of Hebrew Scriptures
Dr. Dru Johnson
Leviticus is my favorite book of the Bible. Most of my students have heard me ask, “Have you ever heard somebody say, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’?” Of course, they have heard of it, and I will ask, “Who said it?”
Many will answer, “Jesus,” but Jesus actually quoted Leviticus 19:18 when He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?” (Matthew 5:46). I think He had Leviticus 19 in mind here.
As you keep plowing through this instruction of Leviticus, just a few sentences later you arrive at, “and you shall love the stranger as yourself.” Why? “For you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God” (Leviticus 19:34). We have a fear of foreigners in America today—what we call xenophobia. In the Hebrew Bible, you do not have xenophobia, you have xenophilia, love of the foreigner. You treat them equally. Paul repeated this rhetoric in Romans 5:8 (“While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us”) and 1 Corinthians 6:11 (“Such were some of you”). Thus, both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament teach us to extend the same love toward others that we ourselves received from God.
The #MeToo movement really brought to the surface our deep societal and personal need to forgive and to be forgiven. And further, to be released from the guilt that stems from a lack of forgiveness. If you ask people, “What would you want from this person—this man or woman who exploited people for decades?” Most of us would say something like, “I want them to publicly admit that they were wrong.”
Think about the 2015 massacre in Charleston, South Carolina, and how powerful it was when those people from the church stood in the courtroom and forgave that young man who killed their loved ones in their Bible study.
We desperately long for repentance and forgiveness when something is wrong. That is a very difficult concept to find in the ancient world. Try reflecting on the events which took place on Sinai in the book of Exodus and were implemented by the one true God who redeemed Israel. He gave the law to give His people ethical and moral limits that reflect His holiness and divine character. His code of law defines sin. We can now understand when we have done something wrong, through what has been revealed in the Bible. Recognizing sin through the lens of the morals and values given to us in the Hebrew Scriptures is the beginning of our personal path towards a relationship with God.
Without the Hebrew Scriptures, we would not know where to begin our spiritual journey. Imagine a society without redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the promotion of tikkun olam by extending kindness and benevolence to the poor and needy? A world devoid of these factors would be barely human! The quality of our personal lives and civil society is vastly improved by the truths encapsulated in the Jewish Scriptures.
We have problems treating people fairly. Even if we accept the fundamental biblical concept that all humanity is created in the image of God, we are still capable of perpetrating great evil upon our fellow image-bearers. This is why the Hebrew Bible tells us how we should treat one another. The code of conduct revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures is designed by God to protect the dignity of all persons and to outline the consequences for mistreating our fellow man. These consequences are severe and can eat away at the soul of civil society. This is the message of Moses and the Hebrew prophets as well. We are instructed by the Scriptures to treat one with kindness, fairness, and respect. These values are now part of the fabric of our culture and formulate our most noble behavior towards one another.
If you want a strong view of the equality of humanity, you do not have to go beyond the creation of the Sabbath. The Sabbath equalizes everybody one day a week. It does not matter whether you are rich, or you are the servant. It does not matter whether you are male or female, whether you are a donkey or a child—everybody rests on the Sabbath.
Nobles and poor people, foreigners and native-born, children and older people, mothers and fathers, men and women—together, we all rest. That creates the context in which we can now view others as equal to ourselves. That child there is equal to me; that foreigner there is equal to me. Combine that with the image of God, and I think you have something very powerful there.
Deuteronomy 17:18 instructs kings to handwrite a copy of the Torah for themselves, showing they are subject to the instruction of God. In one sense, even potentates and captains of industry do not rule over others as subjects, but rather are co-subjects as described by the Hebrew Scriptures. They are under God’s instruction, the same instruction given to every man and woman. Everybody sits under God’s instruction because He is the kind of God who does not hide in the heavens but dwells with His people and teaches them. That creates the conditions for what we now call the rule of law.
When you look at the Torah, most of it is not law. The Torah is story, poetry, and legal codes. When we hear the word “law,” we bring a modern idea of European law to the table. We see it as a list of rules—you either keep them or you break them. But this statutory approach to law is fairly new.
For example, I have four teenagers, and if you had written down everything I said to them in a day when they were younger, it would give you a very distorted perspective of my view of fatherhood. You would think I see it as a bunch of “dos” and “do nots.” That is the statutory view. But the truth is I was trying to keep them from killing themselves, or each other, or burning down our house. It was out of a deep and profound love that I was willing to patiently guide them over the years.
That is the rule of law in the Hebrew Bible. God was trying to keep Israel from burning the house down. The roots of western civilization are probably less traceable to the Greco-Roman culture and more traceable to the Hebrew Bible than we suspected. If you appreciate living in a country ruled by law and not by the whims of a human king, then thank the Jewish people and God Himself who gave us the Hebrew Scriptures. These expressions of God’s character and purposes for mankind stand the test of time
Viewing the Hebrew Bible in its context safeguards civil society. Do not reduce it to commands, or to cute poems—inner spirituality, me and Jesus, me and God—but actually think about the kind of people God was creating and the way He wanted them to see reality. It is a difficult task, but it begins with understanding what Scripture says, why it says it, and how it might speak to our context today. I do not think there is a single thing we are facing today—from transhumanism, to smart phones, to sexuality, to end-of-life decisions—that the Jewish Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, do not speak to powerfully.
The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament are consistent with the Torah, the Writings, and Prophets, and even magnify them. The four categories that are mentioned above illustrate not only how we are to relate to one another, but also how we are to relate to God. To say that the greatest commandments are related to love, as Jesus did, is to make the Torah, the entire Old Testament, Jesus, the entire New Testament, and God, personal.
Through the Bible, God reaches into this world of His own design and shows us how to love each other and love Him. And through this love, the rest of the world will be drawn to God. And the greatest evidence of God’s love for us is the sacrifice that He made when He sent His Son to repair the torn relationship between Creator and creation. Ψ