New Perspective

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

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

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


The Supreme Force

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

The text The Supreme Force on a starfield background

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


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


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


Necessary Adjustments

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

Hands adjusting professional studio mixing console

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


The House of God

For the week of November 25, 2017 / 7 Kislev 5778

Celestial portalVa-Yeze
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)
Originally posted December 9, 2000 / 12 Kislev 5761
Revised version from the book Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses

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Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16–17)

Jacob had a vision of God in a dream. He’d never had an experience like this before. When he awoke, he surmised that there was something special about the place he was in, referring to it as the house of God, the gate of heaven. We don’t know if his conclusion about the place was accurate or if it was nothing more than his own interpretation of the experience.

Jacob assumed that this was a special place. He gave a new name to the town, calling it Bet-el (English, Bethel)—meaning “House of God”—and set up a pillar there. He then made a pledge that if God would keep his promise to bring him back there, this same god would be his God.

Whatever the significance of the place, Jacob thought God was more in Bet-el than he would be in the land of his ancestors where he was going. It would take many years before he realized how real and how present God was. Jacob’s dream was meant to reveal to him that God was going to take care of him. But Jacob focused more on the experience than on the message.

Like Jacob, we sometimes have difficulty knowing God beyond our experiences of him. I know many of us have not experienced anything like Jacob did, but still God is often confined to our specific events, activities, and experiences. We like to focus more on the wonderful things that God does than to learn the lessons those things were designed to teach us.

The essence of idolatry is the substituting of something in place of the reality of God. It may or may not be a physical object that we can touch. It might be a memory or a concept through which we relate to God. These things may function in our lives as helps in knowing God, but the fact is they get in the way.

It sounds so spiritual to be like Jacob and get excited over an experience. But God remained someone who seemed far from him for a very long time. It would not be until later difficult circumstances that God would finally become personal to him.

Could it have been any different for Jacob? We don’t know. But it can be different for us. Instead of getting hyped over what God is doing (or not doing) in our lives, maybe we should listen to what God is saying to us. Let’s stop making monuments of our experiences (or lack thereof) and let God into our hearts right now.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Shrinking World

For the week of November 18, 2017 / 29 Heshvan 5778

A miniature globe held by a hand

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22-23)

We have no idea what we are. Our view of life seems to get more and more narrow. For most people it is nothing more than the avoidance of suffering and pursuit of pleasure. Sure, we may have family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, but life is wrapped up in self, and not much more. Let’s be honest, why do we pursue what we pursue? Who is it for? The other guy or yourself? I don’t assume this is everyone, but the self-driven life is certainly driving the traffic of much human endeavor today. I am not surprised by this. After being told for so long that life has no meaning, the universe shrinks and shrinks until it is no bigger than me.

But it’s not true. We are not meaningless blobs of tissue, the happenstance of random, mindless processes, existing only for a few short years simply to decompose to recyclable waste. But perhaps you knew that already. You may even be a person of faith – a believer in the one true God, the God of Israel, the God of the Bible. Maybe you pray and read that Bible of yours. You try to live a good life, keeping out of trouble as much as you can. You’ve got your ticket to heaven, or so you think, which gives you something to look forward to beyond your feeble current existence. But as for your feeble existence, is your life, your world, any bigger than that of your atheistic or agnostic friends? You have “Jesus in your heart,” and you know that’s supposed to make a difference, but this eternal life you claim to have has a tendency to shrivel up into the same self-focus of most everybody else.

It’s because we don’t get it. We don’t get that there is something really big going on. The world has its issues, of course. The Bible doesn’t pretend otherwise. Rebellion against God is at the core of all human dysfunction as well as the broken nature of the planet in which we live. But the purpose of life isn’t found in biding our time as we medicate our suffering through all sorts of distractions as we wait for heaven. We are here on a mission – God’s mission. All humans have been mandated by God, whether we know him or not, to be his representatives on earth (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-28). Through Yeshua the Messiah we are more than adequately equipped to not only fulfill that mandate, but to rescue others from sin and its effects (see Matthew 28:18-20).

Because people are made in God’s image, every one of us has potential for great positive impact. Yet we squander what we are due to ignorance. If we would only know what we are, we would get our eyes off ourselves and onto the grand mission God has for us.

When Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was pregnant, she was concerned about the turmoil she felt inside. Asking God what was going on, he told her that she was carrying two nations. Get that? Not two blobs of tissue. Two nations. Not two products of pregnancy that may develop into something more one day. Two nations.

I understand that not every human being will necessarily generate offspring like Jacob and Esau did. But the potential for life that exists within every human being at the point of conception should encourage us to see that we are part of something way bigger than ourselves. God’s initiation of the universe and his intent on rescuing it from our mismanagement includes, not precludes, the ongoing generation of more human beings.

The Scripture is clear that everything that is wrong with the world is because of humans. But it is equally clear that the solution to everything that is wrong with the world is also human beings. That’s why God became human to save the creation. And that’s why he is calling us to be part of his rescue mission today. The more we embrace that mission, the bigger our world will become.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


When It’s Not You

For the week of November 11, 2017 / 22 Heshvan 5778

A business man pointing his finger in blame toward a businesswoman

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/2 Kings 1:1-31

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Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:1-3)

Abraham is depicted in the Bible as the model of faith. It was him of whom we read, “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:6). It was his trust in God (faith is trust) that established his right relationship with God. What did he trust God for? The seemingly impossible prospect of innumerable offspring (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:5). Why was this a seemingly impossible prospect? He and his wife, Sarah, were childless and already advanced in years. They astonishingly have the child of promise when Abraham is one hundred years old and Sarah is ninety.

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), Sarah dies, and sometime later Abraham remarries. Obviously, he is way over a hundred by now, but ends up having a whack of kids through his second wife, Keturah. Not bad for an old man, eh? But wait a second! I thought Abraham couldn’t conceive. Perhaps God healed whatever his condition was, so that he could have Isaac, the promised one. But that’s not right. Years before, after waiting and waiting and still no child, Sarah suggested going the surrogate mother route through her servant Hagar (see Genesis 16). Can’t say for sure, but looks like Hagar conceived pretty quickly. You know what that means, don’t you? The problem wasn’t with Abraham. It was Sarah who couldn’t conceive, at least not until God intervened.

If I am right, then Abraham’s faith challenge was not his own inability, but his wife’s. Did he understand that? He must have. They knew how conception worked. The Bible tells us many times something to the effect of so-and-so lay with her, and she conceived. Abraham knew he could produce kids. And he knew Sarah couldn’t. And yet he stuck with her until the end. He was open to the surrogacy solution, and appeared to believe that that was part of God’s plan until told differently. He thought it was funny when it became clear that his wife would finally conceive. Isaac, meaning laughter, would be identified with this act of heavenly humor forever. It was funny, but he went for it, lying with his long-time committed spouse at least one more time.

While many of the challenges to our fulfilling God’s will are due to our own weaknesses, struggles, and so on, we often find ourselves, like Abraham, frustrated by issues arising from others. Being confronted by actual enemies is one thing, but being constrained by those closest to us is another. How many people have started off on some Great Adventure and have been thwarted in pursuing what are clearly God-given goals, hitting a rock wall because of a loved one? Household obligations may dictate holding off on all sorts of noble, inspired objectives.

Abraham’s willingness to alleviate his situation only stemmed as far as surrogacy within the confines of his understanding of the cultural norms of the day. But that didn’t resolve the matter. Note that he never took a second wife. Maybe God kept him from that temptation by taking him to a hostile, alien land. We don’t know. What we do know is that God wasn’t put off by the length of time or Sarah’s infertility and that Abraham was willing to cooperate with the details of God’s plan as they were revealed to him.

There may be times when we unnecessarily accept obstacles to God’s plans for our lives. We may assume a false sense of responsibility towards family, friends, or business. We may have misguided financial expectations. But at other times, we need to resist skirting God-given limitations, trusting he knows what he is doing and will bring to pass whatever he wants in his time and in his way.

Some time later, God would say to Isaac, concerning his dad: “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:5). The exemplary nature of Abraham’s faith is not confined to a few highlighted moments, but includes a lifestyle, imperfect though it was, loyal to God. This is no less found in his faithfulness to Sarah in spite of her insufficiency. He knew that the God who called him to be a great nation had also determined that marriage be permanent. He accepted the challenge and became the father of all who truly believe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version



For the week of November 4, 2017 / 15 Heshvan 5778

Closeup of man staring fearfully

Torah: Bereihit/Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/Kings 4:1-37

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And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. (Bereshit/Genesis 20:2)

 I like to say, “truth is stranger than fiction”, because it’s true. It’s one of the things that evidences the reliability of the Bible. No one could, or should I say would, make this stuff up. The life of Abraham is wrapped around God’s giving him a son in his and his wife Sarah’s old age. Early on, when he first journeyed to the land of Canaan, in spite of their infertility, he accepted God’s word to him regarding becoming a great nation one day. Eventually he became concerned that no child was forthcoming, but at God’s reassurance, he trusted that he would indeed have a child of his own one day. More time went by; still no child. His wife suggested surrogate motherhood as the solution. Abraham agreed and had a son, Ishmael, via Sarah’s servant Hagar. Problem solved, or so he thought, until God appeared to him again, saying that Sarah herself would have the child of promise, Isaac. It was soon afterwards that he did something really strange. He jeopardized God’s plan.

What occurred was that Sarah was taken by a local king. It is clear that this happened soon after the Isaac promise, because if Sarah would have been visibly pregnant, then she wouldn’t have been taken. The king was led to believe that she was Abraham’s sister, not his wife. This was a ruse they had agreed upon as they embarked on their God-ordained journey years before. Abraham was afraid that someone might kill him in order to steal his wife. That way, if she was taken, his life would most likely be spared. That he really was her half-brother made their ruse more believable, though no less deceitful.

This was the second time he almost lost her. Soon after arriving in the Land of Canaan, they went down to Egypt to escape famine, where Pharaoh took her. Both times God intervened, and she was returned to her husband unscathed. Both times Abraham was well-compensated in spite of himself. But both times he greatly risked completely undermining God’s plans and purposes for their lives. All because of fear.

That part of the story isn’t strange. Fear blinds us to the truth, resulting in destructive behavior. At least blind people know they’re blind, while fear tricks us into thinking that it functions like high-definition glasses. We think we see the world clearer than ever even though the image of life we’re engaging is completely skewed.

After all those years living as a foreigner in the Promised Land; after all those years of God’s protection and reiterations of his grand plan, by now wouldn’t the Father of Faith be free of such fear? Didn’t God just recently promise that Sarah would have a child? Even if he was afraid, couldn’t he muster up enough courage to avoid losing her at this most precarious time in their lives. If this was a made-up story, who would have thought up elderly Sarah, unusually beautiful though she was, being taken by another man just before Isaac was to be conceived. We would never imagine the hero of a story crumbling like this at this point. And yet in reality, such is the nature of fear.

What’s even stranger to me is that everything works out okay. But that’s because God’s faithfulness is perhaps the strangest thing in the entire universe! Our fears are not going to get in the way of God’s plans. And if we are part of those plans, he is going to work out our lives accordingly. That doesn’t mean that misjudgment rooted in fear is acceptable. Or that serious consequence may not result. So much trouble is avoided by trusting in God, the fruit of which is right living. But at the same time, God is patient with us. And faithful. While he wants us to always trust him, and not fear, it’s not as if our fears cause him to abandon us.

I wish the reality of true faith chased away every fear. I wish I was never intimidated by life’s challenges. Sometimes I find myself freaked out on the roller coaster of life, forgetting that it’s not my grasp of the cart that keeps me from being flung out. God firmly holds his children through everything, committed to never leave us or forsake us. We have every reason not to fear, but we do anyway. We shouldn’t; but we do. God can handle it. And maybe the more we realize that, the less we will fear.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Do You Know Where You’re Going?

For the week of October 28, 2017 / 8 Heshvan 5778

Walking trail in autumn

Lekh Lekha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

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Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3)

I am not Abraham, but I know what it means to not really know where I am going. Twenty years ago this week, according to the Jewish calendar, I embarked on a journey into the unknown. I was forty years old, living with my growing family in a most beautiful part of Planet Earth – Vancouver, British Columbia. My work-life until about six years before was filled with teaching the Bible and related endeavors. Then, having reached the edge of burnout, I was given the sage advice of laying down my ministry for a time – a brief time, I thought. In the meantime, since I still needed to provide for my family, I found a different line of work. It wasn’t easy due to my education being in theology. I was given the opportunity for retraining in office-based computing, and within a few months I was working in high tech and continued to do so for the next twenty-five years.

Those years had their ups and downs. I learned a lot about life, myself, and business. Yet my heart was never really in it. Not that there was anything wrong with the work I was doing. It was me. I couldn’t shake the desire to return to the kind of Bible oriented pursuits that filled my life previously.

A few years into my high-tech experience, the Internet began to emerge as a force to reckon with. In the mid-1990s, I started developing basic Web pages (that’s when the only background color available was gray!). In those days few people guessed how pervasive the online world would become.

In 1997 (that’s a year before Google was incorporated) I got an idea: maybe in my spare time I could post short Bible messages on the Web. I was intrigued by the idea that people who might not normally encounter biblical truth might read what I had to say in the privacy of their homes. I would follow the traditional annual reading cycle of the Books of Moses, explaining how these ancient words continue to speak powerfully in our day, especially as we understand them from a messianic perspective (the conviction that the promised Jewish Messiah has come in the person of Yeshua of Nazareth).

I had no idea where I was going with this, but I started out. Just like Abraham. I found that expressing myself through writing alleviated some of my heaviness of heart. Even though my normal work hours were given to other things, I knew I had something to share and was willing to put it out there for whomever might see it. Soon afterwards a friend and colleague suggested I add a subscribe function to my fledgling website so that people could receive the weekly message by email – a cutting edge idea in those early days of the Web. And then people actually started signing up! Little did I know that I would still be doing this twenty years later.

We read in the New Covenant book of Hebrews, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). However, when we read his story, it is clear that he knew what his God-given destination was. So he did know where he was going. Still, the writer of Hebrews is not wrong. While Abraham knew his geographical destination, he understood nothing of what his life would be like there. It is often that way when we respond to God’s leading. The steps we are to take are sufficiently clear to get started at least. Beyond that, there’s no way to know what God has in store – except for one thing – the same thing God promised Abraham: blessing. We will likely be surprised at how the fruit of our God-directed endeavors brings blessing to the world. That’s God’s job, not ours. Our job is to simply obey his promptings – even when we don’t really know where we’re going.

I don’t know how much longer I will continue to produce TorahBytes. Today it’s one part of a much broader teaching work, having returned to my life’s calling about five years ago. Over the years I have often considered stopping these weekly messages. Then one way or another, the Lord would encourage me to keep going. So, we’ll see. For now, let me thank those of you who have supported me on this journey for some or most of the past twenty years.

What new endeavor might he be calling you to embark on?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version