Question: Does the Bible teach that the Israelites kept the Sabbath while they were in Babylonian exile?

Answer: The Bible does not address this question explicitly. In the Hebrew Scriptures, the two books that say the most about the lives of Israelites in exile are Daniel and Esther, and neither one discusses Sabbath observance.


The Scriptures do teach, though, that neglect of the Sabbath was a major factor leading to the Babylonian captivity. Jeremiah (17:19-27) and Ezekiel (chapter 20), prophets of the generation that went into exile, both state this. Since Daniel was familiar with and responsive to Jeremiah's message (Dan 9), it is reasonable to infer that Daniel observed the Sabbath.


Daniel was not the only one who heeded the prophets. For example, Nehemiah, the leader of an Israelite community in Jerusalem that had returned from exile, emphasized faithful Sabbath observance (Neh 13:15-22). He understood the significant role that Sabbath-breaking had played in the spiritual problems culminating in the exile (verse 18).

In general, the Sabbath would have helped exiles maintain their Israelite identity in the midst of a pagan culture. Groups of Israelites that neglected the Sabbath probably lost their connection with God and became completely assimilated into the surrounding culture within a few generations. On the other hand, some strong, lasting Israelite communities formed in Babylon and Media, so the Sabbath was undoubtedly an integral part of the lives of those communities.1


The values and aspirations of faithful Israelites in exile are reflected in the Book of Tobit, a popular story written before 200 B.C. Tobit, the title character, was part of the earlier Assyrian captivity. Celebration of the Feast of Pentecost was part of Tobit's obedient lifestyle in exile (chapter 2). We can imagine that Sabbath observance was held in high regard by many Israelites, both in Palestine and in the Diaspora, who admired and identified with Tobit.2


According to a popular Jewish saying, "More than Israel kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath kept Israel."3 The fact that Israel maintained its identity despite captivity and exile may constitute the strongest evidence that the Sabbath was kept by many Israelites in exile.


1For some discussion of these exile communities, see the article "Anna the Prophetess and the Hope of All Israel in Issue 23 of Grace & Knowledge.


2For more on the book of Tobit, see our article on the subject in Issue 13 of Grace & Knowledge.


3See, for example, Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith by Marvin R. Wilson (Eerdmans, 1989), pp. 223-224.

Issue 27


File translated from TEX by TTH, version 3.66.
On 21 May 2011, 20:41.