.

Durham’s translation of שָׁבַת וַיִּנָּפַשׁ is rather unhelpful in this regard, “he rested and caught his breath.” Translating it this way denotes a loss of energy, which can bring Yahweh’s omnipotence into question and thus bring Him down to the level of the creature. The ESV and NET translate it “he rested and was refreshed,” and the Tanakh translates it “He ceased from work and was refreshed.” Both translations, I believe, are adequate. The Tanakh’s cessation of work usage and beginning of refreshment is most helpful, I believe, but I kept it as “He rested” in my own translation in order to make its connection to the “Sabbath of rest” obvious, which is lost in the Tanakh’s translation.

Although, on this issue, Dozeman notes the P author may have been influenced by Ancient Near Eastern religions whose gods rested after building their temples (Dozeman, 677-678). The problem with this, of course, is that the ANE religions had false gods constructed by man and because they were constructed by man, their gods have limited power and aside from their immortality, they are not any different from creatures. Yahweh, however, is Creator and infinitely above the creature. It is dangerous to compare the resting of finite human gods to the rest of the infinite God of Israel.

Whatever the resting and refreshment means here, Yahweh’s resting cannot be anything like the resting of pagan gods or, furthermore, the resting of the creatures whom God created. In any case, Dozeman’s speculation does not help illumine understanding of the text and neither does it serve a purpose apart from causing confusion.

Dozeman, too, notices that “he was refreshed” is strange, though he does not delve into why it is unusual. He mentions, “David is refreshed at the Jordan River after his flight from Absalom in 2 Sam 16:14.” He also mentions the LXX (Septuagint) likewise avoids what “refresh” entails by using κατέπαυσεν “he left off” (Dozeman, 677). I do not find this particularly helpful. Personally, I would translate the LXX “he ceased/stopped,” but the verb can also mean “cause to rest” (BDAG, 524), so I am doubtful his translation of κατέπαυσεν helps to solve the fatigue dilemma with Yahweh’s resting.

Klein, with Olyan, attributes this pericope to the P author, although he attributes the entire text to P rather than vv. 16-17 alone. Yet he adds the Sabbath is a sign of the covenant Yahweh made with the ancestors of the sons of Israel, Abraham and Sarah. He adds, “This sign serves as a reminder that after Yahweh created the world, he rested and took a deep breath (wayyināpēš). By keeping the eternal covenant of the sabbath, the Israelites remind themselves that Yahweh sanctifies them, and, by resting, they anticipate their full and ultimate rest because of the new creation that is represented by the completed tabernacle sanctuary” (Klein, 273).

Some LXX manuscripts add καὶ τὴν θάλασσαν καὶ πάντα τὰ ἐν αὐτοῖς (“and the sea and all those in it”). The Syriac codex does the same.

The Sabbath is grounded in the creation account, particularly Yahweh’s act in creation, both His act of working and His act of resting. Stuart calls the Sabbath “a reminder of that divine, eternal rest” (Stuart, 654), connecting this rest to Christ (Hebrews 4). Thus, the theological function of the pericope can be said that the Sabbath is a reminder to the sons of Israel of the eternal rest Yahweh would provide His people. Likewise, today we keep the Sabbath as a reminder of the eternal rest we will receive in Christ.

31:18     the two tablets of the testimony — Durham notes Yahweh’s giving of the two tablets is a reference to the Ten Commandments. This is the traditional, ubiquitous interpretation portrayed in films and preached in sermons. What is most interesting, however, is that the text does not explicitly say these two tablets contain the Ten Commandments; it is implicit. Instead, it says they are the two tablets of הָעֵדֻת “the testimony,” or “the Pact” in the Tanakh. What testimony? Yahweh’s testimony—or instructions—for worship, that is, His pact with Israel. I am not saying these tablets are unequivocally not the Ten Commandments; I am merely observing that it is not stated in the text.

However, if one pays close attention to the entire Mt. Sinai account, Yahweh promised Moses He would give him the tablets of stone with Yahweh’s law and commands (24:12), which He previously covered in 20:1-17Moreover, it can theologically be argued the two tablets were the Ten Commandments since it can be argued the Ten Commandments are a sort of “summary” of what it means to worship Yahweh both on the Sabbath and throughout the week. Indeed, to keep the Sabbath holy is the third commandment. Also, as Martin Luther understood the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods,” the keeping of the Commandments assumes one worships Yahweh alone and all the commandments that follow rest solely on this first commandment.

Also worth noting is Durham’s treatment of the pericope’s literary function. He views this act as Yahweh’s completion of His revelation of Himself to Moses and, by extension, to the sons of Israel (Durham, 413). Here, Yahweh has finished His instructions to Moses regarding the media of worship.

It’s other literary function is that the completion of Yahweh’s revelation to Mose and to all Israel sets the stage for what follows, which is the faithlessness of the sons of Israel as they begin to build and worship the golden calf. 

Before Moses even has the opportunity to relay to Israel Yahweh’s instructions for worship, Israel has already strayed into apostasy and broken not only the third commandment (violating the Sabbath), but also worshipping a false idol, thus breaking the first commandment and, therefore, all that follow. As Yahweh warned, the punishment for desecrating  the Sabbath is death, which He sets out to do in 32:7-10 until Moses intercedes on their behalf.


Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, Walter Bauer, and F. Wilbur Gingrich. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Douglas, Stuart K. Exodus. Vol. 2. The American Commentary. Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2006.

Dozeman, Thomas B. Commentary on Exodus. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009.

Durham, John I. Exodus. Vol. 3. Word Biblical Commentary, edited by Bruce M. Metzger. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987.

Klein, Ralph W. “Back to the Future: The Tabernacle in the Book of Exodus.” Interpretation 50, no 3 (Jul 1996): 264-276.

Olyan, Saul M. “Exodus 31:12-17: the Sabbath according to H, or the Sabbath according to P and H?” Journal of Biblical Literature 124, no 2 (Sum 2005): 201-209.


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