Walking in the dust of the Rabbi


Discipleship is to become like Jesus

What is at the heart of being a disciple of Jesus? I would like to suggest that it is to become like Jesus. For a disciple in Jesus’ day there was no shortcut to becoming like the rabbi and his walk with God. The rabbi expected a disciple to be with him all the time. Unlike the 12 disciples, we cannot be with Jesus in the flesh all the time. Yet His expectation for us to follow Him, walk with Him, and become like Him has not changed. The question then is “how do we walk with Him if He is not physically with us?” In this question I would like to provide you with a concept of discipleship, that is rooted in Jewish thought and tradition, and which is very helpful in understanding what it means to walk with Jesus.


Sitting at the feet of the rabbi

The disciple’s calling, as described in early Jewish writings about basic ethics, was to “cover himself in the dust of [the rabbi’s] feet,” drinking in his every word. He followed his rabbi so closely that he would “walk in his dust.” In doing so, he became like the rabbi, his master. The source of this saying is the Mishnah, Avot 1:4. (The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinic thought from 200 BC to 200 AD that still forms the core of Jewish belief today.) The quotation is from Yose ben Yoezer. He was one of the earliest members of the rabbinic movement, who lived about two centuries before Jesus:

Let thy house be a meeting-house for the wise;
and powder thyself in the dust of their feet;
and drink their words with thirstiness.

The middle line is sometimes translated as “sit amid the dust of their feet,” and understood as being about humbly sitting at the feet of one’s rabbi teacher to learn from him. This is because it was customary to honour a teacher by sitting on the floor while he taught seated in a chair. From this arose a widely-used idiom for studying with a rabbinic teacher, that you “sat at his feet.” Paul even says that he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (Acts 22:3). The fact that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” in Luke 10:39 suggests that she was learning from him as a disciple, too.


Walking in the dust of the rabbi

If you look more closely at the Hebrew text of Avot 1:4, however, it does not explicitly describe a person as sitting. It reads, hevei mitabek b’afar raglehem—literally, “and be powdering yourself with the dust of their feet.” The verb mitabek is the hitpael form of avak, and it means “to powder yourself,” like a woman powdering her face. It comes from the noun avak, which is very fine powder, often that which is kicked up by feet on a dusty road. Read literally, Yoezer’s saying sounds more like it’s describing the idea of “powdering yourself” by walking through clouds of dust billowing up along a dirt roadway. Because of this, some highly respected scholars believe that “walking in your teacher’s dust” was the original intent of Avot 1:4. So, how should we read Yoezer’s adage? Is it about sitting or about walking? Both readings are possible. The first line of Avot 1:4, about “making your home a meeting place” suggests that it’s about inviting him in and sitting at his feet. The second two lines suggest traveling behind him—not only does a disciple get dusty journeying behind his teacher, he gets thirsty too.


Practical ideas to get started

As Jesus’ followers today, we too can “walk in His dust.” The following ideas can help you get started with this incredible journey:
• Keep the images of how Jesus walked fresh in your mind by reading the Gospels regularly.
• Memorize as much Scripture as you can.
• Spend time with His body, the community of faith.
• Converse with Him in prayer.


This blog credits the following Internet sources:
1. Our Daily Bread- http://odb.org/2005/09/13/walking-in-his-dust/
2. Louis Tverberg- http://ourrabbijesus.com/2012/01/27/covered-in-the-dust-of-your-rabbi-an-urban-legend/

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