Monday, November 30, 2009

TorahBytes: Don't Let Go (Va-Yishlah)

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." (Bereshit / Genesis 32:24-28; ESV)

Last week we discussed how we may confuse acknowledging the existence of God with believing in God. Simply acknowledging his existence doesn't mean that we actually trust him.

The primary reason why Jacob went to the land of his ancestors was to escape the vengeful wrath of his twin brother, Esau. It would be about 20 years before he would have to face him again. As he and his large household were approaching his brother's territory on their way back to the land of Canaan, he heard that Esau, accompanied by 400 men, was on his way to meet him. We read, "Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed" (Bereshit / Genesis 32:7; ESV).

First, Jacob splits up his camp into two in the hope that if Esau attacks one group, the other may escape. The next thing he does is pray, which may have been his first time ever. An interesting prayer it was in that he refers to God as the God of his grandfather and the God of his father, but not his God. Then he organized three large droves of animals as gifts in the hope that this would appease his brother by the time he reached him. Then behind the droves he placed his family. Behind his family with a river in between, was he - as far away from Esau as possible - where he spent the night with his fear, alone. Yet he would not be alone.

It was in that place that God wrestled with him. When God could not prevail against him, he dislocated his hip, which would cause him to limp for the rest of his life. Then God told Jacob to let him go, but Jacob, true to his nature I guess, would not do so until this mysterious wrestler would bless him. And bless him he did with these words: "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed" (Bereshit / Genesis 32:28; ESV).

Jacob was changed. The next day as he saw Esau coming, he went right up to him ahead of his family, the fear and self preservation gone. No more schemes. No more striving. Everything turned out fine and the two brothers parted company. When he arrived in the land of Canaan, he built an altar as a testimony of his new personal trust in God.

Up until the time of Jacob's wrestling with God, Jacob depended on himself. While glad to be the recipient of God's blessings and promises, he determined to run his own life his own way. Perhaps God had tried to get Jacob's attention other times, but Jacob continued in his self reliance. Of course God was the one who was actually directing and caring for Jacob all that time, yet Jacob's heart remained far from God.

But when God came to him this time Jacob would not let him go. It might sound strange to hear of God asking to be released. God could have easily destroyed Jacob, let alone win the wrestling match. With a simple touch he dislocated Jacob's hip. Yet in spite of how painful that must have been, Jacob held on to God until he blessed him. At that point Jacob may not have fully understood what was going on, but God changed his heart.

I wonder how many times God comes to us in our times of need, seeking to engage us, but we ignore him. Or he comes to wrestle with us (however that may be), but we don't hold on to him. We give up too easily. He might hurt us. He might change us.

Until we allow God to have his way in our lives, we may find ourselves acknowledging him, but not really believing in him. It is in the midst of life's circumstances that God gives us the opportunity to really know him. And we will know him if we hold on to him and don't let go no matter what.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

TorahBytes: Acknowledgment vs. Faith (Va-Yeze)

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16,17; ESV)

Jacob's understanding of and relationship with God is fascinating. These days we tend to equate acknowledging God's existence with believing in him. In Jacob's case, he seemed to fully accept the reality of God's existence but didn't really believe in him. Believing in God is not the same as simply believing that he exists. Believing in him means to trust in him. It would be many years before Jacob came to trust in God.

The context of the verse I read is the beginning of Jacob's journey to Mesopotamia, the land of his relatives. His primary reason for this journey was to escape the wrath of his twin brother, Esau. As he set out, he spent the night in the place he would name "Beth-El" (the House of God). It was there that he dreamt he saw a ladder that reached heaven with the angels of God going up and down on it. In the dream God spoke to him, giving to him the promises he originally had given to his grandfather, Abraham. Jacob's response upon awakening was that if God looked after him, then upon his return, in his words, "then the Lord shall be my God" (Bereshit / Genesis 28:21). So we see here that Jacob clearly acknowledged God's existence without trusting him.

Jacob's reaction to God's appearance had nothing to do with the question of God's existence. Rather Jacob said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." What surprised him was that God was there without him realizing it. This sounds as if he thought that God was in Beth-El in a way that he wasn't in other places. Perhaps this is an indication of a lack in Jacob's understanding of God. He didn't know as yet that the God of his father and grandfather was the Master of the Universe and that there was no place where God's presence was not.

That God would appear to Jacob at all didn't seem to faze him. One might think that this experience would motivate him into a life of utter devotion to God, but it didn't. He was just surprised that God was there and he didn't know it.

I wonder if we realize how present God really is. There's a wonderful story in the second book of Melachim (Kings), chapter six, where the army of Syria was surrounding the city where the prophet Elisha was. When Elisha's assistant anxiously reported this to him, Elisha prayed that his assistant would see with his physical eyes the heavenly power that was with them. Elisha was aware of this, while his assistant was not. I cannot say that God's help is with his people to this extent at all times, but certainly God is present and at work everywhere in so many ways that we are not aware of.

How often is the presence of God with us and, like Jacob, we don't know it? If God would open our eyes like Elisha's assistant would we not be surprised to see the heavenly reality that surrounds us? Unlike Jacob we claim to trust in the God who is everywhere, yet we think we are alone. We may not say that God is not with us, but how often do we act as if he is far, far away? Perhaps we don't believe in him as much as we think we do.

We may be more like Jacob than we are willing to admit in that we readily acknowledge God's existence without actually trusting him. We should stop confusing acknowledging his existence with true faith. Accepting God's existence is an essential starting point, but we need to let him take us much deeper - to the place of trust he took Jacob. That's what we will look at next week.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

TorahBytes: How Silly We Can Be! (Toledot)

Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. And the skins of the young goats she put on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. And she put the delicious food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob. (Bereshit / Genesis 27:15-17; ESV)

In this week's parasha (weekly Torah reading), we read of the stealing of Isaac's blessing. Before he died, Isaac wanted to give a special blessing to his older son, Esau. So Isaac asked Esau to prepare for him a special meal of fresh game after which Isaac would give him the blessing. Isaac passing this blessing on to Esau would make him the carrier of God's purposes for the world. Before Esau and his twin brother, Jacob, were born, God had told their mother, Rebekah, that the younger would have precedence over the older (see Bereshit / Genesis 25:22,23). We don't know if she ever told this prediction to Isaac, but when she heard that Isaac was planning on giving the blessing to Esau, she schemed to deceive her husband into giving it to Jacob instead.

This sets up one of the silliest scenes in the Bible. Although Esau and Jacob were twins, they were different in almost every way. Esau was a hairy, outdoorsy sort-of person; Jacob was a smooth-skinned homebody. Even though Isaac's sight was poor at this stage of his life, tricking him would not be easy. When Jacob comes to him covered in goat's skins, Isaac suspects something is up. He recognizes Jacob's voice and wonders how he could have prepared the meal so quickly. Yet when he calls Jacob over to kiss him, the feel of the goat skin and smell of Esau's garments he was wearing are somehow enough to fool him, and Jacob gets the blessing.

Could you imagine how silly Jacob must have looked wearing that goat skin! What a ridiculous scene of Mom and son scheming to trick Dad like that! The fact that their plan actually worked makes the situation even more absurd. Did Rebekah and Jacob really believe that they could manipulate the situation in order to fulfill God's plan for Jacob? Yet it worked! What is anybody supposed to learn from a story like this!

Could it be that the only reason why this crazy plan worked was because God had determined that Jacob would be the recipient of the blessing anyway? We don't have any direct comment in the text as to whether or not Jacob's actions were right or wrong. Yet as we follow his story, we see how God pursues him until he eventually learns to personally trust God. Until then he strives and strives for prosperity and success.

What we have in Jacob is an unbeliever pursued by God. God had determined to bless him and make him a blessing just like his father and grandfather, but he had no clue personally what that really meant. So while his deceitful scheming appears successful, it is only so because God had determined to use Jacob for his purposes. Jacob's heart would one day be for God, but in the meantime, God was at work towards that end. This in no way justifies Jacob's schemes. On the contrary it makes a mockery of human striving.

I wonder how often we are just like Jacob. We must look pretty silly sometimes as we strive to make life work out in our favor. God determines to bless us and use us, but we think we need to take matters into our own hands. We scheme in our attempt to manipulate life's circumstances for our benefit. Yet God is working behind the scenes, so to speak, to bring events to their determined end for our good. We presume that it's our scheming that makes us successful, when all along God in his love and by his power is seeking to draw us in line with himself. Let's stop being so silly and let God be God.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

TorahBytes: Rebekah's Blessing (Hayyei Sarah)

And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, "Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!" (Bereshit / Genesis 24:60; ESV)

This week's Torah portion includes the story of the search for a wife for Abraham's son Isaac. Abraham sent his servant back to Mesopotamia, where Abraham was from and his relatives still lived, to find a wife for Isaac. Upon arriving, the servant prayed that God would direct him in finding the right one. When God made it plain that Rebekah was the one, and she was willing to go with Abraham's servant, her family sent her on her way with the words I just read: "Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!"

While it is possible that this was some sort of standard blessing, it is interesting within the context of God's plans and purposes for Rebekah's husband-to-be. Remember that God promised Isaac's father, Abraham, a man with no children, that he would be a great nation of blessing to the whole world. The beginnings of the fulfillment of God's promises, the birth of Isaac, did not happen until Abraham was a hundred years old. God had told him that his descendants would be beyond measure, but he died before seeing even one grandchild be born of the line of promise. Abraham did have other children, Ishmael through Sarah's servant Hagar, and several others through Keturah the woman he married after Sarah died, but none of these children stood in the line of promise as Isaac did. We learn later on in the Torah that Isaac and Rebekah will also have trouble having children. The promise of innumerable descendants did not come about easily.

Unbeknownst to Rebekah's family, they were speaking prophetically. Not only would she indeed become a mother of many descendants, but her offspring would also "possess the gate of those who hate him." The picture here is of an army capturing a city that has great disdain for that army's people. To capture the gate is to take control of the city. Rebekah's family was calling for her descendants to overcome any serious opposition they might face.

Note the use of the pronoun "him" instead of "them". This is due to the use of the word "offspring" (more literally "seed"), a collective noun, which could refer to one or more descendants. Collective nouns function grammatically in the singular, which is why the Hebrew is clearly "hate him." Since the context sounds as if it is referring to the thousands of ten thousands, some translations use "hate them" (New American Standard Bible) or go further and interpret the words, "those who hate him" as to mean simply "enemies" (New International Version), thus removing any confusion arising from the ambiguous use of the singular.

But could it be that the ambiguity is intentional? That since "offspring" could be understood as singular or plural these words may find their fulfillment both in the plural, referring to the nation of Israel, as well as in the singular, Rebekah's key offspring, Yeshua the Messiah.

Whatever their intention Rebekah's blessing certainly foreshadows the Messiah's own statement centuries later when he said, "I will build my Community, and the gates of Sh'ol will not overcome it" (Matthew 16:18; Complete Jewish Bible).

The very gates of death and all that death represents would be overtaken by Rebekah's offspring. Through the development and history of the people of Israel culminating in Yeshua the Messiah, everything that hates God and his people will be done away with. Those who align themselves with God's plans and purposes as revealed in the Messiah walk in Rebekah's blessing. Those who follow Yeshua can be confident that we will possess the gate of those who hate us.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

TorahBytes: Assurance of Faith (Va-yera)

But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:11,12; ESV).

This story, traditionally known as "The Binding of Isaac" serves as the climax of the Torah's account of the life of Abraham. God had called Abraham (then called "Abram") to leave his homeland and to follow God's leading without being given much in the way of specifics. Abraham was already 75 when God promised to make him a great nation even though he and his wife, Sarah, had no children. Eventually God made it clear to Abraham that he would have descendants more than can be counted. Even though there was still no prospect of having his own children, Abraham believed God. His faith was counted to him as righteousness (see Bereshit / Genesis 15:6). After more years went by and still no children, the two of them took the matter into their own hands by having Abraham seek children through Sarah's servant Hagar. It wasn't until Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 89 that God spoke to Abraham again and told him that his promise would be fulfilled through a child born to Sarah herself which occurred a year later.

After all that, God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise. Apart from the obvious difficulty regarding such a directive, what a thing to call him to do! (At this point you may want to ask the important question, "How could God command Abraham to sacrifice his son?" - a question best answered through the death and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah, but that is not the focus of this week's message. If you would like to discuss that aspect of this passage, don't hesitate to contact me. For now, I will continue building to my main point.) Isaac is the key to the fulfillment of all that God called Abraham for. He was to inherit the promises given to Abraham, including blessing for the nations (see Genesis / Bereshit 12:1-3). This was not just about Abraham and Isaac. It was about God's plan for the whole world. God was calling Abraham to risk everything in the name of obedience. But Abraham, being the faithful servant of God he was, did it or at least showed his absolute willingness to do it until God stopped him at the very last moment.

God's response to Abraham's obedience, spoken to him through the angel was, "now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." What a curious response. God said, "Now I know". How can that be? Is the Torah teaching that God didn't know what Abraham would do? Was there a chance that Abraham would not have done it? Apart from this particular task, did Abraham not already demonstrate that he feared God? Was God not aware of that fact? There's got to be something more going on than God finally becoming aware that Abraham truly feared him (by the way, if the concept of "fearing God" is unfamiliar to you, it refers to having great respect, the kind of respect that strongly evokes an obedient response).

Abraham's willingness to obey God's unusual and drastic directive outwardly demonstrated the inner reality that had been at work in his life for years. When God says, "Now I know" he is affirming the reality of Abraham's faithfulness. True faith in God proves itself through our actions. Sadly there had been a tendency to divorce the inner reality of faith from faithful deeds. Some have focused on deeds, claiming that the issues of the heart and of truth don't really matter, as long as we do what is right. Others have insisted that spiritual reality is found solely in the inner reality and have so diminished the importance of faithful deeds to the point where they are insignificant. Neither focus is biblical. Certainly a right relationship with God begins with the heart. We come to know God by trusting in the Messiah. But if that trust is real, then it will be expressed through our actions. If our lives do not reflect the inner reality we claim to have, then we have reason to doubt its genuineness. It is as we live out our faith through obedience to God that we receive the assurance of the reality of our faith as Abraham did that day.