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Reflections on Ethics 70
The Fourth Commandment
Is There a Sabbath Day?

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: Continuing with our series of Joseph Lewis's analysis of the 10 Commandments, this is the opening section of his chapter on the fourth commandment along with the concluding words of the chapter.

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"Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy.

Six days shalt thou labor, and do all thy work:

But in the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:

For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested on the seventh day: wherefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."

Is There a Sabbath Day?

The establishment of a "Sabbath" day, a day superior to, and more "sacred" than, any other day of the week, a day to be observed simultaneously by all the peoples of the earth, is a physical and astronomical impossibility. It is therefore not surprising that one professed Christian authority confesses that the explanation of this Commandment is "full of difficulty."[1]

For one day in seven to be set aside for all eternity for the complete cessation of labor because "God rested" on the seventh day, with death as a penalty for the violation of this order, is obviously too puerile for intelligent consideration. If the Bible God had put a time limit upon his period of rest, especially when there is so much still to be done to make the earth a truly habitable place, we could possibly pardon his rigorous demands and excuse his passion for adoration; but to rest for all eternity is laziness without an excuse.

Yet, of all the Commandments which God is supposed to have given to Moses, on Mount Sinai for the guidance of the Children of Israel, the observance of the Sabbath day was considered the most important. What made the Sabbath day the holy bond between the Children of Israel and their God? Was the Sabbath but another superstition founded upon a primitive taboo based upon sympathetic magic? In addition to the fact that the Sabbath is mentioned in each and every one of the different sets of the Commandments, the necessity for its strict observance is repeated innumerable times throughout the Bible. The Bible Deity insisted that the Children of Israel observe it as a sign between him and them, as visible evidence that they would keep his commandments. There can be no mistake about this; the provisions are clear and definite. The Sabbath was the Day of Days -- the most sacred tie between the Israelites and their God.

This Commandment also contains an additional injunction not present in the others -- the admonition to "remember" the Sabbath. Forgetfulness was not a valid excuse, and woe unto those who failed to observe it.

How could one remember the Sabbath day? By what means and by what method could it be identified? How had the Lord "blessed" the seventh day? How was it hallowed? Has it some particular mark of identification to distinguish it from the other days of the week? Does the sun rise and set at a different time, or is the temperature on that day even and unvarying, or must we depend on the man-made calendar to tell it from the other days of the week? Since man began to measure the movements of the heavenly bodies, the arrangement, number and names of the days of the week have been changed innumerable times in the calendar. How, then, is it possible to designate the authentic seventh day?

Does not the sun shine on the seventh day as well as on any other day? Does it not sometimes rain, and do we not have storms and cyclones and earthquakes on the Sabbath as well as on any other day of the week? According to religionists, the Lord sends all these phenomena. Does God, then, not violate his Sabbath by "working"? Are the heavens any different on the Sabbath? Is the sky any bluer or the sun any brighter? Do we not have to eat and drink and sleep on the Sabbath as on any other day?

Why is there sickness and death during the Sabbath just as on any other day of the week? What about war -- the cruelest and most stupid undertaking of man, the wholesale murder of human beings by each other in a blind fury of hate -- does that not continue on the holy Sabbath? If there were no sickness, no death, no mean and despicable act, no vicious thoughts on this "holy" day, then indeed it would possess some distinguishing merit.

The story of the six days of creation is not only unscientific, it is not even good fiction. In the cycle around the sun there are no favorite days of the earth; no one day is more blessed or hallowed than another; there are no "stepchildren" in the family of months.

In the Deuteronomy version of the Decalogue,[2] the reason given for the observance of the Sabbath is the deliverance of the Children of Israel from bondage in Egypt. In the Exodus version, however, the Sabbath is to be observed because God created "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."

This glaring contradiction exposes something more than merely textual errors. It proves the falsity of the Exodus explanation and places the other in the category of fiction. It also proves that the Sabbath was unknown to the Hebrews until the time of Moses and was merely one of the many superstitions he imposed upon the credulous Israelites. Even the Jewish Encyclopedia makes this important admission: "...the Sabbath was either improperly observed or sometimes, perhaps, altogether ignored in the time of the prophets."[3]

When geologists determined the age of the earth to be hundreds of thousands of years, the believers in the Mosaic account of creation tried to defend the Biblical narrative by stating that the "six days" of creation as mentioned in Genesis indicated "long periods of time." This explanation would certainly negate a "seventh" or "Sabbath" day in the scheme of creation. It belongs in the same category with the stupidities of the early Church Fathers, who laid down infallible propositions, such as this "profound" utterance of St. Augustine: "Although the world has been made of some material, that very same material must have been made out of nothing." Upon the vital question of the six days required by God to accomplish his task, he further enlightens us: "There are three classes of numbers, the more than perfect, the perfect, and the less than perfect, according as the sum of them is greater than, equal to, or less than the original number. Six is the perfect number, wherefore we must not say that six is a perfect number because God finished all his work in six days, but God finished all his work in six days because six is the perfect number."[4] Peter Martyr was so certain of the truth of this that he stated that were "this article taken away, there would be no original sin, the promise of Christ would become void, and all the vital forces of our religion would be destroyed."[5]

Is it any wonder, in view of these infallible declarations, that the Westminster divines, in drawing up their Confession of Faith, especially laid down that it was necessary to believe that all things visible and invisible were created not only out of nothing, but in exactly six days?[6]

Martin Luther brought his great intellect to tackle this problem, and with his "usual boldness" declared that Moses "spoke properly and plainly, and neither allegorically nor figuratively," and that therefore "the world with all creatures was created in six days." He then goes on to show how, by a great miracle, the whole creation was instantaneous![7]

John Calvin, taking an opposite view of the instantaneous six-day creation, said that "creation was extended through six days that it might not be tedious for us to occupy the whole of life in the consideration of it!"

We must not fail to add to this weighty testimony that of St. Hilary of Poictiers, whose accomplishment lies in the reconciliation of these two apparently irreconcilable conceptions. These are inspired conclusions: "For, although according to Moses, there is an appearance of regular order in fixing the firmament, the laying bare of the dry land, the gathering together of the waters, the formation of the heavenly bodies, and the arising of living things from land and water, yet the creation of the heavens, earth and other elements is seen to be the work of a single moment."

It was, however, left to St. Thomas Aquinas, that mighty Church intellect, to bring about some agreement on this subject by declaring that God created the substance of the things in a single moment, but required six days for the separating, shaping and adorning of creation!

To cap the climax of this bitter controversy that threatened the Church for over a thousand years, Dr. John Lightfoot, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge and one of the most eminent Hebrew scholars of his time, declared in his great work -- the result of a most profound and exhaustive study of the Scriptures that "heaven and earth, center and circumference, were created all together, in the same instant," and that "this work took place and man was created by the Trinity on October 23, 4004 B.C., at nine o'clock in the morning."[8] Later theologians, however, have supplied a serious omission of Dr. Lightfoot's findings by adding: "Eastern Standard Time."

Again, R. H. Charles is forced to conclude that "no educated man now accepts the literal account of creation in six days. This supernatural conception of the Sabbath is without any basis in actuality."[9]

The explanation that the "six days" of creation indicated "long periods of time" has now been completely abandoned by religious apologists as not having the slightest shred of evidence. They are even ashamed of it.

That the sun was created after there was vegetation was of little concern to the theologians, and, according to St. Isadore of Seville in his great encyclopedic work which was the intellectual authority for the human race for a century under the domain of Catholic Christianity, "bees are generated from decomposed veal, beetles from horseflesh, grasshoppers from mules, and scorpions from crabs."[10]

The discussion of the Sabbath has not ended, however, and that this momentous question is still agitating the minds of the clergy is evidenced by the following:

LONDON. -- An unexpected discussion today concerning the creation of the world enlivened the hitherto quiet sessions of the Church Assembly. It began when the Rev. C. E. Douglas referred to the biblical account of the creation in six days. The Bishop of Birmingham intervened to say that those who read the popular newspapers would believe Mr. Douglas took the story of the creation literally.

Amid cries of dissent the Bishop continued:

"For the sake of our people I think it ought to be stated here that such a statement is not accepted seriously by this house without protest. It is to be desired that our people should know that we as a Church feel we can accept the conclusions of modern science without feeling thereby in any way disparaging the value of the spiritual witness of the Bible.

"We believe the first chapter of Genesis still demands our regard because of the emphasis thrown on the creative activity of God. The world, we affirm, as disclosed to us by modern science, has not come into existence as a result of some fortuitous concourse of atoms."

"On a point of honor, I did not make that statement," Mr. Douglas interjected. "The Bishop of Birmingham doesn't seem to have a sense of humor."

"I am glad to have elicited from Mr. Douglas the fact that he does not wish to insist on the literal truth of the creation of the world in six or seven days," the Bishop returned. "Recent scientific discoveries have enabled men of science to state the age of the earth with very considerable accuracy."

The Bishop was interrupted by cries of "Oh, oh," and laughter when he added, "The approximate age of the earth is between two and four billion years." The Bishop of London, presiding, ruled out any further discussion of the creation.

"I have allowed the Bishop of Birmingham to correct what he thought a misstatement, but we cannot now discuss the creation of the world," he said.

Loud laughter ended the debate.[11]

In no other category than that of a ridiculous yarn, were the consequences not so tragic, could the question of a Sabbath day be placed.

With Ingersoll, we say: "Let us throw away these superstitions and take the higher and nobler ground, that every day should be rendered sacred by some loving act, by increasing the happiness of man, giving birth to noble thoughts, putting in the path of toil some flower of joy, helping the unfortunate, lifting the fallen, dispelling gloom, destroying prejudice, defending the helpless and filling homes with light and love." What a profitable exchange would take place!


  1. Charles, The Decalogue, P. 110.
  2. Deuteronomy, Chapter 5, verse 12.
  3. Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol 10, p. 587.
  4. A. D. White, Warfare of Science with Theology, Vol. 1, p. 7.
  5. Ibid., p. 8.
  6. Ibid., p. 9.
  7. Ibid., p. 8.
  8. A. D. White, op. cit., p. 9.
  9. Charles, op. cit., p. 123.
  10. White, op. cit., p. 55.
  11. New York Times, Feb. 7, 1931.