Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions

By Roland De Vaux ; John McHugh | Go to book overview
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WE have already studied the week, in the chapter on divisions of time1; here we are concerned with the religious institution which marked the seventh day of the week, the sabbath day.

I. The name: its etymology

The English word 'sabbath' is a transcription of the Hebrew shabbath. This noun is used only in religious contexts: it is used for the seventh day of the week (frequently), for the entire week (once, in Lv 23: 15, though this instance is itself doubtful) and for the sabbatical year which occurred every seven years ( Lv 25: 2, 8, 34, 35, 43). A longer form (shabbathôn) is used for certain feast days and days of rest, but these days did not necessarily fall on a sabbath.

Some ancient writers ( Theophilus of Antioch and Lactantius) say that the Hebrew word is derived from sheba', meaning seven; but 'ayin is a strong consonant, and this etymology is therefore impossible. A number of modern writers have put forward a corrected version of this hypothesis: they, too, maintain that shabbath is derived from 'seven', but via the Akkadian. In Akkadian, 'ayin was not pronounced; shibittu means 'sevenfold, seven', and shapattu (which means, as we shall see, the day of the full moon) is said to be a dual form, meaning 'twice seven'. The latest suggestion is that a hypothetical Akkadian form shab'atâni ('twice seven') gave rise to the Hebrew shabbathôn, and that this Hebrew word was afterwards shortened to shabbath. But, as we shall show, it is most unlikely that the Hebrew institution was adopted from Mesopotamia, and the form shabbathôn is derived from shabbath, not vice versa.

The simplest etymology is from the Hebrew verb shabath, which often means 'to cease working, to rest', and which may therefore be rendered 'to keep a sabbath'. The basic meaning of this verb is, however, quite independent of the institution of the sabbath, and is simply 'to stop (intransitive), to cease' ( Gn 8: 22; Jos 5: 12, etc.); in the active form, it means 'to make to cease, to stop (transitive)' ( Ex 5: 5; Is 13: 11; Jr 7: 34, etc.). This is the etymology which the Bible itself puts forward in Gn 2: 2-3. Nevertheless, if the

Cf. pp. 186-188.


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Ancient Israel: Its Life and Institutions
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