For the week of November 28, 2015 / 16 Kislev 5776

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12

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Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:26-28)

Last week we talked about people like Jacob who intensely and incessantly strive to get their way even though their success is ensured because God is with them. While such lives produce so much good fruit, their basic insecurities due to their lack of trust in God tends to cause all sorts of unnecessary grief.

This was Jacob’s life until God got a hold of him, quite literally. Upon his return to the land of his birth, he heard that his twin brother Esau, along with four hundred men, were on their way to meet him. Jacob was pretty freaked out, for it was fear of his brother’s murderous threats that caused him to run away twenty years earlier. So true to his self-focused manipulative self, he devised a scheme in an attempt to placate Esau while also maximizing his personal security. While spending the night alone after placing his large family, entourage, and a river between himself and his dreaded brother, a mysterious individual who we eventually learn is God, begins to wrestle with him. How fitting for a person like Jacob who has been wrestling his whole life. From what we know about God from the rest of Scripture, this story makes no sense. Talk about unfair advantage! The God of the Bible is no humanly derived concept, whose characteristics are based on human traits, good or bad. He is the Creator God, the Master of the Universe, who knows no equal. And yet they wrestle all night. Eventually God, would you believe, requests that Jacob let him go, which he won’t do until God blesses him – O Jacob, you always need to get your way, don’t you? But God grants his demand, even while injuring his hip that leaves him with a limp. The result is a new humility in Jacob and a true personal relationship with the God of his fathers (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:20).

Perhaps the most astounding aspect of all this is what God said to Jacob in response to his demand of blessing: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28). Do you hear what God is saying? The blessing, summarized in his new name Israel, was due to his having striven and prevailed with people and God. Prevailed. Not just against people, but God. Not endured, which would be impressive, but prevailed. Not survived, which would be pretty good. But prevailed – as in he, a human being overcame God. God got through to Jacob, not by overcoming him, which he could have easily done by breaking him spiritually and physically – not in spite of his tenacity, but because of it.

One of my favorite spiritual illustrations in literature is the transformation of Eustace in C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader,” one of the books in the Narnia series. Eustace is a brat, who ends up in the fantasy world of Narnia with two of his cousins. His arrogant and selfish behavior result eventually into his becoming a dragon, a dreadful state, which works to create in him a newfound humility. When he encounters the Messiah character, the lion Aslan, he is told to scrape off his dragon skin, only to discover that every layer he removes reveals another set of scales underneath. Eventually Aslan says that he himself would have to deal with Eustace’s condition. He tells him to lie down as he digs his claw deep into his dragon’s skin, thus restoring Eustace to newborn-like innocence. Such a beautiful portrayal of personal transformation at the hand of God, doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves. “Let go, and let God” as some may say.

What a beautiful picture and perhaps one that many may relate to, but not Jacob. Not that he transformed himself, but he was anything but passive in the process. Far from letting go, he held on for dear life. It wasn’t that God was finally able to bless him once he let God have his way. On the contrary, God blessed him because he insisted on his way. Jacob was no passive wimp that simply let people and God run over him. Never a victim under the control of others or a doormat for people to walk on, he had a deep sense of the important things in life, both earthly and heavenly, and went after them with everything he had. What made the difference for Jacob was that, while misguided and insecure, he was aiming for the right things. Somehow he knew his mysterious visitor had something he most desperately needed and held on until it was his own.

I wonder how many blessings we have missed out on because we have given up too soon. We confuse humility with passivity, and tenacity with arrogance. We may fear making mistakes along the way as if God is looking for perfection instead of faith. What Eustace learned is still true: unless God transforms us we will remain dragon-like. But perhaps the key to personal transformation requires a lot more tenacity on our part than we might think.


Are You Jacob?

For the week of November 21, 2015 / 9 Kislev 5776


Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English: 12:12 – 14:9)

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Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:20-22)

From before he was born, Abraham’s grandson and Isaac’s son Jacob was a fighter, constantly contending with others, wheeling and dealing in order to get the upper hand. One day he would even wrestle with God and to some extent win, but that’ll have to wait until next week. He was a driven man, who knew (or at least thought he knew) what he wanted and strove to attain it at all costs. The ironic thing about Jacob is that God had already determined that he would receive many of the things he strove for, but that didn’t create a laid-back, passive, “whatever” approach to life. Instead he was willing to outsmart, trick, and deceive even his closest family members to get his way.

But why is that? Was he oblivious to God’s plan for his life? We know that his mother knew about his destiny, because God had told her (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22-23), It’s possible that she kept that to herself even though her role in Jacob’s deceiving his father for the blessing may have been fueled by this knowledge. But whether or not he knew of God’s promise from an early age, God himself made it clear to him in a dream as he was running away from his brother Esau (Bereshit/Genesis 28:10-17). Yet the awareness of God’s promises didn’t alter his approach to life. The bulk of this week’s Torah portion deals with his wrangling with his uncle Laban. God prospers Jacob nonetheless, but through it all, Jacob fights for everything he gets.

Do you know anyone like Jacob? Born to greatness – people who do well at whatever they put their hand to, but seem to think that their success is completely dependent on themselves? On one hand they are likeable and helpful. They are winners after all. Who wouldn’t want them on their team? They tend to make others look good. However, they are always fighting, struggling, vying to get their way. They seem to always be selling something, while they relate to others, even their friends, as opponents. They don’t think anyone really understands them and the world would be a better place if everyone would simply listen to them. Because of their great abilities, much good comes from their efforts, but they can sure be tiring to be around.

Why is that? Those who are of the normal cantankerous sort just cause trouble. It’s better to avoid those kinds of folks. But not the Jacobs. The blessing and favor of God is upon them. But it’s as if they don’t know it. And that is exactly what their problem is. They live with some sense of God’s call and presence in their lives, but at the same time, the reality of that has not fully taken over their hearts.

When God appeared to Jacob as he ran away from home, he didn’t completely deny that God spoke to him in his dream. That’s what the true atheist or agnostic might have done. But in Jacob’s case he acknowledged God’s existence and that he had actually spoken to him. Yet he couldn’t accept God’s promise to him. The way he strove after his father’s blessing, he must have had an understanding of its value, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t trust that God had already determined to give it to him and/or had the ability to do so. Therefore he lived as if his success was totally dependent upon himself.

His failure to grasp the reality of the situation didn’t change the fact that God’s promises to him were unconditional. Jacob may have thought he was such a good fighter, smarter and stronger than his perceived opponents, when all along it was God working in and through him and his circumstances to bring about his will in Jacob’s life.

His eventual wrestling match with God would change all that. But until that happened, think of all the wasted and misguided energy and action on his part, resulting in so much anxiety and unnecessary strife. It was Jacob against the world, when all along God was guiding him and prospering him. Of course, we will never know what it would have been like had Jacob trusted God from the beginning or at any other time before God finally had his way. It’s too late for him. But it’s not too late for the Jacobs of today. Why wait until you (if you are a Jacob) are at the end of your rope to get this message. If you are in covenant relationship with God through the Messiah, you can relax. Knowing God’s favor is upon you doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard or you won’t face trouble. It’s that you will no longer see everyone around you as an opponent to overcome. Instead you can serve God and others, knowing that God will indeed have his way in and through you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Special Status

For the week of November 14, 2015 / 2 Kislev 5776

Sunrise at the Dead Sea. Photo: Alan Gilman

Sunrise at the Dead Sea. Photo: Alan Gilman

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

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“I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” (Malachi 1:2-3)

This Haftarah reading (selection from the Hebrew prophets) was obviously chosen because of its reference to Jacob and Esau, whose story is found in this week’s parsha (Torah reading). And speaking of chosen, that’s what this is all about. Before these boys were born God determined that the younger twin would be the recipient of the promises given by God to their father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. My using the words “determined” and “chosen” causes all sort of emotions for all sorts of people. But I think that the controversy over such things is due to various assumptions, implications, and conclusions that are not necessarily derived from the text. The main misconception about such things is that it must involve fatalism, which even a superficial reading of the text demonstrates that this is anything but the case. The outworking of Jacob’s choseness is anything but fate. The twists and turns are absolutely delightful – that’s delightful for the reader not for Jacob and Esau. Their story involves real people in real circumstances making real decisions. Somehow God is working out his will, but as for how it works, I am happy to leave that with God.

I probably haven’t satisfied most of you who are either champions or opponents of the doctrine of predestination, but I think there is a much more controversial and crucial aspect to the story of Jacob and Esau. However choseness works, God chose Jacob, which is an extension of his choosing Abraham and Isaac and the establishment of the special status of Jacob’s descendants, the people of Israel. That the Master of the Universe might bestow special status upon one nation over any other is thought of by some (or most) as the worst kind of religious arrogance there is – that is until you understand what choseness really entails.

I recently wrote on this elsewhere from the perspective of the Jewish people. And having just returned from leading my first tour to Israel, I can assure you choseness is not what you might think it is. What it does mean is what other people consider normal doesn’t apply to you. They love you or hate you to the extreme, sometimes flipping from one to the other without warning. Most feel the burden of being God’s people without knowing what it is, longing to just fit in, but knowing it isn’t possible. You get a lot of attention, but you never know who your real friends are. You despise being judged by a different standard from everyone else, but deep in your heart you long for that standard.

It’s interesting to me that this description of Jewish choseness could equally apply to any true follower of Yeshua, Jewish or not. Once the God of Israel gets hold of you, you discover that life treats you differently. After a while you realize that this isn’t due to personal choices, other believers, or circumstances. It is because God is involved in your life in an unusual way. You have been set aside for something bigger than yourself as you have been thrust into God’s plans and purposes. You have been chosen. You have special status. This doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else, you’re just different, different in a good way, of course.

Being in Israel for two weeks reminded me in graphic terms of the depths of that difference. A land of such great diversity, beauty, and conflict that cannot be understood through the narrow focus of a media lens. One needs to grasp the full vista of its heights and depths. Those who treat the realities of Israel like cold theological doctrines miss the powerful voice of God, who is speaking through the complexities of life there. The hurts and confusion, fear and turmoil, blessing and presence of God found in the story of Jacob and Esau continue to play out in the Land of Israel today. But unless we recognize God’s prerogative to invest himself in those in whom he chooses, and bless those whom he decides to bless, we will find ourselves out of sorts with God and life, walking the path of Esau who lost himself in his own selfishness. Instead of grumbling or complaining about the concept of choseness, recognizing it is the first step of discovering that you may be chosen, too.