The Curse of the Law: Part 3 – Trying to Put the Pieces Back Together

Josiah

 

First, my apologies for the delay. My wife was sick last week, so I didn’t have my usual night off to write and edit. Hopefully this post will still be welcome.

Though those in Israel with ears to hear knew that the covenant had been broken, they never ceased in trying to put the pieces back together. The first to attempt to do so was Josiah. Even after being told by the prophetess Hulda that he could only delay the outpouring of God’s punishment on Judah, not abate it (2Ki. 22:14-20), Josiah attempted to renew the covenant:

The king went up to the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD. The king stood by the pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and all his soul, to confirm the words of this covenant that were written in this book: and all the people stood to the covenant. . .

Like him was there no king before him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Torah of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding, the LORD didn’t turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, with which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocation with which Manasseh had provoked him. (23:2-3, 25-26)

Josiah was the last good king, and the last free king, Judah would ever have until the coming of the Messiah. His successors became vassals to Egypt and Babylon, and after several failed attempts to throw off the yoke of Babylon in defiance of God’s decree, the nation went into exile. While Jeremiah prophesied that there would indeed be a new covenant to replace the broken one, it was not to come about in his day, nor for many centuries after. The curse had begun its course, and could not be stopped until every line of it had been fulfilled. Israel would go into exile.

When the exiles were released from Babylon by the Cyrus the Persian, only about 50,000 saw fit to return to the Land. Under the leadership of Zerubabbel, Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah, they rebuilt the temple. The Holy One sent a few prophets during this rebuilding like Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah to encourage the work to continue, but the result was small and pitiful compared to the beauty of Solomon’s temple (Hag. 2:3). More importantly, all of the spiritual and supernatural graces that made Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle before it true dwelling places for the Presence of the Almighty were gone: “In the Second Temple there wanted the fire from Heaven, the Ark with the Mercy Seat, and cherubim, Urim and Thummim, the Sh’khinah (Divine presence), the Holy Spirit, and the anointing oil.” (Tosefta Ta’anit 6:1, cf. b.Yoma 21b) While a remnant of the exiles had returned, the covenant had not been restored.

When Nehemiah arrived to see to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and the restoration of the city, he led the people in a prayer of repentance and in the signing of a covenantal document, a contract as it were, stipulating the duties of the people to support the new temple. Doubtless, he hoped that this new covenant would be the one Jeremiah had prophesied. But again, the curse had not run its course, and the sincere repentance of the small minority in Jerusalem could not turn it back.

The Dead Sea Scroll caves, near Qumran, a city of the Essenes

The Dead Sea Scroll caves, near Qumran, a city of the Essenes

Many of the sects of Judaism continued in the attempt to bring the people back into a state of holiness in the hopes that Hashem would forgive Israel and return the Divine Presence to the temple. Some, like the Essenes, calling themselves the Sons of the Light, withdrew into their own communities and focused solely on raising the level of purity and holiness of their members to the highest level possible so as to be ready to follow the coming Messiah when he arrived. (Ironically, that very Messiah criticized their withdrawal from society; Luke 16:8.) Others, like the Pharisees, attempted to lead the nation into repentance by their example. They attempted to build “fences” around the Torah in the form of their traditions–traditions that continue in Judaism to this day–in the hope that if they built the fences high enough and far enough away from the actual point of sin, Israel could achieved a righteousness sufficient to restore the broken relationship with the Holy One. They were frustrated by the very human failings both within and without their fellowships, particularly the failing of substituting ritual for true faith and faithfulness in the heart, and by the failure to hearken to the voice of the Prophet Moses had promised (Deu. 18:18) and the King that they had wished for and looked for all their lives.

The Real Solution: Faithfulness from Heaven

Paul would later write of these attempts

What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, who didn’t follow after righteousness, attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith; but Israel, following after a law of righteousness, didn’t arrive at a law of righteousness. Why? Because they didn’t seek it by faith, but as it were by works of law. They stumbled over the stumbling stone; even as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and a rock of offense; and no one who believes in him will be disappointed.” (Rom. 9:30-33)

Let’s unpack Paul’s statement for a moment. First, what does Paul mean by “faith”? To answer that, let us look at how he defines the concept in Galatians 3:6 and 11. In verse 6, Paul cites Genesis 15:4, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness,” while in verse 11, he quotes Habakkuk 2:4, “The righteous shall live by faith.” Actually, that’s a mistranslation: The original Hebrew means, “The righteous shall live by his faithfulness (emunato).” The Greek term translated “faith,” pistis, actually means both “trust” and “faithfulness and loyalty.” By putting those two meanings together, Paul tells us that true “faith” cannot be separated from true loyalty to the object of that faith. As Holding explains:

This now leads to an expansion of the pistis concept as derived from deSilva. As deSilva shows in his book Honor, Patronage, Kinship and Purity, pp. 95ff], the relationship between the believer and God is framed in terms of an ancient client-patron relationship. As God’s “clients” to whom he has shown unmerited favor (grace), our response should be, as Malina and Neyrey frame it, a “constant awareness” of prescribed duties toward those in whom we are indebted (God) and the group in which we are embedded (God’s kin group, the body of Christ).

This “constant awareness” is the expression of our faithfulness of loyalty — in other words, this is our pistis, or faith. “Faith” is not a feeling, but our pledge to trust, and be reliable servants to, our patron (God), who has provided us with tangible gifts (Christ) and proof thereby of His own reliability. . . Given the above data, the actual description that fits an authentic faith is not a personal relationship, but a patronal relationship. (J.P. Holding,  “What is Faith?” retrieved from http://www.tektonics.org/whatis/whatfaith.php on September 17, 2014)

King-James-BibleSecond, what does Paul mean by “law”? The easy answer is to say, “the Torah,” but this is not correct, or rather, not specific enough. As we will shortly demonstrate, Paul makes a careful distinction between “law” and “the Law” in his writings that is hidden by nearly all translations. In Romans 9:30-33. Paul says that “Israel, following after a law of righteousness, didn’t arrive at a law of righteousness,” he does not actually use the definite “the Law” that indicates the Torah. This indicates that either something in Israel’s pursuit fell short of the true Torah, or that he is using the term “law” as he does in Galatians, to indicate the covenant of the law (or Sinaic covenant). I believe both are true: Israel was still pursuing their relationship with Hashem through the Sinaic covenant by attempting to subsume all of Jewish life into the rigorous keeping of the Torah’s commandments, much as King Josiah had attempted centuries before. However, doing so was impossible because long ago Israel had ceased to keep the covenant faithfully, and had instead overemphasized the “works of law,” the ritual commandments such as circumcision, the Feasts, kashrut, etc. which set the Jew apart from the Gentile. Most call this legalism, but perhaps “ritualism” would be a more descriptive term. This is why Isaiah (chapter 58) decried those who lived unrighteously but who thought that they were right with God because they fasted (probably in reference to Yom Kippur). Indeed, Isaiah’s whole book starts off with a denunciation of ritualism in place of righteous living:

My soul hates your New Moons and your appointed feasts.
They are a burden to me.
I am weary of bearing them.

When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you.
Yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear.
Your hands are full of blood.

Wash yourselves, make yourself clean.
Put away the evil of your doings from before my eyes.
Cease to do evil.
Learn to do well.

Seek justice.
Relieve the oppressed.
Judge the fatherless.
Plead for the widow.” (Isa. 1:14-17, cf. Amos 5:21)

So then, we should understand Paul to say,

What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, who didn’t follow after righteousness, attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faithfulness [to Hashem through his Messiah]; but Israel, following after a law of righteousness [by creating traditions to put “fences” around the Torah and emphasizing one’s ritual duties to God], didn’t arrive at a law of righteousness. Why? Because they didn’t seek it by [returning to] faithfulness, but as it were by [ritual] works of [the covenant of] law. They stumbled over the stumbling stone[, not recognizing Yeshua as the King to whom they owed their faithfulness, the only one who could restore Israel’s fellowship with God]; even as it is written, “Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and a rock of offense; and no one who believes in him will be disappointed.” (Rom. 9:30-33)

Therefore, while having departed from idolatry and from many of the sins that led to the exile, Israel of the 1st Century had not yet learned the lesson, a fact not missed by her rabbis. They asked themselves why Hashem had destroyed the Temple and scattered the nation: “But as to the second sanctuary, in which the people were engaged in Torah and practice of the commandments and acts of loving kindness, on what account was it destroyed? It was because of gratuitous hatred. That fact serves to teach you: gratuitous hatred weighs in the balance against the three cardinal sins of idolatry, fornication, and murder” (b.Yoma 9b; cf. John 15:17-19, 25; Psa. 35:19, 69:4).

Christians are hardly immune to the disease of ritualism. Christianity has only two formal, universal sacraments, baptism and communion, and look at the debates on how and when these are to be administered that have raged over the centuries! In addition, Christianity has primarily defined its membership over the centuries not by exhibition of the fruit of the Spirit, but rather by adherence to certain prescribed confessions and creeds. Fleeing from a legalism of works, Christians all to often fall into a legalism of thoughts! (Perhaps we should call this “creedism.”)

Nor has the Messianic movement fared any better. Indeed, we often combine the worst of both worlds, boasting in keeping the “works of law” like the Sabbaths and Feasts while also dismissing those whose theology and doctrine don’t sufficiently comport to our own!

So how then should we understand the New Testament in light of understanding the nature of the curse of the Law? Does this affect our understanding of Paul’s writings, particularly his seeming rejection of the Law as the means of salvation? Indeed it does, as we will see.

The Curse of the Law: Part 2 – Why Yeshua Was Rejected

I concluded the last post by noting, “What this means is that, contrary to common Christian interpretation, the Jewish people were not cursed because we rejected Yeshua. On the contrary, the Jews had already been under the curse of the law for over seven hundred years before Yeshua came. In fact, the rejection of Yeshua by all but a minority of Jews was the result of the curse, not the cause of it!”

Isaiah2Today, I want to expand on that idea.

One of the most often quoted passages from the Tanakh in the New Testament is Isaiah 6:9-10: “He said, “Go, and tell this people, ‘You hear indeed, but don’t understand; and you see indeed, but don’t perceive.’ Make the heart of this people fat. Make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again, and be healed.” Yeshua quotes it in explaining why he had to explain spiritual matters to the masses only in parables (Mat. 13:14f, Mark 4:12, Luke 8:10, cf. 9:45), while John (12:40) and Luke (Acts 28:26f) invoke it to explain why so few Jews came to believe in him. Isaiah was given this prophecy at the beginning of his ministry, a ministry which tradition holds came to an end when his own uncle, King Manasseh, had him put to death by sawing him in half with a wooden saw (cf. Heb. 11:37). (One cannot help but wonder of Isaiah’s martyrdom was the final straw in the breaking of the covenant, making the death of Yesha’yahu parallel to the death of Yeshua.)

Isaiah was prophetically warned that his words would not be heeded in his lifetime, but when God finally determined the Sinaic covenant to be truly and irrevocably broken on Israel’s end–”my covenant which they broke, though I was a husband to them” (Jer. 31:32)–God’s warning to Isaiah became part and parcel of the curse.

“The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35), and the curse specified two separate exiles separated by a nation coming to “besiege you in all your towns” (Deu. 28:52). The first exile had already taken place, and the Apostles knew by Yeshua’s word that the second was soon to come. Had the whole nation accepted Yeshua, all Israel together would have died to the Sinaic covenant and been reborn to the New–and the prophecy of Moses would have been broken.

Of course, it was also Hashem’s plan to use the time of Israel’s punishment to affect a far greater salvation than just one nation: “I ask then, did they stumble that they might fall? May it never be! But by their fall salvation has come to the Gentiles, to provoke them to jealousy. Now if their fall is the riches of the world, and their loss the riches of the Gentiles; how much more their fullness?” (Rom. 11:11-12). The phrase “provoke to jealousy” is parazelosai in the Greek, which really means “stimulate alongside” or “[cause] parallel zealousness.” In other words, it’s not a creation of envy, but of a competition in zealousness that would direct the hearts of Israel back to her God and King.

So why then has history not demonstrated the truth of Paul’s prediction? In 1893, H. C. G. Moule answered:

It is the fault, the grievous fault, of us Christians. The narrow prejudice, the iniquitous law, the rigid application of exaggerated ecclesiastical principle, all these things have been man’s perversion of the divine idea, to be confessed and deplored in a deep and interminable repentance. May the mercy of God awaken Gentile Christendom, in a manner and degree as yet unknown, to remember this our indefeasible debt to this people everywhere present with us, everywhere distinct from us; -the debt of a life, personal and ecclesiastical, so manifestly pure and loving in our Lord the Christ as to “move them to the jealousy” which shall claim Him again for their own. Then we shall indeed be hastening the day of full and final blessing, both for themselves and for the world.

Fifteen centuries before, Hashem spoke through the pen of Moses the very prophecy that Paul alludes to in Romans: “They have made me jealous (Heb. qanah, indicating the “heat” of zealousness and passion) with what is not God . . . so I will make them jealous (zealous) with those who are not a people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation” (Deu. 32:21). Those “not a people” refers to the Christians, who are of every nation and yet of none; why then are the Christians then referred to as “a foolish nation” in the parallel clause? The word “foolish,” nabal, usually has the connotation of “wickedness” (cf. v.6; Psa. 14:1; Isa. 32:5). By this parallelism, Hashem teaches us a bitter truth: When the disciples of Yeshua act as those who are not a people, but of all peoples, they provoke Israel to parallel zealousness. But when they take up political power and act foolishly and wickedly, they only stir up Israel’s anger against the King they claim to serve.

JosiahThough those in Israel with ears to hear knew that the covenant had been broken, they never ceased in trying to put the pieces back together. The first to attempt to do so was Josiah. Even after being told by the prophetess Hulda that he could only delay the outpouring of God’s punishment on Judah, not abate it (2Ki. 22:14-20), Josiah attempted to renew the covenant:

The king went up to the house of the LORD, and all the men of Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem with him, and the priests, and the prophets, and all the people, both small and great: and he read in their ears all the words of the book of the covenant which was found in the house of the LORD. The king stood by the pillar, and made a covenant before the LORD, to walk after the LORD, and to keep his commandments, and his testimonies, and his statutes, with all his heart, and all his soul, to confirm the words of this covenant that were written in this book: and all the people stood to the covenant. . .

Like him was there no king before him, who turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the Torah of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding, the LORD didn’t turn from the fierceness of his great wrath, with which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocation with which Manasseh had provoked him. (23:2-3, 25-26)

Josiah was the last good king, and the last free king, Judah would ever have until the coming of the Messiah. His successors became vassals to Egypt and Babylon, and after several failed attempts to throw off the yoke of Babylon in defiance of God’s decree, the nation went into exile. While Jeremiah prophesied that there would indeed be a new covenant to replace the broken one, it was not to come about in his day, nor for many centuries after. The curse had begun its course, and could not be stopped until every line of it had been fulfilled. Israel would go into exile.

When the exiles were released from Babylon by the Cyrus the Persian, only about 50,000 saw fit to return to the Land. Under the leadership of Zerubabbel, Joshua, Ezra, and Nehemiah, they rebuilt the temple. The Holy One sent a few prophets during this rebuilding like Haggai, Malachi, and Zechariah to encourage the work to continue, but the result was small and pitiful compared to the beauty of Solomon’s temple (Hag. 2:3). More importantly, all of the spiritual and supernatural graces that made Solomon’s temple and the tabernacle before it true dwelling places for the Presence of the Almighty were gone: “In the Second Temple there wanted the fire from Heaven, the Ark with the Mercy Seat, and cherubim, Urim and Thummim, the Sh’khinah (Divine presence), the Holy Spirit, and the anointing oil.” While a remnant of the exiles had returned, the covenant had not been restored.

When Nehemiah arrived to see to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls and the restoration of the city, he led the people in a prayer of repentance and in the signing of a covenantal document, a contract as it were, stipulating the duties of the people to support the new temple. Doubtless, he hoped that this new covenant would be the one Jeremiah had prophesied. But again, the curse had not run its course, and the sincere repentance of the small minority in Jerusalem could not turn it back.

Many of the sects of Judaism continued in the attempt to bring the people back into a state of holiness in the hopes that Hashem would forgive Israel and return the Divine Presence to the temple. Some, like the Essenes, calling themselves the Sons of the Light, withdrew into their own communities and focused solely on raising the level of purity and holiness of their members to the highest level possible so as to be ready to follow the coming Messiah when he arrived. (Ironically, that very Messiah criticized their withdrawal from society; Luke 16:8.) Others, like the Pharisees, attempted to lead the nation into repentance by their example. They attempted to build “fences” around the Torah in the form of their traditions–traditions that continue in Judaism to this day–in the hope that if they built the fences high enough and far enough away from the actual point of sin, Israel could achieved a righteousness sufficient to restore the broken relationship with the Holy One. They were frustrated by the very human failings both within and without their fellowships, particularly the failing of substituting ritual for true faith and faithfulness in the heart, and by the failure to hearken to the voice of the Prophet Moses had promised (Deu. 18:18) and the King that they had wished for and looked for all their lives.

So if all this is true, the covenant was broken, and it couldn’t be restored by Israel trying to keep it as in the days of Moses, what then could be done?

The Curse of the Law: Part 1 – Deuteronomy as a Treaty

English: Moses Pleading with Israel, as in Deu...

(This post was first published over a year ago, but then I realized I hadn’t set it up very well. Hopefully, second time’s the charm.)

As I’ve mentioned a couple of times on this blog, I’ve been working on a paper that I hope to get peer-reviewed at some point. It turns out that that’s a tricky task for two reasons: First, you basically have to go and find just about every piece of scholarship out there that might even touch on your subject so that you can find out what arguments have been made for or against your position in the past, make sure you’re not just deluding yourself about the meaning of a given passage, and also see which direction scholarship has gone as more evidence has been opened up.

Secondly, if you’re really going against the grain, you find out that you have to establish about six other arguments to get to the point you really want to make.

Today’s post comes out of that second problem. My article is exploring just what Paul meant when he warned the Galatians that they were in danger of falling back under the power of the not-gods, the elemental spirits or stoichea that they used to follow, if they became circumcised as Jews. The main thrust of my argument involves careful exegesis of “the curse of the law” in Deuteronomy 28 through the lens of Dr. Heiser’s Divine Council paradigm. In the process, I’ve come to believe that failing to really understand the nature and scope of the curse of the Torah in Deuteronomy 28 is at the heart of a whole host of theological errors.

Sounds like a good subject for a series of blog posts, huh?

My own exploration of Deuteronomy 28 in detail didn’t originate in a desire to decipher Galatians, but rather to understand the inspiration of a particular prophecy. I wished to try to trace back to the Torah, the wellspring and foundation of all prophecy (as noted way back here), the prediction of Isaiah 11:10-11 that Hashem would recover his people from exile not once, but twice, and that the second time would happen after the Gentiles turned to Messiah, the Root of Jesse. One might find hints of such a double-exile in the pattern of Jacob’s life, in which he first fled the land to escape Esau and then was forced to leave it a second time to find refuge from the famine in Egypt. However, there is a better and more plain prophecy of this double-exile in the book of Deuteronomy in the description of the single, specific curse that would befall Israel should the people betray the covenant.

suzerain Egyptian Hittite 1250 bc treaty

Bronze tablet in 1235 B.C. testifying to the treaty between Tudhaliya IV (Egyptian) and Kurunta of Tarhuntassa (Hittite), which promises the sovereignty of Tarhuntassa and another territory to Kurunta and his sons for the future.

Deuteronomy, as many scholars have noted, is written in the form of an ancient Hittite suzerain-vassal treaty—in other words, the contract between a king and his people.1 While some skeptics have tried to claim that Deuteronomy has the form of the later Assyrian treaties in order to late-date the Torah, this does not hold up, as J.P. Holding notes:

In format Deuteronomy is most compatible with Hittite suzerain-vassal treaty texts — secular texts which “find their florescence in a period slightly later than 1400 (BC)” and went out of style in 1200 BC. [Merr.Dt, 23, 36] Deuteronomy contains “all the essential elements of these Hittite treaty texts and in precisely the same order” [ibid., 28] as well as a few other additions suitable to the context (a farewell address, itineraries, and hymns, for example — and of course, modifications for monolatry . . .

While it differs in that Deuteronomy calls upon heaven and earth and the song of Moses to be witnesses (30:19, 31:19, 32:1-43) instead of pagan gods, it contains the necessary components of the Preamble (1:1-5), the Historical Prologue (1:6-4:40), the Stipulations (5:1-26:15), Provision for the Keeping of the Law and Public Readings (27:1-8, 31:9-13; see also 17:18-20), and the Blessings and Curses (27:9-28:68). It is that last section that most concerns this paper.

Moses’ description of Israel’s curse for violating the covenant is long and almost tedious at first glance. This may be why so many commentators gloss over it. Indeed, most conflate all of the punishments together into a kind of amorphous mass, numbing the ears with their seeming repetitions. However, a more careful reading reveals that far from simply repeating itself, the curse actually gives a very specific timeline marked by three very distinct events. The first is exile to another land:

The LORD will bring you, and your king whom you shall set over you, to a nation that you have not known, you nor your fathers; and there you shall serve other gods, wood and stone. You shall become an astonishment, a proverb, and a byword, among all the peoples where the LORD shall lead you away. (Deu. 28:36-37)

This specific prophecy was fulfilled in 586 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, laid siege the third and final time to Jerusalem. At the conclusion of the siege, he “put out the eyes of [King] Zedekiah and bound him with bronze fetters and brought him to Babylon” (2Ki. 25:7) along with all but the meanest remnant of the rest of the kingdom (vv. 11-12).

The second prophecy is often jumbled with the first:

The LORD will bring a nation against you from far, from the end of the earth, as the eagle flies; a nation whose language you shall not understand; a nation of fierce facial expressions, that shall not respect the person of the old, nor show favor to the young, and shall eat the fruit of your livestock, and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; that also shall not leave you grain, new wine, or oil, the increase of your livestock, or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish. They shall besiege you in all your gates, until your high and fortified walls come down, in which you trusted, throughout all your land; and they shall besiege you in all your gates throughout all your land, which the LORD your God has given you. (Deu. 28:49-52)

Scholars are divided as to the identity of this second nation. Keil and Delitzsch write, “This description no doubt applies to the Chaldeans, who are described as flying eagles in Hab. 1:6., Jer. 48:40; Jer. 49:22; Eze. 17:3, Eze. 17:7, as in the verses before us; but it applies to other enemies of Israel beside these, namely to the great imperial powers generally, the Assyrians, Chaldeans, and Romans . . .” Calvin likewise ascribed this prophecy to the Chaldeans. The Ramban, on the other hand, saw the Romans in this description and that of the siege that follows, while the Talmud records a tradition that Alexander the Great saw himself in this prophecy (b.Sukkah 51b).

However, there is good reason to understand that the prophecy refers to the Greeks or the Romans—or both—rather than the Babylonians. First of all, the prophecy here follows that of Israel being taken into captivity by “a nation,” that is, the Babylonians and, as we will see, the prophecy is most specific about the order of events. Therefore, an enemy nation after the Babylonians must be in view. Secondly, verse 49 is specific that this second nation would be one “whose language you shall not understand.” Aramaic, which was spoken by the Chaldeans, is a sister-language to Hebrew, much as Spanish is to Italian, and many Jews spoke both. Greek and Latin, on the other hand, come from a completely different language family and would indeed be different enough from Hebrew for Moses to use that difference to mark out the second nation.2

Towards the end, the curse speaks of second exile, this one of quite different character from the first:

It shall happen that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you good, and to multiply you, so the LORD will rejoice over you to cause you to perish, and to destroy you; and you shall be plucked from off the land where you go in to possess it. The LORD will scatter you among all peoples, from the one end of the earth even to the other end of the earth; and there you shall serve other gods, which you have not known, you nor your fathers, even wood and stone. Among these nations you shall find no ease, and there shall be no rest for the sole of your foot: but the LORD will give you there a trembling heart, and failing of eyes, and pining of soul; and your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you shall fear night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. (Deu. 28:63-66)

Note the distinctions: The first exile was to a single nation, the second to “among all peoples, from one end of the earth even to the other.” The Babylonian exile provided a period of stability for the Jews so taken, so that Jeremiah encouraged them,

Build houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat their fruit. Take wives, and father sons and daughters; and take wives for your sons, and give your daughters to husbands, that they may bear sons and daughters; and multiply there, and don’t be diminished. Seek the peace of the city where I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray to the LORD for it; for in its peace you shall have peace. (Jer. 29:5-7)

This second exile, Moses tells us by the word of the Lord, would have no such peace, nor any sure place for the Jew to call his own, nor any safety provided by the kings who would rule over the Jews. And indeed, this is precisely the exile that has played out for the last two thousand years of Jewish history, with the Jews being allowed to settle in a nation for a time, but then being driven out at the whim of some future ruler (often one who was deeply in debt). All this culminated in the Holocaust, when indeed the Jew’s life hung in doubt before him; and he feared night and day, and had no assurance of his life.

I don’t often post pictures from the Shoah–they make me too angry. But I will because there are still too many people in the world who think that the Holocaust was a lie, but also that it’s a good idea.

So then, we have a clear outline of events: First, God would curse Israel in her own land (vv. 20-35). Then, he would cause a single, specific nation to carry Israel and her king into exile (vv. 36-37). Then Israel would return to the land, but not prosper (vv. 38-48). Then another nation would swoop down on the land like an eagle, and besiege its cities (vv. 49-62). And finally, there would be a second exile, this time throughout the whole world, in which unlike the Babylonian exile, the Jew would find no place to rest and no safety (vv. 63-68).

All of these punishments are given as a single, unified curse. Deu. 30:1 reads, “It shall happen, when all these things have come on you, the blessing and the curse . . . (Heb. haq’lalah, הקללה, which indeed employs the definite article ha-). When Paul speaks of “the curse of the Torah” in Gal. 3:13 (tes chataras tou nomou, της καταρας του νομου), he is not calling the Torah a curse (cf. Rom. 7:12-13), but rather referring to the same singular and specific curse as Deu. 30:1. He also quotes Deu. 27:26 in Gal. 3:10, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse. For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who doesn’t continue in all things that are written in the scroll of the Torah, to do them.’” In all cases, the singular and specific nature of the curse is underlined by the text.

Understanding that both exiles were covered under a single, unified curse destroys the popular conception that the Jews were cursed for rejecting Jesus as their savior. On the contrary, careful exegesis of “the curse of the law” proves that the nation had been laboring under the curse for at least seven hundred years. KingManassehAccording to 2Ki. 21, it was pronounced during the reign of the wicked king Manasseh, who filled Jerusalem with idolatry and blood from one end to the other:

The LORD spoke by his servants the prophets, saying, “Because Manasseh king of Judah has done these abominations, and has done wickedly above all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols; therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I bring such evil on Jerusalem and Judah, that whoever hears of it, both his ears shall tingle. I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria, and the plummet of the house of Ahab; and I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will cast off the remnant of my inheritance, and deliver them into the hand of their enemies. They will become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies; because they have done that which is evil in my sight, and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came forth out of Egypt, even to this day.’” (vv. 10-15)

Even the reforms of Josiah could not turn back the curse, but could only forestall its effects for the duration of his reign (22:14-20).

What this means is that, contrary to common Christian interpretation, the Jewish people were not cursed because we rejected Yeshua. On the contrary, we had already been under the curse of the law for over seven hundred years before Yeshua came! In fact, I believe we will see that the rejection of Yeshua by all but a minority of Jews was the result of the curse, not the cause of it!

This should be a delightfully controversial series, but I hope you’ll find it rewarding and insightful.

Shalom!

1 See, for example, George E. Mendenhall, “Law and Covenant in Israel and the Ancient Near East, “ The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol. XVII No. 2 (May, 1954), retrieved from http://home.earthlink.net/~cadman777/Law_Cov_Mendenhall_TITLE.htm on May 29, 2013.

2 It is true, on the other hand, that Jer. 5:15 refers to the Babylonians as “a nation whose tongue you do not know.” As Calvin remarks (to Deu. 28:49), “the Prophets were careful to take their form of expression from Moses, lest the Jews should, according to their custom, proudly despise the threats which God had interwoven with His Law.”

Israel as a Divine Council, Part 5: The Camp of Israel and the Court of Heaven

Milky_WayWere the terms of the Covenant and the distinctive mark of the number seventy the only evidence that Israel was intended to be a replacement Divine Council, it would be remarkable enough, but as we continue to search the Scriptures, we find still greater proofs in the design of the camp of Israel in the days of the Exodus. But first, we must understand the meaning behind another strange company: that of the cherubim.

The word kheruv is related to the Akkadian term karibu, which referred to an intercessor between the Divine and man. Isaiah (6:2) seems to describe the same creatures, though he dubs them the seraphim (“burning ones”) instead. They were familiar figures in the ancient near east, adorning the thrones and chariot-thrones of its kings. Ezekiel’s vision of the cherubim accompanying the chariot-throne of Hashem as he came to visit his people in exile fits perfectly with the iconography of both Israel and Babylon.

Ezekiel, like John, describes each as having all four faces—the lion, the man, the ox, and the eagle—whereas Isaiah did not see their faces directly at all, as they were covered by their wings. We find that just as there are four cherubim here around God’s throne, there were four cherubim in the Holy of Holies in the Temple: Two rendered on the Mercy Seat of the Ark, and two built into the room that overshadowed the Ark. Before that, in the Tabernacle, the two cherubim on the Ark were accompanied by two woven into the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies (Exo. 26:31).

In Ezekiel’s vision, the prophet was facing north, and described the face of the man first, suggesting that was facing him (south), the face of the lion on the right (east) side, the bull on the left (west) side, leaving the eagle facing north (Ezk. 1:4, 10). This corresponds with the placement of the camp of Israel. Each of the tribes had their own standard, or symbol. In Numbers 1 and 2, we see God giving Israel our orders as to how to set up camp: The twelve tribes were gathered into four camps, headed by the tribes of Judah, Reuben, Ephraim, and Dan, respectively. Each of these camps stretched out in one of the four cardinal directions from the camp of the Levites, which stood in the center with the Tabernacle and the Ark, and each had its own standard. According to the Midrash Rabba, “The banner of Reuben was red, and in the centre painted [as a] mandrake. . . Judah’s banner was the color of the sky, and in the centre the picture of a lion. . . Dan’s banner had the color of sapphire, and an image of a serpent in its centre. . . then an ox representing Ephraim” (Num. Rabba 2, as quoted by Rapaport, Midrash, p. 105). Since the mandrake root looks rather like a man’s figure, we have three out of four of the faces of the cherubim represented in Israel’s tribal standards. But what of Dan? “Jacob had compared Dan to a serpent [in Gen. 49:17]. Ahiezer substituted the eagle, the destroyer of serpents, as he shrank from carrying an adder upon his flag” (Unger’s Bible Dictionary, “Dan,” p. 273).

Thus, the very camp of Israel represents the throne of God surrounded by the cherubim, which again is symbolized by the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle, surrounded by the four cherubim who guard it. Like the cherubim, the four camps of the tribes of Israel were not there to protect the Holy One, but rather to protect and intercede for those who might draw too close to him unprepared. It was always the Lord’s intention that peoples of other nations would seek him out to worship and offer their own sacrifices (Num. 15:14). It would be the task of the camp of Israel to explain to such individuals how they were to approach the Holy One and what they needed to do to prepare themselves both spiritually and physically.

There is yet another association in these four living creatures that many Biblical commentators are wary to explore, but which the editors of the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia note (ISBE, “Astronomy”)

7. The Standards of the Tribes

“Neither the Mosaic law nor the Old Testament generally gives us any intimation as to the form or character of the standard (deghel). According to rabbinical tradition, the standard of Judah bore the figure of a lion, that of Reuben the likeness of a man, or of a man’s head, that of Ephraim the figure of an ox, and that of Dan the figure of an eagle; so that the four living creatures united in the cherubic forms described by Ezekiel were represented upon these four standards” (Keil and Delitzsch, Commentary on the Pentateuch, III, 17). A variant of this tradition gives as the standard of Reuben, “unstable as water” (Gen. 49:4 the King James Version), a Man and a River, and of Dan, “Dan shall be a serpent in the way” (Gen. 49:17), an Eagle and a Serpent. These four forms are also found in the constellations in the four quarters of the heavens. Aquarius, the man with a stream of water, and Leo were the original zodiacal constellations of the two solstices, Taurus was that of the spring equinox, and Aquila and Serpens were close to the autumnal equinox, the latter being actually upon the colure.

8. The Cherubim

This distribution of the four cherubic forms in the four quarters of heaven gives a special significance to the invocation used by Hezekiah and the Psalmist, “Thou that dwellest between the cherubims” (Isa. 37:16 King James Version: Psa. 80:1 the King James Version). The Shekinah glory rested indeed between the golden cherubim over the ark in the Holy of Holies, but “the Most High dwelleth not in houses made with hands” (Acts 7:48), and the same cherubic forms were pictured on the curtains of the heavens. “Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee” (1Ki. 8:27); ‘Thou dwellest between the cherubim,’ filling the infinite expanse of the stellar universe.

Mazzerot_Cherubim

“The fact that these living ones are twice said to be filled with eyes ‘before and behind,’ ‘round about and within’ is symbolic of the fact that these beings are not blind instruments who act as automations, but sentient creatures who see and know and understand,” writes Barnhouse (Revelation, p. 97). This is certainly true. However, the “eyes” that both Ezekiel and John reported seeing may also refer to the lesser stars that dot the constellations that the faces of the cherubim represent.

The Bible, of course, forbids astrology. The reason that it does is not simply that it is foolish to expect inanimate stars to guide our course, but because the pagans literally worshipped the stars as gods. The Bible itself equates the stars with the angelic beings (Job 38:7,  Daniel 8:10, Revelation 1:20 and 12:4). The title “Lord (or Eternal) God of Hosts” speaks of Hashem’s dominion over the heavenly beings and the stars worshipped as gods by the nations. By containing the four principal constellations of the zodiac in the cherubim around his throne, Hashem’s message to Ezekiel in the prophet’s vision is very clear: The destruction of Jerusalem was not the defeat of Israel’s God, and when he comes on his chariot-throne to visit his people in exile, the constellations that the Babylonians worshipped as gods were reduced to his honor guard.

While the four principle corners of the zodiac are represented in the faces of the cherubim, there are some important distinctions: Scorpio has been replaced with Ophiucus/Aquila, representing the serpent-catching eagle, and the positions of Taurus (the Bull) and Aquilla (the Man, pouring out a river) have been swapped to put Man opposite the Scorpion/Eagle instead of in the adjacent quarter. These changes serve several purposes, not least of which is to make the twelve tribes in their array around the Tabernacle impossible to map to the zodiac.

But more than that, the arrangement of the camp of Israel and the faces of the cherubim are a calculated insult against the Adversary and the Archons. The Tabernacle was arranged so that its entryway–and therefore, the orientation of its “throne-room” faced east, towards the camp of the Lion of Judah. From this position, we would normally expect to find the camp of Ephraim, signified by the bullock or ox, to be to the right hand. In Canaanite belief, the bull was sacred to Baal, the viceroy (and therefore, right hand) of El. However, in the camp of and the arrangement of the cherubim, it is Reuben, the “Seen Son,” symbolized by Aquarius, who sits to the south, at the right hand, and the camp of Ephraim the Bull is behind Hashem’s back.

The insult continues: Scorpio, the Scorpion would lie to the north. Scorpio lies right next to Serpens and Ophuichus, the Serpent and the Serpent-Holder, and in fact the path of the planets passes right between the two constellations so that it was really a toss-up which would have been considered the twelfth sign of the zodiac. The “serpent of old,” of course, has long been associated with the Adversary in Scripture (Gen. 3, Rev.12:9), as has the scorpion (Luke 10:19, Rev. 9:3). In the Camp of Israel and in the faces of the cherubim, the serpent-scorpion has been replaced with the eagle, the seizer and devourer of serpents (Ophiuchus and Aquila).

600px-Bowditch-equatorial-stars-0-180.svg

First the Serpent of Old is set to the left hand, with the “beheld Son” (Reuben) of Man, who pours out a river of living water (John 4:10-14, 7:38-39) set at the right hand of God, then he is cast out of the company altogether, replaced by his immortal enemy.

If the four principle camps in the Exodus that surrounded the Tabernacle represented the four principle corners of the zodiac, it follows that the twelve tribes together represent a new zodiac, or mazzerot, a new order of the heavens. Indeed, the Jewish sage Philo argued that they represented exactly that: “Then the twelve stones on the breast, which are not like one another in colour, and which are divided into four rows of three stones in each, what else can they be emblems of, except of the circle of the zodiac?” (“Life of Moses II”, XXIV.124). It is neither necessary nor particularly beneficial to attempt to map each tribe to a particular set of stars. The point of the twelve tribes in the camp was not astrology but anti-astrology, for men to cease looking to the astral “gods” of the nations and to look instead to the Holy and Eternal One who had graciously come down to dwell in our midst.

Sanhedrin1The seventy elders of the Sanhedrin represent a replacement for the seventy fallen Archons ruling over the nations, the four principle camps around the Tabernacle represent the four cherubim and the four principle corners of the zodiac, and the twelve tribes replace the twelve constellations of the zodiac. Every element of the camp of Israel set the nation up as a new Divine Council. And when Hashem chose Mt. Zion and Jerusalem as the resting place of his glory, he did so in direct contrast to the gods of the pagans, who secluded themselves atop tall summits that were nearly impossible to climb. Instead, the Holy One chose as his sacred mountain a place where his chosen new council would be able to live with him, draw near to him, and take part in his government.

The fall of Israel into idolatry was not simply a tragic betrayal of the truth and love of God, as terrible a crime as that is, but was a fall on a cosmic scale, a failure to redeem the world from their unjust “gods” and into the peace, justice, and security that Man once knew as the sons of the true Father God. Such a crime could not but result in a punishment almost too much to bear: The Curse of the Law.

Israel as a Divine Council, Part 4 – The Divine Sanhedrin

Sanhedrin1When the Holy One, the Eternal Creator of those worshiped as gods by the nations, entered into covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and ratified that covenant with their multitude of sons at Sinai, it must have shaken the powers of heaven (cf. Mark 13:25). They had been given dominion over the whole world, over every nation of men. Their Father, disgusted at man’s constant rebellion, had withdrawn from human affairs, seemingly forever. The Serpent of the Garden must have thought that he had won, that the promise of the Seed of the Woman who would destroy him (Gen. 3:15) would surely now never be fulfilled.

And then the God of gods appeared to a simple shepherd in Ur of the Chaldees, and made a deceptively simple promise:

“Get out of your country,
and from your relatives,
and from your father’s house,
to the land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation.
I will bless you
and make your name great.
You will be a blessing.

I will bless those who bless you,
and I will curse him who curses you.
All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you.” (Gen. 12:1-3)

Christians, content in the fact that the Messiah is superior to all who came before and all who came after him, that Messiah has given a new covenant that fulfills the promise to Abraham, and not understanding the full importance of the events in Babel that immediately preceded Abraham’s call, can easily miss the importance of this statement. It is, in every way, the original Good News: The Eternal One was not just taking a simple, almost hilariously small and unimportant nomadic tribe as his own people. He was throwing down the gauntlet to the powers who had set themselves up as gods to men: “Through this simple shepherd and his children, I will bring back the blessing which was lost to all mankind!” From that time on, the entire history of the Middle-east is one of the nations and their gods attempting to ensnare and/or destroy Israel so as to negate the promise of God.

Jabal al Lawz, aka Mt. Sinai

Jabal al Lawz, aka Mt. Sinai

God’s intent was made even more obvious at Sinai. The Eternal offered the following covenant: “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice, and keep my covenant, then you shall be my own possession from among all peoples; for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Exo. 19:5-6). And Israel accepted: “All that the LORD has spoken we will do” (v. 8). After giving the Ten Commandments and a few of the laws derived from them, the people once again accepted the covenant being offered and Moses sealed the covenant with a sacrifice and the sprinkling of the people in its blood (24:3-8, cf. Luke 22:20). Immediately after this, God spoke to Moses and commanded him to select seventy elders of the people and bring them up on the mountain to meet with the Eternal (vv. 1, 9-11). Later, God commanded Moses to select seventy elders who would receive the Holy Spirit and share the burden of leading the people with Moses (Num. 11:16-17). Because seventy elders plus Moses communed with the Holy One at Sinai, Israel’s Great Sanhedrin always numbered seventy, plus the High Priest.

Why seventy? Is this connected to the seventy who went down into Egypt with Jacob (Gen. 46:27, Deu. 10:22)? And why were seventy bulls sacrificed during the Feast of Sukkot (Num. 29:12-32)? Why do we keep seeing this number?

The Egyptians mourned for Joseph for seventy days (Gen. 50:3). When traveling to Sinai, Israel passed through Elim, where seventy palm trees were watered by twelve pools of water (Exo. 15:27, Num. 33:9). Adoni-bezek, who was conquered and captured by Israel, boasted that he had reduced seventy kings to beggars at his table (Jdg. 1:7). Gideon’s seventy sons ruled Israel (Jdg. 8:30, 9:2) and were slain for the price of seventy pieces of silver (vv. 4-5). After this, Abdon ben Hillel judged Israel with the aid of his seventy sons and grandsons (12:13-14). Ahab had seventy sons, whom Jehu slew (2Ki. 10:1-7). Israel was enslaved to Babylon for seventy years (2Ch. 36:21; Jer. 25:11, 29:10; Dan. 9:2), during which Tyre, once Israel’s ally but later her jealous enemy, was desolate (Isa. 23:15). And of course, as we have already seen, Genesis 10 lists seventy nations who were ruled over by seventy angelic princes.

Yeshua likewise appointed seventy messengers to go before him, whom he empowered to overthrow all the works of the Adversary just as he had the Twelve (Luke 10:1, 7), a point that will shortly become very important.

What is the unifying thought behind all of these instances of the number seventy? In each and every case, we see either the leadership of Israel, the rulership of the nations, or Israel’s history intersecting–often catastrophically–with that of the nations around her. The seventy rulers of Israel are supposed to stand in opposition to the seventy princes of the nations, but when they don’t, when Israel compromises and rebels, that same number seventy is stamped on Israel’s punishment.

Israel in CovenantThe message is clear: Israel must either be a divine council, or else be punished by the fallen angelic divine council which rules over the nations.

The importance of Israel on the spiritual plane can scarcely be exaggerated. For example, when Israel sacrificed the seventy bulls on Sukkot, the seventy elders of Israel sacrificed for the nations. This was recognized by the rabbis who, after the second temple was destroyed, said, “Woe to the peoples of the world who have lost but know not what they have lost! Because while the Temple stood the altar atoned for them, but now who atones for them?” (b.Sukkah 55b). Since “apart from shedding of blood there is no remission” (Heb. 9:22), it stands to reason that Israel’s intercession for the nations is the reason that “the times of ignorance [regarding idolatry] therefore God overlooked” (Acts 17:30) until the day could come for the whole world to be reconciled to the Most High God through his Messiah. (Perhaps the loss of the temple sacrifices during the seventy years of exile to Babylon is the reason why the Babylonian empire lasted such a short time in comparison to the empires that preceded and followed it.)

Understood in this light, the Masoretic variant in Deuteronomy 32:8 is not false, but is simply too narrow. Israel is certainly called God’s son (Exo. 4:22, Hos. 11:1), as are the individual Israelites called his sons (Isa. 43:6, 45:11), and given that the number seventy is stamped on Israel’s patriarchs and her government, it would not be unreasonable for a person to conclude that “sons of God” really meant “sons of Israel.” However, as we saw in the Targums, that was only one-half of its true meaning.

Israel as a Divine Council, Part 3: The Fall of the Nations

Only by understanding the true importance of Israel’s position as a son of God and the Ekklesia’s true relationship to Israel can we hope to understand the Eternal One’s prophetic plan. But in order to understand Israel’s position, we must first understand the events surrounding God’s second use of that mysterious phrase, “Let us,” in Genesis 11, at the fall of the tower of Babel.

"Let us build a tower to the heavens . . ."

“Let us build a tower to the heavens . . .”

As commonly told, the tower of Babel comes across as a charming fairy-tale explanation for the origin of the many languages of mankind and a cautionary tale against hubris, but nothing more. Certainly, it could be completely excised from the Bible without so much as interrupting the flow of Genesis. So why is it there, so prominently in the opening chapters?

It turns out that the story of Babel is crucial to understanding not simply the origin of languages, but the origin of paganism itself. Many readers of the Bible catch the name of the city, so obviously related to Babylon, the “mother of harlots” (Rev. 17:5), and understand that something in the origin of polytheism must be hinted at here, but even then, the full import of the story is lost. Babel is not simply about how mankind rebelled against the true God and began worshipping imaginary deities. It is the story of how very real and very potent spiritual forces were given lordship over all of mankind–save only one tiny tribe that the true Creator chose for himself.

Part of the reason that the true importance of Babel has been for so long lost is a scribal error that has crept into one of the key passages in Scripture commenting on it. Deuteronomy 32:8 reads, in the Masoretic Text, “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the children of men, he set the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel.” However, the Septuagint version reads the final clause as, “the angels of God,” while the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the variant, “the sons of God.” So which is correct?

tableofnationsgenesis10The reference in verse 8 to the Most High giving the nations their inheritance and separating the sons of Adam is an obvious call-back to the tower of Babel event: “So the LORD scattered them abroad from there on the surface of all the earth” (Gen. 11:8). This was many centuries before the Holy One covenanted with Abraham, let alone the sons of Israel (Jacob). Of course, the Lord of Time could have spread apart mankind in a way that anticipated Israel, but if so, the intent of the phrase is ambiguous at best. Some have pointed to the fact that there are seventy nations listed in Genesis 10 and seventy sons of Israel (Jacob) who went down into Egypt in Genesis 46:9-27. While those numbers are far from coincidental, they still do not adequately explain Moses’ reference.

Let us read again the verse, this time in context, with the final clause of verse 8 corrected to match the Dead Sea Scrolls:

Remember the days of old.
Consider the years of many generations.
Ask your father, and he will show you;
your elders, and they will tell you.

When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the children of Adam,
he set the bounds of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.

For the LORD’s portion is his people.
Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
He found him in a desert land,
in the waste howling wilderness.

He surrounded him.
He cared for him.
He kept him as the apple of his eye.

As an eagle that stirs up her nest,
that flutters over her young,
he spread abroad his wings, he took them,
he bore them on his feathers.

The LORD alone led him.
There was no foreign god with him. (vv. 7-12)

There is an obvious contrast being built here, and it isn’t simply saying that Israel is equal to all the nations (though this isn’t false, as we will see). Rather, it is contrasting the nations which were apportioned among the sons of God, angelic beings in the heavenly court, with Israel which the Creator himself took as his own special nation, rescuing Israel from slavery without the aid of any other god of the nations.

We can find further confirmation in the Aramaic translations of the Torah. After the Babylonian exile, a large number of Jews ceased to speak Hebrew conversationally, and therefore needed the Scriptures translated into Aramaic, the language of Babylon and Syria (see Neh. 8:8). These Aramaic translations were not merely word-for-word, but often contained expansions to explain to the masses what the Torah meant. Originally passed down in an oral form, they were eventually written down in several “Targums” (lit. “translations”) in the late first century. These became the standard liturgical text for Jews in the Middle-east, with the Torah being read first in the original Hebrew, then recited in the translation (b.Berakhot 8a). While they were not inspired or canonical (though the early rabbis took them as authoritative, often citing them as “our Targum”), they do present a very useful window into the broadly accepted interpretations of the Scriptures in Yeshua’s time. For example, passages with oblique references to the Messiah are outright attributed to him in the Targums.

In the Palestinian Targum’s (or Targum Yerushalemi’s) paraphrase of Deuteronomy 32:8, we see that not only must “sons of God” be the original reading, but that it can refer to both Israel and the angelic beings:

When the Most High made allotment of the world until the nations which proceeded from the sons of Noach, in the separation of the writings and languages of the children of men at the time of the division, He cast the lot among the seventy angels, the princes of the nations. With them is the revelation to oversee the city, even at that time He established the limits of the nations according to the sum of the number of the seventy souls of Israel who went down into Mizraim (Egypt).

The only way that the Targum’s paraphrase makes sense is if the original Hebrew read, “Sons of God,” which the Targum read to refer to both the heavenly host and to Israel. And as we will see, the Targum is absolutely correct in its interpretation.

What Deuteronomy tells us is that the nations didn’t simply start worshiping idols after Babel out of mere stubborn rebellion, but because the Eternal God had set the spiritual entities that the idols represent over them:

Take therefore good heed to yourselves; for you saw no kind of form on the day that the LORD spoke to you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire. Lest you corrupt yourselves, and make yourself an engraved image in the form of any figure, the likeness of male or female, the likeness of any animal that is on the earth, the likeness of any winged bird that flies in the sky, the likeness of anything that creeps on the ground, the likeness of any fish that is in the water under the earth; and lest you lift up your eyes to the sky, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the army of the sky, you are drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole sky. But the LORD has taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be to him a people of inheritance, as at this day. (Deu. 4:15-20)

We catch glimpses of these “princes” over the nations throughout Scripture. Perhaps most notably, Daniel 10 describes the power of the prince of Persia in holding back an angel sent to answer Daniel’s request for twenty-one days–obviously, this can’t be referring to Darius. Only the intercession of Michael, Israel’s “prince,” allowed the angel to pass. The angel further warned Daniel, “When I go forth, behold, the prince of Greece shall come” (v.20), again, not referring to any human ruler, but to the angelic “prince” set over the sons of Greece. The LXX translates “prince” as archon. Jude (v.9) would later refer to Michael as the archaggellos, or “archangel,” not referring to one of the four cherubim (as in Jewish belief) or in one of seven archangels who stand closest to God (as in Catholicism), but instead referring to Michael’s status as the spiritual guardian and ruler of Israel. Paul refers to these entities as ”the principalities . . .  the authorities . . . the world’s rulers of the darkness of this age, and . . . the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12). The word “principalities” is the Greek archas, meaning a prince or ruler, just as in the related terms archon and archaggelos. We will likewise term these more powerful angelic authorities Archons for the sake of convenience: They are above mere messengers, and far above demons, but by no means deserve to be called gods in anything but a sense of irony.

Israel in CovenantThis arrangement of a High or Father God who “begat” the gods and set them over specific nations is actually attested to in pagan mythology as well. The ancient Mesopotamians believed in Anu (or An, lit. “Heaven”), the father of all the gods, but each city had its own principle god that it held to be their own lord. For example, in Eridu this god was Enki, lord of the earth and the absu (abyss, the source of fresh water). Enki was believed to have brought kingship down from heaven to man. He was further believed to be the master of all Me, a word that means civilization, science, magic, and fate. Likewise, Babylon had Marduke as its patron, and Assyria Asshur. A similar arrangement can be found in Egypt. Atum was the uncreated father of all the gods of Egypt, but the Egyptians reserved their greatest devotion for Osirus/Horus, who was believed to be incarnate in the Pharaohs. In the Ugaritic (Canaanite) religion, the father of the gods was El–the same name as often used for the Biblical God–but most Canaanite devotion was given to El’s vice-regent Baal. The Greeks in turn knew El as Cronos, and believed him to have been outright overthrown by Zeus, which was in fact their name for Baal.

While the pagan conceptions of this uncreated Father-God fall well short of the glory of the incomparable Holy One, the fact that each of these cultures recognized that their most important gods were subordinate to another, more distant One is nevertheless an astounding admission that coincides with the Bible’s own teaching that while the pagan world “knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks. . . and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures” (Rom. 1:21, 23). Only Israel could claim to be in a direct covenantal relationship with the uncreated Creator, the true Father of the principalities set over the nations. That relationship, once enjoyed by all mankind together, was now known only to a few.

If that were the only significance of Israel’s covenant with the Eternal One, it would still be astounding, but it turns out to be only the tip of the iceberg. Psalm 82 contains an astonishing rebuke of the angelic princes set over the nations:

 A Psalm by Asaph.

God (Elohim) presides in the council of God.
He judges among the gods (elohim).

“How long will you judge unjustly,
and show partiality to the wicked?”
Selah.

“Defend the weak, the poor, and the fatherless.
Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.
Rescue the weak and needy.
Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.”

They don’t know, neither do they understand.
They walk back and forth in darkness.
All the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I said, “You are gods, (elohim)
all of you are sons of the Most High.

Nevertheless you shall die like men,
and fall like one of the rulers.”

Arise, God, judge the earth,
for you inherit all of the nations.

Many commentators, and even translators, uncomfortable with the image of the God of the Bible sitting in a council of other gods, interpret the “gods” of verse 1 to really mean “judges” or “great ones.” However, Dr. Heiser argues in “Should the plural אלהים of Psalm 82 Be Understood as Men or Divine Beings?” that the only reading that takes into account the full context of the psalm is indeed “gods.” In ancient Hebrew, elohim does not refer to a creator or to the other powerful qualities we associate with “God” in the English language–the three “omnis” of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience–but is rather what Dr. Heiser calls “a place of residence term.”

 It labels the entity in terms of its residence, if you will. [Hashem], the lesser gods, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead are all rightful inhabitants of the spiritual (i.e., non-human) world. They may be able to cross over to our world, as Scripture tells us, and certain humans may be transported to their realm (prophets; Enoch), but their proper domain and our proper domain are two separate places. Within the spiritual world there is ontological differentiation, rank, and power: [Hashem] is an אלהים, but no other אלהים is [Hashem]. That was what an orthodox Israelite believed about [Hashem]. He was not one among equals; he was species unique. Our modern term (17th century) “monotheism” is deficient for describing this, since it carries the mental baggage of identifying “g-o-d” with a single set of attributes held only by [Hashem]. However, the thought behind the term–that [Hashem] is utterly and eternally unique–remains completely intact. Our translations and our theology ought to make this clear. We have nothing to fear from letting the text say what it says.

As Dr. Heiser goes on to explain, the final line makes it clear that these “gods” which God is judging are those which rule over the nations, the same princes and principalities that we have been exploring at length. Calling them “the sons of the Most High” is another confirmation. Moreover, it makes it clear that they themselves are not men, since they will die “like” men. He further points to other passages that speak of the “sons of God” in connection with the council of the Most High, such as Psalm 89:5-7:

The heavens will praise your wonders, LORD;
your faithfulness also in the assembly of the holy ones.

For who in the clouds can be compared to the LORD?
Who among the sons of God/the gods (Heb. elohim) is like the LORD,

A very awesome God in the council of the holy ones,
to be feared above all those who are around him?

Hesier continues:

“Psalm 89 rules out the notion that [Hashem’s] council of אלהים sons of God refers to an assembly of humans because it explicitly places that council ‘in the clouds.’ There is no text in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible that says or suggests that there are a group of human judges in the heavens ruling with [Hashem] over the nations. That position is offered only because of a perceived threat to monotheism, not because it has any textual merit.”

As a final argument, Psalm 82 is expressly quoted by Yeshua in John 10:34 in defence that his own Divine claims were not automatically to be rejected as blasphemous: “If he called them gods, to whom the word of God came (and the Scripture can’t be broken), do you say of him whom the Father sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You blaspheme,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God?’” (vv. 35-36). As Heiser points out, if Yeshua thought that the elohim of Psalm 82 were simply human judges or rulers, quoting it would either weaken the impact of the Divine claim that he had just made (vv. 30-33) and would immediately make again (vv. 37-38), or else would amount to saying “you mere mortals can call yourself gods, so I can, too.” Neither one fits the argument.

Both Jewish and Christian theologians have long believed in Satan, the Adversary, as some kind of fallen ruler of the demons. In the case of Judaism, Satan’s role has been de-emphasized over the centuries in response to what has seemed to the rabbis to be a lurid preoccupation with the Devil among Christians, but the earlier rabbis of the Talmud and the Midrash had much to say about him. Both faiths have struggled with the idea of how to reconcile the existence of a Prince of Darkness with that of the God of Light without falling into a Zoroastrian dualism. In the end, both have come to understand that the Devil as a created being who fell into rebellion, but who was allowed to have a kingdom. This kingdom is comprised of other fallen angels and spirits with which he could tempt and dominate mankind–but always constrained by the will of the Sovereign Creator.

This idea is not far from that of the Divine Council paradigm as expressed in Psalm 82 and Daniel 10. When mankind rebelled at Babel, the Holy One scattered mankind over the face of the earth and set seventy angelic princes over them. These princes may or may not have been fallen in their hearts at that time, but either way they were charged with guiding mankind in giving just judgments, protecting the weak and the fatherless, and rescuing the needy from the wicked. They failed in their task, and in fact encouraged mankind in wickedness. Perhaps they were motivated by envy, and hoped to cause God to utterly destroy mankind by driving us to the very depths of depravity. If so, their plot failed. The Creator judged against them, telling these immortal beings that for their sin they would die like the men they were oppressing, and replaced them . . . with a nation of men.