The Logic of Sabbath
by Lois Tverberg

Doesn't each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan has kept bound for eighteen long years, be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?" Luke 13:15-16

Historically, many Christians have read Jesus' various teachings about the Sabbath as an annulment of all of the Jewish traditions about how it should be observed. Without knowing its context, we can't know the debates going at the time and how Jesus' words fit in. First, many Christians under estimate the importance and holiness of the Sabbath in God's covenant with the nation of Israel. It was called a "sign" of the covenant, a weekly day to honor the entire covenant. Breaking it was punishable by death according to the Scriptures (Ex. 31:14-16), because doing so was considered a rejection of the entire agreement God had made with his people.

In Jesus' time there was a strong emphasis on keeping the Sabbath as well as possible, because only a few hundred years earlier, the Jews had been exiled from their land because they didn't obey God's laws. So they defined what "work" meant, and it included not untying animals to take them out to plow the field, since animals were supposed to rest too. Certain types of healing activities were proscribed also, because they involved grinding herbs or other "work" activities not allowed on the Sabbath. Many people had long-term illnesses and simply lived with them through the Sabbath.

They also ruled that some things overrode regulations about Sabbath observance. If human life was in danger, all rules regarding not working would be set aside - for the reason of "pikuah nephesh" - to save life. Also, some regulations were set aside out of compassion for animals, so they wouldn't suffer from not being fed or taken out for water - this was called "tzar baalei hayim" - preventing suffering to living things.

Jesus seems to be using this logic in his statement about healing the woman. It was not a life-or-death need that she be healed that day, but she had suffered for 18 years. If an animal can be untied to be led to water to prevent its suffering, shouldn't she be "unbound" too?

Interestingly, the one "breaking" the Sabbath was not Jesus in this case - he merely prayed for her healing, which wouldn't have been prohibited by anyone. (Those who protested even this prayer would have been seen as extreme by the rest of the rabbinic community too.) According to Jesus' logic, the one who did the "unbinding" was God himself! So we see that Jesus was working within the rules, not negating them, and showing how God longs to take every opportunity to show compassion for the suffering of his people.

     
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