New Perspective

For the week of December 30, 2017 / 12 Tevet 5778

A zipper opening a stormy sky to reveal a bright blue sky

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

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But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:19-20)

Last week I mentioned that I consider Joseph’s words of consolation to his brothers after their father’s death to be an extremely healthy balanced expression of the workings of God in the midst of difficult painful circumstances. Without excusing his brothers’ evil intentions and behavior, he acknowledged God’s hand at work for good through it all. In my previous message, I clarified that the forces of good and evil are not equal according to Joseph. God is the Supreme Force always having the upper hand.

This is why in the New Covenant writings, Paul could write with so much confidence:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

“All things work together for good?” This would be too good to be true, if it wasn’t really true. I would not be surprised if Paul was thinking about Joseph when he dictated these words. After all, like Joseph, he knew what it was like to be wrongfully imprisoned in a dungeon. And he, like Joseph, knew this to be how life worked “for those who love God.” The condition connected to this truth is important, however. What Joseph said to his brothers was not a universal life principle. He wasn’t saying that he clued into how life worked in general for everyone. Instead this is how God works in relation to his children. And not necessarily all his children, but rather “who are called according to his purpose.” I don’t think we can lay claim to this promise if we willfully do our own thing. This is not to say that God only works for our good when we live a perfect life. Rather, if our general life direction is within the scope of God’s purposes, we can be confident that whatever evil others mean for us, God will work out for good.

I don’t know about you, but I have experienced a great many disappointments in my life. Time and time again, people whom I assumed cared and loved me, have let me down. Might it be that I suffer from too high expectations of others? Perhaps. At times. Still, from my father’s abandoning me when I was a teenager to unsolicited promises of place and position, I have had my hopes dashed time and time again. Please don’t get out the violins, there’s more to all this.

About four months ago, it happened again. I was offered a promise of crucial help and was given a time to meet up with someone especially equipped to give me the assistance I needed only to be stood up, forgotten actually. I hadn’t had one of those experiences in a while, and it completely sideswiped me. The sense of abandonment dogged me for days as I sought God’s help in sorting this out amidst the fog of memories of similar past incidents. Then, I remembered Joseph’s words. It came to me (perhaps directly from heaven) to purposely step through all such past experiences, looking for the possible good that God did in and through each and every one of them. Reflecting on my past is not unusual for me. I tend do so in order to tap into a source of encouragement as I recall the amazing things God has done for me and my family. Until this time, however, I have never purposely looked for the outworking of the “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good” principle.

I was surprised to discover that almost every single disappointing, hurtful experience I could think of eventually resulted in a positive outcome. The Lord shed light even on my father’s abandonment, showing me that in spite of the pain and scars, it worked out to my benefit. I couldn’t yet see the good that God was working out from the most recent disappointing episode, except that it led to this blessed gift of new perspective. That would be good enough, but I am happy to report that now, over four months later, that painful experience led to a much better source of help.

Maybe your life hasn’t been filled with disappointment. Maybe it has. May I suggest you do what I did: ask God to walk you through them all to see the good he has been working out. Don’t forget, however, that in order to apply the principle, you need to love God and be called according to his purpose. If you are, may God open your eyes to see the truth of his good work in your life.

One more thing. You might be in the middle of a difficult time right now. That’s when it’s the hardest, of course. I have been there many times. Joseph was there a long time. Remember, God will bring about good eventually. Keep looking to him, and don’t give up.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Supreme Force

For the week of December 23, 2017 / 5 Tevet 5778

The text The Supreme Force on a starfield background

Va-Yiggash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28

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So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Bereshit/Genesis 45:8)

The story of Joseph illustrates the Torah’s understanding of the interplay between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. One of the surprising elements about the Bible’s perspective on this issue is that we don’t encounter the type of philosophical tension that Westerners have argued over for hundreds of years. Instead, the characters of Scripture appear to simply accept that God is supreme over everything in his universe, while at the very same time expecting human beings to take responsibility for their actions. Few express this as well as Joseph. I can’t get over what he will tell his brothers in next week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading section) in order to convince them that he was in no way bearing a grudge against them.

Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today (Bereshit/Genesis 45:8).

Somehow Joseph was able to fully comprehend the essential nature of the two forces at work in his life. First, an evil force sought his undoing as expressed through his brothers’ ill will. Second, through it all, a good force was also at work to bring about God’s purposes. His faith in God’s goodness didn’t excuse the evil of his brothers’ conspiracy; it enabled him to accept that evil didn’t win in the end.

Evil didn’t win, because it couldn’t. This week’s parsha includes Joseph’s revelation of his true identity to his brothers. Dismayed when the great Egyptian ruler they had been dealing with told them he was actually Joseph, he immediately sought to console them. He did so by telling them God was the supreme force at work in all this. As quoted above, Joseph made it clear, “So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” This statement is a lot stronger than “you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.” The later statement sounds like a balance between opposing forces – the accepting of two truths in the way I mentioned at the start. Standing on its own, we may get the impression that these are two equal forces at play. The earlier one, however, clarifies that they are not equal at all. Evil is real; the brothers did wrong; yet God’s power prevails because it is supreme.

Notice too that unlike a popular myth of our day, there are two distinct forces at work in this story: one good, one evil. There is no dark side to God. Second, these forces are not impersonal. We are not talking energy here. Forces are involved but they are the activities of intelligent beings. Though non-physical, they interact with humans who respond to their purposeful directives. Third, the good and evil forces of the real universe cannot be manipulated or used, though evil may want us to believe we can. Instead, we are designed by God, the supreme force, to hear his word and act accordingly.

The evil force is real, but will not have the last word. If that was true for Joseph while he was trapped in an oppressive situation, how much more is that true for those of us who are free to come and go as we please. Too many live as if evil has the upper hand, when it doesn’t, especially in these days of the Messiah. We who genuinely trust in Yeshua are recipients of the greatest force in the universe, the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit), making us forces of good to reckon with. We have been assigned to be instruments of God’s power, equipped to extend his rescue operation throughout Planet Earth.

The mythic forces and superpowers of Hollywood lore have nothing on the Supreme Force who wishes to work through us to overcome evil wherever it may lurk. This is not magic. However, we will remain powerless as long as we think we are. If we will allow God to have his way in and through us, no earthly power will stand in our way. May God, the true Supreme Force, be with us!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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You Gotta Serve Somebody

For the week December 16, 2017 / 28 Kislev 5778

Business man inside gears (hamster wheel metaphor)

Mi-Kez & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 7:30 – 41
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. (Bereshit/Genesis 41:46)

The story of Joseph is one of the greatest “rags to riches” tales of all time. Sold into slavery by his own brothers due to their murderous jealously, he is purchased by an Egyptian captain named Potiphar. After refusing to give into Potiphar’s wife’s advances, she frames him, resulting in his spending years imprisoned in a dungeon. In both situations, Joseph is given significant responsibility. Be that as it may, few can comprehend how difficult those many years must have been, especially his time in the dungeon.

As we know, due to the predictive dreams Joseph had before his enslavement, God had big plans for him. How it would be that he would rise to some sort of rulership position over his family someday was unknown. We also don’t know what was going on in Joseph’s mind all that time. Whatever he figured the dreams meant, it must have seemed impossible given his predicament.

Then the surprising day came. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, having heard of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, called him to attempt to explain the meaning of two most troubling dreams he had. Pharaoh was pretty impressed with what he heard and appointed Joseph second in command over the whole country. Joseph’s main responsibility was to administer grain during the coming years of plenty and the subsequent famine.

It was only recently that I thought to myself, if Joseph was given such authority, why didn’t he go see his family? While he may have had no interest in his jealous brothers, we know he was concerned for his father and had a heart for his younger brother, Benjamin, who likely had no part in the plot against him. If he was concerned about his older brothers, he could have brought along an armed guard for protection. And why settle for a visit? Now that he was freed from prison, why stay in Egypt at all? Was it for the job? It’s not every day you’re offered anything close to Vice-Pharaoh with its prestige and other benefits. What would he do back home anyway? Be a shepherd? And with the coming famine, maybe staying in Egypt wouldn’t be too bad after all. Then again, why not at least visit?

Then it occurred to me, he couldn’t go home even if he wanted to. Pharaoh didn’t offer him a job; he appointed him to it. Pharaoh’s authority over Joseph wasn’t simply due to his being king, but that Joseph was still a slave. He was released from prison, but nowhere do we read he was made a free man. I imagine his life of service under Pharaoh was far more comfortable than most non-slaves anywhere in those days. But whatever perks he enjoyed, personal freedom was not one of them.

Looking at Joseph’s circumstances through a modern lens, we might determine that no perk could ever be a substitute for freedom. However, besides misunderstanding how difficult life must have been for people in those days, we also misunderstand the very essence of our God-given roles as human beings. When God created man and woman, he assigned them, and everyone else since then, to care for the creation under his rulership. A key theme of the Bible’s story is the broken nature of the world due to human refusal to submit to God’s established authority structure. We were designed to be servants, fulfilling God’s call in our lives as stewards of his creation. Never were we to be free to do whatever we wanted. This doesn’t mean that anyone should be subjected to slavery. That’s clear by both God’s providing moral freedom to Adam and Eve as well as the liberation of the nation of Israel in Egypt some generations after Joseph. Still, while slavery is an unjust, evil institution, we are to be servants.

Absolute personal freedom doesn’t exist in the real world. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a vast interconnected, complex system of life. In the design of God, our role is to serve his interests within that system, making positive contributions in the world. Yet it seems most people choose to serve their own interests instead; many creating the illusion that they are free, not realizing that they are being controlled by nefarious forces.

In 1979, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan got it right in his song “Gotta Serve Somebody”:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Like Joseph, we’re gonna serve somebody. The only question is: who is it going to be?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Internal Forces

For the week of December 9, 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778
Arrows depicting external and internal forceVa-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

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Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:5)

While the story of Jacob’s son Joseph is one of the more comprehensive Bible stories, his personality is often overly simplified to be the God-favored victim of his brothers’ murderous hatred. Staying faithful to God through it all, God uses his terrible circumstances to save the day. The message to us is equally simple: trust God and he will take care of us no matter what. Nice thought. It certainly contains dependable truth. The problem is this story, including Joseph’s part, isn’t that straightforward. Neither is real life. Within the complexity of Joseph’s character, we can find real hope for our own complicated lives.

Was Joseph a passive victim? No one should blame him for being his father’s favorite. That wasn’t fair to his brothers, of course. But life isn’t fair. God also favored him by giving him dreams. I am aware favored persons can be the object of other people’s ire. But that’s not really Joseph’s story. Without excusing what his brothers did, Joseph was not passive. Joseph had a bit of a mouth. When we are first introduced to him, we are told he had brought a bad report of his brothers to their father. Not given the details of that, we don’t know what he said or how he said it. He may have been completely in the right. But when trouble ensued later on, most people would wonder if they could have done things differently.

It’s the sharing of the dreams, however, that is of greatest concern. The bad report may have been necessary. But did he have to tell his brothers and father about the dreams? Didn’t he know he would further infuriate his brothers? Even if he was clued out about the meaning of the first dream, he knew how his brothers took it (and correctly so) as a prediction of his eventual prominence in the family. Therefore, he knew exactly how they would understand the second similar dream. He may have been purposely trying to put them in their place. Joseph most likely figured his being favored by his father and God would protect him from his brothers’ wrath. If so, he figured wrong.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what was going on in Joseph’s mind through his ordeal. What we do know is after all was said and done, he was able to be gracious to his brothers in spite of what they did to him. His perspective he expresses as “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:20) is an unusually healthy balanced understanding of the interplay between human activity and God’s sovereignty. It’s easy to say, but Joseph’s freedom from bitterness and demonstration of generosity towards those who aggressively hated him is extraordinary.

Still, that was his state at the end of a very long and arduous personal journey. What about all the time in between, especially as he finds himself enslaved in Egypt, followed by unjust imprisonment in a vile dungeon? Shall we assume he took it all in stride as he made up songs about ruling over his family one day? That’s possible, but not probable. It’s reasonable to assume he wondered about his big mouth. Did he really have to talk up his dreams? Too late now, of course. But what if he had kept his big mouth shut?

Perhaps he didn’t give much thought to his contribution to his dismal situation. That would make him even more remarkable than most people think. Most of us spend considerable amount of time with our should’ve/ would’ve/could’ves. We obsess over the possibility that we are the ones who got us into our messes. Others blame shift, of course, refusing to take any responsibility for their lives. But that’s a different story for another time. Here I want to address those of us who get stuck over ourselves.

Whether or not Joseph blamed himself partly or completely for his situation, it is clear it didn’t cripple him. Dreams, something that got him in trouble earlier in life, would be key to his release and promotion in Egypt later on. Also, whether as a slave, prison foreman, or Prime Minister; his leadership skills, which may have helped precipitate his tense relationship with his brothers when a teenager, were fully expressed. How many people, when their abilities get them into trouble, out of fear vow to “never do that again”? Some may even think they are being responsible by avoiding the potential damage their God-given abilities may cause. Somehow Joseph didn’t fall into that trap.

Perhaps the way Joseph dealt with the relationship of his brothers’ evil to God’s sovereignty is a clue to how he coped with his own role in the story. Consciously or unconsciously, Joseph’s trust in God set him free to fully function in the role God assigned to him. He knew God was bigger than the outside forces of his life. Obviously, he also learned that God was bigger than his own internal forces as well.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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