Torah For The Nations

Parashat Vayelech (Deuteronomy 31:1-31:30)

Parashat Vayelech is a single chapter merely thirty verses in length. It’s primary focus is the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Moses commissions Joshua in the site of the entire nation and tells him to be “strong and courageous” as he leads the Children of Israel into the land God has promised to them. He also hands the Torah over to the Levites and instructs them to read the Torah in the presence of all the people during the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles) at the end of the Shemitah, the seventh year of release. He gives specific instructions for who should hear and learn the Torah during this time:

Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. (Deuteronomy 31:12–13)

We see something curious in these instructions, however. Not only are the native Israelites supposed to hear the Torah being read and taught, but they are also supposed to gather in the sojourner to hear it as well. Even more shocking is that they are to do so “that they may hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law” (v. 12). What does this mean?

First, we should recall the Torah’s teaching at the beginning of Deuteronomy. We are told that when the Gentiles “hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people’ ” (Deuteronomy 4:6). But does this mean that Gentiles don’t have obligations to the Torah? According to the traditional reading of the Torah there are a minimum of seven categories of laws that spell out the obligations for Gentiles. These are called the Noahide Laws. They are derived from the instructions God gave to Noah after leaving the ark. They include the prohibition against idolatry, the prohibition against cursing God, the requirement to establish courts of justice, the prohibition against murder, the prohibition against adultery or sexual immorality, the prohibition against stealing, and the prohibition against eating the flesh of a living animal. Our sages tell us that this passage instructs Jews to invite Gentiles to hear the teachings of the Torah so that they will first understand their obligations to these seven laws of Noah. It is also in hopes that they would possibly be attracted to a Jewish way of living and become a full proselyte.

But for disciples of Yeshua the list doesn’t stop at the Noahide commandments. The Apostles considered Gentile disciples of Yeshua to be in a distinct class somewhere between a son of Noah and a native Israelite, more along the lines of the resident alien living among Israel. Because of this, Gentile disciples of Yeshua were given four additional categories of laws in Acts 15 in order to narrow the gap between them and their Jewish brethren. James and the other Apostles convening at the Council of Jerusalem searched the Scriptures for a solution to the problem of these Gentiles coming into Jewish religious space. They found a connection to their issue in Leviticus 17–18 where strangers who dwell among Israel are bound to the same standard as the native Israelite in a few areas of the Torah’s commandments. And since these Gentiles had become disciples of Yeshua, taking upon themselves the Kingship of the God of Israel and entering into covenantal community with the Jewish people, then they should take on these additional responsibilities to integrate them into the Body of Messiah. These include the prohibition against food sacrificed to idols, the prohibition against strangled meat, the prohibition against blood, and a more stringent prohibition against sexual immorality.

But wait! There’s more! In the epistles we find numerous references to Gentiles being bound to the moral and ethical laws of the Torah (the weightier commandments), as the Apostolic Scriptures are almost exclusively focused on expounding these principles for disciples of Yeshua Rather than being focused on ceremonial concerns for the Gentile disciples, Paul and the other Apostles were primarily concerned with our behavior, specifically how we treat others. Therefore, these ethical commandments naturally took priority when they were teaching their disciples.

As we can see, there are plenty of responsibilities for non-Jewish disciples of Yeshua in regard to Torah. Rather than feeling slighted or inferior, we should do our best to live out the obligations we have been charged with. Can we take on more of the Torah’s commandments than these? Absolutely. But we should keep in mind to whom they were given and also remember that we are a guest at the table. Our posture should be that of the Gentile woman whom Yeshua distanced himself from. She said, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs” (Mark 7:28). Rather than claiming the loaf as her own, she showed true humility in her response. May we follow her example. May our humility and love for one another always set us apart as disciples of Yeshua, whether Jew or Gentile. Only then will we truly be able to “hear and learn to fear the LORD your God, and be careful to do all the words of this Torah.”