God Is in the House

For the week of February 17, 2018 / 2 Adar 5778

Illustration of temple curtain tearing in two

Terumah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)

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And you shall put the mercy seat on the top of the ark, and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. There I will meet with you, and from above the mercy seat, from between the two cherubim that are on the ark of the testimony, I will speak with you about all that I will give you in commandment for the people of Israel. (Shemot/Exodus 25:21-22)

It’s fairly common to hear the God of the Old Testament contrasted with the God of the New. Even among those who would never dare to say that these constitute two very different beings, they may as well, given how they mischaracterize what they view as irreconcilable depictions of the one God. There are indeed key contrasts between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Covenant writings vis-à-vis the divine. The differences are not in God himself, however. But, rather, in his relationship to human beings.

To the casual reader, the Old Testament seems to reflect a God who is distant, while in the New he is approachable. That is somewhat true, because on our own we are not fit to approach him, not because he is aloof, sitting far away in heaven, disinterested in human affairs. Far from it! As he revealed himself to the people of Israel within the covenant given at Mt. Sinai, we see him anxious to live among his precious human creatures.

The entire Sinai covenant system was built upon the centrality of God’s dwelling place. God directed Moses to construct a mobile structure called the “mishkan” (English: tabernacle). It was here that the sacrifices and other worship rites were to be exclusively performed. Mishkan means “dwelling.” It was the precursor of the temple, which in Hebrew is “bayit,” the word for “house.” It is difficult to say whether or not God’s taking up residence in the mishkan was metaphorical or actual. Probably it is both in some ways and not in others. Regardless, the people of Israel were to understand that the Master of the Universe was among them.

Inside the mishkan, in its innermost sanctum, called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: Holy of Holies), was a special golden chest, called the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). On top of the aron ha-b’rit was the “kapporet” (English: “cover,” traditionally referred to as “the mercy seat”). As we read at the beginning, it was here that God would meet and speak with Moses. It would be here that the Cohen HaGadol (English: the Chief Priest) would appear before God once a year on Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement).

That God was in the house was an essential element of ancient Israeli society. God is not a concept, but an actual personal being (the Being of all Beings, we can say). Obedience to his Word, even then, was not cold adherence to abstract principles, but the reasonable response to the reality of his presence. Everything that the people did or didn’t say or do was in response to him being in the house.

One of the dramatic developments within the New Covenant is that God’s presence is no longer isolated within the ancient house, be it the tabernacle or the temple. This is illustrated by the miraculous tearing of the curtain that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest of the house. This occurred immediately following Yeshua’s death to demonstrate that his sacrifice not only provided access to God for people of all nations, but that God’s presence was being unleashed throughout the entire world.

Through the New Covenant the God of Israel is no longer exclusive to the people of Israel. In a sense he never was. Not only did the calling of Israel through Abraham always have the nations in mind, but the Hebrew Scriptures are clear that God was neither nationalistic nor regional. It’s that due to the human condition, the globe was not ready for his presence.

Since Yeshua’s death and resurrection, throughout the earth, God’s presence has manifested in a most personal way. While most people seem to be blind to his taking up residence within his creation, he is no less present. God is in the house – the world he has made – yet we too often ignore him. We think we can get away with doing our own thing our own way as if he will not call each and every one of us to account. He is doing far more, speaking far more, and responding far more than we care to admit. We are not alone. God is in the house.

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

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Fake News

For the week of February 10, 2018 / 25 Shevat 5778

Reporters with various forms of "fake news" from an 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper

Excerpted from “The fin de siècle newspaper proprietor” 1894 illustration by Frederick Burr Opper

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1-24:18 & 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 (English: 11:21 – 12:16)

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You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit. (Shemot/Exodus 23:1-3)

During the most recent presidential election in the United States, one of the biggest news stories was “fake news.” I don’t mean that “fake news” was fake news. It is that “fake news” had become big news! The phenomenon of fake news is nothing new. It has existed since the Garden of Eden. And I am not talking about the serpent’s deception of Eve. Even before that something went awry in the communication world of that supposedly perfect environment. When the serpent asked Eve, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:1), her reply was technically incorrect, when she said: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die’” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:2-3). According to the record, God didn’t say that they couldn’t touch the fruit; only that they should not eat it. I don’t know how much of a difference Eve’s inaccurate report made; I only wanted to point out that fake news goes back a long time.

It’s not really fair to refer to all inaccurate reports as fake news, however. Satires and parodies, for example, are forms of fake news for fun. Yet even then, there have been incidences of fabricated news items that have caused large scale panic, because the public didn’t get the joke. The most famous one occurred on October 30, 1938, when the radio drama “War of the Worlds” was in the form of a simulated news broadcast. Apparently, people really thought America was under Martian attack, resulting in mass panic. I write “apparently,” because it appears that the level of reaction regularly referred to might itself be exaggerated. Whatever really happened that night is the stuff of myths and legends. Something happens. It’s conveyed a certain way, and then grows in the consciousness of people, taking a life of its own.

Myths and legends aren’t fake news. Neither is a whole spectrum of inaccurate reporting. Real fake news (did I just write that?) is intentional misrepresentation of the truth in order to deceive. What makes the current hoopla over fake news ironic is that popular culture fueled by academia has for a long time set its sights against truth. “All truth is relative,” they say. “You have your truth; I have mine,” they say. So now, new media is fertile breeding ground for all sorts of fake news from the personal to the political, and people cry foul? As the Bible says: “You reap what you sow” (Galatians 6:7).

People’s reaction to fake news exposes an innate sense of the existence of truth, regardless of whatever misguided philosophy they buy into. Truth is an accurate reflection of reality. Everyone knows deep inside that reality isn’t different for every person. We may have different opinions about all sorts of things. But the way things are is the way things are. Yet we so readily create worlds of fantasy. It’s to God’s credit that he made creatures who can conceive of nonsense. It’s all part and parcel of being given the gift of imagination, I suppose. Yet it is tragic that our alienation from God leads us to use this precious gift for nefarious purposes.

It doesn’t have to be that way, you know. But to be free of the deceptive lure of fake news, you need to be friends with the truth. Truth is a stubborn companion. The fake news of the serpent’s deception in the garden led Adam and Eve to hide from God and the truth. We have been hiding ever since. It’s scary to come out into the light of reality. But God has made a way. Because of what Yeshua the Messiah has done for us, the truth that condemns us becomes the truth that sets us free. Once we accept the truth about ourselves and the truth of what God has done on our behalf through Yeshua, then we are no longer under the oppressive control of deception and become bearers of truth to others. That’s good news!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Facing Self

For the week of February 3, 2018 / 18 Shevat 5778

Man covering face with extended open hand in foreground

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

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And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) includes one of the greatest revelations of God of all time, when he personally spoke the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. This might surprise you, but the people’s reaction was not a positive one. They said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Shemot/Exodus 20:19). Many years later, as we read in this week’s Haftarah (accompanying reading from the Hebrew prophets), the prophet Isaiah also had a revelation of God to which he too reacted negatively. Drawn into God’s presence, he immediately became aware of his own inadequacy.

We might think that encountering God so vividly would be wonderfully delightful as if to see him in this way would shed us of all doubt and place us on an unwavering path of spiritual enlightenment. The Bible tells us a different story, however. Most often when God or a heavenly messenger appeared to someone, they freaked out. Is that because God is just plain scary? Certainly, to be confronted with such unusual phenomena can be unnerving, but that’s not the main reason.

Peter had a similar experience with Yeshua early on in their relationship (see Luke 5:1-11). Yeshua was teaching by Lake Kenneret (the Sea of Galilee). Peter was already aware of Yeshua and the possibility that he was the Messiah but hadn’t yet joined the inner circle of disciples. To harness the acoustics of the surroundings, Yeshua asked to teach from Peter’s fishing boat on the water. We are not told what he taught, but when he was done, he told Peter to cast his net into the water for a catch – the carpenter rabbi telling a professional fisherman how to fish. After Peter made it clear that he thought it was a silly idea, out of deference to the Teacher, he did as instructed. The result was such a quantity of fish that their nets began to break and the boat began to sink. At this point perhaps Peter should have been ecstatic, thinking Yeshua could make him very rich. But that’s not what happened at all. Instead, he responded like Isaiah. Overwhelmed by his sense of inadequacy, he asked Yeshua to go away.

But why? Why do these magnificent displays of God’s power repel people instead of drawing them to himself? We don’t know if it had anything to do with what Yeshua taught in Peter’s boat. I doubt that was the issue, seeing how Peter acquiesced to his directive. Nothing appeared to be amiss until the miracle occurred. There also didn’t seem to be anything in what Isaiah heard that was a direct reflection on him. In both cases their encounters with God’s reality resulted in deep awareness of their personal inadequacy.

Have you ever arrived at a formal social event, thinking it was to be casual? As soon as you see the other guests in their finery, you immediately become aware of your state. No amount of assurance from the host could divert your attention from your self-focus. Instead of reveling in the beauty of the occasion, all you can think of is your unworthiness due to your condition. This is what happened to Isaiah and Peter, but not based on anything outward. The brilliance of God’s essence illuminated their internal condition, exposing their unworthiness to be in his presence.

This demonstrates how one of, if not the, obstacle to people coming into right relationship with God is not God, but self. We can list all sorts of difficulties along the road to knowing God. But none is greater than our hesitancy to face ourselves. And this applies not only to the atheist and agnostic, but to the believer as well. Isaiah and Peter weren’t hostile to God and his ways. Wherever they were at in their lives of faith, they were being called to something more – a road that first took them to themselves before they could move on.

And move on they did, because they were honest about their condition. However devastating this was, they were able to admit their failings. God then made the next move, enabling them to get on with the next stage of their journey with God.

Wherever we may be in our journey with God, don’t be surprised if the next person you meet along the way is you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Impossible

For the week of January 27, 2018 / 11 Shevat 5778

Violent ocean surf

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

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Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea.” (Shemot/Exodus 14:1-2)

You may be familiar with the oft-quoted, eighteenth-century hymn that begins with “God moves in a mysterious way; his wonders to perform.” This captures the difficulty of understanding what God is doing amidst difficult circumstances. A life of faith can be a life of confusion as we face the tension of the love and goodness of God with the pain and sorrow we must endure at times.

As we grapple with this, there is an aspect of God’s intentions that we may miss. Our failure to fully reckon with these intentions may prevent us from walking through difficulty as effectively as we should. At times we regard coping with difficulties as sufficient, when what God wants is something way more than that. Godly endurance isn’t necessarily passive, as if the best course of action when facing a storm is always hunkering down waiting for it to pass.

This is not what God wanted the people of Israel to do when they faced the impossible situation of being between the Egyptian Army and the Red Sea. Moses seemed to think all they needed to do was to stand there, trust God, and all would be well. Certainly there are such incidences in the Bible, but this is not one of them. Here, God told the people to go forward towards the Sea. We know what was going to happen, because the story is so familiar. We also have the luxury of being able to read this on paper, not live through it as they did. Imagine, God’s expressed will was to head toward the water.

This is not simply a case of finding yourself in a difficult situation, confused by circumstances, wondering where God might be in it all, as you try to find comfort in sayings such as “God moves in a mysterious way.” This is not simply an opportunity to cope with the broken nature of life. This is God thrusting his people into what appears to be the jaws of death, while expecting them to do the impossible.

God is not hiding in the shadows here. He is smack in the middle of this terrifying situation, calling his people to go for it as never before. Hey, the water’s fine! You only think you’re committing suicide. Get going; you are about to do the impossible!

I don’t think Israel had much choice with this one. To disobey the command to move forward toward the sea meant annihilation by the Egyptians. We also at times find ourselves moving forward toward the impossible in spite of ourselves. How many terrifying things have we had to face only to experience the power of God to get us through?

I wonder if there might be other times, when God wants to thrust us toward the impossible, but because there is no army threating our backs, we pull back. Overwhelmed by apparently insurmountable challenges, we miss the opportunity to accomplish what God has for us. Can that happen? It happened in the Bible. Think of this same group of people, who about two years later lost their opportunity to enter the Promised Land due to fear and lack of faith (see Numbers 13-14). One of the issues at that time was they doubted God’s intentions in calling them to face the impossible, thinking he was out to destroy them. Sounds ridiculous to us now, but at the time the impossible can be so overwhelming that we lose sight of God’s good intent.

God calls for a faith in keeping with the great and awesome God he is. Yeshua told his followers during his last Passover with them, that after he was gone, they would do greater works than he did. Instead of shrinking the word “greater” into tiny packages we can handle, we should allow the enormity of his statement to saturate our beings. Not only does God want us to do “greater works,” he fabricates the situations in which they are to occur by thrusting us into the impossible. That’s impossible for us; not impossible to God. It’s time to move forward!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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What’s in a New Year?

For the week of January 20, 2018 / 4 Shevat 5778

Happy New Year as a world map in multiple languages

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

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The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months. It shall be the first month of the year for you.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:1-2)

Much of the world recently celebrated the beginning of the new year. Regarding January as the beginning of months appears to go back to ancient Rome. In 46 B.C., when Julius Caesar introduced his new solar calendar, the Julian Calendar, January 1 was established as the first day of the year. In the sixth century, the Council of Tours abolished that day as the new year, regarding its associated celebrations as pagan. Various regions in Medieval Europe celebrated the beginning of the year at different times. January 1 was restored as New Year’s Day by the Gregorian Calendar reform in 1582, though it would be some time before it was commonly accepted.

It is curious that in what has become the most common calendar in use today, the new year begins when it does. It is true that in the Northern Hemisphere, the long dark nights of winter begin to give way to longer days. Also, its proximity to Christmas, the traditional time when the birth of the Messiah is celebrated, may have some bearing. However, if his birth was reason to mark the beginning of the year, then why not celebrate the new year precisely on that day?

When it comes down to it, January 1 is nothing more than a way to mark the passage of time, an acceptable device in a world devoid of meaning. But contrary to popular misconception, the world isn’t meaningless, which is why the Torah has a different take on new year’s. Not that anyone, including Jews or Christians, takes notice, however.

God established the beginning of months to coincide with the most important event in Israel’s history, the exodus. The first month of the year commemorates the birth of a nation, when God liberated his people from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. From that time on, the new year was to function in terms of a national birthday through the celebration of Passover. Every year in the spring, the people of Israel were to look back to this moment of salvation.

Hold on. Isn’t the Jewish new year in the fall, not the spring, observed as Rosh Hashanah (English: the head of the year), the biblical Feast of Trumpets? Yes and no. Jewish tradition recognizes four different new years. That might sound strange, but we are more familiar with the concept of different new years than we might think. Besides the beginning of the calendar year in January, we have the beginning of the school year in late August/early September. Companies also have fiscal years. In Jewish tradition, the first of Nisan, in which Passover occurs, is regarded as the beginning of the religious year. The first of Elul is the new year for the tithing of cattle. The first of Tishrei, coinciding with Rosh Hashanah, is the civil new year, and the fifteenth of Shevat is the new year for trees and the tithing of fruit.

Even though the first of Nisan is acknowledged as the beginning of the religious year, at some point and for reasons not altogether clear, the Jewish world shifted focus from the biblically explicit new year to Rosh Hashanah. Let me offer an observation. How we mark our beginnings makes a difference on how we understand who we are. While Passover is one of the most observed of all the festivals, diminishing its primacy in any way results in losing awareness of what our fundamental identity is as slaves set free. Further, we are to remember that God rescued us from our desperate state because of his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We are intimately and irreversibly connected to God’s committed faithful love. How we live, everything we do, is rooted in this primary event. To place the fall feasts or anything else ahead of the exodus is to skew the way we understand how God relates to us and us to him.

What relevance does this have, if any, to non-Jewish believers in the Messiah? First, as it is for the people of Israel, the exodus is the primary event for all believers. Israel’s rescue from bondage in Egypt is the prototype of the universal rescue of all people through faith in Yeshua. This is made vividly clear by Yeshua’s leveraging the Passover seder as the vehicle through which all people would remember his death and resurrection. What has become known as the Eucharist, Lord’s Supper, or Communion cannot be fully understood outside of its Passover context.

I am not necessarily making a case for a new calendar. What we need to do is make sure we never forget that first and foremost we are all slaves set free. Regardless of nationality, the exodus is the beginning for every child of God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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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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Necessary Adjustments

For the week of December 2, 2017 / 14 Kislev 5778

Hands adjusting professional studio mixing console

Va-Yishlah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English 32:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12 (English 11:7 – 12:11)

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For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:21; English 32:20)

Jacob was on the brink of a life-changing event, though he didn’t know it. After a life of self-reliance, manipulation, finagling, and deception; he would have an encounter with God that would finally get through to him. It would leave him with a limp and a new name – Israel – the official and enduring brand of God’s specially chosen nation.

Jacob’s change was not a transformation of every aspect of his personality. I am not referring to the way true followers of the God of Israel remain a mixed bag until the Messiah returns, the continuing battle of spirit and flesh, so to speak. God affirmed a key aspect of what we might call the old Jacob, when he said, “you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:29; English 32:28). A couple of years ago, I commented on the positive nature of Jacob’s tenacity. His “go-get-it” attitude to life is something we should emulate.

Like so many human attributes, tenacity in and of itself is neutral. It can be used or abused. When something is a part of our personality, it can be difficult to recognize that. Let me explain. In the case of Jacob, it would be easier for us to divide his life into before and after his encounter with God. Prior to this, he was Jacob, the deceiver. Afterwards, he is Israel, the Prince of God. By the way, I know that he was sometimes still called Jacob, which may indicate his own ongoing internal struggle, but that is beside the point for now. What I am trying to point out is that it isn’t correct to categorize his tenacity as negative, since God himself affirms it as I quoted. However, we shouldn’t regard every way he expressed that tenacity in the past as acceptable.

Not to compare myself with Jacob, but when I came into a personal relationship with his God through the Messiah, my life radically changed. Still today, over forty years later, I refer to my first nineteen years on this planet as “the bad old days” as I was so misguided. It would take too long to list the changes: philosophical, theological, economical, psychological, and relational. But there is another sense in which I haven’t changed at all. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s that I am still me. However it works, like everyone, I am a unique personality with strengths and weaknesses, many of which are morally and practically neutral.

It would be easy for me to reject every aspect of my pre-messianic life due to how miserable and dysfunctional I was. But to do that would be to reject myself altogether. God didn’t want that for Jacob; neither does he want that for me (or you). The other extreme would be to think that because God made me a certain way, then I (and everyone around me) needs to accept my personality as is. But that too is not what God wanted for Jacob or anyone else. While he affirmed Jacob’s tenacity, he transformed his focus. Until his encounter, Jacob was self-driven. Once God got hold of him (quite literally in fact), God displaced self on the throne of Jacob’s life.

With a new ruler in charge change would be inevitable. Some things would have to go altogether, such as lies and deception; other things would need tweaking, such as the motivations and objects of his tenacity; while other things would stay intact. But that would now be under God’s direction, not Jacob’s.

It’s taken me a long time to accept some of what I was as gifts of God wrongly used, but now with his help can be instruments of blessing. If God is on the throne of our lives, then we need to get off. That entails releasing ourselves from our own judgments and allowing God to dictate what needs to go, what should be tweaked, and what might be fine just the way it is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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