Today we will be looking at one of the seven core Bible principles: integrity. Reviewing the information today I hope to show how believers should be so imbued with God’s Word that it causes us to act with the integrity of his commandments as a reflex.
Deuteronomy 6:18, 25 – Do what is right and good in Yahweh’s sight, so all will go well with you. … For we will be counted as righteous when we obey all the commands Yahweh our God has given us.
As Moses was preparing the Israelites to enter the land of Canaan, he encouraged them to continually be reminded of doing what is good and right so that they would be sure to follow all of the commands of God’s law. If they were to do what was right from the heart, that is how they would be sure to be following all of God’s commands and they would be considered righteous.
In the same way, Yeshua taught that believers should demonstrate virtue and purity that exceeds those who are merely following external commands.
Matthew 5:20 – “For I tell you, unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
What Yeshua was teaching the audience of his day was nothing new. God had continually put before the Israelites that the integrity of the actions they were to pursue and the decisions they made should have been coming should have been coming from a genuine place in their hearts, not just outward compliance. Moses had urged this of the Hebrew community over a millennia earlier:
Deuteronomy 6:4-6 – Hear, Israel: Yahweh is our God; Yahweh is one: and you shall love Yahweh your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. These words, which I command you this day, shall be on your heart…
In order to continue this focus in their culture Moses had provided them a specific set of instructions or a template that they could implement in the lives of their communities. Over the years, the Israelites would form many traditions around his original template. Ultimately, this was by design to help them to maintain a continuous recognition of the commands of God.
Deuteronomy 6:7-9 – and you shall teach [these words] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. You shall bind them for a sign on your hand, and they shall be for symbols between your eyes. You shall write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates.
One of the primary methods used by Hebrew believers over the years to accomplish this doing of the commands stems from the ongoing recitation of the Shema and the practices associated with it. What is the Shema? As outlined from a popular Jewish website Chabad.org, this process has become a daily declaration of their faith.
“Shema Yisrael (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל) (“Hear, O Israel”) are the first two words of a section of the Torah that is the centerpiece of the morning and evening prayer services, encapsulating the monotheistic essence of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel: G‑d is our L‑rd, G‑d is one.” In its entirety, the Shema consists of three paragraphs: Deuteronomy 6:4–9, Deuteronomy 11:13–21 and Numbers 15:37–41. Its recitation twice daily (morning and evening) is a biblical commandment. In addition, we recite it just before retiring for the night, as well as in the Kedushah [set-apart] service on Shabbat. Indeed, this succinct statement has become so central to the Jewish people that it is the climax of the final Ne’ilah [closing of the gates] prayer of Yom Kippur, and is traditionally a Jew’s last words on earth.” – Chabad.org – What is the Shema
So let’s take a closer look at the principal section of the Shema that we reviewed a few moments ago in Deuteronomy 6.
First, Moses states the purpose of this instruction in the opening verse: “These words, which I command you this day, shall be on your heart…” This is his over-arching objective in the instruction he is about to reveal: to have the words that God commands on their hearts, not just in their minds. When God’s Word is on the heart of the believer, then all of the actions that stem from that foundation will be correctly motivated and acted upon.
Moses then proceeds to explain how to imbue the entire community with the richness of God’s Word.
Deuteronomy 6:7 – “Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.”
Notice the progression he outlines here. First be sure the children are taught the truth of God’s Word. If they are not exposed to the Word of God on a regular basis, they will likely form their own opinions based on the corrupted cultures around them and they will potentially fall away from the one, true God to a belief system of the popular culture or one of their own making.
“You shall teach them to your children…” The Hebrew phrasing in this passage could be literally rendered as, “You shall diligently sharpen your children.” The imagery is that children need to be constantly honed in the things of God in order to be a useful implement to God throughout their lives, much like a sharp knife is much more useful than a dull one. This is a process, not a program. It is something they must be exposed to on a regular basis through the course of their lives.
Moses continues, “You shall talk of them…” The commands of God are something that should be a topic of discussion as situations are encountered each day, whether at home or out and about in the community, or traveling on an extended journey. How do God’s commands apply to what the children are experiencing, or the family situation that is at hand? What better way to demonstrate the truth of God’s Word than to live it out in our daily, practical experiences? But in order for believing parents to do so, they must also be imbued with God’s Word. Adults must take the time to understand how God’s Word applies in their lives as parents so they can faithfully share that wisdom with their children.
Moses says to talk about the commands of God “when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road.” This constant focus on God’s commands would show that his Word is being implemented within the daily fabric of the family, not only at home but when running errands or traveling. When children see that the God’s Word is a vital part of the parents’ lives at all times and in every place, they are more likely to be receptive to it themselves seeing that it has universal application.
He says to also be sure to review it “when you lie down and when you get up.” This is where Judaism derives the principle that the Shema should be recited twice daily: in the evening (when you lay down) and in the morning (when you get up).
As an aside, notice how the day is reckoned in Hebraic culture: first there is evening, then there is morning. We get a glimpse here of how sunset begins the day and the morning begins the second half of the day. In our Western culture, we might have stated it as “talk about God’s Word every morning, noon, and night.” But for ancient Hebrews, a total day is halved between darkness first, and light second. This mirrors the Creation narrative:
Genesis 1:2-3, 5 – Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. … God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” There was an evening [listed first], and there was a morning: one day.
Ancient cosmology aside, the focus of Moses’ command is to indeed have a constant attention to God’s Word throughout the totality of every day. If the Israelites were to do so, the commands of God would always be the constant focus of his people, acting on it from the heart in all they do.
The next section of the Shema illustrates another picture of the constancy of the Word within the hearts of the believing community.
Deuteronomy 6:8 – “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead.”
Now from this one sentence has come a Jewish tradition that was practiced up through the days of Yeshua and is still practiced by Jews today: the wearing of tefillin or phylacteries. From the website of the Jewish Virtual Library, we gain the following definition of tefillin:
“Tefillin are two small black boxes with black straps attached to them; Jewish men are required to place one box on their head and tie the other one on their arm each weekday morning… The Pharisees … took the text literally; the words of the Torah are to be inscribed on a scroll and placed directly between one’s eyes and on one’s arm.”
However, with the entire section of this instruction from Moses beginning with “these words shall be in your heart,” the command has also been understood to be figurative, in the sense that every thought (between the eyes) and every action (of the hands) should be prompted from the commands of God. The Jewish Virtual Library article also points out how various Jewish groups have had this type of interpretation over the years.
“Certain Jewish groups — including probably the Sadducees, and definitely the medieval Karaites — understood the last verse to be figurative; it means only that one should always be preoccupied with words of Torah, as if they were in front of one’s eyes.”
In my view, I believe that is the intent of Moses’ instruction, seeing how the primary emphasis is not on any outward show but on ensuring that the words of God are in the hearts of the believer. I think this is illustrated most clearly by seeing how this phrasing of signs and symbols on the hand and between the eyes is used in another section of Scripture where Moses is explaining about the annual practice of observing the week of Unleavened Bread at Passover.
Exodus 13:6-10 – “For seven days you must eat unleavened bread, and on the seventh day there is to be a festival to Yahweh. “Unleavened bread is to be eaten for those seven days. Nothing leavened may be found among you, and no yeast may be found among you in all your territory. On that day explain to your son, ‘This is because of what Yahweh did for me when I came out of Egypt.’ Let it serve as a sign for you on your hand and as a reminder on your forehead, so that Yahweh’s instruction may be in your mouth; for Yahweh brought you out of Egypt with a strong hand. Keep this statute at its appointed time from year to year.”
Notice how the practice of observing the week of unleavened bread was to be a sign on the hand (in practice) and a reminder on the forehead (in the mind). It was established as an annual object lesson to remind the ongoing Israelite descendants of the significance of the flight from Egypt. By keeping this command in a physical way, the believing community would be bringing to remembrance, as a memorial, the event that formed them into a nation of God’s own people.
Well, so far we have looked at the commands of Moses and how some Jewish traditions have sprung up around those commands. In a moment, as we continue to look at other commands and traditions, it is my hope that we can glean an understanding of the importance of keeping God’s Word at the foremost of our thoughts and actions every day.
Having reviewed some of Moses instruction in Deuteronomy, we now switch gears for a moment to review a secondary passage of the Shema that Israel recites each day from the book of Numbers.
Numbers 15:37-41 – Yahweh said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and tell them that throughout their generations they are to make tassels for the corners of their garments, and put a blue cord on the tassel at each corner. These will serve as tassels for you to look at, so that you may remember all Yahweh’s commands and obey them and not prostitute yourselves by following your own heart and your own eyes. This way you will remember and obey all my commands and be holy to your God. I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am Yahweh your God.”
So, a secondary practice that has arisen out of the texts of the Shema passages is the wearing of tassels on one’s garments. The tassels were to be reminders to be diligent in following all of God’s commands. There is nothing in this command that suggests it is a figurative type of imagery, but by all accounts it appears to be the literal description of a specific practice. When worn on one’s own clothing, the tassels were to be a personal reminder to keep God’s commands throughout every daily situation. Seeing others wearing the tassels would also bring to remembrance the diligence needed in keeping God’s commands.
But over the years, as the practice grew within the leadership of the community, it had become corrupted as well. The tassels had become the equivalent of a religious status symbol, and, as with all social trends, it began to be abused. People began to change the appearance of their tassels to appear more righteous than others by lengthening them beyond what the typical tassel might be. Between this and the practice of wearing tefillin as mentioned previously, these things led to a pious hypocrisy of the religious leaders that Yeshua ultimately called them out on. But note: Yeshua didn’t condemn the Jewish leaders for the wearing of tefillin or tassels, but he did confront them because those things had become status symbols depending on how large the scripture boxes were, or how long their tassels had become. The outward show had replaced the inward meaning, and this opened them up to pride and hypocrisy.
Matthew 23:2-7 – “The teachers of religious law and the Pharisees are the official interpreters of the law of Moses. So practice and obey whatever they tell you, but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach. They crush people with unbearable religious demands and never lift a finger to ease the burden. Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.'”
When the object lessons we use to remind ourselves of God’s commands or to teach others about his Word become the primary focus of our practice, then we have lost sight of the spirit of God’s Word and we have succumbed to the idolatry of our traditions. This can be a slippery slope, which is why I believe God prefers simplicity from the heart. If a believer today wants to wear tassels as object lessons in the genuine spirit of the command of being reminded of the significance of God’s Word throughout the day, then I believe they should be free to do so. But if the wearing of tassels is only for attempting to appear more righteous than others, then the tassels have become idolatrous. It’s not necessarily the practice itself (excepting outright idolatry) but the motivation behind it that has any value.
Returning now to the Deuteronomy passage, the final admonition from Moses regarding the commands of God in this section was to, “write them on the door posts of your house, and on your gates.” Again, this constant and intentional placing of God’s Word where everyone in the household and where guests would pass on a regular basis would serve as a reminder of God’s faithfulness in providing his people with his instruction. God’s instruction only has meaning when hear it, see it, and know it. The repetition of talking about it in the house and when traveling, to wear the tassels and see them on others, and to touch the commands of God in the entering and leaving of the home all work together to keep the believing family knowing the one true God.
It’s been said that immersion in a foreign culture is the best way to learn another language. In a sense, the Kingdom of God is foreign to the cultures of this world, and it takes immersion for us to truly understand the scope and power of its presence here in the lives of believers.
The idea of being intentional about how we handle God’s Word is the key. In reality, as Yeshua illustrated, there is nothing wrong with using physical reminders as object lessons for the deeper spiritual significance. A problem only arises when those physical reminders and traditions become the objective that surpasses the underlying spiritual meaning.
The method Moses outlined of identifying what is most important in the Bible and reviewing it in an intentional way should be an example to us today. It demonstrates the tenacity required to imbue our culture with a recognition of an obedient life, an upright and righteous life, a life of true integrity.
How diligent are we in making sure the words of God are in our hearts so we can act on them without even thinking? Like physical reflexes, we should respond to our situations and conditions in ways that honor God because his instruction is thriving in our hearts. When situations arise that demand our obedience, we shouldn’t have to seek commentaries and biblical concordances; we should be so imbued with God’s Word through our daily practices that his Spirit can bring those insights to the forefront of our thinking (between the eyes), and therefore our actions (through our hands), whenever needed.
Moses’ method in his template for the family and the community involves a constant, daily, repetitious routine that would saturate the culture of the people with God’s Word. Some of the practices were to become symbolic object lessons that would keep God’s Word before them at all times. If we could find ways to incorporate this level of diligence in our daily routines for ourselves and within our families, we would not only be following the commandments as God outlined through Moses, but we would also be living lives of integrity that would be clearly and intentionally patterned on God’s Word.
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