The Ethics of Ya’acov

The Ethics of Ya’acov (died 62 CE):

The oldest book in the New Testament is the Book or Letter/Epistle of James. The author’s name,  Ya’acov (or Yaakov) HaTzadik, has  been transliterated to Jacob (‘the Righteous’) and then to James (the Just)!

Josephus wrote of him: “He was surnamed the Righteous because of both his piety towards God and his benevolence to his countrymen.”  (translated from Josephus, ‘Antiquities’, Xii.43)

His letter is a letter of encouragement and of ethics.

For example, Ya’acov speaks out against:

  • a superficial  hearing of God’s Word;
  • pious speech on what the Jewish people should believe, but little practice of the same;
  • the error of being dogmatic about both the Written and Oral Torah, yet not fully understanding proper practice – for example, the healing of a man on the Sabbath[1];
  • a failure to fulfill the most foundational requirements of Torah, while at the same time getting pedantic about the more minor requirements (the narrative in Matthew 23 is a great example of this where Yeshua finishes (see v23) his condemnation with a reference to the great Micah 6:8 passage. See James 1:26 for just one example of how Ya’acov addresses this;
  • the pursuing of wealth which leads to divided loyalties between riches and YHVH;
  • the futility of the exercise of prayer without faith in God;
  • the slandering and cursing of their neighbours, and;
  • the taking of oaths too lightly (perhaps indicative of a lack of commitment to the path of holiness).

Just as a number of Jewish scholars, such as Joseph Klausner[2] of Hebrew University in Jerusalem (1874-1958), have recognized that Yeshua was a great ethical teacher, the same emphasis on ethics is seen in this short Book of James/Ya’acov.

It starts with a message of encouragement to those facing temptations/trials. Part of the answer from Ya’acov to such challenges is to call his readers to heed the Torah because it brings freedom!

“But if a person looks closely into the perfect Torah, which gives freedom, and continues, becoming not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work it requires, then he will be blessed in what he does.” James 1:25[3]

With the Exodus, the Jewish people were freed from physical slavery in order to voluntarily place themselves under the restrictions of moral integrity.

As Rabbi Benjamin Blech states in ‘Freedom without limits’: Freedom without any restraints may very well be just as destructive as slavery. “No one can ever tell me what to do” – an idea not limited by ethical constraints – is potentially just as much a threat to the social order as slave masters…”.  

For example, in James 1:12 he writes How blessed is the man who perseveres through temptation! For after he has passed the test, he will receive as his crown the Life which God has promised to those who love him.”  We see here that obedience and perseverance in obedience brings the ‘Crown of Life’.

Yaacov’s call in v1:22Don’t deceive yourselves by only hearing what the Word says, but do it! is strongly reminiscent of much of what Yeshua declared in terms of obedience to the divine instructions (Torah) of the Almighty. For example, in Matt 12:50 we read: For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

In chapter 2:13, Ya’acov having just stressed the need to be obedient to all 10 of the Ten Words, then makes the powerful call to his Jewish brethren to both speak and act with this appreciation of the Ten Words, while recognizing that ultimately while the Almighty will judge us in terms of our obedience to Torah, His mercy will temper and even triumph over His judgment so that we need have no anxiety with respect to our, at times, imperfect obedience to the perfect Torah of freedom:  So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the Torah of liberty. For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:12-13

In this statement I believe we can also hear the echo of Micah 6:8: He has shown you, O man, what is good. What does YHVH require of you, but to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”

This is even further accentuated when Ya’acov goes on to write:

“18 But someone will say that you have faith and I have actions. Show me this faith of yours without the actions, and I will show you my faith by my actions!
19 You believe that “God is one”? Good for you! The demons believe it too — the thought makes them shudder with fear!”
– James 2:18-19

Notice that Ya’acov is extremely emphatic that ‘faith’ or belief without ‘works’ or ‘actions’ is no faith at all. As he confirms, even the demons have faith or believe that YHVH is One, that there is no God beside Him, but such faith of demons will not save them because they are not exercising such knowledge of the One True God.

Ya’acov is so strong on the need to act according to our faith in YHVH that he gives the analogy that just as a person dies when their ‘spirit’ (the breath of God, or that which animates them) leaves them, so to, faith that is not exhibited through living obedience is really dead or non-existent.

Indeed, just as the body without a spirit is dead, so too faith without actions is dead.” – James 2:26

Further confirmation, though not needed, is then seen in v22 where Ya’acov clarifies that ‘works’ or actions (i.e. obedience) ‘completes’ faith:
“22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;
23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness—and he was called a friend of God.
24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.”
– James 2:22-24 (ESV)

I also love the humble and gracious manner in which Yaacov explains that a life of obedience to Torah, being a life of true freedom, is then also, by implication, a life that exhibits a pure and peaceful attitude towards others, so that it can be seen that the faithful servant of YHVH is truly ‘loving his neighbor as himself’.

“Who among you is wise and understanding? Let him demonstrate it by his good way of life, by actions done in the humility that grows out of wisdom.” – James 3:13

“But the wisdom from above is, first of all, pure, then peaceful” James 3:17

For more, see my article ‘James the Just: Reevaluating his legacy’ at circumcisedheart.info

[1] Luke 13:14 “but the President of the synagogue, indignant that Yeshua had healed on Shabbat, spoke up and said to the congregation, “there are six days in the week for working; so come during those days to be healed, not on Shabbat!”  Yeshua was falsely accused. He is both condoning a practice that had developed (Oral Torah), and expanding it in an intriguing way. The practice had been developed that if a boy’s 8th day from birth was the Sabbath, the person (a ‘mohel’) performing the circumcision was allowed to break the Sabbath by carrying the tools required through the village and performing the ritual. It was considered that when this conflict between the requirements of observing the Sabbath and of circumcising a male child on the 8th day were in conflict the circumcision took precedence. If however the child was ill on his 8th day since birth (which say was the Wednesday) and he was not well until the Saturday, the Sabbath, the ruling was that now, the Sabbath took precedence and so the circumcision would not be performed until a later day. Yeshua by his comments appears to condone this approach to the potential conflict between these mitzvot (commandments). However, Yeshua also argues that, given this ruling, why should he be condemned for healing the whole man on the Sabbath. The clear understanding being that circumcision was a form of healing (not only a token, or marker but a positive commandment), perhaps primarily because it was a mark of entry into the family/tribe of Israel.

[2] Klausner argues that Yeshua was best understood as a Jew who was trying to reform the religion, and that he died as a devout Jew. He writes: ”But Jesus is, for the Jewish nation, a great teacher of morality and an artist in parable.  He is the moralist for whom, in the religious life, morality counts as – everything.  … in his ethical code there is a sublimity, distinctiveness and originality in form unparalleled in any other Hebrew ethical code; neither is there any parallel to the remarkable art of his parables.  The shrewdness and sharpness of his proverbs and his forceful epigrams serve, in an exceptional degree, to make ethical ideas a popular possession.  If ever the day should come and this ethical code by stripped of its wrappings of miracles and mysticism, the Book of the Ethics of Jesus will be one of the choicest treasures in the literature of Israel for all time.”
 – Klausner, Joseph “Jesus of Nazareth; His Life, Times, and Teaching’ (1925) p 413-414

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