Thinking Biblically Takes Both Hands

by Lois Tverberg

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)


Many have seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof and recall that the father, Tevya, had an amusing habit of chewing over every issue with several rounds of, “On the one hand… but on the other hand…!” This habit of looking at things in terms of two contrasting viewpoints is distinctly Jewish, and a part of their Eastern-thinking culture.

Often the two points of view are left unresolved and simply accepted as a paradox. Western-thinking Christians, however, often struggle to find systematic treatment of every issue, and are frustrated by how the Bible sometimes seems to be contradictory. Rather than trying to make the Bible more “logical” by Western standards, we’ll have a deeper understanding of it if we learn to read it with “both hands,” as Jesus, Paul and Jews over the ages have done.1

Paradoxes throughout Bible

If you think about it, many of the most important truths of the Bible are paradoxical. God is both omniscient, but yet he is present at certain times in a unique way, like at the burning bush. Jesus is both fully human and fully God. God is loving and in control, and yet he allows tragedy and injustice to take place.

Jesus’ words also often come in paradoxes. He says that “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last” (Mk 9:35) and that “he who loves his life will lose it, while he who hates his life will keep it for eternity” (Jn 12:25).

When Western-thinkers find a paradox in the Bible, they often are tempted to resolve the conflict by rejecting one side for the other. For instance, the question of whether humans have free will or whether our actions are predestined has divided Christians for centuries.

Some reject free will entirely, as if humans are only puppets in God’s hands. Others reject the idea that God is in control, imagining that God is wringing his hands in heaven, hoping that in the end everything will come out OK. Many churches have divided over these issues.

In contrast, the rabbinic answer was simply, “God foresees everything, yet man has free will.”2 Their observation was that passages in Scripture actually support both points of view! Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and yet God hardened his heart (Ex 7:3, 13; 8:15). God foresaw that it would take 400 years for the Canaanites to become so evil that he would evict them from their land (Gen 16:15). But he also offered the choice to the Israelites to take on his covenant or not (Dt 30:19).

Amazingly, the rabbis simply embrace the two ideas in tension with each other rather than needing to seek resolution. By doing so, they are actually being true to the text by not ignoring passages that don’t fit their theology. They see that God alone can understand some things.

Balancing Mercy and Justice in a Parable

One Jewish way of comprehending contrasting truths is to put them into a parable. For instance, God describes himself as both slow to anger and forgiving, yet he says he will punish the wicked to the third and fourth generation (Ex. 34:6-7). Some have concluded that the God of the Old Testament was full of judgment, but is now full of love, since Christ died for our sins. If we read more closely, however, we find that neither is the case.

God forgave the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf, but then forbade Moses, his greatest prophet, from entering the promised land because he struck the rock. Likewise, Jesus spoke about the coming judgment more than anyone else in the New Testament, yet he told the woman caught in adultery that her sins had been forgiven. He said, “Woe to you, blind guides!” (Matt 23:16) but later said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). 

How can God be both just and merciful? The rabbis told the following parable:

“This may be compared to a king who had a craftsman make for him an extremely delicate, precious goblet. The king said, ‘If I pour hot liquid into it, it will burst, if I pour ice cold liquid into it, it will crack!’ What did the King do? He mixed the hot and the cold together and poured it into it, and it did not crack.” Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say: “If I create the world on the basis of the attribute of mercy alone, it will be overwhelmed with sin; but if I create it on the basis of the attribute of justice alone, how could the world endure? I will therefore create it with both the attributes of mercy and justice, and may it endure!” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15, adapted.3)

This parable doesn’t use detailed theological terms to explain why God is merciful sometimes and why he chooses to judge at other times — it merely points out that both are needed in order for God to reign over creation while allowing it to survive. Parables like this show the difference between Jewish and Christian thought, because they attempt to comprehend by describing through story, without the assumption that humans can explain God’s mysterious ways.

Besides being a wise approach to looking at the nature of God, this parable also illustrates the “both hands” approach of Judaism as to how we should live. It points out that a blend of mercy and judgment is often what we need in our lives.

Parents struggle with the balance of enforcing rules along with showing grace to their children — not being too strict, yet not letting their kids run wild. Or, when our spouses do something that hurts us, should we forgive them and let it slide, or, should we bring our hurt and anger to their attention?

Christians tend to think there must be only one right way to act in these situations — either to never let sin go unpunished, or to always be forgiving. In reality, we need to have both discernment and balance. Even God walks the difficult line between mercy and judgment! We can turn to him for guidance because he knows our struggles beyond what we could ever imagine.

“Weighing” the Laws Against Each Other

Another way Jewish thought seeks balance is in its approach to the law. Christians have traditionally understood all of the commandments to be of equal importance, but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow.

For instance, the command to circumcise on the eight day took precedence over the Sabbath (Jn 7:22). This came out of an effort to live by God’s laws in all situations, rather than arbitrarily ignoring some and doing others. They would describe the laws in terms of being “light,” kal, and “heavy,” hamur. Certain principles derived from the Bible were used to organize laws relative to each other, and the focus of many rabbinic debates was how to prioritize them.

One rabbinic principle is Pikuach Nephesh (pi-KOO-akh NEH-fesh), which is the preservation of life.4 The rabbis saw that Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not stand by while your brother’s blood is shed” — meaning if someone’s life is in danger, you must intervene. The Torah also says the law was given in order to bring life, (Ex. 30:15-16), so they concluded that all laws (except a few) should be set aside to save a human life.5

Because of this, Jewish doctors and nurses go to work on the Sabbath, because they may potentially save a life, and if a person is ill, he or she is supposed to eat on Yom Kippur, the day when eating and drinking are strictly forbidden. Even the possibility of saving a life is enough to put this principle into effect. The rabbis would disagree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy of refusing blood transfusions in a medical emergency, because of the prohibition against drinking blood in Genesis 9:4. The weightier law is to save life!

ScaleAn interesting example shows the contrasts in approach to the law. Imagine you lived in Europe during World War II and were hiding Jews in your home, and a Nazi came demanding to know where they were. Should you lie or tell the truth? According to the principle of Pikuach Nephesh, you should lie to save their lives. There is also biblical precedent in Exodus, when the midwives lied to Pharaoh rather than to kill the Israelite boys, and God rewarded them (Ex. 1:19-21).

Surprisingly, Christians have sometimes come to the opposite conclusion. The theologian St. Augustine actually said, “Since, then, eternal life is lost by lying, a lie may never be told for the preservation of the temporal life of another.”6 He would conclude that a person must answer the Nazi truthfully no matter what. It appears that in his thinking, all rules are absolute. This logic forces one to conclude that law to intervene to save life (Lev. 19:16) and the law against lying (Lev. 19:11) are irreconcilable.

Jesus Weighed the Laws Too

Jesus used the principle of Pikuach Nephesh when he was arguing what may be done on the Sabbath in Luke 6, when he said, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Both activities under debate in that chapter were an effort to preserve life — the plucking of grain to satisfy hunger, and the healing of the man’s hand.

The point was not that Jesus was throwing aside the Sabbath as unimportant, because keeping the Sabbath was extremely important throughout the Torah. It was the “sign of the covenant” which was symbolic of a Jew’s commitment to all of the Sinai covenant (Ex. 31:13). Jesus was saying that as important as it is to honor the Sabbath, human life is even more important. He concluded, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

How then do we prioritize our obedience? The idea of “weighting” the laws of the Torah was likely the rationale for the question, “Of all the commands, which is greatest?” (Mark 12:28-30). The lawyer was asking, “What is our ultimate priority as we try to obey God?” Jesus’ answer, of course, was to quote the commands that said that we should love God wholeheartedly, and love our neighbor. Everything we do should be towards that end.

Jesus illustrates his point with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which points out the wrong priorities of the two characters who wanted to go worship at the Temple rather than helping the dying man. Of course, the right thing to do in this case was to attend the needs of the wounded man, showing him the love of God.

Does this mean we can ignore God’s standards altogether? Not at all! Reading Matthew 5, one wonders if Jesus was accused of this, and he needed to defend his approach. There he emphatically said he came not to undermine the law, but to explain it and live by it faithfully.7

He then said that anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. He was emphatically stating that we should aim to be obedient in all ways, but that we should always aim to love, and that sets our priorities for how we should obey. As Tevya would phrase it, on the one hand, be obedient, but on the other hand, choose to love!

This is a wise word for how to discern what to do when two commands conflict with each other. If you must choose one over the other, choose the one that shows the most love. If you don’t do yard work on Sunday (or Saturday), but your elderly mother really needs her lawn mowed and it’s the only day you can help, you should do it then. Or, if your family celebrates holidays with a tradition that you don’t embrace, seek to do what is loving rather than dividing the family over it. Choose the most loving path. Jesus himself would probably do the same thing in your situation, and indeed, he is using you to do it.

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To explore this topic more, see chapter 10, “Thinking with Both Hands” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 130-41.

 

1 Two other excellent references for further reading are: Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, by Marvin Wilson (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989) pp 150-153; and The Gospel According to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me About Jesus, by Athol Dickson (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), pp 63-80.

2 Rabbi Akiva, (who lived between about 50-135 AD) Mishnah, Avot 3:16.

3 See “Jewish Concepts: Loving-kindness” from jewishvirtuallibrary.org for more.

4 B. Talmud, Shabbat 132a.

5 There were three laws that were so weighty that they could not be broken to save life, and these were idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. These also were the three laws given to the Gentiles who were entering the early church in Acts 15, according to David Bivin. See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, pp. 141-144.

6 As quoted by J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p. 100.

7 See the article “What Does It Mean to ‘Fulfill the Law.’

Photos: Portland Center Stage [Flikr], Sébastien Bourdon [Public domain], , Balthasar van Cortbemde [Public domain]

3. Is Christ the End of the Law?

Part III

Paul tells us in Romans 10:4 that the “telos” of the law is Christ, which has been translated “Christ is the end of the law” (see NIV 1984). Much debate has occurred over this line. However, few have noticed the surprising way that telos is used elsewhere in the New Testament.

Believe it or not, we find two other places where telos in its verb form, teleos (to end, complete) is used together with nomos (law) in the sense of in the sense of keeping or fulfilling (obeying) it!

Then he who is physically uncircumcised but keeps (teleo) the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law. (Romans 2:27)

If you really fulfill (teleo) the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. (James 2:8)

Certainly in these two passages, the sense of teleo is not “terminate, bring to an end.”

Let’s also examine the other verb that is used in a similar context, pleroo (“to fulfill,” in the sense of filling up). This is what is used in Matthew 5:17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill (pleroo) them.”1

Note how the verb pleroo is used in these other passages:

Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling (pleroo) of the law. (Romans 13:10)

For the whole law is fulfilled (pleroo) in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:14)

Like teleo, the sense of pleroo here is that of upholding the Torah rather than simply seeking its termination.

Christ is the Goal of the Torah

So, how should we read Romans 10:4? In light of the rest of Paul’s writing, I think it’s wise to take a two-handed approach. Scholars point out that while telos can mean “end,” it can also mean “goal” or “culmination.” They suggest that Paul’s wording in Romans 10:4 is deliberately vague, conveying two ideas at once. Christ is both the goal and the end of the Law, they conclude.

Christ is the climactic goal of the Torah, the living embodiment of the holiness and compassion toward which God was aiming. Jesus is the “Word made flesh.” He is the only one who has ever perfectly lived out the Torah.

If the Torah is God’s teaching for how to live as his people, in what sense could it end? I’d point out two things. As Christians, we believe that Jesus took upon himself the punishment we deserve for our inability to keep God’s commands. As such, he brought the law to the end of its ability to separate us from God because of our sin. For that we rejoice!

Second, God’s policy for centuries had been to separate Israel from the influence of its pagan neighbors. He did this so that he could train his people properly, like a parent teaching a child (Galatians 3:24). In Christ, God gave a new command that went in the opposite direction. Instead of maintaining their distance, Jesus’ followers were to go into the world and make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19).

The instant Peter visited the first Gentile, the policy of separation collided with the new policy of outreach. According to Jewish law, Peter could not accept Cornelius’s hospitality because Gentiles were “unclean.” But God had given him a vision in which unclean animals were declared “clean.” (Acts 10:9-16)

With the guidance of the Spirit, the church ruled in Acts 15 that Gentile believers did not need to enter into the covenant that was given on Mount Sinai. The “dividing wall of hostility” that the Torah put up to keep the Gentiles away was brought to an end (Ephesians 2:14).

Unclean Animals

What about God’s Covenant with Israel?

The Torah also contains God’s covenant with Israel. Did Jesus bring this covenant to an end? Absolutely not, Paul exclaims! Just look at Romans 11:

I ask, then, has God rejected his people? By no means! …As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. Romans 11:1, 28-29

Paul mourns deeply for his Jewish brothers who have been alienated from God’s promises, and he longs for them to believe in their Messiah. He pictures Israel, the family of Abraham, as an olive tree that Gentiles have been grafted into. Some of Israel’s branches have been cut off, but he’s is optimistic that they can be grafted in again. In no way does Paul think of God’s covenant with Israel as nullified, though.

In Conclusion

As Gentiles, Christians are not obligated to keep the Mosaic covenant. It was given to Israel, not to the world. We are saved by faith because of Christ’s atoning death, not by keeping laws we were never given.

How then are we to live? Paul and the other New Testament writers spend most of their letters discussing this very subject. In Acts 15:21, the Jerusalem Council points out that that Gentile believers will hear Moses preached every weekend in the synagogue. Certainly they will learn how to live from hearing the Torah preached.

The Apostles knew that we can discover great wisdom within the Torah because Christ himself was the goal toward which it was aiming. This is our goal too—to be filled with the love and goodness of our Lord and Rabbi, Jesus.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 12, “Jesus and the Torah” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 163-179.

Go back to part 1, What “Fulfill the Law” Meant in its Jewish Context

Go back to part 2, What Paul Said about Fulfilling the Law

(Certainly much, much more could be said about these issues. My point is to share a few language and cultural insights that challenge our reading, not deal exhaustively with Pauline theology.)

2. What Paul Said about “Fulfilling the Law”

Part II

In the past, the idea that “Christ brought the Law to an end by fulfilling it” has been the traditional rationale of why Christians are not obligated to keep the laws of the Old Testament.

We overlook the fact that in Acts 15, the early church declared that Gentiles were not obligated to convert to Judaism by being circumcised and taking on the covenant of Torah that was given to Israel. Instead they were told that they must simply observe the three most basic laws against idolatry, sexual immorality and murder, the minimal observance required of Gentile God-fearers.1

Abraham & sonsAccording to Acts, the reason Christians have not been required to observe the Torah was not because it has ended, but because we are Gentiles (at least most of us).

Paul, of course, was zealous in saying that Gentiles were not required to observe the Torah when some insisted they become circumcised and take on other observances. He himself still observed the Torah, and proved it to James when asked to do so in Acts 21:24-26. Yet he still maintained that Gentiles were saved apart from observing it.

Paul supported this idea by pointing out that the Gentiles were being filled with the Holy Spirit when they first believed in Christ, not after they had become Torah observant (Gal. 3:2-5).

He also pointed out that Abraham did not observe the laws of the Torah that were given 400 years later, but was justified because of his faith. (Gal. 3:6-9)2 He concluded that all who believe are “Sons of Abraham” even though this very term was usually reserved for circumcised Jews.

Paul’s use of “Fulfill the Law”

An important part of this discussion is that Christians widely misunderstand the word “Torah,” which we translate as “law.” We associate it with burdensome regulations and legal courts. In the Jewish mind, the main sense of “Torah” is teaching, guidance and instruction, rather than legal regulation. Note that a torah of hesed, “a teaching of kindness” is on the tongue of the Proverbs 31 woman (Proverbs 31:26).

Why would torah be translated as law? Because when God instructs his people how to live, he does it with great authority. His torah demands obedience, so the word takes on the sense of “law.” But in Jewish parlance, torah has a very positive sense, that our loving Creator would teach us how to live. It was a joy and privilege to teach others how to live life by God’s instructions. This was the goal of every rabbi, including Jesus.

The question then becomes, if the Torah is God’s loving instructions for how to live, why would Gentiles be excluded from its wonderful truths? Surprisingly, in both Romans and Galatians, after Paul has spent a lot of time arguing against their need to observe the Torah, he actually answers this question by explaining how they can “fulfill the Law.” He says:

Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “Do not commit adultery,” “Do not murder,” “Do not steal,” “Do not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this one rule: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom. 13:8-10)

For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal. 5:14)

If Paul is using first idiomatic sense of “fulfill the Torah,” he is saying that love is the supreme interpretation of the Torah–the ultimate summation of everything that God has taught in the Scriptures.

Paul was reiterating Jesus’ key teaching about loving God and neighbor that says “All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments”  (Matt. 22:40). The two laws about love are not just more important than the rest, they are actually the grand summation of it all.

About a century later, Rabbi Akiva put it this way: “Love your neighbor as yourself – this is the very essence (klal gadol) of the Torah.”3 Love is the overriding principle that shapes how all laws should be obeyed.

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Love as Fulfilling the Torah

Paul also seems to be using the second idiomatic sense of “fulfill the Torah” (as obedience) to say that loving your neighbor is actually the living out of the Torah. When we love our neighbor, it is as if we have done everything God has asked of us. A Jewish saying from around that time has a similar style:

If one is honest in his business dealings and people esteem him, it is accounted to him as though he had fulfilled the whole Torah.4

The point of the saying above is that a person who is honest and praiseworthy in all his dealings with others has truly hit God’s goal for how he should live. He didn’t cancel the Law, he did it to the utmost!

Similarly, Paul is saying that when we love our neighbor, we have truly achieved the goal of all the commandments. So instead of saying that the Gentiles are without the law altogether, he says that they are doing everything it requires when they obey the “Law of Christ,” which is to love one another.

For him, the command to love is the great equalizer between the Jew who observes the Torah, and Gentile who does not, but who both believe in Christ. Paul says,

“For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (Galatians 5:6)

Torah

Go to part 3: Is Christ the End of the Law?

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1 See “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, pp. 141-144. The three commandments against idolatry, sexual immorality and murder were considered the three most heinous sins, and also sins that Gentiles were particularly prone to commit.

Scholar David Instone-Brewer points out that “strangling” was likely a reference to infanticide, which was practiced by Gentiles but abhorrent to Jews. See the article, “Abortion, What the Early Church Said.”

2 See the article “Family is Key to the “Plot” of the Bible.”

3 Rabbi Akiva, (who lived between about 50-135 AD); B. Talmud, Bava Metzia (62a). Also see the article, The Shema and the First Commandment.

4 Mekhilta, B’shalach 1 (written between 200-300 AD).

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!

~~~~~

SittingTo explore this topic more, see Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009.

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

Keepers of the Word

by Lois Tverberg

Now go, write it on a tablet before them, and inscribe it on a scroll,
That it may serve in the time to come, as a witness forever. –  Isaiah 30:8

Judaism from ancient times until today contains many practices that display great reverence for the written text of the Bible. The centerpiece of every synagogue is the “Torah Ark” – the cabinet that contains handwritten Torah scrolls covered in embroidered cloths, with a silver “crown” decorating each scroll. A silver pointer called a “yad” is used to keep place during the reading to avoid touching the text on the scroll with one’s hands.

The name of God is especially sacred, and never uttered allowed. Any paper that it is written on must not be destroyed, but must respectfully buried in a receptacle called a genizah (gen-nee-ZAH). As a result, all Jewish Torah scrolls and other scriptures are carefully buried and not simply thrown away with other waste, even if they are very warn out and need to be replaced.

CaveAll this extreme care may strike us as excessive. We may wonder how pen marks and paper can be so holy. But interestingly, it is this very practice that preserved the most important copies of the Bible ever found.

In the 1940s, many copies of the text of the Hebrew Bible (our Old Testament) were found near the Essene settlement at Qumran, near the Dead Sea. The scrolls had been carefully buried in caves used as “genizahs” around the time of Christ, and were over 1000 years older than the oldest known text of the Bible. Archaeologists were amazed at the fact that the biblical text had been preserved nearly flawlessly over 1000 years.

Though the ancient people did these things simply to revere God’s word, they were actually insuring that people could know its truth and reliability over two millennia later. Their dedication to the Lord even in the way they treated the manuscripts of the Bible had a wonderful outcome that they never could have foreseen. We should also know that what we do to bring honor to God, even if we don’t know why, can be used by God at a time and place later that we never would have dreamed.

Torah – Law, Instruction

by Lois Tverberg

The teaching (torah) of the LORD is perfect, renewing life; the decrees of the LORD are enduring, making the simple wise; The precepts of the LORD are just, rejoicing the heart; the instruction of the LORD is lucid, making the eyes light up. (Psalms 19:8-9)

Protestant Christians tend to have a negative attitude about the word “law,” feeling that it refers to oppressive and arbitrary regulations. But the word that we translate as “law,” torah has a very different emphasis and connotation in Hebrew.

Torah is derived from the root word yarah, which literally means ‘to flow as water.’ Figuratively it means “to point out,” to “teach,” “inform,” “instruct,” or “show.” Torah could best be defined in English as ‘instruction,’ that is, God’s instruction to man. When it is used to speak of God’s instruction, there is an understanding that what God teaches us, we are obligated to obey. So the word “law” is within the bounds of the definition of torah, but not really its main emphasis. Christian translations tend to reinforce our thinking by translating torah as “law” most of the time. The Jewish translations like the JPS Tanakh instead translate torah as “teaching” most of the time.

We see evidence of torah as “teaching” rather than “law” when we notice that the first five books of the Bible are called the Torah, but they contain much more than laws. The Torah contains the story of the creation and fall, and God’s covenants, his rescue of his people from slavery, and his training them to be his people in the desert. All of the Torah teaches us about God’s ways and purposes, and about the nature of man. But only part of it is actually law. The Penteuch is specifically called the Torah, because it is understood to be the teaching given through Moses, but the word Torah is often used in a larger sense to describe all of Scripture.

This emphasis helps us see God in a more positive light. Now the word “torah” reminds us that rather than being primarily a lawgiver or a policeman waiting to punish us, God is a loving Father instructing his children in how to live. Jesus, who instructed his disciples and the crowds, was simply imitating his Father in teaching us how to have life, and have it more abundantly.