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Chapter 7: Of the Scripture Account of Sabbatical Institutions - William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy 
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, Foreword by D.L. Le Mahieu (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002).
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Of the Scripture Account of Sabbatical Institutions
The subject, so far as it makes any part of Christian morality, is contained in two questions:
I. Whether the command, by which the Jewish sabbath was instituted, extends to Christians?
II. Whether any new command was delivered by Christ; or any other day substituted in the place of the Jewish sabbath by the authority or example of his apostles?
In treating of the first question, it will be necessary to collect the accounts which are preserved of the institution in the Jewish history: for the seeing these accounts together, and in one point of view, will be the best preparation for the discussing or judging of any arguments on one side or the other.
In the second chapter of Genesis, the historian, having concluded his account of the six days’ creation, proceeds thus: “And on the seventh day God ended his work which he had made; and he rested on the seventh day from all his work which he had made; and God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because that in it he had rested from all his work which God created and made.” After this, we hear no more of the sabbath, or of the seventh day, as in any manner distinguished from the other six, until the history brings us down to the sojourning of the Jews in the wilderness, when the following remarkable passage occurs. Upon the complaint of the people for want of food, God was pleased to provide for their relief by a miraculous supply of manna, which was found every morning upon the ground about the camp: “and they gathered it every morning, every man according to his eating; and when the sun waxed hot, it melted: and it came to pass, that on the sixth day they gathered twice as much bread, two omers for one man; and all the rulers of the congregation came and told Moses: and he said unto them, This is that which the Lord hath said, To-morrow is the rest of the holy sabbath unto the Lord: bake that which ye will bake to-day, and seethe that ye will seethe; and that which remaineth over, lay up for you, to be kept until the morning. And they laid it up till the morning, as Moses bade; and it did not stink [as it had done before, when some of them left it till the morning], neither was there any worm therein. And Moses said, Eat that to-day: for to-day is a sabbath unto the Lord; to-day ye shall not find it in the field. Six days ye shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is the sabbath, in it there shall be none. And it came to pass, that there went out some of the people on the seventh day for to gather, and they found none. And the Lord said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws? See, for that the Lord hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days: abide ye every man in his place: let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day.” Exodus xvi.
Not long after this, the sabbath, as is well known, was established with great solemnity, in the fourth commandment.
Now, in my opinion, the transaction in the wilderness above recited, was the first actual institution of the sabbath. For if the sabbath had been instituted at the time of the creation, as the words in Genesis may seem at first sight to import; and if it had been observed all along from that time to the departure of the Jews out of Egypt, a period of about two thousand five hundred years; it appears unaccountable that no mention of it, no occasion of even the obscurest allusion to it, should occur, either in the general history of the world before the call of Abraham, which contains, we admit, only a few memoirs of its early ages, and those extremely abridged; or, which is more to be wondered at, in that of the lives of the first three Jewish patriarchs, which, in many parts of the account, is sufficiently circumstantial and domestic. Nor is there, in the passage above quoted from the sixteenth chapter of Exodus, any intimation that the sabbath, when appointed to be observed, was only the revival of an ancient institution, which had been neglected, forgotten, or suspended; nor is any such neglect imputed either to the inhabitants of the old world, or to any part of the family of Noah; nor, lastly, is any permission recorded to dispense with the institution during the captivity of the Jews in Egypt, or on any other public emergency.
The passage in the second chapter of Genesis, which creates the whole controversy upon the subject, is not inconsistent with this opinion: for as the seventh day was erected into a sabbath, on account of God’s resting upon that day from the work of the creation, it was natural enough in the historian, when he had related the history of the creation, and of God’s ceasing from it on the seventh day, to add; “And God blessed the seventh day, and sanctified it, because that on it he had rested from all his work which God created and made”; although the blessing and sanctification, i.e. the religious distinction and appropriation of that day, were not actually made till many ages afterwards. The words do not assert that God then “blessed” and “sanctified” the seventh day, but that he blessed and sanctified it for that reason; and if any ask, why the sabbath, or sanctification of the seventh day, was then mentioned, if it was not then appointed, the answer is at hand: the order of connexion, and not of time, introduced the mention of the sabbath, in the history of the subject which it was ordained to commemorate.
This interpretation is strongly supported by a passage in the prophet Ezekiel, where the sabbath is plainly spoken of as given, (and what else can that mean, but as first instituted?) in the wilderness. “Wherefore I caused them to go forth out of the land of Egypt, and brought them into the wilderness: and I gave them my statutes and showed them my judgements, which if a man do, he shall even live in them: moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them.” Ezek. xx. 10, 11, 12.
Nehemiah also recounts the promulgation of the sabbatical law amongst the transactions in the wilderness; which supplies another considerable argument in aid of our opinion: “Moreover thou leddest them in the day by a cloudy pillar, and in the night by a pillar of fire, to give them light in the way wherein they should go. Thou camest down also upon mount Sinai, and spakest with them from heaven, and gavest them right judgements and true laws, good statutes and commandments, and madest known unto them thy holy sabbath, and commandedst them precepts, statutes, and laws, by the hand of Moses thy servant, and gavest them bread from heaven for their hunger, and broughtest forth water for them out of the rock.”* Nehem. ix. 12.
If it be inquired what duties were appointed for the Jewish sabbath, and under what penalties and in what manner it was observed amongst the ancient Jews; we find that, by the fourth commandment, a strict cessation from work was enjoined, not only upon Jews by birth, or religious profession, but upon all who resided within the limits of the Jewish state; that the same was to be permitted to their slaves and their cattle; that this rest was not to be violated, under pain of death: “Whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath-day, he shall surely be put to death.” Exod. xxxi. 15. Beside which, the seventh day was to be solemnised by double sacrifices in the temple: “And on the sabbath-day two lambs of the first year without spot, and two tenth-deals of flour for a meat-offering, mingled with oil, and the drink-offering thereof; this is the burnt-offering of every sabbath, beside the continual burnt-offering and his drink-offering.” Numb. xxviii. 9, 10. Also holy convocations, which mean, we presume, assemblies for the purpose of public worship or religious instruction, were directed to be holden on the sabbath-day: “the seventh day is a sabbath of rest, an holy convocation.” Levit. xxiii. 3.
And accordingly we read, that the sabbath was in fact observed amongst the Jews by a scrupulous abstinence from every thing which, by any possible construction, could be deemed labour; as from dressing meat, from travelling beyond a sabbath-day’s journey, or about a single mile. In the Maccabean wars, they suffered a thousand of their number to be slain, rather than do any thing in their own defence on the sabbath-day. In the final siege of Jerusalem, after they had so far overcome their scruples as to defend their persons when attacked, they refused any operation on the sabbath-day, by which they might have interrupted the enemy in filling up the trench. After the establishment of synagogues (of the origin of which we have no account), it was the custom to assemble in them on the sabbath-day, for the purpose of hearing the law rehearsed and explained, and for the exercise, it is probable, of public devotion: “For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath-day.” The seventh day is Saturday; and, agreeably to the Jewish way of computing the day, the sabbath held from six o’clock on the Friday evening, to six o’clock on Saturday evening. These observations being premised, we approach the main question, Whether the command by which the Jewish sabbath was instituted, extend to us?
If the Divine command was actually delivered at the creation, it was addressed, no doubt, to the whole human species alike, and continues, unless repealed by some subsequent revelation, binding upon all who come to the knowledge of it. If the command was published for the first time in the wilderness, then it was immediately directed to the Jewish people alone; and something farther, either in the subject or circumstances of the command, will be necessary to show, that it was designed for any other. It is on this account, that the question concerning the date of the institution was first to be considered. The former opinion precludes all debate about the extent of the obligation; the latter admits, and primâ facie, induces, a belief that the sabbath ought to be considered as part of the peculiar law of the Jewish policy.
Which belief receives great confirmation from the following arguments:
The sabbath is described as a sign between God and the people of Israel—“Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations for a perpetual covenant; it is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever.” Exodus xxxi. 16, 17. Again: “And I gave them my statutes, and showed them my judgements, which if a man do he shall even live in them; moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them.” Ezek. xx. 12. Now it does not seem easy to understand how the sabbath could be a sign between God and the people of Israel, unless the observance of it was peculiar to that people, and designed to be so.
The distinction of the sabbath is, in its nature, as much a positive ceremonial institution, as that of many other seasons which were appointed by the Levitical law to be kept holy, and to be observed by a strict rest; as the first and seventh days of unleavened bread; the feast of Pentecost; the feast of tabernacles: and in the twenty-third chapter of Exodus, the sabbath and these are recited together.
If the command by which the sabbath was instituted be binding upon Christians, it must be binding as to the day, the duties, and the penalty; in none of which it is received.
The observance of the sabbath was not one of the articles enjoined by the Apostles, in the fifteenth chapter of Acts, upon them “which, from among the Gentiles, were turned unto God.”
St. Paul evidently appears to have considered the sabbath as part of the Jewish ritual, and not obligatory upon Christians as such: “Let no man therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath days, which are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ.” Col. ii. 16, 17.
I am aware of only two objections which can be opposed to the force of these arguments: one is, that the reason assigned in the fourth commandment for hallowing the seventh day, namely, “because God rested on the seventh day from the work of the creation,” is a reason which pertains to all mankind; the other, that the command which enjoins the observance of the sabbath is inserted in the Decalogue, of which all the other precepts and prohibitions are of moral and universal obligation.
Upon the first objection it may be remarked, that although in Exodus the commandment is founded upon God’s rest from the creation, in Deuteronomy the commandment is repeated with a reference to a different event: “Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work; but 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, nor thy man-servant, nor thy maid-servant, nor thine ox, nor thine ass, nor any of thy cattle, nor the stranger that is within thy gates; that thy man-servant and thy maid-servant may rest as well as thou: and remember that thou wast a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Lord thy God brought thee out thence, through a mighty hand, and by a stretched-out arm; therefore the Lord thy God commanded thee to keep the sabbath-day.” It is farther observable, that God’s rest from the creation is proposed as the reason of the institution, even where the institution itself is spoken of as peculiar to the Jews: “Wherefore the children of Israel shall keep the sabbath, to observe the sabbath throughout their generations, for a perpetual covenant: it is a sign between me and the children of Israel for ever: for in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.” The truth is, these different reasons were assigned, to account for different circumstances in the command. If a Jew inquired, why the seventh day was sanctified rather than the sixth or eighth, his law told him, because God rested on the seventh day from the creation. If he asked, why was the same rest indulged to slaves? his law bade him remember, that he also was a slave in the land of Egypt, and “that the Lord his God brought him out thence.” In this view, the two reasons are perfectly compatible with each other, and with a third end of the institution, its being a sign between God and the people of Israel; but in this view they determine nothing concerning the extent of the obligation. If the reason by its proper energy had constituted a natural obligation, or if it had been mentioned with a view to the extent of the obligation, we should submit to the conclusion that all were comprehended by the command who are concerned in the reason. But the sabbatic rest being a duty which results from the ordination and authority of a positive law, the reason can be alleged no farther than as it explains the design of the legislator: and if it appear to be recited with an intentional application to one part of the law, it explains his design upon no other; if it be mentioned merely to account for the choice of the day, it does not explain his design as to the extent of the obligation.
With respect to the second objection, that inasmuch as the other nine commandments are confessedly of moral and universal obligation, it may reasonably be presumed that this is of the same; we answer, that this argument will have less weight when it is considered that the distinction between positive and natural duties, like other distinctions of modern ethics, was unknown to the simplicity of ancient language; and that there are various passages in Scripture, in which duties of a political, or ceremonial, or positive nature, and confessedly of partial obligation, are enumerated, and without any mark of discrimination, along with others which are natural and universal. Of this the following is an incontestable example. “But if a man be just, and do that which is lawful and right; and hath not eaten upon the mountains, nor hath lifted up his eyes to the idols of the house of Israel; neither hath defiled his neighbour’s wife, neither hath come near to a menstruous woman; and hath not oppressed any, but hath restored to the debtor his pledge; hath spoiled none by violence; hath given his bread to the hungry, and hath covered the naked with a garment; he that hath not given upon usury, neither hath taken any increase; that hath withdrawn his hand from iniquity; hath executed true judgement between man and man; hath walked in my statutes, and hath kept my judgements, to deal truly; he is just, he shall surely live, saith the Lord God.” Ezekiel xviii. 5–9. The same thing may be observed of the apostolic decree recorded in the fifteenth chapter of the Acts: “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burthen than these necessary things, that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well.”
II. If the law by which the sabbath was instituted was a law only to the Jews, it becomes an important question with the Christian inquirer, whether the Founder of his religion delivered any new command upon the subject; or, if that should not appear to be the case, whether any day was appropriated to the service of religion by the authority or example of his apostles.
The practice of holding religious assemblies upon the first day of the week, was so early and universal in the Christian Church, that it carries with it considerable proof of having originated from some precept of Christ, or of his apostles, though none such be now extant. It was upon the first day of the week that the disciples were assembled, when Christ appeared to them for the first time after his resurrection; “then the same day at evening, being the first day of the week, when the doors were shut where the disciples were assembled, for fear of the Jews, came Jesus, and stood in the midst of them.” John xx. 19. This, for any thing that appears in the account, might, as to the day, have been accidental; but in the 26th verse of the same chapter we read that “after eight days,” that is, on the first day of the week following, “again the disciples were within”; which second meeting upon the same day of the week looks like an appointment and design to meet on that particular day. In the twentieth chapter of the Acts of the Apostles, we find the same custom in a Christian Church at a great distance from Jerusalem: “And we came unto them to Troas in five days, where we abode seven days; and upon the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread, Paul preached unto them.” Acts xx. 6, 7. The manner in which the historian mentions the disciples coming together to break bread on the first day of the week, shows, I think, that the practice by this time was familiar and established. St. Paul to the Corinthians writes thus: “Concerning the collection for the saints, as I have given order to the Churches of Galatia, even so do ye; upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store as God hath prospered him, that there be no gathering when I come.” 1 Cor. xvi. 1, 2. Which direction affords a probable proof, that the first day of the week was already, amongst the Christians both of Corinth and Galatia, distinguished from the rest by some religious application or other. At the time that St. John wrote the book of his Revelation, the first day of the week had obtained the name of the Lord’s day—“I was in the spirit,” says he, “on the Lord’s day.” Rev. i. 10. Which name, and St. John’s use of it, sufficiently denote the appropriation of this day to the service of religion, and that this appropriation was perfectly known to the Churches of Asia. I make no doubt that by the Lord’s day was meant the first day of the week; for we find no footsteps of any distinction of days, which could entitle any other to that appellation. The subsequent history of Christianity corresponds with the accounts delivered on this subject in Scripture.
It will be remembered, that we are contending, by these proofs, for no other duty upon the first day of the week, than that of holding and frequenting religious assemblies. A cessation upon that day from labour, beyond the time of attendance upon public worship, is not intimated in any passage of the New Testament; nor did Christ or his apostles deliver, that we know of, any command to their disciples for a discontinuance, upon that day, of the common offices of their professions; a reserve which none will see reason to wonder at, or to blame as a defect in the institution, who consider that, in the primitive condition of Christianity, the observance of a new sabbath would have been useless, or inconvenient, or impracticable. During Christ’s personal ministry, his religion was preached to the Jews alone. They already had a sabbath, which, as citizens and subjects of that oeconomy, they were obliged to keep; and did keep. It was not therefore probable that Christ would enjoin another day of rest in conjunction with this. When the new religion came forth into the Gentile world, converts to it were, for the most part, made from those classes of society who have not their time and labour at their own disposal; and it was scarcely to be expected, that unbelieving masters and magistrates, and they who directed the employment of others, would permit their slaves and labourers to rest from their work every seventh day: or that civil government, indeed, would have submitted to the loss of a seventh part of the public industry, and that too in addition to the numerous festivals which the national religions indulged to the people; at least, this would have been an encumbrance, which might have greatly retarded the reception of Christianity in the world. In reality, the institution of a weekly sabbath is so connected with the functions of civil life, and requires so much of the concurrence of civil law, in its regulation and support, that it cannot, perhaps, properly be made the ordinance of any religion, till that religion be received as the religion of the state.
The opinion, that Christ and his apostles meant to retain the duties of the Jewish sabbath, shifting only the day from the seventh to the first, seems to prevail without sufficient proof; nor does any evidence remain in Scripture (of what, however, is not improbable), that the first day of the week was thus distinguished in commemoration of our Lord’s resurrection.
The conclusion from the whole inquiry (for it is our business to follow the arguments, to whatever probability they conduct us), is this: The assembling upon the first day of the week for the purpose of public worship and religious instruction, is a law of Christianity, of Divine appointment; the resting on that day from our employments longer than we are detained from them by attendance upon these assemblies, is to Christians an ordinance of human institution; binding nevertheless upon the conscience of every individual of a country in which a weekly sabbath is established, for the sake of the beneficial purposes which the public and regular observance of it promotes, and recommended perhaps in some degree to the Divine approbation, by the resemblance it bears to what God was pleased to make a solemn part of the law which he delivered to the people of Israel, and by its subserviency to many of the same uses.
[* ]From the mention of the sabbath in so close a connexion with the descent of God upon mount Sinai, and the delivery of the law from thence, one would be inclined to believe that Nehemiah referred solely to the fourth commandment. But the fourth commandment certainly did not first make known the sabbath. And it is apparent, that Nehemiah observed not the order of events, for he speaks of what passed upon mount Sinai before he mentions the miraculous supplies of bread and water, though the Jews did not arrive at mount Sinai till some time after both these miracles were wrought.