Jesus and the Sabbath
In Mark 2: 23-28, Jesus and his disciples were walking through a field on the Sabbath. His disciples plucked some grain and rubbed the chaff off and ate it as they walked. The Law-abiding Pharisees were shocked at this action, which by their lights was a breaking of the holy Sabbath. They said, “See here,” a confrontational opening to what turns into a very surprising conversation.
Jesus responded: “Have you never read what David did when he was in need and became hungry, he and his companions: how he entered into the house of God in the time of Abiathar the high priest, and ate the consecrated bread, which is not lawful for anyone to eat except the priests, and he gave it also to those who were with him?” (Mark 2:25-26).
The historical context is this: Saul’s jealousy of David’s military successes and fame among the women, sets out to have David killed. Jonathan tells David and sends him away, running for his life. He comes to Nob, to Ahimelech the priest; tells him the lie that the king has commissioned David with a secret mission, and he and his young men need food (1 Sam. 21:1) The priest answers that the only food on hand is the consecrated bread; they can have it only if they have kept themselves from women. David says they have, and they get the bread. [Sexual activity was taboo during periods of combat. Alter, Prophets 265, n.]
It interests me that Jesus referenced Ahimelech’s father Abiathar, and the writer of the history identifies Ahimelech as the priest at this time. It may have been that both were present, and, for all we know, the son consulted the father. What we can see is that Jesus was not bothering to be word-perfect in referring to this incident, but also that he knew the scriptures well enough to know the names of both father and son. This all by itself suggests that we also can make our emphasis on the meaning of the Old Testament texts, rather than focusing on the letter of the law.
The laws governing this bread are found in Leviticus 24:5-9: “Bake 12 loaves, place them in 2 rows along with frankincense, which you will offer as a token for the bread, and the bread will be renewed each Sabbath. The priests shall eat it in a holy place.”
Robert Alter notes that it was common in the ancient Near East to offer bread daily to the deity, but this law limits the offering to once a week. He suggests that this perhaps signifies that they are NOT keeping God alive. This idea is in keeping with other scriptures where God is depicted as saying that God does not need their bulls and sheep for food. Additionally, it is notable that the bread was stale when priests finally ate it. (Alter, Moses, 248, n.)
Interestingly, Jesus made nothing of the fact that David got the bread by deceit. David pressures the priest with his “secret mission” from Saul; he also cynically assures the priest that all his young men have kept themselves pure from women because they’d been in combat, which is not true as he is alone. His lies show that he is desperately hungry and will say anything. But Jesus attributed no ill to him. Jesus recognized the imperatives of bodily hunger. And human need was more important than following the law.
Jesus went on to assert that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27). In the Law, God establishes Sabbath as one of the central identifying and compulsory laws for the children of Israel. Six days for labor, and then everything rests on the seventh day. Jesus took them back to the earliest establishment of Sabbath (Ex. 23:12, Deut. 5:14): it is a time to take a breath (Alter, Moses, 310, n.), to refresh all who labor, from master to slave to beast. Later elucidations of the meaning of Sabbath include God’s resting after creation or the history of Israel’s liberation from slavery, but Jesus did not invoke those in this instance. The simple identification Jesus made asserts that Sabbath was created for the good of humankind.
When Jesus went on to assert that consequently the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath(Mark 2:28), this had to shock the Pharisees. It comes after Jesus says you need to patch old garments with old cloth, that you need to put new wine into new wineskins. What he is bringing is not a patching of the Law, but a new Law altogether—the Law of love.