AN EXAMINATION AND REFUTATION OF 16 PROPOSITIONS AGAINST SABBATH KEEPING, PART 3
RESPONSE TO CHAPTER 3 OF “THE SABBATH: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW.”
by Edwin M. Cotto
Advent Defense League
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson.
Used by permission. All rights reserved.
This is a response to chapter 3 of the antisabbatarian book, “The Sabbath: What you need to know: 16 Propositions Against Mandatory and Salvational Sabbath-Keeping.” Please keep in mind that as we publish responses to chapters, changes may take place without notice to anyone. Please revisit this page often for updates as the goal is to reply to all 16 propositions. Responses to each chapter will continue to be published as time goes by. Visit chapter 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8.
Response to Chapter 3:
The Sabbath was not a temporary, merely local suzerain-vassal seal
In chapter 3, Elce attempts to make the point that the Sabbath was merely a ceremonial feast day which served as the seal of a treaty made between God, the Suzerain, and Israel, the vassal. He will dive more into the idea that the Sabbath is ceremonial in chapter 6, but in this chapter he makes the following two points:
- Point 1: The Sabbath was the seal of a Suzerain-vassal like treaty similar to treaties made by heathen nations during that time (page 13)
- Point 2: Sabbath keeping among the Israelites was not the equivalent of God’s rest at the end of creation week because God rested once while Israel was to rest cyclically (page 13).
Watch carefully as we note that not even Dr. Kline, the source he quotes from, agrees with Elce’s conclusions.
RESPONSE TO POINT 1: The Sabbath was the seal of a Suzerain-vassal
like treaty similar to treaties made by heathen nations during that time (page 13).
To make the first argument, Elce brings out the similarities between examples of ancient treaties expounded on by an author named Meredith G. Kline. To explain, Kline’s book “Treaty of the Great King” explains that the covenant of Ten Commandments between God and Israel was patterned after ancient near eastern treaties made between nations.(1) The Suzerain, the term used to represent the “Greater King” or “Father” (depending on the kind of relationship between the two, whether friendly or not), stipulated the terms of the covenant made with the vassal, the term used to represent the subordinate King. To make this agreement official, a ceremony of walking through two rows of animals that have been halved to pieces took place.(2)
Because the midst of these ancient treaties often contained a “seal,” Elce refers to this as the basis for his theory that the Sabbath was merely a seal, or sign in the middle of a local treaty between God the Suzerain and Israel the vassal. And by comparing God’s covenant with Israel to these ancient treaties, Elce is effectively aiming to make the Sabbath seal merely ceremonial, temporary, local and restricted to the kingdom of Israel. Here’s how he puts it on page 13 of his book:
“In Suzerain-Vassal Treaties of the Ancient Near East, when a sovereign king made a covenant with a vassal, a ceremony (or feast) was often placed in the middle of the covenant stipulations as the suzerain’s covenant seal.” (emphasis mine).
The question is, was that seal really a ceremony or feast as Elce claims? Or was it something else? This is a crucial question that needs to be answered in order for Elce to make his case. To support his claim Elce references pages 18-19 of Dr. Kline’s book, a book which I actually have. Here is the Sabbath reference to which Elce is referring to:
“As a further detail in the parallelism of external appearance it is tempting to see in the sabbath sign presented in the midst of the ten words the equivalent of the suzerain’s dynastic seal found in the midst of the obverse of the international treaty documents. Since in the case of the Decalogue the suzerain is Yahweh, there will be no representation of him on his seal, but the sabbath is declared to be the “sign of the covenant” (Ex. 31:13-17). By means of his sabbath-keeping, the image-bearer of God images the pattern of that divine act of creation which proclaims God’s absolute sovereignty over man, and thereby he pledges his covenant consecration to his Maker. The Creator has stamped on world history the sign of the sabbath as his seal of ownership and authority. That is precisely what the pictures on the dynastic seals symbolize and their captions claim in behalf of the treaty gods and their representative, the suzerain.”(emphasis mine)(3)
The similarities are undeniable, but did you notice that Dr. Kline nowhere wrote that the seal was a “ceremony or feast?” In fact, we know for sure what the seal was, and by way of reference Dr. Kline tells us. In a footnote on page 18 of his book he refers his readers to where we can go and see for ourselves what that seal was. He directs his readers to a book named “Ancient Near Eastern Texts” which explains the details of these treaties. The book has the entire treaty translated and on page 201 the section of the treaty which explains that seal comes up. The heading of that section is “Descriptions of the Tablet” and it begins with a question similar to the one we are asking, “What was in the middle of the Tablet of silver?” Here’s the answer:
“On its front side: figures consisting of an image of Seth embracing an image if the Great Prince [of Hatti], surrounded by a border with the words: ‘the seal of Seth, the ruler of the sky; the seal of the regulation which Hattusilis made, the Great Prince of Hatti, the powerful.’ What is within that which surrounds the figures: the seal [of Seth. What is on] its other side: figures consisting of a female image of [the] goddess of Hatti embracing a female image of the Princess of Hatti, surrounded by a border with the words: ‘the seal of the Re of the town of Arinna, the lord of the land; the seal of Putu-hepa, the Princess of the land of Hatti, the daughter of the land of Kizuwadna, the [priestess] of [the town of] Arinna, the Lady of the land, the servant of the goddess.’ What is within the surrounding (frame) of the figures: the seal of the Re of Arinna, the lord of every land.”(4)
Although to Dr. Kline it was “tempting to see in the sabbath sign presented in the midst of the ten words the equivalent of the suzerain’s dynastic seal…,” on page 64 of his same book Dr. Kline says that this is merely a possibility. Did Elce even read Dr. Kline’s book in its entirety? Tempting though it may be, Elce should not equate this with a ceremony either. At least in this treaty example, it was merely a seal with figures and words. There was nothing ceremonial or feast-like described in that seal.
Dr. Kline’s quotation makes an important point not so favorable to Elce’s position that the Sabbath was a sign strictly for the Israelites. To Dr. Kline, the Sabbath was actually a sign proclaiming God’s sovereignty “over man.” It reads:
“By means of his sabbath-keeping, the image-bearer of God images the pattern of that divine act of creation which proclaims God’s absolute sovereignty over man… the Creator has stamped on world history the sign of the sabbath as his seal of ownership and authority.”
Whereas in the treaties, the Kings and their gods were rulers of either their respective lands or of many lands, to Dr. Kline, Sabbath keeping proved that God was Lord over all man, and it was a seal or sign of his “ownership and authority” over the whole world. Not even Dr. Kline agrees with Elce!
To be sure, in another book also written by Dr. Kline titled “Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview,” he wrote clearly that the Sabbath was a sign of his sovereignty over the whole world, and not just Israel. The only way to do justice will have to be to quote the context in its entirety. Notice how he puts it:
“The Sabbath ordinance thus called upon all earthly kingship to acknowledge itself to be a vassal kingship under the heavenly Suzerain. Now such a relationship is the kind of covenantal relationship that was defined by the ancient suzerain-vassal treaties. Agreeably, when God later made a covenant with Israel, adopting for this purpose the form of these ancient political covenants, he appointed the Sabbath ordinance as a seal of this covenant (Exod. 20:8-11, 31:16, 17), signifying thereby that the people and the land belonged to him (cf., e.g. Lev 25:2-4). The Sabbath declared that Yahwah was covenant Lord of the kingdom of Israel. And if the Sabbath ordinance serves as a symbolic sign of God’s covenantal lordship in the holy kingdom of Israel, it is surely because the original divine Sabbath represented the Creator’s covenantal lordship over the world. Indeed, this connection is conspicuous in the appointing of the Sabbath to Israel. For this later Sabbath observance is explained as a remembering of God’s creation acts, a celebrating of the glory of his covenantal kingship first established by his work of creation and now being reestablished through the redemptive sanctifying of a covenantal people renewed in God’s image under God’s lordship (Exod 20:8-11). In short then, the Sabbath ordinance in Eden was a sign of the covenant of God with man already in effect there. The very fact that the Genesis creation prologue is a cast in sabbatical form tells us that the creation of the world was a covenant-making process.”(emphasis)(5)
Interesting comparison done by Dr. Kline. The Sabbath was original, not with Israel, but with the world. Its origin is found, not at Mt Sinai, but in the creation narrative. In the process of creation God was making a covenant with the world that he was its Suzerain and his seventh-day rest served as the sign of that covenant! Two things we gather from Elce’s very own source:
- The seal in the middle of those ancient agreements was not a feast day similar to the Sabbath.
- The Sabbath was a sign first with the world, and secondarily with Israel.(6)
Adventists are very studious. I often wonder if critics like Elce think we would not look these things up.
Elce tried hard to match the Sabbath with the seal found in the middle of those ancient treaties. He further wrote on page 13 of his book:
“This feast was to be habitually kept by the vassal (as long as the covenant lasted) as a reminder to the vassal of his obligations to the suzerain and the covenant agreements. This is precisely why the Sabbath (and the other festivals of Israel) were to be ‘remembered’ and kept as God had stipulated (e.g. Exo. 12:14-20, 24-27).”
So, using the example of ancient treaties, Elce concludes that the Sabbath was a sign to remind them of their suzerain-vassal covenant with God. But this conclusion is hard to accept being that Elce is using non-biblical sources (ancient treaty examples) to draw that conclusion. The bible is clear, the Sabbath was a sign primarily of creation (Exodus 20:11) and secondarily of redemption from slavery (Deut. 5:15), a point which Dr. Kline himself acknowledges. And since the Sabbath was first a seal between God and the whole world, it matters not that the covenant ended with Israel because it’s original meaning would remain!
But to make matters worse, those ancient treaties do not even have a feast-like seal like that of the Sabbath. Actually, according to Dr. Kline, the treaties were to be written on two copies, one for each party, and placed in the temples of their respective gods in their lands.(7) When the time came to read aloud the agreement, we are simply told that it was to be read “at regular intervals.”(8) It does not say weekly. And even if it did, Israel was not told to read aloud their covenant agreement weekly on the Sabbath, but every seven years (Deut. 31:9-13). Dr. Kline himself explains this in his own book.(9) So when Elce says “This feast was to be habitually kept by the vassal,” 1) it was not a feast and 2) it was not done habitually in a weekly sense, not by Israel at least.
These along with the previous differences I mentioned hurt Elce’s attempt at trying to equalize the Sabbath with the temporary, local seal of those ancient near eastern treaties. How interesting that at the beginning of his book Elce wrote that no heathen nation except for Israel had a weekly cult-like Sabbath but now tries to equate the weekly cult-like Sabbath to the seal of those treaties made between heathen nations!(10) If the seal of those ancient treaties are feast days similar to the Sabbath, then Elce’s statement in chapter 1 is false; Heathen nations actually did have a type of Sabbath. But if the seals of those ancient treaties are nothing like Israel’s weekly Sabbath, then what was Elce’s point in even bringing this up in the first place?
RESPONSE TO POINT 2: Sabbath keeping among the Israelites was not the equivalent
of God’s rest at the end of creation week because God rested
once while Israel was to rest cyclically (page 13).
To my relief Elce does somewhat admit that the first seventh day rest which God did was a Sabbath, he just calls it the “greater Sabbath.” But unlike Dr. Kline who sees that greater Sabbath as a sign for the whole world that he was the great heavenly suzerain, and everyone else on earth his vassal, Elce continues to restrict that to Israel alone. To prove this, he makes the argument that because God’s Sabbath rest in the creation narrative was done just once, but Israel’s Sabbath rest was to be done on a weekly basis, therefore the Sabbath keeping of the Israelites was not a “perfect equivalent of God’s rest.” With that, anyone can say that God’s rest on the seventh day was indeed for the world while the “weekly” rest of the Israelites was for them alone.
First of all, we shouldn’t expect God to keep a weekly Sabbath on earth because the earth is not his place of residence! The Bible says, “Heaven is My throne, and earth is My footstool” (Isaiah 66:1). The “week” is a thing of our planet, and only those who live on this planet are living under it. Contextually in the creation narrative God has placed himself within the sphere of this planet, so of course He can rest on it’s seventh day. But needless to say he would not continue that pattern here because this is not His home. He is not subjected to our “weekly” pattern as we are.
Nevertheless, when he does place himself under the timing of our planet He will rest on the seventh day, and He will do it weekly! For example:
- God worked every day by raining manna for the people in Exodus 16, but he rested on the seventh day.
- God continued to rain Manna for them for the next 40 years and continued ceasing that work every seventh day.
- God, as Christ, subjected himself to man’s timing and kept the weekly Sabbath throughout his entire earthly lifetime.
So if God’s example of Sabbath keeping is a model to be followed, the example He always gives is that of observing the seventh day on a weekly basis. We don’t expect Him to have done that on a weekly basis in Eden, because Eden was not His home.
Imagining that God’s keeping of that first seventh day somehow limits it to just one seventh day is nonsensical in terms of making that an example for His people to follow. Why don’t they just keep one seventh day than? In fact, Hebrews 4:10 reminds the believing Hebrews that whoever enters into the Sabbath’s spiritual aspect of rest, will “also cease from his own works as God did from His.” God “ceased from His own works” literally on the seventh day of that first week. You mean to tell me that these believing Hebrews are being called to rest on just one seventh day? “Just pick a seventh day and you would have fulfilled the requirement.” Of course not. That would make no sense. Follow Elce’s reasoning to its logical conclusion and you will see that none of this makes any sense.
This is not the first time that Elce’s own source contradicts his conclusions. Previously we noted that the Book of Jubilees says the Sabbath was established as a sign from creation while he claims, using this same source, that the Sabbath was established in Exodus 16 as a sign strictly for Israel. Now we find Dr. Kline’s own book, along with what Dr. Kline has elsewhere written, contradicting the same claims Elce is trying to make. How one can praise Elce’s book is beyond me.
The comparison Elce made with the Sabbath and the seal in the midst of those ancient treaties did not work. Not only is it a fact that those ancient seals were just that, seals, and not ceremonial feast days of any kind, but Elce’s insistence that it’s the same or even similar contradicts his previous statements that there were no sabbaths found among non-Israelite nations.
If I am misunderstanding Elce here it is because his own argument is confusing and somewhat ambiguous. He takes the seals used in the middle of those ancient treaties and calls them ceremonies/feasts, but does not clarify what kind of ceremony or feasts they were. He throws in the term “habitually” and the reader is left to imagine that some kind of continual feast keeping was taking place when these treaties were being formed among the heathens. For some reason, he does not mention the one ceremony that actually did take place, which was the walk that the vassal and the suzerain had to do between halved animals.
Finally, Elce adds the idea that this habitual feast keeping was to “remind” the vassal of its obligation towards his suzerain lord and voilà! We suddenly have a direct parallel to Israel’s weekly Sabbath reminder of their pact with Yahwah. This kind of argumentation is flimsy and, I hesitate to say, somewhat deceptive. But it works in order to make the Sabbath temporary, local and restricted to only the Israelites. Whatever it takes.
Finally the comparison with God’s rest on one Sabbath during creation week with Israel’s weekly Sabbath fails to consider that God would not rest weekly in a place not bound by a weekly cycle (heaven). But whenever he so chooses, He will place himself under our system of time, and there do what we ought to be doing, and rest the seventh day on a weekly basis. We need to seriously read these passages in their proper context. Elce would probably not even have included this argument in his chapter had he realized that God is not subject to the timing of the earth as we are and therefore obviously he would not need to rest every seventh day in creation. After all he made the week, and everything else pertaining to our planet for man to live under, not for God to live under. Eden was made for Adam to live in. Not for God to live in.
CHAPTER 3 FOOTNOTES:
1) Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy, pages 13-21.
2) “But the most widely used rite was that of cutting the bodies of animals in halves and placing them in two rows with enough space between for the two parties of the treaty to walk side by side. As they walked between the pieces, they were vowing to each other, “May what has happened to these animals, happen to me if I break this covenant with you.” (Notes from lectures of Dr. Meredith Kline, presented at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, in Massachusetts. See: https://www.fivesolas.com/suzerain.htm)
3) Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy, pages 18-19. Although Dr. Kline says that Ex. 31:13-17 shows the Sabbath to be a “sign of the covenant,” those texts do not actually say that. They merely say it is a sign between God and Israel. Nevertheless, unlike Elce, Dr. Kline still views the Sabbath, within this covenant, as a sign with the whole world.
4) James B. Pitchard, “Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament with Supplement,” page 201. See also Gary Forsythe, “Primary Sources for Ancient History: Volume I: The Ancient Near East and Greece,” pages 85-89.
5) Kline, Meredith G., “Kingdom Prologue: Genesis Foundations for a Covenantal Worldview,” pages 19-20.
6) Dr. Kline’s comparison of Israel’s Sabbath with the original Sabbath of creation is sound not only on the basis of the biblical evidence he provides in his book but also because it was Christ himself who said that the Sabbath was original to creation (Mark 2:27). Keep in mind however that I am not using Dr. Kline to establish “doctrine.” I am merely using Elce’s own source to reveal that it does not actually prove the claims Elce is making.
7) Treaty of the Great King: The Covenant Structure of Deuteronomy, pages 19-20.
8) Ibid, page 19, paragraph 3.
9) Ibid, page 20, paragraph 2.
10) Here is Elce’s quote on page 1, first paragraph, “The reason for this (that the Sabbath was Jewish) is that one will not read in the ancient where the Sabbath was an institution given to or kept by the nations that surrounded the Israelites…” (parenthesis mine).