by Wave Nunnally
Much of Scripture is so straightforward, we humans have to try hard to misunderstand its intended meaning. For example, few would attempt to argue the intended meaning of “You shall not steal” (Matthew 19:18). On the other hand, some of Scripture including some of the teachings of Jesus are so closely connected to the culture, languages, and mindset of His day that they require “more” of us than a surface reading. As an example of this, when He said, “Honor your Father and mother” (Matthew 15:4), what He meant and what we usually mean when we cite that verse are entirely different (see my earlier article “The Truth About ‘Honor Your Father and Your Mother’”).
With this in mind, in this article I would like to consider a passage of Scripture many of us have read many times over, but may have missed some of its meaning due to its deeply textured nature. When read in context, like a clean mirror, it gives a clearer representation of the image it is supposed to reflect. Such is the case with the episode recorded in Matthew 12:1-8, which begins with an interesting setting:
“At that time Jesus went on the Sabbath through the grainfields, and His disciples became hungry and began to pick the heads of grain and eat. But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, "Behold, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:1-2).
If we will allow ourselves to process this information carefully, we immediately feel the “tension”: the world and issues of Jesus are clearly not our world or our issues. This “tension” should cause us to ask, “Jesus and His disciples are walking on property they don’t own and eating produce that doesn’t belong to them! Why don’t the Pharisees ask Him why He is permitting His disciples to trespass and steal rather than raising issues about Sabbath observance?”
Our answer is found not by interpreting the Bible through the “lenses” of our own world, but by looking through the lenses of the biblical world! In the absence of living witnesses and videos, this comes through a willingness to interact with the remnants of that bygone era through the lenses of geography, archeology, and ancient literature, including the Bible itself!
For example, Jesus gave us a snapshot of what ancient roadways were like in His “Parable of the Sower and the Seed.” He said, “As he sowed, some seeds fell along the path…” (Matthew 13:4). Mark 4:4 reads similarly, but Luke’s version provides a helpful addition, “The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell along the path; and it was trampled under foot…” (Luke 8:5, emphasis added). Bingo! In the ancient world of Scripture, footpaths typically followed the easiest and quickest route between points A and B. This usually meant traveling through what would be classified as “private property” in our world, but this was long before governments began “condemning” private property and appropriating it for public use as roads and rights-of-way.
Jesus told another parable that assumes the same dynamics: a man found a treasure in a field (Greek, agrow: a cultivated area), sold all that he had, and bought the field that contained the treasure (Matthew 13:44, and this parable is found only in Matthew, a gospel oriented toward Jews living in the land of Israel!). However, what was the man doing walking through someone else’s property to begin with? He was traveling along a footpath that ran through the landholder’s agricultural area that was accessible to all.
These parables of Jesus are snapshots of everyday life in His world: it was common knowledge that footpaths ran directly through agricultural areas and were available for everyone’s use. The Rabbis understood this as a matter of course, with no discussion needed (Mishnah Peah 2:1). Having the same mentality, Jesus felt perfectly comfortable regularly using an agricultural area on the Mount of Olives that did not belong to Him for meetings with His disciples and for prayer (John 18:1-2). Consequently, we never hear people in Scripture saying, “Get off my property!” Similarly, no archeologist has ever unearthed an ancient “No Trespassing” sign in Hebrew! With this evidence in mind, we see that our concept of “trespassing” would not have been in the minds of Jesus, His disciples, the Pharisees, the landowner, OR the gospel writers. Our issues and outlook are often not the issues and outlook of biblical characters.
“Fine,” one might say, “but that does not absolve Jesus’ disciples of stealing, does it? Is this not a universal that requires no additional knowledge of context to understand it?” Nevertheless, we see in Scripture that neither Jesus (“…you would not have accused the guiltless,” Matthew 12:7) nor the Pharisees (who were clearly looking for an excuse to accuse His disciples) even hint that the plucking and eating constituted “stealing”. This is because “gleaning rights” had been extended beyond the poor, the needy, the alien, the orphan, and the widow (see Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22; and Deuteronomy 23:24-25) to include people on a journey. This extension of the “laws of gleaning” presumably took place under the influence of Deuteronomy 24:19, which states, "When you enter your neighbor's standing grain, then you may pluck the heads with your hand…” (see Mishnah Peah 8:1, which permits everyone, but gives first opportunity to the poor; see also Tosefta Peah 3:11, where both rich and poor may gather). It is certain that this was a practice current not only in Moses’ day but in Jesus’ time as well. Writing about the same time that the Gospels were being written, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus reports:
“When autumn fruits are at their prime, you must not forbid travelers from touching them, but let them take their fill, as if they were their own…rejoicing at thus affording them a share in the fruits of the season” (Antiquities of the Jews 4:234, emphasis added; the rabbis in Mishnah Peah 5:4 render a similar ruling).
Evidently, the early rabbis recognized that the alien, the fatherless, and the widow comprised a class of especially vulnerable persons. They also recognized that those who undertook travel in their day were equally vulnerable because they were away from their homes where safety and provision were more readily available. Jesus Himself must have held the same opinion, because when he became hungry on another journey, He approached a fig tree (that was not His, but just happened to be along the way) to its pick fruit (Matthew 21:18-19=Mark 11:12-13). Jesus’ disciples, then, were fully within their rights and were acting in accordance with commonly accepted practice, when they were “going through the grainfields…and began to pluck heads of grain” (Mark 2:23)! The Pharisees knew this, and consequently made no objections to these actions. Thus, every detail of this and other biblical stories, which from our perspective seem fraught with irreconcilable moral and ethical problems, all fit perfectly into the beliefs and practices of first-century Judaism in the land of Israel.
When we step into the world of the Bible, we immediately recognize it is not our own. Despite our discomfort at the lack of familiarity, however, we see that this exercise enables us to see what the original participants saw. Contextualizing the Bible in this way also prevents us from being confused or sidetracked by reading things into the text that weren’t there to begin with! Printing presses, satellite uplinks, microwave ovens, and gas engines were not a part of the reality of biblical times. Nor were property rights (access or produce) governed by the same standards are they are today. If we do not allow the Bible to speak from its own perspective and instead superimpose our own world onto the biblical world, we will often perceive a clouded reflection of its truth. However, when we see the truth of God’s Word in all its contextualized clarity, it is then that “we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free”!
In part one, we discussed the setting, the background, and the historical context of this disputation between Jesus and some Pharisees. The focus of that article was on the Pharisees’ challenge to Jesus (Matthew 12:2; Mark 2:24; Luke 6:2) — what it entailed, as well as what it did NOT. In essence, their concern was not that Jesus and His disciples were trespassing, stealing, or eating, but that they were performing forbidden work on the Sabbath: harvesting, threshing, and winnowing the wheat. This article will consider Jesus’ response to these Pharisees (Matthew 3-7; Mark. 2:25-27; Luke 6:3-5), and what a consideration of the original context can add to our understanding, not only of the words of Jesus, but even our understanding of Jesus himself!
First, some additional observations about the context of this “dispute.”
1) Note that the Pharisees who question Jesus do not walk up and accost Him; rather, if read carefully, the gospels reveal that they are actually traveling companions of Jesus prior to their question about proper Jewish observance!
2) Note also that only a portion of the Pharisees who were walking along with Him took issue with what He and His disciples were doing (Luke 6:2, “some of the Pharisees”).
3) Finally, note that what is happening here is stereotypical of early Judaism: discussing and even debating Torah was supposed to be going on “when you walk by the way” (Deuteronomy 6:7)!
Such discussions and even disputes about the meaning and application of Scripture were not frowned upon as they so often are in Christian circles today. Differences of opinion and questioning of a master were actually encouraged as a means of sharpening the mind, loving God with all the mind (Matthew 22:37), and ultimately clarifying Scripture. Rabbi Yochanan once said as he mourned the death of his greatest student Resh Lakish:
When I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law…Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, “Where are you, O son of Lakisha? Where are you, O son of Lakisha?” (Babylonian Talmud Bava Metsia 84a).*
Before passing judgment (irony intended!) on such activity, we should note that this same activity marked Jesus’ own relationship with His disciples (see for example, Matthew 16:22-23; Mark 10:35-40, and note that these differences of opinion also came up during journeys!). Further, such healthy debate continued on into the life of the early church (Acts 6:1; 11:3; 15:1-2, 7, 39, etc.) — and this was the church that turned the world upside down in their generation (Acts 17:6)! Differences of opinion and even vigorous debate are not unhealthy or wrong; bad attitudes and character assassination ARE!
Jesus’ response to the objection of some of these Pharisees is classic rabbinic argumentation at its best. Literally thousands of examples from Rabbinic Literature follow this same trajectory. His arguments involve shorthand references to relevant Scriptures and appeals to universally-accepted rabbinic principles, all of which support His position. His command of the Scriptures AND principles found in the Oral Torah would impress the greatest rabbinic minds of any age, but it is our responsibility here to unpack His method of disputation.
Jesus’ First Argument: the Precedent of David’s Actions
Jesus responded, "Have you not read what David did, when he became hungry, he and his companions 4how he entered the house of God, and they ate the consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?” (Matthew 12:3-4).
Note the parallels Jesus is drawing between David’s context and the Son of David’s context:
1) in the biblical situation and in the current situation, we have a leader with his followers: “David and his companions” (Matthew 12:3, 4) and Jesus and His disciples (Luke 6:1-2);
2) both groups were “hungry” (Matthew 12:1, 3);
3) both “began…to eat”/“ate” (Matthew 12:1, 4);
4) David’s and his companion’s actions are “not lawful” (Matthew 12:4; Mark 2:26; Luke 6:4) and the charge against Jesus and His disciples is that their actions are “not lawful” (Matthew 12:2; Mark 2:24; Luke 6:2).
Consequently, Jesus is not picking random Scriptures out of a hat; He has introduced an ancient biblical example that perfectly reflects His own situation. As an unprepared remark, this demonstrates a quickness of mind and superior knowledge and use of the Scriptures which by any standard is impressive!
It is also not an accident that Jesus has chosen a passage for this part of His argument from the division of His Bible called the “Prophets” (Nevi’im). The story He is referring to derives from 1 Samuel 21:1-6 (cf. Leviticus 24:5-9), which for us is classified as one of the “Historical Books” of the Old Testament. In the Jewish tradition, however, the “Historical Books" have always been categorized as HaNevi’im HaRishonim (the Former Prophets). This is significant because when ancient rabbis were attempting to establish an essential matter of faith or how to live everyday life, their teaching had to be grounded in texts from “the Law and the Prophets” (compare Matthew 5:17; 7:12; 11:17; 22:40; Romans 3:21, etc.). Consequently, the second Scripture Jesus will allude to will be from the Torah/Law (see the next section, “Jesus’ Second Argument”).
Yet another reason Jesus appeals to this event in David’s life is because it illustrates a rabbinic concept known as pikuach nefesh (the importance of preserving human life). In the world of Jesus and the rabbis, pikuach nefesh, had its origins in Leviticus 19:16, “Nor shall you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” How pikuach nefesh was practiced with reference to Sabbath observance seems to have had its origins in an event that took place in 167 BC. 1 Maccabees 2:31-41 describes a situation in which 1,000 Jewish freedom fighters were attacked and butchered because they refused to break the Sabbath by fighting to defend themselves. When word got back to the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt, they declared,
“If we all do as our kindred have done and refuse to fight with the Gentiles for our lives and for our ordinances, they will quickly destroy us from the earth.” 41So they made this decision that day: “Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the Sabbath day; let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding places” (vv. 40-41).
This event is one of the earliest examples of Torah-observant Jews recognizing that the preservation of human life ranks above Sabbath observance in order of importance. This ranking system is embodied in the Hebrew term docheh, “to override/supersede,” which is found in many rabbinic discussions about the order of priority certain commandments take when their interests conflict. For example, the great Rabbi Akiva (late first century to early second century AD) declared, “If punishment for murder overrides (docheh) even the temple sacrifice, and the temple sacrifice overrides (docheh) the Sabbath, how much more should the duty of saving life (pikuach nefesh) override (docheh) the Sabbath laws!” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Shabatta 1:21-22 on Exodus 31:13). Another early rabbinic authority even said, “There is nothing [in the commandments of the Torah] that comes before the saving of life (pikuach nefesh) except idolatry, incest and bloodshed only” (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 19a).
But what does this have to do with eating on the Sabbath? Like us, the early rabbis understood eating as essential to sustaining human life, “If ravenous hunger seized a man [even on Yom Kippor(!), which itself is a special Shabbat], he may be given even unclean things to eat until his eyes are enlightened” (Mishnah Yoma 8:6). Directly relevant to our passage, rabbinic literature declares,
[On the Sabbath, a man] may crush [thresh and winnow] it [grain] and eat, provided that he does not crush [thresh and winnow] a large quantity with a tool…the words of Rabbi Judah. But the Sages say: He may crush [thresh and winnow] it with the tips of his fingers and eat, provided, however, that he does not crush a large quantity with his hands in the same way as he does on weekdays (Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 128a).
These passages parallel our text from the gospels: people have a “ravenous hunger on a Sabbath” and hunger has the potential to threaten human life (“Wherever there is doubt as to whether life is in danger or not, this [pikuach nefesh] overrides the Sabbath,” Mishnah Yoma 8:6 = Babylonian Talmud Yoma 84b, “…the possibility of danger to human life renders inoperative the laws of the Sabbath”). Therefore, Jesus and the disciples are picking, then threshing and winnowing the grain by “rubbing them in their hands” (Luke 6:1)! This more liberal rabbinic position is exactly the one Jesus champions, and He rejects the more stringent position of the “some Pharisees” who were questioning Him. Clearly Jesus is siding with the majority position which eventually won the day in Jewish observance, a position which declared in essence that “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27)!
Jesus’ Second Argument: The Priests’ Actions in the Temple
“Or have you not read in the law how on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath and are guiltless?” (Matthew 12:5). As nuanced and textured as His first argument was, this one may be even more difficult for modern Christians to understand. Christian friends I’ve asked about this passage have no idea what Jesus is talking about, and no idea as to how to better understand what He means. However, we shouldn’t feel guilty about not getting His intended points of reference: Mark and Luke, probably out of deference to their majority-gentile audiences, didn’t even include this part of Jesus’ argument in their versions of the story! What we should do, in order that “[we] might know Him” (Philemon 3:10), is to “press on in order that [we] may lay hold of that for which also [we were] laid hold of by Christ Jesus” (Philemon 3:12).
Thankfully, Jesus Himself gives us a point from which to start in our quest to understand these precious words that come from His mouth. He introduces this argument with the words, “…have you not read in the law?” So we begin our search with the Law of Moses, the first five books in Jesus’ Bible and in ours as well. Those Christians who have ignored the study of the Torah because of a misguided attitude of superiority, supposing that in fulfilling the Law Jesus also nullified the Law as well (contra His clear teaching in Matthew 5:17-19) will stumble at this point. Simply opening our Bible to its beginning is a great reminder that all five of these books are still part of our Bible and still covered by Paul’s statement, “All Scripture is God-breathed and profitable…” (2 Timothy 3:16).
Next, we begin looking for priestly activity that constitutes “work” that nevertheless has to be done whether it is the Sabbath or not. One such verse appears immediately: Exodus 29:39 describes the tamid, the “continual burnt offering,” which must be offered every day of the week, presumably including the Sabbath, “The one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other lamb you shall offer at twilight…42It shall be a continual burnt offering (olat-tamid) throughout your generations at the doorway of the tent of meeting before the LORD, where I will meet with you, to speak to you there.” In fact, another verse from the Torah actually spells out the requirement to offer the tamid on the Sabbath, “Then on the Sabbath day two male lambs one year old without defect, and two-tenths of an ephah of fine flour mixed with oil as a grain offering, and its libation: 10This is the burnt offering of every Sabbath in addition to the continual burnt offering (olat-HaTamid) and its libation” (Numbers 28:9-10).
This text tells us that not only are the priest required to “break” the Sabbath to do the work of offering the tamid — they must offer the tamid offerings on the Sabbath! Early rabbininic authorities recognized the importance of a constant provision of forgiveness through the sacrificial system as trumping Sabbath observance. They taught simply, “…the tamid overrides the Sabbath” Mechilta d’Rabbi Ishmael Pischa 5:101-103 on Exodus 12:16). Jesus was aware of this principle as well, drawing a parallel between His situation (work required by pikuach nefesh overriding Sabbath observance) and the priestly work required to accomplish forgiveness overriding Sabbath observance.
Therefore, after beginning with a text from the “Prophets,” Jesus has now introduced a second and supporting reference from the “Law.” As mentioned above, this was standard rabbinic practice in Jesus’ day. The principle He is employing here derives from Deuteronomy 19:15 (see the discussion of this text in the next section), a principle still employed today in good biblical interpretation.
Putting It All Together
In the first part of the argument, Jesus argued from the “Prophets” that Mosaic prohibitions must sometimes be set aside for the greater good of preserving human life created in God’s image. In the second part of the argument, Jesus argued from the “Law” itself that there is a ranking system (docheh) within its requirements, and that improving the status of man (by providing forgiveness) again trumps Sabbath observance. By presenting this two-pronged response, Jesus has upheld another Toraitic principle: “…on the evidence of two or three witnesses every matter shall be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15; see also Deuteronomy 17:6; Matthew 18:16; 1 Timothy 5:19; Matthew 17:1, 3; Mark 6:7=Luke 10:1; Revelation 11:3, etc.). By restricting himself to “the Law and the Prophets” in determining matters of faith/belief and everyday practice, He respected the established standards of the day. He demonstrated His superior knowledge of the Scriptures, rabbinic principles (specifically pikuach nefesh and docheh) and rabbinic methods of argumentation. Therefore in this instance, as He did with the Samaritan woman at the well, with the Syro-Phoenician woman, and with the Roman Centurion, He met people right where they were and spoke their language. Also, “…with gentleness [He] correct[ed] those who are in opposition, if perhaps God may grant them repentance leading to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:25; see also 1 Peter 3:15).
Throughout this entire disputation, Jesus has once again left an example for us to follow. Differences of opinion and debate can be healthy when handled appropriately. Healthy, fruitful followers of the Master embrace the entirety of God’s Word (2 Timothy 3:16), not just the more comfortable or familiar parts. A firm command of Scripture enables us to more effectively dialog with our culture. Avoidance of teachings that hang upon one verse or even multiple verses interpreted in such a way that they violate their original contexts protects us from imbalance and error. Lastly, the commands of God, when properly applied (1 Timothy 1:8), are “good” (Romans 7:12, 16; 1 Timothy 1:8), “are not burdensome” (1 John 5:3), and will lead to “abundant life”!
In the Bible, Jesus often says things, alludes to things, and does things that we don't and can't understand unless we scratch a little deeper. But with access to the right material, His person, teaching, and works are completely understandable when set against the original background. When this passage is examined through the eyes of the audience and culture of the day, it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus is completely engaged in His world. He is a master communicator with total mastery of Scripture, oral Torah, and the disputation formula. Simply coming to understand how in a few short sentences Christ formulated a response that weaved multiple layers — rhetoric, Bible, parallels with His own situation, rabbinic rulings and principles, etc. — into one amazing and comprehensive response shows Jesus is the master-teacher/discipler/role-model/disputer/rabbi-type person. It is no wonder why thousands gathered to listen to His teaching!
*My thanks to my colleague Ilan Aharoni, who reminded me of this beautiful text. We regularly work together in Israel, instructing groups who come to study the Bible in context through the Center for Holy Lands Studies.