The Logic of Healing on the Sabbath

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’ words about healing on the Sabbath as an annulment of all of the laws 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 don’t understand the symbolic importance of the Sabbath in God’s covenant with Israel. It was called a “sign” of the covenant (Exodus 31:13), like a wedding ring is to a marriage. Not wearing your wedding ring suggests that you’re not committed to your marriage. In the same way, not honoring the Sabbath showed contempt for the covenant as a whole (Numbers 15:32-36).

In Jesus’ time there was a strong emphasis on keeping the Sabbath, because only a few hundred years earlier, the Jewish people had been exiled from their land because they didn’t obey God’s laws. So they carefully defined what “work” meant and what activities were forbidden.

However, if human life was in danger, all rules regarding not working on the Sabbath could be set aside for the reason of pikuah nephesh – to “save life.” (To this day observant Jewish doctors and nurses go to work on Saturday, because even the possibility of saving a life is enough to set the Sabbath aside.)

But certain types of healing activities were also prohibited, 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.

It appears that even Jesus did not generally heal on the Sabbath. Mark 1:32 describes how people would wait until after sunset to come to Jesus for healing, after the Sabbath had ended.

But that day when Jesus encountered the woman who was crippled and bent over, her pitiable condition couldn’t wait even a few hours. So he pointed out one other place that Sabbath rules are set aside. Even though a donkey could not be untied to go out to work, it could be taken out to be fed and watered, so that it wouldn’t suffer all day. 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 “bound” by her affliction 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 was not prohibited. (Those who protested even this prayer would have been seen as extreme by the rest of the Pharisaic community.) 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.


8 Responses to “The Logic of Healing on the Sabbath”

  1. 1
    C Eric|March 28, 2011

    Another really helpful article Lois. I’ve read several of yours from the EnGedi website. This article adds to a growing question for me. So often you, and others providing Jewish insight into Jesus teaching, show how Jesus’ lessons fit within Jewish wisdom & teaching of the 1st century. Could you please shed some light on how/why Jesus so often seems at odds with Jewish leaders in N.T.? Was it the perception of blasphemy that primarily led to his arrest/crucifixion?

  2. 2
    ann lewis|November 14, 2011

    what is the answer to why Jesus seems often at odds with Jewish leaders?

  3. 3
    George|May 20, 2012

    As far as the question concerning Jesus being at odds with the Jewish leaders deals not with Jesus being in compliance with the law. It has to do with the fact that they missed the whole point of the law altogether. You see Jesus pointed out very clearly that the foundation of all of the law and prophets was the two greatest commandments to love the Lord, and to love your neighbor. Matt 22:37-40. So when one tries to keep the law and does it without love they are doing wickedness for they are forsaking the whole of the law. So the Pharisees kept the law not for the Love of God, but for their love of man’s praise, notoriety, money, and preeminence. Matt 6:5; 23:6; Luke 11:42-43; 16:13-14; John 5:37-47. So, Jesus exposed their self-righteousness misuse of the law. Again, they loved the honor of men, and for Jesus to put them in their place did not create an humble repentance in them, but a vengeance, malice, and hatred toward Jesus. If they were lovers of God, they would have reacted like David when Nathan pointed his finger at David saying, “You are the man.” David humbled himself and repented. Psalm 51.

    Let me finish by summing up the purpose of the law. The law is not meant to get you closer to God, or to prepare your way for heaven. God is not impressed by Good works. The law was created to show that we are not like God, because we cannot keep it perfectly. It is meant to show you how totally depraved you are of all goodness, so that you will cry out for mercy and forgiveness. At this point God will wash you of all your wickedness, and then attribute the righteousness of Christ to you. Because Christ being God himself, he was able to keep the whole law perfectly. For a good review of these principles I encourage you to sit down for a thoughtful reading of the book of John, and then the Book of Romans.

    God Bless

  4. 4
    Jeffrey Clarke|April 12, 2014

    Excellent article that I shared with our students for discussion. Blessings and shalom and chag Sameach Pesach.

  5. 5
    FRANCIS SEQUEIRA|April 24, 2017

    I wish to preach the Holy Bible in the Tourist State of Goa on the theme
    I need your guidance and prayers
    Francis Sequeira
    Cell 0091 9004513968

  6. 6
    chijioke chinedu|October 20, 2017

    may God continue to increase in you more grace as you carry out this assignment.

  7. 7
    Tony Durkin|January 12, 2018

    What a Great God we serve ! As Moses and the Israelites were receiving the Law , they were learning that God is Holy and Just … then the Lord revealed to them in Exodus 34 : 6 – 7 that Yahweh is also a ” Compassionate and Gracious God …. “. So much so that He would send His own Son , Jesus ( Yeshua ! ) whom He loved to be the Savior of the world. This account from Luke is a great example of the compassion that Jesus showed in His ministry before He went to the cross as the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world … showing the people that His Father had sent Him and as we learn from John 14:10-11 that ” it is the Father living in Me, ” Jesus said ” who is doing His work.” The people could put their faith in Him… believing that He is the Promised Messiah from Israel! As our Lord,Jesus, established the new blood covenant of Grace through His suffering ( Psalm 22 , Isaiah 53 ) , death and resurrection … we can be in agreement with the apostle Paul when he wrote ” I am not ashamed of the Gospel because it is the Power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes : first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.” ( Romans 1:16 )
    Thank you for your insight … and I pray that the love of all Christians would grow more each day for Israel and that we would pray for the peace of Jerusalem … in the Glorious Name of Jesus, Yeshua ! Shalom

  8. 8
    Lois Tverberg|April 15, 2019

    I was asked the question, “Where in the OT do you find any law prohibiting healing on the Sabbath?”

    My answer:

    You will not find any passage in the OT that prohibits healing on the Sabbath. Work is prohibited, but almost nothing is said in the Torah about what constitutes the “work” that cannot be done on the Sabbath. The Torah is not a comprehensive law code that covers every possible question. It gives general principals of laws and expects religious teachers to spell out their interpretation. Jesus concurred, saying “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you…” (Matt 23:2-3) (They didn’t practice what they preached, but their opinions were still valid.)

    What was not assumed was that “everyone would do what was right in his own eyes.” That’s our individualistic way to interpret the Bible. Abiding by the decisions of a leader was the way communities functioned, and assumed in the biblical text.

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