Mission Not Accomplished Yet
This is my last post on the book of Acts. When I started this series, almost a year ago, I wrote: “For a very long time, I have wanted to go through the Book of Acts together with my readers. Too often, this particular book is perceived as a demarcation line, as a declaration of separation from anything Jewish”. Yes, the entire New Testament has largely been misread and misunderstood – however, the Book of Acts is especially crucial for understanding this parting of the ways. Therefore, I have tried to uncover the Jewishness of the book of Acts by demonstrating its first century Jewish historical and cultural context—to show you the details that pertained to the Jewish context that are not obvious to the Christian reader.
However, with all that being written and said, I believe that the most important part of my mission on the book of Acts has not yet been accomplished – and this is what we are going to do today: to obtain the proper perspective of this book. We all know that the narrative of the Acts starts in Jerusalem and ends in Rome – and we cannot ignore this fact! In this sense, the book is very clear, indeed: the message of Jesus had to go to the Gentiles; it had to spread from Jerusalem to Rome, the itinerary is set. However, we all know that any navigator (here, in Israel, it’s always Waze) can take us to the same destination by very different routes. Moreover, if we miss a turn or take a wrong turn, our navigator recalculates in order to get us back on the right way (some even say, “Recalculating”). Maybe some recalculating needs to be done here also? Do we need to accept the traditional Christian interpretations? It is time to restore the original interpretation—it is time for a paradigm shift again.
Crooked and Straight
Before we do that, however, I would like to remind you how much God’s ways and Israel’s ways seemed almost synonymous to the early believers. Let’s go back to Acts 13. After Paul and Barnabas are sent away from Antioch, they travel to the city of Paphos in Cyprus, where the Roman Proconsul is willing to hear them. However, somebody by the name Elymas, described as a false prophet and a sorcerer, opposes them, “doing his best to turn the governor away from the faith. Then Sha’ul, also known as Paul, filled with the Ruach HaKodesh, stared straight at him and said, “You son of Satan, full of fraud and evil! You enemy of everything good! Won’t you ever stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord?”
I have purposely chosen to use this translation here (Complete Jewish Bible), since it renders the Greek text with exactly the same words that we need in order to unpack Luke’s message. Paul could have said a thousand different things to Elymas: Won’t you ever stop doing your evil deeds? Won’t you ever stop opposing God? Won’t you ever stop resisting true faith? – so, why did he use this peculiar phrase about crooked and straight?
In order to answer this question and see the message hidden by Luke in this story, I would like to remind you that the biblical name for the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is “Israel”: they are children of Jacob, who was named Israel after he had wrestled with the mysterious man at Penuel. “The man” who fought with Jacob, blessed him, and in blessing him he changed his name to Israel. He said: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.” Therefore, it is widely believed that the word “Israel” comes from the Hebrew word,שרית , which in biblical Hebrew means “to struggle,” “to exercise influence,” “to prevail”.
There is an additional way to interpret this name, however, and this way helps us comprehend the depth of the transformation from Jacob to Israel, from Yaakov to Yisrael . I believe that the words of Paul in Acts 13 are a clear allusion to this way. In Hebrew, the name Israel might be read as Yashar-El (ישר-אל). The Hebrew word, Yashar (יָשָׁר) means straight, in biblical usage, it could also mean an ”honest, righteous, God-fearing person”. The root עָקֹב֙, on the other hand (the root of the name Ya’akov) means “crooked,” as in the verse: the crooked (הֶֽעָקֹב֙) shall be made straight. This is exactly what this transition from Jacob to Israel means: God made the crooked straight!
We can now understand Paul’s choice of words. In fact, Paul says to Elymas, “Your behavior is the opposite of the very definition of Israel!” Don’t you think that this is a very important lesson from the Apostle to Gentiles: to do something against God, to oppose faith, means … to go against the very meaning of the word “Israel”.
Paradigm Shift –Again
Just a few weeks ago, we were discussing Paul‘s allegory from Galatians. Then we also said that we needed a paradigm shift. In order to read Paul’s allegory in the way it has been read for centuries by the Church, some beliefs had to be presupposed: First, Ishmael was just a byproduct on the way to Isaac, and only Isaac was essential in God’s plan; secondly, the Sinai Covenant (and Old Testament) was just a byproduct on the way to the New Covenant, and only the New Covenant was essential in God’s plan. It’s the same here: if one supposes that all this “Jerusalem“ and “Jewish” part was just a byproduct, a transit stop on the way to the final destination – Rome and the Gentiles – then we can really see this two-dimensional, linear trajectory, where, once again, the latter and better parts replace the former “imperfect” ones—“Rome” replaces “Jerusalem”. Sadly, many traditional Christian commentators throughout history have read these verses in precisely such a way, using this book as a justification of Rome replacing Jerusalem.
We don’t know exactly when the Acts were written, different scholars suggest different dates, but in any case, it would be either late first century or at the latest, early second century. And already at the beginning of the second century, in Justin Martyr’s treatise “Dialogues with Trypho”, we find, not only very clear expression of such a replacement, but also its “biblical” foundation. Commenting on the story of Noah and his sons at the end of Genesis 9, he points out the verse, may God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem, as a prophetic word about how in the future Japheth, the Gentile nations that have received Christianity, in his understanding, would seize the tents of Shem, i.e. Israel. Rome replaces Jerusalem – like in the book of Acts! According to this concept, Japheth will live in the tents of Shem instead of Shem, not along with Shem.
Do you know the children’s fable about a fox and a hare: the fox had a hut made from ice, and the hare had a little straw house. The fox’s ice hut melts and the hare takes him in – only to find that the fox kicks him out and takes his home. This equates to what happened with Israel and Christianity – and as rapidly as the second century, at that. The traditional interpretation of the book of Acts definitely legitimized this process. I would like to suggest that the original meaning of the verse about Japheth, who will dwell in the tents of Shem, did not in any way assume the eviction of Shem from these tents, any more than the hare would assume that in letting in the homeless fox, he would soon find himself out in the street. The interpretation of the Christian commentators, however, only served to legitimize the process of Israel’s exclusion from the plans and blessings of God, which at that time were already moving ahead at full speed.
Yet, we cannot ignore the fact that the book of Acts starts in Jerusalem and ends in Rome. However, shouldn’t we see Rome and Jerusalem together, not Rome instead of Jerusalem? I believe the proper perspective would be this: according to the book of Acts, the gospel had to move out from the Jews and Jerusalem, and reach the Gentiles everywhere—in Greece, in Rome, and beyond. However, instead of seeing a linear itinerary, where “Rome” replaces “Jerusalem”, we should rather see the circles going from Jerusalem and reaching as far as Rome. Jerusalem is not dismissed or replaced, the Jews are still God’s people – “for God’s free gifts and his calling are irrevocable.”
 Acts 13:10
 Isa 40:4
 Gen. 9:27
 Rom 11:29
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