Eternal Life

by Lois Tverberg

“This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.” John 17:2

When we read the line above from Jesus, it makes us stop and pause. It seems odd that Jesus would define eternal life as knowing him and his Father. Isn’t eternal life living forever after we die?

Hebrew Text

An interesting insight comes from how the term “eternal life,” hayei olam (Hi-YAY Oh-LAHM) can be understood in a Jewish context. (1) While it sometimes has our traditional understanding of life after death, hayei olam sometimes used in a different way, when it was contrasted with “hayei sha’a” (fleeting life). Hayei sha’a, fleeting life, is living a life that is only concerned about the short term needs of today – working, making money, eating, etc. Hayei olam, “lasting life” or “a life of eternity” refers to living a life focused on matters of eternal importance.

Traditionally, Jewish people have considered the study of the Bible truly living out one’s “eternal life.” A story is told about a rabbi who spent years in study of the Scriptures, and then walked past farmers tilling their land. He remarked, “they have abandoned lasting life and involve themselves instead with fleeting life.” (2)

Hebrew TextLooking at Jesus’ words in this light, his definition of eternal life seems to fit into this second definition. He is saying that knowing God intimately and living with Jesus Christ as Lord, here and now, is living as if you were already in eternity. This actually makes sense – what thing in our lives has more eternal significance than that?

It is fascinating that elsewhere in John, Jesus seems even to be commenting on the Jewish tradition that the way to live “eternal life” right now is to study the Scriptures. He says,

“You diligently study the scriptures because you think that by them you have eternal life. These are the scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40)

He is speaking to some of his fellow Jews who did not see that the Scriptures ultimately pointed toward him. Eternal life is not had even in studying the Scriptures, but in finding in them that Jesus is our Lord, and we can live for serving him.

(1) These terms are found written down first in the Talmud, which dates from around 500 AD. Many oral traditions are recorded in it that come from Jesus’ time and before.

(2) Quote is from the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 33b, as quoted at the following link:

Photo: Republica

The Blessing of Rain

by Lois Tverberg

“I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil.” Deuteronomy 11:14

One kind of living water that was considered a great blessing in biblical times was rain. Between the spring rains that ended in April and the fall rains that began in October, six months would go by with clear skies over Israel. When the rains returned again, it was considered to be a miracle directly from God’s hand. We can hear the positive attitude about rain from some ancient Jewish sources:

The day of rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous. (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a)

Also, in an ancient commentary on Psalm 117:1 (Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples.), the rabbinic discussion followed:

At what times are all men equal, and when do the nations worship God?”
“On the day when all rejoice.”
“When is that?”
“When the rain comes down, and all rejoice and praise God.”

It is interesting, then, that we as Americans do not rejoice – we look on rainy days as bad days. Because water is relatively abundant here, and because we can rely on reservoirs, irrigation and clean water piped into our houses, we actually curse the days that are blessings to us. When you think about it, our abundant food here is just as dependent on the rain that we complain about as the crops are in Israel, but we just have forgotten the blessing.

It is easy for us to forget to be thankful for our blessings – but even worse when we complain about good gifts simply because we have so much. How many other gifts have we forgotten to be thankful for? Maybe the next time we should pray the traditional Jewish prayer that is said when it rains, and other happy occasions: “Blessed is he who is good, and gives good things!”

Motivation Not to Sin

by Lois Tverberg

You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery.” But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. Matthew 5:27-28

The rabbis of Jesus’ day sought to motivate 7 deadly sins in a heartpeople to obey God’s word and stay far from sin. One technique they employed was to point out how seemingly small sins can evolve into much greater sins. (1) This was called kalah ka-hamurah (“light as heavy”), an abbreviation of mitsvah kalah ka-mitsvah hamurah (“a light commandment is like a heavy commandment”). In other words, kalah ka-hamurah relays the sense that breaking a less significant law is linked to breaking a greater law. The same style of logic appears in Jesus’ teaching when he compares anger to murder and lust to adultery (Mt 5:22-23, 27-28).

Other rabbis applied this same technique to make listeners aware of the potential damage that their words can do. The question was asked, to which sin is lashon hara  (the “evil tongue,” gossip) more closely related—theft or murder? The answer is murder, because a robber can always give back what he has stolen, but a murderer, as well as a gossip, can never repair all the damage that he or she has done. (2)

Not to be outdone, another source compares gossip to the murder of three persons! (3) It observes that not only do you “murder” the reputation of the object of your gossip, but you “murder” yourself, showing you are a person who savors ugly ideas about others and can’t be trusted not to betray those around you. By bringing someone else down, you bring yourself down too. And finally, you “murder” the person who listens to you. You load them down with information that will create disgust for the gossip’s subject, and tempt them to spread the word to yet more hearers.

Yet another rabbinic source asserts that gossip is like committing the three worst possible sins in Jewish thinking: idolatry, adultery, and murder! (4) Murder, of course, for what you are doing to another’s reputation. Adultery, because you are betraying a person’s trust; and idolatry, because you are acting as if you don’t believe God is listening to your words.

The rabbis’ purpose in conflating small sins with greater ones was not so much theological, but motivational. They were reminding their audiences of an important truth—that if we want to avoid sin, the time to scrutinize our conduct is when the choice is easy and the temptation is small. We do that when we consider the consequences of even our most minor actions.

(1) Joseph Telushkin, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal (Quill, 1996) p. xx

(2) David Bivin, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, (En-Gedi, 2005) p. 97.

(3) Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b.

(4) Ibid.

Photo:  Moreau.henri

A Strong House

by Lois Tverberg

Why do you call Me, `Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say? Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great. – Luke 6:46-49

In this parable Jesus stresses the importance of obeying his words. A similar rabbinic parable from around 70 AD sheds light on Jesus’ lesson in Luke:

Said Elisha ben Abuyah: “A virtuous man who has studied the Law diligently is similar to one who builds a foundation of stones and a superstructure of bricks; though they be inundated, yet they cannot be moved. One who is not virtuous, in spite of having studied the Law, is similar to one who lays stones on a brick foundation: the smallest freshet will overturn the building.” (1)

A Strong House

It is interesting that these parables are so similar. Both address building a house that will endure a flood and the need for a strong, well-laid foundation. And the message of both is identical – that listening must be paired with obedience. The only difference is that the rabbi stresses obedience to the laws of the Torah, and Jesus stresses obedience to his own words.

Much of rabbinic literature emphasizes the importance of pairing study of the Scriptures, especially the Torah, with obedience to God’s word. A distinct feature of Jesus’ teaching in Luke 6 is that he points people to himself and his own words, not just to the Torah. This is initially surprising because Jesus always lived and taught about humility. Yet he readily accepted the title “Lord” which was reserved for royalty, and he expected obedience from those who recognized who he was! It was as if his torah (“teaching,” as the word in Hebrew means), was the natural culmination of all that God taught his people through their Scriptures.

(1) Avot de Rabbi Natan, in Pirke Avot, Babylonian Talmud. An interesting fact about Rabbi Elisha ben Abuyah is that although he was a very highly respected thinker that others widely quoted, rabbinic literature says that later in life he became a “heretic.” Some have postulated that he became a Christian and was rejected because of his new beliefs.

Photo: Daniel Case