Christians usually focus on the story of the physical creation when they read the first few chapters of Genesis. We miss the fact that these critical chapters are teaching revolutionary truths, which to us seem so basic we can hardly think in any other terms. Yet until Judaism and Christianity brought them to the world, they were not a part of mankind’s thinking. Not only are they important, they are wonderful news once you think about it!
We need to understand how utterly unique the biblical account is compared to all other creation stories, and what the differences say. Most creation myths from the ancient world revolved around the wars and sexual relationships of human-like gods and goddesses. As they imagined it, various parts of creation (like the sky, the earth or the sea) were formed through the sexual acts of the gods or by one god slaying another and dismembering the body.
Humankind was created to be the slaves the gods, to relieve them of daily drudgery. In the Ancient Near East, gods were assumed to be limited in power and not interested in morality, just how to gain power over the other gods. Humans appeased their anger through magical incantations and religious ceremonies, but they didn’t atone for wrongs done to others. it was fine to be quick-witted, devious and underhanded because the gods simply didn’t care.
The assumption of the Ancient Near East was that the world was arbitrary, unpredictable and cruel. Humans had no guarantee that their lives were meaningful in any way. This dismal, pessimistic worldview pervades the writings of these societies.
In contrast, the Genesis account of creation offers tremendous hope. Here are some of the wonderful things it says:
One eternal God created everything and is apart from the creation. Because God is all powerful, he sets a universal standard of ethics that applies to all humanity. He is the foundation of all good and he cares about what is good, and is concerned about humanity. What good news compared to the immoral, unconcerned pagan deities!
Not only does God care about what is good, he created the world very good. His creation (including humanity) is a wonderful thing, and even when marred by sin, it will ultimately redeemed for a great purpose. This should make us optimistic about our existence.
Man is uniquely precious. He is made from dust like the rest of creation, but he alone receives the breath of life from God himself. We are made in the image of God, and are related to him in a unique way. Because of that, God is our kinsman-redeemer, our protector and savior.
Later in Genesis we read about the Fall and how mankind quickly slips into depravity — first the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, then Lamech who would kill a man for wounding him (Gen 4:23), then the entire wicked generation of the flood (Gen. 6). A little bit of rebellion grows and grows until it permeates the whole human race. Salvation will come later through Christ, but the hope for the world ultimately begins back in Genesis, as we see the character of the God who created us and look forward to what he will do to redeem us.
(Editors note: This article was written and published in September of 2001, following the tragic events of 9/11.)
In the past couple weeks, I have been reminded of an image from one of the traditions of Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles, that will be celebrated next week. God tells his people to build booths and live in them for seven days, in order to remember how he brought them out of Egypt and kept them safe in the booths they lived in. This was to remind them of how God took care of them so that their feet did not swell and their clothes did not wear out. To this day, Jewish people have observed the tradition of building a sukkah.
In order for people to get the sense of dependency they had while wandering in the wilderness, they established regulations for the booths. The booths should be made out of impermanent materials, cannot be entirely enclosed on all four sides, and at least one star should be visible through the branches used to cover the roof.
It is also traditional to fill the booth with harvest images — such as fruit and vegetables from the garden, to remind one’s self of the abundance of God’s blessings during that year. They are supposed to live in them, or at least eat their meals in it as if it was their home.
As you sit in one of these rickety little booths and see the sky through the branches and feel the wind blow through the walls, you have a strong sense of your own insecurity and lack of protection from the elements.
That is exactly the point: that our security doesn’t come from the strength of the walls that we build around ourselves, it comes from our protection by the Lord. Ironically, at the same time a person feels insecure, there is also a feeling of being overwhelmed with the abundant blessings of the harvest he has given. It is a potent experience of what following God is like — feeling radical insecurity but blessed at the same time. That is what I’ve felt like lately.
The tragic national events of the last couple weeks have made my house feel like a sukkah. My sturdy brick house suddenly seemed as if I could see the stars through the roof and feel the wind through the walls.
When the Twin Towers fell it seemed like the security of living in the United States fell with it. It seems only a matter of time until more tragedy occurs. On top of that, the economy that is worsening is making life difficult or even desperate for many businesses and people who have lost their jobs.
It is hard in a situation like this not to feel abandoned or unloved by God. Indeed, our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, cursed God in their booths and accused him of bringing them out of Egypt in order to destroy them. They longed for cucumbers and melons and forgot the slavery altogether.
Questions about God’s character frequently arise — is God really good? Does he really have our best interests in mind? Why does God let adversity plague us? How can we really be sure that God is loving and not dispassionate and cruel?
The Lord spoke to me about this about a year ago when I had been asking these same questions. For several days it rained without stopping and my basement flooded, and kept filling with water for weeks. One day I told a new friend of mine, Mary, who told me to mention it to her husband Bruce, a man I hardly knew. I expected that he would give me the number of a plumber. Instead he said “It looks like you need to have a sump pump put in — I’d like to help you with that.”
It turned out to be the world’s most horrendous project. He and his brother-in-law worked on it for weeks at great time and expense to themselves. Every time I came downstairs I was speechless at Bruce’s generosity and good will. I had never met a person of such character who would sacrifice so much of himself to help another he hardly knew. During this time we started talking about working together, and out of it began the ministry of the En-Gedi Resource Center.
I know Bruce didn’t realize the Lord was speaking to me through his actions. God was saying behind it, “Can’t you see my character, Lois? Bruce is a good man, willing to sacrifice a lot to help another he hardly knows. Kal v’homer — How much more did I sacrifice for you when I suffered for you?”
What hit me is that the truest test of a person’s selfless goodwill and love for another is what he is willing to sacrifice of himself for the other. Because of that, the suffering of Christ has once and for all exonerated God from accusation of being evil. God could make us happy and wealthy, but it wouldn’t say nearly much about his love and good intentions toward us as when he himself suffered for us.
I think of Romans 5:8, which says “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Along with that, when he “tabernacled” among us, he felt the same insecurity that we feel.
Another thing I realized is that if Jesus and his Father are one, the sacrificial love of Jesus must be an exact reflection of the love of his Father in heaven. I’m not sure all Christians are convinced of this, because of their suspicion of God as he has revealed himself in our Old Testament. I hear things like “I think the story of the sacrifice of Isaac shows that God is a child abuser!”
If we are convinced that Jesus and his Father are one, how can we level that charge? Would we call Jesus a child abuser? Jesus himself says in John 5:19 “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself, unless it is something he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” Seeing God through the lens of Jesus must make us know that every possible charge of evil against him must be false even in the most difficult stories. We need to re-read difficult scriptures in the light of Christ.
With this thought, I see an irony in another Jewish tradition that comes at this time of year, called Simchat (“sim-KHAHT”) Torah, meaning “Rejoicing with the Torah.” Right after the feast of Sukkot is over, the the Torah scrolls are rewound back to the beginning and the next year’s reading cycle begins at Genesis 1:1 again.
This is an occasion of much rejoicing, and the object of their joy is the fact that God gave them his word, the Torah. They literally dance around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls praising God for the Scriptures. Why is it that they are so radically convinced of God’s goodness even in the passages that Christians find most difficult?
I think this is partly because they have understood the biblical culture better than Western Christians who find them so foreign. As I’ve studied the Torah, I’ve found the loving kindness of God in the books I have avoided, and this has deepened my understanding of the faithfulness of my Father in heaven.
Both the lesson of the Sukkah, God’s protection in the desert, and Simchat Torah, rejoicing in his Word, help answer the insecurity I feel at this time of worry and adversity.
I’m convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, of the goodness of God, even when it is hidden in difficult times or terrible events or even hard texts. His protection in the desert, his giving of his Word, and his very own sacrifice for us finally answer that question once and for all.
Many of the images in the Bible are obvious to us. We understand God as a shepherd, or being under the protection of his wings.
One image that is not readily apparent is that of leaven, at least in the modern world. The regulation that for one week each year all leavening had to be removed from dwellings of the Israelites can baffle Western Christians. What is so negative about the little packets of yeast that we use in bread?
It seems especially odd that to celebrate Passover and the week after, during the Feast of Unleavened Bread, it was so necessary to live without yeast. This prohibition is still observed by Jews even until this day.
Learning about food preservation and bread-making in ancient times can help us better understand this imagery. Whenever grain or flour is allowed to get moist, it will acquire a sour taste and get moldy within a few days: the normal process of decay.
This process comes from yeasts and molds in the air that start growing and producing acids. The microbes will also produce carbon dioxide and sometimes alcohol in this process of fermentation. Without steps taken to prevent it, this will always occur over time.
Far back in ancient history someone discovered that at an early point in the process, when the dough is still edible, it can be baked and the acid and bubbles will add texture and flavor to the bread. It normally takes a few days before fermenting and rising occur naturally, but it can be greatly hastened by inoculating the lump of dough with a little of an old lump that has been aging longer.
The tradition started to take out a lump of dough made each day and keep it until the next day, and add to the next batch. Sourdough breads today are still made this way by adding a “starter” dough from an earlier batch. The lump of old dough would become sour and inedible overnight, and if left longer it would become rancid and rotten, but it would be mixed into the new lump of dough to cause it to rise.
Once we see this picture of ancient bread-making, it becomes much more obvious why leavened dough (hametz in Hebrew) became an image of a life contaminated by sin. The decay that would lead to “death” or rottenness was added to each batch.
Without it the dough tends to be sweet, but adding it would give the dough a slightly sour taste that would get stronger and stronger until it was baked. (Ancient breads probably tasted more like sourdough bread.) Think of how sin tends to “sour” our personalities, and also cause us to “puff up” with pride. Eventually, as Adam first found out, sin leads to our decay and death.
Interestingly, we find a motif that seems like original sin: the infection was started in the first lump of dough that was leavened long time ago, like Adam committing the first sin. Each lump of dough after that received its “decay” from the dough made the day before, like sin being transmitted from generation to generation.
Most of the time leaven is a negative image, and Jesus uses it that way when he says “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt 16:6). One time, however, he transformed the image to use it in a positive way, to describe the kingdom of heaven. He says that the kingdom of heaven is like leaven, because you can put a very small amount of leavened dough into a very large mass, and it will have a potent effect on the whole thing (Matt 13:33).
Jesus was describing the powerful effect of the gospel, how even a few faithful believers can transform the world around them. Here he isn’t really referring to the image of decay but the ability of a very small amount of dough to cause a transformation of the whole dough. May we be like leaven in this way!
It’s good to think about what God was saying through leaven, especially around the time of Passover and Easter/Resurrection Day. The most powerful image of leaven is in the Passover meal that Jesus celebrates with his disciples as the Last Supper. When Jesus holds up the bread and says “This is my body” he certainly would have been holding up unleavened bread, or matzah, because the Jews were required to eat the Passover meal with unleavened bread (Deut 16:1-3).
Jesus wasn’t just speaking about his body as bread in general, but as this specific kind of bread, made without leaven, unadulterated by decay. Unlike the rest of humanity, who had been leavened with sin inherited from their fathers, he had not been infected with the “rottenness” that was in the rest of mankind.
By using this image he is saying another thing about himself: that he was fit as a sacrifice because he was free of leaven. All animal sacrifices offered up to God had to be without blemish, and any grain offerings offered up to the Lord by fire had to be free of leaven (Lev. 2:11, 6:17). It seems that when God prohibited his people 1,500 years earlier from eating leaven during Passover, he was thinking ahead to when Jesus would use the bread at the Passover meal to describe himself.
Because he is not leavened with sin, he is a suitable sacrifice, and because he is not infected with decay, he is God’s Holy One who will not see decay and will live on eternally! (Psalm 16:10, Psalm 49:9, Acts 13:34-37).
Paul and the other early Jewish believers understood this picture of leaven. Paul uses this image along with the fact that Passover came on the first day of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread to describe how Jesus’ sacrifice should enable us to live righteously:
Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough? Clean out the old leaven so that you may be a new lump, just as you are in fact unleavened. For Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. (1 Cor 5:6-8)
In Leviticus, we read an intriguing law that God gave Israel about observing a year of Jubilee:
‘You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. ‘You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. ‘You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. ‘You shall have the fiftieth year as a jubilee; you shall not sow, nor reap its aftergrowth, nor gather in from its untrimmed vines. (Lev 25:8 – 11)
God proclaimed that every seventh year was to be a sabbath for the land: crops were not to be planted, and they were to live on what God had provided before that time and what grew up by itself.
After seven sabbath years came a year of Jubilee, which along with being a Sabbath for the land, also was a “year of release.” This meant that all Israelites who were in bondage were freed, and anyone who had sold his ancestral property would receive it back, and all debts were forgiven. The word “Jubilee” comes from the word Yovel, a Hebrew word for the ram’s horn that was used to proclaim the year.
Another name for it was a “year of release (deror).” The Hebrew word deror means “release” or “liberty.” Early Americans, who knew their Bibles better than we do, placed Leviticus 25:10 on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”
Our founding fathers found inspiration in the year of Jubilee as they were establishing the United States. What did they find so special about this concept?
The Purpose of the Year of Jubilee
As part of God’s covenant with Israel, he promised to give the Israelites the land of Canaan. After the conquest of the land, it was divided among the tribes so that each family had its own share. In the ancient world, owning land was greatly prized because it was a source of food, income and security.
In that economy where people depended on the crops they raised, if a family had a bad harvest and ran out of food, they were forced to go into debt or even sell their land. If they couldn’t recover but fell further behind, they would have to sell themselves into slavery or leave the country, like Naomi and Elimelech in the book of Ruth.
People did not borrow money and sell land for business purposes, they did it only out of desperate economic need. So the Jubilee was for one main purpose — to provide for the poor who had gone into debt or lost their land, so that they would be able to start over again. Without it, the wealthy would always do better in bad years, and the land would tend to move into their hands while those who had lost their land would become permanently enslaved.
Another effect of the Jubilee would be to stop the destruction of families. If a man lost his land and sold himself and his family into slavery, or if he moved out of the country, he would likely never see his family together again. Part of the reason Naomi was distraught was because not only had she lost her hope for future descendants, but by leaving Israel, she also lost her family and past. When she returned, she was reunited with her family.
The year of Jubilee was to be a year that people returned home and families were brought together again.
The evidence suggests that Israel never observed the year of Jubilee. In 2 Chronicles it reports that they never allowed the land to have its Sabbath every seventh year, and if they never did that, they most likely never observed the year of Jubilee either. Several of the prophets lament the exploitation of the poor by the rich, which also hints that they never observed a Jubilee year.
There is, however, evidence from other Middle Eastern countries that years of release were proclaimed in ancient times when a new king came into power. It would be a way to ensure support from the masses when a king would declare all debts void and set free all those in bondage to debt.
It is interesting that the prophets thought of this association of a year of Jubilee with the coming of the Messiah. The primary image of the Messiah was that he would be a king like David, so just as the new kings of other countries declared a Jubilee when they came into power, the Messianic king would as well. Isaiah says:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)
This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year. Each phrase is about how great the “year of the Lord’s favor” will be to those who have been imprisoned or enslaved because of their debt. The king will let them go home and start life over, to their great joy.
Jesus and the Year of Jubilee
In Luke 4, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus reads the passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in his hometown, and he says “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!” his audience would have heard this as an obvious claim to be the Messiah who has now come into power.
Throughout Jesus’ ministry he uses images from the year of Jubilee, but he takes the image of the poor person set free from debt, and uses debt as a metaphor of sin. For instance, when the sinful woman comes and washes his feet with her tears and Simon, his host, wonders if he knows what a sinner she is, he tells the parable:
Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (Luke 7:41-43)
The poor who are set free in the Messianic kingdom are the poor in spirit, those who know they are in debt to God because of their sin. So the “good news of the kingdom of God” is that the Messianic King has come, and has declared complete forgiveness of debt — sin —for those who will repent and enter his kingdom. It is good news to the poor rather than to the rich who don’t see that they need to be forgiven.
We see in Jesus’ use of the picture of the Jubilee the greatest picture of God’s grace through Christ. Those in prison are those who are under a crushing debt they could never repay. We see Jesus, the new king, setting prisoners free of debt that they owe because of their sin. Through Jesus’ work on the cross, those who become a part of his Kingdom receive a forgiveness of a debt they cannot repay themselves so that they can start over as new person.
Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:19)
Jesus’ final words were those of what we call the Great Commission — to make disciples of the whole world. But what is a disciple? The ancient, Hebraic picture Jesus had of raising disciples was unique to his Jewish culture. By learning about this practice, we gain fresh insight into how Jesus intended that we fulfill his command.
Jesus lived in a deeply religious culture that valued biblical understanding more than anything else. To become a great rabbi was the highest goal possible, and just to be a disciple of a famous rabbi was an honor. All boys studied and memorized the scriptures until age twelve, and then learned a trade after that. Only a small minority could keep studying, and only a very few were able to go on to learn with a rabbi.
Rabbis acted as wandering expositors who taught in synagogues and homes, and outdoors when a crowd gathered. They taught general audiences, and also had a small band of disciples who lived with them and followed them everywhere. They traveled from town to town teaching, because no mass-communication was available.
They often practiced a trade of their own, but when traveling they were dependent on the hospitality of the community. Indeed, it was forbidden to charge money to teach, but people were expected to support them and invite them into their homes.
Even to the present day, Judaism retains a tradition of discipleship. When Jewish rabbis are ordained, they are commissioned to “Raise up many disciples.” This is the first verse of Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers), from the Mishnah, the Jewish compendium of laws and sayings from around Jesus’ time. Texts like this have much to say about the rabbinic method for raising disciples. Another passage that describes discipleship is this:
Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily. (Pirke Avot 1:4)
This text casts light on several stories from Jesus’ ministry in the gospels. Mary, Martha and Lazarus opened their home to Jesus in the tradition of showing hospitality toward rabbis and disciples. Their house would also have served as a place for meetings for him to teach small groups.
We also read that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” to learn from him (Luke 10:39), which may be the sense of the phrase “cover yourself in the dust of their feet.” The phrase may also have meant to walk behind him to listen to him teach, as Jesus’ disciples would have done. On the unpaved roads in Israel, they literally would have been covered in their rabbi’s dust.
What was expected of rabbis and disciples?
Rabbis were expected not only to be greatly knowledgeable about the Bible, but to live exemplary lives to show that they had taken the scriptures to heart. The objective of their teaching was to instill in their disciples both the knowledge and desire to live by God’s word. It was said, “If the teacher is like an angel of the Lord, they will seek Torah from him. If not, they will not seek Torah from him” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 15b).
The disciple’s goal was to gain the rabbi’s understanding, and even more importantly, to become like him in character. It was expected that when the student became mature enough, he would take his rabbi’s teaching out to the community, add his own understanding to it, and raise up disciples of his own.
A disciple was expected to leave family and job behind to join the rabbi in his austere lifestyle. They would live twenty-four hours a day together, walking from town to town, teaching, working, eating, and studying. As they lived together, they would discuss the scriptures and apply them to their lives.
The disciples were supposed to be the rabbi’s servants, submitting to his authority while they served his needs. Indeed, the word “rabbi” means “my master,” and was a term of great respect, the same title that a slave would use to address his owner.
This sheds new light on the story of when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Jesus was entitled to having them wash his feet, not the other way around! By his actions he was teaching them a great lesson in humility — that the one most deserving of being served is himself serving, while they were arguing who is the greatest. Jesus was using typical rabbinic technique: he didn’t just lecture, he used his own behavior as an example.
The rabbi-disciple relationship was very intimate. The rabbi was considered to be closer than a father to his disciples, and disciples were sometimes called “sons.” When Peter said “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you,” he was reflecting the deep love and commitment that disciples had for their rabbi (Matt. 26:35).
In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. Jesus’ insistence that his disciples leave everything behind to follow him would not have been considered extreme in that culture. They held up the image of Elisha as a model of a disciple’s commitment, who burned his plow and left everything to become Elijah’s disciple (1 Kings 19). After Elisha had lived with Elijah and served him for many years, he received Elijah’s authority to go out as his successor, as the disciples did from Jesus.
What light does this shed on the Great Commission?
Jesus’ eastern method of discipleship gives us a new picture of what he called us to do. Our Western model focuses mainly on the gospel as information, and our goal is to be a person of correct understanding. We focus mainly on spreading information about Jesus, not on living our life like him and inspiring others to do the same.
While it is important to teach and defend truth, Jesus’ method of discipleship is much more than that. He began his Kingdom by walking and living with disciples, to show them how to be like him. Then they went out and made disciples, doing their best to imitate Jesus and show others by their own example.
Jesus expects his kingdom will be built in this way: as each person grows in maturity, they live their lives transparently before others, counseling them on what they have learned about following Christ. The kingdom is built primarily through these close relationships of learning, living and teaching.
Paul uses the same model of discipleship in his ministry. He said,
…in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Cor 4:15-17)
We can hear that Paul’s goal for the Corinthians is that they become disciples, who change their lives to be like Christ, not just learn the correct beliefs. Using rabbinic method, he likens himself as a father to them, and he send his disciple Timothy, who he calls “his son.” He wants them to learn by the example of Timothy about his own way of life, which is a reflection of Jesus’ teaching. Paul is using this “whole person” method of evangelism to transform their lives, not just their minds, to reflect the truth.
Through this model of discipleship, we see that Jesus isn’t just interested in having our minds. He wants our hearts and lives too. Once our lives reflect what our minds believe, then the belief has actually reached our hearts. Then our passion for following him becomes a loud witness that inspires others to do the same.
It is always fascinating and enriching to bring the Hebraic cultural context into understanding the most important, basic words that Christians use. One of the most important is the word “Christ.” What does it mean to call Jesus, “Jesus Christ”? Or, what implications does it have for us to say that Jesus is the “Christ”?
First of all, the word “Christ” comes from christos, a Greek word meaning “anointed.” It is the equivalent of the word moshiach, or “Messiah,” in Hebrew. So, to be the Christ, or Messiah, is to be “the anointed one of God.”
To be anointed is literally to have sacred anointing oil poured on one’s head because God has chosen the person for a special task. Priests and kings were anointed, and occasionally prophets. Kings were anointed during their coronation rather than receiving a crown.
Even though prophets and priests were anointed, the phrase “anointed one” or “the Lord’s anointed” was most often used to refer to a king. For instance, David used it many times to refer to King Saul, even when Saul was trying to murder David and David was on the verge of killing Saul to defend himself:
Far be it from me because of the LORD that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’S anointed (moshiach), to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD’S anointed (moshiach). (1 Sam. 24:6)
So, the main picture of the word “Messiah” or “Christ” as the “anointed one” was of a king chosen by God. While Jesus also has a priestly and a prophetic role, the main picture that word “Messiah” is used for is a king.
Through the Old Testament, we see little hints that God would send a great king to Israel who would someday rule the world. In Genesis, Jacob gives blessings to all of his sons, and of Judah he says,
The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. (Gen. 49:10)
This is the first hint that they were expecting a great king to arise out of Israel who would be king over the whole earth. The clearest prophecy about this messianic king who was coming is from King David’s time. David told God that he wanted to build God a “house,” meaning a temple.
God said to him that instead his son Solomon would do that, and then promised that he will build a “house” for him, meaning that God will establish his family line after him. God further promises David that from his family will come a king whose kingdom will have no end:
“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chron. 17:11-14)
This prophecy has been understood as having a double fulfillment — it is first fulfilled in Solomon, who built the temple, but did what God forbade — amassed a great fortune and married foreign wives. His kingdom broke apart a few years after his death.
It also spoke about a “Son of David” who would come, who would have a kingdom without end. This prophecy is the seedbed of all of the messianic prophecies that talk about the “son of David” and the coming messianic king.
Jesus as the Christ
Even though we tend to not pick up on the cultural pictures, the gospels tell us many times that Jesus is this great King who has come. In Matthew 2, the wise men come to bring presents to this king whose star they have seen in the east. This was a fulfillment of Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60, and Psalm 72.
The latter two passages both describe the coming of a great king and describe how representatives from nations everywhere would come to give him tribute:
He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. (Ps. 72:5, 8-11)
Soon after Jesus begins his ministry he proclaims himself as the anointed one (the Christ) in Luke 4 when he says that passage from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)
This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year, a tradition observed when a new king came into power in some middle eastern countries.1 Jesus applied it to himself, arousing a very strong reaction from his audience to his bold claims.
We see yet another picture of Jesus as King when he rode on the donkey into Jerusalem. This was very much a kingly image, often part of the annunciation of a new king, as it was for Solomon in 1 Kings 1:38-39. It is the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, the triumphal entry of the messianic king.
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; He is just and endowed with salvation, Humble, and mounted on a donkey, Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.
During Jesus’ trial, the main question he is asked is “Are you the King of the Jews?” and he answers affirmatively:
And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King.” So Pilate asked him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And he answered him and said, “It is as you say.” (Luke 23:2-3)
What are the implications of Jesus as King?
When we think about Jesus’ time on earth, the last thing we think of is of a king who is reigning, but Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:37). Rather, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God, the major focus of his preaching.
The kingdom of God is made up of those who submit their lives to God to reign over them. As the King that God has sent, and of course because he is God, the kingdom of God is Jesus’ kingdom. He speaks about how it is expanding like yeast or mustard seed, as the gospel that he has arrived goes forth and many more accept him as their King. When he returns in glory, all the earth at that time will see that he is King.
Did the people around him see him as a king? The fact that Jesus’ disciples and others who believed in him referred to him as “Lord” suggests that they were giving him great honor, with the understanding that he is the Messianic King.
Throughout the gospels Jesus is addressed with respect by strangers as “rabbi” or “teacher.” Only a few times is he actually addressed using his common name, Jesus, and only by demons (Mark 1:24) as well as a few who didn’t know him. To call Jesus “Lord” is using a term for addressing royalty, like saying “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” It is also a common term for addressing God himself, and has a hint of worshipping Jesus as God.
To use the word “Lord” displays an attitude of obedient submission to a greater power. Jesus seems even to expect that those who call him Lord obey him — he said to his listeners, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).
To call him “Lord” or to call him Jesus “Christ” is to say that he is the King that God has sent, who has a right to reign over us. It is interesting that even though the demons know that he is the Son of God, they refuse to use the word Lord to address him (Luke 4:34, 40)!
This has implications about the basic understanding of what a Christian is. We tend to define ourselves by our creeds and statements of belief, but the very word Christ calls us to more than that. If Christ means King, a Christian is one who considers Jesus his Lord and King, and submits to his reign. Those who are saved have two things: both a belief in the atoning work of Jesus, and a commitment to honor him as their personal Lord and King. As Paul says,
If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:9)
As part of an insatiable curiosity to understand the Bible’s message in the cultural “language” that it was originally given, I’ve been looking at original cultural message behind our celebration of Communion. Why? Because the ideas behind this practice are found from Genesis to Revelation, and can give us a deeper appreciation of our celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
Eastern cultures throughout Asia and Africa, from the distant past up to the present, have understood that sharing a meal together was a sign of true fellowship. For thousands of years, groups have shared a ceremonial meal together as a symbol of peace and mutual acceptance after making a covenant.
Covenants, in the Eastern mind, are not just business agreements, they are the making of a new relationship between two parties. Often they involve reconciliation after a grievance has been committed. After making a covenant to not take vengeance on each other, the parties sit down to a ceremonial meal. As they eat together, they celebrate their reconciliation with each other, and after that meal, neither party may bring up the grievance ever again.
A fascinating example of this is the account of the sulha, the Arabic word for “table,” or reconciliation meal, between Ilan Zamir, an Israeli Christian, and an Arab family. Zamir had killed the family’s deaf 13 year-old son in a car accident and wanted to seek forgiveness from the family.
He was warned against it, because the cultural traditions would have allowed the family to kill him as vengeance for their son’s death. But an Arab pastor helped him arrange a sulha, a covenant of reconciliation. The ceremony involved Zamir apologizing and offering gifts, the family refusing the gifts, and finally, their sitting down together for a ceremonial meal.
When the father took the first drink of the coffee at the meal, it was a demonstration of his forgiveness. The family then said to him, “Know, O my brother, that you are in place of this son who has died. You have a family and a home somewhere else, but know that here is your second home.” What a picture of reconciliation! (The full story can be found at this link.)
The Covenantal Meal In the Old Testament
We see this ancient tradition in many covenantal ceremonies in the Old Testament. Remember the story of Jacob in which he flees from his father-in-law, Laban, with his wives. Laban pursues him, and in their meeting they enact a covenant between each other that that neither will harm the other as they part ways. After they made the covenant, it says:
Then Jacob offered a sacrifice on the mountain, and called his kinsmen to the meal; and they ate the meal and spent the night on the mountain. Early in the morning Laban arose, and kissed his sons and his daughters and blessed them. Then Laban departed and returned to his place. (Gen. 31:54 – 55)
We also see the meal as part of one of the most important covenants in the Old Testament: the covenant between God and the people of Israel on Mt. Sinai. After enacting this covenant on Mt. Sinai, there is a scene that we can hardly appreciate:
Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. (Ex. 24:9-11)
To a Middle Easterner, the implications of this scene would have been profound. God had made a covenant of peace with this nation, and before anything had been done to break it, they had perfect fellowship with God — they could eat and drink in his presence. Because of the covenantal bond made through the blood of the sacrifices, God had accepted them into his presence.
Not only could they be there, but they even could eat a meal, demonstrating their peaceful relationship with him. This was the beginning of God’s answer to the break in fellowship that occurred in the garden of Eden, when humanity was cast out of God’s presence because of sin.
Throughout the Old Testament, this ceremony of eating and drinking in God’s presence is reenacted through the fellowship offering, literally a “shalom” offering. A family would bring an animal to sacrifice to the tabernacle or temple, and the meat would be eaten by the family and the priest, with the best portions burned as an offering to the Lord.
They saw this as true covenantal communion with God — that they could sit down at a meal with him. It was as if he was truly present at the table with them as they ate. In Deuteronomy 14:22-26, God even tells them to save up a tenth of their money each year and bring it to the temple to have a great fellowship meal with him. They could buy anything they wanted, but they had to invite him to the party!
You may spend the money for whatever your heart desires: for oxen, or sheep, or wine, or strong drink, or whatever your heart desires; and there you shall eat in the presence of the LORD your God and rejoice, you and your household. (Deut 14:26)
We also see this fellowship meal in the great celebrations that occur at important redemptive events in the history of Israel. At the exodus from Egypt they celebrated the Passover, and they still eat this meal to celebrate his faithfulness to them. They celebrated either Passover or a great fellowship offering after they entered the promised land (Josh. 5:10), when they renewed the covenant on Mt. Ebal (Josh. 8:31), when Solomon built the temple (1 Kings 8:33), and later when Hezekiah rededicated it (2 Chron 30:21). The meal was a way to renew their covenant with God and rededicate themselves to fulfilling their part of the covenant.
The Meal in the New Testament
This picture of eating a meal together as a sign of reconciliation and peace also runs throughout the New Testament. In Jesus’ parable about the prodigal son, when the son comes home, his father arranges a feast to celebrate that he is now part of the family again. The meal is a celebration of the renewed harmonious relationship between the son and his family.
After Jesus’ resurrection, we read the odd story of Jesus cooking fish and serving breakfast to the disciples (John 21:9-19). The topic of conversation was a break in their relationship. Jesus says to Peter, “Do you love me?” three times, reminding him of his earlier denials at Jesus’ trial, and then Jesus reinstates him as his disciple. The meal is a demonstration of the reconciliation going on between Jesus and Peter.
We even hear this idea of a meal of reconciliation in the familiar words of Revelation 3:20:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.
Now we know why it says that Jesus would come in and dine with us: to show us his acceptance of us, and to celebrate the relationship that we have together! It also explains why the predominant picture of heaven is that of a wedding feast, the celebration of the covenantal union of the Lamb and his people. There, we will always have this unbroken fellowship with him.
Communion as Covenantal Meal
From all of this imagery in scripture, we can have a beautiful new picture of what Jesus intended when, at the Last Supper, he broke the bread, then held up the wine and said, “This is the blood of the new covenant – do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus chooses the fellowship meal that had been used many times to celebrate God’s redemption of his people, the Passover meal.
Now, through the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, he is saying that we can enter into the new covenant of forgiveness and have a new, unbroken relationship with him. Like the Arab father, God puts aside all grievances he has with us, and tells us that we are now members of his family! This ceremony assures us of God’s redemption, that we are acceptable in his sight.
We are also reminded that salvation is not just a future event, not just being saved from our sins when we die. Salvation is our coming into fellowship with God, like the prodigal returning to his family. This supper shows that we can enter into God’s presence and have communion with him even in this life, as the seventy elders did on Mt. Sinai. The beauty of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper lies both in the present enjoyment of fellowship with the Lord, as well as the anticipation of unending fellowship with him at the banquet in heaven.
Anyone who does much study of the Bible will notice that often it speaks in odd-sounding, poetic phrases. Some translations of the Bible interpret these for readers, but others leave them quite literal and hard to understand.
Why does the Bible have such an odd “accent”? Because it comes to us from languages and cultures different from ours. If we want to hear the Bible for what it really is saying, we need to get a sense for its idioms and thought patterns.
This is especially true as we read the Old Testament, which reflects an ancient culture very different from our modern, Western mindset. We can avoid misunderstanding when we realize that even words that have been translated literally may have originally carried a different connotation than they do in English.
Besides making the Bible clearer, hearing its words as they were originally meant is a tremendously enriching experience, giving us wonderful new insights into God’s word.
Rich Hebrew Words
The Old Testament was written in Hebrew, and even though the New Testament was written in Greek, it was written almost entirely by Jews growing up in a Hebrew-speaking, Semitic-thinking culture. Because of this, its ideas come out of a Hebraic world-view. Having a sense for the style of the Hebrew language is therefore very important for understanding the Bible and gives us clues on the thinking patterns of its writers.
Hebrew has a small vocabulary, and each word often has a greater depth of meaning than our corresponding word, to describe many related things. For example, the Hebrew word for house, beit, can mean house, temple, family or lineage. Also, the Hebrew language lacks abstractions, and uses physical pictures to express abstract ideas, like being “stiff-necked” (stubborn) or “heart was lifted up” (was prideful), which sound poetic to us.
Hebrew also often uses the identical word to describe a mental activity as the physical result of the activity. For example, to listen can mean just to listen, but it usually means to obey the words you hear, which is the result of listening. I have found it amazingly useful in my study of the Bible to get a sense of these wider meanings, so that I can get a fuller understanding of what this odd poetry really means.
Here are a few examples of the idiomatic meanings words can have in Hebrew, in addition to their literal meaning in English.
Name – Authority, reputation, essence, identity
“In the name of Jesus” means, “by the authority of Jesus,” or “for the sake of Jesus.” Often it speaks about the temple as where “God’s Name dwells,” which really means his authority and presence. See the examples below:
He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward; and he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. (Meaning, because they know the person’s identity as a prophet or righteous man) (Matt. 10:41)
But as many as received him, to them he gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in his name. (Meaning, those who believe in Jesus’ identity as the Son of God) (John 1:12)
Son – Descendant, including grandsons and later descendants, disciples
The Israelites, both male and female were called “sons of Israel,” and the Messiah was supposed to be a “son of David.” It was assumed that descendants would share the character of their forefathers too, so a “son of David” would be expected to be kingly and powerful. Jesus says peacemakers will be called “sons of God,” because they are like God in character (Matt 5:9)
House – Family, descendants, disciples, possessions, the temple
God plays on the multiple meanings of the word when King David asks if he can build a “house” for God (a temple) and God answers that he would build a “house” for David, meaning a kingly lineage that will never end (see 1 Chron. 17:4, 10). We are God’s house: his temple, but also his family.
Law (Torah) – Instruction, guidance, teaching – comes from the word for “to point, aim, or guide“
In Jewish translations it is usually rendered as “instruction” or “teaching.” It has a very positive understanding in terms of being God’s word that contains his guidance for living. This is one of the most misunderstood of words in church tradition, where the “Law” has taken on a negative idea of a legalistic body of oppressive rules.
Visit – Pay attention to, come to the rescue of, bring to judgement (a very wide range of meaning indeed!)
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely visit you (come to your aid) and take you to the land he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Gen. 50:24)
What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you visit (take notice of) him (Ps. 8:5)
Now go, lead the people to the place I spoke of, and my angel will go before you. However, in the day when I visit, I will visit their sin upon them. (Meaning, I will pay attention to their sin and punish them.) (Ex. 32:34)
Interestingly, Jesus seems to be playing on this when, at the cleansing of the temple, he says,
“For the days will come upon you when your enemies will throw up a barricade against you, and surround you and hem you in on every side, and they will level you to the ground and your children within you, and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not recognize the time of your visitation.” (Luke 19:43-44)
The “time of their visitation” could mean the time God has come to their rescue in the person of Christ, but for those who ignore him, it will be the source of their punishment, when God “visits” their sins on them through the destruction of the temple.
Listen, hear – Take heed, be obedient, do what is asked
The Shema is the first word of the Jewish “Pledge of Allegiance,” and it means “Hear.” But really, it means “take heed” or “obey.” In fact, almost every place we see the word “obey” in the Bible, it is translated from the word shema, to hear. When Jesus says, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” he is calling us to put his words into action, not just listen.
Remember – Do a favor for, come to the aid of
After the flood, God “remembered” Noah and dried up the waters, meaning that he rescued him, and Hannah says God “remembered” her when she conceived — he did her a favor. The Psalms often plead with God to “remember his people” in the sense of coming to their rescue.
Forget – Ignore, not act on
The cupbearer “forgot” Joseph — actually meaning he ignored his request. God “forgets” our sins — meaning he will never hold them against us, not that his omniscient mind actually loses the memory of them.
Know – Have a relationship with another person, even intimately, to care for another
Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived, and bore Cain. (Gen. 4:1)
The righteous man knows (cares for) his animals… (Prov. 12:10)
I will give them a heart to know Me, for I am the LORD; and they will be My people, and I will be their God… (Jer. 24:7)
Having a sense for this way of speaking will be a lot of help to those who want to explore their meaning in passages. Newer translations (ESV, NIV, etc.) tend to explain these words, while older translations (King James) will use a direct, literal meaning.
While it is nice to not struggle to understand, often the poetry and wordplays and parallels between passages are obscured in less literal translations. My recommendation is to have more than one translation available, and compare to see the range of interpretations for passages.
One thing we should notice about Hebrew verbs is that they tend to stress action and effect, rather than just mental activity. Our own Western frame of reference stresses that our intellectual life is most important, while the Hebrew assumes that actions will result from it. In the Hebrew sense, if you “remember” someone, you will act on their behalf. If you “hear” someone, you will obey their words. If you “know” someone, you will have a close relationship with them.
When you read a word that sounds like it is talking about mental activity, stop and think in terms of the action that is expected to result. If you are reading the scripture to apply to your own life, make sure that it goes beyond thought to concrete action: that you are a doer of the word, and not a hearer only.
To modern Christians, many Old Testament laws seem arbitrary. One in particular may strike us as pointless — the commandment to wear tassels. In Numbers it says,
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: `Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD your God.'” (Num. 15:37-41)
Many orthodox Jewish men today observe this commandment by wearing tassels (tzitzit, ZEET-zeet; plural tzitziot – zee-zee-OTE, ) affixed to a garment under their shirts, with the tassels deliberately showing so that they are obvious both to himself and those around him.
Others don’t wear them all the time, but in worship they wear a prayer shawl, a tallit, to which tzitzit are attached. Among those that do wear them, it is required that they hang outside and are not tucked in, because the scripture says that you have them “to look at.”
Not only is this odd commandment taken seriously by Jews, the text of the command is repeated at least twice daily as part of their most important prayer, the Shema. Although it may appear to us to be an act of legalism, when we dig deeper we find it has tremendous significance and a lesson for our lives today.
The Picture in the Tassels
In order to make sense of this regulation, we need to see the cultural picture behind putting tzitzit on the corners of the garment. In ancient times, garments were woven and decorated to show the person’s identity and status in society. The hem and tassels of the outer robe were particularly important, with the hem being symbolic of the owner’s identity and authority.
In the story of Saul, the cutting of the hem is a prophetic picture of God’s removing him from his reign (1 Sam 15:27, 1 Sam 24:4). In legal contracts written in clay, instead of a signature, the corner of the hem would be pressed into the clay to leave an impression.
On the hem were attached the tzitzit, which were a visual reminder of one of the most important promises that God made at Mt. Sinai:
Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:6)
The tzitzit communicated that idea using several cultural pictures:
Tassels in general were a sign of nobility — in ancient times kings and princes decorated their hems with tassels. Merely by wearing tassels, the Israelites were wearing a “royal robe,” marked as God’s chosen people. In ancient times this would have been quite a statement to the nations around them who saw the regal nature of their clothing.
The presence of a blue thread in the tassel was a reminder of the blue robes of the priests, being dyed with the same expensive dye (tekhelet) only made from one rare type of snail. It was as if each Israelite wore a little piece of the high priest’s blue robe at all times to remind them that like the priests, they were set apart for serving God. The blue dye eventually became so expensive that it was no longer required.
The tassels were wound and knotted in a specific pattern to remind the wearer of the commandments of God. This may not have been done in the time of Jesus, but it was certainly understood in his time that the tassels were to remind a person to be continually obedient to God.
By wearing tzitzit, every Jew was reminded of his unique relationship with God and obligation to serve him. According to the Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom,
“The tzitzit is the epitome of the democratic thrust within Judaism, which equalizes not by leveling but by elevating: all of Israel is enjoined to become a nation of priests. In antiquity, the tzitzit (and the hem) was the insignia of authority, high breeding and nobility. By adding the blue woolen cord to the tzitzit, the Torah combined nobility with priesthood: Israel is not to rule man but to serve God. Furthermore, tzitzit is not restricted to Israel’s leaders, be they kings, rabbis or scholars. It is the uniform of all Israel.”1
The Importance of the Uniform
God was giving his people a uniform to wear to show their special status as a nation of priests. God was also forcing them to be obvious about their commitment to him, because everyone around them could see their tassels too.
God chose to make the people of Israel his representatives on earth — a kingdom of priests to the rest of the world. He wanted them to be continually reminded that he had put them on display as a light to the nations, witnesses to him to serve others.
In a world where other nations prostituted themselves to idols and sacrificed their children to demons, they were to show how the true God wanted them to live. They could not blend in to the world around them, and whatever they did, good or evil, was a witness to the God they served. If they were true to their calling by being obedient to God, they would be a holy nation that the whole world would recognize.
Jesus, like other Jews of the day, wore the uniform of the tzitzit. The gospels report that more than once people grasped them to be healed (Mt. 14:6, Lk 8:44). This may have come from the idea that the messiah would come with “healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2), with “wings,” kanafim, also meaning “corners,” where the tzitzit were placed.
When Jesus criticized the religious leaders for making their tassels large (Mt 23:5), he wasn’t protesting against their wearing them. Because social status was shown through the hem and tassels, by enlarging them they were claiming honor and prestige from their piety. While they were supposed to be clear in their commitment by wearing their tassels, they weren’t supposed to use them to their own social gain.
The Challenge to Us
What importance does this have to us as Gentiles, who weren’t given this command? While the Israelites were specifically told to wear this uniform and we were not, we do share the same call as they received on Mt. Sinai. Peter says,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Peter is adapting God’s promise from his first covenant with the Jews and applying to it to all believers who have come into God’s new covenant, that we too are part of his holy nation and royal priesthood. By accepting this covenant, we also become God’s representatives, witnesses to the world by our actions.
Like the priests of Israel, we need to be mindful of being obedient so that we reflect God’s holiness, while serving others and bringing them closer to God. What if Christians were required to wear tzitzit? Western Christians have an extremely privatized faith, living lives like everyone around us, being glad that we don’t need to “do anything to get to heaven.”
So we are just like our neighbors, not being a judge, but also not being a light or a witness. We are hidden lamps, covered under our own bushel baskets. We focus on the minimum needed for salvation, but don’t realize that God’s goal is far beyond that.
The lesson of the tzitzit is that God’s goal for us as a kingdom of priests is to become more obvious about living our faith, enough so that others see our “tassels.” This can easily bring on accusations of being judgmental and hypocritical, so we need to rise to the challenge to go even more out of our way to be humble and kind as we live in front of others. We need to wear a little piece of the robe of our high priest, Jesus Christ. God’s goal for us is not just to “get us into heaven,” but to transform us into his representatives who reflect the love of God, and cause others to love him too.
1 Jacob Milgrom, “The Tassel and the Tallit,” The Fourth Annual Rabbi Louis Fineberg Memorial Lecture (University of Cincinnati, 1981). (Quoted in the online article The Meaning of Tekhelet by Baruch Sterman.)
Much information on the significance of tassels for this article comes from the Jewish Publication Society Commentary on Numbers, by Jacob Milgrom, 1990. (ISBN 0-8276-0329-0), Excursus 38, p. 410 – 414. This set of Torah commentaries is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to dig deeper.
“No man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” (James 3:8)
Gossip is a sin of which we all are guilty, and yet it has probably caused us all suffering too. We all are wounded by this habit that seems so acceptable in our culture today. Careers are ended, marriages disrupted, friendships ruined.
How many of us wish we could erase the hard feelings we have caused, and heal our relationships from its affects? Wouldn’t it be nice to feel we could trust everyone when we left the room? The Bible has much to say about it, and rabbinic thinkers have some excellent wisdom about how to purify our speech. We can even find parallels in Jewish ideas to the teachings of Jesus and the rest of the New Testament.
Shmirat HaLashon – Guarding the Tongue
We all know that by being kind in our speech we can have deeper friendships and closer families. The scriptures say that it is the key to a good, long life:
Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully. (Psalm 34:12-13 & 1 Peter 3:10)
In contrast, the potential for harm from our tongues is great:
Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell. (James 3:5-6)
Our speech has the potential of great good or great evil. This biblical idea of the need to “guard our tongues” has been a part of a movement among Orthodox Jews in the past century. They have a strong emphasis on observing the rules of Shmirat Halashon (SHMEER-aht hah-la-SHON) – guarding the tongue.
In the past few years in Jerusalem, conventions have been held with seminars on how to have kind speech. Over ten thousand people have attended each year, and many clubs have formed for those wanting to reinforce this habit among themselves. Imagine living in a place where there was no gossip, no backbiting and no slander! They fail too, of course, but it is not overlooked or encouraged, as in some of our circles. Imagine what would happen if the Christian community did that!
We can learn much from the ideas that have come from the Jewish community.
Lashon Hara – The Evil Tongue
The Hebrew term that is used for gossip is lashon hara (la-SHON hah-RAH). It means literally, “the evil tongue.” Jews define it as defaming a person in the eyes of others by revealing details about them that put them in a negative light. Lashon hara is different from slander, which is telling lies about others. While everyone recognizes that slander is wrong, fewer will say that it is also wrong to speak negative truth about others.
Lashon hara is telling your co-workers all about how the boss messed up his presentation, or pointing out to your husband how poorly the worship leader sings. This habit is what tears down friendships, demeans others, and undermines trust. There are, of course, a few times when a person needs to relay damaging information, but outside of that, this kind of negativity is frowned upon in the Jewish community.
Many rabbinic stories focus on the damage done through lashon hara. One story is told about a man who gossiped about a rabbi, causing much damage to his reputation. The man repented and came to the rabbi to ask for forgiveness. The rabbi told him to take a pillow and open it and cast it to the wind. When he had done this, he asked him to now go gather all the feathers back into the pillow again. The man said, “But that is impossible!” and the rabbi replied that, in the same way, it was impossible to repair all the damage that his words had done.
The rabbis point out that other actions close to Lashon Hara should be avoided as well. For instance, to read a newspaper editorial article that you don’t like and then show it to someone just so they will scoff at it is called the “Dust of Lashon Hara.”
It also includes sarcastic comments about another person, like, “She is such a genius, isn’t she?” or innuendos like, “Don’t mention so-and-so: I wouldn’t want to say what I know about her.” Even to laugh and sneer when someone else gossips qualifies, because it communicates your negative feelings. It truly is a difficult task to avoid damaging others through subtle comments and even body language. As James says,
We all stumble in many ways. If anyone is never at fault in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to keep his whole body in check. (James 3:2)
We do many other things with our speech that are hurtful, which are discussed biblically and rabbinically.
Motze Shem Ra – “to spread a bad name”
This means to slander another by spreading lies about them. Interestingly, this Hebraic idiom is behind the Greek text of Luke in chapter 6:22: “Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they exclude you and revile you, and cast out your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man.” Even Jesus used the idioms that are still used for evil speech. Jesus is saying that people will invent lies about his followers, but that he will bless them because of the hurt it causes them.
The rabbis considered slander on par with murder, because it destroys the victim’s reputation in the eyes of others. They point out that slander is more similar to murder than robbery, because while a robber can repent and give back all of what he has stolen, a murderer can never undo the damage he has done.
Note: This technique of comparing a lesser sin (slander) to a greater sin (murder) is reminiscent of Jesus’ rabbinic teaching style. Jesus says that anger is on par with murder, and that lusting in the heart is equivalent to adultery (Matt 5:22 & 28). It is a way to point out the serious potential of even small sins. We can see that Jesus is using a technique that was part of his Jewish culture.
Rechilut – tale-bearing
Rechilut is repeating rumors, especially to tell the object of a rumor what others have been saying about them. Leviticus 19:16 says that we should not go about as a “tale-bearer.” We are supposed to be peacemakers, and telling the object of a rumor what is being said is sure to cause anger and hatred between people. We may feel that a person has a right to know what others are saying, but telling them is usually going to cause more damage.
G’neivat da’at – “stealing another’s knowledge”
This means to deceive someone about your intentions. An example is to go out for supper with a friend and offer to pay, knowing that they won’t accept. Or to say you will come to a party knowing that you probably won’t go.
These are forms of deception and verbal manipulation, that are part of the commandment to not lie. How many times a day do our words not match our intentions? We may not give a second thought about all the little ways we are deceptive, that we should rethink if we want to be people of integrity.
Healing the Tongue
How do we heal our speech so that our relationships can be deeper and more fulfilling? Jesus says, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34). He diagnoses the problem as one of the heart.
One major culprit behind gossip is our desire to judge others negatively, to see their actions in the worst light possible. If a friend doesn’t invite you to a party, was it an oversight, or was there malicious intent? A person who assumes the worst will be angry and want to report the slight to everyone, but a person who assumes the best will not be bothered. Our whole attitude toward others will change when we try always to give others the benefit of the doubt.1
Another major reason for gossip and unkind speech is our desire to elevate ourselves by tearing others down. It may work temporarily, but over time it demeans us in the eyes of others.
Paul has a solution to this problem:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3-4)
If we genuinely care as much about others as ourselves, we will try to protect their reputations as much as we do our own.
A major source for this essay is Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, an excellent book on the subject by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin (c) 1996, William Morrow & Co, ISBN 0-688-16350-5.