Sunday, December 25, 2011

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.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Hanukkah from Lord of the Rings

Near the end of the film version of Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings - The Two Towers," Frodo's loyal companion, Sam, encourages Frodo in their quest:

Frodo: I can't do this, Sam.

Sam: I know. It's all wrong. By rights we shouldn't even be here. But we are. It's like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo; the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger, they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end... because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was, when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines, it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you, that meant something, even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn’t. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something.

Frodo: What are we holding on to, Sam?

Sam: That there’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.

The story of Hanukkah is the story of a shadow that passed over the nation of Israel in the mid-second century before Messiah's coming. The Jewish priest, Mattityahu, father of Judah Maccabee, reflects on this shadow with these words:

Alas! Why was I born to see this, the ruin of my people, the ruin of the holy city, and to dwell there when it was given over to the enemy, the sanctuary given over to aliens? (1 Maccabees 2:7).

Yet in spite of the ruin - the shadow - he and his family stood for what was right, true, and good. After much struggle, the purity of the nation was restored and peace once again reigned in the land. The shadow had passed, but not on its own accord. The light of godliness had pushed back the armies of darkness and prevailed.

There is a shadow that grows over the world today. Too few perceive its presence or its power. Like in the days of the Maccabees, great numbers are being overtaken by it. Yet, in the end, it won't prevail; but who will stand against it?

The lighting of the Hanukkah lights not only reminds us of the exploits of brave people of God in times past, but calls us to be lights in our own day - lights that will prevail over this passing shadow.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Torahbytes: Dream Stories (Mi-Kez & Hanukkah)

For God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction. (Bereshit / Genesis 41:52; ESV)

A common theme in contemporary stories is "follow your dreams." The story of Joseph is a dream story, but it would be very difficult to come up with a dream story as different from the contemporary kind as this. Joseph was the favored son of his father. It was this along with his being favored by God by giving him dreams about his eventual exaltation, that embittered his brothers to him. Wanting to kill him, they ended up selling him into slavery. But God was with him and he was held in high esteem by his master. His master's wife also held him in high esteem, but in a different sort of way. Joseph's godly resistance to her advances led him to an indefinite stay in a dungeon. Things looked promising when he correctly interpreted the dreams of two of Pharaoh's ex-staff, who were prisoners along with him. Yet it would be two more years before the prisoner who was freed - just as Joseph said - mentioned him to Pharaoh, who himself had dreams he wanted interpreted. This resulted in more than Joseph's freedom; Pharaoh promoted him to second in command of all Egypt. Throughout this whole ordeal, Joseph never lashed out at others or strove to get his own way. He was faithful to God and in his service to others in whatever situation he found himself.

This is not a typical contemporary dream story, which usually sees the main character yearning for some wonderful goal and fighting great odds, overcoming overwhelming obstacles to achieve his dream. Sometimes the person isn't in touch with his dream until something sparks it alive. At some point, great discouragement overtakes him until he experiences a great turn around and rises to the occasion. Whatever he does, he certainly doesn’t bide his time and simply live life, waiting for God to come through as Joseph did.

In fact in most "follow your dreams" stories there aren't any real dreams at all. A dream in these stories is a figurative way to refer to desire. It's interesting how Bible believers tend to use "dream" in this same way just as non-believers do. Why can't we just call desires, desires and dreams, dreams? Joseph knew the difference; shouldn't we?

Another major difference between contemporary dream stories and Joseph's dream story is that the main character in Joseph's story isn't Joseph; it's God. While Joseph certainly wasn't altogether passive in his story, unlike contemporary stories, he is not trying to bring about the result. He simply lives life. God brings about the result; for after all, it was God who gave the dream. Joseph couldn't have guessed what his dreams meant. He may have had the impression just like his brothers and father did, that they implied his eventual exaltation over the other members of his family. But how? There was no way that he expected that he would be second in command of all Egypt. Even if he did, there was nothing he could do about it.

But if this was a contemporary story, he would have developed a plan, probably made friends with a fellow prisoner - an expert schemer, who would partner with him to achieve Joseph's dream of greatness. The actor who plays the friend in the Hollywood version might win an Academy Award in his role as the sacrificial friend who gives up his own dream so that Joseph may realize his.

But that's not how Joseph's dream story unfolds. Joseph's dream is realized through the involvement of God, who gave him his dreams in the first place. Every plot twist in Joseph's story came about as a result of God's intervention, not Joseph's ingenuity. He who gave the dream was the one who ensured it came to pass.

I wonder how much contemporary dream stories affect how we think we are to live life today. If we would focus more on being faithful to what God gives us to do and less on striving to achieve our desires, perhaps we might be in a place where God would entrust us with real dreams for a change.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Torahbytes: The Blessing Battle (Va-Yeshev)

Thus says the LORD: "For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment" (Amos 2:6; ESV)

In 2009, American columnist Andrew C. McCarthy eloquently wrote:

Civilization is not an evolution of mankind but the imposition of human good on human evil. It is not a historical inevitability. It is a battle that has to be fought every day, because evil doesn’t recede willingly before the wheels of progress (

About two thousand years ago a small team of Jewish men were given a mandate to bring the truth and reality of the God of Israel to the nations of the world. Israel's isolation and religious separation had come to an end; the Scripture was fulfilled, which said, "For out of Zion shall go the law, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem" (Isaiah 2:3; ESV). From that day little by little the message of the reign of God has infiltrated the cultures of the earth. Today there is hardly a place that has not been blessed in some way by the Good News of Messiah's coming.

The development of western civilization in particular is not a result of generic "progress" as if education and technology alone have made such a positive difference. The goodness and prosperity we have enjoyed has been due to the blessing of God in response to submitting to his ways.

This is not to say that whole nations and/or cultures have ever been thoroughly biblically based or that there has ever been a time when countries have been completely godly. But as societies' leaders and significant numbers of people have allowed themselves to be governed by the Bible's rules and principles, the blessing of God has been poured out upon them.

Sadly, the blessing of God has been taken for granted. Instead of acknowledging his involvement in our affairs, we have taken the credit for our well-being. We believe that health and prosperity has been due to "progress," as if the goodness we have enjoyed is the fruit of human ingenuity.

It is not just God-deniers who take God's blessings for granted. Those of us who reside in those countries that have been the most impacted by biblical principles often fail to see how much good we have inherited because of the sacrifice of godly individuals and institutions. We are too quick to focus on the imperfections and wrongs of a few. Instead of learning from the errors of the past, making whatever adjustments are necessary, and moving on, we want to completely disqualify whole communities who sought as best they could to do the will of God. It is too bad that people have not always handled their misdeeds in the way God directs, which would have in turn reduced their effects. Still, innumerable followers of Messiah gave themselves to the following of God's ways, resulting in a quality of life unknown for most of human history - a quality that is in danger of being lost.

Few are still willing to fight the battle for civilization. It's not a fight of sword and spear, tanks and bombs, but of words and faith, humility and good deeds. This is not the time to give up on the battle for the minds and hearts of our fellow human beings. To do so is to be taken in by the purposes of evil. Allowing ourselves to become lax with regard to God's ways, failing to dealt with sin in our midst, and refusing to confront evil in the society at large will continue to drive away God's blessing from our communities. It doesn't have to be this way. As McCarthy writes, "evil doesn’t recede willingly," but evil will recede, if we are willing to serve God and follow in his ways.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Torahbytes: Foreign Gods in our Midst (Va-Yishlah)

God said to Jacob, "Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau." 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. Then let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God who answers me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone." So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears. Jacob hid them under the terebinth tree that was near Shechem. (Bereshit / Genesis 35:1-4; ESV)

As Jacob was settling back in the land of his birth, he instructed his household to get rid of their foreign gods. It isn't clear how Jacob knew his household had such things in their midst. Earlier in the story, soon after Jacob and his household left Mesopotamia, where he lived for over 20 years, his father-in-law, Laban, accused him of stealing his gods. It turned out that Jacob's wife, Rachel, Laban's daughter, had taken them without Jacob knowing. And even though Laban searched her tent, she kept them hidden (see Bereshit / Genesis 31:25-35). Whether or not Jacob eventually found out about them, Jacob assumed that they had foreign gods among them and ordered his household to remove them, which they did.

It would not be the last time that the people of Israel would need to remove foreign gods from their midst. Throughout their history, Israel had the tendency to integrate foreign gods within their society. Repeatedly this would drag the nation down until they were completely overwhelmed by foreign nations. Each time, the people of whom God was to be Lord, Master, Husband, and Father, would find themselves in servitude to other nations. First, they would begin by worshipping the gods of these nations; then they would be ruled by them.

Jacob's directive to put their foreign gods away was a preventative measure that kept his household from falling into an oppressive trap. Why he didn't do this earlier, we don't know. But better late than never.

This story illustrates for us the fact that we all tend to have foreign gods in our midst. Regardless of how they got there, they're there. From time to time it's a really good idea to take stock of what we are carrying around in our lives and get rid of those things that are not of God. Whether they are of a more religious nature, like literal idols and other material things that have become objects of worship, or non-material things like unbiblical teachings and psychological gimmicks, I cannot overestimate the destructive nature of these foreign influences.

I don't know what Rachel's motivation was in taking her father's idols with her. It might be that she wanted a little piece of home to keep her connected with the past. Travelling into the unknown as she was, it is difficult to fault her for perhaps wanting to retain some sense of continuity with the familiar she was leaving behind.

Sentimental attachment to things and ideas is one of the most powerful forces that prevent us from getting rid of our foreign gods. We often hold on to such ungodly things because of the sense of identity or security they provide - or should I say, "false identity" and "false security." In the end these things that seemingly helped us and comforted us will control us one way or another.

It can feel scary to throw away our foreign gods. We may feel that we might destroy a part of ourselves if we do; but that's a big lie! They may even fool us into thinking that the difficulties we are having in life and in our relationship with God are not their fault, but rather due to our lack of loyalty to them. The truth is that the sooner we get rid of our foreign gods, the sooner we will experience God's reality and freedom in our lives.