Did King David break the Sabbath?

Why was it permissible for Yeshua’s disciples to violate the Sabbath by plucking and husking grain?

Artwork from the Torah Club Jesus, My Rabbi study, lesson "Master of the Sabbath". (Image and art © First Fruits of Zion)

Yeshua’s disciples plucked heads of grain on the Sabbath, husked them, and ate them. The Pharisees object that they violate the Sabbath. Yeshua offered a legal defense to justify them, beginning with a case precedent from the Bible.

To preface His argument, the Master retold the story of how David, while on the run from King Saul, came to the Sanctuary set up at Nob and asked Ahimelech the priest for bread to supply him and his men (Samuel 21:2-7(1-6). Ahimelech replied that he had no ordinary bread, but he did have the twelve loaves of the bread of the Presence. That was the holy bread placed on the table inside the Tabernacle and changed out with fresh loaves every Sabbath. The Torah says that only the priesthood may eat the bread of the Presence and only within the Sanctuary (Leviticus 24:9). Nevertheless, Ahimelech gave David the bread. David took the bread, ate, and left with the rest of it.

Have you not even read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him, how he entered the house of God, and took and ate the consecrated bread which is not lawful for any to eat except the priests alone, and gave it to his companions? (Luke 6:3-4)

The story of David and the holy Sabbath bread may have been a common illustration used by the rabbis to discuss Sabbath observance and the laws of keeping the Sabbath. The collection of traditional Jewish Bible commentary called Yalkut Shim’oni uses the story to prove that the preservation of life takes precedence over the Sabbath:

It was Sabbath, and David saw that they were baking the bread of the Presence on Sabbath… Since he had not found anything there except the bread of the Presence, David said to him, “Give it to me so that we do not die of hunger, since when there is a case of doubt regarding life, it supersedes Sabbath.” How much did David eat on that particular Sabbath? Rabbi Chuna said, “David ate almost seven se’ahs due to his hunger, since ravenous hunger had gripped him.” (Yalkut Shim’oni)

The Master admitted that David and his companions did something “which is not lawful” when they took and ate the holy bread. In saying this, He conceded, by way of comparison, that His disciples also did something “which is not lawful” on the Sabbath. David and his men correspond to the disciples. Both parties were hungry and without food. Both parties acquired food by forbidden means. David violated the ritual sanctity of the Temple service by taking and eating the bread of the Presence. The disciples violated the sanctity of the Sabbath by plucking, husking, and eating grain on the Sabbath day.

David violated the sanctity of the Temple service because “he was hungry” as were “those who were with him.” Yeshua justified David on the basis that “he was in need and he and his companions became hungry” (Mark 2:25). Yeshua reasoned that the “need” and “hunger” of David and his men provided them with adequate reason for violating the ritual sanctity of the Temple service by eating the bread of the Presence.

He took the argument a step further, pointing out that the priesthood serving in the Temple must necessarily violate the Sabbath prohibitions. If legitimate human need and compassion for human suffering takes precedence over the sanctity of the Temple services, and the Temple services take precedence over the Sabbath prohibitions, then legitimate human need and alleviation of suffering takes priority over the Sabbath prohibitions: “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

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This year Torah Clubs are studying the Gospels from a Messianic Jewish perspective. Every week Club members encounter Yeshua of Nazareth in his Jewish context. Discover the historical and cultural backdrops of the gospels and be amazed as the teachings of Yeshua snap into focus and clarity. Unravel his difficult words and parables; study Jewish parallels to his teachings; and ultimately know Jesus better.

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