There are many questions a New Testament believer is faced with when thinking through the Sabbath. For example, why was Israel commanded to keep the Sabbath? This is perhaps the most important question, and as I have written elsewhere, I believe the purpose of the Sabbath command was to give visible demonstration of the fact that Yahweh is Creator and Redeemer. When Israel kept the Sabbath, they were demonstrating that, as Creator, God had the right to dictate how one is to function in the created world. But another important question arises concerning the timing of the Sabbath. When did God institute the Sabbath? Did the Sabbath predate Moses?
Evidence for a Pre-Decalogue Sabbath
Some theologians argue that the Sabbath has always been an obligation for mankind since creation. To arrive at this conclusion, some have appealed to passages like Genesis 26:5 which says Abraham obeyed the voice of Yahweh, obeying his requirements, commandments, and laws. However, it is anachronistic to view this phrase as a reference Mosaic legislation. In context of the Abrahamic narrative, there are plenty of commands given to Abraham: leave his country (Gen 12:1), be a blessing (Gen 12:2), walk before God and be blameless (Gen 17:1), circumcise his progeny (Gen 17:10-14), etc. It is clear that there were commands within the Abrahamic narrative that Abraham was required to obey. But, it is unhelpful and unprovable to posit Abraham was keeping a Sabbath when there is no mention of it anywhere in the broader narrative.
A stronger argument for a pre-Decalogue Sabbath comes from Exodus 16:4-5 where God commands Israel to gather bread from heaven for six days, and not gather the seventh day. This seventh day is declared “a Sabbath” before the Lord (16:23). Many have argued that this passage demonstrates the Sabbath was always in place and practiced before the giving of the law to Moses. However, it is more likely that this was a new phase of God’s program designed to “test” the people’s faith and see whether or not they would trust God to provide for their needs (cf. Exod 16:4).
In fact, it is difficult to see how Exodus 16 could be an accurate test for the faith of the people of Israel if they were already familiar with the Sabbath regulations. It seems the people were not familiar with this Sabbath idea, because many did in fact go out to gather on the seventh day, showing unfamiliarity with the requirement (Exod 16:27). It seems to have been something new God designed to test them rather than something that had been commanded since the dawn of creation.
Another passage sometimes brought out as evidence for a pre-Decalogue Sabbath is Moses’ interaction with Pharaoh in Exodus 5. In Exodus 5:1 Moses asks Pharaoh to permit the people to go into the wilderness to celebrate a feast. In Exodus 5:5 Pharaoh refuses to let the people go and accuses Moses of wanting to make Israel “rest” (ESV) from their labors, using the verbal form of Sabbath (שׁבת). Although some see the use of this verb as evidence for the ancients recognizing the binding nature of the Sabbath, the evidence does not support that conclusion. When this verb is used in the Hiphil stem (40 times) it never refers to the Sabbath (or rest in general), but a cessation or stopping of an activity. For example, it is used of removing leaven from a house (Exod 12:15), putting an end to shouting (Isa 16:10), and putting an end to a proverb (Ezek 12:23), or of stopping sheep from eating (Ezek 34:10). Clearly Exodus 5:5 cannot be used as evidence for a pre-Decalogue Sabbath. Both Exodus 16 and Exodus 5 are weak arguments for a pre-Decalogue knowledge of the Sabbath.
The Link between the Sabbath and the Mosaic Covenant
Not only is there no biblical evidence for the Sabbath before Moses, but understanding the role of the Sabbath also argues against its pre-Mosaic existence. As I have mentioned elsewhere, all the laws given to Moses are inherently bound to the Mosaic covenant. This also then applies to the Sabbath command. In fact, it is imperative to recognize that the Sabbath law is inherently linked with the Mosaic covenant, or else the New Testament teaching makes little sense.
Exodus 31:12–18 clearly states that the Sabbath is the sign of the Mosaic covenant. Observance of this law was so foundational for the nation, failure to observe the Sabbath institution resulted in capital punishment (cf. Num 15:32–36). Thus, this law must be viewed as essential to Israel’s relationship with God as per the Mosaic covenant. It stands to reason then, that if the Mosaic covenant is done away with, we should expect the Sabbath to be done away with in its specific application to the nation of Israel.
This train of thought is confirmed by the New Testament’s abrogation of the Sabbath command. Paul identifies the Sabbath, along with the foods, festivals, and the new moon as shadows which have given way to the substance of Christ (Col 2:16–17). In other words, under the New covenant, because the old covenant has been done away (cf. Heb 8:13), those stipulations which were part of the Mosaic covenant (such as the sign of the Mosaic covenant) are done away with. This is why Paul writes that, for those in the church (i.e., under the New covenant), there is not one day more important than another (Rom 14:5). Paul clearly argues that since believers are not under the Mosaic covenant, those former laws (including the laws of the Decalogue) have no binding authority over the believer.
So, when did God establish the Sabbath command? God instituted the Sabbath in the giving of the Law to Moses as a sign for the people of Israel. There is no evidence for a Sabbath observance pre-Moses, and understanding the connection between the Sabbath and the Mosaic covenant argues for its initiation with Moses.