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Sabbath and the Levitical Priesthood

There are various exhortations to keep the Sabbaths and to reverence the sanctuary throughout Leviticus (e.g. 19:3,30; 26:2). As well as the weekly Sabbaths, there are references to special feast days — Passover, Pentecost, Day of Atonement etc. These were each to be a special Sabbath of rest (Hebrew: shabbath of shabbathon) to the Children of Israel (Leviticus 16:31; 23:3-7, 16-21, 27-28). There was particular significance attached to each of these days, involving particular sacrifices and rituals, which set them apart from the weekly Sabbaths. The very fact that they were special worship days suggests that the weekly Sabbath was not itself a day of worship as such.

The instructions regarding observance of the weekly Sabbaths do not include any requirements for religious rituals or worship. The daily sacrifices were doubled for the Sabbath day (Numbers 28:3-10), but this was a priestly function, and no other instructions for religious observances were given to the Israel people. The practice of worship on the Sabbath did not become common until the development of synagogues during the Exile, when the Sabbath became a day of worship and study of the law (though not so appointed by God).

Prior to this, of course, the only place where worship and sacrifice could be conducted was the sanctuary/temple – as specified by God – "unto the place which the Lord shall choose …. thither shall you bring your burnt offerings and sacrifices and tithes … " (Deuteronomy 12:1-9). Israel was NOT to worship anywhere they chose, on every high hill and under every green tree, as the heathen did.

The story of Elkannah reveals a typical application of this commandment. We read in 1 Samuel 1:3 that Elkannah "went up out of his city yearly to worship and to sacrifice unto the Lord of Hosts in Shiloh." It certainly was not practicable, nor within a Sabbath day’s journey, for the people of Israel to travel from all corners of the nation to Jerusalem (once the temple was established there) each Sabbath day for worship. Nor was this intended by God in His plan for the rest day.

The weekly Sabbath was simply a day of rest and remembrance. Israel was not to become so engrossed in business and commerce that the God of their deliverance and salvation was forgotten. To ensure this, they must utterly cease from all their labour on the last day of the week, and use this time to think about their Lord, who had promised to prosper His people Israel and to consecrate them.

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