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Vayikra/Leviticus 18:4 My judgements you shall do and My statutes you shall observe, to walk in them
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Following the (negative) verse that tells the Israelites not to follow the practices of the Egyptians or the Canaanites, this (positive) text expresses HaShem's expectations for His people: that they should follow His instructions as their whole way of life. The NJPS translation paraphrases it to read, "My rules alone shall you observe, and faithfully follow My laws" (Vayikra 18:4, NJPS). Three sub-phrases make up the first half of the verse; in the first two, the normal word order is reversed, with the direct object - introduced by , the direct object indicator - starting the phrase, preceding the verb. As a literary device, this is done to emphasise the direct object over the verb, as the translation above shows. Each of the two sub-phrases have exactly the same structure: DDO; plural noun with 1cs 'my' possessive pronoun suffix; Qal 2mp prefix form verb. Let's look at these words in a little more detail, starting with the nouns.
- My judgements - comes from the root , to judge or rule, and is typically translated 'judgements'. It has the legal sense of case law, rather than primary legislation: what a judge would decide in a court based on precedent and other intersecting laws. They are inherently practical and capable of being directly implemented as well as easily understood. - My statutes - on the other hand, comes from the root , to inscribe, and is variously translated as 'statutes' or 'decrees'. Michael Carasik suggests that "these are things that are simply 'carved in stone'." Non-negotiable and often without an obvious rational basis or explanation, they are the decrees of the King and must be obeyed whether we understand them or not.
Matching "My Judgements" in the first sub-phrase, is the verb , the Qal 2mp prefix form of the root , to do or make. Although we have translated it as a simple 'do', other translations offer 'perform' or 'carry out'. John Hartley comments that "The term , 'do' is a very general term, meaning to act according to these laws"1, whileNechama Leibowitz reports that "the judgements being readily intelligible, must simply be applied ('done') in daily life." accompanying "My statutes" in the second sub-phrase, is the Qal 2mp prefix form of the root , to watch, guard, keep, obey. This time, Hartley says that "'keep', communicates that the will must be exercised in order to 'do' the commandments. These decrees are to be practised continually so that they may be ingrained into a person's way of living, their walk"FootNteRef(2), while Rabbi Hirsch explains that the sages consider "the first obligation to be learning, giving one's time and energy to studying and obtaining a clear and comprehensive understanding of the theory of the Torah." Leibowitz agrees, pointing out that, "'keeping' or 'guarding' the ordinances applies to such abstruse matters as measures, appointed times, etc. that perplex the human intellect and require additional caution so as not to transgress them. This involves profound study as our sages say ( Sifra Aharei Mot, 133): ' (keep, guard) - this denotes the study of the Mishnah.'"
The third sub-phrase also contains two words. This time the verb comes first - , the Qal infinitive of the root , to walk - followed by the location of the action: , in them. Baruch Levine observes that "is often used to connote adherence to G-d's commandments. ... A metaphor ... of life as a journey on which one embarks or a path on which one walks." The commandments, he says, "direct a person in the right path and represent the 'way' in which one should 'walk'." We can hear Yeshua using the same metaphor in His last instructions to the disciples: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations ..." (Matthew 28:19, ESV), where the imperative verb 'go' (the other significant meaning of the Hebrew verb , alongside 'walk') is not referring to physical or geographical relocation, but walking out ones's life. Here, the Torah is saying that the 'doing' and the 'keeping' ofHaShem's commandments must become a regular and habitual part of our lives so that we do them automatically and naturally as part of every day, rather like breathing.
Rabbi Hirsh paraphrases our text to offer, "My Law, and My Law only, shall regulate your social and moral life." If 'judgements' are the social order and 'statutes' are the moral order, "this tells us that the social order itself can not exist without this moral order, and that the laws of justice and rights which G-d wants to have respected and practised as the basis of His human society presupposes people who have been conceived, born, brought up, and living under the regime of His moral sexual and family laws." Hirsch (1808-1888) was writing in Germany in middle of the 19th century, speaking against the nascent Reform movement which appeared to be advocating for a significant abdication from the Torah and Jewish tradition in order to promote assimilation and blending into the German culture of the time - remaining Jews in little more than name.
Nevertheless, Gunther Plaut (1912-2012) - a Reform Jewish rabbi and scholar writing to an American and Canadian audience - makes a very important point: "Jews have always had to struggle with the question: to what extent should they adopt the ideas and practices of the outside world? Such influences are in some measure inescapable. They have affected not only those who welcomed new cultural values - the mediaeval Jewish philosophers and the modern Reformers for example - but also the spiritual isolationists." We are all involved in this struggle and are constantly having to make decisions about where we draw our lines. Samuel Balentine takes us back to our verse from the Torah, commenting that "[this verse] implicitly recognises that instructions from other presumed authorities will compete for Israel's allegiance."3
How are we - Jewish and Gentile followers of Yeshua - to answer that challenge today and stay faithful to both the Torah and to Yeshua our Master? How do we Jews maintain our Jewish identity against a rampant tide of assimilationist pressures - not least of which comes from the Gentile church - and the criticism of the mainstream Jewish world that we are apostates and not Jews at all, that we have rejected the Torah and become Christians? How do we Gentiles preserve our Gentile identity, striving to make Israel jealous without ourselves becoming Jews; how do we live our status as wild olive branches grafted in to the olive tree and so acting as a life-giving stimulus to growth and the production of fruit, without taking on the form and substance of the cultivated branches so that the miracle of the One New Man disappears?
James, known as the L-rd's brother and the leader of the Jerusalem church at the time of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, takes us right back into our text from the Torah. He writes: "But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves" (James 1:22, ESV). We have to both do and hear the word, otherwise we deceive ourselves. Of course, we have to hear, otherwise we will not know what we are to do, but then we have to act upon and put into practice what we have heard, so that we are conformed into the image of Yeshua and others can both see and hear what the kingdom of G-d is all about and why they need to join.
Yeshua was shockingly blunt when He told the crowds that "My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of G-d and do it" (Luke 8:21, ESV). Of course, this was partly hyperbolic language; He as well aware of His obligations to His mother and family, but those who hear and do - carry out, perform - the word of G-d, are close to His heart. This is why He later says, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of G-d and keep it!" (11:28, ESV). Perhaps most scary are the words He says to the crowds towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount: "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of My Father who is in heaven" (Matthew 7:21, ESV). Doesn't this contradict Rav Sha'ul's assurance that "Whoever will call upon the name of the L-RD will be saved" (Romans 10:13, ESV)? No, because those who 'do' without hearing and calling are not doing the will of the Father; they are not hearing Yeshua's words and are not in relationship with Him. They have simply overheard someone else's conversation and are doing what seems good in their own eyes (Judges 21:25).
The Torah's words apply to us today. We must shun the behaviour of the Egyptians in our past and the Canaanites all around us, clinging to the word of G-d and guided by the ever-present (if we ask Him) voice of the Spirit to make sure that we both hear and do what we are being told to do. In a world where confusion reigns and everyone thinks they have the right to do what they want - without let, hindrance or consequences - we have to be the clear beacon of truth so that all may see that there is only once choice and one way; there is only one "name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12, ESV).
1. - John E. Hartley, Leviticus, Word Biblical Commentary, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1992), page 293.
2. - Hartley, 293.
3. - Samuel E. Balentine, Leviticus, Interpretation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), page 152.
Further Study: Vayikra 22:31-33; Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 2:5
Application: Is your light shining clear and true or are you still struggling with the ideas and practices of the world? It's time to make the break and stop trying to please others who will, in the end, never be satisfied no matter how much you try to compromise. The truth is the truth and, if we are to be true to our calling in Messiah Yeshua, we have to stand up and be counted, both hearing and doing G-d's word faithfully.
Comment - 10:10 24Apr22 Joshua VanTine: You stir up some deep questions for every follower of Rabbi Yeshua of Nazareth, especially for the Gentile with their grafted in status. As the stirring has begun, may we humbly merit to hear and do what the Father's Will is, is for us so that our good works may shine before men so that they glorify our Father in Heaven. How does the Gentile remain separate from blending in identity to the Jew in the One New man? With the stirring gaining more vigour and blending the contents, the Gentile, wild olive branch, being part of the vine and having one's thinking totally transformed and renewed in Torah, to be able to truly do the judgements, observe the statutes and walk out the Father's Will is a wonder I can't fully understand of our Jewish Messiah. Lots to further consider and seek out from this drash.
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© Jonathan Allen, 2022
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