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Numbers 15:32-36 God ordered a man to be killed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for challenging the Disciples for Plucking Heads of Grain on the sabbath.

Remembering that an Israelite was executed according to God's law for gathering sticks on the Sabbath, wouldn't it have been correct for the Pharisees to react strongly to what appears to be a similar violation?

The line between picking up sticks and plucking heads of grain is very thin, and the difference is significant when a capital crime is involved.

Reading responses to similar discussions in this include:

  • Jesus didn't break the Sabbath because He was God.
  • Not all commands have the same value
  • Jesus didn't break the law.

But these answers approach it from Jesus's point of view, justifying why what they did was okay.

Why did Jesus rebuke the Pharisees as if they had no reason to be concerned. It appears that they had every right to be concerned.

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    Does this answer your question? At John 5:18, did Jesus break the Sabbath?
    – Robert
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 2:30
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  • I'm not sure @Jonathan Berryman. The disciples plucking grain on the Sabbath was not an emergency. The Jews in Jesus's day had six days to prepare food for the Sabbath. They even had Friday (Preparation) to specifically prepare for the Sabbath. All food for Sabbath was prepared on Friday, the day before the Sabbath. Also, keep in mind Jesus had the power to create food so plucking the heads of grain was unnecessary. Jesus perhaps set this up deliberately so there would be a confrontation between them and the Pharisees, perhaps as an object lesson for the disciples. Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 3:54
  • @Johnathan Berryman In the case of the man picking up the sticks, he was sentenced to death ex post facto. The Sabbath law didn't even have a sentence of death until after the unfortunate man broke the law. Then he was sentenced to death. Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 6:00
  • @Robert, John 5:18 is a completely different situation. It doesn't address plucking grain. Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 14:36

5 Answers 5

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There are three issues.

  1. Did Jesus violate the sabbath by doing work
  2. Is gleaning/gathering sticks considered work
  3. Death Penalty

When is it OK to work on the Sabbath?

Jesus violated the Sabbath by working on it just as Rabbis violate it by working on it and Priests do as well. It is their job to work on the Sabbath, given their role as mediators and agents of God's provision.

Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless? Mt 12.5 KJV

You can't close the Synagogue so that the rabbi doesn't work on Saturday, that's like closing down the restaurant at dinner time so the waiter can eat. In the same way, those who mediate between man and God work extra hard on the Sabbath, violating it but remaining blameless. It has nothing to do with "being God" but "being God's priest/mediator" that requires you to work on the Sabbath and Jesus was no different from rabbis or priests in this respect, only he was able to do much more than they could.

The Sabbath is about relying on God's provision of holiness, so the reason you are banned from working is to make it clear that God alone is the one who does the work of sanctification, and human efforts play no role in it. The not working part is just a symbol of that. The Pharisees should have understood this instead of trying to sanctify themselves through their own observances of the Sabbath.

Moreover also I gave them my sabbaths, to be a sign between me and them, that they might know that I am the LORD that sanctify them. Ezek 20.12 KJV

You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the Lord who sanctifies you. (Exodus 31:13 NKJV)

Is gleaning work?

As to why picking fruit off a tree and eating is not considered work but gathering wood to make a fire to cook is considered work, the former is an example of God's provision -- God grew the fruit and you can reach out, take and eat from vines you haven't planted or tended. It is actually much better to pluck an apple from someone else's tree and eat it on the Sabbath than to eat food you prepared yourself the day before, as the latter is closer to you feeding yourself through your own works than the former. Thus eating fruit you haven't tended is an example of what the Sabbath is all about.

But what you can't do is fill your pockets to store it up to take home for later.

On the other hand, kindling a fire for cooking is considered work because the processing of the food - you do not take what God gives you to eat it, but you try to fix it up first to improve it, again suggesting that God's provision is insufficient and requires your effort to make it work. So one is work and the other isn't.

Ye shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the sabbath day. Ex 35.3 KJV

Yes, it is a fine line, as the line between grace and work is a fine line. The pharisees created so many rules that keeping the Sabbath ended up being work -- they profaned the Sabbath by converting a period of rest and trust in God's provision of righteousness ["I am the Lord that sanctifies you"] to a period of performing observances to obtain a works-based sanctification through their own efforts. And this is why Jesus reproved them so publicly.

For they [Pharisees] being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God. Romans 10.3 KJV

Death Penalty

Finally, the purpose of the death penalty was that it was deadly serious that you rely on God's provision completely and do not try to mix into that provision your own efforts. This is a theme that runs throughout the law:

And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord. Lev 10.1-2

The moment you try to substitute your own work for God's work, or augment God's work with your own work, you come under the death penalty as it must all be completely God's work.

Thus the sabbath is all about the deadly seriousness of grace.

It really is a matter of life and death to trust in grace and to stop trying to earn it. For example, Moses striking the rock twice is an example of mixing human effort into God's provision. Once you understand why Moses getting away with murder did not keep him out of the promised land, but striking the rock twice did, you will understand what the Sabbath is about and then these questions will have clear answers.

But after that lesson is learned, there is not really a death penalty for cooking. E.g. the old testament examples were given to teach a lesson, but in practice people in Jesus day were not actually killed for walking too many steps, this was a religious debate about the true meaning of the Sabbath.

For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works, as God did from his. Heb 4.12 KJV.

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Strictly speaking there is no difference between gleaning and carrying. They are both work. That is the basic answer to the first question but it needs amplification. The last question is why Jesus' rebuked the Pharisees about this. But did he rebuke them? Let's look more deeply at both questions.

To answer we need to recognize that 1st c. Judaism was a different thing from Israelite religion as described in the Torah. The Pharisees were basically rabbinical scholars or teachers and their followers. In Jesus' time the rabbis/Pharisees debated almost every law in the Torah, including the laws pertaining to the sabbath. Under the tradition of Oral Torah, the Jewish tradition allows that the rulings of the rabbis have a similar authority to the Torah itself. So the debates could be intense at times. On matters of Jewish law, Jesus mostly took a "liberal stance." Those he debated against here took a much stricter view. But we need not think of them as representing the Pharisaic movement generally. We do not have many specifics for the period but we do know that the followers of the broad-minded Rabbi Hillel would have been more likely to take Jesus' side in this debate than the stricter members of the House of Shammai.

As to why Jesus "rebuked" these particular Pharisees, the answer is that he did not rebuke them. He engaged them in halakhic discussion. He argued here as a fellow teacher of the law, pointing out that priests work on sabbath, and his disciples were doing God's work. He also appealed to the prophet Hosea's teaching that God desires "mercy not sacrifice." (Hosea 6:6)

  • Have you not read in the law how on the sabbath the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are guiltless? 6 I tell you, something greater than the temple is here. 7 And if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless. 8 For the Son of man is lord of the sabbath.

Finally a word about capital punishment: There's no indication that the Pharisees considered this a capital crime. They said merely "it is not lawful." Is there any evidence that capital punishment was ever used against sabbath breakers in these centuries? Not as far as I know. Rabbinic sources quoted in the Mishnah from the next c. after Jesus indicate that even murder was rarely if ever punished that way:

  • A Sanhedrin [court or council] that executes once in seven years is destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says, ‘Every 70 years.’ Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva say, “If we were in a Sanhedrin, no man would ever be executed. (Makkot 7a)

In conclusion we should recognize that no one was calling for capital punishment here, and the issue of what constituted work on the Sabbath was a matter of debate among the rabbis, also known as Pharisees. Jesus argued as here as one of them.

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Consider the situation with the "man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day".
Why was he was gathering them?

  • He was going to use them immediately to cook some food, in violation of Exodus 35:3 ("You shall kindle no fire throughout your dwellings on the Sabbath day.").
  • He was gathering them for use on some other day, a non-essential activity that could have been done the day before the Sabbath, or postponed until the day after, in violation of Exodus 35:2 ("Work shall be done for six days, but the seventh day shall be a holy day for you, a Sabbath of rest to the LORD. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.").

Either way, the man was in clear violation of the Sabbath prohibitions.

These Sabbath prohibitions are against gathering, preparing, and cooking food, not against eating it.


Now consider the law that provides food to those that don't have easy access to their own resources:

When you come into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes at your pleasure, but you shall not put any in your container. When you come into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the heads with your hand, but you shall not use a sickle on your neighbor’s standing grain.
— Deuteronomy 23:24–25

If a passer-by had need of food, it was acceptable to pick what could be immediately eaten, but harvesting and removing someone else's crops would obviously be considered theft.

At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. And His disciples were hungry, and began to pluck heads of grain and to eat.
— Matthew 12:1

Notice that they happened to be passing through a grainfield and the disciples happened to be hungry. Their grab-n-nosh was simply following the common practice, and did not involve harvesting, transporting, or cooking. They were simply eating the available food, not working.

Luke provides an additional detail:

Now it happened on the second Sabbath after the first that He went through the grainfields. And His disciples plucked the heads of grain and ate them, rubbing them in their hands.
— Luke 6:1

Perhaps "rubbing them in their hands" was considered as work by the Pharisees. If so, it would be one of the enhancement rules that the Pharisees had added to God's laws.

Yet even modern Judaism, which has many similar rabinical fence rules, doesn't prohibit peeling food on the Sabbath, provided it is done in an appropriate manner:

Practically, when it comes to a peel which is usually eaten, one may remove it even not for immediate use, even using a peeler, … . However, when it comes to a peel which is usually not eaten, … one may peel only by hand or with a knife and the like (i.e., not with a utensil designed for peeling), and only for immediate use.
Borer (Part 4) Peeling Fruits and Vegetables | vbm haretzion

As Luke pointed out, they stripped the grain by hand, not using threshing tools, and ate it immediately.

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  1. This is what some people don't understand. In the Torah, the laws against working on the Sabbath were very strict and allowed little room for error. Several times in the Hebrew Scriptures the Bible claim "No work of ANY KIND" or "no MANNER of work" was to be done during the Sabbath.

Exodus 20:10
King James Version

10 But the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates:

Exodus 31:14-15
King James Version

14 Ye shall keep the sabbath therefore; for it is holy unto you: every one that defileth it shall surely be put to death: for whosoever doeth any work therein, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.

15 Six days may work be done; but in the seventh is the sabbath of rest, holy to the Lord: whosoever doeth any work in the sabbath day, he shall surely be put to death.

Leviticus 23:3
King James Version

3 Six days shall work be done: but the seventh day is the sabbath of rest, an holy convocation; ye shall do no work therein: it is the sabbath of the Lord in all your dwellings.

Jeremiah 17:22
King James Version

22 Neither carry forth a burden out of your houses on the sabbath day, neither do ye any work, but hallow ye the sabbath day, as I commanded your fathers.

  1. This caused so much trouble later on as the Pharisees made many laws regarding the Sabbath that the Sabbath became a burden and not a delight. The laws were very strictly enforced and Jesus was trying to make a point against the Pharisees that there were times when people HAD to work on the Sabbath for the greater good. The priests profaned the Sabbath by working on the Sabbath, yet, despite that, they were blameless.

Matthew 12:5
King James Version

5 Or have ye not read in the law, how that on the sabbath days the priests in the temple profane the sabbath, and are blameless?

  1. The priests HAD to work on the Sabbath because someone needed to sacrifice all those animals that the law demanded. And sacrificing those animals was no easy task, it required some heavy lifting and lighting and keeping a fire. Moreover, Jesus appealed to the Pharisees' reason by mentioning an ox trapped in a pit on the Sabbath. What would they do, just leave it there until the Sabbath was over, or immediately work to pull it out of the pit? Obviously, it was ok to do some work (in emergencies) on the Sabbath.

Luke 14:5
King James Version

5 And answered them, saying, Which of you shall have an ass or an ox fallen into a pit, and will not straightway pull him out on the sabbath day?

  1. If the Law had not forbidden ALL WORK of ANY KIND there probably would have been no silly restrictive laws regarding the Sabbath by the Pharisees when Jesus walked the earth. However, the Hebrew Scriptures did outlaw ANY work of any kind on the Sabbath so it is easy to see why the Pharisees went to extremes to outlaw work on the Sabbath. One of the reasons was this: the ancient Israelites had been punished severely by Yahweh in the Hebrew Scriptures and one of the reasons was they profaned the Sabbath by not observing it as they went into idolatry worshipping other gods. The Pharisees made the laws regarding the Sabbath so restrictive as to keep anyone from profaning it or even coming close to profaning it.

  2. The bottom line though is the plucking of grain on the Sabbath was not an emergency. Jesus no doubt did this so to create a conflict with the Pharisees so as to teach the disciples an important lesson and to let the Pharisees know that they had gone overboard in their application of the Sabbath Law. There were six days to work and on Friday there was the "Preparation" to prepare food for the Sabbath. This was no ox in the pit situation. It may seem to be a case of poor planing. It is probable that Jesus did this for the purpose of creating a showdown with the Pharisees so his disciples could benefit from the lesson.

  3. The account of the man with the withered hand is applicable here:

Matthew 12:9-13
King James Version

9 And when he was departed thence, he went into their synagogue: 10 And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.11 And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out? 12 How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days. 13 Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.

  1. So, when one has to consider all the evidence it becomes apparent that when it comes to an emergency or an act of mercy it is ok to do on the Sabbath. Finally, read this in your Bible:

Mark 3:4-7
King James Version

4 And he saith unto them, Is it lawful to do good on the sabbath days, or to do evil? to save life, or to kill? But they held their peace. 5 And when he had looked round about on them with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts, he saith unto the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it out: and his hand was restored whole as the other. 6 And the Pharisees went forth, and straightway took counsel with the Herodians against him, how they might destroy him.7 But Jesus withdrew himself with his disciples to the sea: and a great multitude from Galilee followed him, and from Judaea,

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First, the man was not gathering sticks. It is a mistranslation. He was collecting wood. The Hebrew states clearly ”etzim” which means wood/timber in a vague kind of way.

Why was he doing that? Presumably to carry it. Now you have to ask yourself why this is the only case of violation of the sabbath day in the whole Old Testament, that was punished by death. One could do many things on the sabbath day that would profane it. Why gathering wood? And what does that story teach us?

You see, there is only one time in each of the testaments where a person carries wood. In the Old it is Isaac (Genesis 22), as a foreshadow of Christ, and in the New it is The Lord Himself.

The story basically shows that a human under the law of Moses (or any human) is unable to save himself. Salvation comes only through Jesus Christ and His cross. He was the only one that could carry this wood. And He is our sabbath rest that we enter through faith that He could do it and did it.

Plucking heads of grain on the sabbath on the other hand was just another attempt by Jesus to show the Pharisees that He is the Messiah and to make them understand what the Torah was all about. They missed both of His points.

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  • This is beautiful and I agree with the conclusion, but we also have 1 Kings 17.10, Judges 9.48, and carrying wood happened with the carrying of the ark. Plus, Christ commanded us to pick up our cross and follow him.
    – Robert
    Commented Aug 18, 2022 at 3:09

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