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Jesus in the Grainfields, Part 2: The Response of Jesus in Context

In this second part of "Jesus in the Grainfields," Jesus' response to the Pharisees is unveiled to reveal just how masterful His response was!

Dr. Wave Nunnally, professor of Early Judaism and Christian Origins at Evangel University and an instructor for the Assemblies of God Center for Holy Lands Studies (CHLS), assists in providing a regular CHLS column to PE News. This column offers deep and sometimes surprising insight into the Word of God through close examination of the culture of the day, biblical sites, and archaeological records. This article is the second part of a two-part series.  

In the previous article (Jesus in the Grainfields, Part 1: The Challenge of the Pharisees in Context,” PE News, Feb. 28, 2017), 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).

Practical Applications

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.