November Essays

Week 45: Ezek. 6-19, James 2-5, 1 Peter 1, Psalm 119:121 - 176

Love Your Neighbor who is Like You


This week we will be reading the book of James, written by Jesus' brother who became a leader in the early church. The book of James has the same rabbinic teaching style as the words of Jesus, and since James was the brother of Jesus, may even reveal some of Jesus' ideas as James remembered them. As you read this week, see if you can find some parallels to the words of Jesus in Matthew, Mark and Luke. One of the many similar sayings to Jesus' is in chapter 2:

If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law according to the Scripture, "You shall love your neighbor," you are doing well. (James 2:8)

James identifies this one law, "Love your neighbor" as the "royal law". We remember that Jesus quotes this (Matt 22:39) as the great commandment, after "Love the Lord your God..." While Jesus quotes it, this idea actually comes from an interesting rabbinic interpretation that was already in the Jewish culture before Jesus' time. But Jesus expands on it in a powerful new way that was unique to him.

What is the Great Commandment?

A rabbinic discussion that was going on in Jesus' day focused on the question, "Mah hu clal gadol b'Torah?" - literally, "What is the commandment-big of the Law?" We can hear those very words being asked by the lawyer in Matthew:

Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matt. 22:36 - 40)

A rabbinic technique was used to link those two verses together, called "gezerah sheva". It is the practice of linking together verses that share a word or phrase relatively unique to them. In this case, Deuteronomy 6:5: "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might" is linked with Leviticus 19:18: "...and/(but) you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD". Jesus and other rabbis linked those verses because they share the Hebrew word "ve'ahavta", which means, "and you shall love". This exact phrase is used only in these two Old Testament passages, and one other time.

The first verse, Deut 6:5, You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might, is part of the Shema, the "pledge of elegance" that the Jew would say morning and evening. It was obvious to them that this was the highest command - to love God.  But to link it to Leviticus 19:18 is to elevate the importance of this law to an equivalent level. They used the logic that since both verses have the same unique word, one was expanding on the other. The lesson the rabbis taught was that if we love the Lord our God with all our hearts, we will demonstrate it by loving our neighbors. (Note: while rabbinic thought is not authoritative, it can give us a lot wisdom, and insight into the context of Jesus' own words.)

Often we hear sermons that we should learn to love ourselves so that we can love others as well. But the rabbis understood the Hebrew of that verse in an entirely different way, as "Love your neighbor who is like you". The emphasis is not on comparing love of ourselves with love for others, it is on comparing other people to ourselves, and then loving them because of it. They saw it as a challenge to realize that all people, including ourselves, are flawed and sinful, but that we should love them because we ourselves suffer from the same sins. We are to love those who do not seem worthy because we ourselves are unworthy, and all are in need of God's mercy. One rabbi said,

Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a person nourish anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? Should a person refuse mercy to a man like himself, yet seek pardon for his own sins? (28:2-4) (Ben Sira, c. 180 B.C.)

Another rabbi said:

If you hate your neighbor whose deeds are wicked like your own, I, the Lord, will punish you as your judge; and if you love your neighbor whose deeds are good like your own, I, the Lord, will be faithful to you and have mercy on you. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan, Version B, chap. 26)  

Each of us is a combination of good and evil, and as long as that is so, we need to forgive others their sins, so that God will have mercy on us. That is part of what it means to love our neighbor, who is like us. 

Who is my neighbor?

When we read the the lawyers' question in Luke 10:29 ,"And who is my neighbor?", we assume that this is a silly, legalistic question, but it actually was a very good question. In Hebrew, the word reah was used for neighbor, but it was even more commonly used for friend. So the verse could be interpreted, "Love your friend who is like you", which isn't much of a challenge at all. The lawyer probably already understood that it didn't just apply to one's friends, it applied to one's neighbors in a broader sense. The debate was about how far that circle went, and he is asking Jesus just how far He thought that circle extended.

Jesus gave the lawyer a brilliant answer to how far the circle went: He told the parable of the Good Samaritan, and then asked the lawyer who was the neighbor to the dying man, which was the despised Samaritan. We would expect the answer to the question "Who is my neighbor" to be "the dying man". But Jesus asked the question in such a way as to force the man to say that the neighbor was in fact, the Samaritan.  In Jesus' time the Samaritans and Jews despised each other as enemies, so Jesus implication is that we should go so far as to love even those who are not our friends.

By telling this parable, it appears that Jesus brilliantly used rabbinic technique to elevate the third and final verse in the Old Testament verse that contains the word "ve'ahavta" to the level of the other two. It is Leviticus 19:34:

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God.

The Samaritan would have been the stranger and the alien among them, and Jesus shows that the stranger and alien was the neighbor that the man should love! It seems that Jesus is tying "Love your neighbor" with "love the stranger" and even "love your enemies"! This saying was utterly unique to Jesus, and while he built it on rabbinic thought of his time, it goes far beyond that. Jesus sums it up by saying:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)

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This essay is based on the following: Jesus' Jewish Command to Love by Steven Notley at www.jerusalemperspective.com; and talks given by Randall Buth, What be Commandment Big of the Law, and by Steven Notley, Do this and Live: The Ethics of Jesus. Both talks are available in audio cassette and CD albums from the En-Gedi Online Resource Center.

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.


Week 46: Ezek. 20 - 33, 1 Peter 2 - 5, 2 Peter 1, Psalm 120 - 125

The Sins of The Fathers


In ancient eastern cultures, people had a very different sense of identity than modern Westerners. Understanding how they thought sheds light on a lot of Bible stories, especially in the Old Testament.

Among ancient tribal peoples like the Israelites, they tended to see their identity as being a part of a family or clan rather than as an individual. If you could have asked an ancient man to tell about himself, he would have told you what clan he was from and the traits of the clan; whether they were farmers, warriors, or musicians, etc. He would have told stories about his brave ancestors with great pride, assuming that those were a part of his own identity. His family would have worked together in everything, and prospered or suffered together. Considering the great difficulty in surviving in those days, only a group working together would have a chance.

At that time, it was understood that a the fate of the person was inextricable with the fate of the whole clan, and that if one sinned, especially the leader, they would all bear guilt and suffer misfortune for it. They would have seen it in the same way that if one hand is wounded, the whole person suffers, not just the hand. To us it doesn't seem at all just, but to their logic, it seemed reasonable. In some places in the Old Testament, God seems to be saying this too:

You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments. (Ex. 20:5-6)

This pronouncement is understandably problematic for us. Last week in Ezekiel, we may have gotten some insight on this difficult matter. In chapter 18 we hear the same thinking about ancestral guilt from the people of Judah in the form of a proverb that they used to quote:

‘The fathers eat the sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge’ (Ezek. 18:2)

They quoted this in response to the suffering of the nation before they are forced to go to exile in Babylon. This, in effect, was to blame their parents for their punishment and assume they were innocent personally of wrongdoing. While this let them avoid remorse for sin, it also gave them a sense of hopelessness - no matter whether they repented, they would still suffer for the sins that their families had committed before them.

God tells them not to quote this proverb anymore. He strenuously disagrees with punishing children for the sins of their parents! Much of the chapter is written to make the point that God judges according the individual on his own terms, not in terms of the actions of his ancestors. It appears that God had a difficult time convincing them!

If a righteous man turns from his righteousness and commits sin, he will die for it; because of the sin he has committed he will die. But if a wicked man turns away from the wickedness he has committed and does what is just and right, he will save his life. Because he considers all the offenses he has committed and turns away from them, he will surely live; he will not die. Yet the house of Israel says, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Are my ways unjust, O house of Israel? Is it not your ways that are unjust? (Ezek. 18:25 - 29)

So, we see that God Himself sees that each person himself is accountable before Him, and that it is unjust to condemn people for sins committed before their time. Instead, God offers them a wonderful message of hope, if they will recognize their own sin and repent from it:

Therefore, O house of Israel, I will judge you, each one according to his ways, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent! Turn away from all your offenses; then sin will not be your downfall. Rid yourselves of all the offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit. Why will you die, O house of Israel? For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign LORD. Repent and live! (Ezek 18:30-32)

How do we interpret Exodus 20:5-6 in the light of this passage?

The picture of several generations being condemned for a sin may be describing the generational pattern of sin that we see in families. A father who abuses his wife often has sons who are wife-abusers. The same is true with alcoholism and other vices. Families do teach and reinforce patterns of sins (or righteousness) to their members that go on for generations. Could it be that the children aren't being punished for their parent's guilt, but that the children have carried on in the family sins themselves? The answer from Ezekiel is that the consequences of sin only extend to the generations that keep on in the sin of the ancestors. There is always hope, if the children will just repent and change their ways. God doesn't take pleasure in the judgment of anyone, but bids us all to repent and live!

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.


Week 47: Ezek. 34 - 47, 2 Peter 2 - 3, 1 John 1-3 , Psalm 126 - 131

Living Water Flowing...


Ezekiel is a strange book, filled with symbolic visions that are hard to understand. But, several of these images describe the coming of Jesus and His kingdom. In chapter 47 it describes how the prophet observes a little trickle of water flowing out from under the threshold of the temple. After walking 1000 cubits downstream, the trickle becomes ankle-deep, and then that much further again it becomes knee-deep, and then waist-deep, and then finally it becomes a river so deep and wide that it can't be crossed. This paradoxical river does a strange thing - it gets fuller as it flows away from its source. How can that be?

We discussed the symbolism of living water, or maim chaim earlier in this series. (See If Anyone is Thirsty). Throughout the Bible, it is understood that God is the source of living water - rain or springs that deliver life-giving, precious water to this dry land. In Eden, water flows out from the garden, where God dwells with man, and in Rev. 22:1, a river flows from under God's throne. In Jer. 17:13, God is called the "source of living water". Living water is a picture of the Holy Spirit, God's presence that flows out from Him into this world. Several times God promises to pour out His Spirit on the world in the last days:

‘For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, And streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring, And My blessing on your descendants; And they will spring up among the grass like poplars by streams of water.’ (Is. 44:3-4)

And in the gospel of John we read this same idea:

Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. “He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’” But this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. (John 7:37 - 39)

It is beautiful to see how the image of living water flowing from the temple in Ezekiel 47 describes the outpouring of the Spirit that occurred at Pentecost. Of course, the Spirit first fell on the people at the temple as they were worshipping there, as tongues of flame settled on them. It was as if the Spirit started trickling out of the sanctuary to that little "puddle" of believers. But the trickle became ankle deep as they shared the gospel and many in the city believed, and then knee deep as they carried the gospel to the surrounding countries. Instead of running out of energy as it flowed, the river of God's Spirit got deeper and wider as it flowed.

Ezekiel tells us even more about this river of God's Spirit and its effects:

On the bank of the river there were very many trees on the one side and on the other. Then he said to me, “These waters go out toward the eastern region and go down into the Arabah; then they go toward the sea, being made to flow into the sea, and the waters of the sea become fresh. “It will come about that every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. And there will be very many fish, for these waters go there and the others become fresh; so everything will live where the river goes. “And it will come about that fishermen will stand beside it; from En-Gedi to En-Eglaim there will be a place for the spreading of nets. Their fish will be according to their kinds, like the fish of the Great Sea, very many. “But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they will be left for salt. “By the river on its bank, on one side and on the other, will grow all kinds of trees for food. Their leaves will not wither and their fruit will not fail. They will bear every month because their water flows from the sanctuary, and their fruit will be for food and their leaves for healing.” (Ezek 47:1-12)

This picture describes the river flowing from Jerusalem southeast until it reaches the Dead Sea, about 12 miles away. The Dead Sea and the surrounding country is an image of total desolation. No fish or wildlife live in or near it, and surrounding it is a wasteland in which nothing grows because of the high salt content of the soil. The vision describes a stream that can accomplish the impossible - to heal the poisoned land and the dead water. This is what the Spirit can do - bring life to the spiritually dead, and bring healing to what looks hopeless. The trees remind us of Psalm 1:3 and Isa. 44:4 - they are people who bear much fruit because of God's presence in their lives. Even in times of drought they bear fruit because their source of living water is without fail.

Our ministry, En-Gedi, gets its name from this passage and others. En-Gedi is a spring in this area of the Judean desert near the Dead Sea. The Essenes in Jesus' time decided to live in camps at En-Gedi and Qumran, a few miles away. They were convinced that soon God would make this vision a reality and make the desolate land a paradise. The Dead Sea Scrolls were found at Qumran - evidence of their expectant waiting for God's outpouring of living water.

But we chose En-Gedi because we want to be like it ourselves. En-Gedi is an oasis, a place of refreshment in the bleak desert. Jesus said that "whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life." (John 4:14) and also of those who believe in Him, "from his innermost being will flow rivers of living water." We pray that through our ministry of teaching His Word, that the Lord will pour out His living water through us so that...

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.


Week 48: Ezek. 48, Daniel, Hosea 1-2, 1 John 4 - 3 John, Jude ,
Psalm 132 - 136


Son of God, Son of Man

We will be reading the book of Daniel this week. Like Ezekiel, Daniel has many symbolic visions, and even though they are strange, some of them are very important for describing the coming of Jesus and His kingdom. One of the most important passages is in Daniel 7:13 - 14:

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

This passage is about the Messianic king. God had promised David that one of his own offspring would have a kingdom without end (2 Sam 7:13), and this is who is being described here. Daniel has visions of many kingdoms rising to power, but the final kingdom that conquers them all is this kingdom of the Messiah. And this is the scene of the the great King coming to take His seat of honor and receive authority over all creation.

The most significant part of this passage is the description of the Messiah as "one like a son of man". The term "son of man" is often used poetically in the Old Testament to refer to a human being. Often it emphasizes that the human being is merely mortal and not divine, like in Psalm 8:

O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens... what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?  (Psalm 8:1, 4)

Many Christians have assumed that when Jesus uses the phrase to describe Himself, He is emphasizing His humanity. That appears to be true in some places. But people are often unaware that the phrase "Son of Man" was one of the most powerful Messianic claims, because of this amazing passage in Daniel that describes the incredible glory that is given to this particular "Son of Man", who is also the Son of David who is the Messianic King.

When we now look closer at how Jesus uses the phrase "Son of Man" to refer to himself, we can see that He is often referring to Himself in terms of this passage!

If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels. Luke 9:26

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. (Matt. 24:30 )

We can see these in scenes the Son of Man coming in the clouds and the picture of Jesus having great glory, just as in Daniel. Here Jesus is hinting to His great glory as the Messiah by alluding to these passages, as He does many places.

While Jesus frequently refers to Himself using the term "Son of Man", it is rare in the rest of the New Testament for anyone else to refer to Him in this way. In the places where they do, they are clearly reflecting the picture of the glorious messiah in Daniel 7:

Stephen, about to be stoned to death, looks up and says, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." (Acts 7:56)

And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone like a Son of Man, dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest. His head and hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and his eyes were like blazing fire. (Revelation 1:13-14, see also Rev 14:14)

So, the passage in Daniel predicting the Son of Man coming in glory is central to what Jesus says about his own future, and is a prominent image in the New Testament to describe the glorified Christ on the throne in heaven. This explains Jesus' usage of the term as prophetic toward His return as judge at the end of time, and also shows that He didn't regard Himself only as a humble human being, but as the predicted messiah who would have a kingdom without end.


The Suffering of the Son of Man


While it is clear that Son of Man is often used by Jesus to describe Himself as the Messianic King who has authority, glory and power, He also says something that is a paradox - that the Son of Man must suffer and die:

Mark 9:12 Jesus replied, “To be sure, Elijah does come first, and restores all things. Why then is it written that the Son of Man must suffer much and be rejected?

Luke 9:22 And he said, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”

One scholar, Dr. Steve Notley, came upon a hypothesis for how the Jewish people had come to understand who the "Son of Man" was going to be. In the few hundred years before Jesus, during the rule of the Greeks, the Jews had suffered terribly for trying to be faithful to God. This was very difficult for them to understand theologically, because before they had been attacked by enemies when they lapsed into idolatry, but now they were killed if they were faithful to God. The rabbis began to ask how could God bring justice to all the people who had been killed because they refused to forsake him.

They looked back to their scriptures and saw the first innocent victim of murder in the Bible, Abel. He was murdered by his brother Cain because God accepted his worship because he was more righteous than Cain's (Genesis 4:4-8, 1 John 3:12). Abel became the forerunner and representative of all the righteous people that had been killed for being faithful. Jesus says so in Matt. 23:35: "And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar."

They noted that Abel was the son of Adam, or ben Adam. In Hebrew "adam" can be a proper name, or it can just mean "man" or "human", so "ben adam" can mean either son of Adam or Son of Man. So they imagined that in Daniel 7, the messianic king who came on the clouds of heaven was one like Abel, the first Son of Adam that had died for being righteous. Like him, he would suffer and be murdered, but then would come on the clouds in glory to judge. It appears that they understood that the reason God gave Jesus authority to rule over all mankind is precisely because He walked on earth as a human, and suffered and died as a righteous man!

This understanding of "Son of Man" links two paradoxical things we have known about the messiah - that He would suffer and die, as in Isaiah 53, but yet He would be a victorious king as in Daniel 7. This has been a problem for many, and some even postulate that two messiahs would need to come - one to suffer, and one to reign. But this figure of the Son of Man would first die as a righteous man, but then would be resurrected to glory, and be given authority to judge. It is fascinating that Jesus could link, extract, and create multidimensional meanings with such a "simple" phrase to teach us so much about Himself!

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.