New Testament Reflections: Toledot

New and Old

“And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begot Isaac(VaEile toledot Izhak) this is the beginning of our Torah Portion today, and this beginning should be very significant for any New Testament believer. Why? Because the New Testament opens in almost the same way – in a sense, the most Jewish way one could think of. In the first verse of the Gospel of Matthew we read:  “Hine toledot Yeshua Ha-Mashiah (ben David) ben Avraham.”

Once I heard a very amusing story about an Israeli Bible (Tanach) scholar who fought in the War of Independence back in 1948, and happened to spend some time with an English Christian soldier. The English soldier was clearly impressed with the scholar’s knowledge of the Bible, and he said: “Oh, I didn’t know that our Old Testament was translated into Hebrew.” This is not a joke, it’s a real story, and sadly, I think even today there are many Christians who would say the same thing. Unfortunately, when it comes to the New Testament, since we don’t have a Hebrew original, it seems even less obvious that this is a Jewish book, and in this sense the very fact that this book opens in the most Jewish way imaginable, speaks volumes!

However, that’s not all we can learn from these opening words of the NT: “The book of the genealogy (of Jesus Christ”). Yes, the same beginning occurs many times in the Torah (in fact, twelve times) – and for the very first time, we find it in the second chapter of the book of Genesis, where it opens the second account of creation. Here it forms a peculiar literary bridge, connecting and holding together the two creation accounts—we would not read Genesis 2 without first reading Genesis 1, would we? In this sense, the opening verse of the New Testament is also like a bridge connecting the New Testament to the Old Testament. They relate to each other in the same way as the two creation stories relate: the second part cannot be read without the first. And even though there is a clear division between the “Old Testament” and “New Testament” in every Christian Bible, the words “Old Testament”, are actually very misleading. One might think that it is unnecessary to read the Old in order to know the New – and this is not true at all!

One might ask: if this name is a misnomer, what then should we call the Old Testament? Here in Israel, we call it Tanakh. Tanakh (תַּנַ”ךְ‎ ) is an acronym of the first Hebrew letters of each of three traditional subdivisions: Torah (“Teaching” or Pentateuch), Nevi’im (“Prophets”) and Ketuvim (“Writings”). We could call it the Hebrew Scriptures, or Hebrew Bible, but the most important thing to understand is that God’s revelation cannot grow “old”—we need to read and understand our Hebrew Bible well, in order to read and understand the New Testament well. The New Testament comes at the end of the Book and thus can never be fully understood without reading the beginning.

Brotherly Love?

It is here, in this Torah Portion, that we meet for the first time the twins: Jacob and Esau. We know that, even before their birth, God had designated Jacob as heir of the promise.  However, Isaac’s preference for Esau seemed to be an obstacle to this Divine arrangement. That is why Jacob tried to bring the fulfillment of God’s promise about in his own way. Soon, he found occasion to take advantage of his brother in the “birthright deal”. The translated text says nothing about God’s opinion of this deal – but what do we see in the Hebrew text?

Let’s recall the story. One day, Esau returned “famished and exhausted” from his hunting. The circumstances become even clearer when we recall that it was a time of famine: “There was a famine in the land,”[1] greater even than at the time of Abraham, so Esau had spent an entire day seeking wild meat, and the sight of a lentil stew that Jacob had prepared induced the hungry Esau to surrender his birthright for this “red” pottage.

However, was Jacob just cooking a stew? What do we lose in translation? Here is another example of how deep and multifaceted the Hebrew language is. Hebrew is a root language, and most of the words are formed from a three-consonant root; depending on the stem (binyan), verbs from the same root can have very different meanings: thus in Hebrew, the verb – yazed – can mean not only “to cook a stew” but also “to treat arrogantly”. Can you imagine? We don’t find any explicit judgment of Jacob’s transaction in Scripture: the Torah simply states the facts without commenting on them, and we are left to wonder whether God approved of Jacob’s transaction. However, this message hidden in Hebrew—Jacob “treated arrogantly” his brother—certainly helps us understand God’s opinion.

Did God hate Esau?

Oftentimes, readers of the New Testament are very uncomfortable with Paul’s words (actually quoted from Malachi): As it is written, “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I have hated.”[2] How can God hate anyone? Why did He hate Esau?

In order to understand these words, let us juxtapose them with Jesus’ statement in Luke 14:26: One must love Him and hate one’s parents. We all understand that Jesus could not instruct anyone to express hatred towards one’s parents—Jesus could not contradict God’s explicit commandment to honor one’s parents. Thus, we understand that Jesus’ words here clearly designate the relation of comparison and priorities: you cannot love your parents more than you love God!

Another good example might be found in Genesis 29 where Scripture itself explains the meaning of the word “hate”. While verse 31 says “and when the Lord saw that Leah was hated,” before that, in verse 30, we find a clear explanation of what it means: Jacob “loved Rachel more than Leah”.

Now we can understand how the idea of “hating” works in Biblical Hebrew: It always designates the relations of comparison, especially when expressed in contrast to “loving someone”. In other words, the statement “Jacob I loved… Esau I hated”, translated from the ancient Hebrew would mean something like “I loved Esau… but I have chosen Jacob ….”    Understanding the word “hate”  literally, misinterprets God’s feelings and intentions.

[1] Gen. 26:1

[2] Rom. 9:13

 

The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or WTP (Weekly Torah Portion)  classes. If these articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying  in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insightsI would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding  eTeacher courses (juliab@eteachergroup.com) . At this point, we offer WTP course only in English, while DHB course exists both in Spanish and Portuguese.

If you like the  articles on this blog, you might enjoy also my books,  you  can get  them  from  my page:   https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/julia-blum/  .  My last book “Unlocking the Scriptures”, with the Hebrew insights into the Torah and  Jewish Background insights   into NT,  is available on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/s?k=unlocking+the+scriptures+by+julia+blum&crid=2IHYED6W7ZVYI&sprefix=julia+blum+%2Caps%2C689&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_4_11

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. Janita

    We dont however teach that esau wasn’t hated by god it says malachi 1 3 and Eʹsau I hated; and I made his mountains desolate and left his inheritance for the jackals of the wilderness

  2. Janita

    That’s what the Jehovah witnesses teach to thank you

  3. Catherine E. Stevens

    Regarding Matthew chapter 10 where we are told to hate our families and stand by Jesus alone, please explain this hate?

    1. Julia Blum

      Hi Catherine, you probably mean this verse (Mat.10:37): “He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me”.Here Jesus doesn’t tell us to hate our parents, but he speaks, once again, about the priorities: you cannot love your families more than you love Him!