Walking through Jesus’ life from birth to death, Rabbi Evan Moffic serves as a tour guide to give Christians a new way to look at familiar teachings and practices that are rooted in the Jewish faith and can illuminate our lives today. Moffic gives fresh insight on how Jesus’ contemporaries understood him, explores how Jesus’ Jewishness shaped him, offers a new perspective on the Lord’s Prayer, and provides renewed appreciation for Jesus’ miracles.
In encountering his Jewish heritage, you will see Jesus differently, gain a better understanding of his message, and enrich your own faith.
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What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus
A New Way of Seeing the Most Influential Rabbi in History
By Rabbi Evan Moffic
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2015 Evan Moffic
All rights reserved.
A Humble Birth
A few years ago I read a story about a woman who had a painting in her home. She had purchased it at a garage sale for five dollars. (It had been marked eight, but the owner agreed to sell for five.) The painting hung in her home. She got used to it and didn't think much about it. One day a friend was over and began looking closely at the painting. The guest said to her friend, "Who's the artist?" The owner told her she did not know. The friend then said, "Well, it really looks like a Jackson Pollock." The owner was unfamiliar with Jackson Pollock, who is one of the twentieth century's most celebrated abstract artists. Soon, however, she visited a dealer and inquired about the painting. She discovered that it was, indeed, an original Jackson Pollock, and it was valued at $50 million!
Sometimes we do not know the value of what we have. This happens not only with art or physical goods. It can happen with a story or an idea. We can become so familiar and used to it that we forget how unique and extraordinary it really is. The birth of Jesus is among the most well-known stories in the world. Much of the world celebrates it every year on December 25. We celebrate it with elaborate pageants and displays. Perhaps the familiarity of the story, however, has hidden some of its deeper meanings. We may know it so well that we miss its depth. Indeed, when we look at it closely, we see that, from the setting to the language, every part of Jesus's birth narrative echoes parts of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament). Those echoes help us see the story in a new way. They illuminate profound lessons and implications threaded throughout the New Testament accounts of Jesus's birth.
Let us begin with the setting. Jesus is born in an out-of-the-way guesthouse. He is then taken to a manger. It is a world away from the palace of King Herod in Jerusalem. Yet, Herod has heard of the coming birth. He does not know where it will take place, but he is aware something important is going to happen. Thus, he sends three "men from the East" to witness it. They arrive at the manger.
One of the cardinal rules of biblical interpretation is that the Bible does not include unnecessary details. Everything matters. Why, then, does the text reveal these details about Jesus's birth location? It could have just said Jesus was born and soon left for Egypt. What message is the emphasis on the birthplace meant to convey? It's meant to draw a parallel between the births of Jesus in Bethlehem and of Moses in Egypt. Indeed, the setting echoes the humble circumstances into which Moses was born. Moses was born while the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. Like Herod in Jerusalem, the Pharaoh in Egypt suspected an important birth was going to take place. Thus, he ordered all Israelite males be immediately thrown into the Nile River upon birth. Moses is born under these terrifying circumstances. Then, just as Herod sent the three wise men to find Jesus, Pharaoh sent two midwives to find Moses. Yet, like the three wise men, the midwives do not obey Pharaoh's orders. They deliver Moses and help his mother and sister guide him to safety. Like the three wise men, they listen to a power higher than the Pharaoh. In so doing, they are models for us. They remind us that we have the power to make moral choices. Sometimes we have to do what is right rather than simply follow orders.
It is not just the humble and precarious circumstances of Jesus's birth, however, that are important. The location of the house in Bethlehem echoes the story of the biblical King David. David is born in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:1-13). As with Jesus, we know little about David's early life, but the Jewish sages suggest he worked as a shepherd for his father. Working as a shepherd connects him to Moses, who served as a shepherd for his father-in-law, and to Jesus, to whom shepherd imagery is often attached. Like Jesus, David will come to be known as the "King of the Jews." His humble birth belies his divine significance.
Abraham and Sarah
The most direct biblical parallel to the story of Jesus's birth is not, however, the birth of Moses or David. It is the announcement to Abraham and Sarah of the impending birth of their son, Isaac. The story begins in Genesis 22, where Abraham is standing at the entrance to his tent. It is a hot day, yet Abraham stands in the open flap of the tent. Suddenly he sees three men in the distance. They are approaching the tent. He rushes to greet them. He asks Sarah to prepare a meal for them. She does, and then Abraham serves it. They tell him that Sarah will soon deliver a child. Sarah overhears their remarks, and she laughs. The men then leave.
Yet, as they leave, we realize they were not really men. They were angels. Like the three wise men, they had been guided there by God, who sought to send Abraham and Sarah a message — his message of an impending miraculous birth. The birth is a miracle because Sarah and Abraham are in their nineties. A natural biological birth is impossible. The birth is ordained by God.
Why are the two stories so similar? Why are they told in this particular way? Determining the answer to this question can offer us an entirely new perspective on the birth of Jesus. The answer lies within several of the Jewish legends surrounding the angels' announcement to Abraham. It rests on the recognition that Abraham was willing and eager to invite the angels into his tent. In other words, he was open to God's miracle. He did not simply wait passively to receive it. He went out and invited it in.
Judaism — the faith of Abraham and of Jesus — is an active faith. We believe God lives where we let God in. Abraham let God into his tent. Joseph and Mary let God into the house. Had Joseph and Mary said, "This place is not fit for the birth of Jesus," or had they said, "Why should we let these three strangers into this place?" they would not have witnessed the miracle. Had Abraham not been standing in the opening of his tent — had he not rushed to provide hospitality to the three angels — he may never have been able to carry on the covenant through his son, Isaac. Miracles come to those who are ready to receive them.
The Jewish sages make this point in analyzing the way Abraham welcomes the three angels. They draw from his actions the religious imperative of hospitality. They point out that the story in Genesis begins with Abraham communing with God. Genesis 18:1 reads, "The Lord appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre while he sat at the entrance of his tent." In other words, Abraham is experiencing a prophetic conversation with God while standing in the open flap of his tent. In the midst of this conversation, however, Abraham sees the three men approaching. He could have ignored them. He was in the midst of conversation with God! That's a pretty important activity. Yet, Abraham pauses his conversation so he can go out and welcome the visitors.
To put yourself in Abraham's shoes, imagine you are in a meeting with God in your home or office. Suddenly some visitors come by. Would you tell God to hold on so you can attend to the visitors? Does that not seem strange? Why would we put the needs of human visitors before the presence of God? Does that not strike you as disrespectful, even heretical? Not to the Jewish sages. They derived from Abraham's actions the following conclusion: "Greater is hospitality than receiving the divine presence." They justified this conclusion because God approves of Abraham's behavior. After Abraham welcomes and feeds the guests, God resumes their conversation. And God uses the angels disguised as men to deliver God's message.
We need to remember that Abraham did not know they were angels. He simply saw three men approaching the tent. His first priority was to attend to their needs. He exemplified the sacredness of hospitality. He met God where God wanted him to be. Abraham's willingness to challenge the conventional arrangement of power — to turn away from literally speaking to God to welcoming three strangers — is what made him great. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks put it, "It is easy to receive the Divine Presence when God appears as God. What is difficult is to sense the Divine Presence when it comes disguised as three anonymous passersby. That was Abraham's greatness. He knew that serving God and offering hospitality to strangers were not two things but one."
Almost exactly the same words could be said about Mary and Joseph. The function of the three wise men was not simply to meet the baby Jesus. It was to connect his divinity with his humanity. It was to demonstrate Mary and Joseph's openness to receiving the divine presence. Like Abraham and Sarah, who had upended their lives by responding to God's call to leave their homeland, Mary and Joseph had already shown their willingness to follow God's lead. Upon God's instruction, Joseph had married Mary. Mary had borne a "child from the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 1:18). Now they welcomed the three wise men whom God had sent. Their hospitality contrasts with the rejection they had received at the inn, where "there was no room" (Luke 2). Mary and Joseph witnessed a miraculous birth, as did Abraham and Sarah. They opened themselves up to the miracle through their hospitality. Miracles do not depend solely on God. They depend also on our faith, our readiness, our openness to receive them.
Welcoming Our Own Angels
This truth applies not only to supernatural miracles like the ones we witness in the Bible. It works in our everyday lives. I saw this one day when I was visiting two sets of new parents in the hospital. Both were members of my congregation, and both had just given birth to their first child. The first set was relaxed and cool. They were focused on the baby's vital signs. They started to make phone calls to friends and family. The husband joked with me about starting the college savings fund. I had a pleasant visit and went down the hall. The next set of parents both had eyes filled with tears. They were tears of joy and awe. They spoke of the miracle they had experienced and asked me to say the Shechyanu prayer, which thanks God for having kept us alive to witness this moment.
These couples represent two perspectives that are not mutually exclusive but which do convey different approaches to life. One sees the events of birth as natural phenomena. The couple had intimate relations, and a child soon resulted from it. The other couple saw birth as a miracle, a gift from God that demanded gratitude and prayer. The difference between them is not what they experienced. It is the way they experienced it. One saw fact. The other felt faith. The Bible — whether we see it as literal fact or metaphorical truth — urges us to embrace the second perspective. How can we open ourselves up more to the miracles of life? How can we be more like Abraham and Sarah and Joseph and Mary? Who are the angels we need to welcome into our tents? What are the gifts we need to give and receive?
Circumcision and Flight to Egypt
Eight days after his birth, Jesus was circumcised. It is not clear who performed the circumcision, but since it was Jewish custom for a father to circumcise his son, it was likely Joseph. Male circumcision is a critical marker of Jewish identity. The practice began when Abraham circumcised Isaac on the eighth day of his life. Circumcision symbolizes the covenant — the sacred relationship — between God and the Jewish people. It represents the promises God made to Abraham, and Abraham to God. Understanding the significance of circumcision in Jewish tradition gives us greater depth of Jesus's teachings on salvation.
Circumcision almost always happens on the eighth day of a child's life. Abraham circumcises Isaac on the eighth day after his birth. The Torah gives no explanation for it, but it has become an ironclad custom in Jewish life. Even if the eighth day is Yom Kippur, the most sacred and solemn Jewish holiday of the year, the circumcision takes place. Even though the Torah does not explain the reason, later Jewish sages suggest the importance of the number eight. Eight is seven plus one. Seven represents the natural world, which is created in seven days, and one represents the one God who created the world. Seven plus one — eight — symbolizes the unity of the spiritual and physical worlds.
The deeper meaning of circumcision lies in the Hebrew word brit. The word brit is the term used for "ceremony of circumcision." It also means "covenant," that is, the promises between God and the Jewish people. In the Hebrew Bible, God promises Abraham two things: land and descendants. Jews throughout the centuries summarized the promise as survival. No matter what happened, the Jewish people would survive. They would have a place to live and descendants to carry on the tradition.
At Mount Sinai, God makes a second covenant. This time it is with Moses and the people. They would not only have land and descendants but also follow a set of laws found in the Torah — the Five Books of Moses — and they would be God's "treasured possession," the chosen people. To be the "chosen people" is not to be a superior people. Rather, it is to have a relationship with God based on following God's law. It resembles a marriage. A husband or wife need not think his or her spouse is superior to every other person in the world in order to have a unique relationship with each other. Each is chosen by and for the other. In Judaism, the basis of this chosenness is observance of the Torah, given by God for the Jewish people.
The revelation of the Torah at Sinai makes the covenant between God and Israel a twofold covenant. The first part is with Abraham and refers generally to Jewish survival. It is rooted in biology and history. The Jewish people share a history. They are the children of Abraham and descend from the twelve sons of Jacob, also known as the twelve tribes of Israel. The second covenant — known as the Mosaic or Sinai covenant — is based on law. It is religious rather than historical, theological rather than biological. So Jesus's circumcision makes him part of that first covenant. His life is connected to the land of Israel and the Jewish people. He is a descendant of Abraham and the tribe of Judah. He also likely saw his life as part of the second covenant. He observed the Torah and followed Jewish law.
Jesus's circumcision also became a source for the apostle Paul's emphasis on the difference between law and spirit and between external and internal change. For Paul, the inward circumcision — what is called the "circumcision of the heart" — is far more important than circumcision of the flesh. This outward transformation is what makes one a true descendant of Abraham. As Paul puts it bluntly in Romans, "Since God is one, then the one who makes the circumcised righteous by faith will also make the one who isn't circumcised righteous through faith. Do we then cancel the Law through this faith? Absolutely not! Instead, we confirm the Law" (Romans 3:30-31).
This is a monumental verse because Paul redefines the meaning of being Jewish. While this verse has occasionally evoked criticism from Jews who see it as implying that Jews who are physically circumcised are only interested in external appearances, it does fit with a school of Jewish theology known as Prophetic Judaism.
Prophetic Judaism and Circumcision
Prophetic Judaism is the voice in the Bible that critiques ritual and emphasizes justice and spirit. The Prophet Jeremiah, for example, frequently makes an argument similar to Paul's. "The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will deal with everyone who is physically circumcised. ... All these nations are really uncircumcised; even the people of Israel are uncircumcised in heart" (Jeremiah 9:25-26). In Prophetic Judaism, ritual and physical actions are not enough. They need to be driven by the spirit. Thus, Paul was drawing on a rich Jewish tradition when he emphasized circumcision of the heart rather than the body. His innovation was using this emphasis to remove physical circumcision as part of the definition of being Jewish. Prophetic Judaism never eliminated the requirement of physical circumcision. It simply said such a circumcision was not enough.
Excerpted from What Every Christian Needs to Know About the Jewishness of Jesus by Rabbi Evan Moffic. Copyright © 2015 Evan Moffic. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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Table of Contents
"1. A Humble Birth",
"2. An Unexpected Turn",
"3. Entering the Waters",
"4. Surviving a Wilderness of Temptations",
"5. Calling the Disciples",
"6. Do You Believe in Miracles?",
"7. Finding Honey on the Page",
"8. The Shema",
"9. The Lord's Prayer",
"10. The Last Days",
"11. Five Rabbis Explain Jesus",