Tom Wells’ book on the Sabbath: Chapter Two (II)

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In my last post, I said, “In my next post I will interact with Wells, where he says, “[w]hen we look at those [i.e., verses in Moses’ writings concerning the Sabbath] we find that each speaks only of what Israelites and people living in her land must do” (26). On page 29, he makes a similar statement. Commenting on Exodus 20:8, he says, “This text, of course, contains the command to keep a Sabbath. It clearly addresses only Israelites and others who live within their land, so it does not seem to be relevant under the New Covenant.”

On one level, I can agree with these statements. The Pentateuch was written by Moses for Israel just prior to his death and their entrance into the Promised Land. It is not a moral manual for mankind, per se. It was a covenantal document for a single nation in covenant with God. On another level, however, I find Wells’ statements at least potentially troublesome. I say potentially because it all depends on what he means. If he means that the Pentateuch was written for Israel just prior to entering the Promised Land and it focuses primarily upon them and their vocation as God’s covenant nation in preparation for the coming of the Messiah and new covenant, I am fine with that. However, if he means, since texts in the Pentateuch address only “what Israelites and people living in her land must do” (26), therefore utilizing them as containing or applying laws or commands which are relevant for all mankind is very dangerous and simply wrong, then I disagree. My hunch is that the latter is what Tom means. In other words, the Sabbath command, in any and all conceivable senses, is for God’s ancient covenant people while in the Promised Land and for them (and those in their land) exclusively.

Let’s assume that position (though not attributing it to Tom Wells). Let’s also extend it to other laws in the Pentateuch, even all pentateuchal laws. Here’s how that position would be formulated: Since Moses wrote the Pentateuch for Israel to be obeyed in the Promised Land, it contains laws exclusively applicable to them while in Canaan. Again, on one level I think this is right. Israel was God’s people under a national covenant with a distinct land for a distinct period of time and distinct purpose. However, it is one thing to affirm this and another to deny that at least some of Israel’s laws transcend her as God’s covenant nation and transcend her land. In other words, could it be that some of Israel’s laws transcend Israel and are actually laws applicable to all men that pre-dated Israel’s covenantal status and were incorporated into Israel’s law and are still applicable to all men? Or we could put it this way: Though Israel had a unique law for a unique vocation in the history of redemption, individual Israelites were considered by God on two levels – citizens of a covenantal nation and creatures created in His image. This would mean that God incorporated into Israel’s law some laws applicable to all men because all men are created in the image of God with the work of the law written on their hearts and accountable to God for the same essential things. To further clarify, this means that God incorporated into Israel’s national law some laws that all men are under because all men have at least two things in common – creation imago Dei and general revelation.

I can think of at least three ways that Israel’s law is used in the Bible which proves that, on one level, it contained at least some laws that transcended old covenant boundaries. First, pagan nations were indicted for breaking some of Israel’s laws. Leviticus 18:24 says, “Do not defile yourselves by any of these things [the laws dealing with sexually immoral relationships stated in Lev. 1:1-23]; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled.” At some level, the pagan nations mentioned were under the laws of Lev. 18:1ff.. If they weren’t, how could God punish them for violating laws they were not under and still be just? Though they did not break the old covenant by violating these laws, they still broke God’s law as His creatures. We are not told by Moses how they came into contact with these laws, but what we are told is that they were guilty of violating them.

There is a second way which shows that at least some of the laws of the old covenant transcended the national and geographic boundaries of the old covenant. New covenant believers are commanded to obey some of the very same laws as published in the Mosaic writings (cf. Rom. 13:8-10; Eph. 6:4). These commandments first found in Moses’ writings are subsequently incorporated into the new covenant Scriptures. This further illustrates the fact that at least some laws first promulgated in the Pentateuch specifically for old covenant Israel in the land of Canaan transcend the old covenant both nationally and geographically.

And third (and very importantly), Christ is said to have died for Jews and Gentiles, redeeming them from the curse of the law (Gal. 3:13). Galatians 3:14 goes on to say that Christ redeemed us (Jew and Gentile) from the curse of the law “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” So here, on one level, the law of the Jews is the law that cursed Gentiles (as well as Jews) and under which curse Christ died. Elsewhere Paul argues forcefully that Jew and Greek are both “under sin” (Rom. 3:9) and “under the Law” (Rom. 3:19). The “Law” must be the law of the Old Testament, at least on some level. This, again, goes to show that the old covenant law as national law for Israel is only one of its functions, but not its only function. At least some of the laws of ancient Israel are common to all men because, once again, all men have at least two things in common – creation imago Dei and general revelation.

Other nations were indicted for breaking laws promulgated by Moses (actually by God via Moses) in the Pentateuch.[1] New covenant citizens are called to obey at least some of the very same laws as Moses penned for ancient Israel. And Gentiles, never under Israel’s law as a national covenant, were yet under the curse of the law, on some level. And our Lord Jesus bore the curse of the law for both Jew and Gentile. I think these factors lead us to this conclusion: At least some of the law of Israel is common to all men. Therefore, God incorporated moral law (i.e., law common to all men) into old covenant Israel’s national law as positive law for Israel under the old covenant.

I’ll close with this question: Could it be that the Sabbath law is part of God’s law common to all men? If it is, it would have to be connected to creation imago Dei and general revelation. It would need biblical links to both creation and to the work of the law written on the heart. As for me, I think those links are clear in the Bible.


[1] Some of the laws first promulgated in the law of Moses were assumed to be in place prior to the written law. Cf., for example, the case of Cain in Gen. 4:8 and 1 Jn. 3:12. Cain hated his brother to death. He murdered him, yet murder was not promulgated as sinful until way after Gen. 4:8. Here is actually another way (a fourth) in which a law of Israel, as God’s old covenant nation, is shown to transcend the old covenant. In this case, a law formally promulgated via Moses at Sinai is assumed to be valid prior to its formal, covenantal publication. The Sabbath command, by the way, also gets some press prior to the old covenant and its law in Exod. 16.

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3 Responses to Tom Wells’ book on the Sabbath: Chapter Two (II)

  1. Richard Taillefer says:

    A case can be made for God’s law, in summary and in detail, existing prior to its being given to Israel after He brought them out of Egypt.

    Examples include the following:
    The example you have already given: Cain hating his brother and sin at the door at that point (hate is murder in the heart)

    Abel and Cain bring offerings to God. A blood sacrifice is acceptable, while a non-blood sacrifice is not acceptable.

    Noah knew the difference between clean and unclean creatures when God directed how many of each would be put on the ark.

    God was not pleased with the wickedness that resulted by the intermarriage of His people with the daughters of men. (I understand the sons of God as those who called upon His name versus the daughters of men, meaning those who were unbelievers). The wickedness that resulted led to God’s judgment. This was the sin of Israel later as they did not keep themselves from intermarrying with the people groups surrounding them.

    Noah is instructed not to eat the meat with its blood.

    Noah is told that whoever sheds man’s blood will pay with his own blood.

    Noah builds an altar to the LORD and offered burnt offerings. The LORD received this as a sweet smelling aroma.

    The LORD destroyed Sodom & Gomorrah for their great wickedness. They were morally accountable to the LORD.

    Abraham obeyed the LORD’s voice, charge, commandments, statutes, and laws. Obviously Abraham was given and responsible for more than has been recorded of him.

    Jacob tells his family to put away the strange gods from among them and be clean. Obviously they knew idolatry was an uncleanness, impurity to the LORD.

    Judah’s son is lined up to marry Tamar after his first son died. When the second son dies, she is sent away to wait for the third son. The 2nd son’s duty was to raise up offspring to the 1st son who had died.

    Joseph would not go in to Potiphar’s wife and commit “sin against God.”

    Jacob gives Joseph a double portion. (may be argued against because it is the first born son, even if that wife were hated, to whom this is to be given Deut. 21:15-17)

    There are likely others. These are only the ones which I have seen on my own. Others better and wiser than me have likely seen more.

    There is one more though: the Sabbath was created at a time when there was no sin. This would mean that it is not a ceremonial. Jesus says it was made for man. He never says it was only a covenant sign for Israel. I don’t deny that it was part of the covenant with Israel, but it existed prior to that covenant being made as Exodus 16 demonstrates.

    Its existence in the New Covenant is demonstrated by Revelation 1:10. A day has the Lord’s name on it, just as a supper has the Lord’s name on it. Although we are to eat & drink all to the glory of God, there is a meal that is distinct from all other meals. Also in this way, every day belongs to the Lord, but He has specifically marked one day of the week as particularly belonging to Himself.

  2. Rick, great stuff, brother!

  3. Pingback: Resources for Studying the Sabbath « Contrast