I wish I hadn’t but maybe not for the reasons you think. I knew that Dr. Brown often took on controversial subjects in his interviews and debates on his radio show, but I’d forgotten how adversarial and contentious these dialogues could be. Dr. Brown obviously had an agenda from the start and I believe it was a mistake for Mr. Hegg to agree to debate him. After listening to less than thirty minutes of the exchange between them, I decided I never wanted to go within a mile of Dr. Brown or, given the current state of telecommunications, have any sort of direct link to him regardless of our relative geographical locations.
Let me explain.
Keith’s review, which I cited above, is absolutely correct in saying that Mr. Hegg, who is probably the leading proponent of the One Law/One Torah position for Gentile believers, seemed not to be able to communicate his viewpoint in a clear, straightforward manner. I listened to Hegg fumble with answers, not be able to focus on responding to a very specific, direct question, and wander all over the Bible, almost rambling, in an attempt to answer each of Dr. Brown’s queries.
I’ve met Hegg on a number of occasions and have found him to be a generally well-educated, intelligently spoken, knowledgable, organized individual. I don’t agree with his basic interpretation of the Bible, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect where he’s coming from.
However, when on Dr. Brown’s radio show, Hegg seemed totally out of his depth, as if he were a first year theology student suddenly thrown into a debate with the heads of his department and asked to defend doctrinal positions which he barely comprehended. Hegg was a mess.
To be fair though, it was abundantly clear that Brown was using all of the standard tactics to put Hegg off from the second the show went on the air. Brown defined the parameters of the debate, he asked leading and misleading questions, he verbally painted Hegg in a corner, he talked over him, and repeatedly interrupted him, even when Brown said he would give Hegg full rein to state his position. Invariably, Brown would interrupt Hegg in mid-sentence, saying yet another station break was coming up and that he was only seeking clarification for the sake of his listeners.
I have a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology with fifteen years of post-graduate experience before changing careers and in my current employment, I report directly to the Vice President of Marketing. I know when someone’s trying to pull a fast one and manipulate not only the “interviewee” but the audience.
If I had been Hegg, I would have been deeply frustrated and embarrassed. He never had a chance to have a fair hearing regarding his beliefs. That may have been part of the reason that Hegg seemed so confused. He could never finish a complete thought.
To be fair in the other direction, Hegg, even at the beginning when there wasn’t as much pressure, didn’t seem to know how to form a short, simple, complete answer. I don’t know. Maybe he wasn’t used to a radio interview format. On the other hand (again), while Brown said this was supposed to be a “friendly” conversation rather than a debate, the way Brown went after Hegg was anything but friendly. Brown didn’t seem to be interested in finding out what Hegg believed, he seemed, like many entertainers, to want to produce the maximum drama for his radio audience. I don’t care if he does have the word “doctor” in front of his name.
Conclusion: The debate was a waste of time. Listening to it was a waste of my time and participating in it was a waste of Hegg’s time and probably his peace of mind. Like I said, I don’t agree with Hegg, but I certainly didn’t agree with Brown’s tactics, either. And from what little theological information Brown produced on his end, I had to conclude that he misunderstood the nature of the New Covenant and sadly has a classically Evangelical misunderstanding of what “fulfillment” is actually about (from my point of view).
Nothing in this “interview” changed my mind about Tim Hegg one way or the other but although I’ve had a sort of respect for Dr. Brown over the years based those few things I’ve heard of him, my estimation of the man sank to new depths based on this one hearing of his radio program. I can only imagine that Brown’s audience listens to his show for the same reasons the fans of Rush Limbaugh listen to his.
It isn’t about learning or education and it isn’t about trying to get to the truth on the so-called “Line of Fire” show. It’s all for the sake of entertainment and ratings, usually at the expense of the dignity of another human being. If Dr. Brown had bothered to take to heart the teachings of the Rabbis who speak of upholding the dignity of others, even if you believe your opponent is guilty of a terrible error, he probably would have conducted a very different interview. But then, he’d probably be out of a job if what his employer and his listeners want is to embarrass someone week after week. It’s about (metaphorically speaking) drawing first blood.
But the difference between Brown and Limbaugh is that Limbaugh doesn’t claim to serve Jesus Christ, the Savior of humanity, the one who gave his life for the redemption of many, even while we were still enemies. Limbaugh doesn’t claim to be a disciple of the Prince of Peace and the King of the Jews. Dr. Brown says he does.
More’s the pity.
But then again, behaving like a Christian and upholding such ideals wouldn’t make for a good radio show.
Addendum: I suspected that Tim Hegg wouldn’t just walk away from Dr. Brown’s radio show without some sort of subsequent response. Turns out Hegg has a radio show of his own and on the Rob and Caleb Show, presumably because ”several people asked if Tim (could) expand on some of the ideas he was posing but was not able to finish,” Hegg will appear on the Thursday, August 28th program at 2 p.m. (PST) which will be replayed the same day at 6 p.m. (PST) to answer and expand upon what he was trying to say on Brown’s show. I suppose if I were Hegg, I’d do the same thing.
The Sabbath represents the Messianic Era and the menuchah of the world to come. In Hebrews 3:7-4:11, the holy epistle to the Hebrews compares this present world to the work week of preparation, and he warns us to prepare ourselves now for the kingdom and the world to come. This important message demonstrates that Hebrews 4 should not be used to justify a spiritual interpretation of the Sabbath that makes actual Sabbath observance obsolete.
Lancaster spent about the first half of his sermon reviewing the previous sermon. Remember we were left with a cliffhanger? What is God’s rest? Is it…
The Land of Israel?
The Messianic Kingdom/The World to Come?
We are told a number of stories in today’s sermon, most from the Talmud, such as one found in Tractate Sanhedrin 98a, of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who, while meditating near the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, met the Prophet Elijah.
Rabbi ben Levi asked Elijah, “When will the Messiah come?” asked Joshua. “Ask him,” replied the Prophet. “The Messiah is at the gates of Rome, sitting among the poor, the sick and wretched. Like them, he changes the bindings of his wounds, but does so one wound at the time, in order to be ready at a moment’s notice.”
The Rabbi traveled to Rome, found the Messiah, and greeted him with ”Peace upon you, my Master and Teacher, to which the Messiah replied, ”Peace upon you, son of Levi.” When the Rabbi asked Messiah when he would come, Messiah replied, ”Today!”
But by the time Rabbi ben Levi returned to Elijah, the Messiah had not come. Messiah had lied…or did he?
Elijah explained “This is what he said to thee, To-day, if ye will hear his voice”, a reference to Psalms 95:7, making his coming conditional with the condition not fulfilled.
You should remember Psalm 95 from last week’s review, since it figured heavily in laying the foundation for our “mystery” of what is meant by “God’s rest” or for that matter, the mystery of “What is today?”
Before continuing, as Lancaster said, Hebrews 3 and 4 are frequently used by many Christian Pastors to prove that a literal Saturday Shabbat has been done away with and that it has been spiritually “converted” into Christ. Our Sabbath rest is Jesus Christ. Problem is, this letter was written by a Jewish writer to a Jewish audience who were still keeping the Sabbath. While Gentiles may not have been placed under that aspect of Torah obedience, these Jews were still Jews and were still performing all of the mitzvot including observing Shabbos.
But these guys were tired. They’d been waiting for the return of the Messiah for thirty years and their faith and patience were wearing thin. They either had been barred from the Temple because of their Messianic faith or were about to be. As we learned last week, the writer of Hebrews was adjuring them to keep their faith in Messiah or risk the fate of that faithless generation in the desert who disobeyed God and did not enter the Land of Canaan to take it as their possession. They did not enter God’s Sabbath rest.
But again, what is God’s rest?
Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest is still open, let us take care that none of you should seem to have failed to reach it.
–Hebrews 4:1 (NRSV)
Apparently it was something that the readers of Hebrews could still attain since ”his rest is still open.” If Lancaster is right, then it can’t be the literal Saturday Sabbath, because they were already keeping that. It couldn’t be literally the Land of Israel, because they were already there.
…again he sets a certain day—“today”—saying through David much later, in the words already quoted, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
–Hebrews 4:7 (NRSV)
Lancaster went through a rather lengthy explanation of what “today” means, which includes literally this very day, that is, right now. But from our perspective, it’s always “right now” or “today.” Part of what the Hebrews writer is saying, according to Lancaster, is that as long as you are still alive, “hear (heed) his voice, do not harden your hearts, ” but repent and return to God.
But “today” is also idiomatic language for the Shabbat. I just got done saying this wasn’t about a literal Shabbat on Saturday, but what were the Hebrews risking by a lack of faith? And why did Lancaster tell the story of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, Elijah, and Messiah?
The object of the Midrashic story from Talmud was to say Messiah would come today if Israel would repent. The Jewish readers of the Hebrews letter will enter God’s rest if they repent. If the coming of Messiah is linked here to God’s rest, then what is to be entered is the Messianic Kingdom.
The Sages liken the Shabbat to the Kingdom of Heaven and the World to Come. It’s as if the days of the week and Shabbat represent the different ages of creation with the seventh day, the end of time, being a grand, millennial Shabbat, an age of great rest, and our weekly Sabbaths are merely a periodic reminder, down payment, or foretaste of that ultimate rest in Moshiach.
This seems to resolve Lancaster’s mystery or cliffhanger, but in fact, he states that it was a trick question. Since the Messianic Age is future oriented, then Hebrews 3 and 4 are not only a rendition of history but prophetic. It may surprise you to realize that all of the prophesies in the Bible have to do with Israel and Jerusalem and for all prophesies to be fulfilled, there must be an Israel and Jerusalem. No Israel, no fulfillment of prophesy.
So a literal Sabbath, a literal Land of Israel, and the Messianic Age to Come all figure into God’s rest and the object of Lancaster’s sermon for the past couple of weeks.
He says some interesting things about work and rest:
Let us therefore make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.
–Hebrews 4:11 (NRSV)
Why do we work to enter God’s rest? I thought we were saved by grace. Lancaster says we must do all that is necessary to get ready for the Messiah’s return, even though it will never be enough. It’s like if you keep a traditional Shabbat. On Friday you work and work and work to get ready, but even if you don’t get everything done in time, Shabbat comes and then you stop, you are quiet, there is peace, and there is rest…
…whether you’re ready or not.
Jesus said “It is finished” on the cross (John 19:30) and in the past, I’ve said that it can’t mean literally all of Messiah’s work is finished. If it did, then he wouldn’t have to return. But in another sense, besides Messiah’s suffering, something else was finished, which was the inauguration of the Messianic Age. It started with the death and resurrection, so that part’s finished, but everything will not be completed until all of Israel (according to Lancaster) repents:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you, desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
–Matthew 23:37-39 (NRSV)
I should say that Rabbinic opinions differ on this point, with some saying that Messiah will come when all Israel repents, and others saying that Messiah will come when Israel is wholly corrupt and about to fall. Lancaster apparently is taking the former view.
So does “get ready” and “strive” and “work” mean “shore up your faith?” I can see why Lancaster says we’ll never be ready because no one’s faith will ever be perfect. Of course, we have the Parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13) that says there are things to be done, preparations to make, to be ready for the coming of the bridegroom (Messiah), with the oil in their lamps representing perhaps our faith and devotion to God.
And yet without God’s grace, nothing we do could ever be enough all by itself to merit the Messianic Age and a life in the world to come, which is part of what Joshua ben Levi wanted to know from Messiah. But being faithful and obedient, by grace, we shall enter God’s rest if we persevere to the end (see 2 Timothy 4:7).
Beyond that, someone commented about one of my blog posts on Facebook not too long ago. I’ll withhold his name unless he allows me to use it, but here’s what he said:
A.) There’s 6,000 years of linear-time human history since Adam & Chava ‘stepped out of Gan Edan into the physical world of existence.’
B.) For the sake of Israel, G-d will deduct ‘time served in the captivity of Egypt’ from the 6000 years. Consensus opinion is 210 years.
C,) Mashiach comes and ushers in a 1,000 year earthly kingdom with Israel as head of the nations
D.) At the end of this 1000 year “shabbat hagadol” the earth is ‘recreated’ and existence as we know it ends and begins in a new reality – THIS is the time of the New Covenant, as outlined in the Tenakh, the writings of the sages and the final chapters of the book of Revelation.
E.) The New Covenant existence is one of no more ‘evil,’ no more ‘free will,’ no more ‘choice,’ no more ‘sin,’ no more consequence of sin, i.e., death, suffering, sadness, etc.
Of course, the eye-catcher in all that is the 210 year idea and how it relates to the Jewish calendar. We are presently in 5774 which would mean another 226 years maximum to go (Messiah can come any time in a 40-year window before this but no later.) Now, deducting the 210 years for ‘time served in Egypt’ we have a year that corresponds to 2030 on our western calendars. This is not some modern nonsense to sell books. It is primarily from the Zohar first published in the 13th century. Rabbi Pinchas Winston has some interesting stuff on this.
This will all make more sense if you listen to Lancaster’s forty minute sermon on A Sabbath Rest Remains, since I hardly have related everything he taught. This is just a review. Also remember that taking midrash and mysticism too much to heart is a lot like playing with matches. It’s dangerous and you could get burned. Just saying.
As I conclude this eleventh sermon in a series that is still ongoing over a year after it started, I find I could easily get lost. There is so much detail involved, so many sources and references, both inside and outside of the Bible, to consult and connect, that it’s hard for my mind to apprehend and hold in focus everything all at once.
OK, I admit it. I can’t keep everything Lancaster’s taught so far in my head in “active memory,” so to speak, all at the same time.
So, like most people, I have to reduce a lot of talking and studying into a small, manageable point. Faith is an active and even physical process. It may start with intellectual ascent of the existence of God and a spiritual awareness of the presence of the Creator, but that means nothing unless it also encompasses a lived obedience to God.
For the generation who died in the desert (except for a very few such as Joshua and Caleb), even the physical awareness of the Divine Presence with them for over forty years on a daily basis was not enough for them to merit entry into the Land of Israel or into the Messianic Kingdom. They failed to obey. They failed to fulfill the promise of God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by entering the Land, going to war, and taking possession of Israel.
For the readers of the letter of Hebrews, like the generation in the desert standing on the eastern bank of the Jordan, they too stand on the threshold, risking everything, risking the fate of the faithless generation of Israelites, should they also test God as did that generation of their Fathers. Intellectual knowledge and spiritual awareness are not enough. Lived, active obedience to God in the continuation of their faith in Messiah as the future King who is coming but who already rules is an absolute requirement.
The readers of the letter had waited thirty years and their faith was wavering. We’ve waited almost two-thousand years. What about us?
Lancaster launched into this week’s sermon referencing the Bill Gaither Trio chart The Family of God. I don’t think Lancaster is actually a fan of country gospel music (and I know I’m not), but it must have been about the best way he could think of to introduce his topic.
Let me take a more conventional approach:
Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession; He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house. For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house. For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later; but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house—whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.
–Hebrews 3:1-6 (NASB)
As always, Lancaster managed to unpack these six small verses, revealing a broad spectrum of hidden meaning.
The “family” part is first addressed in the writer of Hebrews’ use of the term “brethren” or “brothers” to address his audience, but that’s only scratching the surface.
Next, Lancaster takes on “Jesus the Apostle.” We don’t usually think of Jesus as an Apostle but this only means “sent out one” which in Hebrew is “Shalach”, a messenger representing the sender such that he possesses the same authority and identity as the sender. If Jesus were the Shalach of God, then Jesus could perform acts not only in the name of God, but acts that would normally only be performed by God.
Now Abraham was old, advanced in age; and the Lord had blessed Abraham in every way. Abraham said to his servant, the oldest of his household, who had charge of all that he owned, “Please place your hand under my thigh, and I will make you swear by the Lord, the God of heaven and the God of earth, that you shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I live, but you will go to my country and to my relatives, and take a wife for my son Isaac.”
–Genesis 24:1-4 (NASB)
You can read the rest of chapter 24 to get the details, but the servant of Abraham was Abraham’s Shalach, his sent out one. It was as if Abraham himself had returned to his homeland, to the city of Nahor, to seek a bride for Isaac.
Also we see Jesus the High Priest which, according to Lancaster, links to Moses. We don’t usually think of Moses as the High Priest. That’s who Aaron was. But before Aaron was inaugurated as Priest, Moses functioned in that role: both Prophet and High Priest.
Try to keep up because all of these details are important and they are interrelated.
He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house.
–Hebrews 3:2 (NASB)
Now we return to the theme of “family”. The term “house” can have two meanings: “household” such as the family members and the household servants or slaves, and “house,” meaning the physical structure.
Moreover, I tell you that the Lord will build a house for you. When your days are fulfilled that you must go to be with your fathers, that I will set up one of your descendants after you, who will be of your sons; and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build for Me a house, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father and he shall be My son; and I will not take My lovingkindness away from him, as I took it from him who was before you. But I will settle him in My house and in My kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.
–1 Chronicles 17:10-14 (NASB)
This is God addressing David through the prophet Nathan. King David wanted to build God a house, a physical structure, the Temple, but God responded by telling David that He, God, would build a house for David, a household, a Davidic dynasty, and it would be the Son of David, Solomon, who would build God’s house, and God would be a Father to Solomon and Solomon would be a Son to God.
This is just packed with information, and I bet you didn’t think David would be entering the picture here.
Another scripture is necessary to flesh this out.
Not so, with My servant Moses, he is faithful in all My household…
–Numbers 12:7 (NASB)
Apprehending most of the rest of the verses I originally quoted from Hebrews 3 above, We see the passage from 1 Chronicles 17 also containing a double meaning of Son of David as Solomon and as Messiah. God not only builds the House of David through Solomon as the Davidic Kingship leading to Messiah, but the Messiah, Son of David will build a household for God…the body of Messiah, for that body is also the Temple of God.
It’s important to note right here that the household, that is the people living in the structure, don’t actually replace the structure. That would be insane. It would be like a family coming to their house one evening, leveling the entire building, and then trying to go to sleep that night in the hole left behind. So too does the “family of God” built by Messiah not replace the actual physical house of God, and remember, from Lancaster’s point of view, the Epistle to the Hebrews was composed while Herod’s Temple was still standing.
Now, why must Messiah be established as superior to Moses? The standard Christian interpretation is supersessionistic. The grace of Jesus is greater than the Torah of Moses and thus replaces the Torah. That’s what we’ve all been taught. But as Lancaster says, that’s not what the writer is trying to say.
We have yet again another Kal VaChomer or light to heavy argument. It’s as if the writer is saying, if Abraham, Moses, and the Angels are all highly exalted and esteemed in holiness, how much more so is the Messiah highly exalted and esteemed in holiness?
Moses is the faithful servant of the household but the servant isn’t the heir.
Sinai is tall and exceedingly awesome but Messiah is taller than Sinai. How can Messiah in the form of a man be taller than Sinai? Sounds like Midrash, doesn’t it? The answer is that Messiah is standing on summit of Sinai. All that Messiah is, if you will, is built on Sinai, built on the Torah, the culmination of Torah, the perfection of Torah. Jesus is the capstone, the stone placed at the top juncture of the structure of Torah, holding it all together and yet also being the pinnacle.
Jesus doesn’t complete Torah by replacing it but by perfecting it, by living a perfected life through Torah.
Recall earlier sermons that said the intent of this letter was to warn the Jewish audience who were in danger of losing access to the Temple in Jerusalem that they were not to let that distract them from what is greater than the Temple, Messiah. The letter’s audience were also the household, the Temple of God built by Messiah, gathered together, as family, as brothers and sisters, as sons and daughters.
Again, the household does not replace the house but what good is there in an empty house? The house needs a household. They go together. And even when the physical Temple doesn’t exist, the family is still together, but the structure, if the household didn’t exist, is just an empty shell.
What Did I Learn?
Lancaster’s sermon reminded me somewhat of what I wrote about recently in Fellowship: What I Learned in Church. Part of who we are in Messiah is united, we’re family, even when we fuss and feud with each other, we defend each other when threatened by those outside the family. That’s what fellowship means. It’s more than having friends at church, it is our family in Messiah, we are brothers and sisters through our faith.
I always thought Christians calling each other “Brother Fred” or “Sister Sally” sounded kind of dumb, but it’s an expression of what Lancaster is trying to say, and what I believe the writer of Hebrews was trying to say to his audience. Family members encourage each other when there are hard times, and the Hellenistic Jews in and around Jerusalem were going through hard times in the years just before the Temple’s destruction.
Lancaster said that being a disciple of the Master was like getting married. You may become a believer because of who the Messiah is, kind of like falling in love, and in this way it’s just like a man and woman getting married. But you don’t just marry the person, you marry their family. Anyone who’s been married for more than a few weeks or a few months (and I’ve been married for almost thirty-two years) knows what I mean. Even if you love your spouse, if they have “problem” family members, you can’t just treat those people like strangers or acquaintances. They’re family whether you want them to be or not.
That’s probably one of the most difficult things about church for some people, loving God and worshiping Jesus at church (the structure) but having to put up with some pretty pesky “family members” in church (the household).
The second of the two greatest commandments of the Master (Matthew 22:39 citing Leviticus 19:18) is to love your neighbor as yourself. According to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), just about anyone is your “neighbor,” so we are called upon to love everyone.
But there is another love the Master mentions and even commands:
A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
–John 13:34 (NASB)
How did Jesus love his disciples? How did Jesus love the world? By giving his life for them. It is this heightened commandment to love that we are to have for each other as believers, as disciples, and as brothers and sisters.
That’s a tall order for people who sometimes don’t even like each other.
A little over four months ago, I wrote on the topic of apostasy, particularly criticizing those in our little corner of the blogosphere who feel perfectly free to rake anyone over the coals publicly who have dared to leave the faith for any reason whatsoever.
Lancaster mentioned in the closing moments of his sermon that when family leaves us or is taken from us…if we lose a brother or a sister, it’s incredibly painful. If you have a brother or a sister in your actual family, imagine if that person died. How would you feel losing a member of your own family, someone you grew up with, someone you fought with, someone who, in spite of everything, was part of you and you were part of them?
How would you feel if they got fed up with the family and left, or they became incredibly discouraged by the family and left? Would you be hurt? Would you be angry? Would you be insulted?
I think that’s part of what inspired the tremendous backlash I witnessed a few months ago when a brother left the family. Sure, he had reasons, probably very good reasons. He’s found or rediscovered a family and I’m not writing to debate his decision.
The writer of Hebrews was addressing what Lancaster believes to be a profoundly discouraged group of Jewish believers in Jerusalem who were at severe risk of leaving the faith of Messiah. From their point of view, they probably had good reasons for moving in that direction as well, but the letter’s writer was begging them not to.
“Consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession,” he said. Consider Jesus. Consider who he is and who you are in him. Sure, times are tough. You love the Temple and it is being taken from you by those who do not love our Master. But consider Jesus. Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Persevere for the sake of he who is greater than Abraham, greater than Moses, greater than even the Angels through whom the Torah was delivered to the Israelites and ultimately to mankind.
Moses was the faithful servant in God’s House, and Messiah is the faithful Son over God’s House. They both gave their lives for the sake of God’s household, God’s people, God’s family. Though we are not exalted to the level of the Master nor to the level of Moses, yet are we not also asked to give all that we have for the sake of our Father in Heaven and for each other as family? Are we not the Bride of Christ?
Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth! It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true: Those who throw the candies are doing it on behalf of the archangel Michael, the angel who seeks out the merits of the Jewish people. The sweetness of the candies is the sweetness of Torah as it descends and clothes itself in a physical object.
An adult won’t accept this, because he sees that he, and not an angel, is the one throwing the candies. When a child is older, we can explain to him that this is only a garb for something much higher. But when he is a three-year-old child just beginning his education, we tell him these things clothed in a story, and he has no problems with any of it. Nevertheless, when he grasps the outer clothing, the child grasps the archangel Michael, and the sweetness of Torah, and all the truth that is within that clothing!
-Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson
from talks of Shabbat Parshat Pinchas 5734 and 8th day of Chanukah 5739
(translated, combined and abridged)
If you’ve been following this series, by now you should know that when you come across a fabulous story from the Midrash, you need to peel back the covers to discover what it’s trying to tell you. The stories are all true stories—just not necessarily the way things were able to unfold in our physically limited realm. This reality is not the ultimate expression of truth.
-Tzvi Freeman and Yehuda Shurpin
Limitless Truth for the Limited Mind
Part 4 of “Is Midrash For Real?” Chabad.org
In the first quote above, the Rebbe is describing the traditional custom of celebrating a small child’s first day attending cheder (A Jewish schoolroom) by throwing candies at him from behind and then telling him it was the archangel Michael who had thrown them.
I suppose from an outsider’s point of view, it seems as innocent as the stories we tell our children about Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, which of course they believe at the time, but realize are mere fictions as they grow older.
But the Rebbe declares, “Heaven forbid we should tell a child an untruth!” Anyone who has pretended with their child that there really is a Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy doesn’t think they’re lying. They think they’re upholding a family and cultural tradition, just as the Rebbe states that attributing thrown candy to the archangel Michael is a Jewish custom.
OK, so far, so good. But then he says, “It is a Jewish custom, and a Jewish custom is also Torah—the Torah of truth. Everything the child is told is true…” Most parents outside of Orthodox Judaism aren’t going to extend their customs and say they operate as truths on some other level, and yet the Rebbe calls this custom (and many other Jewish customs) “Torah…the Torah of truth.”
This is a continuation of last week’s article and review and so far, I am no more illuminated now than I was then. Although I know there is a difference between the truth and a fact, I can’t see saying that Michael threw the candies represents an actual intent operating in the angelic realm that Michael expects this sort of action to occur. Does the tradition compel a change in angelic reality or do the Sages imagine that every tradition generated by the great Rabbis must originate from on high?
It is considered inappropriate to relate the midrashim to those who are unable to tell the difference between literal facts and an underlying or supernal truth, but here we have an example of doing so with a three-year old child who absolutely takes his elders’ word about candies and the archangel Michael as both truth and fact.
Historically, that just hasn’t been the case. Many, if not most of these midrashim are collections from sermons of popular rabbis of past generations. To whom were they sermonizing? To whoever came and listened: men, women and children—most of them simple folk.
So historically, most of the Rabbis most of the time compounded this problem by speaking the midrashim in sermons to simple folk who also, like small children, may not have been able to differentiate between the literalness of an event and an underlying truth, even on the level of metaphor. Why isn’t this a problem?
Truth doesn’t grow where falseness is planted. We must say that even as they are understood on their most basic level, each of these stories is absolute truth.
But how is that so? Either fine clothes will be growing on trees when Moshiach comes, or they will not. Can we say that for the small child they will do so literally, while for the sophisticated adult they will do so only figuratively?
The question is not on midrashic aggadah alone. The Hebrew Bible is filled with anthropomorphism—G‑d’s eyes and hands, His wrath, His disappointment and His love, G‑d as king, G‑d as father—all understood by innocent and simple people exactly as stated.
Oh no you don’t. There’s a world of difference in describing certain attributes of God by metaphor, for after all, God doesn’t really have physical qualities like a human being, and juxtaposing that with some of the fantastic tales we find in midrash. I have to cry “foul” on this example.
Nevertheless, the question remains: How could the Torah—a Torah of truth—mislead the innocent reader of simple faith?
Again, good question.
Indeed, Rabbi Abraham ben David (known as Raavad) criticized Maimonides for making this ruling. He himself agreed that G‑d has no form, physical or otherwise. What he could not bear is the condemnation, as he writes, of “many who were better than him [meaning Maimonides (!)] who believed such things due to their innocent reading of the text.”
This is something of a side topic, but as I read the two paragraphs above, I couldn’t help but think of the struggles we have in Christianity with Biblical interpretation, especially when it collides headlong with some of the alternate interpretations I find in different corners of Messianic Judaism and what has been called the new perspective on Paul.
But this speaks of differences in how to interpret the Biblical text. Midrash is something else and is understood differently, even as it is addressed to the written Torah.
“Better than him,” writes Rabbi Abraham. Even though they believe something about G‑d that he himself agrees is utterly false! What is so wonderful about people who cannot fathom a formless G‑d?
To answer that question, we need to readjust our thinking about several issues: about Torah, about reality, and about human language.
OK, buckle up and get ready for the ride.
R. Menachem Azariah was concerned with a statement of the Talmud, that the Torah sometimes exaggerates.
R. Menachem Azariah writes, “Heaven forbid that the Torah should exaggerate! Everything in the Torah is truth—even the lies the characters of the Torah tell are truth. For in a Torah of truth, there is no room for inaccuracies, never mind exaggeration.
One of the supposed exaggerations in Talmud has to do with the report of the spies who were sent into Canaan to scope out the land (Deuteronomy 1:28) stating that the cities were “fortified up to the heavens” (Talmud, Chullin 90b and Tamid 29a).
Like last week’s example explaining why it is true in midrash that Moses was fifteen feet tall and yet in the written record we have in Torah, there’s no indication that Moses was seen as unusually tall, the description of impossibly high boundaries around the great cities is rationalized as a way of saying how the external ministering angels could not enter the boundaries of the land (Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano, Asarah Maamarot, Maamar Chikur Din, part 3, chapter 22).
In other words, Talmud does not exaggerate (Heaven forbid), it simply reveals greater truths about the observations of the spies in Canaan than are revealed in a plain reading the written Torah text (don’t forget the four “departments” or PARDES).
I feel like I’m running around in the same circle I was while I was writing last week’s review. Nothing new to see here. Really. I’m sorry. I’m just not convinced. I’ll buy that Talmud doesn’t exaggerate, at least for the sake of exaggeration, but it can employ metaphor to describe just how daunting and impenetrable the great cities of Canaan seemed to be to the Israelite spies. That’s not an untruth, it’s a poetic description to communicate an important point to the audience. This is a perfectly legitimate literary device to use, even when describing actual events.
Unfortunately, the Rabbinic commentary completely flips things around.
To R. Menachem Azariah, that itself is the meaning of exaggeration in Torah—not an inflation of the facts, but a statement of a higher truth that cannot be expressed in our physical world. Torah, however, speaks only secondarily about our physical world—and in a world higher than our own, there is certainly some very real manifestation of this truth.
The “higher truth” of which the Torah primarily speaks is also the “higher reality,” and actual, observable, factual events are relegated to playing second fiddle in the mystic Jewish tapestry of God’s interactions with Israel, at least as understood by some of the sages.
I think I like Ramban better than Azariah.
Ramban (Nachmanides) had written that the Torah speaks about earthly matters and alludes to spiritual ones.
The great Kabbalist Rabbi Moshe Cordovero presented a unique understanding…
This is a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah: all that exists in our reality is nothing more than an analogy derived from the true reality to which it points. As the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, explained this view, G‑d gave us a hand and eyes and ears so that we could understand the true hand and eyes and ears as they are above. And the same with all that we find in our world. The whole world is one big parable, a crystallized analogue of the real thing.
So it is our physical, observable reality that is the parable, and the parables of midrash that represent true and higher reality. Rather than saying God has arms or eyes by way of analogy, describing and indescribable God in terms mere mortals can comprehend, the “arms” and “eyes” of God represent “divine verbs,” so to speak, indications of His activity, while we are given physical equivalent body parts as a way to “understand” something about God.
Freeman and Shurpin are right. This is “a radically original way of thinking of metaphor in Torah.” One that my western, Gentile mind doesn’t want to accept. I feel like Neo (Keanu Reeves) in the film The Matrix (1999) where everything I ever thought was real turned out to be a complex illusion and “reality” exists almost completely outside my experience.
Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne): Unfortunately, no one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.
However in the case of midrash, everyone can be told what “the Matrix” is, the chore is understanding and accepting without seeing it for ourselves, that is, experiencing the “reality” that the midrashic Sages expect us to comprehend beyond the simple meaning of metaphor.
Can a metaphor be a truth, not just in telling of some moral or ethical principle, but can it have a life of its own, so to speak, an independent heavenly meaning that transcends the mere symbolic representation between metaphor describing an event and the event itself? How can metaphor come from “above” and why should we not understand midrash as a product of a Rabbi’s fertile imagination in attempting to communicate a complex topic in simple, easy to digest terms?
Except we have an equation that I cannot resolve. Jewish tradition is Torah and Torah is always truth.
In my past conversations with Pastor Randy at the church I attend, he has asked me repeatedly “what is Torah” and the answer has always seemed elusive. Perhaps, if anything labeled “Torah,” no matter how outrageous, must always be truth, and many, many things beyond the written text are labeled, “Torah,” then I can see the source of his confusion, and admittedly, mine.
All of this will become clearer if we examine this metaphor of the metaphor: clothing. Why do ideas need clothing?
An author wishes to communicate an idea, an ethic or a perspective on life. If he would spell it out in the raw, the point won’t come across. He needs something that will carry his audience from their perspective to his, so that they will see that which is currently imperceptible to them. He can’t pick them up and take them there, and he can’t plop his mind into their brains.
I think the Rabbis are clothing the midrash and the definition of metaphor in an unnecessarily complicated way. Something can be “truth” and “not fiction” and still not have to be fact on any plane of existence and still function as a teaching tool and a guide. I know mystics are defining a lot of these concepts and I make a lousy mystic, but in order to assign mysticism a validity, you must subscribe not only to the existence of a supernatural world, which we do as religious Christians and Jews, but that Rabbinic Sages can peel back the covering over the written word in the Bible and uncover an objective, mystical reality underneath, much as one might remove the clothing from one’s beloved to reveal her greater beauty.
It’s all very poetic and even compelling, but I recently read a commentary by an Aish Rabbi saying that Christianity is a religion of (blind) faith, while Judaism is a religion of word, documentation, and truth. I’d like to get the Aish Rabbi and Rabbis Freeman and Shurpin together and listen to them engage in a frank discussion of their viewpoints.
Actually, my metaphor of unclothing a beautiful lover to reveal even greater beauty may not be correct.
But what he can do is find clothing that fits the subject and makes it presentable, that hides whatever is distracting them and brings out the highlights he wants to point out. As good clothing brings out the natural beauty of the subject, so a good parable brings out a depth otherwise ineffable. Paradoxically, both do so through concealment—concealment for the sake of revealing a deeper beauty.
Are we removing clothing, the outer material world, to reveal a greater beauty beneath, or is the metaphor, the midrash, clothing in which we dress the material world in order to show a more majestic appearance?
Bruno Bettelheim is best known for his classic work of child psychology, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales.” He criticizes the “narrow-minded rationalists” who object to telling children fantasies, pointing out the value children receive from these stories in dealing with the emotions and turmoil of life. As for the unrealism, he writes that this is “an important device, because it makes obvious that the fairy tales’ concern is not useful information about the external world, but the inner process taking place in an individual.” In short, “The child intuitively comprehends that although these stories are unreal, they are not untrue . . .”
The Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, seems to be going beyond this. When a small child is told that the archangel Michael threw candies at him, that is very real to him. He imagines the angel there in the room, and the candies become very precious candies. And yet it is not a lie.
Most cultures have some sort of tradition of fables or folk tales that serve important purposes in educating their population, both children and adults. Usually the more industrially and technologically advanced a culture, the less room there is for folk tales that have any semblance of seeming “true” (Do kids even learn about “Paul Bunyan” or “Pecos Bill” in grade school anymore?). In the western world right now, many of our folk heroes are characters from 1960s comic books who are being brought to life in films such as The Avengers (2012) and Man of Steel (2013) (with Captain America: The Winter Soldier being released to theaters in less than a month).
But no one is suggesting that Superman or Captain America have a “reality” of their own that not only operates as a metaphor for our real world but that represents the best and truest form of our world. No one really believes that we are only a shadow of that higher existence of heroes, superpowers, and fantastic worlds that we see in film and television.
Midrash, even though we encounter it outside of its original, aged and ancient places of origin, meeting it here in the modern world, nevertheless demands that we accept it on its own terms.
I think the central message I’m getting here is that the very manner in which Freeman and Shurpin (and Orthodox Judaism) describe Midrash and metaphor is by way of metaphor. They rewrite how we understand the words “midrash, “Torah,” “reality,” and “language” in order to support a mystic vision of metaphor that lies in neither this world nor the next, but somewhere in-between.
In his introduction to the 1963 episodes of the Twilight Zone television series, Rod Serling said in part, “You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas…” (the text of Serling’s now-classic introduction to this series changed a bit over time). This seems to be not only where we cross over into the Twilight Zone but where we meet the realm of midrash as well.
I don’t mean to sound unkind or disrespectful in my descriptions. I’m only illustrating how I understand what is being presented in this article as I encounter it. I really do feel I’m being asked to enter into a space that sits on a fence between my world and someplace else, evaluating a “fairy tale” as fanciful metaphor and ethical principle wrapped up in the gossamer fabric of Jewish lived experience.
Some are stuck with a very pedestrian view of the Talmud and Midrash as nothing more than a repository of teachings from various teachers—teachers they imagine to be much like themselves, prone to exaggeration for the sake of making a point. Such a view is sorely insufficient at explaining Jewish practice and belief.
Unfortunately, that describes me to a “T”. I’m willing to admit that I may be at fault here and that it is my human, Goyishe limitations that prevent me from seeing midrash as it’s being presented to me, but as inadequate as the Rabbis would believe me to be, I find it difficult to cast off my tethers to the world around me and enter their’s without so much as a safety net or even a soft pillow to cushion my eventual fall.
Next week’s article is called “Death by Secrets” and the title alone is worth the price of admission. It’s the last article in the series. Will Freeman and Shurpin be able to pull off an eleventh hour save and convince me that midrash actually does exist beyond just imagination?
Or should I, like last week, believe that midrash is the Chabad’s answer to Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi and accept that the better story is also the more “real” story?
The kingdom of heaven prior to the final redemption can be likened to a partisan movement, such as Robin Hood and his men or the European freedom fighters that fought in Nazi occupied territory. The Partisans is a teaching on Hebrews 2 in light of Psalm 8 and the parable of Luke 19:12ff concerning all things in subjection to the Son and the revelation of the kingdom.
Lancaster’s sermons on Hebrews are always fascinating, but I really think he outdid himself with this one.
His goal for this sermon was to make it all the way through Hebrews 2. Last week we saw how Messiah is higher than the angels, and this week we explore, among other things, how Jesus had to be temporarily made a little lower than the angels, just as the rest of humanity is, in order to be elevated so that all things are put under his feet.
Lancaster cites this chapter as well as portions of 1 Corinthians 15 as something of a midrash on Psalm 8 and 110. In fact, Psalm 8 (I provided the link for your convenience) is a very significant quote used by the writer of Hebrews here:
For He did not subject to angels the world to come, concerning which we are speaking. But one has testified somewhere, saying,
“What is man, that You remember him?
Or the son of man, that You are concerned about him?
“You have made him for a little while lower than the angels;
You have crowned him with glory and honor,
And have appointed him over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things in subjection under his feet.”
For in subjecting all things to him, He left nothing that is not subject to him. But now we do not yet see all things subjected to him.
–Hebrews 2:5-8 (NASB)
Along with Psalm 110, we see that literally everything has been placed under King Messiah’s control and authority, everything in Heaven, on Earth, and in the age to come. There are no exceptions and further, that Messiah’s Kingship and authority are not to be realized in the future, but they exist in the present (at the time of the writing of Hebrews), that is, right now.
OK. That’s incredibly cool. Jesus is King. I hear that a lot in hymns at church. Problem is, as I look around, I don’t see a world ruled by the Messiah King. I don’t see all of Israel’s enemies defeated, all the Jewish people returned to their Land, a world-wide reign of total peace, a Temple of God in Jerusalem, the Spirit of God poured out on all flesh, or any of the other things the Prophets of old said would accompany the Kingship of Messiah.
So how can everything already be under Messiah’s authority if the Earth is still such an awful mess?
While they were listening to these things, Jesus went on to tell a parable, because He was near Jerusalem, and they supposed that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately. So He said, “A nobleman went to a distant country to receive a kingdom for himself, and then return. And he called ten of his slaves, and gave them ten minas and said to them, ‘Do business with this until I come back.’ But his citizens hated him and sent a delegation after him, saying, ‘We do not want this man to reign over us.’ When he returned, after receiving the kingdom…
…But these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slay them in my presence.”
–Luke 19:11-15, 27 (NASB)
You’ll probably want to read all of Luke 19:11-27 to get the full parable, but for the sake of the length of this missive, I quoted only the most relevant portions.
Jesus is speaking a parable about Herod, who escaped ancient Israel after being on the wrong end of a dispute, and ran off to Rome, and then due to circumstances you can learn in Lancaster’s sermon, was made King of Israel. Now he was King and given all authority as such while in Rome, but the people in Israel had no idea and they believed they were subject to their current pretender King.
Of course, as Lancaster said, Rome would have sent a dispatch ahead of Herod’s return announcing his Kingship and authority, but there would certainly be people who would not want to accept him. If it wouldn’t be more or less suicidal, the rebels could have sent a dispatch back saying, we don’t want to accept him as King. But the parable says that’s what happened.
Now Lancaster says we can apply this parable to Jesus as well. When he ascended, he sat at the right hand of the Father and at that point in time, everything was placed under his authority as King. But, he was (and is) still in a far away place, but he’s returning. It is also true that a “dispatch” has been sent to his Kingdom, that is, the world, saying that Jesus has been made King and that he already has authority, but people have responded that they want the current King and do not want the King who is currently far away and who will return only later (or as many atheists say, a King who does not exist at all).
The population under a not present Herod was divided into those who were loyal to the current King and those who were loyalist to the King who would return.
We are like that, too. Plenty of people, probably most people worldwide, are loyal to the current King of our world, but we who are believers are loyalists to the one we know is truly King and who will one day return.
Lancaster used the metaphor of Robin Hood and his Merry Men who were the Partisans or members of the Resistance movement of their day, working against the current King John but remaining loyal to the true King Richard, who one day would return. Only when King Richard returned would Robin and the loyalists be rewarded. Until that time, they were in constant danger.
And so it is with us. Actually, I was thinking of the Resistance movement in Nazi occupied France during World War 2 who were always in hiding, covertly committing acts of sabotage, struggling to make the way for the Allied invasion, and remaining loyal to the true authority over France. They were physically in a Nazi occupied land, living among them, eating, doing business, interacting with the occupiers, but they did not collaborate and were not of the subjects of the false “King”.
And so it is with us. Lancaster made great points about being slaves to the material world if you are a slave to the current King . But servants of the true King are free of the traps of the material world and fear of death in our loyalty to the King who has authority over Heaven, Earth, and the Messianic Age. Yet the Messianic Age is only a doorway to the furthest extent of Messiah’s Kingdom, the life in the world to come…eternity.
Being a “resistance fighter” is what it is to be a believer. We are loyalists to the coming King. We oppose the current King, who is the master of death, HaSatan, the adversary, “the devil.”
Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.
–Hebrews 2:14-15 (NASB)
Some midrashim equate HaSatan with the angel of death and others do not, but according to Lancaster, the writer of Hebrews spoke of the two as the same. If you thought this world was it and there was nothing else, then death is death and when you die, that’s it. Your reward is confined to this world so you might as well “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we all die.” Of course, that doesn’t mean all atheists are totally materialistic or can’t lead moral lives, but they are subjects only of the present world, so this is all they’ve got.
If we aren’t subjects of the King of this world but of the true King who has authority over everything, not just the Earth, and who is promised to return to deliver a Kingdom that is much finer and more just, a Kingdom of absolute peace and knowledge of God, then we don’t have to be afraid of or limited by the threat of death. We don’t accept death. Death is the enemy. Death can be personified. We oppose death.
Lancaster covered the Biblical rationale for why Jesus was made King and exalted over all, and it’s not just because he’s the Son of God and the Divine Logos. Believe it or not, he actually had to do something and he had a choice about whether or not to do it…that is he had to die. You can listen to the recording to get all the details and I highly recommend that you do, for it shows that in his victory over death, by dying for us all, we, as believers, also conquered and more, we became brothers (I’ll say more on that in a moment).
So the two interrelated themes of most of Hebrews 2 as Lancaster sees them, are that we, as believers, are loyalists to the coming true King and not the current pretender on the Throne, and that the defeat of death by Messiah not only was a choice on his part, but granted those of us who are his subjects eternal life. It was that conquest by Messiah that merited him a name above all names and his being granted authority over all things in existence right now, even though we can’t currently see his full control in our present world.
Lancaster delivered a fabulous interpretation of both themes and I strongly recommend that you listen to this sermon to get the full details.
What Did I Learn?
Although Christianity applies everything written in the New Testament as automatically applying to the Church, that is the body of Gentile believers that includes those Jewish people who have converted and assimilated into Gentile Christianity, Lancaster reminds us that the writer of the epistle to the Hebrews was Jewish and he was writing to an entirely Jewish audience.
When the writer of Hebrews says Messiah refers to his followers as “brothers” (verse 12) and “children” (verse 13), he was talking about Israel, the Jewish people. There’s no direct connection that says he was applying those words to Gentile believers as well. Lancaster believes this ultimately includes all non-Jewish disciples of the Master as “brothers,” but I don’t think it’s that simple.
John 20:17 is one of the verses that shows Jesus referring to the disciples as “brothers” after his resurrection, so there was something in his death and resurrection that changed his relationship to the Jewish people, something the Jewish believers received as a result of Messiah’s trial in dying. However, Jesus and the writer of Hebrews are talking to Jewish people.
I’ve been having a conversation with a Jewish believer in the discussion thread on another of my blog posts about the role and relationship between believing Jews and Gentiles in the Messianic Jewish synagogue context. He believes in distinctiveness in identity, but that Gentiles should have equal access to resources and honors (aliyot, for instance) in the Messianic Jewish community. Others have commented that even if Jews and Gentiles should attend the same Messianic group, it would be justifiable for a separation (something like how men and women are separated in Orthodox synagogues, mirroring the court of the women in Herod’s temple) between Jews and Gentiles to exist.
My view is that Messianic Judaism, like the present and coming Kingdom of God, is a process, not a point event. There is going to be variability between different congregations based on tradition and history, at least until the coming of Messiah, just like there will be a slow revelation of evidence of Messiah’s Kingship, starting in the Gospels and ultimately culminating only with the King’s return.
Some months ago, I read Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, which I thoroughly enjoyed. At the point when Pi (you’ll have to have read the novel or have seen the film to understand what I’m about to say) realizes he’s sharing a small lifeboat with an adult Bengal Tiger, he realizes how unsafe this is (a huge understatement) and rapidly forms a small, makeshift raft, tying it to the lifeboat, and then launching it behind the larger vessel. This becomes his haven from the Tiger until he eventually learns how to “convince” the Tiger they can co-exist on the lifeboat.
I sometimes see that as the current relationship between Jews and Gentiles within the very specific context of Messianic Judaism. We are struggling with many things as “resistance fighters” in an unholy Kingdom and one of our struggles is how the different populations in the body of Messiah are supposed to interact, especially with the centuries long history of enmity between Jews and Christians. One way is to expect one population to assimilate into the other.
Historically, Gentile Christianity has demanded Jews to assimilate into them as a consequence of worship of the Jewish Messiah. In much more recent times, certain groups organized under “Hebrew Roots” have expected Gentiles to “assimilate” into a quasi-Jewish religious and cultural body (with varying degrees of “Jewishness”) becoming a single identity.
Other more Jewish aspects of Messianic Judaism, in partial reparation for past injuries, require a wholly Jewish environment in which to live and be Messianic Jews. Gentiles are welcome, but with the understanding that they are entering a Jewish environment as Gentiles. No compromises, no assimilation.
Pi on the raft and the Tiger in the lifeboat…for now.
The writer of Hebrews didn’t account for the presence of Gentiles at all in his sermon and we should do the same. But while this sermon clarifies a good many things for us, well “me” anyway, it doesn’t paint a portrait of Jewish/Gentile relationships in Messiah. Israel is Messiah’s brother, and the Jewish people are his children. It is only faith that allows me to take some small comfort that as a Gentile disciple and subject of the Messiah King, for he has dominion over everything including all the Gentile nations, that I may be called a “brother” and “child” too, though not in the same way as Israel, for Messiah is Israel’s first-born from the dead.
Not quite as dramatic or heroic as being a partisan, a resistance fighter, or one of Robin Hood’s Merry Men, but I’ll accept whatever seat at the table I’m offered. As Marcus Brody (Denholm Elliot) said in the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989), “At my age, I’m prepared to take a few things on faith.”
The writer of the book of Hebrews indicates that the Torah was “spoken by angels.” In this teaching, D. Thomas Lancaster takes a look at first-century angelology to understand the apostolic concept of the Torah being delivered by angels and what role that concept plays in the argument in Hebrews 2.
In last week’s sermon which I reviewed, we learned that Yeshua (Jesus) was greater than even the angels. What we didn’t learn is why that was important to the addressees of the letter to the Hebrews and why that should be important to us.
Today, we’re going to find out.
For this reason we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it. For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? After it was at the first spoken through the Lord, it was confirmed to us by those who heard, God also testifying with them, both by signs and wonders and by various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit according to His own will.
–Hebrews 2:1-4 (NASB)
Here, we see another Kal va-chomer argument, from the light to the heavy. Look at this.
For if the word spoken through angels proved unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty, how will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?
In other words, if the word spoken by angels…what word is that? The Torah which was delivered by angels at Sinai. If the Torah proved “unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience (of Torah) received just penalty, then how” must less “will we escape if we neglect so great a salvation?”
This is the cornerstone of Lancaster’s sermon and we need to pay attention. I said in my first review of this series about the Kal Va-chomer argument, that if the first and lighter portion of the argument was not valid, then neither is the second, and the entire argument disintegrates.
The first part of the argument states that the Torah is “unalterable, and every transgression and disobedience received a just penalty.” In other words, the writer of Hebrews is telling his Jewish audience that the Torah remains valid and unalterable in their lives. The Jewish audience must have continued to be Torah observant Jews who did not question the validity of Torah. After all, if they considered the Torah alterable or invalid or obsolete as most Christians believe the writer of Hebrews is saying, then according to the argument, the heavier aspect of the statement must also be invalid or obsolete: Jesus and salvation. That doesn’t make much sense.
Put in just a slightly different way, if the Torah remains valid and unalterable, how much more is the salvation of Jesus valid and unalterable. The second element in the argument does not undo or invalidate the first but rather rests upon and depends on the first element. If it doesn’t, the argument falls apart.
Christianity’s understanding of the purpose of the Book of Hebrews in general and this portion of the epistle in specific is what becomes invalid based on what the text is actually saying!
However, as Lancaster solves one problem, he introduces another.
For if the word spoken through angels…
–Hebrews 2:2 (NASB)
Not only in this verse, but Acts 7:53, the words spoken by Stephen, and Galatians 3:19, which was written by Paul, both speak of the Torah being delivered by angels.
But wasn’t the Torah spoken directly by God to Moses?
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the sons of Israel, ‘You yourselves have seen that I have spoken to you from heaven.’
–Exodus 20:22 (NASB)
This is just one of a multitude of examples of God (seemingly) speaking directly to Moses words of Torah rather than having Torah delivered by angels. In fact, where do we ever see angels delivering words of Torah or tablets of Torah to Moses? Apparently no where.
Lancaster goes through a list of the various types of angelic beings, which aren’t important to present here, but he does mention one particular type of angel we need to pay attention to: the angel of the Lord.
In Genesis 18 we see three men visit Abraham at his camp. We know that these three men are really three angels. Two of them go on to Sodom but one stays behind and this is God. But how can it be God if God is infinite and a consuming fire? Just look at what He did to the top of Mount Sinai! Who or what is the angel of the Lord?
According to Lancaster, this is an angel, a created being, through which God speaks. The angel speaks the Words of God in the first person singular as God Himself, but is not God Himself, but rather a representation or extension of God, as if God were talking into a microphone and the angel were a speaker on the other end of a cable.
“Behold, I am going to send an angel before you to guard you along the way and to bring you into the place which I have prepared. Be on your guard before him and obey his voice; do not be rebellious toward him, for he will not pardon your transgression, since My name is in him. (emph. mine)
–Exodus 23:20-21 (NASB)
In other words, when Jacob wrestles with an opponent in Genesis 32, we don’t have to drive ourselves crazy wondering if it is an angel or if it is literally God. Lancaster says, it’s the angel of the Lord, God’s created representation in our world.
And it is not and never has been a “pre-incarnate Jesus.”
Actually I find that a relief. I always suspected that at least some angels had such a function rather than an infinite, all-powerful, all-encompassing God literally intersecting with our world, He would send a representative being, like an amplified ambassador able to speak as if he were God present among us. It also is a nice response to certain Hebrew Roots commentators who turn exegesis in the Tanakh into “I-see-Jesus” whenever the angel of the Lord appears.
Lancaster provides numerous other proof texts to support his commentary, and you can listen to the full recording to get all of his references.
I will say that Lancaster also mentions that the concept of the angels giving the Torah was very popular in the first century, as evidenced by how well read the Book of Jubilees, which supported the angelic giving of Torah, was among Jews of that period.
All this may sound strange and even alien to us, but Lancaster says it made perfect sense to a first-century Greek-speaking Jewish audience. We can’t judge these things by the context of 21st-century English-speaking Christians living in the United States of America. We have to get into the heads and comprehension of the original audience. Otherwise, we’ll come up with some pretty goofy conclusions.
But what does this have to do with the Messiah being superior to the angels? It seems applied to our Kal va-chomer argument. If Messiah is superior to the angels and the angels gave the Torah, then what the Messiah gives must be superior as well. No, I didn’t say what the Messiah gave replaced the Torah, just that it held much more weight, and to extend the metaphor, the message of Messiah rests on the foundation of the Torah.
Think of it this way.
At Sinai, Moses went up the mountain. He acquired the Torah in the realm of angels, descended and gave the Torah to human beings.
Messiah went up into the Heavenly Court, the realm of angels, at the ascension. When he descends, he delivers the Messianic Era of peace and complete knowledge of God to human beings.
“Behold, days are coming,” declares the Lord, “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah, not like the covenant which I made with their fathers in the day I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them,” declares the Lord. “But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days,” declares the Lord, “I will put My law within them and on their heart I will write it; and I will be their God, and they shall be My people. They will not teach again, each man his neighbor and each man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they will all know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them,” declares the Lord, “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”
–Jeremiah 31:31-34 (NASB)
Lancaster didn’t use this scripture in his sermon but I think it makes sense. The New Covenant doesn’t undo any of the older covenants or “unwrite” any of the specific content. It actually amplifies the older covenants, reaffirms them, and makes it more possible for Judah and Israel (and the people of the nations who are grafted in through faith in Messiah) to “know God” in a more fulfilling way than even the great prophets knew God, and the law, the Torah will be written on all their hearts.
That’s the Messianic Era. We have just barely tasted the first fruits of that New Covenant. Most of those promises have yet to be fulfilled. Messiah’s work is not finished, otherwise why return and why is the gospel message all about the coming of the Kingdom rather than just a plan of personal, individual salvation for specific human beings?
The New Covenant is wholly dependent upon the older covenants. If any of the older covenants cease to exist, the fabric of the New Covenant unravels and falls to dust and Judah, Israel, and the people of the nations who cleave to the God of Israel have no hope.
But if the Torah is true and valid and reliable, how much more true and valid and reliable are the Messianic promises and the coming of Moshiach?
What Did I Learn?
I did hit something of a wall or contradiction. Probably just a misunderstanding on my part (and I’ve made mistakes before in this review series). If the argument is that Messiah is greater than the angels who delivered the Torah, but was specifically the angel of the Lord, God’s personal angelic representation, if you will, who delivered the Torah to Moses, then does that mean the Messiah is greater than the angel of the Lord?
I don’t know if the question even makes sense, depending on how you view Trinitarianism, but it’s what popped into my head as I was listening to the sermon, so I thought I’d share it with you.
I didn’t read through each and every transaction Moses had with Hashem in the Torah, but I suspect that we may encounter some difficulties in determining on some occasions exactly who is addressing Moses. Is it the angel of the Lord, or the Lord? Does God never speak directly to Moses? Is it always an angel? I don’t know. The suggestion offered by Lancaster seem to bear further scrutiny, however.
"When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness." -Rabbi Tzvi Freeman