Master of the Sabbath.

by K.W. Leslie, 29 July 2016

Who defines what’s good and evil on Sabbath? Jesus.

Mark 2.23-28 • Matthew 12.1-8 • Luke 6.1-5

As I said last time, don’t assume Pharisees were questioning Jesus because they wished to challenge him. Sometimes they were. But sometimes they were merely trying to understand why Jesus ignored their traditions—and why he was teaching his students to do likewise.

Just like it came up one Sabbath when Jesus and his kids were going past the fields, and some of ’em began to yank a few of the heads of grain off.

Mark 2.23-24 KWL
23 Jesus himself happened to travel through the fields on Sabbath.
His students began plucking the grain along the road.
24 The Pharisees told Jesus, “Look, why are they doing what one shouldn’t on Sabbath?”
Matthew 12.1-2 KWL
1 At that time, Jesus went through the fields on Sabbath.
His students were hungry, and began to pluck the grain and eat it. 2 Seeing it,
the Pharisees told Jesus, “Look, your students are doing what one shouldn’t do on Sabbath.”
Luke 6.1-2 KWL
1 Jesus himself happened to go through the fields on Sabbath.
His students were plucking and eating, rubbing it in their hands.
2 Some of the Pharisees said, “Why are they doing what one shouldn’t on Sabbath?”

Mark doesn’t mention they were eating the grain, so it sounds a little like petty vandalism—as kids will do. But no, it wasn’t that; the other gospels point out they were eating it. And no, that’s not theft. The Law stated people were permitted to do so.

Leviticus 19.9-10 KWL
9 “When you harvest the harvest of your land, don’t harvest the edge of your field completely.
Don’t take a second pass.
10 Your vineyard: Don’t strip it bare, and take the broken grapes of your vineyard.
Don’t take a second pass.
Leave them for the poor and the foreigner.
I’m your LORD God.”

God capped certain commands with “I’m your LORD God” when he really meant it.

This was all part of God’s welfare plan for the poor: When they’re hungry, let them eat from the edges of your fields, or pick up whatever you left behind after harvest, and God would bless you and make up for it. The nation was kinda on the honor system: They could glean what they needed… so long that they don’t grab a sickle and reap a swath of it. Dt 23.25 But for the most part it worked. Our culture, in comparison, considers any gleaning a form of theft, and farmers are far more likely to grab a rifle and take potshots at ’em to scare them off.

Regardless of feeding the poor: It was Sabbath. And you might recall the Pharisees had a whole list of stuff you can’t do on Sabbath. In the Mishnah’s list of 39 forms of prohibited work, number 3 would be reaping, and number 5 would be threshing. That whole “rubbing it their hands” bit Luke mentioned—getting the chaff off the seeds—counts as threshing. And if you really wanna get anal about it, by selecting which heads of grain to pluck, the students were sorting—number 7.

Three different kinds of work, and work is banned on Sabbath. It’s in the Ten Commandments, remember? Ex 20.10 Back in Old Testament times, it’d even get you the death penalty. Ex 32.2 So this is no minor quibble. It’s a capital crime.

So why didn’t the Pharisees just grab the students and haul ’em before the town council? Because though teenagers were legal adults, they were still under the tutelage of their rabbi, who was supposed to teach ’em better. Bringing it to Jesus was the appropriate procedure for the Pharisees: “Hey, your kids are breaking Sabbath. Deal with it.” And if he didn’t deal with it, he actually had to answer for them.

Pharisee logic.

Jesus’s response doesn’t necessarily make sense to westerners. We assume he’s correct because he’s Jesus—of course he’s correct!—but we can’t necessarily tell you why he’s correct, ’cause what we call “logic” comes from Aristotle… but the rabbis had come up with logic on their own, and their rules are a little different.

First, Jesus’s response.

Mark 2.25-26 KWL
25 Jesus told them, “You never read what David did?
When he was in need and hungry—he and those with him—
26 how he went to God’s house, under Head Priest Evyathar,
and ate the bread of God’s presence, which shouldn’t be eaten except by priests,
and also gave it to those with him?”
Matthew 12.3-4 KWL
3 Jesus told them, “You’ve not read what David did?
When he was hungry—and those with him—
4 how he went to God’s house and ate the bread of God’s presence,
which isn’t meant to be eaten, nor by those with him, except by priests alone?
and also gave it to those with him?”
Luke 6.3-4 KWL
3 In reply Jesus told them, “You didn’t read this?—what David did
when he was hungry—he and those who were with him—
4 how he went to God’s house, took and ate the bread of God’s presence, and gave it to those with him?
It shouldn’t be eaten except by priests alone.”

The passage Jesus referenced was this one.

1 Samuel 21.1-6 KWL
1 David came to Nov, to Head Priest Akhimelékh. Akhimelékh shuddered in fear to meet David.
He told David, “Why are you alone, with no man with you?”
2 David told Priest Akhimelékh, “The king commanded me with a word.
He told me, ‘No man must know any of the word I send and command you with.’
I made a certain place, a certain person, known to my slaves.
3 Now, what’s there under your hand? Five loaves? Give them to my hand. Or I’ll find something.”
4 In reply the priest told David, “No secular bread is under my hand, for if there’s bread, it’s holy.
But only if the slaves kept themselves from women.”
5 In reply David told the priest, “If there were women, they were kept from me since yesterday—
I went out the day before yesterday.
The slaves’ gear is holy, though the task is secular.
In fact, on that day, the gear was consecrated.”
6 The priest gave him holy bread, for there wasn’t bread other than bread of God’s presence,
taken away from the LORD’s presence to be replaced with hot bread on the day David took it.

Note verse 6. Now, guess which day the holy bread was taken away from the LORD’s presence, and replaced with hot bread? Yep, that’d be Sabbath. Lv 24.8

See, this holy bread, which we often call showbread (KJV “shewbread”) was part of temple ritual. Twelve loaves of matzoh/“unleavened bread,” baked from two-thirds a cup of flour, placed on a gold table, displayed a week, then eaten on Sabbath by the priests “in a holy place.” Lv 24.5-9 The KJV inappropriately translates úk éxestin/“not correct,” which I rendered “shouldn’t,” as “not lawful,” and a lot of bibles follow its lead. Problem is, this bad translation makes Jesus sound like he’s saying, “Hey, David broke Sabbath way worse than my kids.” In other words, he’d be using as moral relativism as his defense—and when it comes to God’s overt commands, “I sinned less than they do” doesn’t get us off the hook for sin.

In fact there was no sin. There’s no penalty in the Law for a non-priest eating the showbread. The only thing Jesus said, and correctly so, was it was appropriate for only priests to eat it. No one else was expected to. Being week-old matzoh, few else would want to.

Jesus quoted this passage because he was making a qal ve-khomér/“light versus heavy” comparison. Works like so.

  • We’re trying to prove P is true.
  • Q is a well-known story, similar to P, widely accepted as true.
  • Q is more extreme. More significant. “Heavy.” P is comparatively “light.”
  • If Q is true, P must be true.

So if David went to “God’s house”—at the time, the tabernacle—and the head priest gave him ritual showbread, which only priests were permitted to eat, Lv 24.5-9 and gave it to David on Sabbath, that’s a heavy story. That’s a pretty significant custom David and the priests broke with, emergency or no emergency. But the head priest broke with custom just that once, ’cause David was more important than custom.

Whereas eating a little grain on Sabbath: That’s a light story. If it was okay for David to eat showbread, it should be okay for Jesus’s kids to pluck a little grain on Sabbath.

This isn’t the only time Jesus used the qal ve-khomér argument:

Matthew 7.9-11 KWL
9 “Any person among you, when your son will ask you for bread, would never give him a cobblestone;
10 or when he’ll ask you for fish, would never give him a snake.
11 So if you all, evil as you are, have known to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask of him?”

And we can detect it other places in his teachings. And in the apostles’.

And no, it’s not the only qal ve-khomér argument he uses in this story. In Matthew’s version of the story, Jesus adds an extra argument:

Matthew 12.5-7 KWL
5 “Or didn’t you read in the Law that on Sabbath, the priests in the temple violate Sabbath—
and aren’t to blame? 6 I tell you this is greater than the temple.
7 If you know what this means—‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ Ho 6.6
you won’t pass judgment on those who aren’t to blame.”

There’s no one verse which states priests violate Sabbath. But there are various commands about temple worship on Sabbath, like burning two offerings, Nu 28.9 or swapping the showbread. Lv 24.8 The end result, the Pharisees recognized, is they do work on Sabbath—but “the sacrificial service supersedes the Sabbath.” Talmud, Sabbath 132b

I should point out though: Western logic calls the qal ve-khomér argument an a fortiori argument, and often considers it a false argument. Because it can be easily abused. Sometimes it’s valid: “If earning $10 an hour is good, $15 an hour is better.” But sometimes it’s dangerously wrong: “If two pills dull the pain, 20 pills oughta kill it.” No, 20 pills oughta kill you. How reasonable the argument is, always depends on how reasonable the arguer is.

We don’t know whether the Pharisees thought this was a reasonable explanation. We just know the authors of the gospels sure thought so, ’cause they didn’t follow up the story.

I will point out plenty of Christians sure think it’s a reasonable explanation—because they wrongly believe Jesus did away with the Law, and that’s why he could break the Sabbath commands willy-nilly. His students too. After all, David broke ’em, right? If David broke the Law, and the priests broke the Law by giving him the showbread, and Jesus endorsed all of it, anybody can break the Law! No more Law! Anarchy! Anarchy!

But no, Jesus upholds Sabbath. Which I’ll get to. First I gotta deal with the contradictions in the bible this story creates. If you believe in inerrancy, I’ll let you keep your blinders on; skip to the section after it.

What Jesus got wrong.

…Are the inerrantists gone? Goody.

So you might’ve noticed Jesus said the David story happened “under Evyathár the head priest,” Mk 2.26 yet when you read 1 Samuel David was speaking to Head Priest Akhimelékh. Evyathár (KJV “Abiathar”) is actually Akhimelékh’s son 1Sa 23.6 —the next head priest.

If you read the rest of 1 Samuel, you’ll also notice David didn’t actually have any servants waiting for him. Nor was he sent on a mission from King Saul. He made the whole story up. He was fleeing from Saul, who wanted him dead, 1Sa 20 and since he didn’t know who he could trust, lied to Akhimelékh about his mission, his entourage, even the fact they were carrying holy gear. Turns out because Akhimelékh believed and helped him, one of Saul’s slaves saw him, 1Sa 21.7 told on the priests, 1Sa 22.9-10 and Saul had that slave kill all the priests, and everyone in the city of Nov. 1Sa 22.18-19 Everyone. Only Evyathár escaped.

Only Mark brought up Evyathár, and Matthew and Luke made sure to edit that mistake out. But they totally missed “he and those with him,” so in three gospels Jesus incorrectly stated David wasn’t alone, contrary to 1 Samuel 21.1.

Now, since these factual errors don’t at all change the point Jesus was making, we can ignore them. They’re not relevant.

Unless you believe the bible has no errors whatsoever. Then they’re absolutely relevant, for they threaten to undermine that belief entirely. So in the interest of fairness, here’s how inerrantists explain away the errors.

They weren’t in the originals! A lot of inerrantists insist the original manuscripts of the bible had no errors in them, but were added later by overzealous or lazy copyists. They figure Jesus had the story correct, but some Christian was pretty sure he got some stuff wrong, and “fixed” it.

If so, the copyist “fixed” it quite soon after Mark was written, ’cause Matthew and Luke, who took their story from Mark, have it wrong too. Or the same erring copyist “fixed” all three of ’em.

There’s a secret book somewhere. Mark literally wrote epí Aviathár arhieréos/“in Evyathár, head priest.” True, Greek prepositions like epí don’t have an exact one-to-one correlation with English prepositions: Epí generally means “upon,” but depending on the noun-case and context, could mean “in” or “by” or “on” or “towards”—or “in the time of,” which is how people usually translate this use of epí.

But certain Christians speculate Jesus was referring to a book of Evyathár. Not the time-period, not the man himself, but a book which contained this story—including the factual inaccuracy that David had companions when he got the shewbread.

No, we know of no such book. Neither do they.

It refers to his days, not his reign. In his Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Gleason Archer doesn’t deal with David’s phantom companions. But as for why Jesus mixed up his head priests, Archer claims he didn’t really. Jesus didn’t mean during the time in office of Evyathár as head priest, which obviously would’ve started after his father was executed. Jesus meant during the lifetime of Evyathár.

Archer compared it to saying, “When young King David was a shepherd boy…” even though the boy David certainly wasn’t king yet, and wouldn’t be till age 30, and no longer young King David.

Thing is, when the ancients referred to a time period, they usually tried to nail it down by referring to the reigns of the people in power. You know, like Luke does. Lk 1.5, 2.1-2, 3.1-2 You might refer to Evyathár’s day… if Evyathár’s in the story. He’s not. His father Akhimelékh, the reigning head priest, was. So this explanation is a stretch. But hey, if it settles ya.

Jesus was misinformed. In the Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Walter W. Wessel points out there are three verses in the Old Testament which refer to the head priest not as Evyathár ben (“son of”) Akhimelékh, but as Akhimelékh ben Evyathár. 2Sa 8.17, 1Ch 18.16, 24.6 Yep, errors in the Old Testament—which they’ll explain away by going back to the old “they weren’t there in the originals!” line.

So, figured M.R. Mulholland in the first edition of Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, it’s entirely possible the mixup extended to Jesus’s day, with some rabbis believing the proper names of the head priests were Evyathár, who gave the showbread to David; and Akhimelékh, who served as one of David’s head priests thereafter. Dictionary 1  

I bring up the first edition ’cause the second edition simply deleted the entire “Abiathar” article. I won’t speculate why.

Well, this is an academic exercise that’s already gone on too long. Like I said, they’re minor errors which have nothing to do with Jesus’s main point. We can ignore them.

The purpose of Sabbath.

And so to Jesus’s conclusion.

Mark 2.27-28 KWL
27 Jesus told them, “Sabbath was created for people. Not people for Sabbath.
28 Thus the master, the Son of Man, is over Sabbath.”
Matthew 12.8 KWL
“For the Son of Man is master of Sabbath.”
Luke 6.5 KWL
Jesus told them, “The Son of Man is master of Sabbath.”

You’ll notice Matthew and Luke bounce straight to the fact the Son of Man (meaning Messiah, meaning Jesus himself—if they recognized Jesus is Messiah) is master over Sabbath. They don’t include Jesus’s reason for saying so; they just quote his statement. ’Cause he is the master over Sabbath.

But only Mark tells us why this is: Sabbath was created for us. Not the other way round. The LORD didn’t command us to take our seventh day off so we could spend all day fretting over which actions violate it, and which actions don’t. If you’re hungry, go to the refrigerator and get some food; don’t freak out over whether opening the refrigerator door constitutes work. (Although the Mishnah’s prohibited form of work number 39, “carrying from one domain to another,” might constitute work. Uh-oh.)

The priests break Sabbath to perform Sabbath offerings. Worship is work. But some commands take precedent over others, and (to use my own qal ve-khomér comparison here), humans take precedent over Sabbath. It was created for us. It was created to give us a day off. Not stress us out with the work of trying to figure out what to do and not do on Sabbath. Or whether to bust others for doing what we wouldn’t.

Since Sabbath was made for us, we’re free to observe it, not by the rabbis’ interpretation of what constitutes work or not, but by our own consciences. If it’s not really work, it’s not sin. Plucking a few heads of grain—how’s that constitute work, much less sin? Now, if you’re attempting some ridiculous, transparent argument in order to squeeze out an extra work day, you’re not fooling anyone, including yourself. But the nitpicking sort of details we read in the Mishnah: Come on. Parsing them is harder work than plucking grain.

Basically, if you gotta suffer for Sabbath’s sake, you’re hardly resting. You’re doing it wrong.

And since we take precedence over Sabbath, and the Son of Man is our master, it’s basic logic: The Son of Man is also Sabbath’s master. If he deems it work, or not, there ya go. If he rules that good deeds don’t count on Sabbath, Mt 12.12 he’s right. If he figures healing is okay on Sabbath—and he clearly has divine license to do so on Sabbath Mk 3.4-5 —it is. We follow his lead when it comes to interpreting Sabbath. Not the rabbis’.