Being a Part of Abraham’s Family

by Lois Tverberg

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants,
heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:29)

Many of us scratch our heads at why there are so many long lists of genealogies in the Bible. Our modern, individualistic Western culture makes it difficult for us to see an important theme that would have been obvious to its ancient audience — the centrality of family.

Not only is family critical in the Old Testament, it is key to some very important controversies in the New Testament as well, such as including Gentiles among the growing movement of Jewish believers in Jesus. Grasping the ideas that ancient peoples had about the family, and how these themes play out can help us understand our Bibles from beginning to end.

The Ancient Idea of Family

First, we need know that the ancient Hebrews valued family and heritage beyond anything else — it was absolutely everything in terms of a person’s identity and life goals. A person didn’t derive his identity from his occupation, but from his or her family. It was expected that children would take on their father’s profession and spiritual life.

It was also understood that children would take on their father’s personality — if a father was wise, his descendants would be wise; if he was warlike, his descendants would be warlike. Explaining what each family was like and relationships between families was very important to understanding the society as a whole.

Stories about the founders of each family were important because they were key to each family’s self-definition. This helps us to see why some biblical stories are included that don’t seem to be moral examples for us. For instance, we are told that Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had relations with him, and Moab was born, who was the father of the Moabites (Gen. 19:37).

Why are we told this? Because later in history, the Moabite women seduced the Israelites into sexual immorality (Num. 25:1). There are even hints of this in the story of Ruth, the Moabites, and her encounter with Boaz, but she was a “woman of noble character” (as Boaz said in Ruth 3:11), unlike her ancestors. We can see from this how the Moabite family’s “personality” affected its actions over many generations, and how a key to reading the Old Testament is to be aware of the associations with each family.1

Besides knowing the stories of the family’s fathers, another important thing in biblical cultures would be to understand how the inheritance was given. Typically the first-born son would receive a double portion of the inheritance and become the spiritual leader of the family, and the rest of the children would honor him, even from youth. He was considered to be the “first-fruits of his father’s vigor,” evidence of his father’s ability to leave a legacy, a source of manly pride.

Interestingly, the Bible makes an effort to point out that God did not allow his blessing to be given to any significant firstborn in the line of Abraham, including the sons of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Jesse and David!2 He was showing that the nation was established through his power, not through human achievement. The only prominent firstborn in the Bible is Jesus, who did not have an earthly father at all, but of whom God said, “This is my beloved son, in whom I delight” (Matt 3:17)!

The Epic of Abraham’s Family

Knowing this shows us the rationale for God’s covenant with Abraham. Abraham was a man of great faith, who, at God’s request, gave up his own ancestral family and homeland, a great sacrifice in that time. When God first appeared to him he was childless, which was understood to be a terrible curse, the ultimate failure in life.

Old Jewish ManBecause of his unwavering faith God promised him the greatest of blessings — that he would be the father of many nations. In biblical culture, becoming the father of a great nation would have been an enduring legacy of honor, like being elected president today.

Because it was assumed that the members of a family would be like their forefathers, it made sense that Abraham would instill in his children his strong faith in God, and a great nation of believers would result. God’s covenant with Abraham was specifically with him and his future descendants, and the “sign” of the covenant, the physical remembrance, was circumcision, which was required of all males from Abraham’s time until this day.

The sign of the covenant is not coincidental — rather, it marked the fact that the covenant was with Abraham’s “seed,” passed down through each generation of the family. Each time descendants are listed it showed that God had been honoring his covenant.

In the time of Jesus and Paul, there seemed to be quite a debate over who was a “son of Abraham,” with the understanding that a person’s salvation was linked to being a part of the covenantal family. John the Baptist warned people not to trust in their lineage when he said, “Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:9).3 

Jesus had a heated discussion with some leaders on this very topic:

[Jesus said,] “I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father.” “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.” (John 8:37- 41)

Behind this conversation seems to be the idea that they were claiming to be part of the “saved” because Abraham was their father. Jesus questions this, and points out that he expects that if they were sons of Abraham, they would then be like him.

Paul’s Understanding of the Sons of Abraham

In Paul’s writing too, he deals with the idea that being a “son of Abraham,” a circumcised Jew, was necessary for salvation. Christians have traditionally read Paul’s arguments over circumcision as a contrast between grace and legalism. Recent scholarship suggests that a greater issue was whether God could extend his salvation to others outside the family of Abraham.4

A strong sense of nationalism and isolationism was among Jews of the first century, who were a small minority in the Roman Empire, and who had gone through much persecution for not adopting Hellenistic ways. About 150 years before Christ, Jews were executed if they circumcised their sons in order to be faithful to God.

As a reaction to that persecution and to the encroaching Gentile world, they put great emphasis on observing laws that separated them from Gentiles, as a way to show their commitment to God. Being circumcised was especially important because it marked them as “sons of Abraham,” and part of the family covenant. To them, it undermined God’s covenant with Abraham to extend it to others who had not become full proselytes to Judaism.

Interestingly, Paul does not say that a person doesn’t need to be a son of Abraham to be saved. Rather, he deals with this issue by redefining what a “son of Abraham” is, by stretching the definition to include the Gentiles, the very group not included in the definition of a “son of Abraham”! He points out that Abraham himself was a Gentile, and that God’s promise was given to him because of his faith, before he was circumcised. He says,

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. (Romans 4:9-11)

In Galatians, Paul makes a similar point:

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations (Gentiles, goyim) will be blessed through you.” (Galatians 3:7)

Paul is interpreting the words of God’s promise to Abraham to say that He would bless the goyim, (meaning both “nations” and “Gentiles”) through him. He is pointing out that God’s blessings are not just for his biological descendants who were circumcised, but also for the Gentiles of the world, but yet they still come through Abraham. From this, Paul can conclude that Gentile believers in God are true sons of Abraham. In his words from Galatians 3:28-29 he concludes,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendents, and heirs according to the promise.”

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1 Another story that continues over generations is the battle with the Amelekites, and key to understanding it is the family relationships between the generations. See “Esther, The Rest of the Story.”

2 The issue of who would get the blessing of the firstborn is a theme throughout Genesis, and especially the story of Joseph and his brothers. The special coat from Jacob indicated that he had appointed Joseph firstborn, because he was the first son of Rachel, the wife he loved. Jacob once said to his family, “My wife bore me two sons” (Gen.44:27) virtually disowning Leah’s family entirely. We can see why Joseph dreamed that his family would bow down to him, and why his older brothers wanted to kill him, to eliminate him as heir. For more, see “All in the Family.”

3 It is likely that they felt that being a “son of Abraham” insured that their sins would be forgiven. See “God’s Illogical Logic of Mercy.

4 For more about Paul’s arguments in their Jewish context, see “The Context of Paul’s Conflict.”

Photos: Ojedamd [CC BY-SA 3.0], Movieevery, Hult, Adolf, 1869-1943;Augustana synod. [from old catalog] [No restrictions]

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).

Laws for the Gentiles

by Lois Tverberg

It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things. Farewell. Acts 15:28-29

When the early church convened in Jerusalem to decide what to do with all the new Gentile Christians, there was debate about whether they must convert to Judaism or not. Some felt that since the Jews had always been God’s people, to be saved one must be Jewish. But Paul and the rest of the early church saw that God is the God of the Gentiles also (Romans 3:29), and ruled that Gentiles could be God’s people without converting to Judaism.

One thing that we find puzzling is the rules that the early church said applies to the Gentile converts because they appear to be mostly food laws – meat sacrificed to idols, blood, and strangled animals, things that would prevent them from having table fellowship with Jews. But out of all the things that should be prohibited to the Gentile world, why these?

Worshipping an IdolSome scholars have a different answer based on knowledge of the texts and the Jewish culture of the time. They note that in ancient manuscripts, the text of this passage is difficult and often varies between manuscripts, leaving out one or more of the prohibitions. Their suggestion is that the most ancient versions of this passage actually contained a proscription against the three most serious sins in rabbinic thinking of the time – idolatry, sexual immorality, and bloodshed (murder). In Hebrew, the law against murder is shefichut damim, literally, “shedding of bloods.” The Hebraic idiom may have been misinterpreted after translation into Greek to mean the prohibiting the eating of blood instead.

Cain and AbelInterestingly, rabbis often accused the pagan Gentiles of being guilty of exactly the sins of idolatry, sexual immorality and murder. And, a prohibition against this threesome of sins is also mentioned in other early Christian literature as well. Later in the Talmud, these three laws were interpreted as part of the laws that God gave to all humanity in the time of Noah in Genesis 9. They were extremely serious sins — rabbis ruled that all of the commands of the Torah could be broken to preserve a person’s life except these three things.

This seems, in my opinion, to be a much more satisfying answer to what we as Gentiles called to do. Of course sexual immorality and murder are universally wrong, and no Gentile worshipper of God can keep worshipping idols as well. The Holy Spirit and early church did not give all of humanity odd food laws to follow; rather, they ruled that we are answerable to God for these most basic, and serious sins.


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New LightTo explore this topic more, see chapter 21, “Requirements for Gentiles” in New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2006, p. 141-44.

Photo: Hochschul- und Landesbibliothek Fulda and  Ghent Altarpiece

Knowing His Voice

by Lois Tverberg

“He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger’s voice.” John 10:3-5

Sheep_hillside

Jesus often refers to himself as “the shepherd,” which is not just a lovely poetic image. Rather, it is a bold messianic claim because “the shepherd” is frequently used in Old Testament prophecies about the coming Messiah. For instance, in Ezekiel 34 provides the background to Jesus’ statement about future judgment:

“`For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. “`As for you, my flock, this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats.” (Ezek. 34:11-12,17)

This passage in Ezekiel explains the judgement between sheep and goats, which Jesus quotes in Matthew 25:32-33. But how exactly does one judge between one sheep and another, or between sheep and goats?

An answer to this question becomes clearer when we begin to understand shepherding. Sheep are shy creatures that run from humans, but once they know a shepherd, they will respond to his or her voice and remain quite loyal to their shepherd. Therefore, if two shepherds meet and their flocks mingle, all they need to do to identify their own herd is to walk away from the other shepherd and call to them; the sheep will then run to their own shepherd. In the passage from John 10, Jesus expresses this relationship between shepherd and sheep, assuring us that his own sheep run toward him and won’t wander off to follow a stranger. Then he makes an even bolder statement in verse 16:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd.

Here Jesus is referring to the Gentiles who will follow him in coming ages. His audience would have been shocked because they viewed the Gentiles as hardened and worldly.

An interesting thought occurs to me about the picture that this has for future judgment. Jesus asserts that his own sheep know his voice, and that is what differentiates them from others. What else do sheep know about their shepherd? Do they know the fine points of his theology, like his understanding of the godhead, or predestination vs. free will? No, sheep do not— but they know his voice. They know their shepherd in the Hebraic sense of the word “know,” which can mean loyalty and devotion, not just academic knowledge.

So what do we need to know about Jesus to be saved? Satan probably has more knowledge about Jesus than anyone in the universe, and can explain the various doctrines about him better than any human being. Does that save him? In contrast, is there really any human that has perfect beliefs about Christ, any more than anyone is fully righteous?

Often Christians like to determine the “salvation state” of others by examining the minutia of their beliefs and stances on various issues. Certainly there are basic truths about Christ that must be deep in the soul of every believer, the most important being that he is our LORD, and that he died to redeem us from our sins.

But beyond that, I wonder if when Jesus comes again and judges the sheep and the goats, he won’t ask “what side of the fence were you on with this issue?” Instead, he’ll simply call, and his true sheep will eagerly leap up and bound toward him because throughout their lives they have learned to follow him, and to *know* and love his call.

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