Sunday, December 28, 2008

TorahBytes: Roots of Relational Difficulties (Va-Yiggash)

Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father. (Bereshit / Genesis 44:33,34; ESV)

The story of Joseph is one of the longer and more involved narratives in the Bible. It is a wonderful story of God's providential hand at work in the midst of human jealousy and hatred. Every time I read it, one of the things I wonder about is what was Joseph really up to in how he dealt with his brothers during their two excursions to Egypt to buy food?

I don't think that he was just giving them a hard time in order to get back at them for what they had done to him. If that was his motive, he could have done so much more to hurt them and would not have been so generous to them. Yet he did seem to be up to something or else he would have revealed himself to them on their first visit instead of putting them through all he did. It is reasonable to assume that he could have been struggling with his own feelings, but it looks as if he was waiting for something particular to happen before he revealed himself to them. That something may be the very thing that did happen.

Some background: Joseph and his eleven brothers were the offspring of Jacob and four women: Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah and their respective servants Bilah and Zilpah. Joseph and Benjamin were Rachel's two sons and had a special place in Jacob's heart. We don't need to get into why that was right now. Suffice it to say that Joseph and Benjamin were uniquely precious to Jacob - something of which the whole family was well aware.

Joseph's brothers hated him because of their father's preferential treatment of him. Joseph's dreams which predicted his special position over his family further infuriated them. They hated Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery and deceived their father, telling him Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Their father was devastated by this news, which shouldn't have been a surprise given his well-known feelings toward Joseph. But note that the brothers couldn't care less about their father's feelings. So much had their hatred blinded them.

We pick up the story many years later as Joseph is overseeing Egypt's supplying food for the surrounding region during a severe and extended famine. His brothers are on their second excursion to Egypt in the hope of buying food. Joseph pretends to treat them with great suspicion, which results in Benjamin being taken to be Joseph's servant. When their brother Judah offers himself in Benjamin's place, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. But what was it about Judah's offer that touched Joseph's heart? It could have been Judah's willingness to selflessly give himself for Benjamin's sake, but his words indicate something else. What Judah said just before Joseph broke down was, "For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father." (Bereshit / Genesis 44:34; ESV). In other words, Judah couldn't bear what the news of Benjamin's plight would do to his father. Could it be that what Joseph was looking for from his brothers was a change of heart - not so much toward himself - but toward their father? Could it be that the wrongs done to Joseph were actually a result of the more serious wrong of their lack of honor toward and care of their father?

Whatever issues the brothers had with Joseph, if they had loved their father the way they should, they would have controlled their feelings toward Joseph. Don't get hung up on the fact that God used their evil actions toward Joseph for good. That God makes good come out of evil is no excuse for human misbehavior.

I don't know if the brothers ever consciously understood that the abuse of Joseph was rooted in their disregard for their father. In the same way I wonder how much of our relational difficulties actually have to do with issues relating to our own fathers, but we don't know it. God may want to use those difficulties to get us to deal with our relationships with our fathers. And in some cases getting our hearts right with our earthly fathers will also make a huge difference in our relationship with God.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

TorahBytes: Light in the Darkness (Mi-Kez)

And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. (Zechariah 4:1; ESV)

As I write this it is the longest night of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere at least). I took a walk early afternoon today and noticed how long the shadows were, with the sun being so low in the sky. I don't know if the ancients really worried every year that the sun would disappear. I suspect they were smarter than that. It is interesting that they would invent rituals regarding this phenomenon. There is something about the ever increasing duration of darkness night by night that is truly ominous.

There are some New Covenant believers that postulate that Christmas is nothing more than a slightly modified version of pagan winter solstice rituals, but I think this is a wonderful time to celebrate the coming into the world of God's marvellous light in the person of his Son, the Messiah.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:1; ESV)

I know that some people have claimed to know what time of year Yeshua was born, but the New Covenant writings don't say. I can't think of a better time of year to celebrate the Light of God.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4,5; ESV)

As Jewish Believers my family doesn't engage in the trappings of the Christmas season, but I still love to see the beautiful displays of Christmas lights as I drive down our streets on these cold, dark nights. While not knowing the convictions of these people, this is still a great illustration of God's light shining in the darkness of our lives.

Christmas is not the only festival at this time of year that features lights. One of the alternate names of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights (Hanukkah begins this year on the evening of December 21 and continues through the evening of December 28). Hanukkah, meaning "dedication," is the celebration of the rededication of the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees in 165 BCE following its desecration by pagan oppressors. It is called the Festival of Lights because of the ritual of lighting a special ceremonial lamp called a Hanukkiah. On the first night of Hanukkah one light is lit. On each successive night an additional light is lit, each time by using the "shamash," or the servant light, until on the eighth night all eight lights are lit.

The purpose for the lighting of lights at Hanukkah is to tell forth the miracle of Hanukkah. The miracle that has been popularized through the centuries is the legend of the one day's worth of holy oil that lasted for eight days. But I think the real miracle of Hanukkah, the true light of this joyous celebration, is the faith and courage of the Maccabees to stand against overwhelming odds for the sake of God's truth and his ways.

This season of increasing darkness is a symbol of our moral and spiritual lostness. The economic meltdown in much of the world today is helping us to come to grips with how dark these days really are. We need God's light. Like the Maccabees of old, we again need those who will stand against compromise and falsehood to be a light in the darkness - people of courage, who are not afraid to stand with God's True Light, the Messiah, to shine in an ever increasingly dark world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

TorahBytes: A Wonderful Plan (Va-Yeshev)

Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit / Genesis 37:5; ESV)

Perhaps you have heard the adage "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." In a world of meaninglessness, this is a most profound statement. That there is a personal God, who desires to direct our lives is in sharp contrast to the popular view that we are simply cosmic accidents, products of matter and energy, plus chance. To learn that the events of life are not due to complete randomization, but are actually part of a grand story is wonderful in itself. But to realize that God cares about each and every one of us, inviting us to cooperate with him in fulfilling his good plans for the world, is even more wonderful.

But what does wonderful imply? I would guess that when many of us hear "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," we think we are being promised fun and excitement. Perhaps God will make us famous or at least successful in the way most of us understand success: health, wealth, ease of living, and at least some level of popularity.

I don't know what the person who first said the words "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," was trying to say exactly. This statement is not found in the Bible. Presummably it is an attempt to summarize the God of Israel's intentions for people. But how accurate a statement is it?

This week's Torah portion begins the story of Jacob's son Joseph. Joseph had two dreams that seemed to mean that his family would one day bow down to him. His brothers, who were already jealous of him, were incensed by this. Their hatred of him, which led to their selling him into slavery, is what led to the fulfillment of his dreams and his eventual exalted position over them. The process of bringing Joseph to his God-given place and position was a most difficult one. If you have never read the story of Joseph, I encourage you to do so.

Did God love Joseph and have a wonderful plan for his life? He certainly did. Not only did he love Joseph, but the wonderful plan that God had for him was not just an expression of God's love for him alone, but also for his family, the people of Egypt, and the whole region. God had chosen Joseph to help provide sustenance during an extreme famine, thus preserving many lives.

It is a truly wonderful thing to be so used by God. Even in the darkest of times, God was with Joseph, preparing him for the day when he would make such a difference in the world. I don't know if God has this kind of plan for each and every person, though he definitely loves us all. And once we come into right relationship with him through trusting in the Messiah, we have the opportunity to be part of his grand purpose, whatever that part may be.

In order for us to most truly embrace God's wonderful plan for our lives, we need to grasp the nature of what wonderful really means. If we assume that "wonderful" means fun and exciting or that it is a guaranty of personal benefit and convenience, then we are going to be put off by God's plan for us. His plan is indeed wonderful, but it is not necessarily easy and certainly not always fun and exciting. Meaningful, yes. Significant, surely, though that may not always be apparent. God's plans for us, as in the case of Joseph as well as many of the Bible's key characters, also includes great challenges and difficulties. I wonder how our resistance to such challenges and difficulties prevents us from fully participating in God's wonderful plans for our lives.

It seems that the real key to fully embracing both God's love and his wonderful plan for our lives is to allow him to have his way in our lives no matter what. Let's forget about our preconceived notions of what a life with God should include and let him fulfill his wonderful plan.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

TorahBytes: Bringing Evil to Light (Va-Yishlah)

So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments." (Bereshit / Genesis 35:2; ESV)

Jacob had gone through a lot. After colluding with his mother to deceive his father in order to steal his father's blessing from his older twin brother, he ran for his life. It would be many years before he would return to the land of his birth and have the encounter with God that changed his life for good. It was in that encounter that God first changed his name to Israel. Sometime later, when God summoned him to the town of Bethel, he conferred this name upon him again. Bethel was the town where God first appeared to Jacob when he was running away from his brother.

In preparation for this meeting with God, Jacob directed his family to rid themselves of foreign gods, purify themselves, and change their garments. Obviously this means that his household had been in possession of idols. This may shake up your impression of Jacob's family. We like to think of the key Bible characters as wonderful examples, but that's often not the case. Jacob himself was not a true follower of the God of his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham, until his injurious encounter with God not too long before this incident.

It appears that it was God's summoning of Jacob that prompted him to direct his family to radically deal with the evil in their lives. Why they still had such things we are not told. We are only told that Jacob instructed them to get rid of them and they did.

Have you ever heard God summon you to worship him? Maybe not in the same way that God spoke to Jacob. But perhaps you have felt a tug on your heart to draw close to God, to give him your attention in a much deeper and focused way. It is often in those times that we become more fully aware of the evil in our lives.

I wonder how many people have struggled with the awareness of evil in their lives just as they also found themselves drawing closer to God. We may treat that awareness as a distraction instead of realizing that it is the nearness of God that is bringing to light the evil in our lives. When God draws us closer to himself, his light often shines upon our lives in increasing intensity, revealing areas of darkness that we may not have been aware of. This is a good thing. We should not be quick to worship God until we effectively deal with the evil God is bringing to light.

Additionally, we should not be surprised in these times that God may also prompt us to deal with lingering evil in our households. Many of us tend to think of spirituality as a private matter, but Jacob's role in his household was not just a cultural thing; it was his God-given role. He was responsible to direct his family in God's ways. The idols in his household were not dealt with until Jacob dealt with them. He didn't wait for his wife, children, and servants to figure out godliness on their own. He knew what was right and directed them accordingly.

Fathers especially need to take this responsibility very seriously. In order to lead our families in God's ways, we need to direct our household accordingly. It is not good enough to simply lead our families in worship, we must also lead them in godliness. We should start by taking the lead and deal with the evil in our own lives; then we need to direct our loved ones in doing the same.