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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