by Julie M. Smith
Mark 3:1–6 reports Jesus healing a man’s withered hand on the Sabbath and provoking the anger of the Pharisees. Words in this passage bring to mind two passages from the Hebrew Bible.
Isaiah 56:1-8. This passage from Isaiah has several resonances with this story in Mark, including references to the sabbath, the hand, and being dried up. If Mark wrote with that story in mind, it suggests the following:
- In the Isaiah passage, the main concern is the exclusion of a physically imperfect man (a eunuch) from being counted among the people of the Lord. In Mark’s passage, the man with the withered hand would have been excluded from temple worship. So the topic at hand is not so much working on the sabbath but the inclusion or exclusion of people from the house of God. Mark’s story makes the point that restoring this man to the blessings of full participation in the house of Israel was a most appropriate act for the sabbath. Isaiah 56:3 emphasizes that the Lord’s ministry will not and must not exclude anyone, so by analogy, Mark’s story implies that Jesus will not allow this man to be excluded from the blessings of full participation.
- The Isaiah text is focused on the will and actions of the Lord, who is the one who restores the eunuch. Thus, Mark’s text focuses attention on Jesus as the Lord who reveals righteousness (see Isaiah 56:1).
- Immediately after issuing the command to promote justice (Isaiah 56:1), the Lord commands the people to keep the Sabbath. This parallel ensures that Mark’s story is not interpreted as encouraging lawlessness, but rather as promoting honoring the Sabbath by saving a life.
- The Isaiah passage ends with a reference to the Lord gathering all people who will follow him. In the Markan context, the withered man is one of those people (at least literarily if not literally). The position of the Pharisees is that it is acceptable to exclude this man; Jesus’ position is that including this man supersedes the need to follow the Sabbath rules. Because the prevailing interpretation of Sabbath rules permitted violations when life was at stake, Jesus’ point here is that exclusion from the temple rituals constitutes a sort of living death.
Exodus 14. The following points of contact between this story and Exodus 14 have been identified:
- “Stretch out your hand” (Mark 3:5) is the same phrase as in LXX Exodus 14:16. This parallel puts the man with the withered hand in the role of Moses and Jesus in the role of the God of the Hebrew Bible. In Exodus, the stretched hand introduces plagues, but in Mark’s story, it ends one; this inversion speaks to Jesus’ power to right wrongs and perhaps even subtly alludes to the Atonement. Much as the plagues were a witness to Pharaoh, the ending of the man’s plague should be a witness to the Pharisees of Jesus’ power. (One of the most remarkable—and yet rarely remarked upon—aspects of Mark’s story is that the scribes seem completely unaffected by witnessing a miracle.) Just as Moses and Aaron stretch forth their hands to enact plagues that condemn Pharaoh, the man’s stretching out of his hand seems like it will condemn Jesus (to the death plot) but, ironically, ends up condemning the Pharisees.
- The word for “restored” (Greek: apokathistemi) is the same word used in LXX Exodus 14:27, where the waters are “restored.” There are two possible ways to understand this parallel: First, much as the restoring of the water resulted in the death of the Egyptian army, the restoring of the man’s hand results in Jesus death (as a result of the Pharisees’ plot). Unlike Pharaoh’s army, however, Jesus is innocent of wrongdoing, a fact which encourages the reader to draw some conclusions here about the atonement, mainly that Jesus’ suffering is unjustified. Second, the restoring of the waters is what made it possible for the children of Israel to be free. Similarly, the restoring of the man’s hand frees him to fully participate in life and worship. (And in a typical example of Mark’s irony, it has precisely the opposite effect on Jesus since it will ultimately lead to his death.)
- “In the midst of the sea” (LXX Exodus 14:16, 22, and 23) might explain the odd phrasing in Mark 3:3 inviting the man to appear in the middle (Greek: meson, midst). Much as the focus in Exodus 14 is on the miraculous action that affects the sea, the focus in Mark’s story should not be on the watching Pharisees or the death plot but on the miracle that happens to the man.
- The reference to hardness of heart parallels Pharaoh’s hardness of heart (despite the fact that the LXX uses different language to describe it).
- The “withered” (=dried out) hand might allude to the Red Sea, which also becomes “dried out,” although the same word is not used. In both cases, the “restoration” points to miraculous powers and divine care.
- Just as Pharaoh’s plot to enslave the Hebrews failed because of divine intervention, the Pharisees’ plot to kill Jesus will ultimately fail because of the Resurrection.
 See Kurt Queller, “‘Stretch Out Your Hand!’ Echo and Metalepsis in Mark’s Sabbath Healing Controversy,” Journal Of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (December 1, 2010): 737-758.