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Weekly and ceremonial Sabbaths

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In some areas of Africa, weeks lasted four days; the ancient Greeks once had a ten day week; the ancient Romans once used an 8 day week. Conservative Jewish and Christians generally believe that the seven day week of the Hebrews was derived from creation week where God is described as having rested on the seventh day after six days of creation. Religious historians and religious liberals generally acknowledge that the Hebrews' seven day week was derived from the nearby Pagan cultures -- mainly Babylon and Egypt.

Religious ceremonies in ancient Israel:

The ancient Jewish people celebrated religious ceremonies at four separate times:

  • Daily sacrifices in the temple, as specified in Numbers 28:1-8
  • The "Weekly Sabbath was the one day of each week set aside for special religious services.
  • Ceremonial Sabbaths were each celebrated annually, in remembrance of important events in the history of the Jewish people
  • Special ceremonies were conducted at each new moon.

In modern times, Jews refer to the weekly Sabbath as the Shabbat; other holy days are called festivals, feasts, holy days or holidays.

Weekly Sabbaths:

The following quotes are from the American Standard Version (ASV) unless indicated:

  • Genesis 2:2-3: This passage describes how God rested on the seventh day, Saturday, after having spent the previous six days creating the world, its life forms and the rest of universe. He apparently did not rest because he was tired. As Isaiah 40:28 implies, God is regarded as all-powerful. He is recorded as blessing the day and making it holy. It was apparently created as a day of rest for all mankind, forever.
  • Exodus 16:23-30: God is recorded as telling Moses that the people are to rest on the seventh day, the Sabbath. He later criticized the people who went out to collect manna from the ground on Saturday.
  • Exodus 20:8-11: The Ten Commandments command everyone to preserve the seventh day, Saturday, as a day of rest:

    "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work; but the seventh day is a sabbath unto Jehovah thy God: (in it) thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: for in six days Jehovah made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore Jehovah blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."

    The "servants" which are referred to in so many English translations of the Bible are in fact male and slaves. Many Christians find the casual acceptance of human slavery in the Bible to be embarrassing. For example, in 2004-JUN, an episode of Focus on the Family's "Odyssey" program, slaves were translated as butlers and maids.

    "Strangers" presumably means any non-Jewish person in your home. Note the lack of tolerance for the stranger's religion; even though they were not Jewish, they would be required to follow the Saturday Sabbath. For example, if a foreigner were caught collecting firewood on the Sabbath in order to keep his family from extreme discomfort due to cold weather, he would be tried and probably executed if found guilty.

  • Leviticus 23:3: God is said to have told Moses that the seventh day is a day of rest. "...it is a Sabbath to the Lord." (NIV)
  • Isaiah 58:13-14: Isaiah speaks for God:

    "If thou turn away thy foot from the sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on my holy day; and call the sabbath a delight, (and) the holy of Jehovah honorable; and shalt honor it, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking (thine own) words: then shalt thou delight thyself in Jehovah; and I will make thee to ride upon the high places of the earth; and I will feed thee with the heritage of Jacob thy father: for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken it."

  • Isaiah 66:23: This verse states that the weekly Sabbath is to be observed in heaven. This raises the question of whether the holy day in Heaven is still Saturday, or whether it was switched to Sunday in the 4th century CE.
  • Matthew 24:14-20: This passage, referred to as the "Olivet Prophecy", describes the second coming of Christ. Jesus recommends in Verse 20 that everyone pray: "...that your flight be not in the winter, neither on a sabbath" . Presumably, he believed that the sabbath would still be observed at time of the second coming.
  • Mark 2:23-28: Jesus and his disciples plucked ears of corn from the fields on the Sabbath day, and was severely criticized by the Pharisees. Jesus replied that when King David was hungry, he ate the shewbread in the temple. Jesus concludes by saying that the Sabbath was made for man; man was not made for the Sabbath. i.e. personal needs come first.
  • Mark 3:1-5: In this and many other Gospel passages, Jesus was severely criticized by the Pharisees because he collected food and healed people on the Sabbath. Jesus observed the Sabbath, but criticized the Pharisees' overly strict rules and regulations concerning the day of rest. He emphasized throughout his ministry a different purpose for the Sabbath: a day to be enjoyed by the believer, and a time when many normal activities -- particularly those which help others -- were quite permissible.
  • Luke 4:16: Jesus is describing as entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, and teaching there, as was his custom. Similar messages appear in Mark 1:21, Mark 6:2, Luke 4:31, Luke 6:6, Luke 13:10, and John 5:14.
  • Luke 23:56: The women followers of Jesus "rested according to the commandment" on the Sabbath following Jesus' death. In Mark 16:1, three of Jesus' female followers waited until the Sabbath was over at sundown on Saturday before bringing spices to anoint Jesus' body.
  • Acts 13:14: Paul and Barnabas observed the Sabbath in the synagogue in Antioch. See also Acts 16:13, Acts 17:2, Acts 18:4

Jews have carefully kept the Saturday Sabbath for many millennia. Since the ancient Israelites defined sundown as the end of a day, the Sabbath runs from local sundown on Friday night until sundown on Saturday.

With all of these references to the observance of the Saturday Sabbath found in the history of the Jewish people, the life of Christ, and the practices of disciples and other followers of Christ, one would naturally assume that Christian churches would have continued with the Jewish Sabbath. So tightly linked is Saturday to the Sabbath that in over 100 languages (one source says 160) the name for Saturday is some variation of the word "Sabbath." (English is one exception; Saturday is named after the Roman Pagan god Saturn). However, only the Seventh Day Adventists and other Sabbatarian denominations continue the practice today.

Ceremonial Sabbaths:

These were celebrated annually by the Jewish people, as described in Leviticus 23:5-32, and in Numbers 28:11-40.

In order to interpret Leviticus and Numbers, we have to differentiate between conservative and liberal Christian interpretations of the Bible:

  • Conservative theologians  generally believe that God inspired all of the authors of the Bible and that the entire Bible is inerrant (without error). Unless otherwise indicated, it is generally to be interpreted literally, as the text is written. The book of Leviticus was written by Moses under inspired from God. The authorship is not open to question, since there are many verses in the Bible which plainly state that Moses is the author. Leviticus was written after the Israelite's exodus from Egypt, but before they entered Canaan. This would date the writing circa 1450 BCE.
  • Liberal theologians  generally believe in the Documentary Hypothesis: that Leviticus was written by three authors or groups of authors: "J" (who used Jehovah as the name for God). "E" (who used Elohim); and "P" who wrote the "priestly" sections which deal with ritual, liturgy and the dates and genealogical passages. The 5 books were assembled circa 950 BCE by "J", 750 BCE for "E" and 539 BCE for the P source.

The Ceremonial Sabbaths are:

  • Passover and Feast of Unleavened Bread: These were held on the 14th day and 15th day of the first month of the year. The Jewish people followed the Persian/Babylonian calendar and started each year with the Spring Equinox circa March 21. Conservative theologians generally believe that these observances were initiated by God as described in Leviticus 23:5-14. Most liberals believe that the Passover was an ancient pre-Israelite Pagan ritual practiced by wandering shepherds. The feast of unleavened bread was a traditional Canaan agricultural harvest adopted by the Israelites. It marked the start of the barley harvest; barley was the first crop to ripen. Because they occurred at about the same time each year, they became associated with each other. They also became associated with the Exodus from Egypt.
  • The Feast of Weeks: As described in Leviticus 23:15-22, this festival was held 50 days after previous feast. It was timed to occur at the time that the wheat crop ripened. This time of celebration became known as Pentecost, which is the Greek term for 50. Conservatives believe it to be a festival specified by God. Liberals generally believe it to be a harvest festival common to Pagan religions worldwide.
  • The New Year: Leviticus 23:23-25 fixes this Sabbath at the first day of the seventh month, in the fall. It was a day of rest, followed by the blowing of trumpets and public offerings of animal sacrifices. This festival was also called "Feast of Trumpets." The ancient Israelites adopted the calendar of the Babylonians following their exile in that country. Thus this festival which was originally intended to celebrate the new year was celebrated during the 7th month.
  • The Day of Atonement: Leviticus 23:26-32 locates this day on the 10th day of the seventh month. Its purpose was to purify the temple sanctuary. The people were instructed, on pain of death, to not work on that day and to rejoice that their sins had been forgiven. Verse 31 states that this is to be observe forever. Conservatives believe it to be a ritual day  specified to Moses by God circa 1450 BCE. Many Liberals believe it to be a ritual probably created by the Hebrews after the period of Babylonian captivity.
  • The Feast of Booths: Leviticus 23:33-44 specifies that this feast be celebrated on the 15th day of the seventh month. It was also called the "Feast of Ingathering," or the "Feast of Tabernacles," or "Feast of the Lord", or simply (because of its great importance) "The Feast".

In Leviticus 23:32, the Day of Atonement is defined as a Sabbath. In Leviticus 23:24, the Feast of Trumpets is defined as a Sabbath in the original Hebrew and in the King James Version; other translations obscure the meaning of the original text by calling it a "sacred assembly" or "memorial". In Leviticus 23:38, the text emphasizes that the ceremonial Sabbaths are in addition to the "Sabbaths of Jehovah" or "Lord's Sabbaths" (the weekly Sabbaths).

Again, considering the repeated admonition in Leviticus 23 that these Sabbaths were to be observed forever, one would assume that the Christendom would still be celebrating them. However, for a number of reasons, these Sabbaths are only recognized today by a few Christian groups.

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New Moon sacrifices:

Numbers 28:11-15 defines the special animal sacrifices to be made at the time of each new moon. Some translations refer to these sacrifices as a monthly burnt offering. Isaiah 66:24 records that the new moon observances will continue to be celebrated in heaven. These sacrifices, and those of the daily, weekly, and ceremonial Sabbaths were performed up until the destruction of the temple at Jerusalem in 70 CE.

The only similar animal sacrifices currently performed in significant numbers in North America are by followers of Santeria and similar faiths. We have heard rumors of the occasional orange or peach being sacrificed at some Wiccan and other Neopagan rituals. Rumors of rituals by Satanists at which infants and other humans are sacrificed have been shown to be hoaxes or urban folk tales.

References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. The Bible Sabbath Association at: http://www.biblesabbath.org
  2. Extensive background material on the Saturday Sabbath is at the "Present Truth" home page: http://www.present-truth.org
  3. Codex Justinianus, lib. 3, tit. 12, 3; translated into English by Philip Schaff in "History of the Christian Church, Vol. III, P. 380, New York, NY, (1884)
  4. Quotations of the legitimacy of Saturday worship from many sources, including statements by leaders of ten denominations, can be seen at: http://www.anet-dfw.com/
  5. The Seventh Day Baptists have an essay on the Sabbath at: http://www.seventhdaybaptist.org/
  6. SabbathTruth is a website devoted to a discussion of the Sabbath -- its history, prophecy and purpose. See: http://www.sabbathtruth.com/

Copyright © 1997 to 2008 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2008-JUN-30
Author: B.A. Robinson

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