Path of the righteous Gentile: Historical Overview
The code of Divine Law that we now know as the Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah has been with mankind since the creation of the first man, Adam. Though man is the crown of creation, he was created last. The reason that God created man last of all the creations was to serve as a perpetual lesson, symbolic of man’s choice in the world. When he is fulfilling God’s will, man sits atop everything that was created before him and is truly creation’s crown. But when he falls in disobedience to God, he is last and lowest of all the creatures, lower even than the gnat, which consumes throughout its life but never eliminates waste, the symbol of ultimate selfishness. Even the lowly gnat follows God’s will. Man alone has the option to transgress it.1
When God charged Adam, “And the Lord God commanded Adam, saying: Of every tree in the garden you may surely eat. But from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you may not eat of it, for on the day that you eat of it you shall surely die (Genesis 2:16,17),” this single commandment contained the source of the Seven Noahide Commandments.2 And more, Adam was charged by God with the responsibility of teaching the laws to future generations. The verse states that God commanded Adam, “saying.” Although this word “saying” appears superfluous, it is a principle of the Torah that there are no superfluous words, for everything comes to teach us something. In this case, the word “saying” indicates that God not only said the commandment to Adam, but He intended that Adam say it as well. It is a principle of Biblical analysis that when a verse states, “And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,” it means that God taught Moses something and that He expected him to teach it to the Jewish people,3or, as in the case of the Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah, to all of mankind.
And so, Adam taught his children the Seven Universal Laws: not to worship idols, not to curse God, not to kill, not to steal, not to engage in sexual immorality, not to eat the limb of a living animal, and to establish courts of law to enforce these laws. And so mankind developed.
The clear proof that the descendants of Adam knew these laws and were expected by the Divine Judge and Father to obey them was that 1656 years later He brought the Great Flood as a punishment for mankind’s failure to keep these commandments. “And God saw the earth and, behold, it was corrupted, because all flesh had corrupted its way on the earth” (Gen. 6:12).”
The classic Biblical commentary of Rashi4 teaches that the corruption was sexual immorality and idol worship. The very next verse reads, “And God said to Noah, the end of all flesh has come before Me, because the earth is filled with wickedness (Genesis 6:13).” Rashi comments that the phrase “the earth is filled with wickedness” refers to theft. So, because of sexual immorality, idol worship, and theft (three of the seven commandments which Adam was expected to teach his children, and which mankind was expected to obey), the Creator of all destroyed all, except for a remnant which included Noah, his wife, his three sons and their wives.
When the floodwaters settled and the earth had been wiped clean of its taint, humanity no longer had to fall back on Adam as the father of all mankind. Now mankind had a new father, Noah. Unlike Adam, who failed to fulfill God’s commandments, Noah was “a righteous man, pious in his generation, and Noah walked with God (Genesis 6:9).”
And so, with a new world and a fresh start of building it in sanctity, God reaffirmed the original seven commandments that He had taught Adam. God blessed Noah and his sons and their wives and promised that He would never again destroy the world as He had done, sealing the promise for all time by striking a covenant with Noah as mankind’s father as expressed in the following verses: “And God spoke to Noah and to his sons with him, saying: As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you and with your seed after you (Genesis 9:8),” and, “And God said: This is the sign of the covenant that I am placing between me and your children and between all the living souls that are with you for all generations. My bow I am placing in the cloud and it shall be for a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth (Genesis 9:12,13).”
The sign of the covenant was the rainbow, which would serve as a permanent symbol of Divine benevolence. It was the first time the rainbow had ever been seen in the world, although it had been created and readied for this moment at twilight after the sixth day of creation,5 between the time Adam transgressed and the Sabbath, when God rested from all He had made. The rainbow with its seven colors reflected the beauty and sanctity of the Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah.
When God created Adam and placed him in the Garden of Eden, this was to be the prime dwelling place of the Divine Presence. But when Adam transgressed God’s commandment, the Divine Presence withdrew and left the earth in favor of the first heaven.6 Then, with the sin of Cain and Abel, the Divine Presence withdrew from the first to the second heaven. Then Enosh evoked idolatrous gods, and the Divine Presence went from the second to the third heaven. From the third heaven it rose to the fourth heaven because of the Generation of the Flood.
Although Noah was righteous enough to be spared destruction and be designated the second father of mankind, despite his efforts, he failed in his attempt to effect a true rectification of Adam’s sin, which was necessary to draw the Divine Presence back to the desired residence on earth. One of the first acts Noah engaged in upon leaving the Ark was the planting of a vineyard (Genesis 9:20,21). Most Biblical commentaries are highly critical of this action. After all, mankind had just been destroyed. To plant a vineyard so as to grow grapes and make wine seems totally inappropriate under the circumstances. But there are those who say that Noah was attempting to rectify the sin of Adam. The Talmud states that, in one opinion, the fruit of the tree of knowledge was the grape drink wine in a profane manner. It had been God’s intention that Adam should wait until the Sabbath, which was to come in just a few hours, and then the fruit of the tree, the grape, would be used to sanctify the Sabbath and bear witness to the fact that God had created the world in six days and rested on the seventh.8 It is argued that Noah knew this deeper meaning of Adam’s transgression, and by planting a vineyard and using the wine for sacramental purposes, he could achieve the complete rectification of the sin. But Noah failed. He became intoxicated and was discovered naked by his youngest son, Ham, who shamed him by calling Noah’s other two sons, Shem and Japheth, to see their father’s drunken nakedness. Rashi comments on this verse (Genesis 9:22) that Ham either castrated his father or had homosexual relations with him or both. Shem and Japheth respectfully covered their father with a garment, but the damage had been done. Noah awoke and cursed Ham and his descendants, and the Divine Presence looked down in pity (Genesis 9:23-27).
The Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah remained unheeded as before the Flood except for a few righteous people, notably Shem and his great-grandson Eber, who established academies of learning for the purpose of understanding and fulfilling the Noahide Laws.9 The academies of Shem and Eber were the first schools in the world. They are mentioned many times in the Talmud, but their profound importance is largely overlooked. The fact is that Shem and Eber were great prophets of G-d.10 And it was Shem rather than his father Noah who spread the teachings of the Seven Laws to all who would listen. Among Shem’s illustrious students were Hammurabi, Job, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.11 These schools were the lone bastion of light in the encroaching darkness of the Tower of Babel.
The generation of the Tower of Babel produced brilliant scientists. Not only did they learn to master many of the world’s natural forces, such as controlling the weather, but they reasoned in their scientific wisdom that the earth had no Master, or, at least if it had a Master, that they were His equal, and they built a tower to the heavens to challenge the authority of God. They scientifically concluded that, since the Flood of Noah occurred in the year 1656 after creation, this meant that every 1656 years the heavens would shake, the depths would open, and the rains would come to destroy the earth.12 And the Bible teaches, “And God descended to look at the city and the tower that the children of man had built (Genesis 11:5).” God’s descending to look was from the fifth heaven.
God took measures to stop His errant children by confounding their language and scattering them to distant lands (Genesis 11:4).
Originally, all of mankind spoke one language, the holy language of Scripture, Hebrew, the twenty-two letters of the Hebrew alef-bet being the very instruments of creation.13 But now mankind had lost this merit and was forced to communicate with each other in the seventy basic languages of the world.
During these times, King Nimrod arose with a wickedness that was virtually without precedent. He proclaimed himself god of all the earth and commanded all his subjects to worship him as the actual deity. Those who refused, he killed.14
Nimrod was called “a mighty hunter before the Lord” (Genesis 10:9).” Rashi comments that the phrase “a mighty hunter” means that he captured the minds of men with his mouth and led them astray to rebel against God. “Before the Lord,” Rashi says, indicates that Nimrod intentionally provoked God in His Presence. Nimrod, unlike any man who had lived before him, acted wickedly in order to defy God. He knew his Master and rebelled out of spite against Him.
God withdrew His Divine Presence to the sixth heaven in response to the sins of Sodom and Gemorrah, primarily theft and sexual perversion. In those societies, cruelty was admired and human kindness harshly punished, often by death.15
The ancient Egyptians completed the job of driving God away by being wholly devoted to their many idols, more steeped in sexual perversion than the Sodomites, and by developing another form of evil to its ultimate – witchcraft.16 With God’s revealed Presence removed to the seventh and highest heaven, mankind dwelt in a world of moral and spiritual darkness.
Finally, there arose a righteous man whose deeds began to draw the revealed Presence back to earth. Abraham stood against the darkness of the world by clinging to the Creator and doing His will. He challenged Nimrod’s idolatry with his belief in the One God, and eventually vanquished Nimrod completely, bringing mankind to the recognition of God and His way in the world. In Abraham’s merit, the Divine Presence descended from the seventh heaven to the sixth heaven. Because of Abraham’s son, Isaac, the Divine Presence descended from the sixth to the fifth heaven, then from the fifth to the fourth through Isaac’s son, Jacob.
Jacob’s spiritual might was awesome. He wrestled with an angel of God and defeated it (Genesis 32:25-30). Through Jacob and his children, twelve sons and a daughter, a new and distinct people on earth emerged. The Children of Israel were named after their father Jacob, who had been blessed by God and given the new name: “Your name shall no more be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name, and He called his name, Israel” (Genesis 35:10).” Rashi comments that the name Jacob implies one who comes with stealth and guile, but the name Israel denotes a prince and a ruler.
With the Children of Israel, a people of God had come into the world. Abraham, Isaac, and Israel were mighty prophets and knew prophetically that their descendants would go down to Egypt in exile and would then be redeemed by God and given His Divine Law on Mount Sinai.
The Patriarchs observed the Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah. Through their gift of prophecy coupled with the tradition they received from Shem and Eber, who were also prophets, they saw what the Sinai Revelation would bring, and observed those laws as well, even though they had not been commanded concerning them.
When God blessed Isaac, it was “because Abraham listened to My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws (Genesis 26:5).” Rashi states that the word “charge” refers to the precepts of the Torah which had not yet been commanded, including Sabbath observances , whereas “commandments” refers to matters such as robbery and murder, two of the Seven Noahide Commandments.17
In fact, there were times when a conflict over the Mosaic and Noahide codes of law arose. The initial strife between Joseph and his brothers had to do with the difference between the Mosaic precept of keeping the dietary laws and the Noahide Commandment forbidding the eating of the limb of a living animal. Mosaic Law permits Israelites to eat the meat of an animal that has been ritually slaughtered, even if the animal still exhibits movement in its limbs. Noahide Law does not require ritual slaughtering, but forbids Noahides to eat an animal’s meat unless every trace of movement has stopped. The brothers had a heated discussion about the subject, and the sons of Leah argued that they, by following the Mosaic precept, were exempt from the Noahide prohibition. To prove the point, they slaughtered an animal according to the Mosaic precept and ate of its meat before the animal’s limbs had stopped twitching. Joseph felt that they had erred in their judgment and told the matter to their father.18 Joseph’s brothers then sold him into slavery, but God was with him and he rose to become second in command in Egypt, a veritable king alongside Pharaoh. By the time he had forgiven his brothers for what they had done to him, the Divine Presence had descended from the fourth to the third heaven through the merit of
Jacob’s third son, Levi, who established the Jewish priesthood.
Before the Children of Israel settled in the land of Egypt, Judah, one of the brothers, preceded them and set up a house of study in Goshen so the sons of Jacob could be immersed in learning the seven Noahide commandments as well as the laws of the Torah, which they received as a heritage from Shem and Eber, and Abraham, Isaac, and Israel.19 Even during the long and bitter period of Egyptian slavery, the priestly tribe of Levi remained in the house of study, exempt from harsh servitude, so that the Divine Law would be remembered and understood and fulfilled.20 In the merit of Levi’s son, Kohath, whose sons were destined to carry the Holy Ark of God through the Wilderness, the Divine Presence descended from the third to the second heaven.
When Pharaoh decreed death for the male infants born to the Children of Israel, Amram, the leader of the generation and another descendant of Levi, divorced his wife, Jochebed. His purpose was to stop bringing Israelite infants into the world in order to prevent their murder. Amram, as leader, knew that his action would be emulated by his people, which is precisely what happened. But his daughter, Miriam, pointed out that whereas Pharaoh had decreed only against males, Amram had decreed against all infants, male and female, by bringing none into the world. Respecting the wisdom of their daughter’s words, Amram and Jochebed remarried, and the child Moses was born.21 In Amram’s merit, the Divine Presence descended from the second to the first heaven.
Moses was the most humble man who ever lived (Numbers 12:3). His humility was so profound that he considered himself as nothing at all. Whatever he achieved, he saw as coming solely from God, believing that if God had blessed another man with as many talents as he, the other man would surely have achieved more with them.22 This self-nullification stood him in stark contrast to the egomania of Pharaoh, who claimed to be a deity as Nimrod had.23
When God redeemed the Children of Israel and decimated the idolatry of the Egyptians, it was for the purpose of His Revelation at Sinai and the Giving of the Torah. Fifty days after the Children of Israel had left Egypt, Moses ascended Mount Sinai, and in full view of 600,000 Jewish men and at least 1,400,000 women and children,24 the Lord God of Israel descended to earth from His heavenly abode25 and said “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage (Exodus 24:10).”
God had departed from the Garden of Eden and now, twenty-seven generations later, returned on Mount Sinai and spoke all the words of the Ten Commandments. It was a Divine Revelation that is incomprehensible to the human mind. All the blind and the lame and the deaf were miraculously healed.26 All the righteous souls who would ever be born into this world were called forth by the Lord God to witness His Divine Presence.27 This was the seal of God, His truth.
With the Giving of the Torah, the God of Israel chose the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as His Chosen People, instructing them to fulfill the 613 Commandments of the Torah. He also commanded the righteous of the other nations of the world to keep the Seven Commandments of the Children of Noah and commanded Moses and his people to teach them.28 It was both the establishment of a new covenant and the reinforcement of the old one.
The Mosaic and Noahide Laws were inextricably bound together. The Children of Noah, the righteous Gentiles, were obligated to fulfill the Seven Commandments, not because they were given to Noah after the Great Flood, but because they were given on Mount Sinai. And it became the obligation of the Children of Israel to teach the true faith in God to the righteous Gentiles by introducing them to Seven Universal Commandments by which all nations can live in peace and harmony.
When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to meet God, earth and heaven came together in a unique way. God took of His holiness and brought it to earth. For the first time in creation, physical objects could be infused with actual holiness. The Torah scroll and other writings, the sacrifices and other articles of use in the Tabernacle and Temple service, and the Children of Israel themselves became holy unto the Lord, meaning separate and distinct from the rest of creation with a sanctity uniquely reserved for the service of God (Exodus 19:6).29 This was the beginning of the true universal religion in which Israel, the Jewish people, is the priest and the Children of Noah, the righteous Gentiles, its faithful congregation.30 The year was 2448 of the creation.31
During the periods when the Jewish people lived in the Holy Land, their responsibility for teaching the Gentiles the Seven Commandments was generally fulfilled. During the 410 years that the First Temple stood and the 420 years of the Second Temple, Gentiles who wanted to dwell in the Land of Israel agreed to fulfill the Noahide Laws and had the right to enter the Holy Temple and offer sacrifices to God (Zechariah 14:17-18).32
With respect to the nations of the world, this posed something of a problem. Influential as it was, particularly during the times of King Solomon, the Land of Israel was but one place on a rather large globe. And the observance of the Noahide Laws outside of the Land of Israel was rare. Then, in the year 4800 of creation, nearly two thousand years ago, God took a drastic step to remedy the situation. He destroyed His Holy Temple, the center of religious Jewish life, and exiled His people Israel to every corner of the planet, where many remain to this very day. As the Talmud states, “The Jewish people went into exile only in order to make converts, meaning to teach the nations faith in the One God.”33
The intention was for the Jewish people to proclaim the faith in the God of their fathers and to bring all the peoples of the world into a spiritual union with God and Israel by teaching them the Seven Commandments of Noah. But what the Jews found in the world outside their own land was a difficult situation. Mixed up with a myriad of foreign cultures, the Jews had a lifelong struggle to maintain their own traditions without being swallowed up by the cultures and traditions of the peoples around them, in fulfillment of the Biblical injunction, “Take heed to yourself that you inquire not after their gods, saying: How did these nations serve their gods? Even so, I will do likewise” (Deuteronomy 12:30).” Moreover, the Jew found that people were distrustful of him and hostile, and were far too busy trying to convert him to their religions to have any time to listen to what he might have to say about the subject.
Three factors in recent times have caused a change in the situation. First, the spiritual deterioration of mankind has reached a desperate stage. Half the world follows an official doctrine of atheism (which Jews consider the cruelest and most extreme form of idolatry), and much of the rest of the world is sunk into immorality and crime. Second, there exists a new spirit of ecumenism, largely due to the internet and radio and television. These have given birth to an information explosion in which Judaism’s view concerning the Gentile’s relationship to God no longer meets with irrational responses.
The third factor is that God has finally brought the appointed time, as it says, “Thus says the Lord of Hosts: In those days it shall come to pass, that ten men of all the languages of the nations shall take hold of the corner of the garment of him who is a Jew, saying, ‘We will go with you, for we have heard that God is with you (Zechariah 8:23).’”
1 Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin, 38a 2 Ibid., 58b
3 Rashi on Leviticus 1:1, “Saying…”
4 Rashi is the acronym for Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac (1040-1105), author of the most important Scriptural commentary and commentary on the Talmud. Rashi explains the simply meaning of the Torah to five year old children and yet the incisiveness of his commentary challenges even the most advanced scholars.
5 Chapters of the Fathers 5:8
6 Midrash Rabba, Song of Songs, 5:1.
7 Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 40a
7 What Adam had done was
8 Ta’amei Haminhagim, section 393
9 Rashi on Genesis 25:22 and on Genesis 28:11
10 Pirkei d’Rebbe Eliezer 37; Rashi on Genesis 10:25.
11 Actually, Shem had passed away before Jacob reached maturity, but the academy of Shem and Eber continued and Jacob studied there for fourteen years before he journeyed to Haran to find a wife.
12 Ibid., Genesis 11:1
13 Jerusalem Talmud, Megillah, 1:9; Rashi on Genesis 11:1
14 Zohar, p. 73; Yalkut Me’am Loez (Torah Anthology), Genesis, vol. 1, p. 356
15 Rashi on Genesis 18:21 mentions that the citizens of Sodom punished a girl with a strange and cruel death because she had given food to a poor man.
16 Rashi on Exodus 7:22 states that when the first of the Ten Plagues (turning the Nile into blood) was accomplished, Pharaoh said to Moses and Aaron, “Do you bring witchcraft to Egypt, which is full of witchcraft?”
17 Rashi on Genesis 26:5 18 Ibid., Genesis 37:2
19 Ibid., Genesis 46:28 20 Ibid., Exodus 5:4
21 Ibid., Exodus 2:1
22 Likutei Sichot, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol. 13, page 30
23 Rashi on Exodus 7:15
24 Beit Elokim, Moshe of Trani, Shaar HaYesodot, chap. 47
25 Remaining ten handbreadths above the ground.
26 Rashi on Exodus 20:15
27 The Book of our Heritage, vol. 3, p. 86
28 Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 8:11
29 Torah Ohr, Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, p. 68
30 The Unknown Sanctuary: A Pilgrimage from Rome to Israel, pp. 147-149 31 Seder Hadorot, vol. 1, p. 83
32 Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 52b
33 Ibid., Pesachim 87b