November 2008 Updates
The Deception of Esau
11.26.08 In this week's Torah (Toldot) we read that God told Rebecca, "Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided..." (Gen. 25:23). These twins, of course, were Esau (עֵשָׂו) and Ya'akov (יַעֲקב), respectively.
According to Rashi (and others), Esau was also the founder of Edom (Gen. 25:30), a nation that eventually became identified with political Rome. The issue of the birthright - and therefore the mantle of Abrahamic leadership - was therefore crucial for the history of the Jewish people. To this day, Rome (i.e., "Edom") and Israel are considered perpetual enemies...
Some of the sages have argued that Rebecca's deception of Isaac was la-shamayim, "for the sake of heaven." After all, was she not explicitly told - by God - that "the elder would serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23)? And was it not evident later that Jacob, described as ish tam yoshev ohalom - "a man of integrity who dwelled in tents" - was better suited for Abraham's heritage than Esau, who was described as ish yodea tzayid - "a man who knew entrapment" (the word tzayid suggests that Esau knew how to "entrap," i.e., deceive)? Indeed, Rebecca surely knew that Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob for "a mess of pottage," and she also understood that Jacob had tested his brother to determine whether his commitment to the family and its spiritual purpose was genuine. When Esau later married two "Hittite" women, was this not a source of bitterness to the family (Gen. 26:34-35)? And it's important to remember that Esau's polygamous union with the women of the surrounding pagan culture occurred before the duplicity that led to Jacob obtaining the blessing of the firstborn (bechor) from Isaac....
How could Isaac have been so blind? Couldn't he see the spiritual qualities of his sons? Why didn't he take heed of Rebecca's concern and counsel? And what of the portentous prophecy that the "elder shall serve the younger"? How could Isaac have missed this crucial truth about the future heir of the Jewish people -- especially since it was the overriding concern of his father Abraham? And what about the Akedah itself? Surely Isaac understood the promise that Abraham's legacy would bless the entire world....
But perhaps Isaac may be "excused" from his ignorance because all he ever knew was the integrity and love of his father Abraham, and therefore it would have been unthinkable to him that one of his sons could be a deceiver... The twist here is that the deceiver was not Jacob, but rather Esau, who (according to midrash) "entrapped" his father into thinking that he was so punctilious in keeping the commandments that he would ask him how much salt he should tithe before salting his food...
Rebecca's deception of her husband was intended to show him that he was gullible and thereby easily deceived by Esau's hypocrisy. It was an object lesson, if you will, rather than a outright case of "stealing." After all, Esau was soon to arrive - venison in hand - and the charade would be exposed for all to see... No, Rebecca's plan was to "open the eyes" of her myopic husband, revealing to him that he had been guilty of sacrificing the righteous son Jacob for the sake of deceptive Esau.
We all know the story. The dissimulation succeeded, of course, and Jacob managed to "steal" the blessing from his father. When Esau returned from his hunting expedition, Isaac later tremblingly acknowledged to him that "... he (Jacob, not Esau) shall be blessed" (Gen. 27:33), thereby indicating that his spiritual sight was indeed restored. Isaac finally understood the truth about his sons... As Rebecca already foresaw, Jacob was not to be cursed as a deceiver, since it was Esau who all along had been deceiving him!
But Esau cried out with "an exceedingly great and bitter cry" and implored his father, "Bless me, even me also, O my father!" (Gen. 27:34). Isaac again acknowledged that Jacob had come deceitfully and "taken away the blessing," yet Esau persisted: "Have you not reserved a blessing for me?" "Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father" (Gen. 27:34-38).
Isaac then blessed Esau with the same two blessings he gave to Jacob, though the order of the blessings was reversed: The "fat places" of the earth would be his dwelling and also the "dew of heaven" from above. In other words, Esau would be given prosperity in this world, and then (if he was interested), the "dew from heaven." Jacob, on the other hand, was given the same blessings but in right relation: his first concern would be prosperity in the world to come, and then (if he was interested) would he partake of the "fat places" of the earth.
But what about this "deception for the sake of heaven"? Does the Torah endorse it as some sort of pragmatic necessity to effect the will of God?
Well, despite Rebecca's good intentions, it's clear that the Torah depicts Jacob as complicit in an act of real deception ("Are you my son Esau?" "I am...") -- for which he paid dearly. First he earned the (perpetual) enmity of his twin brother Esau, who sought to murder him for his treachery. When Jacob then fled to his mother's ancestral home, his uncle Laban deceived him several times, first by switching Leah for his betrothed Rachel, and later by fudging with his wages. Later, his firstborn son (of Leah) Reuben dishonored him by committing incest with his concubine Bilhah (Gen. 35:22), and later still, when Jacob attempted to shower "extra blessings" upon his "firstborn son" (of Rachel), his other sons collectively deceived him by implying that Joseph was dead, showing Jacob his the blood-soaked coat of many colors. Fascinatingly, Joseph's subsequent exile in Egypt corresponded to the number of years that Jacob spent away from his own father, Isaac, and he was further deceived into thinking that his long-lost son was an Egyptian vizier...
The enmity of Esau haunted Jacob for years, even to the point of wrestling with the Angel of LORD over the issue (Gen. 32:24-29). From such wrestling came a resolution -- the true blessing from God Himself that resulted in a "limp" -- and the new name of "Israel."
Nonetheless, the sibling rivalry with Esau had cost him dearly. Above all, Jacob yearned for the approval and love of his father Isaac, yet he found himself a fugitive from the land of promise, a vagabond, and bereft of his loving mother's embrace (Rebecca died while Jacob was in exile). Psychologically it may be asked if Jacob's act of deception was not, in effect, a pathetic attempt to "entrap" his father's love. After all, Isaac loved Esau (Gen. 25:28), and Esau was a skilled deceiver. Perhaps if Jacob could be more like his brother, then his father would likewise love him?
What a profound hunger -- for the love of our fathers! I have suffered, as I am sure many of you have, too, with the hunger to feel my father's love, acceptance, and affection, only to be denied, to feel bereft, to be driven and made desperately lonely because of this lack. Each of us must "wrestle with the Angel" to find the source of blessing from our true, Heavenly Father... Each of us must find healing for the abandonment of our fathers by returning to the embrace of our true Father in Heaven.
Wishing you all a "Happy Thanksgiving" and a time of renewal with your loved ones, but especially with your Heavenly Father, the Giver of every blessing... Shalom.
The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah
11.25.08 Last week I had hoped to find some time to write a bit about the allegory of Hagar and Sarah as representative of the distinction between "law" and "grace" in the writings of Paul (Gal. 4:21-31). Unfortunately, I don't have the time to go into this subject in depth, but I will at least touch on the theme here. Hopefully you will see that it is overly simplistic to consider Paul's use of this midrashic technique (i.e., the use of allegory) as an argument against the Torah and its significance in our lives.
As we recently reviewed in parashat Vayera, Abraham had two sons: Ishmael, the son of the slave Hagar, and Isaac, the son of Sarah. Ishmael's conception was "natural," i.e., was "of the flesh" and the result of human intervention and calculation; Isaac's conception, on the other hand, was supernatural and the result of God's miraculous intervention and design.
The Apostle Paul interprets these historical events in allegorical terms. The two mothers "represent" two distinct covenants: Hagar (who, according to midrash was the daughter of Pharaoh) represents the covenant made at Sinai that results in "children born of slavery," whereas Sarah represents the covenant made earlier based on divine promise that results in freeborn children (Gal. 4:24-27). Mount Sinai is in the barren wilderness -- the starting point of a nation that was once enslaved in Egypt; but Mount Zion/Jerusalem (representing the fulfilled promise) is in the "land flowing with milk and honey" -- the ending point of a nation that is divinely elected. Mount Sinai is ultimately barren, but Mount Zion is "the perfection of beauty" (Psalm 50:2) who bears innumerable children (Isa. 54:1).
It should be remembered that Paul's idea that Hagar and Sarah represent "mothers of two different peoples" can easily be misunderstood (2 Pet. 3:15-16). Historically, many traditional Christian commentators have used the allegory as a means of rejecting the importance of the Torah and engaging in hateful anti-Semitic rhetoric. It is clear, however, that Paul had the highest regard for the revelation at Sinai and positively upheld the law (Gal. 5:14,22; Rom. 3:31, 7:12, etc.). He never renounced his Jewish identity and even called himself as a Pharisee after engaging in missionary work among the nations (Acts 23:6, 25:7-8, etc.). I think that Paul's point can be clarified if we remember the vital distinction between the idea of covenant and Torah (for more on this, see Olam HaTorah).
Based on the overall context of the letter to the Galatians, we must understand the allegory as a means to impugn the authority of "Judaizers" who claimed to be the Torah's exclusive interpreters. Physical circumcision (as the "prototypical" work of being a Jew) is not a means of salvation, and any attempt at "justification" based on personal merit is a step away from the justification that comes freely to those who hold fast to the divine promise of eternal inheritance. The doctrine of "justification by grace through faith" is a fundamentally Jewish concept, amply illustrated and taught in the Torah. Indeed all acts of revelation from God (including the revelation given at Sinai and the cross at Moriah) are manifestations of Divine Love. Salvation is "from the Jews" (John 4:22), and God has promised that there would always be a remnant of His people who would believe (Isa. 1:9, 10:21, Jer. 23:3, 31:7, Joel 2:32, Rom. 9:27, 11:5, etc.). In the end, "all Israel shall be saved" and all of the divine promises given to the Jewish people through the prophets will be fulfilled (Rom. 11:26).
The new covenant of Jerusalem (Zion) was prefigured at Moriah - and harkens back to Abraham and Isaac - not the later covenant made with national Israel at Sinai. The children of Zion are the children of promise, and the covenant "cut" in the Person of our Mashiach opens up Zion to us all... "Torah" ("instruction," "direction," "aim") is a functional word that refers to man's proper response to God's covenantal actions in history. We do not impugn the Torah when we say that God has made a better covenant based on better promises (Heb. 8:6). The LORD is the same yesterday, today, and forever: He is one.... The revelation and grace of God is manifest at Sinai as it is at Zion. What's changed is the covenant -- and our response to that new covenant in light of the full counsel of the Scriptures.
As for Hagar, it must be remembered that God "blessed Ishmael" and promised to make him the father of twelve tribes with innumerable offspring (Gen. 16:11; 17:20). According to Rashi, the sacrifice of Isaac was middah keneged middah ("like for like") justice applied to Abraham's unjust dismissal of Hagar and his firstborn son. After all, despite his wealth and power, Abraham had sent them away to a certain death in the desert.... Indeed, Isaac later seemed to understand this, and many of his spiritual encounters with God occurred at Beer-lehai-roi, the place where Ishmael was first named - and later abandoned. According to Jewish tradition, Hagar was renamed as Keturah and later married Abraham after the death of Sarah. Both Isaac and Ishmael buried their father -- together -- at the Cave of Machpelah (Gen. 25:9). All this interconnection indicates that there is a future and a hope for the descendants of Hagar - both the physical descendants as well as the spiritual ones. We should remember the Arab peoples in our prayers, chaverim...
Parahat Toldot - תולדות
11.23.08 The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat is Toldot ("generations"). This parashah is about Isaac and Rebecca's family and how the promised Seed would descend through Isaac's son Jacob (renamed Israel), rather than through his older twin brother Esau. From Israel (i.e., the Jewish people) would come the "generations" that ultimately led to the very salvation of the world. As our beloved Yeshua (Jesus) said, "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22).
I hope to add some additional commentary to this Torah portion over the next few days. Meanwhile I am experiencing technical difficulties with my web hosting service and am trying to resolve some page load problems. Your patience is appreciated.
Dealing with things...
11.23.08 I've been wrestling with anxiety the last couple months, doubtlessly because I am unemployed and we are expecting our second child in March of this coming year. We are living on a great deal of God's grace and mercy, chaverim. It often feels a bit like I am walking on water...
Recently I went to Phoenix to interview for a writing/web development position at a fellow ministry. Unfortunately, since the job would require immediate relocation, it doesn't look like it will work for us. Besides, there was some talk that I would be hired only on the condition that I would cease development of Hebrew4Christians, and that, of course, was unacceptable to me. So we're back to square one....
The deeper question I am struggling with, however, concerns God's will for our lives. I sincerely believe this ministry is important and worth developing further (especially in light of the ever-increasing apostasy of our age), but book sales here are insufficient to support my family. I am presently writing another book (on the Hebrew Names of God), but it will probably take another 6-9 months before it becomes available.
Often we pray to be more emptied of ourselves, to be "sold out" to God, to be fully surrendered to Him, etc., and then find ourselves surprised to be tested, stretched to the breaking point, and "offered up" on the altar. I have seen this happen in my life in various stages, as I've also seen it in the lives of others. God seems to put his touch on our weaknesses in order to break us down further, until we are left naked, vulnerable, and entirely dependent upon His love for life itself.... Ultimately this is an entirely good thing, of course, but it doesn't mean it is at all easy, as many of you understand.
Some of you have showed us chesed by offering us a donation during this time, and I want to express our sincere thanks for your kindness... Another way you can help is to promote awareness of this site. If you have a blog or web site, please list Hebrew4Christians as a link. The more the site becomes visible, the better chance we have of both offering up a ministry resource to others and to selling some of the books I've written.
Shalom for now....
Note: the following "rant" is a bit philosophical. If you are uninterested in such matters, please scroll past it for other site updates....
Reason's Greetings - and Suicide
11.19.08 It's a battle out there, chaverim... Go to your local bookstore these days and you might be surprised to see a spate of flashy new books advocating atheism. "The God Delusion" (Dawkins), "God is not great" (Hitchens), "The Atheist Universe" (Mills), etc., etc., are all highly marketed, big-buck productions (and New York Times bestsellers).
These sorts of books can be destructive to sensitive souls that are uncertain of their faith, especially impressionable young people who are still sifting through their beliefs while in college or public high school. Tragically, I just read an article that links a son's suicide to Dawkins' book... What makes this so heartrending is that authors like Dawkins, Hitchens, and others are really just half-rate philosophers -- modern day sophists who get a "buzz" out of writing speciously "intellectual" books. May the memory of Jesse Kilgore, the victim of Dawkins' propaganda, be vindicated by God's truth.
We live in a tawdry age of nonsense... an entirely decadent social world bereft of hope and conscience. And like a cancerous growth it's just getting worse and worse. The devil's children are working overtime, it seems, to keep humans enslaved to the lie. "Poseurs" and faux intellectuals are omnipresent.... Just tonight I read a Wall Street Journal article ("Atheists Reach Out") that told how the American Humanist Society is aggressively campaigning its godless faith by plastering ads on buses in Washington DC (of all places) with catchy slogans such as, "Reasons Greetings" and "Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness' sake." Oy Gevalt....
Hold the phone, Jethro.... I thought such romantic ideals about human nature were long put to rest, especially after two World Wars, the horror of the Jewish Holocaust, the systematic barbarity of the former Soviet Union (under the failed messianism of Marxism), the prevalence of worldwide slavery (including the ongoing lack of social justice even after the Civil Rights Movement in the USA), the ruthless thuggery of Communist China, the "ethnic cleansing" and wars of various people groups, and by all the innumerable other treacheries routinely practiced on mankind since the beginning of time... Are you forgetting that we now live in the post-modern world? If you regard a theist as being "medieval," I can't help but wonder if you're still not enamored with the puerile utopianism that marked the early rise of science and technology in the Western world (i.e., the "modern world")... What's evident to me is that the wild-eyed optimism of secular humanism is indicative of a "god delusion" of another type....
The secularist, the humanist, the so-called "free thinker" and so on, seems downright offended at expressions like, "God exists," "one nation under God," or by other common phrases used by some who genuinely hold hope that this world is merely a corridor to the next. But why, pray tell, should such "god talk" offend them, especially since -- according to their view of the matter -- the use of such language is - at most - merely an emotive appeal or a (pathetic) expression of personal hope? Perhaps these humanists hypocritically "let the cat out of the bag" by prescriptively insisting that language -- and especially language about first principles and ultimate reality -- has real meaning, reference, and "traction" -- though certainly not the sort of meaning which they (emotionally) prefer. If so, then their case is feeble enough, since such "reasoning" is a two-edged sword. If the "free thinker" objects to the use of traditional religious language, it is fair game to likewise object to their use of nontraditional forms of language regarding metaphysics. (This is similar to the Freudian objection that some have made regarding religious sentiment. "You believe in God because you were deprived of your father's love," they say. But the tables can easily be turned here: "And you don't believe in God because you hated your father and resented his authority in your life." Tu quoque doesn't settle anything.)
The prevailing crusade of these anti-faith missionaries (at least in the libertine United States) is that "church and state" must be "separated." However this is a psychologically impossible proposition, based on the myth that human beings can separate "fact and value." Paradigms about natural law ultimately are grounded in value, but value is not something empirical or observable; it is what is brought to experience in its understanding. Before a scientist ever looks into a microscope, for example, there is a previous committment that he or she believes in the value of the scientific methodology -- something inherently beyond the pale of science altogether.... All sorts of faith committments are assumed in the ways of science, but none of them find their grounding within the enterprise itself. Hey Mr. Atheist -- do yourself a favor and go read some Immanuel Kant (or at least some good love poetry)!
It's tragic that the American Humanist Society is running such proselytizing advertisments in these darkened, postmodern days. If ever before, our world needs real hope and salvation, not more cynical flummery and jaded commentaries about what used to be regarded as the sheer wonder of the universe. Parasitically, the humanist/atheist cannot possibly define "goodness" without plundering the dreams and poetry of spiritual and religious reality. (If the theist has the "problem of evil," the atheist/humanist has the "problem of goodness"). My (unsolicited) advice to such humanists is simply to shut up and accept the closed-loop that your system implies. On your own terms you cannot argue for any objective sense of moral structure or transcendent justice, and therefore you must resort to fallacious appeals and ad hominem abusive attacks. This is both intellectual lazy and dishonest. Moreover -- again on your own terms -- what could you possibly say to those who impugn your arbitrary imperative (i.e., "be good for goodness sake")? What if another "free thinker" took the Nietzschean view that they would rather be excused from such an obligation? Indeed, what if the idea of "goodness" for some secularist is to torture to death those who do not accept their godless theory and ideology? Didn't Adolf Hitler (Y'SH) live as such an "ubermensch"? Wasn't Stalin a "true believer"?
In such discussions it is often helpful to return to the Heideggerian question of "why is there something, rather than nothing," since this approach lays bare the set of presuppositions at work. But note that any attempt to seriously answer this question launches you into the world of metaphysics (certainly not "hard science"), and therefore the arguments that address the question of rationality must be made within that domain. Ultimately, however, reason itself is a function of the will and a servant to our passional nature. Distill the idea of "rationality" and you will find that it refers to a sense of "fitness," "coherence," and other aesthetic terms. Why does modus ponens work (if p then q; p, therefore q)? Because of a sense of order, symmetry, "proportion," fitness, etc.
Atheism is just as much a faith commitment as any form of theism. Ask a card-carrying humanist the Heideggerian question and -- with a straight face -- he or she will pontificate that "absolutely nothing" caused the Big Bang (or, with a modicum of humility, will appeal to some form of epistemological agnosticism). If he's clever, he might then talk about "myth," "language games," or "paradigm shifts" (conveniently forgetting that such theories equally apply to atheism itself). But should someone else claim that everything exists because of a transcendent, spiritual, and personal Cause (i.e., the "Will of God"), then he or she is hypocritically vilified as "medieval" or simply "ridiculous" (the ad hominem seems to be the preferred form of reasoning for today's "free thinkers"). Tragically, in the craven spirit of accomodationalism, this "faith commitment" is now canonized in today's indoctrination centers (i.e., public schools).
Please, if you want to intelligently discuss why people believe in God, then at least make the effort to examine the reasons passed down through the legacy of our shared human history. Don't patronize us with sophistical nonsense that you have somehow "unlocked the magic door" and now are in possession of the truth about "God, the universe, and everything." Your so-called truth -- self-stultifying as it is -- is merely that nothing of real value, meaning, or worth truly exists. And that, my friends, is nothing less than a living hell. I'll pass.
One final note. Full-blown atheism is breathtaking in its arrogance, claiming omniscient knowledge that there is no God. In other words, of the entire cosmic set of all objects/events/states in the universe, not one refers to the word "God" (at least as traditionally understood in the major theistic religions). The word "God," then, is "empty of reference" or a meaningless "code word" for emotional states, wishes, etc. Now quite apart from the ludicrous idea that anyone can entertain a coherent idea of "everything in the universe," this declaration is claimed to be an empirical truth, that is, an objective description about the nature of ultimate reality (rather than an irrational dogma). Ironically enough, the only way to be an atheist is to exercise the very attributes of the God Himself...
Perhaps some of the confusion surrounding all this lies in the mistaken equation of faith in God with morality. Lori Lipman Brown, who lobbies Congress on behalf of the Secular Coalition for America, says nonbelievers are "just as ethical and moral as anyone else." This may (or may not) be a true statement, but regardless, the question about the nature of ultimate reality concerns statements of faith, not reports about the deportment of those who make such professions one way or another...
The Greatness of Sarah
11.18.08 Despite the custom of greeting an elderly man or woman on their birthday with the wish: "May you live to be 120" (the age at which Moses died), in Jewish thinking birthdays are not regarded as important as the day of one's death. And since this week's Torah portion (Chayei Sarah) concerns the death of the first great matriarch of the Jewish people, I thought it would be worthwhile to discuss some of the wonderful things about this amazing woman of valor....
First of all, in Jewish tradition Sarah Imenu ("Our mother Sarah") is considered one of the four most beautiful women who ever lived (the other three include Abigail, Rahab, and Esther). The Bava Basra says that compared to Sarah, other women looked like "monkeys" (58a). According to Rashi (and others), Sarah was not only beautiful, but entirely modest and innocent. Indeed, by the time she gave birth to Isaac, she was regarded as virtually sinless (Bereshit Rabbah 58:1). The Talmud (Megillah 14a) explains that Iscah was another name for Sarah (Gen. 11:29), meaning "to gaze." This name described both Sarah's ability to gaze into the future by Divine inspiration (Sarah was a great prophetess) and because everyone gazed at her beauty. It is noteworthy that the Hebrew word for face, "panim," is written exactly the same way as the Hebrew word for inside, "penim," suggesting that Sarah's beauty was both external and internal.
Sarah's modesty and high calling, however, prevented her from viewing herself as the world did. At first she was named Sarai (שָׂרַי, "my princess"), a name apparently given to her from birth. With her great beauty, she surely could have had become a princess of Egypt, even a wife of Pharaoh (Gen. 12:11-20), but she instead chose to suffer as a "stranger and a pilgrim" in this world with her husband. Because of her faith in the promise of the LORD, she was renamed Sarah (שָׂרָה, "princess"), that is, princess of the whole world. As such, Sarah is considered a true heroine of the faith (Heb. 11:11). Regarding Sarah's name change, the Yod (whose numerical value is 10) was "taken" from Sarai and divided into two Heys (whose numerical value is 5). Half was given to form the name Sarah and the other half was given to form the name Abraham (from Abram).
Though Sarah did not hear the Divine Voice that commanded Abraham to leave for an unknown land, she willingly joined her husband and ventured in faith. Along the way, she underwent the same trials that Abraham faced (see below on the "Ten Trials of Abraham") but she never turned back to the world she left behind.
Indeed, from the time she arrived in Canaan, Sarah was tested and refined by the LORD. For 25 years she waited to become a mother -- despite God's promise to her. She later got entangled with the intrigue and heartache over Hagar, her handmaiden turned rival... But though she was well past the age of bearing children, she never lost hope... According to midrash, at age 90 Sarah did not have a womb but God supernaturally created one for her. Isaac was conceived in a manner similar to Mary, the mother of Yeshua, and the angel of the LORD was likewise dispatched to personally give her the tidings of her pregnancy (Bava Metzia 86b).
The Midrash states that throughout the years that Sarah was alive, the Divine Presence hovered as a cloud over her tent, the doors of the house were open wide, her dough was blessed (i.e., more than enough to give to all), and a lamp burned in her tent from one Sabbath eve to the next. Sarah undoubtedly had a great sense of humor, as well, and the LORD used her laughter as the basis for her promised son's name (Yitzchak comes from the root צָחַק meaning "to laugh"). When she died, all of these things ceased, but when Rebecca came, they all returned (Bereshit Rabbah 60:16).
Sarah was without a doubt an equal to Abraham, and perhaps even his superior in matters of the heart and spirit. After all, when Sarah wanted Ishmael sent away because of his evil influence on Isaac, Abraham was uncertain until God Himself validated Sarah's decision: "All that Sarah tells you, listen to her voice" (Gen. 21:12). Rashi notes that this indicates that Sarah was on a higher prophetic level than her husband Abraham. "Who are the seven prophetesses? Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Hildah, and Esther" (Megillah 14a). When she was abducted in Pharaoh's harem, for example, Abraham was told by an angel not to fear for her safety, since the Divine Presence surrounded her. The plagues sent on Pharaoh's Egypt prefigured the greater deliverance to come for her children.
Moreover, Abraham's spiritual journey effectively came to an end with the death of Sarah, even though he outlived her by some 38 years. There is no further dialog recorded between God and Abraham after Sarah's death, and even the last recorded act of Abraham -- i.e., seeking a wife for Isaac -- is the result of Sarah's will for her son. According to various sages, Sarah's 127 years amounted to exactly the same number of years as Abraham "Ha-ivri" ("the one who crosses over"). Since Abraham was 48 years old when he first recognized the One True God, and a convert is considered as a newborn, then Abraham, who died at 175, lived exactly as long as did his wife Sarah. Rashi says that Sarah's 127 years were composed of three overlapping qualities: she was as innocent as a 7-year-old, with the strength and idealism of a 20-year-old, and yet she always possessed the wisdom of a 100-year-old.
Lastly, when Sarah died, she was the very first Jew to be buried in the Promised Land. According to tradition, she (not Abraham) was the one who planned to purchase the Cave of Machpelah ("the Cave of Pairs") at Kiriat Arba ("City of Four," so named because four couples are said to be buried there: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah).
Parashat Chayei Sarah - חיי שרה
11.16.08 The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat is Chayei Sarah ("the life of Sarah"), which (paradoxically) begins with the account of Sarah's death at the age of 127. Some of the sages have said that the shock of the Akedah - the near sacrifice of Isaac - is what killed Sarah (Targum Yonasan, Bereshit 22:20), though the written Torah does not explicitly mention this as the cause of her death. At any rate, Abraham, who was "well-stricken" in years, suddenly found himself bereft as a single parent, concerned over his unmarried son and heir, Isaac.
One of the puzzles of last week's Torah reading (Vayera) was what actually happened to Isaac after the terrible trial of the Akedah (see the entry "The Passion of Isaac," below, for more information). After all, the subsequent text shows Abraham returning alone from Moriah, so we are inclined to ask where was Abraham's beloved son? Fascinatingly, the very next time Isaac is mentioned occurs when Abraham summoned his faithful servant (Eliezer of Damascus) to acquire a bride for him. In other words, the Torah tells us of a father's only son who was "offered up" and then "hidden from view" while a suitable bride is sought for him -- an allusion to the role of the Ruach Hakodesh (Holy Spirit) that is presently seeking a bride for the Messiah during this interim age....
Note something important about this shidduch (match) for Abraham's heir. Rivka (i.e., "Rebecca"), the bride to be, was noted for her characteristic grace and chesed, much as Abraham himself was a model of chesed. Abraham was not promiscuous in his ideal, and Eliezer was solemnly sworn not to take any woman from among the Canaanites. The suitable bride was to be marked by generosity, love, and grace -- qualities of heart (middot ha-lev) that the father instilled in his beloved son. After his commission, Eliezer immediately set out, interceding and discovering the divine election of the betrothed.
Recall the words of Yeshua, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). According to Jewish tradition, God created Isaac as "an exact double" of his father Abraham, "like two drops of water," so that no one could ever think that anyone other than Abraham was the biological father of Isaac. Abraham and his son were united and "walked together" in the mission to bring redemption to the world.
After the long journey with Eliezer, when Rebecca finally "looked up and saw Isaac, she fell from her camel" (Gen. 25:5), indicating the awe she experienced upon finally beholding her betrothed.... Isaac was coming from Be'er LaChai Ro'i (בְּאֵר לַחַי ראִי), "the well of the Living One who sees me," a type of Garden of Eden or Heaven....
B'ezrat HaShem (with God's help) I will add further comments regarding this important portion of Torah later this week. Shalom Chaverim.
The Passion of Isaac...
11.11.08 In this week's Torah portion (Vayera) we read about how Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac as a burnt offering on Mount Moriah. In Jewish literature, this final test of Abraham is called the Akedah, or the "binding of Isaac."
Now the question may be asked, whose sacrifice was greater, Abraham's or Isaac's? At first we might be quick to say it was Abraham's, since the text plainly says, "God (אלהים) tested Abraham by asking him to sacrifice his beloved son (Gen. 22:1-2). Nonetheless, how can we overlook the depth of Isaac's suffering?
According to Rashi, Isaac was 37 years old when Abraham took him up to Moriah to be sacrificed as a whole burnt offering. But there is no voice of protest, no resisting, no indication that Isaac refused to submit to his father's will. "And they walked, the two of them, together" (Gen. 22:6).
Of course the Akedah reveals Abraham as a great hero of faith. After given the mind-blowing commandment to sacrifice his Divinely promised son, there is no word of protest coming from him, no appeal to God's justice nor intercession for mercy (unlike Abraham's earlier intercession for Sodom and Gomorrah). Perhaps Abraham thought that God was not unlike the tribal deity Molekh who required the sacrifice of children to appease his anger. This is yirat Elohim - the fear of God - taken to extreme. Indeed, one tradition suggests that the real test of the Akedah was not whether Abraham would obey the command to sacrifice his son, but rather whether he would obey the Angel's Voice of Compassion (יהוה) to refrain from killing him! Nonetheless, as Maimonides remarked, had Abraham not believed in the absolute truth of God's promise, he never would have lifted his hand to slaughter his beloved son....
However, there is a midrashic tradition that Abraham actually went through with the act of sacrifice on Moriah. After all, the subsequent text shows Abraham returning alone from the mountain. So where was Isaac? According to this tradition he was left "as ash" upon the altar -- though later God miraculously brought him back to life. In other words, Isaac suffered martyrdom. Another midrash says that though Abraham did not actually go through with the sacrifice (his hand was stayed by the Angel), the trauma caused Isaac to flee from his father and seek refuge with Noah's son Shem (who was considered "Malki-Tzedek" and the high priest of Salem). The Midrash Hagadol states, "Although Isaac did not die, Scripture regards him as though he had died. And his ashes lay piled on the altar. That is why the text mentions Abraham and not Isaac."
At any rate, what might have been running through Isaac's mind when Abraham summoned him to go on this fateful three-day journey? The text from the Torah is silent about any conversation the two might have had on the way to Moriah.
According to Nehama Leibowitz, when the Torah records a dialogue and wants to indicate a change in speaker, it does so by means of the word vayomer - "and he said." Shlomo Riskin notes that the only recorded dialog about the purpose of the journey to Moriah occurs at the end, when Isaac notices the fire and the wood for the sacrifice. "Vayomer Yitzchak el-Avraham aviv..." ("And Isaac said to his father..."). But notice that immediately following this statement is another vayomer: "vayomer avi..." ("and he said, my father..."). The idea is that Isaac at first tried speaking, but couldn't find the words to express his dark suspicion.... When he tried again, all he could utter was, "my father...," and Abraham then reassured him: "Hineni v'ni" ("Here I am, my son"). Then came Isaac's third vayomer, "Vayomer hinei ha'esh v'ha'etzim, v'ayeh ha-seh l'olah?" ("And he said, "Behold, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?"). It is hard to imagine Isaac's pathos during this exchange. On the third day of the journey into the unknown, "he said ... [ silence ] ... he said, 'my father....' he said, '...but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?'"
Isaac doubtlessly foreknew the plan but understandably had trouble verbalizing the horror of the situation. Abraham's subsequent "vayomer" in the dialog is telling: "vayomer Avraham, Elohim yireh-lo ha-seh l'olah b'ni," which may be rendered as "God will see for himself a lamb for the offering -- my son." In other words, you, my son, are the lamb for the offering!
But what did Isaac do when he fully understood the purpose of this mission from his aged father? He did not resist.... he willingly submitted himself in trust and allowed himself to be bound to the altar. Such was his love... and passion.
As Messianic believers, we understand the Akedah as a foreshadowing of the ultimate sacrifice the heavenly Father would give on our behalf. Both Isaac and Yeshua were born miraculously; both were "only begotten sons"; both were sacrificed by their fathers at Mount Moriah in their 30's; both experienced a "passion"; both willingly took up the means of his execution; both were resurrected on the third day (Gen. 22:5, Heb. 11:17-19); and both demonstrate that one life can be sacrificed for another – the ram for Isaac, and Yeshua for all of mankind.
The first occurrence of the word love in the Scriptures (אהבה, ahavah) (Gen. 22:2) refers to Abraham's love for his "only" son who was offered as a sacrifice on Moriah (the very place of the crucifixion of Yeshua), a clear reference to the gospel message (John 3:16). Some scholars have noted that the word ahavah comes from a two-letter root (הב) with Aleph (א) as a modifier. The root means "to give" and the Aleph indicates agency: "I" give. Love is essentially an act of sacrificial giving... The quintessential passage of Scripture regarding love (αγαπη) in the life of a Christian is found 1 Corinthians 13: "Love seeketh not its own..." The antithesis of love is selfishness, the root of pride, fear, etc.
Both Isaac and Yeshua sacrificed their lives in obedience to their fathers' will. Both accepted the promise of God and believed that love was stronger than death. The passion and sacrifice of Isaac was a dramatic foreshadowing of the greater passion and sacrifice of Yeshua, the beloved Son of God Himself. The shared suffering of the Heavenly Father and Yeshua was the means by which "righteousness and peace have kissed" (Psalm 85:10), thereby restoring the children of promise to their original inheritance.
The Jewish New Testament?
11.10.08 Recently someone asked me about Dr. David Stern's Jewish New Testament translation (which was later appended to the older JPS translation of the Tanakh (1917) to form the "Complete Jewish Bible"). Is it a good translation? Do I recommend it?
First, it should be noted that the JNT (Jewish New Testament) is essentially a paraphrase of the Greek New Testament -- not a formal, academic translation. The JNT offers various cultural corrections to the standard "Gentile" versions common today (e.g., KJV, NASB, NIV, etc.). For example, the JNT uses Jewish names for the disciples (e.g., Ya'akov for James) and holidays (e.g., "Chanukah" for "the feast of dedication," "Pesach" instead of "Passover") and provides other cultural helps (e.g., "tzitzit" instead of "fringes," etc.). In this regard, the JNT provides a worthy service for those Christians steeped in "Goyishe" ways of reading the Jewish Scriptures... Understanding the cultural context of the New Testament means understanding its inherent Jewishness, and Dr. Stern does a excellent job restoring this way of reading for non-Jews.
That said, it must be admitted that the JNT is sometimes theologically biased, especially concerning certain interpretations regarding the word "law" (νομος) as used in the New Testament (particularly, in the writings of Paul). It must be remembered that the JNT is not the combined result of a number of Greek linguistic scholars who had their work checked (and cross-checked) under the direction of a formal translation committee, etc. As a "solo" project, the JNT displays some biases that otherwise might have been detected and challenged by a larger group of scholars working on the project. Translation, in short, calls for a community to engage both the source language (e.g., Greek, Hebrew) and the target language (e.g., English). In the multitude of counselors there is wisdom (Prov. 15:22).
Particularly troublesome is Dr. Stern's translation of the phrase "under the law" (υπο νομον) as being "dynamically equivalent" to rather wordy phrase "in subjection to the system which results from perverting the Torah into legalism." But why this lengthy "circumlocution" of a simple Greek phrase? Perhaps we can shorten Dr. Stern's meaning to say, "under legalism," i.e., that followers of Yeshua are "not to be legalistic," especially as advocated by certain of the Torah sages. Despite Dr. Stern's attempt to distinguish between "true Torah" and legalistic interpretations of it, it should be obvious that the classical Jewish viewpoint considers the covenant made with Israel at Sinai (i.e., the "sefer ha-brit" that was sprinkled with blood and ratified by the elders of Israel) to indeed be a legal arrangement. Think of the Kol Nidre service, for example. Traditional Judaism, in short, is a form of "meritocracy" based on the performance of various mitzvot (commandments) and adherence to a Torah-based lifestyle... Simply put, the entire Masorah (tradition) of Judaism is unthinkable apart from the idea of law.
On the other hand, perhaps Dr. Stern's peculiar translation of υπο νομον ("under the law") was intended to endorse the idea that the Torah still has binding application upon the life of the Christian (or Messianic Jew). If so, there is a danger here of confusing the idea of Torah ("instruction") with that of Brit ("covenant," see below for more information). Regarding this distinction it is vital to remember that the more basic (and unconditional) covenant with Israel was made with Abraham -- not with Moses at Sinai. The Abrahamic covenant (Gen. 15), or "Covenant between the Parts" (brit bein ha-chatarim) is based on faith in God's grace alone. When God asked Abraham to number the stars, he was declared righteous because he believed God's word that said, "So shall your offspring be."
The Apostle Paul later referred to this covenant as the basis for the doctrine that later became popularly known as "justification by faith." Followers of Yeshua are called "children of Abraham" (Gal. 3:7-9; Rom. 4:12-16). Perhaps it would be reassuring to Jewish believers in Yeshua that saying that the Sinai Covenant has been made obsolete by the New Covenant does not in any way entail the noxious doctrine of "Replacement Theology" or imply the loss of Jewish cultural identity. "Grace" is a Jewish concept, after all.
At any rate, according to Dr. Stern, when the Torah is "rightly" interpreted, i.e., in a "non-legalistic" manner (whatever that means!), Christians and Messianic Jews apparently are still under the terms of the former covenant, despite the sacrificial work of Yeshua as the High Priest of what is called the "Better Covenant" (Heb. 8:6,13). In charity we might ask if perhaps Dr. Stern is referring to the moral aspects of the law, since the civil and ceremonial laws are obviously impracticable today, even for religious Jews living in Israel. If so, it needs to be remembered that the entire content of the moral law has been subsumed under Yeshua's greater ethic of love (John 13:34, Rom. 13:8-10, Gal. 5:14, 1 Jn. 3:23), so there is little fear of promoting "antinomianism" by arguing that the Sinaitic Covenant has been rendered obsolete by means of the New Covenant (Heb. 8:13). Dr. Stern's hidden assumption seems to imply that the Sinai covenant is not entirely obsolete, despite the "tetelestai" ("it is finished!") moment upon the cross, and hints that personal sanctification is (somehow) tied to the observance of the moral aspects of the covenant given to Israel at Sinai (i.e., the Ten Commandments or some other set of laws, such as keeping a kosher diet). This is puzzling, especially since his definition of υπο νομον seems carefully constructed to get away from the idea of legalism!
Some critics of the JNT have said that Dr. Stern's translation of Romans 10:4 (τελος γαρ νομου Χριστος εις δικαιοσυνην παντι τω πιστευοντι) -- and in particular the word "telos" in this verse -- has been incorrectly translated as, "For the Messiah is the goal (telos) at which the Torah aims..." instead of "For Messiah is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes." This might be quibbling on their part, since "teleology" implies the design or the causative purposes for something, and it surely is true that Yeshua is the Goal of Torah in that sense. Indeed, Yeshua is the Living Torah Himself -- it's very Author and Perfector.... Yeshua is our Torah-righteousness in the Heavenly Courtroom of God's justice and truth. He is our Advocate, our "defense attorney," and our intercessor at the bar of the Judgment.
The bigger problem with understanding that Christians/Messianic Jews are under the terms of the "Book of the Covenant" (i.e., the sefer ha-brit that was ratified by the 70 elders of ancient Israel during the blood sprinkling ceremony at the foot of Sinai) is that this tends to confuse the ideas of Torah and Covenant... "Torah" is a general term meaning "instruction in God's way" and is always a function of covenant with God. But if God's covenant changes, so would the consequent idea of what constitutes Torah. If it is countered that the brit made at Sinai is "olam," or everlasting, then account must be given of the changes made to the Torah itself -- by Moses, by King David, by the prophets, by Ezra and the later sages of Israel, and by the Messiah Himself. Indeed, in the world to come, there will be no need for certain aspects of the moral requirements of Torah (e.g., laws against incest, murder, and so on). If so, it should be clear that Torah is to be understood as a means of restraining evil that is intended for law-breakers. As Paul wrote, "Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane..." (1 Tim. 1:8-9). For more information about this crucial point, please see my article Olam Ha-Torah.
Ironically, the JNT can lead the uncritical Christian into a legalistic understanding that undermines the very Gospel message itself (Gal. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 11:3). For example, using the JNT circumlocution, the idea of being "dead" to the law and married to another (Gal. 2:19, Rom. 7:4) doesn't make much sense. This is no small matter. The analogy of marriage is significant. If you "marry another" while you are still married you are an adulterer:
Or do you not know, brothers - for I am speaking to those who know the law - that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? Thus a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. (Rom. 7:1-4)
The key verb in the phrase, "you also have died to the law" (εθανατωθητε τω νομω) is an aorist passive, indicating a completed action in the past (i.e., "you have been made dead to the law"). How so? "Through the body of Christ" (δια του σωματος του Χριστου), that is, by means of the death of Yeshua on the cross. Your identification and union with the Messiah's sacrifice (by faith alone) performs a double exchange: 1) He bore your sins and 2) His righteousness was imputed to you (2 Cor. 5:21). When Messiah died; you died with Him (Rom. 6:8). The life of faith in Messiah says, "for to me to live is Christ" -- not "for me to live is the Law." We are not "born again" by means of self-effort any more than we are sanctified by such. In other words, the entire Christian life begins, abides, and culminates by the agency of God's grace... The life of faith in Yeshua is not perfected by human effort, but is "all of grace" -- from beginning to end.
And intuitively we know this to be true. The Law is "holy, just, and good" (Rom. 7:12) but it is powerless to change the human heart... It can merely reveal the truth, report the facts, and mirror spiritual reality back to ourselves (1 Tim. 1:8-9). If you honestly perform self-examination of your life, you will find this to be tragically axiomatic (Rom. 7:9). There is no sin in the Law (both the moral law of God and the concrete expression of such embodied in the Ten Commandments) but rather there is sin within the human heart, and the truth has no power to avail the sinner apart from the intervention of God's grace.
Therefore, we say "Amen" to the words of the Apostle Paul preached long ago to the Jewish people in a synagogue at Antioch:
Let it therefore be known to you, brothers, that through this one is the forgiveness of sins proclaimed to you, and from all things from which you were not able in the law of Moses to be declared righteous (απο παντων ων ουκ ηδυνηθητε εν τω νομω Μωυσεως δικαιωθηναι), in Him all who believe are declared righteous (εν τουτω πας ο πιστευων δικαιουται). - Acts 13:38-39
Dr. Stern is to be commended for helping many people come to a better understanding of the Jewishness of the Gospel and the Jewish roots of the Christian faith. As a study aid, as a paraphrase, as a supplement to your own translation work of the Greek texts, etc., the JNT can indeed be worthwhile to read and study. Nonetheless, it must be remembered that there are some implicit theological assumptions at work in this work that affect the plain sense of various crucial Greek texts of the New Testament -- including the very message of the gospel itself.
Parashat Vayera - פרשת וירא
11.08.08 In last week's Torah (Lekh Lekha), we saw how the LORD spoke to Abram and invited him to forsake his ancestral home for the promise of God. But note that it was only after Abram made the long journey to the unknown land of Canaan that God appeared to him saying, "To your offspring I will give this land" (Gen. 12:1-7). Abraham did not believe the promise because he saw God; but he was able to see God after he had walked in faith. In this week's Torah portion (Vayera, "and He appeared"), the LORD again appeared to Abraham (this time, in the company of two angels) and reiterated His promise that he and Sarah would have a son. Sarah, who was listening at the entrance of the tent, "laughed to herself" at the prospect, but the LORD then rhetorically asked, ha-yipalei me'Adonai davar? - "Is anything too wonderful for the LORD?" Despite the circumstances of their old age -- and when all their hope for a child had nearly withered away -- God appeared again to reaffirm His plan. In the appointed time, the promised child would be born...
B'ezrat HaShem ("with God's help") I will write more about the sacrifice of Isaac tomorrow, chaverim.
A Quick Update...
11.06.08 I once heard the following statement: "The optimist believes that this is the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist is afraid the optimist is right." Note that both the optimist and the pessimist are believers -- but the one keeps hope while the other caves into despair. Each person, however, is responsible for his or her own vision.
But it's not always that simple, is it? Believing that gam zu l'tova - "This, too, is for the best" can prove to be difficult, especially when confronted with horrendous evil or incomprehensible suffering. In this present life there are often difficult situations and experiences that will test those of even the most resolute faith. But notice that the affirmation of faith is not gam zu tova - "This is the best," but rather gam zu l'tova - "This, too, is for the best." Having faith that God will one day "wipe away every tear" does not deny the existence of real tears being shed, but it does believe that comfort is coming, and that sadness, pain, and suffering are not the last word..... There is an eschatological aspect to suffering for the person of faith. Present suffering will ultimately redeemed as soul-building, though this does not entail "karma-like" indifference about the suffering we encounter... If one of us hurts, so does the rest of the body (1 Cor. 12:26). This isn't some sanctimonious humbug; there's no "double talk" going on here. The most succinct verse in the New Testament on this subject is but two words: "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). Real tears.
In addition to being unemployed, lately my health has been a test. I have been experiencing severe headaches and dizziness recently, as well as swings in my blood pressure. I haven't slept well for a few days now. This has been going on for the last few weeks, but the last few days it's been very disturbing.... I humbly ask you to pray for my complete healing, chaverim.
For some happier news, let me tell you that Olga had an ultrasound done yesterday and we discovered that we have boy, B"H. The baby looks fine, though I was a bit anxious throughout the procedure (the technician had a lot of trouble getting some of the pictures and that made me feel a bit uneasy).
As I watched the phantasmagoria of images on the monitor, the following verse suddenly became vivid to me:
"My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there were none of them" (Psalm 139:15-16).
B'ezrat Hashem, our son will be born in March. Every day we fervently pray for this new life that is being "knit together" by God's awesome Hand. Your prayers for Olga and the baby are sincerely appreciated!
Finding a new job has been difficult. However, I do have a job interview scheduled for Thursday, Nov. 13th. Please pray that I find favor in the eyes of this potential employer, chaverim.
Finally, both Olga and I want to thank you for encouraging us these last few months. Though it's been a difficult time for us, we have clearly sensed God's love and grace coming from you... We love you and are profoundly thankful for your care.... Todah Rabbah.
Three Ages of Human History...
11.05.08 The Talmud (Sanhedrin 97a) states that human history (olam hazeh) will last 6,000 years, divided into three periods of 2,000 years each. The first period of 2,000 years is called the "Age of Tohu" (desolation), from the fall of Adam until the Jewish year 2,000. This period of time was marked by spiritual chaos. The Great Flood of Noah occurred during this epoch as did the collapse of Nimrod's Tower of Babel (c. 1996 from creation). Though Abram was born just after this age (c. 2008 from creation), at age 75 he received the call to leave Ur of the Kasdim, and this event marked the transition to the next period of history, called the "Age of Torah." The climax of this period was the giving of the Torah at Sinai (and the building of both Temples in the Promised Land). This Age came to close, however, after Yeshua died on the cross at Calvary and the Second Temple was destroyed. We are now living in the "Age of Mashiach," traditionally understood to mean the time when the Messiah will arrive to save Israel at the end of the age (for Christians, this represents the Second Coming of Yeshua at the end of the Tribulation period). The final epoch of history is called "Yemot Ha-Mashiach," or the Messianic Era. Since each day of creation represents 1,000 years (2 Pet. 3:8), the Messianic Era represents the Sabbatical millennium, or 1000 year reign of King Messiah upon the earth (Rev. 20:3-4).
It is interesting to note that Abraham was the first person commanded to undergo Brit Milah (circumcision) as a sign of the Age of Torah. Note, however, that the word milah itself means "word," and therefore brit milah can mean "Covenant of the word." The LORD is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Abraham not only marks the transition from the Age of Tohu to that of Torah, but also to the Age of Mashiach, since he foresaw the coming of Yeshua Himself (John 8:56) and even foresaw the coming Millennial Kingdom on earth (Rom. 4:13). Yeshua is called the Word of God (John 1:1,14; Rev. 19:13), and His followers are called "children of Abraham (Gal. 3:7).
Circumcision was always meant to signify an inward heart change that would be expressed in human history. The inward circumcision of the heart (Deut. 10:16, 30:6) touches the soul (neshamah) and "marks" the inner life with the covenant of God's grace. In the Age of Mashiach, this is called the "circumcision made without hands" (Col. 2:11), a spiritual operation that occurs through our identification with Yeshua the Messiah as our (imputed) Torah righteousness before the Father.... Because of the sacrifice of Yeshua for our sins and the imputation of His righteousness by faith (2 Cor. 5:21), we can experience the miracle of a changed heart. Salvation (יְשׁוּעָה) is given to those who return to the LORD in humility and confess their need for deliverance from themselves (Lev. 26:40-42, Rom. 10:9). It is my sincere hope and prayer that you turn to the LORD today...
Ten Tests of Abraham
11.04.08 Pirke Avot 5:3 says, "With ten tests our father Abraham was tested and he withstood them all -- in order to make known how great was our father Abraham's love for God." This week's Torah portion (Lekh Lekha) includes several of the ten tests of Abraham, traditionally thought to include the following events:
- The rejection of the idol worship of his father(s). A midrash relates that Abram's father sold idols for a living in the city of Haran. When Abram was a young child, however, he realized that idol worship was foolishness. One day when he was asked to watch the store, Abram took a hammer and smashed all the idols - except for the largest one. His father came home and demanded to know what happened. The iconoclast Abram replied that the idols all got into a fight and the biggest idol won. His father was angry but understood that Abram had discovered the truth of ethical monotheism. This was a severe test because Abram had to oppose his father Terach and take a stand against the idolatrous culture of his day.
- The persecution by Nimrod. Jewish tradition says that Noah gave Nimrod the skins with which God clothed Adam and Eve, and these gave him power over all the animals of the world. Hence he became a "mighty hunter" and convinced the ancient Babylonians that he was a god. Nimrod then organized the construction of the Tower of Babel (either to avoid a second flood or to "make war against heaven") and appointed himself king. He was the reigning monarch in Abram's day.
When Nimrod heard that Abram refused to worship him, he arrested him and threw him into a fiery furnace for three days. Abram survived this ordeal, but when his brother Haran was likewise tested, he was burned alive (Lot was Haran's son). Rashi notes that "Ur Kasdim" means "fire of Kasdim," referring to these events.
- Leaving his Homeland. Abram heard the Heavenly Voice command him to depart from his homeland and travel as a penitent to an unknown place (Gen. 12:1). This was an act of surrendering to the unknown... (It is noteworthy that Abram only heard the Voice at this time; as soon as he set foot in the Promised Land "the LORD appeared to him" (Gen. 12:7).
- Being Tested with Famine. Soon after arriving in the Promised Land, a famine forced Abram and Sarai to leave for Egypt (Gen. 12:10). This would have been especially difficult for Abram, especially since the LORD had promised him blessing and prosperity for his act of obedience.
- Dealing with Sarai's Abductions. His wife Sarai was abducted by Pharaoh (Gen. 12:14-15) and Abram became a victim of government sponsored injustice. This also occurred at a later time at the hands of Avimelech of Gerar (Gen. 20:2).
- Forced into Warfare. Abram's nephew Lot was abducted and he was forced to go to war to rescue him from mighty warrior kings (Gen. 14:12-16).
- The Dreadful Vision. After Abram was made party to the "Covenant between the Parts," he experienced the dreadful vision of his descendants being subjugated for 400 years (Gen. 15:1-21).
- Painful Circumcision at age 99. At Abram's advanced age, he was commanded to circumcise himself and his son Ishmael (Gen. 17:10).
- Ongoing Family Problems. The infertility of Sarai, his nephew Lot's ingratitude, the family issues surrounding Hagar, and the eventual eviction of Hagar and Ishmael from the family caused Abraham untold grief and sorrow (Gen. 21:10).
- The Ultimate Sacrifice. The Akedah - the commandment to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah as a burnt offering (Gen. 22:1-19) was undoubtedly Abram's greatest test of all (and a divine prefigurement of the ultimate sacrifice the heavenly Father would give on our behalf).
El Shaddai... אֵל שַׁדַּי
11.03.08 In this week's Torah (Lekh Lekha), the LORD described Himself using the Divine Name El Shaddai (אֵל שַׁדַּי), often translated as "God Almighty." In Genesis 17:1, YHVH said to Abram: "I am El Shaddai. Walk before me and be perfect." So why did the LORD choose to reveal Himself using this distinctive Name to Abram?
Most English translations render El Shaddai as "God Almighty," probably because the translators of the Septuagint (i.e., the Greek translation of the Old Testament) thought Shaddai came from a root verb (shadad) that means "to overpower" or "to destroy." The Latin Vulgate likewise translated Shaddai as "Omnipotens" (from which we get our English word omnipotent). God is so overpowering that He is considered "Almighty."
According to some of the sages, Shaddai is a contraction of the phrase, "I said to the world, dai (enough)" (as in the famous word used in the Passover Haggadah, Dayeinu -- "it would have been sufficient"). God created the world but "stopped" at a certain point. He left creation "unfinished" because He wanted us to complete the job by means of exercising chesed (love) in repair of the world (tikkun olam).
Jacob's blessing given in Genesis 49:25, however, indicates that Shaddai might be related to the word for breasts (shadaim), indicating sufficiency and nourishment (i.e., "blessings of the breasts and of the womb" (בִּרְכת שָׁדַיִם וָרָחַם)). In this case, the Name might derive from the contraction of sha ("who") and dai ("enough") to indicate God's complete sufficiency to nurture the fledgling nation into fruitfulness. Indeed, God first uses this Name when He refers to multiplying Abraham's offspring (Gen. 17:2).
El Shaddai is used almost exclusively in reference to the three great patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and (according to Exodus 6:2-3) was the primary name by which God was known to the founders of Israel (the Name YHVH given to Moses suggests God's absolute self-sufficiency). The word "Shaddai" (by itself) was used later by the prophets (e.g., Num. 24:4; Isa. 13:6, Ezek. 1:24) as well as in the books of Job, Ruth, and in the Psalms. In modern Judaism, Shaddai is also thought to be an acronym for the phrase Shomer daltot Yisrael - "Guardian of the doors of Israel" - abbreviated as the letter Shin on most mezuzot:
Parashat Lekh Lekha - לך־לך
11.02.08 The Torah reading for this coming Shabbat is Lekh Lekha. This parashah introduces us to Avraham Avinu, our father Abraham, and the crucial concept of being "justified by faith" before the LORD...
Some Protestants might be surprised to learn that the idea of "justification by faith" is not unfamiliar to Jewish theology (and certainly was not first proclaimed through Martin Luther or any of the other "Reformers"). For example, the Talmud (Makkot 23b-24a) says, "Moses gave Israel 613 commandments, David reduced them to eleven (Psalm 15), Isaiah to six (Isaiah 33:15-16), Micah to three (Micah 6:8), Isaiah reduced them again to two (Isaiah 56:1); but it was Habakkuk who gave the one essential commandment: v'tzaddik be'emunato yich'yeh, literally, "the righteous, by his faithfulness - shall live" (Hab. 2:4). In the New Testament, the apostle Paul had likewise distilled the various commandments of the Torah to this same principle of faith (see Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11, and Heb. 10:38).