Light from the Sidra

Yitro ('Jethro')

Torah: Exodus 18:1-20:23(26)*.Haftarah:Isaiah 6:1-7:6;9:5-6(6-7)*

A Contract with God?

In 1978, the brilliant comic book artist Will Eisner published the original ‘Graphic Novel’, The Contract with God. In it, Eisner tells the story of a young pious Jew, Frimme Hersh, who draws up a contract with God, which he writes on stone. He vows that, in exchange for God’s favour, he will devote his life to good works. Frimme remains faithful to his contract until one day, the abandoned child he has adopted as his own daughter dies. Frimme spits on his contract and turns away from God and good works. As an old man, he commissions a group of wise rabbis who are knowledgeable in the ‘Word of God’ to draw up a legally-binding contract between him and his Maker. 

‘At last,’ says Frimme, ‘I have a genuine contract with God! I will make a new life. I will give … I will do charitable work again … and, and after all, I am not too old to marry. I shall have a daughter … and I shall name her Rachelle, yes, yes!!’

‘This time,’ declares Frimme, stabbing a finger at heaven, ‘You will not violate our contract. This time, I have three witnesses! This time I …’ Frimme promptly suffers a heart attack and dies.

There are people who talk about the Jews making a contract or covenant with God at Sinai. Avodah Zerah 2b in the Talmud says, ‘The Holy One, blessed be He, offered the Torah to every nation and every tongue, but none accepted it, until He came to Israel who received it.’

Rabbi Abraham Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of Israel, taught that Avodah Zerah 2b implied that the Torah is beyond the ‘spiritual level’ of the other nations and that Mount Sinai ‘brought enmity upon the nations of the world’ because the nations ‘rejected the Torah and its ethical teachings.’ Israel, by contrast, took on the yoke of the Torah.

The fact is, no one can initiate a contract with God. In the Bible, God always initiates covenants. He did it with Noah in Genesis 9:8 (‘I now establish my covenant with you and your offspring to come…’) and with Abraham in Genesis 15:18 (‘On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram…’). The covenant with Abram and the covenant established at Sinai are always referred to as ‘his covenant’. When Jehoiada entered into a covenant in 2 Kings 11:17, it was a covenant to be faithful to the covenant God made at Sinai. The same applies to Josiah’s covenant in 2 Kings 23:3.

In Will Eisner’s parable, Frimme Hersch draws up his own covenant and expects God to agree to his demands. Even when he pays the rabbis to draw up a contract for him, the picture is far removed from the biblical picture of a God who, out of sheer love, chooses Israel to be his people and enters into covenant with them.

Israel’s appropriate response was to love the God who loved them and live in obedience to his covenant instructions. ‘All that the LORD has said we will do’ they said but promptly broke his covenant, and continued to do so.

The great tragedy is that even religious Jews fail to see how far short they fall of keeping the Torah. A few years ago, I drove a well-known rabbi from London to Oxford where he was to take part in a debate with a fellow Jew who believes Jesus is the Messiah. The previous night, the rabbi had declared publicly that he was a righteous man. On both evenings, however, in order to score points over his Messianic Jewish opponent, he falsely accused him of stating that the Holocaust was a punishment for the Jews rejecting their Messiah.

But things got worse. The Rabbi, like all Orthodox Jews, is so careful to avoid taking God’s name in vain that he won’t even write the name; he spells it G-d. As we arrived in Oxford, he suddenly began to exclaim repeatedly, ‘Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God…’

He had to catch a flight early the next morning and discovered that he had left his passport in London. And, in that predicament, he did what we normally expect godless people to do; he began to vainly invoke the name of God. Ironically, the very people he called as law-breakers extricated him from the situation.

In Eisner’s story, when God fails to honour Frimme Hersh’s contract, Frimme spits on the contract and throws it away. From Sinai to the Exile, Israel repeatedly broke God’s covenant but God did not reject them. Instead, on the eve of the Babylonian exile he promised to make an even better covenant with Israel, an unbreakable ‘new covenant’ in which he would write his Torah on the hearts and minds of his people, and under which he would forgive their sins (see Jer. 31:31ff).

The commandments on stone have long disappeared, as has the temple and the sacrifices. But the New Covenant was established on the basis of better promises and conditions, and with a better sacrifice than all the bulls, goats and sheep that were offered at Sinai. And all that is required of us is that we repent and believe the Good News of that covenant.

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