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Tochachah: Curses of the Law

Curses of the Law

Further thoughts on Parashat Ki Tavo

by John J. Parsons

OUR TORAH PORTION THIS WEEK (Ki Tavo) includes Moses' seemingly endless description of terrible curses that would befall the Jewish people if they disobeyed the terms of the Sinai covenant (Deut. 28:15-68). In Jewish tradition this litany of curses is called the tochachah (תּוֹכָחָה), a word that means "rebuke" or "reproof." Reading the tochachah is difficult and painful, especially in light of all the persecution and tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people over the millennia...

There are actually two main tochachot ("rebukes") given to Israel in the Torah. The first is in found at the end of the Book of Leviticus (Lev. 26:14-46), and the second (and longer one) is found in this week's Torah portion (Deut. 28:15-68). The rebuke in Leviticus ends with some measure of hope: "Yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not spurn them, neither will I abhor them so as to destroy them utterly and break my covenant with them, for I am the LORD their God" (Lev. 26:44), while the rebuke in Ki Tavo intensifies and intensifies - without any sense of reprieve. Indeed this longer rebuke contains no less than 98 curses - exactly twice as many as the 49 curses listed in Leviticus. According to the sages, the earlier rebuke given in Leviticus foretold the destruction of the First Temple and the Babylonian exile, whereas the later rebuke given in Deuteronomy foretold the destruction of the Second Temple and the Roman exile (which continues to this day in the Diaspora). Ezra the Scribe decided that the curses in Leviticus were to be read just before Shavuot (i.e., the time of the giving of the Torah), while the curses in Deuteronomy were to be read just before Rosh Hashanah, "so that the year and its curses can conclude" (Megillah 31b).

The New Testament teaches that we can only escape the curses listed in the Sinai covenant by means of Yeshua, who died on the cross as a sacrificial substitute for us, the very "Lamb of God" who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). As it is written, "God made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we would become the righteousness of God (δικαιοσύνη θεοῦ) in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21).

It is the righteousness of God (דְקַת אֱלהִים) that saves us, after all, and not any righteousness we may merit (Titus 3:5-7). "Salvation is of the LORD." And just as the death of a spouse releases a married person from the terms of their marriage contract, so the death of the Messiah frees us from the marriage contract made at Sinai (Rom. 7:1-4). Consequently our relationship with law itself has radically changed. We are "not under the law, but under grace" - οὐ ἐστε ὑπὸ νόμον ἀλλ᾽ ὑπὸ χάριν (Rom. 6:14). Indeed, we are "released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code (Rom. 7:6). "For Messiah is the end of the law (τέλος νόμου) for righteousness to everyone who trusts in Him" (Rom. 10:4).

The Messiah delivered (ἐξαγοράζω) us from the curse (קְלָלָה) pronounced in the Torah by becoming cursed on our behalf; as it is written, 'Everyone who hangs from a stake comes under a curse' (Gal. 3:13; Deut. 21:23). Therefore we have a new and better covenant with Yeshua (Heb. 8:6), just as we have a new and better altar than that provided by the older sacrificial system of the Temple (Heb. 13:10).


People are still free to attempt to justify themselves according to the "everlasting" terms of the Sinai Covenant, but then they are liable to the provisions of punishment emphatically stated in that covenant (i.e., the curses listed in Deut. 28:15-68). The new covenant, on the other hand, operates according to the "law of the Spirit of Life" by the gracious agency of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:2), enabling us to obey the inner meaning of the Torah by the power and glory of God. We are no longer under the "law of sin and death."

It is the Messiah in you that makes all the difference (Col. 1:27). Only those who love the Messiah and His salvation can be truly Torah observant, and indeed, what value is there in the law apart from the Lawgiver Himself, the Messiah who is our rightful King?

Therefore James the Righteous quoted from our Torah portion (Deut. 27:26) and wrote that "whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty for violating it all" (James 2:20). The Apostle Paul likewise quoted this verse when he wrote: "For all who rely on doing the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not keep on doing everything written in the book of the law" (Gal. 3:10, see also Rom. 4:15).

For Messianic Jews (and Christians), "Torah" now centers on Yeshua, who is the Word of God and the Voice that spoke from the midst of the cloud at Sinai... He is the High Priest of the New Covenant of God (Heb. 7:12), and we are Torah observant when we obey His voice by receiving His love and deliverance. Repent and believe the good news (Mark 1:15)... The "good" news (εὐαγγέλιον) can only be understood in light of the "bad news," namely, that we are the walking dead apart from a divine intervention so radical that it took the death of God to bring about its reality... We have all been bitten by the serpent: "The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law, but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Yeshua the Messiah" (1 Cor. 15:56-57). The Holy Spirit will never lead genuine followers of Yeshua to violate the inner intent of the law but will uphold the heart of the Torah. Therefore Yeshua said, "If you love me, keep My commandments..." (John 14:15, 21).

The idea of tochachah ("rebuke") is not simply something just for ethnic Israel, of course, since the New Testament likewise warns us that God will punish those who likewise walk "carelessly" (i.e., keri: קְרִי) with Him. Have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as God's children? "My son, do not regard lightly (ὀλιγώρει) the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary by his reproof (תּוֹכֵחָה). For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and reproves every child whom he receives" (Heb. 12:5-6; Prov. 3:11-12).

Likewise, the Lord charged the assembly at Ephesus that they had let go of their first love. Yeshua therefore urged them: "Remember from what high state you have fallen and repent! Do the deeds (ἔργα) you did at the first; if not, I will come to you and remove your menorah from its place – unless you repent" (Rev. 2:4-5). Because God is never indifferent toward those who are trusting in His salvation, he will discipline and correct us to keep close to Him. He will afflict us with the "troubles of love."  "This too is for good," expressing the idea that all things – including various troubles in our lives – ultimately help us return to the Lord for healing and life (Rom. 8:28).

Therefore discipline and correction is directed toward exercising faith in Him. "For whatever is not of faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6). "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent" (John 6:29). The question is not whether or not we have kept certain ordinances, but whether or not Yeshua truly lives within our heart, i.e., whether we submit to his reign - his Torah - in our lives. Whenever we revert back to the idea of "law" in the sense of self-justification or self-empowerment we will re-experience the "law of sin and death." When we move "past" the law of death by means of the cross, we experience resurrection power and life... This is the "law of the Spirit of Life" given in Yeshua... 

That is part of the inner meaning of the verse: "Every sickness also and every affliction that is not recorded in the book of this law, the LORD will bring upon you, until you are destroyed" (Deut. 28:61). The end is the destruction of the "principle of the flesh." As Yeshua said, "Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (John 12:24).

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