Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus

An Interview with Author and Speaker Lois Tverberg

You’ve written a couple of other books before this one that have similar titles – Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus and Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus. How do they relate to your new book?

Lois Tverberg

Sitting at the Feet was about the Jewish customs that deepen our understanding of Jesus’ life and ministry, like the biblical feasts, the Jewish prayers, and the relationship of rabbi and disciple. Walking in the Dust was about the Jewish context of Jesus’ teachings. Many of the things he said make much more sense when you know the conversation that was going on around him. Disciples are supposed to “walk in the ways” of their rabbi and obey his teaching. So I chose some of Jesus’ teachings that are especially practical for our lives and have a Jewish context that sheds light on their meaning.

My newest book, Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, pulls back a bit and starts by looking at cultural issues that get in the way as we read the Bible in the modern, Western world. Among the things I asked myself as I wrote was, what cultural tools can I give readers to read the Bible more authentically? How does a lack of grasp of Jesus as a Jewish Middle Easterner cause us to misunderstand his words? Ultimately, my goal was to equip the average Christian to read the Bible more like a first-century disciple. 

In your new book, you talk about cultural differences that get in the way of understanding the Bible and suggest that we need to grasp how the Bible “thinks.” What do you mean by that?

I started the book with a story about when my five-year-old nephew arrived in Iowa from Atlanta for Christmas. He had never seen snow before, so he asked, “What do you do with the snow when you have to mow the lawn?” He couldn’t imagine a reality where people didn’t mow their lawns year round, so he assumed it was universal. In the same way, many of our problems with the Bible come from misunderstanding its cultural reality and projecting our own onto it instead. We need to grasp how the Bible “thinks” – the basic background assumptions that biblical peoples had about life. Often these were very different than ours today. It’s also important that we don’t mix these two worlds together inappropriately, like mixing lawnmowers and snow.

You mention an acronym, “WEIRD,” that psychologists coined for the ways that that American culture is unusual compared to the rest of the world. How do you think this comes into play in reading the Bible?

The acronym “WEIRD” stands for “Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic.” All these traits tend to characterize Europeans and especially Americans. We live in an educated, Western culture that values scientific thought above all else. We are industrialized so that our world does not revolve around family and clan but around work and business. We are relatively rich so that many basic worries are simply not on our radar screens. We live in a democracy and dislike all hierarchy and authority.

I point out that these same characteristics tend to set us apart culturally from the Bible, so that major biblical themes, like farming and kings, simply do not resonate. I explore these and other cultural difficulties that modern readers (especially Americans) have with the Bible.

There’s a chapter titled “Greek Brain, Hebrew Brain” where you discuss the difference between Western vs. Eastern thought. How does this influence how we read the Bible?

Western thinking is very analytical, theoretical and focused on abstract concepts. It began in Greece in the 5th century AD and has deeply affected European-based cultures. We see it as the essence of mental sophistication and have a hard time imagining that anyone could think any other way. Much of the Bible, however, communicates in a more ancient way. It speaks in concrete images and parables rather than abstract concepts and argumentation. In this chapter, I show that brilliant ideas can be expressed this way too, and to give readers some basic skills to bridge the gap between East and West.

Another chapter is called, “Why Jesus Needs those Boring ‘Begats.’” In it, you point out that many people wonder why the Bible contains so many meaningless lists of names. What is significant about genealogies, culturally? Why were they included?

In the Bible, the family was central. Even if you don’t agree with it on every issue, you have to grasp how it “thinks” in terms of family as the center of reality in order to follow its most basic themes. The growth and relationships of a family were the core of how societies functioned. The main theme of the biblical story is God’s promise to Abraham to give him a great family, and the covenant that God makes with that family, Israel. Every time genealogies are listed it shows how God is fulfilling his promise. Even in the New Testament, whether or not believers in Christ needed to be “sons of Abraham” (Torah-observant Jews, who lived by the family covenant) was a major issue.

How does our perspective change if we read the Bible as a “we” instead of merely as an individual?

Americans are very individualistic, and we tend to focus on the Bible as a series of personal encounters between individuals and God. We also assume that the ultimate audience for Bible reading is “me.” We miss how often the Scriptures focus on the group rather than the individual. When Jesus preaches, he’s almost always addressing a crowd. When Paul tells his audience that they are a temple of God, we hear it as about how “my body is a temple.” But Paul is actually talking about them all together as God’s temple, not to each of them individually. In this chapter, I point out many places where things make more sense when you see them in light of their communal implications.

Here’s another example of how “we” is important. People talk about Jesus is “my personal savior” and struggle to find the gospel in the Gospels. That’s because the biblical imagery is actually about Christ saving a group of people. Jesus is the “Christ,” God’s anointed king, who has come to redeem a people to be his kingdom. When we “accept Christ” we are submitting to his kingship and joining his people. The imagery of a “kingdom” is inherently plural, so it passes right by us.

You tell about a Christian scholar who theorized that Paul knew his Scriptures by memory. Christian scholars were very skeptical, but Jewish scholars strongly agreed with him. Why was this story important to you?

When I first started hearing about Jesus’ Jewish context, I was skeptical about whether it could be of use to Christians. I was also skeptical of ideas like that Jesus and Paul likely knew their Scriptures (our Old Testament) by heart and expected their listeners to be very familiar with them too. I was told that they would hint to it and drop in little quotes often in their teaching, and these hints were often quite important to grasp the point.

At first, I absolutely didn’t believe this. But as I studied more about traditional Judaism, I discovered that even since the first century, rabbinic sermons have been overloaded with hints, quotes and subtle links to Bible passages. Memorization has been strongly stressed. I laughed when I read about a scholar on Paul’s Jewish context who spoke about this at conferences about twenty or thirty years ago. Christian scholars would all poo-poo him and say, “highly unlikely” or “totally impossible.” The Jewish scholars in his audience, however, would all nod their heads in agreement and say, of course, he did!

In the last section of the book, I go into more detail about how Jewish teachers studied their Scriptures and alluded to them in preaching. Most importantly, I talk about how some of Jesus’ boldest claims to being the Messiah, the Christ who God sent as Savior, were delivered in this very subtle Jewish way. There are a lot of skeptical scholars who have said that Jesus was just a wandering wise man whose followers exalted to a divine status. But they know nothing about Jesus’ Jewish habit of hinting to his Scriptures, so they miss some of his most powerful statements about being the Son of God.

What started your interest in the Jewishness of Jesus? Was there a particular event that piqued your interest?

I was raised in a devout Christian home. I’m not Jewish and my overall interest is in understanding the reality of Jesus and the Bible, rather than Judaism per se. A little over twenty years ago I signed up for a seminar on ancient Israel and the Jewish culture of the Bible at my church, thinking it would be just some dry historical information. But all of a sudden Bible stories that were foggy and confusing became clear and deeply relevant to my life. I started hearing the words of Scripture through the ears of its ancient listeners, and it made all the difference in the world.

My background was originally in the sciences, and I have a Ph. D. in biology. I was teaching as a college biology professor and my background in research compelled me to dig deeper. Over the years I’ve traveled to Israel several times to experience the land and history in person and to study the language and the culture. Every time I come home I’m newly inspired because in the past few decades scholars and archaeologists have unearthed enormous amounts of information that clarifies the Bible’s stories, particularly the Jewish setting of Jesus.

Why do you think that so many Christians are unaware of their Jewish heritage?

All of the disciples were Jewish, and the New Testament was written almost entirely by Jews. But within only a couple centuries Gentiles became the majority in the church, and many were hostile to its Jewish origins. Even in Romans, Paul warned the Gentiles not to be arrogant toward the Jews, but his words went unheeded. One reason was that early Christians needed to establish their identity as a new movement, and they defended their faith by focusing on their differences with Judaism.

Through the ages, there has been occasional interest by Christians in understanding their Jewish roots, but for much of its history, the church has struggled with anti-Semitism. And Jews who had felt the persecution of Christians were understandably less than interested in helping them understand the roots of their faith. It’s only been in the last century that Christians have become avidly interested in the topic. One reason for this is because we mingle so much more. Jews and Christians now have relative freedom to discuss their beliefs, and both groups are curious about how the other reads their common Scriptures.

Click to read a FREE chapter of Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus

Lois Tverberg has been a speaker at Women of the Word. We look forward to her return with us in April 2018 for “Through the Eyes of Jesus”. Click here for more information. This event is open to men and women. Please join us.

A Testimony from Bethlehem’s Shepherds

by Rose-Marie Slosek

It feels as if it were yesterday, that wildly unexpected visitation in the fields, when the Angel of the Lord came to us. Now is the time of year, your earth years, not heaven’s time, where my story is told again and again, as it should be. But allow me to share it myself as the exact facts are more glorious than you know. And please, I say it is “my story” because it is so precious to me, but it is our story, us shepherds in that field near Bethlehem, and it is your story and it is, most of all, our Jesus’ story.

We were sitting around on that dark, brooding night, passing our time by whittling, or chatting, or daydreaming of better days. We did not realize that the most incredible wonder was about to happen. I was not sure if I was dreaming or awake when I first saw the Angel, but one’s mind would not have the material to create a dream of such a glorious being. He was majestic, clothed in a great light that seemed to push us back and down to our knees. He was suddenly there, far taller than a man, shining like the sun, staring deeply into my eyes. I was terrified. My heart was beating so loud and fast that I thought to run but could not move my legs. His gaze held us there. His words astounded.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, “I am sent from God to bring you some very happy news: In the City of David your Saviour is now born, and not just your Saviour, but the Saviour of all people. The sign you will look for will be in an unlikely but fitting place –for you will find the the Baby from heaven wrapped in lambskin swaddling clothes and placed in a feed trough.”

A watchtower

I know that your nativity scenes feature a little wooden stable, or perhaps, your tradition suggests a cave, or perhaps your imagination suggests the backside of a very full country inn, where the donkeys who accompanied the travelers were housed. It was not like that really. You see, I was a special kind of shepherd, still quite looked down on, but less so than the ordinary shepherd who sat keeping sheep safe In the middle of nowhere. You see, that night I was tending the flocks in the shepherd’s fields outside Bethlehem watching over the lambs that were born for temple sacrifice. I worked at Migdal Eder, which nurtured and cared especially for the Passover lambs, the ones that must be perfect and without blemish.

Migdal Eder was where Rachel gave birth to little Benjamin “Son of My Right Hand”, the youngest son of Jacob (Gen 35:21), you will see the hint that God put in that! Migdal Eder means “the tower of the flock” because there was a tower there and that is where we cared for the newborn lambs. The chosen baby lambs were wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger so they would not hurt themselves–they had to be perfect for the sacrifice! The prophet Micah was the one that linked Bethlehem with Jesus — “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah,Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting.” (Micah 5:2) but you missed the hint of the exact spot–Migdal Eder!

The prophet Micah, it seems to me, refers to Migdal Eder when he writes: “And you, O tower of the flock (see picture above), the stronghold of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, even the former dominion shall come, the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:8). From this verse grew up the understanding amongst our people that the Messiah would first be declared here. And so He was!

Oh my! I bow my knee to God when I think that He came to us shepherds, came to us nobodies, to tell us our King had come! Who was I and Who would write such a story? Only God! Blessed be He!

I find it amusing, now, in looking back, that we who earned our living as shepherd’s, were not considered trustworthy enough to bear witness in court and yet the High King of Heaven’s courts trusted and blessed us with the announcement and the announcing of the Messiah! That is what our God is like though, yes? Always confounding the high and mighty and revealing Himself to the humble of heart.

Please believe me when I tell you that it was sometimes hard to be humble after the events of that night–so privileged did all we shepherds feel! But what mystery is this? the High King of heaven, born of a woman, a baby wrapped safely in lambskin like a sacrificial lamb? and put in the feed trough like those destined to be sacrificed?

Now and forever it is the first duty of the shepherd to keep the flock safe, the little lambs….I cry when I think that He is My Shepherd, just as I, for a few blessed moments, was His shepherd. I cry when I see how He shepherded us in His low estate, giving Himself as the sacrifice for our sins. Who could have thought this story up?

The Angel came and spoke, his voice like a thunderstorm, and then behind him the heaven themselves opened to reveal a great multitude of heavenly beings–more angels and God knows who, singing in the most incredible harmony of love and adoration: “Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, peace and goodwill toward all people.” Do you know what it is like to hear heaven sing?

We ran to the tower to find them–you know it was not December– and there they were! The same glow that was with the angels was resting on the little One in the manger. My heart turned over within me when I laid eyes on Him–so small and serene yet so full of something so large, so very large.

His parents looked up, startled to see us, we were so bedraggled and bug-eyed, standing before their Baby in awe! We tried to explain, tried a hundred times before it made sense to us or to them–our words tripping out of our mouths…but they would get very used to odd stories and unlikely spokesmen. Mary looked at Joseph, then down at Jesus, for that was His Name, and started to cry. Joseph just looked at us like he had seen a ghost.

We could not contain ourselves, I’m not sure how far we ran that night, telling everyone what had happened, babbling the story out like mad men. Of course you can guess the ones who believed us and the ones who did not. It did not matter–we had seen the Truth! We had heard heaven sing! We knew! God, we knew! The Little Baby, wrapped like a sacrificial Lamb, the angels, the Light, the Glory! We could not really have known completely how it all fit together, but we knew our lives had forever changed!

I tell you all this to remind you that there is always more glory to the Story than you know. I tell you this to remind you that God comes to the lowly and the humble and the forgotten and not to the high of heart. He does this because that is what He is like. So as you celebrate His birth, please remember what I have told you and let your heart kneel before Him….perhaps the heavens will open and you will hear the host and inhabitants of heaven praising Him. Forever praising Him.

Won’t you join us?

My story here is fictionalized but based on some very interesting facts…. if you want to read more about Migdal Eder, check out Alfred Edersheim’s, “The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah’s” commentary on Migdal Eder, and read various other commentators various takes on the subject. I’m going to love to hear what actually happened from the shepherds themselves one day.

Rose-Marie Slosek is a Board Member of Women of the Word. She also blogs at Pen of the Wayfarer and is a spiritual director. She loves to travel to other nations spreading the Gospel, and is an avid photographer of nature.

The Chair

by Kim Warf

At many holiday gatherings, there sits an empty chair. It may be a chair that once sat a husband, a mother or father, or a child. Its significance came only from the love felt for the one who once occupied its place.

Although the chair may be temporarily occupied by another as the house fills with company, the absence of a loved one is still sharply felt and can bring an ache along with the joy. If one is not careful, that pain can override all the goodness of the day and of the season…and overtake your life.

This is a spirit of grief and despair that is not the life of faith we are called to. Faith is a complete trust in the God who formed us; who knows our very thoughts. The enemy of our soul will use negative circumstances in our lives and magnify it until the grief and despair is all we see. The grief becomes a lens that tints and taints all the beauty and purpose of life; until we become withdrawn…thoughts become unclear…life becomes uncertain…and hope seems a distant harbor.

There is another chair that we are told of from history. It is in a synagogue in the town of Nazareth. Jesus read from a Messianic prophecy to the congregation there. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”  (Luke 4:18-19) from Isaiah 61:1.

Jesus then sat down in what some say is the chair reserved for Messiah, others say it was the chair from which the Rabbi taught signifying His priesthood, and yet others say he sat down amongst the congregation signifying his humanity. The important thing is that He said, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

You could have heard a pin drop. Sometimes, truth is not well received but it is meant to set us free.

Let us encourage ourselves when we see the empty chair in our house and picture Jesus sitting there. The One who was sent to heal the broken-hearted. The One who was sent to deliver the captives and give sight to those who cannot see Him. The One who sets at liberty those whose emotions are bruised and who walk through life in pain.

See Jesus there in your empty chair. He will never leave us nor forsake us. He hears us when we pray according to His will. He is working behind the scenes even when we don’t see any outward signs of change.

For, you see, Jesus is sitting in a chair and the Bible says we are seated with Him in heavenly places. It is the chair the Father had prepared for him. It is at the Father’s right hand.

When Jesus sat on this chair the words, “It is finished” rang through all eternity. The provision for salvation in its entirety had been made once for all. This is our hope. Our faith is attached to this power.

Dear heart, see through this lens. The one of faith, hope, and love. He has already provided and is working on our behalf. See the beauty of the little things of life and begin to give out to others from this place; even if it is but a smile and a kind word. It is only in the giving that we can receive our healing.

Kim Warf is the associate pastor, alongside her husband Paul of New Beginnings Church in Bangor, ME. She is also a Board Member of Women of the Word and has served as Conference Chairman of several WOW conferences in Maine. Paul and Kim have two grown daughters and a beautiful grand-daughter.