Exodus 23:1-19: The Relationship Between The Sabbath And Justice

For those who write about and think about the Sabbath as much as I do [1], Leviticus 23 is a very familiar place of study to show the importance of the Sabbath for believers in the Bible. To be sure, Leviticus 23 gives a great deal of information (though not always the information we would expect, like the names of Holy Days) about the Sabbath and the Holy Days, there are other chapters that provide further information that may often be neglected because they are less obvious. One of those chapters is Exodus 23, where shortly after providing the Sabbath command as part of the Sinai covenant and shortly before establishing a separate Sabbath covenant for all those people who would follow God for all time, God provided through Moses a substantial but often neglected connection between the Sabbath and justice. Let us briefly examine that connection today.

For You Know The Heart Of A Stranger

Exodus 23:1-9 reads: “You shall not circulate a false report. Do not put your hand with the wicked to be a false witnesses. You shall not follow a crowd to do evil; nor shall you testify in a dispute so as to turn aside after many to pervert justice. You shall not show partiality to a poor man in his dispute. If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden, and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it. You shall not pervert the judgment of your poor in his dispute. Keep yourself far from a false matter; do not kill the innocent and righteous. For I will not justify the wicked. And you shall take no bribe; for a bribe blinds the discerning and perverts the words of the righteous. Also, you shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the heart of a stranger, because you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

To be sure, not all of the matters dealt with in these verses are exclusively about the Sabbath. This passage brings up related concerns about justice relating to theft, lying, murder, and covetousness, which are mentioned in other portions of the Ten Commandments. Nevertheless, many of these matters which are seemingly unconnected with each other or are unconnected with the Sabbath principles in the following two passages, show connections when they are examined closely. These connections include the poor and the rich, and animals as well as human beings. The Sabbath was not only made for man, it was also made for all creation as well, and deals with concerns far more broad than is often credited. This is all the more disconcerting as the language of the Sabbath commandment itself is broad enough to include all people as well as all animals in its language, which ought to clue us into the fact that it relates to matters of how we treat others and how we deal with the Creation that we are the stewards of by God’s design.

This passage, unsuprisingly, deals with such questions of justice in a similarly expansive matter. We are not to pervert justice in the favor of the poor on account of any sort of hatred for or envy of the wealthy. However, we are neither to exploit or oppress the poor simply on account of his poverty and his inability to pay us bribes. We are instead to judge and behave justly, based on facts and evidence, and not with partiality. Neither are we to be swayed or cowed by mobs, but rather we are to be governed by our own internally developed and biblically based senses of justice. That which God requires in this matter is straightforward enough to understand, but hard to do if one lacks the requisite moral courage to do so. Sadly, in this world, all too many people lack that courage to stand up for what is right either for the poor or for the wealthy.

Likewise, a major concern of the Sabbath commandment is avoiding exploitation of the vulnerable like the poor and the stranger. Deuteronomy 5:15 gives as a reason for the obedience of the Sabbath the memory of our slavery in Egypt (whether literal slavery, as was the case for the people of ancient Israel, or our own figurative slavery in sin–because we were slaves of sin, we honor the Sabbath to show praise and gratitude for our Lord and Savior who set us free, and in turn we also set others free from their burdens and give them rest). Because ancient Israel were strangers in Egypt, they were not to oppress the stranger because they knew how it felt, at least as a society. Because all believers are pilgrims and strangers on this earth, we too are to avoid oppressing the stranger, exploiting immigrants for cheap labor and denying them the proper reward for their labor, because we too are strangers ourselves and citizens of the Jerusalem that is above.

Likewise, our concern for freeing others of burdens is not extended even to humanity, but also to animals. If we see an animal that our enemy has overladen with a heavy burden that it cannot bear, we have an obligation to help out that animal rather than to let our enemy suffer because of his own exploitative treatment of his own animals. Our concern for justice and the freeing of burdens outweighs the right of a person to use and exploit his supposed property, even animals, as he sees fit. Without going at length into this principle, it ought to be obvious that this overriding concern for justice has immense implications and drastically limits the freedom that people have to act in what they consider their own property, whether it is their businesses with their employees or their farms or their animals or perhaps even their machinery or anything else. This particular passage places a divine mandate on believers to ease the suffering of others from burdens that they cannot bear, even if those others are under the jurisdiction of others, a matter of considerable delicacy and considerable importance in the relationship between our moral behavior and our concern for the behavior of others in our communities, even the wicked among us. We are to show grace [2] and compassion even to the slaves and chattel of our enemies.

And In All That I Have Said To You, Be Circumspect

Exodus 23:10-13 reads: “Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove. Six days you shall do your work, and on the seventh day you shall rest, that your ox and your donkey may rest, and that the son of your female servant and the stranger may be refreshed. And in all that I have said to you, be circumspect and make no mention of the name of other gods, not let it be heard from your mouth.”

This is a straightforward passage as well, but no less a challenging one for us today, nor less interconnected with other commandments (in this case, the first commandment). The Sabbath is the sign of God’s rulership over all creation, and includes the way we treat the land that we have dominion over as the stewards of God’s creation until the return of Jesus Christ. It was not only in Leviticus 25 that the sabbath year was connected to the Sabbath day, but this was true as well from the very time that the Sabbath commandment was given to the people of Israel in anticipation of their becoming a nation with its territory in the promised land. From the very beginning limits were placed by God on the ability of people to exploit the land that they had been given by God, showing again how the overriding concern for justice override the right of people to do with their property as they saw fit. From the time that Israel was set free from slavery and established as a nation the concern for justice and the well-being of the land, animals, and the oppressed and vulnerable was established as a bedrock principle of their own behavior, all part of the underlying rationale for the giving of the Sabbath commandment in the first place.

Likewise, there is also a concern about naming other gods that is a matter of considerably delicacy. The names of our conventional months and days of the week are full of references to foreign deities. Those of us who have studied the history and culture of other nations likewise have dealt with many names of supposed deities who exist only in the imagination of their believers and in the texts written by those believers. God’s demand for exclusivity and for His name (reputation) not to be harmed includes even the mention of foreign gods. As these names are embedded in the very conventional names for months and days of the week that we take for granted and refer to unthinkingly every day, we all need the reminder to take this particular aspect of God’s commandments more seriously. When we worship on the Sabbath day, we ought to be careful not to show any sort of regard or respect for the gloomy Roman god on whose supposed day most of the Sabbath lies, to give but one example of many.

Three Times You Shall Keep A Feast

Exodus 23:14-19 reads: “Three times you shall keep a feast to Me in the year: you shall keep the Feast of Unleavened Bread (you shall eat unleavened bread seven days, as I commanded you, at the time appointed in the month of Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt; none shall appear before Me empty); and the Feast of Harvest, the firstfruits of your labors which you have sown in your field; and the Feast of Ingathering at the end of the year, when you have gathered in the fruit of your labors from the field. Three times in the year all your males shall appear before the Lord Yahwah [or Lord God]. You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; nor shall the fat of My sacrifice remain until morning. The first of the firstfruits of your land you shall bring into the house of the Eternal your God. You shall not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.”

This passage gives the three missionary feasts where all the males of Israel, as the representatives of their households (an interesting application of the biblical principle of representation [2]) were commanded to come up to the place where God’s name was placed, whether in Shiloh or Jerusalem, or anywhere else, as the case may be. They were commanded to bring with them the fruits of the land that God had blessed them with (at some points in our lives, those fruits seem meager, but God still commands us to bring them anyway). Of course, those families who were able also tended to bring all of the members of the family to share in these festivals, as was the case with Jesus’ family (see Luke 2:41-42, for example) so that all could share in the joy of God’s bountiful blessings with their neighbors and fellow brethren.

Let us also note that this passage continues the theme of the previous two passages in limiting the way that believers could behave as they wished and do what they want in worship by establishing various restrictions. Given the symbolic connection between leavening and sin and corruption, no offerings were to be offered to God with leavening, for God demanded sacrifices that were pure and without blemish. Likewise, so as not to create spoilage problems, the fat of the sacrifice was not to remain until morning but was to be burned up in the evening. Likewise, in a nod to the fact that the fifth commandment to honor our fathers and mothers applies to animals as well as human beings (another way in which the demands of justice and equity in God’s laws are far more expansive than we often realize), it was forbidden to boil a young goat in its mother’s milk, because that would be making a mother, whose milk was designed to nourish her offspring, an accomplice in the death of her own children, which would be a great dishonor. To be sure, the Jews have often misinterpreted this law to mean that meat and milk products could not be eaten together at all, but when viewed in context here, it is clear that respect and honor for parents means that our cooking behaviors have to reflect a similar respect for the office of parent even in the animal world, which ought to reflect a high honor for parents in general.


In examining the relationship between the Sabbath and justice, we ought to note that understanding the deeper relationship between the Sabbath as part of God’s design for a chance for rest and rejuvenation and reflection and reverence on a weekly basis in the Sabbath, on an annual basis in God’s commanded assemblies, and in a cyclical manner for the preservation of our land and the fresh start every Jubilee for the families of God’s people are all interconnected with God’s overall plan for justice. This understanding of the importance of justice to God’s Sabbath ought to make us honor the Sabbath, and the Eternal who made it, and the Lord of the Sabbath who has set us free from our sins through His sacrifice all the more. Furthermore, it ought to make us reflect upon the fact that if justice and grace towards our brethren, towards the poor and strangers among us, and even towards animals and the land is so important to God that he would connect all of those concerns together in one of His ten fundamental commands, those concerns ought to be equally important to us in the way that we live our lives and the way that we provide justice as well as mercy to those around us.

[1] Here are some of my previous posts about the subject of the Sabbath for those who are interested in reading further:

















[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2012/06/30/the-five-point-biblical-covenant-model/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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