Torah demands interpretation: an example from Deuteronomy 16

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God gave to Israel the commandments – all 613-ish of them – but practicing these today isn’t straightforward. Here we are some 3500 years removed in time and culture, and we have to assume, use inference, and yes, even make guesses at what a commandment means in practice.

Deuteronomy 16:16 is a great example of this:

“Three times a year all your men are to appear in the presence of Adonai your God in the place which he will choose — at the festival of matzah, at the festival of Shavu‘ot and at the festival of Sukkot.

- Deuteronomy 16:16

How would you apply that commandment, fine Kineti reader?

My modus operandi for the EtzMitzvot.com project is to restate each command in the broadest, least-interpretive way possible, keeping faithful to the text without inferring or assuming what those words mean. As I came across Deuteronomy 16:16, I wrestled with this standard.

For some commandments, this standard is near impossible to apply without some creative interpreting/inferring/assuming.

For example, “just the facts, ma’am version of this mitzvah is, “Appear before God at the place he chooses for the 3 pilgrimage feasts.”

OK, that’s nice, how would you actually apply this in your life, today?

Well, you first have to know what it means to “appear before the Lord”. Christians might say it is attending church, or just praying to God. And Christianity generally disregards the feasts as obsolete, so that part would just be omitted. And Judaism might suggest the best way to keep this commandment is to come to a synagogue for the holy days.

And what of “the place that God chooses”? Some might spiritualize this to mean the place where God leads you to go. Some of my religious friends may sincerely believe God has led them to go to a particular congregation or home for Passover, for example.

All of these might be valid interpretations of the command, a kind of personalized interpretation tailored to a specific individual in whatever circumstances he happens to be in.

The Jewish sage Maimonides, the man who came up with the exact list of 613 commandments from the Torah, interprets this commandment in a way that I think is most likely the authentic, original meaning:

“Appear at the Temple on Passover, Sukkot, and Shavu’ot.”

-Maimonides’ interpretation of Deuteronomy 16:16

That is, Maimonides is interpreting “the place that God chooses” to be the Temple in Jerusalem, and “appearing before the Lord” means making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to bring offerings at the Temple.

This really is a reasonable and likely accurate interpretation in light of a few historical facts and the broader context of Scripture:

  • Historically, we know the people of Israel went up to the Temple for these feasts.
  • The psalms – in particular, Psalm 84, the Pilgrimage Psalm – attest to pilgrims going up to Jerusalem for the feasts, which we understand to be Passover, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot. It also equates going up to the Temple with appearing before the Lord.
  • The gospels also record a young Yeshua and his parents going up to the Temple for the feasts.
  • Jerusalem and the Temple appear to be the place God has chosen: the biblical books of Kings and Chronicles, as well as several of the prophets of the Hebrew bible, label Jerusalem the “city that God has chosen”, with the Temple being “the house of which I said My name will be there.”

And so it appears that Jerusalem really is the city God has chosen, and the Temple is the house where God set his name. It is reasonable, then, to interpret/infer/assume that Deuteronomy 16 refers to the Temple.

If that is the case, it’s tempting to go through the Scripture with a pen and cross out “the place that God chooses” and put “the Temple.”

In fact, that’s pretty much what Maimonides does in his famous 613 commandments list. (And the issue of the Temple is one of many such interpretive strikeouts he takes!)

Of course, Maimonides could be mistaken. Thinking unbounded for a moment, maybe God chose more than one place. Or maybe that place God chose was specific to Israel in the exodus. Maybe it was each place where the Tabernacle moved to during the exodus. And when God gave this commandment, it was clearly directed to people living in the land; given the Jewish people have been in dispersion for 2000 years, is this commandment even applicable to Jews outside Israel? (How few Jews in the world travel to Jerusalem 3 times a year for the pilgrimage feasts?)

And what of all these Messianic gentiles who love Israel, love Torah, and desire to keep the commandments – even though these people are not Jewish, and living outside of Israel, should they be making pilgrimage to Jerusalem 3 times a year?

And even if Maimonides is right, we need not invalidate other interpretations. For a person who is unable to travel to Jerusalem, would God have him celebrate Passover at another place, one God chooses and leads that person to?

The commandment specifies “all your men” must appear – where does this leave women and children?

Not the least of our problems is the Temple in Jerusalem no longer exists; there’s no way to appear before the Lord, if indeed that is the proper interpretation.

It’s all a bit overwhelming, isn’t it? Yet it demonstrates that the Bible requires creative interpretation, assumptions, inference, and sometimes even guessing before application.

Incorrect interpretations can lead to all kinds of weird applications, where Passover is Easter, the place that God chooses is a mountain in Samaria, or that Zion is Ethiopia. Whole religions get built around these things.

You might think I am arguing for rabbinic or church interpretation; leaving the hard work of Bible interpretation to people smarter and more studied than us. But the take-home here should be: commandments are not always straightforward. Practicing them requires study and learning. Jewish and Christian traditions can guide us as a point of reference, but should not be elevated beyond the educated guesses they are.

The good news is, I am convinced, God is leading people towards truth. By studying and learning and, as the psalmist wrote, “meditating on His word”, we are moving in the right direction.

So we keep studying, keep plugging, keep moving forward. And if we keep to this progress, there may be a time we can live out this command as the psalmist did:

Your dwelling place, O God – so lovely!
My soul longs and desires to be there in your courtyard

Happy are those who live in your house, God
From strength to strength they travel
Until appearing before you in Zion

Better a day in the courts of God
Than a thousand anywhere else
Better standing at the door of God’s house
Than living with the wicked in their tents

Introducing EtzMitzvot.com - Rebooting the Greatest Commandments Project

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Fine Kineti readers, I’m pleased to announce a new renewed project that I think you’ll enjoy: EtzMitzvot.com

What is it? An interactive visual map of every commandment in the Torah. It’s a fun way to explore the Torah from a thousand-foot view. Try it out and touch, hover, or click some commandments.

This isn’t a new project per se, but a revived one. Any of you longtime Kineti readers remember the Greatest Commandments Project? EtzMitzvot.com is that project revived through modern web technology. The idea is, take all 613 commandments in the Torah and map them into a massive visual tree. For example,

Love your neighbor as yourself is at the root of the tree
      >  Respect the elderly branches off that
                    > Honor your mother and father branches off that

And so on.

The end result is a huge, interactive visual containing all the commandments as a tree (commandments tree = etz mitzvot in Hebrew) – a fantastic sight to see, even if I say so myself.

The project was inspired by Messiah’s words in the gospels:

The Torah teachers asked him, "Rabbi, what is the greatest commandment in Torah?" He answered them, "Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength. This is the first and greatest commandment. The second, like it, is this: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. All the Torah and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."

That last sentence inspired this project, “all the Torah and Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

I took that sentence literally, imagining it as a beautiful visual with the greatest commandments at the very top and the other 611 commandments all branching off from those big 2 ones in hierarchical form.

That’d be something to behold, wouldn’t it?

I set out to build this thing about 4 years ago. We made lots of progress; mapped about 100+ commandments. I wrote software to generate the giant commandments tree, etz mitzvot. Open sourced it. Got open source contributions from others. It was super cool!

Then life happened, and I let it stagnate. I haven’t added new commandments to this project in over a year.

To that I say, no more! To life, my precious Messianic Mitzvot project! Smile

You’ll see a blog post each week here on the Kineti blog, adding a commandment (or three) to EtzMitzvot until all 613 commandments are mapped.

New technology, new functionality

But, there’s a problem: when we started this project, the project was basically a big, static JPG image. Not interactive. And huge; we’re talking 50,000 pixels by 20,000 pixels image, just under a hundred MB in size. Just to load it in your browser would take about several seconds to download, and several more to render it.

And given we still had some 500 commandments to go, that’s just not sustainable.

So, I had an idea. How about we rejigger things so that we don’t spit out an image, but instead use the power of the modern web to show all these God-breathed righteous instructions? SmileThrow a little interaction in alongside it?

Heck yeah!

So, I sat down last week and ported the Greatest Commandments Project to use modern web technologies. Thanks to technologies like D3.js, instead of a giant, cumbersome image, we have an interactive web app that lets you click commandments and expand them out and play with the whole visual tree.

In summary, we’ve revived the Greatest Commandments project with new technology, new functionality, a new website, and renewed effort.

Enjoy! Let me know what you think.

Purim: 5 unusual lessons for Yeshua's disciples

Mordechai in the streets of Persia

Purim is here this weekend, and it's good to remember and celebrate God's deliverance of Israel. Some obvious ones: It’s intriguing to see anti-Semitism's deep roots in humanity, going back to 450 years before Messiah. It's interesting to note how God is not mentioned by name – yet is entirely present – in Esther.

But these things we’ve heard before.

What I want to you show you today is 5 unusual things that stood out to me as I read Esther this morning. Deeper things worthy of amplifying to Yeshua’s disciples.

The Jewish people are still central in God's plans

The book of Esther at first saw resistance from joining the Christian Bible as canon. Some saw it as "too Judaizing." Martin Luther, too, found he could never reconcile with this book. Esther amplifies the Jewish people to a point that made the Church fathers uncomfortable.

The amplification of the Jewish people is unmistakably present in Esther. Even Mordechai's famous plea to Esther drips in saturation with this theme, his statements thoroughly certain of divine protection for the Jewish people:

"If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"

As a follower of Israel's Messiah, I believe that Jews and non-Jews have equal access to God and are joined together in the family of Israel.

Even so, it does not and cannot erase the special calling God has for the Jewish people, the natural branches of Israel. This should be evident in Paul's declaration that if Israel has experienced a temporary hardening of heart towards Messiah, with the result of the salvation of the nations, the Jewish people's return to the Jewish Messiah will be like life from the dead.

Let me repeat that so that you don’t skim over it as religious jargon: The Jewish people returning to the Jewish Messiah will be like life from the dead, and no amount of gentiles coming to faith in Israel’s God will change that.

Even Messiah's own words count Jerusalem and the Jewish people as the gatekeepers of Messiah, his arrival hinging on Israel's acceptance of "Baruch haba b'shem Adonai!”

For those of us in the Hebrew Roots world, we must be cognizant of this reality. Gentiles grafting into the commonwealth of Israel does not negate the special promises God has for the Jewish people. It doesn’t mean gentiles are worse than Jews, but rather, God has a distinct plan for the salvation of the Jewish people.

Those who joined Israel became Jews

This is a particularly controversial thing to say in light of the state of the modern Messianic movement. One group believes they join to Israel through loving Israel's God, Messiah, and Torah. Another group says one must undergo ritual circumcision, at which point, one is a Jew. Yet another group believes it is part of the lost tribes of Israel.

In Esther, towards the end of the book, we read something often omitted from modern Esther retellings. In those days, when the Jewish people were granted this divine reversal of fortunes, "many people from all nationalities joined them and became Jews."

We are not told what "becoming a Jew" in the 4th century BC entailed. But we do know that these people who joined the Jews became Jews themselves. The Biblical command mandating the celebration of Purim mentions this people:

The Jews resolved and took upon themselves, their descendants and all who might join them that without fail they would observe these two days [Purim] in accordance with what was written in [this book] and at the appointed time, every year; and that these days would be remembered and observed throughout every generation...

It reminds me of the Exodus, in which a multitude of non-Israelites joined Israel and identified with her. Hebrew Roots and Messianic gentiles are in this same boat: joining to the Jewish people and standing with Israel.

Does this mean Messiah-following gentiles should convert to Judaism and become Jews? I don’t think so. God's intention isn't for everyone to be a Jew. God has plans for gentiles, too, plans that in their fruition have seen billions of non-Jews turn to Israel’s God through Israel’s Messiah. (Hallelu!)

But it does suggest that joining Israel is a deeper thing than many in the Messiah-following world make it out to be. It is more than Torah observance. It is more than love for Israel's God through Israel's Messiah. It is more than love for Jewish people. At the very least, it is helping and supporting the natural branches of Israel in physical and tangible ways. Aligning oneself with Israel in thought and deed.

Are we really joined to Israel? I don’t think so, not in tangible ways that Jews recognize. That needs to be fixed.

God can use people with pagan names

It feels silly to have to say something that should be so obviously true. And yet, I have to say it because of silliness in our religion.

Artist's rendition of EstherThe name Esther likely comes from the name of a pagan goddess. (The same one that Easter comes from.)

Mordechai likely comes from the phrase, "follower of Marduk", also a pagan god.

While these names were likely given to these Jews by their captors, you don't see Esther and Mordechai waxing indignant over it. There were bigger fish to fry.

So many in the Messianic and Hebrew Roots world concern themselves -- perhaps too much --  with perceived pagan influences. Still others are caught up in names, especially names for God. Some people refuse to worship God unless a particular name is (or isn’t) used. (Can Hebrew Roots folks worship when we adore ‘HaShem’? Can Messianic Judaism folks agree when ‘Yahweh’ is praised and thanked? I can already sense your panties getting bunched up.)

And some religious friends change their given name in order to appear more religious, or to reflect their identity.

I understand why, and yet, here we have Esther and Mordechai, two names of likely pagan origin, and yet names are of little concern in Esther. There were bigger issues to tackle then, and so it is now.

It should be obvious to us that God uses people even if they don't have religious names.

And yes, God can use people even if their names are pagan in origin.

God can use people who do not fit the religious mold

Many of the pioneers and founders of the modern state of Israel were secular, agnostic, or even atheist.

Photo of Theodore HerzlTheodore Herzl, the 19th century founder of Zionism, was agnostic. His opposition? The religious.

Herzl visited many nations and diplomats in hopes to garner support for a Jewish state in Palestine. When he approached the Pope and the Catholic Church, the Pope refused, saying that unless Jews converted to Christianity, the Church would not support a Jewish state.

Herzl saw opposition even among his own people. Certain European Orthodox Jewish communities opposed Herzl and his plan for a Jewish state in Palestine. They erroneously believed that only messiah could restore the Jewish people to Israel.

Religious people stood in the way of God's plans for the creation of the modern State of Israel.

Photo of Eliezer Ben YehudaAnd in that same generation, Eliezer Ben Yehuda moved to Israel nearly a century before its founding and pushed for the resurrection of the Hebrew language. His major opponent? Jerusalem's ultra-Orthdox community. They opposed Ben Yehuda's Hebrew-only newspaper, HaZvi, eventually shutting it down after a year of fierce opposition. Restoring the holy language to a common tongue was a grave sin, you see.

Again, it was religious people who stood in the way of divine mandate.

Photo of David Ben GurionIsrael's first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, was by most accounts an agnostic or Jewish atheist. It was through his leadership Israel survived its first decade, a perilous decade characterized by repeated invasions from the Islamic world, motivated by the same anti-Semitic spirit that motivated Haman.

Ben Gurion received little help from the ultra-religious. While the nascent Jewish state was fighting for its very existence, the ultra-religious sought exemption from military service in order to continue religious school. (A decision that is being overturned as I write this post.)

I tell you all these things to drive a point back to Esther and Mordechai.

In the book of Esther, like the founding of the State of Israel, God is hidden, and yet thoroughly present. And his work is accomplished through means religious people do not expect. Sometimes, it is religious people who are opposing God. Perhaps God used secular people because their ears were not so clogged by theology and dogma.

We view Esther and Mordechai as righteous individuals today, even though we know little about their faith life. And what we do know of them isn't exactly a perfect picture of religious life. Both were engaged with a pagan nation, working in the government of an idolatrous imperial power, eating at treif banquets held by a pagan king.

Heck, Esther was wed to a pagan gentile! And if that weren't enough, she was a WOMAN! You know, those people that Judaism restricts from singing, wearing tallits, or carrying Torah scrolls at the Western Wall.

(And – be honest – how many of us religious people would balk at the idea of our daughter marrying a pagan leader? Perhaps it was for this reason Esther was an orphan!)

Religious people balk at such things, and yet God accomplished his purposes despite the circumstances. Sometimes, religion can get in the way of us seeing clearly the divine plan.

As Messiah’s disciples, let us be opened to the possibility that God is at work outside our niche, and can work through people who don’t fit the religious mold.

Revelation of truth in its due time

When Esther was to marry the king, she did not reveal her true identity as a daughter of Abraham. Had Esther strolled into the King's court announcing she was a Jewess, perhaps she may never have wed the king, and in return, never had the opportunity to save Israel.

Messiah's disciples can learn something from this. First, many of Yeshua's disciples wear their faith on their sleeve. I understand why, but sometimes it is a turn-off for people. If we instead showed kindness and service -- did good works without expectation of return -- and without worrying about pushing our belief in Messiah, it can yield good fruit.

Esther did reveal herself to the King -- but only when the time was right. This is an example for us as Yeshua's disciples. "Preach Messiah always, and if necessary, use words."

Lessons learned from Esther

  1. The Jewish people are still central to God’s plans. We can say with Mordechai’s boldness and confidence, “relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise”, regardless of the theological forecasts of the religious.
  2. Like in the days of Esther, many will attach themselves to Israel, and yet, God’s promises to the Jewish people are not cancelled.
  3. God works through unlikely people. Esther and Mordechai both took on names from the pagan world, worked and lived in a pagan culture, and yet God used them for good.
  4. God works in ways that often confounds the religious. Esther was not a model religious figure, and yet God used this unlikely soul to accomplish salvation for Israel.
  5. God’s timing is not our own. Religious people can often be blustering, impatient, angry, indignant…but Esther’s example is one of patience, fasting, quiet trusting. In this end, this is what swayed the pagan king.

Take in these lessons from Esther, fine Kineti reader, as you remember God’s faithfulness this Purim.