An Ass & a Talking Donkey
A prophet without love for G-d’s people is a false prophet.
As I write this week’s study observations my youngest daughter Bethany is quick to remind me that “ass, is a naughty word daddy!” She is of course correct, the slang use of the term can be inappropriate however in Balaam’s case as in the case of Haman, I am comfortable with its use—he should consider himself lightly chastised, after all, I could have said, “Y’ma shmo!” (May his name be cancelled out!)
So, why An Ass and a Talking Donkey? The simple message of this mysterious historical text is this; the donkey was a righteous ass while Balaam was just an ass. One seldom has the opportunity to hear a talking animal, but per chance an animal ever begins to talk to you, pay close attention. Those of us who fail to hear and obey the clear direction of G-d the first time, may end up only being saved by the skin of our ass—“as one escaping the flames.”
Okay, enough with the puns. Let’s get down to the nitty gritty.
Here are some of the questions people often ask about the historical account of Balaam and the talking donkey:
· Was Balaam a prophet of G-d?
· If G-d didn’t want Balaam to curse Israel, why did He consent to Balaam going?
· Why did Balaam curse Israel from the high places?
· If Balaam was such a bad guy, how come whenever he blessed or cursed, his word came to pass?
· Balaam talked with G-d, so he must have had a relationship with G-d, right?
· What’s the difference between Balaam of northern Syria and Malki-Tzedek of Salem, neither of them were priests of Israel, both heard from G-d?
· Donkeys can’t talk so this is just a parable right?
And many more…
Let’s go through the text and see if we can answer some of these questions.
Setting the scene:
Israel—by the hand of Adonai (YHVH)—has just defeated yet another enemy—King Og and all his people have been wiped out. Israel had become a great people in the desert, through trial and discipline G-d had led them to the last stage of their journey into the land of promise. Balak and the people of Moab are said to be terrified—filled with dread—of the people of Israel as they watch them journey along the outskirts of the Moabite territory. One of the great ironies of this story is the fact that prior to this event G-d had commanded Israel not to attack Moab because they were descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Deuteronomy 2:9 says:
“Then Adonai said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab, nor provoke them to war, for I will not give you any of their land as a possession, because I have given Ar to the sons of Lot as a possession.’”
The chronology of this passage of Scripture from Deuteronomy places it prior to the event we are studying in Numbers 22 – 23. Israel had no intention of attacking Moab.
Being filled with dread at the sight of Israel’s approach, Moab calls on Midian—Moses’ relatives—to join them in calling Balaam from his home land of Northern Syria, beside the Euphrates river.
Balak knows that Moab cannot defeat Israel based on military strength so he turns to magic/divination as a solution to Moab’s—self-assessed—dire situation.
It is obvious from the text that Balaam was renowned and that there was an expectation of payment for his services. This places him in stark contrast to the Prophets of G-d and to Malki-Tzedek, neither of whom required payment for blessing. Another difference is that the prophets and priests of G-d were known to point people to G-d/Adonai whereas Balaam was known for the success of his cursing and blessing. In short, he was known for his divination rather than his connection to the G-d of Israel.
Balak and the Moabites and Midianites are asking Balaam to curse Israel. This directly opposes G-d’s promises to Israel and is therefore an affront to Adonai Himself. Adonai had promised, “I will bless those who bless you and I will curse those who curse you.” (Gen 12:2-3, 27:23) It is important to remember that G-d’s name is forever attached to Israel, and any action taken against her as a people is an action taken against G-d. Only Adonai is entitled to discipline His people—when required.
Balaam invites the petitioners from Balak to stay the night. No prophet of Adonai would have entertained the idea of directly opposing G-d’s plans for Israel, had Balaam been in right relationship with G-d he should not have even considered their request or allowed them to stay.
It is important to note that it is here in verse 8 that Adonai is mentioned for the first time in this section of Scripture. He is not called Elohim—G-d, gods, judges, rulers—but YHVH—the personal, unpronounceable, Holy name of G-d—by Balaam. Why is this? It is because Elohim is a generic term for G-d whereas YHVH is the personal name G-d had revealed first to Avraham and so to Israel. This personal name was directly associated with the people of Israel as His chosen nation. Balaam was obviously familiar with this name for G-d and the people who belonged to Him, there is therefore some irony in his decision to approach the Father--Adonai--to ask if he might destroy His children. It seems he knew of G-d but did not Know Him. Perhaps the possibility of payment was the greater motivation for Balaam at this point in the story?
G-d comes to Balaam and asks, “Who are these men with you?” G-d, of course, knows the answer. Like the question asked of Adam and Eve in the garden, this question is meant for Balaam’s sake. Balaam repeats the request. He asks—and I paraphrase—“These guys want me to curse your children so that their enemies can decimate them, is that okay with you?” Really Balaam? That’s what you’re going with? How many of you parents out there wouldn’t be instantly filled with fury if an acquaintance asked to decimate your children?
Let’s be clear from the start, so that we’re not inclined to give Balaam undue sympathy later: G-d answers, “DO NOT GO with them… you MUST NOT PUT A CURSE ON THOSE PEOPLE because they are BLESSED.”
Balaam gets up the next morning and tells the Moabites to go tell there king that Adonai won’t let him curse Israel. This is yet another stark contrast to the prophets of Israel. Israel’s prophets are renowned for standing in the gap for their people: when G-d sought to destroy Israel Moses said, “Then blot me out of Your book also.” Balaam has no problem cursing Israel but he is choosing to obey G-d temporarily, though disappointed by the missed opportunity to make some money (2 Peter 2:25, Rev 2:14) because Adonai is El Elyon—G-d above all gods—and Balaam knows it. Balaam is wisely weary of crossing Adonai, it is simply good business sense from his perspective. A prophet without love for G-d’s people is a false prophet.
So Balak sends some more prestigious officials to ask Balaam to come and curse Israel. Balaam replies—I paraphrase—“Even if you gave me all the kings’ riches, I still couldn’t disobey Adonai my God.” If Adonai, the G-d of Israel is Balaam’s God, why is he even entertaining Israel’s enemies and in addition, opposing G-d’s predetermined blessing? The appropriate response is, “No I won’t curse my G-d’s people, go and don’t come back.” Instead he says, “Stay the night and I’ll see what else Adonai will say about all this.” In other words, “Maybe Adonai has changed His mind and I’ll be able to make some money after all.”
G-d speaks again to Balaam saying, “Go with these men but only say what I give you to say.” G-d is giving Balaam over to his sin in much the same way He had given Pharaoh over to the hardness of his heart. The result will be that G-d will glorify His name and show His gifts and calling on Israel to be irrevocable. (Romans 11:29) Notice that G-d—Elohim—speaks to Balaam rather than Adonai, whom Balaam claims as his G-d. G-d speaks here by way of the name His acquaintances know Him by rather than by the personal name His children know Him by. Again, Balaam knows of Him but he does not Know Him.
Balaam gets up and goes with Balak’s men and straight away G-d is angry with him. Why? Didn’t G-d just tell him he could go? Actually G-d specifically told him not to go, then, when Balaam pushed the point, G-d allowed him to pursue his own sinful motivation. (Romans 1:24) So yes, G-d was angry when Balaam chose to go ahead and do what G-d had originally told him not to. What might a right response have been? Perhaps Balaam might have responded, “I’ve decided not to go, these are a people You’ve blessed and if I profess to worship You in truth, then I should honor those You honor.”
From here on only the name YHVH--Adonai—is used until verse 38. We see the title Angel of YHVH used ten times over the next thirteen verses. Some—and in most cases I agree—associate the Angel of Adonai with the manifest presence of Messiah, prior to His human birth. In other words, if the Angel of Adonai is Yeshua, He is present in humanoid form but is not human at this point in earth’s chronology. On the other hand, given that Messiah was with G-d in the beginning and at a certain point in humanity’s history was born as a man—fully man and fully G-d with us—and then died and rose again, ascending into the heavens and given that G-d—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—lives outside of time—which is subject to Him; maybe He has, from our perspective, traveled back in time to meet with our forebears in His now resurrected humanoid form? Whatever the case, the Angel of Adonai seeks to kill Balaam—who can’t see the Angel of Adonai, the G-d he claims as his own—while his donkey sees the Angel of Adonai the whole time and tries desperately to avoid destruction. One might say, “Balaam’s ass saw what his eyes couldn’t.”
So now we have a talking donkey telling Balaam that he’s an ass for beating him because he’s been a faithful donkey all these years and only great danger would ever cause him to act this way. Here’s where a number of people say, “This must be intended as an allegory or metaphor, this is obviously not an historical account because donkeys don’t talk.” Really? If that’s true, it must be true of the entire book of Numbers—at very least—and by extension it must be true of Deuteronomy. Both these books are supported by numerous archeological evidences that testify to their historical accuracy, both books are written with an informative accuracy and calculation in mind, hence the title Numbers, a numbering of Israel’s people, her journey’s and history is written in much the same way as the books of Matthew and Luke, books that were intended as factual accounts of events. As believers we must be careful not to discount talking donkeys. If we discount any one miraculous event, we must call all metaphysical events into question. We must then say, “A man raising from the dead? Not possible. It must be a metaphor for something?” No, it’s not an allegory folks, it’s an historical account with a talking donkey in it and yes, the Red Sea did part, Israel did survive centuries of persecution, Yeshua did rise from the dead and miracles still happen today. But you probably won’t get to hear your pet speak unless you’re being an ass like Balaam was.
It is interesting that in verse 32 it is not Adonai or G-d that speaks but it is specifically the Angel of Adonai that speaks to Balaam. Finally Adonai opens Balaam’s eyes and the Angel of Adonai asks, “Why have you beaten your donkey?” The Angel of Adonai has previously appeared at a number of points of inception throughout Israel’s historical journey; firstly to Avraham, then to Yitzchak, Yaakov, Moshe and will soon appear to Yehoshua as one who does not take sides. On each occasion that the Angel of Adonai appears to a child of Israel He is seen by that person—if not always recognized instantly—here, on the other hand, Balaam does not see Him when He first appears. In order for Balaam to see the Angel of the L-rd, his eyes must be opened. This is a strong indictment against Balaam’s character and his relationship to Adonai.
Those among Israel who saw the Angel of Adonai were coming into right relationship with G-d, they became known by Him and He was known to them. Balaam knew of Adonai and even called Him his Elohim—deity—but Balaam did not know Adonai. Being related to someone does not mean we are in relationship with them. I am reminded of the sons of Sceva, who tried to cast out a demon in the name of, “Yeshua, who Paul preaches.”(Acts 19:13) The response of the demon was, “I recognize Yeshua and I know of Paul but who are you?” It then proceeded to beat them senseless. We are known by friend and foe alike based on relationship. We have relationship to a foe, we are in relationship with a friend. Balaam, who is no friend of Adonai, requires a revelation of sight in order to see Him, Balaam has a relationship to Adonai but he is clearly not in relationship with Him.
It is also in verse 32 that the Angel of the L-rd says, “I have come to oppose you,” or “I have come out as an adversary, because your way was contrary to Me.” The Hebrew word here translated Adversary is in fact shatan—from which we get the English Satan (The Adversary). The point is that G-d is the Adversary--shatan--of the Adversary—Ha-Shatan—a wonderful Hebraic metaphysical play on words.
The Angel of Adonai now says, “If not for your donkey, I would have killed you.” To which Balaam responds, “I’ve sinned, I didn’t know you were opposing the way before me. Now, if it’s pleasing to you, I will return--tishuva.” Notice that Balaam confesses but does not repent--tishuva. He says, “If it is displeasing to You I will return.” He has just admitted that his actions are displeasing to G-d and now, in the face of his own destruction he is still looking for a way to make some money. Again Adonai gives him over to his sin and allows him to continue, with the reminder that Adonai has power over Balaam’s mouth in the same way that He has power over a dumb Ass—as the RSV puts it. Ironic.
Numbers 22:36-35, 23:1-11
Balak rushes to meet Balaam and the Moabites with him. He complains at the delay and reminds Balaam that he has plenty of money to bribe him with. Then Balaam says, “I can only speak what G-d—Elohim—tells me to speak.” Notice that having meet Adonai face to face—the Angel of Adonai—Balaam now calls Him G-d—Elohim—thus showing his rejection of the opportunity for personal relationship. Balaam has, for the fourth time, willfully rejected an opportunity to be in right relationship with Adonai.
Balak makes some pagan sacrifices and sends some meat to Balaam and the following morning they all go up to the high places of Baal—lords, gods, husbands, false deities—to offer seven sacrifices—pagan—in an attempt to evoke a response from Adonai. Adonai comes to Balaam, not because of his sacrifices but because Adonai intends to again confirm blessing over Israel. G-d commands Balaam to bless Jacob/Israel and Balaam must obey much to Balak’s chagrin.
How does this relate to me today?
As Messianic Jews we understand G-d’s promises to Israel through the teaching of Messiah Yeshua. We know that the gifts and calling of G-d are irrevocable and that He is zealous in love for His children, fierce for our protection. This is also true for Gentile Christians who have accepted Yeshua’s Kingship because in Messiah we are grafted into the tree, whose roots are the Patriarchs of Israel. We understand then, that the account of Balaam is an affirmation of G-d’s protection and blessing over us. As the proverb says, “Like a flittering sparrow and a darting swallow, an undeserved curse cannot land.” We should be careful not to allow ourselves to become stepped in spiritualized superstition that makes us fearful of every little incident as if it were an omen of some spiritual attack. G-d controls all things, even the mouth of our adversary. We are secure in His loving arms, we need not fear the undeserved curses of others, be they human or demonic. In Yeshua we are safe, purchased through the blood of the lamb of G-d. We have been freed from curse in that Yeshua became a curse for us when He died on the cross of Calvary.
We also realize that it is not what we know about G-d that is important—truth is seldom found in the accumulation of knowledge—but rather it is that we are known by Him and that we seek to know Him more intimately. Not only are we able to call Him Adonai, in Messiah Yeshua we are also able to call Him Abba—Daddy—and He calls us sons and daughters.
© 2013 Yaakov Brown
A Wayward Woman Kisses Yeshua
"36 Now one of the Pharisees (Simon, see verse 40-46) was asking Yeshua to eat with him, and Yeshua entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner (That is, she was known to be sinful); and when she learned that Yeshua was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume 38 and standing behind Yeshua at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Yeshua saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”40 And Yeshua answered him (that is, Yeshua answered Simon’s inner voice), “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed a year and a half’s wages, and the other two months wages. 42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?”43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And Yeshua said to him, “You have judged correctly.” 44 Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet.46 You didn’t anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” 50 And said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”
We can deduce from the text—verses 40-46—that the Pharisee in question was Simon, given that Yeshua clearly credited him with the oversight for the dinner engagement and the proprietary responsibility for the home.
Yeshua—and the other guests—reclined, this is familiar to the Passover practice of reclining to eat as free—not slaves—Jews.
“A woman of the city who was a sinner:” The fact that she was known in general—to the city residents—as a sinner or immoral person infers that the sin was one of public and perpetual disgrace. It is possible that she was a prostitute, which might explain the freedom she enjoyed—neither Roman or Jewish men would have been fond of having their prostitutes locked up—given that other acts of perpetual sin—theft and the like—might have led to incarceration by Roman authorities.
She had heard that Yeshua was in Simon’s house and bought an expensive alabaster vial of perfume with her. This is a premeditated act of giving, supplication, repentance and humility, which emulates the rhythm of some Temple sacrificial practices. As with our father Abraham, her intention is shown in her action. If the alabaster vial was a similar size to those mentioned in other gospel accounts, it would have been worth approx. 12 months’ salary. I wonder how many of us would part with a year’s wages as a symbol of our repentance.
Guests sat facing the lowered table, with their feet laid out behind them, this is how she was able to stand behind Yeshua at His feet.
It seems that she wept in repentance and supplication, hoping to gain Yeshua’s favor and forgiveness. Having wept on Yeshua’s feet, she then bends down to wipe them clean with her hair. It is worth remembering that a woman’s hair is her glory:
“But if a woman has long hair, it is a glory to her? For her hair is given to her for a covering.”
1 Corinthians 11:15
This woman is choosing to use the mantel of her glory—that is a sign of the created order of Genesis—to wipe Yeshua’s feet, a symbol, not only of her own submission and repentance but also of the submission of humanity to Messiah. She then began to kiss Yeshua’s feet, an intimate act but unlikely to have been a sexual come on—as some have suggested—because feet that have traded in the dust of Israel are not a prelude to the erotic, nor are her previous actions proof of foreplay.
Remembering the public nature of this event allows us to understand the utterly humiliating position she placed herself in, an action that wasn’t emulated by any of the religious leaders—some of who were greater sinners than she. She also anointed Yeshua’s feet with the costly perfume she had bought. It is important to note that unlike the similar events of Matthew and Mark’s gospels, here the woman anoints His feet in repentance rather than anointing His head in preparation—for burial. In addition, there is nothing to indicate that the woman in this account is Mary, Martha’s sister, given that Mary was not known as a sinner in the town of Bethany—some have speculated without good foundation that Mary the sister of Martha was sexually immoral. One possibility—and it cannot be known for certain—is that the woman in this story is Mary Magdalene the prostitute who was known as a close follower of Yeshua later in the chronology of the gospels.
Simon doubted the prophetic credentials of Yeshua. It’s true to say that, “a prophet would know that the woman was a sinner” and Yeshua did know this. What Simon missed was that a true prophet not only knows the truth about people, He also knows the path that G-d has ordained for the reconciliation of those people. It is not what a person knows but rather it is the way they act on that knowledge that proves them righteous.
Yeshua addresses Simon by name, knowing what he is thinking—what kind of man knows what another man is thinking?—and formulates a parable in order to illuminate Simons question—that is the one he had asked in his mind. Simon correctly interprets the parable answering that the one with the greater cancelled debt will love more.
Yeshua turns away from Simon and speaks to him while facing the woman. This is a powerful gesture of rebuke to Simon and a merciful invitation to the repentant woman. Yeshua begins to unpack the situation for Simon step by step to ensure that he understands just how hypocritical his thoughts have made him. Please bear with me as I paraphrase the following text for you:
“Firstly,” says Yeshua, “When I entered your home you didn’t have your servant wash my feet as is the custom of our people, in fact, you had no intention of offering even the simplest of welcoming gestures to me, so just why did you invite me here? This woman—who you despise—not only washed my feet, she washed them with her tears and dried them, not with a waist towel but with her hair, an act of utter humility. Her right action directly opposes your flagrant disrespect!”
“Secondly, you did not greet me—as is the custom of our people when honoring a guest—with a holy kiss. This would have been a personal affirmation of my standing in your eyes and a show of approval to your other guests. This woman has not stopped kissing my feet, feet that have dragged in the dust of this city and have touched unsightly things as I have walked through these streets. Her truly repentant actions are making you look like an ass!”
“Thirdly, you didn’t have your servant anoint my head with oil—as is the custom of our people—in order to dampen down the dust of the roadways and freshen my head. This is also a sign of honor to a guest, one that you intentionally failed to show me. This woman—who you despise—bought perfumed oil purchased with a years’ worth of her wages and anointed my feet because she didn’t even deem herself worthy of playing the role of the lowest of your household servants. Again, her right action directly opposes your intentional disrespect!”
Water represents cleansing, the kiss, approval, and oil symbolizes the Ruach Ha-Kodesh—Holy Spirit.
The repentant among the people of Israel had been cleansed in the baptism of John for the forgiveness of sin, they had been proved by Yeshua, who was about to be betrayed with a kiss, and they would soon be given power from on high—the Holy Spirit—following His resurrection from the dead.
In verse 47 Yeshua says that her sins have—passed tense—been—past tense—forgiven, because she loved—past tense—much. We understand here that she has been forgiven at this point and because she has been forgiven she has also loved much. This infers that even prior to anointing Yeshua she believed that He would forgive her and that Yeshua, functioning outside of time and space had in a sense, already died as the atonement and cleansing sacrifice for her sin. This interpretation best relates her actions to the parable Yeshua told. Given this explanation, why does Yeshua proclaim publicly, “your sins have been forgiven?” The answer is what follows, those present asked, “Who is this man that forgives peoples sins?” In other words, “You can’t forgive this woman, you don’t even know how bad she really is. So we see that Yeshua said that her sins were forgiven, not for her sake but for the sake of those others present.
We must keep in mind that this simple statement of forgiveness bears great weight. In saying this, Yeshua is inferring that the Temple sacrificial system is not needed in order for sin to be forgiven. Yeshua new, of course, that His sacrifice would make the Temple system redundant. However, those present could not conceive of such a thing, this was utter blasphemy, why? Because the sacrifices alone were not capable of offering forgiveness, nor were the Priests’ who performed them able to grant forgiveness. It was a known fact to all Jews that it is G-d alone who has the power to forgive. This is yet another blatant and offensive claim of divinity on the part of Yeshua. A claim that is humbly and freely accepted by the sinful woman. Her actions were her participation in a sacrificial rhythm of repentance that relied entirely on the provision and decision of G-d in Yeshua, who she recognized as G-d’s King Messiah. It is this belief, this faith that saves her. Not faith in His miracles and words alone, but faith in who He is.
Finally in verse 50 Yeshua says to the woman, “Your faith—that I am the King Messiah who takes away the sins of the world—has saved you. Shalom lach—Peace as you go.”
We should be careful who we disapprove of. We are challenged by Yeshua in this text to be vigilant in humility and ever ready to welcome His coming. Only then will we have peace as we go.
© 2013 Yaakov Brown
Things That Defile (Mark 7:1-23)
It's somewhat ironic that this portion of Scripture, which has so little to do with what is and isn’t appropriate for eating, is so often used as a bone of contention between believers who eat a non-Kosher diet and those that keep the kosher instructions of the Torah. Yeshua is more interested in conveying the true source of humanity's impurity and our need for His redemptive work, than He is in inspiring arguments over Kashrut—Kosher dietary Instruction. What makes Mark’s textual note, “(In saying this, Yeshua declared all foods clean),” so contentious is not the statement itself but the common misinterpretation of the specific situation it applies to.
As we unravel the tangled theological mess of Christian misunderstanding, let’s remember that we are dealing with a Jewish context: Jewish authorship, Jewish location, Jewish culture, Jewish diet and Jewish Spirituality. Even if we concede that the gospel of Mark was written to a mixed Jewish and Gentile Church, the premise of a Jewish understanding of events remains the same. If there are explanations in parenthesis added by the author—that is, added to the facts of the account itself—then they must be understood based on the Jewish context that pretexts them, keeping in mind that the author himself is Jewish.
“Some Pharisees and some of the teachers of the Torah, who had come from Jerusalem, gathered around Yeshua and saw some of his disciples eating food with hands that were defiled, that is, unwashed. (The Pharisees, in fact all Jews, do not eat unless they give their hands a ceremonial washing, holding to the tradition of the rabbis/elders. When they come from the marketplace they do not eat unless they wash. And they observe many other traditions, such as the washing of cups, pitchers and kettles.)”
This account takes place on the west side of Galilee in the Gennesaret region. Therefore those of the Pharisees and Torah teachers who challenged the lack of ritual practice of Yeshua’s disciples, had traveled approximately 80km north from Jerusalem—this seems like an awful lot of effort for a group of people who were supposedly already convinced that Yeshua was not the Messiah.
They observed some of Yeshua’s disciples—I suspect Peter, the rough as guts fisherman was one of them—eating without performing the Jewish hand washing and Bracha—blessing—that the rabbis taught was necessary before eating. It reminds me of a time when, after a Christian men’s sports event, one of the guys dug straight into the food without praying, one of the other men, the self-appointed Holy Spirit conduit of the group, quickly rebuked the poor guy in front of the whole community. One of the wiser men among us said, “Bob looks really grateful for the food Bill (not their real names), it’s almost as if his heart has given thanks already.”
Having said that, it is important to understand that it’s not ritual hand washing that is the problem here, it is hypocrisy. In fact it was Jewish ritual hand washing that saved thousands of Jews in London from the Great Plague (1665-66) while those around them with less hygienic habits were dropping like flies.
We might put this hypocritical event into a modern context in the following way:
A bunch of Doctors and nurses at a public picnic rebuke the rugby boys for digging into the food without washing their hands after playing in the microbial infested mud. The Doctors and nurses then go out on the town for a night of sexual exploitation and a microbial mess of a much nastier kind.
This is the type of hypocrisy that is being perpetuated here.
Personally, I practice netilat yadayim—ritual hand washing--but I am not in the habit of accusing others of eating improperly if they choose not to ritually wash their hands. Surely it’s just plain common sense to wash your hands before you eat? It’s also common practice today to wash cups and dishes, perhaps we have Jewish tradition to thank for this life saving hygienic practice?
So we understand that it was the perceived lack of spirituality that was at stake here and not hand washing or the washing of cups and saucers. To this day there are still many helpful teachings that have been passed on by the rabbis which are no more or less helpful than the many benign Christian traditions passed on by the Church fathers.
“So the Pharisees and teachers of the Torah asked Yeshua, “Why don’t your disciples live according to the tradition of the elders instead of eating their food with defiled hands?”
It’s a fair question. Why weren’t the disciples of Yeshua keeping the traditions of the religious status quo? Perhaps it was partly to do with the fact that many of them were uneducated tradespeople and fishermen? Maybe they had washed their hands but had not done so publically, therefore performing the ritual blessing to show themselves observant? If that is the case then the defilement here is simply considered spiritual rather than physical, this is inferred later by Yeshua’s rebuke. It is interesting to note that the text does not say—as is sometimes the case elsewhere—that the Pharisees and teachers of the Torah were “looking for a reason to accuse the disciples.” This may well simply be a case of them observing an unexpected difference in the religious practice of Yeshua’s disciples and being genuinely—if not judgmentally—interested.
It is important to note that the question the Pharisees and Torah teachers are asking does not concern food directly, but rather the perceived ritual defilement passed on to objects by ritually unclean hands. The food is merely considered the vehicle of the defilement and not the defilement itself. It is understood that all present kept the dietary instruction of Israel, that is to say, the disciples were eating kosher food. If we understand this from the outset we are less likely to misinterpret Mark’s later statements in parenthesis.
“He replied, “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written:
‘These people honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
They worship me in vain;
their teachings are merely human rules.’
You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.”
As is often the case in Yeshua’s ministry, He immediately exposes the heart of the matter. The Pharisees and teachers of the Torah are looking for reasons to honor themselves above others and are depending, not on G-d’s Instruction—the Torah—but on rules they have made up for themselves. The text says that they have let go of G-d’s Instruction and are holding on to, or putting their hope in the rules of humanity. When the rules of humanity are more important to us than G-ds Instruction we are in rebellion against G-d. It is important to note that Yeshua is not opposed to tradition, but rather He is opposed to tradition that turns men away from G-d. One might say that many a modern Evangelical Christian or Messianic congregation have their own rules of decorum that have very little if anything to do with the Torah or the Gospel of Messiah Yeshua. This is perfectly okay, providing those practices do not seek to supersede the Instruction of G-d’s word.
“And He continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God) -- then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”
Again, Messiah’s concern here is not tradition, rather He is opposing tradition that seeks to nullify the G-d given Instruction of the Torah.
“Again Yeshua called the crowd to Him and said, “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this. Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”
Yeshua is obviously not speaking of hygiene here, if He were His statement would be an outright lie because there are physically dangerous microbial forms that can easily make a person unclean in a medical sense and thus result in physical sickness, even unto death. Yeshua is speaking here of spiritual cleanliness as opposed to the traditions of the rabbi’s which dealt with ritual cleansing.
“After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked Him about this parable. “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Yeshua declared all foods clean.)”
Yeshua explains to His disciples—who were entirely confused by the whole event—that it is the sin born in a person’s heart that makes them unclean—spiritually—not the food eaten with ritually unclean or unwashed hands.
Many have misread the final statement in verse 19 and thus concluded that Mark is declaring freedom from Kashrut—kosher dietary laws. We must therefore ask the question, “What is meant by the use of the word clean within the context of this passage?” In all the instances where the word clean is used in the context of this passage it refers specifically to ritual cleanness and even more specifically to cleanness relating to the hands. Nowhere in this passage is the word clean used to describe the nature of the food in question. Therefore if we understand the word clean to refer solely to ritual cleanness, we can rightly interpret the text to read in modern English in the following way:
“In saying this, Yeshua declared all foods ritually clean.”
Meaning that food is ritually clean regardless of whether one has performed netilat yadayim—the ritual hand washing prayer—or not. The food here in question is kosher, therefore Mark—or whoever the author of Mark is? Certainly Jewish!—cannot possibly mean to infer that non-kosher food is now clean in the Torah sense. The cleanness of entities in the Torah relates to separation (Holiness) unto G-d and not to ritual or organic cleansing.
The Greek text is a participle clause that renders literally as, “cleansing all the foods.” There is no, “In saying this,” in the text. Some therefore translate this phrase as a continuation of Yeshua’s words, in this way, “a process which cleanses all food.” If this is the best translation, then Yeshua is referring to the fact that all food is cleansed through the process of digestion, thus using its good parts for bodily function and disposing of its unusable parts through excretion of the waste. This is however unlikely, given that it places emphasis on hygiene, which contradicts the fact that the entire passage up till this point is focused on ritual cleansing and not on hygiene.
The halachic question posed by the Torah teachers and Pharisees is best answered by the former reading of this verse. The author of Mark is making a halachic summation here and not a universal edict.
“He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evils come from inside and defile a person.”
Yeshua again cuts to the chase. The real issue here is not food or ritual purity, the issue is the state of humanity and that which defiles the soul. Yeshua reminds everyone present that it is from the core of a person’s being that defilement is seeded. We must pay more attention to the eternal condition of our souls rather than to the temporary matters of food and hand washing.
To conclude we must be clear in our understanding of this account. This text does not declare foods clean that the Torah says are unclean. In fact, nowhere in the Bible does any text change the dietary instruction of G-d to the Jewish people. This account is about spiritual purity and our need to soberly access our condition before G-d rather than follow our own made up rules. We are foolish to judge others in light of this fact and so should be introspective rather than judgmental.
© 2013 Yaakov Brown
Caught in the Act
He shows her that social justice is but a tear in the vast ocean of G-d’s eternal justice.
An examination of Yochanan/John 8:1-11
While it’s true that no early manuscripts include this account, it is equally true to say that it is more than likely a legitimate oral or written tradition passed on by the first century Ecclesia/Church, and included by later scribes—it’s sometimes found in Luke’s gospel.
I believe that the Ruach Ha-Koodesh/Holy Spirit testifies to the authenticity of this story. Therefore, in keeping with the teaching of Messiah, I trust myself to the unity of Scripture and power, and consider this account to be scripture, inspired by G-d and passed on to us for good purpose. It seems to me that the Yeshua of this story is the Yeshua of the wider body of New Testament writing. He is here, unmistakable, the teacher of Israel, full of compassion, mercy, tenacity and chutspah. His feet firmly planted on the ground and His Spirit drawing wisdom from the heavens.
I invite you to put away the conjecture of scholarship and instead to embrace the incomparable Messiah of Israel. The story of the young woman caught in adultery is one of His most powerfully intimate public moments.
“Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them.”
This event took place early, probably prior to Sacharit (Morning Prayer). Yeshua sat down to teach in the court of women as was the custom of other rabbis of the time. This is unlikely to refer to the court of the Gentiles. We know this because those coming to Him were of the “tribes” of Israel, the collected Jewish pilgrims who had made aliyah for the festival of Sukkot. Keep in mind that the Jewish day had begun after the previous sundown and would continue to be the seventh day of Sukkot until after sundown that evening. Therefore, Sh’mini Atzeret (the eighth day Sabbath following Sukkot proper was yet to occur).
“The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, ‘Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?’ They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him.”
The first question many ask is, “If she was caught in the act, where is the man who was involved?” Of course this can be answered in many ways: perhaps the scribes and Pharisees in question were Patriarchal chauvinists’, happy to let a fellow male go free? Maybe several of them were guilty of such sin themselves? It is even possible that the man was complicit in the plan to trap the girl or that he was simply able to escape while she was being caught? There is no way of knowing with certainty. What we do know however is that the Torah clearly requires that both the man and the woman caught in this type of sexual sin are to be punished. Therefore the question that was being posed was already outside the set interpretation, meaning the response must come in the form of an interpretive halakhic ruling from the rabbi being questioned, in this case, Yeshua. We also know—because the Torah teachers and Perushim/Pharisees, specify stoning as the punishment—that the woman was a virgin pledged in marriage prior to the act of adultery. We know this because that is the only situation in which the Torah specifies stoning as punishment for adultery. (Devarim/Deut 22:23-24)
The fact that this was done publically was unusual, given that it was illegal for Jews to carry out the death penalty under Roman governance. This was the counter balance to the fact that the Torah required stoning for such an offense, leaving Yeshua in what the Jewish teachers and Perushim considered an impossible situation.
It is important to note that Yeshua’s mother Miriam might just as easily have found herself in this situation if not for the righteous action of Yeshua’s earthly—adoptive—father Joseph. The key difference of course being that Miriam was not guilty of adultery. This correlation would have made this an especially emotional event for Yeshua. It is also important to note that throughout His earthly ministry Yeshua sought to honor women and renew their rightful place in G-d’s creative order. Therefore the intentional humiliation of this young woman could only have served to anger Yeshua further. In light of this, His measured response to the situation is without comparison.
“But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.”
In the midst of this tumultuous scene, Yeshua, calmly bends down and starts to write in the sand. One of our Yeshiva students noted that it reminded her of a child at play. Another student suggested that in doing this He took control of the situation, drawing everyone’s attention to himself and requiring the Torah teachers and Perushim to work to His time table, unwilling to be bullied into playing their silly game. Those of us who are old enough to remember might also liken it to a teacher writing on a black board. All eyes and ears are now on Yeshua and what He is writing. So what did He write? We can’t possibly know for certain though there are many suggestions. The only one I have found value in outside of what I will propose is the idea that He may have written the words of Jeremiah 17:13:
“Lord, you are the hope of Israel;
all who forsake you will be put to shame.
Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust
because they have forsaken the Lord,
the spring of living water.”
Perhaps Yeshua began His list of their names here and completed them when He stooped down to write the second time. However, while I like this idea, I would like to propose another option.
I have asked myself, “Did G-d the Father ever write in the earth with His finger?” The answer to which is yes, in fact He did it twice. I suggest that the first thing Yeshua wrote in the sand was the Ten commandments, that perhaps He did this, emulating His Father (Exodus 31:18) and noting that the second to last commandment is, “You shall not commit adultery.” Thus reminding the audience before Him of the many commandments each one of them had broken.
“But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.”
Clearly there were none present who were without sin. Therefore Yeshua’s statement was intended to bring a right judgment to this situation. By doing this He was not breaking the Torah, to the contrary, He was upholding its finer requirements. Both offenders were not present, nor was this being done in a court of Jewish rulers. Yeshua therefore, was making a halakhic ruling based on the fact that the Torah could not possibly be honored by this illegitimate trial.
He then stooped down to write for the second time. I suggest that He wrote the words that the finger of G-d wrote on the wall of Belshazzar the Babylonian ruler:
“Mene: God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end.
Tekel: You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting.
Peres: Your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians.”
In other words: to the Teachers of the Torah and the Perushim He was saying, “God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting. Your kingdom is divided and given to your oppressors.”
Whatever He wrote, it seems that it was what He had said that moved them to leave. After all, the scripture says, “When they heard it, they began to go out one by one.”
Now Yeshua is left standing with the young woman, an intimate moment emphasized by the tender words that follow.
“Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?” She said, “No one, Sir.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”
Yeshua looks upon this humiliated and broken woman and with great mercy and compassion He shows her that social justice is but a tear in the vast ocean of G-d’s eternal justice. “Does anyone condemn you?” He says, to which she responds in a somewhat shaky but surprised voice, “No one, Sir.” And in keeping with what John’s gospel says about Him Yeshua says, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.” I hear it this way, “Your sin has been covered, you’re free to start again child, don’t go back to that self-destructive lifestyle.”
And, just maybe, He was also thinking, “We need to get my mum to set you up with a nice Bethlehem boy like my adoptive dad Joseph, someone who will honor you and treat you the way a woman should be treated.”
© 2013 Yaakov Brown
Founder of the Beth Melekh International Messiah Following Jewish Community,