Hanukkah & the Big Picture

For the week of December 4, 2021 / 30 Kislev 5782

Illustration of a hanukkiah on a globe

Miketz / Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15; 7:42-53
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7); Isaiah 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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And Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find a man like this, in whom is the Spirit of God?” Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you.” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:38-40)

It’s Hanukkah this week! Hanukkah commemorates the triumph of the small Jewish army over the powerful Seleucids in the year 165 BC under the tyrannical reign of Antiochus Epiphanes. Antiochus sought to consolidate his rule by imposing Greek culture and religion upon his diverse and expansive region, including the land of Israel. The temple in Jerusalem was desecrated by pagan worship, including the presence of a statue of Zeus and the sacrificing of a pig on the altar. The recapturing and cleansing of the temple along with the rededication of the altar was marked by a festival modelled after Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths). Battles against the Seleucids continued until independence for Israel was re-established for the first time since the Babylonian captivity.

A key component of the circumstances that led to the first Hanukkah is that Antiochus’s assimilation plan had been fairly successful in Israel. In First Maccabees, the primary historical source for Hanukkah, we read,

In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil. (1 Maccabees 1:11-15 [Jubilee Bible 2000]).

It is difficult to know exactly what “for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” is referring to, but it is likely a general critique, or should I say, rejection, of God’s choosing of the Jewish people. God established the people of Israel as a distinct nation. To ensure that distinction, he deemed it necessary to make them different from other nations.

It’s hard to be different. It creates suspicion. It makes interaction awkward, if not impossible. And, at times, it results in severe persecution and conflict. Eventually, a significant portion of the people couldn’t take it anymore. And so, they not only embraced the prevailing culture of their day, they also submitted to a medical procedure to hide their circumcision. All so that they would no longer be considered a separate people.

It is interesting that Hanukkah occurs in the midst of the story of Joseph in the weekly Torah readings. Much of Joseph’s suffering was due to his being different. It began with his father’s preferential treatment, followed by God’s unusual dream impartation. His brother’s hatred of him for these things thrust him into slavery and years of imprisonment. Yet, through it all, Joseph remained faithful to God, which kept him from the bitterness that would have undermined his calling.

The renegades, as they are called in First Maccabees, didn’t follow Joseph’s example. They lost sight of who they really were and were willing to give it all up. I in no way want to belittle their suffering. I don’t know what I would have done in their situation. But one thing I do know. They were not seeing the whole picture. Unlike Joseph, the only thing they took into account was their suffering. The “many disasters” had indeed happened to Israel, but they had neglected to remember their calling to be a blessing to the whole world (see Genesis 12:3; Galatians 3:28). The failure to retain their higher purpose made them susceptible to assimilation. As a result, they could no longer see how deceptive the lure of the prevailing culture was. The short-term benefits may have seemed appealing, but the long-term results would be disastrous.

It’s only when we keep the big picture of God’s plan in mind that we can endure the difficulties along the way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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God the Stabilizer

For the week of November 27, 2021 / 23 Kislev 5782

Message title info with Hohenzollern Castle, Wurttemberg, Germany, as the background

Vayeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1 – 40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

And Joseph’s master took him and put him into the prison, the place where the king’s prisoners were confined, and he was there in prison. But the LORD was with Joseph and showed him steadfast love and gave him favor in the sight of the keeper of the prison. (Bereshit/Genesis 39:20-21)

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In my message two weeks ago (Say the Words), I shared one of my concerns about how I was first introduced to trusting in Yeshua as Messiah. At the time, it was framed as just say the words and my life would change. As it turned out, that’s what happened, though I have realized that there was much more going on than simply reciting a formula.

There was another aspect of that day’s interaction that I have struggled with. Before I continue, let me be clear that, again, there was far more right about what happened that day than these two questionable items. The second issue is I was promised that if I said those words, I would be happy for the rest of my life. The person who told me about Yeshua that day, whom I just met, had no idea the depths of depression and anxiety in which I was trapped. So, such an offer was most enticing.

Honestly, I wasn’t disappointed. Almost immediately after asking God to forgive my sins and inviting Yeshua into my life, I went on an emotional high that I had never had before and haven’t had since. I therefore assumed that this is what my newfound faith was going to be like forever.

I didn’t start reading the Bible for myself until about two weeks after praying to receive Yeshua. Even then, in my euphoria, I didn’t notice that the Bible doesn’t make such a promise. Rather, the actual truth is more along the lines of: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Tehillim/Psalms 46:1). I eventually learned that God’s security in the midst of life-threating disaster is far more meaningful and helpful than the superficiality of a permanent residence on cloud nine.

I wonder if Jacob’s son Joseph went through a similar shift in things as I. I am not claiming for one moment that our lives are in direct parallel. The only point of connection between my story and his is we both share an original misinformed positive expectation. Joseph, like myself, underestimated the positive. All he had was a glimpse of his eventual leadership role in relation to his family. He didn’t know that would be only one aspect of his role in saving the entire region from starvation as Prime Minister of Egypt. While there’s no comparison between my impact and Joseph’s, I too underestimated the positive as God’s faithfulness has proven itself in my life over and over again.

Joseph and I don’t only share misinformed positive outlooks, we didn’t foresee the hardships either. Here too, I in no way compare my life challenges to Joseph’s. But that takes nothing away from the lesson to be learned.

All through Scripture we see people of God go through exceedingly difficult times. Sometimes due to their own foolishness, other times simply because they are doing exactly what God wanted them to do. Joseph was a victim of his brothers’ jealousy, not that he did much to alleviate that. But through it all, God was accomplishing his purpose in and through him. Torah doesn’t comment on how Joseph managed to not break under unjust circumstances. But he didn’t. God sustained him all those years as he prepared him to become the leader he was destined to be.

People love to quote Yeshua’s promise of abundant life (see John 10:10), but fail, as in my experience years ago, to mention that he also said, “In the world you will have tribulation (a fancy word for trouble)” (John 16:33). That’s not the last word, of course. The Messiah continues in that same verse: “But take heart; I have overcome the world.”

I may have been surprised to learn that I wasn’t going to be happy all the time. Instead, I received something much better. Knowing that God is with us in trouble, working to fulfill his purposes, is the greatest stabilizing force in the universe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Holy Discontentment

For the week of November 20, 2021 / 16 Kislev 5782

Young child with an earnest pained expression

Vayishlach
Torah:  Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12 (English 11:7 – 12:11)

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Then he said, “Let me go, for the day has broken.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” (Bereshit / Genesis 32:26-28)

This is one of the most, if not the most, profound moments in the entire Bible. How could anyone strive with God and prevail? But Jacob did, and it resulted, not only in he himself becoming known as “Israel,” the one who strives with God, but his people as well. The Chosen People of God would continue this striving (and sometimes prevailing) from then until now.

For many striving with God appears to be contrary to what a life of faith should be. We have images of serene saints disconnected from their passions and cares, humbly and unquestioningly receiving divine directions, submissively doing his bidding no matter how difficult it might be. We may have such images, but they are not derived from the Bible. Instead, Scripture paints a picture of struggle, doubt, fear, hope, failure, and lots of questions.

Our failure to grasp the struggle we are called to often results in a false version of contentment. Contentment is a good thing when it comes to our possessions and other worldly markers of success. But, on the other hand, we are not to be content. The Messiah himself taught his disciples to pray, saying: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). We are to pray that the world would coming into alignment with God’s will. This demands we not accept things the way they are, but rather to seek God for radical change. This necessitates a holy discontentment.

Holy discontentment doesn’t automatically direct us to constructive solutions. Too often our solutions are worse than the problems. This is why we are called to pray for change before we seek to implement it. Only God’s will in God’s way will extend his kingdom on earth.

Prayer as our response to holy discontentment should not take us back to those images of pious serenity. Instead, we should remember Jacob. I am aware that he was not concerned about what was wrong with the world. In his case, he was overwhelmed with terror as he anticipated encountering his brother. He was worried about what Esau might do to him after being ripped off by Jacob twenty or so years before. Still, his approach to God illustrates for us the struggle in prayer that God values.

Too often prayer is a thought-toss to the sky, slighted dusted with the hope that perhaps God Almighty may deem us worthy of his attention and, if we are lucky, things will go our way. I know most people would never think of prayer exactly like that, but I wonder. How many, like Jacob, won’t let go of God until he blesses them, despite being injured in the process?

Jacob isn’t alone in such an earnest approach to God. When Hannah prays for a son, who ended up being the great prophet Samuel, we read “she was deeply distressed and prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly” (1 Samuel 1:10). King David prays prayers such as “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Tehillim/Psalms 13:1). Jeremiah cries out: “Oh that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jeremiah 8:23; English 9:1). The Messiah himself “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Hebrews 5:7). Some think this is a reference to his anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane, but it is more likely a description of his general posture in prayer.

Is this intensity in prayer necessary? Doesn’t God know the desires of our hearts, not to mention his awareness of his own plans and purposes. If we think about it enough, we may be tempted to conclude that prayer shouldn’t be necessary, let alone require the effort we see in these examples. However, I don’t think it is an issue of necessity. Jacob and the others weren’t concerned about the theology of prayer. They were only concerned about two things, their need and the only one who could meet that need. Their intensity was a result of their desperation connecting with an understanding of God’s power and generosity.

This cannot be put on. Such intensity can’t be faked. But, at the same time, taking these and other biblical examples seriously can encourage us to get honest about our deepest needs and our lack of faith with regard to God’s response to our prayers. I wonder what would happen if we gave ourselves permission to strive with him, to hold on to him until he blesses us (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:26).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Say the Words

For the week of November 13, 2021 / 9 Kislev 5782

Two men, sitting on some stairs, talking

Vayetzei
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10-32:3 (English 28:10 – 32:2)
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13-14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)

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Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity” (Micah 14:3; English: 14:2)

There’s something that has always bothered me about the day I came to know Yeshua as the Messiah (check out my faith story here). Over forty-five years later, I am still impressed by the compelling godly presentation given to me by this person whom I just met that afternoon. God used an hour and a half intense conversation to completely transform my life. Still, there was something about what I was asked to do I have wondered about since then. This is the first time I am seriously working through it.

After providing a convincing case for the validity of the Bible, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, sharing the prophecies about the Messiah, and explaining the need for forgiveness as provided by Yeshua’s death, I was invited to say a prayer. The prayer was to include my admitting I had sinned against God, acknowledging that Yeshua (we called him “Jesus” back then) died for my sins and that he had risen from the dead. Then I was to ask Yeshua to take over my life (or something like that). Based on everything I was told that day, I felt I had everything to gain and nothing to lose. So, I prayed the prayer. I remember how I had a sense that something special had happened, though I was not fully prepared for the wonderful transformation I was going to experience over the next few days and weeks.

However, despite the great positive change I experienced that day, you may be surprised to learn that I have wondered how legitimate it is to ask someone to pray a prayer that he or she has next to no real grasp of. While I accepted the possibility of my being a sinner as it was explained to me (breaking a commandment of God is a sin; people who sin are sinners), did I actually believe that when I said this prayer? I knew next to nothing about Yeshua before that day, yet I was praying to ask him into my life. Did I mean it? How could I? It was all completely new to me.

Despite whatever level of understanding I had in the moment, the words given to me to say were true. They were true about me; they were true about God. There’s something about the power of words apart from our full understanding of them.

Up until now, I have assumed that for our words to be legitimate, they have to be authentic. To be authentic, I have to honestly mean them, which necessarily includes fully understanding them. But is that really the case? From when our children were very young, we taught them to apologize to each other. The offending party needed to say, “Please forgive me for” – and then name the offense. Then the offended party was to say, “I forgive you.” I am well aware that neither party had a full grasp of the interchange, including the probability that they were just mouthing the words. But apart from learning the importance of apologizing, forgiving, and being forgiven, the words of regret and forgiveness effectively served to preserve relationship. Another example is in the promises we make. We often have little grasp of the implications of those promises, but they carry weight regardless. Further, kind words, such as compliments, have a strong positive effect on people, regardless of how sincere they may be.

You might think, “But God sees through our insincerity. What good is parroting what someone else tells us to say especially when God knows all?” I would agree in the case of complete hypocrisy. But how much sincerity and understanding is necessary before God responds to our words? Apparently, not much. This brings to mind the oft-mentioned parable of the prodigal son (see Luke 15:11-32). What did it take to provoke his father’s generous response? After not caring about his father at all and exploiting his resources, the son’s return was more about himself and his own suffering than a true change of heart. And yet, as soon as the father saw his wayward son approaching, he ran to him and enthusiastically restored him to the household with great celebration.

So, as we read in this week’s Haftarah (reading portion from the Hebrew prophets), it doesn’t take much to return to the Lord. Restoration to God just starts with a simple prayer. He will take over from there.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Divine Inquiries

Toledot

Young woman praying expectantly
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19-28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1-2:7
For the week of November 10, 2018 / 2 Kislev 5779

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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. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22)

Something wasn’t right. Rebekah was in physical turmoil. After being married for twenty years without conceiving, she finally got pregnant. As the Torah tells it this was an answer to her husband’s prayers. Miracle pregnancies were becoming a tradition in this family as her mother-in-law had Isaac when she was ninety. Still, most mothers-to-be would get anxious when the rumbly-tumblies in their tummies are harsher than normal, not to mention that, for Rebekah, getting pregnant was no easy feat. Whether it was the discomfort alone or that she was afraid she was miscarrying, it was sufficient to send her to inquire of the Master of the Universe.

The Hebrew word translated “inquire” is “darash,” and it paints a picture of her going to God with the expectation of getting an answer. I wonder if that’s how most people think of prayer. You judge if I am wrongly judging, but my guess is that the vast majority of prayers prayed involve zero expectation. Most prayers are prayed out of obligation: obligation to religious duty, obligation to parents, obligation to peers, even obligation to self. A smaller percentage arises from sincere desire from people who for one reason or other truly want to pray. They may really want to take the time to talk to God. But do we expect him to respond? Some prayers, of course, aren’t requests, including expressions of worship or thanks. But many prayers are. And yet, how often do we throw up our requests to heaven, more or less satisfied with our utterances, and move on with life?

Access to information today has never been easier. Instant search results are so common that it’s difficult to remember what it was like before broadband Internet and Google. Now almost anything we need to know is at our fingertips or in response to our voice. I once successfully used Google to help me find my car in a very large parking lot when I was out of town. Whether it’s how to get a stain out of a particular material or finding the facts about a strange skin rash, we search the Net with the can-do attitude of “It’s got to be here somewhere!” And yet when we “inquire of the Lord,” we don’t expect much.

Not to be glib, but Rebekah related to God a lot more like today’s Internet. She went to him expecting answers. While the Bible in no way implies that there’s a push-button dynamic to prayer, it expects us to expect answers from God. Here’s what the Messiah taught. Familiar words to many, but listen to what he is saying:

Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11).

Don’t get distracted by the important sub-topic of unanswered prayer. However you grapple with that, any conclusion that contradicts the Messiah’s teaching here is wrong. Which is why later on we read: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). James accepted Yeshua’s teaching on prayer. James knew the story of Rebekah. The Master of the Universe delights to answer our inquiries.

Now for the big question: How much of our lack of hearing from God is due to lack of expectancy? What are we not hearing because we are not being earnest enough? Why should he respond to half-hearted disinterest? This is not to say that we can manipulate our Father in Heaven into answering prayer. What I am saying is let’s at least start by accepting that he “gives generously to all without reproach.” Praying believing that he answers will certainly result in far more answers than praying believing that he won’t.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard VersionFacebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmail

God’s Particularity

For the week of October 30, 2021 / 24 Heshvan 5782

Hand reaching down to hold a unique pawn among others

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

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Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:5)

Abraham lived about thirty-eight more years after Sarah died. During that time, he married a woman named Keturah and had several more children through her. This shows that Abraham and Sarah’s inability to have children was due to something to do with Sarah. This was already evident by Abraham’s first son Ishmael whom he had through Hagar, Sarah’s servant, at Sarah’s behest.

That Abraham didn’t have a fertility issue seems to contradict Paul’s statement in the New Covenant Writings, where he writes, “He [Abraham] did not weaken in faith when he considered his own body, which was as good as dead (since he was about a hundred years old), or when he considered the barrenness of Sarah’s womb” (Romans 4:19). This is saying, however, that Abraham reasonably understood himself and Sarah as beyond the age of having children. That the issue all along appears to have been with Sarah is besides the point. As a couple who couldn’t have children, Abraham trusted in God to overcome their infertility in order to fulfill his promise to them.

Abraham accepted God’s particularity regarding his plans and purposes. We see this demonstrated through the dispersion of his inheritance. Abraham and Keturah had six sons. It appears that he also had other children through various concubines (I don’t know if I will ever get used to the idea of concubines in the ancient biblical world). While he provided for all his sons while he was alive, his inheritance went to Isaac alone (see Bereshit/Genesis 25:1-6).

Perhaps you might think this is unfair, but Abraham was following God’s lead. After the birth of Ishmael, God determined that the one to carry on the promise was to be the child born to barren Sarah as we read in Bereshit/Genesis 17:18-19: And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

The inheritance given to Isaac was not mainly about money or livestock, etc. It was the legacy of the promise of blessing unto the nations (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:3). In God’s providence, he deemed that he would develop through Isaac alone a particular people through whom he would reveal himself to the world and by whom the Messiah and Savior would come.

God’s particularity is a core part of God’s creation design. He made a world where things work in a particular way. To ignore the set principles of the universe is to invite unnecessary trouble. Discovering those principles is not a simple matter. But when the Creator God reveals his truth or gives a direction, we are well-advised to follow his lead.

The particularity of Isaac may seem unfair, but God knows what he is doing. What set Abraham apart is that he was willing to do life God’s way. Careful adherence to God’s direction is the only way to lasting blessing. Abraham’s life models God-inspired effective living for us all.

We might think it is unfair that things work the way they do rather than the way we want them to. Some insist that anything but giving people identical opportunities along with guaranteed outcomes is unfair. Perhaps it is unfair. While we must do what we can to enact justice, protecting the vulnerable and providing for the needy, God made a world of diversity. Humans possess a great variety of strengths, weaknesses, and abilities. Surely some inequality is due to injustice and sin, yet to attempt to create absolute equality at every level undermines the great variety that God instilled into his creation.

A key aspect of that variety is God’s particularity in the development of his rescue operation in and through the people of Israel and as fulfilled in the Messiah. It is humbling to accept that some things are just the way they are. Abraham was wise to accept that. We would be too.

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

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Revelatory Reactions

For the week of October 23, 2021 / 17 Heshvan 5782

A woman and a man laughing

Vayera
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim / 2 Kings 4:1-37
Originally posted the week of November 19, 2016 / 18 Heshvan 5777

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But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” (Bereshit/Genesis 18:15)

The eighteenth chapter of the first book of the Bible is extraordinary in many ways. Primarily that it records a visit to the home of Abraham and Sarah by God Almighty himself accompanied by two angels. Talk about “guess who’s coming for dinner?”! This blows away the popular misconception within Judaic circles that the idea that God manifesting himself in human form is idolatrous. Forbidding the manufacturing of images is one thing, that God takes on human form from time to time, and supremely in the person of the Messiah, is another. Apples and oranges.

God’s agenda for this visit appears to be twofold. First, it is to confirm his promise concerning the birth of Isaac through Sarah. Abraham already received this promise in the previous chapter at the same time as the establishment of the covenant of circumcision. The confirmation of the promise regarding Isaac recorded here may have been more for Sarah’s benefit than Abraham, which we will come back to in a second. The other purpose for this special visit is found in the following chapter, in which God reveals to Abraham the coming judgement of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where his nephew Lot was residing.

There is an interesting compare and contrast in the reactions of Abraham and Sarah to the two promise announcements, since both of them laughed, which became the basis of Isaac’s name. This is the sort of thing that keeps scholars employed as they discuss how these are likely two different story traditions that were both included in the final version of the book. We don’t know exactly how these accounts were passed on over time, but it’s not unreasonable to accept them at face value. That both parents laughed makes sense. That such a couple would have their first baby is pretty funny no matter how you look at it. It also makes sense that their laughter arose from completely different perspectives as they are two very different individuals.

Abraham’s laughter appears to be one of astonishment. He gives no indication that such a thing wasn’t possible for God to do; only that it was completely unusual. Sarah’s laughter, on the other hand, was one of incredulity, unbelief in other words. We derive this from a combination of her statement about her elderly condition, the Lord’s response to her laughter, and her denial of it. Reading this, I don’t get the impression that the Lord has a serious issue with her reaction, but rather with her denial.

God’s promise of the unexpected and the unusual, if not impossible, elicited different responses from two different people. Laughter is an emotion that doesn’t normally emerge after a long period of contemplation; it occurs in the moment. As a reaction, it reveals something about the nature of the person at that precise time. In Sarah’s case, it was unbelief. That she would deny it is understandable, especially when talking to God. But who is she kidding? Did she really think she could fool God?

And yet don’t we do the same? Don’t we try to cover up when we are embarrassed and ashamed about something? Sometimes the shame of what we have done is so great, not only would we deny it to God’s face, we may even try to fool ourselves into thinking we didn’t do what we did.

Look at God’s response to her after she said she didn’t laugh: “No, but you did laugh” (v. 15). End of scene. Did anything happen between God and Sarah on this issue after that? We don’t know. Did Sarah accept the truth of her behavior? We don’t know that either. In the way the story is presented, the reader knows the truth of the situation, and God has the final word. That’s a picture of the way life is for all of us. There is an objective truth about who we are and why we react the way we do. God, more than anyone, knows what’s going on. He will have the final word about us and our lives. We can either accept the truth and deal with it or we can keep on denying it.

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

Follow Me

For the week of October 16, 2021 / 10 Heshvan 5782

School of fish with one fish swimming in an opposite direction

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 don’t know if you have heard of the show, “The Chosen,” the first-ever multi-season dramatic depiction of the Gospels, currently with season three in development. At some point I want to do a full review of it on my weekly video podcast “Thinking Biblically,” but for now let me say that I have found it very insightful, especially in reminding me how very real Yeshua, his followers, and the time they lived in were. Also, it has shown me how much I have read into the Bible without realizing it, including elements such as emphasis and tone. The Chosen depicts the characters and the cultural context in surprising ways, challenging me to give more thought to these elements than I usually have. Their interpretations aren’t necessarily correct but are certainly worthy of consideration. Here’s an example.

Up until watching the Chosen, I always understood Yeshua’s call as “Follow me,” (e.g. Matthew 9:9) with the emphasis on the “me.” That preaches well. As Messiah and Son of God he calls us to focus on him. After all, he is Messiah, Lord, and Savior, “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6), the only one who can restore our relationship to God. But in the Chosen, the Yeshua character doesn’t say it like that. Instead, it’s “Follow me,With the emphasis on “follow.” (I have provided a link below to the Chosen clip of Yeshua’s call of Matthew the tax collector, where you can hear it yourself.)

Of course, we don’t know for sure how it sounded. It was probably Aramaic anyway, though it could have been Hebrew (the scholarly jury is still out on that one). The point is, however, the “follow” in “follow me” is at least as important as the one we are called to follow.

Last week, we looked at what I called “Noah’s secret,” which is walking with the Lord. I mentioned that doing so is a mark of every good Bible character. Whether or not a person heard the actual words, “Follow me” as did many of Yeshua’s disciples, true godliness is expressed by living according to a course set by God, a course that is most often very different from that of the prevailing culture.

Few characters exemplify this as much as Abram, whose name became Abraham, as described in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). I never tire of thinking about what it must have meant for this elderly man to journey in those days from his homeland to live as a nomad in hostile foreign territory. His following a God unrecognized by those around him is the biblical model of faith.

The call to follow is a call to direct our lives in God’s direction alone. He doesn’t lasso us and drag us on a leash (sorry for the mixed metaphor). He is intent on finding those who are willing to keep in step with him, whatever the cost. To follow is to give ourselves to him as he leads us into the great unknown, a life out of step with the crowd, to go against the grain, to swim upstream, and as I mentioned last week, to march to the beat of a different drum.

To follow is not to enter into an alternate spiritual state disconnected from reality. Far from it! It is to journey through life according to reality, the reality of a creation God designed and is restoring. To follow is to live like Abraham, who, by turning his back on what others thought was normal, helped to set the course of God’s rescue plan whereby all the nations of the world would be blessed.

You can be part of that plan. But are you waiting for God to swoop you up on a magic carpet and carry you along on some spiritual high? Or will you get up, turn from whatever it might be that is holding you back, and follow the Messiah right now?

An example of “Follow me” from The Chosen:

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

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Noah’s Secret

For the week of October 9, 2021 / 3 Heshvan 5782

Title information against colorful background

Noach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. (Bereshit/Genesis 6:13-14)

We live in troubled times. Whether you believe that we are doomed due to climate change or climate change politics, it’s pretty unsettling. COVID, of course, has taken this to another level. Whether we view it as the plague of all plagues or an excuse for the establishment of totalitarian control, pandemic or no pandemic, we are certainly in a global predicament.

Whatever the exact nature of the current situation, whether we are on the brink of disaster or this whole thing will blow over (I would be very happily surprised if that is the case), this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading) is instructive. Its lessons are a sort of one-size-fits-all solution to just about any kind of challenge we might face in life. While it’s simple in its all-encompassing nature, implementing it is easier said than done. Yet, it’s something that is within reach of everyone.

This week’s reading includes the story of Noah and how God enabled him to overcome the second greatest disaster in world history. The greatest disaster of all time hasn’t happened yet. As we wait for that to happen, we continue to endure many lessor disasters. So let’s learn Noah’s secret.

It’s not a secret, actually. We are told in Bereshit/Genesis, chapter six and verse nine, “Noah walked with God.” That’s it. That’s all we need to know, sort of. You need the rest of the Bible to fully understand what walking with God is all about. But that’s what he did. That’s what made the difference between him and everyone else. That’s why only his family survived the flood. And that’s what we need to survive the challenges of our day.

To walk with God is a metaphor, a figure of speech, that creates a mental picture of traveling with God as we would with any other person. Walking with someone is necessarily relational. It requires a basic agreement between the two parties. If the parties are peers, the directional orientation may be that of mutual consent. If one is regarded as the senior in any way, then that person sets the course and the other follows, which would be the case with Noah and God. God set the course; Noah followed.

Noah’s day was one in which the prevailing culture was on the brink of destruction due to lifestyles completely contrary to the Creator’s design. Noah was different in that he kept in step with God. As a result, God entrusted him with a long-term plan that saved not only his own family, but also God’s overall creation project. To walk with God is not only beneficial for self, it finds fruition in being a blessing to others.

This is also the essence of God’s call of Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). The directive to him to go to the land which would become the land of Israel was a call to walk with God. It’s no wonder, that when the Messiah finally appears on the scene, he says, “Follow me.” To walk with God is set to one’s course in the direction in which God is going. Whatever might be happening around us, God sets the course; God determines the destination.

How walking with God finds expression in each person’s life will be different. For Noah, it meant spending a large portion of his life building an enormous rescue craft that must have appeared ridiculous to everyone else. But since Noah walked with God, he wasn’t deterred by people’s opinions and emotions. Abraham lived as an elderly foreigner in a hostile environment with little to show for his efforts while he was alive yet laid the groundwork for God’s master plan. We could look at almost every other key Bible character and remark on how they marched to the beat of a different drum – different metaphor, but you get the point.

So then, when you and I respond positively to the Messiah’s call to follow him, we find ourselves on the same journey as all these before us who walked with God. To others, we may look strange, out of place – crazy perhaps – but on a road full of life and blessing. We don’t have to be overwhelmed by these troubled times if we walk with God.

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

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Blessing from Nothing

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

Open hands receiving brilliant light

Bereshit
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

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