The Sabbath as a Celebration of Freedom

The Old Testament contains two versions of the ten commandments: the version in Exodus when Moses receives the commandments, and the version in Deuteronomy at the end of Israel’s wandering, just as the people are about to enter the promised land. But from Exodus to Deuteronomy, the reason for the Sabbath day shifts. The Sabbath goes from being a celebration of creation in Exodus to a celebration of freedom in Deuteronomy. Two weeks ago our teacher in a priesthood lesson pointed out this difference between the Exodus version and the Deuteronomy version. I had never noticed it before. It’s been on my mind since then.

Exodus vs. Deuteronomy: Two different reasons for the Sabbath.

The Sabbath Day is unique because it has more explanation than any of the other nine commandments. And that explanation has a pattern: commandment, elaboration, and then reason. In the Exodus version, first the Lord gives the commandment to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy (Exodus 20:8). Then he elaborates what it means to keep it holy: work six days, but do no work and allow none of your household to do work on the seventh day (Exodus 20:9-10). Finally, the Lord gives a reason for the commandment: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it” (Exodus 20:11). Here in Exodus, the reason is that the Sabbath is a commemoration or celebration of creation. In my experience, that’s the reason we usually give when we talk about the Sabbath day.

But the second version, in Deuteronomy, is slightly different. In Deuteronomy Moses reiterates the commandments, and when he gets to the commandment about the Sabbath day he follows the same pattern as in Exodus: First he gives the commandment to sanctify the Sabbath day—that is, to make or keep it holy (Deuteronomy 5:12). Then he gives the same elaboration of what that means: work six days but do no work and allow none of your household to do work on the seventh (Deuteronomy 5:13-14). And then he gives the reason, but this time the reason is different: “[T]hat thy manservant and thy maidservant may rest as well as thou. And remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence through a mighty hand and by a stretched out arm: therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath day” (Deuteronomy 5:14-15).

In Deuteronomy, the reason given for the Sabbath day has changed. Rather than be just a celebration for the creation, as in Exodus, in Deuteronomy the Sabbath became a commemoration of Israel’s liberation from bondage and oppression in Egypt.

The Sabbath as a celebration of creation is relatively straightforward: God rested when he finished creation, so we rest to remember his creation. But what does the Sabbath have to do with the Exodus? Isn’t that what Passover is for? How does the Sabbath commemorate Israel’s liberation from bondage and oppression?

The Sabbath as a celebration of freedom.

This isn’t a question that I’ve heard explored in the wards I’ve been in. Maybe the key is in that extra clause tacked onto the end of verse 14: “that thy manservant and they maidservant may rest as well as thou.” As he prepares to bring his people into the promised land, Moses seems to be perhaps concerned with the possibility that as they settle, become established, and stratified into social classes, Sabbath observance could become a luxury afforded to the wealthy alone. Moses it seems, didn’t want the Sabbath observance of the wealthy to be subsidized by labor of the poor. He wanted his people to remember their liberation, and to remember that they meant that even the lowest person on the social totem pole was no slave, and that no matter what else they had to do during the six days of labor, during the sacred time, in God’s presence, they were free.

Enslaved people don’t get days off, or if they do, it’s because their masters fancy themselves generous, not because they have a right to it. They don’t get to demand a day off. There may be some historical exceptions to that, but at least in the story of Exodus, it appears that they did not get days off. In fact, that was the beginning of the conflict with Pharaoh. Remember Moses didn’t go demanding liberation at first. He asked only that Israel be permitted to go worship their God and then come back. Pharaoh’s response: “You’re giving my slaves an excuse to stop working? Tell them to get back to work!” (Exodus 5:4-5). Pharaoh says what oppressors always say when oppressed people have the audacity to speak about their oppression: that they’re lazy, idle, malcontents and they’re only unhappy because they aren’t working hard enough. So he increases their workload (Exodus 5:6-14). And when that doesn’t work he just keep repeating to himself the same old lie: “ye are idle, ye are idle” (Exodus 5:17). Enslaved people don’t get days off.

So in this context, the Sabbath day was a direct attack on bondage. It celebrated Israel’s freedom from bondage by taking away, once every seven days, the masters’ right to demand work from their servants. It demanded that even the lowest servant have the dignity of a day of rest. The Sabbath is a weekly reminder from God to each Israelite: even if you are a servant during the six days of labor, in my presence, on my holy day, you are not a slave.

I think the reason for the Sabbath given in Deuteronomy is important. I’m not saying that we need to de-canonize the Exodus version with its emphasis on the creation, but perhaps we ought to do more to make the Sabbath day a celebration of liberation as well.[1] A day to remember that all God’s children are free before him—that there is, as Paul would later put it “neither bond nor free” in God’s presence (Galatians 3:28).

I am resolving now to try to make the Sabbath a celebration of freedom.

If we did observe the Sabbath in this way, what would that do? If we took time every week to honor and celebrate our shared freedom before God, and our essential equality before him, shouldn’t that make us more sensitive to the existence of oppression and bondage during the six days of labor? Shouldn’t that make us more anxious to hasten the end of that oppression? It can be tempting to think that discussions of slavery are behind us because our country ended legal, government subsidized, race-based chattel slavery long ago. But even though our country ended the legal framework of slavery, the oppression that went on within that framework—the wide-scale theft and other atrocities—did not end altogether, and it continues to this day within other legal frameworks. A solution to those problems is obviously beyond this post—indeed, even naming all those problems is beyond this post. But I can’t help think it’s important to make a conscious effort to notice these problems and be uncomfortable with them. And I believe that observing the Sabbath as a celebration of freedom will do that for me: I don’t believe we can celebrate freedom from oppression without hypocrisy unless we are willing to see and confront the oppression that still goes on in our own communities.

Have you ever heard the Sabbath discussed as a celebration of freedom in your ward?

What are your ideas for how we could better observe the Sabbath as a celebration of freedom?

[1] I’m not dealing in this post with the issue about the Sabbath (that is, the seventh day), and the Lord’s day (which is the first day) being separate observances. I’m accepting for purposes of this discussion that for Christians, any obligation for Sabbath observance is fulfilled by observing the Lord’s day as the Sabbath. (Or, observing the Sabbath on Fridays, as church members do in some majority-Muslim countries.)


  1. I’ve got nothing academic or spiritual to add to this. Only that is my favorite insight out of all the insights I’ve been given this week. Danke.

  2. I remember the language from Deuteronomy, but it never really registered with me as to why it might be different. Social stratification and oppression of the poor pops up in numerous places in both the Bible and as one of the primary evils to be avoided in the Book of Mormon,. This is a great insight, one that I think demands more attention. Much to think about here.

  3. Excellent. I “know” both versions in that they are registered in memory somewhere. But I’ve only ever discussed or used the Deuteronomy freedom version and hadn’t thought about the difference in meaning. (Also curious that my first use would be opposite the OP?)

  4. Kevin Barney says:

    I had simply never focused on this before. Thanks for the insight.

  5. Thanks for this! I just got called to teach the 4th Sundays in Relief Society. I will definitely be including this in the discussion.

  6. Jack Hughes says:

    Indeed, the best use of a day for “celebrating freedom” is to spend most of the prime daylight hours trapped in uninspiring meetings.

  7. Maybe I should have said this in the OP, but it seems especially appropriate to think of the Sabbath this way during Black History Month. That’s obviously in the background of the post, but maybe I should have made it explicit.

  8. JKC: Thinking of the Sabbath as celebrating freedom or release, and your now explicit reference to Black History Month, takes my mind to Deuteronomy 15, with its every seven year release — of debt and of any (Hebrew) slave. “Thou shalt remember that thou wast a bondman in the land of Egypt, and the Lord thy God redeemed thee: therefore I command thee this thing to day.” Deut. 15:15.
    I can already see the legalistic arguments, but it ought to give one pause nonetheless.

  9. Indeed, Christian. It’s a lot easier to keep the Sabbath in today’s culture than to forgive debt.

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