Questions From Readers
◼ Is it all right to break God’s law in order to save a life, as has been reasoned from Matthew 12:1-8?
Though some persons having that view have referred to Matthew 12:1-8 for support, a careful consideration of the Scriptures shows that it is an incorrect conclusion.
When passing through a grainfield, Jesus’ disciples gleaned a small amount of grain, as permitted by the Law. (Leviticus 19:9, 10; Deuteronomy 24:19-21) The Pharisees criticized them for doing this on the sabbath. These religious leaders had added to the Law many interpretations, especially as to what was unlawful “work” on the sabbath. According to these human rules, and the legalistic mentality behind them, by what they did the disciples were guilty of two forms of work, harvesting (“plucking”) and threshing (“rubbing” the grains). (Matthew 12:1; Luke 6:1) However, Jesus said:
“Have you not read what David did when he and the men with him got hungry? How . . . they ate the loaves of presentation, something that it was not lawful for him to eat, nor for those with him, but for the priests only? Or, have you not read in the Law that on the sabbaths the priests in the temple treat the sabbath as not sacred and continue guiltless? But I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. However, if you had understood what this means, ‘I want mercy, and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless ones. For the Lord of the sabbath is what the Son of man is.”—Matthew 12:3-8.
Christ was referring to the incident when David and his men, fleeing from murderous King Saul, went to High Priest Ahimelech at Nob. David indicated that he was on a secret assignment from the king and asked for bread. “There is no ordinary bread under my hand,” Ahimelech told him, “but there is holy bread; provided that the young men have at least kept themselves from womankind.” He meant the showbread (or, loaves of presentation), consisting of twelve unleavened cakes placed weekly on a table in the Holy of the tabernacle. As fresh cakes were presented each sabbath, the older ones were removed and ‘became Aaron’s and his sons’, to eat in a holy place.’ David explained that his men were ceremonially clean, and he implied that they were in a sense holy, being on a mission from Jehovah’s anointed king. So Ahimelech “gave him what was holy, . . . the showbread that had been removed from before Jehovah.”—1 Samuel 21:1-6; Leviticus 24:5-9.
In the light of all of this, what about the view that God’s commands can be ignored ‘if life is at stake’? Persons have reasoned: ‘God overlooked David’s breaking a serious command when his life was in danger; also Jesus condoned violating the sabbath and said that you could do good and save a soul on the sabbath.’ (Luke 6:9; Matthew 12:11, 12) Yet, such thinking proves to be deceptive and contrary to the Bible.
For example, this reasoning assumes that you accept the premise that David and Jesus’ disciples were in ‘life or death’ situations. But were they? The Bible does not say that David and his men were on the verge of starving to death because there was no other food to be found. In fact, according to geographical authorities, Nob was just north of the Mount of Olives, within a few miles of Jerusalem and many towns. A direct reading of the account allows for the conclusion that David and his men were basically hungry and seeking a meal from someone whom they trusted. Similarly, the Bible tells us that when Jesus’ disciples “got hungry” on the sabbath they gleaned and ate some grain. They must have eaten on the previous day, and on the day after the sabbath they could buy food in surrounding villages. (John 4:8; Matthew 14:15) So, if an individual wants to use these incidents to show when God’s laws can be broken, he might as well say that at any time people ‘get hungry’ it is all right to violate Jehovah’s commands. Obviously that is not correct.
We still need to know, however, what is the meaning of Matthew 12:1-8. Jesus was exposing the Pharisees’ narrow, legalistic view. We can better appreciate this by giving thought to the object of the sabbath, and by noting carefully Jesus’ explanation.
Why were Israelites not to work on the sabbath? Was the object simply to forbid work? No. It was so that secular pursuits, such as working for food and clothing, would not consume all the people’s time and attention. The sabbath arrangement advanced true worship by assuring that the people would have time for worship without being distracted by normal work. (Exodus 20:8-11; Isaiah 58:13) Jesus encouraged this understanding rather than the narrow view of the Pharisees.
He said that even priests serving at the temple could be accused of ‘treating the sabbath as not sacred’ and thus of breaking the law. How? Well, the priests worked hard on the sabbath butchering sacrificial animals. Were they lawbreakers? Christ said that those priests ‘continued guiltless.’ Their labors at the temple, rather than interfering with worship, contributed to it. As Jesus (who was “greater than the temple” and would offer the ultimate sacrifice) went about with his disciples, they were teaching God’s Word and thus promoting true worship. Hence, they were not violating the sabbath by gleaning a bit to eat. Nor, as Jesus explained, would it have been contrary to the spirit of the sabbath law to ‘save a soul’ by pulling a sheep out of a pit, even though it was a day for worship.—Matthew 12:5, 11; Luke 6:9.
Also, it was technically ‘not lawful for David to eat’ the showbread because the Law said that this was for the priests. Yet Jehovah’s high priest gave it to David. On what basis? The loaves removed from the showbread table were “holy,” not to be treated as ordinary, such as by being given to a common laborer or eaten on a pleasure outing. They were to be used as food for the priests, men engaged in God’s service. So when David came on what apparently was a special mission from God’s anointed king, and the high priest determined that the men were ceremonially clean, it was not wrong to share the showbread. That was in accord with the basic use that God designated for it.
Contrast this with the incident when Israelite soldiers in Saul’s army violated God’s law on blood, as related at 1 Samuel 14:32-35. They had been in battle with the Philistines, enemies of Jehovah’s people. Tired and hungry from the fight, some Israelites slaughtered animals and “fell to eating [meat] along with the blood.” Whether it is claimed that this was a case of satisfying a powerful hunger or that it was an emergency situation, breaking the law on blood was not excusable. It was ‘sinning against Jehovah’ and it called for special sacrifices in behalf of those who ‘sinned against Jehovah by eating along with the blood.’
It was sin because in giving the law on blood God said that while humans could eat animal flesh to keep alive they should not sustain their lives by taking in blood. (Genesis 9:3, 4) He gave no allowance for breaking that law if it seemed that ‘life was at stake.’ The Creator decreed that blood was sacred. Saving life with blood was not to be by taking it into the body in any way. But by Christ’s giving his blood in sacrifice everlasting life would be possible.—Ephesians 1:7.
The record of the early Christians who were put to the test by Roman authorities agrees with this and illustrates that we should not think that God’s law can be broken in ‘life or death’ situations. Sometimes their test was, either eat blood sausage or die in the arena. Would the Christians violate God’s law on blood and renounce their standing with him? Or, when pressured to burn a pinch of incense to the deity of the emperor, would they break God’s command against idolatry? History proves that faithful Christians refused to break God’s commands even when their present life was at stake. Though they lost their lives obeying Jehovah’s law, they had the assurance of eternal life.—Matthew 16:25, 26.
Consequently, the Scriptures do not endorse the view that divine commands can be broken in a difficult situation. Rather, we are told: “By this we gain the knowledge that we are loving the children of God, when we are loving God and doing his commandments.”—1 John 5:2.
◼ In The Watchtower of April 15, 1982, page 26, paragraph 19, it states that in the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses at Gbarnga, Liberia, in March 1963, a few compromised but the majority maintained their integrity. However, the Yearbook for 1977 states that the majority compromised their faith. Why this discrepancy?
The statement in The Watchtower for April 15, 1982, is in error. Actually, according to the Yearbook of 1977, pages 176 and 178, there were about 100 Liberian Witnesses who went through the Gbarnga persecution maintaining integrity, while approximately 200 compromised their faith.
Of course, if we were to take the combined, worldwide picture of the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses, it will certainly be established beyond doubt that by far the great majority have proved faithful under persecution, and only a relatively small minority have compromised their faith.