Every now and then you come across an interesting blog you’ve never read before. I had the pleasure of discovering the Sibboleth blog by Daniel Kirk in San Francisco. Sibboleth is a reference to Judges 12:5-6. Shibboleth refers now in popular idiom something you have to say to pass muster. Sibboleth is, of course, the thing you must not say or you will be scorned/slaughtered/something bad. I guess Daniel sees himself as saying the dangerous things — and he does.
In particular, I read this post and the gears started turning. Daniel touched on an idea which is close to the heart of a major issue in Messianic Judaism: the role of non-Jews in our community. Here at Messianic Jewish Musings, I am spending time this summer reading, reflecting, and commenting particularly on this issue. By summer’s end, I hope to articulate a theology of non-Jews and their role in Messianic Judaism.
We’ve already talked about a more inclusive Messianic Judaism, Gary Tobin’s book Opening the Gates, and more (use the category tool at right to find articles on the category Gentiles to find many posts on this topic).
I feel that Daniel’s Kirk’s post, “Our Fathers: Mishnah and Paul” makes an interesting contribution. So here is my summary and expansion of Daniel’s thoughts.
In Jewish ceremony (the issue then was the Temple and the issue now is the synagogue), how are the Gentiles to participate in various blessings which refer to the patriarchs as “our fathers”?
On a related note, there are other situations in synagogue life, such as the blessings over the Torah, in which the one making the aliyah says “who has chosen us from all peoples” and “who has given us true instruction” and so on.
The Mishnah’s Response
In the section on Bikkurim (Firstfruits offerings), the Mishnah deals with the question of non-Jews (Proselytes) and how they will recite the traditional formula from Deuteronomy for the offerer to the priest. The Deuteronomy text says the offerer should recite, “I acknowledge this day before the Lord your God that I have entered the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to assign us” (26:3).
The problem is obvious, for a convert to Judaism or any other non-Jew (by birth), the patriarchs are not their literal fathers.
Here is how the Mishnah deals with the problem:
These people bring firstfruits but do not recite:
A proselyte brings but does not recite, because he is not able to say, “…which the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.”
But if his mother was an Israelite, he brings and recites.
And when the proselyte prays in private, he says, “God of the fathers of Israel.”
And when he prays in synagogue he says, “God of your fathers.”
But if his mother was an Israelite he says, “God of our fathers.”
(Mishnah Bikkurim 1:4, adapted from the Neusner translation).
In other words, a convert to Judaism, since he or she is not a born Jew, should reflect this in the wording of blessings. The Mishnah advises that substitute phrases be employed. Note that this could work to the embarrassment of the convert for the rest of his/her life, but perhaps there were no theological concepts which permitted the sages to do otherwise.
Contrast Paul. Paul is dealing with a community in which a non-Jews relationship to the patriarchs is understood differently.
Abraham is considered the father of the nations by faith. In fact, Paul notes that God’s promises came to Abraham before he was circumcised, including the declaration that Abraham was credited with righteousness due to his faith (Gen. 15:6) as well as the promise of land, nation, and blessing. Paul discusses this in Romans 4:9-12 and concludes:
[Abraham is] likewise the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but also follow the example of the faith which our father Abraham had before he was circumcised.
This fatherhood by faith which is the birthright of all who call on Abraham’s God leads Paul to a practice that differs from the Mishnah’s ruling.
In 1 Corinthians 10:1, Paul is deriving a lesson for the congregation at Corinth (largely non-Jewish followers of the Jewish Messiah). In describing the patriarchs, Paul does not choose to distance these non-Jews from the patrirachs. He doesn’t say “the fathers of us Israelites” but, including them as the continuing context makes clear, Paul says “our fathers”:
I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. . .
How does Paul’s practice affect our decisions in Messianic Judaism? Should non-Jews be allowed to make aliyahs and say, “who has chosen us from all peoples”?
On the one hand, we do not wish to deny Israel’s election as the people of God.
On the other hand, we do not wish to deny that from the nations God has called a priestly people as well.
There are practical issues on the one hand: Jewish identity could be lost if no distinction is made.
And there are practical issues on the other hand: is Messiah divided?
What drove Paul to include his non-Jewish readers as descendants of Moses and the Israelites of the Exodus generation? Was he being careless or, as usual, a genius?
Note that none of Paul’s inclusive statements go against the idea of a binary ecclesiology (there is one people of God, but it has two missions: one for the Jewish people and another for the nations). The non-Jews in Messianic Judiasm should realize they are participating in the mission of Messiah to his own Jewish people.
What if, in that context, a child of Abraham (and Moses) by faith wishes to bless the Torah and say that God has chosen us instead of intoning a modified blessing?
A commenter raised a few counter-arguments. In order to further clarify, let me address them:
COUNTER-ARGUMENT: While Paul does say Abraham is father to those of the nations who follow Messiah, he is talking here about Moses and the Israelites of the Exodus. There is no theological basis for these to be the fathers of non-Jews.
If Abraham is also a father to those of the nations who follow Messiah, it follows that there is a connection by faith between Israel and faithful non-Jews. Paul is not being inconsistent, neither should he be read as advocating a replacement of Israel by Christianity. It is possible that the true connection is neither as simple as replacement or separation. Israel and the nations are joined by the covenantal promise and yet distinct. Paul is comfortable with these subtle distinctions and so must we become comfortable.
COUNTER-ARGUMENT: Paul’s “our fathers” meant “the father of us Jews” and was not intended to include the Corinthians.
The context argues against this. Further down he says, “these are warnings for us” and “we must not indulge in immorality.” The us and we of this argument is seen to include the Corinthians.