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, not having sex is absent from them and the closest thing to that is the prohibition of 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)
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 )
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?
Someone pointed out to me that 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. This is because David’s sons are 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:
2 Samuel 8:18 “and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada was over the Cherethites and the Pelethites, and David’s sons were priests.”
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: “11 but if a priest buys a slave[a] as his property for money, the slave[b] may eat of it, and anyone born in his house may eat of his food.”
(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 [b]consecrated bread, which was not lawful for him to eat nor for those with him, but for the priests alone?
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.
5 Or have you not read in the Law, that on the Sabbath the priests in the temple break the Sabbath and are innocent?
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.”
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)
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:
6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.
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:
7 But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’[a] you would not have condemned the guiltless.
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
8 For the Son of Man is Lord even[b] of the Sabbath.”
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 Ezekiel 11:19 “And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,”
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
6Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and others Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, the son of a Pharisee. It is because of my hope in the resurrection of the dead that I am on trial.” 7As soon as he had said this, a dispute broke out between the Pharisees and Sadducees, and the assembly was divided.… (NIV)
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 even 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.