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Vayikra/Leviticus 18:5 And you shall keep My commandments and My judgements which, if a man does them, he shall live in them.
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This is one of the more debated verses in the Hebrew Scriptures, both in its original meaning and in its presumed use. The first half of the text is straight forward - , a Qal 2mp affix from the root , guard, keep or observe, with a vav-reversive construction to make it future rather than past tense: "and you shall" - a statement of future action rather than a command. The second half of the text starts with , the relative pronoun: that, which, who, and is followed by , the Qal 3ms prefix form of the root , to make or do, "he will do". Then come the direct object, "them" and the subject, "the man" or perhaps "mankind". Although our translation above adds the word 'if', it is not present in the Hebrew and needs to be added for readability and sense. Finally, is the Qal 3ms affix from the root , to live, with a vav-reversive to make it also future: "and he will live", followed by , "in them". Our translation above, then, is fairly literal, swapping the last 'and' for a comma and inserting 'if' after 'which'.
Plaut, the commentary from the Reform stable, takes the plain meaning of the text: "By observing G-d's law, human kind lives well and meaningfully - and will be rewarded by long life." Nothing terribly supernatural here and certainly no suggestion of anything other than this here-and-now life. Plaut is supported by Professor Friedman, who translates and then writes, "'when a human will do them, he'll live through them!' The laws are not presented as a burden but a blessing. Those who have characterised the law as a weight that no human can possibly bear, as a curse from which one needs to be saved, may insufficiently appreciate the positive, fulfilling quality of the law as experienced by those who live it." Again, a clear focus on the here-and-now and no mention of G-d.Hirsch, although he brings G-d into his comment, argues that this text means that relationship with G-d is open not only to Israel, but to everyone - Jew and, presumably, Gentile - who will read, study and obey the Torah: "Anybody and everybody is thereby ensured the attainment of the highest degree of perfection and happiness possible for a human being to reach in nearness to G-d ... Nothing more and nothing less is to be won from their observance than , the highest conception of having positively and truly lived!"
This is not enough, of course, for many of the Jewish commentators. Starting withTargum Onkelos, who augments the translation to "If a person observes them he shall live by them [during his] life in this world", changing to 'if' and adding "in this world" in most manuscripts, although some say "in the world to come". Targum Jonathan goes as far as adding - remembering that both targums have a tendency to paraphrase or expand as considered necessary - "and their share will be with the righteous", clearly pointing to the life in the world to come. Ibn Ezra remarks that "by saying 'laws and judgements' the repetition clarifies that the Torah gives life in both worlds to those who follow them". Rashi uses logic and concludes that "he shall live by them" must mean "in the world to come, for if you should say this refers to this world, is it not the fate of man in this world to die?" The Rashbam adds, "But if he does not do them, he shall be cut off from his people", usually considered to include being cut off from Israel's destiny of life in the world to come.
The prophet Ezekiel repeats the sense of our text, - "And I gave them My statutes and informed them of My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live" (Ezekiel 20:11, NASB) - and then confirms that Israel rejected both the commandments and, therefore, the life: "They did not walk in My statutes, and they rejected My ordinances, by which, if a man observes them, he will live" (v. 13, NASB). Nehemiah too makes the same observation: "they acted arrogantly and did not listen to Your commandments but sinned against Your ordinances, by which if a man observes them he shall live" (Nehemiah 9:29, NASB).
The Sages of the Talmud took the idea of living by the Torah so literally, that they also concluded that one should not die by them: "Rabbi Judah said in the name of Samuel: If I had been there, I should have told them something better than what they said: 'He shall live by them', but he shall not die because of them" (b. Yoma 85b). TheRamban cites the Talmud to prove that the rules are suspended when life is in danger. "By a majority vote, it was resolved in the upper chambers of the house of Nithza in Lydda that in every [other] law of the Torah, if a man is commanded: 'Transgress and suffer not death' he may transgress and not suffer death, excepting idolatry, incest, [which includes adultery] and murder" (b. Sanhedrin 74a). The Ramban again: "One may violate any law to save a life; the only exceptions are idolatry, murder and sexual crimes; one must give up one's life rather than commit any these offences".
How are we to live when challenged about our faith? Habakkuk is clear: "The righteous shall live by his faith" (Habakkuk 2:4, NIV). This does not mean that we will or should not physically die, but that our "life" will continue in the world to come. John the Baptist makes it clear that belief (or faith) in the Son is the determinative factor: "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him" (John 3:36, ESV). Yeshua Himself speaks forcibly about obedience and loyalty when He says, "Whoever acknowledges Me in the presence of others I will also acknowledge in the presence of My Father in heaven. But whoever disowns Me before others I will disown before My Father in heaven" (Matthew 10:32-33, CJB).
There is, it seems, in some quarters, the idea that sin in many areas, particularly in what is said to be the "minor" areas - which, in practice, can mean anything apart from murder and idolatry - doesn't really matter. Folk excuse many sins with the excuse that "Well, Jesus knows", and don't seem to worry about the effect that their sin has both on their own lives and on their witness - often unspoken - to other people around them. The Bible is very clear that sin brings death - "The wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23) - and this is worked out both in the life of the person committing the sin and in the lives of those who see that sin taking place and so either dismiss the witness of the gospel from that person or all Christians. These words from the Torah show that our life - both now and the world to come - depends on our obedience to Yeshua's commands. Yeshua is explicit about those who don't remain in Him: "Unless a person remains united with Me, he is thrown away like a branch and dries up. Such branches are gathered and thrown into the fire, where they are burned up" (John 15:6, CJB). He explains how we remain in Him: "If you keep My commands, you will stay in My love - just as I have kept My Father's commands and stay in His love" (v. 10, CJB). We cannot allow distance to build up between us and G-d; one thing leads to another and if we give the enemy of our souls an inch, he'll take several miles.
In order to obey James' instruction, "Come close to G-d and He will come close to you" (James 4:8, CJB), we need to follow the two steps in the previous verse. The first is "Therefore, submit to G-d" (v. 7, CJB); it's funny how we often miss this step. Submitting to G-d means doing what He wants, not what we want or what we have persuaded ourselves that He wants; it means putting Him and His instructions first in our lives, no matter what it may cost or inconvenience us. It is only when we submit ourselves to G-d that we are equipped to take the second step: "Take a stand against the Adversary, and he will flee from you" (v. 7, CJB). Without completing the first step, we can shout the name of Yeshua as loudly and as often as we like, but the enemy will simply say 'Boo' and we're helpless. The enemy will only flee when he has no ground to stand on in our lives, no sin that he can point to, no little footholds that we have given him; these only disappear when we submit to G-d. Submit to G-d, Resist the enemy; then we can draw near to G-d and know that He will draw near to us.
Further Study: 2 Chronicles 33:12-13; Galatians 2:20
Application: Are you committed to remaining "in Yeshua"? What are you doing about it today to make sure that you stay connected with Him?
Comment - 14Apr13 08:54 Tim: One of the things I wonder about this text is not to do with the "slavish observance to the law" which we gentiles caricature the Pharisees over, but the level at which the observance connects with the heart of God. I wondered whether at the bottom where you get to the New Testament references you may have directed us to John 5. It seems to me that the process of guarding or keeping the Torah must have a softening effect on the heart so that when the Living Word is present, He is recognised. Jesus' complaint was not that his detractors failed to "do" the law. They did it very well. But in the doing of it, they hadn't heard the Father's voice (John 5:37). It seems to me that the word "do" is wholly inadequate here in Lev 18, with all due respect to Prof Friedman. The word "guard" comes closer to it, for me, because it invests something of the heart beyond merely observation of the mitzvot. In the end, surely, we have to hear the voice of God in the text and learn, beyond the observation of individual laws, to follow His ways (Ps 95) more than just do the actions.
© Jonathan Allen, 2013
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