Sabbath Origins

George Athas gathas at
Sun Dec 5 17:17:40 EST 1999

It's interesting that the only major difference between the two Decalogue texts (Ex 20 &
Deut 5) is the reasoning behind the Sabbath. In Exodus, it is associated with the freedom
or rest from Egyptian slavery. In Deut, it has to do with the creation activities of
Yahweh. Neither of these seem to be associated with any lunar cycle. Perhaps this is where
dating might become useful. During the Maccabean-Hasmonean era, the Torah was a very well
respected text and being copied quite copiously. The Seleucid persecution of Jews was very
much tied up with Torah observance. By 167 BCE, then, we see that Torah (in whatever
form). This would mean that the Sabbath observance of a seventh day rest was a well
entrenched tradition. If there had been a connection with New Moon festivals, it was
certainly lost well before 167 BCE.

With regards to the Jews not defending themselves on the Sabbath, this may well have been
the case because it was precisely for Torah observance that they were being killed. By
dying in the act of Torah observance, they were committing an act of defiance towards the
Seleucids. Notice that it was only certain elements who had fled into the desert who
refused to fight on the Sabbath. The others who learned of the massacre took swift action
to make sure this didn't happen again. It doesn't suggest that the Sabbath observance
(seventh day rest) was a new thing. Rather, it points to the fact that a few fervent
observers chose to die fighting with a Torah scroll in their hand rather than a sword. If
the motivation for the persecution had been non-religious, then maybe these people would
have defended themselves on the Sabbath. But since it was for Sabbath observance that they
were being persecuted (among other things), they observed the Sabbath all the more
stringently as they faced their persecutors. Mattathias' response doesn't necessarily
indicate that his decision was a new innovation regarding Sabbath observance. Rather, it
seems to have been made to dissuade people from quasi-suicidal tendencies regarding their
observance of Torah. For the sake of Torah, they needed to fight not die. To uphold the
Sabbath day rest, they needed to be active when needed. This doesn't stop them from
resting on every Sabbath - only when they were attacked. Perhaps another question to ask
is when else prior to 167 BCE were the Jews attacked for their religious customs rather
than political moves?

Best regards,
George Athas
 Dept of Semitic Studies,
 University of Sydney
Tel Dan Inscription Website
< gathas@ >

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