Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hebrew Mnemonic #2: The Olam Clock

One of the simplest arguments that one hears for keeping the sabbath today is the fact that in the OT the sabbath is described as an ordinance which lasts "forever." Note the following:
Exodus 31:16 Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever.

On the one hand this is an interesting point. It says forever. And as a guy who likes to take the Bible at face value as often as possible I can hear myself making this point, "It says forever, do you know how long forever is? Forever is forever."

But on the other hand, we need to stop and think. Before we conclude that face value is all there is, we need to consider how else this word "forever" is used in the OT. As a side note, the Hebrew word here is olam, for which Ken provided the excellent mnemonic: "I must set my olam clock, else I'll sleep forever." The word is used over 400 times in the OT. Let's take a small sampling of some of the things that the OT says will last "forever."

Exodus 12:14 - The Passover feast
Exodus 27:21 - The Tabernacle Menorah
Exodus 29:9 - The Aaronic priesthood
Leviticus 6:15 - The Grain offering
Leviticus 16:29 - The Day of Atonement
Leviticus 23:14 - The Feast of Firstfruits
Leviticus 23:21 - The Feast of Weeks
Leviticus 23:41 - The Feast of Booths
Leviticus 24:8 - The Bread of the Presence

All of these things are said in the OT to be "forever," or in some cases it is translated as a "perpetual statute." And yet, I'll go ahead and point out the obvious, we don't observe or maintain any of these things any longer. Clearly, at least in these cases, we can't simply take "forever" at face value.

Of course, this presents a problem for sabbatarians and nonsabbatarians alike, considering almost all of us are nonfirstfruitarians, and nongrain-offeringists. How is it that the OT can confidently assert something as being "forever" which the NT is comfortable regarding as temporary?

In part the answer is found in recognizing the magnitude of what happened in Christ's death and resurrection. When Christ died, the world ended. And when he rose from the dead, a new world began. His rising on the first day of the week signified the beginning of the new creation week. As Paul says of believers in 2 Corinthians 5:17, "If anyone is in Christ, New Creation!!! The old has gone, the new has come!"

The promises and institutions of the old covenant were such that they could not be done away with by anything short of a completely new creation. And that is what has begun with the resurrection of Christ, and continues with the regeneration of believers.


Ken said...

Jeff, Jesus speaks about fulfilling the entire OT Law. And in the case of the Sabbath in particular, we know that Hebrews (which also happens to lay out the temporary nature of the ceremonial law) speaks about our eternal life as the true Sabbath rest. Do you think this ties in to the reason God could speak of these ordinances as "forever"?

Also, do you think "perpetual statute" is a good translation, or is it purposely seeking wiggle room? As in, "I must set my olam, else I'll sleep perpetually."

Jeff said...

Ken, that's a good question. And after I staged the exegetical puzzle, I thought about using that route out of it. Because, yes, in one sense we do still keep the sabbath, even if we don't do it in the same way the fourth commandment outlines. Now we keep the sabbath "spiritually" or "by faith" but not "physically" or "literally."

But its harder to make the same case for the grain offering or the feast of booths.

As for the translation, I tend to see "perpetual" and "forever" as synonymous, so I don't see were the wiggle room is.

Cyrus said...


I took your facebook advice and stopped in at yournew blog. It's great! I am going to catch up on old posts then add some questions/comments.


joel pearce said...

Are you referring to "sabbath" as the Jewish Sabbath, observed on Saturday, or as merely the day of rest, whether it was Saturday in the OT or Sunday (Lord's Day) in the NT? I reject sabbath as Saturday, but affirm that its observance is still in effect, given that it is rooted in creation and not the ceremonial law, ratified and detailed in the fourth commandment, and affirmed by Jesus (though the day changed) and the apostles. I think the Sabbath was spiritual and by faith in the Old Testament as well as the New, and that setting up the physical v. spiritual is a false dichotomy. The Israelites still needed to physically observe the sabbath while exercising faith. I don't think Jesus was giving a new meaning to the Sabbath, but was reclaiming the original intention of it, as opposed to the Pharisaical observance of it.

As far as the "forever" feasts, could it be argued that they are forever fulfilled in Christ? I'm wondering if you've ever heard arguments like that (I haven't).

An aside question - does this Hebrew word appear in other covenantal contexts? I'm thinking mainly of the everlasting covenant with Abraham in Genesis 17. Just curious.

Jeff said...

Cy - thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment!

Joel - thanks for the many comments! I've been pondering a lot lately whether the sabbath is actually a creation ordinance or not. In the creation account, God is the only one who rests on the seventh day, and he neither commands, nor invites mankind to rest with him. And, as is commonly pointed out, sabbath is not mentioned anywhere in Genesis. Of course in Ex 20, the commandment is based on the pattern of God's creating activity, but I don't know if that's the same as saying that it is based on a "creation ordinance."

Anyway, I've been thinking about this a lot lately, and wondering if the sabbath is actually tied more uniquely to the Sinai covenant than I previously thought.

Also - olam appears in Gen 17:7, 8, 13, 19. It appears in many significant verses, I just cherry picked a few of the more interesting ones!

The Scooper said...

Hi Jeff! I came over from you and Aubrey's blog. Love the new digs. Will be back again to visit. I appreciate any blog that can reference Mall Cop, The Office, and Douglas Wilson. : )


joel pearce said...

I think that whether it's an official "creation ordinance" or not, that its presence in the creation narrative has pretty important normative and prescriptive effects, considering the importance of the Sabbath throughout Scripture as an earthly taste of eternal significance. God may have been the one doing the resting on that first sabbath day, but the sabbath was made for man. The sabbath may not be explicitly stated in Genesis, but there is evidence of it before the mosaic covenant - one example is the manna gathering before the covenant was given at Sinai. In the prophets, (especially Isaiah and Ezekiel) sabbaths were a sign of the Lord's sanctifying work - a matter of the heart and not mere ceremonial observance. Also, Christ said that the sabbath, being made for man and of which He is Lord over, is a time for spiritual and physical refreshment. Instead of abolishing the sabbath or creating a new one, Jesus ratified the sabbath of the Old Testament.

Jeff said...

Marian - Thanks for stopping by!

Joel - I appreciate your comments. But let me play devils advocate once again. The sabbath does indeed appear before the giving of the law at Sinai, but so does circumcision, the passover, and sacrifices. And yet all of these are distinctively part of the old covenant.

By the way, it was simply a coincidence (or providence, if you will!) that my sabbath post appeared a day after yours. That was not intentional, but worked out well.

joel pearce said...

It did work out well :-). Let me play devil's advocate right back at you. Does this mean we are left with only nine commandments?

Jeff said...

Joel - wait a second, if we're both advocating for the devil, then are we on the same side? :)

Actually I can't quite decide how to answer. One approach would be to say that I do still obey the fourth commandment, I just do so much differently. Just like I obey the circumcision command by being baptized, and I obey the sacrificial commands by trusting in the finished work of Christ.

A second approach would be to say I have nine commandments, and I'm ok with that. Do we have to assume that the 10 commandments somehow transcend the Mosaic covenant of which they are a part? Or do we have to assume that all 10 are "moral?"

Besides, technically you only have 9 and 1/2 commandments, since you observe the sabbath, but not on the seventh day, as per the command. :)

Anonymous said...

I have understood the Fourth Commandment to be teaching that one day in seven is to be set aside as the Sabbath, and that it was not actually "Saturday." As such, the observance of the OT Sabbath actually fell on a different day of the week every year (Monday one year, Thursday another, etc.) because the "counting" started on a different day every year.

Our observance following the death and resurrection of Christ is kept as the first day of the week (Sunday according to our calendar) as per the example of the apostles.

If one day in seven (a Sabbath day) isn't observed because the commands is one of the Ten Commandments, and it's not kept because Christ spoke of it and ratified the command, then should it be kept at all? Are you arguing that every day is the same, and that observance of a Sabbath is done? As a visitor who doesn't know you, your background, or qualifications, it seems like that might be what you want to say, but a clear assertion of such doesn't appear in the post or the comments.

Also, for clarification, what does the phrase "the world ended" mean when referring to what happened when Christ died? I've never heard that language before.

Jeff said...

Anonymous, thanks for stopping by! The question you ask is exactly what we have been discussing here in the comments. Namely, whether Sabbath observance continues in the New Testament (albeit moved from the seventh day of the week to the first), or whether it was a shadow of Christ and is therefore finished.

Saying that "the world ended" is sort of a hyberbolic way of trying to communicate the significance of what happened in the death of Christ. Some argue that this is how the prophets were speaking when they talked about "stars falling from the sky."