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Judaism and Christianity are the two most known monotheistic religions. Both call sinners to worship the One True God and share a major part of the same sacred writings. Among these writings is the Torah, which also comprises the first five books of the Christian Old Testament. Although the narratives are the same, the perspective of each religion varies. The intent of this short paper is to present some differences and similarities between Jewish and Christian understandings of Genesis and Exodus.
First, the difference between the Jewish and Christian understandings of Genesis lies in the recipient of its message. According to the Jewish mind, the nation of Israel is always the direct object of the Genesis’ message. This Israel-focused mentality is so strong that Professors Bruce D. Chilton and Jacob Neusner reports that
From [Rabbinic Judaism] perspective, the entire narrative of Scripture from Genesis through Kings shows how Israel recapitulates the story of Adam and Eve, but it is a pattern with a difference: Adam and Eve lost paradise, never to return, but Israel after its exile returned to the Land and, with the Torah for guidance, would endure there.
Traditionally, Genesis is viewed as a historical account that narrates the origin, early tribal history, and God’s election of the nation. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the primary focus of Genesis is to “show that the people of Israel are descended in a direct line from Adam, the first man created by God, through legitimate marriages in conformity with Israelitish moral ideals, i.e., monandric marriages.” However, history is not the only Jewish understanding of Genesis. Although no formal system of doctrines is explicitly given in the text of Genesis, Jews understand the religious teaching contained in the stories. The prevalent teachings include the existence of One True God who created the heavens and the earth, humanity as the crown of God’s creation, and the Patriarchs. Somewhat in line with the Israel-focused view, Christianity holds that Genesis does narrate these mentioned historical and election topics. Nevertheless, the Christian understanding centeredness is not only the early history of Israel, but the Person of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is most commonly that the Christian understanding of Genesis looks for Christology rather than a national history. According to this understanding, Genesis accounts how humanity has sinned against God and how God, beginning through the election of Israel, is redeeming mankind to Himself through Jesus Christ. As a result, the details of the narrations in Genesis are seen in their full meaning in the light of the Cross. Exemplar details are the seed of the woman spoken in Genesis 3:15, the blessing promise to all families of the earth through Abram in Genesis 12:3, and the prophecy concerning Judah in Genesis 49:10. All these promises and prophecies find their fulfillment in Jesus Christ.
Likewise, Jewish and Christian understandings of the book of Exodus vary in its message application. For the nation of Israel, the book of Exodus presents the most fundamental laws, customs, ethics, and worship descriptions. To the Jewish nation, the application of and obedience to these laws is literal. For instance, they are to put to death certain lawbreakers, obey the Sabbath regulations, and build the tabernacle according to the divine instructions. This literal mentality is not strict to the Jews journeying toward the Promised Land. It has been infused in the Pharisees’ mind of Jesus’ time and as far as today’s orthodox Jews. In contrast to this literal understanding, Christians do not hold to the literal application of all laws and customs. Although the Christian understanding of Exodus involves the deliverance of Israel and the giving of the law, the application of other laws and customs (besides the Ten Commandments and basic moral ethics) are not strictly observed. In lieu, Christians apply the principle behind these other laws. Similarly in the understanding of the book of Genesis, Christology takes Christian mentality beyond the events described in the book of Exodus. For instance, the Passover celebration, the deliverance from Egypt, the sprinkled blood for the Covenant, and the Feast of Harvest find their fulfillment in Jesus’ Christ finished work.
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Albeit the differences discussed above, Jewish and Christian understandings of Genesis and Exodus do share similarities. Both perspectives believe that these two first books communicate real occurrences, are inspired by God, are important to religious history, and edify their faith. The divergences between Judaism and Christianity does not nullify Christianity’s root in Judaism. Thus, Christians share with Judaism its understanding on the importance of the Patriarchs, Israel’s national election, and giving of the law, even though Christians do not view these as an end in themselves but as pointers to the Messiah. They also share doctrines found in the book of Exodus concerning sin, the necessity for atonement, and the reality that God’s love and holiness are inseparable. As briefly discussed before, both Judaism and Christianity understand the general necessity and privilege of obeying and living in accordance to God’s holy decrees given in Exodus. Jesus Christ’s fulfillment of the Law did not nullify it; rather, it gives Spirit-born believers a new spirit and heart which enable them to live godly.
As seen in this paper, there are some differences and similarities between Jewish and Christian understandings of Genesis and Exodus. Their differences arise in the centrality of their understanding. Whereas Judaism understands Genesis and Exodus with an Israel-focused mentality, Christianity’s tendency is to view the same books through Christological lenses. Nonetheless, the two religions do share similar understanding about the importance of Israel’s history, election, and some doctrines presented throughout Genesis and Exodus. May Christians wisely use these similar understandings of the book of Genesis and Exodus to point God’s beloved Israel to Jesus Christ!
- Bruce D. Chilton and Jacob Neusner, Classical Christianity and Rabbinic Judaism: Comparing Theologies (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 43.
- Emil G. Hirsch and Benno Jacob, “The Book of Genesis,” JewishEncyclopedia.com, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=137&letter=G&search=Genesis#443.
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