Gentiles and the Torah
If you ask reform Jewish rabbis the question: “Are Gentiles expected to keep Torah?” meaning the Sabbath, the feasts, the kosher foods laws, circumcision, and so on?” To a man, they will all say, “No, of course not.” If you ask orthodox Jewish rabbis the same question, they will give you the same answer. I’ve even asked Messianic Jews—who are ethnic Jews who have come to believe in Yeshua, Jesus, as their messiah and savior—I’ve asked them, “Are Gentiles expected to keep Torah?” Same answer. “No, of course not.” I’ve also asked (and read) many protestant and Catholic theologians and clergy on this question and got the same answer. “No, Gentiles have never been expected to keep Torah.”
The only people who think Gentiles are expected to keep Torah are our friends in the Hebrew Roots world of Torahism. This is ironic since it is a movement made up of 100% Gentiles. And you’d think the fact that they have never been expected to keep Torah should put an end to Torah-observant Christianity. But for some reason, that’s not the case. So let’s dig into the Torah and learn why—with the lone exception of Torah-observant Christians—everyone agrees that Gentiles are not required to keep Torah. And once that fact is fully understood, we’ll see that Torahism falls apart completely.
Given to Whom?
We’ll spend most of our time in the Torah, looking at the giving of the Law and clearing up some common Hebrew Roots misunderstandings about things like the “mixed multitude” and the “same law for foreigners.” And the first question we want to look at is this: Was the Torah given solely to Israel, as both Christianity and Judaism affirm? Or was it given to Gentiles as well? Let’s start with the words of the Torah itself. Exodus 19 is where we find the beginning of the story of the giving of the Law.
The Lord called to [Moses] out of the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the people of Israel: ‘You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.”Exodus 19:3-6
The first thing to note is to whom Yahweh made this promise. Who does God say will be His treasured possession, a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation? His words were addressed to “the house of Jacob” and “the people of Israel.” In biblical Hebrew, the phrase “house of” refers to a person’s physical family and descendants. So the phrase לְבֵ֣ית יַֽעֲקֹ֔ב (l’bayit ya’akov, house of Jacob) is an explicit reference to the descendants of Abraham through Jacob. Don’t forget that, after Jacob wrestled with Yahweh, the Lord told him, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Gen 32:28). So, the phrase “people of Israel” in Exodus 19:3 is a synonym for “house of Jacob.” This is a common Hebrew literary technique known as parallelism, which involves restating the same idea in different ways for emphasis. The phrases “say to the house of Jacob” and “tell the people of Israel” mean the same thing.
At Sinai, God entered into a covenant with the descendants of Jacob, not the Egyptians who enslaved them. Yahweh told Israel, “You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians” (19:3). He sent them ten plagues and drowned their army as they pursued the Israelites. And at Mount Sinai, Yahweh entered into a covenant with His people—those who had been enslaved in Egypt for 400 years. This ethnic group referred to in the Torah as “the Israelites”—or sometimes just “Israel”—is referred to today as the Jewish people.
In the opening verses of Exodus 19, Yahweh promised these people if they kept His commands, out of all the other nations and people groups on earth, they alone would be His treasured possession. Although the whole earth belongs to the Lord, Israel would be His holy nation. The word holy (קָדוֹשׁ qadosh) means “set apart, removed from common use.” So the idea of a holy or “set apart” nation further underscores the exclusivity of God’s covenant with Israel alone.
God did not command the Amalekites to circumcise their men or the Hittites to keep the Sabbath. And He certainly didn’t require the Amorites to make sacrifices in His temple. What Yahweh commands in the Torah He commands of Israel alone to set them apart from all the other nations and peoples. This is further demonstrated when Moses gave the Law for a second time, he told the Israelites,
When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”Deuteronomy 6:20-21
The Law was given specifically to the people who were slaves in Egypt and later rescued by Yahweh. Leviticus makes this set-apartness abundantly clear when it reveals the connection between unclean foods and unclean people.
You shall therefore separate the clean beast from the unclean, and the unclean bird from the clean. You shall not make yourselves detestable by beast or by bird or by anything with which the ground crawls, which I have set apart for you to hold unclean. You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.Leviticus 20:25-26
The reason for the kosher food laws was to identify and set aside Israel as God’s own people. And this sense of holy separateness extends well beyond the Torah into the rest of the Tanakh. For example, in a prayer of gratitude, King David taught the uniqueness of Israel as a nation.
And who is like your people Israel, the one nation on earth whom God went to redeem to be his people, making himself a name and doing for them great and awesome things by driving out before your people, whom you redeemed for yourself from Egypt, a nation and its gods? And you established for yourself your people Israel to be your people forever. And you, O Lord, became their God.2 Samuel 7:23-24
The psalmist describes Israel in ethnic terms, “O offspring of Abraham, his servant, children of Jacob (there we have the “house of Jacob” idea again), his chosen ones!” (Ps 105:5-6). In Nehemiah, we read how “the Israelites separated themselves from all foreigners”—all non-Israelites—to confess their sins, read from the books of Moses, and worship Yahweh (Neh 9:1-3). And did you know that the expression “My people” is never used by Yahweh to refer to any other nation, only Israel?
This is not to say that Yahweh did not allow Gentiles into His ways or worship. He certainly did, up to a point. He didn’t afford them the full rights and privileges of the Israelites. Chad Bird writes this,
Though not given full citizenship in Israel, they were protected and—if they maintained ritual purity—even allowed to participate in the Passover (Ex 12:47–48) and other sacrifices (Num 15:14).Chad Bird, Unveiling Mercy, (New Reformation Publications, 2020), p. 123.
We will look more at this aspect in a minute. But first, let’s talk about this mixed multitude.
The Mixed Multitude
A common argument of Torahism is that when God rescued Israel out of Egypt, a mixed multitude of Gentiles left with them, as indicated in Exodus 12:38, “A mixed multitude also went up with them, and very much livestock, both flocks and herds.” Our Torah-keeping friends claim that this mixture of Jews and Gentiles was later present at Mount Sinai when the Law was given and, therefore, the Law was given to Jews and Gentiles. And although the Torah does not explicitly mention Gentiles at Sinai, it’s not unreasonable to believe that the mixed multitude was still with Israel when Moses delivered the Law. In fact, Jewish tradition holds it was this mixed multitude who stirred up trouble by introducing the idea of a golden calf and declaring, “These are your gods, O Israel” (Exodus 32).
However, if there were Gentiles present at Mount Sinai, does that mean the Law was given to both Jews and Gentiles? Not at all. Regardless of the ethnic make-up of the crowd, as we just saw, Yahweh made His covenant specifically with the people who descended from Jacob and were enslaved in Egypt, as distinct from the Egyptians who enslaved them.
Imagine a big business rally in a hotel conference room where the CEO of the company promises a $10,000 bonus to each of his employees. Although everyone in attendance hears the promise—including TV reporters, security guards, and waitstaff—only those who meet the criteria, only his employees, would be eligible for the bonus. It’s the same thing with the Torah. Despite who else may have been there at the giving of the Law, God’s words in Ex 19 make it clear that the criteria of eligibility in His promise—the people with whom He was making this Covenant—were the descendants of Jacob.1
Same Law for Foreigners
Another common argument from our Torahist friends is that when foreigners lived among the Israelites, they were required to live under the Law of Moses. Therefore, the Law applies to Gentiles as well. This is an amateur contextual error that arises as a result of cherry-picking verses. Let me show you what I mean.
To make this argument, Torah-keepers typically reference Exodus 12:49, which says, “The same law shall apply to the native as to the stranger who sojourns among you” (Ex 12:49). They point to this verse and say, “See? The Law of Moses applied to both Jews and Gentiles.” However, when that verse is read in context, it tells a very different story. Verses 43-51 record the original institution of Passover. The text begins by stating, “And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, ‘This is the statute of the Passover: no foreigner shall eat of it’” (v. 43). (There is that national set-apartness again.)
Yet, in this passage, Yahweh does allow a provision for non-Jews who want to keep the Passover. They have to first show their allegiance to Yahweh by being circumcised (v. 48). So, when this text says that the “same law” applies to the native and the stranger (v. 49), it’s not talking about the entirety of the Law of Moses. It is about God’s specific command that everyone who participates in the Passover feast must be circumcised. That is the law that applies both to the Israelites and foreigners among them. Verse 49 is not a blanket statement that the Torah shall apply to the sojourner in the same way it applies to the native-born Israelite.
The same is true of a similar passage in Leviticus. “There shall be one standard for you; it shall be for the stranger as well as the native, for I am the Lord your God” (Lev 24:22). In context, the “standard” Yahweh is speaking of here is not the entirety of the Mosaic Law but rather the standard of punishment for murder. “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death” (Lev 24:17). That law applies both to the Israelites and the foreigners among them.
We see the same thing in Numbers. “One law and one rule shall be for you and for the stranger who sojourns with you” (Num 15:16). This verse comes from a passage discussing commands about sacrifices. The specific process for offering sacrifices is spelled out in verses 4-12, and then the Lord says,
Every native Israelite shall do these things in this way, in offering a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord. And if a stranger is sojourning with you, or anyone is living permanently among you, and he wishes to offer a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, he shall do as you do.Numbers 15:13-14
This passage teaches there is a proper way to offer sacrifices in Israel, whether you are an Israelite or a Gentile. And yet, the Torah maintains a distinction between the “native Israelite” (v.13) and the “stranger” (v. 14). The very fact that the Torah consistently refers to non-Israelites as “sojourners,” “foreigners,” and “strangers” shows that they were considered to be other than Israel.
Assyrians, Babylonians, Egyptians, and all other Gentiles weren’t expected to eat kosher, keep Shabbat, circumcise their men, or keep the annual feasts. And even the sojourner in Israel was not subject to the Mosaic Law in the same way the native Israelites were. For example, there was a different dietary standard.
You shall not eat anything that has died naturally. You may give it to the sojourner who is within your towns, that he may eat it, or you may sell it to a foreigner. For you are a people holy to the Lord your God.Deuteronomy 14:21
This is the Torah telling us in no uncertain terms that non-Jews are allowed to eat things that Jews are not. Notice the Israelites’ holiness—their set-apartness—from the foreigners and the sojourners among them. This is also evident in God’s commands about loaning money. Every seventh year the Israelites were commanded to release what they had loaned to their Jewish neighbor.
And this is the manner of the release: every creditor shall release what he has lent to his neighbor. He shall not exact it of his neighbor, his brother, because the Lord’s release has been proclaimed. Of a foreigner you may exact it, but whatever of yours is with your brother your hand shall release.Deuteronomy 15:2-3
You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.Deuteronomy 23:20
The Torah teaches a clear difference in the treatment of Jews and Gentiles under the Law of Moses. Israelites can require repayment and charge interest on loans made to Gentiles, but not so with their fellow Israelites. This would make sense if the Mosaic Law were for national Israel. Would we say that the laws of Ireland were given to everyone in the world because when any foreigner is in Ireland, they’re required to live under Irish law? Of course, not. The passages we looked at underscore that the Torah was the law of the nation of Israel, not a universal law given to all people.
Lastly, consider the perspective of Messianic Judaism on the application of the Law. As ethnic Jews who have come to faith in Jesus, Messianic Jews are keenly aware of how Yahweh explicitly gave the Mosaic Law to the ancient people of Israel for their specific needs at their particular time in history. Here’s a quote from the book Reading Moses Seeing Jesus which was written by three Israeli scholars:
Let’s jump a few thousand years back to the time of the ancient Near East, a culture and mindset completely foreign to ours today, whose social structures are badly damaged by the Fall. Within this context, God raises up a new nation with new laws to live by, in order to create a new culture for them. In doing so, He adapts His expectations to a people whose attitudes and actions are subject to influence by the pagan nations around them. These laws aren’t the permanent, divine ideal for all peoples everywhere at all times. They are specific to that people with their specific needs in that ancient era . . . Take for example God’s ideal for marriage—a monogamous union joining husband and wife as one flesh (Gen. 2:24). When God is dealing with Israel, a nation of fallen humans affected by their surroundings in the ancient Near East, God’s ideals are distorted and forgotten. Therefore, God is on the move to restore His ideals through this small new nation. The laws of Moses are a first step in that process.Seth D. Postell, Eitan Bar and Erez Soref, Reading Moses, Seeing Jesus: How the Torah Fulfills its Goal in Yeshua, (One For Israel Ministry, 2017), Kindle location 1814-1816.
What about Murder and Adultery?
At this point, Torah-keepers will often shift their argument to the parts of the Torah that deal with morality. They ask, “If God didn’t give the Torah to everyone, are you saying that murder and adultery were only forbidden for Israel and they are okay for everyone else to do?”
Obviously not. That would be silly. And honestly, that is a sophomoric way to look at Scripture. The Torah—in fact, the entire Tanakh—shows Yahweh judging Gentile nations for their moral failings, for murder and adultery and wickedness. These are universal laws of right and wrong that existed long before the Torah was given at Sinai and that every human being is aware of because we’re all made in God’s image. And while all nations are judged on these moral laws, only the nation of Israel is ever judged for not keeping Sabbath or not eating kosher, or not circumcising their males. Because Yahweh didn’t give those specific commands to everyone, they were just for Israel to set her apart from all the other nations on earth.
The Messianic Jewish organization IAMCS made a great statement on this issue. This comes from Jewish believers in Jesus:
The gift of the Torah to the Jewish people at Sinai was not revelatory in the sense of the moral aspect of it. Noah was an “ish tzadik” or “righteous man” (See Gen. 6:9); and Abraham obeyed God’s statutes and commandments (Gen. 26:5), even long before the law at Sinai was even given. Torah is not a revelation of morality. Nor is the moral aspect of it unique in any way. A basic understanding of moral law is already embedded by God in the understanding of mankind. God did not appear to Israel at Sinai to present a moral code. God gave the law at Sinai, creating a unique nation. There are things given in the Torah which are unique to Israel.International Alliance of Messianic Congregations and Synagogues (IAMCS)
Gentiles & The Law
What, then, is the relationship of the Gentile Christian to the Law of Moses? If the evidence we just looked at in the Torah wasn’t enough for you, you can flip over to Acts 15 where that exact question is asked and answered at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:1-29). Paul, James, Peter, Barnabas and the other elders determined that Gentile believers were not required to be circumcised or keep the Law of Moses; that they don’t need to become Jews in order to follow the Jewish Messiah. Instead, they said, “
It has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.Acts 15:28-29, emphasis added
That’s it. The Council did not require them to keep Shabbat, the feasts, the kosher food laws, the purity laws, or any other civil or ceremonial observances. They were given “no greater burden” than these four restrictions. And those restrictions were given to foster unity with their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ.
Jewish Believers and the Law
This brings us to a really interesting question I’ve been studying a lot lately, and where my understanding is shifting a bit. The question is this: What is the relationship of the Jewish follower of Jesus to the Law of Moses? I’m still working it out and will save the details for another time. But let me say this. I have come to believe that Jewish followers of Jesus have a different relationship to the Torah than do Gentile followers of Jesus. Neither are required to keep Torah as a matter of salvation or righteousness, of course. There is nothing any of us can do to add to what Jesus has already done on our behalf. But I have come to see how Jewish believers in Yeshua may have a sort of calling to maintain the boundary markers of their Jewish identity by keeping Torah, at least in a fashion appropriate under the New Covenant. But that is for another discussion. And in either case, the Bible is crystal clear: Gentiles are not and have never been under the Law of Moses.
Keeping Torah is not required of Gentiles. And at the same time, traditions like Shabbat, kosher food laws, circumcision, and the feasts have not been prohibited or forbidden under Yeshua. We’re free in Christ to observe such traditions. Provided, of course, they are undertaken as a matter of personal preference or conscience (or cultural calling) rather than a requirement of salvation or a condition of righteousness.
But when it comes to Gentiles who want to be “Torah observant,” things start to get a little strange, in my opinion. Biblically speaking, Gentiles are free in Christ to observe whatever Jewish traditions they want. I’ve attended a Passover Seder and a couple of Sabbath services at a local Messianic synagogue, and I loved it. I learned a lot and was blessed by the experiences. So I understand the motivation behind wanting to adopt the Mosaic traditions. These are the same rituals Jesus kept! However, Jesus was Jewish. Which means that, unlike Gentiles, He was born under the Law of Moses (Gal 4:4-5).
The danger in Torah-observant Christianity is the belief that keeping Torah is required of all Christians. Far too often, Torah-keepers look down on Christ-followers who don’t keep those traditions. They characterize them as “lawless” and “walking in sin.” I’ve been accused of this many times. But the bottom line is this: if you’re not Jewish, the Law of Moses has never applied to you.
 See Exodus 19:1-6, 25:22, 30:31, 31:13-17, 35:1-4; Leviticus 4:2, 7:23, 7:29, 7:38, 9:3, 16:34, 22:18; Numbers 2:2, 5:6, 5:12, 6:2, 9:2, 15:38; Deuteronomy 1:3, 4:1, 4:44-45, 32:52, etc.