Archeology and the Sabbath

Is there any basis for the claim that the ancient Hebrews borrowed the seventh-day Sabbath from their idolatrous neighbors?

Siegfried H. Horn, Ph.D., is dean and professor of archeology and history of antiquity, emeritus, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

In making unwarranted claims about the existence of the Sabbath and the week in ancient times, some scholars have asserted that the Hebrews and the Bible writers borrowed the Sabbath from the ancient Babylonians. This view was probably expressed for the first time by Friedrich Delitzsch, the famous German Assyriologist, in a lecture presented January 13, 1902, in the presence of the German emperor Wilhelm II. Delitzsch said, "There can therefore be scarcely the shadow of a doubt that in the last resort we are indebted to this ancient nation [Babylon] on the banks of the Euphrates and Tigris for the plenitude of blessings that flows from our day of Sabbath or Sunday rest." 1

In this article we will examine the evidence for this and similar claims. It will be seen that no ancient nation except the Hebrews observed a weekly day of rest, and that, at best, only a vague memory of an earlier, prehistoric existence of such a practice occurs in their records. It seems that the Sabbath had already been discarded by the ancient nations before they invented the art of writing and began to produce historical records. Except for the Hebrews, the peoples of antiquity were all idolaters and polytheists, and could hardly have been Sabbath observers at the same time in view of the fact that the Sabbath is a memorial to the true God.

Let us examine the evidence on which the claim that the ancients knew about the seven-day week and the Sabbath is based.

1. King Gudea of Lagash, a city state in Lower Mesopotamia, who ruled in the twenty-first century B.C., says in two inscriptions that the dedication of a temple was celebrated for seven days during which certain steles were set up in this temple. 2

2. In Mesopotamian stories of the Flood—in the Akkadian versions the actual Flood-producing storm lasted for seven days. 3 In the Akkadian Flood story the first bird was sent forth from the ark seven days after the ship had settled down on Mount Nisir. 4

3. The Assyrian hemerologies list regulations of what should be done or avoided on certain days supposed to be either lucky or unlucky. In some of these hemerologies the seventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of each month are designated as unlucky, or "evil days." The ruler was not to eat cooked or smoked flesh, to change his garment, or to offer sacrifice. A physician should not heal, and no malediction should be pronounced. 5 The Babylonian months alternated between twenty-nine and thirty days, with the result that intervals be tween the last evil day of one month and the first of the next might be either eight or nine days.

4. Mention must also be made of a certain Neo-Babylonian syllabary. These syllabaries are bilingual lists of Sumerian words and their Akkadian (Babylonian or Assyrian) equivalents. Some of them contain the names of the days of the month, from the first to the thirteenth. One, however, has entries only up to the seventh day, underneath which a line has been drawn. This document implies that the writer considered the first seven days of the month to be a unit. 6

5. The strongest apparent evidence for the existence of the week and the observance of the seventh day in the Mesopotamian valley is a letter written during the second millennium B.C., in which the recipient is admonished to "complete the day of new moon, the seventh day, and the day of full moon, as you have been taught." 7 H. and J. Lewy, however, have pointed out that the Akkadian expression translated "seventh day"—literally "seventh"—can only mean the "seventh [part of the year]." 8

This is all the evidence for an early Babylonian week of seven days, and it is meager indeed, especially in view of the hundreds of thousands of cuneiform records recovered in the Mesopotamian valley. If the ancient Sumerians, Babylonians, or Assyrians possessed a week like that of the Hebrews in Biblical times, or gave to the seventh day of such a week special sanctity, they would certainly have left us a clearer record of it.

1. Now, let us examine these few alleged examples of the existence of the week among the ancient Mesopotamians. The dedication ceremonies of a temple lasting for seven days in Gudea's time is no proof whatever for the existence of a seven-day week, for records exist of many temples dedicated at other times, by other kings, in shorter or longer periods of time.

2. On the other hand, the mention of periods of seven days in the Sumerian and Akkadian Flood stories may be a vague reflection of the existence of a seven-day week at the time of the Flood, but certainly not for the time when these stories were written down. These stories are obviously based on true tradition about the historical Flood, which in Noah's time destroyed the earth and its inhabitants. Although these cuneiform Flood stories do not give an altogether accurate picture of what happened, and do contain wholly legendary and distorted concepts, the narratives are closer to the Biblical story than similar stories of other nations.

The Biblical account of the Flood mentions seven-day periods as intervals between the sending out of the various birds from the ark (Gen. 8:10, 12). Commentators generally agree that this repeated mention of seven-day periods points to Noah's acquaintance with the seven-day week. That there were seven-day periods in connection with the Deluge tradition seems to have been perpetuated in the memory of the ancient Sumerians and Babylonians, but they have the Flood-producing storm lasting seven days, instead of forty days as in the Bible (chap. 7:17), and the hero of the story sending the first bird out seven days after his ship came to rest on a mountain, while the time in the Biblical report is again forty days (chap. 8:6, 7).

3. The meaning attached by the Akkadian hemerologies to the seventh day of their month certainly does not prove the existence of a sacred day of rest comparable to the Biblical Sabbath. In the first place, the seventh, fourteenth, nineteenth, twenty-first, and twenty-eighth days of the Babylonian month were not holy days, but unlucky days, or "evil days," on which certain acts were forbidden because they would bring disaster. This belief is similar to the superstitious notion that business transacted on Friday the thirteenth will not be profitable. The cuneiform records do not say that anyone should rest on those five particular days of the month, or refrain from work, or worship the gods. They simply admonish certain persons—kings, physicians, et cetera to avoid doing certain specified things on those given "evil days." In the second place, these unlucky days did not follow one another in an unbroken sequence.

4. Why one of the many syllabaries giving the names of the month ends with the seventh day remains unexplained. This tablet may be an incomplete school exercise, or the unknown scribe may have left his work unfinished. At best it is weak evidence.

5. We must similarly plead ignorance with regard to the apparent instruction given in the Babylonian letter, to complete the "seventh day" along with the days of the new moon and the full moon. Even if the translation "seventh-day [of the month]" be accepted as correct, which is very doubtful, we still do not know what religious or civil duties the sender of the letter had in mind. A lone and ambiguous admonition "to complete . . . the seventh-day" does not of itself constitute proof for the existence of a seven-day week or of the Sabbath.

Thus there is not the slightest valid indication that any of the ancient nations of the Mesopotamian valley possessed a seven-day week or considered the seventh day of such a supposed week as sacred. However, the records do seem to indicate that they still had a vague memory of the existence of a week of seven days in earlier, prehistoric times. The logical conclusion is that there had once been a seven-day week, but that it had been lost before historical records were kept, and that only an indistinct memory of it remained.


1 Friedrich Delitzsch, Babel and Bible (Chicago, 1903), p. 38.

2 George A. Barton, The Royal Inscriptions of Sumer and Akhad (New Haven, 1929), pp. 187, 229, 253.

3 James B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, 1955), pp. 44, 94.

4 Ibid., p. 94.

5 George A. Barton, Archaeology and the Bible (Philadelphia, 1944), p. 308.

6 A. L. Oppenheim, "Assyriological Gleanings II," in Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, No. 93 (Feb., 1944), pp. 16, 17.

7 Alfred Jeremias, Das Alte Testament im Lichte des Alien Orients, 4th ed. (Leipzig, 1930), p. 75.

8 Hildegard and Julius Lewy, "The Origin of the Week and the Oldest West Asiatic Calendar," in Hebrew Union College Annual, vol. 17 (1943), p. 77.


Reprinted from the Review and Herald, May 4, 1961. Used by permission.


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Siegfried H. Horn, Ph.D., is dean and professor of archeology and history of antiquity, emeritus, Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

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