Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Rabbi Jesus

When I am looking for a new book to read, the good meaty kind of book that gets me to thinking, I often will read blogs by authors. It gives me a chance to see if I might like their books.  In this digital age, I hate to buy a book that I don't like and can't return or sell!  One blog I've started reading recently is  It is written by Lois Tverberg, who started out as a student of Ray Vander Laan, who has made a career in part out of examining and teaching the Jewish context of the Scriptures. Since then, she has become an accomplished researcher and writer on the same topic herself, particularly the life and teachings of Jesus. I encourage you to take a look at the blog.  She doesn't post with great regularity, but her words are always insightful. 

Based on what I saw in her blog writing, I bought her latest book, Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus.  It was another example of a non-fiction book I had trouble putting down.  I'd like to think that if you melded Helene and I into one writer and gave us about 15 more years experience writing, that we would write like Ms. Tverberg.  Like me, she has a scientific background.  As a result, her writing is very logical and precise.  Like Helene, she has the fantastic ability to make her lessons real and personal.  She can make you think without making you angry.

Walking in the Dust is divided into three parts. In the interest of space, I will only be discussing Parts One and Two. The first part is called "Hearing Our Rabbi's Words With New Ears."    She begins with an engaging discussion of how knowing Jesus's Jewish context will enrich our Bible studies and pierce our hearts with conviction.  She then moves on to her main focus, the Hebrew words that he used,* and how knowing what they mean can help us to understand Jesus's commands better. . One of the main teachings of Jesus that she discusses is the shema. You know the first part of the shema as the greatest command, Deuteronomy 6:4-9. 

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
She then gives insightful explanations about many of the key words in the passage.  For example, the first word, shema, we translate as "hear," but that does not encompass the full range of what the word meant to the Jewish people who heard it.  Many places in the Old Testament that we read as "obey" are actually this same word, shema.  For the Jew, to hear was to obey!  In fact, Ms. Tverberg points out that because the Jewish language has so few words (compared to English), each word has a breadth of meaning. "Many verbs in Hebrew that we think of as only mental activities often encompass their expected physical result...The logic of Hebrew (and other languages) realizes that an action should result from what is in our minds...Hebrew realizes that the longest twelve inches that your faith has to move is from your head to your heart" (Chapter 2).

Given the importance of actions (or dare I say works) to the Jewish mindset and Jesus's teachings, it is appropriate that part two of Walking in the Dust is titled "Living out the Words of Rabbi Jesus."  Here, the author tackles some of the harder teachings of Jesus.  By harder, I mean hard to follow (holding your tongue), hard to understand (having a good eye), or both (do not judge).  She uses the centuries of Jewish thought that came before Jesus, that Jesus and his listeners would be familiar with, to shed light on these difficult passages.  Matthew 6:22-23 says "The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!"  Ms. Tverberg explains that having a "good eye" was actually an idiom that meant looking out for the needs of others and giving to the poor generously.  Having a bad eye was the opposite, to be self-centered and stingy.  When read in this way, the verses fit perfectly in the passage, as Jesus teaches about storing up treasures in heaven and not being a slave to money.

Because this section is about living his words, it goes on to talk about how to have a "good eye," a generous spirit, in today's world.  I really appreciate that she doesn't try to downplay the importance of giving money, or what the lack of such giving has done to today's churches.  One illustration particularly sticks in my mind.

Just imagine if a Jesus were a real estate agent, taking you around to see the options for your growing family.  "This next place is lovely. It's got five bathrooms, a Jacuzzi, and a pool in the backyard. The price is $400,000 – pretty high, but the schools are great here...Oooh, but check out this place next door.  It needs some work, but it's only $250,000.  You know, if you buy this house, what you'll save in loan payments could support an entire orphanage in Kenya." (Chapter 5)
Although the numbers are inflated, it made me think about my own ongoing house search. I realize that we can talk about "giving as we are prospered" all we like, but when my house payment is 25% of my take home pay and I give 10% to the church, and somehow I can't find the extra money to make a meal for someone in need, there is a real disconnect.

Indeed, the best thing about this book is that Ms. Tverberg takes the Hebrew idea that to believe is to do and weaves it throughout every chapter.  She doesn't merely explain the Jewish context of Jesus; she gives example of how to live in the way that Jesus taught.  I came away from reading it with the resolve to give more, talk less, and try to love my Savior with everything in me. 


*Yes, the New Testament was written in Greek and Jesus spoke Aramaic, but like other Jews of the time, Jesus probably did his teaching in Hebrew.    
Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission

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