Most of the people in Bible times were illiterate so they didn’t have written scripture, books or doctrines to teach them about God. They were outdoorsmen, farmers, fishermen, shepherds and soldiers. Earthy and practical with large families who needed solutions to everyday challenges of living off the land, coping with the unpredictable climate, and fighting back their constant enemies. They needed practical solutions.
God showed up for them in deeds. He saved, delivered, sent rain, or drought. He led, fed, fought and talked with them. Not through a philosophy, but in His presence. God communicates through incarnation: “the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
The Jews never developed systematic theologies like we find in Christianity. The idea that the living God could be known, or His ways understood through doctrines or precepts is foreign to the Hebrew’s way of life. To Israel, God was known by His actions; what He does for them in and through history.
The idea that God can be known by special knowledge is a Greek idea known as Gnosticism, a prevalent concept rejected long ago by the early Jewish church. The God of Abraham did not reveal Himself to man through knowledge. He visited with them.
That is why throughout their history the Jewish people put so much emphasis on holidays and storytelling. We retell the acts of God in history at appointed times, Sabbaths and annual festivals throughout the year. We remember what we have come to know about Him personally, practically and experientially. He is “the God who is there” (shammah) Ezekiel says, and He is the One who is now present, guiding, teaching, comforting and admonishing.
The rabbis teach that the history of Israel in scripture is all we need to learn everything we need to know about what is good and what is evil, what God desires and what He despises. Even in their daily prayers the acts of God are told and retold and passed on from generation to generation. The God of the Bible is a God of action. When He does speak it is backed up by actions, not only ideas or philosophies, like Buddhism and other eastern religions.
Most religions teach philosophical concepts about truth, reality and humanity. The Bible is the story of what God does and what He will do. Genesis begins with His acts of creation and goes on to describe what He has done, how we can know Him, and what He will do.
The essence of biblical faith is a demand, not a creed. It is a response to Him who cares about us, which becomes a way of thinking and a way of living. Faith and action. Christianity has often emphasized right thinking, getting the doctrines right, believing in the accepted confessions. But a dogma is something that is believed on with the mind, and that is only one part of what it means to be a person. Religious beliefs are part of the experience of a life of faith.
The danger of faith confessions and dogmas is in their tendency to become a substitute for a living faith. But a system of beliefs cannot replace the actions of the King and His Kingdom over every area of our lives. Just as saying “I believe in the United States of America” does not make someone a citizen, so confessing “I believe in …” does not make someone a Christian. A US citizen is someone who pledges allegiance to the Constitution, which includes its obligations, responsibilities and protections. So too our relationship to God cannot be limited to a confession of belief, but is a commitment to live with Him and under His regular ongoing guidance and protection.
The debate between “faith and works” that became such an important issue in Christianity has never been an issue in Judaism. For Jews and Judaism the question is: What is the right way to live? What am I supposed to do? Life cannot be separated into deeds and beliefs, or thoughts and actions. All a person thinks and does are all part of who he is.
When we grasp that it is through incarnation that God communicates with us, that experiencing Him and His presence with us in our everyday lives, we will not be confused on our way through the maze of religious assumptions and intellectual conjectures. Rather, we will know Him even as we are known.
The world needs more than our personal holiness, our good intentions, or religious institutions. We need Immanuel – God with us.
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