What is Living Water?

The Bible is often hard for us to understand because it comes from a Hebrew-thinking mindset very different than our own. Many words translate one way into English, but actually have a richer meaning in Hebrew that sheds light on many passages.

in_a_waterfallIt’s also important to have a sense of the spiritual imagery that the Bible uses, to get into the minds of the ancient Israelites and see how they experienced God’s presence in the world. They found pictures of theological concepts in the world around them, and God communicated with them through them. Jesus also uses these images to tell about himself, and we need to understand his culture to comprehend his message.

One prominent image that recurs from Genesis to Revelation is that of living water. In the Middle East, water is scarce and precious, and very much needed for survival. Only a few months of the year does rain fall in Israel, and the rest of the time the ancient peoples survived on stagnant water that was stored in cisterns in the ground. When rain does fall after many months of clear blue skies, it seems to be a miraculous gift from God.

The difference with or without rain in Israel is amazing – the hills can be barren and brown much of the year, but after a season of rain, covered in green meadows and flowers. Where there are rivers, lush vegetation surrounds them, while only yards away, all is barren.

Out of this arose the idea of living water, or mayim chaim (MY-eem KHY-eem), which refers to water in the form of rain or flowing from a natural spring, which has come directly from God, not carried by human hands or stored in cisterns. It also is a contrast to sea water, especially that of the Dead Sea, which looks refreshing but is poisonous, and makes the land around it barren.

Living water was strongly associated with the presence of God. Many times in the scriptures, God is called the source of living water.

From Eden, where God dwelled with man, a river welled up that formed the headwaters of four mighty rivers. (Gen 2:10).

Psalm 29:10 pictures God sitting “enthroned over the flood.”

In Revelation, the river of life flows out from under the throne of God (Rev. 22:1).

In Jeremiah it says,

O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water. (Jer. 17:13)

Even other nations understood this picture of the gods being associated with sources of living water.  Pagans of the first century who worshiped Pan set up their shrines at the great cave from which the Jordan emerged at Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee, and called it the “Gates of Hades”. This image was common to many cultures of that area, and God used that image to teach his people about himself.

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lush garden 2

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Spiritual Lesson: Water in Israel and Egypt

One lesson that the ancient Hebrews would have learned about God’s ways came from the contrast in the water sources of Egypt and Israel. In Deuteronomy 11:10 – 12 it says,

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.

The difference between Egypt and the promised land of Canaan was that in Egypt almost no rain fell, and crops were entirely irrigated by the flooding Nile and by the labor of hand-watering, while in Canaan the land was entirely watered by rain from God. While Egypt didn’t feel the presence of God through rain, it achieved its secure food source through human effort. Egypt and Canaan, therefore, were a contrast of security of human effort compared to dependence on God. The Egyptians were even aware of the difference between their land and others – one Greek historian quotes them as feeling this way:

“If the gods shall some day see fit not to grant the Greeks rain, but shall afflict them with a long drought, the Greeks will be swept away by a famine, since they have nothing to rely on but rain from Zeus, and have no other resources for water.” (Heroditus 2:13)

And in fact, in Genesis we hear that Abraham and Isaac are forced to go to Egypt several times when a drought overtakes Canaan, and of course during Joseph’s time, that is what brings the entire family to Egypt to survive.

There was a spiritual lesson for the Israelites when they left the land of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan — that when God chose a land for his people, he didn’t choose a place where they could have security because of their own efforts, he chose a land where they would be far more dependent on him and would need his presence watching over them to send them the living water of rain.

Many Christians have seen God do the same thing in their own lives, when they step out to follow him and he takes them from security of their own effort and brings them to a point of dependence on him, which doesn’t always include prosperity as the world sees it.

In like manner, even though Israel is the “Promised Land,” in many places the land is not nearly as lush as Egypt. It is interesting that God often desires dependence for his people rather than abundance, as our “prosperity gospel” teachers may tell us.

 

rainy_road

 

Living Water as the Holy Spirit

For the Israelites, the presence of rain in Israel was very much associated with blessing by God, and its absence with his disapproval. Almost every prophet decreed that drought would come as a punishment for their sins. But God’s redemption was likened to him sending abundant rain, giving them living water to drink:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. (Isaiah 35:5-7)

Because living water came directly from God, it was closely associated with God’s Spirit in the world. When God promised to redeem his people, he promised to send his Spirit:

For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants; and they will spring up among the grass like poplars by streams of water. (Isaiah 44:3 – 4)

In Joel, the outpouring of God’s Spirit in the last days is closely associated with living water:

Be glad, O people of Zion, rejoice in the LORD your God, for he has given you the autumn rains in righteousness. He sends you abundant showers, both autumn and spring rains, as before… Then you will know that I am in Israel, that I am the LORD your God, and that there is no other; never again will my people be ashamed. And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. (Joel 2:23, 27-29)

This image of living water is therefore an important feature of the ministry of Jesus. In the book of John, he explains that he is the one who truly brings living water into the world. He says to the Samaritan woman,

Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life. (John 4:13-14)

And later, during the feast of Sukkot, on the last and greatest day, when the prayers of Israel were an impassioned plea for God to bless them with rain, Jesus stood up and shouted, saying,

“If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink! He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this he spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37 – 39)

An interesting rabbinic insight is that “living water” is also understood to mean a true knowledge of God. Certainly this is associated with the Holy Spirit, who teaches us God’s will and guides and directs us. And certainly it is associated with Jesus’ ministry of revealing God’s true character by Jesus’ sacrificial love for us. It is in contrast with that of “brackish water” like that of the Dead Sea, which is a false knowledge of God, that false prophets and twisted doctrines yield. Although it looks fine to the eye, it is quite poisonous!

And, in Hebrew, the word for knowledge, da’at, carries the connotation of intimacy and care, as when we know a person, we care for them. So, living water as knowledge of God really means an intimate relationship with him, which is what the Spirit gives us.

 

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A Beautiful Prophecy of Living Water

In Ezekiel 47, there is a wonderful picture of living water. The prophet Ezekiel is at the temple, and sees a little trickle of water flowing out from under the alter. The water flows out of the temple down the south stairs. A thousand cubits from the temple, the strange flow of water has grown ankle-deep, and a thousand more cubits it is knee-deep, and a thousand more it is waist deep, and finally it becomes a stream so deep and wide that it can’t be crossed. This paradoxical river does a strange thing – it gets fuller as it flows away from its source. How can that be?

Moreover, this little stream from the temple is flowing southeast out of Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea, twelve miles away. The land to the east of Jerusalem is arid, and the area near the Dead Sea is a poisoned salt wasteland where absolutely nothing can live. But this stream has a marvelous affect:

On the bank of the river there were very many trees on the one side and on the other. Then he said to me, “These waters go out toward the eastern region and go down into the Arabah; then they go toward the sea, being made to flow into the sea, and the waters of the sea become fresh. “It will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there and the others become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. “

And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many. “But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. “By the river on its bank, on one side and on the other, will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither and their fruit will not fail. They will bear every month because their water flows from the sanctuary, and their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek 47:7-12)

Long En-Gedi WaterfallIt is beautiful to see how the image of this river of life flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47 describes the outpouring of the Spirit that occurred at Pentecost. Of course, the Spirit first fell on the people in the temple as they were worshiping there, as tongues of flame settled on them. It was as if the Spirit started trickling out of the sanctuary to that little “puddle” of believers.

Interestingly, when Peter preached to the people at the temple at Pentecost, he was probably standing on the south stairs, where the water in Ezekiel’s vision flowed! That is a large public gathering place where the worshippers entered the temple, a common site of public teaching. Also on that south stairs are the mikvehs (ceremonial baths), where 3000 people that day were baptized in living water. They have been excavated and are visible even today.

The trickle of God’s Spirit became ankle deep as the first believers shared the gospel and many in the city believed, and then knee deep as they carried the gospel to the surrounding countries. Instead of running out of energy as it flowed, the river of God’s Spirit got deeper and wider as it flowed! And its ultimate destination is that of the most desolate of wastelands, full of the poisonous, brackish water of the Dead Sea. This is the dark reality of a world devoid of a true knowledge of God. Anywhere it touches it gives new life and an intimate relationship with God where there was only death before.

We were all the more touched by the fact that one of the places where this river of life flows is En-Gedi, the image we chose for our name. We knew that En-Gedi is an oasis full of waterfalls that show the image of living water. But only after studying this passage did we realize that En-Gedi is fed by waters that come down from the mountain of Jerusalem, and are right at the edge of this “River of Life” of God’s Holy Spirit that he is pouring out on the world.

What is God’s final plan for this river that gets deeper and wider as it flows?

The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk. 2:14, Isaiah 11:9) 

Do you know where I can find some Hebraic insights on ___ ?

Dear readers,

Over the years, one of the most common questions I’m asked is, “Do you know where can I get some insights on ____ from a Hebraic perspective?”

…the Lord’s Prayer?
…Jewish wedding traditions?
…Paul’s words about being a “fragrant offering”?
…the parable of the Ten Virgins?
…Psalm 23?

If I’ve got time, I try to respond and share a link or two from my writing or from a good source I’ve read.

One day I was thinking, wouldn’t it be great if I could give people a “Hebraic Studies Search Bar”? There are about a half-dozen sites that are my short-list when someone asks me a question like this. They have an abundance of articles that specialize on the Hebraic context of Christianity, but are quite readable for non-experts. Of course they include ones with my own writing, but some of my colleagues and mentors have shared a lot of material too.

Well, I have a little gift for you. I made a “Google Custom Search” bar that does this very thing. If you go to the EnGediResourceCenter.com search page, the bar searches just the short list. (The sites are listed on the EnGedi search page.)

Try it out!

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I thought it did quite a good job of pulling up pertinent articles, and I like to use it myself. It’s not comprehensive, but you can always go back to Google.

~ Lois

Welcome to En-Gedi’s Brand New Site

Shalom, friends!

As of September 2015, the En-Gedi Resource Center has a brand new website at EnGediResourceCenter.com. Please take a look around! (You can still see the original En-Gedi site at EGRC.net.) En-Gedi is gradually moving over to this platform, which is organized more topically, to make it easier for people who are searching for articles.

It’s still a work in progress. Even though there are already over four hundred articles on this site, there are still hundreds of articles and links that still need to move. More topics will be added over time as we add more articles. (If you’d like to help, please email us 🙂 or consider a donation to help support the project.)

The page that we’ve done the most on is Jesus’ Jewishness >> His Sayings in Context. There you see an introduction to the topic, along with brief articles and longer essays. At the bottom of the page are links to other useful sites. Someday all the pages will be that way, Lord willing.

Check out our glossary, bookstore and freebies page too, while you’re looking around.

Many thanks for your prayers and support,

Lois Tverberg

En Gedi

Loving Your Neighbor, Who is Like You

The first of the two great commandments, according to Jesus, is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul and strength. Jesus goes on to say that the second one is like it—to love your neighbor as yourself (Matt 22:35-37).

The overwhelming importance of this second command is echoed in the rest of the New Testament. Peter says “above all, love one another” (1 Peter 4:8), and in the letters of John, that “this was the teaching you have heard from the very beginning—to love one another” (1 John 3:11).

While the incredible richness of the words “love your neighbor as yourself” is already apparent to us, hearing more about Jesus’ words in their Jewish context will deepen our understanding of this saying and link it to other teachings of his.
The Link between Loving God and Your Neighbor

Just as the first of the two great commandments, to love the Lord, is from the Old Testament (Deut. 6:5), the command to “love your neighbor” is from there too. In Leviticus 19:18 it says,

You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.

Even before Jesus was on the scene, his fellow rabbis had been thinking about “what is the great commandment of the Torah,” and they answered it by linking the two passages: “And you shall love the Lord your God with all of your heart, and all of your soul, and all of your strength,” and, “and/but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

They had an interesting way of linking them together, called gezerah sheva, which is the practice of connecting verses that share a word or phrase relatively unique to them. In this case, those verses were linked because they share the Hebrew word ve’ahavta, which means, “and you shall love”. This exact phrase is used only in these two Old Testament passages, and one other time.

The rabbis suggested that since both verses start with the command to love, that they could be understood together as if one was expanding on the other as an explanation of how to love. So the greatest commandment of the Law, the klal gadol ba Torah (great principle of the Torah) was to love your neighbor, by which you demonstrated your love for God. Paul and the other New Testament writers are echoing both Jesus and other rabbinic thought when they say that, “The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Gal. 5:14), or that loving your neighbor is the “royal law” (James 2:8).
Interpreting “Loving Your Neighbor As Yourself”

The commonly understood interpretation is that we should love others with the same measure that we love ourselves, which is certainly very true! But the rabbis also saw that the Hebrew of that verse can also be read as, “Love your neighbor who is like yourself.” While either interpretation is valid, their emphasis was less on comparing our love of ourselves with our love for others, and more on comparing other people to ourselves, and then loving them because they are like us in our own frailties.

This actually fits the original context of Lev. 19:18 better, which says, “You shall not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the sons of your people, but you shall love your neighbor, as/like yourself; I am the LORD.” When we realize that we are guilty of the same sins that others are, we see that we shouldn’t bear grudges against them, but to forgive and love them instead.

The rabbis of Jesus’ day saw it as a challenge to realize that we are to love those who do not seem worthy because we ourselves are unworthy, and all are in need of God’s mercy. All people, including ourselves, are flawed and sinful, but we need to love them because we ourselves commit the same sins. One rabbi said,

If you hate your neighbor whose deeds are wicked like your own, I, the Lord, will punish you as your judge; and if you love your neighbor whose deeds are good like your own, I, the Lord, will be faithful to you and have mercy on you. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, chap. 26)

Another rabbi said:

Forgive your neighbor’s injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (28:2-4) (Ben Sira, c. 180 B.C.)

While what we have always understood as Christians about loving our neighbor as ourselves still remains true, the rabbis’ perspective highlights the fact that the time when we need to show love most is when we need to forgive others’ sins against us.

We can even hear the background of the verse of the Lord’s Prayer that says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” We could almost say, “Please love us even though we are sinners, as we love other sinners like ourselves.”

Forgiving sins is one of the strongest tests of love —it is easy to love someone who has treated us rightly, but to love someone who has hurt us is far more difficult. God must love us greatly if he keeps forgiving the sins we commit against him!

Another thing that the rabbis would point out from the phrase “Love your neighbor who is like you,” is that all humans are made in the image of God, and all are precious to him. When we are furious with terrorists who fly our planes into our buildings, it is easy to imagine that such people are animals, not even real persons. Every genocide starts with the idea that the enemy is not fully human. But if we remember that even the most wicked person bears the stamp of God’s image on him, we still must treat them with justice, and never forget their humanity.
Who is my Neighbor?

In Luke 10, when Jesus is having a discussion with a lawyer about “loving your neighbor,” the lawyer asks him the question “And who is my neighbor?” We assume that this is not a legitimate question, but it actually was a very good question. In Hebrew, the word reah was used for neighbor, but it was even more commonly used for friend. So the verse could be interpreted, “Love your friend who is like you” or “Love your friend as yourself,” which isn’t much of a challenge at all. The lawyer probably already understood that it didn’t just apply to one’s friends, it applied to one’s neighbors in a broader sense. The rabbinic debate was about how far that circle went, and he was asking Jesus just how far he thought that circle extended.

Jesus gave the lawyer a brilliant answer to how far the circle went: he told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then asked the lawyer who was the neighbor to the dying man, which was the despised Samaritan (Luke 10). We would expect the answer to the question “Who is my neighbor” to be “the dying man.” But Jesus asked the question in such a way as to force the man to say that the neighbor was in fact, the Samaritan.  In Jesus’ time the Samaritans and Jews despised each other as enemies, so Jesus’ implication is that we should go so far as to love even those who are not our friends.

By telling this parable, Jesus brilliantly used rabbinic technique to elevate third and final verse in the Old Testament verse that contains the word “ve’ahavta” to the level of the other two. It is Leviticus 19:34:

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.

The Samaritan would have been the stranger and the alien among them, and Jesus shows that the stranger and alien was the neighbor that the man should love! It seems that Jesus is tying “Love your neighbor” with “love the stranger” and even “love your enemies”! This saying was utterly unique to Jesus, and while he built it on rabbinic thought of his time, it goes far beyond that. It is amazing to see how our rabbi Jesus began with this rich material and brought it to its pinnacle.
More Light on the Samaritan

Jesus’ teaching grows even richer if we see his parable about the Good Samaritan in the light of a story in his Scripture that was in the background. (Remember that the entire first century Jewish culture was very biblically literate, and rabbis frequently alluded to their scriptures to give more depth to their stories.)

In 2 Chronicles 28:8-15, a scene takes place after Israel is divided into the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Ahaz, the king of Judah, led the nation into terrible idolatry, even sacrificing children to idols. Because of this, the Lord let Judah be attacked and defeated by Israel. This is the first time that Israel actually took prisoners of the tribes of Judah.

They were on the verge of leading 200,000 of them away as their slaves, but a prophet chastised them, reminding them that God let them defeat Judah as a punishment for idolatry, and they were even more guilty of worshipping idols than their brothers. He told them that if they took their own brothers captive, it would compound their guilt before the Lord. So some of the leaders of the tribes repented of their sin and set the Judeans free. It says,

Then the men who were designated by name arose, took the captives, and they clothed all their naked ones from the spoil; and they gave them clothes and sandals, fed them and gave them drink, anointed them with oil, led all their feeble ones on donkeys, and brought them to Jericho, the city of palm trees, to their brothers; then they returned to Samaria. (2 Chron. 28:15)

We rarely read of a story of such compassion between nations at war, where one binds the wounds of the other and gently restores them to freedom. This was a remarkable moment of grace between the tribes of Israel. These “good Samaritans” appear to be in the background of Jesus’ character of the Samaritan in his parable for several reasons.

In the parable, Jesus mentions the town Jericho, one of the few times he ever mentions specific places in parables. The victim is stripped naked, like some of the Judeans were, and the Samaritan anoints the man and puts him on a donkey and carries him to Jericho, like was done with the Judeans. His audience easily could have brought to mind this story.

If Jesus had this in mind, it shows us even more brilliance packed into his parable. In this story of the ancient “good Samaritans,” the point at which they repented and decided to love their enemies was exactly when they became aware of the truth of Leviticus 19:18—that their enemies were their own brothers, and that they were sinners just like them! They were loving their neighbors, because they realized they were alike both in humanity and sinfulness. To the audience of Jesus’ parable, they would have remembered that the Samaritans actually did at one time perform this act of great compassion for their enemies, which was Israel. And that they should act like these people (and love these people), who then were their worst enemies.
What are the implications?

It is hard to overstate the depth and brilliance of Jesus in his rabbinic teaching. He builds on Old Testament stories and and rabbinic thought to express an idea that was unique to him—that we should even love our enemies. Why? Because they are human beings, made in the image of God like ourselves, and because we are all sinners in God’s sight. Just as God loves both the just and the unjust, how much more, we who are sinners, should love other sinners like ourselves.

How to Love the Lord

Learning about Jesus’ Jewish culture never ceases to add depth to his words. For instance, it appears that Jesus was involved in some of the same key discussions that other rabbis participated in. One important rabbinic discussion that was going on in Jesus’ time focused on the question, “Mah hu clal gadol b’Torah?” – literally, “What is commandment-big of the Law?” We can hear those very words being asked of Jesus in Mark:

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:28-31, NIV)

Jesus didn’t use his own words to summarize the Torah for the lawyer. He quoted Deuteronomy 6:4-5, the first two lines of the Shema (pronounced “Shmah”), the “pledge of allegiance” that Jesus as an observant Jew would have said every morning and evening. By doing this, a Jew would remind himself of his commitment to love God, to dedicate himself to following God and doing his will.

The rabbis of Jesus’ day said that when a person prayed the Shema, he “received upon himself the kingdom of God,” meaning that he was placing God as king over his life. Some Jews teach their children the Shema as soon as they learn to talk! It is the central affirmation for a Jewish person of his or her commitment to the Lord. (Jesus’ next statement, “love your neighbor,” is from Leviticus 19:18. You can read about it here.)

Many have heard of the Shema. But it is helpful to unpack some of the richness of these lines that were central to Jesus and to his faith. Let’s look at some of what it means. First, lets look at the saying in Hebrew:

Shema (Hear)
Israel,
Adonai (the Lord)
elohenu (our god)
Adonai (the Lord)
echad! (one/alone)

Shema” is the first word and is usually translated “Hear!” But the word shema actually has a stronger meaning than that. It has the sense of “take heed” or “obey.” In fact, when we see the word “obey” in English in the Old Testament, the Hebrew word behind it is usually “shema”! When Jesus says “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” he really means, “you have heard my teaching, now take it to heart and obey it!” Likewise, the Shema is telling the Israelites to obey – to act out their belief in the Lord, not just to “hear.”

The word “echad” in Hebrew is the word for one. Jews and Christians have often debated its meaning, since Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity. Christians point out that it can mean a compound unity, like one bunch of grapes. But, the widely used Jewish translation of the Scriptures, the JPS Tanakh, says that the best reading of the word in this phrase really is not “one” but “alone.” So, instead of reading that sentence as “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!”

This changes the emphasis of the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for their absolute allegiance to God. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Let’s look at the next phrase in Deuteronomy,

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength.”

On the surface, we think we understand heart, soul and strength, but knowing the Hebrew background of the words adds great richness to this command.

Heart (levav) in Hebrew does not just mean your emotions, but also means your mind and thoughts as well. So we are to use all of our thoughts to love the Lord – as Paul says, we “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” (2 Cor 10:5). In the gospels the phrase “and all your mind” is there to emphasize that fact, but from Moses’ time it would have been understood that way as well. Whenever we read “heart” in the Old Testament we should understand it in terms of the intellect as well as the emotions, because in Hebrew, it can mean your mind.

Soul (nephesh) also can have a different sense in Hebrew than just your “spirit” or “emotions.” Nephesh means “life” as well as “soul.” So the Jewish interpretation is that you are to love the Lord with all of your life, meaning with every moment throughout your life, and be willing even to sacrifice your life for him. If Jews are able, they will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to the God of Israel. Many a Jewish martyr has exclaimed the Shema with his last breath as a testimony to that fact.

Strength (me’od) is an unusual word usage which really means “much” or “very”. You could translate the passage “with all of your much-ness” or “with all of your increase”. It is interpreted to mean “with everything that you have” — your money, your time, your possessions and your family. Loving God with everything you have is a high calling indeed!

So, as we re-read Jesus’ favorite law from Jesus’ favorite book, we can capture it in this modern way:

“Listen up, Israel – The Lord is your God, he, and he alone!! You should love him with every thought that you think, live every hour of every day for him, be willing to sacrifice your life for him. Love him with every penny in your wallet and everything that you’ve got!”

AMEN!

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For more about the Shema, see chapters 2-3 in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg (Zondervan, 2012).

Measure for Measure

For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged,
and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Luke 7:1-2

In the passage above about the “measure you use,” Jesus is using a classic rabbinic form of reasoning called midah keneged midah (mee-dah kah-NEG-ed mee-dah), literally meaning, “measure corresponding to measure.” This term was developed by later rabbis, but the idea comes up throughout the Old Testament and is found in the words of Jesus and Paul too. Knowing more about this expression and the logic behind it can give us insight on Jesus’ words, with implications for how we should live.

Measure for Measure

The rabbis from before Jesus’ time noticed that there was a pattern throughout the Scriptures that described how God dealt with sin, in that the consequences often fit the crime. Several places it says so explicitly:

Then say to Pharaoh, “This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, ‘Let my son go, so he may worship me.’ But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.” Exodus 4:22-23
Do not take advantage of a widow or an orphan. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless. Exodus 22:22-24

This idea that a person receives the effects of their sin back on themselves as punishment, measure for measure, was understood to be a basic principle of God’s justice. It is fascinating to see how often this pattern is found in many other accounts, woven subtly into the story.1  For instance:

Jacob deceived his father Isaac into giving him the birthright by substituting himself for his brother, taking advantage of his father’s blindness. In the same way, he was tricked when Leah was substituted for her sister on his wedding night and he couldn’t see her! Genesis 27; 29:23-25

Pharaoh commanded his people to drown the Israelite boys in the waters of the Nile. Later, his own army perished by drowning in the Red Sea in pursuit of the Israelites. Exodus 1:22; 14:28

Haman was angry with Mordechai for not bowing down to him and he built a gallows to have him hanged. He ended up being forced to lead Mordechai on a horse to honor him, and being hanged on his own gallows! Esther 5:9,14; 6:11, 7:10

We might smile at this “poetic justice,” and when we realize that it’s taking place, we see that events aren’t random, but that God in control. In the story of Jacob, it shows us that God didn’t condone Jacob’s deceitfulness, but let him suffer the consequences of a sin much like what he himself committed. Paul also talks about a general rule of paying the consequences for the choices we make:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Galatians 6:7-8

We know that much of the time this is true – if we’re dishonest, we’ll get caught by our own lies, or if we are hateful, we’ll find ourselves being hated too. It’s just true that generally, what goes around, comes around in this life.

When Not to Use Measure-for-Measure

It might be a temptation, then, to assume that all problems in this life come from midah keneged midah—God giving us our just deserts for some sin in the past. But both the Old and New Testaments disagree with this. In the story of Job, his friends tell him that his suffering must be the punishment for some sin, applying this logic that God always repays the wicked for their sins. But when God finally appears, he is very angry with his friends, saying that they have not spoken of him rightly! (Job 42:8) The underlying message is that we should not use this logic on each other, to look for a reason why others suffer.

In fact, the Scriptures flip the idea of midah keneged midah on its head sometimes, threatening to use it against people who use it against others! In the case of the poor person coming to us for help, we might be tempted to refuse because he got into trouble from his own bad choices. But, the Scriptures say that when we do this, we invite God to ignore our problems, measure-for-measure:

He who shuts his ear to the cry of the poor
Will also cry himself and not be answered. Proverbs 21:13

Or as one 18th century rabbi put it,

When a poor man asks you for aid, do not use his faults as an excuse for not helping him. For then God will look at your offenses, and he is sure to find many.2

The quote above reminds us why we shouldn’t be hard-hearted to those who are suffering, even when it’s because of their own sins. We all are sinners, and for the most part, God does not deal with us as we deserve. He restrains his hand of judgment in this life and supplies our needs whether we deserve it or not—causing the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sending rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45) We should help those who don’t deserve it because God helps us when we don’t deserve it.

Like the rabbi above who reminds us that none of us is without sin, Jesus points this out when asked about the murder of some Jews in the Temple by Pilate:

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Luke 13:2-5

Jesus was saying that while people who suffer are not innocent, they are no worse sinners than the rest of us. We are just like them. None of us is in a position to judge, and God is showing mercy to all of us until the final day of judgment. Instead of looking for ways to blame those who struggle, we should examine our own lives, knowing that being comfortable is not necessarily a sign of God’s approval.3

 

Being Merciful, Measure-for-Measure

In what way, then, should we respond, measure-for-measure? God uses this logic in a different way that we can learn from. One might think that God would tell the Israelites that they should respond, measure for measure, to the ill-treatment that they got in Egypt by being cruel to the Egyptians in the future. But instead, he tells them to use the logic in another way—that just as they knew what it was like to be helpless aliens and slaves in Egypt, that they should empathize with all strangers who come into their land:

When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt. I am the LORD your God. Lev. 19:33-34

God points out that the people’s own hard past should teach them to care about others, particularly the alien, a traveler or refugee who usually had very few rights and was easily exploited. Even if an Egyptian were to come to Israel, the people’s response was to be loving, not vengeful, when they saw him as one who is in the same situation that they once were. In the same way, seeing others’ troubles, and knowing that it is only by grace that we aren’t in their place, should prompt us to come to their aid too. Instead of linking punishment to sin by measure-for-measure, we link our response to what we know God has done for us, measure-for-measure.

Perhaps this is also behind Jesus’ words about forgiveness:

Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Luke 6:37-38

Like the Israelites, when we see the situation that we were in, and the condemnation that God has us set free from, the reasonable, expected response is that we extend that to others who are sinners like ourselves. Like the Israelites in Egypt, or like the debtor in the story of Matthew 18:23-35, we have been delivered at great cost through unfathomable mercy and are therefore called by God to extend that same mercy to those we encounter.

Let it never be said of us, “You wicked servant … I canceled all your debt because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had on you?”  Matt 18:32-33


1 Babylonian Talmud, Sanh. 90a, b. A major reference for this essay is the lecture, “Measure for Measure” by Joseph Frankovic, from the Centre for Study of Biblical Research.

2 Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsberg (d. 1778), as quoted in Jewish Wisdom, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, 1994, William Morrow & Co, p. 15.

3 This is not to say that we should give to others without discernment, when our resources will be wasted and ultimately unhelpful. Rather than giving up, we should see if there are better ways to do so. On the subject of what Jesus said about suffering, see The Tsunami: Thoughts from Job and Jesus, at www.egrc.net for more.

The legal ruling of “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is another aspect of measure-for-measure. This legal principle was actually not interpreted as we hear it, and actually was an effort at moderating punishment and making it more fair. For more, see An Eye For an Eye.

What Did Jesus Mean by “Do Not Judge”?

Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:1-2

What did Jesus mean by “do not judge?” This is one of those sayings of Jesus that can be unclear. It can sound like Jesus was telling us to look the other way when we see sin. However, from everything else that Jesus said, we know that he couldn’t be suggesting this. Yet, to not be guilty of ” judging,” we often try to avoid calling sin for what it is.

To better understand what Jesus meant, it is helpful to study some of the discussion going on among others in Jesus’ culture and see if they can shed light on his words. Interestingly, Jesus’ contemporaries taught ideas close to this concept of “do not judge.” While their words do not have the authority of Jesus’ words, and while we need to be discerning about our conclusions, we will see that Jesus may have been expanding on their good ideas in his own teaching about judging.

Judging Others Favorably

We can find some of discussion of Jesus’ contemporaries recorded in the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a collection of Jewish sayings written about two hundred years after Jesus lived, but including teachings from his time and before. The most important reference was from a rabbi who lived more than a hundred years before Jesus who said, “Judge everyone with the scales weighted in their favor” (Yehoshua ben Perechia, Avot 1:6). In a later source, the Babylonian Talmud, it says “He who judges his neighbor favorably will be judged favorably by God” (Shabbat 127a). It is interesting to see how reminiscent this is of Jesus’ saying, “with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” To “judge in favorable terms” was considered as important as visiting the sick, devotion in prayer, or teaching the Scriptures to your children!

A story was told to illustrate the point:

A man went to work on a farm for three years. At the end of this time, he went to his employer and requested his wages so that he could go home and support his wife and children. The farm owner said to him, “I have no money to give you!”
So he said to him, “Well, give me some of the crops I’ve helped grow.”
The man replied, “I have none!”
“Well then, give me some of the goats or sheep, that I’ve helped to raise!”
And the farmer shrugged and said that he had nothing he could give him. So the farm hand gathered up his belongings and went home with a sorrowful heart.
A few days later his employer came to his house with all of his wages along with three carts full of food and drink. They had dinner together and afterward the farm owner said to him, “When I told you I had no money, what did you suspect me of?”
“I thought you had seen a good bargain and used all your cash to buy it.”
Then he said “What did you think when I said that I had no crops?”
“I thought perhaps they were all leased from others.”
He then said, “What did you think when I said I had no animals?”
“I thought that you may have dedicated them all to the Temple.”
The farmer answered him, “You are right! My son wouldn’t study the Scriptures, and I had rashly vowed all of my possessions to God in my prayers for my son. But, just a couple days ago, I was absolved of the vow so that now I can pay you. And as for you, just as you have judged me favorably, may the Lord judge you favorably!” 1

This story is a strong example of resisting condemnation. It also parallels, “For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” Could this enlighten us to the gist of what Jesus was saying? The idea from the text is that the hired hand always gave the employer the benefit of the doubt by imagining the best possible motivation for his seemingly suspicious actions. This is exactly what the rabbis meant by always judging a neighbor favorably.

This seems like a nice thought, but hardly an earth-shaking interpretation of Jesus’ words. But, what if we applied it to our own lives? Just imagine these situations and the choices you might have in your reactions:

On the way to church, a car passes you on the road and cuts you off. Why?

– The driver is has no regard for speed laws! He is just trying to impress people!
– or, maybe the driver is late for something, or his kids are driving him crazy.

In church, you are asked to greet the people around you, but the lady in front of you was obviously avoiding you. Why?

– She is obviously a snob and you didn’t dress well enough today!
– or, maybe she is new to this church or uncomfortable meeting people.

A woman asks you afterward about the surgery she had heard that you had. Why?

– She is a busybody who just wants to put her nose in your business!
– or, maybe she genuinely worries about others, and wants to share your burdens.

In almost every situation, we have the choice to look for a good motivation or a bad motivation behind other people’s behavior. The way we interpret others’ motivations has a profound effect on our reactions toward others. This idea of the rabbis to “judge favorably” certainly was a great one, even if it isn’t exactly what Jesus said.

Imagine another scenario where a “worship war” has broken out in a congregation. The older members want to sing hymns and the young members want gospel rock. The older people are saying things like, “They have no appreciation for the richness of hymns – they only want to be entertained!” The younger people respond with, “The old folks don’t care about reaching the lost—they just want to do things the same old way!”

What would happen if each group stopped assigning negative motivations to the other group? What if the “hymns only” group started saying, “Maybe the younger members of our church think that they can bring new meaning to the service by putting it in their own style…” What if the “rock band” enthusiasts started saying, “Maybe the older members find more meaning in what’s familiar rather than in what sounds strange to them…”

How long would the conflict last in that church? How long would it be before both groups would try their best to love and accommodate each other?

To this day, Jewish culture has endeavored to instill in its people the ethic to “judge favorably.” There’s a Jewish group that meets simply to practice giving the benefit of the doubt when it appears someone has done something unkind. They reflect on hurts in their lives and then propose ways to excuse the perpetrator. When one of them didn’t receive an invitation to a wedding, they would say, “Perhaps the person was under the impression that they had already sent an invitation,” or, “Perhaps they couldn’t afford to invite many people.” 2

One Jewish website called, “The Other Side of the Story” is filled with stories where a person looked liked he was in the wrong, but then turned out to be innocent.4 The point is simply to teach others the importance of judging favorably.

Jesus’ Words, “Do Not Judge”

Even though the rabbis’ words are wise, they aren’t exactly what Jesus said. How does Jesus teaching about “do not judge” compare to theirs? Jesus began with what the other rabbis taught and then increased the challenge. His audience already knew about the “judge favorably” teaching; it had been around for at least a hundred years. The famous rabbi Hillel, who lived fifty years before Jesus, said, “Judge not your fellow man until you yourself come into his place” (Avot 2:5). His idea was that we shouldn’t judge because we don’t have full knowledge of another’s life experience. We can’t know if someone struggles with depression or some other wound from their past. Hillel’s idea is a step closer to what Jesus said, and it shows that the discussion of “judging” was still going on in Jesus’ time.

However, Jesus’ reasoning was different from Hillel’s. Jesus knew that we expect people will usually sin willfully and intentionally. At some point it will be undeniable that a person’s intention was evil, and we shouldn’t pretend that it wasn’t. Jesus pointed out that our response must be to remind ourselves of our own sinful hearts—the only hearts we really can know. Realizing our own sinful nature, we shouldn’t place judgment on others. If we want God to be merciful to us, we need to put aside condemnation and extend mercy instead.

As Jesus said, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven…For with the measure you use, it will be measured out to you.” (Luke 6:35-38) Rather than saying, “Judge favorably,” perhaps Jesus would have said, “Judge mercifully! Do everything you can to extend mercy to others.”

Obviously, this not to cast aside discernment. We should discern whether an action or an outward attitude is wrong. According to Paul, the church is not only to discern, but also obligated to discipline sinful practice among its members (1 Cor. 5:1-5). And when a wrong is committed against us personally, Jesus tells us to show the person his sin in hopes of his being repentant so that we can forgive (Matt 18:15-17).

While we can discern sin in practice, only God knows the motive of the heart. We need to leave final judgment up to him. To judge another is to presume to have both the knowledge and authority of God himself. So when we are in a situation where we are tempted to condemn someone, we need to step back, hand the situation over to the Lord, and remind ourselves that it is his job to render judgement, not ours. As we read in James 4:12, “There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy; but who are you who judge your neighbor?”

It turns out that both the rabbis’ words and Jesus’ words are extremely useful in every day life. Our attitude toward others will become more loving when we assume the best rather than the worst about people. If we try to always “judge favorably,” we will be less likely to have a critical or cynical spirit towards others. Even when people are clearly in the wrong, we can give them the benefit of the doubt as much as possible.

Other Ways of Judging

If judging (or judging negatively) is defined as believing the worst about others, it includes many other types of hurtful behavior as well. Insults are a form of judgment, such as calling someone arrogant or loud-mouthed. Gossip relies heavily on judgment too. People who gossip usually look for wrongdoing in a person’s life in order to share it with others. Criticism, cynicism, even complaining are all rooted in searching out the negative everywhere we can find it. James says, “Do not speak against one another, brethren. He who speaks against a brother judges his brother” (James 4:11).

Negative judgments are particularly toxic to marriage relationships. In the book Blink,4 Malcolm Gladwell describes a study of married couples which examined the rate of divorce compared to attitudes that the couple showed toward each other in interviews five or ten years earlier. The interviewers looked at dozens of variables, but found only one factor that could almost surely predict divorce—an attitude of contempt. When one or both partners habitually spoke to the other with disdain or disgust, even in the most subtle ways, the marriage was often moving toward a break up. If you think about it, contempt comes from a history of judging unfavorably and without mercy. It is a way of saying, “I have reached my verdict, and there is nothing good in you.

People who struggle with chronic anger can often find the root of their problem in looking for something wrong in other peoples’ actions—their own act of judging negatively. If you think about it, anger always involves an accusation of sin. Next time you are angry, ask yourself what sin you might be accusing the other person of; then remember that Jesus says that you are a sinner too. You can’t expect God’s mercy if you aren’t merciful to others. (See Matthew 18:23-34.)

Summary

All of us would do well to focus more on judging favorably, and extending mercy. Both are ways of showing God’s grace. We’ll find that over time, it really has the potential to transform our personalities to be more like Christ. Listen to Jesus words one more time:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. Luke 6:35-38

~~~~~

1 B. Talmud, Shabbat 127a

2 J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (c) 2000, Bell Tower, New York, ISBN 0609603302, p. 35.

3 Find other links on judging favorably in En-Gedi’s article section on Jewish Ethics.

4 M. Gladwell, Blink (c) 2005, Little, Brown & Co, New York, ISBN 9780316172325, pp. 30-34.

Learning from Our Rabbi Jesus

Puzzle PieceThe sayings of Jesus can sometimes be a puzzle to us. Much of our difficulty comes from not seeing the nuances of their Jewish style and context. This loss of understanding has come from the church’s movement away from its Jewish beginnings.

Jesus used many rabbinic teaching methods to deliver his powerful message. Let’s take a look at a few of them:

 

The Parable

Even though Jesus was a master at using parables for his purposes, he didn’t invent them. Over a thousand parables are on record. Most of them postdate Jesus’ ministry but a few come before.

A parable was a way to explain a theological truth in terms of physical images and stories. Just as the Hebrew language uses concrete pictures to express abstractions (God’s “outstretched arm” meant God’s power, to be “stiff-necked” meant to be stubborn, etc), the parable explained truth in terms of everyday experiences. The logic was that we can understand things we don’t see by comparing them to things that we can see and know about.

Typically, a rabbi told a parable to make one major point, often as an illustration of a larger teaching. Many times two parables were told that made the same point in order to strengthen the overall conclusion, because could be proved by the “testimony of two witnesses.” Jesus often told parables in pairs, as when he tells the parable of the leaven and the mustard seed – both describing something that starts out invisible but then grows huge. By reading the two parables together and seeing the parallels, we grasp the common conclusion more clearly.1

Parallel rows in a field

Certain elements were common in many parables, and they usually were drawn from the Scriptures. A king was often the subject of the parable, and the king was almost always symbolic of God (from 1 Sam 8:7). Jesus told several parables about kings, all making a point about the nature of God.

Another motif that was used for God is the shepherd. One rabbinic parable says,

When a sheep strays from the pasture, who seeks whom? Does the sheep seek the shepherd, or the shepherd seek the sheep? Obviously, the shepherd seeks the sheep. In the same way, the Holy One, blessed be He, looks for the lost.2

We hear the similarity between this parable and Jesus’ story about the shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to look for the one lost sheep. Interestingly, even other rabbis had the understanding that God has mercy on the lost, and pursues them to bring them back to himself.

Both parables use the shepherd image because in several places in the Old Testament, God is described as a shepherd looking for his sheep (Ezekiel 34, Jer. 23). The Messiah is also called the “shepherd” too – linking God to the Messiah. When Jesus speaks of himself as “the good shepherd” (John 10), all of these images would have come to mind.

 

Kal V’homer

Another teaching method that Jesus used was called “kal v’homer,” meaning “light and heavy.” The idea was to communicate a larger truth by comparing it to a similar, but smaller situation. Often the phrase “how much more” would be part of the saying. Jesus used this when he taught about worry:

“Consider how the lilies grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12:27-28)

LiliesJesus also uses this method when he says, “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to you children, how much more will your Father in heaven give what is good to those who ask him!” (Matt 7:11) In both cases, Jesus was teaching theology in non-theological terminology.

Rabbis often used this logic even if they didn’t use the very words “how much more.” An interesting example is from Rabbi Gamaliel, the same rabbi mentioned in Acts 5:34. One time at a banquet, Gamaliel got up and humbly served his disciples, going against the tradition that they should serve him. When they protested and asked why, he said,

“Is Rabbi Gamaliel a lowly servant? He serves like a household servant, but there is one greater than him who serves. Consider Abraham who served his visitors. But there is one even greater than Abraham who serves. Consider the Holy One, blessed be He, who provides food for all his creation!” 3

Understanding his teaching is dependent on our grasping the “kal v’homer”. Abraham was the most revered of all of their ancestors, but Gamaliel points out that he acted as a humble servant by serving a meal to God and two angels in Genesis 18. Then he points out that God himself serves us and even the animals when he gives us food. God himself is a model of serving others rather than wanting to be served. Certainly, if one as great as God serves his lowly creation, how much more should we serve each other!

 

Rabbinic Exaggeration

Some of the sayings of Jesus are so strong that we wonder if Jesus really wants us to take them literally. Should we really pluck out our eye if it causes us to sin? Is it really better to be drowned with a millstone than to lead a little one astray? Is it really harder for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? Jesus’ overstatements make us uncomfortable when we aren’t sure how we should take them.

One thing that we should keep in mind is that Jesus’ contemporaries often exaggerated, and gave commands that went far beyond expectations, in order to underline the importance of what they taught. For instance,

When three eat at one table and words of Torah are not spoken there,
it is as if they ate at the altars of the dead…
But when three eat at one table and bring up words of Torah,
it is as if they ate from the table of God, blessed be He! 4

The point of this teaching is to emphasize that people should try to always include discussion of the scriptures when they eat together. Likening a meal without Bible study to worshipping in an idolatrous temple is a strong overstatement that is intended for emphasis. Or, here is another example:

Let no one stand for prayer without bowing his head…
Even if the king greets you, do not answer him.
And even if a snake is coiled at your heel, do not break it off.5

Once again the importance of concentration in prayer is taught by exaggeration—by saying that even in the most extreme circumstances, you should have single-minded attention on God. People took these teachings seriously, but knew they were overstatements for effect.

Open 8 Days a Week

Knowing this aspect of Jesus’ culture should give us some sense of how Jesus’ words were heard by his audience when he said things like, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt…you can say to this mountain, “Go, throw yourself into the sea,” and it will be done.” (Matt 21:21). He sounded like many other rabbis who said extreme things to reinforce the importance of their teaching. We must be careful never to minimize Jesus’ high calling away as exaggeration. But at the same time, we grow in our ability to interpret his words when we know how they would have been heard in his time.

 

Alluding to the Scriptures

It may surprise many that Jesus’ teachings are peppered with “hints” to his scriptures. He often used unique phrases or even single words to allude to passages in the Old Testament. He could do this because he lived in a biblically literate culture, where people knew much of the Old Testament scriptures by memory. By knowing his reference, people recognize the context and heard more complex ideas of the Scriptures behind his words. He wasn’t hiding secret messages—he expected people to catch his allusions. In medieval times the Jews referred to this technique of hinting as “remez,” but the practice actually predated Jesus.

One example of this is when at the cleansing of the temple, Jesus said, “My house is to be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!” (Matt 21:13) He was quoting Isaiah 56:6 and Jeremiah 7:11, which contrast God’s greatest vision for the temple (All the nations of the world worshiping there) with the worst possible abuse of it (being used as a refuge for thieves and murderers, which led to its destruction). He was not just protesting the selling of doves – he was speaking about the corrupt leadership that was getting rich from temple sacrifices, and hinting about the Temple’s destruction.6

Nixon leaving after WatergateWe actually use the same practice of allusion today. When a headline reads, “War in Iraq May Be Another Vietnam,” it assumes that everyone knows the history of the Vietnam War. Without saying anything but the word “Vietnam,” people immediately know the reference, and have an emotional reaction to that difficult time in US history.

Or, when we refer to a government scandal as “Travel-gate” or “File-gate,” we are subtly alluding to the Watergate scandal. Just by adding the half-word “gate,” we hint that the issue is a major White House scandal that will cast a shadow over the presidency. Just as we expect people to be literate in history, Jesus expected his listeners to be literate with God’s word.

Another example of this practice in the gospels is the conversation Jesus had with John’s disciples about whether he was the “one who was to come,” in Matt. 11: 2–6:

“When John heard in prison what Christ was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. Blessed is the man who does not fall away on account of me.”

Both John’s question and Jesus’ answer are filled with allusions to the scriptures. John was speaking of the “coming one” of Malachi 3:2, and Jesus’ answer was from Isaiah 35:4-6 and 61:1 that speak about the coming of the messiah.8 Recognizing that all those things Jesus mentioned were fulfillment of Scripture underlined that he was the fulfillment of all of those prophecies.

 

Conclusion

Knowing more about Jesus’ context should both clarify our reading and challenge us to take another look at Jesus’ words in light of his scriptures and Jewish culture. Jesus used methods of teaching that are somewhat foreign to us, so it is easy to assume that his style was foreign to his first listeners too. But we see instead that God was preparing a culture for his own coming, giving them a love for the scriptures and powerful techniques to teach the truth about himself. Jesus used these methods to proclaim truth in an uncommonly brilliant way—certainly he was a master teacher!

~~~~~

1 See “Jesus’ Twin Parables” by Robert Lindsey at jerusalemperspective.com (Premium content membership needed.)

2 Brad Young, The Parables: Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, p 192. © 1998, Hendrickson. ISBN 1-56563-244-2. Also, see Brad Young, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, © 1995, Hendrickson. ISBN: 0-80280-423-3.

3 Mekhilta Amalek 3. It’s interesting to hear the close ties between Jesus’ foot washing and Gamaliel’s serving at the banquet. His ministry was during the time of Jesus and afterward, and Paul studied with him. Even though he was not a follower of Jesus, he defended the disciples (Acts 5:33-39) and may have been influenced by Jesus’ teaching.

4 Mishnah, Pirke Avot 3.2-3. The Mishnah was the Jewish commentary on the Torah that was in effect from a few hundred years before Christ until it was written down in 200 AD. Much of it was observed at the time of Jesus.

5 Mishnah, Berakot 5.1

6 See “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week” for a list of allusions that Jesus makes during his last week that all hint toward punishment on the corrupt temple leadership and destruction of the temple. Also, see the article “Remember Shiloh” by J. Frankovic at jerusalemperspective.com. (Premium content membership needed.)

7 See “Jesus’ Habit of Hinting” and “Hearing Jesus’ Hidden Messages” for more examples of this technique of alluding to scripture.

Photos: Chris Downer, Oliver Atkins, Olga Berrios

Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus

Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus

How the Jewish Words of Jesus
Can Change Your Life

by Lois Tverberg
© Zondervan, 2012

Hardcover: $18.99 $13.99

Paperback: $14.99 $11.99

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(Download the first 35 pages)

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Order the Paperback – $11.99

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Order the Hardcover – $13.99

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Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus looks at Jesus’ words in light of Jewish thought and considers how their context can yield wisdom for today.  The book looks at

• How knowing Jewish idioms can help us better grasp what Jesus was saying

• How Jesus’ Middle Eastern culture sheds light on his parables, enlivening them in surprising ways

• How the Jewish world of Jesus can teach us how to pray with chutzpah or think with both hands

By understanding the religious and cultural atmosphere in which Jesus lived and taught, you’ll begin to see why his first disciples abandoned everything to follow him.

Come eavesdrop on the conversations among the rabbis of Jesus’ time. Learn how hearing Rabbi Jesus with the ears of a first-century disciple can yield practical insights that bring new depth to your spiritual life.

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The book retails for $18.99, but you can order the hardcover here for $13.99, and the paperback for $11.99.

Special for study groups: Order 10 copies of the paperback for only $9.99 each!

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Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesusby Ann Spangler & Lois Tverberg

© Zondervan, 2009, 272 pages
List Price: $21.99 US

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($21.99) – $14.99

 

A rare chance to know Jesus as his first disciples knew him.

What would it be like to journey back to the first century and sit at the feet of Rabbi Jesus as one of his Jewish disciples? How would your understanding of the gospel have been shaped by the customs, beliefs, and traditions of the Jewish culture in which you lived?

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus takes you on a fascinating tour of the Jewish world of Jesus, offering inspirational insights that can transform your faith. Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg paint powerful scenes from Jesus’ ministry, immersing you in the prayers, feasts, history, culture, and customs that shaped Jesus and those who followed him.

You will hear the parables as they must have sounded to first-century Jews, powerful and surprising. You will join the conversations that were already going on among the rabbis of his day. You will watch with new understanding as the events of his life unfold. And you will emerge with new excitement about the roots of your own Christian faith.

Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus will change the way you read Scripture and deepen your understanding of the life of Jesus. It will also help you to adapt the rich prayers and customs you learn about to your own life, in ways that both respect and enrich your Christian faith.

By looking at the Jewishness of Jesus, Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg take you on a captivating journey into the heart of Judaism, one that is both balanced and insightful, helping you to better understand and appreciate your own faith.


Download a sample chapter (pdf)


Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus is available for $14.99 ($7 off the cover price).

($21.99) – $14.99