A few weeks ago, there was a question in the comments: “How would you describe, ‘what went wrong’ between Jews and Christians? There were many historical events, but what do you see as the most fundamental ‘flaw’ that resulted in such separation between the two?” Probably, everyone would agree that this is a very serious and very complicated question, and in the past, I spent years trying to answer it! When I started to think about my response here, I realized that even in its shortest version, it would still be a very long answer. Therefore, I have decided to publish my answer in this post (there will be two posts, actually). We will pause our Acts series for a couple of weeks in order to discuss this painful and very emotional topic.
So, what exactly went wrong? Why did everything turn out in such a way that His people became hated, despised and persecuted by Christians? One would expect those who love Jesus, to also love everything connected with His earthly life – first and foremost His people, the ones among whom He lived and whom He loved – so why didn’t that happen? What is the reason for this seemingly inexplicable hatred of those who later became the followers of Jesus, towards those to whom He initially revealed Himself?
I will have to use some Hebrew for my response. You remember the story of Noah and his sons found at the end of Genesis chapter nine:
… he planted a vineyard. 21 Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. 22 And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. 23 But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.
When he awoke, Noah pronounced the curse and the blessings on his sons. The blessing for Japheth sounds like this: “may God enlarge Japheth, and may he dwell in the tents of Shem”
It is a very important verse because in a sense it became a ”theological” basis for the replacement theology of the Church – the teaching that the Christian Church replaced national Israel regarding the plans, purpose, and promises of God. Already in the 2nd century CE, the apologist and theologian Justin Martyr, in his treatise “Dialogue with Trypho,” sees the “biblical” foundation for such a doctrine in this verse. Commenting on this story of Noah and his sons, he points out this verse as a prophetic word about how, in the future, the Gentile nations —Japheth, according to his understanding—that received Christianity, would seize the tents of Shem, i.e. Israel.
Let us ponder this verse together. I will need some Hebrew here. Don’t worry, for those who are not familiar with Hebrew at all, I will explain in details what we see here. This is the original of this verse:
יַ֤פְתְּ אֱלֹהִים֙ לְיֶ֔פֶת וְיִשְׁכֹּ֖ן בְּאָֽהֳלֵי־שֵׁ֑ם וִיהִ֥י כְנַ֖עַן עֶ֥בֶד לָֽמוֹ׃
The verb יַפְתְּ “in the beginning,” which sounds and is spelled exactly like the name of Japheth, means “spread,” “enlarge”. The crucial question, in my humble opinion, is this: what do you think God meant here, that Japheth would dwell in the tents of Shem together with Shem – or instead of Shem? I am convinced that this verse in no way assumed a banishment of Shem. However, by the time Justin Martyr arrived on the scene, the Greek and Roman Christians had already accused the Jewish people of the killing of God, and Christians had already started to believe that they had taken the place of Israel! In Justin Martyr’s treatise, we find the “biblical proof” of this belief. The conclusion of a conversation between Justin and Trypho, a Jew, can be briefly summarized in the following manner: Christians now take the place of Israel, the Church is the embodiment of the true people of God, the “new Israel,” while the Jewish people are to be looked upon as an apostate nation, stripped of their election and punished for the sin of not accepting the Messiah! God has rejected Israel as “Christ-killers,” and from now on, their place is to be occupied by the Christians! Japheth will dwell in the tents of Shem – instead of Shem!
This calls to mind 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. Spring comes, 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 is more or less what happened with Israel and Christianity, and as we’ve just seen, as rapidly as the second century, at that. However, this is not the end of the story and the end of my response. There is something else I want to show you.
At some point, I decided to check the verb יַפְתְּ in the dictionary. And, as happens so often with Hebrew, I was absolutely overwhelmed with what I found:
יַפְתְּ 1. to be spacious, be open, be wide
- (Qal) to be spacious or open or wide
- (Hiphil) to make spacious, make open
- to be simple, entice, deceive, persuade
- to be open-minded, be simple, be naive
- to be enticed, be deceived
- (Niphal) to be deceived, be gullible
- to persuade, seduce
- to deceive
- to be persuaded
I would like to explain why I was so excited. As some of you probably know, Biblical Hebrew is primarily a verbal language, and the verbs are derived from the roots. Roots are three-consonant groups that comprise the “essence” of a word’s meaning. Most of the verbs in Hebrew are formed from this three-consonant root by changing vowels and adding different prefixes and suffixes, thus forming different stems. Depending on their stem (binyan), verbs from the same root can have very different meanings. Nevertheless, being derived from the very same root, they all have something in common, they all relate to the very same “essence”. Therefore, all of a sudden, I realized that through the very same verses that were used by the Church “to justify” the exclusion of Israel, God is speaking about the danger of being “deceived”, “seduced”. Japheth – millions of Christians throughout history, who sincerely believed that they were to live in the tents of Shem, instead of Shem – were deceived, persuaded, and seduced to believe so, and the Lord knew that from the very beginning. The original meaning of this verse did not assume an eviction of Shem from his tents, any more than the hare would assume that in letting in the homeless fox, he would soon find himself out on the street. The interpretation of Justin Martyr, however, only served to legitimize the process of Israel’s exclusion from the plan and blessings of God, which at that time was already moving ahead at full speed.
It is understandable that in the framework of this doctrine, the sufferings of Israel came in very handy. I can’t finish my response without saying a few words about the attitude of Christians to the suffering of Israel. Next time, we are going to talk about this “additional proof of Israel’s rejection and downfall” that for centuries had been seen as an especially weighty argument in favor of the just rights of Christianity to take her place.
 Gen. 9:20-23
 Gen. 9:27
I would like to remind you, dear friends, that we offer wonderful courses and invite you to study together the Hebrew Scriptures or the Jewish Background of the New Testament. As always, you are welcome to contact me for more information. Also, excerpts from my book “If You be Son of God…” are included in this article, so if you like the article, you might enjoy also the book, you can get it here.
Join the conversation (19 comments)
As a Catholic I would like to make two quick comments:
1-It is wrong to assume that the New Covenant in Christ that we Christians profess somehow replaces the “Old” Covenant with the people of Israel. It is just wrong. There is no place in the Scriptures that establishes that the God somehow declared the “Old” Covenant void or invalid. The Theology in the Letter of St. Paul to the Romans (Chapters 9-11) speaks about this, in fact Paul writes: 11 I ask then: Did God reject his people? By no means! I am an Israelite myself, a descendant of Abraham, from the tribe of Benjamin. 2 God did not reject his people, whom he foreknew. Romans 11:1-2. Pope Benedict has written about it in detail, also establishing that the Jewish interpretation (exegesis) of the Bible is a valid one for Christians.
2-We should always remember the historical moment when some texts were written. At the time of Justin Martyr the Church was technically illegal in the Roman Empire and it was not easy being a Christian. Most of the early Christians were Jewish that got expelled from the Synagogues based on their “new” beliefs, so one can expect some justifications being created from each side to get (or keep) some people in their ranks. Unfortunately, all this continued through the following centuries.
Thank you for this article, Julia. This question is one I sought my self, however brief and inadequate in comparison to your own body of work. Neither am I classically trained in the Hebrew language. Instead having taught myself how to read and write Biblical Hebrew in the pursuit of experiencing life as my Savior Yeshua might have. Also to cut through all the various translations we have in my native English language.
I’ve witnessed the profound nature, and other times freeing nature, of digging into the roots of the tree that the ‘gentiles’ have been grafted into. As Paul wrote. I look forward to reading your next article on this subject, for my own summation of these things has been lost to time.
In all things, be well.
Thank you Jeremy, I really hope that my second article was also helpful and interesting to you.