This does not quite take the form of what I hope to be a typical post, but instead is a brief survey of texts in Genesis and Exodus where we find mentions of the Sabbath that precede the decalogue. The Reformed view of the Sabbath is that it is part of the law of nature (WCF 21.7), and therefore observed by God’s people at all times throughout history. I thought this worth a look.
Genesis 2:1-3 “Then the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day, God ended his work which he had made, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made. And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it: because that in it he had rested from all his work which he had created and made.”
Here, God sets a pattern for timekeeping within his creation. Days are counted in groups of seven, with the seventh being set aside for rest. God, who is omnipotent, had no physical need of rest, but he chose to rest from his work anyway. Later in the book of Genesis, we see Noah follow this same pattern of keeping time in weeks, instead of devising his own measuring scheme:
Genesis 8:8-12: “Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground, but the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet another seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark, and the dove came in to him in the evening; and lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. And he stayed yet another seven days, and sent forth the dove, which returned not again unto him any more.”
Though there is nothing in the text that explicitly states Noah is resting on the seventh day, he is still living his life in accordance with the pattern of one day in seven that God had sanctified by resting. For him and his family, it functions as a sort of landmark on the calendar that separates one set of six days from another.
From here, we go to Exodus, after the people of Israel have been brought up from Egypt. When they are hungry, God provides a solution:
Exodus 16:4-5 “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you, and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day that I may test them, whether they will walk in my law or not. On the sixth day, when they prepare what they bring in, it will be twice as much as they gather daily.”
Later, Moses addresses the people:
Exodus 16:23-26 “This is what the Lord has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the Lord; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.” So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the Lord; today you will not find it in the field. Six days shall you gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.”
This is the beginning of Israel’s reminder of the Sabbath that God modeled for them in creation. Having been in bondage in Egypt, they would not have been permitted a Sabbath rest, and so we can understand what a gift a day of rest would be to those who had never known it. The connection between God’s rest in creation and Israel’s Sabbath is made even more explicit shortly after Israel begins receiving manna:
Exodus 20:8-11 “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.”