Some books are a pleasure to recommend and Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus is the first that I would suggest to those interested in understanding Jesus’ teaching better with the help of the historical background. I’ve enjoyed several works of Lois Tverberg in the last few years, but this one is hands-down my favorite. Here’s why:
This book brims with insights. I love to learn new things about familiar and dear subjects, and again and again I found myself writing in the margin an exclamation mark or a reminder to return to that page. For example, concerning the command to love God:
You see this in ancient treaties, when an enemy king who signed a covenant would pledge to ‘love’ the king with whom he was making peace. This meant that the enemy king would act loyally, not that he would have warm thoughts about what a great guy the other king was every time he came to mind (44-45).
This book is biblically solid. Some subjects lend themselves to subbiblical treatments of Scripture, and Jewish backgrounds of Jesus is one of them. Tverberg never compromises what the Bible teaches in favor of the latest fad or scholarly theory. I appreciated her statement about a regular abuse in studies about the Jewish background of Jesus:
Part of the reason is from what I’ve experienced as I’ve seen people get interested in their Jewish roots. Sometimes in their enthusiasm, they take on a whole new [Hebrew] vocabulary that creates barriers between themselves and others. My thinking is that if you’ve discovered insights that bring you closer to God, you’re obligated to share them. To do so you need to be a bridge, not an island. So I deliberately use a more widely known vocabulary (83).
This book is entertaining. I carried this with me on an overseas flight, expecting to read a few chapters and then pick up my “fun” book. I never put this one down. The stories are fascinating and the quotes are going into my teaching notes. For example:
Just as rain water comes down in drops and forms river, so with the Scriptures: one studies a bit today and some more tomorrow, until in time the understanding becomes like a flowing stream. –Song of Songs Midrash Rabbah 2:8 (15).
This book is well-researched. The genre of this book with its devotional emphasis and its writing style geared towards any literate Christian is not normally associated with careful scholarship. Each chapter, however, has 10-25 endnotes.
This book echoes my thinking in some of my favorite subjects. To give but one example:
Often Jesus’ words in the Gospels presuppose an intimate familiarity with the biblical text. Sometimes Jesus made bold claims about his mission as Messiah through the Scriptures he quoted. If you don’t have the text in the back of your mind, some of his powerful statements can sail right past you (146). [Yes, and this is true for all of New Testament! I re-issue my call for a law banning the reading of the NT until one masters the OT. :-)]
This book challenges my thinking in a number of areas. For example:
One sage commented: ‘It’s better to give one shekel a thousand different times than a thousand shekels all at once, because each time you give, you become a kinder person’ (76).
I agree with my friend David Bivin who writes on the dust jacket: “It is filled with great practical wisdom that you can put to work in your life immediately.” The questions at the end of the chapter make this 14-chapter book easy to use in a group study.
There are many pitfalls in studying the background of Jesus’ time, but with only a few quibbles, Tverberg has avoided them by careful research and wise analysis. If you’re like me, after you read it, you’ll think of people who would enjoy the book as a gift. I’m a better person because of this book, and, I hope, a better blogger as well.