Does this verse teach the Sabbath is a neverending covenant? Let’s plunge into the Deeper Waters and find out.
In Exodus 31:16, we read this:
The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant.
The ESV seems stronger:
Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.
Same with the NASB:
So the sons of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, to celebrate the Sabbath throughout their generations as a permanent covenant.’
And one final example is the NAB:
So shall the Israelites observe the sabbath, keeping it throughout their generations as an everlasting covenant.
By all means, this is not exhaustive. There are some translations that say this is a perpetual covenant. I have chosen the strongest ones that give an idea of permanence. Is this the case then? Is someone like myself violating the text?
Also, does it even apply to us? That’s another question. Are we Israelites? If so, what does that mean?
The word used to describe the covenant is Olam. There are some cases where it obviously doesn’t mean something that lasts eternally. Exodus 21:6 refers to making someone a servant for life of another. This hardly means that when the two meet in the afterdeath, assuming they do, that the one will still be a servant of the other.
Some cannot be forever. Exodus 27:21 gives such an example. That tent of meeting and the temple are no longer there so the lighting cannot be done. If you take it that this was simply a way of saying that this would go on for an indefinite amount of time, which is a proper interpretation of the word, you have no problem.
In the Levitical offerings in 6:22, one share is to be the Lord’s olam share. This does not mean that the share will last forever. It means that as long as the sacrifices are going on, the Lord will get this. In Scripture, we know God never intended animal sacrifices to go on forever, so this is surely something with an end date.
Leviticus 16:34 uses the word to describe the Day of Atonement. Again, this is no longer the way we as Christians pay for our sins. We do not sacrifice one goat and release another in the wild. Are we denying Scripture then?
In Deuteronomy 23, the word is used to describe the descendants of the Moabites and Ammonites who may not enter the kingdom of the Lord and this is said to be up to the tenth generation, thus even a time limit is put on this. Despite this, Ruth is a great hero in Scripture. Not only that, even more so is her descendant, a guy of some importance in the Bible named King David.
In 1 Samuel 2:30, God says He promised Eli members of his family would serve before Him forever. No more after what they have done! Now you could go the route of Open Theism and say God didn’t know. However, you could more plausibly go this is an anthropomorphism and that the covenant is not forever.
The same applies to 1 Sam. 13:13. God had said earlier in Genesis that the scepter would come from Judah. Did He not know?
In 2 Sam. 12:10, in light of the affair with Bathsheba, David is told the sword will never depart from His house. Despite this, Solomon still had a peaceful realm. It was notable for being peaceful even.
In 2 Chron. 7:16, the temple is where God will be forever. This same temple was destroyed in 586 B.C. Did God not know this was coming, or does Olam mean something besides forever?
It is used to describe Judah and the surrounding nations as an everlasting ruin in Jeremiah 25:9 at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar. Are we to think Jersualem was never to be rebuilt? It was rebuilt in the Old Testament itself and if you go to Israel today, I’m pretty sure Jerusalem is there.
Now does this mean that the Sabbath covenant is not an everlasting covenant?
It does mean that this verse alone is sufficient to establish that. It could be that, or it could be simply a long and indefinite time. We don’t know on the basis of this verse alone. That requires looking elsewhere.
We’ll do that another time.
(And I affirm the virgin birth)