Christianity has existed and thrived for the past 2000 year since Jesus death in many shapes and forms. And in that period it has striven to achieve God’s purposes for humanity with very little understanding of the people to whom God first gave the commission to be his people (some of which has been intentional, but also because we simply didn’t have the tools for such understanding in the past). But since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1946, further scholarly study of these scrolls has shed great light on the elder brother of Christianity i.e. the form(s) of Judaism that existed during Jesus’ lifetime, and is helping us understand Jesus even better. So I want to begin a series of posts that will shed much more light on how this knowledge is being brought from the scholarly field to strengthen the church and its obedience to Jesus Christ. We will focus on 3 thematic beliefs of Judaism: creational monotheism, election and eschatology and will draw parallels between these beliefs and how they should be the bedrock of Christianity.
One of the core beliefs of Judaism which modern Christians now take for granted, but which was a very serious issue in Jesus time was the belief in only one God – YHWH. This was in opposition to other nations that surrounded them, who believed in other gods (like Baal) and some who belived in more than one god. For example the Greeks and Romans had a god of war (Ares/Mars), a god of travel and trade(Hermes/Mercury), a god of the sea (Poseidon/Neptune) and one who was the king of all gods (Zeus/Jupiter). This is where monotheism comes in – a belief in one supreme being only, summed up in Deutoronomy 6:4 – “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God, the Lord is one” encapsulated in the most important Jewish prayer – the Shema.
Not only was YHWH the only god, he was the god who both created the world and was still in charge of it and ordering it’s activities (here comes his “creational” nature). This is why the Psalms are so full of praises not only of how God created the world, but the fact that he was still actively involved in it, nourishing and tending it, and giving every creature food in its season (eg Ps 104). This was in opposition to other nations who believed their gods to be busy doing their own thing and not caring about the people or their suffering (e.g. the Greeks believed the gods lived in Olympus and cared little for the people, so they better fend for themselves. Interestingly this is very similar to how western culture now see God today – a vacant landlord at best).
And because YHWH created everything, Judaism believed he cannot be represented by an image, because he created the wood, stone or clay that one may use to create a symbol of him. Therefore the Jews never believed in creating any idols which could be worshiped. In contrast, other nations who had different gods for different issues/concepts of the world, created images to model who and what kind of god they were (e.g Ares/Mars with his shield, helmet etc. representing war).
Thirdly, because YHWH created the world, he cared about every little bit of it, and even when evil seemed to be thriving for a while (whether through human activity or spiritual activity), YHWH will bring justice to this world and restore it to order. The Psalms speak in many places of God’s justice for this reason (Ps 72).
Note that to the rest of their neighbours, these believes were diametrically opposite what they believed, and caused some offense. But wait till we talk of the greater offense next.
Judaism believed that YHWH was not just the only god, but more importantly, Israel’s god. Yes, he was the god of the whole world (because he created the whole world of course), but YHWH had chosen them for a special purpose, through their father Abraham. In Genesis 12, 15 and 17 YHWH had made many promises to their father Abraham about his special relationship with him and his descendants, that through Abraham the world may be blessed. This notion of election of Israel as God’s special people was further strengthened and solidified in the minds of Jews by God’s might works in saving them from Egypt, crossing the Red Sea, protecting a whole nation as they moved in the desert and went past or through other nations (which could and did attempt to destroy them) for 40 years, and bring them to Canaan – the exact land promised to their father Abraham. The Christian traditions who speak of “promises of God” may need to pay much more attention to what they actually mean, not what we’ve turned it into – name it and claim it statements.
This belief in their election out of all nations not only runs through the Old Testament, but is the background to a lot of what Jesus and the Apostles says in the New Testament. Modern Christianity doesn’t appreciate how ingrained such a belief can be in a nation and people, when they and their forefathers experienced and passed on all these stories to them. But we can begin to see the impact of this belief by simply comparing the impact of 400 years of slavery on both Africans in the diaspora, and native Africa, vis-a-vis poverty, deprivation and injustice. This sense of identity and election was further re-invigorated by the continuous observance of their festivals, most glorious of which was the Passover and the rites that each individual family was supposed to perform in celebration of it
YHWH sealed his relationship with them by making a covenant with them – not as individual people, but as a nation. He gave them the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) that they may observe their part of the covenant even as he remains faithful to his.
It is worth noting at this point that this covenant above is predicated by the fact that YHWH had a special relationship with their forefathers, not because the nation Israel itself was any more special. In fact, I dare use the word “grace” to describe YHWH’s election of Israel – because he loved them and their ancestors. This is well stated here.
Deut 7:6-8 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you out of all the peoples on the face of the earth to be his people, his treasured possession. The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath he swore to your ancestors that he brought you out with a mighty hand …”
Other relevant passages are Deut 10:15;14:2 and Isaiah 41:8-9.
Therefore the giving of the Torah (what Christians refer to as “the Law”) by YHWH was a means of ensuring two things 1) that the nation Israel stayed faithful in the relationship with him 2) that the rest of the world may see and be drawn the the God of Israel. This is further captured here
Deut 4:6-7 “Observe them [the Torah] carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’. What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him?”
Deut 5:1-3 “Hear, Israel, the decrees and laws I declare in your hearing today. Learn them and be sure to follow them … it was not with our ancestors that the Lord made this covenant, but with us …”
This brings into serious question the traditional negative light in which Protestant Christianity has spoken of Torah and Judaism in general. To most Jewish scholars, Protestant Christians have always accusing them of the wrong thing, because the Torah also stated clearly that their election was by favour (I prefer to use that rather than grace) i.e. by virtue of YHWH’s love for their fathers, and not by their own doing. To them, they way we Christians claim our salvation by the love and mercy of YHWH and not by our “works”, but insist that every Christian must follow and obey Jesus, is the same way they also view their relationship to YHWH and to Torah.
A last note is to be made here. It will be observed throughout books like Deuteronomy that YHWH’s election of Israel was a corporate choosing. His covenant was with Israel, yet it was important that every Tom, Dick and Harry observe the Torah not just for personal benefit sake, but because doing so meant that God’s promises for his nation Israel through their ancestors, will indeed come to pass. Moses further explains need for individual obedience so the corporate goal will be achieved in Deut 29:19-21.
Again, another challenge is thrown to modern Christianity, which places the individual’s “salvation” and personal desires above the corporate intent that God has had for his faithful Israel – Jesus and his church – an intent which as Paul says in the Ephesian epistle was “before the foundation of the world”. In fact I draw a direct parallel here from Deut 4:6-7 about how Israel’s observance of Torah will lead to the other nations seeing the wisdom of God, and Paul’s statements in Eph 3:10 about how the many fold wisdom of God will be made known through the church.
Election therefore meant that Israel were YHWH’s special people, and the rest of the world was not. This obviously infuriated every nation around them, and Israel didn’t stop reminding them everyday, as again explicit in the Psalms and throughout the OT. Even when things were not going too well for them, their election was one thing that they never forgot.
Eschatology is a big word that Jews used to refer to things that will happen at the end of this age (not at the end of the world as is commonly translated).
Moses had set before them the blessings and the curses that will attend them if they observe or break the covenant with God in Deut. 28. I know Christians love quoting the blessings part, but if we are going to be a people who take God’s word seriously, we need to pay attention to the curses as well. Because one will observe that the most disastrous of the curses was exile – their enemies will defeat them and carry them away. And as if Moses knew that they were going to fail in the task of being obedient to YHWH through the Torah, in Deut. 30 he assures them that “when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey him with all your heart and all your soul … then the Lord will restore your fortunes … and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you.” (Deut. 30:2-3).
He even goes further to say that “the Lord your God will circumcise your hearts and the hearts of your descandants, so that you may love him with all your heart and with all your soul, and live”(Deut. 30:6). Do we see where Paul got this from? “A man is a Jew if he is one inwardly .. and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code” (Romans 2:28-29)
Further on God gave further prophecies about how he intended for his own appointed king to be the carrier of his vision of Israel being a blessing to the world and the world coming under the authority of Israel. These he expounded to David through the prophet Samuel (2 Sam 7), and became known as the expectation of the coming of “the kingdom of YHWH”.
Thirdly there was there were some questions of human nature and the world they lived in that didn’t make sense. If YHWH was the one who created a good world, why does he allow evil to exist (i.e. both human sin and natural disasters)? Why does the wicked sometimes flourish, and the righteous perish? Why do seemingly innocent people die from earthquakes, typhoons etc?
The answers they came up with were that because YHWH is a righteous God, he will not abandon his creation to be overtaken by evil, and will one day return to restore this world into the good nature he intended. This hope of God remaking this world to correct what evil has brought into it is what is typically captured by the term “new creation” by both Judaism/early Christianity. These kinds of hopes are littered throughout the Psalms and prophets.
Later on, when the exile did happen, the prophets began to not only prophecy the return of Israel back from exile as stated by Moses, they also prophecied that this return will be accompanied by the announcement of the “kingdom of YHWH” and his work in bringing judgement to the world, so he can cleanse the world and bring in his new creation. Isaiah expounds it better, by saying that God will make a new heaven and new earth (Isaiah 65:17;66:22).
It is based on this that Revelations says not only will he make the new heaven and new earth, but God will bring his dwelling place (heaven) and mix it with our dwelling place (earth) into one (Rev 21;1-4).
These 3 themes: creational monotheism, election and eschatology are the main themes that drive everything else in the Bible, both Old Testment and New. As a result, they led to the creation, adoption and attachment to certain symbols, and we will look at those symbols in Part 2.