Reflections on the Pharisees

Tuesday night was the first session of my summer class The Jewish Context of the Bible.  I was very blessed to have so many people attend, probably around 60 (Update: official count was 81! Wow!).  We had a good class, with some excellent questions.  The audio recording of the class has been posted and here is the lesson handout (yes, the notes are a .doc file).

As a follow up, I’d like to dive a little deeper into one area of the lesson that we had to blow right through, and that is one of the central theologies of the Pharisees and how it plays right into Jesus’ teachings.

As we talked about last night, one of the biggest theological sticking points of the Pharisees was the rabbinical idea of Pikuach Nefesh, which is Hebrew and literally means “saving a life”.  One thing that set the Pharisees apart from all others in their day was their high value of human life.  To the Sadducees, humans were something to be ruled over and stepped on as they continued to live their Hellenized lifestyles of the rich.  To the Zealots, humans were only valuable if they were strictly obeying God’s Torah, and if not, they were disposable.  But to the Pharisees, humans were highly important because God made man in His image.  That means all men are to be treated with dignity.  Hillel (a famous and prominent Pharisee from the generation before Jesus) said you could divorce a woman for any reason (even burnt food!) so perhaps their standards of treating people with dignity could have used some work, but at the very least they believed all human life was sacred.  The principle of Pikuach Nefesh demanded that you seek peace with everyone.  Why?  Because it is only through peace that we can avoid unnecessary bloodshed and bring God’s Kingdom.

“Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving mankind and bringing them nigh to the Law.” – Hillel, from the Mishnah, Avot 1:12.

Pikuach Nefesh – Were there any limits?

This idea went so far that you can break any other command in the Torah in order to save a human life.  The Mishnah outlines the exceptions where you are allowed to break a command in order to save a life.  Here are two of them and some interaction from Jesus and his disciples:

1) You may break the Sabbath in certain instances, such as to put out a fire to save a life. (Talmud Bavli Yoma 84b) Note how the Pharisees come to Jesus when his disciples are crushing grain in their hands on the Sabbath and ask why they are doing it. Luke 6:1-5:

One Sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields, and his disciples began to pick some heads of grain, rub them in their hands and eat the kernels. Some of the Pharisees asked, “Why are you doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath?”

Jesus answered them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and taking the consecrated bread, he ate what is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.” Then Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”

So the question is: why are you doing work on the Sabbath? Crushing grain is work.  Jesus responds by pointing them to David who, when they were hungry, entered the house of God and took the consecrated bread which is only lawful for the priests to eat.  We must note here that it seems silly that Jesus points them to this passage.  The story about David has nothing to do with breaking the Sabbath!  So there must be a deeper point Jesus is making.  What is it?  Well, David ate the showbread, which is a clear violation of God’s law, and yet wasn’t punished.  One might say that it’s because it was David, a man after God’s own heart, but we know that when David sinned with Bathsheba, there were major consequences to his actions.  Murder and adultery are no less of sins that eating the sacred bread in the house of God.  In fact, I would submit that it is better for a man to kill and commit adultery than to do what is unsacred in the house of God!  Nadab and Abihu did what was not sacred by taking strange fire into the presence of the Lord, going into his presence whenever they pleased, and doing so while drunk, and they paid with their lives.  When it comes to God’s sacred place, there is no joking around, and this includes, in my opionin, eating the sacred bread.  So why wasn’t David struck down for his impudence?  The rabbis assessed that it must have been to save his life.  He had just come from the desert and must have been starving.  In other words, without eating that bread, he and his men would have died, and thus for the sake of Pikuach Nefesh, God let them live.  Life is sacred to God too.

Jesus now points to the same principle in this story.  There is no other principle he could be referring to, save perhaps “I’m Lord of the Sabbath, therefore, I can do whatever I want,” which doesn’t fit Jesus as an observant Jew who upheld all the commands.  Therefore, the reason Jesus’ disciples were crushing the grain was for Pikuach Nefesh, which was to say they were so hungry that they would have died without eating it.  And notice that the discussion ends there.  It does NOT say “And the Pharisees went away, plotting how to kill him,” like it does in some other passages.  The bible writers are generally pretty good about letting us know when the Pharisees did not agree with Jesus’ interpretations.  It seems as though they accepted his claim of Pikuach Nefesh and that was that.

2) On the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), the Jews are required to fast for 24 hours, most fast for 25 just to be sure.  Even on Yom Kippur, if that fast would kill you, you may break it and eat – even unclean food, if that’s all you have!  To eat unclean food to a Jew was terrible, highlighted in Peter’s response to his vision in Acts 10:11-14:

He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”

“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”

The above example from Acts is not about Pikuach Nefesh, but merely shows a reaction to eating unclean food.  Eating unclean food was a very big deal, as you can see by Peter’s reaction, and yet it was acceptable to save a life.  There were a few limits to what you could do to save a life, mainly revolving around blasphemy.

Just how far did it go?

As you can see, they justified breaking almost any law for saving lives, but there was a major weakness in this theology, as great as it was.  Pikuach Nefesh revolved around humans being created in the image of God and therefore anyone created in God’s image must be saved.  If you are deeply perusing this idea, the next logical question is: but who is created in the image of God?  To many Jews, including many Pharisees, the answer was obvious: Jews.  You can see this mentality in part from the Talmud:

“[the saving of a] ‘Jewish’ life is considered as if one saved the entire world,” (Talmud Bavli Sanhedrin 37a)

The Zealots, of course, considered only God-fearing religious Jews to be made in God’s image.  If you were not in that category, you had foregone or given up your God-given image of the creator on your soul.  Certainly for some Pharisees, such as the prominent rabbi Shammai, all Jews (religious or not) were considered made in God’s image.  A few rabbis, such as Hillel extended this even to the unclean Goyim (Gentiles), because God made them too.  But in Jesus’ day, there was one group that did not fit into any rabbi’s definition of Pikuach Nefesh: Samaritans.  It was believed that these people were descended from when the people left of the ten tribes of the Kingdom of Israel intermarried with those brought in by the Assyrians, and when they intermarried they gave up their God-given image on their soul.  They were considered half-breed scum by the religious Jews.  And for the record, the Samaritans didn’t much like the Jews either.  It was not safe for either group to travel through the other’s territory alone.  It was clear, at least rabbinically, that when it came to Samaritans, Pikuach Nefesh had met its limits.

What did Jesus say about Pikuach Nefesh?

Enter now the parable of the Good Samaritan taught by Jesus.  It is here that Jesus outlines his own version of Pikuach Nefesh, but he takes it to the extreme.  We know for certain that large crowds followed Jesus around and certainly Pharisees were listening-in almost daily to Jesus’ teachings.  The next time you read that parable, remember the religious baggage the Pharisees carried into a discussion of Pikuach Nefesh.  Who is my neighbor?  A religious Jew?  Any Jew?  A Gentile?  A….Samaritan?!  Jesus’ claim is clear: love everyone, and go to any length to do it.

Peace to you,


P.S. Next Tuesday, May 19: The Sadducees.

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