Walking In The Dust of Rabbi Jesus | Notes & Review

Posted on March 25, 2012


Lois Tverberg. Walking In The Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life. Zondervan, 2012. (239 pages)

I. Hearing Our Rabbi’s Words With New Ears

1. Brushing Away the Dust of the Ages

In just the past fifty years, we have seen more advances in biblical archaeology and in the discovery of ancient texts than in all the centuries since the time of Jesus. (16)

You might think that you need to master whole textbooks before this kind of study starts to enrich your Bible reading, but I’ve been amazed at how the smallest details can help connect the dots. …For instance, how much would the firewood weigh for an average burnt offering? (Genesis 22:6) (19)

As the gospel has gone out around the world, people have, by default, pictured Jesus through their own cultural lenses. (22)

So the issue to Paul in Romans 9-11 was not that none of the Jews had believed in Christ but that not all of them did. (23)

The Jews were strongly divided over Jesus in the New Testament, and this within-the-family debate became heated. But it wasn’t until centuries later when the church became overwhelmingly Gentile that the New Testament was understood as being hostile toward Jews as a whole. This has strongly contributed to anti-Semitism over the ages and for many Christians has led to a disinterest in the Jewish setting of the Bible and our faith. (23-24)

For us as Westerners the cultural distance ‘over’ to the Middle East is greater than the distance ‘back’ to the first century. The cultural gulf between the West and the East is deeper and wider than the gulf between the first century (in the Middle East) and the contemporary conservative Middle Eastern village. – Kenneth Baily in Finding the Lost: Cultural Keys to Luke 15

Your “way” was a spiritual metaphor for how you lived. (29)

2. Shema: Living Out What You Hear

Jewish scholar Jeffrey Tigay asserts that even though the Scriptures clearly preach monotheism, the Shema itself is not a statement of belief. It’s an oath of loyalty. (39)

3. Loving God with Everything You’ve Got

How could God order people to “love” him in the sense of having a certain emotional response toward him? Actually, he didn’t. When the Israelites were commanded to love God as part of their covenant, we can read it as not so much about passionate feelings as much as an utter commitment to loyalty toward God, the one they obeyed. (45)

It’s not about the thrill of romance, but the security of faithfulness. (50)

Hebrew scholar Randall Buth reads the Shema‘s phrase “with all of your very” as saying, “with all of your oomph!” The word itself pushes you to love God heartily, earnestly, zealously — or as we read it, with all of your might. (51)

This is because “all your very” can be understood to mean “all your increase.” Everything God has given you over your lifetime has “increased” you. (52)

4. Meeting Myself Next Door

So loving God requires, and is indeed expressed best, through love of our neighbors. (58)

In Love Your Neighbor as Yourself, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin points out that Hillel’s negative phrasing does achieve a practical purpose. He tells about a school teacher who asked his sixth graders to compose two “Golden Rule” lists, one of the actions they would want others to do to them, and the other of actions they would not want done. Their “Do” lists were brief and somewhat vague, containing things like “love,” “respect,” and “help.” But the “Don’t” lists were much longer, with practical prohibitions like “Don’t hit,” “steal,” “laugh at,” “snub,” or “cheat.” The negative version was clearer to the students because it was concrete and specific. As a result, it was more likely to change their behavior. (A Code of Jewish Ethics, Vol.2)

Traditionally, we read it “as you love yourself,” so that we should love others as much as we love ourselves, which is certainly a great goal. But kamokha (כמוך) can also be read in another way. Instead of comparing the two kinds of love, it can compare yourself with your neighbor: “Love your neighbor who is similar to yourself.” (60)

When you’re angry with your neighbor, don’t forget — you’re just the same way. (61)

II: Living Out the Words of Rabbi Jesus

5. Gaining a Good Eye

…all languages have idioms, figures of speech that don’t make complete sense outside of their native context. You simply cannot decipher phrases like “beat around the bush,” “kick the bucket,” or “get someone’s goat” by breaking them down word by word. Your best guesses might lead you wildly astray. To “catch a person’s drift,” you need to know the culture. (69)

Having a “good eye” (ayin tovah) (עין טובה) is to look out for the needs of others and be generous in giving to the poor. But to have a “bad eye” (ayin ra’ah) (עין רעה) is to be greedy and self-centered, blind to the needs of those around you. (cf. Proverbs 28:22; 22:9) (70)

The idea of having a “good eye” or “bad eye” comes from how Hebrew expands on the concept of “seeing,” using it to describe one’s attitude and response toward others. To “see” can even mean to respond to a need. (71) [VIA: As in “I will see to it.”]

Jesus told his followers to “store up your treasures in heaven” (cf. Matthew 6:19-21), which is actually another Jewish idiom about giving to the poor. And immediately after this line, Jesus declared that we can’t be a slave to two masters — God and money. This entire passage (Matthew 6:19-21) is about sharing our resources with others. (72)

…in Jewish parlance, “righteousness,” tzedakah (צדקה) (zeh-dah-KAH), is commonly used to mean “charity.” Jesus’ very next words show that this is actually what he means: “[But] when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets” (6:2). Tzedakah has been a common Jewish idiom for giving to the poor for two thousand years. (72)

Why is a person’s “eye” toward others so critical to Jesus? Because our relationship with money reveals our relationship with God. To have a “bad eye” is to cling to the little that you have, resenting those with more and refusing to help those with less. Your attitude shows how convinced you are that God is stingy, that he is either unwilling or unable to care for you. And it also reveals how disconnected you are from the struggles of others. No wonder Jesus says that life becomes dark indeed when you’ve cut yourself off from both God and those around you. (72-73)

When a poor man asks you for aid, do not use his faults as an excuse for not helping him. For then God will look at your offenses, and he is sure to find many. – Rabbi Shmelke of Nicholsberg (d. 1778), as quoted in Jewish Wisdom

Three classic types of gemilut hasadim (גמילות חסדים) — “acts of lovingkindness” — are visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and burying the dead. (77)

6. The Mystery of the Name

In the ancient NEar East, a person’s name was intimately linked to his or her identity and reputation. (84) [VIA: To which I would add destiny (as in Abraham), and community (as in “ben/bar …”)]

7. How to Have a Kosher Mouth

Some of us are pack-a-day gossips who have puffed away for so long in this smoke-filled room that we don’t even notice how its acrid stench clings to our hair and clothes. (94)

Rabbinic commentaries often link motzei shem ra (“to put out a bad name,” a.k.a. “slander”) and metzora (leprosy). They connect the two because they sound similar and because God punished Miriam with leprosy for seven days when she slandered her brother Moses (Numbers 12:1-15). The punishment fits the crime, say the rabbis, because leprosy and libel share many common traits. At first the symptoms are hardly noticeable, but over time the disease becomes chronic — a person who smears one person will usually smear others. Moreover, the disease is highly contagious, as the listeners repeat the falsehood. And like leprosy, malicious talk separates wife from husband, brother from brother, and friend from friend. (96)

8. Taking My Thumb Off the Scale

By simply reconsidering my unkind assumptions about other people’s offenses, I could feel my anger drain away and my ruffled feathers settle back down. My attitude took a 180-degree turn once I reviewed the morning’s irritations in a new light. | In almost every situation, a person can either look for a good or bad motive behind other people’s behavior. The way you choose to interpret others’ motives has a profound effect on the way you react to them. Personally, I’ve found that when I make a habit of trying to “judge favorably,” it transforms me into a kinder, more patient person. My attitude grows more loving when I assume the best instead of the worst about the people around me. (107)

Universally, we’re all butchers with our thumbs on the scale, and often we’re completely wrong in how we size others up. In The Grace Awakening, Charles Swindoll confesses his own experience of judging unfairly. At a week-long Bible conference, he met a couple the first night who seemed enthusiastic about hearing him speak. But as the days went on, h noticed that the man nodded off at every  sermon he gave, without fail. Growing more and more annoyed, Swindoll concluded that the man was a “carnal Christian,” someone who talked one way but lived another. On the final evening, a chat with the man’s wife revealed that he couldn’t be more wrong. Swindoll writes:

She stayed after the crowd and her husband had left. She asked if she could speak with me for a few minutes. I figured she wanted to talk about how unhappy she was living with a man who didn’t have the same interest in spiritual things as she. How wrong I was. She said their being there was his idea. It had been his “final wish.” I didn’t understand. She informed me he had terminal cancer and had only weeks to live. At his request they attended the conference where I was speaking even though the medication he was taking for pain made him sleepy — something that greatly embarrassed him. “He loves the Lord,” she said, “and you are his favorite Bible teacher. He wanted to be here to meet you and to hear you, no matter what.” I was sincerely stunned. She thanked me for the week and left. I had judged my brother, and I was as wrong as I could possibly have been. – The Grace Awakening

Being critical of others and being a chronic complainer both comes from searching for the negative everywhere you can find it. (110)

Humiliation is worse than death, so you should fling yourself into a furnace rather than embarrass someone.

Jesus is saying that when you show contempt, you dare God to judge you because of your own judgmental attitude toward others. (114)

9. Praying with Chutzpah

…utter nerve, sheer audacity that borders on obnoxiousness. (118)

It takes more faith to ask than it takes to fear the asking. It takes faith to be ready for whatever answer comes, and faith to persevere with more questions if that answer is not understood…Sometimes asking questions is a way to demonstrate humility, because inherent in the question is the assumption that I do not have the answer, God does. Sincere questions give God respect. They acknowledge his power. They honor him. – Athol Dickson, The Gospel According to Moses

…the faith that we’re suppose to have is not in the outcome, but in God himself. (125)

10. Thinking with Both Hands

This method of “give and take” (shakla v’tarya, as it is traditionally called) has been integral to Jewish thought throughout history. (130)

Once you think about it, some of the most important truths of the Bible are paradoxical. (131)

Block logic groups together ideas that may come from opposite perspectives — such as from a human perspective and then a divine perspective. (132)

Making sense of everything is not an obligation or even a possibility. Acceptance of mystery is an act not of resignation but humility. – David Wolpe

Jewish thought generally assumes that Jews are already saved, because God graciously chose Israel as his people. In their minds, the Law teaches them how to live in a way that pleases a loving God and upholds their covenantal relationship. | Because of this, Judaism often shows a surprising pragmatism towards people’s weaknesses. (137)

III. Studying the Word with Rabbi Jesus

11. The Treasure in the Text

Our storybook Bible split the text into short morality lessons, so we assume that’s how we should read the text as adults. But it’s actually not meant to be a collection of simple children’s stories. It’s a sophisticated, epic saga with a complex, interwoven plot. (150)

One thing that might help is to admit that the Bible actually is a difficult, ancient text. Growing up on Sunday school cartoons and flannelgraphs, you might get the impression that the Bible is supposed to be like Chopsticks, a childhood melody that’s playable with a few minutes of practice. It’s actually more like a Rachmaninoff concerto, with crashing chords and minor themes that linger through many movements. It might take years of practice to play well, but with even a lifetime of performances, its rich strains never get old. (151)

The Bible does not yield its meanings to lazy people – Rev. Arthur W Pink

One day as Rabbi Akiva was shepherding his flocks, he noticed a tiny stream trickling down a hillside, dropping over a ledge on its way toward the river below. below was a massive boulder. Surprisingly, the rock bore a deep impression. The drip, drip, drip of water over the centuries had hollowed away the stone. Akiva commented, “If mere water can do this to hard rock, how much more can God’s Word carve a way into my heart of flesh?” (152)

Irrefutably, indestructibly, never wearied by time, the Bible wanders through the ages, giving itself with ease to all men, as if it belonged to every soul on earth. It speaks in every language and in every age… Though its words seem plain and its idiom translucent, unnoticed meanings, undreamed-of intimations break forth constantly. more than two thousand years of reading and research have not succeeded in exploring its full meaning. Today it is as if it had never been touched, never been seen, as if we had not even begun to read it. Its spirit is too much for one generation to bear. Its words reveal more than we can absorb. – Abraham Heschel, God in Search of Man

12. The Secrets that God Keeps

Creation myths functioned as an ancient National Enquirer, satisfying every curiosity. (155)

Job stays married to God and throws dishes at him; the three friends have a polite non-marriage, with separate bedrooms and separate vacations. – Peter Kreeft, Three Philosophies of Life

13. Our Longing Father

We see sin as the breaking of arbitrary rules, as accruing parking violations and speeding tickets in a heavenly court system. If we put our faith in Christ, his atoning sacrifice will pay the fine. In this scenario, God is a callous, uncaring judge whose concern is that the law be upheld and the penalty paid in full. | The portrayal of sin in Jesus’ parable, however, is that of a broken relationship, a personal offense against a loving Father. (169)

Sin does not just “break the rules” and annoy a strict policeman; it is a direct, personal rejection of our loving heavenly Father, who cares for us deeply. (170)

14. God’s Image Stamped in Dust

A god’s “image” was its physical representation on earth, like an idol, or the sun or moon. (185)

Additional links:

Lois’ website and chapter previews and excerpts, Reviews, and Introductory Video.

— VIA —

[Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy from the author. (Thanks, Lois!)]

For years, my friends and colleagues and I have wrestled with the great problem of the expanse between “the church” (the laity) and “the academy” (the scholarly). The challenge is bigger than simply the language, though the academy does use terms that are for the most part unknown and inaccessible to the “everyday” believer. It appears to be more an issue of value. That is to say, Does, (or rather, “Can,”) the church value the study of history, context, and culture to help it be radically transformed by an understanding that is perhaps different from what is “popularly” held? Will the church recognize that without these tools and insights, we will suffer (and have suffered) from the pride of fabricating our own interpretations with a disregard for what Jesus actually taught? And, that to perform this act of hubris is to dishonor the reputation of both the Church and of God Himself?

Amazingly, my experience in my Christian spheres has consistently been to value what “I” think about the Scriptures and Jesus rather than what “he” (Jesus) or “it” (the Bible) actually said and taught. We’ve been highly conditioned with the question, “What does this mean to you?” so much so that our Christian cultural milieu is blind to thinking outside of a narcissistic,* phenomenological, and esoteric view.

Thus, the gap. And that gap must be bridged.

And since there seems to be very little out there that can bridge that chasm, Walking is at the top of my list of recommendations (along with Tverberg’s Sitting) for understanding Jesus through historical and cultural lenses. Now, much of what Tverberg writes about here regarding Jesus’ Jewish context and history has already been researched, studied, documented, and published. This is actually the book’s great strength as is evidenced in the thorough footnotes (thank you!). Scholastic work? Check. However, more to the point of value (in the bridging of the gap), not only is this book well researched, it is in a format that is accessible, readable, understandable, and immediately applicable. It has a personal feel that “courts” you into desiring more challenge, more insight, more “aha’s.” Tverberg’s writing sympathizes with misunderstanding and identifies with Christian traditionalism and Western thinking. Thus, the reader is capable of feeling “safe” in the journey of this “academic endeavor,” and that “safety” opens the doors to an understanding that other works may leave out of reach.

Reading Walking is like getting to know Jesus all over again, for the very first time.

* I use the term “narcissistic” here not to mean “selfish,” as is commonly understood, but in the mythical sense that Narcissus, when admiring himself in the reflection was unaware that he was seeing himself. It is this “unawareness” that I believe so plagues our current wrestling.

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