Lois Tverberg and Ann Spangler. Sitting At The Feet of Rabbi Jesus: How The Jewishness of Jesus Can Transform Your Faith. Zondervan, 2009. (264 pages)
(With special thanks to Lois and RVL for the complimentary copies. What a blessing it is for us to be in relationship with you.)
Chapter 1: Joining Mary at the Feet of Jesus
This opening chapter immediately introduces us with the theme and setting of the entire book, that is, the Jewishness of Jesus’ life and teachings. To more deeply understand (and subversively implied, more “accurately”) we must engage his world, that is, the culture, writings, customs, and language of the first-century. Beginning with personal testimony, we see that the style of the book is somewhat of an “educational cocktail” with anecdotal stories, mini “lectures” of informational background, exhortation & encouragement, and personal application and devotion.
This chapter asks us if we are “yearning to dig deeper,” (14) using the example of Mary anointing Jesus’ feet in John 12, noting, “Without understanding the cultural background in which this event occurred, it’s easy to miss the full significance of Mary’s gesture.” (16) The Hebrew word for Messiah is Mashiach, which literally means “the Anointed One,” and Tverberg/Spangler (T&S) point out Psalm 45:7-8, Song of Songs 3:6-7, and 1 Kings 1:38-40 as illustrative examples of why this act was so important and meaningful, “proclaiming that Jesus was the promised ‘Son of David,’ whom God had sent to redeem his people.” (17) They turn towards the scent of the perfume, and suggest that the aroma would have also had meaning (then turning to 2 Corinthians 2:14-16). All this is to exhort us that, “As Christians we can never forget that the Bible–from Genesis through Revelation–is essentially a Jewish document.” (19)
Chapter 2: Why a Jewish Rabbi?
Here, T&S introduce us to tefillin and Deuteronomy 6:6-8, and Hosea 2:19-20 as a prayer reminder. We learn about davening which is yiddish for “praying,” (from the same Latin root as “divine”). We are told that Israel is “a land that some have called ‘the fifth gospel’” (which I believe is attributed to Jerome). In answering the quesiton “why a rabbi,” T&S explain that “Rabbi literally means ‘my master,” a term of respect for teachers of the Scripture.” (23) Charting the educational system of Jesus’ day, we see that he, at the age of thirteen, would have attended a bet midrash (“house of interpretation”) to study Torah (Hebrew for “teaching” or “instruction”). As an honored rabbi, one of his primary roles would have been to interpret and explain the Scriptures, travelled from village to village telling parables and teaching in the synagogues. (27) Jesus would have engaged in debate as a central aspect of his study (28) both with contemporary teachers and historical ones, like Hillel and Shammai. (30)
“Along with instructing the crowds, a rabbi’s greatest goal was to raise up disciples who would carry on his teaching.” (33) “So often we focus on Jesus’ mission on the cross to save us from our sins. As marvelous as that is, it’s critical for us to grasp the importance of his mission on earth as a rabbi. His goal was to raise up disciples who would become like him. As followers of Jesus, we are still called to live out the adventure of discipleship, becoming like Jesus through the power of his Spirit at work within us.” (34)
Chapter 3: Stringing Pearls
This chapter takes us into the art of rabbinic teaching and interpretation. First, “hinting” to the Scriptures was a technique well known and used to increase the impact of a statement. (38) Using Matthew 18:22 as an example, we see that the “seventy times seven” is found in only one place in the entire Bible–Genesis 4:24. “Once you catch Jesus’ reference, you understand the contrast he is making. He is saying that his followers should be as eager to forgive as Lamech was to take vengeance.” (39) Another example is Matthew 13:33 when the “three seahs” hints back to Genesis 18:6.
SIDE BAR introduces the word midrash, rabbinical explanation or commentary on the biblical text.
T&S introduce us to Jesus’ “library;” the Torah, Neviim, and Ketuvim (the five books of Moses, the Prophets, and the Writings). One set of guidelines called the “Seven Rules of Hillel” have been found in Jesus’ teachings. One rule, for example, is called gezerah shavah, a “comparison of equals.” This rule said that you could use one passage to expand on another if they share the same word. Note Matthew 22:36-39. (41)
The story of Ben Azzai revealing his secret of interpretation as “linking up the words of the Torah with one another, and then the words of the Prophets, and the Prophets with the Writings…” gives us the title “stringing pearls” — bringing together passages from different places in order to explore their great truths. (43) Jesus did the same thing in Matthew 5:3-12, and God does it in Mark 1:11 at Jesus’ baptism, (Psalm 2:7, Genesis 22:2, Isaiah 42:1). (44) Jesus calls himself the “good shepherd” (John 10:14-15; cf. Psalm 23:1-3; Isaiah 44:28; Psalm 78:71-72; Ezekiel 34; Micah 5:2. See also Matthew 25:31-32). The title “Son of Man” strings back to Daniel 7:13-14 (cf. 2 Samuel 7:12-13; Mark 13:26, 14:62; Luke 21:27). “Once we begin to hear Jesus’ words as though we are his contemporaries, steeped in an understanding of the Scriptures and the cultural context in which they were spoken, the power of his claims become both obvious and striking.” (48-9)
Chapter 4: Following the Rabbi
Enter “talmidim,” the Hebrew word for “disciples.” Using Elijah and Elisha as the Scriptural models, T&S illuminate several characteristics of biblical discipleship. Disciples “followed [Jesus] everywhere.” (56) Disciples had “utter commitment.” (57) Disciples and rabbis had a deep “bond.” (58) “It has been said, just as one candle lights another only if it is brought close, so a rabbi only teaches well when he is close to his talmidim.” It was also said, “Your father brought you into this world, but your rabbi brings you into the life of the world to come!” (59) A disciple “serves” the rabbi, and attends to his personal needs. (59) John’s comment in John 1:27 is illuminated by the statement, “All acts a slave performs for his master, a disciple performs for his rabbi, except untying the sandal.” (60) Finally, a disciple learns through the rabbi’s “example.” (61) “Just like these sheep, what distinguishes us is not so much the ‘pen’ we inhabit but the shepherd we follow.” (65)
Chapter 5: Get Yourself Some Haverim
“Through the ages Jewish thinkers have considered it vital to study the Scriptures in the presence of other people.” (66) “Haver” means “friend” but also means “a student who partners with another student to enhance learning.” (67) Using some stories and anecdotes, T&S vamp on the plight of modern individualism and isolationism suggesting that “the church, therefore, becomes a place where Christians live alone together.” (74) In contrast “being a haver is not a casual commitment. It requires stretching.” (74)
Chapter 6: Rabbi, Teach Us to Pray
We are reintroduced to tefillin and davening, and introduced to peyot (Leviticus 19:27, 19:9-10), the long curls on the sides of the heads of orthodox Jews. We are taught about the Amidah a.k.a. the Eighteen Benedictions (81) and the Berakhot, the “blessings,” of a rabbi’s prayer life. (82) Most likely, what we know as the “Lord’s Prayer” is a summary of the Amidah and each piece has remarkable significance. Jesus prayed “our Father.” Amidah, “my Father.” The word for bread, “lechem” can also mean food in general, and is symbolic of everything “Deliverance from evil” can mean “danger or misfortune,” as per the Hebrew word “ra.” (83-4) We are also told how not to pray, babbling on like the pagans, or asking God to change something already divinely determined. (85)
Ultimately, prayer is a “Sense of God’s Presence.” (86) Some synagogues have inscribed the words “Da Lifne Mi Atah Omed,” meaning, “Know Before Whom You Stand.” (86) This is why Jews wear head coverings called yarmulke or kippah. There is a Hebrew word that deals with the question kavanah, which means “intention” or “direction.” Abraham Heschel says, that kavanah is
attentiveness to God, an act of appreciation of being able to stand in the presence of God…It is one’s being drawn to the preciousness of something he is faced with. To sense the preciousness of being able to pray, to be perceptive of the supreme significance of worshipping God is the beginning of higher kavanah.
Chapter 7: For Everything A Blessing
Here we are introduced to each tiny prayer called a berakhak or breakha (bra-KHAH), which means blessing. Not only does it mean to bestow favor on someone, but “in the Bible, it means to ‘praise’ God, to acknowledge him as the source of all blessing. A berakhah is actually a prayer of thanksgiving. One way Jews often explain it is to note that the word for ‘bless,’ barakh, can also mean ‘to kneel.’ It is as if you are momentarily ‘kneeling down’ mentally and humbly praising God for his goodness. (92)
Matthew’s gospel tells us of Jesus’ blessing at the feeding of the five thousand. (Matthew 14:19) (94) The people in Matthew 9:8 “praised God, who has given such authority to human beings,” a blessing that David Flusser has noted may not have been preserved in any other rabbinic writings. (95) This understanding illuminates Luke 17:12-19, and Paul’s writings in Ephesians 5:20, Colossians 3:17, and 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18. And, as we pray blessings on God it helps to change our attitudes (96-7).
One prayer of particular significance is the Shehehiyanu which reads,
Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who has allowed us to live, and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day. (98)
Chapter 8: A Passover Discovery
If you’ve ever wondered why the disciples had such a difficult time staying awake in the Garden of Gethsemane, get to know Passover (and communion) not simply as a simple ritual with simple elements, but rather as a full meal, with wine, and very late at night, and all this after a long journey. Understanding this dilemma, there is one saying that a person who “dozed lightly could remain a part of the dinner, but anyone who fell sound asleep could not.” (103).
This context also helps us understand why the leaders plotted to arrest Jesus after the Passover meal. “A man so wildly popular couldn’t have been arrested in broad daylight. To avoid an uprising, the chief priests had to proceed in secret.” (103) In addition, “Jesus’ supporters never changed their minds. How could they have when they were not even present at his arrest or trial? The entire plot unfolded after the Passover festivities, while most people were sound asleep.” (104)
Passover was one of three pilgrim feasts, and the liturgy is called a “seder,” which means “order,” “because the liturgy follows a certain order that has remained roughly the same as it was in Jesus’ time.” (104) Referring to Exodus 12:42, and Malachi 3:1; 4:5, we see that the Passover is “laden with messianic expectations and filled with prophetic significance, especially in Jesus’ time.” (104) In addition, we must understand how “Passover conicides with the other two spring feasts, Unleavened Bread (Matzot) and Firstfruits (Bikkurim).” (106) This is significant as Jesus would have been holding matzah, which is unleavened bread, and refers to Deuteronomy 16:1-3, and Leviticus 2:11; 6:17 indicating that “unlike the rest of humanity, Jesus had not been infected with the ‘rottenness’ that was in the rest of humankind.” (106-7) Cf. 1 Corinthians 5:6-8. There is also reference to David Daube, a Jewish scholar, suggesting that a piece of the matzah would have been broken off and hidden away called the afikomen likely referring to the longed-for Messiah, broken off from the people and hidden away. (107)
As for the Firstfruits, we can understand 1 Corinthians 15:20-23 in light of “the beginning of the barley harvest when a sheaf of grain was cut from the field and then offered in thanksgiving to the Lord. Only after that could the rest of the reaping begin.” (108) “Death hangs over the human race as the darkest of shadows…But Paul’s words assure us that our fear of death can be replaced by an invincible hope…For those who belong to his Son, eternal life is not merely a possibility but an inevitability.
Chapter 9: Discovering Jesus in the Jewish Feasts
In Leviticus 23, there are specific instructions for observing these seven feasts whose purpose “was to give the Jewish people an opportunity to rejoice at the way God had provided and then to offer something back in return. The feasts were a tangible way for them to remember God’s faithfulness and care. (114) Pentecost, the Hebrew feast of Shavuot, meaning “weeks,” has roots in Exodus 19:-20 in which the Israelites arrived at Sinai 50 days after they left Egypt. It was then that God came down to give Moses the Ten Commandments. (cf. Jeremiah 31:31-34) Also, see Ezekiel 1-2 and his vision of “a windstorm replete with lightning and fire,” in which Ezekiel was “empowered to take God’s divine word to his people.” (118)
On Rosh Hashanah (the “head of the year”; also called the Feast of Trumpets), a shofar, or ram’s horn, is sounded in order to herald God as King of the world. (119) Beginning with the yamim noraim, or the ten Days of Awe, “tradition has it that during those days God opens his books in order to examine the deeds of every person. He then renders judgment in regard to the coming year. As such, these ten days focus on repentance and self-reflection. They offer a time for examining one’s deeds in preparation for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.” (120)
Yom Kippur is the most holy and solemn day of the year in which people observe a twenty-five-hour fast from both food and water. “The day is set aside to ‘afflict the soul’ as a way of asking for atonement for the sins of the past year. Some observant Jews even wear a kittel, a white robe in which the dead are buried. They do it to remind themselves and others that life is finite and that everyone must be prepared to stand before the Lord at the time of death.” (120)
Five days after the Day of Atonement comes Sukkot meaning “booths,” or “huts” (also called the “Feast of Ingathering” because it is the greatest harvest feast of the year — when the fruit was brought in and the rest of the wheat was harvested.) (121) During this feast, many Jews observe the tradition of building a sukkah, to then live in it if possible.
Lastly, under the heading “Temples in Time,” we take a brief look at Shabbat (“Sabbath”), the sanctification of time instead of space.
Chapter 10: At Table with the Rabbi
Here we take a look at ancient (and modern) hospitality, and see Psalm 23 in new lights as we “consider the importance of covenants in the Eastern world.” (133) “The idea of communing with God at his table was a key part of the sacrificial system of the temple…When they ate from the altar, it was as if God was sharing some of his food with them. By doing so they were affirming that they were dining at God’s table.” (134) There is a “table of reconciliation” (137) which sheds light on the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15) as well as Jesus’ dining with sinners, “revealing the kingdom of God.” (141)
Chapter 11: Touching the Rabbi’s Fringe
What is our understanding of “the law,” a poor translation of torah, which means to “instruct,” “teach,” or “guide?” (cf. Proverbs 13:14) What are the commandments, the mitzvaot? There are also “decrees” called hukim, which seemed to lack an obvious purpose, though “obeying such laws displayed one’s love for God because it showed that you trusted him regardless of whether you understood his intent.” (149) From this foundation, we discover that the tassels, tzitzit, “symbolized the owner’s identity and authority,” (140) were “a sign of nobility,” (140) and a “visible reminder that they could not blend into the nations around because they belonged to God in a special way.” (151) They are, “a call to holiness,” (152)
The rest of the chapter moves into “God’s Teaching Methods,” (155) and describes an “eye for an eye” as “equitable punishment that fit the crime,” (157) and the telos or “goal” of the Torah is the life of Jesus as “the only one who has ever perfectly lived out the Torah.” (161)
Chapter 12: Jesus and the Torah
Here we discover the significance of the “yod,” the smallest letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and how “fulfilling” the law simply means “doing what it says.” “Abolishing” simply means “the opposite–to cancel or nullify the Torah by misinterpreting it.” (166) We discover halakhah as “the path that one walks” in obedience to God’s commands, and we learn about “seven types of Pharisees which could be linked to Matthew 23 and Jesus’ list of “woes.” (168) How was Jesus different? “Instead of focusing on minimums, he focused on maximums, speaking about the ultimate aims of the law. As the author of the Torah, Jesus alone was able to explain its true intention.” (171) “If you want to be part of God’s redemptive kingdom on earth, don’t ask how little you can do, but ask how much you can do to please your Father in heaven.” (173) “This idea of ‘going beyond the minimum’ was later called hasidut, which is often translated ‘piety.’” (174)
The heading, “Love, the Essence of the Torah” compares the 613 commandments of the law (as the rabbis counted them) and Micah 6:8, Isaiah 56:1, Amos 5:6, Habakkuk 2:4, and the Shema, Deuteronomy 6:4-5 to which Jesus adds Leviticus 19:18.
Chapter 13: The Mysterious Kingdom of God
This “respectful euphemism” (182) for God is simply translated “God’s reign, or how God reigns, or those whom God reigns over.” (183) Similar to the Alenu an ancient Jewish prayer, the Lord’s Prayer helps us to understand that the “Kingdom is Here,” (185) and that it is karav, which means “intimately close.” (cf. Isaiah 8:3) (185) This kingdom is also a different kind of kingdom from the kingdom of Herod. This kingdom was taught by Jesus as being ruled and judged by Himself (191), and “he linked the kingdom to his works of healing and forgiveness. (191)
Regarding Luke 18:17, and Matthew 7:21, “he wasn’t talking about how to get into heaven after we die, as many people have thought. He was speaking about having the greatest life possible. How? By living under his reign through the power of his grace. And once again, he was using a Jewish idiom to communicate his message.” (193) “So for both Jesus and the rabbis, to ‘receive’ or to ‘enter the kingdom of heaven’ could describe making a personal commitment to loving God with all your heart.” (193)
At the end of this chapter, there is this evaluative paragraph:
Having learned so much about the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jewish roots of our faith, it seems right to ask ourselves some important questions. How much of Jesus’ Jewishness should we take on? Which aspects can enrich our Christian faith, and which should we resist? Furthermore, how can we maintain balance and discernment as we seek to learn from the jewishness of Jesus? (195)
Chapter 14: Becoming True Disciples of Our Jewish Lord
Hopefully, we begin to ask more questions regarding the Scriptures when we read. “Was that an idiom? I wonder what the significance of that was in Jewish culture. Was Jesus quoting an Old Testament verse when he said…?” (198) “Though Christians have often portrayed first-century Jews in negative ways, we owe much to them as well as to their Jewish forebears, through whom God worked to bring us a Savior.” (200)
We are properly advised to “treat the sources you read with caution” (202) And while we “have freedom in Christ” (207) as a Christian, “everything we do should be evaluated in light of the supreme commands of Rabbi Jesus: love GOd and love your neighbor.” (207)
A: The Shema, The Amidah, and A Selection of Blessings (Berakhot)
B: The Feasts
C: Recommended Resources
— VIA —
Few have made the historical and cultural context of Jesus as accessible as Tverberg. I have recommended her book Listening to several people through the years, as it has been a fantastic introduction into the thinking that is needed when approaching Jesus as, in modern terms, “Lord and Savior.” Sitting is a tremendous follow-up, and the content is rich and extremely informative. While I would consider the style of writing to be a “showcase” of sorts that makes it hard to read at times — jumping around to different nuanced and tangential pieces — I also understand that it is hard to write a concise book on this subject without including a massive amount of information and explanation, all under 14 brief chapters.
Perhaps the greatest gift in this book is the notes. There are many popular level resources out there that have expounded upon this particular subject, but because of the lack of citation, the dependability of the teachings is low, and the interpretations, expressed in well put homilies and rhetoric, can end up being contrived or misconstrued. Tverberg and Spangler provide the citations to ancient and modern sources with high levels of consistency which strengthen their points of view. I appreciate their attention to this detail.
Overall, my hope and prayer, like the authors, is that the eyes of the Christian community would open, and their hearts would soften towards a fuller and more accurate understanding of the person to whom we owe more than just the name “Christian.” I’ll end with a quote from N.T. Wright:
If we really believe in any sense in the incarnation of the Word, we are bound to take seriously the flesh that the Word became. And since that flesh was first-century Jewish flesh, we should rejoice in any and every advance in our understanding of first-century Judaism and seek to apply those insights to our reading of the Gospels. (p.26 of The Challenge of Jesus)