In this series we are working to expose the myth that humans are incapable of keeping God’s Law. In our previous article we began seeking to understand what Peter was referring to when he described a yoke “that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Was he referring to the Torah in this context, or was he referring to something else? We began by discussing misconceptions within Christianity and what the Scriptures themselves have to say about the Torah and the perceived difficulty of following its directives. Whereas Christianity believes that the Torah is impossible to live out, Judaism knows no such concept. According to both Judaism and the Torah itself, the Torah is God’s boundaries and guide for life. It is the minimum standard expected from members of the covenant. But many Christians are confused over this because of how we have misunderstood the words of Paul. We tend to interpret Paul’s letters in terms of making a formal break from Judaism rather than being in continuity with it. We have to keep in mind, however, that although Paul was at times a bit of a maverick, he willingly submitted to authority, particularly Scriptural authority. His doctrine of “grace through faith,” was never intended to supplant over a thousand years of Scriptural precedent, no matter how inspired we believe it to be. His intention was never to override the Torah, but to uphold its principles, particularly in the light of two incredible revelations given to him: (1) Yeshua as the fulfillment of the Messianic hope of Israel, and (2) Gentiles were to be included into an exclusively Jewish (up to this point) faith. While we are still working to understand Peter’s claim regarding the unbearable yoke, we need to better examine the purpose of the Law before making any assessment of his statement.
First, we have to remember that the Torah (i.e. the Law) is not a random hodgepodge of overbearing laws. The Torah is the history of the Jewish people; it is a legal covenant between the God of the Universe and the people of Israel; it is it is a series of instructions for how the children of Israel should live as God’s chosen and redeemed people. The Torah, unlike most other legal documents, is a code whose jurisdiction extends beyond civil law to religious and moral law as well. This is part of the reason it receives so much criticism. Humans generally appreciate the protections provided by civil law, and respect legislation which protects the rights of individuals. On the other hand, human nature tends to challenge legislation which dictates religious or moral behavior. We have to remember, however, that the laws of the Torah were not created by man. These laws were given by the Creator Himself both for the benefit of humanity and also for His own glory:
And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the Lord your God that I command you. … Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deuteronomy 4:1–2, 6–8)
In today’s moral economy, any law that dictates moral behavior is either held in suspect or flat out rejected. But humans need divine laws to legislate absolute morality, because we are simply incapable of doing so ourselves. We tend to define morality in terms which are relative to our culture. Therefore, the definition of morality shifts from one generation to the next and one culture to the next. Laws relating to sexual behavior are a prime example. These laws vary between cultural contexts and there is no agreement as to what constitutes sexual impropriety across cultural lines. The Torah, however, claims there is an absolute standard for morality. It sets the bar for ethical and moral behavior. It knows the capability of humans. It understands that the “heart is deceitful above all things and desperately sick,”1 and that human beings have the capability of doing really awful things.
The Midrash Rabbah tells us that “the precepts [i.e. the commandments] were given only in order that man might be refined by them.”2 In other words, if there is a commandment restricting a particular action, it means that humans are capable and even prone to committing such acts and the Torah’s prohibition on this type of behavior is working to mold our character into that which our Creator desires. If the Torah prohibits sexual relations with animals, it knows that human beings will be drawn to such and the fruit of such a union is not pleasing to the Creator. If the Torah prohibits homosexual relations, it is because humans will be tempted in this area as well, and the fruit of this type of union is not pleasing to the Creator either. The wisdom of the Creator is manifest in the Torah, but it is often lacking in the laws of our land. Whereas human legislation has the potential for error, laws given by the Creator have no such possibility.
When people say that “the Law is impossible to keep,” one has to wonder which laws they are referring to. If the question was presented to the person who made such a claim, they would probably be hard pressed to give an example. So, let’s take a look at a few of the commandments found within a single chapter in the middle of the Torah — Leviticus, the book which spells out the levitical ceremonial code — and get an idea of the level of “impossibility” that we should be discussing. Each of the following commandments comes from Leviticus 19.
Which of these laws are “impossible” to keep? Which of these laws are an “unbearable yoke”? Did Peter have these laws in view when he referred to the yoke “that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear”? As we have seen previously, some actually do view commandments such as not hating your brother in your heart and loving your neighbor as yourself as impossible. However, these are the minority. The majority of believers find these commands to not only be reasonable and within the attainable scope of one who is walking in faith, but the bare minimum of one who claims to live a spiritual life. Yeshua, himself, said that outside of loving God wholeheartedly, loving one’s neighbor as oneself is the foundation of the commandments:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:37–40)
Therefore, these commandments express the heart of the Torah and we see right away from this list that finding the “impossible” or “unbearable” laws of the Torah are going to be a bit more difficult than what might be imagined.