“You are the sons of the Lord your God” (Torah, Deuteronomy 14:1)
“Thus says the Lord: Israel is my son, my first-born.” (Torah, Exodus 4:22)
Does ‘sons’ mean that Jews, either as individuals or as a people, are Divine? Of course not. No Rabbi from the most Orthodox to the most Reform persuasion has ever taken these verses of the Torah literally. What about Jesus? Didn’t he call himself the ‘Son of God’? No! According to the Gospels Jesus frequently referred to himself as the ‘Son of Man.’ It was only others who called him a ‘son of God’ and most of them meant it the same way the Torah means it, i.e. a holy man —or a holy people, in the case of ‘sons of God.’ The term ‘son/child’ of God should never be taken literally. It is a metaphor. It must be interpreted in a non-physical way.
To say that a verse must be interpreted is not being disrespectful. To the contrary. It means that we have to give respectful thought and study to each verse in a Divine text. We cannot read Torah, Zabur, Gospel or Qur’an the way we read the newspaper. Jews dialogue with Torah. She challenges, inspires and questions us, and we study respectfully and lovingly embrace her. For God will judge every human being:
“Indeed, the believers, Jews, Sabians, Christians, Magi, and the polytheists—God will judge between them all on Judgment Day. Surely God is a Witness over all things.” (Quran 22:17)
And for kind and charitable monotheists:
“Indeed, the believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians—whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good will have their reward with their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.” (Qur’an 2:62 and 5:69)
Religious pluralism and respect should be extended to faithful believers both within one’s own religion and to faithful believers within other monotheistic religions.
“A [small] faction of the people of the Scripture wish they could mislead you. But they do not mislead [anyone] except themselves, and they do not perceive [it]. O People of the Scripture, why do [some of] you disbelieve in the verses of Allah while you witness [it]? O People of the Scripture, why do [some of] you confuse the truth with falsehood and conceal the truth while you know [it]? (Qur’an 3:69-71)
“They are not all alike. Some of the People of the Book are firmly committed to the truth. They recite the Verses of Allah during the hours of night, and remain in the state of [prayer] prostration before their Lord.” (Qur’an 3:113)
“O you who believe, stand persistently firm for Allah as witnesses in justice, and do not let the hatred of a people prevent you from being just. Be just, for that is nearer to righteousness. Fear Allah, for verily, Allah is aware of what you do” (Qur’an 5:8)
The Jewish mystics asserted that each verse in the Torah is capable of being interpreted in seventy different ways. Throughout the generations Rabbis have offered different meanings and views of Torah verses but according to the Talmud God said, “Both these (views) and those (views) are the words of the living God.” God lives because of the ongoing interaction between the Divine revelation and its believing adherents. For,
“It was We who revealed the Torah (to Moses); therein was guidance and light. By its standard have the Jews been judged by the Prophet (Moses) who bowed to Allah’s will, by the Rabbis and the Doctors of Law: for to them was entrusted the protection of Allah’s Book, and they were witnesses thereto: therefore fear not men, but fear Me, and sell not My Signs for a miserable price.” (Quran, 5:44)
Without this respectful dialogue the text would be a dead letter text; and we would lack spiritual vitality and growth. As the Qur’an states:
“If your Lord had so willed, He would have made mankind one community, but they continue to remain divided.” (Qur’an 11:118)
“Mankind were but one community; then they began to differ. But for a decree of your Lord that had already preceded, a decision would have been made regarding what they differed about.” (Qur’an 10:19)
Divine revelation should always be taken seriously. Divine revelation should never be taken literally, in a simplistic way that contradicts reason, morality or other texts. Some verses were meant for special historical circumstances or conditions. Some verses have to be understood in the light of other verses. And all verses have to be interpreted with the guidance and insight of the many generations of commentators who have preceded us, as well as the best understandings of our own age. As the Qur’an states:
“Humanity was [of] one religion [pre-Adam polytheism]; then Allah sent the prophets as bringers of good tidings and warners and sent down with them the Scripture [Torah, Zabur, Evangel, and Qur’an] in truth to judge between the people concerning that in which they differed. And none differed over the Scripture except those who were given it —after the clear proofs came to them— out of jealous animosity among themselves. And Allah guided those who believed to the truth concerning that over which they had differed, by His permission. And Allah guides whom He wills to a straight path. (Qur’an 2:213)
Here are some examples of Midrash (the Jewish interpretive process at work) for ‘sons of God.’
‘Sons’ in Hebrew means children. Women are as close to God as are men. Children indicates a very close loving relationship unlike that of King and subject. Millions of people can love a King but a King can’t love millions of people. God can.
‘First-born son’ indicates that God will send Prophets and Messengers to other nations in later generations.
‘First-born’ refers to the historical fact that Torah is the oldest of the living holy books that have come down to us.
The Torah says Israel is God’s first-born but not God’s only child. Just as parents love all their children, so too does God love all nations and religions. Just as parents can have many children who look different one from the other, so too does God’s revelation appear in different forms in different religions, and within each religion there are different interpretations of God’s revelation. Yet the first-born is unique.
If one believes that there is only one God, who is revealed by many different inspired prophets, then we should be able to learn more about God’s will by gaining insights into our own unique revelation, from other revelations of that one God. Since all monotheistic scriptures come from the one and only God, we should view other scriptures as potentially enriching our understanding and appreciation of our own scripture for:
“To every people [is given] a messenger [rasul]: when their messenger comes [to them] the matter will be judged between them with justice and they will not be wronged.” (Qur’an 10:47)
The Talmud states, Eruvin 13b:10-14:
“For three years there was a dispute between the School of Rabbi Shammai and the School of Rabbi Hillel, the former asserting, ‘The law is in agreement with our views’ and the latter contending, ‘The law is in agreement with our views.’ Then a heavenly voice announced, ‘Both (views) are the words of the living God, but the law is in agreement with the rulings of Beth Hillel.’
Since both are the words of the ‘living God,’ what was it that entitled the School of Hillel to have the law fixed in agreement with their rulings?
“Because they were kindly and modest, they studied their own rulings and those of Beth Shammai, and were even so [respectful of their opponents] as to mention the views of the School of Shammai before their own school. And Talmud Yevamot 14b:4-10 states:
“Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disagreed (on many critical issues) … nevertheless .. they behaved with love and friendship toward one another, as Prophet Zechariah proclaimed: ‘TRUTH and PEACE they loved.’ ” (quoted from Bible, Zechariah 8:19).
“Righteousness is not in turning your faces towards the east or the west. Rather, the righteous are those who believe in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Books (Torah, Zabur, Gospels, and Qur’an) and (all monotheistic) prophets; who give charity out of their cherished wealth to relatives, orphans, the poor, ˹needy˺ travelers, beggars, and for freeing captives; who establish prayer, pay alms-tax, and keep the pledges they make; and who are patient in times of suffering, adversity, and in ˹the heat of˺ battle. It is they who are true ˹in faith˺, and it is they who are mindful ˹of Allah˺.” (Qur’an 2:177)