In classical Greek thought, there was strong sense of dualism — that the material world is corrupt and worthless, and only the spiritual world was worthwhile. In contrast, the Bible was written from a Hebraic perspective that believed that God’s creation is good, and that human life on earth is meaningful. Our Greek background still makes Christians somewhat dualistic. We sing songs with lyrics like
This world is not my home, I’m just-a passing through, my treasures are laid up a-way beyond the blue, the angels beckon me from heaven’s distant shore, and I can’t feel at home in this world any more.
While it is good to look forward to heaven and Christ’s return, we tend to disparage the life we have here on earth as unimportant. We often think of our activity on earth simply as waiting—waiting for Christ to come again, or waiting to die and go to heaven. Re-examining the Bible’s Hebraic picture of salvation may give us a different perspective.
Salvation as a Relationship with God
Most Christians would define salvation as being allowed to enter heaven after death, which of course is focused on the afterlife. It is true that we will be saved from judgment, but the Bible also uses another picture of salvation that we rarely emphasize: salvation as a restored relationship with God, in this life. An unsaved person lives a life separated from God, because sin alienates him or her from God. As Paul says,
Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation. (Col. 1:21-22)
Through the new covenant of forgiveness that Jesus established, we can come into a relationship with God. Christians often think of that only in terms of being pardoned from the judgment to come.
Each time we take communion, however, we are celebrating the fact that under this new covenant of forgiveness by Christ’s blood, we can “sit down to dinner” with God, something that wasn’t possible before. In biblical times, partaking of a meal together was only done if people had a close relationship with each other. If there was a conflict between two people, after it was resolved, the parties would eat a meal together to celebrate their reconciliation. We also see this picture in Revelation 3:20:
Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with me.
The picture is that a person who is saved is restored to fellowship with God in this life, as well as the next. We also see this in Jesus’ parables. He describes an unsaved person as being like a sheep lost from the flock, or like a rebellious prodigal son who has left his family. Salvation comes when the shepherd finds the sheep and brings it home, or when the prodigal son is received back into the family.
This idea of salvation in this life allows us to understand some texts that otherwise don’t make sense. Paul says “by grace you have been saved…” (Eph. 2: 5, 8), using the past tense, not the future tense. Even more importantly, Paul says,
Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed – not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence – continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)
If we think in terms of salvation as a future reward, this passage sounds like we should be in a perpetual state of worry. However, if we see salvation as something that we already have, he is talking about having awe and reverence for God who is helping us bring every part of our lives into relationship with him.
A related idea is that eternal life starts in this world. John seems to think of this when he says:
Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
Many verses like these are ones we should read in terms of salvation in its present sense. Many others do speak of salvation in its future aspect as well. We should keep both in mind as we read the Bible.
What are the implications?
One thing is that our picture of God changes. If we only think of salvation as escaping hell, our idea of God is mainly that of an angry judge. In contrast, Jesus portrays God as a loving shepherd who searches for his sheep, or a loving father eager to see his son come home. This picture is of a God that actively wants to seek out his lost children, and bring them back into relationship with him. He loves us and wants us near him, he doesn’t just want to pardon us from our sins.
We are also forced to ask ourselves, if we are already living in eternity, in a relationship with God, does our life show it? If we think of ourselves as just waiting for a future promise, we can easily fall into wasting our life here.
Should a life in relationship with God be filled with mindless entertainment or materialism? Our priorities change when we don’t see our life as disposable. The world around us is filled with people who see no meaning in life. Perhaps the gospel would go forth more boldly if we took hold of our salvation and started living it here, rather than waiting for it in the future.
To modern Christians, many Old Testament laws seem arbitrary. One in particular may strike us as pointless — the commandment to wear tassels. In Numbers it says,
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: `Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by going after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be holy to your God. I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD your God.'” (Num. 15:37-41)
Many orthodox Jewish men today observe this commandment by wearing tassels (tzitzit, ZEET-zeet; plural tzitziot – zee-zee-OTE, ) affixed to a garment under their shirts, with the tassels deliberately showing so that they are obvious both to himself and those around him.
Others don’t wear them all the time, but in worship they wear a prayer shawl, a tallit, to which tzitzit are attached. Among those that do wear them, it is required that they hang outside and are not tucked in, because the scripture says that you have them “to look at.”
Not only is this odd commandment taken seriously by Jews, the text of the command is repeated at least twice daily as part of their most important prayer, the Shema. Although it may appear to us to be an act of legalism, when we dig deeper we find it has tremendous significance and a lesson for our lives today.
The Picture in the Tassels
In order to make sense of this regulation, we need to see the cultural picture behind putting tzitzit on the corners of the garment. In ancient times, garments were woven and decorated to show the person’s identity and status in society. The hem and tassels of the outer robe were particularly important, with the hem being symbolic of the owner’s identity and authority.
In the story of Saul, the cutting of the hem is a prophetic picture of God’s removing him from his reign (1 Sam 15:27, 1 Sam 24:4). In legal contracts written in clay, instead of a signature, the corner of the hem would be pressed into the clay to leave an impression.
On the hem were attached the tzitzit, which were a visual reminder of one of the most important promises that God made at Mt. Sinai:
Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. (Ex. 19:6)
The tzitzit communicated that idea using several cultural pictures:
Tassels in general were a sign of nobility — in ancient times kings and princes decorated their hems with tassels. Merely by wearing tassels, the Israelites were wearing a “royal robe,” marked as God’s chosen people. In ancient times this would have been quite a statement to the nations around them who saw the regal nature of their clothing.
The presence of a blue thread in the tassel was a reminder of the blue robes of the priests, being dyed with the same expensive dye (tekhelet) only made from one rare type of snail. It was as if each Israelite wore a little piece of the high priest’s blue robe at all times to remind them that like the priests, they were set apart for serving God. The blue dye eventually became so expensive that it was no longer required.
The tassels were wound and knotted in a specific pattern to remind the wearer of the commandments of God. This may not have been done in the time of Jesus, but it was certainly understood in his time that the tassels were to remind a person to be continually obedient to God.
By wearing tzitzit, every Jew was reminded of his unique relationship with God and obligation to serve him. According to the Jewish scholar Jacob Milgrom,
“The tzitzit is the epitome of the democratic thrust within Judaism, which equalizes not by leveling but by elevating: all of Israel is enjoined to become a nation of priests. In antiquity, the tzitzit (and the hem) was the insignia of authority, high breeding and nobility. By adding the blue woolen cord to the tzitzit, the Torah combined nobility with priesthood: Israel is not to rule man but to serve God. Furthermore, tzitzit is not restricted to Israel’s leaders, be they kings, rabbis or scholars. It is the uniform of all Israel.”1
The Importance of the Uniform
God was giving his people a uniform to wear to show their special status as a nation of priests. God was also forcing them to be obvious about their commitment to him, because everyone around them could see their tassels too.
God chose to make the people of Israel his representatives on earth — a kingdom of priests to the rest of the world. He wanted them to be continually reminded that he had put them on display as a light to the nations, witnesses to him to serve others.
In a world where other nations prostituted themselves to idols and sacrificed their children to demons, they were to show how the true God wanted them to live. They could not blend in to the world around them, and whatever they did, good or evil, was a witness to the God they served. If they were true to their calling by being obedient to God, they would be a holy nation that the whole world would recognize.
Jesus, like other Jews of the day, wore the uniform of the tzitzit. The gospels report that more than once people grasped them to be healed (Mt. 14:6, Lk 8:44). This may have come from the idea that the messiah would come with “healing in his wings” (Mal. 4:2), with “wings,” kanafim, also meaning “corners,” where the tzitzit were placed.
When Jesus criticized the religious leaders for making their tassels large (Mt 23:5), he wasn’t protesting against their wearing them. Because social status was shown through the hem and tassels, by enlarging them they were claiming honor and prestige from their piety. While they were supposed to be clear in their commitment by wearing their tassels, they weren’t supposed to use them to their own social gain.
The Challenge to Us
What importance does this have to us as Gentiles, who weren’t given this command? While the Israelites were specifically told to wear this uniform and we were not, we do share the same call as they received on Mt. Sinai. Peter says,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who has called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. (1 Peter 2:9)
Peter is adapting God’s promise from his first covenant with the Jews and applying to it to all believers who have come into God’s new covenant, that we too are part of his holy nation and royal priesthood. By accepting this covenant, we also become God’s representatives, witnesses to the world by our actions.
Like the priests of Israel, we need to be mindful of being obedient so that we reflect God’s holiness, while serving others and bringing them closer to God. What if Christians were required to wear tzitzit? Western Christians have an extremely privatized faith, living lives like everyone around us, being glad that we don’t need to “do anything to get to heaven.”
So we are just like our neighbors, not being a judge, but also not being a light or a witness. We are hidden lamps, covered under our own bushel baskets. We focus on the minimum needed for salvation, but don’t realize that God’s goal is far beyond that.
The lesson of the tzitzit is that God’s goal for us as a kingdom of priests is to become more obvious about living our faith, enough so that others see our “tassels.” This can easily bring on accusations of being judgmental and hypocritical, so we need to rise to the challenge to go even more out of our way to be humble and kind as we live in front of others. We need to wear a little piece of the robe of our high priest, Jesus Christ. God’s goal for us is not just to “get us into heaven,” but to transform us into his representatives who reflect the love of God, and cause others to love him too.
1 Jacob Milgrom, “The Tassel and the Tallit,” The Fourth Annual Rabbi Louis Fineberg Memorial Lecture (University of Cincinnati, 1981). (Quoted in the online article The Meaning of Tekhelet by Baruch Sterman.)
Much information on the significance of tassels for this article comes from the Jewish Publication Society Commentary on Numbers, by Jacob Milgrom, 1990. (ISBN 0-8276-0329-0), Excursus 38, p. 410 – 414. This set of Torah commentaries is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to dig deeper.
Most of us see Noah and the flood and as a story for children. We may think of wallpaper for the baby’s room with cartoons of cute animals, arks and rainbows. Others focus on its historicity — how the large the ark was, where it landed, or what geological features might remain.
These traditional ways of looking at the flood story miss its deeper significance, and reflect the difficulty Western Christians have with the Eastern way of communicating theological truth. The Bible’s writers saw theology in history, and composed their stories with an eye toward the meaning behind the events.
Most of us tend to simply read for historical details and miss the greater implications of Old Testament stories, thinking that we can only find theology in the New Testament. Surprisingly, if we look at the flood again, we find that this ancient narrative gives a profound answer to the difficult question of how a good God can tolerate sin.1
The Story of Sin in Genesis
When we read the story of the Fall, we don’t have much problem seeing the theological implications when Eve chooses to overrule God to eat from the tree. We understand what it says about rebellion and sin, and how they separate us from God. We often overlook that fact that the problem of sin is actually an important theme of several early chapters in Genesis, and culminates in the story of the flood.
Almost immediately after the fall, we read about Cain’s murder of Abel. It is ironic that these two were the first brothers ever born, representatives of all of us as children of Adam and Eve, but when one ignored the fact that he was his “brother’s keeper,” he destroyed him.2
From Eve’s small act of rebellion by eating the apple, sin grew until it led to murder, claiming the life of one of her children. Later in that same chapter, sin grew even worse, when Cain’s descendant, Lamech, bragged to his family that as violent as Cain was, he was much worse! He said,
For I have killed a man for wounding me; and a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold!”3 (Genesis 4:24)
The words of Lamech show that sin doesn’t stop at murder. He went even beyond, claiming the right to kill for the smallest of offenses. With that kind of attitude, we aren’t surprised that in the very next generation, sin had reached its climax and provoked a response from God:
“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence (hamas).”4 (Genesis 6:5-6, 11)
In these first chapters of Genesis we can see that over just a few generations sin had infected humanity so completely that it grieved the heart of God. It was a theological statement about the wickedness of mankind, contrasted with the goodness of God who had a short time before declared his creation “very good.”
We might wonder what human beings could do that would cause God such grief, but if we remember the horrors the Nazis committed in concentration camps, or the deaths of thousands in torture chambers in Iraq, or the mass graves found in many places in the world, we understand. Humans really are capable of wickedness beyond the limits of the imagination.
The Theological Problem
How can a good and sovereign God tolerate sin? This is a classic question, debated for millennia. Some say that evil shows God is either not powerful or not good by giving the following argument:
1. A good God would destroy evil. 2. An all powerful God could destroy evil. 3. Evil is not destroyed. 4.Therefore, there cannot possibly be a good and powerful God.
It is interesting that we usually pass by a profound answer to this difficult question that comes only a few chapters after the Bible’s beginning.
The flood does show that the first proposition is true: A good God would destroy evil. In the flood epic, we see a righteous God’s response to the depth of human wickedness. We usually miss the fact that the deluge was the most horrific act of judgment that the world had ever seen!
Rather than being a cute children’s story, the horror of the flood was captured in a woodcut by Gustave Dore that shows storm waves crashing around a rock where a man and woman are clinging, trying to save the lives of their children. It truly was an event that would have been utterly shocking to our sensibilities, a scene of incredible devastation.5
So philosophers are right that a good God would act to end evil on earth. The problem is in the second thesis, that an all powerful God could destroy evil. The flood proved that no amount of destruction of human life will destroy evil. Evil is part of man’s basic inclination now, and to eliminate it, God would be forced to destroy mankind itself. Our earth today is still filled with violence: we are no different than the generation that made God regret he had made us. Surprisingly, God now has a different response:
“Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)
It is hard to see what had changed after the flood, because the evil within man didn’t change. Instead, God vowed to restrain himself against universal judgment, even if it is deserved. For much of the next passage, God established laws against the bloodshed that filled the earth, and declared that life is precious, especially that of humanity. Humans are unique because we are made in the image of God. Could this be why God decided not to send another flood? Is it that in spite of our sinfulness, by bearing his image, we are still precious in his sight?
The Covenant of the Bow
In light of this, the sign of the rainbow has a profound message for us. The Hebrew word for “rainbow,” keshet, is used for “bow” throughout the rest of Scripture. It was the weapon of battle. The covenantal sign of the rainbow says that God has laid down his “bow,” his weapon; and he has promised not to repeat the judgment of the flood, even if mankind does not change. It is because people are so precious to him that he has constrained himself to finding an answer to the problem of sin other than the obvious one of universal judgment.
Throughout the rest of the Bible, whenever God made a covenant, it was of monumental importance in his plan for the salvation of the world. The covenants with Abraham, with Israel on Mt. Sinai, and with King David to send the Messiah were all key events in salvation history.
We should realize that the covenant with Noah is just as important, because in it he promises to find another way to deal with the problem of sin than just to destroy sinners. It is the most basic covenant of all: to promise to find a way to redeem humanity from evil rather than just to judge it for its sin.
We know that Jesus promised to return to judge, so the day of reckoning is coming, but God sent Christ so that as many as possible could find his atonement before that time, so that God could show as much mercy as possible to the earth. His slowness to judge is not out of impotence, but out of his great mercy. As Peter says,
Long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:4-9)
Now we have a different way of looking at that classic debate, perhaps the way God sees it:
1. God is good and is able destroy all evil. 2. But in doing so, he would destroy humanity, which is precious to Him. 3. Evil is not destroyed. 4. God is infinitely good and powerful, but out of mercy, chooses to wait to judge. In response to sin, he sent his Son as an atonement for all who would receive him.
Even in this story at the very beginning of the Bible, we can see God’s ultimate desire for mercy rather than punishment for sin. He will finally bring it to maturity in Christ, who will extend a permanent covenant of peace with God through his atoning blood.
3 Jesus may have been referring to Lamech in his teachings on being the opposite — seeking forgiveness instead of revenge. See “Lamech’s Opposite.“
4 It says something that the terrorist organization Hamas chose to name itself for the Hebrew word for “violence,” hamas, the very thing that grieved God’s heart so much that he regretted making humanity.
5 In September 2001, our Bible study was discussing the story of Noah. Our first response was why God didn’t just destroy the terrorists of 9/11 before they acted. From this story, we realized that no amount of destruction of evil human beings would rid us of the problem of evil in mankind.
When the tragic tsunami took the lives of over 200,000 people in Indonesia and other countries back in 2004, many were horrified by the suffering of so many people, and struggled with hard questions for God. Others discussed why it happened at that place and time, and wondered if it was an act of judgment from God. What would Jesus have said? Or Job? Let’s look at how these two key figures who were so acquainted with suffering would have seen the tragedies of today.
Wisdom from the Story of Job
It is interesting how the discussion around the tsunami resembled the debate between Job and his friends, Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar. Job, of course, was a pious man who suffered for no reason he could find. His friends, however, asserted that God is all powerful, perfectly just, and knows every person’s sins, so therefore Job somehow had to have deserved his trials. Their logic seems flawless. Nonetheless, Job maintained his innocence and had very angry words for God about his lack of justice as he saw it. He bluntly said:
[God] stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases… Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days? Men move boundary stones; they pasture flocks they have stolen. They drive away the orphan’s donkey and take the widow’s ox in pledge. The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing. (Job 23:13; 24:1-3, 9, 12)
In the light of this harsh accusation, Job’s friends defended God, and said to Job:
“Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong. He repays a man for what he has done; he brings upon him what his conduct deserves. It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice…Will you condemn the just and mighty One?” (Job 34:10-14, 17)
Truthfully, we must admit that Job’s friends have a very good point, and are trying to honor God. They echo many proverbs that say God rewards the actions of the righteous and punishes the wicked. If we didn’t know the rest of the story, we may even take their side.
God’s Surprising Response
It is fascinating to read God’s concluding words of the debate, because after all Job’s criticism, and the men’s strong defense of God’s honor, God was furious with Job’s friends! God said to Eliphaz,
“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7)
It seems that God considered Job’s words that were spoken in anger at him to be truthful, while the other men’s theories defending his ways as untruthful. How could that be? We know that neither Job nor his friends knew God’s real reasons for allowing Job’s trials.
It wasn’t just that they didn’t know about Satan’s challenge, but that as finite humans, God’s eternal plan was utterly beyond them. God didn’t answer Job’s questions about evil because no human can grasp his unfathomable purposes. In spite of their ignorance, Job’s friends had the gall to presume to understand and speak for God, and accuse Job of sin. It should humble us when we want to put words in God’s mouth: how can we know for sure what he would say?
It is also interesting that God says that Job “has spoken what is right,” after Job’s accusations about God’s injustice toward the poor. When Job protested against their suffering, he actually was expressing the same compassion for the needy that God himself has. In contrast, Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar’s theology had little concept of God’s love, so it was a misrepresentation of God’s heart.
While neither Job or his friends knew God’s future plans for redemption, Job at least understood God’s care for the suffering. Perhaps God would rather hear us ask angry questions that show concern for other’s pain, than for us to look for correct answers but not have love.
Our Christian culture tends to focus on theology concerning such things as the trinity, atonement, or free will vs. predestination, etc. Jewish culture over the millennia has tended to avoid this type of discussion because of the danger of the sin Job’s friends: claiming to have more knowledge of an infinite, mysterious God than we can possibly have. Since we are small and finite, we give God more honor by trying to love as he loves than to try to know all that he knows.
The Same Difficult Question in Jesus’ Age
The question of suffering came up often in Jesus’ time too, because he lived at a unique point in Jewish history. The people were greatly oppressed under Roman and Herodian rule, with extreme taxation and barbaric cruelty. Along with Jesus, thousands of other Jews were crucified by the Romans. Even before the Romans took power, the Greek Seleucids persecuted and executed any Jew who studied the Scriptures or circumcised their sons. Indeed, the suffering of the Jews before and during Jesus’ time was unmatched in their history until the Holocaust.1
This gave rise to an enormous theological problem that was reminiscent of Job’s situation: in the Old Testament, it was understood that when Israel suffered, it was because of its sins against God. The covenant at Sinai had been sealed with promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Lev. 23, Deut. 28-29).
In Jesus’ time, for the first time in their history, they were being persecuted for their loyalty to God, and the most faithful people suffered most. Jesus responded at one point to this when he said:
Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man… But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep… (Luke 6:20-26)
When we first read Jesus’ words, they seem too harsh. Why would Jesus proclaim that anyone who has enough to eat will go hungry? Or why would he want those who are happy to weep instead? Jesus was repeating many of the blessings and woes of Deut. 28, but instead of describing this life, he was saying that God’s reward will come later to many who did not feel his blessing here.
Indeed, those who were most faithful in trials will be rewarded most greatly. We cannot look at a persons’ earthly blessings and say that we know how much God approves of our lives. To the contrary, those of us who are comfortable should examine ourselves to see if we the ones who Jesus is speaking against.
Were The Galileans Worse Sinners?
A discussion very close to that about whether the tsunami was God’s judgment came up in Jesus’ life, when some Jews were murdered by Pilate:
Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)
Once again, people were asking Jesus whether misfortune showed that God was punishing sin, and Jesus said this was not true. Instead, he reminded them that true judgment will come some day, but this age is a time of grace, when God is seeking out sinners and calling them to repent. Rather than feeling secure if we are prospering because we think we have God’s approval, Jesus says that we should examine ourselves, because soon it will be too late.
Looking at the Tsunami
As we study these examples from Job and from Jesus’ own words, we can see that questions like, “Why did God send a tsunami?” aren’t ones that God will answer to our satisfaction. God showed Job that the answers were utterly beyond him by challenging him to be a god himself — no human could hope to understand God’s ways.
When Jesus was here, he reminded us that misfortune here is not God’s judgment because in this life we are under his mercy. We should therefore examine ourselves now and come to him for forgiveness, because judgment will come in the end.
Whenever we see innocent people suffering, we can at least remind ourselves that while they would not have chosen their fate, God willingly came in the person of Christ to suffer as an innocent person out of his desire to forgive his people’s sins. That should always remind us of his empathy for suffering and his goodness, in which we can always put our trust, even if we don’t know all of his thoughts.
Freedom is the theme of God’s greatest miracles in history. Jews look back on the freeing of Israel from bondage in Egypt as their foundation as a people. They still celebrate this yearly at Passover, when they commemorate the night they were liberated. Christians recall Jesus’ death and resurrection as an act that brought far greater freedom for all people who believe in him, from bondage to sin and death itself.
In light of these two great acts of liberation from bondage, we may be uncomfortable with the fact that instead of speaking only of freedom, Jesus and Paul often speak about being “slaves” to God or Christ. Jesus says that “You cannot serve two masters, God and money” (Matt 6:24), and Paul says, “You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19 & 7:23). Paul and other New Testament authors also introduce themselves at the beginning of each book as being “slaves of Christ.”1
It seems paradoxical to speak about slavery and being set free simultaneously, but if we look back and understand God’s first redemption of Israel, we will see how this really is a theme from the beginning of the scriptures to the end. God set his people free from cruel masters to become his own, as their rightful Lord. Both at the first exodus and in Christ’s fulfillment, this picture teaches us much about what our relationship to God really is.
Set Free from Cruel Masters
The common belief of people in the ancient near east was that the world is filled with many spiritual beings that control nature and prosperity. These “gods” were unpredictable and cruel, and used humans as playthings and slaves to serve their own desires.2 Ancient people understood that all people were the slaves of the gods, and each tribe had its own gods that ruled over them, so that to survive, they had to appease the gods through religious ceremonies and magical incantations.
Because of these beliefs, many ancient writings reflect a perpetual sense of hopelessness, anxiety and fear of the spirit world that was hostile to humanity. Interestingly, this pessimistic worldview of polytheism is widespread, from ancient times even up to today.3
Knowing this helps us read the story of the redemption of Egypt as an ancient person would have understood it. They saw this story as a true spiritual battle between the God of Israel and the gods of the Egyptians. Not only were the Israelites in bondage to physical slavery, they were in bondage to these evil gods, including Pharaoh, who considered himself a god.
Each plague was directed at a specific god of the Egyptians: Hekt, the frog god; Hapi, the Nile god; Ra, the sun god, etc., and the final plague was against Pharaoh himself (Ex. 12:12). The imagery here is that as God fought and defeated each one, God was winning a battle to take his own people out of the hands of other “gods” so that he would be their God, and they would become his people — his “slaves” as it were (Ex. 6:7, 2 Sam. 7:23).
A key to understanding this is to look at the Hebrew word for “worship,” avad, which has parallels in other languages of the near east. Along with meaning “worship,” it also means “serve” or “work,” and the related noun, eved, means “servant” or “slave.” So, the “worshippers,” avadim, of a god could also be seen as the god’s servants or slaves.
When God challenged Pharaoh, “Let my people go so that they may avad me” (Ex. 8:1), this didn’t just mean so that they could worship him, but that they were to be freed from slavery to the false god Pharaoh, so that they could avad, serve and worship their rightful God.
God later commanded that his people should “worship,” avad, no other gods, which can also be translated to mean they should “serve” no other gods. They were set free from them to serve and worship the true God alone. Serving and worshipping may not seem related to us, but really, service is the truest expression of worship of a god.4
God’s Compassion on Mount Sinai
After Israel was freed from bondage, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where God gave him his laws that showed how he wanted them to avad, worship and serve him as his people. We hardly think to compare the laws of the Torah to other law codes of the time, but it is interesting to see how God’s rules show that their new “master” was vastly different from their old masters — he governed with great compassion, and cared about the needs of his people.
We modern-day readers hardly appreciate the profound ethical change that the laws of the Torah made relative to other codes of its time, and how fundamental its precepts are to our own laws.5
Other codes had no ethic of equal treatment in regard to rich and poor, so a crime against a person of a high class carried a much greater punishment than one against a low class person. Cheating in a business transaction with a high class person carried the death penalty. In contrast, murder of a lower class person was punishable by a fine based on his social status. In Israel, all were alike under the law, and poor and rich treated equally.
In cases of crime, the Torah was far more humane. In other countries, punishments for even minor crimes were often brutal and mutilating, and often including floggings, amputation and torture. In the Torah, fines were common but physical punishments were rare, and only for severe offenses against the nation or God.
The law that sounds most shocking, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is actually misunderstood. The expression was actually an idiom that wasn’t taken literally, but actually meant equitable punishment that fits the crime. (An eye for an eye — not a scolding for an eye, or a life for an eye.) It was an ancient expression from laws originally meant to limit punishment for an injury to no more than the injury itself, because without it, the victim’s clan would want greater vengeance, escalating into feuds. Scholars believe that it was not followed literally in Israel, but monetary fines were given for injuries instead.
In other codes, very little protection was given to those who were vulnerable to exploitation. The main goal of other law codes was to protect the assets of the wealthy from the lower class by threatening them with punishment for theft or destruction of property. Israel’s laws were instead very concerned for the protection of the poor, the alien, the widows and orphans.
People were to tithe their money to give to the poor, and let them glean from their crops (Deut. 18:29, Lev. 23:22). They were not to mistreat an alien, but to “love them as themselves” (Lev. 19:34). Much of the code of Israel is specifically written to protect the weakest members of the society, unlike any other nation of the time.6
With these differences in mind, the laws of the Torah show great fairness toward all levels of society, compassion for the vulnerable, and amazing concern for the sanctity of human life. Our own culture has been so transformed by these basic principles that we can hardly imagine the world without them.
The more we see the contrast between God’s ways and the rest of the ancient world, the more we see that the love of Christ in the gospels was fully present in the God who revealed himself on Sinai. In essence, we see the Father and Son as one and the same. The God who Israel was to avad, worship, cared deeply for humanity, and his servants were to mirror his concern as well.
Being God’s Slave to be Free
The most striking difference between God’s ethics compared to other nations was the laws regulating slavery, which teach us a lot about how God viewed his people as his own avadim. In the ancient world, slavery was a given. Knowing that humanity can only change so much, God did not outlaw it, but he gave laws that made it far more humane.
Many of the Torah’s regulations were unheard of in any other culture, and ultimately aimed to undermine the practice altogether. Only six days a week could a master demand a slave to serve him — all slaves had a day of rest every week, and celebrated holy days, too. If a master permanently injured a slave in any way, even causing him to lose a tooth, the slave was given his freedom. Women slaves were to have equal rights as other daughters and wives.
If the slave was a Hebrew who had sold himself because of debt, he had to be freed in six years and given a substantial gift of crops and supplies when he left (Deut. 15:14). If he loved his master he could pledge himself in permanent servitude, and his ear would be pierced to show his commitment. But the most amazing law was that if a slave ran away from his master, he was not to be returned, but allowed to live free anywhere in Israel!
You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose… you must not mistreat him. (Deut. 23:15)
In every other law code, the penalty for not returning a slave was death. This radical reversal of ethics shows God’s great desire for freedom for his people. In fact, most of the time when God speaks of his people as his slaves, it is to protect their freedom and keep them from being enslaved to anyone else! For instance:
If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. For they are My avadim (servants/slaves), whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. (Lev. 25:42)
The year of Jubilee was also for that purpose — to redeem all of God’s people from bondage to anyone else, because they were his alone. If a person sold himself to a foreigner because of debt, the reason they were set free at the jubilee was because, “the sons of Israel are my avadim, they are my avadim whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God!” (Lev. 25:54-55). God set his people free to be his own, and for this reason they shall remain free.
Slaves of Christ
Many places in the New Testament use the image that just as God “purchased” or “redeemed” his people from slavery in Egypt, all who believe in Christ have also been “purchased”:
Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19)
Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Cor 7:22-23)
In this second verse, the ideas of being slaves but being free are once again interwoven. We have been redeemed from the evil masters of sin and death to become slaves of Christ, who actually won our freedom. When we are his, he will not let us be slaves to anything else.
Who will we serve?
How do we live this out? In Exodus, after God redeemed his people, he gave them his Torah so that they could know how to serve him. God didn’t give them the law before he redeemed them and then expect them to earn their freedom — he redeemed them entirely out of grace.
Afterward, he gave them his law so that as his avadim, worshippers and servants, they would live in a way that would show the world his justice and love. In the same way, Jesus spent most of his earthly ministry giving us his Torah, his teaching, to show us how to serve him. Jesus’ laws didn’t negate the Torah, but rather he made it more encompassing and brought it to a higher level. If we say we worship Jesus, we must also serve him by doing his will.
It may come to us as news that every human is the servant of a greater master — whether an idolatrous god or our own appetites. We really don’t have a choice to be utterly free of any master, any more than we have a choice to quit a bad job in order to do absolutely nothing, because we need to support ourselves to live.
In the working world, we are “redeemed” from a bad employer when we find an employer who gives us fulfilling work and cares for our personal welfare. We move from one kind of serving to another kind of serving, not to be free from serving anything at all.
In the same way, we all need to choose our master, and in doing so, we should look at a potential master’s character to see whom we should choose. Will we serve pagan gods whose people lived in terror of them? Or will we serve a God who has great compassion for even the weakest of his people? Will we serve the demanding idols of success and money, who destroy our families and lives? Or will we serve our Master who sacrificed himself for our sins, and came not to be served, but to serve instead?
1See the beginning verses of the books of Romans, Colossians, Titus, 2 Peter, Jude, and others. The writer of each book refers to himself as a doulos (“slave”) of Christ. Even though English translations often soften the word to “servant,” it really refers to a slave, not a servant.
3See Christ’s Witchdoctor, by Homer Dowdy (Gresham, OR: Vision House, 1994) p. 7, 23, 46. This is the fascinating autobiography of a witchdoctor in a South American native tribe who came to Christ in the 1950s. He said that even though his tribe was prosperous and safe, they lived with constant fear of the spiritual world around them that they saw as mostly evil, and aimed to destroy them.
5See Exploring Exodus, by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1986), p. 171-189. This is a fascinating comparison of the ancient near eastern laws to the Torah that shows the enormous ethical difference between the laws of Israel and other lands.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Because 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.”
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.”
There is probably nothing in the Bible so incomprehensible to modern Christians as the use of sacrifice in the Old Testament for the worship of God. We struggle with its bloody imagery. Why did God require it? How could people find it meaningful?
Surprisingly, even the New Testament views sacrifice in a positive light. Even after Jesus’ death, Paul and the early church continued to take part in the sacrifices at the Temple. Paul often spoke of them as a beautiful thing, expecting us to understand when he speaks about us as being “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1). Paul also writes,
Walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. Ephesians 5:2
How would the original audience of the Bible have understood the first chapters of Genesis? What meaning did they find in the creation accounts? Could it have been different than how modern Christians read the Bible?
Our Western culture places a high value on scientific data, chronological order, abstract ideas and philosophical reasoning. In contrast, Eastern societies emphasize relationships and use stories and concrete physical images to describe reality.1 Because of this, we expect our Bibles to speak in sophisticated abstractions about eternity and the nature of God.
Old Testament stories about eating apples, building arks and talking to burning bushes seem silly and childish to us. Until we learn to grasp the Bible’s very different way of communicating, we’ll struggle to fully appreciate the profound meaning it relays in a different cultural language.
Nowhere is this more true than in the book of Genesis. When we focus only on the physical details, we completely miss the point. For instance, the flood account is often discussed in terms of its impact on geology. Completely forgotten are its profound ideas about the sinfulness of humanity and God’s response. We overlook the important theological statements about the universal corruption of man, and how through the covenant with Noah, God committed himself to find a way to redeem humankind rather than to condemn it.2 If you don’t realize that the biblical writers were explaining theology through story, you’ll miss the fact that the flood narrative actually points ahead toward the work of Christ.
What if we took another look at the creation account of Genesis 1, considering that it is a deeply Hebraic text? Let’s consider what would have been important and meaningful to listener of Abraham’s time.
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.
How would Abraham have reacted to this first line of the Bible? It may surprise you that the account in the Bible was likely not the first story he would have heard about the creation of the world. Several myths are known from the Ancient Near East that circulated in his time.3
Most creation stories featured wars and relationships between human-like gods and goddesses. These myths taught that through sexual procreation, or by acts of violence and murder the creation was formed: the seas, the sky, the land. The gods were limited in power and intent on gaining dominance over the other gods, and the world was created as a product of their wars. Humans were created to serve as their slaves, to cater to their whims.4
The biblical account is utterly unique among the creation stories of its time. The revolutionary idea that all that exists was the handiwork of one vast, powerful God was almost unbelievable to polytheists, who imagined that many small gods reigned over the earth.
The idea that the creation was “very good” and that humankind was special to God was also completely unheard of. In pagan cultures, humankind was a minor afterthought of the gods, and humanity lived in fear of the capricious gods who cared nothing for them. It is important to realize how many foundational ideas are contained in this first chapter of the Bible, and how radical they would have been in their time.5
In Abraham’s world, it would have been obvious that the biblical creation account was deliberately contradicting the pagan myths that were widespread in that day. It would have shocked them to hear that the things that most people worshipped, like the sun and the moon, were simply inanimate objects that were created by the true God (Gen. 1:16).
Neither the sun or moon are even named, except to call them the “greater light” and “lesser light,” in order to hint at their insignificance. Similarly, magical sea monsters like the tannin (a large reptile) and leviathan were regarded as gods in many myths. Genesis specifically says that God made the tannin along with other animals of the sea (v. 21), thereby stripping it of its divinity. In this way, the Bible was “demythologizing” the world and teaching that there is only one God, creator of all things.6
What is not said in the creation account
Another contrast between the biblical creation account and other ancient stories is that the Bible makes not attempt to explain the origins of God. A goal of many creation myths was to tell the origins of the gods themselves, as an apologetic to convince people of their existence.
In contrast, from the very first sentence of Genesis the reality of God is assumed. This awesome God simply felt no need to explain his own origins. This a prominent characteristic of God that we see throughout the Bible– that in his majesty he simply does not answer every question humans have.
We see this same characteristic later in God’s conversation with Job. Job asked God why he allows innocent people to suffer, and God didn’t give him an answer. Instead, he responds by asking him questions, and challenging him to explain the mysteries of creation: where the snow and hail come from, and how the foundations of the earth were laid (Job 38-40).
Through this response, God was showing Job that he could not answer his questions because the human mind simply cannot comprehend God’s reasoning. We forget that God created and designed everything: from neutrinos to bacteria to ecosystems to galaxies. As Isaiah 55:9 says, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
When God wanted to show Job something that is utterly beyond human understanding he chose the creation, with the assumption is that humans can never completely comprehend its design. This is good to keep in mind as we read Genesis: God’s infinite knowledge simply cannot be brought down into human terms.
The Grand Symmetry of Creation
The creation accounts in Genesis are an extreme simplification of God’s activity into statements that all of humanity could understand. For instance, it says that “man was created from the dust of the earth” but it says nothing about how God designed organs and tissues and cells. Other passages also employ poetic “telescoping” of God’s activity, like the phrase that says that God “brings forth bread from the earth” (Ps. 104:14). This doesn’t mean that bread loaves magically arise out of the soil, but that through a complex series of events, God causes grain to grow that we can harvest and make into bread.
Looking more in depth at the story of the first six days reveals amazing beauty and order in God’s creative activity. Most Christians are unaware of the symmetry of the design over the days, and the delightful imagery that the Hebrew words employ. At first the earth is formless and empty. The phrase “formless and empty” is very poetic in Hebrew: tohu va vohu. Interestingly, God addresses the “formlessness,” tohu, on the first three days by separating the various elements each day:
Day 1: God separates light from dark, and creates day and night.
Day 2: God separates the “waters above” from the “waters below” and creates sky and sea.
Day 3: God separates the waters below from the dry areas and creates land and oceans. He also creates a garden.
Then, God addresses the “emptiness,” bohu, of creation by filling the domains created in the first three days.
Day 4: God creates lights — the sun, moon and stars — to “fill” and reign over the day and the night (note that day and night were made on Day 1)
Day 5: God creates birds to fill the skies, and sea creatures to fill the sea (both created on Day 2)
Day 6: God creates land animals to fill the dry land, and he creates humans to live in the garden (created on Day 3).
Clearly, the structure of the days is meant to show the amazing orderliness and grand design of God.7 He first creates the space itself, names it, and then later fills it in an orderly manner.
The Message in the Creation Account
A key to understanding the creation account is to see that its goal is to explain the meaning of all things in God’s sight, rather than the mechanical way in which they were created. As Genesis 2:4 says, “These are the toledot (“begats,” generations) of the heavens and the earth: their being created.”8 In the same way genealogies are given to explain the relationships of people, the Genesis accounts are meant to explain the relationships between the parts of the creation.
One implication is that chronological order is not the point of the creation story. We can see this by comparing the account in Genesis 1 to the second story in Genesis 2, where everything is made in a different sequence. Humans are created first, then plants, and then animals (Gen. 2:4-20).
To us, it is a problem that the two accounts are not in the same order, but chronology was not an overriding concern in the ancient world.9 Even though the sequences and timing are different, both stories have the same extremely important conclusion — that humans are the pinnacle of God’s creation. We are unique in bearing the image of God and deriving our life from God himself.
In the Image of God
It is hard to overemphasize the revolutionary impact of the idea that humans are made in the “image of God.” Human life is uniquely precious to God, and each person is infinitely valuable to him. This powerful idea was behind many humanitarian laws of the Torah compared to other law codes of the time.10
Through the statement that “God created man from the dust and breathed the breath of life into him,” we can see the amazing paradox that unlike the rest of creation, we are the work of God’s own hands, yet unlike animals, we receive our spirit from God himself. We are as insignificant as dust, and yet we bear the imprint of God himself!
We can even see the basics of the Gospel in embryonic form in these first passages of Genesis. We see the power and majesty of the True God of the universe, his incredible creativity and infinite wisdom, and his elegant design of the cosmos.
More importantly, we see his great concern about life and what is good, and even more than that, his precious children, the human race. By understanding our enormous value in the eyes of God, we can see the reason why even when humanity falls into sin and rebels against him, he will go to amazing lengths to redeem us and bring us back to himself.
3 Nahum Sarna, Understanding Genesis (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), pp. 4-18. Note: Much of the article above is based on the first chapter of this classic book by Sarna, which is highly recommended for further study.
4 The idea of slavery to God or other gods comes up throughout the Bible, and shows the enormous difference between the true God and all others. See the article “Who Are You Going to Work For?“.
9 Some books of the Old Testament were written out of chronological order because it just wasn’t a priority as we see it (Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel, for instance). This may also be why some of the stories of Jesus’ life are also in a different order in different gospels. See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, by David Bivin, (En-Gedi, 2005) pp. 35-38.