Yeshua and the Heart of Sabbath Law

Last updated: 2020-06-19

From my experience the standard messianic or Hebrew roots way of reading Matthew 12 is to say that Yeshua is dealing with matters of weight in the law, like what is more important, to keep the Sabbath or to feed oneself when desperately hungry?

However, in 1 Samuel 21 (which Yeshua references here) it seems that the priest thought that it was perfectly legal for David to eat the show-bread. This got me thinking and talking to some people. The priest just asked if his men (and David as well in some translations) had not had sex, which is kind of a weird question. Then David said: “5….“Truly women have been kept from us as always when I go on an expedition. The vessels of the young men are holy even when it is an ordinary journey. How much more today will their vessels be holy?” (ESV)
Depending on the translation verse 5 will be different, but just humor me and read it in the ESV or one of many others that are similar for now.

Some translations have the priest asking if “at least” the young men had not had sex, this does not appear in the ESV and the word translated “at least” can also be translated certainly or surely in other places: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H389&t=KJV

Anyways, the reason the question is weird is that if you read the stipulations for the Aaronic priests to eat the holy things, there is a very similar requirement of not eating if they have recently had an emission of seed. (this could be close enough that they used one as an equivalent for the other) Some verses about the show-bread follow:

4 `Any man of the seed of Aaron, and is leprous or hath an issue — of the holy things he doth not eat till that he is clean; and he who is coming against any uncleanness of a person, or a man whose seed of copulation goeth out from him, 5 or a man who cometh against any teeming thing which is unclean to him, or against a man who is unclean to him, even any of his uncleanness — 6 the person who cometh against it — hath even been unclean till the evening, and doth not eat of the holy things, but hath bathed his flesh with water, 7 and the sun hath gone in, and he hath been clean, and afterwards he doth eat of the holy things, for it [is] his food; 8 a carcase or torn thing he doth not eat, for uncleanness thereby; I [am] Jehovah. 9 `And they have kept My charge, and bear no sin for it, that they have died for it when they pollute it; I [am] Jehovah sanctifying them. 10 `And no stranger doth eat of the holy thing; a settler of a priest and an hireling doth not eat of the holy thing; 11 and when a priest buyeth a person, the purchase of his money, he doth eat of it, also one born in his house; they do eat of his bread. 12 `And a priest’s daughter, when she is a strange man’s, — she, of the heave-offering of the holy things doth not eat; 13 and a priest’s daughter, when she is a widow, or cast out, and hath no seed, and hath turned back unto the house of her father, as [in] her youth, of her father’s bread she doth eat; but no stranger doth eat of it. (Lev 22:4-13 YLT)


5 `And thou hast taken flour, and hast baked twelve cakes with it, two tenth deals are in the one cake, 6 and thou hast set them two ranks (six in the rank) on the pure table before Jehovah, 7 and thou hast put on the rank pure frankincense, and it hath been to the bread for a memorial, a fire-offering to Jehovah. 8 `On each sabbath-day he arrangeth it before Jehovah continually, from the sons of Israel — a covenant age-during; 9 and it hath been to Aaron, and to his sons, and they have eaten it in the holy place, for it [is] most holy to him, from the fire-offerings of Jehovah — a statute age-during.’ (Leviticus 24:5-9 YLT)

So why didn’t the priest just ask David to make sure his men were free from that before they ate? And there are other restrictions besides that, so why didn’t the priest ask something like “are they ceremonially clean?” Why that specifically?

There is a theory that David was actually a high priest, but of a different order, probably the same one that his descendent Yeshua was after: the order of Melchizedek. Notice that the first time David inquires of God it mentions that Abiathar had brought the ephod to him:


20 But one of the sons of Ahimelech son of Ahitub, named Abiathar, escaped and fled after David. 21 Abiathar told David that Saul had killed the priests of the Lord. 22 David said to Abiathar, “I knew on that day, when Doeg the Edomite was there, that he would surely tell Saul. I am responsible[c] for the lives of all your father’s house. 23 Stay with me, and do not be afraid; for the one who seeks my life seeks your life; you will be safe with me.”
1 Now they told David, “The Philistines are fighting against Keilah, and are robbing the threshing floors.” 2 David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” The Lord said to David, “Go and attack the Philistines and save Keilah.” 3 But David’s men said to him, “Look, we are afraid here in Judah; how much more then if we go to Keilah against the armies of the Philistines?” 4 Then David inquired of the Lord again. The Lord answered him, “Yes, go down to Keilah; for I will give the Philistines into your hand.” 5 So David and his men went to Keilah, fought with the Philistines, brought away their livestock, and dealt them a heavy defeat. Thus David rescued the inhabitants of Keilah. 6 When Abiathar son of Ahimelech fled to David at Keilah, he came down with an ephod in his hand. (1 Samuel 22:20-1 Samuel 23:6 NRSV)

Before that Ahimelech inquired for David but after the ephod is brought to David, David inquires for himself:

And he enquired H7592 of the LORD for him, and gave him victuals, and gave him the sword of Goliath the Philistine. (1Sa 22:10)

Did I then begin to enquire H7592 of God for him? be it far from me: let not the king impute any thing unto his servant, nor to all the house of my father: for thy servant knew nothing of all this, less or more. (1Sa 22:15 KJV)

Therefore David enquired H7592 of the LORD, saying, Shall I go and smite these Philistines? And the LORD said unto David, Go, and smite the Philistines, and save Keilah. (1Sa 23:2 KJV)

Then David enquired H7592 of the LORD yet again. And the LORD answered him and said, Arise, go down to Keilah; for I will deliver the Philistines into thine hand. (1Sa 23:4 KJV)

In addition this inquiring is associated with David being brought the Ephod:

9 When David learned that Saul was plotting evil against him, he said to the priest Abiathar, “Bring the ephod here.” 10 David said, “O Lord, the God of Israel, your servant has heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. (1 Samuel 23:9-10 NRSV)

In addition, if David is not a priest, he would be the only non-priest in the Bible to wear the ephod:

And David danced before the LORD with all his might; and David was girded with a linen ephod. H646 (2Sa 6:14)

And David was clothed with a robe of fine linen, and all the Levites that bare the ark, and the singers, and Chenaniah the master of the song with the singers: David also had upon him an ephod H646 of linen. (1Ch 15:27)

David’s sons are also called priests in 2 Samuel 8:18 The word is Kohen and is almost always translated as “priests” elsewhere except in that one spot: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H3548&t=KJV
However, the ESV translates it as priests:

and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites, and David’s sons were priests. (2 Samuel 8:18 ESV)

Some people take this to mean “ministers” because of a parallel in 1 Ch 18:16:

And Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and the sons of David were chief about the king. (1Ch 18:17)

However, Gesenius mentions that if you compare the following verses then priests do seem to be the intended meaning. I’m guessing he means that the previous verse has the same word used for actual priests in 2 Samuel 8:

17 and Zadok son of Ahitub, and Ahimelech son of Abiathar, [are] priests, (h3548) and Seraiah [is] scribe,18 and Benaiah son of Jehoiada [is over] both the Cherethite and the Pelethite, and the sons of David have been ministers. (h3548) (2 Samuel 8:17-18 YLT)

And David saith to Ahimelech the priest, `The king hath commanded me a matter, and he saith unto me, Let no man know anything of the matter about which I am sending thee, and which I have commanded thee; and the young men I have caused to know at such and such a place; (1 Samuel 21:2 YLT)

9 And answer doth Doeg the Edomite, who is set over the servants of Saul, and saith, `I have seen the son of Jesse coming in to Nob, unto Ahimelech son of Ahitub, (1 Samuel 22:9 YLT)

However, Gesenius thinks the writer of Chronicles interpreted the word as “chief” because he was unable to admit any priests that weren’t of the tribe of Levi. However, this contradiction may be solved by noting that priests were a type “chief” or by postulating that David’s sons were first after him as priests as the word is literally “rishon” or “first.” Of course, Gesenius’s obnoxious translator argues with him about this in the brackets:

There is one interesting objection to this theory which is that of Uzziah being opposed by the priests in 2 Chronicles 26:18 where they say this:

18 and they stand up against Uzziah the king, and say to him, `Not for thee, O Uzziah, to make perfume to Jehovah, but for priests, sons of Aaron, who are sanctified to make perfume; go forth from the sanctuary, for thou hast trespassed, and [it is] not to thee for honour from Jehovah God.’ (2 Chronicles 26:18 NRSV)

Uzziah was a descendant of David but just like not all Levites are priests, not all Davidic descendants may have been priests. Also, Uzziah was not trying to sacrifice or inquire of God like David or Solomon. It is only the offering of incense that is expressly forbidden him by the priests, notice they do not say he is forbidden from temple work in general. In addition, the kingdom is split in two and there seem to be different rules in action when that happens. For example, Elijah was able to offer sacrifices in his contest with the priests of Baal away from the temple in the northern kingdom. It is true that the H6999 in the Hiphil can also mean other types of offering according to Gesenius but since the context uses the same wordform to describe his attempted burning of incense on the alter it seems to me we can restrict this meaning and not go with translations such as the NRSV which make the priests argue against him doing offerings in general: https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H6999&t=KJV

How could David’s sons be priests if they were not descended from Aaron? Maybe because they were descended from David who was priest after a different order. And since David was a priest after another order that order had different requirements for how to eat the holy things. (requirements that are not listed in the Bible, but may only be hinted at here) David’s servants (or young men) may have been able to eat either because the bread was given to them by David, maybe in some ceremony such as listed here that reminds me of the last supper: Gen 14:18 “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. (He was priest of God Most High.)” or because there was a similar allowance as with the Aaronic priesthood where servants (or slaves) of the priests could eat of the things for the priests:

but if a priest buys a slave as his property for money, the slave may eat of it, and anyone born in his house may eat of his food. (Lev 22:11 ESV)

(The word translated “young men” in 1 Samuel 28:5 can mean “servant” Jdg 19:11 “And when they were by Jebus, the day was far spent; and the servant H5288 said unto his master…..” http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?page=2&strongs=H5288&t=KJV#lexResults )

Of course David is being dishonest in his dealings with the priest here and he regrets it later because the priests get killed by Saul. David is not on a mission from the King and we don’t know if actual servants are going to meet him. However, this explains the priest’s questions and reactions in another way than the standard reading.

Hence, we can interpret Matthew 12 as Jesus first being confronted with an oral law from the Pharisees that interprets the plucking of grain–even without using a farm tool–as work. The Lightfoot commentary states: ‘Fathers of the Traditions write thus; “He that reaps on the sabbath, though never so little, is guilty. And to pluck the ears of corn is a kind of reaping; and whosoever plucks any thing from the springing of his own fruit is guilty, under the name of a reaper.”‘

Matt 12:1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2 But when the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, “Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath.”

Jesus starts out by pointing out problems with their oral law; that their law can’t explain these things:


3 But He said to them, “Have you not read what David did when he became hungry, he and his companions, 4 how 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)

However, there are two different words he uses in Matthew 12. In verse 4 it is “exesti” https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G1832&t=KJV and and in verse 5 in “have you not read the law” it is “nomos” https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G3551&t=KJV Nomos is mostly used to refer to the Torah.

Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent? (Matthew 12:5)

Verse 5 may be referring again to the show-bread in Leviticus 24:

8Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the Lord regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. 9And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the Lord’s food offerings, a perpetual due.” (Lev 24:8-9)

He is not only criticizing the oral law for not being able to explain the priestly activities of David and of the Aaronic order, but he is also pointing out that even in the law there are exceptions made. He is saying “if making, picking up, and eating bread is ok here, then why not picking up and eating grain?”

One objection to the idea that a priest of the order of Melchizedek could jump in and eat the bread is the following passage which seems to suggest that the priests were supposed to burn everything they didn’t eat:

26 and out of the basket of unleavened things, which [is] before Jehovah, he hath taken one unleavened cake, and one cake of oiled bread, and one thin cake, and putteth [them] on the fat, and on the right leg; 27 and putteth the whole on the hands of Aaron, and on the hands of his sons, and waveth them — a wave-offering before Jehovah. 28 And Moses taketh them from off their hands, and maketh perfume on the altar, on the burnt-offering, they [are] consecrations for sweet fragrance; it [is] a fire-offering to Jehovah; 29 and Moses taketh the breast, and waveth it — a wave-offering before Jehovah; of the ram of the consecrations it hath been to Moses for a portion, as Jehovah hath commanded Moses. 30 And Moses taketh of the anointing oil, and of the blood which [is] on the altar, and sprinkleth on Aaron, on his garments, and on his sons, and on the garments of his sons with him, and he sanctifieth Aaron, his garments, and his sons, and the garments of his sons with him. 31 And Moses saith unto Aaron, and unto his sons, `Boil ye the flesh at the opening of the tent of meeting, and there ye do eat it and the bread which [is] in the basket of the consecrations, as I have commanded, saying, Aaron and his sons do eat it. 32 `And the remnant of the flesh and of the bread with fire ye burn; (Lev 8:26-32)

This may be instructions for a specific sacrifice however even if it was talking about the show-bread universally it still wouldn’t make me reconsider this theory. I see these rules as situationally applying to Aaron and his sons. If there is a different order of priest we may have different rules. We’ve already seen that it said the show-bread was for “Aaron and his sons” but this doesn’t say that it wasn’t for anyone else. Another passage that might be read in a similar way follows, but this seems to be specifically related to a consecration ritual:

31 `And the ram of the consecration thou dost take, and hast boiled its flesh in the holy place; 32 and Aaron hath eaten — his sons also — the flesh of the ram, and the bread which [is] in the basket, at the opening of the tent of meeting; 33 and they have eaten those things by which there is atonement to consecrate their hand, to sanctify them; and a stranger doth not eat — for they [are] holy; 34 and if there be left of the flesh of the consecration or of the bread till the morning, then thou hast burned that which is left with fire; it is not eaten, for it [is] holy. (Ex 29:31-34)

Back to the Matthew 12 passage. He then anticipates a possible objection: “but this isn’t the temple” and at the same time possibly references his own status as one of higher order of priest such as David:

I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. (Matthew 12:6)

And finally again points out that they and their oral law are missing the point, by being so focused an a letter of the law approach, and on the mechanics of the sacrifices and priestly practices that they have forgotten that love fulfills the law (rather love properly interprets the law in rabbinical argumentation) not how much you sacrifice:


But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. (Matthew 12:7)

This is a quote from Hosea 6:6 and the word used there for mercy is also translated as kindness: http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=H2617&t=ESV

And finally:

For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” (Matthew 12:8)

The parallel in Mark 2 actually includes before this “And he said to them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”

This is essentially saying the sabbath is for the benefit of man, not a test for man, or a trial to see if man could do everything exactly right. The way to properly interpret the law of the sabbath (as with all other laws) is through love and not through putting heavy burdens of rules on people (this can lead people to think they are righteous carrying those burdens). Love properly interprets the law and hence requires a proper heart: Jeremiah says “I will put My law in their minds, and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” as well as

I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them; I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, (Ezekiel 11:19 NRSV)


The letter of the law may be represented by the heart of stone (the bare rock on which the commands were chiseled) while the spirit (that gets to the purpose of the law) may be represented by the heart of flesh that is kind and merciful.

Then in Mark 2 as well as here we see: “So the Son of Man is lord even of the Sabbath.”
“The Son of Man” may be in reference to the curse, and the promise in Genesis, where someone born of Adam, (a son of man) of the seed of a woman would reverse the curse the first Adam had brought by obeying the serpent. This curse would be reversed by crushing the serpent’s head. (“THE son of man” may be the specific one who would do this) Christ is referred to as the second Adam elsewhere. (also see the Lightfoot commentary) As Brad H Young states “Jesus identifies with the designation “Son of man.” He uses the name “Son of man” to communicate His purpose to the people. While the term “Son of man” is widely understood to refer to the humanity of Jesus, in Jewish apocalyptic thought it became the recognized title for the most exalted view of the coming Redeemer.” This is about what laws like the sabbath were pointing to, a rest from the curse, and also saying that if the sabbath was made for man, then certainly it was made for the son of man. However, this may also be a reference to the millennial kingdom where the son of man (Christ) shall reign (reread Hebrews 3 and 4)

Why doesn’t he just say “your oral law is wrong?” why is the response so deep and probing into the matters of the priests and of David? I think Yeshua is using a distraction tactic similar to what Paul used in Acts 23:6

6 When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection[a] of the dead.” 7 When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. 8 (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.) (Acts 23:6-8 NRSV)

The Pharisees are less sure about these esoteric (and probably controversial) matters and it may have taken some of their enthusiasm for punishing Yeshua’s disciples and turned it into confusion. However, we aren’t told what their state of mind is but interestingly we aren’t told that they had any sort of response to this.

So to summarize: Jesus was doing more than just dealing with matters of weight, he was criticizing the Pharisee’s oral law for implicitly blaming people like David for breaking the Sabbath that was innocent of doing so. He was also pointing out that there were exceptions even for the law and was criticizing them for focusing too much on the letter of the law and not trying to see what the law was pointing to or what God actually desired in how they should interpret the law and what their heart condition should be.

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