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Judaism and Christianity

I was asked:

How is Moses’ “Thus says the LORD,” being the Word of God, is different from Isaiah’s “Thus says the LORD,” being something less than Moses’?

Why does this matter? It is actually at the very heart of the Jewish/Christian divide: Do earlier sources trump later ones?

The Jewish position is that the Torah from the wilderness was dictated by G-d to Moshe, and every word is divine in origin. All of Jewish law derives from that Torah. All subsequent sources, however illustrative and interesting, cannot overrule or otherwise rewrite the Torah in any way, since the prophecy was never as direct as it was with Moshe. Moshe took dictation. The Prophets approximated what they heard. And our Sages were inspired (the Hebrew phrase, amusingly enough, translates as a “holy spirit”) by G-d.

The Christian position, as I understand it, is that the New Testament is in some way an update to the Old, which means that newer prophets are at least as true as the older ones, and probably more so. Hence the commandments of the Torah can be fulfilled by Jesus and the events of his life.

This is, in fact, a fundamental point of disagreement. After all, Jesus is a newer prophet, so whether or not he could negate the commandments of the Torah is a question at the very foundation of both religions.

Augustine called me on this: Why is Moshe saying “Thus saith the Lord,” any more accurate than Isaiah saying the same? It is an excellent question. And at the time, I did not have an answer. It seemed to me that we had reached a situation where the Jewish tradition of older-is-better and the Christian tradition of newer-is-better are at loggerheads, with no help to be had from the text.

Which just goes to show how much I have yet to learn. Because the Torah itself addresses the question!

It turns out that Moshe only uses the phrase, “Thus Saith the Lord” (“Ko Amar Hashem”) three times.

Ex. 9:1: “Go in unto Pharoah and tell him: ‘Thus saith the Lord, the G-d of the Hebrews.’”

Ex. 10:3: “And Moses and Aaron came in unto Pharaoh, and said unto him, Thus saith the LORD God of the Hebrews, How long wilt thou refuse to humble thyself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.”

What do the above have in common? They are all statements given in a different language. The Torah is in Hebrew. Moshe spoke to Pharoah in his own tongue. When Moshe used the phrase “thus saith the Lord,” he was necessarily filtering and translating what G-d was saying, tailoring it for his audience.

It goes farther than this! There is one time Moshe uses the phrase in talking to the Jewish people. Ex 11:4 says, “Thus saith the Lord, About midnight will I go out [and kill the firstborn]” But we know from 12:29 that it happened at midnight, not about midnight. Our sages say that Moshe used “about” instead of “at” to avoid any misunderstandings in the event that, in a world without accurate clocks, someone might think that it was midnight before it actually had taken place, and erroneously thought that the plague did not occur as promised.

The phrase “thus saith the Lord” in the Torah means “G-d’s word, filtered or translated for the audience.” The Torah is telling us that any source that says “Thus saith the Lord” is not actually taking dictation like Moshe did. “Thus saith the Lord” is speech that has been altered or revised with human input.

Comments are welcome!

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