VAYIKRA

Special Shabbat: God’s Hidden Ways

By Julia BlumMarch 10, 2022No comments

Little Aleph

For the last two weeks, we have been watching the people of Israel building the Tabernacle. This sanctuary was to accompany the Jewish people throughout their long journey in the wilderness and was to be set up in the Land of Israel when they eventually arrived there. Finally, in the very last chapter of the book of Exodus, it is finished. And then—what happens next?

Then the cloud covered the tabernacle[1]. A thick cloud covered the newly built Sanctuary. Because of this cloud, Moshe himself was unable to enter the Sanctuary. Can you imagine? After all the effort which had gone into this building, it was covered by a cloud and seemed to be totally inaccessible and totally useless.

Of course, we all know now that it was God’s presence, not just a cloud! However, think of the moment when it first happened: how could they know exactly what this cloud was?  Oh yes, I am certain that Moshe had faith, that he didn’t doubt or question God,  but I am also quite sure that there were many there who were grumbling, wondering why in the world they had spent so much time building the very thing that now seemed to be so useless, so inaccessible.

We also have this choice: to recognize the presence of God, the hand of God, the voice of God—or to just see a cloud interfering with our plans, something that ‘just happened’ to us. In an amazing way, like everything in Torah, this choice is reflected by the very first word of the book – VaYikra. In the original Hebrew text, the word Vayikra has one specific feature: it’s written with a miniature aleph at the end. There are three sizes of letters in Torah – regular, oversized and miniature – and every time we see a letter of a different size, we should look for a profound explanation. So, why do we have this miniature aleph here?

Our sages have offered different explanations, but here is the one that I absolutely love. The Hebrew word “VaYikra” without the aleph would read “VaYiker,” which means, “and it happened”. There is a huge and truly ontological difference between the worldview based on Vayikra “and He called, and the worldview based on VaYiker “and it happened”—between seeing just a cloud making the Mishkan inaccessible, and recognizing His very presence covering the Tabernacle. Our sages say that when the Red Sea split, all the seas in the world split at the same time—because the Lord always leaves us the choice to perceive His miracles as just some natural events. While we are here on this earth, everything, absolutely everything, can be seen as something that ‘just happened,’ as opposed to something that He called into being. However, faith knows that there is a little aleph beyond everything that ‘just happens’ —and it is this aleph that makes all the difference and reminds us of God’s hidden ways.

The Spiritual Topography

The book of VaYikra (Leviticus) is placed in the very center of the Torah: there are two books before, and two books after. There is so much action before Leviticus— all the wonderful events and stories of Genesis and Exodus, all the great narratives that make for such dramatic and colorful pictures in children’s Bibles. There is also some action after this book, in Numbers and in Deuteronomy, although the very tone of the stories of the last two books is completely different from the first two. However, here, in VaYikra, there is almost no narrative, and virtually no action—everything stands still here.

Rashi says: “Thirteen times in the Torah, God spoke to Moses and Aaron together, and corresponding to them were thirteen other occasions where God spoke only to Moses.” This is one of those times. Here God speaks to Moses only. I imagine when God first began speaking here, that Moses was confused, perplexed, even dismayed for a time. It’s not that he had never heard His voice before this book – by the time we enter this book, Moses is already a great and accomplished leader who knows very well the voice of the Lord and has done amazing things for Him and with Him. He had just led the people out of Egypt, received the Ten Commandments, completed building the Tabernacle, and I suppose, after all these activities, he was ready to just go on. I’m sure he expected the Lord to keep giving him some practical guidance and   instructions: “Lord, what do you want me to do next? What do you want me to build for you? Where do you want us to go?” But there is no going or building in VaYikra. Instead, the Lord speaks of sacrifice.

Do you know that in Hebrew, the root karav ((קדב), from which the words lehakreev, to sacrifice, and korban, sacrifice, are formed, is the very same root that forms the word lehitkarev, to come near, to draw near, to come closer. Yes, it is that simple: if you want lehitkarev leElohim—to come closer to Godyou have to learn lehakreev, to sacrifice. The entire book of Leviticus (VaYikra) is about that. And only when we learn to sacrifice, does the real closeness, the true intimacy with God, come.

Shabbat Zachor

We have another reminder of God’s hidden ways on this Shabbat. This Shabbat is again one of those Special Shabbatot that are referred to by a special name: “Shabbat Zachor”. Shabbat Zachor (“Sabbath [of] remembrance שבת זכור) is the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim. On this Shabbat, at the end of the Torah Portion, we read Deuteronomy 25:17-19: “Remember what Amalek did to you on the way when you went out of Egypt…“  

Deuteronomy 25:17 describes an incident in Exodus 17:8-16, just after the children of Israel crossed the sea. On the third day of their travelling in the wilderness, the army of Amalek attacked them. Miraculously, the Jewish people defeated the Amalekites; however, what does that have to do with Purim, that happened almost a thousand years later, and what must we remember?

And here we are back again to that little aleph – to God’s hidden ways. Parashat Zachor is read on the Shabbat before Purim because the story of Purim actually began hundreds of years before Esther, with Saul and Agag. This was a hidden beginning: Haman was a descendent of Agag and a descendant of Amalek. Like his fathers, he was an enemy of the Jews and therefore wanted to entirely wipe out the Jewish nation. Mordecai had to destroy Agag’s descendant, Haman, because King Saul did not obey God and destroy Agag. Next time, we will talk more about Purim and its hidden beginning.

[1] Ex. 40:35

Malakh Panav

Last time, we saw the people of Israel bringing excessively bountiful donations for the building of the Tabernacle. As one of the Midrashim says, “they came both men and women; that is to say, in their eagerness they pressed against each other. The men and women came as a huge throng when they brought their gifts…”[1] We questioned how it could be that the same very people who had so recently expressed such terrible lack of faith in the story of Golden Calf,  now seemed to be completely renewed, with their hearts soft, open and tender. What happened between the Golden Calf and the Tabernacle?  What had changed the hearts of the people of Israel?

In order to find an answer, we have to understand what happened between these two episodes—we need to look for an answer in the previous Torah portion, Ki Tisa. Much happened during this portion, and we hear a lot about the Golden Calf, about Moses’ and God’s wrath, about broken tablets. All this happens in chapter 32.  Then we enter the 33rd chapter, which describes events that happened right after that, right after the Golden Calf incident and the tablets broken by Moses. At the end of the previous chapter, we saw Moses interceding for the people and managing to convince God to forgive Israel. Already, at the beginning of this chapter, he receives God’s confirmation: Yes, He will allow Moses to continue his mission of leading the people of Israel into the Promised Land, the Land flowing with milk and honey. However, in His words we can still hear the echo of His recent wrath. While commanding Moses and Israel to depart for the Land, God says, “Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; for I will not go up in your midst, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.[2]

Well, this seems to be a definitive statement, completely clear and expected, completely fair after the terrible sin the people of Israel had committed. Actually,  this is the very subject of this Torah portion—it’s all about this, about God’s holiness and how He and His presence cannot, by any means, dwell with a sinful people: I will not go up in your midst …

How great must be the reader’s surprise, however, when only several verses later we read, And He said, “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.[3] How could it possibly be? We know that He is not a man that He should change his mind,[4] so what can explain this seemingly contradictory and sudden change of His decision?

In most translations, these two seemingly contradictory verses from Exodus 33 are rendered with similar words: “I will not go up in your midst,”[5] and “I will go with you, and I will give you rest.[6] But it’s not like this in Hebrew: in verse 3 God says, I will not go up in your midst, while in verse 14 He says: My face will go with you. If we recall that prior to this, the Lord promised to send His Angel: “And I will send My Angel before you,”[7] and “Behold, I send an Angel before you to keep you in the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared,[8] then we arrive at the Angel of His Face—Malakh Panav. Who is this angel?

In full, this name occurs in only one place, in the book of Isaiah: “In all their affliction he was afflicted, and the angel of his presence (Malach Panav) saved them: in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; and he bare them, and carried them all the days of old.[9] However, there are several instances in the Hebrew Bible where we see this special Angel of God’s presence, who speaks in the name of God and delivers His message. This Angel speaks from the first person as if he was God; he stands before the people in the form of a man, and after meeting him, people realize that they have seen God, yet their lives have been spared. We see him in Genesis 18 talking to Abraham, in Genesis 22 stopping Abraham on Mount Moriah, and in Genesis 32 wrestling with Jacob at Peniel; in the book of Joshua, he is the commander of the Lord’s army who commissions Joshua to fight the battles for the Land; we see him talking to Gideon, and appearing before Samson’s parents. “The Angel of the LORD” carries out priestly duties of reconciliation. “The Angel of the LORD” even has authority to forgive sins.[10] And it’s him that we find here as well—God is sending the Angel of His Face to lead Israel!

Historically, Christian tradition has mainly understood this Angel to be the pre-incarnate Jesus. On the other hand, Rabbinic Judaism has given this Angel a Judeo-Greek name, “Metatron” מֵטַטְרוֹן  (Metatron), meaning “the one next to the throne” (compiled from two Greek words μετὰ (meta) and θρóνος (thronos). The Jewish sages explain: “This is [the angel] Metatron, whose name is like the name of his Master: The numerical value of מֵטַטְרוֹן [314] equals that of שַׁדַּי [314][11]. The important fact is, however, that whatever we think about this Angel of the Lord, him leading Israel became a game-changer, as we would say today. His presence completely changed the hearts of the people of Israel! Only his presence can explain the amazing transformation that we witness between the Torah Portions Ki Tisa and Vayakhel, when the people who just recently showed such terrible lack of faith, were completely renewed and changed. Only his presence can explain that amazing transformation from the Golden Calf to Mishkan – and I believe that this is one of the most profound and most overlooked mysteries of Israel.

I cannot finish this article about Malach Panav without saying one last thing: this amazing promise of His Presence was given to Israel, in the first place! The special Angel was sent with His people, and ever since His Presence has been going with Israel! Do you realize what that actually means? Throughout all these centuries, through all the pain and suffering we endured – the pogroms, ghettos, concentration camps, all those horrible periods of complete loneliness and misery, when to everyone, including ourselves, we seemed to be utterly abandoned – in reality, we were not alone, the Lord has been walking with us! In all their affliction, He was afflicted, and the Angel of His presence (Malach Panav) saved them.

[1] Tanchuma, P’kudei 11:2

[2] Ex. 33:3

[3] Ex. 33:14

[4] 1 Sam. 15:29

[5] Ex. 33:3

[6] Ex. 33:14

[7] Ex. 33:2

[8] Ex. 23:20

[9] Isa. 63:9

[10] Ex. 23:20-21

[11] Sanh. 38b

What went wrong 2

A great deception

You have hidden their heart from understanding… You will not exalt them.

Job 17:4

Now also many nations have gathered against you, who say, “Let her be defiled, and let our eye look upon Zion.” But they do not know the thoughts of the LORD, nor do they understand His counsel…

Mic. 4:11-12

Many years ago, I wrote my first book about the book of Job and Job’s comforters.  It was only after writing this book that I realized, to my horror, that the suffering of Israel during the first centuries after Jesus, had really helped the Church find a theological basis for her hatred and contempt. No, of course, the suffering was not the reason for this hatred: as we saw last time, already by the second century Christians had been deceived into thinking that they were to take Israel’s place. However, the sufferings of Israel were very “convenient”  for this new doctrine – in Israel’s troubles and misery, early Christianity found the evidence and confirmation that Israel was rejected by God, and now the Church, the “true Israel” would be in the place of the “chosen people”.

One of Satan’s great desires and great achievements from the very beginning of Christianity has been to plant in the minds of Christians a connection between Israel’s spiritual condition and the suffering she is going through—we are going through. This great lie has to be broken. Psalm 69 says, “O God, You know my foolishness; And my sins are not hidden from You” – but two verses later it says, “Because for Your sake I have borne reproach; Shame has covered my face.[1] Nobody is saying, and least of all I, that Israel is a godly nation: “my sins are not hidden from You,” but the connection between Israel’s spiritual condition and all the suffering she has gone through, has to be broken down.

If you remember the book of Job you would probably realize that there we have the same scenario: Satan, who started with trying (unsuccessfully) to slander Job before God, ended up slandering him before his friends – and this time he was very successful. He convinced them of the connection between Job’s spiritual condition and the suffering he was going through.  As for Israel, Satan knows perfectly well he could not slander her before God because he simply would not succeed, so he set about working hard to slander Israel before the people. It is quite clear as we look through history, that he has been highly successful in that. Last time, we spoke about Justin Martyr and his famous treatise, “Dialogue with Trypho” (and I remind you that Justin lived in the second century, less than a century after Jesus). In this treatise, we already see very clearly, maybe for the first time, the beginning of Replacement Theology: “For the true spiritual Israel and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac and Abraham are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ” (Dial. 11). “Along with Abraham we shall receive inheritance for an endless eternity” (D.119). Everything – the Holy Land, eternity, God himself – is now ours, not yours. And the suffering of Israel in the first two centuries, the sufferings Christians were not responsible for, turned out to be very ‘handy’ for this doctrine: Justin declared that all the sufferings of the Jewish people were the righteous punishment of God for the death of Christ. When speaking of the expulsion of Jewish people from Jerusalem, the devastation of the Land, and the burned Jewish towns, he didn’t hesitate to call all these afflictions “the just punishments” of the murderers. There have been endless voices in the history of Christianity saying basically the same thing: “The events of divine justice pursue the Jews for the crimes which they committed against Christ.”[2]

The premise was very simple: if the people of Israel are suffering so horribly, it means that God Himself has punished and rejected them, and therefore they deserve nothing but contempt from those who have rightfully taken their place. Accordingly, the more terrible the troubles and trials that beset Israel were, the more justified the Church became in her own eyes. It is no coincidence that the break of the new religion with its Jewish roots became more distinct with each new distress: particularly in 70 C.E. with the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple, and the years of 132-135 C.E. with the Bar-Kochba revolt and the Roman repressions that followed. Every time things were going badly for Israel, the Church celebrated. In these new and ever-increasing troubles, again and again, Christianity saw confirmation that God had in fact rejected His people.    Moreover, at some point, the Church did not trust anyone else to be the instrument of “God’s punishment,” but always made sure herself that the right and just punishment for the Jews would be carried out: “they persecute him whom thou hast smitten.” [3]

The history of Christian/Jewish relations since then is well known: this is a history of hatred, of anti-Semitism, sometimes relatively quiet, sometimes extremely bloody— from touch all that he has[4] to touch his bone and his flesh[5]it has been a history of endless accusations. If God still loves you, why doesn’t He help you?   Where is your God? He doesn’t come to help you or save you, therefore, He has rejected you, and all your sufferings are His punishment for your grave sins. This is more or less the logic of these accusations—the logic of the Accuser.

Does it remind you of something? He trusts in God. Let Him deliver him. I wrote a book about this, and the title of the book is, If you are the Son of God, come down from the Cross. Two thousand years ago, people were saying this to Jesus, but He did not come down from the Cross—precisely because He was the Son of God.  Ever since then, people have been saying this to Israel – not exactly in those words, but the message is the same. And for me, it is the great enigma and the great success of Satan – that Christians, who should know better than anyone else that “being forsaken by God in suffering” does not always mean rejection and punishment, could be so terribly deceived when it comes to Israel.  Nobody from those believing the Bible would argue with the basic statement that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and no mature believer would judge the measure of God’s love to somebody by the circumstances he is going through. But when it comes to Israel, most Christians sincerely believe that this is the case—that we can judge and make conclusions concerning the love of God on the grounds of the things which are seen—and that in this case, His thoughts are exactly like their thoughts. They make their conclusions based on the visible history and are convinced that this is exactly what God thinks and feels about Israel. However, His thoughts, indeed, are not our thoughts, and those who love God seek to know His thoughts. The title of these posts is, “What went wrong?” and I am extremely grateful for the millions of Christians who ask this question today and who sincerely seek to know God’s heart and God’s thoughts regarding Israel.

[1] Ps. 69:5,7

[2] Eusebius, Historia Ecclesiastica, HE Book 2, ch.6.

[3] Ps. 69:26

[4] Job 1:11

[5] Job 2:5

What went wrong 1

A few weeks ago, there was a question in the comments: “How would you describe, ‘what went wrong’ between Jews and Christians? There were many historical events, but what do you see as the most fundamental ‘flaw’ that resulted in such separation between the two?” Probably, everyone would agree that this is a very serious and very complicated question, and in the past, I spent years trying to answer it! When I started to think about my response here, I realized that even in its shortest version, it would still be a very long answer. Therefore, I have decided to publish my answer in this post (there will be two posts, actually). We will pause our Acts series for a couple of weeks in order to discuss this painful and very emotional topic.

So, what exactly went wrong? Why did everything turn out in such a way that His people became hated, despised and persecuted by Christians? One would expect those who love Jesus, to also love everything connected with His earthly life – first and foremost His people, the ones among whom He lived and whom He loved – so why didn’t that happen? What is the reason for this seemingly inexplicable hatred of those who later became the followers of Jesus, towards those to whom He initially revealed Himself?

I will have to use some Hebrew for my response. You remember the story of Noah and his sons found at the end of Genesis chapter nine:

… he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.[1]

When he awoke, Noah pronounced the curse and the blessings on his sons. The blessing for Japheth sounds like this: “may God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem”[2]

It is a very important verse because in a sense it became a ”theological” basis for the replacement theology of the Church – the teaching that the Christian Church replaced national Israel regarding the plans, purpose, and promises of God. Already in the 2nd century CE, the apologist and theologian Justin Martyr, in his treatise “Dialogue with Trypho,” sees the “biblical” foundation for such a doctrine in this verse. Commenting on this story of Noah and his sons, he points out this verse as a prophetic word about how, in the future, the Gentile nations —Japheth,  according to his understanding—that received Christianity, would seize the tents of Shem, i.e. Israel.

Let us ponder this verse together. I will need some Hebrew here. Don’t worry, for those who are not familiar with Hebrew at all, I will explain in details what we see here. This is the original of this verse:

יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם וִיהִ֥י כְנַ֖עַן עֶ֥בֶד לָֽמוֹ׃

The verb יַפְתְּ “in the beginning,” which sounds and is spelled exactly like the name of Japheth, means “spread,” “enlarge”. The crucial question, in my humble opinion, is this: what do you think God meant here, that Japheth would dwell in the tents of Shem together with Shem – or instead of Shem? I am convinced that this verse in no way assumed a banishment of Shem. However, by the time Justin Martyr arrived on the scene, the Greek and Roman Christians had already accused the Jewish people of the killing of God, and Christians had already started to believe that they had taken the place of Israel! In Justin Martyr’s treatise, we find the “biblical proof” of this belief. The conclusion of a conversation between Justin and Trypho, a Jew, can be briefly summarized in the following manner: Christians now take the place of Israel, the Church is the embodiment of the true people of God, the “new Israel,” while the Jewish people are to be looked upon as an apostate nation, stripped of their election and punished for the sin of not accepting the Messiah! God has rejected Israel as “Christ-killers,” and from now on, their place is to be occupied by the Christians!  Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem – instead of Shem!   

This calls to mind the children’s fable about a fox and a hare: the fox had a hut made from ice, and the hare had a little straw house.  Spring comes, the fox’s ice hut melts and the hare takes him in, only to find that the fox kicks him out and takes his home. This is more or less what happened with Israel and Christianity,  and as we’ve just seen, as rapidly as the second century, at that.  However, this is not the end of the story and the end of my response. There is something else I want to show you.

At some point, I decided to check the verb יַפְתְּ  in the dictionary. And, as happens so often with Hebrew, I was absolutely overwhelmed with what I found:

יַפְתְּ    1.       to be spacious, be open, be wide

  1. (Qal) to be spacious or open or wide
  2. (Hiphil) to make spacious, make open
  3. to be simple, entice, deceive, persuade
  4. (Qal)
  5. to be open-minded, be simple, be naive
  6. to be enticed, be deceived
  7. (Niphal) to be deceived, be gullible
  8. (Piel)
  9. to persuade, seduce
  10. to deceive
  11. (Pual)
  12. to be persuaded

I would like to explain why I was so excited. As some of you probably know, Biblical Hebrew is primarily a verbal language, and the verbs are derived from the roots. Roots are three-consonant groups that comprise the “essence” of a word’s meaning. Most of the verbs in Hebrew are formed from this three-consonant root by changing vowels and adding different prefixes and suffixes, thus forming different stems. Depending on their stem (binyan), verbs from the same root can have very different meanings. Nevertheless, being derived from the very same root, they all have something in common, they all relate to the very same “essence”. Therefore, all of a sudden, I realized that through the very same verses that were used by the Church “to justify” the exclusion of Israel, God is speaking about the danger of being “deceived”,seduced”. Japheth – millions of Christians throughout history, who sincerely believed that they were to live in the tents of Shem, instead of Shem – were deceived, persuaded, and seduced to believe so, and the Lord knew that from the very beginning. The original meaning of this verse did not assume an eviction of Shem from his tents, any more than the hare would assume that in letting in the homeless fox, he would soon find himself out on the street. The interpretation of Justin Martyr, however, only served to legitimize the process of Israel’s exclusion from the plan and blessings of God, which at that time was already moving ahead at full speed.

It is understandable that in the framework of this doctrine, the sufferings of Israel came in very handy. I can’t finish my response without saying a few words about the attitude of Christians to the suffering of Israel. Next time, we are going to talk about this “additional proof of Israel’s rejection and downfall” that for centuries had been seen as an especially weighty argument in favor of the just rights of Christianity to take her place.

[1] Gen. 9:20-23

[2] Gen. 9:27

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The death of the High Priest

Cities of refuge

In Numbers 35, we read about the cities of refuge providing protection for whoever “kills a person without intent.” In the description of the cities of refugee, we find an interesting detail: an unintentional murderer must remain in the city of refuge till the death of the High Priest. When the High Priest dies, he may return to his home, without fear of a revenge. Why? How is the death of the High Priest relevant? 

How did the High Priest save them?

Centuries later, Jewish interpreters explain in the Talmudic discussion that homicide is a sin which must be atoned. Even an unintentional murder cannot be compensated by a ransom (Num.35:31) — the blood must be redeemed by the death of the murderer. According to this interpretation, because it is an unintentional murder, only the death of the High Priest may be a proper atonement. Once the High Priest dies, the blood is redeemed and the slayer is free.

See the connection between the Torah and the New Testament

This seemingly unexpected link between the time of asylum and the death of the High Priest is a statement of the fact that, only death can atone for the blood. Thus, for the first time in the Bible, the death of the High Priest becomes an atoning event. The New Testament authors picked up on this Hebrew Bible intuition and elaborated on it.

On the book of Acts

From Jerusalem To Rome: Reaching Out To Gentiles

By Julia BlumJanuary 19, 20227 comments

My dear readers, as we continue our journey through the book of Acts I would like to remind you that my goal here is not to write another series of comments – tons of books have already been written on Acts – but just to bring to your attention the details that can be understood only within the Jewish context of the first-century Jewish Messianic congregation.  Like, for instance, this question:

CAN GENTILES BELIEVE IN JESUS?

Today, both Christians and Jews would be puzzled and surprised by this question: Christianity today is largely perceived as a completely Gentile religion and a very non-Jewish entity. However, this is exactly the question that the first community of believers in Jesus had to deal with. Jesus Himself said several times that He came “to the lost sheep of house of Israel”.  How did it happen then, that His message also went out to the Gentiles?

The book we have been reading together – the book of Acts – shows us this transformation. During his earthly life, Jesus was very specific in instructing his disciples not to even “go among the gentiles”.  However, here in Acts, we witness a drastic change: starting from chapter 10, we see not only inclusion of the Gentiles, but also the astonishment and amazement of the existing Jewish Messianic community.

How did it all begin? I’m sure you all know this story. In Acts 10, we read about the vision of Apostle Peter in which he saw a large sheet coming down from heaven filled with “all kinds of four-footed animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air”. Then a voice said to him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”[1]

For centuries, traditional Christianity has interpreted Peter’s vision as God’s permission to abandon a division between clean and unclean animals. However, if we refer to the narrative right before and right after this vision, we would understand that actually, it was God showing him that he should not call the Gentiles unclean, because God calls them clean, therefore the Good News should also be brought to them. This is the way Peter himself understood this vision, because while he was still puzzling over its meaning, men sent by Cornelius, a God-fearing gentile, came to him. Only then did Peter understand the message. Later he would explain to Cornelius that, even though it is against our law for a Jew to associate with or visit a Gentile….  God has shown me that I should not call anyone impure or unclean[2]. Thus, the message of Jesus began to be preached also to the Gentiles.

We learn from these chapters that first the Jewish believers in Jesus were very surprised, even shocked by this inclusion of the Gentiles. Yet, when they heard Peter’s testimony, “they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life.”[3] Or, in the words of the Complete Jewish Bible, “This means that God has enabled the Goyim as well to do t’shuvah and have life!

PHARISEE, SON OF A PHARISEE

As we all know, Shaul (Paul), whose “straightening” on Straight street we discussed last time, would become the key figure in this reaching of the Gentiles. Unfortunately, traditional Christian reading of Paul turned him into the father and author of sanctioned Christian anti-Semitism. For two millennia, the Church has taught that when Apostle Paul “converted,” his eyes were opened and, preaching tirelessly against the Jewish law and against Israel, he “freed Christianity from Judaism”. But, is this true? Did this Jewish scholar really believe Torah to be irrelevant and his people to be rejected by God? Did Paul really teach that Jesus’ message contradicted the Torah, Christianity was the antithesis of Judaism, and the Church replaced Israel?

Of course, “Paul and Torah” or “Paul and Israel” are huge topics, and this discussion goes far beyond our comments on Acts. However, from the book of Acts, we do know that even after Paul became Jesus’ disciple, it was still his regular custom to attend synagogue every Shabbat. “Paul did not consider the synagogue his opponent. How could he? No other valid faith- community yet existed. … the synagogue and Jerusalem Temple marked the location of study and worship for all who believed  in the God of Israel. All other temples and places of worship were pagan.”[4]

Thus, in every new town where Paul arrived (even in predominately Gentile regions), he went to a synagogue. In synagogues, he met with Jews and Gentiles alike who were interested in the Word of God. Again and again we read about Paul attending synagogues – for instance, “…there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scriptures.”[5] We will discuss this later as well as we continue our commentaries, but for now we are in chapter 13, and we see Paul and his companions entering the synagogue in Antioch: “when they departed from Perga, they came to Antioch in Pisidia, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day and sat down”. We read that “after the reading of the Law and the Prophets, the rulers of the synagogue” invited them to speak – “then Paul stood up, and motioning with his hand said….” What did he say?

The traditional view of Paul suggests that there were two ways of salvation: the old way was through the deeds of the law (Torah), while the new one, the way of grace, was opened by Jesus. There is a famous verse of Paul’s from Romans which is traditionally used against Judaism: a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law[6]. Based on this statement, the vast majority of Christian theologians somehow came to the wrong conclusion that 1st century Judaism believed in work-based salvation. It is a very unfortunate mistake and is simply not true: in Judaism, salvation doesn’t depend on works either – it’s a free gift of God, based on His eternal covenant with Israel. One of the most famous rabbinic tractates, Pirkei Avot, opens with the famous words: “All Israel has portion in the world to come”. This means that salvation – or “portion in the world to come” – is not gained through doing good works; it depends only on a person belonging to God’s family. In this sense, it is also by grace.

Thus, Paul did not have to change this part of his theology after he became a follower of Jesus: it was clear to him, as it was to every Jewish rabbi, that access into God’s family depended not on the works a person does, but on his or her belonging to the covenant. Paul saw salvation as God’s gift to His family, based on His covenant – again, as every Jewish rabbi would see. What did change radically for Paul was who belonged to this covenant.  In Judaism, God’s family consists of the people of Israel only. For Paul, anyone who comes to God through Jesus belongs to His family – and therefore, Paul invites everyone to come to God, in order to belong to His family and to receive God’s gift of salvation. This is exactly what he is saying in the synagogue of Antioch:

Men and brethren, sons of the family of Abraham, and those among you who fear God, to you the word of this salvation has been sent”[7].

.

[1] Acts 10:15

[2] Acts 10:28

[3] Acts 11:18

[4] Tim Hegg,  The Letter Writer

[5] Acts 17:1-3

[6] Rom. 3:28

[7] Acts 13:26

Continuing with the book of Acts

From Jerusalem To Rome: To The Ends Of The Earth

By Julia BlumJanuary 26, 20224 comments

We all know the words of Jesus to his disciples at the beginning of Acts:  they should be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth”[1]. Accordingly, the book of Acts can be divided into two parts.  The first, chapters 1–12, describe the events that take place in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Peter is the central figure of these chapters: “he delivers speeches, performs healings and, as the climax of this section, baptizes the first Gentile convert, the Roman centurion Cornelius.”[2] Of course, we remember that Philip had previously baptized an Ethiopian eunuch (8.26–40), but Peter baptizing Cornelius and reporting it to his Jewish brethren officially opens the door for Gentiles to be included in the community of believers.

Therefore, beginning from chapter 13, the focus of the book shifts to Paul – the Apostle to the Gentiles. We witness his missionary activity in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) and Greece, his arrest, questioning before Roman and Jewish authorities, his journey to Rome, and his preaching in Rome. Thus, Acts presents a picture of the church expanding in full accordance with Jesus’ words: from Jerusalem through Judea and Samaria to the “ends of the earth”. Who were those first believers in Jesus outside of the Land, then?  How did they live and believe?

Surprisingly, from the book of Acts, we understand that the “first church”, the first community of the early followers of Jesus outside of the Land of Israel, still comprised mainly of Jewish believers and was still a synagogue. The first “to the ends of the earth” community of believers that we meet in Acts, is the community in Antioch. What do we know about the church in Antioch?

In chapter 11 we read that “those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch” and that “the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.[3] Then we read that, upon hearing these reports, the Jerusalem congregation sends out Barnabas to Antioch, and Barnabas brings Paul there. “So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people.”[4]

We are now in chapter 13, entering the second part of the Acts, which recounts the expansion of the church “to the ends of the earth”. This chapter begins with Luke reintroducing the community in Antioch:

Now in the church that was at Antioch there were certain prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon who was called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch, and Saul. 

Of all the names listed by Luke, we know for sure that both Barnabas and Saul (Paul) were Jewish believers in Jesus. Who were the others?

Who was Simeon who was called Niger?  Simeon is a Greek transliteration of a Hebrew name Shimon. “Shimon” was a very popular Jewish name in the 1st century, both in the Land of Israel and in Diaspora. He might have been a proselyte from Africa, which would explain why he was called Niger[5], but he would not have the name “Shimon” if he was not part of the people of Israel.

We can probably say more about “Manaen who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch.” who is also listed among the prophets and teachers of the Antioch congregation. Manaen is a Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Menachem (Comforter). Who was this Menachem? Surprisingly, we discover references to this man in the several Jewish texts of the time, and the first thing we understand from all these references is that the man was Jewish.

According to Joseph Shulam, Babylonian Talmud may have been referring to the same Menachem in this comment:  “Hillel and Menachem did not differ. Menachem went forth, Shammai entered.” In order to understand this quote, one has to know the history of the Second Temple period: Hillel and Shammai, the well-known rabbis of this time, were co-heads of beit din (the court). Probably, this Talmudic text says that before Shammai joined Hillel, Menachem was co-head of the court, along with Hillel.

Some scholars have interpreted this text as depicting Menachem’s departure to join the Essenes. This interpretation is based on Josephus’ note in his Antiquities of the Jews: “There was one of these Essenes whose name was Menachem.” Josephus writes that this Menachem led “an excellent life” and that God gave him a prophetic gift: he prophesied Herod’s ascension to the throne when “he was a child”[6].

If we accept this interpretation, we will agree that all three texts speak of the same Menachem who was connected to “Herod the tetrarch”. First, together with Hillel, Menachem served as co-head of the court; his spiritual quest then probably took him to the Essenes; then finally, this boyhood companion of Herod Antipas became one of the leaders in the Antioch congregation, and became known to Christian readers by the name Manaen.

The last one whom Luke lists among the “prophets and teachers” in Antioch, is Lucius. “Lucius” was a common Latin name, definitely not a Jewish name, and one may suggest that Lucius was not Jewish. On the other hand, he may have been a Jew born in the Diaspora, like Saul, having both Jewish and Roman names. This hypothesis is supported by the fact that in Romans 16:21 Paul calls some Lucius, his kinsman (probably the same Lucius).

Thus, of the five prophets and teachers in the first church in Antioch, four were definitely Jewish believers in Jesus, and the last one may have been Jewish also. However, much more important is the fact that these first believers lived as members of God’s people, members of Israel. They lived according to an agreed-upon set of ethical norms, in a context broadly shaped by the Jewish Scriptures. “The activity of prophets, the description of what went on in the congregational meeting as ‘service,’ and fasting as a religious practice…. the reading of the law and the prophets”[7] – all these correspond with known synagogue practice. From Luke’s description, we understand that, with all the profound differences that faith in Jesus would make, outwardly the gathering and fellowship of the early church was no different from a synagogue.  And it really could not be otherwise: synagogue was the only place of study and worship for all who believed in the God of Israel – all the other temples and places of worship were pagan. There were no other valid communities of believers, so at this point, a synagogue was the only place where Jewish and Gentile believers would gather together to read Scripture and worship God. This is exactly what we see in the community in Antioch – and we will continue to see it throughout the entire book of Acts.

[1] Acts 1:8

[2] The Jewish Annotated New Testament (p. 198). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

[3] Acts 11:19,21

[4] Acts 11:26

[5] In the original language of the text, the word “Niger” is best translated as “black.”

[6] Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, 15:10:5

On the book of Acts

From Jerusalem To Rome: Transition

By Julia Blum February 2, 2022No comments

The Lessons of the Transitional Chapter

My dear friends, you probably expect me to move to Acts 15, to Jerusalem council – and of course, we will be there soon. However, I would like to say a few more words on chapter 13; after all, this is a crucial chapter, the transitional chapter,  opening the second – “to the ends of the earth” – part of the book.  Luke is an amazing master of transitions, and those following my blog for a while may well remember this title “The Lessons of the Transitional Chapter”: it was how I titled our discussion of the last chapter of the Gospel of Luke. The last chapter of Luke’s Gospel – Luke 24 – is a transitional chapter from the first to the second volume of his writing, and it indeed provides an excellent transition from the Gospel to the Acts—from Messiah visible, but hidden, to Messiah revealed, but invisible. In my articles, I tried to show that Luke wanted us to read both volumes in the light shed from this chapter[1].

In the same way, the beginning of chapter 13 serves as a very meaningful transition from the first part of the book of Acts to the second. We remember that the first part, chapters 1–12, describes the events that take place in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria. Beginning from chapter 13, the focus of Luke’s narrative shifts to Paul and his mission to the Gentiles. Once again, Luke packs these transitional verses with the very important messages – so please bear with me while we unpack these crucial messages, in order to read the second part in the light of these lessons.

Laying Hands

The first take-home message of this chapter comes from the last post, when we realized that of the five prophets and teachers in Antioch listed here by Luke, four were definitely Jewish believers in Jesus, and the last one may have been Jewish as well. Even more important is the second lesson that we also started to discuss last time. From Luke’s description, we understand that with all the profound differences that faith in Jesus made, outwardly the gathering and fellowship of the early church was no different from a synagogue. The activity of the prophets, the fasting, the reading of the Scriptures, all these details undoubtedly connect us to the Torah. However, there is another important allusion to the Torah in Luke’s description of Antioch’s community that we haven’t discussed yet – and this is the laying of hands.

The laying on of hands is called smicha in Hebrew, the same word used for laying hands on the sacrifices. In Tanach, the priests practiced smicha, laying hands on the sacrifices before offering them to God. This hand-laying was an essential part of Temple sacrifices, but at some point, it became an essential part of separation and authorization for religious duty as well. “The laying on of hands as authorization for religious duties may echo Numbers 8:11–12, where the motif of separation for the work of the Lord is also present.”[2]

By the 1st century CE, smicha was an acknowledged ritual of transmission of authority. The laying on of hands is a very meaningful ceremony in Jewish tradition even today. Jewish fathers bless their children by placing their hands on the child’s head. When  The idea goes back to Deuteronomy where we read of Joshua being filled with the Spirit because Moses laid hands on him: “Now Joshua the son of Nun was full of the spirit of wisdom, for Moses had laid his hands on him.[3] It is believed that through smicha,God’s presence may appear”. Why? In Leviticus, Moses tells Aaron, “This is the thing that God commanded you to do, that God’s presence may appear.”[4] However, the Torah does not say what “thing” Moses had in mind, so some Jewish commentators explain, “It is the laying on of hands.” Therefore, when the believers in Antioch laid their hands upon Paul and Barnabas, they asked God to manifest His presence, to fill them with His spirit, and to transmit authority in the way that was a familiar and acknowledged ceremony.

This is another take-home message that Luke wants us to remember while reading through the second part of the book: early believers in Jesus were part of God’s people, part of Israel, – and they lived in a context defined by current Jewish piety and Jewish Scriptures!

Crooked and Straight

It will take our next example to realize how much God’s ways and Israel’s ways seemed almost synonymous to the early believers. After Paul and Barnabas are sent away from Antioch, they travel to the city of Paphos in Cyprus, where the Roman Proconsul is willing to hear them. However, somebody by the name Elymas, described as a false prophet and a sorcerer, opposes them, “doing his best to turn the governor away from the faith. Then Sha’ul, also known as Paul, filled with the Ruach HaKodesh, stared straight at him and said, “You son of Satan, full of fraud and evil! You enemy of everything good! Won’t you ever stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”[5]

I have chosen to use this translation here (Complete Jewish Bible), since it renders the Greek text with exactly the same words that we need in order to unpack Luke’s message. Paul could have said a thousand different things to Elymas: Won’t you ever stop doing your evil deeds? Won’t you ever stop opposing God? Won’t you ever stop resisting true faith? – so,  why did he use this peculiar phrase about crooked and straight?

In order to answer this question and see the message hidden by Luke in this story, I would like to remind you that the biblical name for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is Israel: they are children of Jacob, who was named Israel after he had wrestled with the mysterious man at Penuel. “The man”  who fought with Jacob, blessed him, and in blessing him he changed his name to Israel. He said:  “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.”[6]  Therefore, it is widely believed that the word “Israel” comes from the Hebrew word שרית , which in biblical Hebrew means “to struggle,” “to exercise influence,” “to prevail”.

There is an additional way to interpret this name, however, and I believe that the speech of Paul in Acts 13 is a clear allusion to this way. In Hebrew, the name Israel might be read as Yashar-El (ישר-אל). Hebrew word Yashar (יָשָׁר) means straight, honest, honorable, law-abiding; in biblical usage, it also means a “righteous, God-fearing person”. The root עָקֹב֙, on the other hand (the root of the name Ya’akov) might also mean “crooked,” as in the verse: the crooked (הֶֽעָקֹב֙) shall be made straight.[7] This is exactly what this transition from Jacob to Israel means: God made the crooked straight!

We can now understand Paul’s choice of words. “Your behavior is the opposite of the very definition of Israel”, is in fact, the essence of what Paul says to Elimas. This is our third take-home lesson for the rest of Acts: to do something against God, to oppose faith, means … to go against the meaning of the word “Israel”.

[1] You can read more about this transitional chapter – Luke 24 – in my book about Hidden Messiah, As Though Hiding His Face.

[2] G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson. Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (p. 582). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[3] Deut.34:9

[4] Lev.9:6

[5] Acts 13:8,9

[6] Gen.32:28

[7] Is. 40:4