The House of God

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

Message info over an ethereal staircase in the sky

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


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

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


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


God of Wonders

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

Message info upon a splendid space background

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.


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.