When Is the Sabbath and How Can We Know?
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
One of the lingering questions regarding the Sabbath is: How can we know when it is?
This is a great question. To answer it, we must start with how the Bible defines a day. Consider the following verses:
Genesis 1:5b “…And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”
Leviticus 23:32b – referring to the Day of Atonement – “From the evening of the ninth day of the month until the following evening you are to observe your sabbath.”
Deut. 24:14-15 – “Do not take advantage of a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether that worker is a fellow Israelite or a foreigner residing in one of your towns. Pay them their wages each day before sunset, because they are poor and are counting on it.”
2 Samuel 3:35 – “Then they all came and urged David to eat something while it was still day; but David took an oath, saying, “May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if I taste bread or anything else before the sun sets!”
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. Perhaps God did this to show us that He brings our lives out of darkness and into His marvelous light.
As far as which day of the week is the Sabbath, we again want to start with the beginning of the Bible.
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.
This seven-day cycle was established and later spread throughout the whole world. One evidence of this is that Noah understood the seven-day cycle established in the beginning. “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 something very important about Abraham. The Bible tells us that Abraham “…obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Genesis 26:5). The Sabbath is listed as a commandment in Exodus 16:28, Exodus 20:8-11, and other places. By inference, we can learn that Abraham kept the commandments of God; this means he kept the Sabbath as well! He did so without having a Bible. He just trusted God and obedience was the result.
When the Israelites went down to Egypt, they lost knowledge and practice of the Sabbath. The Egyptians had a ten-day work week (Fagan, p 476). After God brought them out of Egypt in Exodus chapters 12-14, one of His first acts in the desert 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. 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.” Many people have heard the story of the manna in the desert. Very few know that the entire lesson of the manna was to show them the true Sabbath day!
From the time that the manna was given in Exodus 16, the Jewish people have preserved 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 reason why it has been easy for the Jewish people to the Sabbath. It is the same day kept in Jesus’ time and the same day kept by them today. Despite the persecution of the Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Muslims, Catholic Inquisitions, and Nazi Germany, they have held on to the Sabbath.
But there is more evidence that we can use to determine when the day of the week of the Sabbath. 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) “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” (Cassius Dio, Roman History, 37.16.2; 37.17.3).
At least fourteen Roman writers attest that the Jewish people honored the Sabbath; most of them identify it as the day upon which the Jewish people rested. 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. A chart below gives you a short list. Let’s take one example. In Spanish, sabado is the word for Saturday. The foundations for the Spanish language were formed starting in 711 AD when the Moors conquered Spain. From then to now, the name for Saturday has been unchanged.
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, they call Friday Paraskevi or Preparation day. It comes from the ancient Jewish and Christian custom of preparing on Friday to keep the Sabbath.
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 is the President of the BSA and an Evangelist with Hungry Hearts Ministries. www.hungryheartsministry.com
Cassius Dio. Roman History, 37.16.2; 37.17.3; Dio’s Roman History. Translation by Earnest
Cary. vol. 3. Harvard University Press: 1959. pp 125-129
Fagan, Brian M. ed. The Oxford Companion to Archaeology. Vol. 1. Oxford University Press. New York, 1996. Page 202. p 476.
Frontinus. Strategems, 2.1.1. The Strategems and the Aqueducts of Rome. Translation by Charles E Bennett. New York: 1925. pp 98-99.
All verses, unless otherwise noted, come from the New International Version (NIV).