Ephraim: Counting the Torah as a Strange Thing
“Because Ephraim hath made many altars to sin, altars shall be unto him to sin. I have written to him the great things of My law, but they were counted as a strange thing.” - Hosea 8:11f
There are different degrees of strangeness. If someone says they think something is strange, they might mean that it is just a bit odd or unusual or unexpected. Or they might mean that it is eerie, weird, bizarre, creepy. Most of the time they mean that it is somewhere between the slightly unusual and the extremely weird and creepy.
In Hosea’s time, the Torah that God gave through Moses was considered “a strange thing” to Ephraim. The Torah is still considered a strange thing in varying degrees to many modern-day Ephraimites in the church world today. If you talk about the commandments of God’s Law (specifically about commandments which are neglected by most Christians) many Christians think those commandments are strange.
“Mezuzahs on the doorposts of your home? Strange. Fringes on a four-cornered garment? Strange. Church on Saturday instead of on Sunday? Strange. Ancient dietary laws prescribed in Deuteronomy? Strange. Old Testament holidays from Leviticus? Strange. Unleavened Bread and Feast of Tabernacles? I don’t know what those things are, but they sure sound strange.”
Depending on the Christian’s knowledge of the Bible and his exposure to Messianic teachings, the strangeness he feels about such things will range anywhere from the slightly unusual to the extremely bizarre and creepy. Or to the laughable.
Yes, I have actually heard Christians laugh and scoff at some of these God-given commandments. If they would think more deeply about it, they would realize that they are laughing and scoffing at the One who gave these commandments. If these laughing, scoffing Christians knew the Bible better, they would realize that their laughing response to God’s laws is similar to the response of those who oppose Yahweh and His Messiah in Psalm 2, those who view God’s laws as bands that bind them and as cords that confine them. “Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us,” the rebellious say (Ps. 2:3). They want to be free of God’s strange laws. They may scoff and laugh at God’s commandments now, but God will have the last laugh, because the very next verse says “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: Yahweh shall have them in derision. Then shall He speak unto them in His wrath, and vex them in His sore displeasure” (Ps. 2:4f).
Those who laugh and scoff at God’s “strange” commandments will someday have their mouths stopped. Their laughter will be silenced when Yahweh laughs at them and derides them. But His laughter and derision will not be a good-natured chuckle that invites them to share in the laughter, because His laughter will be followed by His words of wrath and vexation and sore displeasure. If you make the Lord sore, you are going to be vexed in His sore displeasure. So I’d be careful about scoffing and laughing at God-given commandments.
Even without any scoffing or laughing, why do some Christians think that some of God’s commandments are strange? Simply because these commandments have never been a regular part of their lives. And if they have never seen anyone else (Jews or Torah-keeping non-Jews) practicing these commandments, they seem even stranger. And for Biblically-illiterate Christians who are not even aware of the existence of these commandments, they seem even stranger still.
For people of faith, the idea of what is strange and what is normal is usually based on their own church background and their personal religious experience. If a Christian grows up in a formal, liturgical church with bells and incense, candles and snuffers, elaborate rituals and prescribed prayers chanted in a foreign language, he thinks this type of worship is normal. It does not seem strange to him at all, because he is used to it. But put him in a loud, lively, wild, spontaneous, hyper-charismatic Holy Ghost revival meeting for the very first time, and he will think that’s strange - just as a Christian whose only church experience is of the wild, spontaneous, charismatic kind would think that a formal liturgical church service is strange.
After I wrote the above paragraph but before I typed this article (I write all my articles in pencil before typing them), I happened to read about a real-life example that perfectly illustrates this. Benyamin Cohen, a son of an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, decided to visit different Christian churches every Sunday for a full year to see how Christians worship God. Having lived his entire life in an insulated Jewish community, he did not know what to expect. In his book My Jesus Year (HarperCollins, 2008), he writes about the things he saw and tells how those things appear to an outsider who is clueless about Christian forms of worship. Much of what he saw and heard seemed very strange to him. What is interesting is that the Christian forms of worship that seemed the least strange to him were those forms that most resembled the Jewish worship he grew up with. Listen to what he says about his visit to St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church:
“As for the service itself, it’s all very ritualistic. That’s what I’m used to. So much of what I had witnessed at other churches was completely foreign to me, especially the prayers themselves... But here at St. Bart’s they were reciting an ancient liturgy, reading Psalms, and performing traditional rituals. This is the first time since I started this trip that I feel a connection to what Christians are doing during the service... about five different church leaders are now on the dais, all in Crusade-era robes, preparing for Communion with an elaborate wine-pouring ceremony using shiny silver vessels over a large table. All of them are facing the middle one, a slight reference to the Last Supper I suppose, in this moving ecclesial ritual... this reminds me of the Jewish prayer known as the Yizkor” (page 90f).
Reading through Benyamin Cohen’s book, it is obvious that the degree of strangeness he felt at various Christian meetings was determined by how different things were from his own personal religious experience in a traditional Jewish synagogue. The Christian services that were the most similar to a synagogue service were the least strange to him, and the Christian services that were the most different from a synagogue service were the strangest to him.
If some of God’s commandments seem strange to you, it is only because you are a stranger to them. But you do not need to remain a stranger to them. You can get acquainted with these commandments by starting to practice them. Just as a stranger can be transformed into a friend by spending time together, so these strange commands can become a familiar part of your faith. As you become more familiar with these forgotten commandments, you will begin to appreciate them and you will thank your heavenly Father for giving us these commandments for our own good. You will welcome these commandments like a man welcomes a familiar friend into his home.
When you learn about God-given commandments that seem strange to you, you can embrace them and learn to do them. The longer you do them, the less strange they will seem to you. Or, you can reject them and remain a stranger to them. You can ridicule and despise them the way xenophobic folks ridicule and despise foreigners who seem strange to them. But God has a long list of curses promised to those who despise His commandments. “And if ye shall despise My statutes, or if your soul abhor My judgments, so that ye will not do all My commandments...” (Lev. 26:15). You can read the curses that God promises to those who despise His statutes and abhor His judgments in Leviticus 26. It’s scary.
Hosea also said that Ephraim made many altars to sin. Why did Yahweh consider Ephraim’s altars “altars to sin”? Because after the children of Israel entered the Promised Land and built the Temple, there was to be only one altar. In Deuteronomy 12, Yahweh said that He would designate one specific place for sacrifices:
“Then there shall be a place which Yahweh your God shall choose to cause His name to dwell there; thither shall ye bring all that I command you; your burnt offerings, and your sacrifices, your tithes, and the heave offering of your hand, and all your choice vows which ye vow unto Yahweh... Take heed to thyself that thou offer not thy burnt offerings in every place that thou seest: but in the place which Yahweh shall choose in one of thy tribes, there thou shalt offer thy burnt offerings, and there thou shalt do all that I command thee” (Deut. 12:11, 13f).
The place the Lord designated for sacrifices was Jerusalem. The altars of Ephraim were in effect competitive altars, and therefore “altars to sin.” The very first altar of Ephraim was built by King Jeroboam, who set up two golden calves, one in Beth-el and one in Dan. The reason Jeroboam did this was to discourage the people from going to the Temple in Jerusalem to worship. The ten northern tribes had split from the tribe of Judah and the house of David, and Jeroboam feared that the people would turn against him if they went to Jerusalem to worship:
“If this people go up to do sacrifice in the house of Yahweh at Jerusalem, then shall the heart of this people turn again unto their lord, even unto Rehoboam king of Judah, and they shall kill me, and go again to Rehoboam king of Judah. Whereupon the king took counsel, and made two calves of gold, and said unto them, It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem: behold thy gods, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (1 Kings 12:27f).
King Jeroboam burned incense on the altar at Beth-el, and a man of God from Judah prophesied against the altar. When Jeroboam stretched forth his hand and called for the man of God to be arrested, Jeroboam’s hand dried up. The altar was supernaturally rent asunder, and the ashes poured out.
But all this did not stop Ephraim from building more altars to sin. By the time Hosea came along, he could say “Ephraim hath made many altars to sin.” Ephraim continued to follow the example of Jeroboam, their first king.
There is an important lesson for Christians in the story of King Jeroboam and Ephraim’s altars. If God’s covenant people do not do things the way God prescribes in His Word, then they end up doing it their own way. If they do not want to follow God’s instructions, then they just make stuff up to serve as substitutes for the things God said to do. And usually the man-made stuff is very similar to the commandment of God that it is replacing, just as counterfeit money is very similar to real money. An undiscerning eye will not detect counterfeit money, and an undiscerning Christian will not detect counterfeit substitutes for the commandments of God.
King Jeroboam not only made counterfeit altars. He also set up a counterfeit priesthood that consisted of people “which were not of the sons of Levi” (1 Kings 12:31). Then he ordained a man-made feast similar to the Feast of Tabernacles, but in the eighth month instead of the seventh month, the month for Tabernacles. “And Jeroboam ordained a feast in the eighth month, on the fifteenth day of the month, like unto the feast that is in Judah” (1 Kings 12:32). The Bible makes a point to tell us that this substitute feast of Jeroboam was the fifteenth day of the eighth month, “in the month which he had devised of his own heart” (1 Kings 12:33).
If you are familiar with Church history, you know that Rome, like Jeroboam, set up a counterfeit, substitute priesthood consisting of people “which were not of the sons of Levi.” You also know that Rome decreed that Sunday serve as a substitute for the seventh-day Sabbath, just as Jeroboam decreed that his feast of the eighth month serve as a substitute for the Feast of Tabernacles in the seventh month. This is even more remarkable when you know that Sunday was called “the eighth day” by Christians shortly after the Church began its decline into apostasy. The anti-Semitic apocryphal Epistle of Barnabas claims that the “real Sabbath” came when God “usher[ed] in the Eighth Day, the commencement of a new world. (And we too rejoice in celebrating the eighth day [i.e., Sunday]; because that was when Jesus rose from the dead” (Barn. 15:16f).
But this change was all man’s doing, not God’s. God did not usher in an “eighth-day/first-day” Sunday to replace the seventh-day Sabbath any more than He ushered in Jeroboam’s eighth-month feast to replace the Feast of Tabernacles of the seventh month. Jeroboam’s eighth-month feast was a feast “which he had devised of his own heart,” and Rome’s eighth-day replacement of the seventh-day Sabbath was something which Church leaders devised of their own hearts. And because this system is the only form of worship that most Christians know, the Biblical system is now regarded as a strange thing by many Christians.
The altars of Ephraim were allegedly built to offer sacrifices to Yahweh, not to pagan gods. Even Jeroboam’s altars by the golden calves were allegedly for the God of Israel who had brought them out of Egypt. Jeroboam pointed at the golden calves and said, “Behold thy elohim, O Israel, which brought thee up out of the land of Egypt (1 Kings 12:28).
Hosea said that Ephraim was offering sacrifices on their altars, “but Yahweh accepteth them not” (Hos. 8:13).
If Yahweh did not accept sacrifices on the altars built by Ephraim of old, will He accept worship offered on altars built by modern-day Ephraimites, altars that are built as substitutes for God-given commandments because God’s commandments seem strange?
If some of God’s Torah seems strange to you because you have never practiced it or seen others do it, that is understandable. But please consider the following:
Suppose the Church had universally continued to keep the Sabbath on the seventh day all these centuries and it was all you had ever known. Then suppose someone suggested abandoning the Sabbath and having church on Sundays instead. You would think that was a strange idea! And if the Church had universally continued to celebrate God’s holy days as prescribed in Leviticus 23, and someone suggested scrapping God’s calendar and substituting holidays and traditions borrowed from pagan idolatry, you would think that was strange! And if the Church had universally continued to follow the God-given dietary laws, and someone suggested disregarding those laws and prescribing abstinence from meat on Fridays and voluntary abstinience from various foods during the 40-day mourning period when pagan women wept for Tammuz, you would think that was strange!
If God’s Torah seems strange to you, don’t let it remain that way. Acquaint yourself with the ancient paths that were trodden by the Patriarchs and Prophets and the Messiah and His Apostles.