Understanding More Clearly the Words in Red
Recently I was asked, “Why?” Why do I study Hebrew culture, language, customs and tradition and even the writings of ancient Rabbi’s, (this alongside in-depth study of the Old and New Testaments.) As I first began this pursuit I found it amazing how Jesus’ words come alive, His parables, His teaching, even His stern rebukes (Oh those Pharisees!) Jesus was Hebrew, spoke Hebrew, He was raised in the traditions and customs of Hebrew culture.
According to scholars on the topic, probably by the time Jesus was five years old He had begun learning to read and memorize the scriptures, after age ten He began to learn the Oral Torah (Rabbinic interpreting of the Written Torah, Torah is Hebrew for ‘teaching’ or instruction, primarily the first 5 books of the OT) Remember the story in Luke chapter 2, Mary & Joseph had gone to Jerusalem for the Passover, Jesus a young boy of twelve became separated from His parents, later they found Jesus in the Temple sitting among the teachers, listening and asking questions. They were amazed not at His age, but the depth of His wisdom. By age thirteen, by custom He would have concluded His formal study (from man) and began to learn a trade… a carpenter (Matt 13:55, Mk 6:3)
Customs and traditions: A fascinating one is found quietly tucked in Jesus telling the Pharisees ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mk 12:17, Matt 22:21. Lk 20:25) The story is told of a few Pharisees, (Members of an ancient Jewish sect, priests known for strictly observing traditional and written law. Sadly, they considered themselves much holier than the common people) Doubting Jesus’ claim of Godly Sonship, they had a plan to trap Him into saying things that would either discredit Him or cause an uproar within the community.
They asked, “Teacher, we know You are a man of integrity… Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not, should we pay or shouldn’t we?” Jesus knowing their motive calls them HYPOCRITES! He then asks, if someone had a ‘denarius coin.’ One of them, possibly one of the temple priests, steps forward, hands Him the coin.
We should pay our taxes and give to the church is what we interpret from this story, and rightly so, but looking through the eyes of Hebrew culture this story takes on a whole new excitement. When Jesus calls the Jewish traditional leaders ‘Hypocrites’ – they are exactly that (Hypocrisy is pretending to be something you are not and have no intention of being, and paying more attention to reputation and appearances than to character.) You see, denarius (Roman coins) was strictly forbidden in the Temple, because it bore Caesars blasphemous claim to be divine, yet here one of the priests HAD a coin in his pocket. According to Jewish law the making of ‘images’ was forbidden, “You saw no form of any kind the day the LORD spoke to you at Horeb out of the fire. Therefore watch yourselves very carefully, so that you do not become corrupt and make for yourselves an idol, an image of any shape, whether formed like a man or a woman…” Deut 4:15-16
The coin now shining in the palm of Jesus’ hand, He asks the question, “Whose portrait is this…” I think at this moment, we may have been able to hear the slight snickers of the disciples, “DUDE, Busted!” Tradition states that temple priests would refuse the current money demanding the people priorly exchange it for the ‘half-shekel’ which was free from all pagan images, and they would not be defiled. Not in this case. Hm, a defiled hypocritical priest in possession of a forbidden coin attempting to entrap the Master! Yet, Jesus (Go God!)
Jesus followed many Jewish customs, in Luke 4, we find Him in the Synagogue, standing and reading from a portion of Isaiah (61:1,2) as was the custom of the day, Rabbis would read, then give commentary: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed.” Rolling the scroll back up and handing it to the attendant and sat down, then adds, “By the way, that’s Me.” (paraphrase of course)
There are times we read on through and over passages that speak directly to tradition and not really understand them. One great example is in Mark 7 (also Matt 15) Jesus says: “But you say that if a man says to his father or mother: ‘Whatever help you might otherwise have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift devoted to God), Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” Really now, WHAT is ‘Corban!’
First setting the context, again the Pharisees (troublesome folk) saw the disciples eating without first ‘performing the hand-washing ceremony’ (defined by Jewish tradition) approached Jesus and asked why they didn’t follow the traditions of their ancestors, Jesus responds, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions!” Then proceeds to give ‘Corban’ as an example: The Jewish tradition allowing money originally dedicated to the care of parents could be declared Corban, ‘Dedicated to God’, the money would then be released to the Temple (if so desired, it was a move of prestige appearance) In doing so the person exempts himself from any inconvenient obligation to take care of their parents, disregarding and rejecting the Law of Moses. “Honor your father and mother, as the LORD your God commanded you.” (Ex. 20:12, Deut. 5:16)
“Jesus wasn’t against all tradition, but He was against those who made their traditions as important, if not MORE important than God’s Word. Good traditions shine a spotlight on God’s Word, move us to obedient service (with understanding) They explain and reinforce the teachings of God. God’s Word should ALWAYS be the focus, and tradition a means of bringing that Word alive.” – Life Application Study Bible, study notes. (Emphasis mine)
Knowing the culture, traditions, and beliefs help paint the picture that Jesus was born in, raised and lived and taught about, understanding more clearly the words in red.
In Him, DeDe (“Let us consider how we may spur one another toward love & good deeds.” – Heb. 10:24)
I encourage you to explore more for yourself. There are some great books explaining the customs and traditions of Jewish living. “Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus’ and ‘Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus’ by Lois Tverberg, ‘God in Search of Man’ by Abraham Heschel (are my favorite) Also there are numerous books on the ‘Manners & Customs’ of the Bible. Google & Amazon are your friend (with discernment)