Be the Light

For the week of February 24, 2024 / 15 Adar 5784

Message info over part of the Arch of Titus

Tetzaveh
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Haftarah: Ezekiel 43:10-27
Originally posted the week of February 16, 2019 / 11 Adar 5779

You shall command the people of Israel that they bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, that a lamp may regularly be set up to burn. In the tent of meeting, outside the veil that is before the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall tend it from evening to morning before the LORD. It shall be a statute forever to be observed throughout their generations by the people of Israel. (Shemot/Exodus 27:20-21)

One of the most recognizable symbols of the Jewish people is the menorah, the seven-branched candelabra, intended for exclusive use within the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple. It’s ironic that it became so recognizable, given its location, a hidden room into which only the cohanim (English: priests) were allowed to enter. The reason why we know what it looked like is because it is included in the depiction of the siege of Jerusalem on the first century Arch of Titus in Rome. Where the menorah ended up, we may never know. In spite of theories claiming items such as the Ark of the Covenant being in safekeeping somewhere, as far as we know all the Mishkan/Temple’s furnishings, including the menorah, are lost for good.

The menorah had a most practical purpose. It was the only light available within the ha-kodesh (English: the Holy Place). Without it, it was pitch black in there. Without it, the cohanim couldn’t fulfill their duties. The carrying away of the menorah by the Romans, like the destruction of the Temple, seemed to indicate the extinguishing of Israel’s light.

The centuries that followed were dark ones for the Jewish people. Yet, even without the menorah and the priestly service, the scattered nation never lost hope of the return of the divine light. Some may claim that the light never went out because the fire of hope in the hearts of the people never stopped burning.

The eternal light of God cannot be snuffed out. The menorah had more than a practical function. It was a symbol of the illuminating presence of God. Israel was chosen by God to be people of light, the bearers of truth for the world. God’s revelation of himself and his ways allowed Israel to clearly see the world as it is in contrast to the other nations having to grope about, trying to figure life out in the darkness of alienation from God. The time would come when the light would not shine upon Israel alone but would flood the world with its brilliance.

And that time came.

It’s no coincidence that within a generation of the Messiah’s coming, the menorah would be carried off into the center of one of the greatest empires of all time. This was not to show that the light of God shifted from Jerusalem to Rome, but that the light of God would no longer be hidden away in the Temple.

Israel’s light was never extinguished, for eleven Jewish men were commissioned by the Messiah to bring that light to the nations. Since then, each follower of Yeshua is called to bear that same light, wherever we may go.

For that to happen, each of us needs to be a menorah so to speak. In the same way that the menorah needed to be continually tended, so we need to tend to the Messiah’s light in us. Tragically, too many take his light for granted, thinking he will do what he will do in and through us, with or without our attention. But it doesn’t work that way. Like the priests of old, we need to make sure his light keeps burning bright. Yeshua’s warning not to hide our light under a basket (see Matthew 5:15) is an intentionally ridiculous image to emphasize how ludicrous it is when we do just that.

Have you ever thought of how we hide our light away? Perhaps others have reacted to you, because of your faith in Yeshua? Hopefully it was for a good reason – the Lord’s light was exposing evil in their lives. What did you when that happened? Did you apologize and dim it down? Or did you let the light do its job? Perhaps you don’t even bother shining in certain situations. You leave it at home, only turning it up during a personal prayer time or when you are with other believers. It can get tiring shining your light in one place and not another. It’s on when you’re in your car listening to music, off at the coffee shop or at work, and back on again at gatherings. I don’t think that’s how to tend the light. No wonder it’s getting so dark in some places.

It’s time to tend the light. We need to give attention to Yeshua’s presence in our lives so that he shines brightly through us. We can’t fabricate it. We can only tend it. We can only tend what we have. If you don’t have it, ask God for it. And once he sets you ablaze, keep it burning.

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

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Something’s Missing

For the week of February 17, 2024 / 8 Adar 5784

Message info over the opening of a double door, revealing a large question mark against a bright white background

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

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 25:22)

We are currently in the section of the Torah that provides instructions for the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and its associated items. The Mishkan was a semi-portable worship center for the people of Israel. It was designed to be taken down and moved throughout Israel’s wilderness journey until it would be more or less permanently placed in the Promised Land at the location determined by God.

Calling it a worship center may conjure an inaccurate picture in your mind. Perhaps, “sacrifice center” is better, since its main activity was to be the offering of sacrifices. Yet, for the people of its day, worship and sacrifice were basically the same thing as the people’s service to God (worship means service) was mainly expressed through sacrifice. Gathering for prayer and song would be a development over time. That’s not to say that there weren’t other important aspects to what went on at the Mishkan. It’s that sacrifice was very much core to everything that went on there.

Missing from the Mishkan’s instructions are clear explanations of what its design and various articles mean. This may reflect God’s priorities in that following his instructions is more important than understanding the reasons behind them. That’s not to say that there are no reasons for what God directs here, but perhaps our need to understand shouldn’t be of utmost importance.

This is not to say that the Mishkan is devoid of powerful meaning. First and foremost, the Mishkan was established by God to ensure that the people would not sacrifice to God in any way and in any place they pleased. Beyond that, the curtain that separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the Mishkan and the outside world illustrated our general alienation from God. Moreover, the atonement cover on the Ark of the Covenant demonstrated the necessity of sacrificial blood to enable us to meet with God. Still, we should be careful not to overly speculate, finding meaning where it isn’t stated or clearly implied.

Perhaps one of the most meaningful aspects of the Mishkan is found in something that is completely missing: an image of God. After all, isn’t that what such a structure was to house? Today we take God’s invisibility for granted. But back then, gods were always represented through images of various kinds. That for all intents and purposes, the Mishkan was empty, was radical.

The missing something—or I should say, “someone”—not only demonstrated the truth that the God of Israel could not be contained, but also, as the Master of the Universe, he is not subject to human control.

It seems to me that God’s immaterial nature as profoundly expressed through his rejection of representative imagery in the Mishkan is an aspect of his person and character that many people have trouble accepting. Note that I am aware that it’s not as if God has no image at all, for that’s a fundamental role of human beings as made in his image and most fully expressed through the Messiah. But while we have these vivid expressions of his image, his invisibility tends to be something many of us try to overcome instead of accept.

We do this in the various ways we attempt to get a handle on life. We constantly try to stay in control in an unpredictable world. We adopt various techniques to provide us with a sense of security. Instead of heeding the biblical call to entrust ourselves to the all-powerful, good, and loving God, we rely on formulas, superstitions, ideologies, affiliations, and psychological gimmicks. We so easily buy into the lie that we can guarantee desired results by our attempts to manipulate the world. And often we do so in God’s name.

Our attempt to replace what’s missing from the Mishkan robs us from truly experiencing God’s presence and power. It’s only as we accept what’s missing that we can discover that, in fact, nothing is missing at all.

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

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Whose Side Are You On?

For the week of February 10, 2024 / 1 Adar 5784

Message info over a man holding a Bible, staring up to heaven

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries. (Shemot/Exodus 23:22)

I find reading something like this difficult in light of what’s been going on in Israel since October 7. Frankly, I am hesitant to bring it up mainly because I fear those who might weaponize it against my people. “See!” they say. “If the people of Israel were truly godly, they wouldn’t be constantly facing extermination by their enemies, let alone the horrific attack by Hamas on October 7.” Among Bible-sensitive people, I suspect that many wonder if the current crisis might be a purposeful act of judgement on God’s part. If Israel lived up to its biblical calling, they may think, then there would be peace within its borders, as God would keep its enemies at bay.

To start off, let’s consider that this might be true. That is a possibility that the slaughter of 1200 Israelis and others, including women, the elderly, and children, plus the taking of hostages, many of whom were also women, the elderly, and children, was an act of judgment by God against Israel for its sins. What’s that to you? The Messiah was confronted by a similar question when he was asked about certain Galileans who were slaughtered by the Roman governor:

And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2-5).

I like to say that when we read the Bible, it is always speaking to me (if you are reading it, it’s speaking to you). There is always a temptation to think in terms of other people who, “really need to hear this!” And perhaps that’s true to some extent. But before considering others, we need to start with ourselves.

I imagine when almost three thousand people perished in the terrorist attack upon the World Trade Center in September 2011, many people wondered, “What did they do to deserve that?” There are so many supposedly miraculous stories of people who should have been there but weren’t. Were they more righteous than the selfless rescue workers who perished, for example? Who are we to make such determinations? Yeshua’s words are designed to turn us from judging the dead to questioning ourselves. Such disasters should cause us to take personal inventory of our own lives and make sure that we are right with God before we face our own disaster, which will come for all of us eventually.

We also have to take into account how a promise like the one I quoted from this week’s parsha (Torah portion) actually works. We might assume that it’s a simple cause-and-effect principle, as in “behave yourselves and everything will always be fine.” Scripture doesn’t reflect such a simplistic interpretation. The Book of Job, for example, focuses on the problem we have with life not always working out as we expect. Job’s friends wrongly assumed that his suffering was proof positive that he was being punished for his sins. In reality, he was suffering because he was such a good man.

David is another example. Labelled as “a man after God’s own heart,” he suffered at the hands of a demonically oppressed tyrant, not for his wrongs, but because God had chosen him to be Israel’s righteous leader.

Do these and other examples, therefore, contradict Torah? Absolutely not! What they do is provide fuller understanding as to how life with God works. Note we read, not that Israel would not suffer, but rather that if they were careful to be attentive to God’s directions, then their enemies would be God’s enemies. It would be presumptuous to think that God was fighting on their behalf, if they were not treating him as their commander in chief.

I would hope that the current crisis in Israel is provoking Israelis and all Jewish people everywhere to consider their relationship with God. But shouldn’t we all?

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

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The Ten Words

For the week of February 3, 2024 / 24 Shevat 5784

Message info along with a wooden representation of the Ten Commandments

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6 (English: 9:6-7)
Originally posted the week of January 30, 2016 / 20 Shevat 5776 (revised)

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Shemot/Exodus 20:1-3)

The Ten Commandments function in a most special way within holy Scripture. You may not be aware that they are never actually called the “ten commandments,” but rather, eseret ha-devarim, “the Ten Words” (see Shemot/Exodus 34:28). Obviously the Hebrew is indicating that this is much more than a list of ten individual words. Rather they are ten unique divine utterances, unique in several ways.

First, the Ten Words were the only part of God’s revelation to Moses that was given in the direct hearing of the people (see Shemot/Exodus 20:18-21). It isn’t clear if they heard the actual words, but whatever they heard, they were so terrified, they never want to experience it again.

Second, of all that Moses received from God, only these Ten Words were written by God’s own finger. In fact, he did so twice, due to Moses’ destroying the first set in reaction to Israel’s rebellious activities while he was with God on the mountain (see Shemot/Exodus 31:18; 34:1).

The third and perhaps most important way the Ten Words are unique is that they, in particular, are called “the covenant” (see Shemot/Exodus 34:28). This would be why they were among the items that were placed inside the aron ha-berit, the Ark of the Covenant.

There was of course more to the covenant given at Mount Sinai than just the Ten Words. The Ten served to point the people to the details of the entire covenant. They weren’t necessarily more important than any other of God’s directives, but what they do is capture the essence of the whole covenant, while the rest of Torah elaborates on them. The Ten, then, especially as a collection, have an essential symbolic function in that they represent the whole Sinai covenant.

It is not biblically sound, therefore, to isolate or detach the Ten Words from the rest of Torah as if God gave these directives as universal principles, while everything else he revealed through Moses was for Israel alone. This is not to say that the Ten Words or anything else in Torah aren’t necessarily universal. It’s that it is not right to automatically consider them as universal just because they are the Ten Words.

Biblically speaking, the Ten Words first and foremost function as covenant, not moral principles. They (as much of the rest of Torah) are full of morality, but primarily they establish the basis and parameters of God’s relationship with ancient Israel. That is why the Ten Words begin with “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Shemot/Exodus 20:2). Israel was to obey God’s commands on the basis of their having been rescued from Egypt, something which no other nation can claim. Note that Israel’s salvation and relationship to God were established by God first before he gave them directions to live by. Biblical morality was never intended to be a pathway to God, but rather a response of God’s people to his love and faithfulness.

Living God’s way under the New Covenant is similar in that it too is a response to God’s salvation. This time not only as the nation of Israel who were in physical bondage to Egypt, but people of all nations who have been released from the greater bondage to sin and death through faith in the Messiah.

But as those who have a relationship with God through Yeshua, how do we live? While many have adopted the Ten Words as their moral code, others have rejected most, if not all, the commands given through Moses as being relevant today. Some claim that Yeshua replaced an older notion of hundreds of commands with only two (love God and love your neighbor) as if God is now lenient instead of strict. But that’s not what is going on here at all. Yeshua’s answer to the question concerning the greatest commandment (see Matthew 22:36-40) provides perspective and priority in relating to God. These two commands therefore serve as a summary of everything God calls us to.

But what does he call us to? Under the New Covenant, Torah, which was at one time written on tablets of stone, is now engraved upon our hearts (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; 2 Corinthians 3:3). That which was external has been internalized. This transformational change brought about by Yeshua’s death and resurrection allows us to live out the essential elements of God’s revelation through Moses including the Ten Words.

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

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The Impossible

For the week of January 27, 2024 / 17 Shevat 5784

Beshalach
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31
Originally posted the week of January 27, 2018 / 11 Shevat 5778

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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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Don’t Look Down!

For the week of January 20, 2024 / 10 Shevat 5784

Message info over an illustration of a hiker helping another hiker up a cliff

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

But fear not, O Jacob my servant, nor be dismayed, O Israel, for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. (Jeremiah 46:27)

A considerable amount of biblical prophetic writing includes predictive portions for the purpose of eliciting a current response. It could be a warning of something dire that could be avoided if heeded, or it might be a promise of good things to come in order to encourage people toward a particular attitude or action.

Much of the Book of Jeremiah is sobering. As an act of God’s judgment, the kingdom of Judah was being violently overrun by the Babylonians. All the while, Jeremiah was giving the unusual message of calling the people to surrender. Exile was not to be the people’s end, however, for God would rescue them in time. Even though many of them would not be alive by then, they were to be encouraged by this. In this week’s Haftarah (weekly portion from the Hebrew prophets), Jeremiah was drawing the people’s attention to a time when they would not only be rescued by God and returned to their land, but live a life of “quiet and ease,” when “none shall make [them] afraid.” The anticipation of a day in the future when they would have nothing at all to fear called them to reject the tendency toward fear in the present. The passage continues:

Fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the LORD, for I am with you. I will make a full end of all the nations to which I have driven you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished (Jeremiah 46:28).

It’s helpful to see that it’s not simply the anticipation of a brighter future that would make a difference, but also knowing that God would be with the people through what would clearly be a painful process until then. God will be working. God will see them through. Even though it will be difficult, because God will be with them through it all, they were not to fear.

I have been thinking a lot about the interaction between Yeshua and Jairus, the synagogue official (see Mark 5:21-43). Jairus’s daughter was ill, and Yeshua was on his way to heal her. After an interruption occurs on the way, Jairus gets word that his daughter had died in the meantime. No need for the healer any longer, he was told. For years, I have been struck by what Yeshua says to Jairus at this point: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36). Where does it say that Jairus was afraid? It was over. His daughter was dead. He must have been disappointed and sad. Possibly angry about the interruption. Maybe he was put out by Yeshua’s giving attention to someone else, when he was next in line, so to speak. But afraid?

Perhaps what Yeshua is calling “fear” isn’t necessarily that all-to-familiar emotional unsettled reaction. It’s far deeper than that. It’s a way of looking at the circumstances of life that may or may not be accompanied by such feelings. It’s a distraction from whatever is really true at a given time. With or without feeling afraid, fear may be a way to describe when we look at life through an obscure lens of untruth.

To illustrate, picture this common movie scene. A person slips off the cliff’s edge. At the last minute, their companion grabs their arm as they dangle over a thousand-foot drop. Their companion says: “Don’t look down. Look at me!” At that point, the person has a choice. They could look down and focus on the danger or they can look upon the one who can save them. Looking down fuels hopelessness; looking up provides hope (assuming their companion has the power to save them, of course). But the companion’s ability means nothing if the person isn’t willing to trust them.

Jairus was thrown into a situation where the evidence suggested all was lost. Giving oneself to despair is the essence of fear, whatever our emotional state may be. Hope was restored when Jarius took his eyes off the problem and onto the Messiah. He who was appointed by God to one day provide “quiet and ease” for the nation was standing there with him that day.

Until then, we will face all kinds of challenges, but the Messiah will come through eventually as he promised. Until then, do not fear, only believe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Mistaken Covenants

For the week of January 13, 2024 / 3 Shevat 5784

Message info over embarrased male against the Hebrew Ten Commandments as the background

Va-era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21

Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. (Shemot/Exodus 6:5)

I am currently immersed in the subject of “supersessionism,” also called “replacement theology” or “fulfilment theology.” Supersessionism is the historic theological belief system that the Israel of the Old Testament has been superseded by the Church of the New Testament. This viewpoint emerged likely as early as the first century and has been the dominant Christian viewpoint until today. Supersessionism views the Church as the New or True Israel, most often appropriating various Old Testament characters and principles when deemed suitable for its purposes.

In the past few centuries there have been some alternate viewpoints that find some room somewhere for an ongoing understanding of Israel, including or excluding the Land of Israel. But it’s only since the Holocaust that theologians have more widely attempted to seriously rethink this default position. It’s tragic that it took six million Jews to be exterminated by the Nazis in the heart of Christian Europe to prompt a rethink. It’s doubly tragic that it took circumstances to drive theologians back to the Bible. And even more tragic that so many Christians continue to view the Bible through a supersessionist lens. Forgive me if it’s my idealism that leads me to think that Paul’s letter to the Romans alone should be a sufficient antidote to supersessionism. One needs to do some interesting theological gymnastics to explain away, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29). Whatever antagonistic role some were playing, God’s perspective on the Jewish people as a whole is clear: they are “beloved,” and that which God bestowed upon them through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is irrevocable.

This is a huge subject, but for now, I would like to demonstrate how this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) helps clarify a confusion that often leads to supersessionism. In these early chapters of the second book of the Torah, we find Israel suffering as slaves in Egypt. God responds to their cries, by saying, “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant” (Shemot/Exodus 6:5). But what covenant? Many Christians assume it’s the “Old Covenant.” The problem is that what the New Testament would later call the Old Covenant had not yet been established. The covenant referenced here is the one God gave to Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob centuries earlier. God had changed Jacob’s name to Israel, the name by which the nation would be called. This covenant unconditionally committed God to Israel’s peoplehood, land, and role in God’s purposes.

Israel’s time in Egypt was part of God’s plan. The land of Canaan would one day be theirs, but their transition from being a migrant clan to a two-million strong nation was to happen in the pressure cooker of a foreign land. I wonder how often, especially when their originally favored status collapsed into servitude, that the people thought the covenant of peoplehood and land was nothing but a legend—fantasy might be the better word. But God had not forgotten. At the right time, he delivered them on the basis of that covenant.

The covenant with their forefathers would not be the only covenant God would make with the people of Israel, however. God’s rescuing them led to the establishment of a second covenant through Moses at Mt. Sinai. This second covenant was conditional upon Israel’s adherence.

As it turned out, the people of Israel failed to uphold their covenant obligations, resulting in serious negative consequences. Yet, the effects of the broken Sinai covenant were not to have the final word in Israel’s history. The original unconditional covenant set up, what I like to term, a “dilemma, for God. God worked out a way to punish Israel for disobedience under Sinai without undermining the unconditionality of the earlier covenant. This is why throughout the Scriptures there’s a tension between God’s determination to chastise Israel and his commitment to never fully reject them.

It is this dilemma that results in the New Covenant as promised through the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34) and established by the Messiah (see Luke 22:20). Where people tend to get confused is over what is the old thing of which the New Covenant is the new thing. By calling the Hebrew Scriptures the Old Testament, “testament” being another word for covenant, people understandably get the impression that the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole should be viewed as past its expiry date, so to speak. The only book of the Bible that explicitly addresses this matter is the Book of Hebrews. However, Hebrews is asserting the obsolescence, not of God’s covenantal relationship with the people of Israel, but the Sinai covenant as a system administered by the Levitical priesthood and centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. The relationship of the ongoing nature of much of the contents of the Sinai covenant to the obsolescence of the Levitical system is a topic for another time.

Failure to differentiate these two covenants contributed to the view that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 along with the later exile of the great majority of the Jewish people as God’s complete rejection of his covenantal relationship with Israel.

But thankfully, the God of Israel is a God of his word. In fact, the reason why anyone can trust him today is due to his ongoing covenantal faithfulness to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Disregarding Israel

For the week of January 6, 2024 / 25 Tevet 5784

Message info over a women not wanting to look at a Star of David against a background of Hebrew Scripture

Shemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13, 29:22-23

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. (Shemot/Exodus 1:8)

Fourteen years ago, I posted, “The Foundation of Anti-Semitism” (reposted about five years ago). I don’t think that either of those times there was anything specific going on that provoked me to post them apart from the important lesson found in the passage. It was really something to read it again against the backdrop of the war in Israel and the current rise in antisemitism worldwide. What I wrote then still applies to the current situation, but there is a particularly crucial, but too often neglected, element that I would like us to look at.

Since October 7, I have been working very hard to get a handle on the complex relationship between Israel and the Church. Perhaps you have seen or heard my presentation on Israel and the Faithfulness of God, where I map out God’s unconditional promises to the people of Israel, or my message, Our Divine Connections, that explores Paul’s illustration of the olive tree in order to grasp how non-Jewish Yeshua followers (aka Christians) are far more intimately connected to the people of Israel than what many people think. In order to fully get a handle on a biblical view of Israel and its relationship to the Church, the scourge of Christian antisemitism must be effectively confronted.   

Most sincere Yeshua followers are not aware of how entrenched antisemitism, Jew-hatred in other words, is integrated into the Christian psyche. In my Israel presentation mentioned above, I spent some time looking at a few familiar New Testament passages that are often taken to suggest that Gentile believers in Jesus are the “true Jews” or the “new Israel.” This is part of the dominant Christian viewpoint known as supersessionism or replacement theology. Many people who see the Church as God’s Israel today aren’t aware of how Jew hatred fueled the development of this viewpoint.

When looking at church history, it is disturbing to see how early non-Jewish Christian arrogance became standard fare in the church. This is despite Paul’s warning against this very thing (see Romans 11:17-24). I am guessing that Paul warned against it because he saw its early warning signs. I cannot say that I have a full understanding as to why Christians have had it out so badly for the Jewish people all these years, but our parsha clues us into a key dynamic at its core.

We read, “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Shemot/Exodus 1:8). For the new king to “not know Joseph,” means that he didn’t have regard for the great role that Joseph had in Egypt’s past. Either he didn’t know about it, or he didn’t care. Some have suggested that this king was the first of a new dynasty in Egypt. As a result, he may have naturally lacked awareness. On the other hand, I imagine he would want to know why there was such a large community of non-Egyptians in his domain. There likely would have been people around, the Israelites themselves no less, who could have provided the history. So, he may have known the background, but still, he didn’t care. So what that Joseph made a big difference long before and that the king back then had special regard for his people as a result. That was then; this is now. Tragically, Pharoah had no idea of what was going to happen by disassociating himself and his people from Joseph’s legacy.

The Church has fallen victim to the same error. God did something in a previous time in and through a particular people to create the current scenario. So what? That was then; this is now. The situation changed. By the mid second century, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and only a small number of Jewish people were left in the land of Israel, which was renamed “Syria Palaestina” by the Romans. They did this in an attempt to eradicate any semblance of Jewish identity and attachment to the land. It’s difficult to know how many Jewish Yeshua followers remained in the world by this time. According to Acts 21:20, in the mid-first century, there had been a great number of Jewish believers (tens of thousands, perhaps), but it would not be too long before Jewish Yeshua followers as a distinct community would be no more. The Church, which was intended to be a diverse gathering of Jews and Gentiles, would not only lose its Jewish component but become anti-Jewish. And why? Leaders arose who did not know Israel.

Just as Pharoah had no regard for Joseph, the Church had no regard for Israel,. The Church villainized the Jewish people instead of honoring them for their God-given role in God’s plans and purposes. I wonder how much evil and destruction could have been avoided had the Church remembered Israel as it should have. While we can’t go back in time and fix what went wrong, we can learn from past sins. My heart breaks as I examine how greatly misguided the Church has been in its relationship to the Jewish people. But then, I can hardly contain my excitement when I consider the great blessings that will rain down from heaven when Christians finally realize the errors of the past and begin to regard Israel as God does.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Breaking Tradition

For the week of December 30, 2023 / 18 Tevet 5784

Message information

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

When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim:, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. (Bereshit/Genesis 48:17)

As another year draws to a close, I wonder if we will learn anything from the past few years. I don’t know about you, but my heart and mind are exploding from grappling with what’s been going on in the world. The COVID years were hard on everyone. For some, those were lost years that will never be recovered. Others discovered that their family and other relationship bonds weren’t as strong as they thought. Trust in authority was either solidified or broken. COVID was an eye opener for me as it was like a penetrating beam into the depths of my fear as well as a call to learn how to dig for truth and to resolve to live accordingly.

The Hamas attack on Israel of October 7 was another game changer. The world looks different to me as the contours of Scripture are more vivid than ever. I have always been grateful for how Scripture continually challenges my assumptions and draws me ever closer to God and his ways. But now, it seems so much more is at stake.

I was recently teaching about Jacob and Esau. An element of the dynamics between these rival twins reoccurs in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). After Jacob and his clan settle in Egypt, Joseph is now functioning as the primary son. Not much is said about this, except for all the drama that led to Joseph’s prominence. Joseph brings his own two sons to be blessed by their grandfather. Contrary to custom, Jacob crosses his arms and blesses the younger ahead of the older, which displeased Joseph. That Joseph didn’t more quickly go along with the firstborn switcheroo is almost humorous, given his unusual place in the family, not to mention all that happened with his father’s relationship to his older brother, Esau.

In ancient times, the firstborn had a priveledged position that went along with extra responsibilities within the family system. That was the background of Jacob’s striving and scheming vis a vis Esau and underscores Joseph’s reaction here. By custom, Esau was to receive the double portion of his father Isaac’s inheritance. The same was due to Manasseh, Joseph’s older son. But that wasn’t to be since Jacob gave the firstborn blessing to Ephriam instead.

It was while I was teaching on Jacob and Esau that it hit me. Who says that the firstborn was to get a double portion of the inheritance? There is a later directive in D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:15-17 that may be in response to what happened to Jacob and Esau, but that has more to do with the complexities of children born within a polygamous situation than to the actual custom of the firstborn.

When God determined that Jacob would have precedence over Esau, he was breaking custom, not his own rules. Joseph’s role among his brothers was also God assigned despite Reuben being the firstborn. It might be that Reuben lost his role as firstborn due to his own misguided behavior. But as for Jacob’s putting Ephraim ahead of Manasseh, there was no God-ordained reason to do prevent that. Only custom.

And yet, we humans are so committed to custom. We do what we do because other people do it. The longer they have done it, the more authoritative the custom. And while we live in a day when a great many customs have fallen by the wayside, it’s only because a significant number of people have created new customs. We do what we do because other people do it. Not because it’s right, but because we perceive it’s simply what’s done.

In the Jewish and Christian worlds, custom, or “tradition,” is a great controlling factor. But should it be? It seems to me that those who regard Scripture as their supreme authority are far more controlled by custom than they think. How many times have we reacted to a metaphorical crossing of the arms, like what Jacob did, thinking we were defending God’s Word when it was only custom that was at stake.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not opposed to custom until it takes the place of Bible. But I wonder how often our assumptions are ill informed, not realizing that we do what we do for no other reason than we do it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Roots of Relational Difficulties

For the week of December 23, 2023 / 11 Tevet 5784

Message info over a photo of a father and son with their backs to each otherVayigash
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 44:18 – 47:27
Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28
Originally posted the week of January 3, 2009 / 7 Tevet 5769

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Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father. (Bereshit/Genesis 44:33-34)

The story of Joseph is one of the longer and more involved narratives in the Bible. It is a wonderful story of God’s providential hand at work in the midst of human jealousy and hatred. Every time I read it, one of the things I wonder about is what was Joseph really up to in how he dealt with his brothers during their two excursions to Egypt to buy food?

I don’t think that he was just giving them a hard time in order to get back at them for what they had done to him. If that was his motive, he could have done so much more to hurt them and would not have been so generous to them. Yet he did seem to be up to something or else he would have revealed himself to them on their first visit instead of putting them through all he did. It is reasonable to assume that he could have been struggling with his own feelings, but it looks as if he was waiting for something particular to happen before he revealed himself to them. That something may be the very thing that did happen.

Some background: Joseph and his eleven brothers were the offspring of Jacob and four women: Jacob’s wives Rachel and Leah and their respective servants Bilhah and Zilpah. Joseph and Benjamin were Rachel’s two sons and had a special place in Jacob’s heart. We don’t need to get into why that was right now. Suffice it to say that Joseph and Benjamin were uniquely precious to Jacob—something of which the whole family was well aware.

Joseph’s brothers hated him because of their father’s preferential treatment of him. Joseph’s dreams which predicted his special position over his family further infuriated them. They hated Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery and deceived their father, telling him Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Their father was devastated by this news, which shouldn’t have been a surprise given his well-known feelings toward Joseph. But note that the brothers couldn’t care less about their father’s feelings. So much had their hatred blinded them.

We pick up the story many years later as Joseph is overseeing Egypt’s supplying food for the surrounding region during a severe and extended famine. His brothers are on their second excursion to Egypt in the hope of buying food. Joseph pretends to treat them with great suspicion, which results in Benjamin being taken to be Joseph’s servant. When their brother Judah offers himself in Benjamin’s place, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. But what was it about Judah’s offer that touched Joseph’s heart? It could have been Judah’s willingness to selflessly give himself for Benjamin’s sake, but his words indicate something else. What Judah said just before Joseph broke down was, “For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father.” (Bereshit / Genesis 44:34; ESV). In other words, Judah couldn’t bear what the news of Benjamin’s plight would do to his father. Could it be what Joseph was looking for from his brothers was a change of heart—not so much toward himself—but toward their father? Could it be that the wrongs done to Joseph were actually a result of the more serious wrong of their lack of honor toward and care of their father?

Whatever issues the brothers had with Joseph, if they had loved their father the way they should, they would have controlled their feelings toward Joseph. Don’t get hung up on the fact that God used their evil actions toward Joseph for good. That God makes good come out of evil is no excuse for human misbehavior.

I don’t know if the brothers ever consciously understood that the abuse of Joseph was rooted in their disregard for their father. In the same way I wonder how much of our relational difficulties actually have to do with issues relating to our own fathers, but we don’t know it. God may want to use those difficulties to get us to deal with our relationships with our fathers. And in some cases getting our hearts right with our earthly fathers will also make a huge difference in our relationship to God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard VersionFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail