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Q: #557. What was a "Sabbath days journey" (Acts 1:12)?

     A: A “Sabbath days journey” is mentioned only in the New Testament in (Acts 1:12), however, it’s observance appears to have started in the Old Testament. Nowhere in the Bible do we find that this was commanded by God. Instead, it was a man-made rule created by the Jewish priests.

     In short, a Sabbath days journey was a rule which stated that on the Sabbath day (Saturday), no one could travel farther than 2000 cubits (about 3000 feet / 1000 yards / 5/8 of a mile – see: Q: #375). 

     How did the Jewish priests determine this distance? It is believed that they primarily used 3 different places in the Old Testament. The first is found in (Ex 16:27-30):

“And it came to pass, that there went out some of the people on the seventh day for to gather (manna), and they found none. And the LORD said unto Moses, How long refuse ye to keep my commandments and my laws? See, for that the LORD hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day. So the people rested on the seventh day.” 

     The second is found in (Num 35:5): 

“And ye shall measure from without the city on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits; and the city shall be in the midst: this shall be to them the suburbs of the cities.”

     The third is found in (Josh 3:3-4):

“And they commanded the people, saying, When ye see the ark of the covenant of the Lord your God, and the priests the Levites bearing it, then ye shall remove from your place, and go after it. (4) Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go: for ye have not passed this way heretofore.”

     Now, let’s put these verses together.  In Exodus, God told the Israelites: “let no man go out of his place” on the Sabbath. So, what is “his place” became the question. At first, it appears that the Israelites determined it was their home, but later decided it was the city (in part because they were allowed to leave their “place” (house) to walk to the Tabernacle / Temple on the Sabbath). 

     So, if the “place” was not their home, but instead the city, then how far could they go from the city? The priests based this on the verses in Numbers and Joshua. Specifically, in (Josh 3:3) God told the Israelites that they were to “remove from their (your) place” and follow the Ark of the Covenant, but there was to be “a space between the Israelites (you) and the Ark (it)” of “about 2000 cubits.”

     Deciding that the 2000 cubits (1000 yards) in these two instances was a God-ordained distance, the priests determined that the Israelites could not travel any farther than this from the wall of the city on the Sabbath. Anyone who violated this rule was said to have broken the 4th Commandment (to “keep the Sabbath day holy”). 

     Tradition says that apparently the Israelites found ways to “bend” this rule in several ways. One such way was placing a lunch at a designated spot about 1000 yards away from the wall of the city the day before the Sabbath, and then when traveling on the Sabbath, stopping at that designated spot, declaring it a temporary abode, eating the lunch (resting), and then going on to travel another 1000 yards.

     Tying all of this into (Acts 1:12), we know that the distance between Jerusalem and the Mt. of Olives was about 2000 cubits, therefore, Luke used a Jewish term which signified that distance: “a Sabbath days journey.”

Copyright: © Steve Shirley

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