The Hebrews never believed they could “work their way to heaven.” They fully recognized that righteousness had to be a gift from YHWH (we know it as Grace). In one of the studies from Tom Bradford, of The Torah Class, he mentioned an excellent book and if you enjoy challenges, he recommended reading a book by E.P. Sanders, who some consider to be one of the great mainstream Christian scholars of our day; that book is Paul and Palestinian Judaism. This is an excellent study on what Judaism and Paul are all about. Now I said “if you enjoy challenges” because it is a daunting book to study. Sanders provided extensive quotes from the Mishna, Zohar, and Talmud to draw a picture of what he calls Palestinian Judaism. Although it isn’t the point of his book, he does dispel many myths of the Hebrews that usually accuses them of having a legalistic and work-your-way-to-salvation based faith.
Sanders provided a quote from the Mishna Rabbah (an ancient Hebrew commentary) about why the Lord chose to save Noah but the rest of the world was not. When you read this, I want you to remember that this is from the same Hebrew men that gentile Christian scholars tell us the Hebrews had no understanding of grace, and that grace did not exist until after Jesus came. In fact, it might interest you to know that the very first use of the word Grace in the Bible is not found in the New Testament Gospels, but in the sixth chapter of Genesis! Look at this excerpt from Mishna Rabba Bereshith on the book of Genesis:
But Noach found grace in the eyes of the lord (VI, 8). He delivereth him that is innocent (i naki), yea, thou shalt be delivered through the cleanness of thy hands (Job XXII, 30). R. Hanina said: Noach possessed less than an ounce (unkia) [of merit]. If so, why was he delivered? Only ‘Through the cleanness of Thy hands’. This agrees with what R. Abba b. Kahana said: For it repenteth Me that I have made them and Noach. But Noach was left only because he found grace; hence, But Noach found grace in the eyes of the lord.
Now that may have been confusing, but what he was saying is that “Noah (Noach) was delivered only by the cleanness of Thy hands,” the “thy hands” were referring to God’s hands, not the hands of Noah. Also, where it says that Noah only possessed an “ounce of merit,” it is simply an expression that means Noah had very little merit in his life. So little, that, according to these Rabbis, God did not just repent that he made all men, except for Noach; He repented that He made all men including Noach. So, it’s somewhat of a mystery, the Rabbis thought, as to what it was that caused God to save Noah over and against some other people. Their answer? Grace. Favor that was totally unmerited. Did a little light come on in your spirit?
Were they wrong? Did, God actually expect them to work their way to righteousness, back in those pre-Jesus, ancient days? Well, these leaders of the Hebrews did not think so. Listen to this reference to Abraham, found in Genesis 15:6: “Then he (Abraham) believed in the LORD; and He (YHWH) reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Abraham trusted YHWH, so YHWH says He will consider that trust as the reason to give the designation of righteous to Abraham. That is exactly what happens when we trust in Jesus. Do you deserve the Salvation He brings? I don’t think so. The word we used for this is grace. Noah didn’t earn his righteousness and we don’t earn ours; he (and we) simply received Grace. That part of the equation has never been any different from the beginning of the world until today.
The Law was never a means of salvation. From the beginning, all throughout the Torah, and right on to Revelation, Grace has always been the only way to a right relationship with the YHWH. The Hebrews believed that, just as we believe it. The Lord created the Law solely to demonstrate that we could not fulfill His ideal. He would simply have to provide it on His own. Hence, the need of a Redeemer—Jesus.