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Jewish Family

When was the family home a temple? 

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The Jewish home was always intended as a holy place, a sanctuary. The Jews had realised this when they were exiled to Babylon about a millennium earlier. They no longer had access to the focal point for their worship, the Jerusalem Temple. Did this mean that God was no longer accessible? No, they may have lamented by the rivers of Babylon, but they came to realise that they could worship God where they were, in their homes and at the synagogues, communal meeting places that were springing up in this land of exile.

When the Jews were exiled yet again by the Romans in the 1st Century, the Temple was destroyed and this time the rabbis formalised the new relationship, declaring that every Jewish home should become a holy place, referring to it as a miqdash me’at, a “small sanctuary”. The home was to be a place for worshipping God, a holy place. Tradition tells us that, when the Temple was destroyed, the shekinah, God’s Glory, didn’t settle in the synagogues, where you would have expected it to, but took up residence in every Jewish home. God was truly identifying with the people where they lived. Isn’t this a profound yet wonderful thought?

Therefore say: 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says: Although I sent them far away among the nations and scattered them among the countries, yet for a little while I have been a sanctuary for them in the countries where they have gone.' (Ezekiel 11:16)

In the Greek Western mindset one’s home is a castle, insulated from the outside world by a moat of separation, safe within its walls, protected from the enemy without. It has become a perfect expression of the individuality that has become the dominant theme for living in today’s World. Is this how God really meant us to live? The dualism of Plato finds subtle and insidious expression in the lives of many Christians, separating their sacred and secular existences, living their lives in peace and isolation in homes, surrounded by Xboxes, plasma screens and all the materialistic trappings, while “doing Church” once or twice a week in “consecrated” buildings somewhere else.

The Hebraic, Biblical, mindset breaks down this division and sets aside each family home as a holy sanctuary, a mini temple. In Jewish tradition God was present in the place where they slept, ate and gathered together as families. A home is to be a “house of prayer” for the worship of God. It is to be a “house of study”, for the learning of God’s Word. It is also to be a “house of assembly”, a place where people are welcomed. Added to that it is also to be a “house of eating and drinking”, a “house of sleeping”, a “house of making love” and so on. Try doing that lot in a “consecrated” church building and see how far that gets you!

Let’s now pause and consider. In Old Testament times, as God gradually revealed Himself to His people, the accent switched from the big corporate manifestations – the revealing of the Law to millions of them at Mount Sinai or the massive throngs of people bringing their sacrifices to the Jerusalem Temple for the festivals – to the smaller, intimate occasions, in the synagogues and homes. In the New Testament, arguably the only big corporate manifestation in the life of the Church, was at its very birth.

When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. (Acts 2:1-4)

Apart from the inevitable outdoor preaching engagements of the apostles, all the building up of God’s people and the development of their relationship with God now took place within the confines of the family home. That’s how the Church started, a fact that I have relentlessly and unashamedly reinforced! Yet this smallness and this intimacy was soon lost as soon as Greek ideas took hold, aided and abetted by the usual companion vices of greed, power and avarice. This is a major point – we have been sold a croc and we need to rediscover the path that has been lost.

So we have home worship and we have the context of family as the norm. Let’s run with this a bit longer as we return to the typical home of a Jewish family living in exile and in constant danger from their Christian neighbours. We have learned that the home was considered a sanctuary, a holy place, a place where God was happy to meet with His people, even if these were a people with an incomplete grasp of His fullness, not being believers in the incarnation and saving powers of Jesus the Messiah.

The home was the Temple (worship centre) and the dining table was considered the altar (focus for fellowship). Even the everyday act of eating is celebrated with spiritual connotations. Does that mean that Jews worship food? Well, yes ... but that’s just my personal experience (in the same ways that other cultures may be said to worship drink, gambling, sex etc.) and not relevant here. No, Jews don’t worship food, or drink but religious Jews consider eating as a sacred act and the dinner table will also function as a place where words of godly wisdom are exchanged in the conversations that accompany the eating, where Hebrew prayers resound.

Continuing with the Temple imagery, the family would sing songs of praise to God, as did the choirs in Solomon’s temple. The father, the head of the family, would function as priest, instructing his family in the Torah, the teachings of God. In fact the Hebrew word for parent, horeh, has the same root as moreh and torah. The latter two words mean “teacher” and “teaching”, so a primary role of a Jewish parent is as a teacher. Traditionally the three roles of a Jewish father are to support his family, study the Bible (Torah) and see that his children study the Bible.

The rabbis tell us that the world is poised on the breath of schoolchildren and the education of Jewish children was always seen as an absolute priority. The Talmud (Mishnah Avot 5:21) tells us what sort of education these kids would have received, at the time of Jesus. It started at the age of five, when Bible training started, first from the Book of Leviticus, to understand the rituals and then from the Psalms, to understand the nature of God. At the age of ten, study began on the Oral Law and at the age of thirteen one was old enough to fulfil the laws and commandments. At fifteen they learned the works of the sages.

For the next article in this series, click here.

For the previous article in this series, click here.

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