God’s Law as an Ice Cream Sundae

In its attitude towards Torah, Psalm 119 easily throws us off balance.

One of my pleasures in life is eating an ice cream sundae. Take some chocolate ice cream, pour on some melted marshmallow, pile on the whipped cream, and top with a maraschino cherry. I don’t often indulge in such pleasure. My weight control discipline won’t allow it. But when I do, it is sheer delight.

This image comes to mind when I read Psalm 119. This is the longest psalm in Book of Psalms–176 verses. It is an extended celebration of Torah.

Most Bible translators translate the Hebrew term Torah as Law. That has precedent in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible known as the Septuagint. Certainly Torah has many laws, precepts, and commandments. The ancient rabbis are said to have identified 613 in that most narrow of meanings of Torah: the five books of Moses that open the Hebrew Bible.

But Torah means literally “instruction,” and includes the narrative portions of the Pentateuch as well as the legal portions. As Judaism developed, Torah grew to include the oral Torah as well as the written Torah. This development found its definitive expression in the Talmud. So in many ways, I think it is legitimate to understand Torah as the whole extended theological tradition of Judaism, something that extends beyond just the laws and commandments themselves.

Psalm 119 is like one exuberant aria celebrating Torah. But the psalmist particularly has the legal portion of Torah in mind, as we see the many synonyms he uses for Torah. They include: commandments, ordinances, precepts, statutes, as well as promises, words, and testimonies. He seems especially focused on the Torah’s guidance for behavior.

An Unexpected Way of Looking at Torah

Now here’s the unexpected thing about Psalm 119 that can easily throw many Christians off balance. We have a long tradition of looking at the Jewish Torah as an oppressive, deadening legalism. We think it is a burden, whose function is primarily to instill a sense of guilt. That view of Torah has a long history in Christianity. It finds particular expression in the characteristic way the Protestant Reformers played off law against grace.

But when you read Psalm 119, you find none of that depressing spirit. For the psalmist, Torah is the joy of his life. When I read the psalm, I am struck by the repeated use of the word “delight” in the psalmist’s description of the Torah. In the Revised Standard Version translation, we find the word in 119:14, 119:16, 119:24, 119:35, 119:47, 119:70, 119:77, 119:92, 119:143, and 119:174.

Along with these verses are a number of verses where the psalmist declares how he loves Torah (119:47-48, 119:97, 119:113, 119:119, 119:127, 119:140, 119:159, 119:163, 119:165, 119:167). In 119:111, the psalmist asserts that Torah is the joy of his heart. In 119:127, he says he values Torah higher than fine gold.

And in 119:103, he says:

How sweet are thy words to my taste,

                        sweeter than honey to my mouth!

It’s as if Torah is this particular person’s ice cream sundae.

Many Christians find the psalm unnerving. How can anyone say such startling things about something as oppressive as the Mosaic Law? Does the psalmist have some warped sense of value?

Judaism as a Religion of Grace

To appreciate the psalmist’s sentiments, a lot of Christians are going to have to radically revise the way they look at Jewish Torah. For what the psalmist does is show us how Judaism is as much a religion of grace as is Christianity.

How can I say that? It is important to reflect carefully on how the Bible pictures God’s giving the Torah to Israel. The gift of Torah comes at Mount Sinai after Moses has led Israel out of slavery in Egypt and in the years following. It is important to notice the dynamic of the Biblical narrative as we have it in the five books of Moses.

God does not give Torah to Israel before its liberation from Egypt. God does not give Torah to Moses at the burning bush and then say to Moses, “Take this law to my people Israel in Egypt. If they obey it, then I will come and release them from their bondage.” If that had been the case, liberation would have been conditional on Israel’s obedience. Torah would indeed be legalism, and Israel’s religion a religion of works righteousness, to use a favored Protestant theological term.

No, God liberates Israel from Pharaoh’s tyranny, brings them out of Egypt to Mount Sinai, and there creates his covenant with Israel, with Torah as part of the gift of this covenant. Obedience to Torah had nothing to do with Israel’s liberation. Its liberation is an act of God’s sheer grace, of his faithfulness to his own promises.

But now that Israel is free, how will it sustain its freedom? How will it avoid falling back into the behaviors that would re-establish the kind of bondage they experienced in Egypt? Torah is the answer. In its laws and commandments, Torah establishes a way of life, a way of behaving, that offers assurance that Israel can preserve the freedom and liberation God has given it.

Yes, there may seem to be some strange laws in Torah that Christians don’t understand how they sustain freedom. I cite the commandment not to boil a baby goat in its mother’s milk (Exodus 23:19). But the heart of Torah is its many regulations for ordering Israel’s relationship to God and the relationship of Israelites with one another. Jesus will later summarize the focus of Torah in the two summary commandments: Love God with all your being, and love your neighbor as yourself. Torah gets specific about what that means in practice.

When Israel fails to live by this structure of law, it gets itself in trouble. That becomes clear as you read the Old Testament prophets. Their denunciations of Israel revolve around two major sins: the apostasy of idolatry and social injustice.

Torah as God’s Good Gift

So in this Biblical perspective Torah becomes a great gift. It points the way to fruitful living. It is wisdom. We hear that theme ringing through Psalm 119.

I will never forget thy precepts;

            For by them thou hast given me life. (119:93)

I will keep thy law continually,

            for ever and ever;

and I shall walk at liberty,

            for I have sought thy precepts. (119:44-45)

We live in a world today where many people regard religion as a form of oppression. I think that is the view of religion that most people have in mind when they say: “I’m spiritual but not religious.” For them, religion consists of a mass of obligations, dry rituals, guilt-producing preaching, and hypocrisy. They cannot imagine the traditions and rituals and morality practiced by historic religions, like Christianity and Judaism, as anything being near to liberating. Give us instead something freer, a spacious but largely undefined spirituality.

That is not the attitude, however, of the psalmist who wrote Psalm 119. In the commandments, the statutes, the precepts of Torah, he finds something that allows his spirit to soar. As a result, he breaks literally into song.

How can we recapture the spirit behind his song? I think it means we must get in touch once again, at a very deep existential level, with an experience of God’s saving grace. Only when we know that at his very heart God is a God of love who yearns for the best for his people can we begin to appreciate how the doctrines, rituals, and moralities that express our understandings of his grace can become life-giving and freedom-sustaining.

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A Prayer for All Peoples

Bible text: Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4

At the heart of Christian piety lies the prayer we traditionally call the Lord’s Prayer. It is the prayer Jesus taught his disciples when they asked him to teach them to pray. Its words are designed to guide us in wording our own prayers.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come,
thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread;
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us;
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. Amen

Through centuries of use, this prayer has embedded itself deep into the European and American consciousness. I was fascinated to recognize that when I was watching the funeral of Princess Diana on TV back in 1997.

At one point in the service, a bishop started leading the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. The TV cameras showed nearly everyone in Westminster Abbey and among the crowds assembled outside reciting the words. In a world where fewer and fewer people attend church, still a large proportion of the secularized crowds around us know and can recite this prayer.

It is startling, however, to notice that there is nothing distinctly Christian about this prayer that has been central to the Jesus movement ever since Jesus taught it. The prayer does not invoke the name of Jesus, as do most other Christian prayers when we add on to the end, “in Jesus’ name.”

The language is not distinctly Trinitarian. Yes, the prayer invokes God by the name Father, but this prayer precedes by a couple of centuries the Trinitarian meaning Christians were to later give to the word Father.

In fact, the most Christian element in the prayer is probably this naming of God as Father. This language reflects Jesus’ own practice of calling upon God as his Father. The Aramaic word he used was Abba, which can be translated as Daddy. Jesus’ usage expresses the intimate relationship that Jesus seems to have felt with God. He wanted others to share that intimate relationship as well.

What I find notable about this prayer is that I imagine most Jews and Muslims would also feel comfortable in speaking this prayer. Calling God Father was not the most favored usage in the Hebrew Bible, but I don’t imagine any Jew would feel he or she was compromising his or her faith in addressing God as Father. And phrases like “hallowing the name of God” and praying for the coming of God’s kingdom are very distinctive Jewish themes.

I am not familiar with common usage among Muslims, but I again doubt that most Muslims would feel they compromised their faith in speaking this prayer. And probably many others of others faiths might feel the same.

So this prayer that many Christians regard as distinctly theirs proves to be a prayer whose wording allows people of many different faiths to join in a united invoking of God. Is it not characteristic of Jesus that in creating a model prayer, he should choose language that unites rather than divides?

Prayer on the Temple Mount

Scripture texts:  Isaiah 56:7, Mark 11:17

In reading Isaiah, I find what God says in Isaiah 56:7 a haunting verse. God speaks into the future—the age of salvation—and declares that in that time, his temple shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples. Eunuchs and Gentiles who have been excluded from the temple will be welcomed in. It is another one of the Bible’s amazing visions of inclusivity.

In Mark 11:17, Jesus cites this verse as sanction for his driving the merchants and money-changers out of the temple. His citation implies that the future age of salvation has arrived. The temple needs to be opened as a place of worship for all nations. It must be cleansed of all that distracts from the supreme work of prayer.

Yet the spirit of exclusion remains 2,000 years later. Jews lament their destroyed temple at the Western Wall. Muslims lay claim to the site of the temple with their Dome of the Rock. The temple mount remains a locus of conflict and competing demands, not a place of prayer for all nations.

Playing the what-if game, I have long wondered what it would be like if the Dome of the Rock were to be opened as a house of prayer for all peoples. The mosque sits upon the very site of the Israelite temple. Here Abraham prepared to offer up his son. Here undoubtedly Jesus walked the pavements surrounding it. And here Muhammed began his visionary night ascent into heaven.

What if the mosque were to become an open place to all people who wish to draw close to God? What if people of all three religions—indeed of all faiths–were welcomed to use the mosque as a place to draw near to God? Would not then the vision of Isaiah and Jesus be fulfilled? The Dome of the Rock could become a symbol of the most profound inclusivity.

This is not to propose an amalgamated religion, composed of elements of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam combined. I believe the three faiths share much in common as children of Abraham, but each is also different. We must never try to erase the differences in a naïve belief that amalgamation will ensure peace. But in the act of prayer, people of faith (despite their different theologies) can be spiritually one in acknowledging the sovereignty and compassion of God.

As I see it, each of the three Abrahamic religions could and should retain a special site in Jerusalem that is hallowed to their unique faith. For the Jews that would be the Western Wall. For Christians the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. And for Muslims the All Aqsa mosque at the south end of the temple mount. But the Dome of the Rock would become a place serving all of humanity as an open place of prayer.

I realize that in the present heated religious and political climate of the Middle East, such a proposal is totally unrealistic. It would take a great act of condescension on the part of Muslims to open the Dome of the Rock as a place of prayer for all faiths. And fundamentalists in all three faiths would vehemently oppose any such convergence of the three faiths in this way.

But one can still dream. And there remains God’s promise that one day this site will indeed be a house of prayer for all nations. May that day come quickly.