Monday, April 10, 2006

Purity to Compassion in Three Stories From Mark (Part II)

Finally, the second story from this series, which in my amazing longwindedness I actually thought could be a single post:

The second story which demonstrates how Jesus (per Marcus Borg's paradigm) shifts the emphasis in the religion of his day from purity to compassion is found in Mark 2: 23-28. It concerns the Sabbath (Shabbat), and in the NRSV reads:

One day he [Jesus] was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, "Look, why are they doing what is unlawful on the sabbath?" And he said to them, "Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions." Then he said to them, "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath."

The law of the Sabbath was one of the most important and distinctive laws of ancient Israel. Observing the Sabbath entails at least two things:

1. Refraining from work.
2. Honoring God.

In the Decalogue the Sabbath law, found in Exodus 20:8-11 reads (in the Jewish Study Bible):

Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God: you shall not do any work - you, your son or daughter, your male or female slave, or your cattle, or the stranger who is within your settlements. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth and sea, and all that is in them, and He rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the sabbath day and hallowed it.

This Sabbath law, then, points to one of the creation myths of ancient Israel, found at the beginning of the Biblical book of Genesis. The first chapter deals with God's activity in creation, God's "work." But, while the "work" of creation ends at the end of the first chapter, the story continues through the fourth verse of the second chapter. In the Jewish Study Bible Genesis 2:1-4, the conclusion of the first creation myth of ancient Israel, reads:

The heaven and earth were finished, and all their array. On the seventh day God finished the work that He had been doing, and ceased on the seventh day from all the work that He had done. And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because on it God ceased from all the work of creation that He had done. Such is the story of heaven and earth when they were created.

So the importance of a day of rest is built not just into the laws of ancient Israel, but also into the mythology. As a myth is a story which is to convey meaning rather than a literal truth, we can look into this myth to see part of the meaning of the Sabbath law, which Jesus, in our story from Mark, violates.

The passages from Genesis and Exodus, in connecting the creation myth to the law of the Sabbath, connect the nature of God to the nature of humanity, which has been made in God's image. The creation myth, then, says that it is natural, is in built into the very fabric of nature, to take one day off each week.

The economy of ancient Israel, like that of the lands and peoples which surrounded in it the Near East, was built on agriculture. This was a tremendous step up, which allowed for the formation of permanent dwellings, leading nomadic peoples to settle and form civilizations. But if land is worked constantly, in becomes barren and wasted. Similarly, if people are worked constantly, they wear out and are ruined.

Thus, it is not natural to work all the time. It violates the patterns we see in nature, and as such it must violate God's design. On a simple level the seventh day, the day of rest, is included in the creation myth as a way of saying: "Even God took a day off, so you should too!"

This law mandating a day of rest was - as best as I can tell (I'm no expert on the Ancient Near East, but I've read a little bit on the subject) - unique to ancient Israel. It set them apart from the peoples around them.

To be holy - a word which comes up often in the literature on the Sabbath - is to be set apart. Thus, this law, which set ancient Israel apart, was very important to their notion of holiness. And holiness is what the purity laws are all about.

In its earliest context, the Sabbath law (which does not, in and of itself, spell out exactly what counts as "work") was a liberating law. In a world in which people worked constantly just to survive, it said that humans were made for more than just work. It gave a much fuller description of human nature, and gave those who were under it the space they needed to be more fully human.

How liberating must it have been, for the average worker in the fields of an agrarian society, to get to take a day off from work each week! Remember, this is the era of the seven day work week, not the five day work week we've all come to love. The Sabbath day, Shabbat, was a day to get out of the fields and into a sacred space. It was a day to be something other than just a worker; to be more fully human, someone sacred, made in the image of the Sacred.

But by the time of Christ the Sabbath was not always such a liberating concept. While the passages which we looked at did not specify what counted as "work," religion is not always comfortable with ambiguity. A definition of "work" would be forthcoming. Two tractates of the Talmud spell out "work" in more detail. And while this too must have been initially liberating, the Pharisees, the keepers and interpreters of the law in Jesus' day, wielded this law as an instrument of enslavement, not liberation.

[note: I'll deal with the Pharisees, the "villains" of the Gospels and the enemies of Jesus, in more detail in Part III of this series. While they are presented as the "bad guys," I can relate to them, and see them as being honest and noble defenders of the traditional faith which Jesus is attacking. They are complex characters who, while they oppose Jesus, cannot be reduced simply to the power hungry oppressors that they are sometimes reduced too.]

In our story, Jesus and his disciples, a wandering band of his inner circle who traveled with him and helped his ministry, are passing through a field. It is the Sabbath, but they are hungry, so they pick some grain from the field. Inconveniently for them, the Pharisees, religious authorities who specialize in the law, see them picking grain, and call them to task for it. They then rip into Jesus. What sort of a spiritual teacher, a religious "holy man," allows his best students to flagrantly and selfishly violate such a sacred law?

But Jesus says that the Pharisees have missed the whole point. "The sabbath was made for humankind, not humankind for the sabbath." The law in question was designed to liberate workers whose basic humanity had been denied by their constant state of work. It taught that humans were made for much more than just work; they had been made in the image of a God who even in the midst of actively creating the world and everything in it, took some time for rest and reflection. This is built into the very fabric of the universe.

Picking grain in a field is considered "work" because ancient Israel was an agrarian society. Most people worked in the fields for most of their time. But these disciples are not farmers who need to be liberated from their labor. They are hungry travelers. In this case the Sabbath law is not freeing them up to be more fully human, it is oppressing them by not allowing the hungry to eat.

Thus purity (the strict adherence to the letter of the Sabbath law) becomes compassion (the recognition that the law exist to serve those under it, and not the other way around). In this case following the letter of the law violates the spirit of it. Jesus is not trying to undermine the Sabbath altogether, as the Pharisees mistake him for doing. Rather he is trying to recapture the liberating spirit of the law and transpose that spirit to his day.

Religion can be very conservative, and this is not entirely a bad thing. Many ancient traditions ought to be conserved, because they speak to a great wisdom. But that which is conserved must also be translated. It does no good to keep ancient laws if the wisdom behind those laws is no longer understood, and so the spirit of those laws can be translated for a new generation, and a new context.

So if we seek to conserve the wisdom of our religion, we must also understand the wisdom behind our tradition, and constantly translate that wisdom for a new generation and a new context.


Brian Cubbage said...

I'll have more substantive remarks later. For now, though, some quick pedantic observations:

1) I'm glad you qualified your discussion of the Pharisees. Reliability and stability of the text of the NT aside, the picture of the Pharisees we get in the gospels is grossly biased and, I believe, highly unfair.

2) I can't speak to the question of whether other groups in the Ancient Near East had Sabbath laws (or their functional equivalent). I can't think of any. One thing you're absolutely dead-on about, though, is the vagueness of the Sabbath law as we have it in the Torah.

The discussion over how best to construe the Sabbath law actually predates the Pharisaic Judaism of Jesus' day. And the Pharisees didn't even advocate for the strictest construction of it. That honor likely goes to the community at Qumran responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls (probably Essenes). I'll have to look up the references for this when I get home, but one sectarian document found at Qumran interprets the part of the Sabbath law forbidding travel over a certain distance (approximately half a mile, I think?) quite strictly. Another document, presumably considered just as authoritative as the first, describes a rebuilt Temple and a reconstructed Jerusalem of gigantic proportions. Since, ahem, restrooom facilities are to be located at some distance from the Temple and its precincts (per the Torah), a gigantic temple and a gigantic Jerusalem mean that the restrooms would have to be located beyond the distance that one could legally walk on the Sabbath. And one couldn't, ahem, answer calls of nature anywhere but a restroom; one certainly couldn't just relieve oneself in the Temple. If the Qumran community ever thought about relaxing its construction of Torah for the sake of, well, sheer comfort, no record of it exists that I know of.

Talk about suffering for the Lord!

Sandalstraps said...

I suspect that this is a case where the practice of religion deviated somewhat from the ideal. I mean, when ya gotta go, ya gotta go, right?

As for Sabbath laws (or their functional equivalent) in non-Hebrew cultures, I have an excellent text on life in the Ancient Near East, which we used as one of the texts for my seminary course on the Hebrew Bible. Alas, I let my mother-in-law borrow it, and she hasn't returned it yet. So I couldn't consult it, but I think I remember it saying that ancient Israel was unique in its observance of a day off. In her book Making Wise the Simple: The Torah in Christian Faith and Practice, my scripture professor Johanna W.H. van Wijk-Bos emphasizes holy aspect of the Sabbath, in that it set ancient Israel apart from the surrounding lands. But she does not give a detailed treatment of that, so I don't know if there is some rare exception to that general rule or not.

Brian Cubbage said...

It turns out that I had the basic upshot of the anecdote about the Qumran community right, but got the details wrong. Here are the corrections, courtesy of Yigael Yadin, the editor of the definitive edition of the Qumranic Temple Scroll:

The relevant law at issue in the Torah wasn't specifically the Sabbath law; it was the law in Deuteronomy 23:10-14, which describes the laws of ritual cleanliness to govern the encampment of ancient Israel in the wilderness. Specifically, one could only defecate outside the boundaries of the Israelite camp. A debate ensued over how to apply that law to Jerusalem. Mainstream Judaism favored a reading of Deuteronomy that divided Jerusalem into three "camps"; essentially, this involved reading three different occurrences of "camp" in the Deuteronomic text as referring to different things. This reading conveniently allowed for defecation within the walls of Jerusalem; the problem with it, though, was that there's just the one word for "camp" in the text.

The Qumran community thought this was too much. In a document usually referred to as 4QMMT, the community spelled out its disagreements in legal interpretation with the mainstream Judaism centered around the Temple in Jerusalem. (Imagine, say, discovering that Antonin Scalia had composed a manifesto on strict constructionism for the use of his law clerks.) In 4QMMT, the community made clear that it considered ALL of Jerusalem to be the "camp" referred to in Dt 23:10-14. In addition, the Temple Scroll forbade the construction of any toilets in the city, and mandated that all toilets be constructed at a distance of 3,000 cubits from the city so that they couldn't even be seen!

All parties agreed that the Sabbath law forbade traveling more than three thousand cubits. So the obvious conclusion is that on the Sabbath, one couldn't defecate-- at least, if one interprets the law as strictly as the Qumran community did.

(My source for this: Yigael Yadin's essay on the Temple Scroll in Shanks, Hershel, ed. _Understanding the Dead Sea Scrolls._ New York: Vintage, 1991. It's a little out of date by now, but it's a useful guide to the scholarship for amateurs like me.)

Liam said...

Thanks for the post & to you and Brian for the comments. I don't have much time, but you have hit on the difficult interplay between tradition and living spirit -- always a dificult balance. Without tradition, it's hard to maintain community, and without living spirit, it's impossible to maintain meaning.