Better Late Than Never

For the week of December 16, 2023 / 4 Tevet 5784

Message info over a partial clock face

Miketz
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 3:15 – 4:1

Then the chief cupbearer said to Pharaoh, “I remember my offenses today.” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:9)

This message can literally change, not only your life, but the world! Am I exaggerating? I don’t think so. In fact, when this very thing happens, write me and tell me about it. Here goes…!

First, let’s set the scene. Pharoah, king of Egypt, had two disturbing dreams. They were of the kind that obviously meant something, but what they meant wasn’t clear. It bothered Pharoah to the point that he sent for “all the magicians of Egypt and all its wise men” (Bereshit/Genesis 41:8), but no one could tell him the meaning. That’s when his cupbearer spoke up and told him about Joseph. The cupbearer had been in the dungeon along with his baker colleague, when they each had dreams which Joseph, a fellow prisoner, had correctly interpreted. Just as Joseph predicted, the baker was executed, while the cupbearer was restored to his position. Prior to their release, Joseph asked the cupbearer to speak up on his behalf in the hopes that he too would finally get out of that horrible place. But even though Joseph’s interpretation was proven to be correct, the cupbearer neglected to say anything on Joseph’s behalf. We read:

[Pharoah] restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. But he hanged the chief baker, as Joseph had interpreted to them. Yet the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him (Bereshit/Genesis 40:21-23).

Did the cupbearer forget Joseph or forget him, if you know what I mean. Did the thought of Joseph’s request completely vanish from the cupbearer’s mind or is this a way of expressing neglect? Perhaps someone has done a thorough study of the psychology of forgetting. Why do we remember some things and not others, even important things? However that works, it is possible that the word “forget” here is a way to indicate neglect rather than the complete loss of awareness of something. Of course, we may also use “forget” to purposely cover up (“lie about” in other words) something we don’t want to do.

Whatever the dynamics in the cupbearer’s case, in the context of Pharoah’s distress, he owned his forgetting by confessing that he failed to follow-up on Joseph’s request. I wonder why he admitted that he failed to do it. Apparently, this is something he thought he should have done at the time. Regardless, why didn’t he simply say that he knew a guy from his prison days who could interpret dreams?

Whatever his motive, how he says what he says reflects a sense of regret for not mentioning Joseph sooner. This suggests that his forgetting may have been due to some sort of purposeful neglect after all. Perhaps, he didn’t want to talk about his imprisonment. Maybe he didn’t like thinking about it, or he was afraid that bringing up whatever led to his imprisonment may stir the wrong people and get him in trouble again. It was a lot easier to forget everything about those days and enjoy his freedom, while innocent Joseph rotted in prison.

Whatever the reason for not speaking up sooner; whatever the reason for his apologetic confession, he did speak up. Would it not have been easier, after not saying anything for two years (see Bereshit/Genesis 41:1), to stay silent and let Pharoah get over it? Maybe Pharoah was making things really unpleasant for everyone around him, and that’s why the cupbearer was so apologetic when he did speak up.

Whatever the reason, he did speak up.

I wonder how many times in our lives we find ourselves in a situation where we realize we should have said or done something in the past, but for whatever reason, we didn’t. Now the opportunity to speak up or do what we should have done earlier presents itself again. Yet, the intimidation we feel from having to admit what we should have said or done prevents us from doing what we should say or do now. I am sorry for whatever it was that prevented you from making the needed difference at the time. I am also sorry for how uncomfortable you might feel now as you are faced with not only the challenge of whatever it is, but also having to own up to your past failure. But may I plead with you to consider how much the benefit of your contribution at this time is greater than the discomfort you may feel over it? It’s possible that others may not be happy with your past failure. Can you blame them? You aren’t. But think how much better off we’d all be if you would break through your fears and do what needs to be done. Better late than never.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Target

For the week of December 9, 2023 / 26 Kislev 5784

Message info over a red and white round target

Vayeshev/Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/ Genesis 37:1 – 40:23; B’midbar/Numbers 7:18-29
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:3-4)

Joseph had a target on his back. From a young age, his life situation set him up for trouble. We just read twice in quick succession that his father not only loved him more than his brothers, he made a big deal of it by making a special garment for him. The Hebrew word for love is “ahav,” which functions much like English in that it expresses strong affection and/or desire toward a person or thing. Jacob had and demonstrated a great preference for Joseph over and against his other sons.

Something similar was going on with God and Joseph as well. I wouldn’t say that God loved Joseph more than his brothers or anyone else. But he certainly bestowed upon him a special favor not shared by others. Joseph was gifted by God in having revelatory dreams, the ability to interpret dreams, and great administrative skill. Moreover, his thriving in the midst of great and painful circumstances at the hands of his own family and others is also credited to God’s being with him in an unusual way.

God chose Joseph unto a very particular purpose. This is not to say that the rest of us are insignificant. Each and every human being is created in God’s image and thus is designed to represent God on Planet Earth. At the same time, however, we are not all called to the same level of importance and impact. Joseph was unique in this regard. Not completely unique, of course, as the Bible includes a long list of such individuals.

Being called to a privileged position in God’s overall plan comes with great existential challenges. Through the years, as I have examined Joseph’s life, I have considered how both Jacob’s and Joseph’s attitudes and actions may have contributed to Joseph’s trouble. But had it not been for the special role God called him to, it is doubtful his life would have been so difficult.

Last week, we looked at how Jacob’s striving and prevailing with God is an illustration of the essence of truly knowing God. I may not have said it exactly that way, but the more I think about it, the more obvious it is to me. From the earliest chapters of Torah, God’s intention was to confront and eventually overcome the curse that resulted from our first parents’ rebellion against him. Since then, anyone truly aligned with God and goodness goes against the grain of the prevailing evil that has been unleashed upon the whole creation.

Those who are called by God unto the service of good will find themselves targets of all sorts of trouble. Trouble from family, trouble from friends, trouble from co-workers, trouble from enemies. And it’s not because God’s servants are troublemakers. Look at the trouble caused by Pharoah’s wife (see Bereshit/Genesis 39:1-23). It was difficult enough to be a slave in Egypt, but then to be falsely accused of attempting to rape his master’s wife, resulting in imprisonment in a dungeon? If you know the story, you know that God would use this in Joseph’s life as a long, difficult road to great prominence in Egypt and as the means to preserve his family and God’s purposes. Wonderful indeed, but at great personal cost to Joseph.

To be favored by God is to have a target on your back. Failure to understand this causes us all sorts of confusion and unnecessary grief. That’s why the Messiah said: “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (John 15:19). Let’s not be surprised when it happens.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Striving and Prevailing

For the week of December 2, 2023 / 19 Kislev 5784

Message info over an illustration of a silhouette of two men wrestling against a dramatic background

Vayishlach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English: 32:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12

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 32:27-28)

On October 7 of this year, I began to see the world differently. That’s when Islamic terrorists infiltrated Israel to rape, mutilate, and kill over 1200 Jews and others, as well as take about 240 as hostages. That horrific day sent shock waves around the world. In my lifetime, I have never seen the worldwide Jewish community affected to such an extent. Neither have I witnessed this level of support for our people. Nor have I ever seen so much Jew hatred.

So much is clearer to me now, especially God’s eternal purposes in and through the nation of Israel and the forces contrary to those purposes. Among the latter is a basic inability to fully comprehend our nature and calling. God has made us “other.” The non-Jewish world will always treat us as “other,” holding us somewhere between suspicion and disdain until it grasps the divine component at work within and through us.

People can debate whether Jacob was the way he was because God chose him, or God chose him because of the way he was. In some incomprehensible way, it is likely a complex combination of both. Regardless, it seems to me that we haven’t thought enough about what God said to him during their all-night wrestling match: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:28).

Striven and prevailed. Do you understand what’s going on here? Striven with God and with men and have prevailed. Think about it! From birth, Jacob strove. Never satisfied with his life position or status, he didn’t accept his place in the family, but strove for better. He strove for the birthright and got it. He strove for the better blessing and got it. After being outwitted by his Uncle Laban, he strove with him and prevailed. Striven and prevailed. And how he has been criticized for it by Bible readers and others since then. Jacob, the trickster! Jacob, the deceiver! Yet, he prevailed. But then, in the middle of the night, at his wit’s end, terrified that his brother was finally going to get his vengeance, striving to protect himself from mortal danger, Jacob encounters God. All night he strives. His opponent injures him. Still, he strives, insisting to do so until the mysterious stranger blesses him, which he does. He does so by bestowing upon Jacob a new identity. New, but not completely new, as he confirms what Jacob has been doing all along: “For you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Striven and prevailed.

Prevailed? With men and with God? Impossible! But he did. You may say that he did so only because God allowed it. Where did you read that? God himself says Jacob strove and prevailed. God doesn’t lie. He doesn’t get it wrong. God, who created the universe by his word. God, who named the day, the night, the heavens, the Earth, and the Seas, called Jacob, “Israel.” Why? For he strove with men and God and prevailed.

And since then, the people of Israel have continued to strive and prevail. Not every individual; not every time; but generally so—as a people. Striving and prevailing. Enslave them, they cry to God, who rescues them. They fail to enter the Promised Land due to fear. Some want to return to Egypt. A generation later, they acquire the land after all. Then, through their generations, their waywardness gets them into trouble, but never absolutely so. Exiled, they return. More foreign oppression. Yet, hoping for the Messiah. Messiah arrives. They reject him—or do they? A remnant, just like always, remains faithful. Not only that, that remnant takes the reality of the wrestling God into the broader world. But the world isn’t grateful. Instead, they do everything to assimilate them. But they won’t assimilate. They strive to retain their God-given identity. From anti-Jewish Church laws, to ghettos, to crusades, to inquisitions, they continue to strive. The ghetto walls come down, but the world isn’t friendly. A renewed dream to strive for—that of returning to our God-promised home. Striving and prevailing. The Holocaust threatens the dream for good. But Jacob’s children prevail. Now, after two thousand years back in the Promised Land, the striving and prevailing continues.

I imagine it is curious for some to think this way about a people who are fundamentally secular, like so many others. What relevance does the God of Israel have to the people of Israel, when he isn’t central in the lives of the majority? But that’s been the story from the beginning. Jacob himself wasn’t aware of the relevancy of God until they wrestled that day. He didn’t even know why he was wrestling, until he did. The striving and prevailing go on. And one day, we will understand.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Are You Jacob?

For the week of November 25, 2023 / 12 Kislev 5784

Message info over a painting of Jacob's stealing his brother's blessing from his father Isaac

Va-Yeze
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English: 12:12 – 14:9)
Originally posted the week of November 21, 2015 / 9 Kislev 5776

Then Jacob made a vow, saying, “If God will be with me and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house. And of all that you give me I will give a full tenth to you.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:20-22)

From before he was born, Abraham’s grandson and Isaac’s son Jacob was a fighter, constantly contending with others, wheeling and dealing in order to get the upper hand. One day he would even wrestle with God and to some extent win, but that’ll have to wait until next week. He was a driven man, who knew (or at least thought he knew) what he wanted and strove to attain it at all costs. The ironic thing about Jacob is that God had already determined that he would receive many of the things he strove for, but that didn’t create a laid-back, passive, “whatever” approach to life. Instead he was willing to outsmart, trick, and deceive even his closest family members to get his way.

But why is that? Was he oblivious to God’s plan for his life? We know that his mother knew about his destiny, because God had told her (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22-23), It’s possible that she kept that to herself even though her role in Jacob’s deceiving his father for the blessing may have been fueled by this knowledge. But whether or not he knew of God’s promise from an early age, God himself made it clear to him in a dream as he was running away from his brother Esau (Bereshit/Genesis 28:10-17). Yet the awareness of God’s promises didn’t alter his approach to life. The bulk of this week’s Torah portion deals with his wrangling with his uncle Laban. God prospers Jacob nonetheless, but through it all, Jacob fights for everything he gets.

Do you know anyone like Jacob? Born to greatness – people who do well at whatever they put their hand to, but seem to think that their success is completely dependent on themselves? On one hand they are likeable and helpful. They are winners after all. Who wouldn’t want them on their team? They tend to make others look good. However, they are always fighting, struggling, vying to get their way. They seem to always be selling something, while they relate to others, even their friends, as opponents. They don’t think anyone really understands them and the world would be a better place if everyone would simply listen to them. Because of their great abilities, much good comes from their efforts, but they can sure be tiring to be around.

Why is that? Those who are of the normal cantankerous sort just cause trouble. It’s better to avoid those kinds of folks. But not the Jacobs. The blessing and favor of God is upon them. But it’s as if they don’t know it. And that is exactly what their problem is. They live with some sense of God’s call and presence in their lives, but at the same time, the reality of that has not fully taken over their hearts.

When God appeared to Jacob as he ran away from home, he didn’t completely deny that God spoke to him in his dream. That’s what the true atheist or agnostic might have done. But in Jacob’s case he acknowledged God’s existence and that he had actually spoken to him. Yet he couldn’t accept God’s promise to him. The way he strove after his father’s blessing, he must have had an understanding of its value, but he wouldn’t or couldn’t trust that God had already determined to give it to him and/or had the ability to do so. Therefore he lived as if his success was totally dependent upon himself.

His failure to grasp the reality of the situation didn’t change the fact that God’s promises to him were unconditional. Jacob may have thought he was such a good fighter, smarter and stronger than his perceived opponents, when all along it was God working in and through him and his circumstances to bring about his will in Jacob’s life.

His eventual wrestling match with God would change all that. But until that happened, think of all the wasted and misguided energy and action on his part, resulting in so much anxiety and unnecessary strife. It was Jacob against the world, when all along God was guiding him and prospering him. Of course, we will never know what it would have been like had Jacob trusted God from the beginning or at any other time before God finally had his way. It’s too late for him. But it’s not too late for the Jacobs of today. Why wait until you (if you are a Jacob) are at the end of your rope to get this message. If you are in covenant relationship with God through the Messiah, you can relax. Knowing God’s favor is upon you doesn’t mean you don’t have to work hard or you won’t face trouble. It’s that you will no longer see everyone around you as an opponent to overcome. Instead you can serve God and others, knowing that God will indeed have his way in and through you.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Chosen

For the week of November 18, 2023 / 5 Kislev 5784

Message info on a glowing Star of David

Toldot
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: Malachi 1:1-2:7
Originally posted the week of November 14, 2015 / 2 Kislev 5776 (revised)

“I have loved you,” says the LORD. But you say, “How have you loved us?” “Is not Esau Jacob’s brother?” declares the LORD. “Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.” (Malachi 1:2-3)

This Haftarah reading (selection from the Hebrew prophets) was obviously chosen because of its reference to Jacob and Esau, whose story is found in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading). And speaking of chosen, that’s what this is all about. Before these boys were born, God determined that the younger twin would be the recipient of the promises given by God to their father, Isaac, and grandfather, Abraham. My using the words “determined” and “chosen” causes all sort of emotions for all sorts of people. But I think that the controversy over such things is due to various assumptions, implications, and conclusions that are not necessarily derived from the text. The main misconception about such things is that it must involve fatalism, which even a superficial reading of the text demonstrates that this is anything but the case. The outworking of Jacob’s chosenness is anything but fate. The twists and turns are absolutely delightful – that’s delightful for the reader not for Jacob and Esau themselves. Their story involves real people in real circumstances making real decisions. Somehow God is working out his will, but as for how it works, I am happy to leave that with God.

I probably haven’t satisfied most of you who are either champions or opponents of the doctrine of predestination, but I think there is a much more controversial and crucial aspect to the story of Jacob and Esau. However chosenness works, God chose Jacob, which is an extension of his choosing Abraham and Isaac and the establishment of the special status of Jacob’s descendants, the people of Israel. That the Master of the Universe might bestow special status upon one nation over any other is thought of by some (or most) as the worst kind of arrogance there is – that is until you understand what chosenness really entails.

As I once wrote in an article, entitled The Jewish Advantage, I can assure you that chosenness is not what you might think it is. What it does mean is what other people consider normal doesn’t apply to you. They love you or hate you to the extreme, sometimes flipping from one to the other without warning. Most feel the burden of being God’s people without knowing what it is, longing to just fit in, but knowing it isn’t possible. You get a lot of attention, but you never know who your real friends are. You despise being judged by a different standard from everyone else, but deep in your heart you long for that standard.

It’s interesting to me that this description of Jewish chosenness could equally apply to any true follower of Yeshua, Jewish or not. Once the God of Israel gets hold of you, you discover that life treats you differently. After a while you realize that this isn’t due to personal choices, other believers, or circumstances. It is because God is involved in your life in an unusual way. You have been set aside for something bigger than yourself as you have been thrust into God’s plans and purposes. You have been chosen. You have special status. This doesn’t mean you’re better than anyone else, you’re just different, different in a good way, of course.

When I have been in the Land Israel, I am reminded in graphic terms of the depths of that difference. A land of such great diversity, beauty, and conflict that cannot be understood through the narrow focus of a media lens. One needs to grasp the full vista of its heights and depths. Those who treat the realities of Israel like cold theological doctrines miss the powerful voice of God, who is speaking through the complexities of life there. The hurts and confusion, fear and turmoil, blessing and presence of God found in the story of Jacob and Esau continue to play out in Israel today. But unless we recognize God’s prerogative to invest himself in those in whom he chooses, and bless those whom he decides to bless, we will find ourselves out of sorts with God and life, walking the path of Esau who lost himself in his own selfishness. Instead of grumbling or complaining about the concept of chosenness, perhaps it is time you discovered that you too may be chosen.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Dynamics of Effective Living

For the week of November 11, 2023 / 27 Heshvan 5784

Message info on an image of a wilderness hiker

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1 – 25:18
Prophets: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 1:1-31
Originally posted the week of November 3, 2018 / 25 Heshvan 5779

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites. (Bereshit/Genesis 23:19-20)

A survey of Abraham’s life apart from its eventual place in history is not that impressive. An old, childless man travels to a foreign land to live a nomadic existence in a hostile environment. Having the luxury of biblical narration clues us into his motives and hopes as well as the supernatural dynamic working behind the scenes. But what did he actually accomplish? That the three great monotheistic religions claim him as their primary ancestor has little to do with any sense of achievement he may have had. That he and his elderly wife had a miracle baby is more the stuff of tabloids than history books. Sure, leading the charge in the defeat of several kings is pretty impressive, but we know his motive was more for the sake of family than some great noble cause.

I wonder what he thought was going to happen when he first answered God’s call to go to the Land of Canaan. How keen he was is questionable given that his family settled in Haran, halfway between his birthplace and his destination, until his father died (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:31-32). But when he finally resumed his journey, it was in response to God’s promising him greatness, peoplehood, and blessing for the world. Soon after arriving at his destination, he was also promised the land itself. As he waited for the pieces of his puzzle to fall into place, he almost lost his wife Sarah twice due to fearing for his own life. He tried to solve his childless problem via the scheme that produced Ishmael. Later he determined God told him to sacrifice Isaac. Thankfully he stopped at the last minute. He lived long enough to arrange a wife for Isaac who was already thirty and didn’t seem to be too keen to do much. I have often wondered what the psychological effects of his dad’s holding a knife over his heart had on him and subsequent generations, but that’ll have to wait for another time.

By the time Abraham breathed his last, what did he have to show for himself? He didn’t have any grandchildren yet, let alone have any semblance of becoming a great nation. And as for land, all he owned was burial plot. We know the rest of the story, but it would be hundreds of years and unbelievable circumstances before his descendants would become a significant nation and acquire the Promised Land. Good thing that Abraham kept on keeping on in spite of the lack of spectacular, earth-shattering events.

Obviously, it wasn’t fame or any great sense of accomplishment that kept Abraham going. However he understood the promise of greatness, peoplehood, land, and blessing, the lack of fulfilment didn’t prevent him from doing his part albeit with the occasional hiccup. He believed he heard God speak to him and acted accordingly. It didn’t matter to him that onlookers would be clued out as to why he was doing what he was doing no matter how bizarre it seemed. He knew God spoke to him. Perhaps he had second thoughts or thought he was crazy. Yet, he did what God called him to do and changed the world as a result.

Abraham is the Bible’s model of faith (see Romans 4:16). His life demonstrates to us how we can be in right relationship with God and how to live lives reflective of that relationship. Imagine if his goals were like those of so many today: building his personal profile as he strove for fame, selling out others to achieve his personal goals, and so on. Content to live a relatively quiet life, he stayed true to his convictions as he trusted in an invisible God among idol worshippers. The unusualness of Isaac’s birth spoke for itself, but he never leveraged that to his advantage. He was even willing to give him up at God’s request.

If Abraham is our example of how we are to live, what does that say about our social media generation of likes and views, where instant is hardly fast enough and satisfying desire is the highest value? Perhaps we need to listen more and be satisfied with less, to commit ourselves to fulfill God’s call, whatever that is, and leave the results to him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Knife

For the week of November 4, 2023 / 20 Heshvan 5784

Message info with a white silhouette of a hand ready to plunge a knife

Vayera
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/Kings 4:1-37
Previously posted the week of November 16, 2019 / 18 Heshvan 5780

When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. (Bereshit/Genesis 22:9-10)

Could you imagine Isaac telling this story from his childhood to own his sons, Jacob and Esau. “Hey boys, did I ever tell you about the time God told my dad to offer me as a sacrifice?” to which Esau laughs and blurts: “You gotta be kidding, Dad. You make up the craziest stories.” Jacob, trying to appear overly intellectual, gives his brother a knowing look, and says: “Undoubtedly father is speaking in exaggerated metaphorical terms.” Isaac shakes his head. “No, my sons. The journey we took to Mount Moriah was so strange. We walked for days accompanied by a few of my father’s most trusted servants. He had said something about making an offering to his God. We didn’t take any animals with us to sacrifice, so I figured he would trade for a sheep or a goat from a herdsman along the way. But when we arrived at the foot of the mountain, still with no animal, he told the servants that they should stay there while he continued on with me to worship God. We carried fire, wood, and a knife up to the top. By that time, I couldn’t keep my thoughts to myself any longer. I asked him where the animal for the offering was. He looked off in the distance while saying, ‘God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.’ This was getting really weird. To this day, I can’t tell you why I let him, but he tied me down to the wood –” Seeing the terror in his sons’ eyes, Isaac interrupted himself – “Obviously he didn’t do it.” Their tension eased slightly. Isaac had a hard time trying to convey what happened next. It seemed like forever before he was able to get the words out. “He didn’t do it, but when I saw the knife in my father’s hand hanging over me, I was completely frozen. It was as if time stood still. Then God spoke. At least that’s what my father said; I thought I heard something, but I couldn’t make it out. Perhaps I was too scared. Dad dropped the knife and began to untie me. He then went off to some shrubs nearby, where a ram had gotten his horns caught in some thorns. I don’t know how it got there or why we hadn’t seen it till then. Dad said that he was to offer the ram in my place. He and I never talked about it after that.”

If you know the stories of Jacob and Esau, you would know that each of them in their own way had serious issues with their father’s and grandfather’s faith. From what we can tell, Esau never showed interest in God at all, while Jacob really struggled. When God spoke blessing and promise to him as he was running away from Esau, Jacob’s response was tentative. I can’t say for sure that it was Isaac’s experience on Mt. Moriah that turned his sons off from God, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it played a major part.

I share these dramatic speculations to emphasize that there is nothing sentimental about encountering the true God. Too often stories like this are glossed over, distracting people from their troubling details. To be comforted by this story’s resolve is one thing, but to miss its distress is to miss a core aspect. God’s involvement in our lives can really mess us up at times. He has no issue upsetting our routines, challenging the status quo, or forcing us to face our dysfunctions in spite of how uncomfortable that may be.

Readers of the New Testament tend to delight in the commentary to this story from the book of Hebrews, where we read that Abraham thought that God would raise Isaac from the dead if need be (Hebrews 11:17-19). This means he was indeed willing to kill his own son. Some may take this to be a great act of faith, which it is, but at what cost to his son? “My dad trusted God so much that he was willing to kill me?” Oh my!

But isn’t Isaac’s submission to his father a beautiful and moving picture of what Messiah actually did for us? Messiah did submit to an untimely, unjust death on our behalf, but beautiful and moving? Really? Yeshua submitted to depths of evil that you and I can hardly conceive of. He was willing to take head on the fulness of sin’s consequences that we might have eternal life. The results of his death are beyond wonderful, worthy of our unending gratitude, but the process certainly wasn’t nice.

As we walk with God, we, like Isaac, may be intimidated – even traumatized – by the threat of death. Until the final judgment God’s people will be continually threatened by the brutality of sin’s effects on the creation. That’s why it is so crucial to remember the knife hanging over us will not have the final word. Yeshua’s conquest over death, typified by Isaac, should encourage us to face the evil in our own day with confidence and hope in spite of the trauma.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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A Divine Guarantee

For the week of October 28, 2023 / 13 Heshvan 5784

Message info over an ancient map of the land of Canaan along with a fire pot and torch

Lech Lecha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isa 40:27-41:16

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Avram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land…” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:18)

It is no exaggeration to say that we may be on the brink of a catastrophe hitherto unknown in history. I hope I am wrong—that the current crisis in Israel will calm down, but not until the demonic evil unleashed by Hamas on October 7 is destroyed. I have no illusions, however, if by God’s grace that happens, it will manifest again soon and probably worse.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version, except that “Abram” is changed to “Avram”

Serious readers of Scripture have no reason to be unaware of the dynamics at play, including why it is that so much fuss is made over one of the smallest countries on the planet. Yet, not only are most people unaware of such things, but they have also reduced the God of the Bible to a detached spirituality of the inner life, while failing to grasp its global implications and all-encompassing importance. Core to this misguided spirituality is the disregard for the centrality of the people of Israel and the land of Israel in God’s plan.

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah-reading portion) is foundational in this regard. It begins with Avram, whose name is later changed to Avraham (you can figure out the English versions of his name yourself, I am sure). The God of all creation, who made everything “very good” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:31), determined to one day rid the universe of the curse he imposed on the earth due to our first parents’ rebellion against him (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:17-19). Described as the bruising or crushing of the serpent’s head (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:15), we are given no detail as to how this plan was to be worked out until this parsha. If Avram would venture to the alien land God would show him, he would make him a great nation and bless the entire world as a result (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). One of Avram’s most famous descendants would call the promise to bless the nations, the good news or Gospel (see Galatians 3:8).

The agreement, contract, or covenant (they all mean the same, by the way) that God established with Avram included an aspect that Bible readers have tragically ignored. People often called the covenant made with Avram unconditional, but it did have one condition—a condition he fulfilled. He had to go to a specified location. It wasn’t until he arrived there, that God said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:7). The land, therefore, was a crucial aspect of God’s covenant with Avram, which was later passed on to his son Isaac (see Bereshit/Genesis 26:2-5) and grandson Jacob (see Bereshit/Genesis 28:13-14).

But did you know how essential the land promise to Avram was? As we also read in this week’s parsha, sometime later, God says to him: “Fear not, Avram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:1). Avram’s trusting response to God’s telling him that, despite his ongoing childlessness, his descendants will be like the stars of the sky, is an appropriate high point for many Bible believers as it demonstrates the importance of faith.

Following that interchange, God has Avram perform a covenant ritual whereby he was to cut up some animals (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:7-20). Apparently, this was a traditional covenant-making ceremony. The Hebrew for “make a covenant” is actually “cut a covenant,” probably taken from the cutting up of the animals. The two parties would walk together between the pieces as a way to declare that if either fails to live up to their covenantal obligations, may they become like the cutup pieces. But note that Avram doesn’t walk between the pieces. Instead, he sees the unusual site of a smoking firepot and a flaming torch passing through them. Commentators consider this an indication that God was taking the full covenantal obligation on himself, so that if either party would break covenant, he, that is God, would suffer the consequences. We see this happen in the person of the Messiah, of course. But neglecting the context of all this prevents us from seeing an essential aspect of God’s commitment to the people of Israel. God’s self-imposed covenantal obligations to the people is not only about the people. Here’s what God says when he reiterates the covenant to Avram:

“To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites (Bereshit/Genesis 15:18-21).

God’s covenant with Avram includes the land, guaranteed! Should Avram or his descendants (those through Isaac and Jacob) fail in their covenantal obligations, God himself would bear the punishment. You know what this means, don’t you? Yeshua’s death doesn’t only ensure your reconciliation with God by faith, but also upholds Israel’s divine right to their God-given land.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Heart Basics

For the week of October 21, 2023 / 6 Heshvan 5784

Message info along with an illustration of an injured heart character

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

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (Bereshit/Genesis 8:20-21)

When my wife, Robin, tells the story of how she came to trust in Yeshua as the Messiah, she explains that it occurred in stages over a period of time. A key encounter she had was during a phone conversation with her best friend, who was her primary help in navigating this. At some point the issue of capital punishment came up, something that Robin didn’t believe in. When her friend found out that Robin didn’t believe in capital punishment, and inquired why, Robin responded, “Because man is basically good.” Her friend questioned her, “Do you think you’re basically good?” “Yes”, Robin replied. “Do you think you’re basically good?” she asked back. Her friend said, “No. I am a sinner.”  Robin was surprised at this response, as her friend was the “good-est” person she knew. But her friend explained the biblical concept of sin and its effects on human nature.

Robin’s view of self at that time is the view held by most people today. Through the past several decades, we have been taught to admire ourselves and trust in our personal moral compass (as if we have one). This is quite different from the prophet Jeremiah’s statement, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Jeremiah was much more in line with God’s assessment of human nature as expressed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). After God reset his creation project through Noah, his assessment of the inclination of the human heart was like that from before the flood. Even though God was determined to continue his creation project, he declared, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Bereshit/Genesis 8:21).

The current crisis in Israel instigated by Hamas on October 7 is an extreme example of the evil intentions of the human heart. While there’s certainly a place to examine the particular motives of the “Islamic Resistance Movement,” the Arabic of which “Hamas” is an acronym, as well as questions over Israel’s response, this week parsha calls each of us to look at our own hearts.

It’s tempting to distance ourselves from “the bad guys,” as if we are morally superior. But do we have that right? Perhaps it was with a personal righteous air that Yeshua was asked about the gruesome murders the Roman governor committed against some Galileans in the middle of a religious exercise (See Luke 13:1-5). They must have been shocked and offended by his directing the issue back at them.

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

This is not to say that it isn’t right to grapple with justice issues. It’s that Yeshua knew that it was more important at this moment to help these people face the truth of their own sinfulness.

It’s not cool in our day to focus on negatives. However, the great solutions to human problems provided by God in the Scriptures cannot be realized without first accepting that all human beings have this same basic problem.

I fully support the need for Israel to enact justice upon the perpetrators of the attack on the south of Israel last week. I grieve over the loss of life on both sides. I am so grateful for the expressions of support I have heard and read about, not to mention the personal ones I have received. But let’s not forget that there is something much bigger and more personal for all of us here. The great evil that was unleashed and the tragic gruesomeness of war are manifestations of inclinations that dwell in all our hearts. I am in no way saying that everyone will necessarily commit such atrocities. However, have we ever stopped to think of how destructive our sins really are? “Oh, I didn’t mean that!” we say. “I wasn’t thinking! we say.” Here’s a good one: “I forgot.” And those are “nice” ones. How about, “Daddy didn’t mean to hurt you, dear!” You and I know the depths of evil we humans can stoop to, if we are honest.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that all sin is equal as some misunderstand James 2:10, which I don’t have time to get into now. There are different consequences for different sins. Yet, at the same time, all sin is rooted in the same basic human nature—a nature if left to itself will destroy us and others.

Therefore, as we pray for the current situation, looking to God for justice and (hopefully) mercy, let’s not forget to examine our own hearts. If we do, then we might better appreciate the sacrifice God has made through the Messiah on our behalf.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Favor

For the week of October 14, 2023 / 29 Tishri 5784

Message info against fiery background

Bereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/Samuel 20:18-42

And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Bereshit/Genesis 6:6-8)

I write this on the fifth day since, what one writer has called, “The Simchat Torah Pogram,” when Hamas terrorists invaded the south of Israel, indiscriminately murdering, raping, and kidnapping over 1200 Israelis and others. Simchat Torah is a special celebration at the end of the biblical feast of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles/Booths) to mark the end and beginning of the annual Torah reading cycle. Torah scrolls are held high and danced with inside and outside synagogues all over the world. Such a celebration seems inappropriate on such a day. Yet, it is the Torah as the foundation of the whole Bible that provides us the hope and direction we need to not only get through these terrible days but emerge victorious in time.

As we return to the first parsha (Torah reading portion) of the year, it is always a challenge to choose what to address, since there is so much to explore here. It seemed fitting to look at a time that was so bad that God himself regretted that he made human beings. I wonder how many times since then he has felt this way. What encourages me, however, is that despite the harsh judgment that he brought upon human evil in Noah’s day, he didn’t completely give up on his creation project. God’s commitment to his creation has sustained us until this day.

Note that it was not just general concern for creation that prevented him from destroying the planet. While he was just about to give up on human beings altogether, his plan for the earth included preserving people, which he did through Noah and his family. Also note that God assigned the task of preserving the people and the air-breathing animals to people. There’s so much about life that we imagine God could or should do on his own. Yet, in keeping with the mandate assigned to our first parents, God chooses to work through us. The story of Noah is a key example of how throughout history, human beings are both the problem and the solution of life on Planet Earth.

In the midst of impending doom, we read, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD”(Bereshit/Genesis 6:8). This is the first occurrence of the Hebrew word, “khen,” which appears almost seventy times in the Hebrew Scriptures and is most often translated as “favor” or “grace.” Readers of the New Covenant Scriptures rightly regard the Greek equivalent “kharis” (English: again “grace”) as a central aspect of a genuine life of faith. Grace is a driving force behind a biblical understanding of salvation.

God’s grace and favor are unmerited. It’s not something we can achieve. Yet, there is a lot more to grace and favor than God’s acceptance and forgiveness. It’s more than a status statement. It’s a dynamic of relationship between God and the person he favors.

When God favors someone, his presence and power is with them. God’s favor is the dynamic that equipped Noah with everything he needed to know and the capability to fulfill this great rescue operation. God had rejected the rest of mankind. They were doomed. But God’s favorable posture toward Noah set him apart to make all the difference in his day.

We read in the New Covenant Writings:

For you have been delivered by grace through trusting, and even this is not your accomplishment but God’s gift. You were not delivered by your own actions; therefore no one should boast. For we are of God’s making, created in union with the Messiah Yeshua for a life of good actions already prepared by God for us to do. (Ephesian 2:8-10; Complete Jewish Bible)

Being saved by grace through faith (or trusting) in Yeshua the Messiah is more than a position or status, it is being equipped to display godliness in an ungodly world. This is especially important in difficult times. When everything around us seems to be going down the drain, those of us who know God’s favor are to reflect the goodness and power of God in all the ways he calls us to.

That probably won’t be as dramatic and complex as building an ark, but there are a lot more of us today under God’s favor than in Noah’s day. Let us not be overwhelmed by the rise of evil. Instead let us be attentive to God, doing whatever he calls us to do, be it big or small. There’s no telling how God’s favor may express itself through us, if we simply trust him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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