We’ve been talking about non-Jews and Jewish roots. Issues of Jewish identity and the role of the nations in God’s plan for world redemption keep coming up. There is a large contingent of philo-Semitic Christianity passionately interested in these matters.
In the course of the discussion, I brought up the issue of similarities and dissimilarities in Israel’s worship practices and those of the surrounding nations. One commenter says I can’t have it both ways (a strange argument — must two things be either completely dissimilar or completely similar?). I brought up the whole issue of similarity and dissimilarity in customs to make my case that a Christianity founded on a knowledge of the Jewish heritage of faith in Yeshua would not look like Judaism at all, but would have more points of similarity than we find in Christianity as it is (developed after formative and very-early-in-its-history rejection of Jewish heritage).
At the same time as this discussion is going on, I find myself writing commentary on the daily readings from the Chumash (the five books of Moses, I am trying to differentiate between Chumash and Torah, since Torah is a much larger concept including tradition and practice) as well as commentary on daily readings from the gospels and Acts. I call this daily service (which I send out by email to a list of 120 people and growing) the Daily D’var. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to read Chumash and Gospel every day with this email commentary.
The parashah (reading from Chumash) today is Deuteronomy 14:1-21. It is a perfect illustration of similarity and dissimilarity in customs as well as the differing role of Jews and non-Jews in the world of Torah. Here is my commentary for today (the commentary is meant to be brief and is not, of course, comprehensive):
In keeping with the teaching that Israel should be different from the Canaanites (see last section, 12:29 – 13:19) and reflecting the second commandment (no sculptured images in worship), this section details practices in Israel which must differ from the Canaanites. Canaanite and similar cultures engaged in fearful practices of mourning.
Death was feared as a portal for demonic powers which stopped up wombs, made crops die in the field, and wrought havoc in the life of the people. But Israel was to believe that God is in control of life and death. Mourning should be restrained, not featuring excessive rituals of self-mutilation. The people, a priestly people (the text says children of the Lord, chosen, a treasured people) must show by their practice that they trust in God’s power over death. The other nations will see Israel’s calm and know that God is real.
The dietary restrictions of Israel are part of the clean/unclean laws (Lev 11-15, Num 19). The purpose of all these laws is to show that God is about life and not death. Restricting Israel’s diet to a small number of species limits the killing of animals in the land (see Jacob Milgrom’s commentary on Leviticus for more). There is no hygienic reason for the laws (pig-eating gentiles do not live shorter lives). God’s commands do not have to come from reason, but are revelation (though they are not counter to reason).
14:21 is important for understanding the authority of Torah over Israelites and non-Israelites. The command not to eat nevelah and trefah (meat found dead, animals found torn by other beasts) only applies to Israelites. The resident alien (stranger, sojourner, ger) may eat this form of unclean meat, but the Israelite cannot sell it to him/her (because the resident alien must be looked out for and cared for). To a foreigner, however, such meat may even be sold. This verse is a good clarification helping clear up confusion found in some modern theologies, which insist the Torah laws were the same for all people and not given specifically to the Israelites.
Note a few implications of this text related to our discussion of customs, roles for the nations in God’s Torah, and so on:
(1) God could have told Israel not to have any practices to cleanse corpse uncleanness and to deal with death. God could have simply said, “I am in charge of life and death. Do not fear death. A corpse is not unclean.” But God did not do this. Check Numbers 19.
(2) God gave Israel customs very similar to those of the pagans. Death must be dealt with through ritual. Death is harmful if not cleansed and corpse uncleanness can defile the Temple (Num 19:13).
(3) God gave this custom at the very earliest in about 1400 BCE. This is the oldest date for the Exodus and Conquest that anyone holds to (there is a minority view which could go back further, but not much further). God’s regulations come AFTER the Canaanite customs have been practiced for a thousand years or so, not BEFORE the Canaanite customs (I mention this because the same commenter insisted God’s laws came first and the pagans copied them).
(4) Deuteronomy 14:1-2 shows that the key in understanding God’s customs is their DISSIMILARITY. By forbidding excessive rituals such as self-mutilation, God restrains fear of death and requires that his Chosen People Israel be an example to the other nations.
(5) The fact that laws given to Israel in the Chumash (Torah) do not necessarily apply to non-Jews is evident from Deuteronomy 14:21. This verse is one of the banes of the universal Torah movement (One Law, Two House). It goes against every principle of the universal Torah movement to say that a gentile may eat unclean meat. To date, I have never heard a cogent reply from the One Law folk about how this verse fits with their theology (but I bet I will get comments now making the attempt).
Deuteronomy 14 is simply one text which features distinction between Jews and non-Jews while showing the similarity and dissimilarity of God’s ways for Israel with the ways of the nations.
Israel is forbidden to copy the ways of the nations. This does not mean, as the commenter I keep referring to suggested, that God’s ways for Israel are not similar to the ways of the nations. They are. But the differences are key and Israel must not stray from the exact practices God commands.
But God has not given worship customs and regulations to the nations in the same detailed manner he has done so for Israel. How should Christianity have developed its worship practices? Should it have been a universal Torah movement, started synagogues, and had all its people wearing kippot and tzit-tzit? Obviously not.
Those from the nations who follow the Jewish Messiah had complete freedom to develop their own cultural expressions of worship as long as they avoided idolatry and practices which demean the power of God.
The Church has done this. While we lament the anti-Semitism at the core of church history, and we regret that Jewish roots were forgotten and played no role whatsoever in the development of church practice, there is nothing wrong at all with most worship customs in churches.
There are major exceptions, of course. Using statues and icons in worship, I would argue, is something tragic and pagan. I cannot, much as I want to be broad-minded and tolerant, give a pass to images used in worship. And lest Protestants think they have escaped this problem, consider how the Cross has become a sort of worship image in many churches. I applaud the trend in contemporary churches in which a cross is not a required object in the sanctuary of the church.
But even the use of images in some forms of Christian worship does not remove God’s favor completely. Read the history of Israel carefully. The Bible records numerous compromises with idolatry, illegal altars, and so on, which God overlooked in his mercy and in which God received the worship of his people even in its flawed state. I don’t write off the faith and covenant relationship between God and any Christian group simply because there are errors and sins. Thanks be to God he receives my worship in spite of my own grievous errors and sins.