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Hebrew and You with Lee M. Fields — Keeping Sabbath Holy: Purpose or Means (Exod 20:8; Deut 5:12)?

Categories Hebrew and You


In this post we will compare NASB and NIV as we did in the last, but this time it will cover the phrase modifying the command to remember (Exod 20:8; or “keep” in Deut 5:12) the Sabbath.

Figure 1 below gives Exod 20:8 in the Hebrew (MT = Masoretic Text), followed by the NASB95 and the NIV. The differences between the English versions are bolded.

The questions are: What would NASB “to keep” mean, and why does NIV translate differently?

Figure 1: Exod 20:8 in MT, NASB95, and NIV

Screenshot 2015-08-19 at 20.42.54

The Hebrew

The last phrase in English is one word in Hebrew, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ (leqaddešô). Breaking down the word grammatically can be done by knowing Hebrew grammar or by using a Bible program with a grammatically tagged text. It is comprised of three parts: (1) an Infinitive Construct from the root קדשׁ (qdš) in the Piel stem, “make holy,” (2) prefixed with the preposition ל (le), most commonly translated “to” in the NASB, and (3) the 3rd masculine singular pronominal suffix וֹ (ô), “it.” But what is the significance of the information.

Recall that there are three non-finite verbal forms in Hebrew: the Participle and two Infinitives, the Infinitive Absolute (InfA) and the Infinitive Construct (InfC). The InfA has no near equivalent in English; the InfC functions much like the English infinitive. Figure 2 below was developed for and is adapted from Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 216–17, to summarize the functions of all three non-finite verbal forms in Hebrew:

Figure 2: Summary of Main Functions of Hebrew Non-Finite Verbal Forms

Screenshot 2015-08-03 at 23.08.28

For the matter under discussion, we are concerned about the InfC. Notice that Figure 2 lists seven adverbial functions of the InfC. Figure 3 summarizes the adverbial functions, or meanings, of the InfC when used with various prepositions (Hebrew for the Rest of Us, 213). Inside the grid are suggestive English translations or key words that can express these functions.

Figure 3: Prepositions and Adverbial Infinitive Functions

Figure 3 shows four adverbial functions for the InfC when used with the preposition ל, the structure in our text. Context determines the function.

The English

The commandment is to “remember the Sabbath day.” (Incidentally, this command in Hebrew is an InfA functioning as an imperative; see Figure 2.) The NASB rendering, “to keep it holy,” is the same as the KJV and is a traditional translation. This rendering is the formal equivalent of the Hebrew: preposition to + the Infinitive. Because this rendering is so common, one might simply skip over the expression. The thoughtful reader of English, though, might well be left to wonder what it means with respect to the command. There may be other possibilities for how to understand this English infinitive, but using Figure 3 above, the English word to suggests the purpose or the result functions. To paraphrase, “Remember the Sabbath day for the purpose of/with the result of keeping it holy.” Either of these is possible, but their meanings still seem a little hazy.

Knowing Hebrew helps us see that purpose and result are not the only possible functions. The NIV rendered “by keeping it holy,” uses the English preposition by and the Participle keeping. This does not match the grammatical form of the Hebrew, but is a more functional equivalent. The translators saw the phrase as indicating the manner of remembering. The NIV rendering makes this sense clear. This one Hebrew expression answers the question, “What does it mean to remember the Sabbath? How do I do that?” The Israelite was to do this by setting the day apart from the other days of the week and behaving differently. There is an expansion on the content of this behavior in Exod 20:9–11 and even more in Deut 5:13–16 (see also Exod 34:21; 35:3; Lev 23:3; as well as Isa 56:2; 58:13). This context supports the NIV rendering of the phrase in question.


First, it is important to point out once again that even though the NIV gives, in my opinion, a more useful rendering of this phrase, the NASB is not bad or neglectful. Both of these translations are excellent. The point of this column is to show that knowing Hebrew (as well as Aramaic and Greek!) is beneficial for understanding Bible texts and our versions.

Second, the previous blog I wrote on the general negative in Hebrew prompted a reader to ask whether I was saying that Christians needed to keep the OT Sabbath law (and by extension, all OT laws). In this blog, I am mostly limiting myself to how knowledge of Hebrew language aids understanding texts and not focusing too much on larger hermeneutical/theological issues. The topic of the relationship between grace and the law has sparked debate among brilliant Christians since the first century. Without going into detail, let me offer a few points for consideration.

The short answer to the reader’s question is no and yes. No, we as Gentile believers are not obligated to observe Sabbath in the manner of an Israelite as a means of identifying with the community of God’s people, but yes, we as creatures must still obey God by living according to the principles of these laws as a result of our being a part of the covenant community in Christ through the power of the Spirit.

The principle behind the Sabbath law, I think, is recognizing God as Creator. This is why violation was a capital offense (Gen 2:2–3; Exod 20:8–11; Exod 35:2). This observance Christians are obligated to carry out. But how?

Can Christians mow grass on Sunday (or even Saturday; the biblical Sabbath is Saturday, of course)? Can they work in restaurants on Sunday morning? Can they eat lunch at restaurants on Sunday? Yes. Can they instead decide that they will honor God by not doing these things on Sunday (or Saturday)? Yes. Can they impose their decisions as a law for all other believers? No.

Christian obedience to Sabbath law — or any law — may not be with specific actions or restrictions on any one day as in the Mosaic Law, but it can be. People under grace still must obey the principles of God’s law as a love-response to his grace. There is obligation to obey, but also at times freedom in the manner of obeying; all must be done in faith (Rom 14:5–9).

(Image:"Shabbat Candles" by Olaf.herfurth. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)


lee-fieldsLee M. Fields writes about the biblical Hebrew language, exegesis, Hebrew translation, and related topics at Koinonia. A trained Hebrew scholar, his education includes a Ph.D. from Hebrew Union College. He is the author of Hebrew for the Rest of Us (Zondervan, 2008) and An Anonymous Dialogue with a Jew (Turnhout: Brepols, 2012). He currently serves as Professor of Bible and Chairman of the Department of Biblical Studies at Mid-Atlantic Christian University in Elizabeth City, NC.

Learn more about Lee’s innovative work in biblical languages and instruction.

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