In this week’s Torah portion we encounter the Sabbath for the first time since its mention in the Creation account of Genesis chapters 1-2. However, while the biblical text is silent on the Sabbath there is much in the Midrash that talks about various individuals observing the Shabbat such as Seth, Methuselah, Noah, Shem, all the way to Abraham and the rest of the patriarchs.
It’s unthinkable to imagine that for thousands of years after creation the Sabbath was just ignored. In fact, there is even a tradition that the Israelites observed the Sabbath in Egypt (Exodus Rabbah 1:28, 5:18). Exodus 16:23 may allude to the Israelites observing Shabbat according to an unwritten oral tradition:
[Moses] said to them, “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.’” (Exodus 16:23)
The text literally states: “And [Moses] said unto them, ‘It is that which the LORD has spoken of; a rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD is tomorrow.’” The phrase “It is that” is the Hebrew word hu (הוא), seemingly referring to something in the past. Perhaps Moses refers to “that” which the Israelites already knew.
The Talmud has a tradition that the Sabbath commandment was delivered at Marah along with nine other commandments. This all taking place some five and a half weeks before reaching Mount Sinai:
The Israelites were given ten precepts at Marah, seven of which had already been accepted by the children of Noah, to which were added at Marah social laws, the Sabbath, and honoring one’s parents; “Social laws,” for it is written, “There [at Marah] he made for them a statute and an ordinance” [Exodus 14:25]; “the Sabbath and honoring one’s parents” for it is written, “As the Lord your God commanded you!” [Deuteronomy 4:16]. (b.Sanhedrin 56b)
Why does the Talmud cite Deuteronomy 4:16 as proof that the Sabbath was given at Marah? The Soncino Talmud comments:
Similar words are used in the fourth commandment: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the Sabbath day. In both cases then there is a reference to some previous event, shown by the use of the past tense: commanded thee. Now the second Decalogue, though spoken by Moses towards the end of his life in the plains of Moab many years after the first at Sinai, was nevertheless a repetition thereof. Therefore this reference back must have been made in the first promulgation also, and can only relate to Marah, where, as stated above, ‘he made for them a statute and an ordinance’, i.e., gave certain laws to the Israelites.
Whether the Sabbath was given at Marah or not, all of this evidence points to the fact that Shabbat was being kept before the giving of the Ten Commandments. As we stated, rabbinic tradition teaches that there was a strain of Sabbath-keepers beginning with Adam that reaches all the way to Mount Sinai.
But we find something even more curious in Exodus chapter 16. At the end of the Sabbath institutions we read: “So the people rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:30). Notice that the text does not say “the children of Israel rested,” but rather, “the people rested.” This means that not only were the Jewish people keeping the Sabbath but so were the Gentiles who left Egypt with Israel when they saw the mighty hand of God in action:
And the people of Israel journeyed from Rameses to Succoth … A mixed multitude also went up with them. (Exodus 12:37-38)
The Sabbath commandment was given directly to the children of Israel. This means that here in Exodus we have evidence of Gentiles joining themselves to Israel and voluntarily observing the Sabbath in solidarity with the Jewish people and in honor of the God of Israel.
But even beyond that we get a bigger picture of the Messianic Era. In many ways the exodus from Egypt is a prelude to the coming kingdom of heaven. The Prophet Jeremiah speaks of a greater exodus:
Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, “As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,” but “As the LORD lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.” (Jeremiah 16:14-15)
So let’s compare the exodus with the kingdom. Just as God’s name will be sanctified through the mighty deeds he will perform at the advent of the Messianic Era, so was his name sanctified in Egypt through the ten plagues. Just as God will gather Israel from the four corners of the earth back to the land in the kingdom, so did he gather Israel and bring them out of Egypt. Just as the prophets say that Gentiles who join themselves to God and Israel will be gathered as well, so were Gentiles gathered as Israel left Egypt. And just as in the kingdom the whole world will keep the Sabbath, so did all the people keep the Sabbath together after the exodus.
In Jewish tradition the Messianic Kingdom is called a “time that is all Shabbat.” When the Torah says “So the people rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:30) it prophetically alludes to the time when the whole world will be in the rest of God in the Messianic Era. As Hebrews says, “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Hebrews 4:9). May it be soon and in our days. Amen.