The House of God

For the week of December 3, 2022 / 9 Kislev 5783

Message info over an ethereal staircase in the sky

Vayetzei
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

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What’s Going on in There?

For the week of November 26, 2022 / 2 Kislev 5783

Message info along with the silhouette of a pregnant woman

Toledot
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1-2:7

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And Isaac prayed to the LORD for his wife, because she was barren. And the LORD granted his prayer, and Rebekah his wife conceived. The children struggled together within her, and she said, “If it is thus, why is this happening to me?” 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 25:21-23)

Human life is a journey of discovery. From the beginnings of consciousness inside our mothers, we embark on a process of realization. As we encounter early sensations of feeling and the strangeness of muffled sounds, we eventually emerge from protective darkness into the brilliance of an illuminated environment. We quickly develop mentally and physically as we interpret our surroundings and try to make sense of a strange new world.

The wonders of being alive continue. Tragically for many, this process, overwhelming at times to be sure, ends far too soon. Not only at death, but for reasons deep in the psychology of self, midway through life as well. The ever-changing complexities of life and the sheer apparent infiniteness of potential experiences is far too difficult for some to absorb. They thus prefer the illusion of predictability and the false comfort that stems from closing oneself off from the meaning that arises from the unexpected.

I don’t know how much Isaac and Rebekah grasped of the great epic story they were part of. Isaac’s father Abraham surely told his son of his unusual encounters with the unseen God. Isaac, the miracle baby, endured the trauma of his father’s willingness to offer him as a sacrifice. He survived because God apparently changed his mind. He later married Rebekah due to a set of sweet providential circumstances. At least that’s how Abraham’s servant, tasked with finding his master a wife for his son, recounted the events.

Whatever was going on, it was essential for Rebekah to have children. For God’s promise to her father-in-law to come to pass, children were necessary, but it wasn’t happening—a plight I have been told happens to about twenty-five percent of all couples. While not possessing the modern techniques of our day, I am sure their culture offered a myriad of solutions for such a condition. We don’t know if they considered any of these. What we do know is that Isaac prayed to the God of his father. Not only that, but his prayer was answered. What a relief! And yet, Rebekah knew something was wrong. So, she, like her husband, prayed. From the language of the text, her request wasn’t so much about fixing her predicament, but a desire to know what was going on.

What was going on was a conflict on an international scale. Two nations were struggling within her womb. I don’t know what an ultrasound would have revealed besides two babies each within their own placenta, given they were fraternal twins. While science has opened to us a vast sphere of wonders, it cannot give access to meaning, purpose, and destiny; only God can. Rebekah’s openness to God by inquiring of him allowed her (and us) to discover the grand purposes of God hidden within her womb.

The lack of this type of inquiry among people today has narrowed the universe into a closed box of meaninglessness. Committing to view life exclusively through a materialistic lens of personal ambition and comfort has cut us off from the grand story that we are all a part of. How many people are carrying embryonic wonders (actual and metaphorical) of which they have no clue, because they refuse to inquire of the Master of the Universe as to what is going on within them.

In our day, the discomfort Rebekah experienced could be easily resolved by surgically terminating her babies. But whether or not such tools were at her disposal, she knew that what she was carrying in her body was ultimately not about her. Her ability to see beyond herself led to the insight that God gave her. Thankfully, her focus wasn’t on herself, but instead, she reached out to the only one who could provide the insight she desired.

What are we missing due to our self-focus and narrow materialistic view of life? There may be far more to the turmoil churning inside of us. What do you think would happen if we opened ourselves up to the God of Rebekah and received his insight into what is really going on in us?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When It’s Not You

For the week of November 19, 2022 / 25 Heshvan 5783

Message information over an image of a man blaming a woman, pointing at her

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/2 Kings 1:1-31
Originally posted the week of November 11, 2017 / 22 Heshvan 5778

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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.

Sometime 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

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God of Wonders

For the week of November 12, 2022 / 18 Heshvan 5783

Message info upon a splendid space background

Vayera
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah:2 Kings 4:1-37

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Is anything too hard for the LORD? (Bereshit/Genesis 18:14)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) includes God’s visit to Abraham and Sarah to announce her giving birth to a son in a year’s time. Sarah reacted by laughing in disbelief. This is understandable due to her awareness of being well past child-bearing age (see Bereshit/Genesis 18:11). Understandable or not, God questioned the validity of Sarah’s response on the basis of the rhetorical question (in the words of our translation), “Is anything too hard for the LORD? (Bereshit/Genesis 18:14).

The reference to “too hard” is derived from the Hebrew word pala. The vast majority of popular English translations represent this as “too hard” or “impossible.” But that fails to capture the extent of the contrast between God’s ability and Sarah’s assumption. The word pala is the word for “wonder” as in the wonders God performed in Egypt on behalf of the Israelites. It is also one of the designations of the coming king in Isaiah 9:6 (“And his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor”). In contexts where miraculous signs are not necessarily involved, it appears to be stressing the extraordinary nature of God and his works. Pala reflects that God’s works function beyond the limits of our understanding.

Translating “pala” as “too hard” or “impossible” misses the point. There is something more to this than simply God’s ability to do the extremely difficult. His ability is on a scale, not only more than, but very different from our own. He is not just bigger and stronger than everything, he functions within a realm outside of anything we can possibly conceive of.

Is this not Paul’s assertion when he writes, “Now to him who by his power working in us is able to do far beyond anything we can ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20; CJB). Think about that! Not just your imagination, but imagination in general. We might claim we believe that God’s ability is limitless, while at the same time, limiting him in our minds regardless. We do this by not truly accepting that his ability is beyond our understanding. That’s why Paul includes asking along with imagination. God’s wonders are beyond our ability to articulate them.

Often, when the subject of God’s infinite power comes up, many people want to know why he allows bad things to exist at all. While a lot of us wouldn’t admit this, this kind of question tend to carry an underlying suspicion towards God. Either God isn’t all powerful or he isn’t truly good. More personally, perhaps he cares more about others than me. I think it’s important to grapple with such questions. The answers, as far as I understand Scripture, are found in grasping the essence of God’s plans and purposes in the world. Human beings have been created to steward the planet under God’s rule. We are to do so as mature, responsible children of God the King. We are so crucial to God’s creation project that our actions matter. Our submission to God through faith and obedience produces blessing. Doing our own thing in our own way leads to destruction. God’s wielding his power to forcibly prevent human misuse of our divinely derived responsibility might sound appealing but that would be to create a completely different type of existence. We have no idea what such a world would be like. We are better off learning to navigate the world the way it actually is.

So, instead of wondering why God doesn’t perform according to our preferences, what would happen if we spent more time contemplating that he really is a God of wonders? What would happen if we trusted that the realm of his activities is truly beyond anything that we can imagine? Perhaps we would be so overwhelmed that we’d be dumbstruck. After all, his ability at work in us is beyond anything that we can put into words. But hold on. His wonder-working power is something that is active both in us personally and communally. If we let that sink in, how might we view our challenges, our problems, and our disappointments, not to mention how we might approach opportunities and dreams?

We don’t realize how we restrict God’s unlimited power in our lives by limiting what we believe he is able to do. By limiting him to the realm of our perceived possibilities we fail to keep in step with him. But once we reckon that he is a God of wonders, we can begin to live the wonder-filled lives he is calling us to.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

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God’s Promise Plan

For the week of November 5, 2022 / 11 Heshvan 5783

Message info over Hebrew biblical text

Lech Lecha
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 remember where I was when the importance of this passage first hit me. It was the summer of 1980. I had been a believer for almost four years and was in the first few months of marriage. My wife and I were with some friends of ours, attending a special lecture by renowned Old Testament scholar Walter C. Kaiser Jr. in Toronto. Kaiser was emphasizing God’s promise-plan as the central theme of Scripture, a teaching that has been core to his life’s work. Through the years I have come to be leery about supposed interpretive keys as if there are elements of God’s written Word upon which everything else hangs. We need to be careful not to allow our deductions from Scripture, however legitimate they may be, to become the lens through which we view the whole Bible. Since the Bible is God’s only authoritative, inspired written revelation of himself and life, we must always compare our personal conclusions with the Bible itself.

This is easier said than done. The Bible is surprisingly cohesive for a collection of such a wide variety of writings by a great many authors over a long period of time. The vast number of recurring themes and common concerns along with innumerable allusions to past events, plus the foreshadowing and prediction of future events (many of those fulfilled within its own pages), begs for it to be reduced to neatly defined categories. Yet, the Bible itself isn’t written that way. A categorical approach can easily obscure the depth and detail of Scripture, including the nuance and ambiguity that is not only part of its charm, but often provides the gateway to its depth of meaning.

With that caution in mind, it is hard to deny that God’s promise of restoration isn’t a driving force throughout Scripture, beginning in the Garden, when God pronounces eventual doom upon the serpent (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). I remember Dr. Kaiser saying in 1980 that Genesis 12 was the true beginning of the biblical story, while the first eleven chapters of Genesis functioned as an introduction. Whether this was God’s intent or not, we cannot say for sure, but I understand what Kaiser was saying. Genesis chapters one through eleven set the stage for the outworking of God’s plans and purposes. Human beings having been created by God as stewards of the creation under his rule, rebelled against his word, resulting in the curse – the broken state of affairs we all have been born into ever since. From the time of their rebellion, God determined to restore all things, while life on Planet Earth went from bad to worse. The flood demonstrates God’s determined commitment to his creation project, while Babel reflects the ongoing depraved state of humankind.

Against this backdrop, God calls Avram (English: Abram), whose name was later changed to Avraham (English: Abraham) a childless, elderly man, to leave family and the familiar to journey to an unknown environment. If he would do so, through his descendants, God’s blessing would come to the whole world, thus alleviating the curse. This is the story of the Bible.

The Bible’s story is the development of Avraham’s descendants, the people of Israel. It is how God worked in and through them to bless the whole world. It was to them that God revealed himself and his ways, while demonstrating humanity’s inability to resolve our broken, cursed state on our own. It would take God himself in the person of the greatest Jewish king, the Messiah, to defeat evil in all its forms, reconciling people to himself.

I believe it was from Kaiser that summer day in 1980 that I first heard the connection between the call of Avram and Paul’s words, “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the nations will be blessed in you’” (Galatians 3:8; NASB). By calling God’s promise to Avram, the gospel, the good news, we are to understand that the proclamation of Messiah’s rule over the earth is the vehicle by which blessing comes to the nations. It’s when we trust in the Messiah Yeshua that the power of the curse is removed from our lives and equips us to be instruments of blessing in the footsteps of Avram.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

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Technology

For the week of October 29, 2022 / 4 Heshvan 5783

Message info over a man interacting with technological symbols

Noach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:3-4)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading) features technology gone bad. The story of the Tower of Babel takes place between Noah’s Ark and the call of Abram (whose name was later changed to Abraham). A superficial reading may give the impression that God is against technological advancement. He didn’t like that they had undertaken such a project. Actually, that might be true, but not because of their technological prowess.

That human beings would engage in technological development is assumed in Scripture. From the very beginning of our existence, we read of God’s directing the first man and woman: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:28). Humans were given the responsibility to “subdue” the earth. The Hebrew for subdue is kavash’ and has to do with making something or someone do what you want. In the context of the creation mandate, human beings were to make the earth be what God wanted it to be through them. We were not to simply make sure everything just stayed the way it was first made.

Some misunderstand the Garden of Eden as perfection in the sense that it could in no way be improved upon. People could mess it up, but not make it better. But this misunderstands God’s intention for both the planet and human responsibility. One might think that people were to just laze around eating fruit from the garden’s trees and drinking water from the rivers and that’s it. I can’t say for sure what it would have been like if the rebellion against God wouldn’t have happened so soon, but the directive to subdue the earth certainly called for interacting with and developing the creation. Under this directive, it would not be long before tools would be invented, and all sorts of discoveries made. These early forms of technology would be the baby steps eventually leading to space stations and smart phones.

So, what was so wrong about the Babel building project? I remember as a child in first or second grade, when my public school in Montreal was still allowed to read Bible stories, being told the reason why the people were making this high tower. I don’t know if it was in the story itself, if the teacher mentioned it, or if was a comment from a student. However it came to me, I had the impression that the tower was to enable people to survive in the event of another flood. I eventually learned that the biblical text gives no such impression. Instead, the purpose of the tower and the city was for theexpressed purpose of the people’s making a name for themselves to prevent them from being dispersed throughout the earth. They believed that their building project would provide them with identity and security, thus enabling them to remain together in that one location.

God was not happy about this plan. Again, it might appear that he was concerned about their technological prowess in and of itself. We read, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:6). The “nothing that they propose…will be impossible” implies God’s concern that if left unchecked humans will devise highly destructive inventions. But it wasn’t the technology itself he was concerned about, since he already not only tolerated but instigated technological advancement. Apart from the tools already developed, it was God who supplied the design of an extraordinary boat-like structure which preserved his creation project.

The problem with the development of the tower and city was not the technology itself but the people’s motive. God had commanded human beings to fill the earth, but they wanted to stay together in one place. They believed their technology could accomplish that. This stemmed from their believing that their identity and security could be derived from themselves and their self-driven plans.

While technology in itself is neither good nor bad, when it is used for self and security contrary to God’s will, it is highly destructive. What happened at Babel demonstrated that human nature was bent towards itself and away from God. In God’s wisdom, he confused their language to put a wrench in the works, so to speak. The resultant communication barrier greatly slowed down technological innovation and its inevitable destruction.

Let me reiterate that the problem isn’t the technology itself, but how it is used. When used as a tool in the service of God under his direction and for his purposes, much blessing may result. However, when used for self, disconnected from our Lord and King, there’s no limit to the damage it can do.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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We Are Adam

For the week of October 22, 2022 / 27 Tishri 5783

Message info over a large crowd from above

Bereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. (Bereshit/Genesis 5:1-2)

The early chapters of Torah establish foundational concepts of God and life, including anthropology: What does it mean to be human? What is our origin? What is our essence? What is our purpose? The language used in the two verses I just quoted reflect the profound nature of our being created in God’s image as male and female. Tragically, in my opinion, many English translations, in their attempt to represent what they believe to be the intent of the Hebrew, distract from an extraordinary interplay found in the original wording.

An essential dynamic in any language is the relationship between form and meaning. While language is used to convey meaning, it does so through its forms. Every language uses series of sounds (or symbols when written) as the forms to express meaning. The forms of various languages used to convey the same or similar meaning of something are often very different from each other. The most obvious difference between languages are the words themselves. For example, in French, the word for “dog” is “chien.” Same meaning, different form. But word difference is just the beginning. The French for “the brown dog” is “le chien brun.” Not only are each of the three words different, so is the word order. It is common in French to put adjectives (words that describe nouns) after the noun instead of before as in English. French, also unlike English, has three words, le, la, or les, for the definite article, “the,” depending on the gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural) of the word it is relating to. That’s nothing compared to Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, where the form of the definite article is dependent on three possible genders (masculine, feminine, or neuter), number (singular or plural), and something called case, which has to do with what we call in English, subject, object, etc. There are four cases in Koine Greek. The only reason there are only sixteen and not twenty-four different words for “the,” is because some of them are repeated.

A serious challenge occurs in translation when form may affect meaning. In the example of “the brown dog” vs. “le chien brun,” meaning is not affected in any way by the difference of form. But sometimes translators can be too quick to dismiss form. Both biblical Hebrew and Greek in contrast to English at times emphasize words or phrases by placing them at the beginning of a sentence. Preserving this form in English can often sound strange, and so translators will often opt to use conventional English word order and fail to carry over intentional emphasis. In Jonah 1:9, Jonah says to the men of the overwhelmed ship, “A Hebrew I am, and the LORD God of heaven I fear, who made the sea and dry land.” Most English translations understandably prefer something along the lines of the English Standard Version’s: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This is much better English but misses the emphasis in expressing the relationship between God and Jonah’s identity in this story.

Ignoring form also plays a part in the two verses I quoted at the beginning. The Hebrew word adam’, appears three times. The word can be used to mean the personal name “Adam,” the singular word for man as opposed to woman, or human beings as a category of creature.

In our verses, it is fairly clear that as far as meaning goes, adam’ is being used in the first and third ways. Verse one is setting up the story of the descendants who arose from the individual person Adam. This is similar to introductions of other individuals in Genesis such as Noah, Terah, and Isaac. Then it goes on to say, “When God created adam’, he made him in the likeness of God.” Is this a reference to Adam the individual or the creation of human beings in general? But note how it continues: “Male and female he created them.” This suggests that adam’ here is a reference to human beings in general.

Interestingly the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures reads this way: “This is the book of the origin of human beings. On the day that God made Adam, he made him according to divine image; male and female he made them, and he blessed them. And he named their name “Adam” on the day that he made them” (A New English Translation of the Septuagint). Here the Greek word for the more generic “human beings” is used in the first occurrence, while a Greek version of the proper name “Adam” is used for the other two.

Because Hebrew uses adam’ for the first human being’s proper name as well as males and human beings in general, it is difficult to determine which usage is intended in each occurrence. One might think that this is a weakness of biblical Hebrew but given that it is the language that God chose to reveal the basics of mankind (now often called “humankind”), perhaps the ambiguity is not to be easily dismissed.

What might seem confusing to us may actually draw our attention to the special place the first human has in history. The individual person, “Adam,” was given a unique representative role as the first human being. We all, male and female included, find our origins in him. It is in Adam, we discover our fundamental identity as beings made in God’s image, our primary calling as caretakers of Planet Earth, and the roots of our brokenness through his rebellion against God. It is also here that we can discover the answer to our ever-increasingly polarized world. For, it is in Adam that we discover we are all in this together. We are Adam.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.

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God of Marvels


For the week of October 15, 2022 / 20 Tishri 5783

Message info over the inside of a sukkah

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:26-34
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.” (Shemot/Exodus 34:10)

The festival of Sukkot (English: Booths or Tabernacles) begins this year the evening of October 9 and lasts eight days. The readings this week are special for the festival. Outside the Land of Israel, due to ancient issues with the calendar, it continues for one more day[1]. Sukkot is a harvest thanksgiving festival that includes two special features. First, the people were directed to “take…the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and…rejoice before the Lord” (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40). Traditionally these four things are willow, palm, and myrtle branches, plus a lemon-like fruit called an etrog (English: citron). Second, the people were to build temporary dwellings called sukkot (one sukkah, many sukkot). They were to live in these sukkot for seven days. This was to remind the people that their ancestors lived in similar accommodations the years they were in the wilderness (see Vayikra/Leviticus 23:43).

It is interesting how this festival of rejoicing is to occur while living in sukkot. Calling the people to leave their permanent homes for a week to connect with the years of wilderness wanderings is powerful. Think of how effective it is for parents to tell their children stories of God’s miraculous provision and protection while sitting in a flimsy hut far more exposed to the elements than their normal residences. But more than simply providing a tangible backdrop, the environment places the people into a state of vulnerability, so that they could better relate to the vulnerability of their ancestors.

Within the context of getting in touch with their forebears’ state of vulnerability the people would more than just remember that God took care of them, but also how he did. As we read in this week’s Torah reading, God protected and provided them by doing “marvels.” The Hebrew word for marvels is “pala’,” which is often translated as “miracles.” The word carries the sense of “special” or “out of the ordinary.” God had promised Israel he would do extraordinary things, marvels, never experienced before to cause others to realize how awesome he really is.

God does more than take care of his people. He does so in marvelous ways. For Israel in the wilderness, it was through a physical manifestation of his presence in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, which both guided them and protected them from the elements. He also gave them manna for their daily bread, which miraculously appeared on the ground every day except the Sabbath (he doubled the amount the day before). He sent quail to give them meat, he cleansed undrinkable water on one occasion, and caused water to emerge from rocks twice.

Note, however, that we can list God’s marvels yet not be impacted. Somehow we can tell these and other marvelous Bible stories and they remain just that – stories. Stories that happened to a people in such a different time and place, they may as well be fairy tales. This is why he sent Israel back outside into a wilderness-like environment. Perhaps there, in a place of vulnerability, we can feel the need for him in a way our more secure permanent houses don’t allow us to. For it’s in the place of vulnerability that we realize how much we need God.

The extraordinary nature of God’s marvels is most often due to the state of our vulnerability. The greater the need, the greater the marvelous nature of his provision. The more vulnerable we are, the more extraordinary is his power in and through our lives. But if we don’t allow ourselves to be in places of vulnerability, we might have a general sense of God’s presence and goodness but fail to experience his marvels. I wonder what we may be missing.


[1]  The duration of the festival is a bit complicated. It would be more accurate to say that Sukkot lasts seven days plus one. The people were to celebrate with the specified growing things and live in the sukkah for seven days. The first day was to be treated as a sabbath (the first two days are sabbaths outside Israel). God also directed that an additional eighth day, known as “Shemini Atzeret” (Eighth Day of Assembly) was also to be observed. Traditionally, a special ceremony to mark the restarting of the annual Torah reading cycle, known as “Simchat Torah” (Rejoicing over the Torah), is observed during Shemini Atzeret (in the diaspora, it is observed on the extra ninth day).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Sovereignty

For the week of October 8, 2022 / 13 Tishri 5783

Message info over a starry background

Ha-azinu
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Shmuel/2 Samuel 22:1-51
Revised version, originally posted the week of September 26, 2009 / 8 Tishri 5770

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See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:39)

I struggle sometimes with the concept of God’s sovereignty—if God is in control of life as the Torah teaches, how in control is he? I am not looking for philosophical conclusions as much as biblical ones, since I accept that the Scriptures are God’s accurate revelation of himself and of life. From my study of the Scriptures throughout the years, I have discovered that God reveals his many-faceted truth without necessarily providing how its complexities work together. God is in no way obliged to satisfy our intellects. Rather, through the Scriptures, he has graciously provided us with everything we need in order to live life the way he intended. This includes the command to seek him as to how we are to apply his Word to our lives. This is why we need to work hard at understanding what the Scriptures say and grow in the wisdom of how to live lives firmly based on its teaching.

Therefore, struggling over what the Scriptures teach about God’s sovereignty and what it means for our lives is not a waste of time. Far from it! It is easy to claim to believe the Bible, but if we don’t take the time to grapple with what it is saying, it is doubtful whether we have really allowed its teaching access to our hearts and minds.

This year, this parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) is read the week of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). This is a time of introspection, of spiritual housecleaning so to speak. From time to time, it’s a good idea to purposely examine ourselves to make sure that we are truly in the faith and that we are right with God and with others. As we do, we then need to make whatever necessary adjustments are appropriate.

The issue of God’s sovereignty is most relevant to this period of introspection, for it deals with a concept we may call primary cause. If God is truly sovereign, then he is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Since we don’t normally deal directly with God but rather with others, both animate and inanimate, then if God is sovereign, it is his decisions that are ultimately behind everything that happens through these secondary causes. How God works through secondary causes is not something the Bible clarifies for us. Yet as we read in our verse, even though life doesn’t always seem to be in God’s control, it is. A great many questions arise from this, but whether or not there are answers to those questions, that God is sovereign is clear. To believe anything less is to reject God as he is revealed in the Scriptures. If how you comfort your heart and mind over this subject in any way diminishes this truth, you have diminished God himself. Taking the time to examine ourselves to make sure that we are right with God and others is a useless exercise if we don’t accept God for who he is. If God is not really the Master of the Universe, as is recited in countless traditional Hebrew blessings and prayers, then we will not know what adjustments to make or how to make them. Diminishing God’s rule over the universe to anything less than all-powerful exalts other forces to places of authority that God never assigned to them.

On the other hand, if we could accept God’s own statement as spoken through Moses that life, death, danger, and restoration are exclusively in his control, then our focus can be fixed firmly on God, the primary cause of everything that happens to us. Once we accept that God is ultimately in control of everything, then not only can we learn to relate to him as we ought, but how we relate to others will also begin to fall into place.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Forgiveness

For the week of October 1, 2022 / 6 Tishri 5783

Message info along with traditional Rosh Hashanah fruit and honey

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

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Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. (Micah 7:18-19)

We are currently in the High Holiday season, particularly what is called, “the Ten Days of Awe,” the time between Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish new year, the biblical Feast of the Blowing of the Shofar) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). The Haftarah readings this week are composed of excerpts from three Hebrew prophets and are in keeping with the themes of the season.

For some reason, I was struck by the concept of God’s forgiveness last week. It’s not as if I had done anything seriously wrong at the time. I was heavily burdened over wondering if something I had said or done was the right thing or not. I do struggle with perfectionist tendencies and an inordinate desire for other people’s approval. Some of you can relate, I am sure. “Should I have said that? What are they thinking? I am sure it was the right thing to do, but I probably could have done better. Perhaps if I had said it differently. But am I responsible for how other people react or perceive me?” Exhausting!

Then the thought came to me: I am forgiven. God forgives me. I am not saying that I shouldn’t take responsibility if I had done something truly wrong. Believe me, I am not saying that! It’s that I was impressed by how, objectively speaking, my life rests upon a foundation of forgiveness. Because of what God has done for me through the sacrifice of the Messiah, I am right with God. You might think that’s pretty easy to say especially for someone biblically and theologically savvy like myself. But in the moment, it’s as if I saw it – vividly saw it – for the first time.

The picture that came to me was that because I was right with God, I was fundamentally right with the universe. Sorry if that sounds too mystical but stay with me for a second. The term “sin,” is a biblical concept to describe the way human beings fail to meet God’s standards. It’s something we do (or don’t do) that is rooted in that part of our nature that’s been inherited from the beginning when our first parents, Adam and Eve, disobeyed God. The result of sin is God’s cursing of the human family and the entire creation in which we live. It’s as if everything is tainted or broken as a result of human rebellion against God.

When Messiah came and presented himself as a perfect sacrifice for sin, he repaired the brokenness effected by the curse. Since then, history has been in a process of renewal that will culminate upon his return, when he will judge all who have ever lived and will fully establish God’s reign forever. Trusting in the Messiah reconciles us with God and connects us to God’s restorative power. While we continue to interact with the world’s current broken state, it’s as if we do so within the context of the final restoration now.

Forgiveness releases the believer from the control and effects of sin. Sin no longer defines who we are or determines our destiny. The barriers between us and God have been removed. As a result, the resources of heaven, God’s goodness and power, are at our disposal. Our restored relationship with God changes our relationship to the entire creation. While the broken creation will continue to give us trouble, because of God’s forgiveness, it needn’t have the upper hand in my life. God isn’t holding my sin against me any longer. Instead, his love and presence are guaranteed no matter what happens.

The prophet Micah foretold that God would “cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). It is from this that the custom of “tashlikh” is derived. Usually preformed on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, people go to a flowing body of water and take food, usually bread, and cast them from their pockets into the water to symbolize God’s casting our sins into the depths of the sea. That wasn’t the picture I had in mind, last week, but it’s a good one. Because God himself has cast away our sins, we needn’t be burdened by them anymore.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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