Unlocking The Gospels With Tanach: Things New And Old

 

                            …like a householder who brings out of his treasure things new and old

                                                                   Mat.13:52

SERMON ON THE MOUNT AND TORAH PORTION

Even among non-Christians, there is a general consensus that Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the greatest moral discourse ever given. But have you ever thought of the possibility that the Sermon on the Mount could have been a sermon on a specific Torah Portion – probably read that same Shabbat? Jesus’ audience would have known the Torah portions very well and therefore would have known exactly what he was referring to.

The last verse of Matthew 5: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”, makes this connection very evident. The Torah portion Kedoshim – “Holy People” (Lev. 19:1-20:27) – begins with similar words: “You shall be holy for I the Lord your God am holy.” It is in this Portion that we find the famous words that not only Jesus, but many Jewish sages before and after Him, considered to be the kernel of the entire Torah: “Love your neighbor as yourself”[1].

Certainly, these famous words were read and understood in many different ways. For instance, in the opening paragraph of the Manual of Discipline of the Dead Sea sect, one reads: “… to hate all that He has rejected”. For Jesus, however, these words spoke not only about loving friends or fellow-believers, but also about loving enemies, and this is what we find in His drash (interpretation) of Parashat Kedoshim (Torah portion Holy People).  

And who is my neighbor?

These words – “Love your neighbor as yourself,” – are quoted in all the synoptic gospels. However, only Luke’s Gospel has the famous parable of the Good Samaritan where the question, “Who is my neighbor?” is addressed. What was so shocking in Jesus’ interpretation of one’s neighbor?

The episode opens with a “lawyer” asking Jesus how to inherit eternal life. In a traditional Jewish way, Jesus responds with a question: “What is written in the law?” The lawyer quotes verses from the Torah known to all Jews of his time— Deuteronomy 6:5: “ You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” and Leviticus 19:18: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord”. These verses had already been combined in Jewish thought and had indeed been considered to be the foundation of the whole Torah; so, by this point we observe only continuity between the covenants.

But the conversation didn’t stop there—the dialogue continues, and the famous parable follows. The newness and shock of this parable may escape a non-Jewish reader, but it is important to understand that every Jew belonged to one of three groups: priests, descended from Aaron; Levites, descended from other children of Levi: and Israelites, descended from other children of Jacob. After mentioning a priest and a Levite in this story, a first-century Jew would have expected mention of someone from the third group—an Israelite.

However, the third person in the parable is not the expected Israelite but an unexpected Samaritan—the enemy of the Jews. Tensions between the Jews and the Samaritans were particularly high in the early decades of the 1st century, therefore not only is the appearance of this Samaritan absolutely striking, but the fact that this Samaritan proves to be a neighbor, while the priest and the Levite fail, directly challenges the contemporary Jewish interpretation of the word “neighbor”. Jesus’ interpretation of the term “neighbor” would have sounded absolutely shocking to his Jewish audience—thus, not only continuity, but also the newness of the New Testament, is evident here.

IS “TURNING THE OTHER CHEEK” A JEWISH VALUE?

The words of Jesus about “the other cheek” remain among his most famous sayings: But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. [3] At first glance, it seems that Jesus here has completely abolished the principle of “measure for measure” that we find in the Torah. However, you may be very surprised to learn that the very idea of “turning the other cheek” comes from the Hebrew Bible: in the book of Lamentations we read “Let him offer his cheek to the one who strikes him.”[4] Is “turning the other cheek” a Jewish value, then?

In our search for an answer, let us turn to the Torah. In Numbers 35 we read about the cities of refuge, the establishment of which is ordered here by God: “you shall appoint cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person accidentally may flee there.” The reason a person corresponding to this definition needs protection is the fear of blood revenge by a relative of the killed person. If we recognize that the original purpose of this legislation was probably to limit the amount of revenge for an offense and to limit the location of the revenge as well, surprisingly, we might find the same purpose behind what seems to be a formal annulment. Thus, we find an unexpected parallel between the very concept of the cities of refuge, and “the other cheek” of Jesus: “do not retaliate, do not avenge” – this is the message in both cases.

 

 

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 insightsor 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 (juliab@eteachergroup.com)

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 I am preparing a book with all these Hebrew insights into Torah and into New Testament, which I hope will be published and available soon. 

 

 

 

[1] Lev. 19:18

[2] Lk. 10:29

[3] Matt. 5:39

[4] Lam. 3:30

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. Noah

    I agree with the idea that the discussion of neighbor goes back to Leviticus 19, and that the insertion of a Samaritan would have been shocking, I think there is an additional, albeit subtle, idea at play here on the part of Jesus in the Good Samaritan story.

    According the Torah both a priest and a Levite could not perform their duty at the temple if they were to come in contact with a dead body. I suggest that they crossed on the other side to avoid ritual contamination in case the victim of the robbery who was “half dead.” was actually dead or became dead in the process of helping him A major point (and theme) of Jesus here and elsewhere is that it is better to become ritually unclean in order to help another – the ethic of compassion trumps holiness. Using the most “impure” individual, a Samaritan, is like an exclamation point on this idea.

    I don’t mean to suggest that holiness and obedience to the Torah in this area was not important to Jesus,but rather that the Torah’s code of holiness had become a means of exclusion and was in opposition to Jesus’ mission to call people to repentance.

    1. Julia Blum

      I agree Noah, the whole issue of ritual pure/impure as opposed to the idea of helping another, was very important in Jesus’ teaching at all, and in this parable in particular. However, I wouldn’t say that “the Torah’s code of holiness had become a means of exclusion and was in opposition to Jesus’ mission to call people to repentance”. It was not “the Torah’s code of holiness” (remember Mat.5:17?), it was the human understanding of this code that Jesus wants to correct.

      1. Noah

        I agree. What I should have said was, “the Torah’s holiness code was being misused by some of the religious leaders of Jesus’ day – certainly by those who opposed him.” – Really enjoying your articles.

  2. RUTH SYMES DE CORTÉS

    Reading this article I remembered an article that I read recently about the churches in Africa, in Nigeria where the Christians are being killed and their homes burnt, women violated. Many of these Christians now wonder for how long they can “turn the other cheek”. The pastors now don’t know how they can continue to encourage the members of their churches and communities not to become violent. How difficult it must be for thes Christians!!!

    1. Julia Blum

      I couldn’t agree more Ruth: there are so many situations where it’s extremely difficult to turn the other cheek! Easier said than done!

  3. Stephen Funck

    But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38- 41). I read a comment that to strike the right cheek meant the person used the back of his hand. Master to slave. The reply is a challenge to treat me as a man, equal, by striking me on the left cheek with your fist.

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your comment Stephen, however, I personally don’t think that it was what Jesus meant, because that verse from Lamentations that I quote in the article, goes along the lines of our traditional understanding of these words: “Let him offer his cheek to his smiter; let him be filled with reproach” (Lam.3:30).

      1. Stephen Funck

        Well said Shalom