A few days ago, my friend and One Law proponent Pete Rambo posted a blog titled The ‘ger’ was expected to do what??. In his write-up, he summarizes the apparent obligations of the Ger or “resident alien” (sometimes translated and “convert” or “proselyte”) who was dwelling among the ancient Israelite people as we see chronicled in the Torah (Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible). These passages are used in part to support the belief among One Law Gentiles that all believers in Jesus are obligated to observe the same set of commandments in the Torah that were assigned to the Israelites.
This is by no means the entire rationale or set of evidence supporting this idea, but it is a critical one. Pete and I have been engaged in an ongoing online dialogue between his blog and mine arguing the pros and cons of this position, with Pete obviously taking the “pro” position.
I think it would help before proceeding to expand a little bit on the status of the “Gerim” (plural of Ger), the resident aliens among the ancient Israelites as we see them in the Torah:
In contrast with the foreigner, the ger (גֵּר), the resident alien, lived more or less permanently in his adopted community. Like the Arabic jār, he was “the protected stranger,” who was totally dependent on his patrons for his well-being. As W.R. Smith noted, his status was an extension of that of the guest, whose person was inviolable, though he could not enjoy all the privileges of the native. He, in turn, was expected to be loyal to his protectors (Gen. 21:23) and to be bound by their laws (Num. 15:15–16).
Since all of the landed property belonged to Israelites (cf. Lev. 25:23–24), the gerim were largely day laborers and artisans (Deut. 24: 14–15; cf. 29:10). Both the Book of the Covenant which classed them among those who were dependent (Ex. 23:12) and the Decalogue which referred to them as “your stranger” (gerkha; Ex. 20:10; cf. Deut. 5:14) attest their inferior position in Israelite society. While a few acquired wealth (cf. Lev. 25:47), most of them were poor and were treated as the impoverished natives. Thus, they were permitted to share in the fallen fruit in the vineyard (Lev. 19:10), the edges of the field, and the gleanings of the harvest (Lev. 23:22; see also Poor, Provisions *for). Like the other poor folk they were also granted a share in the tithe of the third year (Deut. 14:29) and the produce of the Sabbatical Year (Lev. 25:6).
With the passage of time, the gerim were assimilated culturally and religiously. Doeg the Edomite, for instance, was a worshiper of YHWH by the time of Saul (I Sam. 21:8), as was Uriah the Hittite in the reign of David (II Sam. 11:11). Hence, the ger, in contrast to the nokhri, was required in many cases to conform to the ritual practices of the native Israelite. Thus, gerim were subject to laws dealing with ritual purification (Num. 19:2–10), incest (Lev. 18:26) and some of the food taboos (Lev. 17:10–16; but cf. Deut. 14:21). They were expected to observe the Sabbath (Ex. 20:10; Deut. 5:14), participate in the religious festivals (Deut. 16:11, 14), and fast on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:29). They were permitted to offer up burnt offerings (Lev. 17:8; 22:18; Num. 15:14ff.) and, if circumcised, even to sacrifice the paschal lamb (Ex. 12:48–49; Num. 9:14). Indeed, they, no less than the Israelites, were expected to be loyal to YHWH (Lev. 20:2; cf. Ezek. 14:5–8).
However, social differences did remain, and some gerim were better received than others. While third generation offspring of Edomites and Egyptians might “be admitted into the congregation of the Lord” (Deut. 23:8–9), Ammonites and Moabites were not to be admitted “even in the tenth generation” (23:4). Furthermore, even while the Holiness Code admonished Israelites not to subject their fellows to slavery (Lev. 25:39), they were specifically permitted to do so to the children of resident aliens (25:45–46). A Hebrew slave belonging to a ger could be redeemed immediately, and if not redeemed served until the Jubilee Year (25:47ff.), but one belonging to an Israelite served until the *Jubilee (25:39ff.). Correspondingly, a Hebrew could serve as a hired or bound laborer (25:40) of an Israelite, but only as a hired laborer of an alien (25:50). Indeed, the humble position of the ger generally was emphasized by the usage of the term in the Holiness Code: e.g., “The land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me” (25:23; cf. 25:35, but see *Proselyte).
-from “Strangers and Gentiles”
Jewish Virtual Library
Sorry for the long block of quoted text, but I wanted to present a cohesive thought. Click on the link I provided above to read all of the article and get a complete picture of how the “Ger” was thought of and functioned in ancient Israelite society.
Getting back to Pete’s blog, after my first reading of his article, I posted an initial response to each of his points. Later that day, one of my long-time “debating partners” Zion replied to me with his own set of ideas. That started me thinking and reading and today, I responded to him. This blog post is an expansion on that response since I hopefully have crafted an “in-a-nutshell” (more or less) description of why neither the historical Ger nor the Acts 15 apostolic decree supports One Law. In fact, I believe this is a tidy explanation of how the example of the Ger and the apostolic decree create a halachic (legal) precedent stating that Gentile believers in the Jewish Messiah (Jesus Christ) were (and are) expected to observe only a subset of what we might think of as Torah commands in the present age and then only if considered to be “residing among Israel.”
The following is my actual response to Zion on Pete’s blog:
Interestingly enough, D. Thomas Lancaster in his Torah Club commentary on Acts 15 actually presents the legal decision made by James and the Council of Apostles and Elders as granting Gentiles “resident alien” status among the nation of Israel based on his understanding of Leviticus 17 and 18.
I reviewed his work about 18 months ago and based in part on Markus Bockmuehl’s book, “Jewish Law in Gentile Churches: Halakhah and the Beginning of Christian Public Ethics,” he believes that non-Jews are saved as non-Jews and, referencing the aforementioned chapters in Leviticus:
In those chapters, the Torah describes the sins of the Canaanites, warns the people of Israel against imitating their ways, and prescribes four prohibitions which both the Israelite and the stranger who dwells among the nation much keep. “These correspond to the four prohibitions of the apostolic decree, in the order in which they occur in the apostolic letter.” [Richard Bauckham, "James and the Jerusalem Church," in "The Book of Acts In Its Palestinian Setting, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1995), 459]
In his article “The Gentile Believer’s Obligation to the Torah of Moses” for FFOZ publication Messiah Journal (issue 109/Winter 2012), which I reviewed when it first came out and then again last year, Toby Janicki says about the Acts 15 decree:
At first glance it appears that the Gentiles have very few commandments to deal with, but upon closer examination each of these four prohibitions becomes, in a sense, an overarching category which contains many sub-category commandments. This may be one of the reasons the Apostle James adds the phrase about Moses being read in the Synagogue every Sabbath. The new Gentile believer would need to attend the local synagogue to learn how each of these four prohibitions plays out practically in everyday life.
Referring back to Pete’s list of those things the Ger was either required or encouraged to perform while living among the ancient Israelites (including my initial response to his list), we see this is a subset of the overall commandments issued to the Children of Israel by God through Moses. Based on this subset, we cannot reasonably infer that somehow the Gentile Gerim were obligated to the entire set of mitzvot as were the Israelites, but only those mitzvot where they are specifically mentioned.
Putting this all together, I think the best we can come up with for those of us who identify as “Messianic Gentiles” is that we have some overlap in terms of obligation with Messianic Jews but we do not possess an identical obligation to God with Israel, that is, the Jewish people. By legal precedent, both in specified portions of the Torah and in Acts 15, the Gentiles who are attached to Israel in the present (Old Covenant) age, have been given a lighter “yoke” to bear so that, in Peter’s words (Acts 15:10-11), “why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we are saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, in the same way as they also are.”
Peter wasn’t kidding when he called the Torah “a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear.” The history of Israel in the Tanakh is a litany of her failures in obedience and in straying away from God and the Torah and into idolatry. The reason for the establishment of the New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-40, Ezekiel 36:22-30) is to make it possible for the Jewish people to perfectly obey God’s Torah by writing it on their hearts rather than on external objects, and to give them a new Spirit so each and every Jewish person would have a perfect apprehension of God greater than the prophets of old.
Thanks to the “seed of Abraham,” that is Messiah or Christ, and God’s promise to Abraham that he would be a “father to many nations” and a “blessing to the nations,” we people of the nations, that is Gentiles, are able to share in the blessings of the New Covenant by also having our sins forgiven and there being no partiality between Gentile and Jew in access to the Holy Spirit and the promise of the resurrection and life in the Messianic Era of peace and tranquility.
But that equality is specific to those blessings, and based on what we know of the Gerim and Acts 15, we do not also share in identical obligations. Blessings yes, obligations, no. There are some duties that will always be exclusive to the Jewish people, just like serving in the Temple is a duty that is specific to the Levitical Priests.
I suppose all this is flying in the face of this morning’s Elul blog post:
Frankly, my plate is full just in keeping up with all I need to learn on my journey of spiritual growth. I don’t have a lot of time to worry about what other Christians or what Jews are or aren’t doing.
If I’m to borrow anything useful from Elul, let me adopt a discipline of repentance, increased prayer, introspection, and seeking to draw nearer to God.
On the other hand, it is a further exploration of who I am and I continually re-examine what I believe and why I study the Bible and worship God as I do. Am I going in the right direction? What can I do to be a better person? Only by asking myself some hard questions (sometimes that means asking others those questions as well) will I find the answers.
“May you be inscribed and sealed for a good year.”