…like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old
We continue reading the Scriptures through the Scriptures. I really hope that these articles help you see the continuity between the Testaments – and maybe also help you understand some details of the Gospels in much fuller and more complete way. I am convinced that understanding the Scriptural and cultural background of the NT helps us not only better comprehend those words and deeds of Jesus that belong to this background, but also to grasp the full meaning of those words and deeds that went far beyond the traditional ideas and customs.
JESUS AND VOWS
One of the sayings of Jesus that his followers are sometimes perplexed about, concerns oaths: “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King”. What text did Jesus have in mind when he spoke of “those of ancient times”?
In the book of Numbers we read: “When a man makes a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word; he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth”. Probably, this is the text that Jesus referred to in the Sermon on the mount. It’s important to note that , Jesus is not unique while addressing this issue: different Jewish texts of this period speak of oath. For instance, even though we don’t have a prohibition to swear from the Dead Sea texts themselves, Josephus ( J.W . 2.135) writes that the Essenes avoid oaths and that what they say is stronger than an oath. However, we don’t find such a categorical command in other texts of this period: at first glance, we don’t see any parallelism in the words of Jesus with Num. 30:2 or with the Second temple literature. Numbers 30:2 requires that those who make a vow or oath do not break their promises, they have to keep their word. It means that oaths were permitted in the Torah, while Jesus seems to prohibit them completely. The question is, did Jesus really prohibit all the vows?
There are several NT texts that call into question this absolutist approach to Jesus’ words. First of all, in Matt. 26:63–64, Jesus himself replies to the High Priest’s question “under oath.” Even more examples are connected to Paul. Not only Paul twice invokes God’s name to assure the truth of his claims (Gal. 1:20; 2 Cor. 1:23), but he actually takes vows, probably Nazirite vows as described in Num. 6.
The Nazirite had to abstain from alcohol and from cutting his hair for the whole period of vow. At the end of this time he shaved the hair and offered a sacrifice. From the book of Acts we know, that not only Paul both recognized and respected Nazirite vow (the famous episode in acts 21:23-24), but he also took vows himself: “At Cenchreae he had his hair cut, for he was under a vow”. Therefore, Jesus’ words from Mat.5:33-37 could not and should not be understood as a complete prohibition of vows. Jesus speaks about the goal for his followers: to be so trustworthy in keeping their words that oaths prove unnecessary.
REGARD THEM NOT …
“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother… cannot be my disciple
While speaking about the cost of discipleship in Luke 14, Jesus says seemingly strange words about hating one’s father and mother, wife and children. For centuries, these words of Jesus have been the subject of different interpretations; some have even gone so far as to see in them the annulment of the fourth commandment (“Honor your father and mother” – Exod. 20:12; Deut. 5:16). Indeed, how can we understand these words?
We won’t understand this saying of Jesus unless we see it as echoing Moses’ blessing of Levi in Deuteronomy 33:8-9, where Levi’s devotion to God’s word is emphasized:
who said of his father and mother,
“I regard them not”;
he ignored his kin,
and did not acknowledge his children.
For they observed your word,
and kept your covenant.
Similar to the requirement of Jesus, Levi is saying of his father and mother, “I regard them not.” He ignored his kin, and did not acknowledge his children – because he observed your word, and kept your covenant. If we compare Luke 14:26 with the blessing of Levi, we would see clearly that Jesus doesn’t cancel the fourth commandment and doesn’t contradict the Torah. As many rabbis of his time and after, Jesus knew the Torah sometimes presented conflicting claims that might be resolved only by subordination of one commandment to another. According to Moses’ blessing, Levi signifies the people with the love for God’s word surpassing even their love for their family; this is the kind of disciples that Jesus is looking for in Luke 14:26. If we put this and other “difficult” sayings of Jesus into a proper Scriptural or cultural context, we would have no difficulties understanding them.
The insights you read on these pages, are typical of what we share with our students during DHB (Discovering the Hebrew Bible) or JBNT (Jewish Background of the NT) 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 insights, or learning more about the Jewish Background of the New Testament, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding our amazing courses (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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/ . I also want to let you know that beezrat Hashem, my book with all these Hebrew insights into Torah and into New Testament will be published and available soon.
 Acts 18:18
 Lk. 14:46
 Deut.33:9 (NRSV)