Keeping the Sabbath, 3: No Fire on the Sabbath, So No Cooking on the Sabbath, Right?

35 And Moses gathered all the congregation of the children of Israel together, and said unto them, These are the words which the Lord hath commanded, that ye should do them.

2 Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you an holy day, a sabbath of rest to the Lord: whosoever doeth work therein shall be put to death.

3 Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day.

~ Ex 35:1-3

Orthodox Jews have some interesting ideas about Exodus 35:3.  A “fire” can be anything that sparks.  Changing the thermostat or lighting a gas burner is prohibited, they say.  I remember when Benjamin Netanyahu visited the UN one year to attend a late day meeting on Friday.  I don’t recall the exact time of year it was, but it was during the time of year when sunset comes early to New York.  He could not drive back from the meeting because, according to Orthodox Judaism, the spark plug in the car creates a “fire” by sparking.  However, it was perfectly acceptable for his Gentile driver to drive him to his hotel.

There really is a lot packed into that scenario.  It is sort of a lose-lose type of position, if you ask me.  It’s one thing to be so strict and restrictive as to take all joy out of what should be a blessing, yet that is what makes it doubly hypocritical to expect others to do what you yourself would not do.

While that is an example of one person with cognitive dissonance, don’t both of these extremes exist, albeit in different people, in the COG?  Something I posted on Facebook recently, which comes in part from my experiences while blogging after a time:

Truth is rarely, if ever, one extreme or the other. That’s why speaking the truth makes enemies on both sides of the issue.

I think it is time to get back to the Bible.  Pamphlets, booklets, blogs, videos and even sermons can expound upon and help explain Scripture, but none of them, either singly or in aggregate, can replace Scripture.

Rule #1 is: The plain things are the main things, and the main things are the plain things.

Rule #2 is: Let the Bible interpret the Bible.  If something seems to differ, then there must be an explanation for it, and looking at other Scriptures using similar words can explain the unexplainable about 90% of the time.

To not do so is to invite severe brokenness!

13 But the word of the Lord was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.

~ Isa 28:13

To Kindle on the Sabbath

So, what about fires, anyhow?  What is God trying to tell us?

I kept PDF copies of the UCG Bible Reading Program, fortunately.  In the May 2002 issue, they wrote:

No Fire on the Sabbath? (Exodus 35) May 2

Chapter 35 begins with instruction about the weekly Sabbath. God said, “You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day” (verse 3). A long-held Jewish interpretation is that it is wrong to start any fire on the Sabbath, such as a fire in a fireplace or just lighting a match. On the basis of this verse, some even argue that it is not permissible on the Sabbath to light a stove, turn on an oven or use any electrical device with a heating element, such as a hairdryer. Others go so far as to say that we can’t start a car or even turn on a light switch on God’s weekly Holy Day.

Yet the context here is important. There certainly may be a need to limit personal fire usage—as major fire maintenance can certainly become a violation of the Sabbath if a great deal of obvious work is involved (for example, moving logs and chopping them up or a major gathering of sticks, such as that in Numbers 15:32). However, this passage, occurring at the beginning of Moses’ relaying of the instructions for building the tabernacle, is most likely referring to tabernacle construction. God, it appears, was telling them to not kindle industrial fires on the Sabbath—to melt silver or gold or forge other metals for the construction of the tabernacle. No doubt some minor smelting was done in individual homes, which was also forbidden by this proscription. Instead, all industry was to cease, even the special work of building the tabernacle, so people could give full attention to resting and worshiping God on the Sabbath as He commanded.

God has always wanted His weekly Sabbath day to be a blessing and a delight to us (Isaiah 58:13-14), not an intolerable burden as some would later make it out to be through their focus on overly restrictive rules. However, there are certainly general rules we should follow. For instance, as a general rule we must not be conducting our regular business on the Sabbath or using the Sabbath as a time to plan our regular work. Moreover, the Sabbath is not a time for sports and personal hobbies. Instead, the Sabbath is a time to focus on our relationship with God.

To be honest, from the context I think it is difficult to be so sure that the lighting of fires is really related to the Tabernacle.  Since verses and chapter breaks did not exist in the original text, there could be a weaker case made for it being attached instead to the previous chapter after Moses came down from the mountain.  Perhaps both the Sabbath instructions and the instructions for the Tabernacle were given right after he descended, and that is likely.

However, even if correct, I cannot help but think that there is more to this than meets the modern eye.  Without a complete understanding, we can come up with all sorts of fanciful ideas about what working for the Tabernacle entails and what should and should not be done on the Sabbath.  More importantly: What exactly is the prohibition, and what is the principle to be derived from it?

I agree completely that we are to avoid “regular work” on the Sabbath.  As we have already covered, “work” primarily means service that takes place as a consequence of one’s occupation or creative efforts.  Certainly, a fire that is stoked in order to melt silver, gold and such would be work, as it would support a creative effort.

Still, why specifically a fire?  What about sewing badgers skins together?  Why is that not specifically pointed out?  After all, that is actual creative work and not just in support of it.  Perhaps there is something more, and perhaps speculation can best be resolved by letting the Bible interpret the Bible.

It turns out that there are various words that could mean “burn” in Hebrew, just like in English.  Notice how the KJV chooses “kindle” instead of “burn” for the Hebrew word ba’ar, Strong’s H1197.  That is why it is OK for a Jew to sit in front of a fire that was started before Shabbat, but he is not allowed to strike a match to start one.  According to their interpretation, it is the act of starting the fire that is wrong.

However, in Hebrew and in some of its sister languages, it can mean “glean”, “collect or gather” or even “graze”.  Notice how in Exodus 3:3, Moses ponders why the bush is not “burnt” as in “burnt up” or cleared out by burning.  It also can mean “eaten up” as in:

5 If a man shall cause a field or vineyard to be eaten [ba’ar], and shall put in his beast, and shall feed [ba’ar] in another man’s field; of the best of his own field, and of the best of his own vineyard, shall he make restitution.

~ Ex 22:5

Not only that, but it can mean “put away”, as in:

7 The hands of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hands of all the people. So thou shalt put [ba’ar] the evil away [ba’ar] from among you.

~ Dt 17:7

Same expression “put away” is used in Dt 17:12; 19:13, 19; Dt 21:9, et al.

The cattle that grazes and the fire both consume.  When the cattle consume produce in another’s field, restitution is to be made.  Likewise, when a fire consumes another man’s produce, restitution is to be made.

6 If fire break out, and catch in thorns, so that the stacks of corn, or the standing corn, or the field, be consumed therewith; he that kindled [ba’ar] the fire shall surely make restitution.

~ Ex 22:6

In every case, the item to be consumed is sought out, gathered together, looked for, sought and ultimately consumed.  An animal seeks out the grass or corn and eats it.  A fire seeks out fuel and consumes it.  We are to seek out evil and remove it.

Gathering Sticks on the Sabbath

A fire in one’s home requires gathering fuel in order for the fire to consume it.  To kindle a fire requires the collecting of fuel in one spot in order to feed the fire.

32 And while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man that gathered sticks upon the sabbath day.

33 And they that found him gathering sticks brought him unto Moses and Aaron, and unto all the congregation.

34 And they put him in ward, because it was not declared what should be done to him.

35 And the Lord said unto Moses, The man shall be surely put to death: all the congregation shall stone him with stones without the camp.

~ Nu 15:32-35

When you understand what the prohibition against the “kindling” of a fire really means, the above makes more sense.  Yes, the prohibition against kindling a fire was stressed in regards to the Tabernacle, but to limit the prohibition to only the context of the Tabernacle is to overlook a larger principle.

Now, there are two questions one should ask about the above passage of Numbers 15 because it is a favorite of many critics.

  1. Could the man have avoided this work on the Sabbath by preparing properly ahead of time?  If so, does he have a valid excuse for working on the Sabbath?
  2. Was he gathering “sticks” as city folk think of “sticks”, or what does “sticks” really mean?  Notice how the same Hebrew word is translated “tree” in Ge 1:11!

These questions reveal how some skeptics will latch onto any strawman in order to “prove” the Bible is either invalid or the God of the Bible is anything but kind and loving.

Gathering, Preparing or Cooking on the Sabbath?

Now that we have the groundwork in place, let’s examine a particular passage of Scripture and ask ourselves the appropriate questions.

22 On the sixth day they gathered twice as much food, four quarts[a] apiece, and all the leaders of the community came and reported this to Moses. 23 He told them, “This is what the LORD has said: ‘Tomorrow is a day of complete rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD. Bake what you want to bake, and boil what you want to boil, and set aside everything left over to be kept until morning.’”

~ Ex 16:22-23 (HCSB)

Unfortunately, there are those who quit reading at that point, hang up their brains and automatically come to the conclusion that  any and all cooking is wrong on the Sabbath.  Let’s back up a couple of verses, OK?

18 When they measured it by quarts,[c] the person who gathered a lot had no surplus, and the person who gathered a little had no shortage. Each gathered as much as he needed to eat. 19 Moses said to them, “No one is to let any of it remain until morning.” 20 But they didn’t listen to Moses; some people left part of it until morning, and it bred worms and smelled. Therefore Moses was angry with them.

21 They gathered it every morning. Each gathered as much as he needed to eat, but when the sun grew hot, it melted.

~ vv 18-21 (HCSB)


  • What did Moses tell the people?
  • Did the people listen to Moses?
  • What happened when they disobeyed?
  • What happened to the ungathered manna?

Now, let’s read exactly when and how they disobeyed the second time:

26 For six days you may gather it, but on the seventh day, the Sabbath, there will be none.”

27 Yet on the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they did not find any.28 Then the Lord said to Moses, “How long will you[a] refuse to keep My commands and instructions?

~ vv 26-28 (HCSB)


  • Did the people obey this time?
  • What exactly did the people do?
  • What exactly were the people who disobeyed chided for?
  • Were they cooking?
  • Were they starting fires?
  • Were they gathering?

It would seem that ungathered manna would melt in the hot sun, yet somehow it survived baking and boiling.  I’m not going to pretend to understand the science behind that, and since it is a miracle it could well be beyond our understanding.  However, it also appears that manna in any form that was left the following day tended to breed worms.  I think it is reasonable to conclude that manna was not a staple that could easily be left around, let along left around in raw form.

I believe the people were instructed to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day and to prepare and cook it all on that day.  Why?  Because something about the manna caused it to “melt” in the hot sun but survive cooking, which means that cooking somehow temporarily preserves it.  Something about the preparation involved in eating manna required not just the usual gathering and cleaning, but it required cooking.

What Was the Real Sin?

At any rate, we have no record of anyone being chastised for cooking manna on the Sabbath.  You would think that as stubborn and rebellious as Israel was that someone would have tried that, just as there were some that tried leaving it overnight on days other than the Sabbath.  Yet, we have no record of anyone being chastised for cooking on the Sabbath, warming up manna cakes on the Sabbath, reheating manna cereal to eat with goat’s milk on Sabbath morning, etc.

No, but we have a clear record of people going out to gather manna on the Sabbath.  We have a clear record of a man going out to gather firewood on the Sabbath.  We have clear commands in the Law to not harvest on the Sabbath (which is what the Pharisees were accusing Jesus’ disciples of doing by plucking ears of grain and eating them).  We have a command to not “kindle”, or more likely to gather firewood for a fire to consume, on the Sabbath.  These items are real work.

Striking a match to light a fire is not work.  Of course, Israel did not have matches, but it is very likely they could have borrowed a light from their neighbors.  Again, how much “work” is really involved in that, especially considering everyone was packed into what was essentially “tent city”?

Likewise, warming up food properly prepared ahead of time or even cooking a fresh dish in which the ingredients were properly prepared hardly is “work”.  However, picking grain in a field, slaughtering an animal, soaking and washing vegetables, etc., is all pretty hard work.  What they have in common is the gathering aspect of preparing food.  In fact, it sort of lends itself to the difference between “preparing food” and “cooking food”.  While there is some overlap, in general, food can be “prepared” ahead of time but “cooked” fresh.

Some dishes, like chili and spaghetti sauce, are better when actually cooked well in advance and the ingredients are allowed to grow in intensity through subsequent heatings and coolings.  However, dishes like egg rolls can be prepared well in advance but pretty much require being cooked fresh in order to taste right.  How much “work” is frying an egg roll?  A lot less than cooking the ingredients, mixing the ingredients, rolling and pasting the shells!

I feel compelled to go on with this series, although it pains me quite a bit.  It pains me because, like so many issues in the COG, it has become overloaded with a lot of emotional mud instead of clear and consistent thought.  To my mind, God is nothing if not consistent.  Even when He “repents” (actually, “relent” is a better translation, IMO), it is because His character and attributes are consistently stacked in favor of forgiveness, mercy and, most of all, patience.  He changes not, and His Son is the same yesterday, today and forever.

We are supposed to become like Christ!

We in the Churches of God need to become much more clear and consistent in our own thinking!

3 thoughts on “Keeping the Sabbath, 3: No Fire on the Sabbath, So No Cooking on the Sabbath, Right?

  • John from Australia

    John wrote:

    “I believe the people were instructed to gather twice as much manna on the sixth day and to prepare and cook it all on that day. Why? Because something about the manna caused it to “melt” in the hot sun but survive cooking, which means that cooking somehow temporarily preserves it. Something about the preparation involved in eating manna required not just the usual gathering and cleaning, but it required cooking.”

    Peter Enns concurs:

    “Verse 5 and 24-30 refer to the Sabbath as the motivating factor for gathering twice as much bread on the sixth day… this is the first reference to the Sabbath in the Old Testament, an indication that it is already known before its official promulgation in 20:8-11. This, too, is another indication that the narrative, at least in part, is preparing for the events at Mount Sinai. Note also the nature of this Sabbath command. It is not simply that the Sabbath is “observed” by the Israelites in that “they” refrain from gathering food. Rather, it is “God” who refrains from supplying the food. It is he who ceases working, so that no manna or quail is to be found… Keeping the Sabbath is something that God does and the Israelites are expected to follow suit. This pattern is rooted in creation itself: The Israelites rest because God did.

    “… the Sabbath command hinted at in 16:4-5 is reiterated and expanded. Moses spells out for them that because the seventh day is the Sabbath, there will be no manna or quail for them to gather; God is “resting.” They are to follow suit by not going out to gather any food. Thus, in order to have food on the Sabbath, the Israelites must gather twice as much on the day before. But if the food spoils overnight, how is the surplus to be kept edible? They are to bake and boll it (v.23).

    Ex 16:23b So bake what you want to bake and boil what you want to boil. Save whatever is left and keep it until morning

    “Contrary to the NIV, this is not a suggestion but a command. A better way of translating v.23 is, “Bake what you should bake and boil what you should boil.” In other words, whatever is “bakeable,: i.e. the manna, bake it so it keeps. Whatever is “boilable,” i.e., the quail meat; boil it so it keeps” (Exodus, NIVAC, pp.325-326).

    • John D

      John from Australia quoted: “A better way of translating v.23 is, ‘Bake what you should bake and boil what you should boil.’ In other words, whatever is ‘bakeable,: i.e. the manna, bake it so it keeps. Whatever is ‘boilable,’ i.e., the quail meat; boil it so it keeps…”

      I’d not considered before that the baking would refer to the manna and the boiling to the quail. I guess I have a tendency to view the quail as a one time thing. Thanks for the input.

      • John D

        PS: I should add the cessation of manna to the ever growing list for the fourth commandment in “Does God Keep the Ten Commandments?”

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