Pastor’s daughter teaches Isaiah to Orthodox Jews

"We do not need to affirm Christianity by negating Judaism.”

 Shelley Neese (photo credit: Courtesy of Shelley Neese)
Shelley Neese
(photo credit: Courtesy of Shelley Neese)

A devout Christian is teaching the books of the prophets to a dedicated group of Christians and Orthodox Jews with the sole intention of “mutual growth.” Though there are many programs in which Christians can learn the Bible from Torah observant Jews, this is one of - if not the only program in which the roles are reversed.

Meet Shelley Neese, the daughter of a Louisiana pastor. She was raised in a close-knit and supportive community. Immersed in her church-based community, she never had close encounters with Jews until she came to Israel for graduate studies at Ben-Gurion University.

“When I got to the gate for my plane from Frankfurt to Tel Aviv, there were a bunch of religious Jewish men praying in Hebrew,” Neese told The Jerusalem Post. “At that moment, I realized that for the first time in my life, I was now the religious minority. 

“Despite everything I knew about Judaism from the Bible, I knew nothing about the living breathing Judaism in front of me.”

Neese and her husband lived in Beersheba from 2000 to 2004 where she immersed herself in Israeli culture. Much of her interest was in the Jewish religion.

“We made friends with our Israeli neighbors,” Neese said. “We almost never had a Shabbat where we were not invited into someone’s home. I tried to learn all things about Judaism so that I could understand more about the light that I felt emanating from inside Israeli Jewish homes. I felt that their faith practices should not have been as foreign to me as they were since Christians are the little brothers of Jews.” 

Reading the Prophets

When Neese returned to the US, she enrolled in The Bible Seminary at Katy, Texas. For her course in Biblical Hebrew, she decided to study the 12 minor prophets at the rate of one prophet per month as a way of counting down the year her husband was deployed overseas as an Air Force physician. When she spoke to her Christian friends about the project, they wanted to join in.

Neese began a weekly podcast called “Bible Fiber: Textures and Shades of the Prophetic Tapestry” in which she reads the text along with five different commentaries The project was meant as a challenge for anyone who wanted to read the Bible on a regular basis. At first, participants were from her circle of friends from her community and church.

“But I have spent half of my life working with Israeli organizations so I also have lots of Jewish friends,” Neese said. “And because they trust me and know me, they also listen to Bible Fiber as a way of challenging themselves to read the prophets.”

So Neese, a pastor’s daughter and devout Christian, suddenly found herself teaching Jews, many of them Orthodox, about the prophets of Israel. 

“I am not targeting Jews. They are just in my friend circle,” Neese said. “My only goal is for believers of both religions to engage with a part of the Bible that they normally stay away from. And if they come away feeling more informed and enlightened by the experience, then that is all thanks to their own relationship with God.”

She has experienced a distinct difference in how Christians and Jews approach the Prophets. She recounted an exchange she had with one of the listeners, an Orthodox Jew active in his Jewish community, concerning lessons in the Book of Micah.

“What hit me so hard is that I read Micah’s verse completely differently,” she said. “As a Torah observant Jew, he reads it and walks away thinking that Micah is calling all Jews to better observe the laws as part of their covenantal obligations. I read it as a call for me to model those attributes just as Christ did who lived His life on earth to show us what God has called us to do. 

“So there we were, both reading the same beautiful verse, and he is coming away with the conviction that he needs to be a better Jew and me that I need to be a better Christian.”

Neese’s project has uncovered a form of Bible study that is mutually beneficial to both Christians and Jews.“Surely, there is nothing wrong with Jews and Christians studying together, who can participate in the study with that kind of mindset, openness to one another, and posturing ourselves toward mutual growth as we encourage one another,” Neese said. “As Jews and Christians who worship the same God and read, at least partially, the same scripture, we come away from the prophets with the same questions.”

Neese does not tailor her lessons to be more palatable to the Jewish listeners by refraining from referencing the New testament.

“I have been amazed to discover how much even the minor prophets are quoted in the New Testament,” she said. “Any Jewish Bible scholar will tell you that the New Testament is an important source for them in understanding how the Hebrew scriptures were read and understood in first-century Judah. They cannot ignore the New Testament’s inclusion of the Hebrew scriptures. So, certainly, as a Christian, I am not going to sidestep how the minor prophets get quoted by Paul, James, or Jesus.”

As one of her Orthodox Jewish students said, “I pray, study and eat with Jewish people all the time. I have room in my life for a little Christian Bible study without it being a threat. I know how to apply my own filter.” The only accommodation she makes for her Orthodox Jewish students is to send out the podcast on Friday before Shabbat.

Neese, raised learning the Bible in church, has also learned from Jewish sources. Her podcast is patterned after the recordings of the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and she has delved into the works of Abraham Joshua Heschel on the prophets. The podcasts have convinced Neese that both Jews and Christians would benefit from emphasizing the study of the Biblical prophets. 

“For a long time, I actually did think that Jews knew all of the Hebrew Scriptures better than Christians could possibly understand them. And for the Torah, that mostly holds true. 

“But I remember sitting at a Shabbat table in Beersheba once and the subject of Isaiah came up,” she continued. “Isaiah is the main prophet that Christians really know and try to understand because of all the Messianic profiles in the book of Isaiah and also its relevance to the New Testament. The man of the house, a wonderful friend of ours, looked at us and said ‘Jews don’t know the prophets.’ He knew that the other people at the table could not engage in the discussion because they had no context for Isaiah.”

Replacement Theology: Hindering Christian Bible study

Neese is a vocal opponent of Replacement Theology and believes it has hindered Christian Bible study, giving an example from the prophets.

“In a very simplistic reading of the Prophets, it is easy to come away from the book of Amos, for example, and think God must be done with the Jewish people,” Neese said. “But there is a thread that runs through all of the prophets about a righteous remnant that will be saved. And if you do not pick up on that thread, you are doomed to think the prophets have all condemnation and no comfort. 

“Or sometimes Christians allow the condemnations to specifically target the Jewish people, but they repurpose the words of comfort for themselves as if they alone are part of the righteous remnant that will be saved,” Neese added. “As a Christian Zionist, I reject replacement theology as a poison that crept into our religion many years ago as Christians tried to separate themselves from the Jewish people. I want Christians to read the Bible and understand that we do not need to affirm Christianity by negating Judaism.”

She said that the first step is to “recognize Judaism as a living religion and embrace the fact that God’s covenant with his people has not been broken. When God says that He will make an everlasting covenant, He is talking about Israel and we cannot pretend it's about the church.”

Christian Zionists have since become vocal against antisemitism, she said.

“We stand in support of Israel as a way to right our wrongs,” Neese said. “Our aim is to turn afflictions of the past into blessings of the present.”