Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Broken Cisterns

Life of Christ 3

Jeremiah 2:13 For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

          How did they get in such a mess? I mean, look at the incredible contrast revealed just in the Sermon on the Mount between how the Pharisees viewed Moses' Law and how Jesus did. They were practically polar opposites. Say what you will about Israel's struggles with idolatry in the Old Testament the nation never incorporated a completely erroneous view of the Law. So how did they get in such a mess?

          I think to answer that you have to go back several centuries before Christ. When Alexander the Great blew like a whirlwind through the known world he had no time to construct a lasting political machine. But wherever he went the rich Greek culture followed along behind, and like kudzu in the South, it began to cover everything in its path. This process is known in history as hellenization. Even the Roman empire, much stronger and more permanent than the Grecian one, found its culture substantially hijacked by the Grecian culture. Some of these developments were certainly positive for the later spread of the Gospel such as a wide knowledge of the Greek language. Others were not.

          The Jews have always been a people substantially at odds with the cultures around them. We can see this reflected not just in the stories of the Old Testament, but also in Jewish history throughout the last two millennia down to the modern day. This is because to be Jewish is not just an ethnic identity. It is also a religious identity. Speaking humanly, Abraham birthed the world's first monotheistic religion, and Moses built on that a structure so different from the religions around them so as to be practically unrecognizable. Religion, and the detail with which it was observed, was the single most controlling factor in the life of the average Jew. Edersheim phrases it this way, 'The history of Israel and all their prospects were intertwined with their religion; so that it may be said that without their religion they had no history, and without their history no religion.'

          Much of the rise of the Pharisees in the four centuries between the Old and New Testaments can be traced directly to an attempt by the Jewish religious leaders  to beat back the hellenization of their religion based culture, and thus their very identity. In a sense, then, the Pharisees were birthed out of the noble aim of protecting intact the very idea of what it meant to be Jewish in the face of a world gone madly after the Greeks.

          In conjunction with the rise of the Pharisees came the birth of the synagogue and the advent of rabbis. In the Old Testament the Tabernacle, and then the Temple, was the center of Jewish life. With Nebuchadnezzar's complete destruction of Solomon's Temple in 586 BC, and the corresponding Babylonian Captivity of the main body of the Jewish people, came a necessity for a new kind of worship. The gradual solution was the formation of localized places of worship. Like mini temples, these became the centerpiece of the community, offering schooling for young people, regular public Torah readings and sermons, etc. and thus the social and religious streams of Jewish life convened around them. This growing tradition continued to expand even after the return from Exile under Ezra, driven in part by ease of use, and by the continued adoption of synagogues amongst a plurality of Jews still living voluntarily in exile. By the time of Christ there were hundreds in Jerusalem alone. Every community had at least one, and the larger the community the more it had.

          In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law ordained the positions of priest and Levite, and God ordained the position of prophet. With the failure of Israel to produce prophets in the four centuries immediately preceding Christ, and the geneological confusion resulting from the destruction of Solomon's Temple, the position of priest and Levite became somewhat less authoritative, and the position of prophet nonexistent. This, combined with the rise of the local synagogue, produced a new position in what was to become Judaism, that of teacher or rabbi. By the time of Christ these rabbis were the movers and shakers in Judaism. They gathered to themselves disciples, established theological schools, and engaged in vigorous debates over minute points of the Law.

          The Pharisees desire to ensure a pure stream of religion and culture married well with the increasing influence of the local synagogue and rabbi in Jewish life. To them the Torah (particularly the first five books of the Bible, the Mosaic Law) was supreme. In their zealous sincerity to ensure the nation's righteous adherence to it they produced a series of ever increasingly complicated and bizarre rules. They justified the strict enforcement of these complex rules by trying to trace them back to Moses, insisting that the same time God gave Moses the Torah He also gave Moses an oral commentary on it, a commentary they had managed to refine and improve upon in the intervening centuries. Naming Moses the first rabbi, and thus borrowing his authority in the mind of the average Jew, they insisted this Oral Torah was a fence designed to protect the garden of the actual Torah. Influential rabbis taught this in synagogues all over the Middle East in the time of Christ, and although there were other serious contenders for the religious leadership of the common Jewish man, it was the Pharisees who held the upper hand.

          It shouldn't surprise any of us that a complex system of man made rules in the Oral Torah foisted upon the Scripture produced an externally oriented, highly legalistic, inwardly empty, and spiritually bankrupt religion. In the course of this year you will discover, if you continue to wade through this blog with me, an exponentially increasing clash between a Jesus bent on turning people back to the simplicity of a heart observance of God's Law, and rabbinical Pharisaism's iron-willed adherence to the spiky fence surrounding the garden of the Torah.

          Edersheim well says, ' Thus as between two – the old and the new – it may be fearlessly asserted that, as regards their substance and spirit, there is not a difference, but a total divergence, of fundamental principle between Rabbinism and the New Testament, so that comparison between them is not possible. Here there is absolute contrariety.'

          In just a few short years Jesus would declaim at a precisely timed moment, 'If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink' (John 7.37). He was the personification of a fountain of living water. Rabbinic Pharisaism was the institutional personification of broken cisterns.

          When Jesus arrived it would be to a nation dying of thirst.

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