People send me things.
A fellow Rotarian who belongs to a very fundamentalist Christian church recently sent me an email.We know each other well from years of mutual participation in the same service club. He was not trying to “convert” me — he knows me too well for that — but only wanted to share an interesting sidelight from his own tradition, which was also new to him. His source is Unlocking the Secrets of the Feasts: The Prophecies in the Feasts of Leviticus, a book by Michael Norten, who graduated from Dallas Theological Seminary.
Norten writes about gaining this new knowledge himself at a conference on Bible prophecy, where a teacher was expounding on the birth of Jesus as presented in the Gospel of Luke. In it, some shepherds, watching their flocks at night, hear an angel tell them of a divine sign: They would find a baby, wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. But — why was this a sign?
The teacher explained: These were not lowly shepherds, but priests from the temple who were assisting in the birth of lambs. Some they would certify as unblemished, to keep for future sacrifices. As each such lamb was chosen, “the priests would wrap it with strips of cloth made from old priestly undergarments,” he continued, after which they would put that lamb into a manger (just a trough that holds animal feed in a stable) to keep it from being trampled by the flock.
So when these shepherd-priests followed the angel’s instructions and saw a wrapped baby lying in a manger, they interpreted this as God’s own unblemished lamb, prepared for sacrifice! The teacher further theorized that since Mary’s cousin Elizabeth was the wife of a priest, she had probably provided swaddling cloths made from her husband’s own garments.
Author Norten was intrigued, and began asking questions. He learned that each Jewish family marked the lamb it would take for Temple sacrifice with a name, and equated this with the letters INRI, with which Pontius Pilate marked Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. They stand for four Latin words that translate to “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” His conclusion? Just as the Jews marked their sacrificial lambs with their family names, Jesus was marked with the name of his “family,” which was, ostensibly, all the Jews of his time.
And Norten pushes even further: The Latin inscription, he says, translates into Hebrew as “Y’Shua HaNatzri V’Melech HaYehudim,” whose initial letters are YHVH. Since the V and W may be interchanged, he reads this in English as “Yahweh” — the “unpronounceable” name of God as often pronounced by Christians.
All people like to look back on important events, in their own lives and the lives of groups to which they belong, trying to understand by relating the “afterward” to how and why these things happened. The story that Norten heard during a conference on Biblical prophecy illustrates one way in which the seminal story of Christianity may be explained.
I had never heard any of this before, and neither had the devout Christian who passed it along to me. I see it as one backward-looking interpretation of one incident in one book of what is today called the “New Testament”; I equate that kind of interpretation to the way so many Christians read so much of “Old Testament” Isaiah: as a foreshadowing of the arrival of Jesus as Messiah. But I also find this an interesting new Jewish-laden way to look at how a baby was “crowned” with divinity at birth, later coming to be called, in a then-new faith born of Judaism, “the Lamb of God.”
As we light Hanukkah’s first candle this year, Christians will be welcoming the birth of that very Jewish baby who ultimately became the central figure of their new faith. I only hope they remember that our faith is what gave them theirs …
People send me things.