Guest Blog: Linguistic Superstition & The Sacred Name Movement by Daniel Botkin

Any questions about this article can be directed to Daniel Botkin at his ministry webpage. Daniel has a bi-monthly newsletter and speaks at events around the country if you would like to hear him live.

Linguistic superstition is the belief that saying certain “negative” words will produce negative results, and saying certain “positive” words in just the right way will produce positive results. This sort of belief system is most apparent in occult magic. Practitioners of occult magic believe that certain words have an inherent power of force within them which can be harnessed and utilized when the words are pronounced in a precise, prescribed manner. The seven sons of Sceva believed this. When they saw Paul doing miracles in the name of Yeshua, they tried to cast out a demon by saying, “We adjure you by Yeshua whom Paul preacheth.” The demon in the man replied, “Yeshua I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” Then the man leaped on them and gave them a good beating. (See Acts 19:13-16.)

You would think that Bible believers would know better than to get entangled in linguistic superstition. Sadly, that is not the case. We have seen linguistic superstition manifested by some Christians in the “Word of faith”/”positive confession” movement. Now we are seeing linguistic superstition of another sort being manifested in the Sacred Name (SN) movement. The SN movement is a movement that began in the late 1930s as an offshoot of the Church of God, Seventh Day denomination. The main focus of this movement (as the phrase “Sacred Name” suggests) is the use of God’s Hebrew name. In most SN literature God’s Hebrew name is transliterated as “Yahweh” (though at least 38 other variant spellings exist among SN believers). Jesus’ Hebrew name is usually mis-transliterated as “Yahshua” (though at least 55 other variant spellings exist among SN believers).
Hard-core SN believers are afraid to utter the words “God” or “Lord” when referring to the Creator. They insist that He must be addressed by His Hebrew name. Most SN literature gives a reader the impression that knowing the correct pronunciation of God’s Hebrew name is more important than knowing God Himself.
Much of what I have read in SN literature is dangerously close to the occultic thinking that existed in first-century Gnosticism. The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity (pg. 27) says this: “Heretical Gnostic systems combined magic and astrology with the Bible. The Hebrew name of God, IAO [the Greek transliteration of YHWH -DB], fascinated sorcerers by its vowels, always crucial in ancient magic.”
Like first-century Gnostic sorcerers, many SN believers seem equally fascinated by the Hebrew name of God, and have made a fetish out of the Sacred Name. This in itself is not sorcery, of course, but it is a step in that direction. Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible, a translation that has greatly influenced the SN movement, says in its introduction that “the name Yahweh has some inherent meaning of great force” and speaks of “some self-evident force” contained in the Sacred Name (pg. 26, 28). This sort of thinking can lead to linguistic superstition and worse. Noted Hebrew scholar David Bivin, in an article called “The Fallacy of Sacred Name Bibles,” writes: “The use of correct formulas and correct pronunciations is very important in magic rites, but not in one’s relationship with the God of Israel” (Jerusalem Perspective, Nov. -Dec. 1991, pg. 12).
The SN movement has produced a mixture of good and bad fruit. On the positive side, the SN movement has done a lot to help people see that the Sabbath, the Feasts, and the dietary laws are still valid for New Covenant believers. On the negative side, this movement has spawned a lot of rotten fruit. I am not in a position to say whether the good fruit outweighs the rotten fruit or vice versa. I will let God be the Judge of that. I do not wish to judge, but I do need to warn people not to swallow rotten fruit, because it will poison you.
The purpose of this article is not to attack people, but to expose errors. I do not wish to embarrass or publicly humiliate anyone. This is why I will not be citing the sources when I quote from SN writers. If readers wish to know my sources, I will share that information privately.
Some minor errors in a person’s thinking can be relatively harmless. Unfortunately, some of the errors in the SN movement are not harmless. The proof of this statement is in the rotten fruit the movement has borne. The rotten fruit to which I refer is primarily a glaring lack of love for brethren. We all know the importance of loving one’s neighbor as one’s self; we know that the fruit of the Spirit is love; we know about 1 Corinthians 13. We all know the importance of loving the brethren. Yet if it were not for a few loving SN friends whom I know personally, I would have to conclude from SN literature that SN believers hate the brethren. And I have been reading SN literature regularly since the mid-1980s.
Indeed, many SN believers do not even consider the brethren their brethren. Christians who do not use the Hebrew name are often regarded as lost at best and as devil worshippers at worst. One large SN organization printed these words in a newsletter some years ago: “Christianity calls ‘God’s’ Son by the name ‘Jesus.’ Thus, those worshipping ‘this son’ are committing spiritual adultery!!” This is from one of the more tolerant SN organizations. Other SN writers have flatly stated that Christians who use the words “God,” “Lord,” and “Jesus Christ” are actually worshipping Satan.
SN believers do not fare much better when it comes to loving their own. One well-known SN leader who has been around for decades admits this. He writes: “The Sacred Name movement has been characterized by knowledgeable observers as ‘a bunch of splintered, divided sects’; and this is EXACTLY what I found.” (Emphasis his)
If you are a Christian reader who is hearing about this for the first time, you might be asking some questions: “These people think that I’m actually giving homage to the devil when I pray to ‘God’ or ‘the Lord’? All the worship I’ve given to God all these years has really gone to Satan, simply because I didn’t address God by His Hebrew name? Where in hell did that idea come from?”
The answer to your last question is in your last question. However, for the benefit of those who want an explanation of how this convoluted idea developed, let me explain.
SN believers reject the English words God and Lord because these are words which, when not capitalized, can refer to pagan gods and to human lords. SN believers think it is disrespectful at best or Satan worship at worst to refer to the Creator by these generic titles. However, the Hebrew equivalents of these two words, elohim and adonai, are also generic words that often refer to false pagan gods and human lords. Yet the Creator refers to Himself as elohim and adonai hundreds of times in the Hebrew Scriptures. If He is not offended by the generic titles in Hebrew, why should He be offended by the equivalent generic titles in English? English even has the added advantage of capitalizing the G- or the L- to distinguish the true Creator from the false pagan gods and the human lords. If the Creator is offended by generic titles, He would be more offended by the uncapitalizable elohim and adonai than He would be by God and Lord.
SN believers imagine a linguistic connection between the English God and Hebrew Gad (“luck, fortune”). Because the pronunciations of these two words are very similar, SN believers claim that “God” is the god of good luck. However, the fact that two words in two different languages sound the same is not proof that the two words are cognates. On the contrary, such is usually not the case. For example, Spanish con (“with”) has no connection to English cone; German nein (“no”) has no connection to English nine; Hebrew ki (“because”) has no connection to English key; Yiddish teler (“plate”) has no connection to English teller; Russian tut (“here”) has no connection to English toot, etc., etc.
Concerning the SN believers’ ban on God because of its similarity to Gad, noted linguist and Hebraist Isaac Mozeson, author of THE WORD: The Dictionary That Reveals the Hebrew Source of English, wrote this in a personal letter to me: “If the word Gad were so terrible per se, there would be no tribe of Israel or prophet of King David by that glorious name. It seems I agree with you on these issues.”
SN believers avoid using even the Hebrew Adonai because of its similarity to the Greek god Adonis. Some refuse to transliterate Adonai, even though Scripture uses this word over 200 times to refer to the Creator. I have even seen one SN Bible that translated Adonai as “Yahweh.” This is not honest translation; it is deliberately misrepresenting what the Hebrew Scripture really says. Isaac Mozeson wrote (in the letter previously mentioned): “I don’t shun the Hebrew ADoNe (master, lord) + suffix AI simply because Adonis is a pagan god or because the Brits have a House of Lords.”
The Hebrew Bible refers to the Creator as Adonai over 200 times. It is linguistic superstition to avoid a word that the Hebrew Bible freely uses. Yes, it is possible that the Greeks borrowed the Hebrew Adonai and used it to refer to their god Adonis. So what? We know that Yahweh is the true Adonai/Elohim/Lord/God. The fact that pagans use some of the same nouns for their idols is no reason for us to stop using the words. If the pagans were to say that their gods are “good” and “strong,” would SN believers feel a need to avoid these two adjectives and use different synonymous adjectives such as “beneficent” and “powerful”?
Most SN literature substitutes Mighty One and Master for God and Lord. However, the terms mighty one and master are every bit as generic as god and lord. This is evident even in SN literature, which refers to false gods as “mighty ones,” the only difference being capital letters. This is not spiritual progress; it is simply reinventing the wheel.
The New Testament, by its glaring silence on the “Name” issue, also refutes SN teaching. If avoiding generic titles and using the Hebrew names is so vital to one’s salvation and spirituality, why do the New Testament writers consistently refer to God by the generic Greek titles Theos and Kurios (words which can also refer to pagan gods and to human lords)? And why do they consistently refer to the Messiah by the Greek form of His name, lesous Xristos? The New Testament writers could have written the Hebrew characters into the Greek script, but there is no solid evidence that they did any such thing. They used Theos and Kurios, just as the Hebrew Scriptures use Elohim and Adonai.
It is very important to note this: Even when they were directly quoting Old Testament Scripturethe New Testament writers used the generic Greek titles as substitutes for the Sacred Name. Many Old Testament verses which contain the Sacred Name are quoted in the New Testament, yet the Sacred Name itself never once appears in the New Testament. A generic title is substituted every single time. If the New Testament is to have any bearing whatsoever on our theology, we cannot ignore the fact that New Testament writers used generic titles as substitutes for the Sacred Name.
The only argument SN proponents can use to try to refute these facts is to accuse “wicked scribes” of changing the New Testament manuscripts. Some go so far as to claim that the entire New Testament was originally written in Hebrew, complete with the Sacred Name, of course. History tells us that Matthew originally wrote his gospel in Hebrew, but there is no reason to suppose that the rest of the New Testament was originally written in Hebrew. On the contrary, when one considers the fact that the epistles were addressed to congregations composed primarily of Greek-speaking believers who knew little if any Hebrew, the idea seems ludicrous. To accuse wicked scribes of tampering with the text is circular reasoning, and has no basis in historical or linguistic fact.
Theories have been put forth to try to debunk the Greek New Testament. Some SN proponents have claimed that Paul could not have known Greek well enough to write his epistles in that language. Jews did not learn Greek, we are told by SN writers. We know from Acts 21:37 that Paul knew Greek well enough to converse in it. I also found this information in a pamphlet: “The Oxyrinchus Papyri shows that even Jewish children could read and write Greek. The Greek language was common in Palestine, even though the vernacular was Aramaic and the Sacred tongue was Hebrew.” It is very ironic that this information appears in a pamphlet written by the late A.B. Traina, the man who is regarded by some as the “granddaddy” of the SN movement.
Some SN believers argue against a Greek New Testament by stating that the Greek text is awkward and clumsy, “poor Greek”; therefore the New Testament must be a translation of a Hebrew original–which, it is assumed, contained the Hebrew names, of course. Do these SN believers know Greek well enough to tell that the New Testament is a poor translation of a Hebrew original? Is the Greek of the New Testament so poor that a Hebrew original must be assumed? I do not know Greek well enough to answer that question, so I will let two scholars who know Greek better than I do answer the question. Dr. Brad Young, a present-day scholar of great repute, states that Paul, in his epistles, “gives evidence of his bilingual abilities by writing in Greek like a native” (“Paul the Pharisee,” Yavo Digest 19:4, Sept. 1997, pg. 15). Robin Griffith-Jones, master of London’s Temple Church and formerly a New Testament teacher at Oxford University, says that Luke used “very sophisticated Greek. He would have been asked to write New York Times op-ed pieces” (“Gospels according to new book,” Peoria Journal Star, 5/28/00).
In 1978 George Howard wrote an article in Biblical Archaeology Review. Howard did not argue for an original Hebrew New Testament in this article, but he did theorize that the writers of the Greek New Testament might have written God’s name in the Hebrew characters when they wrote their original manuscripts. A SN believer sent me a copy of this article, complete with his complimentary underlining, arrows, brackets, and exclamation marks in the margins. I marked a few more things in the article myself. In Howard’s short essay, I circled the following words: “…suggested that… suggested… argued that… it seems to me… is hardly likely that… In all likelihood… very probably… suggests that… no doubt… Perhaps… may have… Assuming this to be generally correct… In all probability… probably… no doubt… must have… impossible to know with certainty… must have been… must have taken… must have meant… must have meant… was probably… probably… suggest that… it may be that… probably… may be known…”
The appearance of all these words and phrases of ambiguity on just one and one-half pages of text tells me that Howard himself is not very certain of his theory. Yet SN people will swallow an unproven theory simply because it agrees with their doctrine.
One major reason SN believers misunderstand the “Name” issue is because they do not realize the broader meaning of the Hebrew word shem (usually translated “name”). When SN believers read a verse that says something about “the name of Yahweh,” they think mainly in terms of nomenclature, the word that is used to address someone. Shem means much more than just “name” in this narrow sense of nomenclature, however. Shem also means the reputation, honor, or character of the person. Any good lexicon will confirm this. Isaac Mozeson also confirms this in his letter to me: “Also SHeM means ‘repute’ more than merely ‘name.’ The problems of the ‘sacred name believers’ will lessen when they consider this.”
Even in English we use the word name in its broader sense: “You’ve ruined the family name!” Such a statement does not mean that the person has altered the pronunciation of his surname or changed it to a common name like “Jones.” It simply means that he has brought shame and reproach on the family by his behavior.
The Scriptures say many things about the name of Yahweh. There are verses that speak of misusing, blaspheming, or shaming His name. There are verses about knowing, glorifying, praising, trusting in, and speaking of the name of Yahweh. These verses are not referring to the correct pronunciation of the four-lettered Tetragrammaton; they are speaking about the character and reputation of Yahweh. Thus, trusting in “the name” of Yahweh means that we trust in His character and His reputation, not in the correct pronunciation of His nomenclature. A person who trusts only in the correct pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton is reducing the name of Yahweh to nothing more than a magical incantation.
Some readers may think that I am opposed to using the name of Yahweh, but this is not the case. In our congregation, we utter the name every Sabbath when we face Jerusalem and say the Shema: “Here, O Israel, Yahweh is our God, Yahweh is One.” Every day throughout the week, I utter the Name in private prayer more times than I can count. However, I do avoid using the Name in casual conversation, because I truly do regard it as a Sacred Name which should be used only in a sacred context. I have witnessed some SN believers using the Name in a light-hearted manner in casual conversation, even while joking around.
My main complaint against the SN movement is not the use or non-use of the Name per se, but the fact that the linguistic superstition about “God” and “Lord” unnecessarily alienates and separates brethren from one another. The linguistic superstition discredits SN believers and gives Christians an excuse to reject everything else that is being restored through the Messianic movement — the Sabbath, the Feasts, the dietary laws, etc. Paul warned Timothy about teachers who are continually “doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings [suspicions]” (1 Tim. 6:4). I cannot think of a more accurate description of the SN movement.
SN writers also discredit themselves in the eyes of intelligent, thinking people by their sloppy scholarship. Some of it is so pathetic that calling it “sloppy scholarship” is actually a great overstatement and a compliment. SN writers often try to prove a point by making long, detailed linguistic arguments based on the details of a Hebrew word. They end up proving nothing to people who know Hebrew. All they end up doing is advertising in the most embarrassing manner their ignorance of linguistics and the Hebrew language — and in some cases, their ignorance of the English language, too.
I know a brother who leads a large Messianic organization based in Jerusalem. I once asked this brother what he thought about the SN movement. “We have scholars in Jerusalem who have done nothing but study the Hebrew texts for their entire lives, and even they are not 100% certain how God’s name is pronounced,” he said. “And yet we get letters from people in places like Arkansas telling us that they know exactly how the Name is pronounced, even though they have never studied Hebrew.” (No offense to people in Arkansas. He could have named any other state.)
One thing that has been cropping up in SN literature in recent years is the alteration of certain Hebrew words. The Hebrew word for Judah is no longer transliterated as Yehuda; now it is YAHudah. Jacob is now written YAHakob instead of Ya’akov. Jerusalem is no longer Yerushalayim; now it is YAHrushalayim (or, according to one writer, YAHUWSHELEM). Even Messiah is changed from Mashiach to Messi-YAH. It seems that whenever SN people see the letter “Y” in a Hebrew word, they think that there should be an “H” after it, so they remedy the problem by restoring the missing “H” that the wicked scribes allegedly removed in their attempt to suppress the Name. Anyone who knows Hebrew can see the foolishness of this. One SN writer (who since has declared that Yeshua of Nazareth was a false messiah), when trying to explain why Joseph’s name was really YAH-sef instead of Yosef, stated that “it doesn’t take much imagination” to see that wicked scribes, intent on hiding the Sacred Name, removed the “H” from the original name of YAH-sef and turned it into Yosef. Maybe it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to see this, but it certainly takes some imagination to see it. It also takes complete ignorance of the fact that the yo- prefix is the common, standard prefix that is used to conjugate third-person, masculine singular, future tense verbs in this category.
One of the most bizarre allegations I have seen in SN literature is the claim that the word Hallelujah is “a hybrid with one word of Hebrew and one word of Greek.” The SN writer who made this amazing discovery has “unleavened the hybrid” and restored the “correct” pronunciation for us. According to this SN writer, we should be saying “Halle-atah-YaHWaH” instead of “Hallelujah.” This erroneous conclusion would never have occurred if the writer had known that the plural imperative is formed by adding a vav suffix to the verb. This is something that a beginning Hebrew student learns in ulpan within the first couple weeks of study.
In another article, a SN brother writes about the different names people use to refer to the Messiah. This writer tells his readers that the Yeshu form used by unbelieving Jews is made up of three Hebrew letters which can form an acronym for “may his name and memory be blotted out.” This information is true. The three Hebrew words are “yimach sh’mo v’zikhro.” (See Stern’s Jewish NT Commentary, pg. 5.) However, this SN writer tells us that the three Hebrew words are “yiddish sh’mo w’zither.” This gross mis-information does not appear in some self-published rag that is obscure and unknown to SN people. It appears in a glossy SN periodical that has been around since 1937. If SN believers want to be taken seriously, they have to do better than that. And they have to do better than the SN believer who ended his letter of rebuke to me with these words: “I am shure you mean will, but lets speek the truth in love.”

Is Hand Washing Commanded? Yes… and No. Matthew 15 and Mark 7 In Context.

There is a lot of misinformation circulating about the ritual handwashing debated in the time the Gospels were written, and so let’s make the waters a bit clearer. For now we will just cover the actual hand-washing prayers because sometimes people get upset about them. In the future, we will cover the general first-century belief that not ritually washing the hands would defile food. I have to lay a groundwork in Temple purity before I even go there or it will not be understandable. There is a big difference between holy and common, and clean and unclean. We have to understand them all to understand what was going on here – otherwise we end up thinking that Messiah overturned the Laws of Moses and rebelled against God! There is so much more to these passages than meets the eye.

(EDIT #2 – this is a many part teaching designed for beginners. I have to teach things layer by layer. I am getting a lot of comments about “what I don’t seem to understand” that are going unpublished because a lot of those comments don’t reflect accurate information and sometimes steer people towards teachers who are a big part of the misunderstandings over this issue. In this teaching I ONLY covered the charge that the prayer itself is somehow sinful or adding to the Torah. I still need to talk about clean/unclean, holy/common before even get to first century ideas about ritual purity. I am not willing to publish comments that want to jump the gun without providing foundational background. I realize that this is unusual, but it is how I teach beginners – I am not teaching to impress people or to just spew information for people to accept. A lot of the comments I am getting would take another five blogs to deal with some of the problems. So, realize this is a place for beginners to learn, and I am starting off small and working my way to larger issues – but I am not going to just regurgitate information and expect people to accept it without actually teaching them why certain things are and are not true.)

I am sure you’ve all heard of the Pharisees, right? But what you probably don’t know is their history and how few there actually were in the first century – somewhere between five and six thousand. The Pharisees, or P’rushim (from the Hebrew meaning “to separate”) came to prominence, and often ruin, during the times of the Hasmoneans after the death of the last of the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt, Simon. During the reign of his grandson Aristobulus I (the first Hasmonean to describe himself as an actual king), some very bitter and deadly disputes rose up between the Pharisees, who believed in using the entire Hebrew Scriptures (like all Jews today), and the Sadducees, who believed in only the bare minimum of Torah (the first five books of Moses) – and what they did believe was very much twisted by their belief that there was no resurrection, nor final judgement, and so blessings had to be taken in this life. Note that when the Scriptures say “chief priests” or “High Priest” they are talking about the Sadducees, who were then buying the High Priesthood yearly from Rome. Although the Sadducees made up the chief priests and high priesthood, they were not the rank and file priests – like Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. As the Sadducees only accepted the first five books of Moses and had zero fear of judgment, it made them very dangerous and they were actually the party responsible for turning Yeshua/Jesus over to Rome to be executed as a political rebel against the Empire. The Pharisees, on the other hand, actually once warned Him away from a plot by Herod Antipas to kill Him (Luke 13.31).

The Pharisees, like most folks, were a mixed bag who were really hamstrung by living in a hyper-honor/shame culture. They were raised in a society where they had to compete for a perceived limited amount of honor (reputation) on behalf of their families. As Yeshua’s star rose, theirs fell and some responded by attacking Him, while others responded by following Him (Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea, and later, in the book of Acts, many others as we see in Acts 15). Paul and Gamaliel, who spared the apostles, were both Pharisees (Paul never renounced his Pharisee status as per Acts 23.6).

So besides the resurrection, what else did the Pharisees believe? Well, as with other Jewish groups during this time period, they believed that they were a living Temple. Yes, that isn’t a Christian concept. The Second Temple stood and the Jews believed that they were the living stones that made up a spiritual Temple – they embraced both the physical and spiritual realities. BECAUSE they believed that the people of God were collectively His Temple, they had some interesting views on having a relationship with God outside of the Jerusalem Temple – again, not really different than Christians. Most notably, because they saw themselves as a kingdom of priests (again, not a Christian concept), they believed in bringing some Temple purity standards into the home and most importantly, to the dinner table. The table was seen as the altar of the home, where covenant meals could be shared between themselves and God.

So what does this have to do with the prayers that Jews pray even today?

“Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.” (and there is a similar one spoken at the lighting of the Sabbath candles)

Wait, there is no commandment for that, is there? Yes… and no. The Pharisees, and to a large extent, other Jews of the time, considered themselves part of the living Temple, their table an altar, and each Israelite a priest of God’s Kingdom. Are you beginning to see where I am headed? Although they knew they were not and could not be Temple priests, they saw themselves as mediators and servants of God in the world, which are priestly functions. They began looking at the Temple commands for priests and bringing them into their daily lives. Was there a commandment regarding the washing of the hands and lighting of the lamps in the Temple? Absolutely. What we moderns get hung up on is the word “us” in those prayers. As part of a dyadic social group, they were not individualistic. When the priests in the Temple kept a commandment, they were all keeping it by extension. If a priest broke a commandment, they were all breaking it – the Nation was not so much a collection of individuals, but a single people. This is where the Jews and ancient Christians fundamentally differ from us. A commandment for one was considered to apply to all, even if a particular person could not physically perform it themselves. Did Messiah keep every single law? Only if we consider Him to be as one with the nation. He obviously could not physically keep the laws for women, or kings, or those for priests. But as each member of the nation kept the laws, they were collectively considered to be in good standing with God.

Ex 30 17 The Lord said to Moses, 18 “You shall also make a basin of bronze, with its stand of bronze, for washing. You shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it, 19 with which Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet. 20 When they go into the tent of meeting, or when they come near the altar to minister, to burn a food offering to the Lord, they shall wash with water, so that they may not die. 21 They shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they may not die. It shall be a statute forever to them, even to him and to his offspring throughout their generations.”

As the altar was a place of food offering for the Lord, the priests were required to wash hands and feet before even approaching it. So, the Pharisees honored God in their homes by reenacting this – were they wrong to call it a commandment? Nope. However, we see that Yeshua did not do this Himself – but He doesn’t criticise them for doing it either. Instead, He deftly changes the subject to how they ought to be cleansing themselves on the inside, as was commanded at Sinai, in the circumcision of their hearts. Ritual purity was nothing unless it was accompanied by the inner transformation that we should experience as God’s people.

What about the lighting of the Sabbath candles? I won’t do an extensive cut and paste here, but the priests were commanded to care for and light the Menorah in the Temple, as well as the fire on the altar. So was the lighting of the Sabbath flame (in those days an oil lamp) commanded? Yes, in a way. Remember, they are bringing the Temple into the home, as living stones.

Let’s look at the prayer again:

“Blessed are you, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has sanctified us through your commandments and has commanded us concerning the washing of hands.”

Nowhere does it say that God commanded us regarding the washing of hands in the home – and so this prayer is not a lie. God really did command us, as His Nation, concerning the washing of hands!

My reason for addressing this is neither to promote nor decry the prayers or the traditions, merely to explain the underlying thought. I honestly don’t approve or disapprove, I am ambivalent.  If you do it, I don’t care. If you refrain – you get the picture, I don’t care. Much gets obscured when folks have a definite stand on the issue – sometimes they feel the need to make intentions sinister or to overly excuse what was going on. I don’t participate in the hand washing or much other halakah, but it is very important to me to address the misinformation and knee-jerk negative reactions regarding this tradition. Sometimes we get pushed into judging something before we really understand why it was done, and when we are judging first-century biblical writings, it is incredibly important that we get things right. Yeshua didn’t do it, but He didn’t condemn anyone for doing it either. There are wars to be fought, and stands to be taken, but only a fool fights every tumbleweed that crosses his path just because it seems a bit foreign and sketchy. Let’s be wise and discerning before we plunge into battle with one another over things that Messiah Himself let go unchallenged.

Now, as for the belief that the actual eating with unwashed hands caused the food to become defiled – that’s another matter entirely. We will cover that in the future.

EDIT: I have been asked about this several times and so I will add a bit more. “We only know that Yeshua’s disciples didn’t wash their hands, not that He didn’t.” So to clarify this, we have to look at the Sage/disciple relationship (it is actually anachronistic to call the religious teachers of the day Rabbis – that will come later). Teachers took mainly young teenage boys as their disciples, and I imagine that all these young men were actually quite young, except for Peter (although I am 48 now so in my estimation, Peter probably counts as “very young” as well). The goal of a disciple was to learn everything their teacher knew, and to emulate him in every day. So really, when he was challenged as to the behavior of the disciples, the charge was more likely, “Why are you corrupting the youth?” – a far worse charge than simply personally transgressing their tradition. That being said, the Galillean Jews were very observant of the Traditions of the Elders, far more so than in Judea – and so I imagine he grew up doing this at home. I believe he stopped as an adult because of the need to address the faulty assumption that clean food could become defiled outside the Temple simply because of having unwashed hands – when we get to the next part, we will address that because Yeshua specifically talks about the inability to defile clean foods with unwashed hands.



“The Tombs Also Were Opened…” Matthew 27 in its Jewish Context

First of all, this is a risky sort of blog to write and I have been debating it for almost a year now, ever since I discovered an aggadic text about the Messiah dating from the 9th century of the common era – well, not so much discovered as read it in a book! Now, what is Aggadah and why is it important? Aggadah is legendary material, and full of myths that elaborate on Jewish beliefs on various subjects. The text I will be referring to in this article is Pesikta Rabatti, a collection of legends dealing with the Feasts. They do not detail actual events, and no one would confuse them with historical accounts, but relate concepts, beliefs, and/or larger truths that the authors wanted to convey. If you want to compare Jewish Aggadah with something Christian, we might choose Pilgrim’s Progress or the Screwtape Letters. It isn’t a perfect comparison, but we can all see how those writings convey truth through fanciful situations. The reason I want to introduce Aggadah to you is because this was a very common, popular, and completely accepted literary form that we even see in the Hebrew Scriptures. In our modern world, we have decided that accuracy is king – and further, that to be true something must be accurate, but this is a very modern mindset, one spawned during the Age of Reason in response to a growing scientific mindset. In order to compete with hard facts and figures, believers exalted accurate facts and figures over true concepts, and often over truth itself – as though truth can be confined by our limited understanding and rules, reduced to letters and numbers that we can comfortably grasp. Sadly, this creates problems when reading the Bible, which was written about truth, not in order to measure up to our almost idolatrous fascination with scientific modes of thought (and I am speaking as a Chemist married to a Chemical Engineer, so don’t think you can accuse me of being anti-science!). Scientific level accuracy is important, in science, but when it comes to larger truths, science falls short because we are very limited in both understanding and knowledge as compared to God.

I have always struggled with Matthew 27: 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many.

This is probably the most stunning claim in all of Scripture (short of the Resurrection itself), not because it is somehow unbelievable in a book filled with miracles, but because it is spoken of nowhere else – not in history, nor in any of the other accounts.  This would have happened during Passover week, and this was no small event. Did it really happen, or was this something that could only be understood within the context of Messianic expectations? Was it code for a certain concept floating around in the Messianic beliefs of the time? I will tell you right now that I do not have the answers and won’t argue this, at all. I put this out there only for educational purposes. I believe the Bible 100%, but in some cases, I believe we don’t always know how the author of a certain Gospel intended it to be read (this is more true for John than any other book). I believe the Bible is 100% truth. Just so we’re clear on that. I just believe that our ancestors have wandered far from the context of the people it was written by and to – whereas it was only written for us. Does that make sense? The Bible is for us, but we were not the original audience, nor did the authors write from our cultural mindset and point of view.

So, what if Matthew was using a well-known legend/belief in order to communicate a concept that would have been readily understood by his Jewish audience? In a way that they would completely understand, and have an “aha!” moment? Let’s look at that 9th century collection of Feast-related legends:


Pesiqta Rabatti 36 (parenthetical additions in red are mine)

“The Fathers of the World [Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob] will in the future rise up in the month of Nissan (the month of the Passover) and will speak to him(the Messiah): “Ephraim, our true Messiah! Even though we are your fathers, you are greater than we, for you suffered because of the sins of our children, and cruel punishments have come upon you the like of which have not come upon the early and the later generations, and you were put to ridicule and held in contempt by the nations of the world because of Israel, and you sat in darkness and blackness and your eyes saw no light, and your skin cleft to the bones, and your body dried up and was like wood, and your eyes grew dim from fasting, and your strength became like a potsherd. All this because of the sins of our children. Do you want that our children should enjoy the happiness that the Holy One, blessed be He, allotted to Israel, or perhaps, because of the great sufferings that have come upon you on their account, and because they imprisoned you in the jailhouse, your mind is not reconciled with them?”

And the Messiah answers them: “Fathers of the world! Everything I did, I did only for you and for your children, and for your honor and the honor of your children, so that they should enjoy this happiness the Holy One, blessed be He, has allotted to Israel.” (Reconciliation)

Then the fathers of the World say to him: “Ephraim, our True Messiah, let your mind be at ease, for you put at ease our minds and the mind of your Creator!”

R. Shimon ben Pazi said: “In the hour the Holy One, blessed be He, raises up the Messiah until the heaven of heavens and spreads over him the splendor of His Glory [to protect him] from the nations of the world, from the wicked Persians. And He says to him: ‘Ephraim, Our True Messiah, be you the judge over these peoples, and do to them whatever your soul wishes’. For had it not been for my compassion for you which became strong, they would have caused you to perish from the world in one moment…” [God] has mercy on him while he is imprisoned in the jailhouse, for every day the nations of the world gnash their teeth and blink their eyes and shake their heads and shoot out their lips… and roar against him like lions and want to swallow him… [And God says:] “I shall have mercy on him when he comes out of the house of prisoners, for not only one kingdom, or two kingdoms, or three kingdoms will come against him, but one hundred and forty kingdoms will surround him.” And the Holy One, blessed be He, says to him: “Ephraim, My True Messiah, fear them not, because all of them will die from the breath of your lips.

Instantly, the Holy One, blessed be He, makes seven canopies of precious stones and pearls for the Messiah, and from each canopy four rivers issue forth (in the ancient world, it was customary for four waterways to come out from a Temple/Ziggurat), of wine, milk and honey and pure balsam. And the Holy One, blessed be He, embraces him in front of the pious, and leads him under the canopy, and all the pious and the saintly and the heroes of the Tora (sic.) in every generation see him. And the Holy One, blessed be He, says to the pious: “Pious of the world! So far Ephraim, My True Messiah, has not taken [compensation for as much as] one half of his sufferings, I still have one measure that I shall give him, which no eye has ever seen…” In the hour the Holy One, blessed be He, calls the North Wind and the South Wind and says to them: “Come, honor Ephraim, My True Messiah, and spread before him all kinds of spices from the Garden of Eden..” (taken from Patai, Raphael The Messiah Texts, 1998 edition, pp 113-4)


I highlighted some interesting features in blue, but I am going to focus on very little of the text. It is certainly worthy of being thoroughly investigated and compared to Scripture, but that is beyond the scope of this article.

For now, I want to focus on a few things (1) the expectation of a hierarchy of resurrection, with the Patriarchs rising first from the dead in some traditions; (2) the suffering Messiah motif, on behalf of/because of the children of the Patriarchs; (3) the exaltation of Messiah to the heaven of heavens; (4) the installment of Messiah in a temple/temples.

The Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are buried in Hebron, south of the city of Jerusalem. According to the pseudepigraphic (false name) writings of the few hundred years before the coming of Yeshua, there was a belief that there would be a definite order to the resurrection. In the second century BCE, the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs – specifically the Testament of Benjamin 10.6-8 – states that the order of Resurrection would be first Enoch, then Seth, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the twelve Patriarchs and that they would be “changed” (what we would call glorified bodies). So when we see, in Pesiqta Rabatti, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob “rising up in the month of Nissan” during the very month of the year that Yeshua died and resurrected – this is definitely spoken in terms of the resurrection of the dead, a basic first-century belief for all Jews except the Sadducees. The implication is that they have risen up first and pay tribute to the Messiah, calling him “greater than we” during the Passover week.

The next motif we see is the Suffering Servant, which we are all familiar with having its source not only in Isaiah 53, but also in the story of Joseph. The idea of a messiah figure who suffers for the sake of all Israel (as Joseph did on behalf of his family, and because of their sins), saving them from death as a result of that suffering and being exalted to the right hand of God (or Pharaoh, in Joseph’s case) predated Yeshua by a long shot. In Pesikta Rabatti, we see all the classic themes from the Messiah ben Yosef (Messiah “son of” Joseph, coming in the style of Joseph). Here he is called Ephraim because Ephraim was the literal son of Joseph in Scripture, and his name is often used interchangeably with David in terms of representing the Messiah.  Again, we see Messiah exalted during the Passover week.             

The exaltation of Messiah to the heaven of heavens should have caught your eye immediately – as we see this in Mark 16.19,  Luke 24.51, and Acts 1.9. No surprises there, this was in no way controversial within Judaism.             

The installment of Messiah into a Temple (seven Temples in this case), hearkens back to Revelation and the description of the Holy Jerusalem where Messiah sits as King for a thousand years, as well as that found in Ezekiel 40-44.  These are all well-established Scriptural themes.           

So, all this being said, I need to summarize. The idea of the dead rising from the grave to testify of Messiah was not limited to the Gospel account in Matthew 27, but was an existing motif within the Messianic expectations of Judaism. Was this an Aggadic motif in Matthew meant to serve the purpose of driving home the truth that Messiah ben Yosef had indeed come in the person of Yeshua according to some Rabbinic expectations? Was it meant to be taken literally, or as Aggadah? As historical truth, or as an allegory? Did the tombs of Macpelah open and did the Patriarchs come to Jerusalem during Passover to testify about Messiah, or would this have been considered a first-century figure of speech? Either way, the message is the same and very, very Jewish – Ephraim, the One True Messiah, has come.    





Honor, Shame, and the Temple of Dagon: I Sam 5&6 in Context

I love this story, really I do and always have – but an understanding of Honor and Shame culture makes it even better. I was recently teaching it to a special needs adult (which meant that I had to teach every ounce of context as I went through – it’s actually an excellent way of pulling as much meaning out of the text as possible) and I was just floored by the things I had missed on my last read through.

Of course, Biblical scholars and secular archaeologists have long been aware that the stories about Dagon being a fish god are just that – stories – namely, Jewish Midrash developed long after the memory of true Dagan worship had faded. Instead, from the enormous amount of archaeological evidence we have unearthed (and by “we,” I mean other people), it is now clear that Dagon of the Philistines was a grain god (click to read) – which I can now support from the Biblical text as well. But that’s just a side issue – let’s get to the funny part.

This account doesn’t start out funny, much like the events chronicled in the Book of Esther, but builds to a series of hilarious climaxes. I will skip the disastrous battle against the Philistines in chapter 4, and the demise of Hophni and Phineas (good riddance) in order to begin in I Sam 5:1 “And the Philistines took the ark of God and brought it from Eben Ha’ezer to Ashdod.”

Eben Ha’ezer is actually the formal form of the well-known name Ebenezer – “the stone of help” – as Ebenezer Scrooge was the hardened curmudgeon who became a generous savior, so Eben Ha’ezer represents a place where God (our rock) is our helper. However, Israel acted presumptuously in removing the Ark from the permanent Tabernacle structure in Shiloh and placed it on the battlefield – specifically in the hands of two adulterous, encroaching, blasphemers. This is our first honor/shame milestone of the story – the holiest piece of furniture on earth was carried into battle by the most dishonorable of men, men whose status as priests made their offenses against God astronomically worse. This was a direct affront to God’s honor and so what did He do?

In the ancient world, remember, honor had nothing to do with a man’s integrity but instead his reputation. They didn’t care who you were on the inside, as we would judge honor, but who you were by birth and titles, and how you measured up to other men. Reputation was the lifeblood of the ancient world – if you had it, you had a golden ticket to whatever you desired, but if you had no honor, no one would have anything to do with you, or your sons or daughters. (If you are not acquainted with Honor and Shame culture, I suggest reading my family curriculum on the subject, which was designed for non-scholars).

Well, God returned the dishonor back upon the Israelites – they had no right to use Him like that, placing Him in the hands of sinful men. So God placed His Ark in the hands of heathen men who removed it entirely from the country. As the wife of Phineas had prophetically uttered in I Sam 4:22 “The esteem (honor) has departed from Israel, for the Ark of God has been taken.”

Going forward, we see that the Ark is taken into the house (a Biblical euphemism for a temple) of Dagon and set right by the idol of Dagon. Now, an idol was not believed to be the actual god itself, but instead, an intermediary – by feeding, bathing, perfuming, clothing, etc. the idol, they served as a sort of palace staff. They literally believed that the real Dagon out there in the universe was taking in sustenance and receiving rest as they cared for his idol, by proxy. This was called the house of a god for good reason – that is exactly how they saw it.

Imagine their horror when they woke up the next morning and the priests went into the “house” to awaken their god in order to bathe, perfume, clothe and feed him, only to find that it had fallen on its face “before the ark of the LORD.” In their eyes, their god was found to be prostrated before the Ark, and therefore was discovered worshipping the God of the Israelites. This would have been extremely puzzling as, in their eyes, Dagon had just defeated YHVH in battle (otherwise how could they have captured the Ark?). Why was Dagon worshipping his defeated foe? Kinda shameful, really, but they propped him back up, cared for him and went away. Who knows, maybe they hadn’t been feeding him enough and he passed out, or maybe the wine libation the day before had been a bit too strong. Did I sound like Elijah mocking the prophets of Ba’al there (I Kings 18)? Yeah, that was on purpose.

I imagine they were all anxious to find out what would happen the next day, and so they rose early and entered into the house of Dagon only to find, horror or horrors, Dagon was lying prostrate again – only this time two of the three most honorable parts of its body – the head and hands, were cut off. If you are familiar with ancient Near Eastern executions, you know that beheading was the least honorable death and the removal of hands was extremely shameful. Not only that, but they were laying on the threshold.

Threshold sacrifices were common in the ancient world, and I highly recommend H Clay Trumbull’s excellent work “The Threshold Covenant.” I did not cover this type of Covenant in my curriculum as it was outside the scope of the book, “Ten Commandments and the Covenants of Promise,” but they are very important to understand. The threshold of an ancient home or Temple would often have a small bowl cut or carved into the threshold – this is the place where animals were sacrificed at the arrival of an important guest, and whose meat would later be eaten in honor of that guest. The blood of the animal would fill the bowl in the threshold, hence the name of this type of sacrifice.

So, what we see here is the sacrifice of Dagon at the doorway to his own house in honor of YHVH. Dagon has not only been shamed in worshiping another god, a defeated god (in the eyes of the Philistines) but now he has been executed in the most painfully shameful way imaginable – in his own home, like an animal. Ouch.

But wait, there’s more. God started striking the Philistines with wasting tumors (5;6, 9) and, as we find out later, crop eating rats (6:11). They moved the Ark from city to city until it came to Ekron, and the inhabitants of that city would not allow it to be brought inside. So where did it go? This is important – and funny, but only when we realize that Dagon was a god of grain and not fish.

I Sam 6:1 “And the Ark of the LORD was in the field of the Philistines for seven new moons.”

Did you catch that? The Ark was placed in the midst of a field – that was Dagon’s domain – and for seven months Dagon couldn’t do a thing about it. This was seriously shameful. Not only couldn’t Dagon protect them, or himself, in the cities, in his own house – but he was also shown to be utterly impotent in his own cosmic functional domain – a field of crops. This was really bad – but it makes the story so much funnier.

I won’t bother going through the rest of the story because the focus of this teaching is very narrow, but it just goes to show how there are no small details in Scripture – not even the word “field” in I Sam 6:1 that we tend to read over without a second thought.


Edit: Check out Lina’s comment, she’s absolutely right –

You have really whet my appetite to dig a little deeper. In rereading the account of Shimshon (Simson) in Judges 16, I couldn’t help but notice a possible correlation between him being humiliated & made to work ‘grinding the grain’ and that it was during the P’listim coming together to boast of their god Dagon offering him sacrifices that יהוה intervened strengthening his servant in destroying the things they held sacred!

Praised be He!🙌

Matthew Vander Els: In Judges 15, the foxes with the burning tails ran through the Philistine grain fields, as well.


Sneak Peak at Context for Adults: Sexuality, Social Identity and Kinship Relations in the Bible

I had to choose a chapter that could largely stand on its own, so I went with “Lesson 39 – If Moses Allowed Divorce, Why Did Jesus Call Remarriage After Divorce Adultery?” The other lessons required a good working knowledge of group social dynamics, which I spend the first ten lessons teaching in depth, but this one only really required a knowledge of the first-century controversy in question – that of “any cause” or “every cause” divorce. Hopefully, we will have this book on the market in about a month. Just polishing it up!


Without context, the Bible can be used to do terrible harm to people. In this case, we are going to need to talk about three sections of Scripture that have been misused because of translational problems as well as a lack of knowledge concerning the “any cause” divorces of the first century. First, let’s look at the three sections of Scripture in question:

Deut 24:1-2 “When a man hath taken a wife and married her, and it come to pass that she find no favour in his eyes, because he hath found some uncleanness in her: then let him write her a bill of divorcement, and give it in her hand, and send her out of his house.

And when she is departed out of his house, she may go and be another man’s wife.”

Matt 5:31-32 “It hath been said, Whosoever shall put away his wife, let him give her a writing of divorcement: But I say unto you, That whosoever shall put away his wife, saving for the cause of fornication, causeth her to commit adultery: and whosoever shall marry her that is divorced committeth adultery.”

Matt 19:3-9 The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him, Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause? And he answered and said unto them, Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, And said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh?  Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder. They say unto him, Why did Moses then command to give a writing of divorcement, and to put her away? He saith unto them, Moses because of the hardness of your hearts suffered you to put away your wives: but from the beginning it was not so. And I say unto you, Whosoever shall put away his wife, except it be for fornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and whoso marrieth her which is put away doth commit adultery.

As we learn from the Babylonian Talmud, in Gittin 90a, during the first century BCE the House of Hillel Pharisees enacted a ruling stating that a man could divorce his wife for any cause. Although the intent of Deuteronomy 24 was clearly to allow divorce in the case of adultery, aka “uncleanness,” Hillel expanded that ruling to allow a man to send his wife out for the smallest of offenses – even if she merely burned his meal. As you can imagine, based upon what we have learned so far, this left a wife in a terrible predicament. Even if her husband paid the ketubah money owed with a divorce, it would only last so long and women in those days could rarely find respectable work.  So what question was Jesus really being asked?

“Do we (men) have the right to divorce our wives for any reason whatsoever? Do you agree with Hillel’s ruling?”

The answer was undoubtedly not what many of them wanted to hear. Tragically, divorce had become rampant in the time of Jesus – not a mutual divorce as we see in modern times, but a one-sided affair where a woman had absolutely no say. Men had gotten used to having absolute power over their women, and they were using the Bible as their justification. The Bible certainly permitted divorce based on a breach of the marriage covenant, but not over trivialities.

How did Jesus reply?

“God created marriage to be eternal, and when you send your unemployable wives out into the world shamed and without support over insignificant issues, God is not going to see your actions as justified. She is going to be forced to remarry to survive, but as far as God is concerned, you didn’t divorce her legally, and so her adultery is your crime as she is still your wife and your responsibility; this was not her choice. And the guy she marries? He is going to be involved in adultery too – because your callous, selfish decision made a terrible mess.”

What Jesus is addressing here was just one aspect of the systemic societal evil in the first century. Was divorce allowed under the Law? – Yes, absolutely. Was remarriage after divorce allowed? – According to Deut 24, yes. Was “any cause” divorce acceptable? – Absolutely not. There is nothing righteous about treating your wife like she is not your family, throwing her out of the house without her having any say in the matter when she is not an adulteress. The Matthew texts make it clear that a marriage cannot have a one-sided dissolution. It isn’t over until both sides say it is over or until one side destroys that bond through sexual sin. One partner walking away does not unilaterally sever the covenant bond without their spouse’s permission. Modern divorce is, in some ways, more like the Biblical model – despite the fact that we still divorce far too easily. One person can’t just decide that the marriage is over – it has to be a mutual decision (or at the very least, it can be contested), ratified in the courts, in order for the petitioner to remarry. First-century men, however, were casting their wives aside and taking on new brides – whether their wives approved or not. This was considered adultery – as their wives rights in the matter were being taken into account, by God.

There is a reason why sexual relations in the Bible are so often referred to as “humbling” a woman – that humbling is not necessarily evil or bad, but to have one’s way with a woman and then abandon her leaves her feeling violated and demeaned. Marital sexual relations, on the other hand, should leave a woman feeling valued and loved. There is a humility that exists between a man and a woman after sex, a humility that can either result in healthy intimacy or destructive shame.  God’s intention was for sexual intimacy to bind a man and a woman together honorably for life, not to give them cause for regrets, embarrassment, and feelings of abandonment and betrayal.

Women were created to be extremely emotionally vulnerable to rejection, and any study into honor/shame dynamics will verify that a woman’s reputation is far more easily damaged than a man’s, and is not easily recovered even if she is later found to be innocent. To be thrown out of her home by her husband merely because she is no longer attractive, or because he is tired of her, or becomes interested in someone younger, strikes at the heart of a woman’s basic sense of self-worth. It is the epitome of what it means to be unloving to one’s neighbor. Even knowing that her husband could legally abandon her, seemingly with the blessing of God, would have been a cause for much stress in the life of any married woman.

I want you to notice what Jesus didn’t say, “Any of you who have married a divorced woman now need to divorce her, or you are sinning.” He said nothing of the sort, or even hinted at it. New marriages produce children, and God is in no way honored when yet another home is broken apart. Frequently, Jesus addressed the real core problem without presenting a solution because there was no longer any good solution except – “don’t do this anymore.” Jesus was telling them that “any cause” divorce was not justified in the eyes of God and that they needed to start honoring the marriages they were in now. “Any cause” divorce was unjust, cruel and arbitrary – making each man a potential tyrant in his own home, and his wife little more than an expendable slave subject to the whim of her master.

Homework: In Ten Commandments and the Covenants of Promise, I taught a character lesson about being true to one’s marriage covenant partner. As we discussed, Hillel said that divorce should be permitted even if your wife burns a meal, but Shammai recognized that a covenant between people cannot exist if there is no expectation of forgiveness. When a woman marries a man, she needs to know that as she gets older, he will remain true to her. She needs to know that doing her best will always be enough. The same goes for wives with their husbands; we must be loyal to each other unless there is an actual betrayal. My husband and I have been married for twenty-six years, and neither one of us is getting any better looking! I want you to imagine a world where your spouse had the legal authority to hand you a sheet of paper in front of witnesses and walk out the door (or rather, push you out the door) in a society without child support, where a woman had no honorable professional opportunities and whose family might not want the shame of taking her back in. How would that reflect upon your understanding of the nature of God’s covenants? Would you trust Him that forever means forever, or would you think that He is capable of abandoning His own covenant people? Would “Great is Thy Faithfulness” ever have been written if we thought He wasn’t long-suffering?

The Woman with the Issue of Blood – The Story Behind the Story

I love it when I find something that I have never heard taught before.

In my studies of Israelite marriage and betrothal customs and laws, I was reading the Kehati Mishnah Commentary of Tractate Ketubot. Tucked away in Chapter 4, Mishnah 9 was a remarkable passage about the rights of a man to divorce his ailing wife and the various opinions of scholars on the subject, most notably Rambam and Ravad, both 12th-century commentators on the Mishnah. The Mishnah (finalized in 200 CE by Yehudah haNasi) contains Sanhedrin rulings and opinions gathered over the course of several centuries related to Torah Law – it is not much different than the formal written proceedings of the United States Supreme Court in that we have basic laws, and it is the job of the Courts to interpret those laws when disputes and cases come before them. The Sanhedrin, the “supreme court” of the Jews, served in that function as outlined in Exodus 16, as well as Deut 16, and 17.

As with the “right to privacy” here in America, which originally meant limitations on the right of the government to illegal search and seizure without probable legal cause, yet was later twisted into the right of a woman to terminate her pregnancy – we also have cases of the Law of God being twisted out of its original purpose of commanding us to love our neighbors.

I believe that the “woman with the issue of blood” mentioned in Matthew 5, Mark 9, and Luke 8 suffered under just this type of twisting of the intention of the Law by men who were very much the products of their time:

Mark 9:25 And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years,26 and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. 27 She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. 28 For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” 29 And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.30 And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” 31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’” 32 And he looked around to see who had done it. 33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth34 And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

Kehati Mishnah Tractate Ketubot 4.9:

“If she was taken captive, he is obligated to ransom her. And if he said, “Here is her get (her divorce document) and her ketubah (the money owed her by contract if divorced), let her ransom herself!” – he is not allowed. If she fell ill, he is responsible for her healing. If he said, “Here is her get and her ketubah, let her heal herself!” – he is allowed.” (Pinchas Kehati, translated by Edward Levin, Mishnah Seder Nashim Vol 1, Ketobot pg 63-4)

Although this may sound confusing, when taken in context with the rest of the Tractate, and especially the whole of Chapter 4, it states that a man was not allowed to refuse to ransom his wife if she was taken captive. He could not simply take the opportunity to get rid of her by saying, “Wow, what a stroke of luck, I’ll just divorce her and give her the 200 dinars (if she was a virgin when he married her, otherwise 100 dinars) and she can ransom herself!” It was a literal court order that no matter what was written in the ketubah, he was in fact required to ransom his wife. In fact, it has been eye-opening learning exactly what was in a ketubah originally – it made divorce prohibitively expensive.

If the wife was sick, however, that was a different situation which was subject to much commentary. Healing was a part of the maintenance a husband owed his wife, in exchange for her acting the part of a wife – but a divorced wife was entitled to no such care from her husband. The question became: when can you divorce a sick wife?

RAMBAM (Maimonides aka Moshe ben Maimon d. 1204) interpreted this ruling as saying that if a woman had been ill for a long time and it was going to be too costly to care for her, a man could, in fact, divorce her if he was willing to give her the get and ketubah – however, in Hilcot Ishut 14.17 he plainly stated that “this is unfitting and improper behavior.” In other words, they may have ruled that this was kosher, but Rambam didn’t approve. As Rambam is the most respected commentator in history, his view is going to reflect the overwhelming majority view among Jews today.

RAVAD (Abraham ben David d. 1198) claimed that the case law applied only to a woman who was not bedridden. A bedridden wife had to be cared for until she healed or died. Therefore, a woman who was sick but not bedridden could be given a divorce and her inheritance money and forced to fend for herself. This interpretation brings us to the woman with the issue of blood.

The woman in the Gospel accounts was obviously not bedridden, as she was able to approach Yeshua and reach out for the hem of his garment. She had also spent “all that she had” in trying to be cured. I submit that this woman, sick for twelve years, had probably been cast off and paid off by her husband once it became clear that her disease would render her unable to provide him with children. A woman who was constantly bleeding, as per Torah Law, could never be approached sexually – it was an abomination (Lev 18:19). Because he could no longer derive that benefit from her, he divorced her and gave her the (probably) 200 dinars owed to her by the ketubah.

As Rambam rightly declared, “unfitting and improper behavior” indeed.

The woman who approached Yeshua committed no sin in doing so, as it was no sin either to be unclean or to render someone else unclean via an issue of blood (excepting in the case of sexual contact) as long as it was not done within a sacred area – in fact, anyone who wished to go to the inner Temple Courts would have had to mikvah and wait until after sundown anyway, and this changed nothing. If I am correct, then this was an ailing woman who had been handed a divorce by her husband, along with her inheritance money, and booted from her home. Her father and brothers owed her nothing once she was married, so she was probably on her own and had spent all of her money in a desperate attempt to be cured. At this point, her life was pretty much hopeless. She could not marry, or earn a living; she had no access to modern medicine and no money left for it anyway – this prophet from Galilee was her only hope in the world. And she believed with all her heart that merely touching his garment would heal her.

So she reached out and touched the hem of his garment – the hem of the firstborn son which traditionally carried the authority of the family. (If you are interested in the ancient context of the hem of the firstborn son, check out “The Hem and Garment Concept Block”)

I find it interesting, this phrase, “Who touched my garments?”

As a divorced woman, unattached to her father, her brothers, or a husband, she lacked identity in that world. She couldn’t say that she was X, wife of Y or mother of Z. Because of her issue of blood, she had been deprived of her identity as a woman – that of wife and mother – and when the Word says that she “told Him the whole truth,” I am pretty sure that she probably told Him a story akin to the one I just laid out for you.

How does Yeshua respond?

Daughter, your faith has made you well….”

Did you catch that? He gave her an identity again. Yeshua gave her life back, her health, her identity, and her honor as well. He reminded her (and the entire crowd) that even though her husband had abandoned her, she was still a daughter of Abraham. Yeshua had ushered her back into the realm of the living. Her husband unjustly cast her aside, while the Bridegroom, in an act of compassionate justice, healed her and gave her honor back.

Twisted Scripture: Do We Really Get Blessed for Leaving Our Family?

Someone asked me a question on social media this morning and I am so glad they did! Having just finished a writing book on the community mindset and kinship relations of the ancient Near Eastern and First Century world of the Hebrew Bible, the time is ripe to tackle Matthew 19:29:

And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. (ESV)

Sadly, in our modern world we get overly dramatic about this very dramatic verse – but in the entirely wrong direction. As Western individualists, we do not even begin to comprehend the absolute uniformity of belief that existed within ancient families – and how radical belief in Yeshua as the Divine Messiah truly became. We presume that this verse gives people permission to abandon unbelieving family, sometimes even over the slightest differences (let’s face it, for some folks there are no small issues). Of course, along with these delusions of permission to walk out come fantasies of returning one day with soap poisoning and then they will be sorry, or not. Maybe not.

Anyway, I routinely get asked about this verse from people who are warned that they are in sin if they don’t leave a spouse who does this or that thing because they honestly and genuinely don’t believe that Torah is for Christians today. So, let’s investigate this in context. But before we do – I want to tell you what I always tell them:

“Is your spouse guilty of anything other than being the exact same person you fell in love with and swore an oath before God to love, honor and cherish? You changed and they didn’t – you don’t get to punish them for that. They are the person you committed to, don’t blame them for being that person.”

People in the ancient world were defined by their family unit:

Deborah, wife of Lappidoth

David, son of Jessie

Mary and Martha, sisters of Lazarus

Mary, wife of Cleopas

Jonathan, son of Saul

Identification by family told people who you were, your honor level within the community, identified your beliefs, and whether or not you could be trusted. If the head of the clan believed in and worshiped god X, then so did everyone else in the family from greatest to least. Period. It wasn’t like it is today where the same family could conceivably be made up of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Hindus. Such a situation in the ancient world was unthinkable! The kinship group (extended family unit) was a sacred thing – loyalty towards one another was at the very core. Many of the commandments we take for granted – loving your neighbor commandments – were instituted because in the ancient world you loved your kin and to heck in a handbasket with anyone on the outside. That kind of absolute unity required, well, absolute uniformity of belief on everything from religion to politics. Any deviation introduced chaos into the family unit and was seen as the height of selfishness – truly destructive behavior. To have a different belief was to “leave” your house (not your physical abode but your extended family unit’s core values), brothers and sisters (the most sacred of all kinship relations was that with your siblings), father (and the beliefs he set for the family), mother (and her diligent instruction in the beliefs of the father), children (and whatever you might have already trained them up in), and lands (literally meaning cultivated fields, which I believe is metaphoric language relating back to that which is inherited from the fathers – in those times, the most important inheritance was land).

To accept Yeshua as the Divine Messiah and the coming Davidic King,  which many were beginning to do before His death, would potentially mean a significant break with the beliefs of the rest of the family. Jews were deeply divided about Yeshua, both before and after His death and resurrection. At one point, it is believed that up to 20% of Jews accepted Him as the Messiah – a staggering number but certainly not the majority. One out of five family members believing something different than the rest – it may not seem huge in a world where we prize individuality and freedom to think and choose for ourselves what to believe – but that world was created at the Cross, before the cross such freedom never existed. It was practically unthinkable and very, very rare.

It had already begun long before Yeshua’s death – people were divided over Him. It was causing problems but Yeshua assured His followers that it was not, in fact, evil to break with family uniformity in order to come to faith.

What Yeshua would never countenance is people actually breaking relationship, on their end, with family over Him. Destruction of family strikes at the heart of everything the Bible stands for. When Abraham left Ur, he was in his seventies, and he took with him his wife and entire family unit. Abraham changed location – he didn’t pick up and abandon people just because they disagreed and we have no evidence that he ever broke relationship with his kin – in fact we know he didn’t because he sent his servant back to his still loving family in order to procure a bride for Isaac.  Abraham moved, yes, but never abandoned. He is our example, and yet in the first century, we add a new wrinkle and Yeshua makes it possible, in fact, gives permission, for people to lovingly believe in Him on an individual basis.

It may not seem radical to us, but Yeshua was addressing a very real problem that existed within very real first century families. It gives us permission to be lovingly separate in a belief, not license to act like boorish toddlers who threaten to run away if everyone refuses to bow to our beliefs. After all, what family would look kindly upon any belief that would break apart loving relationships? They would, rather, see it as proof of being decidedly un-Christlike and perhaps even dangerously cultish.

As my brother Ryan White mentioned when I brought this up this morning, “Allegiance to your current kinship group should never trump relationship with God.”


An excellent starting place for learning about kinship relations and Biblical social sciences, in general, is David deSilva’s Honor, Patronage, kinship and Purity.

Look for my next book in a few months – still waffling on the title.

“Come Out of Her My People” – Zionism and Jeremiah 51 in Context

Zionism: The national movement for the return of the Jewish people to their homeland and the resumption of Jewish sovereignty to the Land of Israel.

You know, we see from Scriptures that Babylon is not entirely bad. Before entering exile, the Jews were not monotheistic – they were henotheistic – worshiping many gods but acknowledging Adonai as the head of the pantheon, the top god. King David even had a teraphim in his bedroom that Michal placed in their bed to distract the soldiers (I Sam 19). It began after the death of Joshua and wasn’t because they wanted to insult God – it’s just an indication that we all read the Scriptures through our unique cultural context and assumptions. The entire world was non-exclusively polytheistic (meaning the multiple gods they served were not jealous) – henotheism was a step up from that, not having any gods BEFORE Adonai, just beneath Him. They saw Him as jealous, but not that jealous. We see that this was unacceptable to Adonai and the prophets repeatedly warned the people, and yet we see Adonai’s patience. They really were trying to do what was right, but they weren’t quite understanding. Every other pantheon had greater and lesser gods who controlled different cosmic functions – polytheism was just an indication that no one thought one god could do it all alone. Sometimes they had more gods and sometimes very few, who were worshiped alongside Adonai – until the exile.

Exile changed Judaism forever; it was a major correction. The Jews were engulfed into a truly polytheistic society and, because of this, they were allowed great religious freedom to worship Adonai. Horrified by what life was truly like in a society bereft of the One True God, they chose to worship Him exclusively, becoming enormously concerned with what the Scriptures said about acceptable worship, and that worship has remained exclusive to this day. 
The original idea behind a vaccine is this: being infected with a controllable measure of a virus at a certain stage in its life cycle, and being able to suffer through it and overcome it naturally, builds the immune system to give immunity. The body learns what the disease looks like and learns how to deal with it. The early vaccines did that incredibly well. (Not an invitation to talk about vaccines, only the Bible). That was Babylon – God’s vaccine against idolatry. The Jews got a snootful of the real thing and the true lack of freedom that people have within it to be led by and obey God’s laws. As a result, the Judaism that emerged from Babylon was hyper anti-idolatrous. This hypersensitivity was a direct lead up to the Maccabean revolt – the Jews were wanting to die before going the path of betraying God ever again. A great many did die – they allowed themselves to be slaughtered instead of fighting on the Sabbath, they endured torture rather than eat idol meat, the mothers illegally circumcised their male babies only to die with them hung around their own necks.
Why was the command given, “Come out of her my people?”(Jer 51:41). Well, they had been sent to Babylon against their will – Nebuchadnezzar, a brutal and idolatrous man, was used as God’s own tool – His servant (Jer 27:6). But Nebuchadnezzar had gone too far; he had been too brutal, he enjoyed his job. God often uses the unrighteous to discipline His people, but woe to the man who enjoys doing it, who inflicts too much punishment and shows not enough mercy and refuses to give God His due respect afterward. When the discipline is done, what happens to the people who went too far? Who relished slaughtering the apple of God’s eye? They have to be judged themselves! And they were – by Cyrus the Great, who destroyed Nebuchadnezzar’s line. The Jews were warned to flee out of the way of the coming destruction – not from idolatry. Babylon was an incredibly comfortable place, the commercial center of the world – and they had religious freedom. There were some bumps along the way where kings were manipulated into actions that put the Jews in jeopardy, but all in all, the Jews were safe and cozy there, they were prosperous and influential – it was hard to contemplate leaving and in fact, at that point, they had nowhere to go, really, but this was a call to get ready to go. They were subjects of the Babylonian empire with no homeland of their own to legally return to yet – but that would change.
Cyrus II, the “Great” would change that, and they would be able to leave in the last half of the sixth century BCE, able to go back to a very hazardous Israel to rebuild the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem. Those who did, faced hardship and death, a total loss of comfort and the status they had in the Empire. It was somewhat like the prospect of those who leave America and make Aliyah today. Israel is good, it is the Land of my King and always will be, but those who go are leaving a very safe and very easy way of life here in order to go to a place where living is expensive, jobs are hard to get unless you speak Hebrew as well as a native born, and the threat of being murdered by terrorists is very real.
Still, the call to “Come out of her” is spiritually always before us, not just the Jews. Are we willing to leave our ease and comfort to go where God is leading us, away from what we have always known? Following God is always difficult – it rarely takes us over well-tread paths, it is not comfortable, it comes at great cost to ourselves, and sometimes it is not safe. And yet, where is God? Is God calling us to live well-fed in our city, suburban or country homes, pleased with ourselves and our safe religious lives, or does he call us to turn our eyes away from all that ease when the time comes?
The Jews who did not “Come out of her,” who refused to go rebuild Jerusalem in 530 BCE, ended up being faced with slaughter at the hands of Haman around fifty years later during the rule of Cyrus’ grandson Xerxes I. It was only after this genocidal attempt that many more Jews made Aliyah under Artaxerxes – the king mentioned in the chronicles of Ezra and Nehemiah .

Sadly, it became popular within Christianity, during the Protestant/Catholic wars, to mischaracterize this call to “Come out of her” as a clarion call against “Babylonian” idolatry, but this isn’t the context – in fact, Babylon’s idolatry barely gets a mention in the entire chapter; when it does, it is in relation to their being shamed as part of God’s overall vengeance. Furthermore, when the danger of idolatry is mentioned in the Bible, it is in connection with Egypt, Canaan, and Jeroboam. Babylon, on the other hand, is overwhelmingly referenced in respect to commerce, military might, and the luxury provided by the two. God didn’t send Israel into exile to introduce them to idolatry, but to cure them of it and make them sick of it before they could rebuild the Temple as commanded in Haggai 1.

God gave Nebuchadnezzar the authority to subdue the people as well as the nations of the Earth, but he misused his power and was unspeakably cruel, as were his descendants. He amassed tremendous wealth – Babylon was probably the greatest commercial giant of the ancient world. Hence the head of the statue in his dream was made of solid gold. The wealth of the world was centered in Babylon, it was the merchant’s equivalent of Mecca – and the whole world was drunk off of the luxury and profits – not the religion. After all, Babylon was simply one of a great many heathen nations – not unique in the ancient world. They were all entirely idolatrous, every single nation, and so Babylon was not unique in that way. Babylon’s uniqueness lay in her military prowess and especially in her commercial dominance.

 Babylon was sent to punish God’s people and went overboard. Babylon destroyed the filth that had overtaken God’s Temple and His city Jerusalem and went overboard. Once the seventy years of wrath were completed, God had achieved His vengeance, as Jeremiah 51 clearly shows. Babylon dishonored God in every way, instead of honoring Him as they should – and when Nabonidus took the sacred Temple vessels and placed them into the hands of heathens to drink to the honor of the gods of silver and gold, that was the final straw. Jer 51:24 gives the final sentence against Babylon:
“I will repay Babylon and all the inhabitants of Chaldea before your very eyes for all the evil that they have done **in Zion,** declares the Lord.”
God’s honor was tied up in Zion – it still is. That’s why all the nations still fight over Jerusalem, why every nation seeks out a place for their god there. Islam, for example, sets up mosques over the holy ground of any other religious site they destroy – to shame defeated gods and, by extension, the people who worship them. Since the end of World War II and even long before, Zionists have been crying out “Come out of her my people” because they see now what too many Jews of Babylon did not understand: If the Jews had all returned to Israel in the time of the initial decree of Cyrus, then no one would have been able to harm them or subjugate them. There were enough Jews in the world at that point that their sheer numbers would have overwhelmed the Samaritans, they could have rebuilt the walls and Temple quickly, and they could have avoided much of the bloodshed under the later Seleucids.
“Come out of her my people.” It is a statement of reality – you can generally only be persecuted when you live in small pockets around the world – like the 1% of the pre-WWII German population whose passports were taken easily and whose voting rights and jobs were taken just as effortlessly. Of course, superior weaponry can change that – as we saw in Apartheid South-Africa where the minority terrorized the majority. In general, however, it holds true. As Gandhi taught the Indian people, there is strength in numbers, enough strength to drive out the oppressors.
“Come out of her my people.” Before WWII, in 1933, there were approximately 15.3 million Jews in the world, after WWII there were roughly 9 million Jews in the world, with just over half living in the Americas. In 2014, there were 13.9 million Jews worldwide – 6.1 million of those living in Israel and 5.7 million living in America.
That’s right – there are fewer Jews now than there were in 1933, and anti-Semitism is rising again. I don’t blame them for not wanting to leave America, but I am increasingly wondering if they are supposed to go. We are the new commercial giant giving them religious freedom, we have made it comfortable to stay when they belong to the Land and the Land belongs to them. They need each other, the Land and the Jews. The Land of my King is good, so good, but too much of it lies undefended because God’s people have been spread out too thin in other nations. Too many Jews live undefended as well because they are spread out too thin among the nations. I am torn, I want them here because I love them and they bring blessings, but a growing part of me wants them to go home, because increasingly I feel a tug at my heart that they should be home in Israel – even though this is also their home. I fear for the days when this will not be their home anymore, may it never happen – when we will have to hide them and feed them and care for them at the cost of our own lives and the lives of our children. Already I see them being increasingly slandered among some cultish fringe leaders – but how long before the cultish fringe becomes the mainstream? Hitler was fringe once, and so was Stalin – fringe but charismatic. Hates burns brighter and brighter until the fuel runs out and it fizzles – our modern Google society has too much fictitious kindling out there right now to ignite the hatred of people who are quick to believe whatever fuels their contempt – as though people with webpages are automatically credible as long as what they say either outrages or appeals to us. People who don’t want to believe they can be deceived are easily distracted and fooled when told that someone else has already lied to them. In their offense they become easy pickings for con men and women.

What fuels the hatred most of all is jealousy, which is short-sighted and unnecessary. From Sinai, relationship with God has never been genetically exclusive – a person is a Jew who swears allegiance and lives according to the Covenant.  Although that had been obscured by the eighteen edicts of Shammai in the first century BCE, making contact between Jew and Gentile incredibly difficult, when the Holy Spirit fell onto the God-fearing (commandment keeping) family of Cornelius in Acts 10, that middle wall of separation was struck down. No one has to be jealous of the Jews – they have the advantage, certainly, and have carried out the responsibility of preserving the oracles of God with great diligence. Observant Jews have kept the commandments alive for millennia, and they do have an inherently special connection with God. That was and is God’s choice! Dare we be jealous of God’s choice when he has graciously opened the door wide to all who desire to be grafted in? Gratitude, and not jealousy, should be our response. Yes, some Jews, even Messianic Jews, want us to be second-class citizens. Oh well. That has nothing to do with us, and a whole lot of non-Jews want Jews to be second-class citizens – allow God to work in the hearts of people who want supremacy, as He has to work on ours as well. What does God desire? That all men be saved and worship Him. This is about Him; it’s never been about us.

“Come out of her My people” – the first and ongoing call to Zionism.

The Amidah: Approaching God as King and Provider

amidahpt2For the next few months, we will be exploring all the places where the Amidah, also known as The Eighteen, or standing prayers, show up in the New Testament, but first I want to give the context of what these prayers meant in the ancient world. To begin, I happened upon a realization last week that has changed everything for me even though I have been praying them for some time now.

It started with a strange dream about my going back to school – I had a class schedule and from 6:30 to 7:30 three nights a week I saw that I had “music lessons.” That was it, with no accompanying description. So, I went to my bookshelf that first night and grabbed Mowinckel’s Psalms in Israel’s Worship. Decided to read it from the beginning this time and not just pick and choose chapters. The first chapter had a special note that about knocked me over:

In Hebrew, the Psalms are called Tehillim – and Tehillim is derived from the word hillel, meaning:

“the utterance of shouts of joy and exultation arising from an overwhelming feeling of exaltation and strength and pride….implies shouting in honor of somebody.” pg 219 Note:1 (emphasis mine)

The Psalms were an integral part of Israel’s prayer book, incorporated into the Temple service and quoted prolifically in both the liturgical prayers and rituals during the first and second Temple times. The Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls bear witness to the usage of these Psalms in the Temple on specific days and at specific festivals, as do other contemporary writings. It is only in relatively modern times that both Jewish and Christian scholars removed the Psalms from this context with subtitles such as, “Composed by David after his adultery with Bathsheba” when we find no such ancient associations. Indeed, it became a popular pastime to try and guess which Psalms were written by who and what life event to match them up with, as opposed to viewing them with regards to the Temple and its services.  But these associations are not in the original text; they are really just legends created by scholars.

That being said, I looked once again at the Amidah prayers with new eyes based on Mowinckel’s note.

Psalms – uttered as shouts of joy, exultation combined with feelings of strength and pride – in honor of God. This clearly fits in with the ancient honor/shame culture of Scriptural times – when honoring a God or a King meant to lavish them with praise for their excellence; laud their achievements; proclaim the height and breadth and depth of their authority. It also meant to present all one’s petitions at their feet as though they and they alone had the ability to open their hand and supply every need.

This is the essence of the patron/client context of the ancient world – where money meant nothing compared to prestige, and money would be freely spent to purchase greater levels of renown. Let me explain:

In the first century (probably back to the dawn of time, really), those who were in need – be they artisans or farmers, people seeking appointment to office or alms – would gather in the courtyard of a great house and petition the lord or lady of that house to supply their need. The great lord or lady was called a patron, or a benefactor,  and they graciously extended their hand to meet the need of the petitioner, called a client. Although this was a gift given freely (no I am not making this language up), it was universally understood that the person who received that gift was expected to give back to their benefactor. The artist would dedicate their works; the farmer would return the blessing with food for their sponsor’s table; the man who received a good word and who was placed into a position of authority used it for the benefit of the patron; the beggar did what all of them were expected to do – proclaim the glory and increase the good reputation of the great man or woman who had met their need. In return, the patron, seeing that his gift had not been met with ingratitude, would be very pleased to meet another need in the future and the cycle would continue. This relationship had a name – charis – and in the Epistles of Paul, that is the word translated as grace.

Paul used this specific cultural relationship to explain our mutual relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Messiah Yeshua (Jesus). In it, he described what Jews already knew- God, and God alone is our great patron and Yeshua the Divine Mediator between God and man. The prayers of the Temple and synagogue are spoken in the language and tone of grateful petitioners before their Patron King, Creator of Heaven and Earth and all that is in them, Author of Life, Salvation, Redemption, Forgiveness and All That Is Good. Like the Herald in a royal court, the prayers first address the Patron Sovereign in adoration, and then the audience shifts and the worshipper starts addressing all of Creation, and then turns attention back again to address the Master. I am going to borrow some text from to show you what happens in the prayers and how it reflects the honor and royalty of our Great God and King:

As in a true royal court, the petitioner steps forward into the presence of the King and then bends the knee and bows as he proclaims:

Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d and G‑d of our fathers, G‑d of Abraham, G‑d of Isaac and G‑d of Jacob, the great, mighty and awesome G‑d, exalted G‑d, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings a redeemer to their children’s children, for the sake of His Name.

He bends the knee and bows again as he says:

O King, (You are) a helper, a savior, and a shield. Blessed are You L-rd, Shield of Abraham.

You are mighty forever, my L-rd; You resurrect the dead; You are powerful to save.

This would happen in courtyards all over the world in ancient times as people drew near to pay tribute to their patrons in praise, for the sake of their honor. Now watch the intended audience change to humanity and all of Creation:

He sustains the living with loving kindness, resurrects the dead with great mercy, supports the falling, heals the sick, releases the bound, and fulfills His trust to those who sleep in the dust.

This would also happen in the ancient world – those who received patronage wouldn’t just thank and praise their patron, they would tell everyone about the patron’s greatness and generosity. Again, the audience shifts back to God in adoration:

Who is like You, mighty One! And who can be compared to You, King, who brings death and restores life, and causes deliverance to spring forth!

The prayers, all eighteen sections, go back and forth like this during the Feast liturgies as the Nation gathers to pay tribute to our God and King with one voice, in one accord – speaking to Him and to all Creation. Proclaiming the adoration of the one who has given us so much, speaking with absolute respect, and speaking those praises to the world as well. But there’s more:

After proclaiming faith in God’s abilities, generosity, and promises, we come before Him with every conceivable need that we, as an entire nation, have. We pray for all of us as one people – these are not selfish prayers, but selfless prayers for the common good. These petitions, far from being “gimme gimme” prayers, are proclamations straight out of Scripture of God’s promises and our request that He act on our collective behalf. The Amidah, far from being a series of vain repetitions, acknowledges God as the One who controls absolutely everything – by coming to Him with all of our needs, we are saying that He is all we need. We have no need of other gods before Him, or beside Him. He is our all in all.

This was how one showed respect in the ancient world, and it was a good system – much superior to the one we have today where we so easily forget and walk away from those who been generous to us as soon as they annoy us, or because we can’t be bothered to thank them. The patron/client system was one of absolute loyalty – people in the ancient world would be ashamed not to give back to their benefactor. Not so with us, we feel entitled to take and take and take and so the Amidah seems foreign to us. We don’t know how to properly thank and treat even the mere men and women who have given much to us, and so we look at such prayers to God as excessive.

They aren’t excessive; we are simply stingy with our gratitude. I want you to think about that – because we are not stingy with our requests, just with our thankfulness. Is God our King? Do we treat Him with less attention than we would lavish on a celebrity or traveling dignitary? Can we praise Him too much? Can it be excessive to proclaim the truth about His attributes daily?

Tell me, would a King who hates “excessive” praise be surrounded with angels who cry out “Holy, holy, holy,” 24/7/365 forever? I am thinking the answer to that would be no – although really, how can one excessively praise God in the first place? Such a thing is impossible.

The Amidah and the New Testament I: Long Prayers and Vain Repetitions?

amidahpt1Is there any truth to the accusation that the liturgical prayers of the synagogues amount to the “vain repetitions” and long prayers” or, as other translations render it “many words” or “empty words” which we hear about in the New Testament?

Mark 12:38-40 And in his teaching he said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes and like greetings in the marketplaces and have the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

Matthew 6:5-13 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you; they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”

These verses are often spoken in an attack against the Standing Prayers, the Amidah or Shemoneh Esrei (the Eighteen) that we still see today in Judaism. However, some translation problems and missing pieces of context are very troublesome in that regard. Have we been too quick to discount the prayers?

(1) First of all, I want to discuss the Matthew verses – especially the “do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles.” I chose the ESV because some other versions use the phrase “vain repetitions” instead. The word in Greek is βατταλογήσητε – meaning “to prattle” – which is itself defined as “to talk in an inconsequential way.” Older translations like the KJV say “vain repetitions” but we have a problem, because it is not supported by the word choice, nor the text and it is frankly ridiculous to presume that the translators were attacking all formalized prayer because, at the time, Protestants prayed out of formalized prayer books – just as Catholics and Jews did. No, the repetitions are not the problem – the vain nature of them is the problem.

It is possible that the KJV translators had an anti-semitic or anti-Catholic agenda here, and given the times, I would not be shocked if this was the case as they already showed their hands in their very selective translation of ekklesia negatively as synagogue and positively as church. These were, after all, men of their times as are all translators.

(2) What is being attacked here – the prayers themselves? No, the intentions and heart condition of the person who is praying! Don’t read over the caveats, “For a pretext” and “that they may be seen by others” and the implication that they are only praying when in public – that when alone in their room they do not pray and would not bother to pray if alone. Someone who is truly devoted will pray whether they are at the synagogue or home alone.

(3) Are the phrases in the prayer books (whether Jewish, Catholic or Protestant) “empty?” Well, if they are taken from Scripture the answer is “Absolutely not!” Having never actually prayed out of a Catholic prayerbook or the Protestant Common Book of Prayer, I can’t speak to those, and it is beside the point as well as off topic (please, please no diatribes against them in the comments), but I can speak to the Amidah.

There are no empty or careless words in the Amidah prayers – they are taken from Scripture, inspired by Scripture, and repeat the promises and admonishments of Scripture. The Amidah Prayers pretty much speaking God’s own words right back to Him in praise and petition.

(4) The Amidah prayers are spoken silently, under the breath, and so no one should be able to make a show of praying them – that’s the point of them, they are private, and yet corporate, all at once. No extra points for sounding super spiritual and emotional while praying.

(5) The “Lord’s Prayer” is, in and of itself, a short version of the Amidah, the Standing Prayer. It would have provided a way for the Am Ha’aretz to pray three times a day without reciting the entire long version of the prayer – and quite possibly getting into trouble at work because many Jews in those days were slaves. If we are going to attack prayers that are by their very format repetitive – we would naturally have to start with that one as more people repeat that prayer than any other in the Judeo-Christian world. If we hold that prayer to the same standards that have been used against the Amidah – then we can’t pray it in public, or with others, or in our assemblies – in fact, we can only legalistically do it alone in a room with the door closed. Do we truly think that Yeshua (Jesus) was telling people to only pray that prayer in a room alone with the doors closed or was He making a larger point here?

I submit that He was, in fact, making some grand statements –

“Don’t just prattle on and make God listen to it and think that because you are praying in an “organic” manner that God will hear you. God already knows what we are thinking – when we pray, it needs to be more about Him than about us.”

“There is a time for pouring out your heart to God and a time for acknowledging Him as King and God corporately (with one voice) and privately. Both are necessary to our spiritual life.”

“Don’t pray in order to look impressive, just don’t.”

“If you are only willing to pray when other people are around, well, that’s just messed up.”