When I first started writing this review, I couldn’t find anything about Toby Janicki’s new book, God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel either on First Fruits of Zion’s (FFOZ’s) website or through a general Google search. The book hadn’t been released for public sale when I got my advance copy at FFOZ’s recent Shavuot conference, but I didn’t realize it was so new that there was no advance publicity available. I emailed Boaz Michael and he asked me to hold off publishing my review for a few days. As a consequence, this review is a bit different than the one I originally created. Not too different though, and my conclusions are the same.
The question of when the book would become available for purchase was kept as an unexpected announcement for the Shavuot conference. Boaz and Daniel Lancaster wanted to surprise Toby by presenting him with a copy during one of Toby’s presentations. No one, including me, expected to be able to actually get their hands on “God-Fearers” as early as last week. Boaz gave me my personal copy at the conference so I’d be able to write a review soon after I returned home. I had it completely read by the time I had to board my flight at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to return to Boise last Monday night.
I have to admit that I was a little disappointed when I read the book and discovered that it didn’t contain the one piece of content I had anticipated. I think both Toby and Boaz mentioned at the conference that this book would describe Toby’s personal journey from a One Law position to his current theological stance, which I guess we now call (more or less) “divine invitation” (I put that in quotes because when you’re invited but not commanded to take on additional Torah mitzvot beyond what a Christian would consider obligation, the results from one person to the next can be variable). I was really hoping Toby would write what it was like from inside FFOZ as their formal policy and faith structure transitioned into its current form. I was hoping to be able to actually see Toby’s personal journey against the backdrop of FFOZ’s ethical, moral, and spiritual development from what it was originally to what it has become today. At the conference, Toby even shared a story (which I’ll write about in a later “meditation”) about an “epiphany event” in his life that dramatically illustrated for him the dissonance between a Gentile publicly practicing Jewish identity behaviors and how it actually looks to Jewish people. None of that kind of content actually made it into the book.
What did make it into the book is a worthy read, however there is a fair amount of repurposed materials from articles Toby wrote for Messiah Journal (MJ). Since I read MJ regularly, the vast majority of what Toby’s book contained was familiar to me. Of course, if you don’t subscribe to MJ or you want all of this information collected in one place, God-Fearers is definitely for you. The material is also “fleshed out” somewhat so that articles that were only loosely related and published across the span of many months, are integrated into a fairly seemless set of topics focusing on the history and evolution of the presence of Gentiles in the worship of the God of Abraham.
OK, what’s the book about? Toby researches and investigates the history and context of non-Jewish people who, across the long centuries from Sinai to the fall of the Second Temple, have attached themselves to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but without the benefit of a formal convenant relationship with that God being available (unless you count the Noahide covenant). Toby presents to his audience, a set of pictures of what Gentiles looked like as they became aware of the God of Israel, began to grasp the concept of ethical monotheism as opposed to pagan polytheism (which was universal among the non-Jewish nations throughout the vast majority of our history), and how we non-Jews began to enter, however hesitantly, into the presence of God through the “interface” of normative Judaism.
When Christians think about God-fearers, they tend to think of the Roman Centurion Cornelius in Acts 10, who Jews would tend to call “a righteous Gentile.”
Now while Peter was inwardly perplexed as to what the vision that he had seen might mean, behold, the men who were sent by Cornelius, having made inquiry for Simon’s house, stood at the gate and called out to ask whether Simon who was called Peter was lodging there. And while Peter was pondering the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation, for I have sent them.” And Peter went down to the men and said, “I am the one you are looking for. What is the reason for your coming?” And they said, “Cornelius, a centurion, an upright and God-fearing man, who is well spoken of by the whole Jewish nation, was directed by a holy angel to send for you to come to his house and to hear what you have to say.” –Acts 10:17-22 (ESV)
Most Christians are familiar with these verses and based on this text, we imagine that God-fearers sprang abruptly into history as fully realized as Cornelius sometime in the late Second Temple period. But Toby shows us that the concept of God-fearers goes way, way back, possibly as early as the time of Moses and the Sinai covenant. His book presents Biblical evidence of God-fearers in the psalms, such as Psalms 115, 118, and 135. He also cites Midrashic references, such as Numbers Rabbah 8:2 and Genesis Rabbah 28:5 to show us that normative Judaism acknowledged the presence of God-fearing Gentiles within their midst across the span of Jewish history.
Conceptualizing the relationship between Gentile God-fearers and the Torah is complex. It can even be complex (depending on your point of view) for the Gentiles who have become disciples of the Jewish Messiah (i.e. “Christians”). We see the bare bones of the expectations for the non-Jews who wanted to enter the Messianic covenant in Acts 15, and the book reveals itself to be a commentary not only of God-fearers the way the church traditionally thinks of Cornelius, but of the Gentile who is on a journey of discovery from first becoming aware of the God of Israel, to attaching to that God, perhaps as a Noahide or something similar, and then finally being adopted as sons and daughters of the Most High when we confess the Jewish Messiah as Lord and Master, formally becoming disciples of Jesus and members of the Messianic covenant.
Additionally, Toby describes many of the detailed questions a lot of us have in terms of Gentiles and Jewish identity markers such as Shabbat, tzitzit, tefillin, the Festivals, and other examples of the mitzvot. Please keep in mind that in writing this review, I’m shooting through material that covers over 150 pages in barely 1600 words so I’m just hitting the high points. There’s a lot more elucidating information contained in Toby’s “God-Fearers” book which of course, you’re going to have to read for yourself.
I can see “God-Fearers” being a really great resource either for a non-Jew just entering into the Messianic movement, or for someone who has been active in the movement for awhile but who experiences significant gaps in understanding the role of a non-Jewish disciple in a Messianic Jewish context (I met many people in both of these groups last week at the conference). For those of you who fear that FFOZ is using this book to say, “Gentiles can’t study and take on anything in the Torah,” this book will reassure you that nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the book represents a great deal more flexibility as far as what Gentiles are allowed and even obligated to do under Torah than I originally anticipated (I discovered this when I read part of this material in Messiah Journal some months ago). If you keep an open mind and let the book tell its own story, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed as a non-Jewish person who feels “called” to some form of Torah mitzvot observance.
As I mentioned before, I really was hoping that at least the last chapter would have told something of Toby’s personal journey. It’s one thing to provide scholarly information about “generic” non-Jews and how we relate to the Torah and the Messianic movement, but I think the book would have really come alive if Toby had shared his personal thoughts and emotions as FFOZ and he both moved away from the One Law perspective. I got a sense in having talked with Toby for a bit at the conference (he was really busy for those four or five days so I didn’t get to spend any significant time with him) that there is a lot more for him to tell than what finally made it into God-Fearers.
Do I recommend Toby’s book? Absolutely. I think it’s an extremely valuable asset for the audience I described above. I hope if this book goes to a second printing or, if it be God’s will, a second edition, that Toby will include some of his lived, personal experience into the text. The intellectual, emotional, and spiritual value of God-Fearers: Gentiles and the God of Israel would increase immeasurably if he did. That said, if you get your hands on a first edition now, consider it a terrific resource and possibly even a collector’s item.
As I mentioned before, I have a story to tell about Toby (he knows I’m going to share it on my blog) and how it is part of my own.