Blessing from Nothing

For the week of October 2, 2021 / 26 Tishri 5782

Open hands receiving brilliant light

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

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And God blessed them. And God said to them, “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)

Some time ago I read through the New English Translation, also called the NET Bible. One of its key features is its extensive notes. One of those notes led me to consider an intriguing concept. It’s one of those things that is difficult to prove, but at some level, is self-evident. It’s from Bereshit/Genesis 1:22, where the word “blessed” is first found in the Bible. It’s in reference to the sea creatures and birds. The second time is in the verse I quoted at the start when God blessed human beings.

The NET Bible note makes a connection between the Hebrew words for create and bless based on the similarity of their sounds. The Hebrew for create is bara; the Hebrew for bless is barach (if you have never listened to the TorahBytes audio version, now might be a good time). As far as I know this similarity is purely coincidental. I doubt the early readers of the creation story would have thought to make a connection between creating and blessing, but there is one.

Torah is clear that God is the author of life. He is the originator, designer, and developer of all there is in the universe. He brought everything into existence by the exertion of his will through the power of his word. He himself is not created but eternal. The universe is not made up of his substance as if he used up part of himself and transformed it into something. Rather, he created everything out of nothing.

The NET Bible’s suggestion of a close association between bara and barach caused me to be aware of a creative dynamic that is present in blessing. When God blesses something or someone, he fills it with life. It possesses health, strength, and all it needs to grow and to reproduce. It is the opposite of cursing, whereby life is removed, and death ensues.

The connection between create and bless should be obvious. One initiates life, the other enables it to come to fruition, realizing its potential. That God is both the one who creates and blesses underscores that he is more than the originator of life, but it’s ongoing sustainer. Creation is dependent upon him both for its origins and its continuation. But this is not the intriguing idea that came to me that day.

What dawned on me was that the association of bara and barach is just as God created out of nothing, so he also blesses out of nothing. In the same way that God did not depend on pre-existing stuff to create the universe, so he doesn’t depend on pre-existing stuff to bless us.

Why is this important? Maybe it’s just me, but when I am in a difficult situation and I look to God to help me, I tend to base my expectations upon possible solutions that appear to exist. I think in terms of what’s possible. Sure, I give God some credit for being God, but I tend to think he is really good at fixing things that exist, but not necessarily providing solutions that require him to make something out of nothing. He did that at creation; he doesn’t do that now—or does he?

God’s blessing is not derived from his ability to manipulate that which already is. His blessing is based on himself, his infinite creative self. His resources, therefore, are unlimited. There’s nothing he can’t do. I can’t say I know how this works. But instead of my focusing on possibilities, I need to expect the impossible. Blessing is dependent upon God and not on the world around me.

Recognizing this connection between bara and barach is essential to effectively face today’s challenges. Ever changing rules and regulations are restricting our lives. Everything seems more difficult than it was a year and a half ago. Many people are confused, depressed, and angry. Many are waiting for it all to be over. But that’s not necessary when we know the One who blesses out of nothing. Once we accept that his possibilities are limitless, we can be open to anything he wants to do in and through us.

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


Remember the Wilderness

For the week of September 25, 2021 / 19 Tishri 5782

A plain sukkah (booth)

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:23-31
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths, that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:42-43)

The festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths) began this week the evening of September 20, 2021. Sukkot is the culmination of a special three-week period beginning with the Festival of the Blowing of the Shofar, commonly known as Rosh Hashanah (English: the New Year), followed ten days later by Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement). The first two weeks focus on reflection and repentance in preparation for this week-long celebration of gratitude to God.

Central to the Torah’s Sukkot observances is the building of a sukkah, a temporary, somewhat fragile, though often beautiful, structure, intended as a temporary dwelling for the duration of the festival. The purpose of the experience of living in the sukkah was to remind the people of Israel that we lived in temporary shelters during the forty years of our wilderness travels prior to acquiring the Promised Land.

The wilderness period was a unique, but necessary, stage in the development of the people of Israel. Having spent generations as slaves in Egypt, they needed to be prepared for life in their own land. One day, they would have their own homes and farms and their own governmental and religious structures. They would develop international relations, including a time of renown and influence in the region. Israel was to be a bright light in an otherwise dark world.

However, a people don’t transition from being a nation of slaves to a shining example overnight. The people of Israel were called to be the people of God. In order to realize this, they needed to learn how human beings were to function in right relationship with the Creator. While their training wouldn’t cease upon entering the Promised Land, the forty years prior to doing so were foundational.

During the forty years, the people were completely dependent upon God. During that time the environment they were in provided no stability, protection, or regular provision. They were completely at the mercy of the elements and possessed nothing tangible on which they could rely to fend off enemy attacks. All this time, God saw them through by providing food, water, and protection from both the elements and enemies.

But this particular expression of divine help was not to be God’s will for Israel forever. It is not as if they were expected to live as if they were still in the wilderness, waiting for bread from heaven and other signs and wonders. Far from it! They were to settle the Promised Land and establish permanent agricultural settlements as well as fortified cities. Eventually they were to develop dependable political and military systems. They were to take responsibility for their lives and build a prosperous country.

Yet, despite the eventual normalcy of being a nation in their own land, there was something learned in the wilderness that was never to be forgotten, a life dynamic that was to be as much at work in the Promised Land as it was in the wilderness; a principle that is still as much at work today as it was then. That principle is human beings are completely dependent upon God.

By living in temporary shelters for a week once a year during Sukkot, the people of Israel were caused to experience in a small but tangible way a sense of vulnerability to the elements that is so easily forgotten when living in a permanent home. Seeing the stars, feeling the heat of the day or perhaps a few drops of rain were designed to bring to remembrance when their forebears’ very survival was in jeopardy each and every day unless God personally and powerfully came through.

The reality is that human beings are always dependent upon God. More permanent systems of protection and provision may give the impression that our security is derived from the things themselves. It is easy to forget that unless God works through such systems, they will not deliver as expected. Therefore, God deemed it necessary to remind Israel and the rest of the world through his Word, how this actually works.

We don’t necessarily need Sukkot to be reminded of this. Every now and then life’s circumstances throw us into highly vulnerable situations. If we have learned the lesson of the wilderness, we won’t crumble along with our failing structures. This is the challenge of our current day. Many think that our technical knowhow and political machinations will rescue us from disease and death. Until we learn that all the good we have ever experienced has come from the hand of God, we will continue to look in other directions when hard times come.

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


Our Father

For the week of September 18, 2021 / 12 Tishri 5782

Hands holding Planet Earth

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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Do you thus repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you? (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:6)

It is fairly common among scholars to downplay the presence of key New Testament concepts in the Hebrew Scriptures. These include, for example, forgiveness, life after death, and the complex unity of God, traditionally termed “the Trinity.” While it is correct to note that there is a difference with regard to the prevalence of such concepts within these two sections of the Bible, it would be wrong to claim that a relatively low number of occurrences in Hebrew Scriptures necessarily imply they lack importance.

One such concept is God as father. In the New Covenant Writings (as I prefer to call the New Testament) it is the chief identifier of God. Yeshua almost exclusively spoke of God this way. He also instructed us through his first followers, to address God as “Our Father.” One might regard this shift in emphasis as an intentional contrast to earlier scripture in the sense that under the Old Covenant, God was seen as distant and detached, but Yeshua introduced a more intimate and familiar version of God. Both Christian and Jewish thought often wants to find contrasts like this in order to disassociate Christianity from Judaism. But in order to do so, one needs to ignore what is really going on in the Bible.

It is true that God as father is a rarity in the Hebrew Scriptures, but it’s there a few times, including its first occurrence found in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading). In addition, there are also other references to God’s having father-like characteristics.

Moses’ use of “father” for God as part of his final words to Israel is most instructive. After all he and the people had been through the past forty years, as he confronts the people regarding their inevitable unfaithfulness, he urges them to respond appropriately to God on the basis of his being their father. Directly calling God “father” sheds light on what God said to Moses forty years earlier regarding his confrontation of Pharaoh: “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son’” (Shemot/Exodus 4:22-23). To mess with God’s people was to mess with his family. In the days and years ahead for Israel, does it matter how often the term “father” is used in their holy writings? Isn’t one reference enough to be struck by the overwhelming nature of such a relationship?

The people of Israel were delivered from tyranny to serve a new master and Lord. Yet, this master was no tyrant. Instead, God, as father, was dedicated to care, provide, and guide his children. Tragically, it would remain difficult for Israel to accept God’s fatherly heart towards them. Due to the broken nature of humanity, the hearts of the people were constantly pulled away from God and his ways. Yet, our Heavenly Father would not give up. Instead, he determined to transform our nature into one in keeping with his (see Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36).

God’s role of father of Israel reveals to us God’s heart for all people. As our creator, whose familial relationship to humanity was broken due to our first parents’ misguided and selfish actions, he longs for restoration. His heart is to regain the relational intimacy between a loving father and his wayward children. Made in his image we all bear his resemblance, while our actions reflect the nature of rebels. God’s broken fatherly heart, however, could not accept our alienation from his love. And so, in the name of family, his Son, Yeshua the Messiah, completely gave himself up to restore God’s children to him. God’s determination as Israel’s father is that which cleared the way for people of all nations to have the opportunity to be equally part of God’s family.

We need to come to grips with the implications of God’s identity as our Father. Sadly, this is obscured by the confusion over the fatherly role in our society today. Too many people have suffered from absent or abusive fathers. It is said that we often envision God as a reflection of our earthly fathers. But it doesn’t have to work this way. Whatever our experience has been with our natural fathers, we can look at the loving, powerful, close, communicative care of our Heavenly Father as revealed in Scripture. He is our true Father.

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


Technological Idolatry

For the week of September 11, 2021 / 5 Tishri 5782

Man in sitting in a meditative position with his laptop

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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Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, “Our God,” to the work of our hands. (Hosea 14:4; English 14:3)

God made human beings in his image to represent him on earth. Our primary task was to care for the creation by subduing and cultivating it (Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-28). We were to take control of Planet Earth under God’s supervision and direction. It wasn’t too long, however, before God’s order of things became skewed. Through our first parents we became subservient to the creation, due to the cunning of the serpent, who undermined God’s initial directives. The result was that instead of serving God by ruling over the creation, human beings became subject to the creation. Ever since then the creation has controlled us on its terms rather than our controlling it on God’s terms.

Being made in the image of God for the sake of creation care endowed humans with great creative skill. Contrary to popular misunderstanding, very early mankind practiced agriculture and animal husbandry. Eventually we see the development of tools and musical instruments. Two of the earliest Bible stories are examples of extraordinary technology: Noah’s ark and the Tower of Babel. The first, a boat-like structure the length of a football field designed to preserve the continuation of God’s plan for Planet Earth. The second was intended to be a great statement of human achievement. While both these projects are equally impressive, they greatly differ in their moral and spiritual quality. The ark was initiated and blessed by God to fulfill his purposes. The tower was a humanly initiated self-serving affair.

The tower project was so misguided that God determined it needed to be stopped. His assessment of the situation was this back-handed compliment: “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). God here acknowledges the technological savvy of human beings. This ability along with their unity due to a common language would have disastrous results.

The disruption of the Babel project didn’t put an end to humanity’s technological prowess. It slowed it down. But don’t get me wrong. It’s not our capacity to conceptualize, innovate, and implement creative tools that is destructive in itself. As I already mentioned, God used advanced (for its day) navel technology to save us. It’s our having become subservient to the creation that has twisted human motivation in such a way that, through the ages, the finest technology has been easily abused.

The abuse of technology is rooted, not in the technology itself, which is an expression of God-endowed creativity; but in the human hearts’ shift from reliance upon God, our maker and king, to the technology itself. Instead of our innovations serving the purposes to which God made us, we become enamored with the works of our own hands. We develop conveniences to alleviate suffering and discomfort, and then we can’t live without them. We design solutions to some of our greatest problems, and then we put our trust, our faith, in them instead of God.

The prophet Hosea envisioned a day when the people of Israel would finally accept the fundamental weakness of technology. He references horses, but the point is the same. Nothing wrong with riding a horse, but our lives don’t depend on the manifold ways we have subdued the creation for our benefit. “No more,” Hosea says, will we say, “‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands.” Technology need not be an idol, but that’s exactly what it is when we put our hope in it.

The ever-increasing ability of technology to monitor, care for, transform, and sustain our lives, the more god-like it becomes. The more god-like it becomes, the more it demands our allegiance, our trust, our love.

Apart from a major disruption to the earth’s magnetic field, which is not far-fetched, technological advances will continue. The question is will it serve us or will we serve it?

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