HISTORICAL INTERPRETATION OF THE BIBLE–I

This will be the first of two or three posts on understanding the Bible historically.

Eternal Torah and Historical Torah

Christians inherited their first Bible from the Jews. In Judaism the Torah is the original and most authoritative part of the Bible. The Torah contains the 613 commandments (mitzvot) that every Jew must learn and observe upon coming of age and becoming a bar or bat mitzvah.

As an expression of God’s character and will, the Torah must be eternal. Some of the Rabbis even said God consulted the Torah when creating the universe. The eternal Torah is expressed in two forms: the written Torah and the oral Torah.

Because it expresses God’s will for humans, the Torah must be historical. The Torah is written in human language–but the word “language” is an abstraction. There is really no such thing as language in general; there are only the particular languages spoken by particular people at various times and places. Language is intimately tied to history and culture, to the understanding available at any point in history, to the natural and social realities of any point in history.

The rabbis recognized the historical nature of the Torah, and they recognized the difficulties of reconciling the historical with the eternal nature of God’s revelation. For example, as the expression of the eternal will of God, the Torah is universal; yet it was given to Israel, not to the Gentiles. Only Israel is required to observe all 613 commandments; the Master of the Universe will be pleased if the Gentiles keep about seven of them: the laws against murder, incest, adultery, and so forth.

The Torah contains God’s commandments, but as a book written at a point in history, it must have a human author. Since Moses is the intermediary through whom God gives the commandments, he is considered the author of the whole collection of five books, even though at the end of Deuteronomy there is a third-person account of the death of Moses. Some of the rabbis said that Moses wrote those words with tears in his eyes, following a vision God had given him. Others said it is better to be silent about the fact.

The oral Torah also is considered eternal. The oral Torah includes the interpretations of the laws as ultimately codified in the Talmud. Even though the Talmud reports the individual discussions and debates and names the rabbis who gave various rulings at particular points in history–these rulings are still considered part of the eternal Torah.

The rabbis recognized one other conflict between the eternal Torah and the historical Torah. Changing conditions call for flexibility in interpreting and applying the commandments. This is found even within the Torah. In Exodus Moses commands that a debt-slave must be released “freely, without any charge” at the end of six years. The similar law in Deuteronomy goes beyond this and commands the master to be generous and pay a newly-released slave for his services.

Since Moses taught that by keeping the commandments “you will live,” Judaism established the rule that commandments must be interpreted in a way that advances life, never in a way that threatens life.

The rabbis would not say that there are contradictions among the commandments; but they did recognize contradictions in life. Because the world is not right, the commandments must be interpreted in a way that repairs the world.

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7 Responses

  1. You said that the Torah was only given to Israel…that the Gentiles were not to keep it…except for seven. This is not what Jesus taught. He made it clear in Matthew 5:17-19 that anyone teaching disobedience to even the least of the commandments would be considered least in the Kingdom…I am not sure what least in the kingdom means…but it is not a good thing.

    Also…if Gentiles were to just keep the seven noahide requirements….that would give me permission to engage in beastiality. I don’t believe God gives us permission to do that…

    Also…the Torah was indeed given to Israel…but thru faith in Jesus….Messiah…a person is grafted into Israel. Paul says in Galatians 3:28-29 that if you are in Christ…then you are Abrahams seed.

    We should remember that it was a mixed multitude that came up out of Egypt. (Exodus 12:38) God only has one law….one Torah…and it applies to all.

    Exodus 12:49—One law shall be for the native-born and for the stranger who dwells among you.

  2. The moral law written on the heart of every person is a reflection of the eternal Torah, the will of God. I won’t say it reflects the eternal Torah perfectly, because some individuals and some cultures suppress different aspects of the moral law. Still, all people have some awareness of the moral law.

    The historical Torah, the 613 commandments contained in the five books of Moses, is set in a historical context. The Torah is given to the descendants of Jacob (Israel) as part of their covenant relationship with God, to guide them in living in the promised land. Many of the laws, for example those concerning sacrifices, cannot be applied outside of the land of Israel or apart from the temple.
    Some of the laws for Israel called for fair treatment of immigrants. “The stranger who dwells among you” was given the same rights and responsibilities as native Israelites.
    When the prophets spoke messages to other nations, they appealed to the moral law, never to the written Torah that was given to Israel. See the first two chapters of Amos.
    James and the apostles in Jerusalem decided that Gentiles could be accepted as followers of Christ if they kept the basic moral law and avoided practices that were especially offensive to Jews. For example, they were not required to follow a kosher diet; but they were told not to eat the bloody meat of strangled animals.
    Paul makes it clear in Romans and Galatians that Gentile followers of Christ are not required to follow those provisions of the law of Moses that pertain only to historic Israel living in the land of Israel under a unique covenant with God.
    Read Romans and Galatians, along with Acts 15, and see for yourself.

  3. I have read Romans and Galatians and Acts 15. let’s look at Acts 15 together…

    The context is set in verse one…”And certain men came down from Judea and taught the brethren, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you CANNOT BE SAVED”. Notice the context is one of justification…not obedience. There are people saying that unless you DO something…you cannot be saved. So…

    James and the disciples know that this is not true…and act accrodingly. But listen carefully to the instructions they do give….”we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immoratily, from things strangled, and from blood”.

    Question….what about murder…what about respect for Mother and Father. This is not an all inclusive list for how you and I are to live is it? Of course not…and then we come to verse 21 which is too often ignored….

    “For Moses has had throughout many generations those who preach him in every city, being read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”

    It seems clear to me that as you say these Gentiles were instructed in the basics as to not offend the Jews with abominable behavior…but then it was expected that they would learn the rest…they would learn Torah…the Law of Moses in the Synagogues each 7th day Sabbath.

    God never changed His mind about right and wrong…He never gave anybody permission to eat the abominable or forsake His Sabbaths. Jesus said that anyone breaking or teaching others to break even the least of the Commandments would be called least in the Kingdom of Heaven. Matthew 5:17-19

    As far as sacrifices are concerned….you are correct that they were to be done only at the temple….that in no way does away with Torah. The day is coming when we will see sacrifices once again according to the prophets. They will be pointing back to what Jesus did…just like sacrifices of old pointed forward to what He would do.

    “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome. 1John 5:3

    God bless, Newcolors

  4. Thanks for responding. I think we can agree that we disagree about some issues. I do agree that the stipulations in Acts 15 are representative, not exhaustive. The same would be true of the 7 Noahide commandments.
    The NT epistles give us examples of the moral teaching that was given to Gentile Christians. Nowhere in the Epistles are Gentile followers of Christ instructed to follow a kosher diet or to keep the Sabbath. They are instructed to respect the conscience of their neighbors in such matters, but they are also instructed to resist those who would judge them on such matters.

  5. Thanks for your gracious response. As you have come to realize, I do see things different than most. I would like you to know that I am saved 100% by grace thru faith in what Jesus did for me…period. I just happen to think that we should obey God out of love for Him. I know you believe that too.

    Our only real difference is that I believe that Jesus and Paul taught obedience to Torah…not only with their words but more importantly with their lives. Jesus kept the Law of Moses perfectly while saying follow me….be my disciples…imitate me. As His disciple I should imitate Him in all things. His Sabbath is my Sabbath….I eat what He eats….I line up my definitions of right and wrong with His…even if I don’t understand fully. Instead of asking WWJD I ask What Did He do and then I do it.

    Just curious….take Food for example…where do you think the New Testament does away with the food definitions of Leviticus 11?

    Concerning your comment about nowhere in the New testament are we instructe to keep Sabbath or eat kosher….Jesus was very plain when He said…”Do not think that I came to destroy the Law of the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, TILL HEAVEN AND EARTH pass away, one jot or one tittle will by NO MEANS pass away from the law till all is fulfilled. Whoever therfore breaks on of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least int the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven”. Matthew 5:17-19

    Jesus said not one jot or tittle…this tells me that it is all still valid…heaven and earth are still here. I thank you for your time and patience…please feel free to ask any questions…I believe that God is calling His people back to His word…All of it.

    Newcolors

  6. Lev 11:1 The LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Say to the Israelites . . .” It’s not exactly that these regulations were done away with, it’s just that they never were given to the Goyim. They are laws that the bene Israel are to follow in Eretz Israel as part of their covenant with ha-Shem. The laws are designed to keep them separate and distinct from the other nations and therefore to testify to their unique relationship with the Master of the universe.

    Col 2:16-17 is one of the clearest passages that teaches Gentile Christians are not obligated to keep kashrut or Shabbas.

    Gal 5:3 “every man who accepts circumcision is obligated to keep the whole law.” This implies that the uncircumcised are not obligated to keep the whole law–only the dikaioma nomou (Rom 2:15, 26; 8:4) the “righteousness required by the law,” i.e. what I referred to in the original post as the “eternal Torah” or what we could otherwise call the universal moral law; or the law of love. Love requires that I do no harm to a neighbor. Love, reason, conscience, experience, etc. teaches that I must not abuse my sexuality in ways that degrade my own body or abuse others.

    If I belong to Israel according to the flesh, then as a testimony to the faithfulness of the God of the fathers, I am obligated to break a clay pot into which a lizard falls (Lev 11:33). I am so obligated because God commanded it, not because it is obvious to my conscience, experience, etc.

    Gentiles who trust in God through Jesus Christ are spiritually heirs to Abraham. We are heirs to all the blessings of faith–but we are not literal heirs to the physical promised land, and we are not obligated to the laws that pertain only to bene Israel while living in Eretz Israel.

    Jews and Gentiles through Christ make up one body–and yet they still retain their identity as Jews and Gentiles. Therefore Matt 5:17-19 must be applied differently by Jews and Gentiles. Most scholars believe that Matthew wrote primarily as a testimony to Jewish followers of Christ. For them Matt 5:17-19 may be taken literally.

    For Gentiles it must mean we are scrupulous in fulfilling the purpose of the law and the prophets, which is love. We must be as careful to fulfill the justice required by the law as our Jewish brethren are in fulfilling the regulations of the law. (Rom 13:8-10)

    Maybe Paul was aware of Matt 5:17-19, and the irony of his position as an apostle to the Gentiles. Maybe that is why he calls himself “less than the least” of all the apostles.

  7. Dear sir,
    A few comments…thanks for the sharpening…I love talking Bible.

    If you read thru Colossians 2 you will find the context deals with not being decieved by traditions of men…philosophy…empty deceit…principles of the world…persuassive words. It is not teaching disobedience to the instructions of God…His Torah. The Torah was not nailed to the cross…it’s eternal, right? The condemnation that was against you and me was nailed to the cross. Verse 16 tells me not to let you judge me and tell me that I have no part in keeping Sabbath or the Appointed Times.

    Galatians is dealing with legalism. Paul is not saying that circumcision is wrong…he is saying that if you do it with a false belief that it will somehow save you….then you better be prepared to keep all of Torah. Did Paul teach disobedience to Torah? Of course not. He says in Acts 24:14 “But this I confess to you, that according to the Way which they call a sect, so I worship the God of my fathers, believing all things which are written in the Law and in the Prophets”. As far as the modern day version of Paul…that he taught two different lifestyles…he says in Ephesians 4 (speaking to Gentiles) “this I say, therefore, and testify in the Lord, that you SHOULD NO LONGER WALK AS THE GENTILES WALK, in the futility of their mind, having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart; who, being past feeling, have given themselves over to lewdness, to work all uncleaness with greediness”. It appears to me that Paul very plainly tells me as a Gentile (if that is indeed what I am) to not live as a Gentile.

    Jesus did not teach two sets of Commandments…

    Love is the fulfillment of the Law…tis true. Jesus quoting from Torah said to love God and to love people….tis true. But He said all of Torah hangs on those two instructions….again nothing of Torah is done away with for anyone. When someone tells me that I am to love God and people…I ask for a Scriptural definition of love…Here it is—1John 5:2-3 “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments. And His commandments are not burdensome.” Remember, this is “New” testament stuff. Are God’s commandments anything other than those as given thru the prophet Moses?

    Finally, (I have to run) you said something about us being heirs to “blessing of faith” whatever that means…but not literal heirs to the promised land. This is not Scriptural…there is no division of promises for His children. Paul says “And if you are Christ’s then you ARE Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise”. Period. There are not two different sets of promises to be found in Scripture.

    You said that “Most scholars believe that Matthew wrote primarily as a testimony to Jewish followers of Christ. For them Matt 5:17-19 may be taken literally”. I am not sure what a “scholar” really is anymore…but you don’t have to be one to recognize that ALL of Scripture was written by and for the children of Israel. Who is the book of James addressed to? Who is the book of Hebrews written for? But… God has always invited all to become part of Israel. It was a mixed multitude that came out of Egypt….Ruth was a Moabite who said….Your God (The God of Israel) will be my God…and your people (the children of Israel) will be my people. That is my story…the God of Israel is my God…and His people are my people. This is what all of Scripture teaches…most especially Paul.

    You said that the Torah was not given to anyone other than physical Israelites…I beg to difer. The following are verses I copied from a paper I am writing on this very subject…check them out. God bless you for your gracious responses…

    Concerning the 7th day Sabbath we hear God say “But the seventh day is the Sabbath of the Lord your God. In it you shall do no work: you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your male servant, nor your female servant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger who is within your gates.” Exodus 20:10

    Concerning the Feast of Passover and Unleavened Bread: And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee and will keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land: for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof. Exodus 12:48 “For seven days no leaven shall be found in your houses, since whoever eats what is leavened, that same person shall be cut off from the congregation of Israel, whether he is a stranger or a native of the land.” Exodus 12:19

    Concerning Sacrifices: Also, you shall say to them: ‘Whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who offers a burnt offering or sacrifice, and does not bring it to the door of the tabernacle of meeting, to offer it to the LORD, that man shall be cut off from among his people. Leviticus 17:8-9 And if a stranger dwells with you, or whoever is among you throughout your generations, and would present an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the LORD, just as you do, so shall he do. Numbers 15:14

    Concerning the Feast of Tabernacles: “You shall observe the Feast of Tabernacles seven days, when you have gathered from your threshing floor and from your winepress. And you shall rejoice in your feast, you and your son and your daughter, your male servant and your female servant and the Levite, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow, who are within your gates. Deuteronomy 16:13-14

    Concerning the Feast of Weeks: Then you shall keep the Feast of Weeks to the Lord your God with the tribute of a freewill offering from your and, which you shall give as the Lord your God blesses you. You shall rejoice before the Lord your God, your and your son and your daughter, your male servant an your female servant, the Levite who is within your gates, the stranger and the fatherless and the widow who are among you, at the place where the Lord your God chooses to make his name abide. Deuteronomy 16:10-11

    Concerning the Cities of Refuge: These six cities shall be for refuge for the children of Israel, for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills a person accidentally may flee there. Numbers 35:15

    Concerning Eating of Blood: And whatever man of the house of Israel, or of the strangers who dwell among you, who eats any blood, I will set My face against that person who eats blood, and will cut him off from among his people. For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it to you upon the altar to make atonement for your souls; for it is the blood that makes atonement for the soul. Therefore I said to the children of Israel, ‘No one among you shall eat blood, nor shall any stranger who dwells among you eat blood’. Leviticus 17:10-12

    Concerning Unintentional Sin: So the priest shall make atonement for the person who sins unintentionally, when he sins unintentionally before the Lord, to make atonement for him who is native-born among the children of Israel and for the stranger who dwells among them. Numbers 15:28-29

    Concerning Intentional Sin: But the person who does anything presumptuously, whether he is native-born or a stranger, that one brings reproach on the Lord, and he shall be cut off from among his people. Numbers 15:30

    Concerning Blasphemy: And whoever blasphemes the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall certainly stone him, the stranger as well as him who is born in the land. When he blasphemes the name of the Lord, he shall be put to death. Leviticus 24:16

    Concerning Justice: Whoever kills any man shall surely be put to death. Whoever kills an animal shall make it good, animal for animal. If a man causes disfigurement of his neighbor, as he has done, so shall it be done to him—fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, as he has caused disfigurement of a man, so shall it be done to him. And whoever kills an animal shall restore it; but whoever kills a man shall be put to death. You shall have the same law for the stranger and for one from your own country; for I am the Lord your God. Leviticus 24:17-22

    In summary: Gather the people together, men and women and little ones, and the stranger who is within your gates, that they may hear and that they may learn to fear the Lord your god and carefully observe all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God as long as you live in the land which you cross the Jordan to possess. Deuteronomy 31:12-13

    ” And it shall be, if THEY will learn carefully the ways of My people, to swear by My name, As the Lord live,’ as they taught My people to swear by Baal, THEN they shall be established in the midst of MY PEOPLE. But if they do not OBEY, I will utterly pluck up and destroy that nation, says the LORD. Jeremiah 12:16-17

    God bless…Newcolors

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