Mercy Place

For the week of February 25, 2023 / 4 Adar 5783

Message info over an artist's reproduction of the Ark of the Covenant
For illustration purposes only. Not intended to provide exact representation of the Ark.

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)
Originally posted the week of March 4, 2017 / 6 Adar 5777

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You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. (Shemot/Exodus 26:34)

As part of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and its furnishings, God directed Moses to build a “kapporet,” an ornate cover to be placed on top of the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). The aron ha-b’rit was an elegant box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar with a portion of manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded. It resided in the Mishkan’s inner sanctum called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: the Most Holy Place), and it represented the very presence of God within the community of Israel.

When the “Cohen Ha-Gadol” (English: the High Priest) entered the kodesh ha-k’dashim once a year at Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), the kapporet was the focus of his attention, for he was to apply the blood of the festival’s special sacrifices before it and over it (see Vayikra/Leviticus 16:11-4). The purpose of this ritual was to provide purification for the inner sanctum from the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins.

The kapporet was a lid made of pure gold overshadowed by the wings of golden “k’ruvim” (English: cherubim). The Scriptures tell us little about these creatures. We are introduced to them when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and God placed them to guard the tree of life. It is possible, therefore, that their being symbolically part of the kapporet was to remind Israel that the way to everlasting life remained blocked during the days of the Mishkan and its successor, the Temple.

Many English Bible versions translate kapporet as “mercy seat.” This goes back to one of the earliest English Bible translators, William Tyndale, whose 16th century translation became the core of the King James Bible and much of subsequent English translation tradition. It appears that Tyndale’s rendering of kapporet as mercy seat is based on Paul’s use of the Greek equivalent “hilastērion” in his letter to the Romans as he refers to the Messiah Yeshua, “whom God hath made a seat of mercy through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:26; Tyndale’s version). Hilastērion is the word for kapporet used by the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was common in Paul’s day. While hilastērion had a different usage in Greek outside the Bible, Paul must have had its biblical use in mind, a connection that Tyndale choose to make abundantly clear.

Regrettably, in my opinion, the translators of the King James Bible and many other later English translations chose not to preserve this connection. Instead most go with the pagan Greek meaning, “propitiation,” which is the idea of appeasing an angry god. Ironically, the King James and many other English translations that use “propitiation” in Romans retain Tyndale’s “mercy seat” in Exodus even though the reason for translating the kapporet as “mercy seat” is because Tyndale was drawing from Paul’s allusion in Romans to the place of God’s presence and mercy where cleansing occurs.

You may not be aware of the great controversy among scholars over the meaning of Paul’s use of hilastērion. This is part of a discussion about how Yeshua’s suffering and death provides forgiveness and acceptance to those who trust in him. But however it works, let us not miss the power of Paul’s allusion. Through Yeshua’s giving of his life, he has become our kapporet – the place of mercy. What was once hidden and inaccessible has become available to all. If we put our trust in him, God purifies us once and for all, making us fit to freely enter his presence.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Justice for the Preborn

For the week of February 18, 2023 / 27 Shevat 5783

Message info over an ultrasound of a preborn infant

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17

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When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman’s husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Shemot/Exodus 21:22-25)

The other day, I was copied on an email conversation between some Christian leaders on a prolife issue. It contained a brief comment about the religious Jewish view of abortion being similar to theirs, which would be protection for all human beings from conception to natural death. Realizing that the Jewish view is far more nuanced than this, I wanted to send them a clarification. Just to be sure I was articulating the religious Jewish view correctly I double checked some online resources, one of which is the article Abortion and Judaism on the “My Jewish Learning” website.

Note that I have referred to the religious Jewish view. Most Jewish people would not consider themselves strictly religious and would, generally speaking, view such an issue in a similar manner to the majority view in the culture. As for religious Jews, a key aspect of their perspective on the subject is that the fetus doesn’t become a person until the first breath. That doesn’t mean the fetus is of no value until then, but it is viewed in a lessor way than fully born individuals.

Part of this discussion involves the fact that there are not many explicit references in Hebrew Scripture addressing this issue. Be that as it may, I assert that King David establishes the womb as a sacred place that should be protected when he writes: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb” (Psalm 139:13).

There does appear to be one passage in the Torah, the one I quoted at the beginning, that does explicitly address the value of the preborn. Here is a situation where a pregnant woman is apparently hit by accident due to some men fighting. It’s a fascinating passage with regard to personal liability when a bystander, in this case a women, is potentially harmed in a scuffle. We won’t go into all the details involving her, but instead simply focus on the ramifications for the preborn. As you may see in the article I referred to earlier, the rabbinic interpretation of this passage is that the “life for life” penalty is deemed not to apply to the children, but may only result in a monetary fine upon the one committing the infraction.

That conclusion is not reasonable given what is described in the passage. While it may not say who exactly is suffering harm, there is no reason to assume it is exclusively the mother. Note that at this point the children are no longer in the womb. Their welfare is as observable as the other parties involved. It is clear then that should the mother and/or children be harmed in this situation, the perpetrator, even if unintentionally, causes death, is to be charged with murder.

That the children are already born may seem to support the rabbinic idea that personhood is only ascribed to humans upon birth. However, I find the personhood concept irrelevant. The passage itself establishes the value of the children in this situation. Unlike our day, it would have been most difficult to determine if mortal injury came to the fetus. It would only be after birth that such a determination could be made. That capital punishment was the penalty when a child died due to harm done to him or her prior to birth demonstrates the God of Israel’s high value on the preborn.

Certainly, there are differences between preborn and born children. This has been well articulated through the acronym SLED, which stands for Size, Level of Development, Environment, and Degree of Dependency. I would add that the baby’s breathing on his or her own along with the cutting of the umbilical cord is a significant major developmental transition. Yet. we have no clear statement in Scripture that this is when personhood is established. But even if it did, do not preborn humans deserve the care and protection the rest of us deserve? Isn’t this what we learn from this passage? To ignore what God is saying here, devalues us all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version



For the week of February 11, 2023/ 20 Shevat 5783

Message information over a man with an attitude, sitting at a desk

Torah: Shemot / Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5 (English: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:6)

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In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:1-5)

I have heard it said that Isaiah’s vision of God, even though it is found in the sixth chapter of his book, must have occurred before he began his prophetic work. That’s understandable, since it is here that Isaiah receives his marching orders, therefore serving as an introduction. Another clue that suggests this took place before he ever spoke to the people on God’s behalf is his reaction. First, it devastated him: “Woe is me! For I am lost”, which is not something we would expect from a faithful servant of God. Second, he confessed to having “unclean lips” just like the rest of his people. What kind of prophet of God has unclean lips? My proposal: a genuine one.

Let me explain. While it is possible that Isaiah’s vision is out of sequence, is it necessary that his dramatic experience had to have come first before he took up his prophetic vocation? That says more about our assumptions of how God works than our grappling with what is actually going on here.

I am aware of the many biblical accounts of people to whom God appeared and/or spoke to before they began their divine task. But there are also people to whom God appeared and/or spoke to well into their ministry. So why can’t it be that Isaiah is an example of the latter? Our assumption may dictate otherwise due to, as I already mentioned, the nature of the vision and Isaiah’s level of interaction. It is reasonable to regard these as foundational to both his personal spiritual state and the scope of his mission, but that doesn’t mean he could not have experienced this midstream. Must we assume that God wouldn’t address foundational issues in our lives?

Why do we assume that Isaiah must have had all this in place prior to the beginning of his work? Many people hearing or reading this are engaged in some sort of work for God. Others too may do so sometime in the future. Do we believe that we are so completely spiritual and that the scope of our ministry is or will be so perfectly defined that we will never require adjustment? But we are not Isaiah, we might say. We cannot compare our callings to his. Really? Are we truly that different from him? Isaiah, as were all the significant biblical characters, was a human being just like us, serving the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as we are called to do. Does it sound that far fetched that this great prophet of God might discover that he is not as spiritual as he thought he was and that he may not have yet fully grasped the scope of his calling?

Isaiah wasn’t alone in his need to grow in his faith and work. All through Abraham’s life God expanded his understanding of what was being promised to him and how it was to work out. It took Jacob years to become a true believer. Moses had a lot to learn before he was ready to assume his leadership role and even then, the challenges that he faced forced him to draw closer and closer to God. David’s whole life was one of getting to know God better. Some of his personal weaknesses did not rise to the surface until after God used him in very significant ways.

God uses imperfect people. He doesn’t perfect us prior to his using us. When God calls us to a task, he doesn’t usually give us all the details. Let us not then assume that whatever understanding we currently have of God, our relationship to him, or the nature of the work to which he calls us, is complete.

God may not appear or speak to us in the same manner as he did with Isaiah. But let us be careful not to let our assumptions about God and how he deals with us prevent him from accomplishing all he wants to do in and through us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version