When Is the Sabbath? How Can We Know?
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
An important question many people have is as follows: When is the Sabbath?
In Genesis chapters 1 and 2, we learn about the creation of the heavens and the earth. In six days, God formed the face of the earth and fashioned it with animals and other living creatures. During these six days He created. On the seventh day, He rested.
“2 By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. 3 Then God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done” (Genesis 2:2-3, NIV).
This seven-day cycle was established and later spread throughout the whole world. Noah understood the seven-day cycle established at creation. “He waited yet another seven days; and again he sent the dove out of the ship. The dove came back to him at evening and, behold, in her mouth was a freshly plucked olive leaf. So Noah knew that the waters were abated from the earth. He waited yet another seven days, and sent out the dove; and she didn’t return to him any more” (Gen. 8:10-12).
Later in Genesis we learn that the children of Jacob or Israel went down to Egypt. While there, any knowledge of the seven-day week they might have had was lost. The Egyptians had a ten-day work week (Fagan, 476). After God brought them out of Egypt in Exodus chapters 12-14, one of His first acts was to reveal to them the true Sabbath.
In Exodus chapter 16, the Bible records the miraculous giving of the manna from Heaven. God told the Israelites to gather manna for five days and on the sixth day to gather twice as much. On the seventh day, they were not to gather any.
Many people have heard the story of the manna in the desert. Very few know that the lesson of the manna was to show them which day of the week was the Sabbath! He even said in Exodus 16:29, “Bear in mind that the Lord has given you the Sabbath; that is why on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days.”
From the time that the manna was given in Exodus chapter 16, the Jewish people have kept track of this day. In the Bible and the Jewish culture, the Sabbath is the only day of the week that is named. The other days of the week are named “first day”, “second day”, “third day”, etc. This is why no day of the week except Sabbath is named in the Bible.
This is one detail that made the day easy to preserve. It is the same day kept in Jesus’ time and the same day observed by Jewish people today.
In the first few centuries AD, several Roman historians noted which day of the week that the Jewish people rested. We have some of them listed below:
Frontinus (30-103 AD) wrote: “The deified Vespasian Augustus attacked the Jews on the day of Saturn, a day on which it is sinful for them to do any business, and so defeated them” (Strategems, book 2).
The Roman Historian Cassius Dio tells us that the Jewish people rested on the day that the Romans called the day of Saturn. “As it was, they made an excavation of what are called the days of Saturn and by doing no work at all on those days afforded the Romans an opportunity in this interval to batter down the wall…They build to him a temple that was extremely large and beautiful, except in so far as it was open and roofless, and likewise dedicated to him the day called the day of Saturn, on which, among many other most peculiar observances, they undertake no serious occupation” (Roman History, 37.16.2; 37.16.3).
At least fourteen Roman writers attest that the Jewish people honored the Sabbath; most of them wrote that they rested on the day. Frontinus, Cassius Dio, and others link it to the day of Saturn.
Saturn is the name the Romans gave to the day of the week we presently call Saturday. The Sabbath was so widespread in the Roman world that they developed a word in their language (Latin) for that day (sabbatis).
The Hebrew word for Sabbath is Shabbat. In many current and ancient languages, the word for Saturday is a variation of the phonetic sounds relating to Shabbat or sabbat. I have included a short list below. Some of these languages are over one thousand years old!
Indonesian – Sabtu
Tagalog (Philippines) – Sabado
Latin – Sabbatum
Greece – Sabato or Savatoh
Spanish – Sabado
Portuguese – Sabado
Russian – Subota
Arabic – Al Sabt
Somali (East Africa) – Sabti
Mandingo also called Mandinka (West Africa) – Sibiti
Ormo or Galla (East Africa) – Sanbata tenna
Kisii, also called Gusii or Ekegusii (Africa) – Esabato
In Greece, Friday is called paraskevi or Preparation day. It comes from the ancient Jewish and Christian custom of preparing on Friday to keep the Sabbath. One reason why this happened is because the Sabbath begins Friday at sunset. In fact, this is when all Biblical days occur.
Genesis 1:5b “…And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”
Deut. 24:15 – “…Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.”
Ephesians 4:26 – “’In your anger do not sin’: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry…”
We can see from these examples that a day in the Bible begins and ends at sunset. Night time is the beginning portion of a day and day time is the concluding portion. This helps us define a Biblical day.
It is very clear that the Sabbath is from Friday sunset through Saturday sunset. This set apart day is mentioned over 140 times in the Bible. He has left us a witness through history, language, and the example of the Jewish people. He made provision for us; He made sure that we would know when the Sabbath is today. Jesus said that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath (Mark 2:27). It was set apart for all mankind.
Kelly McDonald, Jr
BSA President – www.biblesabbath.org
Dio Cassius. Roman History. 37.16.2; 37.16.3.
Fagan, Brian M. ed. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. New York, 1996. Page 202. p 476.
Frontius. Strategems. book 2.
All verses, unless otherwise noted, come from the New International Version (NIV).