A couple of years ago I became friends with a guy who identifies as a Hebrew Israelite. While I was somewhat familiar with this movement it was mostly through this friendship that I began to understand them more clearly. I had gained most of my prior knowledge through others who were engaging Hebrew Israelites in public debate on YouTube and such. This new friendship offered me the opportunity to become more familiar first hand through many conversations. In addition to this friendship, I began to encounter more Hebrew Israelites and their theology in my street evangelism and online activities. One thing that consistently stood out to me was their very skewed understanding of the Law. This was shocking to me as the Law seemed to be central to their religious claims, at least from what I’d observed.
Hebrew Israelites seemed to focus mostly on things like dietary requirements, feats, festivals, Sabbaths, and tassels, so much so that it felt like those were really the only Laws that mattered. Here’s what I mean. When you actually survey the Torah, you’ll notice that a much more holistic understanding of the Law is being emphasized. The Law is filled with an array of prescriptions covering issues such as the welfare of those less fortunate (Deuteronomy 14:29), commandments to care for others by preventing the spread of infectious diseases (Leviticus 13), the importance of resisting oppression through the form of rest (Exodus 20:10), and even commands that all receive justice, including foreigners (Deuteronomy 24:17-18).
“Do not deprive the foreigner or the fatherless of justice, or take the cloak of the widow as a pledge. Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there. That is why I command you to do this.”
At its heart, loving Yahweh (Deuteronomy 6:5) and your neighbor (Leviticus 19:18) was the goal or intent the Law was designed to bring about. And yes, this goal was intended to apply to foreigners as well (Leviticus 19:33-34). In fact, the majority of the 613 commands in Torah reveal how principled the Law is in its moral and social intentions. You see this clearly in the indictments of Israel and their responses. For instance, in Isaiah 1, where you get the opening charges against Israel, the primary charge is injustice towards the fatherless and the widow.
Isaiah 1:10-18 states,
“Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom; listen to the instruction of our God, you people of Gomorrah! ‘The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?’ says the Lord. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all my being. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide my eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening. Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow. Come now, let us settle the matter,’ says the Lord. ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.’”
Yahweh was so incensed at their failure to do justice that He rebuked their keeping of the very Laws that He had prescribed. Wait, did you catch that? Yahweh rebuked them for the Laws that they kept! This same message was echoed by the prophet Amos in Amos 5:21-24. This is because in its ritual and covenantal signs, the Law was intended to remind Israel of Yahweh’s character and ways, not to justify its adherents before Yahweh. A few more examples are appropriate:
Exodus 13:6-9. “For seven days eat bread made without yeast and on the seventh day hold a festival to the Lord. Eat unleavened bread during those seven days; nothing with yeast in it is to be seen among you, nor shall any yeast be seen anywhere within your borders. On that day tell your son, ‘I do this because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ This observance will be for you like a sign on your hand and a reminder on your forehead that this law of the Lord is to be on your lips. For the Lord brought you out of Egypt with his mighty hand.”
Exodus 31:17. “It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever, for in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed (emphasis added).”
We can see another example of the principled intention of the Law when King Hezekiah calls for an off-cycle Passover (verse 3) after the Northern and Southern tribes had reconciled in 2 Chronicles 30:1-11. Later, we see Yahweh’s affirmation of Hezekiah when the Assyrians are turned back from Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 32:1). Both of these passages reveal how even while required, the Law was profoundly principled and practical, rather than a collection of rigid regulations. The Israelites in Scripture understood this, even if they weren’t always fully devoted to it. They saw loving your neighbor as the way that loving Yahweh was expressed, so much so that they developed it into an almost credal saying that loving your neighbor was the fulfillment of the whole Law. It appears repeatedly in their writings which we call the Apocrypha, such as in the Book of Jubilees. By the time of the Second Temple and into the New Testament, the tradition was so common that virtually every sect held this belief.
The Babylonian Talmud records a story where a Gentile came before Rabbi Hillel and asked Hillel to convert him by teaching him the Law. Hillel replied, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. This is the whole entire Torah; the rest is its explanation. Go and learn.” The Essenes likewise made allusions to the love command as found in the Damascus Document. “To love his brother like himself, support the poor, destitute, and ger [i.e. foreigner or proselyte], and to seek each man the peace of his brother.” Even the two most influential Jewish sects of the Second Temple period – the Sadducees and Pharisees – acknowledged this tradition (see Luke 10:25-28; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40).
This tradition was also picked up and carried forward by Jesus’ followers as the guiding principles of Law keeping (Romans 13:9-10). It should come as no surprise, then, when Christians appeal to the love command in explaining how we are faithful to what Yahweh expects in regards to the Law. But Christians don’t stop at understanding this truth. We have a long history of doing justice in the name of Yahweh. From feeding and clothing the poor, visiting prisoners, responding to natural disasters, caring for the sick, widows, orphans, and immigrants, and even working for the abolition of slavery. Over the two thousand years of church history this Christian charity and advocacy is too extensive to quantify. Christians aim to bear Yahweh’s name through our allegiance to the Messiah, who called His followers to the same type of benevolence found in the Law (Matthew 25:31-46). Messiah’s followers also shed light on the parts of the Law that were signs pointing to greater principles.
As Colossians 2:16-17 states,
“Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.”
This passage affirms the same posture that Yahweh had taken towards the covenantal signs when rebuking Israel through Amos and Isaiah. They pointed to something greater than themselves.
In conclusion, keeping the Law is important to Chritians, just not in the way that Hebrew Israelites think. They claim that they keep the Law, when in reality they make the same mistake that the Jews of Scripture often made, for which God sent prophets to rebuke and exile them. They think that they are justified by the parts of the Law that were merely signs pointing to something greater. Christians, on the other hand, functionally keep the Law, not as a means of justification, but in light of Messiah’s command to represent Him as ambassadors until He returns, and as evidence of our genuine allegiance to Him.
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture [Torah], ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers. For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. For he who said, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ also said, ‘You shall not murder.’ If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.”