Biblical Commentary

Deuteronomy 5:12-15



The book of Deuteronomy begins by saying, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness…. It happened in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first day of the month, that Moses spoke to the children of Israel according to all that Yahweh had given him in commandment to them” (1:1, 3). For the most part, the book of Deuteronomy is a recounting by Moses of the events that led Israel to the banks of the Jordan River—ready to cross the Jordan and take the Promised Land.

Moses begins chapter 4 by saying, “Now, Israel, listen to the statutes and to the ordinances, which I teach you, to do them; that you may live, and go in and possess the land which Yahweh, the God of your fathers, gives you. You shall not add to the word which I command you, neither shall you diminish from it, that you may keep the commandments of Yahweh your God which I command you” (4:1-2).

Chapter 5, verses 1-21 are the Ten Commandments, first found in Exodus 20:1-17. See the exegesis of Exodus 20 for commentary on all of the Ten Commandments.

Our text includes only the commandment on keeping the sabbath. The corresponding passage from Exodus 20 involves verses 8-11.


12Observe the Sabbath day, to keep it holy (Hebrew: qadash), as Yahweh your God commanded you.

To keep something qadash means to set it apart as holy—to distinguish it as separate from that which is ordinary or profane.

• When Moses saw the burning bush, God said, “Don’t come close. Take your sandals off of your feet, for the place you are standing on is holy ground.” (Exodus 3:5).

• The priests, Aaron and his sons, were set apart as holy, along with their vestments (Exodus 29:21).

• The altar was set apart as holy, and “whatever touches the altar shall be holy” (Exodus 29:37).

• At the Lord’s command, Moses anointed the tabernacle furnishings, and they became holy (Exodus 30:22ff.). The anointing oil was to be regarded as holy (Exodus 30:37-38).

• Now the Lord, through Moses, is commanding the Israelites to keep the sabbath day as a day set apart—as a holy day.

As time passed, sabbath-keeping became one of three practices that would distinguish Israelites. The other two were circumcision and a kosher diet.


13You shall labor six days, and do all your work; 14but the seventh day is a Sabbath (Hebrew: shabat) to Yahweh your God, in which you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates; that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you.

“You shall labor six days, and do all your work” (v. 13). While Israelites are expected to observe the sabbath by abstaining from work, this is not an anti-work commandment. God decreed that man shall fight thorns and thistles to grow plants for food (Genesis 3:17-19), so God allocates six of the seven days of the week for man to do that.

“but the seventh day is a Sabbath (shabat) to Yahweh your God” (v. 14a). The Hebrew word shabat has more to do with stopping or ceasing than it does with resting. It has come to mean resting because the cessation of work implies resting.

These verses don’t require that people work six days a week, but restricts them from working more than six days a week.

“in which you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your ox, nor your donkey, nor any of your livestock, nor your stranger who is within your gates; that your male servant and your female servant may rest as well as you” (v. 14b). This verse defines what is involved in remembering the sabbath day and keeping it holy. That requires refraining from working on the sabbath.

Earlier, when Yahweh initiated the provision of manna, he said, “It shall come to pass on the sixth day, that they shall prepare that which they bring in, and it shall be twice as much as they gather daily” (Exodus 16:5). This made it unnecessary for the Israelites to collect manna on the sabbath. When some of the people tried to gather manna on the sabbath, they found none (Exodus 16:27). The Lord said, “‘Behold, because Yahweh has given you the Sabbath, therefore he gives you on the sixth day the bread of two days. Everyone stay in his place. Let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.’ So the people rested on the seventh day” (Exodus 16:29-30).

This commandment not only applies to adult Israelites, but also to their children, their slaves, their livestock, and any alien residents who happen to be living among them. These provisions are intended to eliminate loopholes. Without them, an Israelite might feel free to make other people do what he is constrained from doing personally.

The Mishnah (oral law) specified thirty-nine types of work that were prohibited on the sabbath, and rabbis rendered judgments with regard to particular cases. Certain exceptions were allowed, such as acting to preserve life or to save a life.

Jesus was involved with six sabbath controversies in which he was accused of working on the sabbath. Five of these involved healings, and one involved his disciples picking grain on the sabbath.

• In one instance, he defended healing a sick man by reminding the Pharisees that they would rescue an animal in distress on the sabbath (Luke 14:1-6).

• In another instance (not involving an accusation that Jesus was working on the sabbath), Jesus reminded his critics that they would circumcise a child on the eighth day, even if that happened to be a sabbath (John 7:21-24).

• When the Pharisees criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to pick grain on the sabbath, Jesus said:“Did you never read what David did, when he had need, and was hungry—he, and those who were with him? How he entered into the house of God when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the show bread, which is not lawful to eat except for the priests, and gave also to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26). And then he added this principle: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Therefore the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27-28).

The early church quickly adopted the first day of the week (rather than the seventh day) as its day of worship, because Jesus was resurrected from the dead on the first day of the week. The apostle Paul, responding to a controversy regarding sabbath observance, made it clear that Christians are permitted to observe or not to observe the sabbath. However, if they decide to observe it, they are to do so in honor of the Lord Jesus (Romans 14:5-6).


15You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm: therefore Yahweh your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day.

“You shall remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and Yahweh your God brought you out of there by a mighty hand and by an outstretched arm: therefore Yahweh your God commanded you to keep the Sabbath day” (v. 15). The Exodus account gives a different rationale for sabbath-keeping. There the sabbath is justified because “in six days Yahweh made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore Yahweh blessed the Sabbath day, and made it holy” (Exodus 20:11).

The Deuteronomy account doesn’t justify sabbath-keeping in the same way. Instead, it justifies the expansion of the law to include slaves by reminding the Israelites that they had once been slaves. That experience should give them compassion for the “have nots”—those who have no money and no power and little control over their own lives.

When Israel was in Egypt, nobody insisted that they take a day off. In fact, the opposite would have been true. When the Egyptians wanted to rest, they were glad to have Hebrew slaves to do their work. The Egyptians even forced the Israelite to gather their own straw for brick-making as a way of making their burden heavier (Exodus 5:7ff.). If the Lord had not specified that they were to treat their own slaves with more compassion, the Israelites would have been tempted to do unto their slaves as the Egyptians had done unto them. However, this commandment will not allow that.

SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.


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Copyright 2012, Richard Niell Donovan