This injunction [of One Law] undoubtedly has helped lay the foundation of Western civilization and democracy. The principle of there being the same law for people within a society to follow would mean there would not be one standard for the king or aristocracy to be loosely held
to (who in the Ancient Near East were often considered divine or semi-divine), and then another standard for the general populous (or peasantry) to be rigidly held to.
I’m reading through Messianic apologist J.K. McKee’s paper on “one law”. It’s a deep paper. It’s long. Fortunately, its language is not too difficult or too intellectual for my simple mind. I’m writing here to record my initial reactions and to amplify parts that deserve a spotlight.
One Law, for the uninitiated, is the idea that God’s commandments are applicable to both Jews and gentiles. A single law for all. It’s taken from a phrase repeated in the Torah itself: torah achat, one law.
McKee’s paper intends to answer whether there are multiple standards for God’s people, who comprises God’s people, and whether humanity’s approach to God’s law changes with the arrival of Messiah.
One Law: foundational for civilization and human rights
McKee highlights how the “one law” issue isn’t just a theological debate. He shows “one law” to be a precedent for, lack of a better term, human rights: a single law for the native and for the sojourner means foreigners cannot be mistreated. The majority cannot mistreat the minority. Natives cannot mistreat immigrants – there’s a single law governing them both, after all. God’s commandments are clear on this point, repeated multiple times in the Bible:
The stranger who dwells among you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.
McKee believes this “one law” idea is a foundation stone for western democracies, even to the extent of positively influencing American civilization.
McKee isn’t alone here. I remember back to just a few months ago, Rabbi Russ Resnik of the UMJC suggesting we Americans ought to treat Mexican immigrants with the same respect the Torah demands of the stranger in Israel. (See Cinco De Mayo and the Jews.)
God’s command of a single law for native and stranger, combined with God’s command of treating the stranger “as one born among you” has big implications for modern civilization, and has been applied in the United States and other western democracies, positively affecting those civilizations.
Is the Torah universal?
It’s one thing to say “God’s one law applies to native and stranger”, but it’s another to say “God’s one law applies to the whole world.” Another way to ask is, is God’s one law for Jews and strangers in Israel, whereas non-Jews have something else?
God’s law wasn’t given to the nations, after all. Although one tradition holds the Torah went out in 70 languages from Sinai, the Biblical text records only Israel and the multitude with her receiving the commandments, with many commandments meant to exclude non-Israelites.
For example, no foreigner is to eat the Passover. (Ex. 12)
That’s straight Torah, yo.
Doesn’t this contradict the Torah’s own idea of “one law”?
Not so fast.
McKee notes that the Torah distinguishes between 2 groups:
On one hand, foreigners (ben-neikar), hired servants (sakir) and sojourners (toshav) are not to eat the Passover. God’s one law does not apply to them. Why? They are outside the Israel community. As McKee notes,
Ancient Israel might be a “welcoming” community in that outsiders are allowed in to work, and play a role within its economy. Yet, the commemoration of the Passover is to be a home affair for the Israelites, as “It is to be eaten in a single house; you are not to bring forth any of the flesh outside of the house, nor are you to break any bone of it. All the congregation of Israel are to celebrate this.”
But on the other hand, strangers (gerim) could partake of the Passover provided they become circumcised.
When a stranger [ger] sojourns with you and would keep the Passover to the LORD, let all his males be circumcised, then he may come near and keep it; he shall be as a native of the land.
Notice again keeping the Passover applies only to Israel. Native-born Israel and the stranger who is circumcised.
At this point, you begin to think that circumcision = membership in Israel. It would seem God’s one law is applicable only for Israel and the circumcised. Indeed, this is the stance taken by many in Judaism, and even by many in Messianic Judaism.
If we leave it at that, gentiles should not keep the Passover, and maybe not even other parts of God’s one law. At least until they are circumcised.
McKee argues, however, that it is the commemoration of the Passover and Exodus from Egypt that defines Israel. To fully participate in the Passover, you get circumcised. Once circumcised, you’re celebrating the Passover, you’re considered no different than a native of the land. Passover is the central focus for membership in Israel.
So, should Messiah’s gentile disciples get circumcised, enabling them to eat the Passover, thus becoming indistinguishable from native Israel? Is this the same thing as conversion to Judaism? I’m a bit on-the-edge-of-my-seat to see McKee’s answers. I’ll cover it this in the next post.