Sepphoris - Understanding the Law

The Law &  Mishnah:
Tohoroth – law regarding purity,
Kodashim- Hallowed Things, offerings in the Temple,
Nezikin- relationships & morality,
Nashim- family, marriage & divorce,
Zera’im- agriculture and prayers,
Moed-holidays and festivals
A Visit to the city of Sepphoris


  Sepphoris is a city with a rich history located about four miles north- northwest from Nazareth. According to Josephus, after a revolt after King Herod death in 4 B.C., the city was burnt and destroyed, and later rebuilt by his son Herod Antipas, who became the governor of Galilee. It is probable that Joseph and Jesus were involved in this rebuilding effort, with such a large public works project only an hour’s walk from their home in Nazareth.

The inhabitants did not join the revolt against Rome in 66 A.D, and archeological evidence indicates that Sephorris was a Roman town with a theater and homes and buildings common to Roman cities. After the Bar Kokhba rebellion of 132-33 A.D., Sepphoris became a resettlement center for rabinnical families, and Jewish religious center. It was here during this time that Modern Judaism took form.


Modern tourists visit Sepphoris and walk through a Roman home, with extensive mosaic floors, and see the signage of the work of the rabbis in the Second Century, were the question was asked" "Without the Temple to offer sacrifices, how do we Jews worship God, and remain Jews?" Thus Modern Judaism, with its varied forms, was born. 

The Front of the Roman Home

The Interior Main Room

Our first Rio Coco Café was opened in the summer of 2011 on the Western Caribbean island of Utila, just 18 miles off the coast of La Ceiba Honduras, where our family lived for 14 years. Utila is part of the world’s second largest barrier reef that begins in Belize and wraps around the Bay of Honduras to the east and includes the Bay Isands – Roatan, Guanaja, and Utila. Because of the deep waters and plentiful coral formations, Utila attracts scuba and free divers from all over the world. Every day we have travelers from Europe, Australia, Canada, Ireland, England, Scotland, the United States, and Israel who come for the Open Water, Dive Master, and Scuba Instructor certification.

On our gate entrance to our café, we have signs in many languages announcing “Best Coffee on Utila”. One Saturday morning, an Israeli girl named Rachel helped my daughter Moselle write a sign in Hebrew. Rachel is an observant Jew, brought up in a religious family, and when her friends decided to travel to Guatemala in Saturday, she decided not to travel on Shabot, and instead came to help Moselle with the sign.

Rio Coco Cafe Utila Honduras

As she was painting, I decided to ask her about some of the sacrificial laws that are written in Leviticus. The conversation went something like this:

“Rachel, are you familiar with the sacrifices mentioned in Leviticus?”

“What do you mean?”

“Like the Olah offering- the burnt offering in Chapter 1 where the entire animal is laid on the altar and burnt, with the smoke going up to God.”

“Oh yes.”

“Do you have any idea why God would want us to do that?”

“You mean burn up the entire animal instead of just the portion not given to the Levites?”

“Yes, exactly. God wants the entire animal as an offering to Him.”

“I never thought about that.”

“Rachel, imagine we are standing in front of the altar, and we watch the entire sheep or goat slowly burn and disappear into the rising smoke, know that God commands us to make this offering, and probably for a specific reason. He wants all of the animal given to Him. What might we be thinking?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, He wants all of me?”

“Like not only on Shabot, but every other day of the week.”

“Yes, I see.”

“Like not just in the living room of our house, but also in our office and bedroom?”

“You are right! He wants all of me, every day, in every place I go.”

“Rachel, I think you are on to something. God gives us object lessons to teach us His ways. He did that to the Hebrews walking through the desert through His laws. He hoped they would recognize the truths about Him and us that are behind those cultural practices.”

Next, I asked here about the grain offering, the peace offering, the sin offering, and the trespass offering. What was God really communicating? What was the principle behind the object lesson?

When we finished Rachel said, with a smile on her face,  ‘We say Torah L’Chaim.’ The Living Word. I get it now.”

That day, the light went on for Rachel on passages of Scripture that she had studied all her life. Yes, God’s Word is life!

Rachel's Sign for the gate

In our Modern Christian culture, we read mostly from the Christian Scriptures (New Testament), and the pages of this last third of the Bible are well worn. But for many, the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures are very fresh, some never touched by the New Testament Christian. Why is that? Because the Old Testament is old and out of date? Because we are under a new covenant? Because we are not under the Law anymore? Except of course the Ten Commandments……….

 “How essential are these Laws in the Old Testament to me, the New Testament Christian?”

Good question, but you may be surprised at the answer Jesus gave which was recorded in Matthew 5:

“Do not think that I came to abolish the  Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

     “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matthew 5:17-20

 It is apparent that in this passage Jesus said that the “Law and the Prophets” (an idiom referring to all the sacred writing of the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament):

  • have permanent validity to everyone in the Kingdom of God, and that
  • The Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament) should be taught and obeyed by the children of the Kingdom, and that
  • Entrance into Heaven is dependent on an inner state of righteousness reflected in the teachings of the Hebrew Scriptures.

 This may be news to many who read the Old Testament as “old and out of date”. There are actually three ways that we can look at these Hebrew sacred writings:

  • The “Theonomic” view that says all these laws are still in effect and must be obeyed to the letter. I have many Jewish-Christian friends in Israel who take this view and eat a strict ‘kosher” diet, observe the Sabbath laws, and try to do everything they can. Obviously they are not able to obey the sacrificial laws, since the Temple was destroyed by the Roman armies in 70 AD.
  • The “Cultural” approach which says that all the laws belonged to their day and have nothing to do with our lives today. One of my friends asked her pastor if it was okay to have sex with her boyfriend. The pastor replied that in “Bible times” people rode camels, wore sandals, and did many things that we don’t do today. Since we don’t ride camels in modern times, etc., it is permissible to have sex outside marriage. Interestingly, in these past years, we have spent many days in the desert riding around on camels. People still use them for transportation.
  • Then there is a third view, which we refer to as the “Principle Approach”. This Biblical interpretation technique says that behind each “cultural practice” is a spiritual principle that is always relevant to our lives as members of the Kingdom. (These three approaches are from a book by John Stott and Alex Motyer- solid mainstream theologians.)

Of these three, which makes more sense to you? 

Paul told his disciple Timothy in his second letter that

 All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.                              2 Tim 3:16-17 NLT

 It is interesting to note that at the time of this letter, “Scripture” consisted only of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). At that time, the New Testament was in the process of being written. So if this is true, what is in these 613 laws of Moses and description of the Tabernacle that is relevant to my personal spiritual growth? 

Moed: Laws concerning feasts and holidays

Let’s take a look at one of God’s laws found in Exodus 23:

 “Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me. 15 You shall observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread; for seven days you are to eat unleavened bread, as I commanded you, at the appointed time in the month Abib, for in it you came out of Egypt. And  none shall appear before Me empty-handed. 16 Also you shall observe the Feast of the Harvest of the first fruits of your labors from what you sow in the field; also the Feast of the Ingathering at the end of the year when you gather in the fruit of your labors from the field. 17  Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord GOD.

18 “You shall not offer the blood of My sacrifice with leavened bread; nor is the fat of My feast to remain overnight until morning.
19 “You shall bring the choice first fruits of your soil into the house of the LORD your God.
“You are not to boil a young goat in the milk of its mother.”                      Exodus 23:14-19

 What should be done with this command of not boiling a young goat or sheep in its mother’s milk?  Few of us are goat farmers. Most of us have never even seen a baby goat. We could easily ignore this in our modern culture, but some don’t.

Unfortunately some ancient rabbi understood this to prohibit the mixing of meat and dairy in the same meal. It’s one of the tenets of Kosher dietary laws and the reason that you cannot get a cheeseburger at a Kosher McDonalds- or a Big Mac. We discovered this in 1999 we visited the McDonalds a few blocks from our apartment on Ravi Akiva street in downtown Jerusalem. It’s also the reason that observant Jews have two refrigerators, two sets of dishes and two sets of flatware in their homes- to keep meat and dairy apart. The fact that this law is included in the commandments to attend the festivals and offer specific sacrifices and prohibit others seems to suggest this had nothing to do with diet. Here we are in front of that Micky D’s in Jerusalem.

Laura, Nutie, Tom, Lorena and I in front of Mickey D's Jerusalem

 What would you do?  Obey this law (Theonomic)? Ignore the law (Cultural)? Or look for a principle behind it that might express something important to God and that may be relevant to us today? What was going on in the culture during Moses’ time that might provoke God to issue such an injunction? Good question!

 Actually, historians tell us that the pagan cultures in that area of the ancient Middle East often sacrificed a young calf by boiling it in its mother’s milk and using the broth as “fertility magic” to provoke the gods to increase their herds. God told His people not to do this. His people should not seek prosperity through occult means, or by trying to appease the “gods of fortune”. They should simply trust Him to provide. 

 Does this principle have any relevance to our lives today? What modern cultural practices should we avoid when it comes to our economy according to this principle? Reading and following the horoscope? Playing the lottery?  Consulting Psychic Mary and her friends? God’s people should still trust Him when it comes to our daily needs. Jesus told us this very plainly in the New Testament in Matthew 6:

 “So don’t worry about these things, saying, ‘What will we eat? What will we drink? What will we wear?’ These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs. Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need.                                                                                                                                                   Matthew 6:31-33

 Although the cultural practice of boiling a calf in its mother’s milk is something from times past that has no relevance to or modern culture, the principle remains in force. It is just takes on a different form of practice in our 21st century world. However there are cases where the ancient cultural practice prohibition is still applicable in our culture. In Leviticus 18, we find the following in verses 1 & 2:


Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel. I am the Lord your God. So do not act like the people in Egypt, where you used to live, or like the people of Canaan, where I am taking you. You must not imitate their way of life.

Nashim: laws on family, marriage and divorce


 God then gives us His View on sexual relations.

6 “You must never have sexual relations with a close relative, for I am the LORD.
7 “Do not violate your father by having sexual relations with your mother. She is your mother; you must not have sexual relations with her.
8 “Do not have sexual relations with any of your father’s wives, for this would violate your father.
9 “Do not have sexual relations with your sister or half sister, whether she is your father’s daughter or your mother’s daughter, whether she was born into your household or someone else’s.
10 “Do not have sexual relations with your granddaughter, whether she is your son’s daughter or your daughter’s daughter, for this would violate yourself.
11 “Do not have sexual relations with your stepsister, the daughter of any of your father’s wives, for she is your sister.
12 “Do not have sexual relations with your father’s sister, for she is your father’s close relative.
13 “Do not have sexual relations with your mother’s sister, for she is your mother’s close relative.
14 “Do not violate your uncle, your father’s brother, by having sexual relations with his wife, for she is your aunt.
15 “Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law; she is your son’s wife, so you must not have sexual relations with her.
16 “Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife, for this would violate your brother. Leviticus 18:6-16

Nezikin: Laws on human relationships, law, and morality


It is an interesting read involving sexual relations between sons & mothers, sisters & brothers, stepmothers and stepsons, etc. In verse 22 we come to this command:

 “Do not practice homosexuality, having sex with another man as with a woman. It is a detestable sin. A man must not defile himself by having sex with an animal. And a woman must not offer herself to a male animal to have intercourse with it. This is a perverse act.”                                                                  Lev 18:22-23

Here a prohibition of a cultural practice and along with a timeless principle. Pagan gods were often represented by an animal, and in their worship services the priest or priestess would sometimes have sex with that animal as a form of worship. God says don't do that. Men and women would engage in same sex activities to pleasure themselves. God says to be careful with lust- it will get you into trouble. Lust running amok will never be satisfied! His design of mankind has specific functions, which human anatomy testifies- the parts fit. God designed the family unit- husband, wife, and children to be the foundation of human society, with each understanding and acknowledging their respective roles. Here the cultural practice and principle coincide, and the ancient prohibition and principle stand as appropriate and relevant for God’s people today.

Tohoroth: Laws regarding purity

As we study these laws of Moses, we must ask ourselves what was the purpose of the Law. Why did God give them? Here are four thoughts:

  • He wanted to give His people His standard for morality. They were heavily influence by their world environment, just as we are. God wanted His people to be distinct, to stand apart from the society of Egypt and Canaan.
  • He wanted to give them an understanding of what sin was. His people needed to know they had a need for forgiveness, and ultimately a need for a Savior.
  • God wanted to reveal His Divine Holiness to a people who had unique privileges bestowed upon them for a fulfillment of a high calling. He didn’t want them to become presumptive and take lightly their mission, or Him. He wanted them to understand just who they were dealing with- and it was not the flawed, self-serving gods of the Egyptian and Canaanite culture.
  • God wanted to give His people a manner in which to express their faith in Him. Doing what God wants when you don’t want to do it is a very practical way to display your faith in God through your obedience. Without any laws, how will your faith really be expressed?

 God always intended the relationship between Him and His people to be one of trust and faithThese laws were never meant to be legislation, but more information on God's design for this world the lifestyle of the child of God that would flow with this design rather than go against it..

Paul told his friends in Galatia (Galatians 3:19) that as Abraham was saved through his faith, the laws given to Moses didn’t alter that, but were rather layered upon that relationship of faith. The Law was just a signpost to our sin (Romans 7:7), to our need for Christ (Romans 8:2-4), and a practical guide for our living (Psalm 119:105).  Although its cultural application may be antiquated and irrelevant, the principles behind the laws given through Moses are essential to our spiritual health, and determine our entrance into heaven.

Many of the Hebrew people who boastfully declared that they would obey all that the Lord says forgot that, and understood their relationship to God to be not based on faith, but on accomplishing a righteousness of their own, based on their own ability to achieve perfection and godliness.

They received the Law, and made something out of it that was never intended. It became a curse rather than the blessing it was intended (Galatians 3:13-14).

Zera'im: Laws concerning working the land, prayers, and blessings

The fourth commandment says to rest one day a week. God designed us to need a day to focus on our relationship with Him, and our family and friends. This was a revolutionary concept within a culture that demanded work every day of the year. The Jews received this, and decided that obedience to this “non-work” edict was more important than actually enjoying a day with God and your family. So they devised a series of laws to build a fence around this commandment to ensure that no religious Jew would ever get close to breaking this law.

In Jesus’ time, these laws reached levels of ludicrousness. For example, the rabbis defined work as digging a ditch, so therefore on Shabot you could not drag a chair across the dirt floor, creating a groove (small ditch) or spit on the dirt (and scooping out a very small shovelful of dirt in the process).  Spitting on a rock, or dragging a chair across a paved floor was alright. Today on Sabbath in Israel, avoid the “Shabot” elevator in every hotel.  It stops at every floor, so that you don’t have to “work” by pushing the buttons. Ludicrous!

Since walking was also considered work, you could only walk about 400 yards from your home on Sabbath.  Now the religious leaders got around this by defining “your home” as the place where your food was, So they strategically positioned small bags of grain in their friend’s home 390 yards away from their home, and again in the next home another 390 yards away, and so on. Thus they could walk anywhere around the town on Sabbath. They had other shenanigans like this to avoid other “laws”. This really ticked Jesus off.

Even through on the Sabbath you could pull your donkey out of a hole it fell in, the religious Jews took issue with Jesus healing a sick, blind, or paralyzed man on the Sabbath. In fact, the Gospels record that it was this very reason that the Religious authorities decided to kill Jesus.


Paul and Craig, soaking it all in.

Jesus addressed this hypocrisy and misuse of the Law when He said in Matthew 5:17:

 “Do not think that I came to abolish the  Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.

It is true that Jesus did fulfill many aspects of what was spoken of in the Old Testament.  He was born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). He was crucified and dice were rolled for his garments (Psalm 22:16-17). There are many other prophecies of the Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures that Jesus fulfilled.  He certainly fulfilled the requirements of the unblemished lambs required for the sacrifices detailed in Exodus and Leviticus. As the writer of Hebrews explained, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross is the one-time good-for-all-time sacrifice that makes us holy and acceptable in God’s eyes (Hebrews 10:4-10).

But when Jesus told the crowd in Matthew 5 that he came to “fulfill” the Law and the Prophets, it helps to understand the Greek word “Pleroo” that Matthew used, and it’s complete meaning. Ple’ ro’ o (πληρόω) can indeed be translated “fulfill”, or “accomplish” but in this context, according the Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament : Based on Semantic Domains, pleroo means: “to give the true or complete meaning to something—‘to give the true meaning to, to provide the real significance of.

I did not come to destroy but to give true meaning to’.  In is interesting to note that in ancient Greek, this word was used by physicians to take a broken bone and put it back in its place.

Sepphoris Floor

In the following discourse in Matthew, Jesus says five times “You have heard the ancients say…but I say to you…” In each instance he reveals the principle behind the law, and calls attention to obedience to the principle, rather than the cultural practice. He is giving the true meaning to the Law.  He is taking something which had been broken out of it place, and putting it where it belonged- not a legislation to determine our righteousness before God, but rather an intimate expression of God’s heart toward His Chosen People.

 21 “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before  the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the  fiery hell.                                  Matthew 5:21-22       

Don’t kill people with your words!

 You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; 28 but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye makes you stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to be thrown into  hell. 30 If your right hand makes you stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body, than for your whole body to go into  hell. Matthew 5:27-30                                                                                                                                     It is all about what is going on in the heart! How do you begin the process of lusting after a woman? Usually with a long look or touch of the hand- thus the hyperbole that follows regarding  hands and eyes.

 “It was said, ‘WHOEVER SENDS HIS WIFE AWAY, LET HIM GIVE HER A CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE’; 32 but I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for the reason of unchastity, makes her commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.      Matthew 5:31-32

Spiros Zodiates, author of the Key Word Study Bible notes, writes his translation of this difficult passage:

“And it was said ‘Whosoever dismisses his wife, let him give her a bill of divorcement (Deut 24:1-4). But I say to you that whosoever dismisses his wife except for reasons of fornication (while she is his wife) makes her to be considered as having adultery committed against her, and whosoever marries one who is unjustifiably dismissed is considered as committing adultery.”

The bill of divorce was for protection of the abandoned woman, allowing her to begin another relationship with one who would provide support and protection . God cares for innocent victims.

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘ YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ 34 But I say to you, make no oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is the footstool of His feet, or by Jerusalem, for it is THE CITY OF THE GREAT KING. 36 Nor shall you make an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.         Matthew 5:33-37

 Stop making vows and attaching the vow to something external: “I swear on my mother’s grave”. Let a simple “yes” mean “yes”. Keep your word.


Detail of Sepphoris floor

You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ 39 But I say to you, do not resist an evil person; but whoever slaps you on your right cheek, turn the other to him also. 40 If anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, let him have your coat also. 41 Whoever forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to him who asks of you, and do not turn away from him who wants to borrow from you.                                                                                                                                     Matthew 5:38-42

A slap on the cheek is not lethal but only an insult. You have no right to revenge. Be known as a giver and servant of all.

 You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?

 Loving others, especially those that are not your friends, and even your enemies demonstrates the love that God has showered on us. We are told to love and serve all whom God bring across our path.

 48 Therefore  you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.                            Matthew 5:43-48

 “Perfect is the Greek word “Teleios”: from télos (G505, goal, purpose. Finished, that which has reached its end, term, limit; hence, complete, full, wanting in nothing.  Specifically of persons meaning full age, adulthood, full-grown, of persons, meaning full-grown in mind and understanding.

 Jesus us telling us to grow up, be mature, and to really understand what the Kingdom is all about.

The Laws given through Moses show us much about God, His character, and his design for humanity. Yes we have to dig a bit to get past some of the cultural practices, but the principles behind the Law are golden nuggets for the lifestyle of the follower of Jesus in current times.

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