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 (The Doctrine of Sabbath)
Chapter 4: Sabbath Observance in Canaan
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CHAPTER 4: Sabbath Observance in Canaan

 4.1        The manna ceases to fall

Taking their cue from the six-day cycle of manna, the Israelites learnt to observe the Sabbath dutifully for the duration of their wilderness journey. The manna continued to fall until they entered the land of Canaan: “Now the manna ceased on the day after they had eaten the produce of the land; and the children of Israel no longer had manna, but they ate the food of the land of Canaan that year” (Josh 5:12).

The Bible indicates that during this new era there appeared to be relatively few regulations in force, and the people engaged in a number of activities that did not constitute the breaking of the Sabbath.

4.2         Activities permitted on the Sabbath

4.2.1      Warfare

One of the activities permitted by God upon the people’s arrival into Canaan was warfare. We see evidence of this in the siege of Jericho. In the Book of Joshua, we learn that God commanded them to march around the city for seven days: “You shall march around the city, all you men of war; you shall go all around the city once. This you shall do six days. And seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. But the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets” (Josh 6:3–4).

Other examples are in 1 Samuel 13:5–8 and 1 Kings 20:26–29.

4.2.2      Marriage feasts

A custom in the time of the patriarchs was the holding of week-long marriage feasts (see Gen 29:27–28). This was also the case in the era of the judges, for we learn that this was the duration of Samson’s celebrations (Judg 14:10–17). A logical assumption is that the prohibitions against the kindling of fire and cooking on the Sabbath no longer applied by this time.

4.2.3      Travel

1 Samuel 21:1–10 records David and his band of men fleeing from Saul on a Sabbath day. His journey from Nob to Gath would have been about twenty-five miles. In another biblical account, we learn of a Shunammite woman who appears to have had a habit of travelling to Mount Carmel on the Sabbath (see 2 Kgs 4:22–23), some twenty miles away from her home. These examples reveal that there were no travel restrictions in those times. History indicates that they came about later, during the inter-testamental period, on account of the Jewish scribes and rabbis who interpreted and expanded on the written Law. 

4.2.4      Fasting and mourning

1 Samuel 31:13 records the people of Jabesh fasting for seven days after the death of Saul and his sons. Also, 2 Samuel 12:18 records David fasting and praying for his sick son for the same length of time. These accounts indicate that these acts were not prohibited during the time of the early kingdom. 

4.2.5      Priestly duties

It was the duty of the priests to minister before the Lord at all times. On the Sabbath, they sang hymns, offered sacrifices, set out the showbread and performed circumcision (Num 28:9–10; Lev 24:5–8; Jn 7:22–23).

During the time of Samuel and David, the Levites were appointed as gatekeepers of the tabernacle, caretakers of the holy things and assistants to the priests (1 Chr 23:30–32). Some worked to a seven-day rota:

All those chosen as gatekeepers were two hundred and twelve. They were recorded by the genealogy, in their villages. David and Samuel the seer had appointed them to their trusted office. So they and their children were in charge of the gates of the house of the Lord, the house of the tabernacle, by assignment. The gatekeepers were assigned to the four directions: the east, west, north, and south. And their brethren in their villages had to come with them from time to time for seven days. For in this trusted office were four chief gatekeepers; they were Levites. And they had charge over the chambers and treasuries of the house of God. And they lodged all around the house of God because they had the responsibility, and they were in charge of opening it every morning. 

            1 Chronicles 9:22–27

The Levites were also singers and musicians (1 Chr 15:16–24), later playing a key role at the dedication of the temple (2 Chr 5:1, 12). Among their repertoire was “A Song for the Sabbath Day” (Ps 92).

4.3         A holy convocation

God included the Sabbath among the holy convocations (Lev 23:1–3), and it was therefore a day for the Israelites to rest and assemble for worship. After God delivered the Law to Moses at Sinai, the tabernacle served as the focal point for weekly Sabbath observance, for it was here that the priests performed the required ceremonial rituals: namely the offering of sacrifices (Num 28:9–10) and the setting out of showbread (Lev 24:5–9). Later, in King Solomon’s time, the temple served as a far more magnificent and glorious venue for worship:

“Behold, I am building a temple for the name of the Lord my God, to dedicate it to Him, to burn before Him sweet incense, for the continual showbread, for the burnt offerings morning and evening, on the Sabbaths, on the New Moons, and on the set feasts of the Lord our God. This is an ordinance forever to Israel.”

            2 Chronicles 2:4

Then Solomon offered burnt offerings to the Lord on the altar of the Lord which he had built before the vestibule, according to the daily rate, offering according to the commandment of Moses, for the Sabbaths, the New Moons, and the three appointed yearly feasts—the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles.

            2 Chronicles 8:12–13

During the period of the divided kingdom, Sabbath worship appears to have taken place in Israel’s holy sanctuaries. Evidence for this is found in 2 Kings which records the story of a Shunammite woman who, after her son died, made preparations to seek out the prophet Elisha on Mount Carmel. Her husband asked, “Why are you going to him today? It is neither the New Moon nor the Sabbath” (2 Kgs 4:23). His words indicate that Carmel was a centre of worship at that time—a place where people travelled to on Sabbath days and other holy feasts.

Later, during the period of the Babylonian exile, when worship in the temple was no longer possible, Sabbath observance took place in local synagogues[1]. It was there that the people assembled for prayer and instruction in the Scriptures.

On the Sabbaths and holy days the loss of the Temple and the absence of the solemn sacrificial celebrations were keenly felt by the exiles…the synagogue…served as a substitute for the Temple. In the synagogue there was no altar, and prayer and the reading of the Torah took the place of the sacrifice. In addition the prayer house performed an important social function…it was a gathering point and a meeting place where the people could congregate whenever it was necessary to take counsel over important community affairs.  

                                                  Menes, The Jewish People, vol 1, pp 78–152

When the Jews returned from exile, synagogues became firmly established as places of worship and learning. The Gospels show that Jesus Himself attended the synagogues at Nazareth (Mt 13:54; Lk 4:16) and Capernaum (Mk 1:21; Jn 6:59). Such were their importance that, by the first century AD, they could be found in those cities that the Jews migrated to, including Salamis in Cyprus (Acts 13:5), Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:14), Iconium (Acts 14:1), Thessalonica (Acts 17:1–2), Berea (Acts 17:10), and Corinth (Acts 18:1, 4). It was in the synagogues, and often on the Sabbath day, that the apostle Paul took the opportunity to preach to Jews and Greeks alike, proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ. As the Christian faith spread, believers also took their worship into private homes (see Rom 16:3, 5; 1 Cor 16:19; Col 4:15; Phm 2) and, finally, into church buildings. 

4.4         Conclusion

After the Israelites settled in Canaan, there appeared to be few Sabbath regulations. From the Bible, we note that the people were at liberty to engage in various activities that did not constitute the profaning of the day—activities such as warfare, travel, celebrating marriages, mourning and fasting.

Importantly, the Sabbath became established as a holy convocation, with worship centering initially on the tabernacle, and later, in the temple at Jerusalem and the holy sanctuaries in Israel. From the period of the Babylonian exile, local synagogues served as meeting places for the chosen people. In the time of the New Testament, and with the spread of Christianity, believers took their worship into private houses, and later into formal church buildings.  


© January 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      Strong’s reference no. G4864. Greek sunagoge, meaning “a bringing together”.

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