The Ten Words

For the week of February 3, 2024 / 24 Shevat 5784

Message info along with a wooden representation of the Ten Commandments

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6 (English: 9:6-7)
Originally posted the week of January 30, 2016 / 20 Shevat 5776 (revised)

And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Shemot/Exodus 20:1-3)

The Ten Commandments function in a most special way within holy Scripture. You may not be aware that they are never actually called the “ten commandments,” but rather, eseret ha-devarim, “the Ten Words” (see Shemot/Exodus 34:28). Obviously the Hebrew is indicating that this is much more than a list of ten individual words. Rather they are ten unique divine utterances, unique in several ways.

First, the Ten Words were the only part of God’s revelation to Moses that was given in the direct hearing of the people (see Shemot/Exodus 20:18-21). It isn’t clear if they heard the actual words, but whatever they heard, they were so terrified, they never want to experience it again.

Second, of all that Moses received from God, only these Ten Words were written by God’s own finger. In fact, he did so twice, due to Moses’ destroying the first set in reaction to Israel’s rebellious activities while he was with God on the mountain (see Shemot/Exodus 31:18; 34:1).

The third and perhaps most important way the Ten Words are unique is that they, in particular, are called “the covenant” (see Shemot/Exodus 34:28). This would be why they were among the items that were placed inside the aron ha-berit, the Ark of the Covenant.

There was of course more to the covenant given at Mount Sinai than just the Ten Words. The Ten served to point the people to the details of the entire covenant. They weren’t necessarily more important than any other of God’s directives, but what they do is capture the essence of the whole covenant, while the rest of Torah elaborates on them. The Ten, then, especially as a collection, have an essential symbolic function in that they represent the whole Sinai covenant.

It is not biblically sound, therefore, to isolate or detach the Ten Words from the rest of Torah as if God gave these directives as universal principles, while everything else he revealed through Moses was for Israel alone. This is not to say that the Ten Words or anything else in Torah aren’t necessarily universal. It’s that it is not right to automatically consider them as universal just because they are the Ten Words.

Biblically speaking, the Ten Words first and foremost function as covenant, not moral principles. They (as much of the rest of Torah) are full of morality, but primarily they establish the basis and parameters of God’s relationship with ancient Israel. That is why the Ten Words begin with “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Shemot/Exodus 20:2). Israel was to obey God’s commands on the basis of their having been rescued from Egypt, something which no other nation can claim. Note that Israel’s salvation and relationship to God were established by God first before he gave them directions to live by. Biblical morality was never intended to be a pathway to God, but rather a response of God’s people to his love and faithfulness.

Living God’s way under the New Covenant is similar in that it too is a response to God’s salvation. This time not only as the nation of Israel who were in physical bondage to Egypt, but people of all nations who have been released from the greater bondage to sin and death through faith in the Messiah.

But as those who have a relationship with God through Yeshua, how do we live? While many have adopted the Ten Words as their moral code, others have rejected most, if not all, the commands given through Moses as being relevant today. Some claim that Yeshua replaced an older notion of hundreds of commands with only two (love God and love your neighbor) as if God is now lenient instead of strict. But that’s not what is going on here at all. Yeshua’s answer to the question concerning the greatest commandment (see Matthew 22:36-40) provides perspective and priority in relating to God. These two commands therefore serve as a summary of everything God calls us to.

But what does he call us to? Under the New Covenant, Torah, which was at one time written on tablets of stone, is now engraved upon our hearts (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; 2 Corinthians 3:3). That which was external has been internalized. This transformational change brought about by Yeshua’s death and resurrection allows us to live out the essential elements of God’s revelation through Moses including the Ten Words.

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


The Impossible

For the week of January 27, 2024 / 17 Shevat 5784

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31
Originally posted the week of January 27, 2018 / 11 Shevat 5778

Download Audio [Right click link to download]

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Tell the people of Israel to turn back and encamp in front of Pi-hahiroth, between Migdol and the sea, in front of Baal-zephon; you shall encamp facing it, by the sea.” (Shemot/Exodus 14:1-2)

You may be familiar with the oft-quoted, eighteenth-century hymn that begins with “God moves in a mysterious way; his wonders to perform.” This captures the difficulty of understanding what God is doing amidst difficult circumstances. A life of faith can be a life of confusion as we face the tension of the love and goodness of God with the pain and sorrow we must endure at times.

As we grapple with this, there is an aspect of God’s intentions that we may miss. Our failure to fully reckon with these intentions may prevent us from walking through difficulty as effectively as we should. At times we regard coping with difficulties as sufficient, when what God wants is something way more than that. Godly endurance isn’t necessarily passive, as if the best course of action when facing a storm is always hunkering down waiting for it to pass.

This is not what God wanted the people of Israel to do when they faced the impossible situation of being between the Egyptian Army and the Red Sea. Moses seemed to think all they needed to do was to stand there, trust God, and all would be well. Certainly there are such incidences in the Bible, but this is not one of them. Here, God told the people to go forward towards the Sea. We know what was going to happen, because the story is so familiar. We also have the luxury of being able to read this on paper, not live through it as they did. Imagine, God’s expressed will was to head toward the water.

This is not simply a case of finding yourself in a difficult situation, confused by circumstances, wondering where God might be in it all, as you try to find comfort in sayings such as “God moves in a mysterious way.” This is not simply an opportunity to cope with the broken nature of life. This is God thrusting his people into what appears to be the jaws of death, while expecting them to do the impossible.

God is not hiding in the shadows here. He is smack in the middle of this terrifying situation, calling his people to go for it as never before. Hey, the water’s fine! You only think you’re committing suicide. Get going; you are about to do the impossible!

I don’t think Israel had much choice with this one. To disobey the command to move forward toward the sea meant annihilation by the Egyptians. We also at times find ourselves moving forward toward the impossible in spite of ourselves. How many terrifying things have we had to face only to experience the power of God to get us through?

I wonder if there might be other times, when God wants to thrust us toward the impossible, but because there is no army threating our backs, we pull back. Overwhelmed by apparently insurmountable challenges, we miss the opportunity to accomplish what God has for us. Can that happen? It happened in the Bible. Think of this same group of people, who about two years later lost their opportunity to enter the Promised Land due to fear and lack of faith (see Numbers 13-14). One of the issues at that time was they doubted God’s intentions in calling them to face the impossible, thinking he was out to destroy them. Sounds ridiculous to us now, but at the time the impossible can be so overwhelming that we lose sight of God’s good intent.

God calls for a faith in keeping with the great and awesome God he is. Yeshua told his followers during his last Passover with them, that after he was gone, they would do greater works than he did. Instead of shrinking the word “greater” into tiny packages we can handle, we should allow the enormity of his statement to saturate our beings. Not only does God want us to do “greater works,” he fabricates the situations in which they are to occur by thrusting us into the impossible. That’s impossible for us; not impossible to God. It’s time to move forward!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Don’t Look Down!

For the week of January 20, 2024 / 10 Shevat 5784

Message info over an illustration of a hiker helping another hiker up a cliff

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

But fear not, O Jacob my servant, nor be dismayed, O Israel, for behold, I will save you from far away, and your offspring from the land of their captivity. Jacob shall return and have quiet and ease, and none shall make him afraid. (Jeremiah 46:27)

A considerable amount of biblical prophetic writing includes predictive portions for the purpose of eliciting a current response. It could be a warning of something dire that could be avoided if heeded, or it might be a promise of good things to come in order to encourage people toward a particular attitude or action.

Much of the Book of Jeremiah is sobering. As an act of God’s judgment, the kingdom of Judah was being violently overrun by the Babylonians. All the while, Jeremiah was giving the unusual message of calling the people to surrender. Exile was not to be the people’s end, however, for God would rescue them in time. Even though many of them would not be alive by then, they were to be encouraged by this. In this week’s Haftarah (weekly portion from the Hebrew prophets), Jeremiah was drawing the people’s attention to a time when they would not only be rescued by God and returned to their land, but live a life of “quiet and ease,” when “none shall make [them] afraid.” The anticipation of a day in the future when they would have nothing at all to fear called them to reject the tendency toward fear in the present. The passage continues:

Fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the LORD, for I am with you. I will make a full end of all the nations to which I have driven you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished (Jeremiah 46:28).

It’s helpful to see that it’s not simply the anticipation of a brighter future that would make a difference, but also knowing that God would be with the people through what would clearly be a painful process until then. God will be working. God will see them through. Even though it will be difficult, because God will be with them through it all, they were not to fear.

I have been thinking a lot about the interaction between Yeshua and Jairus, the synagogue official (see Mark 5:21-43). Jairus’s daughter was ill, and Yeshua was on his way to heal her. After an interruption occurs on the way, Jairus gets word that his daughter had died in the meantime. No need for the healer any longer, he was told. For years, I have been struck by what Yeshua says to Jairus at this point: “Do not fear, only believe” (Mark 5:36). Where does it say that Jairus was afraid? It was over. His daughter was dead. He must have been disappointed and sad. Possibly angry about the interruption. Maybe he was put out by Yeshua’s giving attention to someone else, when he was next in line, so to speak. But afraid?

Perhaps what Yeshua is calling “fear” isn’t necessarily that all-to-familiar emotional unsettled reaction. It’s far deeper than that. It’s a way of looking at the circumstances of life that may or may not be accompanied by such feelings. It’s a distraction from whatever is really true at a given time. With or without feeling afraid, fear may be a way to describe when we look at life through an obscure lens of untruth.

To illustrate, picture this common movie scene. A person slips off the cliff’s edge. At the last minute, their companion grabs their arm as they dangle over a thousand-foot drop. Their companion says: “Don’t look down. Look at me!” At that point, the person has a choice. They could look down and focus on the danger or they can look upon the one who can save them. Looking down fuels hopelessness; looking up provides hope (assuming their companion has the power to save them, of course). But the companion’s ability means nothing if the person isn’t willing to trust them.

Jairus was thrown into a situation where the evidence suggested all was lost. Giving oneself to despair is the essence of fear, whatever our emotional state may be. Hope was restored when Jarius took his eyes off the problem and onto the Messiah. He who was appointed by God to one day provide “quiet and ease” for the nation was standing there with him that day.

Until then, we will face all kinds of challenges, but the Messiah will come through eventually as he promised. Until then, do not fear, only believe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Mistaken Covenants

For the week of January 13, 2024 / 3 Shevat 5784

Message info over embarrased male against the Hebrew Ten Commandments as the background

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21

Moreover, I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant. (Shemot/Exodus 6:5)

I am currently immersed in the subject of “supersessionism,” also called “replacement theology” or “fulfilment theology.” Supersessionism is the historic theological belief system that the Israel of the Old Testament has been superseded by the Church of the New Testament. This viewpoint emerged likely as early as the first century and has been the dominant Christian viewpoint until today. Supersessionism views the Church as the New or True Israel, most often appropriating various Old Testament characters and principles when deemed suitable for its purposes.

In the past few centuries there have been some alternate viewpoints that find some room somewhere for an ongoing understanding of Israel, including or excluding the Land of Israel. But it’s only since the Holocaust that theologians have more widely attempted to seriously rethink this default position. It’s tragic that it took six million Jews to be exterminated by the Nazis in the heart of Christian Europe to prompt a rethink. It’s doubly tragic that it took circumstances to drive theologians back to the Bible. And even more tragic that so many Christians continue to view the Bible through a supersessionist lens. Forgive me if it’s my idealism that leads me to think that Paul’s letter to the Romans alone should be a sufficient antidote to supersessionism. One needs to do some interesting theological gymnastics to explain away, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29). Whatever antagonistic role some were playing, God’s perspective on the Jewish people as a whole is clear: they are “beloved,” and that which God bestowed upon them through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is irrevocable.

This is a huge subject, but for now, I would like to demonstrate how this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) helps clarify a confusion that often leads to supersessionism. In these early chapters of the second book of the Torah, we find Israel suffering as slaves in Egypt. God responds to their cries, by saying, “I have heard the groaning of the people of Israel whom the Egyptians hold as slaves, and I have remembered my covenant” (Shemot/Exodus 6:5). But what covenant? Many Christians assume it’s the “Old Covenant.” The problem is that what the New Testament would later call the Old Covenant had not yet been established. The covenant referenced here is the one God gave to Abraham, his son Isaac, and his grandson Jacob centuries earlier. God had changed Jacob’s name to Israel, the name by which the nation would be called. This covenant unconditionally committed God to Israel’s peoplehood, land, and role in God’s purposes.

Israel’s time in Egypt was part of God’s plan. The land of Canaan would one day be theirs, but their transition from being a migrant clan to a two-million strong nation was to happen in the pressure cooker of a foreign land. I wonder how often, especially when their originally favored status collapsed into servitude, that the people thought the covenant of peoplehood and land was nothing but a legend—fantasy might be the better word. But God had not forgotten. At the right time, he delivered them on the basis of that covenant.

The covenant with their forefathers would not be the only covenant God would make with the people of Israel, however. God’s rescuing them led to the establishment of a second covenant through Moses at Mt. Sinai. This second covenant was conditional upon Israel’s adherence.

As it turned out, the people of Israel failed to uphold their covenant obligations, resulting in serious negative consequences. Yet, the effects of the broken Sinai covenant were not to have the final word in Israel’s history. The original unconditional covenant set up, what I like to term, a “dilemma, for God. God worked out a way to punish Israel for disobedience under Sinai without undermining the unconditionality of the earlier covenant. This is why throughout the Scriptures there’s a tension between God’s determination to chastise Israel and his commitment to never fully reject them.

It is this dilemma that results in the New Covenant as promised through the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34) and established by the Messiah (see Luke 22:20). Where people tend to get confused is over what is the old thing of which the New Covenant is the new thing. By calling the Hebrew Scriptures the Old Testament, “testament” being another word for covenant, people understandably get the impression that the Hebrew Scriptures as a whole should be viewed as past its expiry date, so to speak. The only book of the Bible that explicitly addresses this matter is the Book of Hebrews. However, Hebrews is asserting the obsolescence, not of God’s covenantal relationship with the people of Israel, but the Sinai covenant as a system administered by the Levitical priesthood and centered in the Temple in Jerusalem. The relationship of the ongoing nature of much of the contents of the Sinai covenant to the obsolescence of the Levitical system is a topic for another time.

Failure to differentiate these two covenants contributed to the view that the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70 along with the later exile of the great majority of the Jewish people as God’s complete rejection of his covenantal relationship with Israel.

But thankfully, the God of Israel is a God of his word. In fact, the reason why anyone can trust him today is due to his ongoing covenantal faithfulness to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Disregarding Israel

For the week of January 6, 2024 / 25 Tevet 5784

Message info over a women not wanting to look at a Star of David against a background of Hebrew Scripture

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6 – 28:13, 29:22-23

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. (Shemot/Exodus 1:8)

Fourteen years ago, I posted, “The Foundation of Anti-Semitism” (reposted about five years ago). I don’t think that either of those times there was anything specific going on that provoked me to post them apart from the important lesson found in the passage. It was really something to read it again against the backdrop of the war in Israel and the current rise in antisemitism worldwide. What I wrote then still applies to the current situation, but there is a particularly crucial, but too often neglected, element that I would like us to look at.

Since October 7, I have been working very hard to get a handle on the complex relationship between Israel and the Church. Perhaps you have seen or heard my presentation on Israel and the Faithfulness of God, where I map out God’s unconditional promises to the people of Israel, or my message, Our Divine Connections, that explores Paul’s illustration of the olive tree in order to grasp how non-Jewish Yeshua followers (aka Christians) are far more intimately connected to the people of Israel than what many people think. In order to fully get a handle on a biblical view of Israel and its relationship to the Church, the scourge of Christian antisemitism must be effectively confronted.   

Most sincere Yeshua followers are not aware of how entrenched antisemitism, Jew-hatred in other words, is integrated into the Christian psyche. In my Israel presentation mentioned above, I spent some time looking at a few familiar New Testament passages that are often taken to suggest that Gentile believers in Jesus are the “true Jews” or the “new Israel.” This is part of the dominant Christian viewpoint known as supersessionism or replacement theology. Many people who see the Church as God’s Israel today aren’t aware of how Jew hatred fueled the development of this viewpoint.

When looking at church history, it is disturbing to see how early non-Jewish Christian arrogance became standard fare in the church. This is despite Paul’s warning against this very thing (see Romans 11:17-24). I am guessing that Paul warned against it because he saw its early warning signs. I cannot say that I have a full understanding as to why Christians have had it out so badly for the Jewish people all these years, but our parsha clues us into a key dynamic at its core.

We read, “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph (Shemot/Exodus 1:8). For the new king to “not know Joseph,” means that he didn’t have regard for the great role that Joseph had in Egypt’s past. Either he didn’t know about it, or he didn’t care. Some have suggested that this king was the first of a new dynasty in Egypt. As a result, he may have naturally lacked awareness. On the other hand, I imagine he would want to know why there was such a large community of non-Egyptians in his domain. There likely would have been people around, the Israelites themselves no less, who could have provided the history. So, he may have known the background, but still, he didn’t care. So what that Joseph made a big difference long before and that the king back then had special regard for his people as a result. That was then; this is now. Tragically, Pharoah had no idea of what was going to happen by disassociating himself and his people from Joseph’s legacy.

The Church has fallen victim to the same error. God did something in a previous time in and through a particular people to create the current scenario. So what? That was then; this is now. The situation changed. By the mid second century, the temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed and only a small number of Jewish people were left in the land of Israel, which was renamed “Syria Palaestina” by the Romans. They did this in an attempt to eradicate any semblance of Jewish identity and attachment to the land. It’s difficult to know how many Jewish Yeshua followers remained in the world by this time. According to Acts 21:20, in the mid-first century, there had been a great number of Jewish believers (tens of thousands, perhaps), but it would not be too long before Jewish Yeshua followers as a distinct community would be no more. The Church, which was intended to be a diverse gathering of Jews and Gentiles, would not only lose its Jewish component but become anti-Jewish. And why? Leaders arose who did not know Israel.

Just as Pharoah had no regard for Joseph, the Church had no regard for Israel,. The Church villainized the Jewish people instead of honoring them for their God-given role in God’s plans and purposes. I wonder how much evil and destruction could have been avoided had the Church remembered Israel as it should have. While we can’t go back in time and fix what went wrong, we can learn from past sins. My heart breaks as I examine how greatly misguided the Church has been in its relationship to the Jewish people. But then, I can hardly contain my excitement when I consider the great blessings that will rain down from heaven when Christians finally realize the errors of the past and begin to regard Israel as God does.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version