Geography Is More than Scenery

For the week of October 12, 2019 / 13 Tishri 5780

Ein Gedi National Park. Israel

Ha’azinu
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Shmuel/ 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. (2 Shmuel/2 Samuel 22:2-4)

I recently got back from my third trip to Israel. While there it struck me as never before how much the land itself is a key aspect of God’s revelation. The circumstances recorded in his Word took place in real time in a real place. That real place has unique geographical characteristics that provide more than just the scenery for its stories but help mold the divinely inspired experiences of its characters.

I am on a search for the perfect three-dimensional topographical map of Israel that I want to make an integral part of my Bible teaching. The dramatic geographical diversity within this relatively small country is breathtaking. It astounds me that in just over an hour you can drive from Jerusalem, which is about 750 meters (2,500 feet) above sea level to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at about 400 meters (1,300 feet) below sea level. So much of the land north to south is mountainous, with exquisite, fertile valleys between. Israel is beautifully framed by the fertile Jordan Valley to the east, snow-capped Mt. Hermon to the north, the beaches of Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea to the south.

The stories of the Bible take on greater depth as we understand them within their geographical context. For example, seeing the environment in which King David spent much of his time shows us that the way he describes God in some of his closing words is not the product of abstract spiritual musings disconnected from everyday life. On the contrary. David’s referring to God as his rock, his fortress, his stronghold is reflective of the very terrain in which he sought protection from his enemies.

On more than one occasion David fled to the Judean Hills for refuge. These hills are rugged, difficult to traverse with steep ravines. They contain caves perfect for hiding. Now nearing the end of David’s life, having experienced God’s protection and faithfulness through a great deal of trouble, he extols the protection God provided him in such places. He describes his experience of God in terms of the geography in which he sought safety. The vividness of these metaphors for God and what he did for David is fueled by the actual terrain. When David sought protection, he didn’t stand in an open field with his enemies encircling him as he called upon God’s angels to protect him or make him invisible. Rather he purposely went to the most secure locations he knew of. Yet in the end he didn’t give credit to the interesting geography, nor did he thank God for providing it. He rightly understood that the effectiveness of the natural lay of the land was from God. If God hadn’t guided him and protected him, then the highest mountain and most complex cave would not have helped him.

David had a deep understanding of God as creator. To know God was to know him within the world he made. At the same time, he never confused the creation with the creator. While serving God was something to be lived out in the physical world, life’s meaning and purpose could not be derived from what God had made, but from God himself. Yet to know God as David did, allowed him to stand within the creation in such a way that it vividly reflected the character and power of God without ever taking his place.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Recipe for Life

For the week of October 5, 2019 / 6 Tishri 5780

Recipe book with vegetables on wooden table and the words "God's recipe for life" superimposed.

Vayelech (Shuva)
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity…” (Hosea 14:2-3; English 14:1-2)

I like to remind people that life has no formulas, but that’s an overstatement. The world as God made it certainly includes effective standard procedures that the vast majority of the cases result in expected outcomes. Baking recipes are a good example of such a formula. If you follow the instructions, including the listed ingredients and the specified quantities, mixing as described, and baking at the right temperature for the precise amount of time, the result should be a good one.

The problem with formulas for life, unlike recipes, is that there are too many variables at play. Even the most complicated baking recipes are simplistic compared to the lives of human beings. That’s why I am cautious about presentations that claim to provide ten steps to whatever. While such content may include some timeless and practical wisdom that may be beneficial, there is no way that someone who doesn’t know me personally can guarantee outcome.

Years ago, a friend recommended a doctor who had developed a treatment for general malaise. So I thought it would be a good idea to check him out. After a while I realized that his treatment of certain vitamins in relatively large quantities and avoiding certain foods worked extremely well for some people, but not for others. This didn’t stop him, however, from thinking that he had come up with a perfect diet for a large portion of the population. Even though I was not seeing the near-to-miraculous results others had experienced, he encouraged me to stick with it. In fact, he told me that if it didn’t work for me, then I was doing it wrong.

I have seen this in other areas of life. People who have gotten help via a formula, be it a special diet, a health product, a business idea, or particular advice, often think that if it worked for them, it’s going to work for everyone else. It might work for some others, but not for everyone.

I delight in how the wisdom of Scripture is not formulaic. It somehow captures the complexities of life in such a way that allows people to engage an intricate dynamic that is highly relational and very profound. While understanding the common makeup of human nature, the Bible makes room for individual differences, levels of maturity, and cultural contexts.

Yet, through the prophet Hosea, we are introduced to a basic formula through which we can experience a right relationship with God. Hosea served during the demise of what was known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel that split away from the south under the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. As it turned out, the people didn’t listen to Hosea’s words and were overcome by the Assyrian empire.

Israel’s refusal to follow God’s recipe for life is no reflection on its effectiveness, however. Unlike the claims of other supposed life formulas God’s recipe through Hosea includes core elements that if followed with sincerity will result in the promised outcome of restoration with the Creator. God’s recipe is found in chapter fourteen, verses three and four (English: verses two and three) and can be summed up as follows. (The following is a condensed summary; for a fuller explanation, you can listen to my sermon on this passage that I presented a few weeks ago.).

Decide to stop living life your own way and turn to the God of Israel. Speak to him out loud, asking him to help you be free from all that is controlling you and from which you cannot free yourself. Renounce all dependencies on earthly powers and man-made inventions. Also renounce all loyalties to false gods and powers that control your life. Acknowledge that God is merciful to the oppressed and be willing to reflect this same mercy to others. Finally, ask God to accept you on the basis of what he has done for you. Hosea states this in terms of “accept what is good.” What is good and acceptable to God is the sacrificial offering of the Messiah. Our failure to live up to God’s standards alienates us from him. Saying the words in themselves isn’t sufficient to re-engage God. But because of Yeshua’s death and resurrection we can turn back to him and have the kind of loving relationship with him for which humans were originally designed.

As we are in the midst of the Jewish high holy days, there is no better time to follow God’s recipe for life.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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