One Law and the Gentiles

There is only one law for both Jews and Gentiles, but that one law has many commandments, and not all of the commandments apply to everyone equally.

A Torah scroll wrapped up. (Image: © Bigstock)

Shelach

Regular Shabbat Readings

Read / Listen to these Portions

  • Shelach (שלח | Send)
  • Torah: Numbers 13:1-15:41
  • Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
  • Gospel: Matthew 10:1-14

Note: The regular readings are often interrupted with special readings on Jewish holidays, special Sabbaths, and Rosh Chodesh. Refer to the annual Torah Portion schedule for these special portions.

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Numbers 13:1 | Spies Sent into Canaan
    • Numbers 13:25 | The Report of the Spies
    • Numbers 14:1 | The People Rebel
    • Numbers 14:13 | Moses Intercedes for the People
    • Numbers 14:26 | An Attempted Invasion is Repulsed
    • Numbers 15:1 | Various Offerings
    • Numbers 15:32 | Penalty for Violating the Sabbath
    • Numbers 15:37 | Fringes on Garments
  • Prophets
    • Joshua 2:1 | Spies Sent to Jericho

Portion Summary

The thirty-seventh reading from the Torah is called Shelach (שלח), an imperative verb that means "send out." The portion is so named from the first few words of the second verse: "Send out for yourself men so that they may spy out the land of Canaan" (Numbers 13:2). The Torah reading tells the tragic story of how the spies returned with a bad report about the Land of Promise and influenced the congregation of Israel to rebel against the LORD. Thus God consigned the generation of Moses to wander in the wilderness for forty years.


The Torah says there is to be only one law for both Jews and aliens sojourning with the Jewish people. On the surface, this appears to be a simple statement, but when we dig deeper into biblical studies and interpretations, it becomes a complicated issue.

Most Gentile Christians do not keep the Torah’s ritual laws: Sabbaths, festivals, dietary laws, and ritual symbols like wearing tassels, phylacteries, or putting up a mezuzah scroll on the doorpost. This does not mean that Gentile Christians are godless or even lawless. Jewish believers are certainly bound to keep the whole Torah, but Gentile believers have never felt bound to the Torah’s external signs in the way that Jews are.

But does the Torah really make different laws for Jews and Gentiles? According to Numbers 15:15-16, there is to be only one law for both Jews and Gentiles:

As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for you and for the alien who sojourns with you, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as you are, so shall the alien be before the LORD. There is to be one Torah and one ordinance for you and for the alien who sojourns with you. (Numbers 15:15-16)

This seems simple enough. According to these verses, there is one law for both Jews and Gentiles. Therefore, Gentile believers should keep the whole Torah.

But wait. It’s not that clear.

First of all, the context deals not with the application of Torah as a whole, but specifically with the sacrifices. In other words, if an alien wanted to offer a sacrifice in the Temple he needed to follow the same Torah guidelines as the Israelite. The passage is not saying that all the laws of Torah apply equally to Jews and Gentiles.

Second, by the time of the apostles, the word translated as “alien” (ger, גר) was no longer understood as just a Gentile non-Jew. The Hebrew word had shifted its semantic value to refer specifically to a Gentile who had gone through a full, legal conversion to become Jewish, i.e., a proselyte. That conversion process included circumcision, immersion, and a sacrifice. That’s how the Greek version of the Torah (lxx) translates the word too. That’s probably how the apostles would have understood it. They would have interpreted Numbers 15:15-16 to read as follows:

As for the assembly, there shall be one statute for Jews and for the proselyte, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; as a Jew is, so shall the proselyte be before the LORD. There is to be one Torah and one ordinance for Jews and for the proselyte who sojourns with you. (Numbers 15:15-16, my paraphrase)

That reading makes it clear that both Jews and proselytes to Judaism are obligated to the same laws of Torah, but it does not help clear up the question of Gentile believers who have not become legally Jewish through a conversion. One might suppose that the Gentile believers who were fellowshipping in the apostolic communities should fit into the category of “the alien who sojourns with you,” but when the apostles considered this question in Acts 15, they left the matter open. They gave the Gentile believers four minimum standards for fellowship within the Jewish synagogue communities, but they did not issue a mandate clarifying Gentile obligation to the whole Torah.

The same open posture of Acts 15 seems to be reflected in the Didache. The Didache is allegedly a collection of apostolic instructions for Gentile believers.10 When discussing the question of how much Torah a Gentile is obligated to keep, the Didache recommends keeping all of it, but leaves the matter up to an individual’s capacity:

If you are able to bear all the yoke of the Lord [i.e., Torah], you will be perfect; but if you are not able, do as much as you are able to do. (Didache 6:2)

The Didache agrees with Numbers 15:15-16. There is not supposed to be a different Torah for Gentile believers. The Gentile believers are not supposed to have a different type of worship or religion. There is only one Torah for God’s people. The only question left open is to what extent the Gentile believer is obligated. Most of the laws of the Torah apply equally to Jewish and Gentile disciples of Yeshua.

On the other hand, Gentile believers are not obligated to keep all of the ceremonial laws as the Jewish believers such as circumcision and other distinct markers of Jewish identity like the calendar, the holy days, the dietary laws, and so forth. Despite that, the Bible does not create alternative Gentile versions of these institutions.

In the days of the apostles, the Gentile believers kept most of those things along with the Jewish believers as part of their participation in their shared religion.

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