Table of Contents   >>   Yoke of bondage?

Galatians 5:1-4 says:

  1. Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Messiah (Christ) has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage.
  2. Indeed I, Sha'ul (Paul), say to you that if you become circumcised, Messiah will profit you nothing.
  3. and I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law.
  4. You who have become estranged from Messiah, you who seek to be justified by law;1 you have fallen from grace.

To our modern ears, unfamiliar with the religious culture of Sha'ul's time, this can sound like a warning against all Torah observance, and circumcision in particular. If we become circumcised, we will suddenly take on a debt that cannot be paid off. If anyone actually wants to do anything the Torah says, it is a sure sign they have come under bondage, fallen from grace, and become a stranger to the One who loves us.

But once we know that the Perushim (Pharisees) used circumcision as the final act when converting a Gentile to their form of Judaism; that it was a public commitment to keep the whole Torah, things begin to get clearer. And when we understand that what the Perushim meant by "Torah" included not only the books of Moses, but also what Yeshua (Jesus) called "the tradition of men" (what later became the Talmud), things become clearer still. Sha'ul wasn't warning against the Biblical instruction of circumcision, or anything else written through Moses. Rather, he was saying Don't let the gift of a life-changing relationship with Messiah fade into "works of Law": mere rule-keeping (especially rule-keeping by compulsion — our own or others').  Jer. 31:33 says YHWH will write His Torah on our hearts. It will become our joy to follow it.

Look at the word "again" in verse 1. The Galatians were primarily non-Jews. Most of them didn't observe Torah before being given faith in Yeshua. So the Torah couldn't be the yoke of bondage they were again being entangled in.2 What was that bondage? Perhaps they were again giving away personal responsibility for their spirituality. Perhaps they were in danger of simply exchanging the Traditions of the Pagans for the Traditions of the Perushim. Or of trading one worship-by-appeasement for another, instead of finding rest in YHWH's love.

Lastly, verse 4 doesn't say that wanting to do what is written in the Bible is the problem, but seeking to be justified by doing those things. As they are written on our hearts, we do the things instructed in Torah, not in order to be saved, but because we delight in them.

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1 Interestingly, most translations reflect what may be an anti-Torah bias by inserting the definite article "the" before "law" in verse 4. In many of the Greek manuscripts it doesn't appear. While the Perushim and their tradition were the focus of Sha'uls caution, he was also speaking more broadly about elevating any human declaration or authority above that of YHWH (God).

2 And similarly, the "days and months and seasons and years" disparaged in Gal. 4:9-10 are not the Biblical festivals, either.