Humility Before a Great, Incomprehensible God

A personal prayer from Ben Franklin

There’s an interesting little chiasm in Leviticus 8:1-5. (See here for more information on chiasms.)

  • Lev 8:1-2 – God instructed Moses on how to carry out the ordination of Aaron and his sons.
    • Lev 8:3 – God told Moses to assemble the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
      • Lev 8:4a – Moses did as God commanded him.
    • Lev 8:4b – Moses assembled the congregation at the entrance of the tent of meeting.
  • Lev 8:5 – Moses told the congregation what God had commanded regarding the ordination ceremony.

The ordination ceremony involved killing animals, burning some parts, washing others, handling some organs, and boiling and eating yet other parts. There was bathing, anointing with oil, and splattering and dabbing with blood. Read all of Leviticus 8 for the full ceremony.

If you or I were to put together a ceremony for ordaining a new priesthood, I doubt it would involve bloody toes, eating boiled meat, or sitting outside a tent for seven days. God’s instructions for this event seem almost arbitrary, but Yeshua assured us that every letter is significant. God is never arbitrary. Every command has a reason, even if he doesn’t always explain it to us.

In Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography he admitted to a lifelong tendency toward pride. He tried various exercises to overcome it, but in the end settled for simply hiding it behind kindness and carefully chosen words, which wasn’t a bad strategy. If every prideful person followed his example, ours would be a better world by far.

Unfortunately, Franklin’s pride in his own intellect led him to reject most of the Bible as a factual record of God’s relationship with mankind because so much of what God did and said seemed to him to be arbitrary or nonsensical. If he couldn’t see the utility in a particular command, he rejected it personally, even while generally respecting the beliefs of others.

Feeding the poor, ensuring justice for the accused, respecting the name of God, et cetera… These things made sense to Franklin, so he kept them. But the Sabbath, dietary laws, and others, he found to be devoid of practical purpose. He certainly isn’t alone. Most modern Americans share his opinions on these matters. Most of them, however, can be at least partly excused because of their lack of knowledge of the Scriptures and training in basic logic. Old Ben didn’t have those excuses.

Franklin believed in God and that God had created the universe and mankind. Reason ought to have informed him–as it did most of his contemporaries–that a being of sufficient intellect to have created the universe with all of its physical laws and intricate living systems must of necessity be in some respects far beyond our own ability to comprehend. A man of overwhelming curiosity, Franklin was acutely aware that he could never hope to understand even a fraction of the physical universe in his lifetime, so it would be a mystery to me how he could have concluded that everything about God and his commandments should be so easily grasped.

I say “would be a mystery to me,” because it would be if it weren’t for his admission to excessive pride.

Contrast Franklin with Moses.

Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. (Numbers 12:3)

When God asked the impossible, Moses obeyed. When God commanded the absurd, Moses obeyed. He might have been embarrassed or inconvenienced or baffled at times, but he still obeyed.

Ben Franklin was a good man–a great man even–but because of his pride, all of his intelligence, experience, and wisdom was worthless compared to Moses’ humility. Two thousand years from now, if Yeshua tarries, Benjamin Franklin will likely have been forgotten by all except the most ardent historians. The name of Moses, on the other hand, will still be as large as ever.

It’s good to consider the “why” of God’s commands. Think about them, meditate on them, debate them. All of these things can bring insight if done in good order. But the one thing we must never do is to reject them simply because we don’t understand or like them. God’s wisdom is as far above ours as ours is above a worm’s. Probably much farther.

Second guessing God’s instructions brought on the fall of the entire human race in Eden. You are mistaken if you think you can get away with it now.

5 Ways to Reconcile with God


The five sacrifices in TorahNumbers have a lot of significance in Scripture and five is one of the biggest. There were five ranks of Israel as they marched out of Egypt, five pillars of the Gate of Truth in the Tabernacle, five volumes of the Torah, five ingredients of the holy anointing oil, five stones in David’s pouch, and five sacrificial offerings by which we can draw closer to God.

This week’s Torah reading (Vayikra, Leviticus 1:1-6:7) is primarily concerned with the five sacrifices. I haven’t spent a lot of time studying the sacrifices, so this post is pretty much off the top of my head. Even so, there are hints at some intriguing patterns:

Olah, the burnt offering.

  • Except for birds, the animals are to be killed and butchered by the one bringing the offering.
  • Birds are to be killed by the priest, who twists the heads off, breaks the wings, and spreads the whole animal out on the altar.
  • The flesh and entrails are wholly burned.
  • The blood is sprinkled.
  • The hide is preserved. Perhaps this isn’t the image God intended us to get, but I can’t help thinking of my hide having been saved from eternal fire.
  • It is voluntary to the individual Israelite.
  • It teaches us faith and obedience. We don’t necessarily know why God said to do this, only that he did. It is up to Israel to trust and obey without understanding.

Minkhah, the grain offering.

  • Must be unleavened grain. In the Scriptures, leavening usually represents sin.
  • Part is to be burned.
  • The remainder goes to the priest.
  • It is voluntary.

Zevakh Shelamim, the peace or thanks offering.

  • Done out of gratitude to God.
  • Portions of the fat are to be burned.
  • Some of the meat goes to the priest.
  • The rest of the meat forms the main entree of a feast for friends and family of the one who brought the sacrifice. It’s an occassion for a party.
  • It is voluntary.

Chatat, the sin offering.

  • Brought for sins of ignorance, not rebellion or deliberate sin.
  • The high priest offers a bull for himself.
  • If the whole community sins in ignorance, the priest offers a bull.

Asham, the guilt offering.

  • Brought for sins against our fellow men, not for sins against God.
  • The form of the offering depends on the financial state of the offerer.
  • Notice that there is no Levitical sacrifice for deliberate sins against God, “For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins.” There is only one remedy for such sin, and that is the blood of Yeshua activated in our lives by sincere repentance.

Another thought I had is that each of these offerings probably lines up with one of the five volumes of the Torah. Possibly also with one of the five volumes of the Gospel. (I am including Acts with the Gospels.) They might line up this way (or they might not):

  • Olah – Genesis – Discovering God
  • Chatat – Exodus – Salvation from the ignorance of the world
  • Zevakh Shelamim – Leviticus – Learning to worship
  • Asham – Numbers – Growing through pain out of rebellion
  • Minkhah – Deuteronomy – Fulfillment and standing on our own

(Thanks to Jon Behrens at Restoration Messianic Fellowship for the five central characteristics of the five books.)

A final thought on the gory nature of sacrifice. If you’ve ever slaughtered an animal, you’ve had occasion to witness the startling redness of fresh blood, like red paint, and the profound realness of the transition from living creature to inanimate meat.

We are real people, not just spirits. We are flesh and blood. That’s the way God made us, and it is how we are supposed to be. We could spend all our time contemplating spiritual matters and thinking about doing good things, and there is a certain amount of value in that. Whoever said, “You are what you believe you are,” was right to an extent. But if we neglect the corporeal side of our beings, we become what someone else said: “Too heavenly minded to be any earthly good.” We need such reminders that our different parts are intimately linked, that physical actions have spiritual consequences, and vice versa.

“The life is in the blood,” indeed.

Men Who Fear God: Yitro’s Rules for Leadership

Jethro's qualities of leadership

Moreover, look for able men from all the people, men who fear God, who are trustworthy and hate a bribe, and place such men over the people as chiefs of thousands, of hundreds, of fifties, and of tens.
(Exodus 18:21)

In this passage, Jethro (Hebrew: Yitro) had observed Moses working himself to death by attempting to address every complaint of the millions of Hebrew refugees by himself. He wisely suggested that Moses needed some help and gave some specific instructions on how to select his helpers. His instructions were essentially the same as those Paul gave to Timothy and Titus many centuries later:

Therefore an overseer must be

  • above reproach
  • the husband of one wife
  • sober-minded
  • self-controlled
  • respectable
  • hospitable
  • able to teach
  • not a drunkard
  • not violent but gentle
  • not quarrelsome
  • not a lover of money
  • manage his own household well
  • keeping his children submissive
  • not a recent convert
  • well thought of by outsiders

(From 1 Timothy 3:2-7)

…able men… These men were to be “able” or chayil. They must have proven their ability by success in business, community, family, and war. They should be men of both knowledge and ability. They don’t need to be supermen, but their families should be well ordered, their businesses more successful than not, and their personal finances in order. Untried men should not be placed in positions of authority.

…men who fear God… Ability alone is not enough to make a great leader of God’s people. He must also be a man of God. He should have high personal standards, a healthy prayer life, and not embroiled in sordid controversies. There are many fine atheists and agnostics in the world–at least by the world’s standards–but they are not qualified to lead God’s people.

…who are trustworthy… Not men who are apt to deceive their way into office. The pathological dishonesty of the vast majority of modern politicians is obvious to anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear. They lie and they lie and they lie, bolder every year, yet they remain in office. That we continue to elect such men and women into leadership is proof of the old adage: We get that government which we deserve.

…hate a bribe… Offices with power are rife with all sorts of opportunities to advance one’s own interests. It is a good thing to desire to lead God’s people, but not to desire it overly much. Remember Yeshua’s words: The first will be last, and he who would lead must serve. Any system resembling a democracy, unfortunately, must favor dishonest seekers of power and fortune.

There are no perfect people in the world. Everyone has flaws. Everyone has weak moments when we make poor choices, set a poor example, and think terrible thoughts. But it’s one thing to be flawed and something else entirely to be a liar, a thief, or a murderer.

One Law or Two?

Are there separate laws for Jews and Gentiles or One Law for both?

I teach that there is one Law for all citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven, that those who have been grafted into Israel are subject to the same statutes and moral standards as those who were born into Israel. One common–and reasonable–objection is that if the law didn’t apply to gentiles prior to Yeshua’s incarnation, why should it apply after? Wouldn’t that mean a change in the Law itself?

For now, I’m going to set aside the distinction between such terms as Jews, Israelites, and Church. It’s an important distinction, but I’ll get to that in a separate article. In this article, I use the term “Jew” as shorthand for the people known as Jews in the time of Jesus and their heirs, because that’s how the term is used in the Apostolic writings.

If I wrote of every scriptural evidence that the Law applies to more than only the Jews, I would have to write a book. But then if I had the time to write a book, it would have to be a different one. So I’ll settle for a handful of evidences.

Evidence 1: Romans 3:9-11,19-21 (9) What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, (10) as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; (11) no one understands; no one seeks for God… (19) Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. (20) For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (21) But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it…

The phrase “under the Law” does not refer to those who are obligated to obey it, but to those who have violated the Law and are therefore under its judgment. The Law testifies against the sinner, thereby making him accountable for his sins. Paul wrote that “both Jews and Greeks are under sin.” But how can a Greek be “under sin” apart from the Law if, as Paul also wrote, “through the Law comes knowledge of sin?” He did not write, “Through one law comes knowledge of sin to the Greeks and through another Law comes knowledge of sin to the Jews.”

Some will say that there are two different laws at work here, one for the Jew and one for the Greek. Don’t let the necessary improvisations of the English translators fool you. The same Greek word nomos was translated as law in every case, and there was no capitalization or punctuation in the Greek. Every use of nomos in this passage refers to the same Law as verse 21 makes clear. There is one Law for both Jew and Gentile.* The Israelites were only the vehicle through which God gave his Law. Verse 2 says that they were entrusted with the oracles (utterances or revelations) of God, not that they were the only people to whom those oracles were addressed. If it’s still not clear enough to you, read the next two verses:

Romans 3:22-23 (22) …the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: (23) for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,

There is no distinction between Jew and Greek in our guilt before the same Law, just as there is no distinction in our salvation through faith.

Evidence 2: Galatians 3:8-14 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (9) So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (10) For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (11) Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” (12) But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” (13) Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”– (14) so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Although I would like to focus on verse 13, I copied much more of this passage to give you a good idea of the context. The Letter to the Galatians was not written to Jews, but to Galatians. They were Gauls, Greeks, Romans, and other mixed gentile nuts. There were probably some Jews there too, but they weren’t Paul’s primary audience. Paul warned this mixed multitude of new believers against relying on the Law for their salvation, so we can be sure that he meant the Law of Moses. He told them that Yeshua set them free from the curse of that Law, but if the Law did not apply to the Gentiles of Galatia, how did they come to require salvation from its curse? Of course, the Law did apply to them. It wasn’t given only to be a witness against the Jews, but against the whole world! (See Romans 3:19.)

Evidence 3 & 4: 1 Timothy 5:18-19 For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” (19) Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.

These are just two examples among many of Paul’s teaching of Torah to Gentiles. To what scriptures was Paul referring? Deuteronomy 25:4 and Deuteronomy 19:15. Since Torah doesn’t apply to Gentiles, why would Paul burden them with its instructions? His words make good sense, of course, but Paul explicitly founded his advice in the Law. He would later write to Timothy that all of scripture, including the Torah, is worthwhile to study and to teach. All of it. And going by Paul’s example, it’s not just good to study, it’s good to do.

Just ask James:

Evidence 5: James 1:22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

James 4:11 Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge.

James was specifically addressing the Twelve Tribes in Diaspora, so this doesn’t directly counter the original objection. But if the objection is correct, and Christians have no responsibility to keep the Law at all, then they should remove this letter from their Bibles altogether because it wasn’t addressed to them anyway. All this talk of law would probably only confuse them. On the other hand, I know that many people teach believing Jews that they must abandon Torah when they come to faith in Yeshua. James, the head of the church in Jerusalem, obviously disagreed. Faith in Yeshua (aka Jesus) does not abrogate the responsibility to keep the Law, but rather establishes obedience as effectual for the holiness of all believers.

Evidence 6: 1 John 3:4 Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness.

John, in addressing some common early heresies, defined sin as living without the Law. One could object that John meant living without any law and not specifically the Law of Moses, but I think that seems a little silly after Evidences 1-5. I think we can all agree that he wasn’t talking about Roman civil law or Jovian ecclesiastical law.

I have already gone beyond the “handful” of evidences I intended, but I really should add a few from the older scriptures for the benefit of any Jews who might be following along.

Evidence 7: Isaiah 56:1-7 Thus says the LORD: “Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed. (2) Blessed is the man who does this, and the son of man who holds it fast, who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it, and keeps his hand from doing any evil.” (3) Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” (4) For thus says the LORD: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, (5) I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. (6) “And the foreigners who join themselves to the LORD, to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, everyone who keeps the Sabbath and does not profane it, and holds fast my covenant– (7) these I will bring to my holy mountain, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their burnt offerings and their sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples.”

This is just about as plain a statement as you could want. Those non-Israelites who join themselves to God must never say that they are separated from his people, the Israelites. Just as Paul would write hundreds of years later: under God there is no difference between Jew and Greek. If gentiles worship the true God and keep his commandments, then they will be invited into his house. The implication is that, if they do not keep the Sabbath, they will not be invited, and their offerings and sacrifices will not be accepted.

Perhaps this is why David wanted to teach God’s Law to everyone. He was a man after God’s own heart, after all.

Evidence 8: Psalm 119:46-47 I will also speak of your testimonies before kings and shall not be put to shame, for I find my delight in your commandments, which I love.

Although he used two words, “testimonies” and “commandments”, the context indicates he meant them to be synonyms. If you aren’t as sure as I am, that’s understandable. Look a little further into Psalm 119, and maybe you will be convinced.

Evidence 9: Psa 119:118-119 You spurn all who go astray from your statutes, for their cunning is in vain. All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross, therefore I love your testimonies.

David wrote that God spurns all who go astray from his statutes. Not just the Israelites or the Jews. “All the wicked of the earth.” Since he did not want to be spurned, discarded like dross, he chose to love God’s testimonies. These lines are even clearer than the previous ones that “testimonies” was used synonymously with “commandments” and “statutes” throughout Psalm 119, and that all three apply to gentiles as well as to Jews.

Appropriately enough for the topic, I will conclude with a tenth scriptural evidence that the Law of God applies to all people, though there are many more to be found.

Evidences 10: Zechariah 14:18-19 And if the family of Egypt does not go up and present themselves, then on them there shall be no rain; there shall be the plague with which the LORD afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the Feast of Booths.

Sukkot (the Feast of Booths) memorializes Israel’s time in the wilderness and prophecies of the coming of the Messiah. One could spiritualize this passage to avoid the issue–and the allegorical interpretation might not be entirely incorrect–but the literal meaning is quite clear. The day will come when any nation on earth that does not keep Sukkot will also not receive rain.

Sukkot, which means “tabernacles” or “booths”, is a festival that happens every Fall. It memorializes the time that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness living in sukkot and is the most likely time when Yeshua was born, hence the prophecies of the Messiah coming to tabernacle among his people. The manger probably wasn’t a feeding trough, but a tabernacle, a temporary shelter constructed in obedience to the command to live in sukkot for one week every year. Although it isn’t kosher by rabbinic standards, we set up our tents in the yard every year and try to sleep in them as much as possible for that week.

So, keep Torah (the Law) or not. Just don’t say that God never intended for non-Jews to keep it. The Apostles disagree.

*Be careful not to conflate the Sinai Covenant with the Law itself. The Law was included in the Covenant–Jeremiah says that the New Covenant also includes the Law–but it isn’t identical with the Covenant.

God Does Not Forget the Humble

Exodus 1:13-14 – And they made their lives bitter with hard bondage… The Hebrew word translated as ‘rigour’ in v13 in the KJV is perek. Strong said that it comes from a root that means to break or fracture. So the Egyptians were not simply using the Hebrews for their labor. They were trying to keep them weak by breaking their spirit through cruel and pointless labor.

(The hard labor to which Israel was put may explain some of the disparity between the numbers of men and women who came out of Egypt. The nature of much manual labor tends to shorten the lives of men significantly, even today. Robert Sheaffer wrote, “As for contemporary American society: women live an average of seven years longer than men. Twenty-four out of the twenty-five jobs ranked worst in terms of pay and working conditions by the Jobs Related Almanac have one thing in common: they are all 95%-100% male. Of those killed in work-related accidents, 94% are men.”* If that is true for modern America with OSHA rules and modern safety equipment, it must be doubly true for slaves constructing bronze age megaliths.)

There were five genocides recorded in Scripture, that were either ordered by God or perpetrated directly by God’s hand. Each of them was precipitated by severe injustice, usually combined with sexual immorality.

  1. Noah’s flood – Tyrants who were particularly abusive toward women. Possibly sexual immorality involving demons. Completely destroyed by God except for one family.
  2. Sodom & Gomorrah – Extreme hostility toward travelers. Sexual immorality. Completely destroyed by God except for one family and one small community.
  3. Egypt – Severe mistreatment of slaves, infanticide. Brother-sister marriages were encouraged, although that isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Population decimated, economy and military destroyed by God.
  4. Canaan – Child sacrifice, hostility toward travelers. Selectively destroyed, displaced, or subjugated by Israel at God’s command.
  5. Nineveh – Unspecified systemic violence. They repented and God relented.

The victims in each of these injustices were essentially defenseless. (Sodom was already guilty before the angels arrived to witness the fact.) God acted for them and removed the perpetrators. In the case of Canaan, he used the Israelites as his tool.

In Psalm 10, David alluded to the connection between the dispossession of the Canaanites and their injustices.

v1 Why standest thou afar off, O LORD? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?
v2 The wicked in his pride doth persecute the poor: let them be taken in the devices that they have imagined.
v3 For the wicked boasteth of his heart’s desire, and blesseth the covetous, whom the LORD abhorreth.
v4 The wicked, through the pride of his countenance, will not seek after God: God is not in all his thoughts.
v5 His ways are always grievous; thy judgments are far above out of his sight: as for all his enemies, he puffeth at them.
v6 He hath said in his heart, I shall not be moved: for I shall never be in adversity.
v7 His mouth is full of cursing and deceit and fraud: under his tongue is mischief and vanity.
v8 He sitteth in the lurking places of the villages: in the secret places doth he murder the innocent: his eyes are privily set against the poor.
v9 He lieth in wait secretly as a lion in his den: he lieth in wait to catch the poor: he doth catch the poor, when he draweth him into his net.
v10 He croucheth, and humbleth himself, that the poor may fall by his strong ones.
v11 He hath said in his heart, God hath forgotten: he hideth his face; he will never see it.
v12 Arise, O LORD; O God, lift up thine hand: forget not the humble.
v13 Wherefore doth the wicked contemn God? he hath said in his heart, Thou wilt not require it.
v14 Thou hast seen it; for thou beholdest mischief and spite, to requite it with thy hand: the poor committeth himself unto thee; thou art the helper of the fatherless.
v15 Break thou the arm of the wicked and the evil man: seek out his wickedness till thou find none.
v16 The LORD is King for ever and ever: the heathen are perished out of his land.
v17 LORD, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear:
v18 To judge the fatherless and the oppressed, that the man of the earth may no more oppress.

Every biblical genocide ordered by God was prompted by ubiquitous injustice, and the plagues of Egypt were no exception. The same principle works in families. Tyranny will break family bonds as surely as it breaks those within and between nations. God executes justice for those who are unable to defend themselves. Justice might not come when we would expect it, want it, or even recognize it, but it inevitably comes. A father (or mother for that matter) who deliberately provokes his children or a husband who cruelly uses his greater strength against his wife will eventually pay a price.

(See also Numbers 3:39, 3:43, and Ephesians 6:4.)

* Robert Sheaffer. “Feminism, the Noble Lie.” The Domain of the Patriarchy.

Read the Bible Just Like You’d Read Any Other Book

The late R. C. Sproul once said that you should read the Bible like you would read any other book. There is plenty in that statement to argue with if you’re looking for argument—The Bible isn’t like any other book!—but if you step back and try to understand what Sproul meant by it, you’ll find a fundamental truth to Bible study instead.

Read the Bible like you'd read any other book. -R.C. Sproul

If you pick a random book off a shelf at the library, how do you approach reading it? You ask several questions before you start:

  • Who wrote it?
  • For whom was it written?
  • What is it about?
  • What kind of literature is it?
  • When was it written?

Most people don’t even think about these questions consciously. They ask and answer them all in a few seconds subconsciously as part of the process of deciding whether or not to read the book. But consciously or not, we all ask these questions, because we need to know what kind of book we’re holding before we can know how to read it. You wouldn’t read a chemistry text book the same way you’d read a mystery novel or a book of poetry. If you try to read William Blake’s “The Tiger” as if it were a how-to guide for constructing jungle carnivores, not only will you fail to get a tiger, but you will fail to get the point.

The Bible—or rather the individual components of the Bible—is no different from other books in this respect. You have to know what kind of book you’re holding before you can know how you ought to read it.

Who Wrote It?

Although the Bible’s authors were inspired and guided by God, they still wrote in their own peculiar styles and from their own perspectives. The culture, religion, politics, and attitudes of an author will influence how he expresses himself and can add a significant depth to his words that might not be obvious otherwise.

For example, this verse from Ecclesiastes sounds like it’s about farming or some other hard manual labor:

I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me.
Ecclesiastes 2:18

It’s a great and satisfying thing to build something that will last for generations, but this verse is talking about more than houses and even temples. It takes on whole new dimensions of meaning when you realize that it was actually written by a fabulously wealthy scientist-philosopher-king. There are many kinds of hard labor and the struggles of a righteous ruler for the sake of his people are as real as the bloody knuckles of a stone mason, even if they are not as visible to the naked eye.

The Bible was written by at least 40 different authors across more than 1500 years. They were scholars, priests, lawyers, kings, warriors, shepherds, and fishermen. Their professions, backgrounds, and current events gave each of them a different perspective on the world. We don’t know the names of every Biblical author, but, where there is doubt, there are usually sufficient clues to tell us what kind of people they were. At the very least, we can know that they were Hebrews in an agrarian society with no electricity, no running water, and no transportation that wasn’t powered by muscle or wind.

The one thing we must never do is read the Scriptures as if they were written by Americans in modern English.

For Whom Was It Written?

The identity of the intended audience of a text is just as important as the identity of the author.

Good relationships require good boundaries.

This statement will have very different—though related—meanings, depending on whether it was addressed to marriage counselors, property surveyors, or salesmen.

Paul’s letters were primarily written to specific groups of former gentiles who had no cultural background in the Scriptures and had only begun earnestly studying after their relatively recent conversion. James’ letter and Peter’s first letter, on the other hand, were written to Greek-speaking Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire. They were familiar with the teachings of the Pharisees and had heard the Old Testament scriptures read and taught in their local synagogues every Sabbath since they were children.

Unlike Paul and Luke in the New Testament, who wrote mostly to former gentiles, almost all of the Old Testament authors wrote for the benefit of Israelites with a thorough knowledge of their own culture, Scriptures, and prophecies. The people to whom Jeremiah preached and wrote knew the Torah well. They saw the Temple and the daily offerings with their own eyes. They had a deep cultural inheritance of the promises of God to Israel, of Messianic theology and expectations. A letter written to the people of Jerusalem in 700 BC is likely to be very different in content and expression to one written to recent converts living in Rome in 60 AD.

Keeping the background of a text’s intended audience in mind, especially when reading Paul, can aid understanding by eliminating some possible interpretations as being very unlikely and make other interpretations almost self-evident.

What Is It About?

Everything we read has a topic. Each discrete sentence or passage is about something or it wouldn’t exist, and the Bible is no different. If we want to know what a Bible passage means, we need to know what topic the author was discussing and to be careful about applying the words more broadly than the author intended or to the wrong topic altogether.

For example, if a paragraph says that gold is the worst of all elements and should never be used by anyone for any reason, you might be very confused if you didn’t know that the topic under discussion is the construction of tools that must not transmit electrical charges. It doesn’t mean that gold is unsuitable for any purpose whatsoever, only that you shouldn’t make solid gold screwdrivers for electricians.

Some topics have a narrower focus than others. For example, Daniel’s prophecy about the four beasts is about the rise and fall of kingdoms and not at all about winged leopards and horned monsters. We might be able to draw from it some valid lessons for studying history and politics, but we would be adding meaning to the text that Daniel didn’t intend. Once you start interpreting a passage beyond its original topic, you are on treacherous ground where the text can be twisted into any shape imaginable.

What Kind of Literature Is It?

Different genres of literature can have very different rules of grammar, structure, and interpretation. When reading in English, we all understand that a poet has more artistic license to exaggerate and distort the literal truth for the sake of the art than does a clinical researcher when describing the methodology and findings of his latest study.

Nobody accuses William Blake of lying for describing the tiger as being forged by a master smith. We all know that he was just using picturesque language and didn’t really believe that tiger brains come out of furnaces.

The Bible contains a variety of literary genres, frequently within the same book, and we need to apply the same kinds of mental filters when reading the Bible as we would when reading other books. Here are some of the broad categories of biblical genres:

  • History – Tends toward factual with heavy emphasis on names, dates, and places, but often leaves out details such as cultural information that wouldn’t need to be explained to the original audience. Sometimes presented as stories and dialog, sometimes as bare factual data.
  • Law – Heavy on formulaic literary structures, but often omits the cultural context of a law unless it’s directly relevant to how the law is to be obeyed. Frequently contains bits of history, but not always in chronological order.
  • Poetry & Wisdom – Rhymes, allegory, hyperbole, and dramatic imagery that isn’t necessarily meant to be understood literally.
  • Correspondence – Informal and personal with advice and theological exposition. Always omit details that both correspondents would have taken for granted, like cultural context, personal histories, and the contents of previous letters. Expect ambiguity and normal, conversational language.
  • Prophecy – Dreams, visions, allegories, et cetera, full of symbolism that might (or might not) have obvious meaning to the author’s original audience. Some prophecy is straightforward prediction of future events, but much is deliberately obscured so that it’s meaning is only clear in hindsight or to those who understand the symbolism.

There is frequent overlap between these genres. For example, Genesis contains all five in various places and the Song of Moses in Exodus 15 is History, Poetry, and Prophecy simultaneously.

You can almost always tell what genre you are reading by the context, but it can be obscured by translation. For example, the original texts might be arranged in meaningful ways, such as word order, white space, etc., or might contain rhymes and puns that are lost in translation. Most literally translated English Bibles attempt to preserve these elements, but it can be very difficult—often impossible—to translate poetry and allegory without losing much of the original art.

When Was It Written?

Some books and passages contain explicit statements concerning their time of writing: “In the seventh year of the reign of So-and-so, son of So-and-so…” A good Bible timeline can help you place these writings in the correct historical context.

Most English Bibles are arranged in roughly chronological order, so if a book doesn’t say when it was written, you can get a good idea by where it falls in the Table of Contents. There are exceptions, of course. The book of Job might have been written earlier than Genesis, for example, and all of the books of history, including the Acts of the Apostles, span long periods of time in which other books were begun and completed.

The time when a passage was written can sometimes have a dramatic impact on the meaning. For example, a prophecy of a future event is meaningless without knowing what “future” meant to the author. The Old Testament prophets contain many prophecies about the kingdoms of Judah, Israel, and the surrounding nations. If a passage talks about the future reunification of the two kingdoms, was it written before or the Assyrian conquest of Israel? Before or after Ezra and Nehemiah returned from Babylon? The answer to that question could change our understanding of the author’s intent.

The Bible Doesn’t Exist in a Vacuum

A thorough treatment of each of these topics could fill multiple volumes and probably has, but I did say at the start that this isn’t a masters course in Biblical hermeneutics. If you have the time and resources to invest in that kind of study, more power to you. For most of us, a little thoughtful common sense will have to suffice.

Just remember that the Bible didn’t spring into existence from nothing. It was written by real people, for real people, in the midst of real events. You can read the Bible like it’s just another coffee table book full of platitudes free of context, and you’ll still get some value out of it, but if you want real understanding, if you want to know what meaning the original authors intended to convey, then you need to have at least a passing understanding of who wrote each particular book or passage, to whom they wrote it, when, and why.

You can get most of that information from the text itself. Where the text is unclear, a good Bible Encyclopedia can be helpful, but remember that even the experts disagree about many dates, authors, etc., of some books. Believe what the text says and take what the experts say with a large grain of salt.

If you haven’t already subscribed, check out the Common Sense Bible Study home page for more information and to sign up to get every installment from the beginning!

The Betrayal of Mashiach ben Yosef

The story of Joseph's betrayal to Egypt is the most profoundly prophetic story in the Bible.Even as long ago as the first century, synagogues were well ordered places of worship, learning, and ancient tradition. There were rules about which direction the building should face, how the interiors should be arranged, and even what could be done with the land if a newer synagogue were to be constructed. The conduct of services was flexible, but only within certain bounds. The Scripture readings were on a set schedule and the readers were chosen well in advance.

Wherever Yeshua happened to be in his travels, he went to the local synagogue (or to the Temple if he was in Jerusalem) on the Sabbath. In Luke 4:16-30 he was visiting his home town of Nazareth and, being there on the Sabbath, he attended synagogue with his family and old neighbors. I think he must have been expected, because when he stood to read, the ruler of the synagogue had the scroll of Isaiah brought to him. It’s even possible that Yeshua had come to Nazareth because he was scheduled to read on that day.

Luke summarized what Yeshua read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
(Luke 4:18-19)

I’m sure he read more than this, especially since these words aren’t a single passage from Isaiah, but a paraphrase of at least two–possibly three–different parts of the scroll. Likewise, I’m sure Luke paraphrased Yeshua’s commentary:

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
(Luke 4:20-22)

Essentially, Yeshua preached the Gospel in his home town: the imminent arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. His message seemed to be well received, and why shouldn’t it be? It was a message of hope that they had all been waiting for. Here was a man of their own village telling them that the promised redemption of Israel had come, that the oppressed were about to be set free and the blind to gain sight!

But there was more brewing beneath the surface than their flattering words revealed. The people of Nazareth were like the stony ground on which the seed fell and sprouted only to die under the hot sun because it had no roots. Their hearts were hard, and Yeshua knew that his message wouldn’t find lasting purchase there. He knew that their thoughts would soon turn to his ministry abroad in Israel and his long absence from home, and he interrupted them before the thought had congealed in their minds:

And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘”Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.'”
(Luke 4:23)

The saying, “Physician, heal yourself,” didn’t mean to them what it usually means when people use it now. We use those words today to point out the hypocrisy of one person who tells another how to fix a problem that the first person also has and is unable to fix himself. In ancient Judea, the phrase meant something like “Why are you out solving the world’s problems when we have more than enough to worry about right here at home?” It isn’t about hypocrisy, but about prioritizing your own friends and family before strangers.

Unfortunately, because of their hard hearts and their disbelief that one of their own could be the Messiah, Yeshua’s friends and extended family were unable to receive him.

And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.”
(Luke 4:24)

It’s interesting that the people of Nazareth asked one another, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Indeed, this was the man who had grown up in the house of Joseph of Nazareth, but he was the son of Joseph in a much more profound sense.

I’ve mentioned this before, but it’s certainly worth repeating. Ancient Jewish thought expected two messiahs: Mashiach ben Yosef (Messiah son of Joseph), who would suffer and die for his people, and Mashiach ben David (Messiah ben David), who would avenge the death of the former and re-establish the Kingdom of Israel. (See this article from Hebrew 4 Christians for a a more detailed explanation and a truly astonishing list of parallels between Yeshua (Jesus) and Yosef (Joseph): Mashiach ben Yosef). They had the basic idea right, but they didn’t realize that the two Messiahs were actually a single man who would save them in two ways.

When Joseph was a boy, he told his brothers about a dream he had in which they all bowed to him. Like Yeshua, he was rejected and betrayed by his own, sold to a band of foreigners for a bag of silver, and stripped of his clothing. Unlike Yeshua, however, Joseph didn’t understand the purpose of this at the time it happened. It was only many years later that he finally began to see the great plan that God was working through his life and suffering.

Joseph had been in prison for years, convicted of a crime he didn’t commit, when Pharaoh called on him to interpret a dream. As God revealed the meaning of Pharaoh’s dream to Joseph, he also began to understand the meaning of the terrible events in his own life: the betrayal of his brothers, the years in slavery and in prison. He finally understood what Yeshua hinted at in that Synagogue almost 2000 years later: He had to be betrayed by his brothers in order to save them.

What would have happened if Joseph’s brothers had not sold him to the Ishmaelites and he had remained in Canaan? Maybe someone else would have had a dream like Pharaoh’s and maybe Joseph would have interpreted it, but his brothers would not have believed him. They would have laughed and scorned him instead of giving him the authority and power to act on the dream’s message. They wouldn’t have stored up grain during the seven good years, so there would have been no grain in the seven years of famine. If Joseph had not been betrayed, buried in a pit as if dead, and resurrected to glory in Pharaoh’s court, Egypt and Jacob would have perished from the earth together.

No Israel, no David, no Yeshua, no Salvation.

Now imagine what would have happened if Yeshua’s brothers had not betrayed him to Pilate. No prophet is ever accepted by his own people. They would have laughed and scorned him, just like Joseph’s brothers did.

Fortunately, God loves both Israel and the world.

Like Joseph, Yeshua had to be betrayed by his own people in order to save them, and God arranged circumstances so that it would happen. It was God’s will that Yeshua be rejected by the Jewish leaders and sold for a bag of silver to be stripped, humiliated, convicted, and executed for a crime he didn’t commit, buried in a pit, and resurrected again to glory, not in the court of Egypt, but in the court of Heaven. Without that betrayal, the world and Jacob would be eternally damned together.

Through the betrayal of Messiah Yeshua, son of Joseph, salvation and citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven has been made available to the whole world, thus paving the way for Messiah Yeshua, son of David, to one day set up his kingdom on Earth.

But none of this works if those whom Yeshua has saved do nothing to provoke Jacob to jealousy. If our faith doesn’t change us, doesn’t bring us to do good works in the King’s name, then what good is it? Kings have laws or else their kingship has no point. If our faith in the Gospel that Yeshua preached and paid for doesn’t radically inform our daily lives, our conversation, our politics…then to what king have we really pledged allegiance? If there is no bread in Egypt for Jacob to desire, why should he send his sons there at all?

Our responsibility as adopted children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is to sow seed, to raise up a crop of obedience, worship, and love that bears fruit a thousand fold. Only then will the natural sons of Jacob see any point in seeking salvation in the Son of Joseph.

Garments of Authority and Submission

Veils, robes, and mantles are marks of authority and submission.This Torah portion (Vayeshev, Genesis 37-40) is full of clothes and head coverings.

  • Reuben tore his clothes (Genesis 37:29)
  • Joseph’s brother dipped his robe in blood and presented it to their father (Genesis 37:33)
  • Jacob tore his garments (Genesis 37:34)
  • Tamar removed her widow’s garments and donned a veil (Genesis 38:14-15)
  • Tamar removed her veil and donned widow’s garments (Genesis 38:19)
  • Potiphar’s wife caught Joseph by his garment and used it to frame him (Genesis 39:12-16)
  • Pharaoh’s baker dreamed of three baskets on his head (Genesis 40:16-19)

Garments and coverings of all kinds are prominent throughout Scripture and almost always have a deeper meaning than what can be read only on the surface.

For example, when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, his face glowed and he wore a veil over his face to hide the glory of it from the Israelites. (Exodus 34:29-35) I was taught that this was a purely pragmatic act, that he had absorbed so much of God’s glory that nobody could stand to look at it, but I think that’s only partly correct.

When Moses was engaged in God’s business–for example, when he spoke the Torah to the assembled Israelites and when he was in the tent communing directly with God–he removed the veil. When he was about more mundane business–for example, judging legal cases and performing administrative duties in the camp–he wore the veil. The key distinction is not whether or not the person in front of him could stand to look at him, but whether or not it was appropriate to display God’s glory directly.

I think it was important that he did not appear to be speaking for God at every waking moment. He wasn’t a replacement god–as much as he must have seemed so both to Pharaoh and Israel–but an emissary for God. He had to hide his face so that the Israelites would not be tempted to worship him or to take every word he spoke as divine law. Removing the veil for Moses in the wilderness was like the Catholic Pope speaking ex cathedra. He removed the veil when he spoke God’s Law because he wanted Israel to see God speaking in the rays of light that shone from his face.

Coverings in Scripture are often emblems of authority and protection: headcoverings, veils, mantles, robes of state, wraps, hangings, bedding, shadows, gold plating…even tree branches and pitch are used in this way.

Headcoverings and mantles are two of the most obvious as well as two sides of the same coin. How the covering is worn or used advertises the bearer’s relationship to the authority.

Worn on the head, they indicate submission to the authority of another, like a military cover. One who is under authority is obligated to obey, but is entitled to protection and provision. To a certain extent, he shares in the power of that authority.

Some examples of coverings representing submission to authority or protection:

  • Ruth covered herself with a corner of Boaz’s tallit as a subtle marriage proposal.
  • Boaz told Ruth to remove her veil–something that should only be done by someone in authority: a husband or father, for instance–so that he could fill it with barley, so that he could provide for her. He was replying in the affirmative to her proposal.
  • Paul argued that a woman who prays or prophecies without a headcovering dishonors her husband.
  • Headcoverings were frequently used to hide shame or sorrow, an expression closely related to submission.
  • The Hebrew word for “pitch” in the story of Noah’s ark literally means “covering.” The same word is also translated “bribe” or “ransom.”
  • After God threatened Abimelech’s life for attempting to take a prophet’s wife as his own, Abimelech told Sarah that Abraham was a covering for her.
  • In the trial of a wife suspected of adultery, the priest removes her headcovering before subjecting her to the ordeal, symbolizing the removal of her husband’s protection.

Worn on the shoulders, coverings represent the authority carried by the wearer. One who carries authority is responsible for its exercise and for the protection and provision of its subjects. The fact that it is worn on the shoulders and not under foot reflects the reality of good leadership: authority must never be worn for its own sake, but for the sake of those beneath it, like Atlas holding the world on his shoulders.

Some examples of coverings representing the bearing of authority:

  • Elijah was a chief prophet and the headmaster of a school. He wore a mantle on his shoulders as a badge of office and passed it on to his successor, Elisha.
  • The High Priest wore an onyx stone bearing the names six of the twelve tribes on each of his shoulders. They represented his right to judge the nation on spiritual matters, while he wore a gold plate with twelve different precious stones over his heart to represent his obligation to judge with love and mercy.
  • Jacob gave Joseph a coat of many colors. Immediately after that, Joseph dreamed that all of Israel would someday bow to him. I don’t think that Jacob meant for Joseph’s coat to represent anything except his affection, but God had other plans. Think of the twelve differently colored stones on the High Priests breastplate. How much do you want to bet that there were exactly twelve different colors on Joseph’s coat?

Noah’s pitch coated his ark to keep out the floods that destroyed the rest of the world, like Yeshua’s blood that separates us from our world and its eventual fate. Likewise, the Hebrew word translated “mercy seat” in Exodus 25:17 referring to the lid of the Ark of the Covenant actually doesn’t have anything to do with seats, although it does imply mercy. It means “lid” or “cover” and comes from the same root as the word translated as “pitch.”

Both coverings protect the contents of a wooden box from something outside. The Ark of the Covenant represents (at least on one level) the heart of a human being. It’s where David said he hid God’s law and where God says he wants to write it in every person. We can’t directly face God in our natural state, but in the Tabernacle God’s presence hovered above the Ark.

The mercy seat represents Yeshua’s role as our High Priest and intermediary with the Father, who sees us through the filter of his son. In this case, Yeshua as our covering takes on almost every aspect symbolized by all the other types of coverings. He shields us from an overwhelming power. He defends us from our adversary. He seals our hearts off from the rest of the world. He commands our obedience as we submit to him.

In Genesis 38, Tamar wore a veil to hide her identity but also to subtly tell Judah that the deaths of his sons weren’t her fault. She was only submitting to Judah’s authority all along. Her very name means “upright.” The real problem was with Judah, his sons, and their mother. Through the entire humiliating ordeal, she remained submitted to authority, and thereby found Judah’s life and power in her hands. She took his staff (a symbol of power and authority) and rings (rings, bracelets, and ear/nose rings are symbols of betrothal and ownership) from him, and returned them in such a way that, had he insisted on prosecuting her, he would have forfeited his own life.

Authority rightly worn with respect to its purpose–whether on head or shoulders–is a conduit for prayers to heaven and good relationships on earth. Discarded or abused, authority is a hindrance to prayers, to love, to life itself.

A Guide to Bible Translations

A brief guide to Bible translations

There are a lot of Bible translations out there, probably more in English than any other language. In some ways it’s embarrassing, like the thousands of Christian denominations. Why can’t everyone just read the same translation? There are some surprisingly good reasons for the many English Bibles and some disappointing ones too.

I’m going to get a little more technical in this installment, but it’s important information, so bear with me.

In part, the variety of translations are a reflection of the variety of source texts. Before the invention of the printing press, every Bible was copied by hand from an older copy. Letter shapes and vocabulary changed over time, writing faded, manuscripts were lost, and some were even deliberately changed. Some amount of error and variation was inevitable. Today, there are thousands of ancient manuscripts that can be used to translate the Bible from the original Hebrew and Greek, but they almost all have minor variations in the text. A number of factors will influence which original a translator uses for any particular passage: readability, historical and linguistic analysis, contextual clues, and theological bias, for example.

Some translations include additional passages or even entire books. For example, Catholic Bibles include the Macabbees, Esdras, and other books that Protestant Bibles do not. Some ancient manuscripts contain passages that are missing from others, and there is always debate about whether the passage was added to one manuscript or removed from another. This is especially true for the Gospels. For example, Matthew 17:21 is present in the Tyndale (1500s), Rheims New Testament (1582+), and the King James Version (1611+) which are based on the Hebrew, Greek, and Latin texts available in the 16th century, but is missing from the New International Version (1973), the Holman Christian Standard (2004), and the English Standard (2001) Versions which are based on older Hebrew and Greek manuscripts that were only discovered within the last century.

There are two important points to consider about the use of older source manuscripts for translating the Bible:

  1. Older doesn’t necessarily mean better. There were false cults and poor copies two thousand years ago, just like today. Translators need to be very careful to be aware of all the possible factors involved in selecting source texts, not just the age of the manuscript.
  2. The oldest manuscripts we now have of any Biblical texts date to about the 2nd century BC and they differ very little from manuscripts that were created a thousand years later. The differences that exist are almost entirely due to individual letters or spelling variations. There are exceedingly few differences that have any impact on the theological meaning of the text. This is one of the most remarkable characteristics of biblical manuscripts and, by itself, makes the Bible unlike almost any other religious text in the world.

Some English translations have been based on Latin or Greek texts that were themselves translations from Greek or Hebrew. For example, the Wycliffe and Coverdale Bibles were both based on the Latin Vulgate and the Brenton English Septuagint is based on a Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. These kinds of translations can provide an interesting historical perspective on how Greek and Latin speakers might have understood the Scriptures in the early centuries of the Christian church, but they’re more likely to obscure the original meaning  of the Bible than to illuminate it.

Another reason for making new translations is the evolving nature of English. The King James Version is barely readable for most English speakers today, and the meaning of enough words have changed over that time that some passages have completely changed meaning. For example, in modern English the word “replenish” means to restore something that has been depleted, like refilling a water glass, but that’s not what it meant when the KJV translators rendered Genesis 1:28 to say “replenish the earth”. Back in the 17th century, it just meant to fill it up. It’s the difference between refilling a glass and filling it the first time. It helps to have a Bible written in the same language we use every day, which only makes sense, since much of it was originally written using the same vocabulary and grammar that ordinary people used at home and in the market.

You’ll have to subscribe to get the rest of this article, which includes more reasons for creating new translations, a description of translation styles (formal vs dynamic equivalence) and special-purpose Bibles, a short list of today’s popular translations, some thoughts on the King James Version, and recommendations for selecting or rejecting which Bibles you use in your personal study.

May God speak to you daily through his word,

Jay Carper

P.S. My favorite Bible study tool is e-Sword, phenomenal software created by Rick Meyers to facilitate access to Bible commentaries, dictionaries, translations, and other resources. It lets you quickly switch between multiple translations and even to see them side-by-side. Inclusion of dictionaries lets you look up the meaning of Hebrew, Greek, and English words in every verse. On the computer I’m using right now, I have 16 different translations, 2 Hebrew dictionaries, 2 Greek dictionaries, several encyclopedias, and 13 commentaries. Once you have the software installed, you can use the built-in tools to download and add dozens of translations, both free and paid, in dozens of languages. I can’t recommend it highly enough. If you don’t have it, you can download e-Sword for free at

(Click here to return to the Common Sense Bible Study home page.)

Forgiveness and the Heart of God

We've all heard that God is love, but God is also forgiveness.

But Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
(Genesis 33:4)

But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.
(Matthew 5:39)

When I sat down to write, I intended to talk about Thanksgiving Day and family reunions, but then it went the way these things often go: somewhere else. Instead of Thanksgiving, I’m going to tell you about three seemingly unforgiveable crimes and their suprising aftermaths.

We hurt each other every day. Selfishness, offense, and anger are commonplace, while mercy and forgiveness are rare.

We’re all familiar with the story of Jacob taking the blessing and the inheritance from his brother, Esau, but what happened between them later isn’t told as often.

I’m sure that Rebekah, their mother, loved them both, but she found Esau’s personality and life choices to be a constant irritation, and her favoritism toward Jacob probably made Esau feel as though she didn’t love him at all. When Jacob deceived dad into giving him Esau’s blessing, it almost certainly damaged whatever relationships remained in the family. You can almost hear the pain in Esau’s voice as he begged his father, “Don’t you have anything left for me?” Jacob took Esau’s mother, then he took his birthright, and finally he conspired to take his father’s blessing too.

Esau was understandably more than a little upset.

Jacob fled the country to escape his brother’s murderous wrath and didn’t return until decades later. During the whole journey home from Haran–weeks at the least and probably months–Jacob dreaded the confrontation that was sure to come. He begged God to protect him from his brother, but as he approached the borders of Canaan, he heard that Esau was headed out to meet him at the head of a small army. Jacob sent gift after gift in an attempt to appease Esau, but he knew that his brother had a hot temper and would not have forgotten how he had been mistreated.

Finally, Jacob saw his brother in the distance, a massive cloud of dust billowing behind him and the four hundred men who were with him. He got down on his knees and bowed his face to the ground seven times, but Esau came on even faster. When he reached Jacob, he yanked him off the ground, put both arms around him, and kissed him. Imagine Jacob’s relief!

Was it really that simple, though?

In the Hebrew of Genesis 33:4, there are small marks above each letter of the word for “kissed him”, vayishakehu. I have heard three interpretations of these marks:

  1. They are Esau’s teeth because his greeting was disingenuous and he would rather have bitten Jacob on the neck than kiss him.
  2. They emphasize Esau’s genuine affection for Jacob. They are tongues of flames or rays of light from one bright point in an otherwise bleak family landscape.
  3. They are scribal marks to indicate a copyist error and the word should have been deleted.

More than 2500 years after the fact, we can’t do much more than speculate. The truth is that we don’t know what was going on in Esau’s head at that moment. All we know is what he did: He embraced his long-estranged brother, kissed him, and wept. And what he didn’t do: Accuse and remind his brother of all the pain he had caused.

Esau was a fool in his youth and repeatedly made bad decisions, but there’s no doubt that he had been wronged. Jacob knew his brother’s weaknesses and used them to take everything that he valued. Esau is never described in Scripture as a righteous man–quite the opposite!–and he had abundant reason to hate his brother.

Yet he still forgave Jacob graciously and earnestly.

“Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”
(Psalm 133:1)

On October 2, 2006, Charlie Roberts saw his two children off to school, then, armed with guns and knives, he drove to a nearby Amish schoolhouse. He ejected everyone from the building except for ten young girls. When the school was surrounded by the police, he shot all ten of them in the head, killing five and leaving others with permanent injuries. Then he shot himself. Later, the families of some of the girls he shot came to his house to express their condolences to his family and to help them through their own loss.

Let me say that again: The families of the victims helped the family of the murderer to get through their grief. The only thing more astonishing than this would be to have shown kindness directly to the murderer himself, but he denied them that opportunity and even the possibility of justice when he took his own life.

The Amish have their faults, but in this they brought the very love of God into the midst of death and tragedy.

There isn’t much you can do to someone that is worse than deliberately and coldly murdering their children. There is another story of brutality and forgiveness that we have all heard.

We suffered from a terminally diseased heart. There was no medicine, no exercise, nor surgery that we could perform to be well again or even to slow our decay. We were doomed. God saw our pain and our impossible position. He understood that our only hope was a new heart and that the only heart suitable for saving the entire human race was his son’s. So he sent Yeshua to show us how to live with a new heart, but we rejected him and his teaching, and then we killed him for it.

God understood that this too was necessary, because you can’t transplant a heart from a living donor.

Yeshua came, knowing that he would be tortured and killed by the very people whom he came to save, and at the height of his torment he said, “Father, forgive them.”

True to his purpose and his word, the Father does forgive us, despite what we’ve done. For all those who repent of their sins and beg his mercy, he forgets their sins and grants them mercy, and like Esau, God doesn’t remind us of the terrible things we did before. He wants us to forget them too, and then to move past them and to live in a manner that honors the new heart that he is creating in us.

The greatest part of Yeshua’s story is that his death wasn’t the end, because he rose from the grave so that we too could rise and share in his glory, not only with a new heart inscribed with his Torah, but a whole new everything and a story with no ending at all.

We’ve all heard that God is love, but God is also forgiveness. Yeshua forgives because he and the Father are one and forgiveness is in his blood. We are called to be like him, and there is no greater way to honor him than to forgive like he did, like the families of Roberts’ victims, and even like Esau forgave Jacob: without reservation and without condemnation.