Two Indispensable Aspects of Jewish Repentance Toward God

November 1, 2013

In general we have been examining my proposition that Jewish repentance is different from that repentance required of Gentiles.  Under that umbrella, we have seen that the pathway of Jewish deparature from God is departure from his mitzvot/commandments, and that therefore the pathway of return includes a return to obeying them.

In addition we saw that in Jewish thought and in the Older Testament, this is not a matter of salvation, or of sanctification, but instead a matter of showing God proper honor. We proved that from the story of Jeremiah and the Rechabites in Jeremiah 35 and from the four metaphors used in Malachi for God which all stress that God is only properly honored when he is obeyed.

But is that all there is to Jewish repentance, to what our liturgy terms “perfect repentance?” Are we just to go to our people with a message to return to Torah living? On the basis of the Tanach itself, as confirmed in the Newer Testament, we will see that the answer to these questions is “No,” and that Jewish repentance has two aspects. We might even term those who embrace one aspect while avoiding the other as semi-repentant, but I prefer to term their repentance as less than the perfect repentance to which our tradition calls us. Certainly we will discover that such “repentance” is yet incomplete. That is quite an indictment. Let me prove it to you.

A Key Lesson from Nehemiah

The Book of Nehemiah is set in the 5th century BCE. Nehemiah is living in Exile, serving as the cupbearer to the King of Persia, a high position because he was entrusted with making sure the King was not poisoned. He receives word of the fallen condition of the Jews remaining in the Land, and of how the walls of Jerusalem are broken down. He grieves, prays, and receives permission from King Artaxerxes to go back to Jerusalem to shore up the city walls expedite matters there. The King appoints him governor.

In this connection, the people have a great service of rededication and covenant renewal, and the priests and Levites recount the history of God’s faithfulness to Israel and her repeated faithlessness toward him. Sin inevitably brought disaster, but each time God heard the cries of his people, sending them deliverers. The text sums up Israel’s repeated ingratitude in these words,  “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you. .  . .” Here we see a two-fold pattern found repeatedly in Israel’s history and in her scriptures, and marked as significant in both the Older and Newer Testaments. That pattern is rejection of God’s Torah and its demands, accompanied by rejecting and killing the prophets whom God sent. A look at the text’s language makes these components and their connection clear.

Casting Something Behind One's Back

We read, “they were disobedient and rebelled against thee and cast thy [Torah] behind their back and killed thy prophets” (9:26), This phrase “casting something behind the back” is used five times in Tanach, once positively, and four times negatively.

1.   Postitively, God casting our sins behind his back. We read in Isaiah, “Behold, it was for my welfare that I had great bitterness; but in love you have delivered my life from the pit of destruction, for you have cast all my sins behind your back” [Isa 38:17]. Then come the four negative references:

2.   Negatively, The Kingdom of Judah casting God behind its back:

[To the Kingdom of Judah] Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you have forgotten me and cast me behind your back, you yourself must bear the consequences of your lewdness and whoring”  [Ezek 23:35].

3.   Negatively - [Spoken to the wicked King of Israel, Jeroboam, who cast the God of Israel behind his back] Go, tell Jeroboam, ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: “Because I exalted you from among the people and made you leader over my people Israel and tore the kingdom away from the house of David and gave it to you, and yet you have not been like my servant David, who kept my commandments and followed me with all his heart, doing only that which was right in my eyes,but you have done evil above all who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods and metal images, provoking me to anger, and have cast me behind your back [1 Kings 14].   

4.   Negatively, spoken of the wicked casting God’s words behind their back  Note the nexus – reciting the statutes, taking the covenant upon one’s lips, casting His words behind us, and then living wrongly.

16     But to the wicked God says:

“What right have you to recite my statutes

or take my covenant on your lips?

17     For you hate discipline,

and you cast my words behind you.

18     If you see a thief, you are pleased with him,

and you keep company with adulterers. [Psalm50:16-18].

5.   Negatively, the people of Israel casting His Torah, his commandments, behind their backs.  “They were disobedient and rebelled against thee and cast thy law behind their back and killed thy prophets” (9:26)

What then does it mean to say, “X casts Y behind his/her/their back[s]?” From these contexts we may discern that the phrase means to put something out of one’s view so as to no longer have to deal with it. In our modern parlance, “out of sight, out of mind.”  In Nehemiah 9:26 the people of Israel didn’t want to deal with the demands of God’s Torah. Instead, they cast God’s law behind their back and killed his prophets.

On Killing the Prophets

Why kill the prophets?  We find that clearly taught as this same verse continues: “Nevertheless, they were disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them in order to turn them back to you.” And what had the prophets warned them about? They warned the people about the consequences of continuing to break God’s Torah, their collective covenantal responsibilities to God. This is why the text of Nehemiah can equate verse 26, “in order to turn them back to you” with verse 29, “you warned them in order to turn them back to your law [your Torah].”  In the text then, it is quite natural to equate Jewish return to God with return to Torah.

The prophets were God’s sh’lichim, authorized representatives from the courts of heaven, sent by God to call the people back to the Torah they had cast behind their backs, or to face the consequences. This is why Jewish rejection of God’s messengers and rejection of his Torah are related to one another in scripture. The messengers, the prophets, stand as prosecutors indicting Israel for covenant violation.

Yeshua Illustrates a Point Made in Tanach

Yeshua reinforces this connection between Jewish rejection of God, of his Torah, and of his prophets, in the Parable of the Tenants.

33 “Hear another parable. There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. 34 When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. 35 And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. 36 Again he sent other servants, more than the first. images-1

And they did the same to them. 37 Finally he sent his son to them, saying, ‘They will respect my son.’ 38 But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, ‘This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.’ 39 And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. 40 When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?” 41 They said to him, “He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons”  [Matt 21:33-41].

As Isaiah chapter five will reminds us, the vineyard is the House of Israel, and the fruit is deeds that accord with doing the will of the master, that is, keeping his commandments—his Torah. The messengers he sends to the tenants are reminders of the prophets, and of course the son who is in the end killed is Messiah himself.

This is not an isolated view in Scripture. It may be seen for example in 1 Chron 24:20-21, and again in 2 Chron 36:11-16.  Yeshua himself picks up this refrain again in his lament over Jerusalem in Matthew 21: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!”

In Conclusion

What am I therefore getting at?  I am getting at these matters that we have established:

  1. For Jews, the pathway of sin is departure from Torah covenant obedience, “casting the Torah behind our backs,” and the pathway of return to God is a return to Torah. But that is not all.
  2. For Jews, the second aspect of sin is rejecting God’s messenger[s] and therefore the message with which they were entrusted, Therefore, the pathway of perfect repentance is both to honor his messengers and to obey their covenantal return message. This is why we read this little interchange with Yeshua in John 6:29-30, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”
  3. Jews shold remember the kal v’chomer argument [from the lesser to the greater] implied in scripture, that if it is a grievous thing to reject God’s prophets, it is even more grievous to reject the Messiah, his ultimate messenger, prophet, and shaliach.

Therefore, I am suggesting that the following approaches are inadequate descriptions of our responsibility in speaking to our people, the children of the God of Israel.

  1. It is inadequate to entreat Jewish people to receive the Messiah apart from winning them to a return Torah obedience.
  2. It is inadequate to bring Jewish people to return to Torah living Torah apart from calling them to welcome the ultimate One whom God sent

Stephen, the first Jewish martyr among the early believers in Yeshua, touched on the same issues. As he stood before a hostile crowd, knowing that things were not going to turn out well for him, he preached his heart out. He spoke over and over again of this pattern of rejecting the messengers whom God had sent. He speaks of Joseph, of Moses, of others sent by God but rejected by their peers. He finishes his argument with these words:

“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it” [Acts 7:51-53].

These are harsh words, but they have a prophetic edge, one Jew, anointed by God, speaking to other Jews. All the elements of my presentation are found in this text.

Three questions remain for us all, as we consider this lesson against the background of the others in this series:

  1. What are the implications of this lesson for those who call Jews to believe in Yeshua while neglecting to call them to a return to Torah obedience?
  2. What are the implications of this lesson for those who call Jews to return to Torah, while viewing embracing Yeshua as Messiah as a mistake?
  3. What are the implications of this lesson for the leaders and congregations of the Messianic Jewish movement?

Good questions. I hope we have good answers.

4 comments on “Two Indispensable Aspects of Jewish Repentance Toward God”

  1. Good questions indeed. Those verses cited clearly indicate that M.J. has fallen far short of it's mission. We love pithy sayings, hebrew catch phrases, and only it seems moedim, but now the gaunlett has been thrown down, it's time to put our money where our mouth is so to speak. These issues will clearly separate the serious from the hobbiest, the men from the boys and all that. Thanks for haveing the chuzpah to write this!

    1. Of course, Tony, I could be wrong too. However, for decades now, I have learned to take positions that were formerly inconceivable to me because the weight of scripture demanded it. Also, I sometimes saw that the positions held and defended were the theological residue of factions and paradigms that failed to give the Jewish people and "the whole counsel of God" their due. When one is shifting paradigms and I have myself done, and as I call others to consider doing, one first becomes dissatisfied with the status quo, suspecting that it does not adequately match human experience, intuition, or biblical evidence. Then, one must seek and find a paradigm that seems to supply better answers. Often, that paradigm ail be one that a respected other person adheres to, and that respected other becomes the lighthouse toward which one swims in order to claim their light as one's own.

      One of the advantages of growing older is that one develops the courage to say and do the unpopular. For some of us, a lifetime of seeking to win approval teaches one that the effort doe not adequately repay the cost to oneself.

      Sadly, if I am right in what I am saying here, I may not live long enough for it to make any difference. Yeshua taught that the word of the Kingdom needed the right soil in order to sprout and grow. I am not at all sure that is the case quite yet.

  2. Shalom dear Rav, chavua tov.
    First of all I wanted to thank you so much for these inspiring posts : they are so enriching that whenever I get to the end of them, well, I can’t help wishing you would write more often, or more, or faster … ☺

    While thinking about your questions and reading “around” the texts you proposed, I had the impression that a return of the Jews to the Torah AND to Yeshua (both!) has some really large implications which go well beyond the idea of “evangelism” that some Messianic Congregations tend sometimes to have, at least as far as I know them as an “outside” observant.
    In fact, we read in Romans 9-11 that Israel’s destiny is eschatological and when she will enter her fullness we will not only enjoy the ultimate shalom, but there will be Resurrection of the dead and the Final Redemption culminating in the return of the Messiah and the fulfilment of world’s history.
    According to Ezekiel’s hanavi prophecies addressed to Zion (ch. 36- 37) and Isaiah’s hanavi (ch. 52) Israel’s destiny is communal, and Jews are called to respond to G-d’s Covenant within a communal context.
    Therefore, I wonder if we should not concentrate our efforts of “kiruv rekhonim” (in my own context we would say “outreach” but I am never very much convinced of that term since we are speaking of Jews and not Gentiles) in announcing Yeshua as Good News meant not for the benefit of the individuals, but, rather, for the Jewish people as a whole.
    Another implication could be the presence of Gentiles in many Messianic Jewish Congregations. I strongly believe that salvation is for all, Jews and Gentiles, and that the diversity of Gentiles is also meant by G-d as a blessing for Israel, but Torah observance is what distinguishes Jews from Gentiles and I think it is fundamental for us to keep and safeguard this distinction. True, Gentile believers are spiritual proselytes to Judaism and they have an active responsibility for the moral aspect of the Torah but they are not called to share into its practice and distinctive elements.

    Finally, the fact of going into the direction you are pointing out, Rav, could help the integration of Messianic Jews in mainstream Judaism as it would distinguish us from all the other types of Hebrew-Christian organizations which are inspired by and based on different motivations.

    Thank you, Rav for this terrific work that you are carrying out with so much competence and wisdom. Be assured of my prayers for you.

    1. I am smiling, as you are realizing things that have been growing in me for a number of years. I have been "corrupted" by reading the Bible and trying to find perspectives and answers that provide better answers and resolve tensions created by other paradigms. Paul went through this process in Romans nine to eleven when he found himself unable to accept that the Jews as a people were now simply discarded, having performed their function of being the context in which the Messiah came for the sake of the nations. The question haunting Paul's mind in those chapter was, "Is this all we can expect of God for the Jews?" And the reason that question and tension haunted him was that he knew the Scripture and what it had promised, and the promises did not match the reality he was seeing. So it is for me, not that I am an Apostle Paul. But so it is for anyone who goest though theological paradigm shifts. One looks for better answers that don't create more problems than they solve, and that don't suspiciously ignore the evidence of Scripture or of experience.

      Thank you again for your comment. You really get it. And I know this excites you as it does me.

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