07.02.02 Mt. 12:1-7; Mk. 2:25-28 (See also Lk. 6:1-5) Galilee
PLUCKING GRAIN ON THE SABBATH
Mt. 1 At that time Jesus passed through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
Mk. 25 He said to them, “Have you never read what David and those who were with him did when he was in need and hungry — 26 how he entered the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest and ate the sacred bread — which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests — and also gave some to his companions?”
Mt. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath days the priests in the temple violate the Sabbath and are innocent? 6 But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here! 7 If you had known what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice, you would not have condemned the innocent.
Mk. 27 Then He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath. 28 Therefore, the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
Little did the rabbis consider the activity of David and his men when they were in a precarious situation – fleeing for their lives from King Saul (1 Sam. 21). When they became extremely exhausted and hungry, they entered the holy sanctuary and ate bread, “loaves of presentation,” also called “shewbread,” that were reserved for the priests (1 Sam. 21:1-6; Isa. 58:6-7). A dozen loaves were placed on a Sanctuary table. At the end of the week they were stale and replaced. The stale bread was normally consumed by the priests, but this time it was eaten by David and his men.
There are two reasons for the justification of David’s action:
- Their escape from Saul led to a life and death situation. The point is that the Sabbath could be broken in times of crisis. They were extremely hungry and thirsty in the desert wilderness. Therefore, according to rabbinic tradition, they could eat to save human life.
- He was permitted to eat because he had been anointed to be the new king (1 Sam. 16:13) and this implies he had the authority to enter the tabernacle.
There were several issues concerning this matter relative to the response by Jesus.
- There was no law in the Torah that forbade a Levitical priest from eating the shewbread, but the Oral Law forbade it.
- If the famous King David could break the Oral Law (which did not exist in his time), then why couldn’t Jesus, who is the Promised One from the line of David? Of course, the leading Jews refused to recognize the authority of Jesus.
- Even the Oral Law permitted certain acts of mercy and necessity as indicated in the Mishnah and Matthew 12:7.
- The Jews had reversed the purpose of the Sabbath. It was created for the benefit of mankind, not mankind created for the benefit of the Sabbath (Mk. 2:27).
In addition, Jesus had two good reasons to reflect upon the story of the ancient king.
- The Hebrew Scriptures clearly state that David “did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord, and turned not aside from anything that He commanded him all the days of his life, except only in the matter of Uriah the Hittite (1 Kg. 15:5).
- The people had an expectation that the messiah would be a son of David, meaning, He would be like him.
07.02.02.Q1 Were there “non-Sabbath” Sabbath Days?
Absolutely! There were certain weeks in the Jewish religious calendar when two Sabbath days were observed. The Sabbath, of course, was the seventh day of the week when all work activities were set aside and the people celebrated their covenant with the Lord of Israel. However, the term “Sabbath” was also applied to any other holy day that prohibited work activities. Sometimes that was the day before the Sabbath, the sixth day of the week commonly known as “Friday.” Therefore, when John wrote of the “Preparation Day” for the Sabbath, neither he nor the other gospel writers had reference to the seventh day, but the holy “Sabbath” day of Passover.
It should be noted that in Jewish history, the days of the weeks did not have names, but numbers. The seventh day received its non-numerical name after much use of the verb that described it. The name, Sabbath, meaning “to rest” was always been descriptive of the day. Over time, it became a proper noun. Therefore, when the primitive church in Acts decided to honor and worship God on the first day of the week, they simply transferred the verb from the seventh day to the first day, and this was not in any violation of biblical exegesis or Scripture. At this time the Sabbath was not simply a day to rest, as it had a much deeper meaning. The phrase “was made” in the Septuagint was translated “to create” and was, therefore, associated with the creation narrative of Genesis. If this was the cultural understanding of the time, then certainly there might be some written evidence to support this interpretation. About a century after Christ a certain sage, Simeon ben Menasya, said, “The Sabbath was given to you and not you to the Sabbath.” The point is not that Menasya paraphrased Jesus, but that both presented a common Jewish thought. The Sabbath was created for man and focused on the benefit for man, so that his entire focus could be on his Creator. This is far deeper than the modern interpretation of “a day of rest,” which may or may not include an hour or two in church, followed by leisure activities. The modern application is hardly within the biblical framework.
There were two important reasons for keeping the Sabbath.
- As mentioned previously, observing the Sabbath was to honor God which, ironically, the religious leaders idolized in every way possible.
- This religious restriction, along with circumcision and kosher foods, provided the means to keep their identity distinctive in an immoral world.
These identity markers are found in various rabbinic writings, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and in the works of historians such as Josephus and Philo. The Damascus Document identifies 28 different types of Sabbath prohibitions. Most leading Pharisees and Sadducees had little or no desire to honor God in true worship; rather, they desired to maintain their financial and social positions that could be accomplished only by promoting a religious group separated from neighboring cultures. An example is as follows:
- By taking the wheat off the stalk they were guilty of reaping (further explanation below).
- By rubbing the wheat in their hands in order to separate it from the chaff they were guilty of threshing.
- When they blew the chaff from hands they were guilty of winnowing (separating the outer part of the grain kernel from the edible part).
As stated previously, at this time in Jewish history, not all the rabbis agreed on the Sabbath regulations. Sabbath regulations were hotly debated between the schools of Hillel and Shammai. To say that all Jewish leaders and theologians were critical of Jesus and His disciples is incorrect. Clearly, there were those who agreed with Jesus, who threatened the ultra-legalists to the very core.
So important was the observation of the Holy Day that Josephus said that the beginning of the Sabbath was announced at the temple pinnacle with the blowing of trumpet. Fire signals were also sent from the pinnacle of the temple, that when seen at distant hilltop stations, were repeated until seen in the most distant locations in Galilee. Therefore, within a short time the entire country received the message from the temple that the Sabbath had begun.
An interesting point of discussion today is whether the church is to meet for corporate worship on Saturday or Sunday. The Mosaic Law requires believers to work six days a week, rest on the Sabbath and keep it holy. By tradition, the Jews also met for corporate worship on the Seventh Day, but that was not a command in God’s law. It has been suggested that, technically, Jews and Christians can gather to worship God any day of the week they choose, just as long as they gather for worship one day and work six days.
“His disciples were hungry and began to pick and eat some heads of grain.” As Jesus and His disciples were walking along the road, they naturally became hungry and chewed on some kernels of wheat which were growing in a nearby field. This was not stealing because the Mosaic Law (Deut. 23:25) permitted travelers and the poor to eat from the fields. However, they could not harvest someone else’s crop. When disciples were accused of plucking heads of grain (Gk. stachus 4719, meaning an ear of grain), Jesus came to their defense and made the statement that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Ironically, this same concept was in rabbinic literature and is debated in modern scholarship.
Some scholars believe the two quotations below are reflective of second or third century (A.D.) rabbinic beliefs. However, there were four levels of Pharisees and the upper echelon were the ones who confronted Jesus. Other scholars believe that many ordinary righteous rabbis in local synagogues believed that the Sabbath was truly for the benefit of mankind, disagreed with their leadership. Within the world of Pharisees, there were numerous sects who held a wide range of theological viewpoints, as illustrated by the differences between the Schools of Hillel and Shammai. At this time, there were disagreements between various Jewish sects as to what constituted “work” on the Sabbath. There were some who would have said that what the disciples did was not work, while others clearly disagreed.
“The priests in the temple violate the Sabbath.” Jesus referred to the Mosaic Law in Numbers 28:9-10, 18-19, in which the priests had to break the Sabbath laws as part of their priestly duties. Here, the Pharisees were reminded that they too broke the Sabbath laws as they functioned in the temple. The message was obvious; if they broke the Law in service to the children of Abraham and to God, why were they opposing Jesus, who was doing the same?
07.02.02.Q2 Did Mark make a mistake in 2:26 when he made a historic reference to “the days of Abiathar the high priest?”
In this passage, Jesus focused on the actions of David and his men when they were extremely hungry. They entered the tabernacle (the temple had not yet been built) and ate the consecrated bread. Since there was no uniform calendar, this action was linked to the time when Abiathar was the high priest. But there is the problem: When examining who was high priest a thousand years previous to Jesus, records show that it was Ahimelech, the father of Abiathar (1 Sam. 21:1-6; 22:20), not Abiathar. Did the gospel writer make a mistake? To discover a possible answer, this study goes back three thousand years to uncover two possible explanations for this difficulty.
- The most popular explanation is that Jesus referred to those events of David that occurred during the lifetime of Abiathar. As a young child he would have been groomed and prepared for the position in the temple. Everyone knew, before the child realized it himself, that he would be the next high priest. Respect for the high office preceded and followed the actual service. This same degree of respect is given to Annas, who is identified as the high priest during the trial of Jesus, when in fact, he was officially retired and his son-in-law Caiaphas held the position. (The same degree of respect is given to American past presidents, congressmen and others who held high positions of honor. They retain their titles into retirement.) Annas carried the honored title the remainder of his life and, when necessary, functioned in the office. He had received his position by a Roman appointment whereas Abiathar inherited his high calling. Therefore, when Jesus called Abiathar the high priest before he actually was in office, Jesus was speaking in accordance with the custom of the time. When this verse is understood in this cultural context, the assumed biblical error dissipates.
- Another explanation is that in the time of Jesus, the ancient high priest Abiathar was better known to the audience of Jesus than was his father. This follows the pattern of the gospel writers who sometimes quoted from two Old Testament prophets, but recorded only the name of the senior prophet (see author’s comments on Mk.1:2 and Mt. 27:9-10).
These two solutions answer this challenge and both could be correct. The truth is we may never know the precise answer. But that certainly does not diminish the power or the effect of the Word of God or the life of Jesus. When reaching into history three thousand years, it should not be surprising that a minute detail may on occasion become cloudy. In fact, it is a ceaseless end of miracles that so much historical information is still available. No other religion, philosophy, or historical document can make that claim.
“The Sabbath was made for man.” This statement was quite familiar to the rabbis, who, presumably, were concerned about potential danger to human life. In such cases they said,
The Sabbath is handed over to you;
Not, you are handed over to the Sabbath.
Mechilt on Exodus 31.13
It is most interesting that the word of Jesus pertaining to the Sabbath (Gk. Sbbaton 4521) being made for man was also the understanding of a Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya. In his commentary on Ex. 31:14, he said the following:
The Sabbath is delivered to you;
You are not delivered on the Sabbath.
Rabbi Simeon ben Menasya on Exodus 31:14
. Pentecost, The Words and Works of Jesus Christ. 164-66.
. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbath 132a.
. Gilbrant, “Luke.” 169.
. The Day of Preparation was the day prior to special holy days such as Passover; a day when work would end and the people prepared themselves for the special event or a special Sabbath (Mt. 27:62; Mk. 15:42; Lk. 23:54; Jn. 19:14, 31, 42). It was rooted in Num. 11:18; Jos. 7:13.
. Saldarini, Jesus and the Passover. 56.
. Young, “Jesus” Yavo Digest 1:3, 3.
. Dead Sea Scroll, Damascus Document 6QD 10:15-16.
. Josephus, Wars 4.9.12.
. Scholars believe that the ancient city of Ai, which was probably later known as Ephraim, was one of those cities. It is believed Ai and other similar cities were originally established as warning cities from which a signal was sent to warn Jerusalem of an approaching enemy.
. Vine, “Corn, Cornfield.” Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary. 2:129 and “Ear,” 2:190. The KJV at times translates “grain” as “corn” even though corn was not known to the English people until the pilgrims came to New England where the native Americans told them of it. It was unknown in ancient Israel.
. See 02.01.14.Q1.
. Cited by Fischer, The Gospels in Their Jewish Context. (Lecture on CD/MP3). Week 10, Session 2. See also the video above by Dr. Malcolm Lowe. Insights into the Sabbath Regulations 07.02.01.V.
. Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah. 514.
. Quoted by Kaiser, Davids, Bruce, and Brauch. Hard Sayings of the Bible. 413.