Where Is Heaven?

For the week of February 25, 2017 / 29 Shevat 5777

Beautiful blue sky background as metaphor for heaven

Mishpatim & Shekalim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; 30:11-16
Prophets: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 & 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Shemot/Exodus 24:9-11)

One of the most intriguing incidences in the Torah is when Moses, his brother Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and seventy elders had a meal with God. The references to seeing and beholding God seem to contradict God’s later statement to Moses about not seeing his face (see Shemot/Exodus 33:20). But in both occasions, there seems to be a seeing but not seeing happening at the same time. In the later story, Moses is told that he can’t see God’s “face,” but only his “back” (33:23). How literally this is to be taken, we don’t know. It is reasonable to assume that seeing God’s face versus his back are references to levels of encountering his presence in the physical realm. Human beings, due to our alienation from him, can only tolerate his revealing himself to some extent, a fullness of which would result in death. This explains the reaction of surprise by people such as Jacob, Gideon, Samson’s parents, and Isaiah, who have encountered God in some physical sense and yet survived (e.g. Bereshit/Genesis 32:30; Shoftim/Judges 6:22-23; 13:22, Isaiah 6:5).

A hint that Moses and company in this instance didn’t see God in his fullness is the mentioning of “his feet” and the appearance of the ground underneath God. If they saw more than that, one would think that there would be other more graphic things to describe.

Experiencing the presence of God or the lack thereof is a recurring element of Scripture. The early pages of the Bible describe God as naturally mingling with people (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:8). Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden due to their rebellion against their Creator marks the beginning of our alienation from him. And yet God is not entirely absent. His contact with human beings from that time on is primarily verbal (however that worked) with a few dramatic and more intimate encounters such as the ones I have referred to.

The directives given by God to Moses concerning the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), the precursor of the Temple, indicate God’s desire to dwell with his people. On one hand, he was understood to be in the people’s midst, but on the other hand, he was hidden from them behind the veil in front of the Mishkan’s inner sanctum, “the Holy of Holies.”

But doesn’t God live in a completely other place called “heaven?” Both the experience of eating with God and God’s presence within the Mishkan tell us something different. Heaven isn’t way out there; it’s where God is. Understanding heaven as far away is a way of speaking to describe the separation of God’s realm from the world in which we live. Yet the Bible teaches that the heavenly realm breaks in from time to time. And one day, the heavenly and earthly realms will co-exist harmoniously as God always intended, when the New Jerusalem is established on earth (see Revelation 21). Moses and company had a taste of the age to come.

We can access heaven now. That’s what happens when God’s Spirit takes up residence in us. The Messiah’s sacrifice and defeat of death through his resurrection creates an access to heaven beyond anything experienced prior to his coming. Heaven, the realm of God, is not something we are waiting for to happen when we die; it can be our current reality by putting our trust in Yeshua.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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What’s with the Sabbath?

For the week of February 18, 2017 / 22 Shevat 5777

Ask me a Bible Question!

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6 (English Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:6-7)

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Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Shemot/Exodus 20:8-11)

I was recently in Vancouver, Canada, to participate in a convention called “Missions Fest.” Over three days thousands of people gather at one of the city’s largest venues to hear speakers on a variety of biblical topics. My ministry was one of over two hundred which had displays, small and large. Weeks before the event, I was discussing with one of my daughters what I might do to encourage people to interact with my display. She suggested I make a simple sign with the words, “Ask me a Bible question!” on it. This led to some very interesting discussions.

One interaction didn’t go so well, because in the name of asking me a question, the person chose to harshly lecture me on the Sabbath. In the end, they questioned my eternal future with God because I wouldn’t fully subscribe to their perspective, which is too bad, since this is a very important, and often neglected, issue.

So, as briefly as I can I will share what I believe to be a sound biblical perspective on the Sabbath. First, however we might derive universal moral principles from the Ten Commandments (of which the Sabbath command is a part), it is primarily a cornerstone of the covenant given by God to the people of Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. As the special ten, they represented the whole of the covenant, which includes many other directives covering every aspect of Israelite society. This is why the tablets of the Ten Commandments were to be included in the Ark of the Covenant, stored in the Most Holy Place within the Tabernacle and later the Temple.

Unlike the earlier covenant God made with Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which was unconditional and eternal, the Sinai Covenant through Moses was conditional and temporary. As a covenant, it was broken by the people of Israel by their turning to other gods over and over again. God’s response to the breaking of the Sinai Covenant was the New Covenant promised through the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-33) and instituted by the Messiah (see Luke 22:20).

The New Covenant internalizes much of the essence of the Sinai Covenant and permanently establishes right relationship with God. And so, as a system of law, the Sinai Covenant is no longer in effect. Therefore, the Ten Commandments as representative of the Sinai covenant aren’t binding. This doesn’t imply that the principles they represent are to be neglected necessarily, since biblically speaking they, like so many of the other directives contained in the Sinai Covenant, are clearly eternal, universal principles. Application of the Sabbath beyond the confines of ancient Israel, however, isn’t straightforward. As the early followers of Yeshua began to teach God’s Truth to non-Jews, while they taught principles based on Old Covenant Scripture, including the Ten Commandments, they warned against the imposition of Sabbath law (e.g. Galatians 2:16; Colossians 4:10). Why is that?

Unlike the other nine and many other directives revealed by God through Moses, Sabbath keeping includes more than the moral and spiritual components of other commands. By regulating the work-week, Sabbath also addresses general society. Not only would it be impossible for people outside the Jewish world to effectively observe Sabbath by demanding the cessation of work, it would cause an unnecessary clash with the pagan world of that day.

Does that mean, therefore, that Sabbath has no place whatsoever among Yeshua’s followers? For much of history Sabbath has been most central to the lives of believers. It is thought that the Sabbath was changed from the seventh day (Saturday) to the first (Sunday), due to Yeshua’s resurrection and the early believers meeting on that day. Actually, there is very little evidence of what really occurred and why. Nevertheless, believing communities for most of the past two thousand years have almost always determined that some sort of Sabbath keeping was to be implemented. They were right to do so, because even though Sabbath keeping was not to be imposed upon believers from among the nations, it is clearly an important principle of Scripture stemming back prior to the giving of the Sinai Covenant. While the Sabbath as expressed in the Ten Commandments is specific to Israel under the Sinai Covenant, it is not only rooted in creation (Bereshit/Genesis 2:1-3), it reveals God’s perspective on the need for rest, not only for self, but for those under our care, including even animals. Why, therefore, would we not seek to implement a principle that so obviously expresses God’s understanding of life, work, and rest?

By not imposing their particular implementation of Sabbath the early Jewish believers gave non-Jewish communities the opportunity to develop culturally appropriate expressions of Sabbath over time, which is exactly what they did do, that is until more recently when it is just about forgotten altogether.

While we are not mandated to impose Sabbath keeping upon one another, we would be well advised to seek God and the Scriptures for appropriate application of the Sabbath within our communities today. This includes speaking into the society at large, encouraging civil governments to return to the kind of godly rhythm of rest exemplified by the Creator himself.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Vulnerable Situations

For the week of February 11, 2017 / 15 Shevat 5777

Be-Shallah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31

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And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. (Shemot/Exodus 13:21)

Freedom! Such a key theme of Scripture. The exodus from slavery in Egypt is a prototype pointing to the Messiah’s release from the grip of the greater slavery of death. Genuine freedom is different from our many popular conceptions. For many today, freedom is imaged as the unrestricted ability to do whatever we want whenever we want however we want to or with whomever we want as much as we want. But true freedom is not the opposite of any and all constraint; it’s the opposite of oppression. The people of Israel’s journey through the wilderness is an authentic picture of freedom: God’s people in bondage to Pharaoh set free to serve the only living and true God.

The period between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land is full of unusual demonstrations of the power and presence of God. One of these was ongoing – the pillar of cloud and fire. The pillar was their God-given GPS system to direct their journey day by day. In the daytime, its appearance was as a cloud. At night, it was as fire to light their way. Thus, they were able to travel day or night.

Hold on! Day or night? They sometimes had to travel at night? Who wants to travel at night? You call that freedom? Besides walking for who knows how many hours per day (and that’s families with kids), they didn’t get to rest when they wanted to, but rather at God’s command. On the other hand, perhaps travelling at night might be preferred due to the wilderness conditions in that part of the world. All of a sudden night travel doesn’t sound that bad. Under normal circumstances, objections to night travel would be its associated dangers, including robbers and wild animals. Nighttime might be ideal for expert trackers and swift warriors, but not so good for the young and the weak. Unless God himself provides the headlights!

Whatever the reason for night travel (or day travel), God gave them exactly what they needed to negotiate the difficult environment whenever they needed to be on the move. I wonder when they entered the Promised Land, and the pillar was no more, if the people thought God was no longer with them. Or with them, but not so close; available, but not so available. While he continued to guide the people and help them overcome great challenges in the Land, they no longer had this vivid, obvious demonstration of his powerful presence.

But the reason why they had the pillar in the wilderness is because it was a pillar they needed at the time. People who have a genuine relationship with the God of Israel will often say when reflecting upon the darkest moments of their lives that they sensed God’s presence with them in unusual, almost tangible, ways during those times. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t with them during other times. When life is more routine there’s no need for him to shout directions at us. Normal living as God’s people is beautifully expressed near the end of Psalm 32:

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you. (Tehillim/Psalm 32:8-9)

The pillar of cloud and fire was not proof of God’s presence with the people, but rather the necessary provision at the time. God always knows in every circumstance exactly what we need, whether it be a shout from heaven or a quiet whisper inside our hearts; a pillar of fire or silent confidence in his faithfulness. Because of God’s goodness and because his people were in an extremely vulnerable situation, his faithfulness was evidenced through something as dramatic and tangible as the pillar of cloud and fire.

On one hand, I want to encourage you that you needn’t be concerned about not experiencing God in dramatic ways, since God’s presence is not dependent upon such things. But, I also want to encourage you to ask yourself if perhaps the lack of such things is more due to an unwillingness to step out into the kinds of vulnerable situations in which God’s tangible presence is often made manifest. Just asking.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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A God of Manipulation? Part Two

For the week of February 4, 2017 / 8 Shevat 5777

Carving wood in heart shape

Bo
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

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But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Shemot/Exodus 9:16)

Last week, I mentioned that I was not satisfied with how I answered my Bible class students’ recent question about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I had given my standard answer that God responded to Pharaoh’s attitude by taking him further down the road of his own stubbornness. But looking more carefully at the biblical material, it appears that God had purposely manipulated Pharaoh in order to cause certain events to occur. But however logical that conclusion might seem, it still isn’t correct. Let me try to explain:

First, if God ran the universe by manipulating it like this, then why doesn’t he manipulate everything accordingly? One might conclude that this is exactly what he does, but that makes most of the Bible absurd. God continually calls people to respond willingly to him. He patiently teaches them his ways and we are held responsible for our actions. The workings of God within human affairs is viewed as a remarkable thing. From the beginning, we were designed to be his co-laborers, not his pawns or puppets (See Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-29, cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9). When David writes, “The LORD is my shepherd,” (Psalm 23:1) for example, he extolls God’s loving intimate care, not his manipulations of himself or his circumstances.

It wasn’t so much that God was manipulating the will of Pharaoh as he leveraged it. God knew his opponent and maximized the situation by drawing out his weaknesses. He indeed devised a plan to rescue his covenant people from Egypt. So, in his wisdom, God was aware that Pharaoh’s pride and selfishness would lead him to stubbornly refuse to allow his economy to crumble by losing his slaves, thus setting the stage for the signs and wonders that resulted in Israel’s liberation.

To conclude that God manipulated Pharaoh against his will runs against the overall teaching of Scripture. Paul, who apparently supports this wrong teaching didn’t believe that. How could he, if in the same section of Romans where he speaks of God’s mercy and hardening, he warns the arrogant mercy recipients that they were in danger of God’s rejection if they didn’t smarten up, and that those who were hardened could receive God’s mercy if they would turn to him in faith (compare Romans 9:14-18 with 11:17-24)?

God is powerfully at work to fulfill his purposes; something that should invoke awe within us. As Paul writes elsewhere:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13).

These words of exhortation do not flow from an understanding that God manipulates human life. Paul calls us to respond. Can we do so on our own without God’s help? Of course not! As Yeshua said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But his help is freely available to us, and he turns no one away (see John 6:37).

Tragically, however, how many of us are stuck in a theological or philosophical prison that we cannot get out of, as we wait for God to soften our hardened hearts, when all along he has been waiting for us to call out to him for mercy? You don’t have to accept the state you are in as if God has appointed you to a hellish existence against your will. Whatever your need might be, cry out to him now and receive his love and mercy.

Perhaps that’s a better answer to my students’ question.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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A God of Manipulation? Part One

For the week of January 28, 2017 / 1 Shevat 5777

Sanding wood in heart shape with a rotary tool

Va-Era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35; Bemidbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

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You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. (Shemot/Exodus 7:2-4).

I have the privilege of developing and teaching a Bible class at a small classical academy. I teach two classes, a combined grades five and six and a combined grades seven and eight. The students are well engaged and ask pertinent and, at times, challenging questions. One of the things we are covering this year is the book of Exodus, chapters one through twenty, the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. Both classes, without any prompting from me (except that it was part of the reading of the day) brought up the difficult issue of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Frankly I wasn’t particularly prepared to deal with this, not that I haven’t thought about it before. In fact, I have addressed it more than once through the years in TorahBytes. I attempted an explanation, but to be honest I wasn’t fully satisfied with my answer.

I gave them my standard answer, which is that the Scriptures speak of both God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. It’s not as if God arbitrarily made Pharaoh stubborn in spite of himself. Rather God’s response to Pharaoh’s negative inclination was to further take him down the road of his own stubbornness. I still think there is at least some truth in this, which leads to a serious warning: when we allow ourselves to hold a skewed point of view due to fear, pride, or selfishness, we may find our perspective becoming more and more solidified. We experience this, for example, when we become bitter against or cynical toward someone. Eventually everything they do and say reinforces our negative inclination toward them. Bitterness is a slippery slope that takes us down a deep dark pit. The story of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart may suggest that sliding downward might be more than a natural consequence, but a purposeful response from God. However it works, it should be obvious that we need to stop ourselves before we get to the pit’s precipice.

As I said, there may be some truth here, but it doesn’t fully deal with what we find in the Bible. The first time the concept of hardening is mentioned is found in last week’s parsha (Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1). We read:

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go (Shemot/Exodus 4:21).

God said these words to Moses before his first audience with Pharaoh. It certainly sounds here that contrary to my explanation of God’s taking Pharaoh further down the road of his own stubbornness, God was the prime influence behind Pharaoh’s hard heart. It might be more reasonable to deduce that the Pharaoh’s hardening of his heart described in later passages were because of what God had already done to him.

This does seem to be Paul’s understanding centuries later in his New Covenant letter to the Romans:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills (Romans 9:14-18).

It sounds here as if God manipulated the situation for his purposes. Any difficulty Paul’s readers may have had with such a thing, is confronted in the verses following:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory (Romans 9:19-23).

Some may think this is cut and dry: God causes people to behave the way they do. But there are huge problems with such a conclusion, logical as it may seem. Does the Bible really teach we are nothing more than the products of God’s manipulative control? Is human will an illusion? Practically speaking, are you stuck in whatever state to which God has assigned you, relegated to endure both a present and a future completely outside your control? I don’t think so, I will attempt to explain why next week.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Have You Prayed About It?

For the week of January 21, 2017 / 23 Tevet 5777

Pensive handsome bearded man standing with hands folded and thinking

Shemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23

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During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. God saw the people of Israel – and God knew. (Shemot/Exodus 2:23-25)

The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt for about 400 years (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:13). That’s a long time before God came through. He did eventually, but what took so long? God had told Abraham that his descendants would not return to the Promised Land for several generations because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:16). But that had to do with the multilayered purpose of the conquest. God had determined that at the same time Israel was to acquire the Land, he would judge its previous inhabitants. However, that doesn’t explain the need to be under oppression for so long in Egypt. Could they have not lived in Egypt under more pleasant circumstances? Remember that the fledgling clan of Israel originally migrated to Egypt as means of preservation during the severe famine. Egypt was good to them to begin with. Was enslavement necessary to keep them there? Perhaps only such harsh treatment over a long period would motivate them to want to leave a good and fertile region for the uncertain environment of Canaan.

Perhaps the time delay was fixed. If God says 400 years of oppression, then that’s what’s going to be. However, did God determine that timeframe or was he only stating what he knew would happen? We don’t know. What we do know is that we don’t read of Israel’s crying for help until after God called Moses at the burning bush. I can’t say that the people hadn’t prayed until then, though it’s possible.

Note that God was at work for the people’s deliverance before this point as he prepared Moses for his upcoming leadership role. If we think about it, many answers to prayer require God to work in advance. Still, the needed breakthroughs we so desperately need often don’t happen until we have prayed.

Does God need our prayers to act? I wouldn’t say that. God is a free agent. In fact, he is the only truly free agent in the entire universe. He tells Moses in this same Torah portion that his name is “I am who I am.” He is dependent on no one and does whatever he pleases. And yet, he didn’t act until he “heard their groaning” (Shemot/Exodus 2:24). It’s not that he didn’t know what was going on with his people or that he had forgotten his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s that there is a connection between our earnest communication to him and his willingness to act.

We could spend all of eternity trying to figure out how this works. Or we can accept it. God answers prayer. And if we are not getting the divine help we need, perhaps it’s because we haven’t gotten around to praying.

What about unanswered prayer? I can’t answer that for you. It might be that you are praying for the wrong things and/or with the wrong motives (see James 4:2-3). Praying can be part of a process over a long period of time (see Luke 18:1-8). Or he has answered you by doing something you don’t expect, recognize, or want to accept.

But this week’s message is not about the legitimate topic of unanswered prayer. It’s a reminder that the reason we may find ourselves in predicaments for longer than necessary may be because we haven’t stopped to pray. I know that’s been true for me. Even though prayer is a regular part of my life, I constantly find myself struggling with something for a period of time before I realize I haven’t really prayed about it. And while I can’t say that God instantly answers every single prayer I pray the way I would like him to, he has come through for me over and over again when I have earnestly, honestly, and intelligently sought his help.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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God Is Not Absent

For the week of January 14, 2017 / 16 Tevet 5777

Sad little boy

Va-Yehi
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 47:28-50:26
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 2:1-12

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And [Israel] blessed Joseph and said, “The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.” (Bereshit/Genesis 48:15-16)

My life is distinctively marked by the times before and after my coming to know Yeshua as my Messiah at age nineteen. Before that day, I was completely self-focused, utterly selfish, trapped in a pit of darkness, without purpose or hope, and consumed with fear. Afterwards, a broad vista opened up before me as I embarked on an amazing journey with God, filled with love, life, and light. While I have had to deal with the effects of the poor foundation of my earlier life, I cannot exaggerate the contrast between these two stages of existence. After being overwhelmingly enriched by the goodness of God since the day of my transformation, I shudder when I think back to the dark days of my youth and childhood.

I was recently writing down for the first time the details of my early life, and was struck by the many bad decisions that were made on my behalf. Children and youth are easily victimized by the selfish and misguided actions of our parents and guardians. Yet, I am not one to ask the question, “Where were you God?” for example, when my father abandoned me at age fourteen. I haven’t asked that question, since I assumed I knew the answer: he wasn’t there. My whole life was characterized by the absence of God in contrast to later when he would fill it to overflowing. But there’s a problem with this perspective. It isn’t true. The painful circumstances of my life may have felt to me as if God was far away, but he was, in fact, looking after me the whole time.

Jacob would agree. When we read his story in the Bible, it is apparent that even though the reality of God was so much a part of his father’s and grandfather’s lives, he didn’t actually trust God personally until later in life. It might seem strange to many of us that he could experience God speaking to him, while being alienated from him. But this is clear from his vow he made to God on his way to live with his mother’s family in Mesopotamia: “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:20-21).

Unlike myself, Jacob had a concept of God and promised he would commit himself to him if God would take care of him as promised. I don’t think this is why Jacob would become a believer later on. What made the difference appears to be his wrestling encounter with God (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:22-32). Still, as we read in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), looking back on his life, he acknowledged that God was his shepherd through it all.

Through everything he went through, a dad who preferred his twin brother over him, that same brother, due to Jacob’s own deceit, wanted to kill him. While led to the woman of his dreams, he ends up having to marry her sister first, resulting in a very messy family situation. Then, his children later have their own set of dysfunctional issues. Yet after everything he went through, he could confidently assert that God “has been my shepherd all my life long to this day.”

It took me many years to be able to assert the same thing with regard to my own life. In spite of the confusion and suffering I endured in my first nineteen years, I can say now that God was not only watching over me, but was guiding my every step. Exactly how that works, I don’t know. Did God cause my negative circumstances or did he simply allow them? Frankly, I don’t care. Some things are beyond our comprehension and I am okay with that. What’s most important and precious to me is that in his divine wisdom and love, through all the turmoil and strife, God preserved my life when I thought it had no value, provided for me when I thought I had nothing, and guided me when I thought I had no direction. I know now that it wasn’t that God wasn’t present. It’s that I didn’t know he was there all the time.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Twists and Turns

For the week of December 24, 2016 / 24 Kislev 5777

Stelvio Pass

Va-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6-3:8

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 The keeper of the prison paid no attention to anything that was in Joseph’s charge, because the LORD was with him. And whatever he did, the LORD made it succeed. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:23)

The story of Joseph is full of twists and turns. Father’s favorite, dreams of supposed grandeur, facing murderous hatred from his brothers, sold into slavery instead of being killed, father Jacob deceived by brothers as to Joseph’s fate (not sure if Jacob ever believed them), greatly respected and trusted by master, remains faithful to God in the face of master’s wife’s seduction, framed by master’s wife resulting in imprisonment, put in charge of prisoners, accurately interprets two prisoners’ dreams, later interprets Pharaoh’s dreams resulting in release and being made second-in-command over Egypt, brothers come to buy food from Joseph due to predicted famine, eventually reconciles with his brothers and settles his whole clan in Egypt, remains free from bitterness throughout.

There is one twist in the story that is easy to miss, however. It has to do with Potiphar, Joseph’s Egyptian master, the husband of the seductress. It strikes me as strange that Joseph wasn’t executed for his alleged crime. It is doubtful that the ancient Egyptian legal system would limit the penalty for attempted rape by a slave, to imprisonment. When Potiphar heard the accusation against Joseph, we read “his anger was kindled” (39:19). But why? And with whom was he angry? We reasonably assume that he was angry at Joseph for attempted rape, but if his anger was directed at Joseph, then, as I mentioned, one would think he would have been executed, which he wasn’t. Besides that, it doesn’t seem to be too long that we find Joseph having favor with the keeper of the prison, who put him in charge of the other prisoners (39:21-23). But who was the keeper of the prison? Later on in the story when we are introduced to fellow prisoners (Pharaoh’s baker and cupbearer) whose dreams eventually lead to Joseph’s being made known to Pharaoh, we are told that the prison was in the house of the captain of the guard and it was the captain of the guard who put Joseph in charge (40:3-4). And the captain of the guard is no other than Potiphar (37:36; 39:1)!

Perhaps Potiphar had mercy on Joseph because he thought so highly of him. That certainly had been the case, but why would he continue to have such high regard for a slave who so abused his master’s trust by doing one of the two things expressly forbidden to him (39:6, 9)? We cannot say absolutely for sure, because the Scripture doesn’t spell it out for us, but I propose that Potiphar knew his wife well enough to know that Joseph was indeed innocent.

But if that’s the case, then why did he not let him off the hook? There’s no way Potiphar could take sides against his wife and especially not on behalf of a slave. So, the best he could come up with was imprisonment in his own dungeon, while giving Joseph as much freedom and responsibility in that horrible environment as he could.

If anyone understood that life isn’t fair, it was Joseph. He didn’t do anything to suffer yet again – this time due to the dysfunctions of his master’s family. But it could have been worse had he been executed—not only worse for him (though he may have wished for death on more than one occasion)—but for his family of origin whom he would one day save, not to mention that the Plan of God for the entire world was riding on his prophesied destiny.

You might wonder if it was really necessary for Joseph’s life to take all these twists and turns. Could not God have preserved the fledgling nation of Israel without all this intrigue and suffering? Did Jacob’s family really have to move to Egypt? If so, was there no other way to get them there? Did Joseph have to endure hateful jealousy, slavery, wrongful accusation, and confinement in a dungeon? Was there no other way to install him as Prime Minister in Egypt? The more I look at it, I don’t think so. Each and every twist and turn appears to contribute something essential to the outcome. I am not saying that every single thing that happened to Joseph absolutely had to happen in exactly that way. But certainly, every difficult, confusing, painful, and unjust situation and circumstance was not wasted.

It’s the same for you and me. Life can be really crazy at times. Disappointing. Frustrating. Discouraging. But God knows what he is doing. And however he does it, whether by orchestrating each and every plot twist or walking with us around every turn, he has promised his children that he would be with us (see Matthew 28:20) and work everything out for our good (Romans 8:28). He knows what he is doing!

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Getting a Hold of God

For the week of December 17, 2016 / 17 Kislev 5777

Wrestling

Va-Yishlah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English 42:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12
Originally posted the week of November 20, 2010 / 13 Kislev 5771

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And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” (Bereshit / Genesis 32:24-26)

You cannot encounter the God of Israel without being transformed. This certainly was Jacob’s experience, but not Jacob’s only. The Torah and the rest of the Scriptures contain all sorts of examples of people whose lives were radically changed as a result of encountering God. What is interesting is how each person’s story is unique, which is one of many aspects that testify to the genuineness of these experiences.

Another such aspect is how unusual and unexpected these encounters are. They don’t sound made up. The account of God wrestling with Jacob is a case in point. Who would make up a story where the Master of the Universe initiates a wrestling match with a key character, Jacob, who was in terror of his twin brother’s wrath? Not only that, Jacob locks on to God to the point that God requests to be let go (God requests to be let go?), and that is only after God permanently injures Jacob’s hip. Jacob knows that this was an extraordinary encounter, for he says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered” (32:30).

One of the questions that arises from this story is who was really holding on to whom? On one hand God requests to be let go and Jacob says he won’t until God blesses him. On the other hand how could it be that Jacob could hold on to God like that? Jacob himself is surprised that he survived this encounter at all, apart from how unusual it was that he held on to God as he did.

I like studying theology. I love to grapple with the truths of Scripture in order to get to know God better and how to live life the way he intended. Yet, as I study theology I sometimes find a disconnect between the way some people try to explain the truths that they supposedly derive from Scripture and the reality of God in the Bible itself. What is often missing is an overwhelming sense of wonder in the attempt to explain the infinite God of the Universe. How could we read stories like this one and presume that we can fit the teaching of Scripture into neat little categories or claim to discern how all its loose ends fit together into a fine-tuned system.

When I compare the result of the know-it-all attitudes of some teachers with what we actually find in the Scriptures, I am led to believe that what these people are putting forward is not just lacking in its details, but in the very essence of their teaching. In other words, they are completely misrepresenting both God and his written Word.

Teaching that is in keeping with the reality of God is one that reflects the examples of the genuine encounters with God that we find in the Bible. This is teaching that leads us to greater and greater humility before God and people. It is honest about human failure and sin, while demonstrating that God is our rescuer through the Messiah. It highlights our need to depend solely on God, putting him and his agenda first. This kind of teaching never leads us to thinking that we know it all or have God and life figured out (this is why I am hesitant to embrace an “ism” or becoming an “ist”, if you know what I mean). In fact, the more we truly learn the Bible, we discover how much more there is to learn about God and life, not less. This is not to say that what we learn on the way is not valid. Far from it! Whatever we learn about God and his Word today is essential for what we will learn in the future. But we should never think that we can get a handle on God. Like Jacob, we need to learn that the more we get a hold of God, it is actually God who is getting a hold of us, or however it actually works.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Messy Families

For the week of December 10, 2016 / 10 Kislev 5777

Family Painting

Va-Yeze
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3 (English: 28:10 – 32:2)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English: 12:12 – 14:10)

 

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Then God remembered Rachel, and God listened to her and opened her womb. She conceived and bore a son and said, “God has taken away my reproach.” (Bereshit/Genesis 30:22-23)

Jacob’s family was blessed by God; it was also a mess! First, he grew up with tension between himself and his twin brother. There was a prophesy hanging over the two of them: contrary to custom, he would rise to supremacy even though his brother Esau was born first. He was a mama’s boy – homebody type -while his dad preferred his macho brother. Jacob was shrewd with his eye on the future; Esau lived in the moment and by his stomach. After stealing his father’s big-time blessing from his brother, he ran from Esau’s murderous threats to their mom’s relatives in Mesopotamia, where he worked for her brother, Laban. Uncle Laban was similar in some ways to Jacob, which helps sets the stage for his own messy family to be.

Jacob’s beginnings with Laban’s household look a bit like a Harlequin Romance. Instantly falling in love with Rachel, the younger of Laban’s two daughters, he agrees to work for his uncle seven years that “seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her” (Bereshit/Genesis 29:20). Talk about heart-warming, that is until Uncle Laban does the most unbelievable switcheroo in history by substituting his older daughter, Leah, in place of Rachel. How in the world did Jacob not realize? She was probably veiled for most of the time (which led to the Jewish tradition of unveiling the bride at the beginning of the wedding ceremony. We’re certainly not going to fall for that one again!); the world was a lot darker at nighttime then than it is today; and if alcohol had a part to play, I wouldn’t be surprised!

But true to form for both these two, they cut another deal whereby Jacob would also get Rachel immediately for another seven years’ labor. Not a good arrangement! No wonder that years later God would command Israel through Moses not to marry a woman and her sister (see Vayikra/Levities 18:18). God tolerated for a time the substandard custom of polygamy, but not when the women were sisters as in Jacob’s case. And to think that Jacob didn’t want Leah in the first place. What a mess!

So-called normal family life is difficult enough without an arrangement like this. For the next twenty years or so, competition ensued between the two sisters with regard to childrearing. After Leah had four children (Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah) and Rachel none, Rachel resorted to surrogacy. If you think surrogacy is a modern invention, you haven’t read the Bible. And this wasn’t the first time either. Jacob’s grandmother Sarah suggested a surrogate situation to her husband, Abraham: “Behold now, the LORD has prevented me from bearing children. Go in to my servant; it may be that I shall obtain children by her” (Bereshit/Genesis 16:2). In the worldview of their day, the child born via the wife’s maidservant would be regarded as if it were her own. So, Rachel had two children through surrogacy (Dan and Naphtali). Then Leah, who stopped having children herself for a time, had two more through her maidservant (Gad and Asher), before having three more herself (Issachar, Zebulun, and Dinah). And then finally, Rachel had two of her own (Joseph and Benjamin), tragically dying immediately after Benjamin’s birth. All the way through this, the two sisters wrongly thought they could win their husband’s love or rid themselves of shame through the having of children.

Isn’t this all ridiculous? But isn’t it also common? Perhaps not exactly this sort of situation, even though with the changes in various jurisdictions regarding the definition of the family, we might see this exact scenario again. And yet the messy family didn’t undermine God’s plans and purposes. It’s wild that it ended up being son number eleven (Joseph), who would be the one to save the day for the whole clan. Besides this being a crazy way to build a family, the competitive atmosphere helped fuel the discord that resulted in Joseph’s being jettisoned to Egypt, which in the long run was best for everyone.

Don’t get me wrong! The good that arose from the soil of family dysfunction in no way justifies any of it. But it does give us hope. If God can work powerfully in and through Jacob’s messy family, he can do the same with ours.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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