Pharisees accuse Jesus of violating the Sabbath when disciples pick grain from field (Matthew 12:1 – 12:8)
During their travels, Jesus went through the grain fields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
Jesus answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread – which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
What the story means to us today
Jesus corrects Pharisees’ misinterpretation of Old Testament biblical texts
The opposition to Jesus is clear and has grown beyond persecution to plots against his life. The Pharisees are frightened by Jesus’ teachings and his growing number of followers. As Jesus stated many times in the New Testament, the Pharisees were not as righteous as they pretended to be. If they were truly kind, they would have offered the disciples food instead of chastising them for picking grain on the Sabbath. Through his teachings, Jesus is correcting the Pharisee’s misunderstanding of the Old Testament creed.
We sometimes forget that although Jesus’ teachings are well-known moral guidelines today, at the time they were considered scandalous. Today, we read the Old Testament in a new light, with a new understanding and better recognition of God’s underlying message: love one another, be kind to others, help those around you.
Additional thoughts and considerations
Did the disciples break Sabbath rules?
Although Jesus makes it clear throughout the New Testament, not just that the rules have changed, but that the rules have been misconstrued, misinterpreted, and misunderstood for many generations. The most unusual things about the Pharisees accusation, is that the disciples taking of grain was technically not a violation of Old Testament law.
Old Testament laws (and the prevailing Jewish halakha) forbade reaping of grain on the Sabbath (called shabbat in Hebrew). It did not forbit the picking of a few grains and eating them. Regardless, after this incident, the use of the law changed and merely forbade the use of tools to reap grain on the Sabbath – possibly because of this very incident.
Were the disciples stealing grain?
In Jesus day, fields of grain were planted to the very edges of roadways and paths and sometimes even extended over them. To travel about, you often crossed through someone’s field, the boundaries of which were delimited by stone markers. Graciously, customs held that the edges of the fields were to be left unharvested, a show of compassion for anyone in need.
More to the point, Deuteronomy 23:25 states in Old Testament law that it was forbidden to “take a sickle to a neighbor’s standing grain”. However, it specifically allowed picking small kernels with your hands, a logical and just allowance that although not specifically stated in modern-day law, is still a common-sense principle today.
Jesus’ reference to David eating consecrated bread
When the Pharisees accuse Jesus’ disciples of violating Sabbath by picking grain, Jesus tells them:
“Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread – which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests.”
Jesus was referencing an incident (1 Samuel 21:6) where David, while fleeing from Saul, entered a tabernacle at Nob, just south of Jerusalem. The bread David and his companions ate was consecrated bread that should only be eaten by priests. Since they were hungry and in need, the priest allowed them to eat the bread anyway.
Furthermore, 1 Samuel 21:5 describes the consecration of the bread itself – it is likely the bread was eaten on the Sabbath since it had just been consecrated. Apparently, the act of consecrating bread on the Sabbath was accepted by rabbis and we find nothing in scripture that condemns the act.
Jesus’ point was not necessarily that there are exceptions to the rules, but that the Pharisees were wrong to condemn Jesus and the disciples over something they had freely allowed before. If David and his soldiers could break the law during a time of need, Jesus and his disciples could do so in their time of need. Jesus pointed out that a double-standard was being applied to the disciples. It’s yet another example of Jesus pointing out that the Pharisees did not understand Old Testament teachings and seemed to be “making up the rules as they went along”. What God wanted from mankind was mercy and love.
The priests on Sabbath duty in the temple
Jesus presented a second argument to the Pharisees who accused the disciples of violating Sabbath law. He told them:
“Haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.”
Jesus was referring to the work that priests did on the Sabbath, chores such as consecrating bread, making offerings, and keeping the tabernacle in order. These duties appear to violate Sabbath rules but officially, were not considered “work” that violated Jewish Sabbath laws. The jobs the priests conducted on the Sabbath superseded the Sabbath itself, both in purpose (to further the worship of God) and reason (love of God and his worshippers).
Jesus flatly tells the Pharisees, something greater than the Sabbath is standing right in front of you – someone who’s sole purpose is to promote the kingdom of God and spread God’s message of love.
The Pharisees on the other hand, had erred multiple times. They failed to understand the teachings of the Old Testament, refused to recognize who Jesus was, and misunderstood the message he was spreading through the region.
I desire mercy, not sacrifice
“If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
Jesus is telling the Pharisees, if they truly understood God’s directive to love and care for each other, they would not have condemned the disciples for plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath. The disciples were moving about the region spreading God’s word. It was perfectly acceptable to do good on the Sabbath.
Jesus concludes his explanation by pointing out that he is God’s messenger and as God’s chosen messenger, God could direct Sabbath rules through him in whatever means he so desired.
The science and history behind the story
Ancient priests and consecrated bread
The bread that David ate was called “showbread” or “bread of the Presence”. It consisted of three parts of fine flour and was prepared weekly for the tabernacle and temple. The finished loaves were then placed on a table on the north side of the temple.
Jewish rules of conduct on Sabbath
Jews in Jesus’ day had many rules covering conduct on the Sabbath. It was a day of celebration and a reminder that God created the earth in six days. It was also a means to gain favor in God’s eyes by following strict rules of conduct that demonstrated discipline and adherence to God’s law.
The most important of Sabbath rules involved labor – it was strictly forbidden on the Sabbath. This of course, calls into question what a reasonable definition of “labor” is. Is it laborious to save a man from drowning, to move a stone from a path so nobody stumbles on it, or to carry dinner to the kitchen table?
Sabbath rules extended beyond restriction of labor. For instance, travel on the Sabbath was limited to about 1,200 yards, slightly less than a mile.
According to the Jewish Mishna Shabbat 7:2, there are 39 “creative activities” that are forbidden on the Sabbath. They are broken into categories or “orders”. As you can see from the list below, they were very concise and restrictive – and were the perfect example of what Jesus fought against. Elders in the church attempted to formulate rules and regulations that existed outside the Bible’s dictates but revoked the very spirit of God’s message.
Below are the 39 creative activities the ancient Jews forbade on the Sabbath.
The Order of Bread
1) Planting. This includes watering, fertilizing, planting seeds, or planting grown plants.
2) Plowing. Included in this prohibition is any preparation or improvement of land for agricultural use. This includes dragging chair legs in soft soil thereby unintentionally making furrows or pouring water on arable land that is not saturated. Making a hole in the soil would also provide protection for a seed placed there from rain and runoff; even if no seed is ever placed there, the soil is now enhanced for the process of planting.
3) Reaping. Removing all or part of a plant from its source of growth is reaping. Rabbinically it is forbidden to climb a tree, for fear this may lead to one tearing off a branch. It is also forbidden rabbinically to ride an animal, as one may unthinkingly detach a stick to hit the animal with.
4) Gathering. For example, after picking strawberries, forming a pile or collecting them into one’s pockets, or a basket. Collecting rock salt or any mineral (from a mine or from the Earth) and making a pile of the produce. This can only occur in the place where the gathering should take place. So, a bowl of apples that falls in a house can be gathered as 1) they do not grow in that environment and 2) they have already undergone their initial gathering at the orchard.
5) Threshing/extraction. It refers to any productive extraction and includes juicing of fruits and vegetables and wringing (desirable fluids) out of cloths, as the juice or water inside the fruit is considered ‘desirable’ for these purposes, while the pulp of the fruit would be the ‘undesirable.’ As such, squeezing (S’chita) is forbidden unless certain rules are applied. The wringing of undesirable water out of cloths may come under the law of Melabain (Scouring/Laundering). One could view this activity as extraction, while Borer (separation) is more akin to purification.
6) Winnowing. In the Talmudic sense it usually refers exclusively to the separation of chaff from grain – i.e. to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. It also refers to separating things that are desirable from undesirable ones. Example: If one has a handful of peanuts, in their paper-thin brown skins, and one blows on the mixture of peanuts and skins, dispersing the unwanted skins from the peanuts, this would be an act of ‘winnowing’ according to both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud.
7) Sorting/purification. In the Talmudic sense usually refers exclusively to the separation of debris from grain – i.e. to any separation of intermixed materials which renders edible that which was inedible. Thus, filtering undrinkable water to make it drinkable falls under this category, as does picking small bones from fish. (Gefilte fish is one solution to this problem.)
8) Grinding. “Tochain” (grinding) can arise in simply cutting into pieces fruits or vegetables for a salad. Very small pieces would involve “tochain,” therefore cutting into slightly larger than usual pieces would be in order, thus avoiding cutting the pieces into their final, most usable, state.
9) Sifting. This is essentially the same as the melochah of Borer but performed with a utensil specifically designed for sorting, such as a sieve, strainer, or the like. As such, Borer acts done with such a device, such as the netting of a tea bag, would be classed as an act of Merakaid (Sieving/Straining).
10) Kneading/amalgamation. Kneading is not a very accurate translation of this activity. It may better be translated as ‘amalgamation’ or the like. The key principle of this creative activity is the combining of solid and liquid together to make a paste or dough-like substance.
11) Cooking/baking. Definition for solids: Changing the properties of something via heat. Liquids: Bringing a liquid’s temperature to the heat threshold. ‘Heat’ for these purposes is at the threshold known as “Yad Soledet” (lit. Hand [by reflex] draws back [due to such heat]) which according to the Igrot Moshe (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein) is 43 °C (110 °F).
The Order of Garments
1) Shearing. Severing/uprooting any body-part of a creature.
2) Scouring/laundering. Cleansing absorbent materials of absorbed/ingrained impurities.
3) Carding/combing wool. Separating/disentangling fibers.
4) Dyeing. Coloring/enriching the color of any material or substance.
5) Spinning. Twisting fibers into a thread or twining strands into a yarn.
6) Warping. Creating the first form for weaving.
7) Making two loops/threading heddles. Forming loops for weaving or the making of net like materials. This is also the threading of two heddles on a loom to allow a ‘shed’ for the shuttlecock to pass through. According to the Rambam it is the making of net-like materials.
8) Weaving. Form fabric (or a fabric item) by interlacing long threads passing in one direction with others at a right angle to them.
9) Separating two threads. Removing/cutting fibers from their frame, loom or place.
11) Untying. The undoing of any Koshair or Toveh (see above) binding.
12) Sewing. Combining separate objects into a single entity, whether through sewing, gluing, stapling, welding, dry mounting, etc.
13) Tearing. Ripping an object in two or undoing any Tofair (see above) connection.
The Order of Hides
1) Trapping. Forcible confinement of any living creature.
2) Slaughtering. Ending the life of a creature, whether through slaughter or any other method.
3) Flaying/skinning. Removing the hide from the body of a dead animal.
4) Curing/preserving. Preserving any item to prevent spoiling.
5) Smoothing. Scraping/sanding a surface to achieve smoothness.
6) Scoring. Scoring/drawing a cutting guideline.
7) Measured cutting. Cutting any object to a specific size.
The Order of Construction
1) Writing. Writing/forming a meaningful character or design. Rabbinically, even writing with one’s weaker hand is forbidden. The Rabbis also forbade any commercial activities, which often lead to writing.
2) Erasing. Cleaning/preparing a surface to render it suitable for writing.
3) Building. Contributing to the forming of any permanent structure. Building can take two forms. First, there was the action of joining the different pieces together to make the mishcan. Inserting the handle of an axe into the socket is a derived form of this melakha. It is held by some that the act of Halakhic “building” is not actually performed (and therefore, the prohibition not violated) if the construction is not completed. From this, some authorities derive that it is prohibited to use electricity because, by turning on a switch, a circuit is completed and thus “built.” Also, any making of a “tent” is forbidden. Therefore, umbrellas may not be opened (or closed), and a board may not be placed on crates to form a bench.
4) Demolition. Demolishing for any constructive purpose. For example, knocking down a wall to make space for an extension or repair of the wall would be demolition for a constructive purpose. Combing a wig to set it correctly and pulling out hairs during the procedure with a metal toothed brush or comb would be constructive ‘demolition’, as each hair that’s removed in the process of the wig (a utensil) is progressing its state towards a completion which is desired. Each hair’s removal is a partial demolition of the wig (for these legal purposes) and is considered constructive when viewed in context of the desired goal.
5) Extinguishing a fire. Extinguishing/diminishing the intensity of a fire/flame.
6) Igniting a fire. Igniting, fueling or spreading a fire/flame. This includes making, transferring or adding fuel to a fire. (Note, however, that transferring fire is permitted on Jewish holidays. It is one of the exceptions to the rule that activities prohibited on Shabbat are likewise prohibited on Yom Tov.) This is one of the few Shabbat prohibitions mentioned explicitly in the Torah Exodus 35:3. Many poskim ground their prohibition of operating electrical appliances in this melakha.
7) Applying the finishing touch. Any initial act of completion. This melakha refers to an act of completing an object and bringing it into its final useful form. For example, if the pages of a newspaper were poorly separated, slicing them open would constitute “applying the finishing touch”. Ribiat, infra. Using a stapler involves transgressing “applying the finishing touch” regarding the staple, which is brought into its final useful form by the act. Ribiat, infra. Adding hot water to a pre-made ‘noodle-soup-pot’ type cup (a dehydrated mixture of freeze-dried seasoning and noodles) would be the final act of completion for such a food as the manufacturer desired to make the product incomplete awaiting the consumer to finish the cooking process at their convenience. This particular example would also violate בישול (cooking) as well if hot water from a kettle/urn was directly applied. Ribiat, infra.
8) Transferring between domains. Transferring something from one domain type to another domain type. This law is often referred to as carrying. This is a misnomer, as will be discussed.
12 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
The New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.
The NET Bible
12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grain fields on a Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pick heads of wheat and eat them. 12:2 But when the Pharisees saw this they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is against the law to do on the Sabbath.” 12:3 He said to them, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry—12:4 how he entered the house of God and they ate the sacred bread, which was against the law for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests? 12:5 Or have you not read in the law that the priests in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are not guilty? 12:6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 12:7 If you had known what this means: ‘I want mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 12:8 For the Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
New King James Version
12 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to Him, “Look, Your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath!”
3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and ate the showbread which was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those who were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have you not read in the law that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple profane the Sabbath, and are blameless? 6 Yet I say to you that in this place there is One greater than the temple. 7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.”
The New King James Version. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1982. Print.
1–2 12 One Sabbath, Jesus was strolling with his disciples through a field of ripe grain. Hungry, the disciples were pulling off the heads of grain and munching on them. Some Pharisees reported them to Jesus: “Your disciples are breaking the Sabbath rules!”
3–5 Jesus said, “Really? Didn’t you ever read what David and his companions did when they were hungry, how they entered the sanctuary and ate fresh bread off the altar, bread that no one but priests were allowed to eat? And didn’t you ever read in God’s Law that priests carrying out their Temple duties break Sabbath rules all the time and it’s not held against them?
6–8 “There is far more at stake here than religion. If you had any idea what this Scripture meant—‘I prefer a flexible heart to an inflexible ritual’—you wouldn’t be nitpicking like this. The Son of Man is no lackey to the Sabbath; he’s in charge.”
Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2005. Print.
King James Version
12 At that time Jesus went on the sabbath day through the corn; and his disciples were an hungred, and began to pluck the ears of corn, and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said unto him, Behold, thy disciples do that which is not lawful to do upon the sabbath day. 3 But he said unto them, Have ye not read what David did, when he was an hungred, and they that were with him; 4 How he entered into the house of God, and did eat the shewbread, which was not lawful for him to eat, neither for them which were with him, but only for the priests? 5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? 6 But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple. 7 But if ye had known what this meaneth, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice, ye would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of man is Lord even of the sabbath day.
The Holy Bible: King James Version. Electronic Edition of the 1900 Authorized Version. Bellingham, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 2009. Print.