Sometimes people read Exodus 35:1-3 and become confused with regard to how God intends us to obey His Sabbath commandment. His instructions are to rest from work, attend a worship assembly, keep the day holy and not pursue our own pleasure from sunset to sunset.
But does this verse about not lighting a fire on the Sabbath add a regulation indicating we are not allowed to heat our homes in the winter, or cook and warm up food to eat or allowed to light a lamp in the dark on the Sabbath? What about the internal combustion engine that runs my car? That spark in the cylinder is a form of fire too—should I stop driving to Sabbath services?
The statement about lighting fires on the Sabbath was not an addition to the basic principles of Sabbath observance. It was a reminder of the command to rest from our work on the seventh day in a context specifically related to doing the hard work of building the stuff for the tabernacle.
Sincere Sabbath-keepers worry that they might be violating God’s command. Mockers use it as an example criticizing God’s commands as archaic, outdated and not meant to be applied in the 21st century. Those who teach against the Sabbath commandment ask: “Why don’t you do this part of the law. Are you picking and choosing to follow only the laws you like?"
How should we understand Exodus 35:1-3?
Let’s take a look at the context
This verse about not lighting a fire is inserted in the middle of an extensive 14-chapter section in Exodus of instructions regarding the building of the tabernacle, its furnishings, utensils, etc. Chapters 25–34 of Exodus relate how Moses received these instructions from God while he was upon the mountain for 40 days. Then, once he had gotten the instructions, Moses came down from the mountain and brought the instructions to the people. Chapters 36-40 follow with an account of how the people proceeded to build the tabernacle and its furnishings according to the instructions Moses had received.
Constructing the tabernacle was going to be an enormous project. It would require a tremendous amount of work. There would be sewing, embroidery, carpentry and especially metal work, or blacksmithing. When you read the instructions Israel was given you’ll note that a lot of gold, silver and bronze was going to have to be melted down and fashioned into all kinds of utensils, structures and plating.
Here are a few verses from God’s instructions that specifically refer to casting by pouring molten metal into molds: Exodus 25:12, Exodus 26:37.
Here are a few verses describing the people casting the molten metal while working on the project: Exodus 36:36, Exodus 37:3, Exodus 38:5, Exodus 38:27.
Exodus 38:28-29 tell us there were 3.4 metric tons used. Melting and working a lot of metal means a lot of blacksmithing fires.
Moses reminds the people about the Sabbath
Chapter 35:1-3 records an event that happens after Moses brings God’s instructions down from the mountain and before they get started doing the work. First, Moses reminds them of the ground rules: you have six days of the week to do this work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath rest to the Lord.
And then he adds an additional warning: “Do not light your fires in your dwellings on the Sabbath,” which when viewed in context is an admonition not to do any of this construction work on the Sabbath.
The rest of chapter 35 is an account of the people joyfully contributing precious metals, gems, hides, cloth, oil, incense and all the other necessary materials for the project (Exodus 35:22). It also describes the selection of the master craftsmen Bazalel and Oholiab who were inspired by the Spirit of God with skill in artistic designs for gold, silver and bronze (Exodus 35:32).
The people were excited about the tabernacle project. In fact, they were bringing forth so many offerings of materials Moses had to ask them to stop! Their excitement was a good thing, and surely God was pleased to see it. But it was not to become an excuse to work on the Sabbath, even for constructing the tabernacle.
Not an addition to existing Sabbath commands
God does not forbid you a fire to warm your homes on a cold Sabbath night, nor a cooking fire, nor the lighting of a lamp in the dark. The statement about lighting fires on the Sabbath was not an addition to the basic principles of Sabbath observance. It was a reminder of the command to rest from our work on the seventh day in a context specifically related to doing the hard work of building the stuff for the tabernacle.
Exodus 35:3 is only a source of confusion when it is plucked out from the surrounding story and used out of context. With proper context, the intent becomes clear.