Do Not Destroy

by Lois Tverberg

“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?” Deuteronomy 20:19

You might assume that the Bible has nothing to say about caring for the environment, but surprisingly, the Torah contains a law about this very thing. In the verse above, 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.

fruit tree

The rabbis looked at how this scripture can continue to teach us, and concluded that if God forbade the destruction of the environment in the dire situation of war, he must certainly must oppose it during peacetime. They reasoned that modifying the land to build useful things 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, the words “do not destroy,” bal tashchit (bahl-tahsh-KEET) should teach us not to waste any useful thing:

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 this 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. But when we needlessly destroy, we are showing our self-centerness and lack of regard for the gifts and will of God. Waste and excess therefore come from self-idolatry.1

Western Christians tend to see our material possessions as entirely ours for use or disposal as we see fit. What if we regarded all our possessions as gifts from God? Would we be wasteful and throw away useable things? Would we instead try to give them to someone else who needs them? What we do with our gifts shows how we see the One who gave them to us.


1From http://www.coejl.org/learn/je_tashchit.html.

For more reading, see these links:

Judaism-and-Environmentalism: Bal-Tashchit

Summoning the Will Not to Waste

Photo: Carol Walker

The Meek Shall Inherit the Earth

by Lois Tverberg

“Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” Matthew 5:3

All of the beatitude sayings are very Hebraic, and somewhat difficult for Western Christians to grasp. The saying above, that the “meek shall inherit the earth” is widely quoted, but barely understood.

Lebanon

It is very helpful to know that this line, like almost all of the beatitudes, is a quote from the scriptures, specifically Psalm 37:11. In that verse the Hebrew word for “meek” is anav. It is also translated humble, afflicted or poor. Moses was called the most “anav” (humble) man on earth. It is often used to describe the people who called out to God for help in their difficulty, instead of being aggressive in fighting for their own way.

The theme of Psalm 37 is to remind us that when we are wronged, we shouldn’t try to get revenge, but to trust in the fact that God will someday set the world straight. It says,

… Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked schemes. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath; do not fret – it leads only to evil. For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the LORD will inherit the land. A little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look for them, they will not be found. But the meek (anavim) will inherit the land and enjoy great peace. (Psalm 37:7-11)

Six places in Psalm 37 it talks about those who would “inherit the land” (yirshu aretz, to inherit or possess the land/earth). That phrase is very significant, having first come up when God made the great promise to Abraham that he would “give him this land to possess/inherit” (Genesis 15:7). Then, later in Deuteronomy, more than a dozen times, Moses tells the people that only by being obedient would they be able to remain in the land:

Deuteronomy 8:1 “All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the LORD swore to give to your forefathers.”

Deuteronomy 16:20 “Justice, and only justice, you shall pursue, that you may live and possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you.”

It seems that in Psalm 37, David was using this idea from Deuteronomy that God would see to it that the faithful would remain in the land God gave them, and the evil-doers would be removed from it. The psalmist was using the phrase “inheriting the land” in a wider way to speak of God’s full blessing. The wicked may seem to be winning now, but the righteous will ultimately possess God’s gifts for eternity.

In quoting this verse in the beatitudes, Jesus seems to be saying that if we are humble and rely on God rather than striving to punish those who have done us wrong, that we can trust that God will win the day. No matter how much the world demands that we should fight evil with evil, eventually God will reward his followers who trust him to set things right.


Photo: Bontenbal

The Lord Alone

by Lois Tverberg

One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” Mark 12:28-30

Jesus’ words that the most important commandment is to love the Lord your God with all of your heart are very familiar to us. Many readers also know that Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 when he said this. By starting with the words “Hear O Israel…” he was beginning to say the Shema, a prayer of daily commitment to God that Jews have said since Jesus’ time up until today.

Hebrew Text

One thing that might strike us as odd is that Jesus quotes the first line of that prayer that reads, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” in the New International version and others. Why is that so important to declare that God is one?

In Hebrew, the word is echad, which can mean one. It can also mean together, alone, only or unified. Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity or the deity of Christ. Christian evangelists say in response that echad can mean a compound unity, as when Adam and Eve together were echad (Genesis 2:24). This discussion of the word echad hinges on the idea that Deuteronomy 6:4 is meant as a creedal statement about monotheism, and what kind of being God is.

Interestingly, the most authoritative Jewish text, the Tanakh by the Jewish Publication Society, says that the best reading of this phrase really is not “one,” but “alone.” So instead of reading this sentence as, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This changes the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship, him only shall we serve. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Western Christians are used to reciting statements of belief, so we can misunderstand this as saying that Jesus saw it as extremely critical that we believe in God’s “one-ness.” But when properly understood, it shows that the greatest commandment is not just the mental belief in monotheism, but is actually a call to entirely commit ourselves to the true God, him and him alone.


To explore this topic more, see chapter 2, “Shema: Living Out What You Hear” in Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2012, p 21-41.

Photo: Yaniv Ben-Arie

Coming Home Again

by Lois Tverberg

“The father said to his slaves, `Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.'” – Luke 15:22-24

We as Western Christians often describe salvation as a transaction – that we have sinned by breaking God’s rules, and if we trust in Jesus, he will pay the penalty for our sin to allow us to escape punishment for sin when we die.

Prodigal SonThrough the parable of the Prodigal Son, we get a more Eastern picture of sin – as that of a broken relationship. The prodigal son who asked for his inheritance early was making a powerful statement of rejection of his family. In Eastern cultures, to make that request was to imply a wish that the father was already dead. It would have been profoundly hurtful to the family as the son sold the family’s property for his own gain.1 It shows us a picture of the great personal offense we cause God as we reject him as our father. Sin does not just “break the rules,” it is a direct rejection of the God who is our loving parent, who cares for us deeply.

When we walk away from God, like the prodigal son, we live each day of our lives separated from God, alienated from our true family because of our sin. As Paul says,

Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior. (Colossians 1:21)

Sometimes we portray God as an impersonal judge, and even fear him as an angry policeman who is only out to punish sin. But Jesus says through this parable that God is a caring father eager to see his children come home, both in this life and in eternity. He is eager to have us in relationship with him, back in his family once again. This picture is not just that of a God who will impersonally judge us when we die, but that of a loving father who actively wants to bring his lost children back into relationship with him, now and forevermore.


(1) The Poet and the Peasant, Kenneth Bailey, Eerdmans, 1983.

Photo: 5QFIEhic3owZ-A at Google Cultural Institute

Echad – Loving God Alone

by Lois Tverberg

Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, [one of the teachers] asked him, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” “The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: `Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” – Mark 12:28-30

Jesus’ words that the most important commandment is to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart” are very familiar to us. Many readers also know that Jesus was quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5 when he said this. By starting with the words “Hear O Israel…” he was beginning to say the Shema, a prayer of daily commitment to God that Jews have said since Jesus’ time up until today. One thing that that may strike us as odd is that the first line reads, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one,” in many translations. Why is that so important to declare that God is one?

In Hebrew, the word is echad, which can mean one. It can also mean together, alone, only or unified. Jews have used the fact that it means “one” to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity or the deity of Christ. Christian evangelists say in response that echad can mean a compound unity, as when Adam and Eve together were echad (Gen. 2:24). This discussion of the word echad hinges on the idea that “the Lord is one” is a creedal statement about monotheism, and what kind of being God is.

Interestingly, the most authoritative Jewish text, the Tanakh by the Jewish Publication Society, says that the best reading of this phrase in this case really is not “one” but “alone.” So instead of reading this sentence as, “The Lord our God, the Lord is one,” it is more accurate to read it as “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This changes the whole sentence so that instead of being a statement of monotheism, it is actually a command for a person’s absolute allegiance to God. God alone is the one we should worship, him only shall we serve. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells us to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Western Christians are very used to reciting statements of belief, so we might misunderstand this as saying that Jesus saw it as extremely critical that we believe in God’s “one-ness.” But when properly understood, it shows that the greatest commandment is not just the mental belief in monotheism, but is actually a call to entirely commit ourselves to the true God, him and him alone.

~~~~

Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).