7. What is B'nai Noah?


Dr. James D. Tabor

Briefly, just what is B'nai Noah?

Most simply put, B'nai Noah, or "children of Noah," is the Talmudic way of referring to all humankind.  According to the Bible we are all descendants of one man, namely Noah, after the Flood, and are thus ``Children of Noah''  (Genesis 10).

You say this concept is in the Talmud.  Is it also in the Bible?

Yes, but not by that name.  Ask yourself, what was the Faith of Enoch, Noah, Shem, Job, Jethro, and all those, who for thousands of years lived before Sinai?  Remember, at that point there were no Jews, there was no people of Israel.  Obviously they had beliefs, standards, and commandments to follow.  They enjoyed a full and rich relationship to the One Creator God.  The Talmud discusses the details of this Faith, found at various points in the book of Genesis.

Fine, we are all "children of Noah," but what is the point of this description?  Is this a religious Faith one can believe and follow?

Not in itself, there is more.  Connected to the idea of being a descendant of Noah are the Noahide Laws which express the basic outlines of a full and dynamic relationship with God.

One of the most accurate descriptions is from the Encyclopedia Britannica under the article "Noahide Laws."  I quote:

". . . a Jewish Talmudic designation for seven biblical laws given to Adam and to Noah before the revelation to Moses on Mt. Sinai and consequently binding on all mankind." (The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Micropodia, 15th ed, vol 8, p. 737).  

You can see from this definition that a faithful "child of Noah," or a Noahite, would be one who believes and practices the Way summed up in the Seven Noahide Laws, which are the basis of the Noahide Covenant which God made with all humankind.

So, are Jews also considered Noahites?  After all, they too are descendants of Noah?

No, this is a properly a category for Gentiles only.  The Noahide Laws were revealed long before Abraham.  The people of Israel, whom we know today as Jews, are descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob.  They have their own unique and special covenant and mission to the world as expressed in the Torah revealed to Moses at Sinai.  Israel is to be separate from ``the nations'' (Numbers 23:9; Exodus 19:5-6).


What are those seven Noahide Laws?

They are prohibitions against idolatry, blasphemy, murder, sexual sins, robbery, and the eating of flesh cut from a living animal, plus the positive command to establish courts of justice.

This seems almost too simple?  It sounds like basic universal ethics.  Can you actually derive a religious Faith from these?

They are quite basic, but you have to understand that these Seven Laws represent beginning principles, or overall categories and headings, for an entire Faith and Way of life based on the Torah--but as it applies to Gentiles.  For example, the prohibition against idolatry would include the whole understanding of the One God of Israel, His nature, and all that constitutes idolatry, including prohibitions against the Occult, and so forth.  The prohibition against the ``limb of a living animal'' has to do with the principle of the kind treatment of animals.  The prohibition against sexual sins would include the whole Torah understanding of human sexuality.  The Talmudic rabbis expand these in various ways.  Believe it or not, this approach to God can involve one in a lifetime of study and active living, a full "Torah faith," appropriate for Gentiles.  The Torah begins with Genesis.  It is a revelation for all humankind, not just for Jews.  Israel is to function as the priestly people, bringing this Torah faith to all nations.

All but one of these laws is a prohibition.  Why does the Noahide code represent such a negative approach to Faith in God?

This is a misunderstanding of Torah faith in general.  Remember, eight of the Ten Commandments are negative.  For example, to state that one is not to commit adultery is not to be negative, but to stress the central and most damaging threat to human sexual fulfillment.  In that sense it is protective, and actually positive.  Think about the so-called "negative" Golden Rule of Rabbi Hillel-- "Don't do to others, what you would find harmful to yourself."  Is this really negative?  Not if you think about it.  It includes the positive, in that one of the things you would find hateful to yourself would be for someone to neglect positive treatment toward you!  Of the total 613 commandments (mitzvot) of the Torah given to Israel, 365 are negative, while 248 are positive.  But, if you study them you will find that the negative balance and fill out the positive.

You say the Noahide concept involves a whole Way of life.  Can you explain this more?  Following these laws, even if they are expanded into whole categories, does not sound like enough to satisfy the spiritual needs of people?  What about prayers, worship, holydays, customs and traditions?  Do the Noahites have these?

Definitely yes.  Noahites are involved, in co-operation with leading rabbis in Israel and the United States in developing prayers, ceremonies, and rituals which are appropriate to them as Gentiles who have attached themselves to the One God of Israel.  They are not seeking to begin a new religion.  This is forbidden in the Torah.  But neither are they seeking to simply "imitate" the Jewish practices.  This would only confuse matters further.  Most Noahites have turned away from some of the standard holy days of the West, such as Christmas and Easter, with their pagan associations.  There is much in the Sacred Calendar of Judaism that is applicable to all humankind.  The Sabbath day is first mentioned in Genesis 2, where it is sanctified as a day of rest, a memorial of the creation for humankind.  Israel's Sabbath observance, according to later halacha is another matter.  Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is certainly a day when all human beings, Jew or Gentile, can assemble in a spirit of repentance and reconciliation.  Indeed, all the festivals of Israel can be remembered and honored in ways appropriate for Gentiles, but in solidarity with the Jewish people.  The Noahites, with orthodox rabbinic input, are developing marriage ceremonies, prayers, and holy day rituals which are appropriate for all humankind.

Frankly, what is happening in our day in somewhat new.  We are in a new situation, one we hope, through the grace of HaShem, will lead to Messianic times.  In other words, much of this is right now being worked out in many nations in co-operation between Jewish Torah scholars and committed Gentile Noahites.  This is in the spirit of Isaiah 2 and 11, which tells of the nations coming to Jerusalem to learn the "Way of HaShem,"  leading to Messianic times when the earth is filled with the knowledge of HaShem as the waters cover the sea (see Zech 14:9).  Obviously the whole world is not to literally become Jewish.  But all nations can be taught of God and learn the Way of God for this planet.  The Noahide concept is a beginning of that great goal.

So, does that mean that this Noahide movement is actually rather new?  Is it even, perhaps, what we might call a cult or sect?

No, it is quite old!  After all, recall, this is the Faith of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Job, and even Abraham (before his circumcision).  You could not find a religious Faith on this planet with older roots than the Noahide one!  You would hardly call the religion of these Patriarchs a ``cult.''  It is the very foundation of Western ethical and moral values.

Also, from an historical point of view, the early Gentile participants in the movement that arose around Jesus the Nazarene were actually participating in a version of the B'nai Noah concept.  In other words, early Gentile ``Christianity,'' might be more accurately classified as a messianic B'nai Noah movement, despite the later heretical developments within Christianity which made Jesus a second deity. B'nai Noah when properly understood instructs Gentiles to turn directly to the One God as He is revealed in the pages of the Scriptures.  This is clearly reflected in Acts 15 and Paul's instructions to his Gentile converts in letters like 1 Corinthians (see chapters 5-10) and 1 Thessalonians.  He instructs the Gentile believers in Jesus as Messiah in the seven Noahide Laws.  These were made binding on the Gentile converts by none other than Jacob (James), brother of Jesus, and leader of the Nazarene Sect.  They were among the "Godfearers" who attended Jewish synagogues to learn Torah as it applied to them.  There was nothing for the first 50 years of the movement that resembled what we call "Christianity," as a separate Hellenistic religion distinct from Judaism.  The movement was thoroughly Jewish, but with Gentiles invited to participate on the basis of the Noahide concept without conversion to Judaism.

What is the attitude then, of the current B'nai Noah movement toward Christianity?

The B'nai Noah movement is definitely not Christian.  It is larger than all world religions.  Remember, it is the Faith for all "children of Noah," that is, all humankind.  We would want to see it spread among Moslems, Buddhists, Hindus, and so forth, as well as among Christians.  One basic call is to turn from "idols."  Most world religions are given over to idolatry of various forms.  Noahites, in the light of the revelation of the Torah, encourage all who will hear to forsake these practices.

For example, no faithful Noahite would worship and equate Jesus with HaShem, the One God of Israel; reject the Torah as God's eternal revelation; or scorn the people of Israel.  Within our movement we do have those of various backgrounds and beliefs.  We have various levels.  What we have in common is our love of God, Torah, and Israel.  And as we study together we find that we are being drawn ever closer. Everyone is accepted in light of their desire to learn. True perfection is open to all humanity. As the Scriptures declare, "Abraham listened to my voice and he kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws" (Genesis 26:5). This refers to Abraham's belief in the one God, his willingness to teach others about God, to disseminate knowledge about how to worship Him, to disprove idolatry, also to go in the ways of God, to be kind, compassionate, to do justice and righteousness and to cause others to do so and to keep the seven laws of Noah. Perfection is the aim of all the laws.

This all sounds interesting, but still a little obscure.  Why have I never heard of this Noahide concept if it is so important?

You will be surprised to learn that on March 20, 1990 President George Bush signed into law an historic Joint Resolution of both Houses of Congress recognizing the Seven Noahide Laws as the "bedrock of society from the dawn of civilization" and urged our country to "return the world to the moral and ethical values contained in the Seven Noahide Laws" (H.J. Res. 104, Public Law 102-4).  So, you see, these things are not being done in a corner.

Where can I go to get more information about this movement?

For research the most basic book is Aaron Lichtenstein, The Seven Laws of Noah. 

You can also read about the movement in the recent press: "Tennessee Baptists Turn to Judaism for New Inspiration",: The Wall Street Journal, March 20, 1991, page 1; "The 7 Noahide Laws: What Every Gentiles Should Know," Parts I & II, The Jewish Press, January 18 & 25 editions, 1991, pp. 8C, 31; "Is Our B'nai Noah Movement Christian," Parts I,II,III, The Jewish Press, May 9, 16, 23, editions, 1991, pp. 8D, 12, 8B, "Welcoming the God-fearer--The Noahide Alternative," Moment, August, 1991.