Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: Religious, or Israel-Only Laws, Part 2

Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: The Christian Ethic – Part 3: The Law of Moses – Section 3: Religious, or Israel-Only Laws: Circumcision, Tzitzits and Beards

Having discussed the most popular areas of the Law of Moses for Hebrew Roots teachers to promote, let’s now do some mop-up work by discussing some of the other issues that are secondary. And they are secondary.

One thing you can always do is to find a Torah observer who thinks a particular law is the “main thing” and puts that at the top of the list. And then you can find another that picks a different law to do the same thing with, and you’ve got the arguments going, which is one reason why many hesitate to speak of the “Hebrew Roots Movement” as a single thing at all. I understand the reasons behind that, but they agree on the underlying principle. The problem is that, in a world God has changed through the Lordship of Christ, the underlying principle is insufficient to adjudicate these things, especially when that principle allows for things like “sacred name” theology, but I get ahead of myself.

Let’s take a look at what’s left of the list of items from the last article, and tackle them, one by one.

  • Circumcision: whether it is still required
  • Tzitzits, fabrics and hair: clothing/grooming regulations
  • Hebrew Names/Sacred Names: whether we are to pronounce only the original Hebrew names of God/Jesus/Biblical people
  • Modern Holidays: whether it is unlawful to celebrate Christmas or Easter or other holidays not commanded in the Torah

Circumcision

One might think this would be one of the big ones. I mean, circumcision is the sign of the covenant with Abraham. While it isn’t the very first commandment given, it functions as the initial point of obedience for new converts, and is expected to be done to all male children.

Not only does it hold a place of primacy in the law, but it is also supremely doable. Unlike many civil laws and all of the feasts except Sabbath, there is no need of a temple and priesthood in Jerusalem to circumcise your male offspring. And, I have no doubt, pretty much any Torah observant new parent is very likely to observe this command. Indeed, unlike the major changes made by rabbinic tradition to the Torah in order for orthodox Jews to observe things like the feasts, Jews pretty much still circumcise, as far as we can tell, in accordance with Genesis and Exodus.

However, we don’t see the same level of outward-facing positive argumentation for circumcision as we do for dietary laws, for example. Why is this? I believe it has to do with the fact that the New Testament consistently rejects any necessity when it comes to circumcision. In every discussion of circumcision in the New Testament, it may be spoken of positively or negatively, but never as a command to be obeyed by Christians.

It isn’t my purpose to talk about the New Testament here, though, as I have done so elsewhere. Our question here is what the Old Testament has to say about it. First, it is commanded of Abraham, at the time when he enters into a covenant relationship with God.

Genesis 17:9-14

And God said to Abraham, “Now as for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you, throughout their generations. 10 This is my covenant which you shall keep, between me and you, and also with your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. 11 And you shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and you. 12 And at eight days of age you shall yourselves circumcise every male belonging to your generations and the servant born in your house and the one bought from any foreigner who is not from your offspring. 13 You must certainly circumcise the servant born in your house and the one bought from any foreigner. And my covenant shall be with your flesh as an everlasting covenant. 14 And as for any uncircumcised male who has not circumcised the flesh of his foreskin, that person shall be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.

So, here we have the first time a covenant is made that can be broken by man. What we commonly think of as the “Abrahamic Covenant” actually came earlier, and involved only promises of God concerning Abram. Some theologians even avoid using the term “covenant” and instead say “promise” when speaking of God’s promises to Abram before chapter 17. At this time, God commands circumcision for Abraham and all of his male descendants at eight days old.

Two things to notice there that have bearing on Hebrew Roots teaching today. First, the command is clearly given to Abraham’s physical descendants. This is not given to the nations, just Abraham. Second, this command is absolutely required as part of this covenant for those who are in it. It clearly teaches that anyone who is not circumcised is to be cut off from his people. This is not optional.

Circumcisions occur at several times in the Torah, as it seems to have been neglected or simply not done at various times, and renewals have men getting circumcised. For this series, I want to focus on the commands themselves. The next time it is given as command is Exodus 12, when the first Passover is commanded in Egypt, and circumcision is made a requirement of participation. Lastly, it is commanded, without accompanying details, in Leviticus 12:3, along with other commands.

So, really, Genesis 17 gives us the most clear commands about it, but I think it is interesting that the details are not written down again in Exodus or Leviticus. The reason is that Exodus/Leviticus record the time of the actual giving of the Law. Most laws are given in their most detailed form in these passages. Why not circumcision?

The answer is obvious and uninteresting. It was already written in Genesis. We don’t need it written again. Just refer back to that. On it’s own, this isn’t a big deal, but it does point to a way to read Scripture. If something is commanded once, the way Scripture re-establishes that command is, at times, to merely refer to it. This is so important because the Abrahamic covenant, while its commands are subsumed into the Mosaic covenant, is still something distinct. A later covenant doesn’t automatically reaffirm or supersede a previous covenant’s commands. A later covenant sets its terms explicitly.

The Law of Moses re-establishes circumcision by reference. The New Covenant of Jesus does not. However, it does re-establish parts of the Law of Moses directly, parts in principle, but with the expressions changed, and parts not at all. Circumcision falls into the third of these categories. The pattern, however, was established by Moses in how he moved circumcision from the Abrahamic Covenant to the Mosaic Covenant.

Tzitzits and Beards

Ancient Israel was commanded certain things concerning appearance, including not trimming their beards, and wearing tassels with blue thread in them. Does God give His reasons for doing so? Once again, yes.

Numbers 15:37-41

37 Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, 38 “Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make for themselves tassels on the hems of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the tassel of the hem. 39 You will have a tassel for you to look at and remember all the commands of Yahweh and do them, and not follow after the unfaithfulness of your own heart and eyes40 so that you will remember and do all my commandments, and you will be holy for your God. 41 am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; I am Yahweh your God.”

As you can see, once again, the purpose of the command is to remind Israel of their status of belonging to Yahweh, in contrast Egypt. This fits the threads we’ve seen over and over with these religious laws. Once again, this command couldn’t be intended for any other people. Only Israel came out of Egypt.

Now, what about beards? The commands about beards offer us opportunity to look at the commandments in different ways. There are two places that speak of prohibitions against cutting the corners of beards. One is Leviticus 19, mixed in with a number of commands for various things. The other is in Leviticus 21, in a section addressed specifically to priests. Now, since not all men are priests, and this second mention is specific to them, let’s look at the first one.

Leviticus 19:27

You shall not round off the corner hair of your head, and you shall not trim the corner of your beard.

There’s the command. So as before, does the context give us the same indications we’ve seen before regarding the common threads that accompany religious laws? Leviticus 19 is a chapter full of laws given much like this one: simply, and without much explanation. The chapter begins and ends in a familiar way, however.

Leviticus 19:1-2

Then Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to all the community of the Israelites, and say to them, ‘You must be holy, because I, Yahweh your God, am holy.

Leviticus 19:34-37

34 The alien who is dwelling with you shall be like a native among you, and you shall love him like yourself, because you were aliens in the land of Egypt; I am Yahweh your God.

35 “‘You shall not commit injustice in regulation, in measurement, in weight, or volume. 36 You must have honest balances, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin; I am Yahweh your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt.

37 “‘Thus you shall keep all my statutes and all my regulations, and you shall do them; I am Yahweh.’”

So, the commands given here in this chapter are bracketed with the same purpose, to remind Israel that they are God’s special people delivered from Egypt. However, this chapter doesn’t just contain laws that we’ve noticed among purely religious laws. There are laws here about honest weights and measures, as we saw in verses 35-36, as well as other laws about theft, sacrifices, idolatry, honoring father and mother, not harvesting to the edges of fields etc. It seems we have to answer some questions.

Does the bracketing with set-apart language limit these commands to just Israel?

If not, why would the set-apart language limit other passages?

If so, how should we treat the laws that clearly do come from justice, like prohibitions against theft found here?

As we read through some of these commands, we can see that a good number are intended for only Israel, such as those around sacrifices, as well as civil laws that, of course, also include sacrifices. Other laws, while not by nature only applicable to Israel, such as those surrounding farming and weights and measures, are uniquely applicable to the type of society Israel was. First world countries today, in order to care for the poor, couldn’t directly apply the prohibitions against harvesting to the edge of a field, since many of the world’s poor are in cities hundreds of miles away from such fields. The principle of providing a dignified kind of welfare like that found in Israel could certainly be adapted, but these laws as written are clearly tailored for the agrarian society that ancient Israel was.

There are different takes on the Law of Moses other than Hebrew Roots, that would approach this differently. A theonomist takes the law to be generally still in effect, but in principle if the letter of the law cannot be directly applied. That position would just take each law and apply it as appropriate to today, on an individual basis. Another view, which I’ll call the “Law of Christ” view, would take all laws, whether religious, civil, moral, or whatever, to not be continued in the New Covenant, unless Jesus reaffirms that law or the principle underneath it. Their take would be to say that the whole chapter, being part of the Law of Moses, is complete and does not continue. But they would point to Jesus’ commands regarding justice, and point to those laws in this chapter that specifically deal with issues of justice and apply the principles to believers and people today.

What I see here is that most of the laws in this chapter are not unique. They occur elsewhere in the Torah and can be handled there, rather than here, in a summary. There are some laws, like the beard law we are considering, that are uniquely commanded here, but many of those are just further extensions of other laws. For example, this passage adds harvesting fallen grapes to harvesting the edge of the field. This chapter, being highly varied, touches on places all over the law, but places it all in the brackets of Yahweh’s special relationship with this people.

What I see happening here, is that, in addition to all the religious laws, all of the laws can be said to be given specially to Israel, because Yahweh is their God and no one else’s. I see this chapter as establishing the underlying reason for the whole law given to Israel, which is the covenant established with Israel at Sinai, the place and time these laws are being given. All the laws, among other things, are religious in the sense that they are part of this covenant, specifically with Israel.

So, what does this do to our previous discussions about religious laws all having this “set apart people” thread tying them together? Remember, in the previous articles treating the moral and civil laws, we didn’t treat them as different from the religious laws because they are not religious, but rather, because there are deeper considerations that tie these laws together, namely, justice and mercy. Solely religious laws, by contrast, are not expressions of the justice of God, but rather possess such a nature that God, if He so chose, could have commanded them differently without violating His own justice. What we have seen is that all solely religious laws were given with the express purpose of setting Israel apart as a holy people, in unique covenant with Yahweh, of which other nations are not members. This chapter continues that thread, but also reveals that, not only are the religious laws reflections of that unique covenant, all the other laws also reflect that covenant.

What makes the religious laws different is that they don’t have any other basis. Whereas other laws reflect God’s justice, these special laws are given specifically to make Israel a unique, holy people. That is their main purpose, at least in the present tense. They also foreshadow Christ, but when you think about it, that serves the same ultimate purpose, since they are pointing to a new covenant and how it will also set apart a people for God.

There are more individual laws we could discuss, but they would fall within the categories already discussed. At this point, you have the tools to tell how a law ought to be categorized. In future posts, we will discuss some specifics regarding specific laws as Hebrew Roots promoters talk about them today, and look at them in context. I’ve done this already in some cases, like regarding feasts and grooming, but there are still some important things to cover as we move forward.

Series Navigation<< Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: Religious, or Israel-Only Laws, Part 1Answering Hebrew Roots Book 1: Old Testament Symbols of New Testament Truths >>