In our series on world faiths we've just explored Buddhism and Hinduism -- along with their popular western progeny, the New Age Movement. Previously we zeroed in on Islam. All our lessons were based on a biblical understanding of tolerance and "judging." Review the previous newsletters whenever you like.
Today we move from India (Hinduism, Buddhism) westward, to the land of Israel (Judaism). As we'll see, the truths revealed to the Jews three millennia ago weren't just progressive; they were absolutely unique in the ancient world!
The revolutionary truths below will be useful in your outreach, especially in countering ill feeling about "the God of the Old Testament." Yet more than that, once you've grasped these exciting principles, you'll be better able to free others up emotionally and intellectually, so that they may be drawn to God!
Judiasm: Revolutionary Truths!
There are at least 10 ways in which Judaism was surprisingly ahead of its time and far superior to all alternatives (the religions of Egypt, Babylon, Sumeria, Persia, Greece, the land of Canaan, etc).
1. One God.
Ancient religions were polytheistic. These gods had their own agendas, often less than noble. Yet Judaism is monotheistic; the god of the Old Testament (Yahweh, in the original Hebrew) brooks no rivals. It is true that in the Bible we find numerous allusions to the familiar pagan myths. Yet these myths are rejected, often by being rewritten -- and scrubbed clean of paganism. Did you know that Judaism was the only monotheistic religion?
2. A Holy God.
Gods and goddesses were powers of nature personified. They resembled oriental kings -- in effect, super-humans. Not so with Yahweh! He is holy, and his holiness isn't just a matter of degree. He is wholly above and beyond us humans. Yet he invites us to share in his holiness. Revolutionary, indeed!
3. No idolatry.
No images of the Deity were permitted, even in the Holy of Holies. Whereas pagan temples always had a statue, Israel had only the ark of the covenant -- a kind of throne for the invisible Yahweh. As for the image, humans display the image of God. Instead of a statue of the deity being paraded through the streets, werepresent our Lord to the watching world.
4. Relational faith.
God doesn't manipulate us, nor can we manipulate him. True religion is neither mechanical nor magical; it's relational. God wants to live with us, and within us. This also means that ethics are central; Yahweh is concerned with the heart. Religion without righteousness is worthless.
Humans are neither animals nor machines, hence the cycle of work is punctuated with a deliberate rest. In Egypt the Hebrew slaves didn't have a "weekend" -- no day off. With the Torah, all this changed. Unbelievers ridiculed the Jews for not working nonstop. Sabbath was a time for family, to reflect on God's word, to ensure Yahweh was central in the life of the community. Regardless of how we understand the fourth commandment, Sabbath is still vital for us today. God’s people rejected the world’s crazed emphasis on production. Do we?
6. Separation of priesthood and politics.
To protect against the corruption that inevitably occurs when politics and religion mix, God established a safeguard based on tribe. Priests (who were from Levi) couldn't be kings, and kings (who were from Judah) couldn't be priests. Among the pagans, the king might officiate as a priest, and some even claimed divinity. The state prophets enforced his sometimes capricious decrees. In Judaism, this was reversed: prophets challenged kings!
7. Separation of worship and sex.
Pagan religions glorified ritual prostitution (both male and female) in their temples. In Hebrew religion, sex was pure, set exclusively in the context of marriage. Marriage was honored; homosexuality, bestiality, and incest were forbidden. Not so among the pagans. For example, the highly popular Ba‘al, represented by a bull, was served through bestiality (copulation with a bull).
8. One law for all.
The pagan gods allowed noblemen to get off scot-free for crimes requiring severe punishments for others. Thus injustice was institutionalized. In contrast, biblical religion upheld the same standards for king and commoner alike. No one was above the law.
9. Persons more valuable than property.
Whereas in Babylon -- to cite just one example -- property was more important than persons (as in the Law Code of Hammurabi), in Judaism it was the other way around. In the Ten Commandments and the rest of the Torah, the focus is on relationships: first God (nos. 1-4), and then others (nos. 5-10).
10. Women respected.
For example, the radical fifth commandment doesn't read "honor your father," but "honor your father and your mother." Inheritance law applied to daughters, not just sons. Divorce law provided for the woman's needs, and a certificate protected her against future claims by an ex-husband. Many other examples could be provided. In Christianity, of course, the place of women was elevated even further.
We've focused on ten ways in which the faith of the Jews was unique. Search for these truths in other ancient religions -- and good luck trying! Anyone who thinks that Old Testament Judaism is just one more in a long litany of ancient religions has failed to do his homework! No ancient religion is like this!
Far from Old Testament Judaism being primitive or outdated, the opposite is true. The Old Testament presents the truths which became foundational not just for western culture, but specifically for Christianity.
Time and again we are surprised by the wisdom, purity, and truth of the precepts of Judaism. It transcended its culture, setting the pace for right living. In the ancient world -- whether in monotheism, taking a day off, or respecting women -- no world religion even came close to equaling Judaism for its revolutionary and refreshing truths. If you'd like to continue this study, please listen to Judaism: A Community of Radical Counter-Culture. You may also want to check out the links throughout the ten truths above.
If the Jews were to be counter-cultural, how about you and me? Have we perhaps forgotten how utterly different the true God is to all man-made substitutes? Have we underestimated the revolutionary nature of God's righteous kingdom?
The point of the series is to gain a global perspective on world faiths, so that we may more deeply appreciate the true God. Obviously there's much more to learn about world religions, yet it's time to summarize.
This will be our task next week, in the tenth and final bulletin. We'll boil down the basic similarities and differences among the religions, and offer a biblical strategy for interacting with those of other faiths.
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