Monday, November 29, 2010

TorahBytes: Waiting (Miketz / Hanukkah)

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile (Bereshit / Genesis 41:1; ESV)

The Torah, as well as the whole Bible, is not wordy. Perhaps that was due to the scarcity and cost of writing materials in those days, but the lack of lengthy description in no way diminishes its literary depth. So much is communicated in surprisingly few words. An example of this is found in the short phrase at the beginning of our opening quote, "After two whole years". The Hebrew reads, "Va-yehi miketz shenatayim yamim", literally translated as, "And it was at the end of two years of days". The choosing of this kind of expression underscores for us how long a time it really was. The English Standard Version tries to get this across by using "two whole years," but it seems to me that for readers of English, statements of time tend to be understood simply as calendar references. Yet there is more going on here than "Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream." By telling us that "two years of days" went by, we are drawn into the experience of Joseph, who after correctly interpreting the dreams of his fellow dungeon inmates. who happened to be servants of Pharaoh, had to endure over 700 more individual days in that horrible place.

All throughout the Bible we have stories of people who had to endure great hardship for long periods of time. When we read these accounts, to us the waiting periods seem to fly by in an instant, unless we stop and think about it. In Joseph's case in particular, the wording, at least in the original Hebrew, draws our attention to what the passing of time must have been for Joseph after all he had gone through, first in being hated by his own brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt, and then his unjust incarceration in an Egyptian dungeon. While God was with him and gave him favor in these difficult circumstances, we cannot underestimate just how difficult it must all have been.

God doesn't work according to our expectation of time. If we would have our druthers, we would get everything instantly. It's as if we think that getting something faster is almost always preferred. But that is not God's way. Good food takes time to grow. Good food takes time to prepare. It takes time to manufacture quality products. Living things develop over time. Good character takes a lifetime.

It is likely that Joseph wasn't ready for the kind of rulership for which God was preparing him. I don't think a person like Joseph, who had no issue telling on his brothers and broadcasting his dreams that spoke of his having a place of prominence among them, would necessarily treat them with the level of kindness that he ended up showing. It is possible that the time delay was partly designed to do a deep work in his heart, so that he would be to his family what they needed him to be despite their earlier abuse of him. I am aware that the Torah gives no comment as to the work of God in Joseph's life, but what we do know is that he endured abusive oppressive circumstances for a long time and that there was something about those last two years that were especially long.

Whatever God was doing in Joseph's heart and life, is this not what many of us go through? There is a proverb that says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life" (Mishlei / Proverbs 13:12: ESV). Waiting for God-given expectations to be fulfilled can be sickening. Those of us who have experienced this at times think we would be better off not having such hopes than to wait and be given glimpses of our hope's fulfillment, only to have to wait again.

But God knows what he is doing. His sense of timing is perfect. We will never know all that he is doing as we wait, but we can be assured that if we truly love God, he is doing everything necessary to accomplish his purposes in us and through us.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

TorahBytes: God Is in Charge (Va-Yeshev)

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:3-5; ESV)

The story of Joseph is one of the most mind-blowing stories in the entire Bible. It is the story of how God uses a most dysfunctional family for his plan and purposes. Not only did he use jealousy and hatred to preserve the nation of Israel, but also of Egypt and the surrounding region. Joseph's understanding of how God was involved in his difficult circumstances are summed up by his words to his brothers some time after the whole clan moved to Egypt, when he said, "you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Bereshit / Genesis 50:20; ESV). There is no doubt in Joseph's mind that God's good intentions for Israel, Egypt, and many others were carried out through his brothers' evil intentions.

Let's look at some of the details of what happened. Joseph, the eleventh of twelve sons, was his father's favorite. Jacob had no qualms about broadcasting his feelings about Joseph in public in that he gave Joseph the gift of an extraordinary outer garment. Joseph had no qualms about speaking badly about his brothers to their father. This all would be sufficient to cause significant problems between Joseph and his brothers, We read "But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him" (Bereshit / Genesis 37:4; ESV).

Then we read that Joseph had two dreams that predicted that he would rule over his parents and brothers. We do not know Joseph's motivation in sharing his dreams with his family, since the Torah provides no behind-the-scenes commentary on what he was thinking. All we know is that his older brothers hated him all the more to the point of wanting to kill him. One day when Jacob sent Joseph to check up on them, they were about to murder him. The eldest brother, Reuben, convinced the others to hold off in hopes of rescuing him. While Reuben was away attending something, the nine brothers sold him to slave traders on their way to Egypt. They then deceived their father into thinking that Joseph was killed by wild animals. Do note if it wasn't for Reuben's intervention, Joseph would have been killed.

Joseph served as a slave in Egypt. Yet God made him successful in his work. Even when he resisted his master's wife's advances, which ended up in his going to prison, there too God was with him, resulting in his being put in charge of the other prisoners. It was due to his accurate interpretation of some dreams of his fellow prisoners that he was eventually called up to interpret some of Pharaoh's dreams, thus resulting in his release and promotion to second in command in Egypt. This was the set up for the fulfillment of Joseph's earlier dreams concerning him and his family.

In the midst of all the human intrigue, jealousy, hatred, and lust, God's was at work for good. The Torah in no way excuses the evil just because God used it for his own good purposes. Also, there is no impression given that God made the bad stuff happen. The people did the bad. Yet the bad stuff served the overall purposes of God.

People also did the good stuff. Joseph was faithful to God in the midst of his terrible circumstances. It was not as if he was a passive spectator as God manipulated the situation to accomplish his purposes. He actively trusted God and worked hard. At the same time, it was not as if Joseph had the ability in himself to make things work out as they did. God did that. The Torah gives no impression that people are mechanically controlled by spiritual forces. Human responsibility in the affairs of life is not an illusion, but a reality. But whatever effect our actions have, God's plans and purposes cannot be thwarted. That's why we can trust him no matter what happens to us. While we cannot understand how this works, it is comforting to know that God is in charge.

Monday, November 15, 2010

TorahBytes: Getting a Hold of God (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." (Bereshit / Genesis 32:24-26; ESV)

You cannot encounter the God of Israel without being transformed. This certainly was Jacob's experience, but not Jacob's only. The Torah and the rest of the Scriptures contain all sorts of examples of people whose lives were radically changed as a result of encountering God. What is interesting is how each person's story is unique, which is one of many aspects that testify to the genuineness of these experiences.

Another such aspect is how unusual and unexpected these encounters are. They don't sound made up. The account of God wrestling with Jacob is a case in point. Who would make up a story where the Master of the Universe initiates a wrestling match with a key character, Jacob, who was in terror of his twin brother's wrath? Not only that, Jacob locks on to God to the point that God requests to be let go (God requests to be let go?), and that is only after God permanently injures Jacob's hip. Jacob knows that this was an extraordinary encounter, for he says, "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered" (32:30; ESV).

One of the questions that arises from this story is who was really holding on to whom? On one hand God requests to be let go and Jacob says he won't until God blesses him. On the other hand how could it be that Jacob could hold on to God like that? Jacob himself is surprised that he survived this encounter at all, apart from how unusual it was that he held on to God as he did.

I like studying theology. I love to grapple with the truths of Scripture in order to get to know God better and how to live life the way he intended. Yet, as I study theology I sometimes find a disconnect between the way some people try to explain the truths that they supposedly derive from Scripture and the reality of God in the Bible itself. What is often missing is an overwhelming sense of wonder in the attempt to explain the infinite God of the Universe. How could we read stories like this one and presume that we can fit the teaching of Scripture into neat little categories or claim to discern how all its loose ends fit together into a fine-tuned system.

When I compare the result of the know-it-all attitudes of some teachers with what we actually find in the Scriptures, I am led to believe that what these people are putting forward is not just lacking in its details, but in the very essence of their teaching. In other words, they are completely misrepresenting both God and his written Word.

Teaching that is in keeping with the reality of God is one that reflects the examples of the genuine encounters with God that we find in the Bible. This is teaching that leads us to greater and greater humility before God and people. It is honest about human failure and sin, while demonstrating that God is our rescuer through the Messiah. It highlights our need to depend solely on God, putting him and his agenda first. This kind of teaching never leads us to thinking that we know it all or have God and life figured out (this is why I am hesitant to embrace an "ism" or becoming an "ist", if you know what I mean). In fact, the more we truly learn the Bible, we discover how much more there is to learn about God and life, not less. This is not to say that what we learn on the way is not valid. Far from it! Whatever we learn about God and his Word today is essential for what we will learn in the future. But we should never think that we can get a handle on God. Like Jacob, we need to learn that the more we get a hold of God, it is actually God who is getting a hold of us, or however it actually works.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

TorahBytes: A Biblical View of Life (Va-Yeze)

Jacob became angry with her and said, "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?" (Bereshit / Genesis 30:1, 2)

When Jacob's wife Rachel could not get pregnant, she demanded children from him as if he could somehow make it happen. Jacob's response included the assertion that God was the one who had prevented her from getting pregnant.

When we read statements like this from people in the Bible, we are encountering how they thought life worked. But just because a statement is recorded in the Bible doesn't mean that it is absolutely true. There are many examples of people, even godly people, who said things or did things that were wrong.

For example, King David, described as "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14) is someone, whom, for the most part, we should emulate. Yet he did not always do what was right. The story of his sin with Bathsheba is not included in the Bible in order to justify adultery, but rather as a warning that even godly people are susceptible to temptation, sin, and cover-up. Still. even in this case, the Bible is teaching us God's ways, doing so through a bad example instead of a good one.

Jacob himself is an example of this. I don't think we should justify his striving and trickery just because he was one of the patriarchs. I would understand someone being cautious about Jacob's theology. It would be a while after his statement to Rachel before Jacob would truly know God. We need to take care not to accept something as true and right unless the Bible clearly asserts it as so.

Whether or not Jacob is providing us with a biblical view of God's involvement with conception would have to be determined by what the rest of the Bible teaches on the matter. As it turns out, as the story continues, the biblical writer appears to share Jacob's understanding:

Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, "God has taken away my disgrace." (Bereshit / Genesis 30:22,23)

Here we have a clear assertion concerning God's involvement in Rachel's ability to conceive. This along with other references to God's closing of the womb (Bereshit / Genesis 20:18; 1 Samuel 1:5,6) concurs with Jacob's understanding of the matter.

God's involvement in this crucial and personal aspect of the human experience is so very contrary to the prevailing world view that such things are just a matter of natural process. This view is held even by those who claim to believe the Bible. Somehow many have concluded that conception is a result of human activity alone - a natural process that God put into motion to follow its own course.

Reading the story of Jacob and Rachel as well as other similar accounts of couples who had difficulty conceiving (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Elkanah and Hannah) challenges the view of natural process. But I imagine many would see these examples of God's intervention as special cases, while normally nature would just run its course.

But is this what the Scriptures really teach about God and conception? King Solomon asserted that children were a reward from God (see Tehilim / Psalm 127:3) - not some children, but children in general. Does this mean that each individual child is a gift directly from God or is it just a poetical way to speak about how God created life?

The Bible doesn't attempt to analyze its theological assertions through a scientific analytical lens. The Scriptures are far less interested in how things worked as much as how to please God and live life the way he intended. How conception works from a scientific point of view does not help us discover how to live life to its fullest. The Bible is clear (and correct!) in its assertion that God is the life giver and that we are the recipients and stewards of his gift of life. This is nowhere better expressed than through the miracle of having children.

Perhaps it is about time that those of us who claim to believe the Bible begin to see how much we have let a non-biblical view of the world influence us. In order to truly live the kind of life God designed us for, we need to allow ourselves to be re-acquainted with how God himself sees life.

Monday, November 01, 2010

TorahBytes: Long-Term Picture (Toledot)

Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!" (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, "Sell me your birthright now." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me now." So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Bereshit / Genesis 25:29-34; ESV).

I was struck the other day as I was reading from the book of Mishlei (English: Proverbs), of one of the many times it warns the reader to keep away from the lure of sexual sin. What caught my attention wasn't just the fact that it was saying that such activity is bad; it was that its consequences are not immediately felt:
and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed (Mishlei / Proverbs 5:11; ESV)
One of the reasons for the writing of Mishlei was to instruct us in wisdom, so that we could live life the way God intended. Throughout the Bible God instructs us in his ways, so that we can be the people he designed us to be. But many of us determine whether or not our actions are good or bad, right or wrong, by their immediate results rather than by taking a long-term view.

We live in a day like never before where we expect our actions to have immediate results. It is difficult to remember that being in a push-button culture is fairly new. It took about three times as long to dial a 7-digit phone number on a rotary dial phone than it does to enter a 10-digit number on a key pad today. When I was a teenager it was a thrill to write a letter to a friend and receive a reply in as little as a week. While today if my text message isn't responded to in seconds I freak out (I am exaggerating for effect, but you get the idea).

Whether or not our push-button society is making it harder for us to realize that we need to have a long-term view of our actions, our shortsightedness - that is our failure to realize that the consequence of our actions may not be fully realized for many years - is not a new problem. This week's Torah portion includes a vivid illustration of this.

Abraham's son and daughter-in-law, Isaac and Rebekah, had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau, as the first born, by rights had a special position in the family. The earthly benefits of this would not be realized until Isaac's death and the greater blessings of God's promises would not be realized at all in his own lifetime. Esau lacked a long-term view. The only thing he cared about was the here and now. He gave no consideration to the long-term benefits of retaining his birthright. All he knew was that he was very hungry now and all he could think about was his immediate need to satisfy his hunger.

Let's be fair to Esau. He was not in good shape when he came home that day. The word used for "exhausted" signifies being very weak. Whether or not his statement about going to die was real or imagined, we know how desperate and unreasonable we can be when we are overly depleted. However, this makes this lesson all the more important. Having a long-term view of the consequences or benefits of our actions is so crucial in the living of a godly life, even when we think we are about to die.

The only way to keep a long-term view of life is to fix our sights on the One who sees the end from the beginning. God in his wisdom has revealed his ways through the Scriptures. His wisdom often contradicts the popular courses of action we are often tempted to take. The lure to do the thing that brings the quickest satisfaction can be so strong. Yet, it is only when we are willing to resist the temptation to give in to our desires, but instead see the long-term picture that God paints for us in his written Word, that our lives will become part of that glorious picture.