I plan on doing a series of posts related to Matthew 12.1ff on Jesus and the Sabbath. I plan on placing the text in its historical setting first; second I want to place it with in the argument of the Gospel of Matthew (which has a plot just as surely as Romans or Philippians) ; and third I want to see how Jesus' makes use of the material from the Hebrew Bible. I hope to make reading these posts worth the time of everyone. Even if we do not come to the same conclusions regarding it perhaps we will all see it in fresh light.
Jesus, David, Sabbath & Mercy #1: Reading Matthew 12
For anyone who has read the New Testament scriptures after the Hebrew Bible we learn that the circumcision and sabbath controversy figures more in the former than the latter. Indeed, circumcision is not mentioned in connection with any controversy and not much at all in the Hebrew Bible. The sabbath principle, however, underlies a large portion of the Hebraic doctrine of "grace" and even eschatology ... Sabbath is the basis for the Year of Jubilee etc. The only real controversy is in Jeremiah when the king and people renege on the promised release of slaves in accordance with the Sabbath of Sabbaths the year of release/favor/ grace.
It was the history of God's People, especially the previous 2 centuries before Jesus, that brought the sabbath and circumcision to the fore front. Through the fire of the Selucid persecution with its banning both circumcision and sabbath these two items gained in existential importance. As a result of this persecution these two features became THE identifying marks of Judaism in the Roman Empire. Just as Instrumental Music has become tied to the very identity of the Churches of Christ (and for the same sort of reasons) so these became essential to Jewish sense of identity.
A note on social context. First century Judaism was NOT simply the religion that we read about in the "Old Testament" or Hebrew Bible. Many historical/social forces caused changes in the way the faith of Israel was expressed. Other sources, once highly regarded and even believed to be canonical, helped shape those views. One such work, Jubilees has very important material on the Sabbath.
Jubilees was considered canonical by the Qumran community. The Dead Sea Scroll Bible edited by Abegg, Flint and Ulrich notes that Jubilees is cited as scripture by several non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls, most importantly by the Damascus Document which is sort of a constitution for the community. Jubilees is represented by 15 scrolls found among the Qumran treasure. Only Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Exodus and Genesis (in descending order) are represented by more scrolls than Jubilees. At any rate Jubilees was a very important work among Jews (and later among many Church Fathers) in Jesus day and it helps us understand what most pious Jews actually believed about the Sabbath in the time of Jesus ...
Sabbath Theology and Beliefs (a Snippet)
According to Jubilees, most pious Jews believed the Sabbath was something that even God and the angels observed in heaven. It was in existence prior to the creation of the world. It was a "sign" of something beyond "this" world ...
"And he [God] gave us a great sign, the sabbath day, so that we might work six days and observe a sabbath from all work on the seventh day. And he told us [i.e the Angels] - all the angels of the presence and the angels of sanctification, these two great kinds- that we might keep the sabbath with him [God] in heaven and on earth. And he said to us, 'Behold I shall separate for myself a people from among the nations. And they will also keep the sabbath ..." (Jubilees 2.17-19)
From this text we see that most Jews believed that God himself observed the sabbath before the creation of the world, that the angels were privileged to observe it with him and that one of the purposes of calling Israel was to observe the "sign" ... that is the sign of the transcendent realm ... of the sabbath with God and the angels on earth.
Jubilees helps understand not only some of the lofty opinions regarding the sabbath but sheds light on what the majority of Jews thought to be "work" and "lawful" on the sabbath day. The Angel who delivers the message in Jubilees closes chapter 2 discussing what is considered work. The Angel declares:
"Let everyone who defiles it [i.e. the sabbath] let him surely die." (2.25; cf. 50.8, 13) )
So even though the death penalty was not enforced in Jesus' day by Jews for breaking the sabbath it is clear that many still held the view that such should be the case. The Angel continues by describing the kind of work that shall not be done
"And they should not prepare thereon anything which will be eaten or drunk, which they have not prepared on the sixth day ... On this day we kept the sabbath in heaven before it was made known to any human ..." (Jubilees 2. 29f)
The Rabbis (and rabbinic Judaism is ONE form of Judaism which seemingly preserves the traditions of the Pharisees) codified in the Mishnah several kinds of work that were forbidden. This list was designed to protect the sanctity of the sabbath (as they understood it). There views were rooted in the interpretation of the Torah and likely Jubilees too. The words of Jubilees and the Mishnah help frame the question that was put to Jesus. "Reaping" was understood to be forbidden on the sabbath day (cf. Exodus 34.21) by the rabbis. It was not just the reaping but eating food that was not prepared the prior day.
The folks from Qumran that gave us the Dead Sea Scrolls agreed with Jubilees (since Jubilees seems to have been considered Scripture at Qumran this should not surprise us) and the Rabbis (and the folks at Qumran were not Pharisees). But the Damascus Document states,
"Let only that be eaten on the Sabbath day which has been prepared on the previous day." (X, 22)
Interestingly enough the Rabbis agree with Jesus that saving a life (learned through the horror of the Maccabean revolt) is permitted on the sabbath. The Qumran folks forbade that AND helping your animal out of the ditch. The Pharisees were the "liberals" of the day believe it or not. The Essenes were the arch conservatives of the day. It is important to note that the Pharisees believed it was lawful to save a LIFE on the sabbath but a physcican was forbidden to practice medicine in NON-life threatening situations. Thus to set a bone was forbidden. This highlights the tension in the pericope following the field episode.
The Sabbath in the Fire Pit
I pointed out above that the Selucid Empire attempted to integrate the Israelites more fully into a Hellenistic culture. The meant adopting Greek worship and piety. One consequence was the elimination of those practices that were alien to the Greeks. It was a costly and deadly experience for the great grandparents of the Pharisees who confronted Jesus that day ...
According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children
circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks. But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. And very great wrath came upon Israel (1 Maccabees 1.60-64).
It was through the blood of Israel that the Sabbath and circumcision became foremost in defining what a "Jew" is. When we imagine ourselves pointing to grandparents, aunts and uncles that lost their lives rather than compromise on these two points then we begin to see the trauma of the sabbath controversies in the Gospels and the early church.
One more helpful tidbit when reading these stories in Matthew 12 is that it was believed that David visited the tabernacle in 1 Samuel 21 on the sabbath day. In our next post, when we look at how Jesus uses these examples from the Scriptures, we will see why.
I hasten to say that Jesus did not reject sabbath theology. In fact the Gospels present Jesus' ministry as the coming of that gracious Sabbath of Sabbaths. Jesus' issue is altogether different.