Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,
says Yahweh of Hosts. Zechariah 4:6
Lift up your heads, O gates, and be lifted up, O ancient doors,
That the King of Glory may come in! Who is this King of Glory?
Yahweh of Hosts: He is the King of Glory. Psalm 24:9-10
The Traditions of the Elders are mentioned in the New Testament, and, in so far as they made void the Law, they were condemned by Christ. The Jews designated them, "The Oral Law," and in the year 188 A.D. they were gathered up under the name of "The Mishnah." In many ways the collection is valuable, and there can be little doubt that the Lord Jesus and His disciples approved of, and conformed, to a great deal that it contained. The regulations set down were at the first an honest attempt to adapt the Law of Moses to the changed conditions of life that prevailed after the return from Captivity, and the design was to keep man in touch with the God of Israel. There is a good deal of material dross, but mingled with it a fair quantity of real gems, and it is to one of these that we now seek to draw attention.
In the first tract of the Mishnah (Ber. ix. 1), there is a regulation that was certainly in operation before the Christian Era, and which merits the attention of the student of the Gospels, as it throws light on what must have been a daily custom of Christ and His disciples. We translate the essential part:
"Whoever shall see the place, where wonders have been wrought for Israel, shall say, 'Blessed be He who wrought wonders for our fathers in this place.' Whoever seeth the place where idolatry has been rooted out shall say, 'Blessed be He who rooted out idolatry from our land.' One shall bless over evil in the form of good, and over good in the form of evil."
Elsewhere we are told that one must also bless over personal experiences of Divine intervention. In short, the Israelite was required to pronounce a blessing whenever a place came in view, where God had intervened for Israel or on his own behalf, that is, to remember with gratitude and praise all national and personal blessings. The Talmudic discussion on this passage gives illustrations from the Exodus story. They include the place of the crossing of the Red Sea, the stone on which Moses sat during the fight with Amalek, the fords of the Arnon, and the fords of the Jordan. Among illustrations of personal experience of intervention is the deliverance of a rabbi from a mad camel, through a wall giving way at the critical moment (B. Ber. 54).
Now this meant great things to the Israelite. From the moment he became a "son of the law," it put him in touch with the God of Israel, intervening, caring for, and controlling his life. And as he trod the pathways of his own land, there came to view at every turn the sites of great events, and the details of every one became indelibly impressed on his memory. The young Israelite grew into manhood with the fullest possible knowledge of Divine intervention at every turn in Israel's history, and he blessed God every hour for the events of that history.
Consider what that meant for the "boy Jesus" in His human development. He "increased in wisdom and in stature," and this was one of the contributory aids. Think of the outlook from the hill above Nazareth, and what that glorious panorama of Israel's history meant of blessing every day, every hour. Read the account of this outlook as set down in "Early Days of the Lord Jesus." On every side sites of Divine intervention, and each with its claim to blessing.
On the journeys to and from the feasts, whether by way of the Jordan, or through Samaria, other sites and scenes were visited, the historical incidents of Israel's story were considered in their good and evil aspects, and blessings pronounced on them. In this way the Land and the Book together became part and parcel of every Jewish boy.
The interest deepens when we reach the days of Christ's active ministry, for then we can very often tell what He and His disciples must have been thinking. That we may get into touch with the teaching of Christ in such light, it is well worth our while to work out and meditate on His routes, the places of various incidents along these routes, and even to give consideration to the seasons of the year when certain events occurred.
The ministry begins with a rich example of what this means. When John was baptising at Bethabara, when the crowds were thronging him, and when Christ Himself came to be baptised, what were the people thinking about, and what incidents were they blessing? That ford was associated with many events in Israel's older history, and these we have sought to gather up in our article on Bethabara, etc. Perhaps of all recorded incidents, the one that was most in the thoughts of all that day was that Naaman, the Syrian, had seven times washed and been cleansed at that same crossing.
Now let us consider the Mount of Transfiguration. It was certainly one of the spurs of Great Hermon. What thoughts were passing through the mind of Peter, James and John, and what places did they bless, especially in association with Moses and Elijah? What was Moses looking down upon, and what did Elijah see that day?
Moses had left his work unfinished, but Joshua's great victory at Hazor, in the plain below (Josh. 11) might have seemed to add completion. But then there was the vision of mixed Galilee (Judges 1), which rendered that conquest almost worthless. And there was at the foot of the mountain, the city of Dan, where Jonathan, ben Gershom, ben Moses (Jud. 18:30) had become a renegade from the God of Israel, and an idolatrous priest. And that very step heathenward had been the first on the way to the Captivity that Moses himself had prophesied. And there lay the highway, along which both Israel and Judah had trodden, weary and footsore, into strange lands. Moses that day must have seemed a failure! And what of Elijah? Looking over the Galilean hills, he could see Mount Carmel, where the victory over Baal had been his, but his vision took in also Jezreel, where next morning the threat of a woman made him a disappointed fugitive. Then there was his own prescribed work, the anointing of kings, left to be done by others (1 Kings 18., seq.). Alas, when the three disciples were pronouncing blessings on the good and evil that day, there must have echoed on the ear the word, "failure." Moses and Elijah failures! But all these things prepared the way for the re-echo of Moses' prophecy (Deut. 18:15), in the word from heaven, "My beloved Son, hear ye Him," and at least mental association with Elijah's prophetic name. "The Lord, He is God."
About the middle of the month following the Transfiguration (October, 29 A.D.), Christ and His disciples made their way south for the Feast of Tabernacles. That journey was through Samaria (Luke 9:52), and we read that at a village of the Samaritans, James and John, being offended at the reception they got, wished to destroy the place by fire, after the example of Elijah. What brought Elijah into their memories? The fact that they were in the neighbourhood of that historic event, perhaps looking upon its traditional site, and pronouncing a blessing on Divine intervention there. That site was on the way from Samaria to Ekron (2 Kings 2), on the route that leads out to the Plain of Sharon by way of Tul-Kerem. This indicates that, on this occasion, the journey was made to Jerusalem, not only through Samaritan territory, but thence by way of Sharon, Lydda and Emmaus. Apart from this incidental hint, we have no record of Christ's having ever visited that district during His ministry, though of course there is a period of eight months in Judea between John 3 and 4, and also the time between Tabernacles and Chanukah, 29 A.D., during which periods we know nothing of His movements.
We have also accounts of the journeys of Christ and His disciples to Jerusalem by the other side of Jordan (Mark 10; John 11). That route was rich in historical memories. Jacob's wrestling place on the Jabbok (Gen. 32:24), that gave him the name "Israel," was visible; as also (1 Kings 7:46) the place where the Temple vessels had been cast. But the crossing place at Jericho claimed more blessings than all except perhaps Bethabara. On the eastern bank Moses had trodden, and there delivered his great Deuteronomic speeches. There he bade farewell to the people, who watched with wistful eyes his ascent to Pisgah's peak. It was here, too, that Israel had passed the Jordan dry-shod, as likewise, later on, Elijah and Elisha. In full view, at Gilgal, Israel had kept their first Passover in Canaan, and it was here that Christ crossed to keep the last true Passover in Jewish history. Here, too, among the jungles of Jordan, the capture of Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:5) brought an end to Judah as a kingdom, till in due time the true Ben-David should restore it.
We leave the Bible student to trace out much more in the Gospel narratives, and now take up a case from apostolic story. Saul of Tarsus set out on his mission of persecution, a stubborn ox, kicking against the ox-goads (Acts 9), but as a devoted Pharisee, he must have remembered the blessings prescribed. Consider his route, and think of what he saw. He left Jerusalem by the Damascus Gate, and the city of Calvary was there, without the city. To him the Crucifixion was, for good or evil, a sign to Israel. Did he bless, or did he resist? Within a hour he passed Gibeah of Saul, where the king of his own tribe, whose name he bore, had resided. There, and on passing Gilboa, he was required to bless the good in the form of evil. He must have thought of Saul and David, and then of himself and the Ben-David he sought to persecute. Between these two sites he had sat on Jacob's Well, and there he had to bless over the patriarch's break with a past life, semi-idolatrous, and deceitful (Gen. 35:4). "Blessed be He who rooted out idolatry from our land." He looked around, and there were Ebal and Gerizim, with their curses, and their blessings, and there was the tomb of Joseph, the evidence of Divine intervention in the creation of Israel, and each of these sites claimed a blessing. But all along he had been remembering the story of the Samaritan woman, which he had heard from Stephen, and once and again, there was a kick at the ox-goads, that spoiled in some degree the uttered blessings.
He saw Nazareth in the distance, and he looked down on the "Cradle of Christianity," at the north end of the Sea of Galilee; but these places had no Old Testament association, and he might excuse himself for passing them in sullen silence. Then he crossed the shoulder of Great Hermon, and, in spite of himself, he was forced to think, for he knew the story of the Transfiguration. Was it true? In the strength of it and of Calvary, Stephen had died. Should he still resist, or should he bless this Gentile mount? Then came the lightning flash, and the voice that had been sounding in his ear from the moment he had passed Calvary: "Shaul, Shaul, Lama redaphtani?" ("Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?") The conflict is over, the victory is won, and Saul, the persecutor, now blesses both Calvary and Hermon.
We can think of the apostles with their individual experiences and memories, each of which had a claim on such a blessing. The repeated call of each apostle was of this nature. Andrew, Peter, Philip and Nathaniel would bless at Bethabara; while Peter and Andrew, along with James, would often bless at Bethsaida of Galilee; and Matthew, too, each time he passed the publican's desk at Capernaum, while all alike would bless when they looked on the Mount of Ordination (Matt. 9:9). The synagogue at Capernaum, the Temple at Jerusalem, and all the scenes of incidents in the ministry of the Lord Jesus would keep alive the memory of even the details of His works, till they found permanent record in the Gospels, untainted by tradition.
In addition to the blessing of sites and scenes of Divine intervention, the Israelite was expected to pronounce one hundred blessings every day (B. Menachoth 43. b), but this number was only in the process of growth in the first century, and these blessings have in many cases to do with the compilation of the Jewish Prayer Book, till its general outlines were set down in the second century. The section we have given from the Mishnah represents the use and wont of every pious Israelite when Christ and the apostles trod those holy fields, and blessed these scenes. And when we study this aspect of their lives, and understand their mentality, we cannot but read the Gospels in a new light--a light that the too often despised rabbis of Old Israel have left us.
© Copyright 2017 Rediscovering the Bible. All Rights Reserved. | Contact Us | Email Webmaster