This blog-post continues a series on Ten Commitments that describe the way of life to be embodied and embraced by mature Jewish disciples of Yeshua. This is the second of ten. The others will follow.
No claim is being made or implied that this is last word on the subjects I cover. Rather it is a first word, and a necessary word. You may find ways that it could be improved. So could I. But let’s start from where we are.
Our second commitment is this: Commit to Jewish covenantal identity.
Experience proves, and observation demonstrates, that if we do not establish our identity someone else will. Either that or a certain kind of religious cultural entropy will take hold. If either happens, even among those of us who are spiritually committed, we will then default to being Christians of Jewish background, saved individuals blended into the church, trophy Jews, rather than vital members of families and communities living in covenant faithfulness and linking our next generation to our people’s past generations. Frankly, it is far easier to go with the flow, and building a proper Messianic Jewish identity and related communal structures is hard work. It gets discouraging. It is far easier to lower the bar, to not work out the nitty gritty details, to not make waves by being different and “rebuilding the middle wall of partition” (an unjust accusation often heard). It is so much easier to not rise up and build.
While of course our identity is established in the Scriptures, I am convinced that the task of defining that identity, owning it, and living it out in our own lives and context is a necessary aspect of both serving Yeshua and also of serving the way God purposes for the Jewish people to pursue a poathway to tikkun olam, that is, making the world whole.
In the midst of his wider discussion of God’s end-game plan for the Jewish people. Ezekiel, a sixth century BCE Prophet of Israel, compactly speaks of the Messiah, of our Jewish response to him, and how this all relates to Jewish covenant faithfulness. Ezekiel says, “My servant David will be king over them, and all of them will have one shepherd; (thus our Yeshua faith involves both being nurtured by the Messiah and our submission to him as King) they will live by my rulings and keep and observe my regulations (thus the conjoined priority of submitting to our covenantal identity as part of a covenant people, the people of Israel).
Those familiar with the Older Testament will readily recognize how appropriate is this portrait of the Messianic King and our relationship to him. Ancient Kings were protectors and rescuers of their people (thus, shepherds) and also warriors, rulers, judges, benefactors, protectors, and lawgivers (thus monarchs). For Ezekiel and for us, Messiah is our protector-shepherd and lawgiver-king. And because he is the Lawgiver, part of our gratitude to him is keeping the stipulations of that structured relationship between him and us which the Bible terms a covenant.
It is really the same for us Jews now as it was long ago. In Scripture God’s people Israel are constantly being called back to remember their covenantal identity by returning to conforming to its demands. You can find evidence for this in the majority of the prophets whenever they address Israel and Judah. Constantly our people are called back to honoring the covenantal demands implicit in a Jewish identity too often betrayed, forgotten, or abandoned. And whenever Israel/Judah failed to comply, the consequences were communal disintegration, and a whole list of woes. The technical term for this is “the vengeance of the covenant” (Leviticus 26:25 נְקַם-בְּרִית in various translations), and it is mapped out for us in the famous blessings and curses passages at the end of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
When a Nation Does an About Face
The thirtieth chapter of D’varim/Deuteronomy describes Israel’s restoration “in the latter days,” after the vengeance of the covenant has has played itself out in the dire consequences of long term national estrangement from God amidst exile and communal disintegration. In this chapter from Moses, we find much about establishing, or reclaiming, Jewish covenantal identity and returning to the covenantal order, tranquility and blessing God always intended for us.
Moses reminds us that whereas Israel will at that time be dispersed among the nations, estranged from God and from their land, “you will start thinking about what has happened to you; and you will return to Adonai your God and pay attention to what he has said, which will be exactly what I am ordering you to do today — you and your children, with all your heart and all your being.” He is stipulating a return to a proper sense of Jewish self, a reclaiming of an identity forgotten, abandoned, lost, or obscured. In return, they are promised the blossoming of communal blessedness with the following proviso, “However, all this will happen only if you pay attention to what Adonai your God says, so that you obey his mitzvot and regulations which are written in this book of the Torah, if you turn to Adonai your God with all your heart and all your being.” Returning to God, returning to honoring the covenant found in Torah, returning to a sense of who we properly are and how we ought therefore to live, all of this is inextricably intertwined.
Yeshua Helps Us By Providing a Picture
This will sound too “legalistic” and perhaps nit-picky to some people. That is why it is good that Yeshua provides a story-picture of these dynamics. And in listening to the story the point comes home with cinematic force.
We are speaking of the story of the Prodigal Son. You will remember how he took his inheritance from his father, betraying his identity, winding up in a pagan land, far from home, therefore, in exile, feeding pigs. The pivot of the story occurs when this happens for the Prodigal:
At last he came to his senses and said, `Any number of my father’s hired workers have food to spare; and here I am, starving to death! I’m going to get up and go back to my father and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against Heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired workers.”
What happened here? He remembered who he was! We see here a re-establishing of identity, first in the Prodigal’s mind, and then, with the robe and ring, through his father’s actions.
Most of the time we see this simply as a picture of the pathway of return for a sinning individual. It is that. But it is also something more. This is also a portrait of Israel defiled in exile, coming to her senses, and returning to the God of the covenant. The story of the Prodigal is directly parallel to what we find in Deuteronomy thirty, verse nine:
When the time arrives that all these things have come upon you, both the blessing and the curse which I have presented to you; and you are there among the nations to which Adonai your God has driven you; then, at last, you will start thinking about what has happened to you.
We too are confronted with a choice: to reclaim our identity as covenantally bound to our heavenly Father, or to let all of that slide, like the Prodigal, wallowing in the pleasures and distractions of life in a foreign land. But as the Prodigal – and Moses – teach us, this will not turn out well. Moses puts it this way:
“Look! I am presenting you today with, on the one hand, life and good; and on the other, death and evil — in that I am ordering you today to love Adonai your God, to follow his ways, and to obey his mitzvot, regulations and rulings; for if you do, you will live and increase your numbers; and Adonai your God will bless you in the land you are entering in order to take possession of it. But if your heart turns away, if you refuse to listen, if you are drawn away to prostrate yourselves before other gods and serve them; I am announcing to you today that you will certainly perish; you will not live long in the land you are crossing the Yarden to enter and possess.
Here again, the issue is committing to our covenantal identity—returning to it and forsaking other false senses of self. We are told to not allow the idols around us shape our identity, but rather to remember and therefore honor our covenantal identity by returning to conforming to its demands.
Some Take Exception, But Are They Therefore Exempt?
Some will protest, “I was born a Jew and I’ll die a Jew and I don’t need to prove it to anyone.” Agreed! But that is not what we are discussing here. Rather, in calling and assisting Jewish Believers in Yeshua and our communities to remember our covenantal identity by returning to conforming to its demands, we are reminding and instructing ourselves to remember the meaning of that identity. It is a covenantal identity to which we are all bound apart from our choice to accept or even reject it. This is clearly taught in Deuteronomy 29, just before the passage we already considered. There we learn that all future generations of Israel are implicated in the covenantal bond with the God of the Exodus and his Torah.
Today you are standing, all of you, before ADONAI your God – your heads, your tribes, your leaders and your officers – all the men of Isra’el, along with your little ones, your wives and your foreigners here with you in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water.The purpose is that you should enter into the covenant of ADONAI your God and into his oath which ADONAI your God is making with you today, so that he can establish you today for himself as a people, and so that for you he will be God -as he said to you and as he swore to your ancestors, to Avraham, Yitz’chak and Ya’akov. But I am not making this covenant and this oath only with you. Rather, I am making it both with him who is standing here with us today before ADONAI our God and also with him who is not here with us today.
Who are those who were not there that day but who are included in the covenant? Commentators are unanimous: It is all the future generations of Israel. If you are Jewish, put you name right there: you are included.
All of this is at first difficult to grasp because we are habituated to individualism, seeing our lives and responsibilities as determined solely, entirely, by our autonomous choices. But this is not in fact who we are, and it is emphatically not the way Scripture sees us. Isaiah’s tells us God’s verdict on the matter when he calls us “the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isa 43:21).
Each of us are part of a people whom God called into being, redeemed from Egypt, and called into covenant responsibility at Sinai. Being part of that people gives us the privilege of conforming to that covenant’s demands and experiencing its extraordinary blessings.
It is not enough nor is it proper to take Jewish life-expressions as they currently exist and claim that they are sufficient markers of Jewish bona fides. It is not sufficient to say, “I’m a Jew because my parents are Jews. I like being Jewish and I like the same things most other Jews like: Jerry Seinfeld, Barbra Streisand, Israel, pastrami. I don’t have to prove anything.” Can we legitimize a Seinfeld, Barbara Streisand, pastrami Jewishness as a sufficient claim to Jewish identity and loyalty? Sociologically, perhaps, but theologically? Can we sell that to the Holy One of Israel? Don’t count on it!
The Holy One of Israel not only confers Jewish identity: he also defines its demands. And it is incumbent upon us to shape our souls and our communities around embodying what he calls for, through Yeshua, and in the power of the Spirit. But I promise you this: the resultant benefits to us and to the world are nothing short of spectacular.
This material on committing to Jewish covenantal identity is borrowed and edited from my blog, “Born a Jew. . . Die a Jew . . . But How About Live a Jew?” Accessed July 4, 2018 at https://www.interfaithfulness.org/2018/06/20/born-a-jew-die-a-jew-but-how-about-live-a-jew/