Strange Links

For the week of November 30, 2019 / 2 Kislev 5780

Two metal chain connected by a knotted cord

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

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Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. (Bereshit/Genesis 26:3)

Two weeks ago we looked at how Isaac may have been traumatized by his father Abraham’s divinely inspired attempt on his life. While Abraham was commended for his great faith, Isaac had to live out his days with the memory of the knife over his heart. The aftermath of “the knife” was not Isaac’s only challenge. While he is remembered as one of Israel’s forefathers, his name forever associated with the God of the Bible, who referred to himself as “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, his life functions more as a link between two more significant characters. Abraham started it all, leaving family and the familiar to go into the great unknown. It is his faith, trusting against all odds that God would make him a great nation that would bless the whole world, that is the foundation of the faithful ever since. His son Jacob’s life was filled with drama, much of which was his own making, misguidedly striving after the promised blessing until God worked great change in his heart. He was the father of the twelve tribes of Israel and was part of the major transition to Egypt where the small clan would become a full-fledged nation. Isaac’s life was much more passive. He is best known for lying on the wood while his father prepared to sacrifice him. As far as we know he never received accolades for his submission. Later, in his old age, he was deceived by his own son Jacob who stole his older twin brother Esau’s blessing.

Isaac’s drama was more in what happened to him than by him. Yet God did give him some specific directions, as quoted at the beginning. Here it is again with a bit more context:

And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:2-3).

These words were given at a time when Isaac was likely considering leaving the Promised Land for Egypt due to famine. We cannot overemphasize how difficult it would have been to remain there with the prospect of no food and the challenge of finding water, some of which is documented for us in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). But the harsh environment was not his biggest challenge. It was his cultural isolation. For God to tell him to “sojourn in the land,” is to acknowledge his alienation from the rest of the population.

The Hebrew word translated as “sojourn” here is the verb “gur” and is related to the noun for “stranger” or “alien.” It reflects a sense of not belonging. Later on Israel would be directed by God to treat sojourners well because they had been sojourners in Egypt: “You shall not oppress a sojourner. You know the heart of a sojourner, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Shemot/Exodus 23:9).

It was Isaac’s task to live his life without a sense of belonging, to stay within prescribed boundaries in spite of whatever difficulties he might face there. God assured him that he would be with him, to bless him and his offspring, to whom he would give the Land just as he promised to his father Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 26:3-4).

Living life with a sense of not belonging can be very difficult. Isaac was called to stay faithful to God in a society that would always regard him as an outsider. But he needed to stay put and live one day at a time. And so do we.

In the New Covenant Writings, Peter writes: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). As God’s people, we are like aliens on this planet as we are not to become absorbed into the prevailing culture. This can be very uncomfortable at times, especially when, like Isaac, our immediate circumstances may not be that exciting. Yet, there is no telling how significant our link in the chain may be.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Intelligent Faith

For the week of November 23, 2019 / 25 Heshvan 5780

Hands adjusting gears against a sunset sky

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

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Then Abraham bowed down before the people of the land. And he said to Ephron in the hearing of the people of the land, “But if you will, hear me: I give the price of the field. Accept it from me, that I may bury my dead there.” (Bereshit/Genesis 23:12-13)

This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) provides a look-see into trading customs of ancient Canaan many hundreds of years before Joshua and the people of Israel acquired it. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, had died, and needed a place for burial. We can assume that others among Abraham’s entourage would have passed away beforehand, but only now do we read of a need to purchase property for this purpose. It could be that public burial grounds were appropriate for Abraham’s servants, but not for his own family. The cave of Machpelah was suitable for more than just Sarah. Abraham himself, plus Isaac and his wife Rebecca, as well as Jacob and his wife Leah were eventually buried there.

When Abraham inquired after this piece of property, its owner offered the cave as a burial place at no charge. Yet Abraham insisted upon paying for not only the cave but the field it was part of. Clearly Abraham had the foresight to secure a family burial place that could be still used after Sarah’s death. But there may have been something else going on. Abraham’s need to bury his wife set up a situation whereby his family would have a claim, albeit small, upon the land. God had promised Canaan to his descendants, but as of yet, Abraham had made no acquisition of any portion whatsoever. Sarah’s death provided such an opportunity.

This wise move on Abraham’s part forever established his and his family’s presence in what would become a most contentious region of the world. Perhaps all he wanted was a family burial plot. Regardless, his thinking beyond the immediate need he faced for his wife resulted in a legal foundation to retain the Promised Land through innumerable challenges in the subsequent centuries.

People of faith may tend to downplay human strategy in the fulfilment of God’s purposes. We might assume that the more detached we are from practicalities and human effort, the better. Certainly God has accomplished amazing things through extraordinary happenings. Yet, the extraordinary often works in concert with the ordinary. The person of faith understands that reliance upon God, his guidance and power, is absolutely essential to a legitimate and meaningful relationship with him. But reliance upon God doesn’t negate appropriately using the vast array of tools God has given us to live effective godly lives. One of those tools is intelligence.

Intelligence is the utilization of thought to effectively engage the world around us. It requires an awareness of one’s environment, an understanding of how life works (both in the general and the specific), and the ability to interact with others in order to achieve a desired result. As a tool, intelligence can be used for good or evil. For the person of faith, loyalty to God and his ways is first and foremost the platform upon which life is to be lived. But to live an effective godly life is more than possessing moral fiber and basic spirituality; it also demands well-informed smarts.

Too often we accept the false premise that understanding the world in which we live undermines faith. Disciplines such as science are only problematic not when they inform us too much, but not enough. True intelligence is able to take supposed discoveries and understand how best to integrate them within the world we live. True intelligence accepts that we live in a complex world and requires patience and insight such as with Abraham here.

We shouldn’t be afraid to think, to ponder, to plan, to strategize. God has given his human creatures the gift of intelligence as a key tool to engage the world he made. True faith is an intelligent faith; one that effectively and successfully engages life to further God’s purposes.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Knife

For the week of November 16, 2019 / 18 Heshvan 5780

Silhouette of a hand ready to plunge a knife

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

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When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. (Bereshit/Genesis 22:9-10)

Could you imagine Isaac telling this story from his childhood to own his sons, Jacob and Esau. “Hey boys, did I ever tell you about the time God told my dad to offer me as a sacrifice?” to which Esau laughs and blurts: “You gotta be kidding, Dad. You make up the craziest stories.” Jacob, trying to appear overly intellectual, gives his brother a knowing look, and says: “Undoubtedly father is speaking in exaggerated metaphorical terms.” Isaac shakes his head. “No, my sons. The journey we took to Mount Moriah was so strange. We walked for days accompanied by a few of my father’s most trusted servants. He had said something about making an offering to his God. We didn’t take any animals with us to sacrifice, so I figured he would trade for a sheep or a goat from a herdsman along the way. But when we arrived at the foot of the mountain, still with no animal, he told the servants that they should stay there while he continued on with me to worship God. We carried fire, wood, and a knife up to the top. By that time, I couldn’t keep my thoughts to myself any longer. I asked him where the animal for the offering was. He looked off in the distance while saying, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ This was getting really weird. To this day, I can’t tell you why I let him, but he tied me down to the wood –” Seeing the terror in his sons’ eyes, Isaac interrupted himself – “Obviously he didn’t do it.” Their tension eased slightly. Isaac had a hard time trying to convey what happened next. It seemed like forever before he was able to get the words out. “He didn’t do it, but when I saw the knife in my father’s hand hanging over me, I was completely frozen. It was as if time stood still. Then God spoke. At least that’s what my father said; I thought I heard something, but I couldn’t make it out. Perhaps I was too scared. Dad dropped the knife and began to untie me. He then went off to some shrubs nearby, where a ram had gotten his horns caught in some thorns. I don’t know how it got there or why we hadn’t seen it till then. Dad said that he was to offer the ram in my place. He and I never talked about it after that.”

If you know the stories of Jacob and Esau, you would know that each of them in their own way had serious issues with their father’s and grandfather’s faith. From what we can tell, Esau never showed interest in God at all, while Jacob really struggled. When God spoke blessing and promise to him as he was running away from Esau, Jacob’s response was tentative. I can’t say for sure that it was Isaac’s experience on Mt. Moriah that turned his sons off from God, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it played a major part.

I share these dramatic speculations to emphasize that there is nothing sentimental about encountering the true God. Too often stories like this are glossed over, distracting people from their troubling details. To be comforted by this story’s resolve is one thing, but to miss its distress is to miss a core aspect. God’s involvement in our lives can really mess us up at times. He has no issue upsetting our routines, challenging the status quo, or forcing us to face our dysfunctions in spite of how uncomfortable that may be.

Readers of the New Testament tend to delight in the commentary to this story from the book of Hebrews, where we read that Abraham thought that God would raise Isaac from the dead if need be (Hebrews 11:17-19). This means he was indeed willing to kill his own son. Some may take this to be a great act of faith, which it is, but at what cost to his son? “My dad trusted God so much that he was willing to kill me?” Oh my!

But isn’t Isaac’s submission to his father a beautiful and moving picture of what Messiah actually did for us? Messiah did submit to an untimely, unjust death on our behalf, but beautiful and moving? Really? Yeshua submitted to depths of evil that you and I can hardly conceive of. He was willing to take head on the fulness of sin’s consequences that we might have eternal life. The results of his death are beyond wonderful, worthy of our unending gratitude, but the process certainly wasn’t nice.

As we walk with God, we, like Isaac, may be intimidated – even traumatized – by the threat of death. Until the final judgment God’s people will be continually threatened by the brutality of sin’s effects on the creation. That’s why it is so crucial to remember the knife hanging over us will not have the final word. Yeshua’s conquest over death, typified by Isaac, should encourage us to face the evil in our own day with confidence and hope in spite of the trauma.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Why Bless Israel?

For the week of November 9, 2019 / 11 Heshvan 5780

Hand of praying man on the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

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

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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 12:3)

A couple of weeks ago, I made the statement “there is only reality.” Whatever God made is what is. Everything else is false. One reader took me to task with regard to humanly made things from cartoon characters to clothing. Obviously, my brief treatment of the subject wasn’t sufficient. My point, however, was that we live within a created universe that is what it is because God created it that way.

Another aspect of the real world in which we live is that God determined to restore his creation from the effects of our first parents’ misguided journey toward evil. When he spoke judgement upon the Tempter, he said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). The initial stages of the outworking of his creation rescue plan is found in this week’s parsha.

It all started with one man in what we now call the Middle East. Abram, whose name God later changed to Abraham was married to a woman named Sarai, whose name God later changed to Sarah. God spoke to Abram in his homeland of Ur in modern day Iraq, telling him to go to what would become the land of Israel. This land is key to not only Abram’s story but to the story of creation itself, since its restoration would come into full focus there.

God told Abram that he would make him a great nation. We don’t know how old he was when he was first given this promise. By the time we pick up his story he and Sarai are already getting on in years. He would be almost a hundred and she ninety before they would realize the full intent of God’s will for their lives in giving them a baby boy, Isaac. God’s plan was to develop through them a special nation which would bring blessing to the whole world.

The story of Scripture is the story of Israel. It was to this nation that God would reveal himself and his ways, and eventually through them to the world. Some may find it difficult to accept that God chose one nation through which to bless all nations. We often want God to reflect our version of fairness by relating to all individuals at all time and places in the exact same way. Meaningful differences within the creation have existed from the beginning. God created a diverse universe. Even the original design of human beings included role differentiation.

Note that Israel’s particular greatness was not for themselves, but for the stated purpose of bringing blessing to the whole world. This is in keeping with the statement made by Israel’s greatest offspring, when he said, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). The essence of true greatness within the real world is found in service. That Israel would struggle to fully realize its calling of its service to the nations takes nothing away from God’s purposes for his chosen ones.

Israel’s struggle may have been the very reason for God’s commitment to them as expressed by his promise quoted at the beginning: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.” It is in the world’s best interests that God would have Israel’s back for his rescue plan, since the whole creation depends on them. Note that I didn’t say “depended,” because we haven’t yet seen the culmination of God’s purposes yet, the fulness of which is yet to come (see Romans 11:15).

Tragically too many people are caught up more with media depictions of Israel than the reality as established by God. Too many Christians forget, ignore, or misinterpret Paul’s teaching on God’s unending faithfulness to Israel (see Romans 11). That the Jewish people around the world or those living in the State of Israel today don’t meet God’s standards is nothing less than an expression of the humanity that we (I am Jewish myself) share with the world. Our ongoing existence and being a blessing to the world is rightly understood as God’s ongoing faithfulness to Abram. Those who honor Israel’s Messiah would do well to honor his kinsmen through whom God’s blessing has and will come.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version