Jesus and Purity (Part 2: Qorban)

Exodus 21:17  “Anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death.

Leviticus 20:9 “‘If anyone curses his father or mother, he must be put to death. He has cursed his father or his mother, and his blood will be on his own head.

Deuteronomy 27:16  “Cursed is the man who dishonors his father or his mother.” Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Qorban is an Aramaic word (קָרְבָּן, κορβᾶν) referring to something giving as a gift to the Temple, whether to a sacrifice, oath, or gift. Mark 7:9-13 refers to a way two law as could be set against one another in order to circumvent the original intention of the Law. This flows logically from Jesus’s rejection of hand-washing for ritual purity. Ritual purity does not necessarily mean the Law has been kept in “spirit and in truth.” The qorban tradition illustrates his point well.

Erich Lessing, from Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2009

Photo by Erich Lessing, BAR, May/June 2009

Some Jews noticed a potential tension between the command to honor one’s parents and the commands to honor oaths, especially to oaths to God. Someone might potentially make an oath to give to the Lord gift of property or money. They Temple could receive the oath as a promise but not necessarily collect the oath until a later time. By analogy, compare this to a faith-promise commitment to a building program at your church. You promise $10,000, but the church does not need it right away. You get the “spiritual benefit” of giving money without actually taking the money out of your bank account.

By declaring some amount of money as qorban a person can avoid using the money for the care of parents. If the gift was considered an investment in the Temple, the giver avoids using the funds to support his parents. If Jesus can raise the question, then this potential loophole in the Law may have been a well-known financial maneuver. An example appears in a parable in the Mishnah:

There was someone in Bet Horon whose father was prohibited by vow from deriving benefit from him. The man in Bet Horon was marrying off his son, and he said to his fellow, “The courtyard and the banquet are given over to you as a gift.  But they are before you only so that father may come and eat with us at the banquet.” The other party said, “Now if they really are mine, then lo, they are consecrated to heaven!” He said to him, “I didn’t give you what’s mine so you would consecrate it to Heaven!” He said to him, “You did not give me what’s yours except so that you and your father could eat and drink and make friends again, and so the sin [for violating the oath] could rest on his head!” Now the case came before sages.  They ruled, “Any act of donation which is not so [given] that, if one sanctified it to Heaven, it is sanctified, is no act of donation.” m. Ned 5:6

R. T. France points out two elements of qorban based on this story. First, the original qorban is unalterable. Someone swearing such a vow cannot break it later if it turns out to be a bad decision! Second, the property remained at the disposal of the son even after he made the vow. His father could not touch it, but he could.

Rather than a shrewd legal scheme, Jesus sees qorban as breaking of the Law and a grave sin.  This word for “transgress” is a fairly rare word in the New Testament, used only here and in Acts 1:25 for the sin of Judas, and once in 2 John 9.  It literally means “go along the side of…”, or “pass over…neglect.” This hypocritical legal tactic is an illustration of the words of Isaiah:  “These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are but rules taught by men.”

Usually Evangelical Christians chuckle about the hypocrisy of “those Pharisees” and contemporary preachers rail against the “traditions” of the Pharisees. But is this really fair?  If the goal was to keep the Law of God, the the Law must be correctly interpreted and applied. How is this qorban tradition any different than a Christian finding a way around head-covering (1 Cor 11:2-16) or Paul’s command to keep women silent in the church (1 Cor 14:34-35)? I do not think Jesus is against trying to keep the commands of God, but what is it about this particular practice that bothers him so much he is able to call it a sin?

When we find some exegetical warrant to set these things aside, are we not dismissing the commands of God?

7 thoughts on “Jesus and Purity (Part 2: Qorban)

  1. I think we have to look at the context. For instance a woman keeping silent in the church was because they were calling across the building asking their husbands what things meant. It was disrupting. At least that’s what I have heard pastors use to negate this. Still if we take the same approach to this qorban then we can see why it’s a transgression. To me it seems the answer is selfishness. A son is trying to not be responsible to take care of his parents. Back then they didn’t just have some retirement home instead the family was responsible to care for their own. By promising the money that should be used to take care of the elderly to the church you are being selfish, even if someday it will be a good cause. In essence the child is not showing love and that is where sin lies. When we don’t show others love we must be showing the opposite.

  2. As in the first post about Jesus and Purity, I think the heart of the matter is, well, the heart. The reason Jesus specially calls out this Qorban tradition because it seems that the heart behind declaring something as Qorban was a completely selfish tradition. It seems that people used Qorban as a way to escape from the duty of taking care of their parents. The reason that Jesus is so against this, as opposed to keeping other parts of the law, is because this is obviously distorted into being an excuse for selfishness. While the original intent of Qorban was not selfish, fallen people distorted the practice into a way for looking out only for themselves. The reason commands from Paul about women being silent can be disregarded is because the motive behind the disregard is entirely not selfish. Letting women speak up in church is a way to practice humility for men, and way of opening oneself to the truth that God speaks through everyone, not just the men of the church. You are right in saying, “Jesus was not against keeping the law”, however i would say that Jesus is against anything that could turn a person’s heart away from the father and onto themselves.

  3. I think that understanding the spirit of the Law is key here. Without an understanding of this, it could definitely seem like we are simply “dismissing” certain commands.The spirit of head coverings is modesty and propriety, and the spirit of keeping silent in the church is order and headship. We may in some amount of good conscience lay aside some of the letter of the Law/culturally based aspects to commandments while still holding fast to the spirit of the commands. Yet in the case of the qorban tradition, the Law to remain faithful to vows made was being twisted and manipulated in such a way that the spirit of the Law was no longer central, and the letter of the Law was being used as a selfish tool. Rather than honoring their parents, which was central in the Law (Exodus 20:12), Jews would make a vow to give their money to the Lord (in the future, while still being able to use it in the mean time), thus freeing them from the responsibility to use it to take care of their parents. This was definitely a manipulation of the Law that was very self-serving, and serving self is contrary to the very heart of God, and of His Law (Deut. 6:5).

  4. I also agree that Jesus may be referring that the important focus should be on the spirit of the law rather than following word by word. It is not that Jesus was disregarding the law or thought that it wasn’t important, because he did. God gave the law for a reason, and Jesus himself gave rules so to speak. Jesus is not defying the law or creating a new law but setting the record straight about the law that is already in place. Jesus wanted to make the point that the law was important but it was not important to follow it maybe in literal phrasing or to the T, especially when there were more important matters at hand. It may not be important to wash and purify your hands for example when a man needs to be healed. If a man needed to be healed on the Sabbath, which went against the law then there, would be an exception. In Luke 13 Jesus heals a women on the Sabbath and the Pharisees criticize him, this is his response, Luke 13:15 “But the Lord replied, ‘You hypocrites! Each of you works on the Sabbath day! Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? 16 This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?”’

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