Things Which Ought to Remain Unknown

Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. Some things aren't meant to be revealed.

Exodus 22:18 – Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.

Samuel told Saul that “Rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.” (2 Samuel 15:23) Other than the obvious rebellion of doing something forbidden, the connection used to escape me. How is rebellion like witchcraft?

The Hebrew word translated “witch” is kashaf. Maybe the past couple of weeks spent pondering biblical references to headcoverings has got me in a rut, but when I read Adam Clarke’s comments on this verse, something clicked.

It is very likely that the Hebrew…cashaph, and the Arabic cashafa, had originally the same meaning, to uncover, to remove a veil, to manifest, reveal, make bare or naked…The mecashshephah or witch, therefore, was probably a person who professed to reveal hidden mysteries, by commerce with God, or the invisible world.

If Clarke was correct, then the connection would seem to be in the uncovering of things that should remain hidden. Necromancy, fortune telling, and spiritism are all areas of knowledge that God said not to delve. There are times when a head–and a truth–should be covered or uncovered. Like uncovering a head as if to disdain the authority represented by the covering (my fellow veterans will understand this idea very well), witchcraft removes the cover of Torah, which God put in place to protect his people. It is a rejection of his providence and authority. Hence, rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft.

The Covenant Foreshadowed in Jethro and Zipporah

The relationship between God and Israel is often portrayed as a marriage by the prophets.

If you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples. Exodus 19:5

For your Maker is your husband, the LORD of hosts is his name. Isaiah 54:5a

Go and proclaim in the hearing of Jerusalem, Thus says the LORD, “I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Jeremiah 2:2

The covenant at Sinai is universally recognized by theologians as a marriage contract. If a marriage is a serious, lifelong commitment–and we know that it is–how much more serious must a marriage be between a God and a nation?

I had thought that the covenant at Sinai was the first real indication that the relationship was to be a marriage. But while studying this last week’s Torah reading (Exodus 18-20), I noticed some remarkable patterns just prior to the covenant, and I had to share it with you. The Scriptures are full of hidden gems like these–the Torah more than most other portions–and finding them are among my favorite aspects of study. Sometimes you have to work to find them, and you need to be careful not to read anything into them that is counter or foreign to God’s intent. But despite the effort, they’re worth it!

This post will be a little different than what I usually do at AmericanTorah. It’s a little…um…geeky? I don’t have any particular exhortation and no direct life application this time, just some really cool stuff about how the Bible is put together “under the hood”, so to speak. Bear with me. I think you’ll like this.

If you haven’t read it recently, I suggest you read Exodus 18 now and then come back. I’ll still be here…

Now, while it’s fresh in your mind, did you notice a lot of repetition in the text?

  • Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law…Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law…Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law…
  • Zipporah and her two sons…Zipporah and her two sons…Zipporah and her two sons…
  • The LORD delivered them…the LORD delivered them…the LORD delivered them…

Whenever God repeats something, you can count on it being important, so let’s take a closer look.

The first thing I noticed is that Jethro tells Moses three times that he has come to bring Zipporah and her sons to Moses in the Wilderness.

  1. v2 Now Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, had taken Zipporah, Moses’ wife, after he had sent her home…
  2. V5 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moses in the wilderness where he was encamped at the mountain of God.
  3. V6 And when he sent word to Moses, “I, your father-in-law Jethro, am coming to you with your wife and her two sons with her,”

Then he and Moses take turns–again three times–saying that God brought Israel out of Egypt.

  1. V8 Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the LORD had delivered them.
  2. V9 And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians.
  3. V10 Jethro said, “Blessed be the LORD, who has delivered you out of the hand of the Egyptians and out of the hand of Pharaoh and has delivered the people from under the hand of the Egyptians.

Verses 2-10 comprise a chiasm in which Jethro bringing Zipporah out to meet Moses is juxtaposed with Moses bringing Israel out to meet God with the meeting of Jethro and Moses in the center. Chiasms and parallelisms often act like margin notes embedded in the text in order to highlight thematic connections or to hint at deeper meanings for those who care to dig.

One thing that this chiasm seems to be telling us is that Jethro and Zipporah are–at least in some ways–like Moses and Israel. Another pattern that seems to point to the same idea is in the Hebrew word translated as “father-in-law”. The word is khatan and doesn’t mean exactly father-in-law. It would probably be more accurate to translate it as just “in-law”, as it can refer to anyone related only by marriage. In this passage, Jethro is introduced as Moses’ in-law in verse 1, so why does it keep repeating? In fact, Jethro is called “Moses’ in-law” twelve times! (See verses 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8, 12, 14, 15, 17, 24, and 27.)

Twelve. As in twelve tribes of Israel.

Jethro only brought one small family–a mother and two sons–out to meet Moses at Sinai, while Moses brought twelve entire tribes out to meet God. To symbolically balance this discrepancy, Jethro’s relationship to Zipporah is pointed out once for each of the tribes of Israel.

But if the relationship to Zipporah is the focus, why use the word for “in-law” to make this point when “father” would have been simpler. Because Moses isn’t the father of the Hebrews. He is, however, a relative. In the marriage at Sinai, Moses acts as the closest male relative of the bride, Israel, presenting her to God. He is God’s khatan, His “in-law”, and he is related to each of the twelve tribes of Israel in the same way.

So yet another repetition is used to highlight the parallels between Jethro and Zipporah on one side and Moses and Israel on the other. All of this was done to build a prophetic picture. Remember that God doesn’t do anything significant without revealing it to his prophets first, and Moses was among the greatest of prophets.

If you look back at verse 8 where the two protagonists meet at the center of the chiasm, you’ll see something else odd. Jethro and Moses greet each other, talk, and disappear into the tent. Moses hadn’t seen Zipporah or his children in over a year, but he doesn’t appear to have taken any notice of them. He and Jethro carry on as if they aren’t even there. In all likelihood, Moses did greet his wife and sons, but it just wasn’t recorded in this passage. Why not? Because something very similar was about to happen on Mount Sinai.

When Israel gathered around the foot of the mountain, God told them to spend three days preparing themselves first. (Hmm. There was a paired repetition of three statements in the chiasm.) At the end of that period, God spoke the Ten Commandments to Israel with thunder and lightning, but it was too much for them! They were afraid they would die, so they asked Moses to speak to God for them. (Exodus 20:19) So Moses ascended the mountain to speak to God alone within the cloud, just as Jethro met with Moses alone in the tent.

That God arranged this prophetic meeting between Jethro and Moses shows that he knew all along what Israel was going to do. He knew that their hearts were still too hard to accept his Law and that he would have to work through Moses, but that didn’t stop him from making a permanent covenant with them. And just like Israel, he knew from the very foundation of the world that our flesh would rebel against his rule, that our hearts would be hard and our minds corrupt, yet he still committed–even in the Garden–to sending his own Son to shed his blood to seal a covenant of life with us.

Clearly when I said I didn’t have any specific exhortation to make, I was wrong. I don’t always know where these things are going when I first sit down to write.

This fact comes back to me over and over in all my studies: God knows us and yet he still wants us. God knows how you will fall even before you take your first step, but he loves you anyway. What a crushing, humbling truth to comprehend! I know me too, and all I can say is “Why, God? Why would you want me?” But who cares? The “why” is not our concern! Our job is to fall on our faces, humbly accept the forgiveness and mercy that he offers, and then to obey.

All the people answered together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Exodus 19:8

God knew exactly how you would fall before you took your first step, and he still sent a redeemer to die for you.

In the Presence of God, Destruction is Inevitable

 

Exodus 20:20 “And Moses said to the people, Do not fear, for God has come to test you, and so that His fear may be before your faces, so that you may not sin.”

If we are meant to fear God, why did Moses tell the people not to fear?

Many times our lives pass through the same cycle that Israel experienced in Torah. We find ourselves in the wilderness again and again. Each time, God brings us there to test and refine us. Whenever a person is confronted by God, he may respond in one of two ways: He could fall back as in John 18:6 or he could fall on his face as in Genesis 17:3. In the presence of God, destruction is inevitable. Those who resist fall back and are destroyed, given over to death. Those who surrender are destroyed also, but are resurrected to new life one step closer to the perfection which God desires for us.

Life is hard enough already, and the constant tests and refinement to which God subjects his people sometimes seem unbearable. Relax. Surrender and you will find peace. You will never be perfect in this life, but you can draw ever closer to your Creator and find peace in the continuous cycle of death and rebirth which is intrinsic to true Life.

Those who resist fall back and are destroyed, given over to death. Those who surrender are destroyed also, but are resurrected to new life one step closer to the perfection which God desires for us.

The stars, they circle and dance in the sky. Tinkling bells flow in harmony, spin and scatter and come ’round again. The stars in the sky, they circle and dance.

You are a singularity, a star alone like no other. The stars they glitter, they sing and dance and draw into you. In all their brightness and glory they cannot compare to you. You draw all things into you. Dwelling on the mountain fastness, far in deep darkness and none can approach your greatness, your fierceness and fury. In darkness you outshine them all, and nothing escapes the gravity of your majesty, your love for us, the merest specks in a vast nothingness, outshone by the dimmest of stars, but the focus yet of all your energy, your radiative purity, washing all that comes near, blotting out the dimness in which we glory, making us infinite through you, your transcendent power transmitted to us instantaneously no matter the distance, the space we occupy. These are nothing to you, beside you, Creator, Destroyer, Remaker of worlds. We submit ourselves to you, surrender to your inevitable will. We are nothing in nothing. May all we are and all we will ever be, be subsumed in your all encompassing sphere. May our horizons grow from the illusion of infinite expanse to the infinite reality of constriction within you. May our death in you be our reawakening in life and love and everlasting spirit.

Peace we find in sublimation to your infinite mass.

Every Journey Begins with a Single…Day?

He said to them, “This is what the LORD has commanded: ‘Tomorrow is a day of solemn rest, a holy Sabbath to the LORD; bake what you will bake and boil what you will boil, and all that is left over lay aside to be kept till the morning.’” So they laid it aside till the morning, as Moses commanded them, and it did not stink, and there were no worms in it. Moses said, “Eat it today, for today is a Sabbath to the LORD; today you will not find it in the field. Six days you shall gather it, but on the seventh day, which is a Sabbath, there will be none.” On the seventh day some of the people went out to gather, but they found none. And the LORD said to Moses, “How long will you refuse to keep my commandments and my laws? See! The LORD has given you the Sabbath; therefore on the sixth day he gives you bread for two days. Remain each of you in his place; let no one go out of his place on the seventh day.” So the people rested on the seventh day.
Exodus 16:23-30

Before Israel arrived at Sinai, before God had spoken a single word from the mountain top or carved a single letter on the stone tablets, he said, “How long do you refuse to keep my mitzvot and torah?” God expected Israel to obey his laws, specifically the Sabbath in this case, before he had a covenant with them, before Sinai.

Before that, God commended Abraham for heeding his call, keeping his charge, his commandments (mitzvot), his statutes (khukot), and his laws (torot). Most people interpret that to mean the seven Noahide laws, but Noah certainly had more laws than those.* How else would he know what animals were clean and unclean? God’s Law (also known as the Torah) existed from the beginning. How else did Abel know what kind of animal to sacrifice, and how should Cain have known that his sacrifice would be unacceptable? How did Judah know about Levirate marriage?

God’s laws are eternal and not tied exclusively to any particular covenant, although they are included as terms of the covenant with Israel at Sinai. When you enter your neighbor’s house, he expects you to observe the rules of his house: don’t play football in the living room, don’t put your feet on the furniture, don’t open the refrigerator without an invitation, etc. This doesn’t mean that he invented those rules the moment you walked in the door. They were always the rules of his house because they are a part of his character. He doesn’t have anything against your shoes in particular; he just doesn’t like it when people put their shoes on his sofa. God’s laws are the same; they are a reflection of his character. They differ from our own because where our personal rules evolve with our character over time, God’s do not. One can make a case (a very weak case, in my opinion) that God invented the laws concerning tabernacle rituals and the Levitical priesthood arbitrarily or only for the specific nature of the Israelites, but one cannot make the same case regarding Sabbath, animals that are acceptable for food and sacrifice, acceptable and unacceptable relationships, and behavior toward your neighbors. God’s standards in those matters all clearly existed before Sinai and will continue to exist so long as heaven and earth remain.

There are passages in the Apostolic scriptures that appear at first reading to disagree, especially the writings of Paul: Romans, Galatians, Colossians, etc. When I tell people that I believe we should keep the Torah, they quote these scriptures to me as if they think I haven’t read them before. The bare truth is that most of those people never got passed a Sunday School level of Scriptural understanding. Torah contains the key to advancing that understanding if they would be willing to examine it a little more closely.

First, it lays out its dualistic nature.

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live. Deuteronomy 30:19

Torah is both a law of life and a law of death. It’s both, depending only on how you use it. If you keep it, trusting in God’s grace to cover our flaws and inevitable failures, you keep a law of life and liberty. If you refuse to keep it, whether by trusting in your own power to keep it or by simply refusing to even try, you will instead be yoked under a law of sin and death.

Second, Torah states unequivocally that nobody is authorized to change it in any way.

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the LORD, the God of your fathers, is giving you. You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take from it, that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God that I command you. Deuteronomy 4:1-2

It doesn’t get much plainer than that. The orthodox Christian view of the Bible for almost 2000 years is that it must agree with itself. No part of the Bible contradicts another part, and the clear passages must be used to understand the less clear. In various places, Jesus, James, Peter, and Paul all reiterate the point of Deuteronomy 4:2 in fairly unambiguous terms. Take Jesus’ words in Matthew 5, for example:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 5:17-19

And Paul’s in Romans 3:

Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. Romans 3:31

We must think very carefully about those passages that appear to be teaching in direct contradiction to the words of Moses, Jesus, and Paul, resisting the urge to interpret them in a way that makes large portions of the Scriptures to be meaningless or worse: lies.

One rule of thumb that seems nearly self-evident is that the more time and text God spends on any particular subject, the more important it probably is to him. Using this rule, mankind’s obedience to the commandments must be among God’s top two or three priorities. Among the commandments, some appear to be more important than others.

  • Love God.
  • Love your neighbor.
  • Keep the Sabbath.

Among others.

To get back to the Sabbath, judging by the amount of text devoted to the topic, God cares very deeply about it, whether we understand why or not. It was among the first rules that God gave to Israel after they left Egypt, and He said that it will always be a special sign of God’s people. Keeping it on the seventh day as God commanded can be difficult at times in a culture that doesn’t cooperate–not difficult in the sense that it’s laborious, but in that lifelong habits are difficult to change and the rest of the world won’t rearrange its schedule to accommodate you. But I assure you that making a concerted effort to keep a seventh day Sabbath will be worth the inconvenience.

If you are unsure about whether or how much of God’s Torah you should keep, consider starting with the Sabbath. Don’t worry about getting it perfect and don’t worry about all of the complex rules that the rabbis have piled onto the simple day of rest that God prescribed. If you haven’t done it before, just start with this: between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday, don’t do anything that feels like work to you. If there is something you feel that you must do, relax about it. Don’t get yourself fired from your job or put anyone in danger, but take it slow and easy. After you’ve done this for a few weeks, come back to the blog and let me know how it’s going.

Shabbat shalom from American Torah!

* Although based on Biblical principles, the Seven Noachide Laws are a man-made code imposed on the Biblical text. They were probably not codified until thousands of years after the Flood.

Choosing to Live

Ancient Egypt was obsessed with death. So is modern America.Ancient Egypt was obsessed with Death. They wrote about death. They worshiped gods and goddesses of death. They built gigantic monuments to the dead. They amassed fortunes in metals, tools, and slaves, thinking they could take them with to the other side.

They rejected the God of Life.

In many ways our own culture mirrors theirs. We talk about death. We sing about it. We imitate it. We constantly invent new ways to cause it. We are always at war.

We have chosen to embrace death and to reject the God of Life.

Stephen Baars wrote that choice equals life. He was right in a way. Pharaoh chose to kill the children of Israel and his people’s children were killed. He chose to reject God’s reasonable offers, so choice and life were taken from him and his people. Every choice either adds to or takes away from our life.

Choose life.

If you choose to spend your days watching television, you are choosing death. You are surrendering active participation in your own life in favor of passive observation of someone else’s life. More often than not, that other life is a fiction. It is not real and can never be real. It is death. Video games aren’t much better. You might be participating, but it is still fiction, and it can still never be life.

In order to live, you must choose life. You must get off your couch and do something. Take a walk, learn a skill, have a conversation, sing a song, go to church, anything that advances and builds your life.

But be careful. Doing something isn’t always the same as living. There are many active choices you can make that will still take away from your life. Sports and physical activity enhance life, but somewhere there is a line beyond which sports become an invitation to death. Socializing, singing, dancing, laughing, drinking, and eating are all wonderful parts of life, but they can all steal from your life if taken in the wrong measures or in the wrong company. Love definitely adds to life, but imbalanced or untimely expressions of love only bring death. Both God and the Devil are in the details.

We should thank God that he has set us free from slavery so that we can make our own choices. We should also thank God that he has given us guidelines to help us make good decisions, to help us choose life.

May it please our Lord, we will be servants of God

The story of Joseph and his brothers is filled with shadows of Israel’s Messiah. In a very real sense, Joseph is a messiah as he saved both Israel and Egypt from the famine. But consider these points:

  • He told his brothers that they would serve him.
  • He was betrayed and sold for silver by his brothers.
  • He was abused and imprisoned (buried).
  • He interpreted dreams about resurrection after three days.
  • He was released from prison by Pharaoh (resurrected by God).
  • He revealed himself to his brothers at the end.
  • He saved all of Israel.
  • He saved Egypt and the people of the surrounding nations.

The parallels between Joseph and Yeshua (Jesus) are astounding, but the prophetic foreshadowing goes even deeper than this in very subtle ways.

Judah and Joseph both represent Messiah Yeshua in different, overlapping ways.

Ancient Jewish tradition expected two messiahs who would redeem Israel together. The first was Mashiach ben Yosef (Messiah son of Joseph) who would suffer for his people and atone for them with his blood. The second was Mashiach ben David (Messiah son of David) who would defeat Israel’s enemies and usher in a peaceful era in which Israel is the chief of all nations. In the prophetic story of Joseh, one might expect that Judah, the ancestor of David, would play the role of the King, while Joseph would be the Servant, but they each play both roles. Judah is clearly the leader of his brothers, but also offers his life in exchange for theirs. Joseph, on the other hand, has also given his life for his brothers–unintentionally–and they all came to bow before him. Both of them are Messiah ben David and Messiah ben Yosef simultaneously. Perhaps because both Messiahs are actually one in reality: The suffering servant sheds his blood to pay for Israel’s freedom and returns later as the conquering king to break their chains and set up his throne in Jerusalem.

(Sorry, I’m getting carried away on a tangent, but Wow! What a tangent!)

Egypt represents the world. A few years after Yeshua was crucified, buried, and resurrected, the Israelites who had returned to the land of Israel were exiled again and scattered across the Roman Empire and beyond. Likewise, a few years after Joseph was brought out of prison (resurrected), the Israelites were exiled from Canaan by famine and took refuge in Egypt. The people of Egypt are the people of the world among whom the Israelites now live.

When Jacob finally met Joseph’s sons, he didn’t recognize them because they looked like Egyptians. Today, Many who are children of Israel are, in all outward respects, indistinguishable from the world. Israel does not recognize them, and only direct revelation from Messiah when he returns will allow Him to see them.

Finally, going back several years, Joseph was brought out of the prison–symbolically resurrected–and elevated to sit at the right hand of Pharaoh, who–at least in this respect–plays the role of God, the Father.

(I did say that the patterns are subtle. They don’t precisely align with the events of Yeshua’s life, death, resurrection, and return, but all of the elements are present, if somewhat rearranged.)

Read Genesis 47:25, keeping in mind that Pharaoh was, prophetically and in part, foreshadowing the role of God in the story of Messiah’s salvation of Israel:

And they [the Egyptian people] said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” (Genesis 47:25)

It’s a pitiable statement that most of us skim over no matter how many times we read Genesis. It seems sad that the Egyptians had to give up everything and became slaves of pharaoh just to survive, but consider the alternative. There was no hope of survival. Crop after crop had failed, and, without Joseph, they would have long exhausted their stores and died. They would all have been lost without him. They could live as slaves to Pharaoh or die as slaves to hunger. Either way, they were going to serve.

Right here in this forgettable little verse is the hope of all the world.

And the people of the world said to Yeshua, “You have saved our souls. May it please Adonai Yeshua, we will be servants of God.”

We were all lost, spiritually dead because of sin. Not a single person in all the world can save themselves from that famine. It doesn’t matter whether we think it’s fair or not. Would you deny the existence of droughts, hurricanes, and earthquakes because you don’t like them? Then where’s the value in protesting your innocence in the face of the Creator of Heaven and Earth?

And why protest becoming servants of God? We were created to serve Him. Clement of Rome, when addressing competition for status in the Corinthian church wrote,

The heavens moving by his appointment, are subject to him in peace. Day and night accomplish the courses that he has allotted unto them, not disturbing one another….Even the smallest creatures live together in peace and concord with each other. All these has the Great Creator and Lord of all commanded to observe peace and concord, being good to all. But especially to us who flee to his mercy through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom be glory and majesty for ever and ever!

Why do we, who reflect the image of the Creator in function and form more than any other of His creations, struggle so hard and continuously against the purpose for which we were created?

Here is what it means to “be saved”: You are created to serve, but are lost in your sin without the atoning sacrifice of Yeshua, Messiah ben Yosef. “Flee to his mercy” and be restored to your rightful place as a servant of God. You were designed to be God’s hands in His Creation and not just to do your own thing. Like any other purposefully designed tool, you will be happier, more fulfilled in doing that for which you were made. And when you pass on or if you are still alive when Yeshua, Messiah ben David, returns as the conquering king, you will hear him say “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!” While those who have refused his yoke, choosing to starve in their sins rather than to be fed in His service, will feel His wrath.

Well done, good and faithful servant.

There’s no magic formula, no “Sinner’s prayer”, that can save you. It is only Yeshua’s blood, your commitment to serve and obey Him, and God’s grace to honor both the blood and your decision. Without His blood, we are lost. Without a commitment to obey God, we are lost. Without God’s mercy, we are lost. Thank God that He has made all of these available to us! There is nothing left for us to do but to repent from our sins and obey His Word.

You don’t have to understand the spiritual physics of blood atonement. You don’t have to understand why God created the world the way that He did. You only have to believe that He has created you for a purpose, that He wants the best for you, and that He has provided a way for you to be restored to your full potential.

This is the end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14)

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving the LORD your God, obeying his voice and holding fast to him, for he is your life and length of days, that you may dwell in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20)

If you have declared your allegiance to the King, your trust in Him, and your commitment to obey His commandments, then you are indeed a child of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and a true servant of the Most High.

Joseph’s Plot and Judah’s Redemption

Benjamin wasn’t a thief, but Joseph’s cup was found in his sack. As soon as Joseph’s steward found the cup, everyone knew that it had been planted there and Benjamin had been framed. But why would Joseph do such a thing?

When they were brought before Joseph, Judah, Jacob’s third son, who had all but abandoned the family in order to pursue his fortune in the world, became the family spokesman. The coldly pragmatic course would have been to disavow all knowledge of the cup and let Benjamin take the fall. He did appear to be the target of the frame-up, after all–and the rest of the brothers would be saved.

Fortunately for everyone, Judah chose another route. Whatever the purpose of Joseph’s scheme, Judah had had enough of brother turning against brother. He was determined that they would all stick together no matter the consequences. When Joseph refused to punish them all for the crimes of one, Judah offered himself in Benjamin’s stead.

It was the sign that Joseph sought, the sole aim of hiding the cup in the sack and bringing them all back to Egypt under threat of slavery or imprisonment. Joseph wanted to see if his brothers had truly repented of the jealousy and violence that had caused them to betray him so many years before. Seeing Judah’s desire to protect both Benjamin and Jacob even at the cost of his own life, Joseph wept and revealed himself as their long lost brother.

If Judah had allowed Benjamin to be punished or had betrayed any selfishness in his motives, Joseph would have continued to hide his identity and might have punished them all. The pragmatic approach of sacrificing one brother for the sake of ten would have backfired, and they would have lost everything. The story of the Hebrews in Egypt would have been very different.

The question of “Why do bad things happen to good people” has plagued believers since the beginning of time, but the answers–however difficult to accept–have been available just as long. Very often, bad things happen to good people in order to help the weak to become strong, for the faithless to learn faith, or to provide opportunities for those who have been blessed to pass on their blessings to those who have not. Sometimes an innocent person might appear guilty so that someone else will have the opportunity to defend him or to develop his faith in God or his ability to lead God’s people.

The Bible isn’t a book of soft and easy answers. The truth–like God’s methods of character development–can be hard. If you want the easy route, the safe route, Torah isn’t for you. However, if you long for the greater blessings that await those who persevere, who choose the true path over the pragmatic one, keep digging. The truth goes deep.

The Cupbearer’s Choice

Threads in a tapestry, links in a chain, cupbearers in Pharaoh’s court…

God’s plan is always convoluted. He weaves divers threads from the beginning of time knowing precisely where He will bring them together millennia later so that events will converge just so and individuals will be presented with choices that will determine their status in the world to come.

Consider the long chain of events that brought Joseph into power in Egypt. God gave him dreams and caused Jacob to give him a peculiar coat so that his brothers would be jealous and betray him in time to sell him to the Ishmaelite caravan that delivered him to Potiphar who threw him in prison where he met the baker and the cupbearer who told Pharaoh about him so that he could save both Egypt and his own people, all the while laying down patterns that foreshadowed the ministry, betrayal, death, and resurrection of the Messiah who would also save both the world (Egypt) and Israel.

Complex, convoluted, and–in the end–all wrapped up with no loose ends. Not even Hollywood could tie a plot together like God does.

Joseph isn’t the only person for whom God arranged the threads of existence.

Let’s zoom in on Pharaoh’s cupbearer for a moment. Whatever his crime had been, God needed him to be in prison so that he could meet Joseph who could interpret his dream so that he could later tell Pharaoh about it. The plot grows thicker.

Pharaoh restored the chief cupbearer to his position, and he placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand. (Genesis 40:21)

Read this verse again, paying special attention to the second half. Isn’t that an odd statement? “He placed the cup in Pharaoh’s hand,” as if there was only one cup and it was a one-time event.

Throughout the Scriptures, cups are used to portray what we might call fate. God gives to one person or nation a cup of wrath and to another He gives a cup of blessing.

I will take the cup of salvation. (Psalm 116:13)
and
Take from my hand this cup of the wine of wrath. (Jeremiah 25:15)

So the cup that the chief cupbearer placed into the hand of Pharaoh is not just a cup, but a Cup of either curses or blessings. Whether it was one or the other depended on a series of choices:

  • Would the cupbearer remember Joseph to Pharaoh or not?
  • Would Pharaoh tell Joseph his dream?
  • Would Pharaoh believe Joseph’s interpretation and heed his advice?

If any of these had gone the wrong way, Egypt would have suffered in the coming famine while God would have saved the Hebrews some other way. As it was, the cup was full of blessing until Egypt once again forgot Joseph many years later.

Interestingly, the baker and the cupbearer foreshadow another aspect of the story of Yeshua. One of them (the cupbearer) was released and the other (the baker) condemned during a national holiday (Pharaoh’s birthday). Yeshua was arrested during a national holiday (Passover) and, after His trial, Pilate reminded the people that it was a tradition to release one prisoner every year at this time. They chose to release Barrabas (the cupbearer) and to execute Yeshua (the baker).

It makes me wonder if the cupbearer was actually a murderer and if the baker was innocent.

God’s story-telling mastery is so complete that He has done the same thing for every one of us. You are somebody’s cupbearer, choosing in each moment to deliver the truth about God, His Law, and His Messiah or to withhold that truth. If you behave or speak in such a way as to deny someone God’s Truth, you become partly responsible for the resulting curses in that person’s life, and you have no way of knowing in advance which moments, which choices will have the greatest impact. It’s your responsibility to do right when you are able, to put the cup in Pharaoh’s hand, so to speak. When you have spoken the Truth, when you have shown the love of Messiah in the world by doing good to those around you, then your cup becomes one of blessing to you, and the power to transform the contents of the cup in one way or the other devolves to the next person.

We are all threads in a continuous fabric that stretches from one end of time to the other. God sees the overall pattern and places us where He needs us. We don’t always have a lot of control over the basic circumstances in our lives. We do, however, have control over how we choose to interact with those circumstances. We can be like Joseph, speaking the Truth, doing what’s right, and forgiving those who meant to do us wrong, or we can keep silent, look after ourselves, and resent those who appear to have imprisoned us.

You can choose to drink from a cup of salvation or be forced to drink from a cup of wrath. However the world appears around you, the choice remains yours.

Your circumstances don't determine your destiny. Your response to your circumstances does.

A Foreigner in Canaan

Genesis 37:1  And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan.

David Stern translates this verse, “Ya’akov continued living in the land where his father had lived as a foreigner, the land of Kena’an.”

It was clear in last week’s Torah portion (Vayishlach) that Jacob continued the family tradition of being a stranger in his own land. That was as it should have been. Pagans filled the Land and sought either to assimilate or to destroy the Hebrews. Assimilation into the local, Canaanite culture would have been a disaster. Abraham told Eliezer that Isaac was not to marry a Canaanite woman under any circumstance, and Isaac gave Jacob the same advice. Intermarriage consistently brought more problems than it was worth. Remember Esau and Judah.

You will not be assimilated. Resistance is fundamental.

It is always difficult to live by God’s standards, and doubly so without the support of a like-minded community. It is easy to allow standards to slip, to let a little transgression slide. With no one to hold you accountable without the moral support of Torah-keeping friends and family, it’s as easy as breathing. Yet God’s consistent marker upon his people is that they are visibly different. They do not behave like the world around them. They dress differently. They speak differently. They behave differently. They keep different holy days. They are conspicuous and set apart (the literal meaning of “holy”) by God’s design. We are not called to be seeker friendly, to make citizenship in the Kingdom of God look easy. We are called to occupy a foreign and hostile land until Messiah Yeshua returns and delivers the kingdom he promised. Like Jacob, we must continue living in the land in which we and our fathers have been aliens.

The real question is not how to blend in, but what to do with our conspicuousness. I can say with absolute certainty that I have not found a satisfactory answer to that question in my own life in a way that honors God. Being different without being better is just being odd.

These must be our priorities:

  1. Mercy and service to the fatherless, the widows, the sick, the poor, and imprisoned. There is no higher good deed than doing good to those who cannot repay you.
  2. Justice to all people. Obedience to the letter of the commandment without regard to justice is not obedience to the author of the commandment.
  3. Obedience to God’s commands. You cannot preach forgiveness and repentance if you haven’t repented of your own sins.
  4. Preaching the gospel. Once your own house is in order, you can set about helping others build theirs.

The Passion of Esau

Two weeks ago, I wrote about how Esau wanted to do the right thing but never stopped to ask what that was.

Last week, I wrote about some of Jacob’s encounters with angels and his trust in God.

This week, I’m going to beat up on Esau again, and not just Esau, but his descendants too.

Esau was a man of passion. That isn’t a bad thing. Any self-help guru worth his salt will tell you that passion is a basic ingredient of success. It just needs to be balanced with self restraint.

When he was young, Esau was ruled by his passions. His physical urges drove him to make foolish decisions that he would later regret. He was hungry, so he traded his birthright for a meal. He wanted a woman, so he went out and got himself two of them.

Edom means red. Esau was ruled by his passions. He burned hot and burned out quickly.

Fortunately, as Esau aged, he learned to reign himself in. His desires drove him to obtain the seeds of wealth, while his late learned discipline allowed him to keep and develop them into a substantial sum. By the time Jacob returned from Haran with his family, Esau had accumulated large herds and an army of servants. When they met east of the Jordan, they met peacefully. When Jacob resisted Esau’s attempts to assimilate his family into his own, Esau didn’t respond with anger or force, but went on his way.

Unfortunately, he passed his impetuous tendencies onto his children.

These are the kings who reigned in the land of Edom [another name for Esau], before any king reigned over the Israelites.(Genesis 36:31 ESV)

At first reading, this verse sounds like the Edomites were a great success, and in many respects they were. While the Hebrews were slaves in Egypt, Esau’s descendants became kings and their kingdom lasted for more than a thousand years. But examine the list of Edomite kings in the following verses:

  • Bela son of Beor of Dinhabah
  • Jobab son of Zerah of Bozrah
  • Husham the Temanite
  • Hadad son of Bedad of Avith
  • Samlah of Masrekah
  • Shaul of Rehoboth
  • Baal-Hanan son of Achbor
  • Hadar of Pau

These were kings, not judges in the style of Israel, yet not one of them was the son of the previous king. A scepter rarely passes from one man to another who is not close blood relative without violence. The Edomite culture was one of violence and upheaval, each regime wresting the kingdom from the one before and taking the people in a new direction. Like their father, Esau, the Edomite kings saw what they wanted and took it.

When Moses asked the King of Edom if the Hebrews could pass through their land on their way to their own homeland, their king refused and threatened to attack if they crossed the border. The people of Israel even offered to pay for any resources they might use. The Edomites responded by sending an army. One interesting aspect of this exchange is that after the initial communications, the conversation is described as happening between Israel and Edom, alternate names for Jacob and Esau (Numbers 20:21). The Edomites followed Esau’s pattern of responding to Israel’s return to the land with a show of force, but unlike Esau, the Edomites had not learned to temper their immediate passions for the sake of future material gain.

The end result is easy for us to see today. The Jews maintained themselves as a distinct people even without a homeland for thousands of years and have reestablished themselves as an independent state, while the Edomites were completely absorbed by the surrounding peoples, including the Jews, during the time of the Romans. Their land is the harshest desert now, occupied by Israel and Jordan.

All of our base physical urges–hunger, desire, ambition, etc.–are good things. God built them into us and we wouldn’t be human without them. But be careful and remember Esau. He is a warning to everyone. Don’t look for the easy way or the fast way. Seek wisdom, not gain, and gain will follow in time. Teach your children to act boldly, but always to consider tomorrow’s consequences of today’s actions. Your great grandchildren will remember the lesson.