The Torah reading for this Shabbat is called Shoftim, (“judges”). The reading is from Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9. From the prophets the reading is from Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12. From the New Testament we are reading from the Gospel of John 14:9-20.
I must share with you that although I have been reading and studying the Bible since the age of 16, that is 59 years, and now I am 75 years old, and yet, every time that I open the Bible and read texts that I have read at least hundreds of times before, and still there is always something new that pops up and fires my soul with excitement. The trick is simple, don’t just read, think, doubt, examine, and ask for the Holy Spirit to help you understand, and lead you to all truth.
In our reading this Shabbat there are some of the bases for so much of what is going on in Judaism today and so much that ought to be going on in Christianity, but it does not. In the Hebrew Bible what is called “The Old Testament” there are no synagogues, no rabbis, no Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, or yeshivas. These are institutions that are born into existence only in the inter-testamental period, and therefore are mentioned in the New Testament. But, these institutions, that are made kosher in the apostolic writings, are all based on a text from our reading of the Torah this Shabbat.
This is the text:
“If a matter arises which is too hard for you to judge, between degrees of guilt for bloodshed, between one judgment or another, or between one punishment or another, matters of controversy within your gates, then you shall arise and go up to the place which the Lord your God chooses. And you shall come to the priests, the Levites, and to the judge there in those days, and inquire of them; they shall pronounce upon you the sentence of judgment. You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you. According to the sentence of the law in which they instruct you, according to the judgment which they tell you, you shall do; you shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left from the sentence which they pronounce upon you. Now the man who acts presumptuously and will not heed the priest who stands to minister there before the Lord your God, or the judge, that man shall die. So, you shall put away the evil from Israel. And all the people shall hear and fear, and no longer act presumptuously.” – Deuteronomy 17:8-13 [NKJV]
In the simple understanding of this text in its historical context, God is providing stations where a person who has a particular problem that is not directly addressed in the text of the Torah, that person can go to the authorities of his own day, the judge, the priest, the Levite, or the policeman (officer) and get a clarification of his question. The man needs advice, and these are the stations where he can go to and get advice and clarification to his question.
However, the price of this Torah command is that if you do go to the authorities in your time and in your place and ask the advice or a ruling of the Torah, you are obligated to receive and take the advice seriously and do according to their instruction.
I can understand well the Lord’s command that if you go and get an answer to your question you have an obligation to do according to their instruction. You just don’t go and waste the time of these officials and then turn and do as you wish. Take seriously what these learned officials have advised you and use their advice to resolve your problem.
On the basis of this instruction of God here in Deuteronomy, the synagogue was established, and the court system, the Sanhedrin, was established, and the whole rabbinical system was developed in the inter-testamental period, when Israel was in exile in Babylon. When they returned from Babylon with Ezra and Nehemiah, the Temple in Jerusalem was in total disarray and disrepair, these good rules from our chapter are taken seriously.
The Pharisees were established as a puritan group. They wanted to return to the Land of Israel and restore the Jewish lifestyle and the Temple and returned to use it for a high place of worship.
However, much time has passed from the days of Moses and their simple lifestyle in the wilderness. Now they have lived in their own land and in cities with walls, and they have farms, and industry. New questions come up that need guidance to live and to stay faithful to the Torah of the Lord.
So, these instructions of Moses in our chapter are apropos in place and needed. However, when the Israelites returned from the Babylonian exile they came back to the land and to Jerusalem that was in ruins, the Temple was not in good repair, the economy was in very bad shape.
This text gave them an opportunity that apparently allowed them the basis to establish new institutions that didn’t exist in Israel or Judaism before. They established houses of learning (Beit Midrash) because they heard the reading of the Torah for the first time when Ezra and Nehemiah and the Levites read it in public (See Nehemiah chapters 7,8) just before the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were the people who took the Torah seriously and used it for the reestablishment of the word of God as the authority for the lives of the Jewish people.
However, the world had changed some and the people who returned from Babylon to Jerusalem and to Judea had needs that the Torah and the Word of God had no clear answers for. The Torah institutions, like the Temple and the priests and Levites were not now the same as they had been during the first Temple period.
So, what the Pharisees did was like what Martin Luther did, they made the Torah approachable and accessible to the public and not only to the priests and the Levites. Now, the Torah is open to anyone to study and learn and draw his own conclusions.
Decisions regarding the Torah are now made through discussion and deliberation among rabbis and not by waiting for divine revelation for every little issue. All this is based on the one text from our Torah reading this Shabbat.
Yeshua functioned as a Pharisee rabbi who preached in all the synagogues in the Galilee, and people loved what they heard from Yeshua:
“Then Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and news of Him went out through all the surrounding regions. And He taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.” – Luke 4:14,15 [NKJV]
It is clear from these texts that Yeshua was a rabbi and was invited to teach in the synagogues as the text says, “…taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.”
Yeshua uses our text from Deuteronomy 17:8-13 to give the following instructions to His disciples and to the others that were around at that moment:
“Then (Yeshua) Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying: ‘The scribes and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works; for they say, and do not do.’” – Matthew 23:1-3
This phrase in verse 3, is an exact quotation from the Hebrew of Deuteronomy 17:10,
“You shall do according to the sentence which they pronounce upon you in that place which the Lord chooses. And you shall be careful to do according to all that they order you.” – Deuteronomy 17:10 [NKJV]
Yeshua was not the first to call the Pharisees “hypocrites.” And for sure He was not the last Jew to call the Pharisees “hypocrites”.
I could make a list of the kings and rabbis who were Pharisees and called their own party by the same epitaph. I have called some of my Christian brothers and sisters more than once “hypocrites”.
You could ask me why I call some of my Christian brothers and sisters whom I love very much “hypocrites”? The reason is very simple, because I love my Christian brothers and sisters so much that I have high expectations for them, and I see them falling into the standard religious hypocrisies and being dragged by the trends and fashions of the Evangelical culture into living a fake spiritual life and pretending on Sundays that Monday will be different from every other Monday on their job.
Yeshua was a Pharisee and Paul states clearly that He is a Pharisee. The big question that this text of Yeshua’s teaching in Matthew 23 is – what are we, in the 21st Century, supposed to do with the teaching of Yeshua in Matthew 23?
Are we to ignore it like most of the Christian world, Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Churches of Christ, Baptists, Methodists? I would say almost all my Christian brothers might read the words of Yeshua marked in red and come out condemning the Pharisees (the Jews) for being hypocrites, when they do the same thing that Yeshua condemned in His own group, the Pharisees!
I love you, my dear Christian brothers and sisters, no less than I love my Jewish brothers and sisters, and because I love you, I am neither ashamed nor fearful of writing these words of truth. Shall we ignore the teachings of Yeshua and just worship a Jew hanging on a cross and never take Yeshua off that cross and have Him crowned as King of the Jews and King of our lives?
Shall we ignore the red-letter edition of the Bible and say that these were just words spoken by the Son of God in the streets of Jerusalem, and on the hills of the Galilee and the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and just write them off?
We could just say this is “old stuff”, we live in a modern world now, with an iPhone made in China, a laptop computer made in China or Taiwan, and wear a face mask also made in China, to protect us from a coronavirus plague also made in the same place. We don’t need a Jew that lived 2000 year ago in a faraway land which we don’t know whether to call, Israel or Palestine!
I realize that I am writing “hard stuff”, but this “hard stuff” is written from a deep love and commitment to that Jew who hung on the Roman cross for six hours, was buried on the hills of Jerusalem, in a land soaked with blood, and got out of the rock-hewn grave after around 72 hours, to walk again through the land of Israel and fix an Ashkenazi fish breakfast for his fisherman disciples on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
You see I am writing to you because I love you and because I believe in your personal integrity with the Lord, and because I don’t blame you for anything, but I do blame the leadership of most of the churches in the West for not teaching the full counsel of the Word of God from Genesis to Revelation.
I do blame the leadership that is more interested in creating big churches with no little personal gain and do what the Sadducees did in the time of Yeshua (Jesus). By far there is a high percentage of exceptions to my generalizations, and I know many leaders, pastors, and elders, who are a clear and shining exception to the general rule and are not hypocritical at all and are living a life of pure dedication to the Lord and His church and love Israel and love and support Netivyah.
I bless all of the leaders and pastors and elders not to be offended by my words, but to be self-examining and take the time and the effort to be like King David, make mistakes, and allow the Lord to help you fix them and restore the purity of your ministry and intent.
It is never too late for any of us, and all of us without exception need to read that chapter 23 of the Gospel of Matthew every few months or at least one time every year and ask ourselves where we stand in relation to preaching to others and not doing what we say.
God bless you all my brothers and sisters! I love you all and if I have offended any of you with this – please do yourself and me a favor, pray for me, and for Jerusalem and for Israel and for your own country and ask the Lord for the zeal and strength to straighten up and fly right. With this worldwide plague I pray every day, Lord come quickly!
This article originally appeared on Netivyah and is reposted with permission.