What's The Good of Being A Jew?

by George F Spall

One brilliant day in early summer, I was floating dreamily in a rubber dinghy out on the Sea of Galilee. Out there, one had the advantage of being able to study the western hills that sloped down to the blue water, and gaze at the houses standing terraced, row on row like dolls' houses resting on the stairs.

One of those tiny dwellings was home to a family that was dear to me. I could pick it out, for it was peeking at me, squinting a bit over the roofs of the row in front and squeezing a bit to the side so that one of its windows could peer out on the lake and over to the hills that shell-fire had burned black the night before.

Later that evening, dried from my swim, I was soaking up the easy camaraderie of the Israeli family. It was a hot night, so the mistress of the home changed to a light short-sleeved blouse, and as I glanced at her I spotted what had always been hidden previously -- some ugly scars scouring deeply into the soft woman's flesh along the arm, blistered numbers that would be there till death dissolved them. As I winced, she smiled at me. "I was in the camps" -- a pregnant pause -- then, "I forgive them now and I try to forget too, for that is what God does."

For the life of me, I could not prevent the question, "What's the good of being a Jew?" from taking over my thoughts. There in Israel, one could not forget that there were thousands of others in the land with scars like that. Scars that went deeper and would be more soul-shattering than any wounds visible on the skin. I recalled the man back in my home town in Australia who had shown me scars like that. They had been caused by machine-gun bullets that had ripped through the surface of his back and shoulder, flesh wounds only but they still limited his earning capacity. The bullets had been fired from the roof of a train by the guards after he had flung himself out of the moving carriage as it slowed a little, crossing a junction in the track. The rest of his family had stayed aboard, and died in the camp that was their destination. His wife and children had all been on that train.

He too, had asked the question of me. "What IS the good of being a Jew?"

As one who carries memories of his own, I echo the question and hear it merge with other similar questions, bouncing back from the ravines and walls of human experience to find that it is one part of a bigger question and the answer can only be part of a much bigger answer. That answer must adequately deal with the bigger question: "Why is there such suffering at all?"


Four years or so before that Fall of the Holy City, the Jewish writer, Saul of Tarsus (called the Apostle Paul in the Scriptures) who had studied under Gamaliel had asked the same question. Being himself as he put it, "an Hebrew of the Hebrews" , he had some right to ask it and his answers are to be credited with some value.

He lists several advantages as he saw them. He was himself the victim of Gentile dislike and Jewish misunderstanding, but he was still very proud of his origins nevertheless. His answers have been preserved in the Letter to the Romans chapter 9, which is now incorporated into the New Testament, haBrit haHadassah.

"What advantage then has the Jew? Much every way" he replies (Romans 3:1,2) and lists them. (Romans 9:4,5).

1. "They are ISRAELITES." This honourable designation is saying more than merely that they are Jews and not Gentiles. It is a proud reference to the fact that centuries earlier, the Patriarch Jacob had had a remarkable encounter with the Angel of the Lord and was never the same again. Not only did he get a change of name but a change of character. It was as if he had experienced a new birth.

Eminent authorities, familiar with the ancient Greek and its rich vocabulary and grammar, men like Professors Vincent and Kenneth Wuest, point out that Saul of Tarsus, when writing the phrase "who are Israelites" used the word for "who" which emphasizes the character and quality of the man now called Israel. The Apostle is saying: These JEWS are ISRAELITES, sharing in the qualities of Israel their ancestor, and sharing in the covenants and privileges which became his, following that remarkable encounter described in Genesis 32:38. It really is "something" to inherit that sort of relationship.

I have known quite a few Jewish people and rarely met one who was willing to renounce his heritage. They know that to be an Israelite is to have a treasured quality of life. Becoming aware of, and obeying the truth that the Messiah fulfilled the Law and the Prophets in no way requires that a Jew needs to lose his identity as a Jew. None of the early believers who were Jewish did. Paul proudly announced his identity. "I also am an Israelite of the seed of Abraham, of the tribe of Benjamin " he writes in one place. A Jewish believer recently said that he felt that to know Jesus Christ as Lord is to be a complete Jew. "When I found that He had died for my sins and I accepted that, it did not mean I was no longer Jewish, only that Judaism as a religion does not save the soul or bring peace and forgiveness of sin as Y'shua does".

2. "They are the Sons of Jacob" in a special relationship which that Jewish writer we are quoting calls, "the adoption" or literally "son-placing". In Exodus 4:22 Israel as a nation is spoken of as "My son" and in Hosea 11:11 as a "born son" . It leaves no doubt at all that Israel's God regards this people as His own in a way that He regards no one else. Moses said: "And the Lord God has chosen you to be a peculiar people unto Himself above all the nations that are upon the earth." (Deuteronomy 14:2) and immediately lists the foods that are Kosher or forbidden because of this very fact. The very Kosher way of like is an outward expression of this divine claim. We accept that adoption as valid.

Israel regarded the slavery of Egypt as a "furnace of affliction" and the Lord felt the same way, for Moses goes on to say "Let my son go that he may serve me" and Isaiah quotes "I have chosen thee in the furnace of affliction" . There is surely reason to be proud of being adopted. We tell our own adopted children this lest they should feel outsiders. It is "special" to be Jewish.

3. "They have also the GLORY."  No doubt Paul was referring to that evidence of the Presence of God that led them out of Egypt, a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. That Shekinah or Presence stayed with them until it departed as a sign of the Lord's disapproval of the Nation's apostasy in Ezekiel's day. Ezekiel describes the Presence itself in his first three chapters, its departure in chapters 10 and 11, and promises that Israel is to see that Glory return and remain forever. To no other nation has that radiant Presence been entrusted.

4. " ... and the covenants" . Rabbi Saul goes on to speak of the advantage Jewish people have in their covenant relationship. God has made great covenants with His people, conditional and unconditional: the ABRAHAMIC (Genesis 12:1-3), an unconditional covenant in which God stated that in Abraham and his seed all the families of the earth would be blessed; the MOSAIC (Exodus 19:5-8, 20ff) a conditional covenant in which the people agreed to obey God in all His commandments; the CANAANIC (Deuteronomy 28,29,30), conditional on obedience in the Land; the DAVIDIC (2 Samuel 7:8-16, Psalm 89:3-4, Psalm 11:12), an unconditional covenant designating David's SEED to rule in Jerusalem, but conditional on David's sons' obedience, and the NEW COVENANT (Jeremiah 31:31-35), an unconditional covenant already partially fulfilled (Matthew 26:28). What a privilege to have a relationship with Almighty God as a nation that has produced such blessings for Mankind already, not to mention for the future.

5. " ... and the giving of the law" . Israel has never ceased to revere the Torah. It is the proud boast of all Jews that "Torah is ours". Attend any synagogue on any Sabbath or Holy Day and see if this is not so. It has been my delight to share the joy on Simchat Torah. Believe me – it is real. There is not a civilized government that has not derived its civilization directly from the Law of Moses. Millions of Jews have died because of their acceptance of and refusal to deny the Torah. Death is preferable to denial.

6. " ... and the service of God" Saul writes. The word he used for "service" is now more dear to the more formal Christian groups who follow a liturgy. The word for service is the basis of that same liturgy. The oldest liturgy in the world and the one that was divinely ordained was Jewish. The Levitical and Priestly services are in mind. Ezekiel, who foretold that one day Israel will receive back the Shekinah, also gives details of the Jewish liturgy that will form the basis of the world's form of worship in "the latter days."

7. " ... and the promises ". There is an air of excitement it seems to the writer as he rushes on through his list. For there are promises not yet fulfilled to Israel. The Prince of Peace, the Son of David is to reign over Israel when in full possession of the Land. There is to be permanent possession of it and it is to be associated with spiritual renewal which is to follow repentance.

8. " ... whose are the fathers" Saul exults. He regards the Patriarchs as a reason for pride, as do many many Jews. I well remember the delight in June 1967 when a lady, long resident in Jerusalem and whose family still lived there, telephoned me to share her joy. "Yitzhak has been up to the fathers", she rejoiced. I know what she meant. When the Arabs were defeated at Hebron in 1967, Jews could not be kept away from the Cave of Machpelah nearby, where are the treasured memorials of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rebekah and Leah. Her son had gone "up to the fathers", had climbed beyond the seven steps previously permissible only at certain times. Now the place where their bones rested is accessible. In New Testament days, to Jews living in the land, and always able to go there, the Cave of Machpelah was a constant reminder of the Jewish advantages. Unfortunately, the reason for this ancient pride in the fathers is rather overlooked. "These all died in faith" is the proud epitaph written over them by one writer to the Hebrews. It was the faith of Abraham that endeared him to the God he worshipped and obeyed. Saul pertinently remarked, "Abraham's faith was accounted to him for righteousness" . He did not go about trying to make out he was in himself righteous and expecting God to receive him into eternal bliss because of it. This is a serious mistake still being made by many people today.

There is a decided association in Saul's mind between "the fathers" and the coming of the Messiah, Y'shua ha Mashiach, for he writes "of whom as concerning the flesh, Christ came" . It is an advantage to be Jewish because the Messiah is come in the flesh as a direct descendant of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is Israel's Go-el, Kinsman Redeemer, Who one day will sit on "the throne of His father David, and He shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of His kingdom there shall be no end." (Luke 1:32-33).