Mixed blessings: The Torah of Life and Death

For as many as are of the works of the Torah are under a curse; for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE TORAH, TO PERFORM THEM.” Now that no one is justified by the Torah before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH.” However, the Torah is not of faith; on the contrary, “HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM.” Messiah redeemed us from the curse of the Torah, having become a curse for us–for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE”–in order that in Messiah Yeshua the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

(Galatians 3:10-14, NASB with my Messianicisms)

No other words of Scripture have been misinterpreted, misapplied, and utterly confusing more than Paul’s words to the believers in Galatia. While I don’t intend on trying to put forth all of the answers to understanding the mind of our beloved Apostle (because I simply do not have them all), I do wish to bring some illumination on this particular passage.

Unfortunately, since I don’t know Greek (yet), at present I have to rely on other tools in order to sift through our English interpretations of the Apostolic Writings, particularly Paul. Probably the greatest tool I have at my disposal is my understanding of the goodness of Torah, based on the perspectives of the Tanach, the prophets and the Master. With this reference point, I can have a starting place by which to orient myself to any course I must navigate within the writings of the Apostles.

Another tool is my (however limited) knowledge of rabbinic writings and their lines of thought. Knowing rabbinic writings helps me to not be ignorant of problematic texts and seeming contradictions within the Apostolic Writings that would shake my faith like it has for so many others beginning to navigate their way through the Apostolic Writings with a fresh knowledge of Torah.

These two tools allow me to examine passages and make connections to Rabbinic thoughts and arguments (at least to the ones with which I am familiar) and bring a balanced perspective to the problematic texts. This passage in Galatians is one such text. How can we reconcile Paul’s statements regarding Torah, especially in light of Deuteronomy 6:25, which states:

It will be righteousness for us if we are careful to observe all this commandment before the LORD our God, just as He commanded us.

Looking at Paul’s words merely in our biased, English translations contradict this statement of Torah flat out. However, if we look at it from different perspectives, we can begin to make some sense out of it. One “clue” I have found is in Young’s Literal Translation, which translates verse 11 this way:

“And that in Torah no one is declared righteous with God, is evident, because `The righteous by faith shall live;'”

(Galatians 3:11, YLT)

The difference is the preposition “in Torah” verses “by Torah”. We know that we can be justified “by” Torah, just as it clearly states in Deuteronomy. Our lives are put before the heavenly tribune and the book of the Torah is therefore opened to compare our deeds of faithfulness or deeds of infidelity to what is written. Our names are found in either the Book of Life or the Book of Death. This is attested to in the book of Revelation, which states that those who persevere are those who hold to (are faithful to) the “commandments of God” (the Torah) and maintain their faith in Yeshua (Revelation 14:12).

However, we cannot be justified “in” the Torah. We cannot be justified by our choice to become included in those of the Covenant. Our inclusion does not justify us. It only affords us the opportunity to be justified and brought near on covenantal terms. If we are “included” into Israel, yet we forsake the Torah or Yeshua, we have heaped judgement upon ourselves.

If we take this argument into account, we can see how the Torah is life to those who truly take hold of it (via faithfulness to the commandments), and death to those who espouse it, but are unwilling to submit to its requirements. The Talmud is in agreement with such thoughts:

Rav Chananel the son of Pappa said: What is the meaning of that which is written, “Listen! For I will speak princely things”? Why are the words of Torah compared to a prince? This serves to tell you: Just as this prince has the power to kill and to give life, so too the words of Torah have the power to kill and give life.

This is reflected by that which Rava said: To those who grasp it with their right hand [through submission], the Torah is a drug of life. To those who grasp it with their left hand [in defiance], it is a drug of death.

(b.Shabbat 88b).

Therefore, let us heed the words of James, brother of the Master, which state:

Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks at his natural face in a mirror; for once he has looked at himself and gone away, he has immediately forgotten what kind of person he was.

But one who looks intently at the perfect law, the law of liberty, and abides by it, not having become a forgetful hearer but an effectual doer, this man will be blessed in what he does.

(James 1:21-25)

For Torah is a “tree of life to those who embrace her; those who lay hold of her will be blessed.”

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