Jews and God-fearers

The structure of the people of Israel – the careful arrangement of the camp, the clear delineation of the land among the tribes, the laws of uncleanness, food restrictions, and circumcision – all serve to set Israel apart as a priestly nation. The Jews were not exclusively the people of God; there were still Noahic gentile believers, those who worshipped God under the covenant given to Noah – God-fearers. More prominent examples include Melchizedek, priest-king of [Jeru]Salem; Jethro, the priest-king of Midian and Moses’ father-in-law; Hiram, king of Tyre who helped David and Solomon with materials for the temple; and Nebuchadnezzar, who wrote his own confession of faith to Yahweh in the book of Daniel. The gentiles were not required to become Jews – that is, to be circumcised – to worship Yahweh, nor were they even really encouraged to do so. A gentile God-fearer could do just about everything a Jew could do, except own land in Israel or attend Passover. They could live in the cities and attend all the other feasts. They could bring an animal to the tabernacle or temple for sacrifice.
By Jesus’ day, this was almost completely overturned. The Jews were not acting as priests to the nations. They viewed themselves as the exclusive people of God, and gentiles as second-class. This is the main issue Paul is talking about and wrestling with in almost all of his letters – the weaving together of believing Jews and God-fearing gentiles – two separated people of God – into one new body, the church. Compare the book of Acts – there are not many pagan converts (the Philippian jailer seems to be one). Peter (with Cornelius) and Paul mostly just “convert” already-believing gentiles.



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