How To Read and Understand Bible If You Are Not JEWISH

Young woman reading bibleI can imagine how this article’s title appears to some people. “You mean I need some special permission or something?” 

But some people get it. There are at least two issues here. Most of the readers of the Bible are not descendants of Abraham. Most are not from the people who stood at the foot of Sinai. It is possible to feel some alienation and to wonder, “Is this book for me?” But on the other side, most Bible readers were never taught to ask such questions. The Bible speaks to every person. And if there are boundaries, they are very unclear. It must all apply in some way.

But a disconnect already happens for most readers. They know better than to literally apply everything in the book. Christians don’t feel compelled to lobby for a law in which rebellious teenagers are stoned to death. Yom Kippur doesn’t compel most Christians to fast and repent. Most work out a simple rule of thumb: the Old Testament (allegedly) has been abolished by Jesus. So just apply what you find in the last part, the newer part of the book.

But how exactly does this work? Where is the Mount Sinai for the Gentiles? Where is the Christian “law”? Some say, “There is a New Covenant,” and they equate it with the book called the New Testament. But here is a problem that you may or may not have noticed. You can look in the “old covenant” and find its terms spelled out clearly (in parts of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). But where can you look for the terms of the new covenant? (See article New Covenant is Not New Testament)

One common way people come up against the problem is in the Ten Commandments. It has been drilled into many people that the Ten Commandments are a universal law for all people. They are the moral law, the foundation of God’s way for mankind, right? But what about the fourth commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”?

Most Christians don’t know what to do with it. Some write books saying it is not literal and it just means “get plenty of rest and don’t work so hard.” Others say, “Jesus changed it to Sunday.” Some place a great deal of faith in reading between the lines in a few New Testament verses about “the Lord’s day” and “the first day of the week.” Others recognize, these verses do not establish a “Sabbath” or even a required day of worship, as has too often been claimed.

So what is a non-Jew to do? What about shofars? Prayer shawls? Passover? Yom Kippur? Getting the leaven out of the house? Holding a ceremony for boys on their 8th day? Living in a booth one week of the year?

Should people become Messianic? Join a Hebrew Roots fellowship? Check out the Seventh Day Adventists? Convert to Judaism? Start Torah-keeping churches? Tell the pastor or the elders to change church to Saturdays?

I want to suggest a way forward. It might not sound right at first, but please give me a chance. Recognize that much of what is in the Bible is not addressed to every reader. In fact, and stay with me here, the Ten Commandments are not addressed to Christians at all. What am I saying, that its okay for a non-Jew to have an affair or steal groceries? Not at all. But one of the most useful rules for reading a book, even the Bible, is context.

To whom and on what occasion were the Ten Commandments given? Israel, the Jewish people, were standing at the foot of Sinai. These ten sayings are the essence of Israel’s law. This is not a universal law at all and the tradition of reading them that way is, well, wrong.

If you are not Jewish, God was not speaking directly to you when he gave Torah. You can see this for yourself by reading Exodus 19, the chapter just before the Ten Commandments. This does not mean, of course, that you have nothing to learn from reading the Ten Commandments and it certainly is not the same as saying, “Jesus did away with the law of Moses” or anything like that.

The Torah (law of Moses) has plenty to say to you as a non-Jew, just not directly. You can learn about God’s character, his holiness, the ideals of God that will define the world to come, and how people can live for God. But it requires translating and interpreting it from one context (Israel’s constitution) to another (how you, as a Messiah-follower, should live your life).

I tell people who are not Jewish that when they are reading much of what is in the Bible they should think of themselves looking over the shoulder of a Jewish reader. It is the Jewish reader who can identity with Exodus 24:3, “All the words that the Lord has spoken we will do.”

Even for the Jewish people translation and interpretation is required from one context (Israel in the Iron Age when it was a theocracy with God present in the sanctuary) to another (Israel in the long exile without the direct Presence of God in the sanctuary). If you started studying the Torah with Jewish teachers you would find out most of the laws do not presently apply in Judaism and that changing times and needs have required the addition of many customs and traditions since the days of Moses and the prophets.

If you are non-Jewish and you are reading parts of the Bible addressed to Jewish people, it is like the party started without you and you arrived late. There is plenty at this party for you, but you are a guest at a Jewish party. What can you learn from God’s instructions to this people? What in these instructions and teachings apply to you as someone outside of the specific group? The truth is, most of what is here has meaning for you, but interpretation and integration of multiple ideas will be required.

The cool thing is, the organizers of this party had you in mind all along. “When the non-Jews arrive, we will have something big for them,” said the biblical authors. All the families of the earth will have blessing through Abraham’s children. The nations, Hebrew goyim, also known as Gentiles or everybody-besides-Israel, are blessed through Abraham. “All the families of the nations [Gentiles] will worship before you,” sang the Psalmist. One day God’s mountain in Jerusalem will be raised above the other hills and all the nations will stream to it, said Isaiah. The Lord will be king over all the earth, said Zechariah.

So a Jewish teacher of Gentiles, named Paul, understood this when Messiah appeared. It is now the last days, Paul realized, and God is calling non-Jews to himself without requiring them to become Jews. James quoted Amos 9:12 from the Greek translation, “I will rebuild the fallen tent of David . . . that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, the Gentiles who are called by his name” (Acts 15:16-17).

Remember that some parts of the Bible are written directly to you as a non-Jew. The Torah is not directly to you, nor the prophets. Even in the Gospels, most of what Jesus said was directed toward his own Jewish people. You can learn from all these, but not everything applies directly. But when it comes to some parts of the Bible, the epistles and Revelation, these were written directly to you.

Perhaps this is why Christians tend to read the epistles over and over, rarely venturing deeply into the waters of the Old Testament and sometimes only ankle deep into the Gospels. It doesn’t have to be that way either. The Old Testament means a lot more for Christians than some seem to realize. It is was not just left there as a source book for illustrations and prophecies about Jesus.

The whole thing is a story that fits together. You can’t understand the high point of the story (the appearance of Messiah) without the earlier parts. And they fit together better than most people realize. The Bible is a forward moving conversation and later parts refer back to earlier parts. You could not always guess in the earlier chapters how the later parts would turn out. But what Torah showed Israel fits with God’s solution shown to us in Messiah.

First there was Torah and prophets. Then there was Messiah revealed, in stages, from the mysterious earthly teacher to the divine Messiah disclosed from heaven. Then there were the apostles who interpreted and applied the meaning of Messiah for us, Jews and Gentiles. This is how you read the whole thing, if you are Jewish or not Jewish. See how the parts fit together. If you are Jewish, some things will apply to your daily practice that do not apply to non-Jews. If you are a non-Jew, you can understand that some parts are not obligations for you (Sabbath, food laws, fringes, eighth day circumcision, holidays). But the story of what God began to do and is still doing applies to everyone. It is a story promising life. And we all need to read it.