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 http://www.e-sword.net/.

(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.

Angels Watching Over You

God opens the gates of heaven and sends his angels to watch over those who trust in Him

When Jacob was first setting out for Haran to find a wife and escape from Esau, he had a vision of heaven opening up and angels ascending and descending by way of a ladder. God said to him,

Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.
(Genesis 28:15)

“This is the House of God and the Gates of Heaven,” Jacob said, and set up a pillar to mark the place.

God promised to watch over Jacob while in exile and to bring him back to the Promised Land safely. He spent the next fourteen years in Laban’s employ and, during that time, he was tricked, betrayed, and cheated over and over. At some point he must have begun wondering what exactly God meant by his promise.

Yet Jacob prospered despite Laban’s constant attempts to cheat him. So much so that Laban’s sons accused him of cheating Laban instead of the other way around. When he had completed the seven years he had agreed to work in exchange for Rachel, he packed up his family and flocks while Laban was away and they headed for Canaan. Laban caught up with them on the way and tried to relcaim his daughters along with their children. If it were not for the intervention of God, Jacob might have lost everything again.

God fulfilled his promise to bring Jacob back from exile.

Over those many years of hard work, family struggles, and a couple of close calls, the angels that Jacob saw “ascending and descending” as he went into exile continued to come and go. They gates of heaven opened at the very beginning of Jacob’s journey and remained open until the end. During that time, the angels were kept busy arranging circumstances in Jacob’s favor, encouraging him, and turning defeat into victory and trials into gold.

Jacob’s life was pivotal in the history of the world. It was imperative to God’s plan that he marry Leah and Rachel and have twelve sons. This entire chapter of his life was both foundational and prophetic of the future of the people of Israel. Their repeated exiles from and returns to the land were all foreshadowed by Jacob’s, and God’s angels ensured it would all happen exactly as God intended no matter how confusing and frustrating it might have been for Jacob.

Many centuries later, Yeshua would meet a man named Nathanael and said of him, “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no deceit!” (John 1:47) An Israelite without guile reminded him of the time that Jacob spent working for Laban in Haran and he added,

Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.
(John 1:51)

The life of Yeshua was an even greater historic pivot than Jacob’s. And, like Jacob, God had promised to keep Yeshua during his time on earth until all that God had promised him was fulfilled. Satan quoted Psalm 91:11-12 to Yeshua when he tempted him in the wilderness:

For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.

And he was right to apply this verse to Yeshua, but, as I’m sure he was aware, it didn’t apply in the plain, literal sense. God did watch over Yeshua to and sent his angels to keep him, but the purpose of God’s Providence wasn’t to give him a pain free life, but to ensure that his plan was carried out.

God’s plan required that Jacob be abused by Laban and that Yeshua be abused by his own people.

You have probably heard it said that if God puts you into hard times, then he will also see you through them, but this is only true if you understand “see you through them” from God’s perspective. He sees you through hard times so that you get to where he needs you to be. The place he needed Yeshua to be was on the cross. God will see you through to the end, but the end might not be where or what you might prefer.

Fortunately for all of us, Jacob’s labor in Laban’s pastures and Yeshua’s labor on the cross were not the end. Jacob returned to the Promised Land at the head of a new nation and Yeshua returned from the grave and ascended to Heaven at the head of a Kingdom unlike anything the world has ever seen.

God’s only requirement of both Jacob and Yeshua was sufficient faith to obey against all reason and comfort, to obey even unto death, but the return was a thousand fold and more.

All of the angelic forces of Heaven might not be focused on you and your life, but neither are they ignorant of you. God is watching you and keeping you. His angels do watch over you. Your life must contain suffering and hard labors because without them you would never grow into anything worthwhile, but for those whose trust in is God, all suffering works toward something much greater.

All that God requires of you is sufficient faith to obey against all reason and comfort, and for a great many people even today, that means even unto death.

The Fires of Edom

One of the greatest differences between Jacob and Esau was the immediacy of their passions.

One of the greatest differences between Jacob and Esau was the immediacy of their passions.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.
(Galatians 5:22-26 ESV)

Passions are powerful. Love has built kingdoms and lust has torn them down. Ambition has built industrial empires and greed has bankrupted them.

We’ve all known someone who consistently allowed their passions to lead them into bad decisions. I had a friend who went from relationship to relationship–even if relationship wasn’t always the right word–and made major purchases that he couldn’t afford the moment he got his head above the financial water. He wasn’t a bad guy; he was a good friend who was there when I needed him. Unfortunately, his passions made all of his major decisions for him. He rarely considered how his actions today would impact his life ten years in the future. Most of his decisions were only about right now.

Much like Esau.

Esau’s birth name means “hairy”, which conveys a bit of his rough character, but I think his other name, Edom, is even more apropos. It means “red” like the earth or like the fire of his anger, ambition, and lust. He wasn’t a farmer like his father, Isaac, nor a shepherd like his brother, Jacob. He was a hunter. He started quarrels, married impulsively, made bad deals in desperation and then promptly forgot about them.

Esau was a sort of reverse spiritual alchemist, turning the gold inheritance of his fabulously wealthy father into the lead of struggle and broken relationships. The inevitable end of the exceedingly passionate, those people who see what they want and go after what they see, is to be consumed by their urges.

Passion is a good and powerful force when checked by the Spirit, but when it is allowed to run free, it is crippling. The words Esau spoke at his father’s bedside when he finally realized what he had done in selling his birthright to Jacob are heartbreaking, but hardly unexpected:

As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!”
(Genesis 27:34)

Solomon described Esau’s state of mind in Proverbs 11:3: “His heart rages against the LORD.” The passionate fool rarely directs his rage where it belongs. He lashes out at anyone nearby–which is why Rebekah was wise to send Jacob away to Laban before Esau could catch him–and against God when no more convenient target is available, but his ruin was his own doing. Whatever conspiring Jacob and Rebekah did, only Esau was in a position to sell his birthright. Nobody tricked him. Nobody forced him. He lusted after what was before him in the moment and didn’t value at all those things that he couldn’t see and taste.

Esau, enslaved to his passions, spent decades learning just a small portion of the peace and prosperity that he could have attained in his youth by submitting desire and passion to a higher calling in his father’s house. Although he learned to master his passions enough to reconcile with Jacob and build a legacy of his own, but his passed his anger and envy on to his descendants whose uneasy relationship with Israel simmered for more than a thousand years. His grandchildren and great grandchildren carried on his pattern of willful and ignorant self-immolation for many generations.

Concerning appropriate behavior of spiritual brothers toward one another, Paul wrote:

Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
(Romans 12:11-12)

In other words, be passionate about things that are not immediate and for which the ultimate rewards are more spiritual than physical, and restrain your passions concerning things that are physical. Be zealous, but not hasty; be passionate, but not vengeful.

Hunger will pass. God’s Word won’t, and neither will hell.

God can help you master your passions through prayer, study, and consistent practice. It’s not easy, but it can be done, and the earlier you start, the better. Your grandchildren will thank you.

Father, Son, and Unnamed Servant

The betrothal of Isaac and Rebekah is a metaphor of the betrothal of Messiah Yeshua and Israel.In the Scriptures, unnamed servants are often symbolic of God’s Spirit. Although we know Abraham’s senior servant was Eliezer, he is not named in the story of the betrothal of Rebekah and Isaac, in which he takes a central role.

Abraham, whose name means “Father,” charged his Servant with the task of finding a wife for his son, Isaac. When he arrived at the well of Haran, he prayed that God would reveal the right woman by way of a test of selflessness. When Rebekah passed the test, she was given gifts and asked to accompany the servant back to Canaan to be with her new husband.

This story is an image of the Messiah and his Bride. Abraham represents God, the Father. He sends the Spirit into the world to find those who are qualified to be his people. When the Spirit has identified God’s people from among all the others at the well, he gives them an extravagant gift and asks if they will accompany him to the Messiah. The bride price was paid before the bride had even been asked. It was a down-payment, an “earnest,” of the covenant that was promised. (2 Cor 1:22, 2 Cor 5:5, Eph 1:13-14) The bride of the Messiah leaves the world of her own free will and follows the Spirit to the Messiah in the Promised Land, sight unseen. She joins the Messiah in faith that he is who he claims to be and has the power to deliver on his promises.

Important additional points to ponder:

  • Not everyone who is called to the well is chosen. There were many women in Canaan, more along the road, and even others at the well.
  • The defining characteristic of God’s people is selflessness, a willingness to put oneself out for the benefit of others.
  • Rebekah (aka the Bride of Christ or the Congregation of Israel) was not kidnapped in the middle of the night, but was asked to leave suddenly without time to make extensive preparations or say long goodbyes.
  • The Bride joins the Messiah in the Promised Land for Sukkot (aka the Feast of Tabernacles/Tents). How much do you want to bet that Isaac’s marriage was on the anniversary of Sukkot 400 years in advance?

3 Steps to Prepare for Bible Study

Three steps to prepare for Bible study: Environment, Planning, and Prayer

I debated whether or not to include this post in my Common Sense Bible Study series, but I decided it’s better to include it than not. I can’t know who is going to be reading this nor where they’re coming from, and even the most veteran students need a refresher now and then. Preparation for study can be almost as important as the study itself. What’s the point of putting time and effort into something that you don’t get anything out of?

Create an Environment for Study

You will think and learn better in an environment free of clutter and distractions. An office, library, or other place you can go that will be free of distractions is ideal, but if you can’t escape, then rearrange your current environment with a goal of clean surfaces and no distractions.

If your cell phone is likely to tempt you, turn it off or put it in another room.

Some things will be different for everyone. I study better with music playing; silence invites my mind to wander. My wife studies better in complete silence; if she hears music, she’ll want to sing along or get up and dance.

Just as with background noise, Whether you use a stand-up desk, a lounger, or a chair and desk depends on what works best for you and what tools and books you will want to have at hand. I don’t recommend lying down, though. I can’t imagine that works for anyone.

Plan Ahead

Have your Bible, your computer, and any study materials collected before you start so you don’t have to get up and find them later. I use the Bibles & other tools built into e-Sword (must-have software!), the commentaries of a couple of teachers, and a few hardcopy books when I study. I don’t use all of those every time, but I do like to have them close at hand so I don’t have to hunt them down.

If you’re going to need some snacks or something to drink, try to have them ready before hand. If you know that you’ll need a break, know what’s available so you don’t have to spend a lot of time rummaging through the refrigerator.

I recommend having a regular time scheduled and set aside so that it’s easier to tell yourself that it’s study time, not television or play time. Make sure everyone knows that this is study time. Although I might do some Bible study on almost any day of the week, Saturday morning’s are especially set aside for that purpose. I almost never plan anything else for that time.

Know what you are going to be studying before you start. Go through the Bible chapter-by-chapter, create your own plan, or find a plan on the Internet. I have some thoughts on what kinds of reading/study plans are preferable, but I’ll tell you more about the plan I follow and what I recommend on that score later.

You’ll need to have some means to take notes. Even if you have a photographic memory, taking notes will be very useful.

When you read something, the information is processed one way. When you hear it read aloud and if you speak it, you process it in another way. And when you write down thoughts about what you have read or heard, you push those thoughts through yet another process involving arranging them into coherent sentences and logical structures that will engage other parts of your brain and possibly lead to greater insights.

Taking notes will help you to think through what you’re learning and to retain it better. I keep all of my notes in a computer file, but many people find that pen and paper works better for them.

The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

When you are finally ready to begin, take some time to pray. Many very intelligent people have spent years studying the scriptures only to dismiss them as fairy tales or hate-filled bigotry. Intelligence, knowledge, and good study habits are all great, but real understanding of the Bible only comes through the Holy Spirit.

God knows what he told Moses to write on the stone tablets. He knows what he told the Prophets and what the Apostles meant when they wrote letters to the first Christians scattered across the Roman Empire. If anyone can open the Scriptures for you, God can.

There are no hard rules for how you need to pray. Jesus gave us a good pattern to follow in The Lord’s Prayer, and the Bible is filled with more examples, especially in the Psalms.

You can pray aloud or silently. You can sing your prayers or write them down. Whatever you find works best for you.

Some people find it helpful to start with written prayers, whether traditional and formal or something from a book of daily devotions. As you become more comfortable with regular prayer, it will become easier to express yourself in your own words. If you don’t know what to say, start with this:

  • Be grateful. Thank God for all the wonderful things he has created.
  • Praise God. Try to imagine our unimaginably awesome God and tell him how wonderful he is. Trust me. He likes it, and the fear of the Lord truly is the beginning of wisdom.
  • Ask for wisdom. Ask God to open your eyes, heart, and mind and to give you insight as you work.

Make prayer a habit in your daily life. The things you learn in your studies will come to mind throughout the week and daily prayer will help you stay on track and open to whatever revelations God has in store for you.

When you get your environment and your resources ready, you have a good plan, and you’re prayed up, then you’re really ready to get to work.

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Common Sense Bible Study Ground Rules

The Ground Rules of American Torah's Common Sense Bible Study series

Who is this series for?

People who want more.

This series is for Christians, Jews, and Messianic believers who have had enough of going to church or synagogue to hear a sermon, just to go home, forget it all, and go on with life as usual. It’s for people who yearn to go a little deeper, but don’t know where to start. It’s for people who want more out of the Bible than you can get from casual reading, but don’t have time for college classes and language study.

People who have questions.

It’s for people who are tired of being told what to believe and want to find the truth for themselves. It’s for people who have heard an interesting, shocking, or just plain weird thing about what the Bible says and want to know whether it’s true or not. It’s for people who are confused by the thousands of denominations and conflicting doctrines and don’t know how to weigh the competing claims.

What are the prerequisites?

I know that there are all kinds of people out there who want to know more about the Bible and how to understand it: Catholics, Protestants, Hindus, Atheists, you name it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I’m capable of communicating effectively with every possible student in the same study. I would approach the topic of Bible study very differently for a Hindu or atheist than I would for an evangelical Christian. So that I don’t waste everyone’s time, I have to set some minimum requirements for my readers. Of course, anyone is welcome to read this series, but if you don’t meet these prerequisites, you will get limited value from it.

I am going to assume that you believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I don’t particularly care if you’re a unitarian or a trinitarian, a preterist or a premillenialist, a Catholic or a Coptic. What exactly you believe about God isn’t as important as that you believe he exists and that you want to worship him and know him.

I am going to assume that you believe all 66 books commonly included in the Bible were inspired by God and accurate in their original forms and languages. If you’re Catholic, Mormon, or of some other sect that holds additional works as authoritative, you will still be able to get significant value from this series. I’m not aware of any Christian* denominations that don’t accept the core 66 books, even if they might add a few others.

If you are Jewish and don’t accept the New Testament books as authoritative, you too can get significant value out of this series. Almost all of the principles of study that I will be discussing work equally well when applied only to the Tanakh. However, I will be assuming that my readers believe that Jesus, aka Yeshua, is the Messiah and that the New Testament is as authoritative as the Tanakh.

I am going to assume that you are willing to be wrong about some of your most tightly held assumptions about God and religion. If you think you already know everything, I doubt there’s anything that I can teach you. But you already knew that, right?

What will you get out of it?

Here’s what I hope you will get out of this series:

  1. Confidence that you can read and understand the Scriptures for yourself.
  2. The ability to decide whether or not a doctrine is solidly biblical, plausible, or completely nuts.
  3. The ability to weigh the relative importance of a doctrine, to tell what’s core to the faith, and what is peripheral.
  4. Confidence to stand up to Internet crazies who want to drag you into the theological weeds of irrelevancy or paranoia.

Most of all, I hope you will gain a better understanding of God’s Word and, through it, God himself. I hope that you will spend more time studying the Bible and that it will draw you closer to the Author of everything.

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* Different sects have different definitions of “Christian”.

What Purpose the Crucifixion?

In the eyes of God, Yeshua's blood erases our sins and his righteousness becomes ours.Someone on Twitter recently told me that he is still not sure why the Messiah needed to die. My reply (brief due to the limitations of Twitter) was something like this:

Something has to cover (atone) our sins before we can approach God. A precise understanding of how atonement works is probably beyond our comprehension, but I think of it like neutralizing a bad odor. God can’t stomach our stench, so he sent Yeshua whose blood covers and removes it. His good odor becomes ours in God’s nostrils, hence the repeated description of sacrifices as “a pleasing aroma” to God.

This interaction reminded me of another conversation I had with someone a long time ago, reproduced here:

Q: What purpose did the crucifixion and resurrection serve?

Among other things, the Crucifixion satisfied the requirement of the Law for the death of the sinner, and the Resurrection established Yeshua’s permanent mastery of death. The Law still requires death for certain offenses, but there is forgiveness apart from mere physical death. Yeshua’s crucifixion opened the door for grace at the final judgment and for eternal salvation.

Q: Did they change anything? If so, what, when, and for whom? Was the world a different place after the resurrection than before Christ’s death on the cross? In what way?

There was a change, but it was subtle (and dramatic at the same time, if that makes sense). Without Yeshua’s death and resurrection, nobody at any point in history, backwards or forwards, could ever be saved from eternal damnation or granted eternal life, but the method of salvation didn’t change after that event from what it was before. In other words, someone in 100 BC is saved the same way as someone in 100 AD: through faith in God’s mercy enabled by the blood of Yeshua. Salvation has always been available to anyone who asked and subjected themselves to God’s mercy. No one was ever saved by his own circumcision or obedience to Law, but by the grace of God in providing a substitutionary payment for the sins of all people who have ever lived.

Yeshua’s resurrection proved his innocence. He could not be condemned because he never violated a single point of the Law and so could not be held in the grave. Untainted blood acts as a sort of spiritual shield or mask that allows us to approach God (and vice versa) closer than we could as our natural, fallen selves. In the eyes of God, Yeshua’s blood erases our sins and his righteousness appears to the Father as our own if we willingly place ourselves beneath it. But since God exists outside of time and could look through that blood at Abraham and David as well as at you and I, this doesn’t really answer the question.

The world was a different place after Yeshua’s death and resurrection in three important ways.

First, our perspective changed. Abraham knew a redeemer must come and looked forward in faith to that day. We now know that the redeemer has already come, and we look back at that day in faith that his blood is sufficient to cover our sins. The ultimate fulfillment of redemption is yet to come, but the payment has been made in full. An earnest of delivery was given in the form of the Holy Spirit, and we now look forward to the reality.

Second, although God exists outside of time, our spirits do not. Before Yeshua, the Scriptures seem to indicate that the dead went to some place like the underworld common to most ancient mythologies: “Abraham’s Bosom” for the faithful and Hades for the unfaithful. They could speak and thirst and could sometimes even return to the land of the living. Yeshua changed something in that arrangement, although I won’t pretend to understand exactly what.

Third, Yeshua, who has become a man and the firstborn of the resurrection, can now operate as our high priest in the supreme tabernacle in Heaven. When we accept his kingship and covering of our souls, our obligation is transferred from the Law, which holds us in bondage as lawbreakers, to him, who sets us free by mercy. His priesthood is superior to that of Aaron’s and his forgiveness supersedes any condemnation we might have under the Law.

Q: Did He die only so that we wouldn’t have to go to Jerusalem every year and kill animals for God?

No. The sacrificing of animals never had anything to do with eternal salvation. They atoned for inadvertent or accidental sins. There has never been an animal sacrifice for deliberate sin. Having said that, I don’t know exactly what affect his death and resurrection has on animal sacrifices. Since they were never intended to save anyone’s soul and there is no altar on which to offer them anyway, it’s not something I’m going to worry about overmuch.

However, there are prophecies that appear to indicate there will be animal sacrifices offered up again on an altar in Jerusalem under Yeshua’s personal supervision. If that is a correct understanding, then his death could not possibly have negated all need or use for sacrifices. Perhaps no sin offerings will be made, but other kinds will. I’m not sure.

Q: The patriarchs of old, were they really saved through their faith that Yahweh would send a walking talking Messiah one day thousands of years in the future to walk and talk with their descendants, or were they saved through simple childlike faith that Yahweh would somehow make good on His word that He would redeem all of His people?

Both. They were saved by their faith in God’s mercy that he would give them life despite their sins. The mechanism of that mercy was the Messiah’s death, which some of them knew was necessary. I don’t believe they had to know the precise details of what form that mechanism would take, so long as they trusted in God to provide it. I believe the same is true today.

Q: Did they really know who the Messiah would be or what purpose He would serve?

Some of them, yes. I believe Abraham knew after God provided a sacrifice in place of Isaac. He prophesied of the Messiah when he told Isaac, “God will provide himself a lamb for a burnt offering.” (Hebrew for “burnt offering” is olah, which means “an ascending”. It implies something that burns and rises up in smoke, but it could be interpreted as anything that ascends to Heaven.) God actually provided a ram that day, not a lamb. The promised Lamb of God appeared centuries later in the person of Yeshua, was killed, rose from the dead, and ascended to Heaven.

Q: Christ said “believe on me and you shall be saved.” How about those who lived and died before Christ? Did Job appeal to his Maker or to his cousin Abraham’s seed?

Isn’t Abraham’s seed and Job’s Maker one and the same? In order to believe on Christ, no one needs to know the specific sounds that make up his human name (or any facsimile thereof) or even to know that he has already come. They only need to know that they are sinners and hopeless in themselves and to trust in (“believe on”) God to provide the means of their salvation. That means is Yeshua, but Job didn’t need to know the name of the Messiah nor the specific time or place of his birth. He just had to trust God to take care of it.

Q: Another very odd thing about the Scriptures is that they almost always, when properly translated (such as in the KJV, remarkably enough), say that the faith OF Christ shall save us, not our faith IN Christ. Now isn’t that strange?

The limitations of human language. We cannot possibly be really saved by any actions or thoughts of our own. Salvation is provided solely by God based on his own criteria. Fortunately, he has promised that salvation to us based on certain conditions which do not include physical obedience to any law.

Q: And what of Mark 9:24, where the man says “I believe. Help my unbelief.” How does a man need help believing if he is already fully convinced?

Is anyone ever fully convinced of anything? I trust and believe, but sometimes I still have doubts.

Romans 7:15-17 For that which I do I allow not: for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I. If then I do that which I would not, I consent unto the law that it is good. Now then it is no more I that do it, but sin that dwelleth in me.

There are so many questions concerning spiritual matters for which we only have unsatisfactory answers, at least intellectually. But this is one of the greatest things about God and his plan for our salvation. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how well you can wrap your mind around the incomprehensible details of an infinite God. What matters is that you are able to perceive and admit your own imperfections and to trust in Him, and our capacity to trust is not tied to our capacity to reason.

A Biblical Secret to Building Wealth that Lasts

Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. (Genesis 12:5)

Abram (this was before God renamed him “Abraham”) was a very wealthy man when God first called him to leave his home in Haran. He had a wife, livestock, lots of stuff and even slaves, and as time went on he only got richer.

His herds continued to grow after he left Haran. When he was in Egypt because of the famine in Canaan, Pharaoh gave him many more possessions and slaves, and his herds continued to expand after he returned to Canaan again. Whatever happened, whatever Abram did, he only got richer.

It doesn’t appear that Abram set out to grow his wealth. He was generous with what he had, didn’t demand anything from anybody, and refused to accept gifts from unsavory characters. Yet at the end of his life, he had a large family and immense wealth.

Lot was a wealthy man too. We don’t know that he had anything at all when he left Haran with Abram, but we know that they both had large herds and servants sometime after leaving Egypt. So much so that Abram decided they needed to put some space between their households in order to reduce friction and competition for resources.

After they separated, Lot moved his tents close to the city of Sodom, eventually buying property within the city walls and even becoming a respected city leader. His herds and holdings in the countryside probably continued to grow during that time.

Unfortunately, Lot didn’t end life nearly so well as Abram did. Most of his family had died and what was left was extremely disfuctional. His herds and servants were all dead or scattered. His home and social life were destroyed in Sodom.

These two men came from the same family, had the same traditions, and spent many years traveling, living, and working together. They were both righteous men, so how did they end so differently?

I think there were two major differences between Lot and Abram:

  • Initiative
  • Faith

Initiative

Abram was active, while Lot was passive. An interesting factoid that might be intended to allude to this quality of their respective characters is in the way their children are described. Only male children of Abraham are listed in Scripture, although he almost certainly had daughters as well, while Lot is only said to have daughters.

When their two herds became too great to live comfortably together, Abram saw the problem and offered a solution. He built a godly community from scratch, while Lot joined a community that was already well established. When Abram saw the angelic visitors he ran to meet them, but when Lot saw them, he merely stood to greet them. Finally, when Abram learned of God’s plan to destroy the city, he tried to save the people, but when the men of Sodom surrounded Lot’s house, he only tried to get them to commit a lesser sin.

There were times when Abram allowed himself to be swayed by men (in Egypt and in the matter of Hagar, for example), but usually Abram followed God alone, while Lot usually followed other men. As long as he stayed with Abram, he did well, but his real problems began when the he exchanged Abram’s company for Sodom’s.

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. (Proverbs 13:20)

Faith

Abram didn’t set out to grow his wealth, but it grew regardless because he trusted in God who blessed him for it. On the other hand, despite Lot’s long relationship with Abram, he hadn’t learned that real wealth comes from a relationship with the Creator, not from how much of the creation he could control. By all the wisdom of men, better pastures and better markets ought to equal greater wealth, but there are different kinds of wealth of more or less permanence.

When Abram gave Lot first pick of grazing land, he chose a land rich in the physical but extremely poor in the spiritual. Abram moved his herds to the relatively barren hills, away from the corrupt cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but closer to God. He grew steadily in both material and spiritual possessions, content to accept what God would give him in exchange for faithfulness and good stewardship. Abram’s material wealth evaporated upon his physical death, divided among his sons, but his spiritual wealth has continued to grow exponentially over the millennia.

Lot’s wealth, on the other hand, didn’t even last his own lifetime. One morning when he woke up hungover in a cave overlooking a once-lush valley, now smoking and ruined, he surely understood the meaning of Paul’s words to Timothy:

But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. (1 Timothy 6:6-9)

Surround yourself with people of faith and godliness. Their influence will elevate you. However, don’t be content with their mere company. Consciously work to emulate them so that when they are gone, you can stand alone with God and help to elevate someone else.

Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm. (Proverbs 13:20)