How Jewish was the early Church?
"The Disciples Admire the Buildings of the Temple" by James Tissot (Image: Wikimedia Commons)
In Matthew 15, we read the story of Jesus meeting a Canaanite woman. After initially dismissing her pleas for help, Yeshua (Jesus) ends up healing her daughter and acknowledging the woman’s faith. As one of the few encounters between Jesus and non-Jews recorded in the gospels, this passage has been interpreted as providing a model for the relationship between the Jewishness of the early Jesus movement and the predominantly Gentile Christian church which emerged in the post New Testament era.
Today we speak of Judaism and Christianity as two separate and distinct religions. It is true that the Messianic movement challenges this distinction by reconciling faith in Yeshua with Jewish identity, even making it a natural consequence of that identity. However, for most of the world, Judaism and Christianity remain two clearly different religions. The question remains: at what point in our history can we begin to point to two distinct religions? The first followers of Christ were all Jews, and identified as such. Even with the influx of Gentile believers into the movement, for many centuries the Jesus movement remained a Jewish movement in active dialogue – sometimes in agreement and sometimes in dispute – with other Jewish groups and streams of thought.
These essential questions are the ones on which The Journal of the Jesus Movement in Its Jewish Setting (JJMJS) aims to shed light. How did the early Jesus movement evolve into what we know today as the Christian Church? How did it influence and how was it influenced by what later became Rabbinic Judaism? Where can we find traces of that early movement? How Jewish was it? And at what point(s) can we identify a “parting of the ways”, if there was a parting at all? Through original articles covering a variety of fields, JJMJS hopes to bring to light new facets of this important part of both Jewish and Christian history.
In the third JJMJS issue, Deborah Forger discussed how the aforementioned passage from Matthew 15 is interpreted by different sources during the 4th century, and how these varying interpretations can provide clues as to Christian and Jewish identity formation in Syria during that era. Forger discusses two texts drawn from the sermons of John Chrysostom and the Pseudo-Clementine Homilies. The full analysis of these texts, and what we can learn from them, can be found in Forger’s article itself, which I highly recommend reading (http://www.jjmjs.org/uploads/1/1/9/0/11908749/jjmjs-3_forger.pdf).
To sum up her fascinating findings: Both texts relate to the story from Matthew 15 (and its parallel in Mark 7) – but end up with diametrically opposite conclusions: “While Chrysostom employs the narratives to construct for his congregants a ‘Christian’ identity that was disassociated from the Jewish ethnicity of their founder, Jesus, the Homilist suggests the woman receives Jesus’ aid only after she becomes a ‘Jew’ herself.” (p. 138). In Chrysostom’s thinking, Jesus is stepping out of the Jewish world physically and ideologically. By acknowledging the Canaanite woman’s faith, he lays the foundation for the Gentile Church. This Church leaves behind her Jewish roots and identity and forms a new identity. This new identity can be seen as hostile to Jewish identity and faith, as is evident from Chrysostom’s other writings. The author of the Homilies, on the other hand, sees the faith of the Canaanite woman as a sign that she has accepted the God of Israel as her own, putting her faith in him and in Jesus as his prophet, thereby becoming part of the people and faith of Israel. Jesus affirms her faith, and he chooses to heal her daughter.
These competing interpretations paint a complex picture of the Jesus movement in the 4th century. The lines between Jew and Christian are not clearly drawn, and there is an ongoing process of shaping the identity of Jesus followers, Jewish and Gentile. Forger notes, “For both John and the Homilist, the Jewish ethnic background of Jesus no longer mattered, albeit for very different reasons. For the former, ethnic identity was replaced by ideological belief. For the latter, ethnic identity was superseded by faithful observance. The net effect of these interpretive moves was that while John attempted to divorce himself and his congregations from ‘Jews’ and ‘Judaism,’ the Homilist embraced them instead.” (p.164).
This article, then, does not answer the question: “How Jewish was the early Church?”, but it does give us a glimpse into the complex reality of the Jewish-Christian Jesus movement as it took shape in the centuries following the New Testament era. For more glimpses into this fascinating history, I suggest you go to www.jjmjs.org and explore the many articles available in JJMJS.
JJMJS is an independent academic journal published by Eisenbrauns Publishing, available online for free and supported by the Caspari Center and other academic institutions around the world. The fourth issue has just been released and is currently available on the JJMJS website.
Rev. Hoyland is the former Caspari Center CEO (2007-2013). He currently serves as Pastor of the Evangelical Free Church in Grimstad and the managing editor of the Journal of the Jesus Movement in Its Jewish Setting.
This article originally appeared on Caspari Center, October 31, 2017, and reposted with permission.
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Commentary on Parashat Vayeira (And He Appeared)
Beresheet (Genesis) 18:1–22:24
Our weekly reading takes us to one of the most well known stories of the Bible, known as “Isaac’s sacrifice” or “The Binding of Isaac”. Let’s read about it here (from Genesis 22:1–19):
Now it came about after these things, that God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning and saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him and Isaac his son; and he split wood for the burnt offering, and arose and went to the place of which God had told him. On the third day Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from a distance. And Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey, and I and the lad will go yonder; and we will worship and return to you.” And Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on Isaac his son, and he took in his hand the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. And Isaac spoke to Abraham his father and said, “My father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” And he said, “Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?” And Abraham said, “God will provide for Himself the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.
Then they came to the place of which God had told him; and Abraham built the altar there, and arranged the wood, and bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar on top of the wood. And Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. But the angel of the Lᴏʀᴅ called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” And he said, “Do not stretch out your hand against the lad, and do nothing to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me.” Then Abraham raised his eyes and looked, and behold, behind him a ram caught in the thicket by his horns; and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the place of his son. And Abraham called the name of that place The Lᴏʀᴅ Will Provide, as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lᴏʀᴅ it will be provided.” Then the angel of the Lᴏʀᴅ called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By Myself I have sworn, declares the Lᴏʀᴅ, because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their enemies. “And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice.” So Abraham returned to his young men, and they arose and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham lived at Beersheba.
In last week’s blog from Parashat Lekh Lekha (You Go), I wrote on the issue of Abram’s great faith to obediently answer God’s call to “Go.” Abram had to leave everything he knew, loved, and trusted, and go to an unknown place. God gave Abram some great promises to encourage him, but it was ultimately Abram’s choice to trust God and obey Him, which shows us the important connection between believing and action, faith and works. And once again, we see Abraham’s quick response to God’s call when he says, “Here I am.”
At times we view our faith or walk with the Lord as a “one time deal.” Sometimes we have the attitude of, “I’ve done my job…” but the reality is that there is a measure of testing of our faith that happens every single day! We see God once again “testing” Abraham’s faith; He was checking the measure of Abraham’s faith and just how far Abraham was willing to go after Him.
I love Abraham’s immediate reply to God, “Hineini!” which means, “Here I am.” But it was so much more than just a simple “I’m here!” statement. It encompassed an attitude of, “I am ready, Lord, for whatever You have for me.” So many times we make statements like Abraham, but unlike Abraham, when the test actually comes, we are quick to give excuses for our lack of obedience. We may even try to run and hide!
Yet, even with such great faith, I am sure Abraham did not expect what God was about to ask of him in verse 2:
And He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”
Can you imagine what must have gone through Abraham’s mind? Abraham had waited so long for his son; he loved him and developed a close relationship with him. Abraham also knew that Isaac was the son through which God had chosen to fulfill His promises, yet God’s instructions were very clear, and as we know from the story Abraham willingly obeyed God, and was ready to do the unimaginable to demonstrate his faith.
I want to point out here that God specifically said to Abraham, “take your son, your only son…”. Abraham had two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. However, we see here in the language that God used to affirm the son through whom His promise would be realized (Isaac). Some of the sages read between the lines, and suggest that God had a dialog with Abraham in which He said to take his son, to which Abraham replied, “Which one?” and only then did God specify Isaac.
However, my personal belief is that God wanted to reaffirm His covenant through Isaac, as well as to foreshadow something greater to come. For this reason, I do not believe God’s words, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love,” are a mistake. In fact, they show us that this story will reflect a greater story which was to come. Abraham demonstrated his love for God by the fact that he was willing to sacrifice his son’s life… Our God demonstrated His love for us by choosing to give His only son, whom He loved, to restore us to Him.
For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
It’s also an important point to note that Isaac is a prophetic type of Yeshua. Not only were both Isaac and Yeshua silent as they faced death, but they were both also in their thirties when these important events occurred. And just like Yeshua knew of the death that lay before Him, Isaac also probably knew what was going to happen, and did not fight off his father as Abraham bound him to the altar. Even though Isaac was not sacrificed in the end, the parallel is still very strong between them both.
What is God asking you to lay down at the altar of faith? Are you willing to do so?
This article originally appeared on Hope for Israel, October 2, 2017, and reposted with permission.
Moran is the Founder and Executive Director of Hope for Israel, which is a service and resource-providing ministry that aims to bring the hope of the Messiah back to Israel. It is also a resource center for current and timely news updates concerning Israel that provides daily prayer alerts, Bible teachings, and weekly blogs in order to help believers across the world understand what God is doing in the Land, how to pray for Israel and filter everything through the Word of God.
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Thoughts on Parashat Vayeira
This week’s parasha, Vayeira, Genesis 18:1 – 22:24,[i] ends with one of the most confusing narratives of the Tanakh, and at the same time, continues to give us insights into the intense faith of our first patriarch. The parasha begins with the promise of a son, Isaac, who will be the one to continue the lineage and promised blessings of Abraham (18.10-14). In chapter 21, the promised son is born and he is the joy of his aged parents (21.1-6). Then, the proverbial “other shoe” falls, and Hashem apparently tests Abraham through the Akedah, and if I might, tests Sarah’s resolve as well. Concerning this testing the Ramban writes,
Know further that G-d trieth the righteous for knowing that the righteous will do His will, He desires to make him even more upright, and so He commands him to undertake a test, but He does not try the wicked, who would not obey. Thus, all trials in the Torah are for the good of the one who is being tried.[ii]
The beginning of Psalm 11.5 is what brings the Ramban (Nachmanides) to this conclusion. In English, we read, “The LORD seeks out the righteous man” (JPS, 1985); “Adonai examines the righteous” (TLV, 2015); “The LORD tests the righteous” (ESV, 2016). Regardless of the verbiage, seeks out, examines, or tests, Abraham seems to be between a rock and a hard place. At the same time, we can hear echoes of the writing of Rav Shaul in Nachmanides comment.
No temptation (trial or test) has taken hold of you except what is common to mankind. But God is faithful—He will not allow you to be tempted (tested) beyond what you can handle. But with the temptation He will also provide a way of escape, so you will be able to endure it. (1 Corinthians 10.13)
Now we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to His purpose. For those whom He foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son… (Romans 8.28-29a)
It would appear, that even though we might not understand why, the LORD knows exactly what He is doing in our lives and why, and will provide whatever means necessary to see us, like Abraham, through to the other side victoriously. Yeshayahu Leibowitz in Accepting the Yoke of Heaven gives us a further explanation of Abraham’s actions – or maybe lack thereof.
Indeed, the command, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac…,” was as if God had taken Abraham’s soul – and not only in the terms of the relationship of the father to his only son whom he loved, but also in the terms of the annulling of specific Divine promises that had been made to him, something which one would have imagined should have undermined his faith in God. The Midrash points out that Abraham could have offered an extremely strong argument: “Yesterday You told me, ‘In Isaac shall your seed be called’ (Bereishit 21.12), and today You say to me, ‘offer him there for a burnt offering’ (22.2).” Even further: from the case of Sodom and Gomorra, we see that Abraham was able to argue with God, and had no fear doing so (Bereishit 18.25 – “Far be it from you…”). But just here, where this affects the depths of his spiritual existence, he remains silent. The Midrash regards this silence as the highest level of faith which Abraham attained. … Here though, when Abraham is commanded, “Take now your son, your only son Isaac…,” it is a question of the perfection of faith – and Abraham does not debate that issue. He remains silent, rises early in the morning, saddles his ass and goes on his way.[iii]
Nahum M. Sarna, in his commentary on Genesis agrees with Leibowitz as he comments,
Beyond its connection with the foregoing chapter (Genesis 21), the Akeda brings to a close Abraham’s spiritual odyssey that began with God’s call at Haran. The curtain rises and falls on the patriarch as he receives a divine word that demands agonizing decisions. The first time God bids him to take leave of his father and to cut himself off from his past; now in this last theophany that he is to receive, God asks that he sacrifice his beloved, longed-for son and thereby abandon all hope of posterity. On both occasions Abraham responds with unquestioning obedience and steadfast loyalty.[iv]
As with the Ramban’s explanation, Sarna acknowledges that Abraham exemplifies unquestioning obedience and steadfast loyalty. But it has been said that instead of this being a show of Abraham’s unwavering faith in the promises of Hashem, it was in fact his greatest failing as a father. For the cities of Sodom and Gomorra, Abraham interceded with the LORD, pleading for their deliverance. But for Isaac, not a word was uttered. In fact, in Genesis 22.3 it says, and Abraham rose early in the morning, “there is no response in words on the part of Abraham, His answer is in his deeds. He lost no time in obeying the will of God.”[v]
Could it be, and this is just my rambling now, that Abraham’s silence is in fact a challenge and encouragement for us as we walk with the LORD. There may be times, when we hear from the LORD about something (such as the coming judgment or discipline on another), and we know that without our intercession, the situation could cause great harm. Perhaps, with covering, restorative prayer, the situation might be restored with minimal damage. However, there are other times, when the LORD speaks to us, and we know, without a shadow of a doubt, that the LORD has spoken and will carry out what He has said or requested, and there is no argument or discussion – just faithful obedience – even through tears. Abraham had been learning of the character and the promises of Hashem, that He could be trusted. In the Akedah that trust was tested to the infinite limit. Abraham saw the faithfulness of Hashem in the ram that was caught in the thicket. Isaac was saved. However, in the “roll call” of faith found in Hebrews 11, there are numerous who did not see their deliverance, but in faith suffered and even died (11.35-39). This is not because of unfaithfulness on Hashem’s part, but because, for whatever reason, the plan of the Almighty did not include deliverance, rather grace and strength through the situations. In the book of Job, his wife chastises him, suggesting that he should “curse God and die” (2.9). Job’s response establishes his view of theodicy and his submission to Hashem, “… Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?…” (2.10). The same is reflected in the second paragraph of the Barachu, which is drawn from Isaiah 45.
Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, who forms light and creates darkness, who makes peace and creates all.
The biblical text states
…that there is none besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45.6-7)
We have an option. We can either deny that a good, gracious God, allows things to happen that are beyond our own ethical and moral understanding, or we can assume that Abraham was mistaken, and some other deity besides Hashem asked him to take Isaac to the mountain, or, for that matter, that a gracious loving Father allowed His only Son to be beaten and hung on a tree for the sake of the world. Do we trust in the God of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob in all situations or in only those which are good and beneficial for us, or that we understand? Do we fully trust in the One, who allowed His only Son to suffer and bare the shame of being hung on a tree, to care for us – even when that care leads us into situations we otherwise would flee from? It is said, that He is not Lord of all, unless He is in fact LORD of all – every situation, every occurrence. As the Southern Kingdom of Judah was preparing to go into exile, the prophet Jeremiah penned these words,
“For thus says the LORD: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” (Jeremiah 29.10-11)
May we, like Abraham and like Israel, even in the midst of discipline, trust in Him and the plans He has for us.
[i] Unless otherwise noted, all Scriptures are from the Tree of Life (TLV) Translation of the Bible. Copyright © 2015 by The Messianic Jewish Family Bible Society.
[ii] Charles B. Chavel, trans., Ramban (Nachmanides) Commentary on the Torah, Translated and Annotated, New York: Shilo Publishing House, Inc., 1971, p 275.
[iii] Yeshayahu Leibowitz, Accepting the Yoke of Heaven: Commentary on the Weekly Torah Portion, 2nd ed., Urim Publications, Jerusalem, 2002, p 25-26.
[iv] Nahum M. Sarna, The JPS Commentary Genesis: The Traditional Hebrew Text with the New JPS Translation, Commentary, Philadelphia: JPS, 1989, p 150.
[v] . J. H. Hertz, ed., The Pentateuch and Haftorahs: Hebrew Text, English Translation and Commentary, 2nd ed., London: Soncino Press, 1996, p 74.
Michael Hillel with his wife Vered and their three children, made aliyah from the US in late 80s, and in biblical fashion has, for the last 27 years, done whatever his hands have found to do. In 2013 Michael began working on a MA degree in Messianic Jewish Theology. Using the tools learned from his studies, he has been writing teaching and devotional materials from both the Tanakh and Apostolic Writings. Since Messianic Judaism shares a communal context with both Judaism and Christianity, he incorporates material from both traditionally Jewish and Christian perspectives.
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Pride comes before the fall, which comes before Redemption
My area of academic study included theology but the main focus was on political science, international relations and economics. I’ve found, however, that these secular subjects contain a fair amount of lessons with spiritual applications, among them the fact that what’s true in the life of a nation has much in common with what’s true in the life a typical individual member of that nation.
For example, an individual usually won’t forsake their pride and admit their need for God until they’ve come to the end of their own strength. That’s also true of nations, and Israel is no exception.
I was reminded of this recently when the Reuters news agency ran a story describing a situation which has surprised many people here in Israel, including the government. It was about a severe water shortage due to the shortage of rain over the last four years, but that wasn’t the surprising part. There’s been lower than average rainfall, shorter and dryer winters and hotter summers in Israel for a lot longer than the last four years.
But we’re surprised because we thought we had the problem beat by building massive de-salinization plants and water recycling infrastructure, and we were very proud of ourselves because of this. The article begins, in fact, by saying that these technological solutions to the water shortage was “a source of national pride” but that now, it’s proving to be inadequate.
Many measures aimed at improving the situation are under discussion, including building yet another de-salinization plant and reservoirs, re-instituting water-saving educational programs in schools, etc. But until it starts raining more, all that other stuff might help stave off disaster, but they won’t solve the problem.
Many theologians have pointed out that God placed His Chosen People in this country for many specific reasons, including the fact that here more than anyplace else, they’d be dependent on Him for water, the basic element of life. The rains that come in the winter months literally make the difference between whether or not people can physically exist in this country.
The most obvious Bible passage which comes to mind here is 2 Chronicles 7:13-14 (NASB)
“If I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among My people, and My people who are called by My name humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”
Also relevant is John 7:37-38 where Jesus said “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’”
Israel needs a lot of help from Christians for many things, but there’s some things we have to do for ourselves, with national repentance and humility being at the top of the list.
So, if you are reading this and wondering how to pray for Israel in this situation, pray that these people will stop being so proud of their technology and instead humble themselves before God, put away their idolatry (which is what their pride adds up to) and all their other wickedness, admit their need for Him, and cry out to Him for mercy and healing. Pray for us that now that we’ve nearly come to the end of the technological solutions we thought would save us, that we’ll be broken of our pride and admit our need for the God who is the source of all life.
Aaron is a member of Jerusalem Assembly, House of Redemption.
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Commentary on Parashat Lech Lecha – Abraham, the Man of Faith
Read the teaching below, or watch a video of the teaching by Yehuda Bachana.
In this week’s Torah portion we find the famous verse:
Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:6 [NIV]
Abraham is mentioned several times in the New Testament as a symbol of man’s faith, in James 2, Romans 4, Hebrews 11, and elsewhere.
Despite all these descriptions in the New Testament, the following verses show a response from Abraham that raises questions about his faith in God’s promise:
He [God] also said to him [Abraham], “I am the Lord, who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to take possession of it.” But Abram said, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?”- Genesis 15:7,8 [NIV]
Abraham’s request to receive proof or a sign of God’s promise preoccupies the Torah commentators. How could it be that the greatest believer in the world is seeking proof from God?
Did Abraham lack faith?
The commentators disagree on this question: Some say that he was caught in a moment of lack of faith, and in that moment he is punished, his descendants will go into exile in Egypt. These commentators are basing this on the immediate continuation of the conversation between God and Abraham:
Then the Lord said to him, “Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there.” – Genesis 15:13 [NIV]
Before we completely negate this possibility we must remember that Abraham was a human being, like you and me.
Sometimes as believers, we read the Bible with a picture in our heads of these imaginary righteous sages. It’s as if they’re some special people made from unique material.
It is worth remembering that our father Abraham was made of the same material as we are, and like us, he was afraid. When he went down to Egypt, he was afraid that he would be killed because of his wife Sarah, so he told the Egyptians that she is his sister.
Even the matter of Hagar and her son Ishmael is not an easy subject. It’s difficult to explain exactly what went on there.
As you can see, Abraham was made of the same stuff as you and I.
Despite this, it is not for nothing that the Torah and the New Testament position Abraham as the symbol of faith. This tells us that it is unlikely that there was a failing, a lack of faith, and this leads us to look for other possibilities.
Abraham as a concerned parent
And other commentators give another interesting solution to this question. They raise the possibility that Abraham fears that perhaps his descendants over the generations will lose their way. And Abraham’s request is to know whether his descendants will be worthy of the promise, and if they will preserve their identity over the years.The same commentators say that Abraham seeks a sign that future generations will meet the conditions required for the fulfillment of the promise and the preservation of identity.
I think that this is the concern of any parent.
This idea corresponds to what was said in the covenant between the parts (the Abrahamic Covenant), which was made immediately after Abraham’s words, and it deals mainly with the descendants of Abraham. It emphasizes:
…“Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there… In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” – Genesis 15:13,16 [NIV]
The question arises: What is the connection between the promise of the land to the descendants, the enslavement in Egypt, and the sin of the Amorites?
I will begin with the enslavement in Egypt, and continue with the sin of the Amorites.
Abraham is concerned, just like any other parent from any other nation, that his exiled children will become assimilated amongst the other nations. That his children will integrate into the local culture and language. A generation born in another country learns and grows with the local children, becomes like them, and speaks in the local language.
It is very difficult to explain to the child that we have another faith, another religion, another ethnic identity.It’s hard to explain to a child that he or she does not belong here.
Indeed, research in this field shows that the percentage of assimilation is high in a place where there is no hatred, or where Jews are not isolated by their religion. For example, there is a high percentage of assimilation in the United States – not only of Jews, but of all the nations that are there.
On the other hand, in a place where Jews are being threatened or suffer from anti-Semitism, they adhere more closely to the Jewish religion and culture. Part of the reason for this is that even if they want to assimilate, that are not given the option to do so.
These commentators explain Abraham’s concern: the difficulty of preserving the uniqueness of his descendants in Canaan, which is ruled by the local people.
God gives the solution: Your descendants will go down to another nation, and there God will cause them to be different and separate, in a forced manner – through slavery. This condition of slavery, bondage, and harassment demonstrates to every descendant of Abraham that he or she does not belong to that place and they are different from its inhabitants.
The status of a slave will preserve their uniqueness as a separate people and lead the people of Israel back to the Promised Land.
And I think that on this matter God built a whole system designed to preserve our identity. Perhaps the kosher laws, the feasts, holidays, ceremonies, and customs were all created mainly to preserve our identity for generations.
Note that in all the feasts and holidays the children are at the center of the stage – children’s education is the top priority.
“Shema Yisrael” is perhaps the most familiar text for any Jew, and the essence of the Shema is:
“You shall teach them [God’s words] thoroughly to your children.”
Yeshua taught us,
“Let the little children come to me… for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” – Matthew 19:14 [NIV]
The main question that arises throughout Passover is: why did God use ten plagues instead of one?
And the answer is – because of the children:
“On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ …In days to come, when your son asks you, ‘What does this mean?’ say to him, ‘With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.’” – Exodus 13:8,14 [NIV]
We bring the children into booths on Sukkot to teach them about the Exodus from Egypt and about security in God.
We observe the Sabbath as a lesson to our children about the creation of the world, and as a reminder of the Exodus from Egypt, as in the Kabbalat Shabbat prayer:
“…in memory of creation. The shabbat is the first among our holy days, and a remembrance of our exodus from Egypt.”
The kosher laws and the feasts also cause us to be different, and to not forget our ethnic origin. Another example is the period of the inquisition in Spain and Portugal, when Jews who converted to Christianity were forbidden to maintain a Jewish way of life.
Those who stood out, by breaking the rules and in doing so kept their Jewish identity, were the women. This is because they are those who kept the kosher laws, many of which involve food – and the woman is responsible for the home and the education of the children. She is the one who dictates the way of life in the home.
It was the woman who kept the lighting of the Sabbath candles – even if the candles were hidden in the closet, they existed and preserved the family identity. It was the woman who baked the matzo bread for Passover. It was the woman who kept a house clean of chametz (yeast) during Passover.
The New Testament teaches us that one of the roles of the woman is to run the house, and it is the woman who determines how the house looks, and how the family looks.
The connection between morality and the land
Let us return to the question of the connection between the promise of the land to the descendants, the enslavement in Egypt, and the sin of the Amorites.
In my opinion, in addition to the two previous interpretations, there is a warning here for generations, a warning for us even today. God makes the promise to Abraham at midnight, all the stars of the heavens and the earth to all his offspring after him, but God delays the application of the promise for 400 years, because:
“… for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” – Genesis 15:16 [NIV]
In other words, the inhabitants of the land have a quota of sins, and as soon as they reach that quota, the decree of the Creator of the Universe is applied.
Later on in the Bible, in Deuteronomy 2:20, we are reminded of previous occupiers of the region:
That too was considered a land of the Rephaites, who used to live there; but the Ammonites called them Zamzummites. They were a people strong and numerous, and as tall as the Anakites. The Lord destroyed them from before the Ammonites, who drove them out and settled in their place. – Deuteronomy 2:20,21 [NIV]
Moses says that the Ammonites inherited the land of the Zamzummites, and Israel inherited the land of the Ammonites. And there are other examples like this.
It is worth noting that there is a connection between the moral behavior of a people and the amount of time it has spent on its land.
God actually tells us, “You are not the first occupants ,” “You are warned.” This continues in the Bible with the Babylonian exile, the Philistines, the Assyrians, the Egyptians, the Aramites, and more. And there is a continuation that is not written in the Bible, but it is known and painful. Our land was taken from us and given to all kinds of conquerors – Greeks, Persians, Turks, British.
It all depends on the will of the Creator. And the will of the Creator of the world depends on the amount of sins and iniquities committed by the inhabitants of the land. Everything is conditional and everything depends on us. We have been warned.
What is the connection between the promise of the land to the descendants, the enslavement in Egypt, and the sin of the Amorites?
The promise of the land depends on the moral level of the people, and if they do not preserve morality, they will go into exile. But in any case, the ethnic identity of the people will be preserved, even in exile, be it for 400 years, 70 years in the Babylonian exile, or 2000 years in our time. But God will keep His promise to Abraham and will always give us the opportunity for repentance.
This article originally appeared on Netivyah, October 28, 2017, and reposted with permission.
The teachings of Messiah Yeshua in a Jewish context. Netivyah is an Israeli non-profit organization that teaches God's Word and helps those in need.