Do we need to believe in God, or just keep the Law?

Lawbook or Narrative?

The Bible, even the Torah section alone, isn’t a lawbook. The Torah is a story. If you open to the beginning of the Torah, you won’t find a preamble to a law code. You’ll find the story of God creating the world and how God and humans lived in it together. In the beginning, everything was good, and there was peace. As you keep reading, only turn a few pages, and you’ll see the humans rebel against God, and the good world becomes corrupted by evil. At this moment, God explained to the humans that they had subjected the world to evil. At the same time, he also gave them hope by saying he had a plan to crush that evil (Gen. 3:15). Already, in the introduction to the Torah, we see that this is not a law book. It is a story about God dealing with the evil that humans polluted the world with.

As the story continues, you see God working through human history to destroy evil, as he promised he would in Genesis 3:15. Though it’s not a lawbook, there are laws in the story, and they become a critical part of this story. The law advances the story; God gave a legal code to characters in the story, namely the people of Israel. So we need to understand Israel’s laws in their literary context – within the story that the Torah tells. That does not mean that Israel wasn’t really supposed to keep these laws. After all, the people of Israel aren’t just characters in the story. They are also actual historical figures and a  living people group today. 

The Story is about Faith

Abraham and Belief

The Torah has much to say about Faith, or belief in God’s promises. Abraham’s story tells us a lot about what God thinks about faith. The Torah refers to Abraham as a righteous man. In Genesis 12, God commanded Abraham to leave his home and his family, and Abraham dutifully obeyed. Later, God commanded Abraham to circumcise his entire household. That’s a scary command to follow as an adult, but Abraham obeyed. God even asked Abraham to give up his beloved son, and Abraham obeyed this too – until finally, God said he would provide the sacrifice himself. Yet Abraham isn’t called a righteous man in connection with any of these stories of his obedience. In Genesis 15:6, God made Abraham a promise, and Abraham believed it. It is here that God credited Abraham’s belief to “his account” as righteousness.

“Then he believed in YHWH; and He credited it to him as righteousness.”

  Genesis 15:6

It wasn’t because of Abraham’s obedience to God’s commands that he was counted righteous. It was because of his belief or trust in God. This is why God told the prophet Habakkuk, “the righteous one will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Okay, but what about unbelief? How does God feel about that? Only a little later in the story, God was more specific about His promise to Abraham, but this time his wife Sarah overheard, and she didn’t believe God would follow through. God promised to miraculously give Abraham and Sarah children in their old age, and Sarah thought it was impossible. God didn’t let this slide and rebuked Sarah for her unbelief. Just as God counted Abraham as righteous for believing Him, God rebuked Sarah for not believing in Him.

“He said, ‘I will certainly return to you at this time next year; and behold, your wife Sarah will have a son’… So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I have become old, am I to have pleasure, my lord being old also?” But YHWH said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh, saying, ‘Shall I actually give birth to a child, when I am so old?’ Is anything too difficult for YHWH? At the appointed time I will return to you, at this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” Sarah denied it, however, saying, “I did not laugh”; for she was afraid. And He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

Genesis 18: 10-15

God wants Israel to Believe

Just as we saw that God counted Abraham’s belief, not his obedience, as righteousness, God told Moses that what he desires from his people is their belief. He told Moses he was going to appear to the people in a thick cloud and they would hear YHWH’s voice speak the laws from the cloud. The Moment before God started to give the law to the people, he told Moses why he was going to give the law in such a spectacular way – because he wanted them to believe! 

“Then YHWH said to Moses, “Behold, I will come to you in a thick cloud, so that the people may hear when I speak with you and may also trust in you forever.”

Exodus 19:9

Unbelief and Death

We know that God wants his people to have faith in him because of what God told Moses at Sinai (Ex. 19:9 above), and we know that God considers belief so vital that he counted Abraham righteous because of his belief and not because of his obedience (Gen. 15:6). It’s clear that belief is a good thing, but our question remains, is belief necessary if you keep the law?  Today, rabbis teach that while it is good to believe in God, keeping the law is more important.  Rabbi David Rosen, the former Chief Rabbi of Ireland, put it this way. “In fact, if Judaism has to choose between someone believing but not doing and someone doing but not believing, it prefers the latter.” In Judaism, the Torah is the Supreme text, the ultimate standard for measuring all correct Jewish understandings. So if it is more important to follow the rules than to believe, you’d expect the Torah to corroborate that. But the Torah teaches the opposite, that God doesn’t just want people to follow his rules, but what he ultimately wants is their trust, their belief.

Israel and Unbelief

While the people were still at Mt. Sinai, after God gave the law to Moses, the people didn’t believe in him. Not only that, God told Israel to go into the land he promised them, and they didn’t obey him. When God rebuked them for not going into the land, he didn’t mention their disobedience, he focused on why they didn’t obey. He was angry with them not because they didn’t do what he said but because they didn’t believe in Him.

“And YHWH said to Moses, ‘How long will this people be disrespectful to Me? And how long will they not believe in Me, despite all the signs that I have performed in their midst?”

Numbers 14:11

Later in the story, as the people were preparing to enter the promised land, Moses reminded the people of the times they didn’t believe. In his farewell address, Moses thought it was crucial to remind Israel how serious it was to not trust in God and implore them to believe in him when they went into the land.

“Yet in spite of all this, you did not trust YHWH your God…”

Deut. 1:32 

“And when YHWH sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, ‘Go up and take possession of the land which I have given you,’ you rebelled against the command of YHWH your God; you neither trusted Him nor listened to His voice.”

Deut. 9:23

Moses and Unbelief

Then we learn that the reason Moses and Aaron weren’t allowed to enter the Promised land was because of their disbelief. By not allowing even Moses and Aaron into the Promised Land, God highlights the great significance he places on belief.

“But YHWH said to Moses and Aaron, ‘Since you did not trust in Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, for that reason you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.’”

Numbers 20:12 (Emphasis Mine)

The Torah doesn’t connect righteousness to obedience or to following the law, but it does connect righteousness to believing in God. Israeli Scholars Seth Postell, Eitan Bar, and Erez Soref explain well what Israel’s unbelief teaches us about the law.

“If Moses were presenting the law as the key to Israel’s righteousness, why would he highlight the vital connection between faith and righteousness before the law, and then tell the story of Israel’s breakdown of faith and lack of righteousness once God gave the law?”

Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus

What Does it Mean to Believe in God Today?

We can see from all these stories of Israel’s disbelief, that believing in God clearly does not mean believing that God exists. Israel knew God personally. They watched him appear before them in fire and they heard his voice. They even acknowledged his existence when they decided to disobey him.

So why is YHWH bringing us into this land to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become plunder! Would it not be better for us to return to Egypt?” So they said to one another, “Let’s appoint a leader and return to Egypt!”

Numbers 14:3-4

They obviously believed that God existed and knew he brought them out of Egypt. But they didn’t trust him that it was a good idea, and they didn’t trust him to take care of them. So they decided to disobey him and go back to Egypt. When God rebuked them for this, he said they didn’t believe in Him. So we see that believing in God means putting your trust in him. The way the bible uses the phrase “believing in God” is similar to when a father says to his son, “I believe in you” before a big game. The father isn’t telling his son, “I know you exist, son.” He means,  “I know you can do it!”

Why is it so important to God that his people have faith in him? God created men and women to be in relationship with himself. Abraham Heschel, a prominent Jewish theologian put it this way in his book God in Search of Man, “The true meaning of existence is disclosed in moments of living in the presence of God.” God wants a genuine relationship with us, and all relationships are built on Trust. God reached out and proved that he was trustworthy. Just before he brought the Israelites to Mt. Sinai, death was coming for all the firstborns in Egypt. But God rescued all the Israelite firstborns by having death pass over all the doors with the lamb’s blood! He proved he was trustworthy by saving every firstborn Jewish person.

The Israelites wandering in the desert showed their unbelief in God by not trusting him to bring them safely into the promised land. But you aren’t roaming in the desert, so does God expect you to trust in him today? Yes, he does.

The Hebrew Bible’s Message for You

Humanity’s Problem

The Hebrew Bible teaches that sin (doing evil) separates us from God, and the punishment of sin is death. Everyone who sins will die.

“…Behold, all souls are Mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is Mine. The soul who sins will die.”

Ezekial 18:4

“But your wrongdoings have caused a separation between you and your God…”

Isaiah 59:2

This is a problem for us because I don’t know anyone who’s been perfect their whole life and has never done anything wrong. The Hebrew Bible confirms this by telling us over and over again that everyone has sinned with no exceptions (Gen. 8:21, 1 Kings 8:46, Ecclesiastes 7:20). So everyone is headed for death unless God rescues them. The Prophet Daniel wrote that some will die, but not everyone, some will have eternal life (Daniel 12:2). And now we know that life comes from faith, not from the law.

There is a Solution

Why is it possible for someone who has sinned and done evil things to simply believe in God and be released from the consequence of their sin? The Prophet Isaiah answered that question. He told us that someone would take the punishment in our place. A man who was rejected and pierced for our sins and wrongdoings.

“But He was pierced for our offenses, He was crushed for our wrongdoings; The punishment for our well-being was laid upon Him, And by His wounds we are healed.”

Isaiah 53:5

At first, it doesn’t seem like a good God would do that. Why would a good God let one man die to take the punishment of everyone else on himself? Because God said that it would be himself who was pierced for us.

“And I [God]  will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and of pleading, so that they will look at Me whom they pierced; and they will mourn for Him”

Zechariah 12:10

God said they will look at “me” whom they “pierced” and mourn for him. From the beginning of the Torah, God planned on rescuing us by taking the punishment that you and I deserved so that we could live. And he wants us to trust that he will rescue us. This trust is an individual decision. In Psalm 2:12, God says that everyone will die for their sins except those who take refuge in him by giving their allegiance to his son the Messiah.

“Kiss the Son, that He not be angry and you perish on the way, For His wrath may be kindled quickly. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!”

Psalm 2:12

Kissing a king was a well-known sign of giving allegiance to a king. And just a few sentences earlier, God called his son the King/Messiah (Psalm 2:6-7). To have the eternal life that God offers us, we must trust him to rescue us. We do that by giving our allegiance to God’s son the King – the Messiah. Putting our faith in God’s rescue plan looks like making the Messiah, the King of our life.

Who is the Messiah?

Who is the Messiah? The Hebrew scriptures teach that he would be rejected, suffer, and die to answer for the sins of others, yet somehow live again and even reign as king. Then at the very end of the second temple Period, Jesus, or Yeshua, taught that he was this messiah who would suffer and die to bring life to others. The Jewish elders didn’t believe him and had him arrested. They turned him over to the Romans, who flogged him and publicly crucified him. Three days later, he was seen alive, first by some of his women followers, then by all of his followers, then by more than 500 people at one time. And he told all of these people what he had been teaching them since before his execution, and what the Hebrew Bible had been teaching since Moses. That God loved the world so much that he sent his son to earth so that anyone who believes in him will have eternal life. That Anyone who believes in him won’t die, but whoever does not believe is already condemned to death because of their sin.

“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world might be saved through Him. The one who believes in Him is not judged; the one who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”

John 3:16-18
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