Thinking Hebraically About God’s Creation

by Lois Tverberg & Bruce Okkema

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4)

It’s impossible not to praise God for his wonderful handiwork in all the natural beauty around us. Much of the Bible also seems to rejoice in God’s beautiful world. Certainly Jesus peppered his preaching with meditations about such things as mustard seeds, ravens, and lilies of the field. God declared the creation “very good,” and he often used its beauty and remarkable design to point to himself.

When Job came to God with the ultimate questions of life, God’s response was to describe the grandeur of creation — the constellations, the rain and thunder, the ostriches and mountain goats. Who created these, God asked? And could Job do the same (Job 38-41)? An honest look at the gorgeous, intricate design of this world should leave us humbled, realizing that God has reasons for his actions that are often beyond our understanding.

As filled as the Scriptures are with meditations on God’s handiwork, many of us haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about how we should relate to the natural world. If anything, some of us are put off by people who love nature too much. What attitude does God want us to have, that neither idolizes his creation, nor neglects his calling to care for his garden and rule as his representatives on earth? If we look again at the scriptures in their Hebraic context, we find that God actually does give us instruction in these things.

Having an Attitude of Thanksgiving

In Psalm 24:1 it says, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” and the rabbis of Jesus’ day believed everything we enjoy in life should cause us to thank God. As a result, they instituted a wonderful system of brief prayers of “blessing” (berachah, pronounced BRA-khah, plural – berachot) that were prayed dozens of times throughout the day.

The idea was not to bless objects to make them holy, but to “bless the Lord” for each good thing, focusing on him as the source of all blessing. When Paul challenged his readers to “pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thes. 5:16 -18), he was probably thinking of this practice that both he and Jesus most likely took part in, and orthodox Jews do even to this day.1

In the most ordinary things they found ways of praising God, and many of these focused on reminding oneself of God’s sustenance of our lives and of creation. A person’s first thoughts upon waking were to thank God for giving them life to live another day: “I thank you, living and eternal King, for returning my soul within me in compassion, great is your faithfulness.”

They probably would have been awaken by a rooster’s crow. So in the first century they would have said, “Blessed is he who has given to the rooster understanding to distinguish between day and night.” And, when they opened their eyes they said, “Blessed is he who opens the eyes of the blind!” No day could start without numerous reminders of God’s love, and these small prayers arose often through their day.2

Encountering the world around them gave them many reasons to bless the Lord. When they saw the first flowers on the trees in the spring, they said, “Blessed is he who did not omit anything from the world, and created within it good creations and good trees for people to enjoy!” When they heard thunder or an earthquake they said, “Blessed is he whose strength and power fill the world!” (Next time there is a windstorm, step outside and meditate on God’s awesome power.) Even when they smelled an orange or lemon, it was an occasion to bless the Lord by saying, ”Blessed is he who gives pleasant fragrance to fruit.”

I find it interesting that they believed that even man-made things were ultimately created by God. One of the main blessings that is said before eating is, “Blessed is he who brings forth bread from the earth.” If you think about it, however, bread does not come directly from the earth! It is an “artificial” product that has been processed and modified by human effort, but yet the ancients saw that God should be thanked for it.

They have other prayers to thank God for things like medicine and human intelligence too. What an idea! Could we thank God for even our technology, seeing it as God’s handiwork, made through the gift of our minds and hands?

What was the point of these prayers? The effect was to instill a continual feeling of gratitude and a sense of God’s presence around them. We do a similar thing in a smaller way when as children we learn to say “thank you” or to pray before meals. Along with the habit of saying “thank you,” we develop an inward attitude of gratefulness whenever we receive some kindness.

Similarly, when most of us sit down in front of a table of food, we immediately have the urge to fold our hands together — an ingrained reminder that we should thank God. Through an outward practice, we learn an inward attitude. When Paul and other Jews learned the habit of these prayers, they cultivated in themselves a much more extensive habit of gratitude to God.

Looking at God’s creation, it seems that our response should be to cultivate in ourselves an attitude like this — feeling humbled by God’s presence, and grateful for his gracious care.

Bal Tashchit – Do Not Destroy

How does our worship of God for his creation impact our actions? Does it mean that we can’t modify the earth or use it for our needs? Western Christians tend to disconnect God with his creation, and see the world as entirely ours for disposal as we see fit. This is because we tend to see God as far away in heaven, uninterested in material things.

This attitude comes from our Greek cultural ancestors, who considered the material world to be worthless and evil, and God as utterly unconcerned with it. The Scriptures, in contrast, say repeatedly that God created the world very good, and that creation itself groans for its redemption which will come in the end (Rom 8:21).

We might think God never commented on how we should treat the earth, but the rabbis pointed out that God shared his feelings in a specific case in Deuteronomy 20:19. It says, “When you lay siege and battle against a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (lo tashchit) its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?”

In this verse, God forbade the destruction of the fruit trees outside of cities that were under siege by the Israelites during war. It was common practice during wartime to destroy the land — to chop down the trees and poison the fields by sowing them with salt. God expressly forbade this kind of wanton destruction and declared that the trees were “innocent bystanders” who should not be victims of the war.

The rabbis concluded that if God forbade the destruction of the environment in the dire situation of war, he must certainly oppose it during peacetime. They then reasoned that modifying the environment to build useful things to serve human needs is fine, but needless destruction is wrong.

They also concluded that the reason destroying fruit trees was forbidden was because God gave the trees to provide food, and when we destroy any useful thing, we insult God’s gracious care for us. To them, these words against needless destruction should teach us not to waste any useful thing. The ethical command was called bal tashchit (bahl-tahsh-KEET), meaning “do not destroy.”3

Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the commandment against bal tashchit. (Talmud, Kiddushin 32a, written about 500 AD)

Because of this interpretation of Deuteronomy 20:19, there has been an ethic of conservation and avoidance of waste in Judaism for thousands of years. They see it as an act of reverence for God. One 18th century rabbi, Sampson Hirsch, said that when we preserve the world around us, we show that we believe that God owns all and is above all.

If we needlessly destroy, we show our self-centeredness and lack of regard for the gifts and will of God. They said that one mark of a righteous person was that he appreciates God’s wonderful design of everything so much that seeing the needless destruction of anything brings him pain. A wicked person doesn’t see God’s handiwork and selfishly wants to destroy, just to show his own power. Waste and excess therefore come from self-idolatry, when we say we are sovereign over our world, not God himself.

What if we regarded all our possessions as gifts from God? Would we be wasteful and throw away usable things? Would we instead try to give them to someone who needs them? What we do with our gifts shows how we see the One who gave them to us; and when we conserve resources to share them with others, we are actually fulfilling both the command to love God and the command to love our neighbor. We are showing our gratitude to the God who provides for us, and we are caring for those around us as well.

Revering the God of Creation

Human knowledge has barely begun to understand the beautiful intricacy of every atom, cell, tree, planet and galaxy. If God in his infinite knowledge called his design of the world “very good,” it must show his brilliance and magnificence in ways beyond what we could ever imagine. It shouldn’t surprise us to hear that when God created the universe, “the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy” (Job 38:7)!

Instilling in ourselves a reverence for God’s work will make us feel like the world is saturated with God’s presence, and that we are under his constant care. The Lord told us to love him with all of our hearts, minds and souls, and being mindful of his glory in all that is around us will take us a long way toward that goal.

Majesty In Creation

A great designer fashioned this
with such detail that we will miss
the unity and regal power
that hides within the smallest flower.
It spreads itself across the sky
we cannot know how far or high.

Stop and listen, you will hear
a croaking frog, a running deer,
an eagle flying overhead,
a chipmunk dashing just ahead.
Each life designed for such a thing,
as best it suits Creator King.

It all together fits as one,
there’s not one place that’s left undone.
Yet nothing ever stays the same,
and when you look, all bears his name.
Take a walk, drink in the glory,
then go out and tell his story.

~~~~

For those who wish to cut back on waste by giving away unwanted items, check out www.freecycle.org. This is a network of email groups in which members offer unwanted items to other list readers who live in the same area. Groups are available all over the U.S and around the world.

 

1 In several places the gospels suggest that Jesus and his audience participated in the Jewish practice of “blessing the Lord.” See “The Richness of Jewish Prayer.” See also Jesus the Jewish Theologian, B. Young, Hendrickson © 1995, pp. 119 – 125.

2 In the first century, these prayers simply began with “Blessed is he,” but now each prayer begins with “Blessed art Thou, King of the Universe,” in order to remind the speaker of God’s sovereignty. A nice list of blessings is available from Hebrew for Christians.

3 More on Bal Tashchit in Jewish tradition at the following links:
Bal Taschit: The Torah Prohibits Wasteful Destruction
Judaism and Environmentalism: Bal Taschit

Photos: Luca Micheli on Unsplash, Yoksel 🌿 Zok on Unsplash, Michael Weidner on Unsplash

God’s Illogical Logic of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

Many of us have seen the movie Narnia or read the classic book, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This classic tale contains obvious parallels to the story of Christ. At the climax, the White Witch demands the life of the boy Edmund because he is a traitor to his family. She says that the “deep magic” allows her to kill every traitor — his life is forfeit for his sin.

Aslan, the Lion who represents Christ, gives his life in the boy’s place but later rises from the dead. When asked why, he said, “…there is a magic deeper still which [the White Witch] did not know … that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table [of judgment] would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”1

This “deeper magic” of Narnia — the idea that the sins of one person can be forgiven because of another person’s sacrifice — is a fundamental part of the Christian understanding of substitutionary atonement. We take it for granted that mercy is shown to the guilty for the sake of an innocent person.

If you think about it, this is quite illogical. In our own relationships we generally don’t transfer our feelings from one person to another. We don’t say “thank you” to one person because someone else did us a favor. Somehow, however, we have gotten used to the idea that God will forgive many sinners because of the righteousness of just one person.

Does the idea of granting mercy for the sake of another have precedent in the Hebrew scriptures? One might think it was invented in the New Testament. But interestingly, according to Jewish scholars, the answer is yes. Many have found this merciful “divine illogic” throughout the Old Testament and consider it an important principle of Judaism!

Jewish scholars explore the most minute details of the Torah and Hebrew scriptures, often picking up subtle themes that Christians might miss. So it is fascinating to see all the motifs that they find even though they may not be looking for Jesus.

Mercy for the Sake of Another

The Jewish scholar Nahum Sarna sees this pattern as early as Genesis 19, when Lot was saved from the destruction of Sodom. Lot had chosen to move to Sodom knowing that it was sinful. He became active in city leadership and even allowed his daughters to intermarry with the population.

Even though Lot wasn’t as corrupt as the Sodomites, God did not save him because of his own righteousness. Rather, the Bible says that “God was mindful of Abraham and removed Lot from the midst of the upheaval” (Gen 19:29). God delivered Lot from the catastrophe for the sake of Abraham — as a response to Abraham’s faithfulness, not Lot’s.

According to Sarna, “This ‘doctrine of merit’ is a not an infrequent theme in the Bible and constitutes many such incidents in which the righteousness of chosen individuals may sustain other individuals or even an entire group through its protective power.”2

This is the first of many times when God pardons one for the sake of another. For some strange reason, God often made his forgiveness contingent on an intercessor’s prayer. For instance, when King Abimelech took Abraham’s wife Sarah captive, God told him that he was under judgment, but if Abraham prayed for him, he would live (Gen. 20:7). At one point, God even lamented that no one can be found to “stand in the gap” for his people, as if he will not act without an intercessor (Ezekiel 22:30).3

Similarly, at the end of the story of Job, God was furious with Job’s counselors and said to them, “I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. … My servant Job will pray for you, and I will accept his prayer and not deal with you according to your folly” (Job 42:7-8).

God’s forgiveness seems to await the request from Job, the innocent victim of their sin. Moreover, the fact that God calls him “my servant” is a compliment that was rarely used except for those whom God highly esteemed.4 Was God saying that in accepting his prayer, he will pardon them for Job’s sake, rather than their own?

The Merit of the Fathers

A related idea in Judaism is that God will show special mercy toward the people of Israel because of the merits of their forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.5 They see this as coming from God’s promises of blessing to the patriarchs, and because he told Moses that he would pardon to the thousandth generation those who love him (Ex. 34:6-7).

So when Moses appealed to God to forgive Israel in the wilderness, he reminded him of his promise to his ancestors (Ex. 32:13, Deut. 9:27). In Micah 7 and elsewhere, God’s mercy is linked to his pledge to the patriarchs:

Who is a God like you, who pardons sin and forgives the transgression of the remnant of his inheritance? You do not stay angry forever but delight to show mercy. You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea. You will be true to Jacob, and show mercy to Abraham, as you pledged on oath to our fathers in days long ago. (Micah 7:18-20)

Even Paul alluded to this idea in Romans 11:28: “… but as far as election is concerned, they are loved on account of the patriarchs, for God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.” John the Baptist, however, told his audience to repent and to not assume that the merit of their ancestors would be sufficient to pay for their sin: “Do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham” (Matt 3:9).6

Because of this idea, when Jews pray for forgiveness for their sins on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, they focus on reminding God of the faithfulness of their ancestors, focusing especially on the story of the “Akedah,” when Abraham was willing to sacrifice Isaac at God’s request.

It is ironic that they ask for forgiveness for the sake of Abraham, who was a father who had such great love for God that he was willing to sacrifice his own son. Even more ironic is the fact that they also ask for mercy for the sake of Isaac, who offered himself up as a willing sacrifice and was obedient to do his fathers will! (The rabbis noted that if Isaac was carrying enough wood to burn a sacrifice, he had to be a grown man and able to overpower his elderly father. They saw his willingness to be a sacrifice as the major point of the story.)

While these practices are not explicitly pointing toward Christ, they do show that the Jewish reading of the Hebrew Bible supports the idea that a sinner can seek forgiveness from God because of the righteous merits of another person.

Atonement for Unintentional Murder

Another interesting place Jewish sources have found themes that Christians would see as pointing to Christ is in the regulations involving cities of refuge. Those cities were to be places where people guilty of accidental manslaughter could flee to escape revenge by the offended family (Numbers 35:9-15, 22-28).

Guilty individuals were required to live in the city until the death of the High Priest, at which time they were free to go home. The rabbis had a fascinating interpretation of the logic behind this:

The priests atone for unintentional sins through the offering of sacrifices, the high priest atones for even more, this being the reason for his functions on Yom Kippur, and the death of the high priest is the highest form of atonement which atones for unintentional manslaughter, the severest of unintentional sins. 7 (emphasis mine)

Remarkably, in the subtle logic of Torah regulations that Christians tend not to read, we see a picture of Christ as our great High Priest who obtained forgiveness for our sins through his own death.

Seeing the Merciful Illogic of Christ’s Atonement

Jesus’ first followers were well acquainted with the Hebrew Scriptures and their interpretation. They certainly knew Isaiah 53, that spoke of one who would “bear the sin of many, and make intercession for the transgressors” (Is. 53:12). They did not invent the idea that Jesus’ sacrifice would atone for the sins of those who believed in him; rather, they could see that it was woven throughout their Scriptures from beginning to end.

~~~~

1 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis (New York, MacMillan, 1950)

2 See Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), p. 150-151.

3 Ibid.

4 JPS Torah Commentary on Genesis, by Nahum Sarna p. 187.

5 S. Schechter, Aspects of Rabbinic Theology, pp. 170 – 198. Also, see “Virtue, Original,” by Joseph Jacobs

6 Judaism in the First Centuries of the Christian Era: The Age of the Tannaim, by G.F. Moore, (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1927), pp. 535-545.

7 Rabbi Shmuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), as quoted (without a source) in “Parashat Matot-Masei” by Zvi Shimon, Yeshivat Har Etzion’s Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash 

Photos: Chris Bair on UnsplashBenjamin West [Public domain], the Providence Lithograph Company [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.

~~~~~

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.)

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!

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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

A Precious Goblet

by Lois Tverberg

“And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” Exodus 34: 6-7

We might struggle with the fact that the Bible portrays God as sometimes forgiving sin, and other times angrily punishing it. Sometimes we over-simplify this to say that the God of the Old Testament was full of judgment, and Jesus was all forgiveness. If we read more closely, 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 of his sin in striking 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!” but later said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”.

This idea that God displays both judgment and mercy for sin was the subject of an interesting rabbinic parable:

Venetian GlassIn the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven, he said, “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, adapted1)

This parable doesn’t use detailed theology to explain why God is merciful sometimes and why he chooses to judge at other times – it merely points out that he needs both in order to reign over his creation while allowing it to survive.

We find that this blend of mercy and judgment is often what we deal with in our lives. Parents struggle with the balance of enforcing rules along with showing grace to their kids — not being too strict, yet not letting their kids run wild either. Employers often deal with employees who are not performing and have to decide if they should fire them, or give them another chance. When our spouses do something that hurts us — should we forgive them and let it slide, or bring our hurt and anger to their attention?

We may think that we have to always act in the same way in these situations — never letting sin go unpunished, or always trying to be merciful and dismiss it. But the reality is that we need to balance these. Even God walks the difficult line between mercy and judgment. Making the right choice for a given situation requires great discernment. It is comforting to know that we can turn to him when we deal with these questions because he knows our struggles far beyond what we could ever imagine.


(1) See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/Loving.html for more.

Photo: Queensland Museum

Blessed Are…

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 5:3

The beatitudes in Matthew 5 are beautiful, but their meanings are not always clear to us. The first word of every statement is usually translated “blessed,” although some translations use the word “happy” instead. In Greek the word is makarios, and in Hebrew the word would have been “ashrei,” as it is found in many sayings the Old Testament, for instance:

Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, or stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of mockers. Psalm 1:1

Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Psalm. 32:1

Content ChildIn Hebrew, the word ashrei does mean “happy” or “contented,” but not in the sense of short-term, shallow pleasure. It means a sense of knowing deeply that God’s favor rests on you, because God approves of how you live. When the word is plural, as it is in both verses above, it is to express great intensity. It is like saying, “Oh how wonderfully satisified and pleased a person can be when…”

In the beatitudes Jesus highlights the heart-felt joy of God’s favor in light of many circumstances that we would certainly not expect to give a person pleasure in our world. Who would want to be poor in spirit, meek, mourning, or persecuted? But Jesus was teaching that it is precisely when we have the least amount of approval from the world, that God pours out his greatest approval on us. When we are living life as it was meant to be lived, we can then know we are pleasing our Father in Heaven. This will lead to a sense of contentment and joy like no other!


Photo: Yvette T.

Why Carrying Wood?

by Lois Tverberg

Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” Numbers 15:32-35

Carrying WoodSome scenes in the Old Testament leave us scratching our heads about why God was so harsh and the regulations so arbitrary. The case of the man who was caught carrying wood on the Sabbath is one of them. It seems like an innocuous thing, but it seems to be especially serious. How can this be?

Several cultural things may be helpful in understanding this. The prohibition that the man was clearly intending to break was to light a fire on the Sabbath, as it says in Exodus 35:3. Lighting a fire was not a minor task – a person searched far outside the camp until he or she had a large load of wood, and then carried the heavy bundle back home, and then took some time to get a flame going. It would be likely that he was planning to cook or do other work that required a fire, and that gathering the wood was just the first step toward having a day full of activity that would willfully ignore the commandment to honor the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath itself was an especially important commandment to the Israelites when the covenant was given. It was the sign of the covenant that God had made with them:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, `You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Exodus 31:12-14

Wedding RingA sign of a covenant was a symbolic remembrance of the whole covenant. To break it was like breaking the whole thing. A modern analogy is the wedding ring, which is a kind of “sign,” a remembrance of the covenant of marriage. If a woman got rid of another piece of jewelry her husband gave her, it would not be very important. But if she threw away or sold her wedding ring, it would say something about her feelings about the marriage as a whole. Similarly, the man who was willfully ignoring the Sabbath was spurning the entire covenant, which he and all of Israel were accountable to keep as a people. If one person broke it, it affected all of them.

Even though our situation is much different than this, we can see that in its time, this sin was very serious, and indicated an attitude of rebellion that impacted all of Israel. Having its cultural setting helps us have the right lenses to grasp it the way was understood in its time, and why it resulted in such a strong reaction from Moses and from God.


Photo: WambuiMwangi and Eivind Barstad Waaler

Punished for Parents’ Sin

by Lois Tverberg

The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. Exodus 34:6-7

Hands of 3 generations

This description of God, that He is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness…” is quoted nine times in the Old Testament. The first place that this is heard is on Mt. Sinai, when the Lord passes by and shows all His glory to Moses. This description of God’s mercy comes up several times in the psalms (Psalm 86, 103, & 145 and others) and was probably part of many worship liturgies during Bible times.

Usually when this passage is quoted elsewhere in the Bible, the line about punishing children for the sins of the fathers is not included. This is satisfying to us, because we struggle with that line that seems quite unfair. There is actually a reason for it, if you look understand the culture and look closely at the text.

African TribeAncient tribal peoples like the Israelites saw their primary identity as being a part of a family or clan rather than as an individual. They worked together in everything and prospered or suffered together. It was assumed that the group was responsible for the conduct of all of its members. If one sinned, especially the leader, they would all bear guilt and suffer misfortune for it. I imagine they saw themselves as a tightly-knit team. If one player fumbles the football, the whole team gets the penalty, of course.

In Ezekiel 18, the people were quoting a proverb to that effect: ‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezekiel 18:2). Surprisingly, God tells them not to quote this proverb anymore because he strenuously disagrees with punishing children for the sins of their parents!

This chapter in Ezekiel is actually one long argument against the idea that children can be punished for their parent’s sin. It sounds like the prophet has a hard time getting people to agree with him that an individual should be judged on his own terms, not in terms of the actions of his ancestors.

If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. (Ezekiel 18:25-27)

Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezekiel 18:30-32)

So, we see that God himself sees that each person himself is accountable before him, and that it is unjust to condemn people for sins committed before their time.

How do we interpret Exodus 34:6-7 in the light of this passage? The picture of several generations being condemned for a sin may be describing the generational pattern of sin that we see in families. A father who abuses his wife often has sons who are abuse their wives. Families do teach and reinforce patterns of sins (or righteousness) to their members that go on for generations. Could it be that the children aren’t being punished for their parent’s guilt, but that the children have carried on in the family sins themselves?

The answer from Ezekiel is that the consequences of sin only extend to the generations that keep on in the sin of the ancestors. There is always hope, if the children will just repent and change their ways. God doesn’t take pleasure in the judgment of anyone, but bids us all to repent and live!


Photo: hannahpirnie and William Warby

Yes Should Mean Yes

by Lois Tverberg

Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, `Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. Simply let your `Yes’ be `Yes,’ and your `No,’ `No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. – Matt 5:33-37

Many are confused by Jesus’ saying about taking oaths from Matthew. In the Old Testament, God commanded the people to take their oaths in his name, not in the name of other gods (Dt. 6:13), and that they should not swear falsely in God’s name (Lev. 19:12). But in Matthew 5, Jesus commands people to not take oaths at all. Later, James quotes him almost verbatim:

But above all, my brethren, do not swear, either by heaven or by earth or with any other oath; but your yes is to be yes, and your no, no, so that you may not fall under judgment. James 5:12

Yes Should Mean Yes

Interestingly, other Jewish teachers are recorded as saying the same thing. Around 200 AD, the Babylonian Talmud records Rabbi Yossi ben Judah as saying: “Let your “yes” be yes, let your “no” be no. (Bava Metziah 49a). Philo, a Jewish philosopher of the first century also said, “The bare word of a virtuous man should be like an oath, steadfast, inviolable, and true. Should necessity absolutely require an oath, let a man swear by his father and mother . . . instead of by the name of the highest and first Essence.” (1)

What was the rationale for avoiding oaths all together? In Jesus’ time, the practice of taking oaths became more and more common; eventually it reached a point where a person’s promises were not believed if he had not done so. In ancient times, God himself was invoked as the witness who would guarantee to punish the oath-taker. But people started to search for other ways to guarantee their words so that God would not be dishonored if what they said did not come true. Swearing by the Temple, the altar, or by heaven was common, and Philo suggests swearing by one’s parents. But still people didn’t feel that their words were binding unless they included some oath.

Jesus pinpoints the necessity of an oath as an issue of integrity. If you have a tendency to break promises and don’t want to profane God’s name, the solution isn’t to swear by something else. Rather, it is to change your attitude so that you become a person who always lives out what you say.


(1) As quoted in “Oath,” Jewish Encyclopedia (Funk and Wagnalls, 1905-1906), in public domain at www.jewishencyclopedia.com.

Photo: https://www.hiscox.co.uk/business-blog/dont-make-promises-you-cant-keep-the-politics-of-business/

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.