God gave the Scriptures to the Jewish people (Rom 3.1-2) and also some of the observances, ceremonies and customs. This teaching will bring out some things that are a major invasion of 21st century, western thought. Israel had a nomadic back-round until they entered the land. But, they will carry this “heritage” all through history. The family is the basic unit called the “mishpochah” and this word can mean an entire village. Genealogy was important (like Yeshua’s) and it came through the father in the biblical era. Son’s were important because it was an agricultural society and there was also a need for warfare and protection. In this study we are going to take a brief look into the following areas: birth, circumcision, redemption of the first-born, bar mitzvah, marriage, divorce, visiting the sick and death and mourning customs. Understanding some of these will help is interpret many scriptures. So, let’s begin with birth.
When twins were born, the first one through the birth canal was considered the “first born” and you will see this concern in Gen 38.27-30. Infant birth was seen as a time of great rejoicing and newborns were considered one year old at birth. When Herod wanted the children killed in Bethlehem at two years old, he was meaning those that were one year old as we reckon birthdays today. They were one at birth, and two after one year (Matt 2.16). Some rabbi’s considered a baby “viable” at two months in the womb and one could be tried for murder if one was killed. All the laws of the Sabbath could be suspended for infants. Unborn children were considered likewise. A heathen who destroys a fetus is guilty of a capital offense and “viability” was not an issue. A fetus had the same status as the mother only after birth. All efforts must be toward saving the mother’s life if a problem arises. The unborn child was seen as the aggressor in such cases. If the head emerges from the birth canal, then the child has equal status with the mother. A “Caesarean” birth was not considered as “opening the womb” and that child was not considered “first born.” If all the children in the family were Caesarean births, then the first one would be considered the eldest. Babies are nursed two years, then weaned. A divorced woman does not remarry until the child is two years old. A widower with young children can remarry right away because, in most cases, she needed help. Infants slept at the mother’s side because of nursing issues, and cohabitation was discouraged as a form of “birth control.” Public concern for young children was expressed in the daily prayers of the Ma’Amad. This word means “standing men” and these were men who would go to the Temple and participate in the prayers as the services were done (Luke 1.8-10). Many times these men would accompany the priests they knew in the place where they lived and travel to and from the Temple with the priests.
When people fasted, they included prayers that asked the Lord to guard the infants from “croup” and that mothers would be able to nurse their children. Let’s see if we can apply some of this information to some of the birth’s in Scripture. The word “toldot” (generations) in Gen 2.4 is written out fully, but after Adam sins, it is missing a Hebrew letter “vav” (number six in Hebrew and the number of man) until Ruth 4, where the word “toldot” is written fully again because it is the genealogy of the Messiah to David’s birth. The Messiah will “restore man’s generations.” We have already mentioned the birth of Perez and Zerach in Gen 38. In Rev 12.1-2 we have the “birth-pains” and the woman is Israel based on Gen 37. Birth-pains are also mentioned in Matt 24.1-8; Jer 30.4-7; 1 Thes 5.3; Micah 4.10 and Isa 66.7-9. In Gen 35.16 we have Rachel and Benjamin, who is the second son of Rachel, with Joseph being the first-born. Joseph (the first-born) is a picture of the first-coming of the Messiah, the suffering servant. Benjamin means “son of the right hand” or “of the last days” and a picture of the second coming of the Messiah, who sits at the right hand of the Father. The meaning “son of the right hand” means that you are the youngest and would sit at the right hand of the father at the dinner table. Your birth order determined where you sat (Gen 43.33). The naming of a child was significant. For instance, Adam means “blood of God” or “first blood.” Joseph means “God will add” and is a picture of the first coming of the Messiah. Benjamin means “son of the right hand” or “last days” and is a picture of the second coming of the Messiah. Perez means “a breach” and Zerach means “dawning, rising, sunlight” and is related to the word “zeroah” which means “arm” and a messianic term. Noah means “rest” and Yeshua means “salvation.” The names Zechariah and Elizabeth means “God remembers his oath” and they were the parents of John the Baptist, who the Lord had promised would come before the Messiah. Children were named recalling great victories of God (Isa 9.6).
Next, let’s talk about circumcision, which was the sign of the “brit” or “covenant” made with Abraham. This was performed by the father usually, but at least it was his responsibility to see that it was done. Circumcision was used as a pretext to revenge the rape of Dinah in Gen 34. Jacob’s sons made up a story about how they could not give their sister to one uncircumcised. They knew that the pain of the circumcision would last three days, and it would be the perfect time to attack the city of Shechem. The men of the city agreed, and they were circumcised, and the city was destroyed by the son’s of Jacob. In 1 Macc 1 the mothers were circumcising their children and many were killed as a result. In the second century, an individual called the “uman” did the circumcising and so did the “raphe” or physician. In the third century they were called the “gozer” which means “cutter” and by the fourth century they were called the “mohel” which is still used today. All scholars were encouraged to learn how to do it, but they could not be paid for doing one because it was seen as a “mitzvah” (good work) to do it. Today, they are paid. Believers in the first century were made up of two groups, Jews and non-Jews. In Acts 21.15-26 we learn that circumcision was important and Paul taught it. This is nearly 30 years after Yeshua.
In Gen 17.1-14 we learn that the descendants of Abraham were to be circumcised. This ceremony is called the “Brit Milah” or the “cutting of the covenant.” Inheritance was bound up in this covenant and failure to circumcise could get you “karet” or “cut off” from the community. This meant “death” when Israel was in the wilderness because you were taken outside the camp where wild animals and the enemies of Israel lurked. The wilderness was seen as the “abode of Satan and demons” and this was the idea that Paul had in mind when he said in 1 Cor 5.5 “to deliver such a one to Satan (put him out of the Corinthian congregation) for the destruction of his flesh.” This is an idiom for being “karet” or “cut off.” In Acts 15.1 there was a great controversy over Gentiles becoming Jews through circumcision. This council had little to do with Yeshua and had much to do with Gentiles coming into the Kingdom of God. Now, let’s look at this. There were two main schools of thought among the Pharisee’s. The school of Shammai taught that a Gentile must be circumcised to have a place in the Kingdom. This was the problem in the book of Galatians that Paul was trying to straighten out. This is called “ritual circumcision” and had nothing to do with “Abrahamic” circumcision, which only applied to the physical descendants of Abraham (Gen 17.1-4). On the other hand, the school of Hillel did not teach that Gentiles had to be circumcised to have a place in the Kingdom. Most believers in the first century followed Hillel on this, including Paul, who was a Pharisee and was taught in this school. His teacher was Gamaliel, the grandson of Hillel. These two schools would fight for hundreds of years over whose views would dominate among the people. The school of Shammai discouraged proselytes, but Hillel didn’t. The Jewish people at the time believed that you must be Jewish to have a place in the Kingdom, including the talidim (disciples) at first. The Messianic Jews were going to depart from this belief as a result of Acts 10 and 15, and the book of Galatians.
The school of Shammai had a hard time accepting non-Jews as equals. Shammai said once they believed, they began to walk in all the commandment pertaining to Jews, including circumcision in order to “maintain” their right standing in the Kingdom. Acts 15 discusses this issue and the question was “What does a Gentile do as a believer, because it has already been established that a Jewish believer followed the Torah. Do they need to be ritually circumcised and follow the whole Torah?” In Part 2, we will pick up here and begin to teach what is going on in Acts 15 and see how this applies today.