Is A Seven-Day Week Anachronistic for the Book of Mormon?

John Dehlin’s essay on Archaeology and the Book of Mormon claims that the mentioning of a seven-day week is anachronistic.

Referenced as the “seventh day” or the Sabbath day in Mosiah, the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem.

“Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”
Screenshot of “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon” taken on February 18, 2019

The essay does not cite where in Mosiah there is reference to the “seventh day” or Sabbath day. In fact, the reference is Mosiah 13:16–19 (with another reference to the “sabbath day” at Mosiah 18:23 at Jarom 1:5). Mosiah 13:16–19, however is a quotation of Exodus 20:8–11.

Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: 10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: 11 For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the Lordblessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it.

Without providing the full citation from Mosiah (which is a biblical quotation), the author of the Mormon Stories essay (as well as Dehlin) is misleading his or her readers.

But what about the claim that “the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem”? The Mormon Stories essay hyperlinks to the Wikipedia article for “Week.” The essay appears to be following the conventional understanding given in the article that “a continuous seven-day cycle that runs throughout history paying no attention whatsoever to the phases of the moon was first practiced in Judaism, dated to the 6th century BC at the latest,” and that “it seems likely that the Hebrew seven-day week is based on the Babylonian tradition, although going through certain adaptations.”

What the Mormon Stories essay leaves out, however, is this sentence in the same article:

Niels-Erik Andreasen, Jeffrey H. Tigay, and others claimed that the Biblical Sabbath is mentioned as a day of rest in some of the earliest layers of the Pentateuch dated to the 9th century BC at the latest, centuries before Judea’s Babylonian exile. They also find the resemblance between the Biblical Sabbath and the Babylonian system to be weak. Therefore, they suggested that the seven-day week may reflect an independent Israelite tradition.

The Wikipedia article cites four sources for this:

  • Andreasen, Niels-Erik A. (1972). The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-historical Investigation. Society of Biblical Literature.
  • Shafer, Byron E. (1974). “Reviewed Work: The Old Testament Sabbath: A Tradition-Historical Investigation by Niels-Erik A. Andreasen”. Journal of Biblical Literature. 93 (2): 300–301.
  • Tigay, Jeffery H. (1998). “Shavua”. Mo’adei Yisra’el: Time and Holy Days in the Biblical and Second Commonwealth Periods (Heb.), ed. Jacob S. Licht: 22–23.
  • Hallo, William W. (1977). “New Moons and Sabbaths: A Case-Study in the Contrastive Approach”. Hebrew Union College Annual. 48: 1–18.

So the fully developed concept of a seven-day week as we know today may have been the product of the Jewish exile in Babylon, but this theory is disputed.1 There are mainstream biblical scholars who recognize the strong likelihood that this concept has historical antecedents which well predate Lehi’s departure from Jerusalem. Shafer, reviewing and encapsulating Andreasen’s work, lays out one plausible historical development for the Sabbath:

(A) The earliest traditions were “the regulations for the six days of work and the seventh day of rest” and “the prohibition against performing any work on the seventh day at the risk of death.” These were perhaps pre-Mosaic, but that is uncertain. The themes are encountered in well-developed form in the earliest period, and we are unable to press behind that time to the origins of the institution or its traditions. (B) in the 9th and 8th centuries, traditions reflect a Sabbath which was a cultic feast day celebrated at the sanctuaries and temple . . . (C) In the later monarchy, the literary traditions re-emphasized the old Sabbath tradition of humanitarian concern and link the Sabbath with the exodus event of Israel’s salvation history. Andreasen argues that the abundant references to Sabbath in the exilic literature of P and Ezekiel cannot be satisfactorily explained by the traditional scholarly arguments from a sudden increased exilic interest in Sabbath . . . Therefore, he hypothesizes that this theological elaboration of the old traditions began during the reform movement of Hezekiah and continued through the reign of Manasseh into the reign of Josiah. . . . (D) In the exilic period, Ezekiel and P elaborate these traditions and, in addition, identify the Sabbath as a sign and covenant between Yahweh and Israel.2

Hallo, who is also cited in the Wikipedia article hyperlinked to in the Mormon Stories essay, likewise says this concerning the development of the Sabbath:

As early as the time of Solomon, we are entitled to detect a seven-day cycle in the festivities marking the dedication of his temple. The double injunction to work for six days and to rest every seventh is the most fundamental piece of social legislation written into the Decalogue. . . . The cultic counterpart of this legislation permeates every one of the many ritual calendars in the Pentateuch. Creation itself is retroactively cast into the mold of the seven-day week, as also of the Exodus typology, and thus secondarily turned into the justification for the earthly ordinance.3

Dating the composition of Exodus 20 is complicated. “The Horeb-Sinai narrative (chaps. 19–24, 32–34) will always frustrate attempts to understanding its composition history.”4 Notwithstanding, the origin of the material in the version of the Decalogue in Exodus 20 is frequently “assign[ed] dates . . . from the twelfth through the ninth centuries B.C,”5 and in any event, “the Sabbath observance does not owe its origins to the Fourth Commandment, since the practice is apparently very ancient, having existed in Mosaic times (cf. Exod 16:22–30). The Fourth Commandment merely recalled and reinforced the traditional observance.”6

The nineteenth and early twentieth consensus that “such features of the Decalogue as the sabbath law . . . could not have arisen until after the eighth century, or even later, in the exilic period . . . no longer exists.”7 Now scholars, such as those cited above, recognize that “the Sabbath was the cornerstone of Israelite religious practice from earliest times,”8 as well as the complicated evolution of ancient Israel’s social and religious institutions, including the Sabbath. “How widely and in what periods [the Sabbath] was observed is unclear,” observes Meyers, but evidence “suggests that at least some part of the population was committed to sabbath observance in the preexilic, exilic, and postexilic periods.”9

Finally, there is even non-biblical evidence for a pre-exilic origin of the Sabbath:

It is often argued that the sabbath observance is mainly an exilic or postexilic development. That may be true with reference to how widespread it was. Nevertheless, it seems to have a long history behind it and was thus probably observed in some form or other by some elements of the population long before the end of the monarchy. The texts here confirm its existence and its practice in the [Elepnatine] community; on the other hand, how it was celebrated is not so clear.10

The simplistic claim made in the Mormon Stories essay (“the concept of a 7 day week didn’t originate until well after Lehi left Jerusalem”) reflects a surface-level reading of a single non-academic source (Wikipedia) that does not adequately cover the scope of the issue. What’s more, the very Wikipedia article that the author of the Mormon Stories essay relies on includes information that directly refutes the essay’s simplistic claim!

As in most other matters, all that John Dehlin has done in this instance is mislead his readers.