Real Bible Studies: Matthew 12

Picking Grain on the Sabbath

As the chapter opens, Yeshua is under scrutiny from the Pharisees for allowing his disciples to pluck grain on the Sabbath. Yeshua doesn’t apologize, but rather turns it back onto his opponents by reminding them of an incident involving David and stating Temple officials also violate the Sabbath. For the second time, Yeshua chastises the Pharisees for not understanding the phrase “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” He’s set himself in opposition to the Temple structure which is where sacrifices were offered to atone for sins. Given Yeshua often forgave sins without requiring a sacrifice, he tended to practice what he preached. Of course, in Matthew’s time, the Temple no longer existed, so, this could have been a way to reassure congregants that their sins would be forgiven without the need for an elaborate ritual of atonement.

Next, Yeshua goes to a synagogue where he encounters a man with a withered hand. The Pharisees wait to see if Yeshua will heal the man on the Sabbath and question him on whether it’s lawful. He replies that if they have a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, they’d rescue it. So he concludes it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath and tells the man to stretch out his hand and it’s healed. This causes the Pharisees to plot against him, so he withdraws.

People follow and Yeshua heals them. Matthew quotes the scripture that he claims is fulfilled by Yeshua’s healing miracles.

This was to fulfil what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will any one hear his voice in the streets; he will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick, till he brings justice to victory; and in his name will the Gentiles hope.”

Matthew 12:17-21

The verse from Isaiah in the RSV doesn’t mention Gentiles, but rather “nations”.

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not fail or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law.

Isaiah 42:1-4

The New International Version (NIV) renders the term in Matthew as “nations” not “Gentiles” which agrees with Isaiah. Oftentimes, the translation can alter the meaning of passages, sometimes significantly.

In a previous chapter, Matthew was quoting scripture about the suffering servant, but this appears to be a different servant. This quote may be in answer to those who viewed the Christ as a god incarnate. Yeshua, a Jew, would not have equated himself as equal to God. Under Roman law, it wasn’t a crime to declare oneself a god, but it was to declare oneself a ruler. Jewish law was very clear about the consequences of declaring oneself to be equal to God. Here, Matthew seems to be careful in both respects, neither declaring Yeshua to be a god or a king but rather a servant of God.

Next, a blind and dumb demoniac is brought in and Yeshua heals him. The onlookers cite this as proof that Yeshua is of the House of David, but the Pharisees state it’s Beelzebub he’s invoking instead. Yeshua rebukes them, using the analogy of a house divided against itself. In doing so, he again highlights the perils of the factionalism in Judea at the time of the Jewish War. Matthew’s audience would have a keen understanding of what he meant, living in the aftermath of the War and its consequences for Judea.

He continues by citing the example of a tree and its fruit, stating that a good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree gives bad fruit. In case that wasn’t clear enough, Yeshua goes on to call his rivals vipers and asks how they can claim to do good when they’re evil. He states that their words condemn them. When some of the Pharisees ask for a sign, he says all they’ll get is the sign of Jonah, who was in the fish three days and nights. This appears to be another point at which Matthew draws a contrast between a prediction and its fulfillment. If Yeshua is stating that the Messiah will be in the tomb three days and nights, then Matthew’s audience would have known this was not fulfilled, because Yeshua will not be entombed for that period of time, being buried before sunset on the Sabbath and removed from the tomb by the time the women arrive the morning after — a day and a half at best.

Finally, Yeshua’s mother and brothers show up outside asking for him. His response is very much in keeping with his message to his followers, that his family are those who believe in and are part of his movement. This implies his family isn’t considered as such. During this episode, Yeshua’s mother is not called by name, even though she was identified in the nativity portion as Mary. Also, no mention is made of Joseph. The presence of his brothers implies their father is not in the picture as the other males in the family would have assumed the responsibilities of head of the household in the absence of a father.

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