Last time we explored what life would have been like for a first-century disciple. Today, we are going to look at Yeshua’s yoke and how his followers would have understood his words in Matthew 11.
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30
What is a yoke and how would Yeshua’s listeners have understood his statements about his yoke being light? A yoke is a wooden piece used on the necks of animals to help them pull a plow or cart. I don’t know about you, but this does not sound like it would be very pleasant for a person to experience. To understand what Yeshua meant and how his listeners would have understood what he was telling them we have to get into the mind of a first-century disciple. When someone devoted themselves to following a rabbi they were expected to be totally obedient and dedicated to him and his philosophy.1Bivin, D. (2007). New light on the difficult words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context. Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center. pp. 23 A disciple wanted to be just like their rabbi, and this was known as taking on the yoke of his rabbi. With this in mind, if someone’s desire is to be like the same load as their teacher the best way to do it is to attach themselves to their yoke and cart.
Ben Sira (AKA Ecclesiasticus) a Greek book of the Apocrypha that predates Yeshua by about 100 years has some strikingly similar passages to what Yeshua said in Matthew 11:
Draw near to me, you unlearned, and lodge in the house of study. Why are you slow, and what do you say about these things, your souls being very thirsty? I opened my mouth and said, “Buy her [wisdom] for yourselves without money. Put your neck under [her] yoke, and let your soul receive instruction. She is to be found nearby. See with your eyes how, with only a little labor, I have gotten much rest.” Ben Sira 51:23-27
Listen, my child, and accept my judgment; do not reject my counsel. Put your feet into her fetters, and your neck into her collar. Bend your shoulders and carry her, and do not fret under her bonds. Come to her with all your soul, and keep her ways with all your might. Search out and seek, and she will become known to you; and when you get hold of her, do not let her go. For at last you will find the rest she gives, and she will be changed into joy for you. Then her fetters will become for you a strong defense, and her collar a glorious robe. Her yoke is a golden ornament, and her bonds a purple cord. You will wear her like a glorious robe, and put her on like a splendid crown. Ben Sira 6:23-31
Both of these passages carry the same themes found in Yeshua’s saying in Matthew 11; drawing near to a source of instruction, taking up a yoke or burden, and the labor of learning that results in finding rest. Yeshua is speaking about the context of learning, but more specifically the cost of learning under him as your rabbi.
Last time we learned that the life of a disciple was no bed of roses. The Mishnah describes the life of a disciple as “a painful existence.”2M. Avot 6:4 Yeshua knew this, and so did his prospective disciples. However, Yeshua expresses that studying Torah with him would be so exhilarating that they would not notice the weight of the yoke. The joy and satisfaction his students would receive would outweigh any sacrifices they would be required to make.
What about what Yeshua says about the yoke of the Pharisees in Matthew 23? If his yoke is light, what does he mean when he states that they bind heavy burdens on people’s shoulders?
The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up (bind) heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. Matthew 23:2-4
Unfortunately, due to not understanding the culture and history of this time, many people assume Yeshua, in the above verses, to be claiming that keeping the commandments are a burden and following his ways are easy. This thinking can lead people to assume that the Torah was considered a burden by Yeshua and that he came to show us a new, easier way that did not include the burdensome requirements of the Torah. The burdens he speaks of are not God’s instructions; they are the religious rulings of the Pharisees. We know this by the use of the word bind, which is a Hebraism for “to give a halachic prohibition.”3Bind and Loose are rabbinic idioms for Prohibit and Permit in reference to legal rulings. With that said, please understand that Yeshua was also not 100% against the Oral Law. Many Christians believe he was anti-Torah or that at least he came to do away with much of it and some Torah observant people believe that he was anti-Oral Law. The truth is, he didn’t view either as unimportant, and he followed the commandments of the written and oral Torah, just like any other Jewish man of the day.4In an upcoming article I’ll be going into detail about Yeshua’s views of the Oral Law with examples of how he followed it.
Yeshua was not doing away with the Written or Oral Torah; he was not bringing something new that was different from the Torah.5See Matthew 5:18 He contrasts his yoke with the yoke of the Pharisees to illustrate how his approach to Torah was different. Unlike the Pharisees who were binding people with heavy burdens, Yeshua tells us that following Torah his way will be so rewarding that we will not even feel like we are yoked.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑||Bivin, D. (2007). New light on the difficult words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context. Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center. pp. 23|
|2.||↑||M. Avot 6:4|
|3.||↑||Bind and Loose are rabbinic idioms for Prohibit and Permit in reference to legal rulings.|
|4.||↑||In an upcoming article I’ll be going into detail about Yeshua’s views of the Oral Law with examples of how he followed it.|
|5.||↑||See Matthew 5:18|