Literary Genre Midrash by A.W. Wright

These two important articles published in Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 explore some of the key literary differences and distinctions between midrash, pesher and other early forms of Jewish exegesis. One of the important distinctions set out in these articles is the understanding of midrash as something that comments directly on Scripture instead of being employed for the purposes of the new composition. An extremely important analysis for those interested in the New Testament use of the Old Testament.

Literary Genre Midrash pt. 1

Literary Genre Midrash pt.2


Should Christians keep the Sabbath?

The biblical evidence does not seem to commend it.


Many in the church (e.g. covenant theologians) as well as many outside the church (e.g. Seventh Day Adventists) maintain that the Christian is called to keep the Sabbath just as the Israelite, in the OT, was called to. This position seems to me to be based on a misunderstanding of the law and, more fundamentally, the relationship between the Two Testaments—the Old and New, respectively. In what follows I argue that the law given to Israel was not simply a tabulation of rules for all of God’s people to follow at all times. Instead, the law was clearly part of a larger covenant document made with a distinct people at a distinct time in history with definite covenant-stipulations and so to impose Sabbath regulations upon the church violates the nature of the covenant as well as clear New Testament teaching.


The Law as “Covenant”

When the law is first introduced in the book of Exodus, it is introduced as a “covenant” (Ex 19:5). Moreover, the covenant was made with the children of Israel (Ex 19:6). Of course, included within this covenant are the ten commandments (lit. “words” in Hebrew). But it must not be overlooked that the ten commandments are not all that are included in the covenant made with Israel. In fact, the covenant commands continue all the way through chapter 31. Included within the commands, for example, are laws on the administration of worship in the tabernacle and laws concerning the levetical priesthood. Also included are laws concerning what the Israelite should do with children who curse their parents (Ex 21:17) and laws for those who break the Sabbath (Ex 31:12-18). Now in the case of disobedient children, the command is clear. The Israelites were instructed to kill all children who cursed their parents. Accordingly, if anyone broke the Sabbath they were to be punished by death. Notice that these commands are given as an instructive to how the covenant should be carried out (i.e. they correspond to the 4th and 5th commandment ). Therefore, it seems inconsistent to me that some insist that Christians should keep the law but are not willing to enforce the law as the book of Exodus commands. It must be realized that Exodus is a covenant document. This is clear from Exodus 24:8 which says, “Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “This is the blood of the covenant which the Lord has made with you according to all these words.” It is important to observe in this verse that the text says according to “all these words.” Put another way, Israel could not choose which elements of the covenant she would obey and which she would refuse to obey. For the one who wishes to be a keeper of this covenant its an all-or-nothing kind of thing. It seems, however, that many have misunderstood the nature of the law and taken it as a mere tabulation of moral ethics, applicable to all God’s people, at all times. From the above analysis of Exodus we may conclude, then, that (1) the law was a covenant made with Israel, God’s covenant people, (2) Israel was not only obligated to keep the ten commandments but the whole of the covenant-law as well and therefore, (3) for those today who desire to keep this covenant, they must keep the whole covenant—not just the ten commandments.


In Deuteronomy, which most OT theologians believe to be the most important book of the OT, the situation is even more clear. Deuteronomy is, in many ways, a summary of the law in the Torah. It comes in the form of a sermon preached by Moses on the plains of Moab. What has fascinated scholars most about Deuteronomy, however, is the fact that it is written in the form of an ancient Hittite Covenant-Treaty. These treaties were made between Suzerains (kings) and their Vassals (servants) with a view to protect the rights of the Suzerain. These covenant treaties usually opened with a preamble (as seen in Deut 1:1-5), followed by a historical prologue (as seen in Deut 1:6-4:49), followed by the stipulations of the covenant, including blessings and cursings ( as seen in Deut 5-28 (27-28 contain the blessings and cursings), and concluding with a ratification of the covenant (29-30) and plans on how the covenant shall continue to be fulfilled (31). Like the ancient Hittite treaties it resembles, the covenant in Deuteronomy was made between two distinct parties: Israel and Yahweh.


The covenant made in Deuteronomy is an extension of the one made in Exodus or, as Moses puts it, the one made at Horeb (Deut 29:1 cf. Heb for “besides” (NAS) can have the idea of “extension” or “in addition to” like the NIV has). And here, because the covenant treaty format is so explicit, it can not be denied that the law given in the book of Deuteronomy acts as an agreement between the two parties rather than as the establishment of a moral code for God’s people at all times. This is made clear in several other ways as well. First, because of the covenantal form of the document, it is clear that we can not just choose which aspects of the covenant we would like to follow. This is seen most evidently in Deuteronomy 28:1 where, after Moses has laid down the stipulations of the covenant (5-27), he speaks of the curses and/or blessings that will come with covenant loyalty (blessings) and covenant treachery (curses). Moses says, when introducing the section on the blessings, “Now it shall be, if you will diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (Deut 28:1-2). And when he concludes the section on the blessings, he emphasizes “Now it shall be, if you will diligently obey the LORD your God, being careful to do all His commandments which I command you today, the LORD your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth” (Deut 28:13). Notice here that they must do “all His commands” not only the ten mentioned in chapter five. Similarly, when he introduces the section on the curses, he says, “But it shall come about, if you will not obey the LORD your God, to observe to do all His commandments and His statutes with which I charge you today, that all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you” (Deut 28:15). Once again, they must observe all the commands that Moses gave them that day, not just the ten in chapter five (examples of where Moses says they must keep all of the covenant and not just part of it could be greatly multiplied here). Second, it must be remembered that these curses are part of the covenant. But the covenant was made with Israel as a nation and not with individual Israelites. Therefore, how can the curses which only pertain to a nation apply to individuals today who keep or break this covenant. For example, in Deuteronomy 28:26, one of the curses is that Israel will suffer defeat from her enemies. But this can not apply to individuals because what if there is at least one covenant-keeper and one covenant-breaker in each of two nations which are at war so that each nation has parties which are promised two different things as a result of loyalty or disloyalty to the covenant? If either of these nations wins God will have broken promise to the covenant-keepers in the loosing nation and the covenant-breaks in the winning nation. And it seems correct to say that most nations which war today at least have some of each party in this covenant if the covenant in fact applies today. My point, of course, is that it does not apply today.

Another implication that advances this contention is the fact that those who desire to implement, for example, the Sabbath, are not willing to keep the rest of the covenant in which the commandment to keep the Sabbath is embedded. In other words, those who insist on keeping the Sabbath do so by removing certain parts of a fixed covenant treaty and applying them as they wish. That is, they separate a part of the law from the whole without biblical warrant. For instance, in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, Moses commands, as part of the covenant, “If any man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey his father or his mother, and when they chastise him, he will not even listen to them, 19 then his father and mother shall seize him, and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gateway of his home town. 20 “And they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey us, he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ 21 “Then all the men of his city shall stone him to death; so you shall remove the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear of it and fear.” Why don’t we keep this part of the covenant as well? Perhaps because one would be arrested if they stoned their child for not taking out the trash. You see this covenant could only work in the OT because all God’s people were part of one covenant-nation. Now, in the NT and under the New Covenant, God’s people are composed of all nations (cf. Col 3:11) so that many of these covenant-obligations seem unfulfillable for the NT saint. Another example is found in Deut 22:28-29, “If a man finds a girl who is a virgin, who is not engaged, and seizes her and lies with her and they are discovered, 29 then the man who lay with her shall give to the girl’s father fifty shekels of silver, and she shall become his wife because he has violated her; he cannot divorce her all his days.” Essentially, this text is saying that if a virgin is raped then the rapist must pay the father 50 shekels of silver and marry her without the possibility of divorce. Now when is the last time you heard that piece of advice being offered in a counseling session? Well this would have made sense in that culture where the woman is solely dependant upon the man for her welfare and marriage was seen as much as a thing of survival as it was of love. It would have decreased radically her chances of surviving and carrying on her father’s line. My point is here that because of the unique environment and people with whom the covenant was made, keeping the covenant seems to be an impossible task. But if one decides to keep part of the covenant, they are certainly obligated by the text to keep the whole of it. In other words, only keeping the Sabbath is inconsistent with the context of the covenant document in which it is embedded.

Moral, Civil, and Ceremonial Law

Some have sought to answer the underlying objection here by contending that there are distinctions within the law or, in other words, different kinds of laws. So one might say that we are obligated to keep the moral law (ten commandments) but that this does not entail that we keep the civil law (stoning children) or the ceremonial law (instructions for feasts and sacrifices). But where do we see this division in the covenant itself? This distinction seems to me to be ad hoc and contrived. It seems to impose a category upon the text that is simply not there. The commands given in the covenant are interwoven with one another. It is not as if there is a section of the Torah on the moral law and a section on the civil law and so forth. Rather, all of these laws are intertwined into one covenant document with no distinction. So, for instance, it is not uncommon to find a passage on the moral law (the Sabbath ) as in Exodus 31:12-18 directly preceded by instructions about the artisans in building the tabernacle (ceremonial law) in Ex 31:1-11. Furthermore, Moses’ repetitious command throughout the Torah that covenant-keepers must abide by the whole law strictly prohibits this distinction. For these reasons, I do not find this response convincing.

What is the Role of the Law for the NT Saint

Put simply, I believe that the Mosaic covenant was made strictly for Israel and that in the teachings of Christ and of the apostles we have a new code of ethics which were written with the church in mind. So yes, there are aspects of the law that we keep today. In particular, we keep those aspects of the law which are reinstituted for the church in the NT. This is seen clearly in Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount where he states what the Mosaic law says and resituates the command in a more demanding manner for the church by saying, “But I say unto you…” An example of this is found in Matt 5:27-28 where Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28 but I say to you, that everyone who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart.” So Jesus here quotes the law and then reinstitutes it in a new way for the church. He did the same thing with many other OT commands, but the Sabbath was not one of them.

The same can be suggested with respect to Paul’s teaching. I would like to focus on a different aspect of Paul’s teaching that is directly relevant to this point, however. What I have in mind here is Paul’s direct commands not to let other Christians—or non-Christians—judge you regarding the Sabbath. Paul directly commands the Colossians not to allow people to judge them on any aspect of the law because these things are a mere shadow while the substance is found in Christ. He says, “Therefore let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day– 17 things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ. 18 Let no one keep defrauding you of your prize by delighting in self-abasement and the worship of the angels, taking his stand on visions he has seen, inflated without cause by his fleshly mind.” (Col 2:16-18). Clearly, Paul warns against those in the early church—called Judaizers—who sought to impose certain aspects of the law upon Christians of that day. He says directly, “Let no one judge you… let no one keep defrauding you…” The fact that Sabbath is plural here in the Greek makes it a comprehensive command. In other words, do not let anyone judge about Sabbath days, years (i.e. Jubilee), and so on. Or it could indicate that because there is one Sabbath a week, do not let them judge with regard to each Sabbath day. With either of these meanings, my point is equally clear.

In Romans 14 his argument is similar, but expanded. Paul asks the Romans, “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand. 5 One man regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God…” (Rom 14:4-6). He continues, “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; 8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. 9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. 10 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God. 11 For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12 So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God. 13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this– not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (Rom 14:7-12). As I see it, this truth was obvious to Paul. If one wants to keep a day set apart to the Lord, praise God! However, to impose the law—i.e. Sabbath regulations—upon those who have been freed from the law is both unbiblical and sinful.


From the above data, I gather 7 conclusions: (1) The Sabbath was part of the covenant-law given specifically to the nation of Israel, (2) To remove the Sabbath from its covenant context is inconsistent with the command in the covenant itself and with the commands of Moses that the covenant recipients must keep the whole law (3) Attempts to keep the whole law are often made impossible because the covenant was made with a nation, not individuals, which is further proof that it should not be implanted today (4) To apply the covenant to modern Christians does violence to the initial covenant because it was made with Israel not Gentile Christians (5) To apply the covenant today would seem to make God unfaithful to his covenant promise of blessing and cursing to those who were obedient and disobedient because many such promises are bound up in the national character of the covenant (5) The moral, civil, ceremonial law distinction is found no where in the text and can not be consistently maintained (6) The law is applicable for NT believers only in so far as it is reinstituted by Jesus and his apostles in the NT (7) Paul strictly forbids us to allow others to judge us for not keeping the Sabbath.