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?