Saturday, July 12, 2008

Chapter 7 - A Grain Field

According to Luke, "And it came to pass on the second sabbath after the first,"[1] that Jesus and his disciples wandered through a grain field and took of the grain so they could eat. Their conduct was challenged by some onlookers. Anyone who learns of this episode might properly ask, "What is going on?" The Book of Genesis declares, "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread,"[2] but here the disciples appear to be reaping from grain that they had not planted or even owned, for that matter. The Book of Exodus adds, "Ye shall keep the sabbath, therefore; for it is holy unto you: everyone that defileth it shalt surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people,"[3] but no one is being put to death. Furthermore, when the Israelites received the manna from heaven they were admonished, "abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day,"[4] but here everyone involved is in all likelihood, more than an allowable sabbath day's journey from their proper place of sabbath rest.

Each of the synoptics[5] repeats the same story with little variation. The incident stretches our imagination, yet this or some similar circumstance must have reoccurred on a daily basis, since food is normally required on a daily basis. When Jesus summoned his disciples, they instantly abandoned their occupations to follow a mode of living without any visible means of support. Peter confirmed the situation when he said to Jesus, "Behold, we have forsaken all, and followed thee."[6] Consequently, we must wonder about how Jesus and his disciples acquired their nourishment while they followed Jesus about the countryside.

The situation is not as odd as it may seem. It is plausible, but the full circumstances can only be comprehended in the context of a sabbatical season, when the daily order involved "no work." So, let's return to Luke's account (Luke 6:1-5) to see whether the background of a sabbatical season can yield any more food for thought.

"And it came to pass on the second sabbath after the first [as counted from the Passover sabbath], that he went through the corn [grain] fields; and his disciples plucked the ears of corn, and did eat, rubbing them in their hands.
And certain of the Pharisees [who were among the onlookers] said unto them, why are you doing that which is not lawful to do on the sabbath days?
"And Jesus answering them said, 'Have ye not read so much as this, what David did, when himself was hungered, and they which were with him; how he went into the House of God, and did take and eat the shewbread, and gave also to them that were with him; which it is not lawful to eat but for the priests alone?
"And he said unto them, that the son of man is lord also of the sabbath."
The account does not explain the precise nature of the alleged misconduct pronounced by the Pharisees. Luke only records the words, "that which is not lawful." We really don't know whether the cause for concern relates to any of the precepts laid down in the Torah [the five Books of Moses], or the customs outlined by the oral traditions maintained by the people and passed on from generation to generation. The exposition merely continues to tell how Jesus cites a legal precedent taken from First Samuel (chapter 21, verse 6) which describes David as having entered the Temple sanctuary, and then obtaining the holy shewbread and sharing it with his men. The illustration contends that David was acting under a clear and present danger to his life, and he therefore was allowed to satisfy his hunger by eating the shewbread. As soon as Jesus relates the exception to the general rule, Jesus seems to assert his special authority under the current circumstance. Case closed.

Unfortunately, no Pharisee or any skeptic would have laid the matter to rest with such an incomplete presentation. No evidence demonstrating an immediate danger to Jesus' life was brought forward. In the case of David, Saul was vigorously trying to kill David. Since God created man, his life was held as sacred, and one might say that the priests at David's time were permitted to violate the restrictions pertaining to the shewbread for the purpose of preserving life. This general principle concerning the need to save a life extended to the sabbath. If the situation involved a person who was dying from hunger, then violating the sabbath would be permitted. In the case of Jesus and his disciples, they did not seem to be exposed to danger and would probably have been able to live through the day with their hunger. The final question of just how any particular rule pertaining to the sabbath could be overruled by any other higher ruling is simply left hanging. The only conclusion left standing has Jesus arbitrarily placing himself above the law, and therefore beyond the law. Just how this conclusion fits the Jesus who said, "Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill,"[6] remains an open question.

What is the alternative? What other explanation fits the circumstances any better? The incident of Jesus in the grain field must be viewed against the background of a sabbatical season to reveal the details that otherwise are not detectable. The first obvious detail worth noting stems from the fact that all days during a sabbatical season were considered as sabbath days, and they were treated the same way as the days within any holy pilgrim festival. The term sabbath applies to any time of holy rest. This applies equally to the seventh-day sabbath, the holy pilgrim festivals, and the sabbatical year. Now, this comprehensive definition for the sabbath gives rise to a more sensible approach towards understanding the situation being addressed in the grain field.

The key detail lies with the temple shewbread, which needs to be furnished during the seventh year. A natural and documented relationship exists between the seventh-year standing grain and the shewbread in the Temple, since the shewbread must be made from the grain. In an ordinary year, the flour is purchased from the funds made available through the annual half-shekel tax. The procedure is altered in the seventh year because none of the grain can be purchased commercially. The situation becomes even more unusual because no one was permitted to sow the seed, irrigate the crop, or harvest the yield for commercial use. The shewbread could only be obtained from those grain fields that were naturally maintained, and harvested only when actually needed for use in the temple. Obtaining the designated grain required very special attention. The Sanhedrin, a ruling body of elders, commissioned watchmen[8] to station themselves as "scarecrows" about those grain fields which were discovered to be growing of their own accord. The watchmen kept away birds, coaxed straying cattle from entering the field, and warned all passersby not to eat any of the scarce, standing grain being reserved for the temple.

From this perspective, the onlookers' expressed concern and their role as watchmen become comprehensible. The watchmen were compensated for their duty, and were constrained from using any sort of force, since any means of forceful obstruction preventing access to seventh-year or holy produce was prohibited. The original tradition even permitted access by strangers living in the land. This attitude of general benevolence was modified as a result of first, Greek, and then Roman oppression, which had levied burdensome taxation and reallocated possession of the land with alien settlements. Thus, those who maintained their presence through the deployment of military force were excluded from the liberal benefits of the seventh year.

Jesus contended with the watchmen and the Pharisee supporters, who were being compensated for their services. In contrast, Jesus and his disciples had abandoned both their property and trade to live according to the principles governing the seventh year. In these circumstances they or anyone, including the temple priests, who were "poor in spirit," were entitled to consume the grain. Serving a holy purpose in God's kingdom was equally as important as the priests who were assigned to serve in God's temple.

By using the appropriate seventh-year context the precedent-setting example put forward by Jesus becomes meaningful. The case illustrated by David and his men now supports the conduct of Jesus and his disciples in the grain field. The critical question to which Jesus responded should have been, "Why are your disciples eating the grain that has been reserved for the temple shewbread during the sabbath days falling in the sabbatical year?" The response presented by Jesus drew several conclusions: 1) the Temple priests are not the only ones who have had access to the temple shewbread; 2) the priests in the Temple justify their exceptions to traditional procedure according to established orders of precedence; and 3) during the seventh year the fields are consecrated to God and are assigned equally to the need of all his servants. The right of the "poor in spirit" [i.e.. those who have abandoned their property][7] to consume the ownerless produce stems from the principle which suspends tithing payments to the Temple in the Sabbatical year. This primary principle that is in effect during the seventh year states that God is sovereign over the land and he has graciously allowed all his subjects to freely partake of the natural, growing food supply.

When the proper conclusion was established, Jesus simply added, "The sabbath was made for man, and not man for the sabbath: therefore the son of man is Lord also of the sabbath."[9] Jesus and his disciples had acted quite properly. There was absolutely no intention to abrogate any portion of the law. Instead, Jesus put the Pharisees on public notice that he did intend to extend the seventh-year benefits beyond the circumscriptions imposed by their party. The poor would be kept from hunger. The sick would be healed by a practicing physician, who would not use herbal medicine and accept no fee for his service. Debts would be forgiven commensurate with the extent to which the debtors forgave others. Ritual purity or full social acceptance would be granted to anyone including the publican, the harlot, and the diseased, who showed proper signs of repentance, regardless of any prior sins or designation as a public outcast. God's kingdom was one in which the good news reached outward with self-confidence instead of imploding upon itself due to personal greed or fear of Roman reprisals. Jesus continued to wander the countryside with his disciples, and they foraged upon the land from whatever grew naturally, in the same manner as the beast of the field and the fowl of the air.

[1] Luke 6:1. If we count the year 34 CE (the sixth year in a seven year cycle) as a leap year, then the second Sabbath would be Nisan 22 (April 22), where Passover had occurred on the previous Sabbath.
[2] Genesis 3:19a.
[3] Exodus 31:14.
[4] Exodus 16:29b17.
[5] Luke 6:1-5, Matthew 12:1-8, Mark 2:23-28.
[6] Matthew 5:17
[7] Matthew 19:27
[8] Mishna, Shekalim 4:1a
"The guardian of the Seventh Year aftergrowth received their hire from the Terumah [contributions] of the Shekel-chamber. R. Jose says: He that was so minded could offer himself a guardian without hire. They answered: Thou, too, sayest that these are offered only from public means."
[9] Mark 2:27b-28.

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