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



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 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.

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