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Yeshua in Context » Applying the Gospels, Background to Gospels, Discipleship - Formation, Judaism Today & Yeshua, Law, Torah, Teaching of Yeshua » Notes on the Sabbath Grain-Field Controversy

Notes on the Sabbath Grain-Field Controversy

Mark 2:23-28 is a passage worthy of an entire book and much has been said about it. It is a riddle wrapped in a riddle smothered in enigma.

Questions include everything from the mundane to the mysterious. Did Yeshua’s disciples actually break the Sabbath? Did they merely break an interpretation of the Sabbath rules according to some Pharisees? Is this ultimately about the Peah or corners of the field issue in Jewish law? Since the example of David is not a perfect match for what happens with the disciples, why does Yeshua use it? What does it mean, in the context of Second Temple Judaism, that the Sabbath is made for humankind? Is the Son of Man in vs. 28 Yeshua or humanity in general?


Good sources on this topic:
Ben Witherington, The Gospel of Mark: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary.
Maurice Casey, Aramaic Sources of Mark’s Gospel.

(1) Exodus 34:21 forms the basis of prohibiting reaping on the Sabbath. But picking for immediate use is not reaping.

(2) What do the Pharisees object to? We cannot rely on Mishnah or rabbinic sources as they often depict realities from after the Temple destruction and read them back erroneously into earlier times. In general, we can say that the Pharisaic-scribal movement, which was still centuries from dominating Judaism, was at that time enlarging the scope of the commandments by making traditions. Although we have no specific source as evidence, it is very reasonable to assume that this movement wanted to build fences around Sabbath laws, so that even picking for immediate needs was forbidden on the Sabbath.

(3) Is there any issue related to the Peah or corners of the field legislation in Leviticus 19:9 and 23:22? Corners of the field, parts that would be near walking trails, were to be left unreaped so those hungry could pick for immediate needs. This is what the disciples were doing, Furthermore, Casey suggests this is an important element in the David example Yeshua used: David’s men were hungry. Yeshua is implying the same for his disciples. The question, then, is whether it is right for those making use of the Peah legislation (the hungry picking for immediate needs as allowed by Torah) can do so on the Sabbath.

(4) Why does Yeshua use the David story and what does it teach us? The story of David’s starving men getting permission to eat the sacred bread is not a perfect fit for the situation. It could be seen as an example of greater to lesser, though. David potentially violated a greater law when he permitted the eating of the sacred bread of the Tabernacle. The disciples were eating permitted food obtained legally via Torah law but were doing it on the Sabbath. However, it is possible or even likely that early Jewish sources assumed David’s men ate the sacred bread on the Sabbath, according to Casey. The sacred bread was replaced every Sabbath (Lev 24:8). Casey gives several references in Talmud and midrashim about the sacred bread being replaced on the Sabbath as well. Therefore, the two cases may be more similar than they appear at first glance. But they are not identical. But there are two aspects of the David story that make it profound: (a) no one can say that David was wrong but equally no one can say that what David did is permissible, so Yeshua traps his opponents with this story that does not fit their clear-cut fences around Torah and (b) Yeshua may be implying that he is a David-like figure with authority to judge matters of mystery in the law.

(5) What does it mean, in Second Temple Judaism, to say that “the Sabbath is made for humankind”? Casey notes that the idea that Creation is for the enjoyment of humankind occurs in various Jewish writings. 2 Baruch 14:18, for example, says “you said you would make for your world humankind as the manager of your works, to make it clear he was not made for the world, but the world was made for him.” It is also a valid interpretation of Exodus 16:29, “the Lord has given to you the Sabbath.” Thus, Yeshua is saying that Sabbath regulations in Judaism must be about rest for the benefit of humankind and not fences which make rest more difficult. This is direct guidance for the Jewish movement of Yeshua-followers in how to make halacha and the non-Jewish church can also learn from this principles for practical living. Yeshua did not agree that making the regulations stricter than the law was the right direction for halacha to go in. That is the larger meaning of the story.

(6) Finally, is the Son of Man in vs. 28 Yeshua or humanity in general? One problem in answering this is that we have to decide of Yeshua made this statement or if it is a summary statement made by Mark. It is impossible to be certain. But if it is a saying of Yeshua, then it is a riddle much like others he poses and much like his use of the David story. His words have two meanings. Humanity is lord over the Sabbath, since it is made for humanity and also the ultimate Son of Man, Yeshua, has authority to law down halacha about the Sabbath just as King David did with the sacred bread. It is probably best to read the whole passage as a riddle. The David story raises unanswerable questions. The Son of Man saying implies that Yeshua is the Son of Man who is Messiah. It was probably even more mysterious to those who heard the exchange in the first place. Who is this Yeshua? How does he overcome his opponents so skillfully? What is the answer to his riddles?

Some Pharisees challenge Yeshua for not rebuking his disciples over a matter of Sabbath tradition they believed in, a fence around the law in which gleaning Pe’ot, grain left standing for the hungry, was forbidden on the Sabbath. Yeshua answered their challenge with an unanswerable riddle: how then could David allow an even greater violation, eating the sacred bread also on the Sabbath? Since Yeshua’s opponents would not be able to answer this, Yeshua does it for them: the Sabbath is made for the benefit of humankind and halacha should follow this Torah principle. Restrictive fences that make a burden out of something designed by God to be good is the wrong direction to take. And the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath, both in the sense that humankind is what Sabbath is for and in that I am the Son of Man who has authority, like David, to make such a ruling. In saying this, Yeshua gives us strong guidance for observance of Torah today in Messianic Judaism and principles that apply in non-Jewish practical living as well. The law is for the good of humankind and must be interpreted that way.

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Filed under: Applying the Gospels, Background to Gospels, Discipleship - Formation, Judaism Today & Yeshua, Law, Torah, Teaching of Yeshua

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