Sermon: The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus

NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of July 26, 2014, at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. You may also listen to it, if you wish.

Shabbat Shalom.

The last couple weeks, we’ve been looking at the parables of Yeshua, and today is going to be no exception. Two weeks ago, we explored the parable of the unjust ruler; last week, we took a closer look at the parable of the weeds; and today, I’d like to take some time looking at another parable. As I prayed about which of Yeshua’s many parables to delve into today, I kept coming back to one in particular: the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus.

Now, many great teachers have spent time on this one; next to the Parable of the Lost—or some would say Prodigal—Son, it is one of Yeshua’s most often-quoted parables because of what it teaches about social justice.

So, is there anything we can gain from looking at this parable more closely, that we haven’t heard before? Let’s find out.

First, let’s establish a common frame of reference for our discussion; let’s first read this parable in its entirety, which we find in:

Luke 16:19-31
“Once there was a rich man who used to dress in the most expensive clothing and spent his days in magnificent luxury. At his gate had been laid a beggar named El‘azar who was covered with sores. He would have been glad to eat the scraps that fell from the rich man’s table; but instead, even the dogs would come and lick his sores. In time the beggar died and was carried away by the angels to Avraham’s side; the rich man also died and was buried.

“In Sh’ol, where he was in torment, the rich man looked up and saw Avraham far away with El‘azar at his side. He called out, ‘Father Avraham, take pity on me, and send El‘azar just to dip the tip of his finger in water to cool my tongue, because I’m in agony in this fire!’ However, Avraham said, ‘Son, remember that when you were alive, you got the good things while he got the bad; but now he gets his consolation here, while you are the one in agony. Yet that isn’t all: between you and us a deep rift has been established, so that those who would like to pass from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

“He answered, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.’ But Avraham said, ‘They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.’ However, he said, ‘No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ But he replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!’”

One of the reasons this parable is one of Yeshua’s most-quoted is because it seems clearer and easier to understand than, say, the Parable of the Unjust Ruler. And indeed, there is much to be gained from simply reading the pashat, the plain meaning, of the text.

It can remind us of the theme Yeshua taught on with the Parable of the Talents, that our riches in this world are not to be used exclusively for our own comfort, but to reach out to those in need so that the kingdom of the L-RD can spread. It reiterates the theme that all that we have comes from the L-RD, and it is not our own to do with as we please, but we are to use what we have been given to help those who have little—or nothing at all.

The parable has such a universal message, we can even find parallel teachings in the works of the ancient rabbis. For example, we read this in:

Babab Bathra 10A
R. Yosef b. R. Yehoshua said, He was sick and had an out-of-body experience (where the soul briefly leaves the body and then returns.) His father asked him, “What did you see [in your out-of-body state]? He replied, “I saw a topsy-turvy world; those who are on top in this world [respected for their wealth and power] are at the bottom [in the World to Come]; and those who are on the bottom in this world [the poor and downtrodden], are on top.” His father told him, “[You did not see an upside-down world] but an unconfused, sensible world.”

This concept of the kingdom of heaven, the World to Come, as a place where everything seems upside down according to how things are in this life is a theme Yeshua used often. And I don’t believe Yeshua is just using this theme to make a point in a dramatic, attention-grabbing way. I believe He is speaking to us about a kingdom reality.

This can be an unsettling message, and it ought to be. There are many ways in which we can indulge ourselves and our own needs in this life while ignoring the needs of those around us. If we think that simply because we attend a congregation that seems to properly teach the Word of God, that we celebrate the L-RD’s feasts and festivals properly, and that we agree with all the right theology, that this will excuse us from ignoring those in need, well—maybe you’ll want to read through this parable again on your own when you go home today.

You see, all of us in one way or another are tempted to view Yeshua in the way that makes us feel the most comfortable, the most at ease with ourselves as we already are, without being challenged to change or improve our lives. While nearly all believers will say they want to know the L-RD, the truth is that it’s a lot easier to know Him when he seems to largely agree with us.

However, this can lead to many false images of who Yeshua actually is, and ultimately of who God is. And that’s idolatry.

Yet the Yeshua of the New Covenant writings, the Yeshua of history, is not such a convenient figure. He’s not just a Pound Puppy doll we can hug when we’re feeling sad and blue! He’s not American, he’s not a Republican or a Democrat, and he’s not someone who just tells you what you want to hear. Nowhere is this more clear than in this Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus.

Yet how we view Yeshua often depends on who we are. If we are Baptists, he seems like a Baptist; if we’re Lutheran, he seems Lutheran. The same goes for any movement you can think of, from Assembly of God to Catholic to Presbyterians to Evangelicals to even those of us in Messianic Judaism.

And it extends to others religions, whether monotheistic or not. To those in Islam, he is Muslim, for example. Whatever you are, that is how you prefer to view God. Yet is this compatible with how God presents Himself to us?

Some teachers spend much time trying to wipe away the confrontative truth Yeshua states so plainly that what Yeshua is actually saying in rather plain, simple language gets lost entirely. Ask yourself, how often have you hear some teacher say something like this: “Well, what Yeshua REALLY means here is…”

Now, there are times when Yeshua’s words do need further explanation. There are statements that have been poorly translated and require a deeper understanding of first-century times and culture, first-century Judaism, of the familiar sayings and idioms of that time and place.

The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus is not one of those instances, however. It’s message is clear. If you use all that God has given you only on yourself, you have received your reward in full; if you go through life not caring about the unmet needs of those around you, you may be unpleasantly surprised about how you will spend eternity in the World to Come.

So, why does Yeshua teach this? Why does He seem to value social justice over other forms of religious devotion, such as a deep and devout belief? We get a clue from:

Matthew 9:12-13
But Yeshua heard the question and answered, “The ones who need a doctor aren’t the healthy but the sick. As for you, go and learn what this means: ‘I want compassion rather than animal-sacrifices.’ For I didn’t come to call the ‘righteous,’ but sinners!”

“I want compassion, not animal sacrifices.”

So what does that mean? Well, as I’ve been teaching each week, looking at the words used in this passage for mercy and sacrifice, Yeshua is saying he desires compassion on the poor and needy with an intent to help them out of their troubles, far more than he desires self-denial, sacrifices, or all our other outward expressions of religious devotion.

Let’s look at this another way.

We all know that it’s a good thing to fast, right? The discipline of denying ourselves so that we can dedicate ourselves to prayer is something many teach. Yet how often, when you fast, do you gather up the food you would have been eating for that meal, or that day, and donate it to a family that has no groceries, or bring it to a food shelf, so that the food you would have eaten is passed on to others in need of a meal?

You see, self-denial—sacrifice—can be a good thing. Fasting can be a good thing. But if we’re just storing up our goods and eating them later on, rather than passing them on to those who have no food at all, well … what do you think God is more concerned about? The fact that you go hungry by choice a few nights a year? Or that there are families who go hungry all the time and have no choice about it at all? Even if you were denying yourself, if you did nothing to improve the lives of those in need around you, how much have you done?

See, you don’t have to be Bill Gates to feel convicted by this parable. You don’t need to be super-rich. All you have to be is selfish, concerned only about your own needs, and never thinking of the needs of those around you.

If that describes your behavior and your attitudes, then it doesn’t matter if you make $25,000 a year or $250,000 a year or $2.5 million a year: this parable is a warning to each of us.

Some people will, no doubt, feel unsettled by this. They might argue that helping the needy is purely the government’s job; that’s why they pay taxes. Others might argue that helping the needy with a handout creates a cycle of dependency on government, and teaching self-reliance through offering real jobs is a greater form of charity—though in a nation with double-digit unemployment rates, such an argument rings a bit hollow these days. So the question remains: why not do both, to the extent you can?

Remember, Yeshua is not a Republican or a Democrat. How you help the needy is not as important as making sure you do help them in some way, making sure they don’t sit for a lifetime outside your gates, wishing for the scraps that fall from your table because you never once invited them in to share a meal, nor do you offer them a way out of their poverty by helping them gain employment.

Now, this is the pashat—the clear, direct, literal meaning of the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus. And if this is all that this parable had ever been used to teach, we could simply read it every now and again as a reminder to help our fellow man and that would be that.

However, there are some teachings out there, ways to interpret this parable, which are false and misleading. I’d like to address one of those issues as well today.

One of the most disturbing ways of misinterpreting this parable is drawn from the last few verses, so let’s refresh our memory of what they actually say. We read this in:

Luke 16:27-31
He answered, ‘Then, father, I beg you to send him to my father’s house, where I have five brothers, to warn them; so that they may be spared having to come to this place of torment too.’ But Avraham said, ‘They have Moshe and the Prophets; they should listen to them.’ However, he said, ‘No, father Avraham, they need more. If someone from the dead goes to them, they’ll repent!’ But he replied, ‘If they won’t listen to Moshe and the Prophets, they won’t be convinced even if someone rises from the dead!’”

This passage is where misunderstanding arises. Some teachers assert that in this passage, Yeshua is predicting the faithlessness of the Jewish people in the wake of His death and resurrection; that the hidden message of this parable is that Yeshua knew the Jewish people would reject him as Messiah, and that this parable is some sort of indication of that.

My first Messianic Rabbi taught me a special word that describes this sort of teaching, and I’d like you all to learn it right now. Repeat after me, one syllable at a time: BA-LO-NEY!

Baloney. Exactly. Nothing could be further from the truth, and no teaching could be more out of step with the first-century reality of Yeshua, his ministry, and the ministry of His disciples, His talmidim.

First of all, let’s address the context: in this parable, Yeshua is clearly teaching about the differences in the rewards for the selfish rich and the needy poor. Why, then, would he suddenly, without skipping a beat, begin talking about the Jews and the Gentiles? The answer’s simple: He wouldn’t.

The argument goes that the rich man represents the Jews, who are rich in their closeness to God from the time of the patriarchs and the Torah until the arrival of Yeshua, and that Lazerus represents the Gentiles, who have been poor in their relationship with the L-RD until they are brought to Abraham’s bosom, basically being grafted in as a substitute for the Jewish people.

Let me say it again, and clearly: this interpretation of this parable is pure replacement theology. It is false and misleading and has no basis in the actual teachings and intent of Yeshua.

You see, those who teach from this perspective tend to forget that from the time of Yeshua until the ministry of Paul, in the first century, the movement of those who followed Yeshua as Messiah was a movement almost completely made up of Jewish believers. In fact, there were no Gentiles in it until Peter met the Ethiopian eunuch, as recorded in the book of Acts.

Furthermore, many of the initial so-called Gentile converts were not complete heathens but, rather, Hellenized Jews who had spread throughout the world in the diaspora, following Israel’s capture by Babylon and the destruction of the first temple.

Yes, there were also Gentile converts who were neither Jews nor Hellenized Jews; but the point is that, at least throughout the first century, the vast majority of Yeshua followers were Messianic Jews, not Gentile converts. Even as Gentiles began to be welcomed into the movement, they were in the minority overall.

Interpreting this parable from a replacement theology standpoint is also not consistent with how Yeshua outlines His own vision of his mission while on this earth in other parts of the Gospel accounts. Take, for example:

Matthew 15:22-28
A woman from Kena‘an who was living there came to him, pleading, “Sir, have pity on me. Son of David! My daughter is cruelly held under the power of demons!” But Yeshua did not say a word to her. Then his talmidim came to him and urged him, “Send her away, because she is following us and keeps pestering us with her crying.” He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Isra’el.” But she came, fell at his feet and said, “Sir, help me!” He answered, “It is not right to take the children’s food and toss it to their pet dogs.” She said, “That is true, sir, but even the dogs eat the leftovers that fall from their master’s table.” Then Yeshua answered her, “Lady, you are a person of great trust. Let your desire be granted.” And her daughter was healed at that very moment.

Now, if you want a teaching that indicates Yeshua will extend the tents of Jacob to include a mixed multitude of faithful Gentiles, this passage is a far better one to look at. But notice what Yeshua says here about His ministry. He is here for the lost sheep of Israel, and it’s not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs. These statements indicate his role is that of a Jewish messiah first and foremost.

Yes, he ultimately does heal the Canannite woman’s child, but only after clarifying his messianic role, and due to her great faith. There is no Gentile replacement of the Jewish people present in this teaching. God is merely doing as He has always done, allowing a mixed multitude of those who are faithful to the L-RD to attach themselves to Israel and be included in His promises. Yet, importantly, this does not indicate a Gentile replacement of the Jews in the promises of God, merely an inclusion. A both/and, not an either/or.

There are many examples of such inclusion, from Ruth to Tamar to Rahab to Ephraim and Manassah and many more. Also, the mixed multitude who joined the Israelites in the exodus from Egypt. There are many such cases. That is all that is indicated in our passage from Matthew; Yeshua shows mercy to a woman showing great faith, but does He dump his twelve Jewish talmidim and put this Canaanite woman in their place? Of course not.

If anything, this episode with the Canaanite woman merely supports the idea that because of the Canaanite woman’s persistence in trusting Yeshua to heal her daughter, He granted her request!

The nature of the L-RD is to show mercy to all who trust in Him from their hearts; yet His promises remain His promises, no matter what.

So, to return our focus to the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazerus, the question now becomes, “Okay, so if these last few verses of the parable don’t indicate Gentile replacement of Israel, what are they about?”

Frankly, I believe what these last few verses indicate is the opposite of the replacement theology assumption. They are an indication by Yeshua that the written Torah, the prophets, and the writings are all sufficient to bring people the message of God’s salvation.

After all, that is what Avraham says in this parable, right? “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.”

And when the rich man suggests that having Lazerus return from the dead would lead them to repentance, Abraham corrects that assumption. “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.”

And history has borne this out, hasn’t it? You see, this is not a teaching about Jew and Gentile at all, but about those who are willing to trust HaShem and obey Him, and those who are not. You’ll find people like that among both Jews and Gentiles.

Those who listen to and obey the L-RD will recognize the Messiah; as Yeshua has taught in John 10:27, “My sheep listen to my voice, I recognize them, they follow me.”

But those who are unwilling to study Torah or the prophets, those who are unwilling to trust HaShem and obey His instructions—did Yeshua’s death and resurrection change everything for everyone? Are we all, throughout the Earth, believing in the L-RD, hearing from God directly, and doing only what He commands us, never substituting His will for our own?

Unfortunately, no.

You see, the deeper meaning of these last verses are not a teaching about the Jewish people or the Gentiles, the nations; it is a teaching about our fallen nature. Those of us who recognize our sin and agree with God about it seek Him out, and look to the L-RD for our strength and salvation.

What Yeshua is hinting at here is that His death and resurrection won’t, by itself, change all of humanity’s worst instincts.

Those who are willing to trust HaShem didn’t need it as proof; God’s salvation is found in Moses and the prophets, because all they teach point toward Messiah Yeshua.

But for those who didn’t believe in the first place, even Yeshua’s death and resurrection did not change their hardened hearts.

Is this idea that Yeshua puts forward through this parable, that even Moses and the prophets alone are enough to bring people to the L-RD, true? Yes. Even Paul agrees with that, as we read in:

II Timothy 3:16-17
All Scripture is God-breathed and is valuable for teaching the truth, convicting of sin, correcting faults and training in right living; thus anyone who belongs to God may be fully equipped for every good work.

We must keep in mind here that when Paul uses the term Scripture, he is referring to the same documents as Yeshua referred to when he said, “Moses and the prophets.” Remember, the New Covenant writings, the haB’rit haChadesha, hadn’t even been gathered together yet at the time Paul wrote these words. The Tenakh is the only thing Paul, as a first century Messianic Jew, could be referring to here.

The concept of HaShem being our salvation is not solely a New Covenant concept. The L-RD is praised for being our salvation throughout the Tenakh, all of which points us toward the promise of that salvation, the Messiah who came first to suffer and die in our place in the way of Joseph, but who one day soon will be returning in the way of David, as a conquering ruler.

Let’s not be like the rich man or his brothers, failing to worship the L-RD despite having Moses and the prophets and—even more—having Yeshua, who has risen from the dead!

Instead, let’s allow the L-RD to enter our lives, take His place as the one who is in control of our lives, and be our God.

Let’s allow Him to rule us so completely that we do not turn a blind eye to those around us who are in need, but give to others out of our own plenty and blessing, so that their needs our met in real, tangible ways.

So, let us join in the first mention of the word salvation—the Hebrew word yeshua—which points us toward our Messiah, as found in the victory song of Moses after HaShem had the Red Sea swallow up the army of Pharaoh. His entire word has one unified and unique message: salvation through our Jewish Messiah, the Messiah Yeshua.

Let us praise the L-RD together in:

Exodus 15:1-2
Then Moshe and the people of Isra’el sang this song to Adonai: “I will sing to Adonai, for he is highly exalted: the horse and its rider he threw in the sea. Yah is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation (my yeshua). This is my God: I will glorify him; my father’s God: I will exalt him.

We all know the chorus based on these verses. Let’s quickly sing them together.

I will sing unto the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously, the horse and rider thrown into the sea!
The L-RD, my God, my strength, my song, has now become my victory!
The L-RD is God and I will praise Him, the L-RD is God and I will exalt Him!

Shabbat Shalom.

Sermon: The Parable of the Weeds

NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of July 19, 2014, at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. You may also listen to it, if you wish.

Shabbat Shalom.

When Rabbi Erez invited me to speak last week, I taught out of the weekly Torah reading and tied that in to a parabale of Yeshua, the Parable of the Unjust Ruler. In that teaching, I made mention of another of Yeshua’s parables, the parable of the week, so when I was asked to teach again this week, I felt it would be wise to give the parable of the weeds a fuller treatment than I did last week.

Whenever one spends time on the parables of Yeshua, some natural questions arise. One of the first questions that comes up is, what is a parable exactly?

Well, we get this definition from:

JewishEncyclopedia.com
A short religious allegory. The Old Testament contains only five parables. A large number of parables are found in post-Biblical literature, in Talmud and Midrash. The Talmudic writers believed in the pedagogic importance of the parable, and regarded it as a valuable means of determining the true sense of the Law and of attaining a correct understanding thereof.

Now, that’s interesting, but I think it’s important to point out that parables are not relating literal, specific events. For example, with the Parable of the Unjust Ruler, there was probably not a specific ruler or widow those events happened to.

You see, a parable is a teaching tool; it’s a story invented by the teacher to illustrate a lesson. It’s a way of taking an abstract concept and making it relatable to the listeners and their lives. They take something that’s hard to understand, and relate it to something nearly everyone can understand.

This defines nearly all of Yeshua’s parables, the bulk of which teach us something about the Kingdom of Heaven. Since none of us in this life have witnessed the Kingdom of Heaven personally, Yeshua’s parables help us understand what that unknown experience will be like by teaching us about it through situations most of us can understand and relate to. It was even prophesied that Messiah Yeshua would teach by the use of parables, as we read in:

Psalm 78:1-2
Listen, my people, to my teaching; turn your ears to the words from my mouth. I will speak to you in parables and explain mysteries from days of old.

And Messiah Yeshua was not the first to use parables as a teaching tool; He spoke through the prophets in parables as well, as we find in:

Ezekiel 17:1-3A
The word of Adonai came to me: “Human being, propound this riddle, tell the house of Isra’el this allegory, say that Adonai Elohim says this:

Now, one of HaShem’s most challenging commands to us is the command to forgive others, and several of His parables focus on how that forgiveness might look as a theme. The parable of the weeds is no exception to that theme. We know that Yeshua regards forgiveness not as merely a good idea, not as a suggestion or an option, but as an expectation, a command. In fact, Yeshua taught in his Gethsemene Prayer that the forgiveness we receive from the L-RD will be in direct proportion to the forgiveness we extend to others.

The hardest part of this teaching is how we might be able to extend such forgiveness to those who don’t merely offend us by their rude behavior, but who are responsible for violent acts and crimes, who take the life or health of a loved one, who by violence rob others of their peace of mind.

Given the recent events in Yisra’el in recent weeks, especially with the current ground offensive that began, gaining a greater understanding of how to practice forgiveness as it relates to the unrepentant is an especially timely topic.

I mean, it’s one thing to forgive the person who rear-ended your car during rush hour. That’s somewhat easy. It’s another thing to forgive the sexual predator who victimized one of your children, to forgive the rapist or the murderer. Or the terrorists who repeatedly hurl bombs in your direction, even as the world is telling you to ignore it.

These are all serious issues. And what they bring to light is the problem presented by the presence of evil in the world. This question of why evil exists has been asked for almost as long as people have sought to know God.

Rabbi Harold Kushner made a name for himself with his book, Why Bad Things Happen to Good People. Christian teachers like Pastor Greg Boyd wrestle with this question in his book, God At War: Satan And the Problem of Evil.

And really, no matter where you look, whenever anything terrible and tragic takes place, from the Holocaust to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the question that eventually comes to the lips of most people—whether they are believers or not—is, “How can God allow such a thing? How can a creation God declared ‘very good’ contain the possibility for such tremendous acts of evil?”

Now, one could spend a lot of time rationalizing these questions away without ever addressing them seriously, but that’s not why we’re here today. Rather than try to reason it out for ourselves, let’s go to the One who has real answers.

Yeshua has a parable that explains why there is evil in the world, so let’s establish a common frame of reference for our discussion. Let’s take a look at the parable of the weeds in:

Matthew 13:24-30
Yeshua put before them another parable. “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field; but while people were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, then went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads of grain, the weeds also appeared. The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The servants asked him, ‘Then do you want us to go and pull them up?’ But he said, ‘No, because if you pull up the weeds, you might uproot some of the wheat at the same time. Let them both grow together until the harvest; and at harvest-time I will tell the reapers to collect the weeds first and tie them in bundles to be burned, but to gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Now, at first, this appears to be a little abstract from our main question about the existence of evil. Yet it explains a lot of our questions when properly understood. Fortunately, this is one of the parables Yeshua Himself explained directly to His disciples and for our benefit, so let’s read on in:

Matthew 13:36-43
Then he left the crowds and went into the house. His talmidim approached him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.” He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world. As for the good seed, these are the people who belong to the Kingdom; and the weeds are the people who belong to the Evil One. The enemy who sows them is the Adversary, the harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up in the fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth his angels, and they will collect out of his Kingdom all the things that cause people to sin and all the people who are far from Torah; and they will throw them into the fiery furnace, where people will wail and grind their teeth. Then the righteous will shine forth like the sun in the Kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let him hear!

Now, Yeshua offers up these explanations rapidly, but let’s slow down and apply them to the question of the existence of evil.

First and foremost, what this parable reveals is that we are mistaken when we attribute works of evil in the world to God. As John, Yeshua’s apostle, writes, “God is light; in Him there is no darkness at all,” and Yeshua underlines this point in the master’s response to his servants’ question about the appearance of weeds. “This is the work of an enemy,” he says.

In a direct allusion to the Garden of Eden and the creation story, Yeshua says that the master in this tale sowed good seed. God’s intent in creating this world was to be in fellowship with us; it was the work of the Adversary, not the L-RD, that brought evil into existence. And this understanding is consistent with the rest of the Torah, the prophets and the writings, as well as the New Covenant writings. As we read in:

II Samuel 22:29
“For you, Adonai, are my lamp; Adonai lights up my darkness.

So the L-RD is the source of all light, and he transformed darkness into light. He is the source, therefore, of truth in the middle of deception. We also read this in:

Isaiah 5:18-20
Woe to those who begin by pulling at transgression with a thread, but end by dragging sin along as if with a cart rope. They say, “We want God to speed up his work, to hurry it along, so we can see it! We want the Holy One of Isra’el’s plan to come true right now, so we can be sure of it!” Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who change darkness into light and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter!

This theme of darkness being the work of the enemy is carried over into the prophets, but is this the classic excuse? Is this simply a reason to say, “the devil made me do it,” whenever we mess up, backslide, or strike out in anger? Not at all.

The enemy may be the source of evil in the world, but do we bear responsibility for cooperating with it? We read this in:

Ephesians 5:8-10
For you used to be darkness; but now, united with the Lord, you are light. Live like children of light, for the fruit of the light is in every kind of goodness, rightness, and truth—try to determine what will please the Lord.

Did you catch that? We weren’t just in the darkness before knowing the L-RD … we were darkness. It wasn’t just in us, it was our nature, our substance.

Only through the work of Yeshua are we now changed; we are no longer darkness, but light. This idea is further supported by Yeshua’s own words; when confronted by men seeking to do evil to him in:

John 8:42-45
Yeshua replied to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me; because I came out from God; and now I have arrived here. I did not come on my own; he sent me. Why don’t you understand what I’m saying? Because you can’t bear to listen to my message. You belong to your father, Satan, and you want to carry out your father’s desires. From the start he was a murderer, and he has never stood by the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he tells a lie, he is speaking in character; because he is a liar—indeed, the inventor of the lie! But as for me, because I tell the truth, you don’t believe me.

In this passage, as in the parable of the weeds, Yeshua makes it clear that we either belong to the Kingdom of the L-RD, or we belong to the Adversary. When we choose to follow Messiah Yeshua and obey His Torah, we become light, we become wheat, we become children of His Kingdom. But does that mean all around us change with us? No.

As Yeshua describes in the parable of the weeds, we exist in the world alongside the children of the Adversary, even though we are children of the L-RD. So why does the L-RD allow evil to continue? Why doesn’t he just expunge it from existence, not allow it to continue to grow and to do further damage?

Well, he tried that approach once, didn’t he? That’s what the flood of Noah was all about! There was absolutely no one left in the world who was following the L-RD, except for Noah; so God vowed to destroy all flesh and start from scratch.

How well did that work? Did it put an end to evil, to sin, so that Messiah never had to appear? No, it didn’t, did it?

And in later episodes with Moses, God expresses a desire to wipe out the sinful, to destroy all flesh and start fresh, and only the prayers of Moses, seeking to protect God’s name among the surrounding nations, causes the L-RD to reconsider.

The problem of evil in the world is more complex than any weed-pulling can solve. Evil feeds not only itself, but it feeds off of each of us through sin. We’re entangled with it. Just as we studied recently in the Balak-Baalam incident, when Yisra’el was alone in the desert, relying on HaShem, no perversity could be found in her and no curse could be spoken against her. So Baalam’s solution was to entangle the men of Yisra’el by tempting them with the women of Mo’av, in hopes of creating perversity among them.

And as we all know, there was limited success to that strategy as over twenty-four thousand died as a result of the Ba’al-Peor incident.

You see, simply by living in the world, we can become entagled with sin ourselves. That’s why the master, in the parable of the weeds, tells his servants not to pull out the weeds. He tells them, ‘No, because if you pull up the weeds, you might uproot some of the wheat at the same time. Let them both grow together until the harvest.”

This is why there’s no bolt of lightning to strike us down immediately when we sin. HaShem doesn’t work like that. If he did, all flesh would perish. We’d all be uprooted. In this life, we’re too intertwined with evil for God to purge it effectively; that which is good would be uprooted as well.

So, what does this all mean?

Well, nothing in the Bible exists on its own, does it? We cannot just select one verse, or one passage, and expect to understand it completely. We need context. And every question we have about this verse or that passage of the Bible is best answered not through human reasoning or finding a book by a learned rabbi or pastor, but by seeking out the meaning of the verse or passage in context to the verses around it.

Forgiveness is not a light topic. Yet neither are those violent acts which wound us so deeply that forgiveness seems impossible on the level of our flesh. So how do we bring these disperate ideas into alignment? How do we forgive the unforgivable? How do we maintain both forgiveness and personal safety at the same time?

Often, we do not properly understand the context of what Yeshua said. As a result of missing the context, we misunderstand and misinterpret his meaning.

Let’s use an illustration. Let us imagine a scenario where a man and a woman have decided to divorce, because the wife feels the husband is a direct physical threat, either to her, her children, or both.

Misunderstanding Yeshua’s context, what we often hear taught on divorce comes from:

Matthew 5:31-32
“It was said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a get.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and that anyone who marries a divorcee commits adultery.

Well, that seems pretty cut and dried, doesn’t it? Yeshua explains elsewhere that Moses allowed for divorce in the Torah because our hearts were hard, but that it was not his perfect will for us to divorce, once we are married. Here, he teaches that the only exception is marital infidelity.

As a result of sticking to the letter of the gospel account, rather than exploring the context, teachers and pastors for centuries have consoled women to stay in abusive marriages because their husband had not cheated on them, even though they’d beaten them, hospitalized them, or worse.

This technical, one-excuse-for-divorce argument has caused some abused spouses to seek out infidelity, just to have an excuse their church will recognize, in order to divorce an abusive spouse. And it has cost many other abused spouses their lives, or the health, lives and safety of their children, because they stayed in out-of-control abusive relationships until their spouses finally did kill them or their children.

None of that is necessary, however. Any rabbi worth his salt will tell you that the preservation of life comes before all the rules of the Torah, with one exception, and that is the command against worshiping other gods.

I mean, it just makes sense, doesn’t it? Generally, I eat kosher. But if someone puts a gun to my head and says, “Eat this ham steak or I’m pulling the trigger,” then like it or not, I’ll eat the ham so that I can be alive to deal with the unclean violation of a kosher diet.

Life is precious to God, so this is an understanding Yeshua would have had as well.

So where does this idea come from, that preserving life comes before all the commands, except the command against worshiping false gods? There are many sources, but here’s one from:

Rabbi Pinsker, Acharei Mot, Weekly D’var Torah
In the Talmud, the ancient rabbis debate how we know that pikuach nefesh—the preservation of life—is a mitzvah and that it takes precedence over all the other Torah commandments … In order to preserve a life, we may, for example, violate Shabbat observance or the laws of kashrut. In the volume of the Talmud called Yoma (85b) the Rabbis attribute this principle to our two little words vechai bahem— “‘You shall live by them—and not die by them.’” In other words, the Torah is given not to cause the loss of life, rather it is given that we may live, and therefore by logic we cannot be expected to endanger human life through the keeping of the Torah.

So, we don’t obey the Torah to such ridiculous extremes that we risk our own lives. That’s the idea here. If the choice is eating pork or getting shot… eat the pork. It’s a no-brainer, right?

That sounds good, but is there evidence that Yeshua had this same understanding as well? There is! We read this in:

Luke 6:9
Then Yeshua said to them, “I ask you now: what is permitted on Shabbat? Doing good or doing evil? Saving life or destroying it?”

In Luke’s account of Yeshua healing on the Sabbath, Yeshua by implication here refers to the idea that preserving life is one of the highest commands in the Torah, and that which is done to preserve life takes precedence over lesser commands.

This is not an example of Yeshua doing away with the Torah, but merely acknowledging the importance of maintaining life over the importance of maintaining Sabbath observance.

So does that mean we should toss out all of the Torah under the heading of maintaining life? Of course not!

Usually, obeying the rules of the Torah do not put our life on the line. But in defending Himself against an alleged violation of the Oral Torah standard of Shabbat observance (though not the written Torah standards) Yeshua does say that the L-RD desires mercy, not sacrifice.

Where does this come from? It comes from:

Hosea 6:6
For what I desire is mercy, not sacrifices, knowledge of God more than burnt offerings.

What is the L-RD really saying here? Well, according to:

Strong’s G1656 eleos
1) mercy: kindness or good will toward the miserable and the afflicted, joined with a desire to help them

So eleos is kindness shown by helping the miserable and afflicted, as opposed to what? According to:

Strong’s G2378 thusia
1) a sacrifice, victim

So, ultimately what the L-RD is saying is, in our Torah observance, He wants us to be moved toward mercy, kindness toward those in misery. He desires that! Not a human sacrifice, not the taking of a life in extreme observance of the Torah.

What does this mean?

Well, I think it means that while Yeshua was completely serious about not desiring that any who are married should be divorced, at the same time, it is apparent that the preservation of life comes before maintaining a marriage that is already shattered by acts of violence, by actions that in and of themselves desecrate the vows of fidelity, love, and respect of one’s spouse, even if no sexual infidelity has yet taken place.

If the choice is “break the vows of marriage by filing for divorce, or die at the hands of your violent and unrepentant spouse,” that should be as much of a no-brainer as “eat pork or die.”

Life is precious to God, and maintaining the lives he has given us is more important than observing lesser commands.

So, if one finds themselves in a relationship that threatens their life and safety, please know that we serve a God who understands that. Know that we serve a God who knows when a marriage is broken, even before those who are in it know it’s broken.

Know that while Yeshua desires you to stay married when you marry, he also does not ask you to give up your life or the lives of your children as a victim to a spouse’s violence.

Yes, Yeshua said, “except for marital infidelity,” but part of his context for that statement, part of what he knew most Jewish people of his era also understood, is that the preservation of your life would also take priority over staying married when a marriage is already destroyed and has become life-threatening for either you or your children. We serve Yeshua, who cares for the well-being of children so much, He said, in:

Matthew 18:6
and whoever ensnares one of these little ones who trust me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the open sea!

So, in the same way, Yeshua absolutely teaches us that unless we forgive those who have offended and wounded us, we will not be forgiven, and in the same way we forgive others, we also will be forgiven.

That’s true. It’s absolutely true. Yet what is the requirement for forgiveness? Repentance! Even the rabbis understood that!

For, as we read in:

Babylonian Talmud, Mishnah, Yoma 85B
If one says: I shall sin and repent, sin and repent, no opportunity will be given to him to repent. [If one says]: I shall sin and the Day of Atonement will procure atonement for me, the Day of Atonement procures for him no atonement.

So repentance is required for forgiveness. Not just an “I’m sorry I got caught” sort of repentance but the sort of repentance that says, “I recognize how wrong my actions were, and I have no intention to repeat them, for I now see them as they are and they horrify me.”

A repentance that requires a complete turning away from any sort of entertaining of the temptation to slip back into the same sin again.

So are we to forgive others, no matter how often they repeat the offense? Yes.

But are we to forgive the unrepentant? Are we to forgive those who are plotting how to injure us again, even as they sit in front of us apologizing?

We are to forgive them, yes. But how should our forgiveness of the unrepentant look?

Are we to sit down to an unsupervised dinner with the person who murdered a loved one, even if the murderer has shown no remorse? No.

Are we to permit a known child molester to babysit our children? Of course not!

We are commanded to forgive, but it is not to be a brainless forgiveness, is it? God desires mercy, but he does not desire a human sacrifice to prove it!

If a person genuinely repents, we are to forgive, and show that forgiveness in the same way we want to be treated. There is no room for compromise on that front.

But if we are faced with someone who has not repented, we should forgive so that we do not allow bitterness and resentment to take root in our lives; but we should also remain cautious around the unrepentant, lest they find another opportunity to do evil to us.

We should keep our eyes open. Because the natural question is, how can we know when someone who repents is genuine or not?

Pray for discernment. And give it time. Those who have not repented genuinely will reveal themselves before long; be cautious with them. But if repentance is genuine, we must forgive others as we have been forgiven.

It’s still a confusing topic, I know. But why is it confusing? It’s confusing because we all know people in our lives who can go through all the right steps, adopt all the right tones of voice and body language, who can sit face-to-face with us and seem to genuinely repent, and yet still be deceptive, still harbor evil intentions rather than the fruits of the Spirit.

Why is that? The reason for this is all explained in the parable of the weeds; we who believe and obey the L-RD are all wheat—children of the Kingdom of God; but we’re mixed in with weeds—children of the Adversary. And the children of the Adversary, as Yeshua pointed out, are like their father; they seek to deceive and destroy. Prayerful discernment is needed.

So when we read of the latest actions going on in Yisra’el, should we forgive those in Palastine who seek to harm those in Yisra’el? Absolutely. But forgivess should not be confused with the idea of trusting the unrepentant. Just as one would never jump into a den of lions, simply because HaShem protected his prophet Daniel in that same situation one time, a situation he was forced into and never chose himself, we also should not put HaShem to a foolish test by trusting those who seek to do us harm yet lack repentance.

May Yeshua guide us all in dealing with those who are in our lives, giving us wisdom about who to forgive fully, because their repentance is genuine, and who to forgive at a distance, because their repentance is not genuine, but a trick, an attempt to gain naïve trust from us, so that they can do us further damage.

Help us, L-RD, to discern the wheat from the weeds. And help us, when dealing with the children of the Adversary, to still forgive those who wrong us; or at least to forgive them enough so that we do not allow ourselves to grow bitter and untrusting toward even those who are also children of Your kingdom, and who have done us no wrong.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sermon: Righteousness

NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of July 12, 2014, at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. You may also listen to it, if you wish.

Shabbat Shalom.

When Rabbi Erez asked me to speak this week, I felt pulled in two directions; one way to go was to teach on our rich parashah for the week of Pinchas, and the second way to go was to share with you an insight from one of Yeshua’s parables that I feel has particular relevance to us given the recent escalation of violence by Hamas in Yisra’el this week with the dramatic increase in rocket attack and a coming ground-troops response by Yisra’el, which could happen at any time.

Then I realized there was a unifying theme to both teachings, and they intertwined in interesting ways, so what follows is a combination of both messages.

Our parashah for today, Pinchas, covers Numbers 25:10 through 29:40 (or 30:1, depending on your Bible). This is a very active Torah portion with many things going on, so, I’ve chosen to only highlight a few.

The first comes when the L-RD orders another census to be taken of the people. Initially, because some of the numbers are so similar, one could leap to the conclusion that not much time has passed; but this is not the case. The L-RD had earlier promised that not one of the generation of the Exodus aged twenty and up, except for Joshua and Caleb, would see the Promised Land because of their rebellion. We find out that forty years have passed and the L-RD’s promise has come to fruition.

Yet because of the L-RD’s goodness and for the sake of their righteous ancestors, the L-RD has not allowed the people of Israel to grow weak in the desert due to this passage of time and the deaths of so many. In the census taken at the beginning of the book of Numbers, the number of men of military age—ages 20 and up—were 603,550.

Now, forty years later after nearly that entire generation has died off, the number of men of military age is 601,730. The L-RD has kept Yisra’el strong so that when they enter the Promised Land, they will be ready for the battles that await them.
Of that initial generation, apart from Moshe, only two remain, as we read in:

NUMBERS 26:63-65
These are the ones counted by Moshe and El‘azar the cohen, who took a census of the people of Isra’el in the plains of Mo’av by the Yarden across from Yericho. But there was not a man among them who had also been included in the census of Moshe and Aharon the cohen when they enumerated the people of Isra’el in the Sinai Desert; because Adonai had said of them, “They will surely die in the desert.” So there was not left even one of them, except Kalev the son of Y’funeh and Y’hoshua the son of Nun.

To make matters even more interesting, the number of male Levites a month old or more has actually gone up. In the census at the beginning of Numbers, the Levites who were set apart by God from military service for service in the Tent of Meeting were 22,273. Now, they number 23,000.

So, this shows that the L-RD has honored the request of Moses, who begged the L-RD not to slay the generation of the Exodus all at once and thus give Egypt a reason to curse the L-RD. Instead, the L-RD has let their numbers perish, most often by their own disobedience and foolishness, over a period of forty years.

In fact, the L-RD has gone beyond that promise and has actually allowed the Israelites to thrive, despite enduring a long period of testing in the wilderness. In doing so, the L-RD has demonstrated his righteousness.

The L-RD also shows his goodness toward women in this week’s reading. While many Bible critics will point out that Israel was a highly patriarchal society and that its women were treated more like property than people, that reputation does not come through the commands of the L-RD but the misunderstanding of modern minds.

Let’s take a look at this episode, in which the L-RD grants the daughters of Zelophehad property rights. And let me point out, this was unheard of during the time of Moses, among the nations surrounding Israel. We read of this in:

NUMBERS 27:2-4
They stood in front of Moshe, El‘azar the cohen, the leaders and the whole community at the entrance to the tent of meeting and said, “Our father died in the desert. He wasn’t part of the group who assembled themselves to rebel against Adonai in Korach’s group, but he died in his own sin, and he had no sons. Why should the name of our father be eliminated from his family just because he didn’t have a son? Give us property to possess along with the brothers of our father.”

Now, the case they are making is a good one. After all, in the previous chapter, we see that Korach’s line is still counted among the Levites even though he was the point man for a rebellion against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. If the line of Korach can remain among the Levites, why should a man not part of the rebellion see his line and inheritance die out, simply because he had no sons? So Moses takes their request before the L-RD and we get this ruling in:

NUMBERS 27:6-11
Adonai answered Moshe, “The daughters of Tz’lof’chad are right in what they say. You must give them property to be inherited along with that of their father’s brothers; have what their father would have inherited pass to them. Moreover, say to the people of Isra’el, ‘If a man dies and does not have a son, you are to have his inheritance pass to his daughter. If he doesn’t have a daughter, give his inheritance to his brothers. If he has no brothers, give his inheritance to his father’s brothers. If his father doesn’t have brothers, give his inheritance to the closest relative in his family, and he will possess it. This will be the standard for judgment to be used by the people of Isra’el, as Adonai ordered Moshe.’”

In this way, the L-RD shows that while Israel as a society is indeed patriarchal, it is not the L-RD’s will for things to be one-sided between men and women. Israel was surrounded by societies that indeed treated women was nothing more than property, and some of those societies—their descendants, anyway—still do to this day.

Yet this ruling in favor of he daughters of Zelophehad does raise this question for the people of Moses’ time: can property own property? Of course not! Through this ruling, the L-RD is offering a reminder of the sense of right-relatedness between men and women that was found in the Garden, before the fall. While such right-relatedness remains elusive due to sin, the L-RD does remind us here, just as he did in Genesis that, “male and female, he created them.” Again in this portion, we are reminded of the L-RD’s righteousness.

Finally, we come to a sad episode in the life of Moses; he is about to be told his punishment that the L-RD has chosen for striking the rock to get water to flow forth, rather than speaking to it as the L-RD commanded. We read this in:

NUMBERS 27:12-14
Adonai said to Moshe, “Climb this mountain in the ‘Avarim Range, and look out at the land which I have given the people of Isra’el. After you have seen it, you too will be gathered to your people, just as Aharon your brother was gathered; because in the Tzin Desert, when the community was disputing with me, you rebelled against my order to uphold my holiness by means of the water, with them looking on.”

Moses knows what this means; for as humble as he was—and Moses was declared by the L-RD to be the most humble man on the face of the earth—his own sins and failures catch up with him. And I think it’s interesting to note here exactly where Moses failed.

Let’s remember when we first met an adult Moses. He sees an Egyptian guard mistreating a Hebrew slave, and he strikes the guard down, killing him. Forty years later, Moses comes down from the Mount after receiving the tablets written by the L-RD’s hand to see the Golden Calf, and he flies into a rage that includes grinding the false idol to dust and forcing the Israelites to drink it. And then, at Meribah Kadesh, once again frustrated with the people, he strikes the rock rather than speaking to it as the L-RD commanded him to do.

What does all this sound like to you?

That’s right; as unlikely as it may seem for a man so humble, one of the big sins Moses struggled with has been right in front of us all along; he is a man prone to anger. And while God calls Moses a friend and honors him with intimacy that may never have been matched by anyone but the L-RD’s relationship with Messiah Yeshua himself, while He has honored Moses above all others among the patriarchs, it is true that Moses’ own sin—his anger—is what undoes him and prevents him from seeing the Promised Land.

Of course, Moses was wise enough to see this coming; from at least the time when God announced that of the generation of the Exodus, only Caleb and Joshua would be living when the Israelites entered the Promised Land, he must have suspected that his own survival unto that day was in doubt.

Yet Moses faces his own mortality with a maturity the young cannot understand. Perhaps better than anyone aside from Messiah Yeshua, Moses knew this life was but an illusion and the world to come, the world the L-RD told him he was about to become part of, was the reality; God’s kingdom was ready to receive him, and yet we know that Moses has much yet to complete before he draws his final breath.

As we continue through Numbers and on into Deuteronomy soon, keep in mind that Moses knows he is living on borrowed time growing ever briefer. It is a thought that could lead to much prayer, for in time, God willing, all of us will be “gathered to our people.”

When we are young, this seems like a fearful notion. For someone like Moses, who had spent so much time in the presence of the L-RD, one has to wonder if it was something that brought joy and relief, rather than fear.

Therefore, God’s judgment of Moses here should not be seen as harsh, but as yet another example of His Righteousness. Because even though God reveals His relationship with Moshe to be unique, even Moshe does not ultimately sway God from His promises.

And it is with that thought the we now shift our attention from this week’s Torah reading to one of the parables of our Messiah Yeshua.

The parable I’d like to look at today is one of Yeshua’s less-explored parables. I believe it holds a important teaching for us, especially in light of the recent events in Yisra’el this past week.

It’s called the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge, so let’s read it now so we all have a common frame of reference. It begins in:

LUKE 18:1-5
Then Yeshua told his talmidim a parable, in order to impress on them that they must always keep praying and not lose heart. “In a certain town, there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected other people. There was also in that town a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me a judgment against the man who is trying to ruin me.’ For a long time he refused; but after awhile, he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God, and I don’t respect other people; but because this widow is such a nudnik, I will see to it that she gets justice—otherwise, she’ll keep coming and pestering me till she wears me out!’”

Now, some people can find this parable confusing, primarily because they draw too close a parallel between the unjust judge and the L-RD. It’s not meant to be a close parallel.

Why do I say this?

Well, because the judge in this parable is unjust to begin with. Is the L-RD Himself unjust? Of course not.

God Himself is the arbiter of all justice; He is the source of justice and He brings justice to everyone, doesn’t he?

So we have to be careful of letting our picture of God begin to reflect the picture of this unjust judge too closely, for the L-RD is not like him.

The text has Yeshua describing this judge as not fearing God nor caring about his fellow man. Does this remind us of anything?

For me, it calls to mind:

MATTHEW 22:35-40
…and one of them who was a Torah expert asked a sh’eilah to trap him: “Rabbi, which of the mitzvot in the Torah is the most important?” He told him, “‘You are to love Adonai your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.’ This is the greatest and most important mitzvah. And a second is similar to it, ‘You are to love your neighbor as yourself.’ All of the Torah and the Prophets are dependent on these two mitzvot.”

So, we know Yeshua teaches these two commands sum up the entire Torah: to fear God and to care about your neighbor.

If we’re being told that this judge neither feared the L-RD nor cared about his neighbor, what are we really being told about him? That this ruler is far from the Torah. Isn’t he? About as far from Torah as he can get! This is why he’s labeled an unjust ruler! Because he is ruling according to his own petty concerns and self-interests and decisions between right and wrong, rather than ruling based on the Torah of God. He is a portrait of the Torah-less world!

So who or what does that remind you of? The Parable of the Weeds. In that parable, Yeshua teaches that the wheat represents those of us who are in Yeshua, part of the kingdom of the L-RD, who obey the Torah and follow its instruction.

Yet we are intertwined with the weeds—those who are children of darkness, sons of the Adversary of the L-RD, workers of evil and injustice. Yeshua taught that evil cannot be purged until the time of the harvest—that final Yom Kippur, the Day of Judgment—when the good crops will be separated from the weeds, and the weeds will be burned up, while the wheat will be brought into the master’s storehouse.

So we are in a world filled with both children of God and children of the Adversary. The children of the Adversary are without Torah; and we know that while we must forgive them when they do evil against us, it would also be unwise to trust them when they are unrepentant, giving them an opportunity to do evil to us again.

That raises the question of how we ought to interact with those who are children of the Adversary. I mean, it’s not like any of us have a scorecard, is it? We can’t walk down the street, or even within our own community, and say, “righteous,” “righteous,” “unrighteous.” Can we? Of course not.

The sad truth is that the world we are in is usually ruled by those who are Torah-less. So one of the very real questions about getting through this life is, how can we find justice in a world ruled by the unjust? This parable gives us a clue: persistence can pay off.

The unjust ruler of this parable doesn’t rule justly because he fears the L-RD and agrees the woman was wronged; he rules in her favor because she never gives up, never surrenders, never ceases in insisting that he rule rightly on the matter.

He does what is right, basically, just to get her off his back!

So how does Yeshua interpret this parable? Let’s read on:

LUKE 18:6-8
Then the Lord commented, “Notice what this corrupt judge says. Now won’t God grant justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Is he delaying long over them? I tell you that he will judge in their favor, and quickly! But when the Son of Man comes, will he find this trust on the earth at all?”

This is where we can slip into misunderstanding. This is where the connection is made between the nature of God and the nature of the unjust judge. But what is Yeshua really saying here?

He’s saying that if even an unjust judge will render a just verdict through the persistence of a widow, how much more will the L-RD, who desires justice and to do what is right, answer the righteous requests of those who bring their concerns to Him?

Of course, that’s not that hard. It’s relatively easy to understand. But it does raise a question: “So, is this parable teaching us that if we merely bug God enough, He’ll give us whatever we want, like some genie in a magic lamp? Is God no better than us, changing His mind simply because He’s being pestered about something and wants to get someone off His back?”

To begin to answer that question, let’s first remember that Scripture reveals Scripture. If you want to understand one verse or passage, study everything around it and every passage it reminds you of. Eventually. the meaning will become clear. Right?

So let’s start setting this parable in context to gain our best response to this question.

First and foremost, we ought to understand the word “persistence.” You know, in the Bible, some form of the word “persist” appears only ten times, and in only one of these is the word given a positive connotation. In one other appearance, it results in the same effect Yeshua describes in the parable.

We find this positive mention in:

ROMANS 2:7
To those who seek glory, honor and immortality by perseverance in doing good, he will pay back eternal life.

And we find the instance in which the effect of persistence is the same as Yeshua describes in this parable, in:

II KINGS 2:16-17
…and said to him, “Here now, your servants include fifty strong men. Please let them go and look for your master, in the event that the Spirit of Adonai has taken him up and set him down on some mountain or in some valley.” He answered, “Don’t send them.” But they kept pressing him until finally, embarrassed, he said to send them. So they sent fifty men. For three days they searched, but they didn’t find him.

Now, this last instance here is not entirely positive. Remember, Elisha the prophet is right to tell his men not to go looking for his master, Elijah.

Why? Because Elisha himself saw Elijah taken up to heaven. He knew they were not going to find Elijah, but he finally gives into their demand to search because they simply won’t let it rest.

Now, the other eight instances in which some form of the word “persistence” is used, it is always negative in connotation, referring to how people persist in their sin or their disobedience to the L-RD.

So I thought it might be handy to look at the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated as “persist,” but what I found is there is not a precise word in Hebrew or Greek that is always reliably translated that way.

In fact, I found at least two different Greek words and two different Hebrew words that are translated as “persist,” but also that these words are not reliably translated that way. They are the Greek words epimeno (ep-ee-men’-o) and hupomone (hoop-om-on-ay’), as well as the Hebrew words patsar (paw-tsar’) and yalak (yaw-lak’).

So, persist as we understand it in English, is used to translate more than one Biblical word. I then began to look for parallel concepts to persistence; ideas that captured the meaning of persistence, even if it was not translated that way.

Suddenly, I found more positive references to the concept of never giving up than I found when looking for that precise English word.

We find one such example in:

PSALM 72:1, 15B
God, give the king your fairness in judgment, endow this son of kings with your righteousness … May they pray for him continually; yes, bless him all day long.

We also find this in:

II CHRONICLES 6:14
…and said, “Adonai, God of Isra’el, there is no God like you in heaven or on earth. You keep covenant with your servants and show them grace, provided they live in your presence with all their heart.

So persist means to continue, to so something without ceasing to do it, to never give up. This agrees with what Luke tells us was the purpose of Yeshua’s parable: “to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”

So, to get back to our question: Does this mean that if we pray without ceasing, that God can and actually will change His mind?

There is no quick answer to this; to understand what Yeshua is teaching us better, we must first understand the nature of prayer itself.

What is prayer, really? It’s simply taking time to communicate with God, to come face-to-face with our Maker, as Moses did in the Tent of Meeting. That is what prayer is meant to be.

As believers, in fact, we are commanded to pray, as Yeshua Himself teaches in:

LUKE 6:27-28
Nevertheless, to you who are listening, what I say is this: “Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.

James, the brother of Yeshua, teaches us further about the benefits and purposes of prayer in:

JAMES 5:13-18
Is someone among you in trouble? He should pray. Is someone feeling good? He should sing songs of praise. Is someone among you ill? He should call for the elders of the congregation. They will pray for him and rub olive oil on him in the name of the Lord. The prayer offered with trust will heal the one who is ill—the Lord will restore his health; and if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, openly acknowledge your sins to one another, and pray for each other, so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. Eliyahu was only a human being like us; yet he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and no rain fell on the Land for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the Land produced its crops.

What James teaches us here is loaded with important concepts on an effective prayer life, but it’s easy to miss the important details. We all love to hear that prayer is powerful and effective, but too often we read right past one of the most important words in the passage.

What does James actually teach? He teaches that, “The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.”

A righteous man. Not just anyone, not even just any believer. But the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

And you see, that’s where many of us trip up. That’s why so many who are believers in this country feel like they have ineffective prayer lives, or complain about God not answering their prayers. Because it is the prayers of the righteous that will be answered, not the prayers of just anyone.

Can you, for example, ignore the Torah commands of God and expect your prayers to be answered? Can you persist in habitual sin and expect God to grant your request? Can you lead a life of casual, only-when-it’s-convenient faith, come home from, say, a night of hard drinking, and pray to the L-RD for some blessing and expect Him to listen and respond affirmatively?

Don’t be so sure.

God is not an emergency parachute for when you’re in a tight spot and need to save your butt, only to neglect Him at all other times. God desires to have a relationship with us, a give-and-take relationship. Part of being able to speak with Him as Moses did in the Tent of Meeting—face-to-face—is that we must live at least to the minimum standards set down for us in the Torah; furthermore, we should live to a standard far above that, striving to walk as Yeshua walked, in obedience to the
L-RD, obeying everything that was commanded of Him.

Does this mean the L-RD never listens and responds to the prayers of the unrighteous? Not at all! He hears the prayers of repentance offered up by those lost in their sin all the time!

But think about it. That repentance needs to come first, just to clear the table.

If you have a relative who, the only time they gave you the time of day was when they needed something, and the rest of the time they were out bad-mouthing you and ruining your reputation, and even when they asked for your something they wouldn’t apologize for how they’ve wronged you—how long would you keep giving them what they ask for?

You see, the kind of righteousness James is talking about here isn’t some unreachable, impossible standard; as he wrote, “Elijah was a man just like us.” So was Moses, for that matter, as we discussed earlier; he was a man prone to anger. But both men were humble enough to know they were unworthy, in and of themselves.

They relied on God to create their righteousness and they obeyed His commands in gratitude. They agreed with God rather than argued with Him, and relied on Him, and that became their righteousness.

That’s a righteousness that doesn’t come from ignoring whatever commands you don’t like or don’t fit how you already live.

It’s a righteousness that clears the table and allows you to speak with God as Moses did, as Yeshua did.

That’s when God starts listening: when you’re not fighting with Him anymore over what the truth is. That’s when the prayer of the righteous becomes powerful and effective, because you become echad with the maker of the universe! Not one person, but of one mind and one spirit with Him; no longer struggling against Him.

Yeshua instructs us on some more mistakes to guard against when we pray. We read this in:

MATTHEW 6:5-8
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites, who love to pray standing in the synagogues and on street corners, so that people can see them. Yes! I tell you, they have their reward already! But you, when you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, don’t babble on and on like the pagans, who think God will hear them better if they talk a lot. Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

So now we have a basic understanding of how to pray effectively. So the question becomes this: let’s assume we’re doing all this right. Let’s assume we’re relying on His righteousness and not fighting with God over the truth; we repent of our sin, we’re face-to-face with God, and we’re talking with Him.

Can we, even at this point, change the mind of the creator of the universe? Can we, simply by badgering Him, get whatever we ask?

Let’s first take a look at the prayer life of someone who only had the appearance of righteousness; who went through all the right steps and claimed to have the ear of the L-RD. Let’s see what Balaam found out about prayer in last week’s parashah. He pestered the L-RD to get his way, too; but when he opened his mouth to speak a curse on Yisra’el against the will of the L-RD, God’s truth came out instead, as we read in:

NUMBERS 23:19-20
“God is not a human who lies or a mortal who changes his mind. When he says something, he will do it; when he makes a promise, he will fulfill it. Look, I am ordered to bless; when he blesses, I can’t reverse it.

This testimony about God and His nature is true. God doesn’t lie. He always is truthful and all truth comes from Him. Balak has Balaam perform all the right steps, does everything the Hebrews do, and yet he could not curse the Jewish people; he could not move the L-RD to cease from blessing the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. In this prophecy, Balaam is testifying to that fact; man cannot change the mind of God in a way that makes God break His promises! The L-RD will never promise, then fail to fulfill because someone else prays for Him not to.

It’s important to remember neither King Balak nor the mercenary prophet Balaam are righteous men; as Balaam testifying to the L-RD’s goodness, Balak is urging him to try again and again. The L-RD allows Balaam to keep trying, but He does not answer that prayer in the affirmative.

Why?

Because part of the prayer of the righteous being powerful and effective is that the righteous never pray for the L-RD to do something outside of His own will. The righteous never pray for the L-RD to violate His own promises.

So, even a man like Balaam, who has the appearance of righteousness and claims to communicate with the L-RD, can pray with persistence, and yet the L-RD will not make those prayers either powerful or effective, because they are not righteous prayers.

But is that the end of the subject? Is the L-RD never swayed? Well, let’s remember this episode from:

GENESIS 18:22-26
The men turned away from there and went toward S’dom, but Avraham remained standing before Adonai. Avraham approached and said, “Will you actually sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Maybe there are fifty righteous people in the city; will you actually sweep the place away, and not forgive it for the sake of the fifty righteous who are there? Far be it from you to do such a thing—to kill the righteous along with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from you! Shouldn’t the judge of all the earth do what is just?” Adonai said, “If I find in S’dom fifty who are righteous, then I will forgive the whole place for their sake.”

Now, we should all remember how the rest of this story goes. Abraham is bold in his prayer life with the L-RD and keeps asking Him for His mercy for forty, for thirty, for twenty and then for ten righteous left in the city. Why did Abraham stop at ten?

Because that comprises a minyan—the minimum number of people required to start a Torah community.

Did the end result change? No. Sodom and Gomorrah fell, but only because there could not be found even ten righteous who were willing to turn from their sin, repent, and follow the L-RD.

Yet if they had found ten righteous, would the city have been spared? You bet. It would have been spared because of Abraham’s prayer life, his communication with the L-RD. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

We know this is true because there are times when the L-RD, in the wilderness, wishes to slay the children of Israel for their unrighteousness, and it was the prayer life of Moses, praying a righteous prayer for the L-RD to protect His name among the surrounding nations, that caused the L-RD not to slay the children of Israel and instead offer them a path to forgiveness.

You see, God never repents because God never sins where He has to repent. But can the prayer of the righteous move God to change? In some ways, yes. We read an example of this in:

JONAH 4:2
He prayed to Adonai, “Now, Adonai, didn’t I say this would happen, when I was still in my own country? That’s why I tried to get away to Tarshish ahead of time! I knew you were a God who is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in grace, and that you relent from inflicting punishment.

This is where the prayers of the righteous can have an impact. When we pray for God to relent from judgment, to show mercy to the unrighteous, to give time for repentance. Not when we pray outside of the will of God, or for the L-RD to violate His will or His nature, but when we pray for the L-RD to be who He is, to live up to His name and show His greatness.

So how does this relate to the events of the past week in Yisra’el? Well, many observers bemoan these events as being conflicts among those of varying religions. They make no distinction between the prayers of the righteous versus the prayers of the unrighteous. In the eyes of many today, the prayers of those who resort to bombing Yisra’el’s cities and people are frightening, because they believe all prayer is equal.

Yet those who seek to destroy Yisra’el today are no different than those like Balak and Balaam, who sought to destroy Yisra’el in recent Torah readings; while they can pray all they like, when it comes down to it, God will not answer a prayer that asks him to violate his own will. He is not a genie in a bottle who will grant your wishes if you ask Him using the right steps and procedures. God is God, ultimately. He has a will of His own that He will violate for no one; yet for those who live in obedience to His teachings, his mitzvoth, we will never see our prayers returned unanswered, because we won’t be praying for God to violate His own will.

So, you see, Yeshua’s parable here is about how to deal with those who are Torah-less, in a Torah-less world, and not actually about bugging God, who already knows our thoughts and prayers before we ever give them voice. Because in our prayer life, we must always seek to understand and embrace His righteousness, rather than our own.

That’s when the L-RD moves. That’s when the prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective, because we’re remaining in the L-RD and His will.

That’s the kind of prayer life we should want, the kind of walk with the L-RD we should want. That’s when Messiah Yeshua reigns and gives us the ability to forgive, even to forgive the unrepentant and yet stay safe. That’s when we find our Shalom, or peace beyond our own understanding, in Him.

That’s why the attacks of the enemies of the L-RD will always fall short. For even if they pray, God will not answer their prayers unless they pray for His will and only His will.

Yes, bombs do fall. But never lose your trust that the God of Yisra’el, the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, is worthy of our trust to bring about a great deliverance. He has a pretty good track record on that score, in spite of the war constantly raging against his people.

Shabbat Shalom.

Sermon: King David, Lesson 4 “Giants In the Land”

NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of June 14, 2014, at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. You may also listen to it, if you wish.

Shabbat Shalom.

It’s been about a year since I last taught on King David, so before we get into the heart of our study, perhaps a quick review is in order. If you wish to review the previous lessons in more detail, however, you can find them on our community website, Sh’ma Yisra’el dot net, under the Teachings tab.

In our first lesson, we learned how Yisra’el strayed from God’s original intentions for them in the Land and, after Yehoshua, known to us in English as Joshua, passed, the rule of the land eventually moved from community leaders like Moshe and Yehoshua to regional figures known as judges. Even that didn’t last, as many of the judges had no children worthy to take their father’s role over and eventually Yisra’el desired to have a human king rule over them, like the nations around them.

The first man chosen for the job was Sha’ul (Saul), who the prophet Sh’mu’el (Samuel) anointed for the job. Saul certainly looked the part; the Torah says he stood “head and shoulders” above his fellow Yisra’elites. Yet he was a man who, literally, had to be dragged to face his responsibilities as Yisra’el’s first human king, and he frequently rebelled against HaShem’s specific instructions to him.

In our second lesson, we learned that due to his rebellion, HaShem removed his anointing from Sha’ul and instructed Sh’mu’el to anoint a king whom HaShem himself would choose. That would become David, the son of Jesse, the youngest of his family and someone who was believed to be potentially an illegitimate offspring, but who was actually legitimate—a secret Jesse’s wife kept hidden from Jesse, even when Sh’mu’el was directed by HaShem to anoint David as Yisra’el’s next king.

In the third lesson, we learned how the absence of HaShem’s blessing created problems for King Sha’ul, who by this portion of the Tanach has not stepped down from his office as king of Yisra’el, and how God places David in Sha’ul’s service to play music that soothes Sha’ul’s mind and spirit, never realizing that David is the man anointed to take his place as king. This gives David a chance to learn the responsibilities of the office he is to one day take over, even though Sha’ul is perhaps a better example of what not to do, than what to do.

Which brings us to our lesson today.

You know, it’s appropriate that our Torah portion for this week is Sh’lach L’cha. In this week’s parashah, we read about how Moshe sent spies into the promised land to seek out information on the land and the people dwelling there. We are all familiar with the evil report that is returned by ten of the twelve men sent. Rather than believing God’s promise that the victory was already theirs, assured by HaShem, they returned with a different message, which we read in:

Numbers 13:31-33
But the men who had gone with him said, “We can’t attack those people, because they are stronger than we are”; and they spread a negative report about the land they had reconnoitered for the people of Isra’el by saying, “The land we passed through in order to spy it out is a land that devours its inhabitants. All the people we saw there were giant! We saw the N’filim, the descendants of ‘Anak, who was from the N’filim; to ourselves we looked like grasshoppers by comparison, and we looked that way to them too!”

So, their report is that there are giants in the land, and because of this, they believed they could not win. We all are familiar with where this evil report leads, but it does tie in nicely with our lesson on King David this week, as we enter into Sh’mu’el Alef, Chapter Seventeen, wherein we find the story of David’s first great victory, over the giant known as Golyat, though you may be more familiar with him by his English name, Goliath.

Before we delve into Golyat, however, let me say a few words hear about David’s age. In popular children’s books, television, and movies, David is often depicted as a teenager at the time of this battle. The popular depiction places him at roughly the age of fourteen, or just past his traditional bar mitzvah age.

There are many reasons for this misunderstanding; and it is a misunderstanding.

First, the misunderstanding occurs because David is said to be the youngest of Jesse’s children, and that much is true.

However, that does not mean he was a child, or even a teenager. In fact, in his 1906 book, The Legends of the Jews, scholar Louis Ginzberg summarizes the thoughts of the early rabbis when he writes this in volume four, page eighty-three of that book:

[David] continued to live the life of a shepherd until, at the age of twenty-eight, he was anointed king by Samuel, who was taught that the despised youngest son of Jesse was to be king.

So, David was anointed to be king by Sh’mu’el at the age of twenty-eight, according to the sages, living the life of a shepherd until that point. David is anointed only two years into King Sha’ul’s reign, and we know that in the short term, he was ordered to return to the field and keep his anointing a secret. We also learned in our previous study that the Ruach HaKodesh, the spirit of the Holy One of Yisra’el, would overtake David in the form of song and dance. Word spread of his talent, and that was how he was called into service by King Sha’ul to soothe his spirits, at some point after David’s anointing.

Now, David doesn’t actually take the throne until at least nine years after his anointing, at the age of roughly thirty-seven; so he’s probably a little older than twenty-eight at the time of the incident with Golyat. It would be fair to say he might be a year or two older by then, so at the time he faces Golyat, David is probably close to thirty.

This would make David at least twice the age at which he is normally depicted, while battling Goliath. Even though he is older than we normally picture him as being, his victory over Goliath is no less of a miracle.

At the time of David, an adult male Jew of average height was approximately five feet, five inches tall, according to archaeological studies of David’s era.

We also know this about David: he was not necessarily a tall man among his own people. In fact, compared to King Sha’ul, David was small … another reason he is likely mistaken to be younger than he was during this battle. We read this in:

Sh’mu’el Alef (1 Samuel) 17:38-39
Sha’ul dressed David in his own armor—he put a bronze helmet on his head and gave him armor plate to wear. David buckled his sword on his armor and tried to walk, but he wasn’t used to such equipment. David said to Sha’ul, “I can’t move wearing these things, because I’m not used to them.” So David took them off. 

Because Sha’ul’s armor doesn’t seem to fit David, it’s easy to think of him as not yet an adult. Although it is important to know the Bible here does not actually say King Sha’ul’s armor wasn’t a fit; just that David was not used to wearing such armor.

We must also keep in mind that although King Sha’ul was no physical match for Golyat, he was, as we learned two lessons ago, “head and shoulders above” his kinsmen. If the height of the average Jewish person in the time of David was about five-foot-five, being “head and shoulders” taller than them would make him close to one cubit taller. The Biblical cubit is the length from an adult male’s elbow to his fingertips, which is usually assumed to be around eighteen inches. To fall on the careful side of that measurement, let’s say King Sha’ul was a bit less than that… perhaps only fourteen inches taller than his fellow Yisra’elites.

That would make King Sha’ul about six-foot-seven. That’s tall for his time, certainly, but easily believable. By comparison, what is the height of Golyat? We read this in:

Sh’mu’el Aleph (1 Samuel) 17:4-5
There came out a champion from the camp of the P’lishtim named Golyat, from Gat, who was nine feet nine inches tall. He had a bronze helmet on his head, and he wore a bronze armor plate weighing 120 pounds.

Now, some people find the height of Golyat hard to believe. His height is usually given as “six cubits and a span,” which translates to nine feet, nine inches. Doubters point to first-century historian Josephus, who writes that Golyat was actually “four cubits and a span,” which would put him at six feet and ten inches; but that would mean that Golyat was only three inches taller than King Sha’ul. If the difference was that close, it seems unlikely that Sha’ul would have found Golyat particularly intimidating.

Really, the only reason to question Golyat’s height here is modern skepticism. With our scientific, modern minds, many people find Golyat’s height hard to believe. They therefore attribute it to scribal error, call it a mythological element, or simply approach the whole story allegorically, considering Golyat to be a symbol, rather than someone who actually existed.

Now, I know that ultimately, we cannot lay all doubt to rest here today, no matter what I share with you. And most of us here, as believers, already choose to believe the Bible even if our minds struggle with some details. However, what I’d like to do, briefly, is address this source of possible doubt and take it head on, if for no other reason than, if you ever run into anyone who questions you on Golyat, it’s nice to have something deeper to say than, “Well, I just believe the Bible.”

So let’s tackle the height of Golyat head on.

First of all, let’s start with the familiar. Two of the tallest men ever to play basketball in the NBA were Manute Bol and Gheorge Muresan. Both stood seven-foot-seven. A more recent player, Yao Ming, stood slightly shorter at seven-foot-six.
That’s pretty tall, but we’re just getting started.

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the tallest male alive in the world today is a man named Sultan Kosen. At his official measurement for the record books in 2011, Kosen was recorded to stand eight feet and three inches tall. He is a simple farmer who lives in Turkey.

Of course, Guinness doesn’t count an even taller man from Ukraine, because he has not agreed to be measured by them. His name is Leonid Stadnyk and he is said to stand eight feet, five-point-five inches tall. At the age of forty-three, his health is said to be failing as he needs to brace himself by holding onto the side of his house, or tree limbs, in order to walk around.

Yet even Stadnyk is not the tallest man whose height was ever confirmed by Guinness. That honor falls to a man from Illinois, Robert Wadlow, who only lived to the age of twenty-two, dying in 1940. Wadlow, at his tallest, measured eight-feet-eleven-point-one inches tall… nearly nine feet in height. That places Wadlow at merely nine inches short of Golyat’s nine-foot-nine.

Now, so far, we’ve only been talking about either people currently alive, or alive within the last hundred to one hundred and fifty years, and only about people whose height has been confirmed by the Guinness Book of World Records, by and large.

However, in Great Britain there is a grave for a man named John Middleton, also known as the Childe of Hale. He lived in the late-fifteen and early-sixteen hundreds, and his grave records his height as nine-foot-three, only six inches short of Golyat’s height. Middleton’s height, of course, was unable to be officially confirmed.

However, if archaeological records can be believed, Golyat isn’t even the tallest man ever to live on the Earth. That honor would go to the “Giant of Castalnau,” a native of France. The bones discovered there were quite large, but quite identifiable as human, and date back to a Bronze Age cemetery they were found in. The Bronze Age was roughly 3200 to 1200 BCE. The time of King David was roughly 1000 BCE, so the Bronze Age comes just before the time of David and Golyat.

The bones of the Giant of Castalnau have been determined to indicate a human who stood at the unprecedented height of eleven-feet, six-inches tall. That means even Golyat, at nine-foot-nine, would have seemed small compared to the French Giant of Castalnau, who would have been an impressive twenty-one inches taller than Golyat.

Now, all of these people are folks you can find out about through Google. They are not considered fairy tales or mythological.

So why should Golyat be considered a myth? The only answer is persistent unbelief.

You see, as believers, we don’t require proof to sustain our belief. At the same time, God has blessed us with intellect. Furthermore, we have a greater ability than any generation before our own to access information and research topics about which we have questions.

So if anyone ever questions you about how you can believe the height of Golyat in the Tanach, ask them how they can believe in the eleven-foot-six-inch French Giant of Castelnau, or the extreme heights of John Middleton, Robert Wadlow, Leonid Stadnyk, or Sultan Kosen, none of whom appear in the Tanach and all of whom stood or currently stand at heights between eight and nine feet tall… or eleven-and-a-half feet, in the case of the French Giant. The fact that something is rare doesn’t make it impossible.

Finally, let me address one other controversy in the text related to the story of David’s battle against Golyat.

Due to the tendencies of modern translations, many people point to Sh’mu’el Bet 21:19, where the text seems to credit Elchanan with the slaying of Golyat. This has led to deep debates over whether David actually was the one who slew Golyat, or whether it was Elchanan all along, and his story was somehow attributed to David to add to the legend of his kingship.

Whenever one comes across apparent contradictions in the text like this, the first and best place to look is the text itself.

Now, it’s true that in pre-twentieth-century translations, the passage in Sh’mu’el Bet 21:19 read that Elchanan slayed Golyat’s brother, not Golyat. So which translation should one believe? There seems to be no Hebrew word in Sh’mu’el Bet to indicate the use of the word “brother of” in connection with Golyat, so is this an indication of a mistake in the text? Or is it an indication that Elchanan was the true champion who bested Golyat in battle?

Well, perhaps it’s neither. In this case, we can check the Tanach against the Tanach. The name of Elchanan only appears in the entire Tanach four times. Once to indicate his inclusion in David’s personal group of elite military members, once to indicate his birth and parentage, and the other two times in relation to the slaying of someone who is either Golyat, or Golyat’s brother.

The passage in First Chronicles 20, verse 5, is almost identical to the Sh’mu’el Bet passage, but carries with it an important detail. It reads:

1 Chronicles 20:5
There was more war with the P’lishtim; and Elchanan the son of Ya’ir killed Lachmi the brother of Golyat the Gitti, who had a spear with a shaft like a weaver’s beam.

You see, in this rendering, we are given the name of the person Elchanan bested in battle. It was Lachmi, Golyat’s brother, not Golyat himself. At worse, the Sh’mu’el Bet passage merely lacks a detail that the First Chronicles passage includes: the name of Lachmi, the person Elchanan defeated.

In short, there ought be no controversy if you allow the Tanach to clarify the Tanach. David, through HaShem’s aid, bested Golyat in battle and later on, Elchanan bested Lachmi, Golyat’s brother.

Now, with those possible controversies and questions addressed, let us study the battle itself.

First of all, it should be no mystery why Golyat was able to intimidate people. He was, most certainly, a bold opponent, as we read in:

Sh’mu’el Aleph (1 Samuel) 17:8-11
He stood and yelled at the armies of Israel, “Why come out and draw up a battle line? I’m a P’lishti, and you are servents of Sha’ul, so choose a man from among yourselves, and let him come down to me. If he can fight me and kill me, we’ll be your slaves; but if I beat him and kill him, you will become slaves and serve us.” The P’lishti added, “I challenge Israel’s armies today—give me a man, and we’ll fight it out.” When Sha’ul and all Isra’el heard those words of the P’lishti, they were shaken and terrified.

In some ways, Golyat’s boast almost sounds merciful. He comes off like a man of peace, saying, hey, let’s not have a bunch of people die: choose a champion from your side and we can battle it out and settle this with only one death: either your champion slays me, or I’ll slay him, and we’ll let whichever side who wins claim the victory.

It sounds a little less compassionate when you remember the guy saying it stands nine-foot-nine, wears armor that weighs a hundred and twenty pounds all by itself, and stands a full three feet and two inches taller than King Sha’ul, definitely the tallest Yisra’elite anywhere near the battlefield that day.

As the narrative continues, the text emphasizes again David’s youth, calling him the youngest, but it also identifies his father Jesse as being very old at this time, so simply considering David the youngest does not mean he’s a teenager.

Also, keep in mind that at this time, David has never taken the battlefield, even though he’s of military age according to the standards of Yisra’el. Instead, he’s been working out his days as a shepherd, as well as recently coming into his responsibilities as the man who would sing to soothe Sha’ul’s mind and spirit.

The closest he comes to military battle himself prior to all this is that Sha’ul gave him the official job description of being his armor bearer, a non-combat role in Yisra’el’s army. In the sense that he was of military age but had never done battle before, he could easily have been considered “a youth,” not so much in physical age, but in life experience. It’s also important to keep in mind that unmarried men like David were often considered youths in Yisra’el at that time, until they married.

For forty days, Golyat has been demanding a one-on-one battle of champions between Yisra’el and the P’lish’tim, and for all that time, no one from the armies of Yisra’el, not even King Sha’ul, the closest physical match to Golyat, have responded.

Another possible objection to David being around thirty at this time is this: some will say, hey, you need to remember that the Tanach isn’t necessarily laid out in a strictly chronological fashion. David could have been much younger here than at the time of his anointing.

There are problems with that line of though, however.

First, Jesse is at least somewhat younger at the time of David’s anointing.

Furthermore, the prophet Sh’mu’el didn’t even know David existed at the time of David’s anointing as the next king of Yisra’el. Only HaShem knew of him. Sh’mu’el had to somewhat pressure Jesse, asking him, “Are you sure you have no other sons?” when none of his older sons were approved by God to be anointed Yisra’el’s next king.

Finally, this battle makes David’s name famous in the Land and among the people of HaShem. There would be, therefore, no way for the anointing of David to come after this battle; the showdown with Golyat had to come after David was anointed.
Certainly that anointing is evident in the difference of his response to Golyat. We read this in:

Sh’mu’el Aleph (1 Samuel) 17:26
David said to the men standing with him, “What reward will be given to the man who kills this P’lishti and removes this disgrace from Isra’el? Who is this uncircumcised P’lishti anyway, that he challenges the armies of the living God?”

This is important to understand: despite the imposing physical presence presented by Golyat, David had to be filled with the Ruach HaKodesh at this point, because David sees the situation clearly, through spiritual eyes, remembering that his people are not just any people, but the armies of HaShem Himself.

That solid grasp on his identity as a Yisra’elite is something that was not life-changing for most of the troops gathered at the time in the Ellah Valley. That David saw their identity clearly is evidence that HaShem’s anointing was active in him.
Like Messiah, David trusted God and saw His truth in the situation. And just as Messiah would, centuries later, say that a prophet is not honored in his hometown, sharp and undeserved criticism immediately comes David’s way from his brother, Eli’av.

Keep in mind, if Sh’mu’el had acted on his own, Eli’av might have received the anointing instead of David. Almost as if to prove God’s judgment about Eli’av’s heart correct, Eli’av speaks these words to David: “Why did you come down here? With whom did you leave those few sheep in the desert? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is! You just came down to watch the fighting.”

This response makes more sense if we understand it as occurring after David’s anointing; they are the words of jealousy. As a man passed over to be the next king of Yisra’el, Eli’av would have some basis upon which to be jealous of his youngest brother David.

Word of David’s questions reaches King Sha’ul, who calls David to meet with him. David immediately volunteers to face Golyat with the king’s blessing, but King Sha’ul at first doesn’t believe he’s capable. He says, “You can’t go to fight this P’lishti—you’re just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth!”

Again, this is an area that has led many to believe David is far younger; however, this again can be best understood as being reflective of David’s lack of battlefield experience or even a wife.

Indeed, even at around age thirty, he’s spent his life as a shepherd, not a warrior, which is the focus of the comparison Sha’ul makes. And likewise, David responds on the basis of not his physical age, but his experience as a capable warrior, as we read in:

Sh’mu’el Aleph (1 Samuel) 17:34-36
David answered Sha’ul, “Your servant used to guard his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear would come and grab a lamb from the flock, I would go after it, hit it, and snatch the lamb from its mouth; and if it turned on me, I would catch it by the jaw, smack it and kill it. Your servant has defeated both lions and bears, and this uncircumcised P’lishti will be like one of them, because he has challenged the armies of the living God.”

Now, I realize that some young men can be very strong, but how many teenagers can do battle with lions and bears and yet prevail? Not many, even back then. There is an indication of physical strength in the text that goes counter to the traditional idea that David was a young teenager at this time.

King Sha’ul then encourages David to wear his own armor. With a noticable size difference between the two of them, why would he do such a thing?

The apparent answer is that he hoped to fool Golyat into believing it was Sha’ul himself coming to face him. There would be no benefit for the five-foot-five or shorter David to wear the armor of a six-foot-seven King Sha’ul, otherwise.

And on the off-chance David won, perhaps the king thought he’d attain the credit for facing down the giant, rather than David.
Fortunately, David quickly determines the armor would only slow him down and make him an easy target, and he decides to stick with what he knows, taking only a slingshot and stones with him into battle.

On the earthly plane, this does not make sense; you would want protective armor, and desire the best and most advanced weapons … swords and spears and such, not a shepherd’s tools. Yet in facing Golyat, he is doing what the children of Yisra’el who gave Moshe an evil report about the promised land failed to do in this week’s parashah of Sh’lach L’cha: he is remembering that the battle is God’s, his victory is assured by God, and he does not rely solely on his own efforts. He remembers that not even an intimidating giant like Golyat can stand against the living God of Yisra’el.

Therefore, there can be no doubt that as he entered this battle, David’s anointing as the new king of Yisra’el, and the subsequent filling of David with the Ruach haKodesh, had already taken place. Facing down an intimidating foe like Golyat is not the work of a non-anointed, non-spirit-filled, but enthusiastic teenager; it is the work of a person anointed by God, trusting in Him for the victory. That requires a certain maturity, even if he lacked battlefield experience.

Now, of course, we all know how this chapter ends; HaShem blesses David’s trust in Him and uses that stone to bring the giant down. And as we bring this message to a close, many of you might be wondering, where is the great, allegorical message about facing down the giants—the great fears—in your own life? Or at least the thrilling recounting of the children’s adventure tale? Well, let’s put it this way: I give all of you credit here as mature believers; you’ve all heard that version of David’s tale before. I’ve chosen here to give you something a bit newer, something a bit fresher and more challenging.

Why?

Because, as another Sha’ul, the sent one from the HaB’rit HaChadesha, wrote in:

1 Corinthians 13:11
When I was a child, I spoke like a child,
thought like a child, argued like a child;
now that I have become a man,
I have finished with childish ways.

It is time, in our walk of faith, to be finished with childish ways and face our life of halakha, of walking out the Torah, in new ways, relevant to how we live now.

There is so much to be gained from the life of David that points us toward Messiah. At some point, it becomes time to see past the children’s adventure story or the simple-but-true lesson of facing our fears, and grasp the deeper things HaShem has stored up for us in His Word.

How David lived that day in the Ellah Valley, facing a very real threat, is how we should strive to live each day; to be filled with His Ruach HaKodesh and to never lose sight of who we are in Him: the very children of the Living God of Yisra’el, against whom no foe, no matter how intimidating, can speak and remain standing.

All we need to do is trust in the one who brought us all out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage, to be our God.

It’s my hope this message has helped enable us to take another step on that journey of faith.

Shabbat Shalom.

torah-and-shofar

Sermon: Mercy and Forgiveness In the Torah

NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of March 22, 2014, at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. You may also listen to it, if you wish.

Shabbat Shalom.

When Erez first invited me to speak today, I assumed the message I would be giving would be the next lesson in my ongoing character study focused on the life of King David. But, as they say, a funny thing happened on the way to the word processor. As interesting a subject of study as David can be, I felt the tug of the Ruach toward a completely different theme, and it soon became clear to me it was a tug I had to follow.

Now, few people my age enjoy the blessing of growing up in the Messianic Jewish movement. Therefore, we all come into this movement from something else. Some who come into our movement are of Jewish background. I am not one of those who does, however. I entered our movement from the Christianity side of things. One side-benefit of that background is it has given me experiences and an understanding of Christian issues and views that conflict with our new, common understanding of things.

I was reminded of one such misunderstanding a couple weeks ago when a friend of mine sent me a link to what he called a “fascinating interview with U2 band leader Bono on God and religion and Christianity.” I found the article somewhat less fascinating than my friend, if only because of how poorly Bono communicated his perspective on these issues. One of his observations did draw my attention, though, because it is a common misunderstanding of the nature of God’s Torah—His instructions and teachings to us.

To lay the issue out clearly, please allow me, for a moment, to share with you from the book the quote was found in, Bono on Bono: Conversations with Michka Assayas, first published in 2005. The selection from Chapter 11 reads as follows, with Bono speaking. He says:

It’s a mind-blowing concept that the God who created the Universe might be looking for company, a real relationship with people, but the thing that keeps me on my knees is the difference between Grace and Karma…

You see, at the centre of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you; an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics—in physical laws—every action is met by an equal or opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it.

So Bono mistakenly equates the Torah verse about “eye for eye and tooth for tooth” to Karma, a Hindu concept. But is he correct that the Torah teaches the concept of Karma? Well, far be it from me to cross swords with Mr. Bono’s unrivaled theological insight, but allow me to suggest the answer is, “No,” despite his professed absolute certainty.

The reason this quote drew my attention was not so much Bono’s misunderstanding, but the fact that what he was saying reflects a very common misunderstanding of Torah, especially as it relates to those of us coming into the Messianic Jewish movement from a Christian background. While our background gives us some understanding, it also gives us many things we much work to unlearn, and this is one of those ideas.

Verses like this are what inspire some well-meaning believers to rejoice with words like, “Praise God, we are set free from the law!” To many who follow Messiah in the modern Western expression of the faith, the words “the law” and “Torah” are completely identical. That’s why we are taught and what we hear in sermons. There is no room for misunderstanding, no possibility of a subtlety or a cultural context winding up lost in translation. To many otherwise sincere believers, the law is old, extinct, done away with; and besides that, it was brutal, barbaric, and uncivilized to boot. Not like Jesus, who, we are taught, ushered in an era of radical new teachings never heard or uttered before, totally incompatible with the old law and totally replacing the Torah.

I mean, that’s part of the core of replacement theology, isn’t it? Torah bad, Jesus good.

It is this assumption that I want to address today. That idea that the Torah encourages those who follow the commands of God to repay life for life, eye for eye, and tooth for tooth in a literal sense. Nothing could be further from the truth, but to declare that, we need to study and we need to understand. We need to prove it.

So let’s begin with the passage that creates this misunderstanding to begin with. In context, we read this in Exodus 21:22-25:

“If people are fighting with each other and happen to hurt a pregnant woman so badly that her unborn child dies, then, even if no other harm follows, he must be fined. He must pay the amount set by the woman’s husband and confirmed by judges. But if any harm follows, then you are to give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound and bruise for bruise.”

Now, some people would agree with Bono that this conforms to the non-Torah concept of Karma. But that would be misunderstanding of the passage.

Why?

Because that views the passage as a permission for revenge sort of message. Yet endorsing full-on retribution is not at all what the Torah is communicating here.

To understand this passage more fully, our whole view of Torah must change. Often, the Torah is thought of as this impossibly high standard, a level of obedience only a perfect Messiah could embody and live out. But is this the case? We should observe some key concepts from the Tenakh and the haB’rit haChaDesha.

The first clue comes to us in the words of Messiah Yeshua, in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter nineteen. In the passage, the P’rushim had decided to lay a trap for Messiah by presenting him with a theologically-difficult conundrum. They asked him that since divorce was permitted by God, if a man could leave his wife for “any reason.”

At the first century, there was a debated difference between two schools of thought in Yisra’el. The House of Shammai taught that a man could divorce his wife for any small whim, even so meager an offense as burning a meal. In contrast, the House of Hillel taught that divorce should be granted only in the case of serious offenses. By attempting to get Y’shua to take sides in this contentious debate of the day, the P’rushim hope to dull Messiah’s popularity making it clear which school of thought he agreed with. By taking a side, he would automatically lose some favor with those who favored the opposite school of thought.

Yet the ploy didn’t work because Y’shua went beyond the confines of their question to offer a proper understanding of God’s purpose in allowing divorce. We read His response in Matthew 19:4-8, where it is written:

He [Yeshua] replied, “Haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and that he said, ‘For this reason a man should leave his father and mother and be united with his wife, and the two are to become one flesh?’ Thus they are no longer two, but one. So then, no one should split apart what God has joined together.” They said to him, “Then why did Moshe give the commandment that a man should hand his wife a get and divorce her?” He answered, “Moshe allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts are so hardened. But this is not how it was at the beginning.

Whoa.

Think about what was just revealed here by Y’shua. Let me read that last verse again. “Moshe allowed you to divorce your wives because your hearts are so hardened.” You see, even before entering the Messianic Judaism movement, I had also believed that the law of Moses was this perfect standard of behavior, a very high achievement, something to aspire to but probably never fully achieve in this life. Something only Messiah could live out perfectly.

But Y’shua’s own teaching here is suggestive of a different dynamic. The instructions of HaShem allows for divorce because our hearts are so hardened. That doesn’t sound like a perfect and ideal standard, does it? Of course not.

What does is sound like? It sounds like a compromise. It sounds like a minimum standard. And that point is underlined by what Yeshua said next. “But this is not how it was at the beginning.”

In other words, God never designed us to get divorced. Getting divorced wasn’t part of his original plan. It was allowed, but it wasn’t ideal. It was allowed because our hearts stood at a distance from a more perfect level of obedience: God’s original plan.

Let’s finish off the passage with verses nine through eleven, Y’shua still speaking:

“Now what I say to you is that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery!” The talmidim said to him, “If that is how things are between husband and wife, it would be better not to marry!” He said to them, “Not everyone grasps this teaching, only those for whom it is meant.”

Talk about a way to turn a trap in taking sides in a contentious debate on its head. The House of Shammai was considered the more theologically open side, allowing divorce for almost any reason or whim. This allowed the House of Hillel to appear more observant by insisting divorce should be allowed only for serious transgressions. Yet Y’shua wasn’t introducing a new idea here; many Jewish rabbis and scholars throughout history understood that divorce was never part of God’s plan, and in this passage Y’shua reminds both sides of that: that while they are debating each other passionately, neither position is God’s perfect standard.

And take note of this: even Y’shua’s reminder contains an exception for infidelity. But is even that God’s perfect plan for marriage? No. In His perfect plan, neither husband nor wife would enter into infidelity in the first place, and therefore divorce would have no justifiable grounds.

Now, Rabbi Erez pointed out to me that Brad Young, in his book, Jesus the Jewish Theologian, states that there is linguistic evidence in the original language which would see the insertion of the phrase “with the intent” before the words “marrying another.” In other words, Young suggests the verse could read, “Now what I say to you is that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, with the intent of marrying another woman, commits adultery!

So even with Y’shua’s supposed new standard, which ultimately was just a reaffirmation of the Torah’s original teaching, Messiah shows that He knows our hearts are hard, that infidelity can happen, and when it does, then he allows for divorce as a response.

I would personally suggest that, in the context Y’shua understood and agrees with elsewhere in the Gospels, that the preservation of life comes before all the teachings of God’s Torah, and so therefore, even though it is not mentioned specifically in this passage, Y’shua would allow for divorce in marriages where abuse is present. Why? Because the preservation of life comes before all.

Some people also debate vigorously whether the command to write a get, a bill of divorce, was an inspired command of HaShem, or a later addition by Moshe, and while these are fascinating and even controversial debates, for the purpose of today’s message, let’s put those side-topics away for now and save them for oneg discussion. The main focus for this message is simply that through the words of Messiah, we have gained a new insight into the nature of God’s instructions to us: namely, that many of his commands are not a call to perfect, ideal living, but to a minimum standard of conduct one should maintain before he or she risks falling out of favor with HaShem.

But this revelation of the Torah as a minimum standard leads one, by necessity, into viewing many of the teachings of the Torah through new eyes. My first Messianic Rabbi liked to compare this passage to an imagined scene of how this law was given to Moshe on Sinai. In his story, it played out like a negotiation.

God was dictating the Torah to Moshe on Mount Sinai one day when they came to the commandment on divorce. So HaShem said to Moshe, “Now what I say to you is that whoever divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, and marries another woman, commits adultery!

And Moshe, like Y’shua’s talmidim, probably thought about that a moment and said to HaShem, “If that is how things are between husband and wife, it would be better not to marry!” And HaShem considered what Moshe said and responded, “What you say is good. Therefore, Deuteronomy 24:1, ‘Suppose a man marries a woman and consummates the marriage but later finds her displeasing, because he has found her offensive in some respect. He writes her a divorce document, gives it to her and sends her away from his house.’

Again, considering it this way allows us new insight into the nature of Torah.

Far from being a perfect standard for behavior, it becomes clear that many of the commands of Adonai are, instead, negotiated settlements on a minimum standard of behavior one can engage in, and yet still be found acceptable in the eyes of God.

Let me reiterate that point: The Torah is not a perfect standard, it is God’s minimum standard. A minimum standard. In other words, it’s the very least we could do.

So how does this world-changing insight into the nature of God’s instructions to us relate to the verse Bono misunderstood, and that so many well-intentioned believers continue to misunderstand?

Well, if one views this teaching of Torah as a requirement, then yes, this verse would seem to be reflecting the Hindu concept of Karma, that what you put out into the universe by your own actions is what you will receive back. Put out good, and good will come back to you. Put out bad, and bad will come back to you.

Yet is this always how life works out in this world? No. Very often, we need look no further than the news of the day and see that the righteous suffer while those who are corrupt seem to be blessed beyond what their actions would seem to deserve.

And while we know as believers that the scales will come into balance in the World to Come, that’s not what Karma teaches. It teaches if you’re evil, evil will come to you, and if you’re good, good will come to you. Bono also skips the part about how Karma teaches that the actions of this life determine how you’re reincarnated into a lesser or greater live in your next life, and the Torah absolutely does not teach that we get multiple lives in this world to “get it right.”

This Torah passage is teaching nothing like any of that. Much like the teaching of Y’shua on divorce, with this question of retribution for wrongs done, many of us are debating the entirely wrong question.

Because the Torah is not endorsing some sort of mutually-assured destruction. It is not encouraging people to go out and kill someone who murdered their relative, blind someone who blinded them, knock the teeth out of those who knocked your teeth out.

Does that sound like an orderly, God-fearing society to you? No, of course not. May it never be.

But when we view this teaching of HaShem in the light of the insight that it’s offering us a minimum standard of conduct, a limit on how far from God’s perfect standard we can allow our behavior to fall, it casts this passage in a fresh light.

“If people are fighting with each other and happen to hurt a pregnant woman so badly that her unborn child dies, then, even if no other harm follows, he must be fined. He must pay the amount set by the woman’s husband and confirmed by judges. But if any harm follows, then you are to give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound and bruise for bruise.”

You see, this is not the ideal response; it’s the minimum we must conform to.

To put it in modern terms, it’s not a green light endorsing direct retribution. Instead, it’s a red light.

It’s not saying, “Go ahead and take a life for a life, an eye for an eye, or a tooth for a tooth.” Rather, the Torah is placing a limit on those who seek retribution for an injustice.

The Torah passage here might be more accurately rendered, “take no more than a life for a life, no more than an eye for an eye, no more than a tooth for a tooth.” Again, it’s a red light, a limit; not a green light.

God is not endorsing us to seek direct retribution. Remember, this is the same God who instructs us, in Deuteronomy 32:35: “Vengeance is mine, says the L-RD, I will repay.” That is the nature of God, and He is the same forever. So if God’s instruction doesn’t seem to make sense, one must then seek out deeper understanding in the context of the culture of the time and people through whom God gave that command.

We find that context in the passage related to the rape of Dinah, one of the daughters of Jacob. The story is related in B’resheet (Genesis) 34, the entire chapter.

In that passage, we learn that Shechem, the son of Hamor, saw Dinah, desired her, and then decided to take her by force. Later, he repented and wanted to make things right by marrying her. So he asked his father, the king of the village, to negotiate a peace with the sons of Ya’akov that would allow him to marry Dinah.

Without delving into the ancient politics of Jacob’s time, let me just get to the response by the sons of Yisra’el. Basically, they say, “No way are you marrying our sister unless you also worship our God.” And to achieve that, they told Shechem, Hamor, and their entire village that they had to be circumcised to show the sincerity of their desire to follow the God of their fathers.

So, Shechem and Hamor and the rest of the males in their village get circumcised, as they were instructed to do.

Hint: It hurts. A lot. And the pain lasts for a while. It’s debilitating and it rendered every male in their village helpless to defend themselves. While all the men in the village are in pain, two of the sons of Jacob, Simeon and Levi, enter the city and kill off every man in the city, sparing not one.

Now, make no mistake about it, rape is a very serious crime. Violations don’t get much more personal. It is human, though not holy and set apart, to desire and seek retribution.

But was the response of Jacob’s sons appropriate in light of the crime suffered by Dinah?

Only one man, Shechem, violated Dinah. Yet in response, Simeon and Levi slaughtered every single male in Shechem’s village. That could have meant the deaths of dozens, even hundreds of men. And if you think that was considered a good thing, we read of Jacob’s disapproval of their actions in Genesis 34:30-31:

But Ya’akov said to Shim’on and Levi, “You have caused me trouble by making me stink in the opinion of the local inhabitants, the Kena’ani and the P’rizi. Since I don’t have many people, they’ll align themselves together against me and attack me; and I will be destroyed, I and my household.” They replied, “Should we let our sister be treated like a whore?”

That is part of the historical context into which the Torah is given. It is a context that teaches us that the actions of Simeon and Levi are over the top, even excessive. In response to the actions of one man, they slaughtered an entire village of men, and they didn’t seem to fully understand why their actions were condemned, even after Jacob corrects them.

So this teaching in Deuteronomy speaks directly to that issue: that in the wake of a serious crime, any retribution sought should be limited and proportional only to the actual damage done. In other words, the punishment should fit the crime. If a life is taken, no more than one life should be taken in retribution. By setting that as the upper limit of what can be sought in retribution, the Torah makes clear that anything beyond that standard (such as the actions of Simeon and Levi) are beyond what’s appropriate, while anything less than that is therefore seen as merciful.

Keep in mind, the Torah was given as the basis for a society in the Promised Land. If people started killing each other or blinding each other, or knocking each other’s teeth out in retribution for every wrong experienced, eventually everyone would end up toothless, blind, and eventually dead.

Now, the “eye for eye” standard was rarely carried out literally in the Promised Land. They understood what “an eye for an eye” meant: not literal mutilation, but whatever the aggrieved party demands and the court allows, and no more than the upper limit. Never more than eye for eye, never a repeat of the death of an entire village over the actions of one man.

This is a distinction Messiah Y’shua understood, too. When he referred to this verse, he wasn’t teaching anything new or radical; he was simply clarifying and confirming the passage’s proper interpretation. That’s why he teaches, in Matthew 5:38-39:

“You have heard that our fathers were told, ‘Eye for eye and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you not to stand up against someone who does you wrong. On the contrary, if someone hits you on the right cheek, let him hit you on the left cheek, too!

This is entirely consistent with the original Torah teaching. And we know this is so because of the very next verses after the “eye for eye” teaching. We read this in Exodus 21:26-27:

“If a person hits his male or female slave’s eye and destroys it, he must let him go free in compensation for his eye. If he knocks out his male or female slave’s tooth, he must let him go free in compensation for his tooth.”

There is the eye and the tooth, repeated again from the original command, for emphasis! Does the passage teach that if you blind your slave’s eye, you must literally let him blind yours? No! It’s teaching that when you cause someone else damage, that damage must be compensated in a way that makes up for the wrong they have suffered, and that the punishment must remain in proportion to the crime.

Eye for eye, in this passage, means a servant who loses an eye wins his freedom, which usually in the land of Yisra’el meant the forgiveness of a financial debt as well, since that is the sort of servitude most common in that time and culture.

Do you appreciate the difference here? This is not a passage about Karma: it’s about compensation.

Let us go further. Imagine that you suffer a wrong. While the most you can seek is eye-for-eye compensation, you can also choose to seek less. By seeking less than the most you are entitled to, one demonstrates mercy, undeserved kindness, forgiveness. And it’s taught in the Torah, that part of the Bible that some mistakenly believe is totally lacking in such qualities.

In the Gospel, Y’shua is merely reemphasizes what was already known, though lost in the heat of the debate between the houses of Shammai and Hillel: that eye-for-eye is a limit on what’s acceptable, and that therefore mercy, even forgiveness, is the real goal. While one might be justified in seeking “eye for eye” retribution and compensation, that’s a minimum standard for our obedience. The truly righteous live by a higher standard, which is mercy and forgiveness: to demand less than what they are fully due.

Just imagine: forgiveness and mercy are indeed taught within the heart of the Torah. I suspect only some believers who’ve grown accustomed to the distinctly modern, Western expression of the faith, and who therefore have perhaps never really read the Torah or studied it closely, might feel surprise at that.

Yet if Messiah is the living embodiment of the Torah itself, it should surprise no one that their messages are the same. After all, the nature of God never changes.

Shabbat Shalom.

King David, Lesson 3 “…from the L-RD.”

NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of June 29, 2013 at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. It is the third installment in an ongoing Messianic character study of King David. You may also listen to it, if you wish.

This is, as you all know, supposed to be a teaching time. While some of us have been in the Messianic movement for a while, for others, this is all something a bit new. And so, to help out some of our newcomers here today, before we start the formal lesson, I’d like to share with you a few of my favorite rules for living as a part of the Messianic Jewish movement.

So listen closely.

1. Remember, if you can’t say something nice, say it in Yiddish.

2. Always whisper the names of diseases.

3. One mitzvah, one good deed, can truly change the world. Two? It’ll just tire you out.

4. When Christians leave, they sometimes forget to say goodbye; but when Messianics say goodbye, we sometimes forget to leave.

5. Remember our closing blessing for Passover: Next year, in Jerusalem. The year after that, maybe a tropical cruise.

6. And finally, the men here will appreciate this last one: there comes a time in all our lives, men, when we must stand up and politely inform are mothers we are now an adult. A good time to do this? Around age forty.

Anyway…

Shabbat Shalom!

Today, I will be teaching the third lesson in our close study of the life of King David. For those of you who were not here when I delivered the first lesson in March, or the second lesson in April, please know that our community website, ShmaYisrael.net, has the audio from those lessons archived on the site, as well as PDFs of the message notes.

The reason we are studying the life of King David is to grow in our understanding of Messiah Yeshua. The rabbis before Yeshua’s day spoke in the Talmud of the coming of Messiah in two ways. One way they spoke of him, in the Babylonian Talmud, was as Mashiach Bin Yosef, or Messiah, son of Joseph, the messiah who will come, suffer, and die for His people. The more common way they spoke of him, reflected in both the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds, however, was as Mashiach Bin Dovid, or Messiah, son of David, the messiah who will come as a conquering king and establish a kingdom in Jerusalem that will have no end. Every year, in the Torah cycle, we study the life of Joseph, wherein Messiah’s nature at his initial appearance is reflected. The purpose of this study is to balance that out by taking a closer look at the shadows of Messiah’s return, his second appearance, as reflected in the life of King David.

In the first lesson, we studied the historical background and history, from the time of Moses to the time of the prophet Samuel, or Sh’mu’el in Hebrew. We studied this time because David’s role and purpose in the history of Yisra’el cannot be properly understood without studying the context into which he appeared. We took a look at God’s purpose in Yisra’el, how His desire was never to set up an earthly king to rule His people, but to have us all draw close to Him, hear from Him directly, and thus be ruled by Him with perfect obedience.

Yet starting at Mount Sinai, we grew fearful of drawing so close, so intimately, to such a holy God, and so we stood at a distance and asked for a mediator to act as a go-between between God and us. The first, and best, mediator was Moses himself, but since Moses was but a man and could not live forever in that role, his role was passed on to others. Soon the seat of Moses was replaced by regional judges (shoftim) in Yisra’el, but after between three hundred and five hundred years, even those judges became ineffective in passing on their office to successors who would fulfill that office faithfully.

By Samuel’s time, the people demanded the prophet anoint a human king over Yisra’el, so that they could be more like the other nations around them. The first human king anointed by Samuel was King Saul, or Sha’ul in Hebrew, and unfortunately he was exactly what the people had asked God for. King Saul allowed himself to be anointed only reluctantly, and stood at a distance from intimacy with God. In time, this led him to rebel against God’s instructions to him as king, and Saul replaced God’s morality with his own sense of right and wrong. This caused the L-RD to repent that He had ever anointed Sha’ul as king over Yisra’el, and he decided to withdraw His anointing from King Sha’ul and appoint “someone better than you,” in the word of God through Samuel.

That someone better ended up being David, a son of Jesse, who himself was a descendant of Moshe’s sister, Miriam. In lesson two, we studied David’s anointing, but instead of taking office right away, Samuel tells David to return to his sheep and tend them until God showed him it was time to take the throne of Yisra’el.

But now, in today’s lesson, the Torah narrative returns to King Sha’ul. Although God has revoked his anointing over Sha’ul to be king of Yisra’el, that does not mean Sha’ul was ready, or willing, to step down. Instead, he stubbornly retains his title, trying to rule the new kingdom of Yisra’el without the anointing of HaShem. This, of course, is no easy task and it comes with a heavy price.

Let’s rejoin the narrative in I Samuel 16, starting at verse 14:

1 Samuel 16:14
Now the Spirit of Adonai had left Sha’ul; instead, an evil spirit from Adonai would suddenly come over him.

Now, if you’re anything like me, this one verse is enough to just stop you cold. The wording of it is enough to cause someone to wonder what’s really going on here.

I mean, we all know God is holy and righteous, so how can the Torah be teaching us that this evil spirit sent to Saul comes from Adonai? Why, that flies in the very face of… what? Our theology. Right?

And what is theology, but our preconceptions and conclusions about who God is. But since those preconceptions and conclusions are man-made, what are we to do when confronted with a problem like this? We need to dig deeper into the Word and seek to understand the context, history and other elements of the Tenakh that produced this wording.

This one passage, over the centuries, has spawned all sorts of theories as to its meaning. And while we don’t have time to dive in-depth into all of them, let’s take a brief survey of some of the most prevalent theological theories.

Some teach that this passage indicates that God is the originator of all things, both good and evil. Yet if God created evil, how can he be holy? That theory doesn’t satisfy the questions raised by the passage. It simply doesn’t ring true.

Another theory is that while God is not the source of evil, He has ultimate dominion over and can basically give demons and evil spirits their marching orders. This also lacks the ring of truth. The suggestion that God would specifically dictate someone to be plagued by demons acting on His specific orders still attributed a evil to a holy God. Again, this doesn’t have the ring of truth to it.

And this is the challenge with most theological takes that have been applied to this passage; to one degree or another, most theories ascribe some level of complicity in evil to HaShem, which is not acceptable.

Another set of theories explaining this passage try to ascribe some level of error in the translation of the passage. Yet when one studies the passage in Hebrew, the translation is clear: the verbiage, “an evil spirit from Adonai” is spot on. Even in Hebrew, that is how the passage reads.

Then theologians try to point to some sort of error in the Hebrew text. We all know what a dead-end that is. Either the Torah was transmitted generation-to-generation by careful scribes, or it was not. The only way to prove it was an error would be to find a previously-unearthed manuscript of I Samuel that states this passage in different Hebrew words. Yet there no existing manuscript of I Samuel that contains a notably different text of this passage.

Lacking such evidence, there’s no way to prove a mistake was made in recording this passage. We are stuck with the words we have been given for generations: an evil spirit from the L-RD.

That tells me something important: we’re missing some important information. Perhaps what we’re missing is the appropriate context for understanding the wording of the passage.

Now, all Scripture must be understood, first and foremost, in the context of the rest of Scripture. So let’s take a look at how some other passages define God’s relationship to evil. We read this in:

Isaiah 45:7
I form light, I create darkness; I make well-being, I create woe; I, Adonai, do all these things.

Let’s also take a look at this passage from:

Amos 3:6
When the shofar is blown in the city, don’t the people tremble?

Can disaster befall a city without Adonai’s having done it?

And for now, let’s also add one more passage from Lamentations. David’s own son, Solomon, is credited with writing this passage in:

Lamentations 3:38
Don’t both bad things and good proceed from the mouth of the Most High?

These passages clarify a rather unique proposition, and one we’re not accustomed to hearing. To some degree, does HaShem have something to do with evil coming into existence? These verses have been in Scripture, but are often ignored because they are troublesome and not easily explained in our day, age, and culture.

Even so, does this mean that God is directly responsible for the current actions of evil? At what point does evil become responsible for reproducing itself?

It’s a difficult question, and one with no easily researched answer. However, I did dig up something that might help us find our footing here. And it’s a quote that might help us understand that we’re framing the entire question in the wrong way.

It’s a quote from arguably the smartest Jewish man of the twentieth century. While he was no theologian, few will argue with Albert Einstein, who once wrote these words:

Albert Einstein
“Evil is simply the absence of God. It is just like darkness and cold, a word that man has created to describe the absence of God. God did not create evil. Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart. It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.”

This definition seems a good place to start. If evil is simply the result of the absence of God, then all mystery about this passage quickly disappears!

God has indeed withdrawn his anointing, his presence, from Saul, due to his rebellion against God, and his insistence on doing what seemed right to himself, rather than obeying God’s instructions.

Without that presence, that anointing, of God in Saul’s life, then just as darkness results from the absence of light, just as cold results from the absence of heat, so an evil spirit results from the absence of God in Saul’s life.

You see, in light of Einstein’s quote, evil is not so much a created thing that God caused, as it is simply part of the nature of the way God created the universe. When there is no heat, there is cold. When there is no light, there is darkness. And where there is no presence of God and His love, there is evil.

Yet one nagging question lingers. While Einstein’s definition of evil satisfies the presence of an evil spirit in Saul’s life, why does the passage add the words, “from God.” I think there are two responses to this question.

The first response is that one must keep in mind the Torah culture the scribe, Samuel, was a part of. The habits and culture of the Torah society Samuel was part of suggested a people who thanked God for all things, who credited him for everything in their lives.

Ascribing the presence of the evil spirit to anyone other than God would be, to that mindset, like giving credit to someone other than God. Crediting anyone other than HaShem for anything would be edging close to worshipping another God, and that would be anathema to the mindset, culture, time, and people who received the Tenakh from Adonai. It simply would not be done.

This sounds strange to us, today. We tend to thank God for all that is good in our lives, and pray against the bad things, which we typically ascribe to the work of the Adversary of God.

Yet it seems plausible that the people of Samuel’s time were of a different mindset from our own. They thanked God for everything, whether those things appeared to be good or bad, because he is “worthy of ALL praise,” and he is, in fact, the only one worthy of our praise.

The second response is that perhaps another way to understand the passage is to read in between the lines a bit, adding a possessive form and a single word, absence, at the end of it.

This would cause the passage to read, “Now the Spirit of Adonai had left Sha’ul; instead, an evil spirit from Adonai’s absence would suddenly come over him.”

While this possessive form and the extra word are not in the text, I would suggest that it more adequately conveys the understood meaning of the culture that produced it.

Now, with that nagging question out of the way, we can begin to move on in the passage. We read in:

I Samuel 16:15-17
Sha’ul’s servants said to him, “Do you notice that there’s an evil spirit from God that suddenly comes over you? Let our lord now command your servants who are here with you to look for a man who knows how to play the lyre. Then, if the evil spirit from God comes over you, he will play; and it will do you good.” Sha’ul said to his servants, “Find me a man who can play well, and bring him to me.”

Can you begin to get a sense of what is coming, here? God has already anointed David to be king, but David is not yet on the throne. Saul is. It seems like a powder-keg situation. If Saul were to suspect that David was that “someone who is better than you,” he would never allow David near him, out of fear. He would instead order troops to seek out David and put him to death.

Instead, God uses this situation of need in Saul’s life to bring David closer to the throne. We read on in:

1 Samuel 16:18
One of the young men answered, “Here, I’ve seen one of the sons of Yishai the Beit-Lachmi who knows how to play. He’s a brave soldier, he can fight, he chooses his words carefully and he’s pleasant-looking. Besides, Adonai is with him.”

What a sales pitch! And it helps us make sense of why David was out in the sheep fields since his anointing, having the spirit of the L-RD fall upon him with power. While it was beneficial for David’s relationship with HaShem in and of itself, it also spread a good word about David throughout Yisra’el at this time.

He’s brave, he can fight, he chooses his words carefully, he’s a good-looking fellow to have around, and … wait, there’s more! … HaShem, the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, is with him!

Who wouldn’t bring the guy in, at least for an audition, with a set-up like that? I’d want to know when he’s coming to Portland so I can go see him in concert myself!

So let’s see what Saul thinks of this proposal. We read this in:

I Samuel 16:19-23
So Sha’ul sent messengers to Yishai saying, “Send me David your son, who is out with the sheep.” Yishai took a donkey, loaded it with bread, a bottle of wine and a kid, and sent them with David his son to Sha’ul. David came to Sha’ul and presented himself to him. Sha’ul took a great liking to him and made him his armor-bearer. Sha’ul sent a message to Yishai: “Please let David stay in my service, because I’m pleased with him.” So it was that whenever the [evil] spirit from God came over Sha’ul, David would take the lyre and play it, with the result that Sha’ul would find relief and feel better, as the evil spirit left him.

One has to admire the beauty of how God can prepare us for things we’ve never suspected we were capable of. Usually, we only get a hint of it near the end of our lives, when most of our living is done and we can begin to detect the tracings of God’s handiwork in our lives.

Here in the life of King David, any of us familiar with his life must be getting thrilled with anticipation. David is destined to be King of Yisra’el, and here he is, learning aspects of kingship from the person currently holding the office. David is destined to write many of the Psalms included in the Tenakh, and here he is, being asked by King Saul to play for him frequently.

If one ever wonders how a simple shepherd could be expected to become king of an entire nation, one need look no further than here: God placed David where he wanted him, so that he could learn all the skills necessary for the ways in which he planned to use David later in life.

His apprenticeship has, indeed, begun, and as for King Saul, who defied the prophet Samuel when he warned him that God had found “someone better than you” to take his place as king, God has hidden His replacement for Saul right under the king’s nose, placing David right where the action is, front and center for everything that is going on, as one of Saul’s most trusted servant.

David, the future leader of Yisra’el, begins to learn how to be king, by being a servant of the king. If that’s not a shadow of our Messiah Yeshua, I think we’d all be hard-pressed to recognize any other messianic shadows. But now, we do recognize it.

When I first began planning this message, I had planned to draw in several verses from the Ha’Brit Ha’Chadasha. I had hoped to explore how this topic with King Saul paralleled the questions people have about whether God still does this with those who have found their salvation in Messiah Yeshua. Yet that is a huge basket of eggs, and to even broach it fairly would require making a study out of that topic alone. In other words, it’s not the sort of question one can treat fairly in the space of a thousand or so words.

And in fairness to the focus of our study, it’s a rabbit trail. So, instead, I decided to leave that topic off the table in this lesson.

The next time I am asked by Rabbi Erez to fill in, we will be moving on to Chapter 17 of I Samuel, a chapter that relates one of the most famous meetings in the life of King David: his showdown with Golyat, more popularly known as Goliath, the giant of Gat.

It’s a fun, exciting chapter, and there’s more to it than the children’s adventure story so many of us were taught as children. I’m looking forward to digging into that with you.

But for now…

Shabbat Shalom.

King David, Lesson 2

NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of April 27, 2013 at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. It is the second installment in an ongoing Messianic character study of King David. You may also listen to it, if you wish.

Shabbat Shalom.

Today, I will be teaching the second lesson in an ongoing study of King David. If you were not able to be here about a month ago when I taught the first lesson, please know that it is available on our community website, ShmaYisrael.net, including an audio file you can listen to, as well as a .pdf of the message notes.

In the last lesson, I shared that among the reasons I wanted to take us through this study of David is that he is a central figure in the ancient kingdom of Yisra’el, that our Messiah Y’shua is descended from the line of David, and that by studying David’s life, we can begin to detect a shadow of Messiah in his life. The Babylonian Talmud writes of Messiah in two ways; as Messiah Son of Joseph, the anointed one who would suffer to save his people, and as Messiah Son of David, the anointed one who would rule and reign over a renewed Jerusalem, whose kingdom would be without end. Each year, when we go through the Torah portions, we familiarize ourselves with the story of Joseph and how there are shadows of Messiah’s first appearance in his life. The purpose of this study is to help us gain a deeper appreciation of the shadows of Messiah in King David’s life, which may point us in certain ways to clues regarding the nature of Messiah’s return.

In lesson one, we studied the historical context into which David appeared. We reviewed how it was never in God’s plan to have Yisra’el, His people, anoint a human king over them like the other nations. He wanted them to be called out, a people unique from all others, who would hear from HaShem directly as He spoke to their hearts, and then carry out His wishes with true and uncompromising obedience. Yet when Adonai spoke the Torah directly to us there in Sinai, we grew afraid and instead of drawing near to God, we stood at a distance and asked for a mediator between God and ourselves. In the short term, that role was filled by Moses and his successors, but in Deuteronomy we read that Moses revealed that this role of mediator between God and man would find its ultimate fulfillment in a prophet like Moses, a Messiah who would hear from Adonai directly and speak everything God said to us. More importantly, unlike Moses, this mediator would never leave that role but be able to fulfill it for as long as a mediator was needed.

We also found that when the children of Yisra’el entered the land, they did not rush to immediately anoint a king over themselves because Moses warned them that such was not Adonai’s plan for them. So instead, Moses passed his role onto Joshua. When no suitable replacement for Joshua emerged, Yisra’el began anointing shoftim—judges, some of whom ruled only small regions of Yisra’el at a time. This time of the judges lasted somewhere between three hundred to five hundred years in Yisra’el until we reached the last of the great judges, the prophet Sh’mu’el.

When the sons of Sh’mu’el failed to follow in the righteous footsteps of their father, the elders of Yisra’el then began to appeal to the prophet to ask HaShem to anoint a king over them. While God has Sh’mu’el warn the people of the dangers of appointing a king over them, they persisted and finally God had Sh’mu’el anoint Sha’ul, known as Saul, the first anointed king of Yisra’el.

Needless to say, it did not go well. Saul hid himself on the day of his coronation and had to be brought forth by the force of other men. It set a defining tone for his kingship, because a while later, when God ordered Saul to completely destroy the Amalekites, King Saul refused to listen; he substituted God’s morality for his own, lied about what he’d done to Sh’mu’el when confronted about his actions, and then tried to justify his disobedience by claiming he had set aside livestock he had been ordered to destroy completely as “a sacrifice for Adonai,” and even went so far as to blame others for doing it.

All of this caused Adonai to regret anointing Saul as king, and in fact, He tells Sh’mu’el to inform the king that his anointing to be the king of Yisra’el had been revoked by the L-RD. He even tells Saul that another Yisra’elite has already been chosen to replace him as king.

With those words of correction, the legitimate kingship of Sha’ul was brought to an end. Although he would continue to cling to the office for many years, ruling forty in all, for all intents and purposes God was ready to move on.

That is how things stood when we finished our previous study. Now, today, we are ready to meet the man HaShem has chosen to replace Saul as king. We begin by reading this in:

Aleph Sh’mu’el 16:1
Adonai said to Sh’mu’el, “How much longer are you going to go on grieving for Sha’ul, now that I have rejected him as king over Isra’el? Fill your horn with oil, and set out; I will send you to Yishai the Beit-Lachmi, because I have chosen myself a king from among his sons.”

This underlines a theme I pointed out at the close of our last lesson. What do we learn here? While Sh’mu’el was both a judge in Yisra’el and a prophet of Adonai, he grieved the fate of King Saul, who he had anointed as the first human king of Yisra’el, in the same way that one might grieve for a relative who, instead of attending college, had chosen a life of crime; or who, instead of getting married and having children, had been killed in a tragic accident.

But did God’s success in carrying out His plans for Yisra’el depend upon Saul’s obedience or disobedience? No, it did not.

Last time, I alluded to the story of Queen Esther, who was warned by her uncle Mordechi that if she did not speak up in her time of opportunity, that “salvation would come to the Jews from a different direction.” That is what we see here. While Sh’mu’el is still grieving the fate of Saul, God is ready to move on and bring help to Yisra’el from a different direction. In this case, He’s already selected a new king for Himself, but all He tells Sh’mu’el at this time is that the replacement for Saul is “a son of Jesse, the Bethlehemite.”

It takes a moment for the L-RD to get Sh’mu’el on board, however, as we read on in:

Aleph Sh’mu’el 18:2-3
Sh’mu’el said, “How can I go? If Sha’ul hears of it, he will have me killed.” Adonai said, “Take a female cow with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to Adonai.’ Summon Yishai to the sacrifice. I will tell you what to do, and you are to anoint for me the person I point out to you.”

What we can appreciate here is that God already has a plan. He knows exactly how to answer Sh’mu’el’s objections in order to set his mind at ease. You see, when someone we know and love makes choices we do not expect, it takes us by surprise. If they are bad choices, we grieve over the consequences that follow after those bad choices. If they are good choices, we might be in more of a mood to celebrate, but we are still affected by the unexpected nature of the decision.

God is not; He knows us deeply, and even if we make a choice that is against His will, He has detailed plans to bring His will about. About the only thing that changes is who He uses to bring His will about, because those plans may no longer include us. Definitely, I’d count that as a reason to be prayerful in our decisions, to look beyond ourselves, beyond our own instincts, and seek out the wisdom of Adonai in all we say and in all we do.

As the passage continues, we read how Sh’mu’el follows Adonai’s instructions, arriving at Beit-Lachem and preparing a sacrifice for HaShem in the presence of Yishai and his sons. As we read in:

Aleph Sh’mu’el 16:5b-6
He consecrated Yishai and his sons and summoned them to the sacrifice. When they had come, he looked at Eli’av and said, “This has to be Adonai’s anointed one, here before him.”

This is an interesting moment in the calling of the next human King of Yisra’el. We’ve just read that at the moment Sh’mu’el sees Eli’av, the son of Yishai, the very first thing that flashes across his mind is, “This has to be Adonai’s anointed one.” Now, the text doesn’t make it clear what it was that Sh’mu’el saw in Eli’av precisely that makes him think this, but from the text it does seem that it’s something about his appearance.

Perhaps Eli’av was taller and more muscular than the other sons of Yishai. Perhaps he was simply handsome and cut an impressive-looking figure; as they might say in Hollywood, maybe he just looked the part, just looked like someone who would be a king.

Whatever the case with Eli’av, does this sound familiar?

Of course it does. Appearances played a big role in the calling of Sha’ul, didn’t they? Remember what we read in:

Aleph Sh’mu’el 10:23-24
They ran and brought him from there, and when he stood among the people he was head and shoulders taller than anyone around. Sh’mu’el said to all the people, “Do you see the man Adonai has chosen, that there is no one like him among all the people?” Then all the people shouted, “Long live the king!”

In the person of Sha’ul, Adonai had offered Yisra’el the king they desired, a man who looked the part, an individual who stood head and shoulders taller than anyone else around. Yet we remember how that turned out, don’t we? Although Sha’ul looked like a king, he did not behave like the sort of man HaShem needed to have ruling over His chosen people, because Sha’ul was not a man who listened to Him and did whatever the L-RD instructed him. Instead, he chose his own will, his own sense of right and wrong, and acted on that, preferring it to the instructions of the L-RD.

Not this time.

This time, HaShem is not interested in giving us what we wanted and expected. Instead, he decided to give us, to give all of Yisra’el, what we needed. The L-RD knew we needed a king who would listen to and obey the God of Yisra’el, and listen only to Him and Him alone.

The passage continues on:

Aleph Sh’mu’el 16:7
But Adonai said to Sh’mu’el, “Don’t pay attention to how he looks or how tall he is, because I have rejected him. Adonai doesn’t see the way humans see—humans look at the outward appearance, but Adonai looks at the heart.”

Now, this very passage has been echoed down throughout history, since the L-RD first spoke it to the prophet Sh’mu’el. Outward appearance is not as important as what is inside. In fact, it was this very passage that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. remezed to in his I Have a Dream speech when he said:

Martin Luther King Jr., I Have a Dream
I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

That phrase resonated as it did because it is essentially the same thought that Adonai is expressing here to Sh’mu’el. God doesn’t judge us by our outward appearance, but by our heart. He doesn’t make assumptions about us based on our height, our weight, our attractiveness, our skin tone, our hair color … none of that. What he cares about is our heart, our character. As he leads Sh’mu’el to the one He has chosen, this is the lesson He wants the prophet, and by extension, all of us, to learn: what he desires here is the same thing he desired at Mount Sinai: for us to hear from Him directly, and to obey His instructions.

Because that is what leads to character, the sort of character that HaShem cares about. Will we listen to Him? Will we obey His mitzvot, His instructions? Will we draw near to God, or will we grow afraid and stand at a distance from Him?

Let’s read on in:

Aleph Sh’mu’el 16:8-10
Then Yishai called Avinadav and presented him to Sh’mu’el; but he said, “Adonai hasn’t chosen this one either.” Yishai presented Shammah; again Sh’mu’el said, “Adonai hasn’t chosen this one either.” Yishai presented seven of his sons to Sh’mu’el; but Sh’mu’el told Yishai, “Adonai has not chosen these.”

It says something significant, at this point, that despite reviewing all seven of the sons of Yishai, Adonai informs the prophet that none of these are the one Adonai has chosen. For the second time in two anointing ceremonies, the man Adonai had chosen is nowhere to be found; but there is also an important difference.

The coronation of Sha’ul was conducted before all the tribes of Ya’akov, and when Sha’ul failed to appear at the proper moment, it was because he was hiding himself away. Yet at this anointing, that is not the case. Conducted much more privately, David does not appear because his family had hidden him away. He was concealed, but not by his own choice. His family hid him away, and did not even invite him to the visitation by the prophet Sh’mu’el.

Why?

And at this point, one might legitimately wonder, why the sons of Jesse? And why David, whom his father didn’t even invite to the prophet’s visit?

The traditions of the rabbis do offer up one possible explanation. Yet to read about that, we have to go outside the Torah.

In 1909, the conservative Talmudist, Rabbi Louis Ginzberg, published a multi-volume set of books that attempted to summarize the most popular Jewish legends and folklore surrounding the Torah into a more compact volume, The Legends of the Jews, that would be easier for the average Jew to read and understand. In this work, he records some traditions of the rabbis about King David, and we read this passage in:

Ginzberg, The Legends of the Jews, vol. 4, pg. 81.
…his [David’s] father Jesse was one of the greatest scholars of his time…

In spite of his piety, Jesse was not always proof against temptation. One of his slaves caught his fancy, and he would have entered into illicit relations with her, had his wife, Nazbat, the daughter of Adiel, not frustrated the plan. She disguised herself as the slave, and Jesse, deceived by the ruse, met with his own wife. The child borne by Nazbat was given out as the son of the freed slave, so that the father might not discover the deception practiced upon him. This son was David.

If this Jewish tradition is accurate, then even though David was born to Jesse’s own wife, he was born out of his father’s intent to commit adultery, even though he didn’t, in actuality, commit that sin. It also appears that this fact, that David was not actually illegitimate, was not shared with Jesse by Nazbat his wife. So, at the time of Sh’mu’el’s visit, Jesse either still thought that David was not the daughter of Nazbat, his wife, or he may have learned the truth by then, but still treated David with a cold shoulder because David was a reminder of his temptation to sin, even though he had not.

Either way, however it came about, David was not there initially when Yishai presented his sons to the prophet. And so we read on in:

Aleph Sh’mu’el 16:11-13
Are all your sons here?” Sh’mu’el asked Yishai. He replied, “There is still the youngest; he’s out there tending the sheep.” Sh’mu’el said to Yishai, “Send and bring him back, because we won’t sit down to eat until he gets here.” He sent and brought him in. With ruddy cheeks, red hair and bright eyes, he was a good-looking fellow. Adonai said, “Stand up and anoint him; he’s the one.” Sh’mu’el took the horn of oil and anointed him there in his brothers’ presence. From that day on, the Spirit of Adonai would fall upon David with power. So Sh’mu’el set out and went to Ramah.

Here, we notice how reluctant Yishai is to bring forth his son David. By this, we can understand why the rabbis of old felt a need to explain this hesitancy. Yet we read that HaShem embraced David as his chosen one and there, in the presence of his brothers, David is anointed by the prophet to become the next king of Yisra’el. We can tell that God’s selection of David is true because the text tells us that “from that day on, the Spirit of Adonai would fall upon David with power.”

Imagine the transformational aspect of this for David! He’s gone from being the result of a shameful family secret to the most important and pivotal man in the kingdom of Yisra’el.

And here is where we can begin to detect early hints of the shadow of Messiah in the life of David. He starts out this passage as a secret, the concealed one, hidden away by his own family. And yet he is God’s chosen, his anointed one.

Although we do not know the name of the psalmist behind Psalm 118, if it was not written by David, it was clearly written about him. As we read in:

Psalm 118:21-23
I am thanking you because you answered me; you became my salvation.
The very rock that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone!
This has come from Adonai, and in our eyes it is amazing.

And it is verse 22 that strikes me most. The very rock that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone. That certainly described David. His family rejected him, but he has now been anointed to become the one upon whom Adonai will finally complete his work of making Yisra’el a nation, strong and mighty, just as He promise Avraham and his descendants.

Yet who else does this passage describe? Well, David’s great-great-great grandson, many generations removed … another anointed one, the prophet like unto Moshe, Y’shua the Messiah, of course. Kefa—Peter himself, one of Yeshua’s most trusted talmidim—testifies to this comparison in the book of Acts. We read this in:

Acts 4:11-12
“This Yeshua is the stone rejected by you builders which has become the cornerstone. There is salvation in no one else! For there is no other name under heaven given to mankind by whom we must be saved!”

Here is a clear, obvious connection between the life of David, and the life of Messiah. Both knew rejection, and both were made by God to be key figures in His plan for His people. David, as the first king to unite all the tribes of Yisra’el under His kingship, and Yeshua, as the one who will permanently unite all of the commonwealth of Yisra’el under His kingship, which will have no end.

Yet was Adonai’s selection of David capricious? Was it random, or part of a plan? As always with HaShem, there was more to David than meets the eye. We read the following in Ginzberg’s collection of Jewish folklore in:

The Legends of the Jews, vol. 4, pg. 81
David, the “elect of God,” was descended from a family which itself belonged to the elect of Israel. Those ancestors of his who are enumerated in the Bible by name are all of them men of distinguished excellence. Besides, David was a descendant of Miriam, the sister of Moses, and so the strain of royal aristocracy was reinforced by the priestly aristocracy. Nor was David the first in his family to occupy the throne of a ruler. His great-grandfather Boaz was one and the same person with Ibzan, the judge of Bethlehem.

So David is from the family of Moshe, through Moshe’s sister Miryam. He was also a descendant of the biblical judge of Beit-Lachem, Ibzan, also known as Boaz. This calls even closer to mind Adonai’s promise to Moshe, which we read last time in:

D’varim (Deuteronomy) 18:15-19
Adonai will raise up for you a prophet like me from among yourselves, from your own kinsmen. You are to pay attention to him, just as when you were assembled at Horev and requested Adonai your God, ‘Don’t let me hear the voice of Adonai my God any more, or let me see this great fire ever again; if I do, I will die!’ On that occasion Adonai said to me, ‘They are right in what they are saying. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I order him. Whoever doesn’t listen to my words, which he will speak in my name, will have to account for himself to me.

And so, two thirds of the way through the sixteenth chapter of Aleph Sh’mu’el, the new king of Yisra’el has been chosen. As Adonai warned Sha’ul, He has selected a man “better than you.” Meaning better than the disobedient king, Sha’ul.

And who better to sit on Yisra’el’s throne as king than a man descended from Moshe’s sister, Miryam, and from Boaz as well? His line will lead directly to Yeshua, from the first king of a united Yisra’el, to the eternal king of an eternally united Yisra’el.

So, as promised, salvation—yeshua—has come to the Jews from a different direction. It could have come through Sha’ul, had he been obedient, but God’s plans were not thrown off-track by Sha’ul’s disobedience. And so we learn that as heartbreaking as our disobedience can be, to God and to others and to ourselves, none of us is ever so important, so key, so vital that we can destroy the plans of the eternal God through our finite disobedience.

God is bigger than us, and will bring about His will one way or another. The real question becomes, will we follow Him in obedience, or watch Him do all this from a distance?

Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves at this point.

Even though his legitimate kingship ended in chapter fifteen when Adonai withdrew His anointing from Sha’ul, we must remember that Sha’ul isn’t dead, nor has he meekly and obediently stepped aside.

And while David was anointed by the prophet Sh’mu’el to be Yisra’el’s next king after Sha’ul, that doesn’t mean he’s been enthroned yet.

The journey to David’s kingship has only just begun, and the next time I am invited to fill in for Rabbi Erez, we’ll explore what came next. But for now:

Shabbat Shalom.

King David, Lesson 1

NOTE: This message was delivered on the Shabbat of March 30, 2013 at Kehilat Sh’ma Yisra’el. It is the first installment in an ongoing Messianic character study of King David. You may also listen to it, if you wish.

Shabbat Shalom.

Beginning today, with this message, and over the course of the next few times I am asked to fill in for Rabbi Erez, we are going to be going through a close study I’ve pulled together focusing on the life of King David.

Why, of all the figures in the Tenakh and the Ha’Brit Ha’Chadasha, did I choose to focus on King David? There are many reasons.

First, and perhaps most important, is that Messiah Yeshua is descended from the line of David. Also important is the key role David played in the early formation of Yisra’el; although he was the second anointed King of Yisra’el, he was the first to hold power over what came to be known as the Unified Kingdom of Yisra’el. He played a key role in rescuing Yisra’el from a moment in its history where its continued existence was in doubt. And third, because of the sometimes largely unexplored ways in which David is a shadow of the promised Messiah.

You see, when teaching of Mashiach, even the rabbis of traditional Judaism speak of Him in two ways. The Babylonian Talmud—and only the Babylonian Talmud—speaks of Mashiach bin Yosef, Messiah, son of Joseph, and both the Babylonian and the Jerusalem Talmud speak of Mashiach bin Dovid—Messiah, son of David.

So we have these two natures of Messiah written about by the Talmudic scholars. And every year, when we go through the Torah cycle, we can celebrate Yeshua as he first appeared, as Messiah son of Yosef, the suffering servant, the Messiah who would come to suffer and die for His people.

Yet there is this other nature, Messiah, son of David, which is written about far more frequently by the Talmudic sages. It’s the nature in which the rabbis of Yeshua’s time expected Messiah to appear in their day. And yet, because David’s story takes place beyond the life of Moshe, it is outside of those first five books and we are poorer for the less-frequent study of the man who was Yeshua’s great-grandfather several times removed.

Trust me, as we dig deep into the life of King David, we will find a rich storehouse of insight into our Messiah, for David, like Moshe before him, was a type of messiah. So my prayer for this study is that we come through it, over time, not only with a better understanding of David and his role in the history of Yisra’el, but an enriched understanding of our Messiah and savior, Yeshua.

This being understood at the outset, I have to beg your forgiveness when I reveal that, in today’s message, we will study very little of the life of David himself. But for a reason.

You see, to truly understand and appreciate King David for who he was and what he meant to the history of Yisra’el, we must first understand the history and context into which he appeared. So before we begin our attempt to understand David, let us first turn our attention to what came between the end of Moshe’s life, when he turns the leadership of Yisra’el over to Yehoshua, and the time of David first coming to the attention of the L-RD.

If you’ll recall, the book of D’varim, popularly known in English as Deuteronomy, is a recounting of the Torah by Moshe to the people of Yisra’el, as he is about to reach the end of his days and turn the stewardship of the people of God over to Yehoshua—known as Joshua in English. While the book of D’varim shows that HaShem anticipated many things about the future of His chosen people, I want to focus in on one specific thing he anticipates.

Keep in mind, forty years earlier, at Sinai, when God spoke His truth, His Torah, His instructions before the people of Yisra’el, He had communicated to them that the people of Yisra’el were to be unique from all other nations. The original plan—God’s original plan—and the agreement that was made there at Sinai, called for everyone to hear from God directly, and obey him. We read this in:

Sh’mot (Exodus) 19:5-8
Now if you will pay careful attention to what I say and keep my covenant, then you will be my own treasure from among all the peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you will be a kingdom of cohanim for me, a nation set apart.’ These are the words you are to speak to the people of Isra’el.” Moshe came, summoned the leaders of the people and presented them with all these words which Adonai had ordered him to say. All the people answered as one, “Everything Adonai has said, we will do.” Moshe reported the words of the people to Adonai.

Now, this all sounds terrific. These are the initial terms of the covenant between HaShem and Yisra’el. It’s very much like a contract. Both parties must enter in willingly. And what is outlined here in the terms of the agreement are what each side must do to uphold the agreement.

What is required of the people of Yisra’el? To pay careful attention to what HaShem says and to keep His covenant. The reward that God will provide in exchange is also spelled out: “You will be my own treasure from among all people, and you will be a kingdom of cohanim, a nation set apart.” A more familiar rendering of this verse would say, “You shall be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” God would make them that. All that was required of them was to pay attention to God and to keep His covenant.

But let’s be careful here. These are just the terms of the covenant, not the actual agreement itself. The people of Yisra’el, though, are so eager to obey God, so eager to see that promise fulfilled, that they jump ahead of the process and say… “Everything the L-RD has said, we will do!” They agree to the terms of the agreement, before knowing what’s in it. Even a first-year law student will tell you, that’s not an agreement. Not yet.

Even so, God honors their eagerness and proceeds to speak His instructions to them. And, as a nation, every man, woman, and child heard directly from the L-RD that day as He spoke what we now call The Ten Commands. These Ten Commands are a good summary of the Torah, but they are not the six hundred and thirteen commands; not yet, anyway. All the L-RD actually gives are the Ten Commands at that moment in time, which is fine, because they’ve already agreed to do what? To pay attention to God—in other words, to hear His voice—and to keep His covenant—in other words, to follow His instructions. That’s all that was required of them, and this is the first moment of that.

And how did we respond, upon hearing God speak to us directly? We read this in:

Sh’mot (Exodus) 20:18-20 (15-17)
All the people experienced the thunder, the lightning, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain smoking. When the people saw it, they trembled. Standing at a distance, they said to Moshe, “You, speak with us; and we will listen. But don’t let God speak with us, or we will die.” Moshe answered the people, “Don’t be afraid, because God has come only to test you and make you fear him, so that you won’t commit sins.”

Fear, however, was our response. In many ways, it remains our response to this day! When we encounter God, if it’s a moment of praise and worship, we certainly can get swept up in joy and thanksgiving. But what I’m talking about is this sort of encounter with God. When the Holy One of Yisra’el begins to instruct us, and show us our sin, and our eyes are opened to just how far short we fall of His perfect standard of righteousness, well… we respond all too often with fear.

This is why, whenever angels appear to the heroes of the faith, what is the first thing they say. “Peace! Shalom! Do not fear! Do not be afraid!” Even if we are stout of heart, we are much like the prophet, Yishayahu, known as Isaiah, who says in Isaiah 6:5, “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I come from a people of unclean lips!” When we encounter God in all his holiness, our first instinct, tragically, is to draw back.

And that’s what we did that day. We heard from the holy God, and as our sin was made obvious before us, we cried out, “Moses, you speak to us and we will listen! But don’t let God speak to us anymore, or we will die.”

That’s when one of the most tragic verses of Exodus is written, as we continue on in chapter twenty, where we read:

Sh’mot (Exodus) 20:18(21)
So the people stood at a distance, but Moshe approached the thick darkness where God was.

And see, here’s the thing: in that moment, what did we do? We changed something vitally important. We changed the terms of the covenant. We changed the terms of the agreement. The original agreement was, we would listen to God and obey His instructions. It was not that we would listen to Moshe.

What we did was ask for a mediator between God and us. Someone who could be the go-between. Perhaps even soften the blow. But is that what God wanted originally? No. He wanted to be our God. To speak His instructions to each of us directly. For us to hear His voice and obey His instructions. That was the original agreement. Those were the terms for which the reward was, becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.

Now, God is a promise keeper. He kept His promise to Yisra’el and, by extension, to all of us. But when one party alters the terms of a contract, what is the next thing that happens? There is a counter-offer made. And yet, in Sh’mot (Exodus), there is no record of God’s response.

Yet in D’varim (Deuteronomy), there is. Moses reveals what was hidden that day. Because that entire generation that stood at a distance from God when He was inviting us to draw near, perished in the wilderness… all but Joshua and Caleb. Every other person over the age of bar and bat mitzvah perished during the forty years that followed, and now, in D’varim, Moses stands before a new generation of Yisra’el, a generation about to enter the land promised to them from Abraham on down to Moshe. A generation that will enter the land without him.

So Moshe reveals God’s response, at last, to the people’s request on that day at Sinai, as we read in:

D’varim (Deuteronomy) 18:15-19
Adonai will raise up for you a prophet like me from among yourselves, from your own kinsmen. You are to pay attention to him, just as when you were assembled at Horev and requested Adonai your God, ‘Don’t let me hear the voice of Adonai my God any more, or let me see this great fire ever again; if I do, I will die!’ On that occasion Adonai said to me, ‘They are right in what they are saying. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kinsmen. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell them everything I order him. Whoever doesn’t listen to my words, which he will speak in my name, will have to account for himself to me.

So this is God’s response. Not to appoint Moshe as their go-between, as they requested. Because, as good an intercessor as he was, what was Moshe’s biggest failing? He was mortal. He wouldn’t always be with them. Someday, like all of us, Moshe would die.

So HaShem renewed His messianic promise, His promise to provide a “prophet like Moshe” from among them. God promises to put His words in Messiah’s mouth, and Messiah will tell us everything we need to know, every instruction from HaShem. Then we are to listen to Him as we would listen to HaShem.

And from that point on, the words “royal priesthood and holy nation” were not mentioned again until Messiah came, until they were written by Yeshua’s talmidim, Peter, in:

1 Peter 2:9
But you are a chosen people, the King’s cohanim, a holy nation, a people for God to possess! Why? In order for you to declare the praises of the One who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

Why were those words silent until Messiah’s appearing? Because it was only with His appearing that we were once again given a way to hear from God directly. That promise was delayed because we asked for a mediator, and God gave us not the mediator that we asked for in Moses, but the mediator we actually needed, one whose instructions and whose ability to deliver them to us would have no end.

By now, you might be thinking to yourself, well Craig, that’s all fine and well and good… but I thought you were going to teach us today about King David, or at least some of the events leading up to King David, and so far this had been a Torah commentary on Sh’mot and D’varim, which we get when we go through the Torah cycle anyway.

Patience. It’s coming.

So this sets the stage for us. Moshe has revealed this big secret to this new generation of Yisra’el who are about to enter the promised land without him but with God. But there’s another missing piece.

You see, back during the original setting of terms, it was not in God’s design for Yisra’el to have a king, like the other nations had. We were to be ruled solely by the L-RD, and we would have been able to do this successfully, like no other nation, because we would have been hearing from Him directly. But instead of drawing near, we stood at a distance because we were afraid.

So what’s another fallout of changing those terms? Well, without Moses as our mediator between God and ourselves, we were also without a ruler. And although it was not intended in the original design, without God acting as the ruler of our hearts, He knew another desire would eventually overwhelm us as well, and it was this, as we read in:

D’varim (Deuteronomy) 17:14-15
When you have entered the land Adonai your God is giving you, have taken possession of it and are living there, you may say, ‘I want to have a king over me, like all the other nations around me.’ In that event, you must appoint as king the one whom Adonai your God will choose. He must be one of your kinsmen, this king you appoint over you—you are forbidden to appoint a foreigner over you who is not your kinsman.

The passage then continues on to outline the expectations for a king, and what an earthly king must do and how he must act to fulfill the role of earthly king in the land of Yisra’el. And from this, many have concluded that God commanded Yisra’el to appoint a king over them. Yet I suspect this is one of the most misread and misunderstood of all of God’s commands. I’ve read messages where scholars both Jewish and Christian alike stumble over it and assume God wanted His people to appoint a king over them.

But that was not the case; not at all. The verse reads, “When you have entered the land … you MAY say.” Not “You WILL say,” or “you MUST say” or even “You SHOULD say,” but, simply, “you may say.”

That’s the point. He’s not commanding, he’s permitting. In essence, God is saying, “I know that eventually you’re going to want to appoint a king over you. And while it’s not My first choice, since you’re going to do it anyway…because you chose not to hear My voice directly… here’s how you should do it. If you’re deadset on appointing a king over you, at least listen to Me and obey Me by doing it this way.

God isn’t saying, “My intent is, was, and always has been for you to appoint an earthly king over you.” No, His original intent was that He, HaShem, would be their sole ruler, that they would be called out, separate, and unlike the other nations, because they would individually live under the direct instructions of HaShem, hearing from Him moment to moment, and obeying at all times.

Now, on the polar opposite side of things, those who don’t study the Tenakh closely assume that, following D’varim, Yisra’el enters the land and appoints a king over them at the first possible opportunity. This is also mistaken.

First and foremost, Yisra’el must enter and take the land Adonai has given them. This is no small task, and the battle for possession of the Promised Land is a major focus of the book of Yehoshua—popularly known as Joshua.

Even after the victories won by Yehoshua, however, the Land remained fragmented and at conflict with its neighbors. When Yehoshua’s time passed, we entered a period in Israeli history known as the time of the judges.

During this time, Yisra’el is not yet a nation that has settled all parts of the land God had promised them. Conflicts with other people groups, such as the Amalekites and the P’lish’tim keep Yisra’el from truly settling into the land God had promised them. Also, following the death of Yehoshua, there was no one, strong, obvious choice to replace him as the leader of Yisra’el.

Complicating this was the fact that the people had not drawn near to HaShem, and could not hear His voice, so without a central figure like Moshe and Yehoshua, what happens instead is that the L-RD lifts up these regional military leaders who also make rulings in disputes as a judge would.

While this position might sound like a king, it is not a king. In fact, the Torah does not use melekh in reference to these judges, but a different word entirely: shoftim.

Many judges are highlighted in this time in Yisra’el’s history. Among them are Devorah, Shimshon (known popularly as Samson), Gideon, Abimelech, and Eli, to name a few of the more recognizable ones.

In my research, I found great uncertainty as to the amount of time that passed during which Yisra’el was under the leadership of various judges. Some sources claim as few as three hundred years went by between the time of Yehoshua’s death to the time of Sh’mu’el, while other sources claim it was more than five hundred years. Without getting lost in the weeds on such issues, let’s just say that it was somewhere in that range of three hundred to five hundred years. Certainly not at the first opportunity.

The last of the biblical judges is a man who served also as a prophet of HaShem, Sh’mu’el. Sh’mu’el has a rich and meaningful story of his own, and while I would love to go into detail about his early years, for the purposes of this study I will simply encourage you to read the first seven chapters of 1 Sh’mu’el on your own.

The turning point of interest to us, however, is that as Eli’s time came to an end, none of his sons followed in his ways of serving the L-RD and Eli instead trained Sh’mu’el to lead Yisra’el. When Sh’mu’el grow older, it became obvious even his sons were not going to follow in a path of serving the L-RD, as we read in:

1 Sh’mu’el 8:3-9
However, his [Sh’mu’el’s] sons did not follow his way of life; they turned off it to pursue riches, so that they would take bribes to distort justice. All the leaders of Isra’el gathered themselves together, approached Sh’mu’el in Ramah and said to him, “Look, you have grown old, and your sons are not following your ways. Now make us a king to judge us like all the nations.” Sh’mu’el was not pleased to hear them say, “Give us a king to judge us”; so he prayed to Adonai. Adonai said to Sh’mu’el, “Listen to the people, to everything they say to you; for it is not you they are rejecting; they are rejecting me; they don’t want me to be king over them. They are doing to you exactly what they have been doing to me, from the day I brought them out of Egypt until today, by abandoning me and serving other gods. So do what they say, but give them a sober warning, telling them what kinds of rulings their king will make.”

Can you imagine any words that might be more heartbreaking for God to speak than that? And they are made all the more heartbreaking when we realize that we were part of that. Each of us, at one time or another, has gone our own stubborn, independent way, choosing not to listen to HaShem, not to allow Messiah Y’shua to be our melekh, our King. At some point or another, each of us would rather have simply “fit in” with the world around us, rather than being “called out.”

In consoling Sh’mu’el, we see that God is longing for His people to acknowledge Him and let Him take control of things once again. He does not want to appoint an earthly king over His people and yet He, as God, is willing to give the people what they ask for. And He even has Sh’mu’el warn them about this, as we read on in:

Sh’mu’el 8:10-22a
Sh’mu’el reported everything Adonai had said to the people asking him for a king. He said, “Here is the kind of rulings your king will make: he will draft your sons and assign them to take care of his chariots, be his horsemen and be bodyguards running ahead of his chariots. He will appoint them to serve him as officers in charge of a thousand or of fifty, plowing his fields, gathering his harvest, and making his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters and have them be perfume-makers, cooks and bakers. He will expropriate your fields, vineyards and olive groves—the very best of them!—and hand them over to his servants. He will take the ten-percent tax of your crops and vineyards and give it to his officers and servants. He will take your male and female servants, your best young men and your donkeys, and make them work for him. He will take the ten-percent tax of your flocks, and you will become his servants. When that happens, you will cry out on account of your king, whom you yourselves chose. But when that happens, Adonai will not answer you!” However, the people refused to listen to what Sh’mu’el told them, and they said, “No! We want a king over us, so that we can be like all the nations, with our king to judge us, lead us and fight our battles.” Sh’mu’el heard everything the people said and repeated them for Adonai to hear. Adonai said to Sh’mu’el, “Do what they ask, and set up a king for them.”

So the L-RD grants the people’s request and brings to Sh’mu’el a man from the tribe of Binyamin, named Sha’ul in Hebrew, popularly rendered in English as Saul. At first, it seems as though God has selected Sha’ul, but even as early as his being named as king over Yisra’el, there are signs of trouble from Sha’ul.

After again warning the people that wanting to appoint a king over them may not be a good thing, Sh’mu’el calls for the tribes to reveal the man HaShem has chosen as king, and we read this in:

1 Sh’mu’el 10:20-24
So Sh’mu’el had all the tribes come forward, and the tribe of Binyamin was chosen. He had the tribe of Binyamin come forward by families, and the family of the Matri was chosen, and Sha’ul the son of Kish was chosen. But when they looked for him, he couldn’t be found. They asked Adonai, “Has the man come here?” Adonai answered, “There he is, hiding, in among the equipment.” They ran and brought him from there, and when he stood among the people he was head and shoulders taller than anyone around. Sh’mu’el said to all the people, “Do you see the man Adonai has chosen, that there is no one like him among all the people?” Then all the people shouted, “Long live the king!”

Imagine the embarrassment. Sh’mu’el calls for Sha’ul… and he’s not there, but in hiding. Hiding from the very prophet of HaShem who had anointed him king. In this way, Sha’ul is a perfect reflection of the people. Just as the people stood at a distance from God at Sinai when He spoke to them directly, Sha’ul stands at a distance from his own coronation.

Despite this, we are told than when he is found and dragged before Sh’mu’el, that while standing among the people he stood “head and shoulders” above them.

This is God showing them their choice. He has given them a man who is bigger and more intimidating than anyone else. Surely, he looks like the sort of man who would be named a king.

If his hesitancy to show himself on the day of his presentation as king over Yisra’el is troubling, what happens later is even more disturbing. Here’s what we read in:

1 Sh’mu’el 15:2-3
“Here is what Adonai-Tzva’ot says: ‘I remember what ‘Amalek did to Isra’el, how they fought against Isra’el when they were coming up from Egypt. Now go and attack ‘Amalek, and completely destroy everything they have. Don’t spare them, but kill men and women, children and babies, cows and sheep, camels and donkeys.’”

In the battle that follows, Sha’ul veers from these orders in several ways. We are told he warns the Keni to leave the area, lest they be put to the sword along with the Amalekites. He takes Agag, the king of the Amalekites, alive and allows him to live. He also takes the best—and even the second-best—among the Amalekites’ sheep and cattle and spares their lives as well.

All of these are ways in which King Sha’ul disobeys God’s instructions and does things a different way—his own way. This causes God to speak to Sh’mu’el and tell him, “I regret setting up Sha’ul as king, because he has turned back from following me and hasn’t obeyed my orders.”

When Sh’mu’el confronts Sha’ul, he attempts to deceive the prophet, first saying that he did everything that the L-RD had ordered him. When Sh’mu’el points out the sounds of extra livestock, Sha’ul makes it worse by compounding his deception, claiming he took them to make of them an offering to God.

Sh’mu’el, however, knows better. He shares what God has shown him, pointing out that Sha’ul took the spoils of the Amalkites when he was instructed not to do so. Sha’ul, now on the defensive, tries to shift the blame onto those under his command, claiming it was the people, not him, who spared the livestock for a sacrifice, though he admits to bringing Agag with him instead of putting him to the sword. Sh’mu’el responds in:

1 Sh’mu’el 15:22-23
“Does Adonai take as much pleasure in burnt offerings and sacrifices as in obeying what Adonai says? Surely obeying is better than sacrifice, and heeding orders than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of sorcery, stubbornness like the crime of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of Adonai, he too has rejected you as king.”

And then he delivered the harshest words of all, in:

1 Sh’mu’el 15:28-29
Sh’mu’el said to him, “Adonai has torn the kingdom of Isra’el away from you today and given it to a fellow countryman of yours who is better than you. Moreover, the Eternal One of Isra’el will not lie or change his mind, because he isn’t a mere human being subject to changing his mind.”

With these words, the legitimate kingship of Sha’ul has come to an end. Although he would go on to rule Yisra’el for forty years, his anointing has been taken from him. And what was the reason? Because he refused to follow and do everything that HaShem had commanded him. Sha’ul, in his arrogance, set aside the instructions he received from the L-RD and substituted God’s sense of right and wrong for his own morality.

Certainly, this is something we can relate to. Many of us today, as almost a reflex action, look at certain circumstances or tragedies in the world, mistakenly attribute those things to God, and loudly declare, “Well, I could never believe in a God who would allow” this or that to happen. And certainly, Sha’ul’s instructions from the L-RD were extreme.

But we must remember, Sha’ul was the king of Yisra’el, not a farmer or a shepherd. As the head of state, God offered directions, such as his command to destroy all of the Amalekites, that He would never offer to a believer today who is not a head of state. So Sha’ul’s calling was unique.

Yet, just as he hid himself at the time Sh’mu’el was to anoint him as King, just as we all stood at a distance when God was inviting us to draw near and hear from Him directly, Sha’ul retreats from obeying the L-RD completely and instead does what seems right to him.

This message reverberates throughout these early chapters of I Sh’mu’el. Many times, when Sh’mu’el or his son Yohanatan are considering various options, they set out a plan before their human advisors and are told, “Do what seems right to you.”

Yet doing what seems right to ourselves and obeying the L-RD’s instructions are not always one and the same thing. It’s a lesson that cost Sha’ul his anointing and kingship.

And so, at this time, this is where Yisra’el stands. Surrounded by her enemies, ruled by a king whose anointing has been taken from him because of his refusal to obey the L-RD, the people of Yisra’el are in a perilous position, their success in taking the land promised to Abraham possibly never more in doubt. And yet, did God’s success in fulfilling his promise depend solely on King Sha’ul?

Of course not. As Queen Esther would be told centuries later, the words of her uncle, Mordekhai, could just as easily be spoken to King Sha’ul here. As we read in:

Esther 4:13b-14a
“Don’t suppose that merely because you happen to be in the royal palace you will escape any more than the other Jews. For if you fail to speak up now, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from a different direction;”

King Sha’ul is proof of that, for us. He failed to obey HaShem, and now the scene is set for help to come to Yisra’el from a different direction.

And the next time I have the opportunity to speak, we will see how that happens as we continue in our study of the life of King David.

Shabbat Shalom.

Third Sermon at Sh’ma Yisra’el: Surrender and Life in Its Fullest Measure

Shabbat shalom.

Our parasha for today is VaYigash, a Hebrew word that means, “and he drew near.” It covers Genesis 44:18 through 47:27.

When Rabbi Erez invited me to speak this week on this parasha, I was pleased to be given the opportunity. First, because it is a portion I’ve taught on before, two or three years ago, before I moved here to Sh’ma Y’israel. And second, because it is a portion of Torah that I felt I could teach on better than I had the first time.

The most important theme I drew from the Torah portion this week is that of surrender. Now, in the eyes of the world, surrender can only mean one thing: defeat. An inability to overcome the odds against you and succeed in spite of them. In essence, and put in the simplest way possible, surrender in our culture means giving up, losing, ceasing all struggles and accepting one’s fate.

The question this week’s Torah reading forces us to examine is, is surrender always a bad thing? What I’d like to suggest is that the quality of life that follows surrender depends upon the nature of who one is surrendering to.

If you are surrendering to one who is merciful and generous in victory, one can expect a life of ample provision and cheerful service. If you are surrendering to one who is, by contrast, harsh and without concern for the well-being of his newly-won subjects, then life can become quite difficult.

The first surrender we witness in this week’s Torah reading is that of the sons of Israel to Yosef. Now, to this point, Yosef’s brothers have not recognized him for who he is and Yosef himself has not yet revealed his own identity. So when Judah steps forward to speak with Yosef and surrender to the court of Pharaoh, Judah has no reason to expect a tender response. This potential for fear is reflected in Judah’s words, when he acknowledges that Yosef could have easily decided to have him and all his brothers killed if he wished.

Now, in the text of the Torah, Judah is both complimentary and immediately submissive in his surrender. However, some sources of Jewish tradition suggest this was not immediately the case.

I’d like to share part of such a tradition preserved for us in the Aramaic targum known as Neofiti B’resheet. For those of you who are unfamiliar, allow me a moment to explain. The targumim were a set of spoken paraphrases, explanations, and expansions of the Jewish scriptures that a rabbi would give in the common language of the listeners, which during the time of this practice was often, but not exclusively, Aramaic. This become necessary near the end of the last century before the Common Era, as Aramaic grew in usage among the people of Israel. These renderings were at times very loose translations because the rabbis of that day felt it was more important to get the meaning and common understanding of the Torah across to the listener, rather than preserving an exact, word-for-word representation.

For example, if the Torah verse said, “A star shall rise out of Ya’akov,” and the rabbis agreed that the intent of the verse was a reference to Messiah, in the Aramaic targum, they would translate that verse very directly as, “Mashiach will rise out of Ya’akov,” so that the true meaning and intent of the verse was preserved in the translation, even if the exact phrasings were not.

Also, as is the case with this week’s portion, sometimes a targum would preserve an entire midrash, an interpretive teaching that helps shed light on the understanding of the text that the rabbis of that era held to. So, while the Aramaic targums are not as reliable as the Torah itself, they are useful for capturing a snapshot of how the Torah was being taught in the century leading up to the birth of Yeshua. This, in turn, helps us understand the Torah in the light of the first-century Judaism that was commonly understood by Yeshua and his Talmidim.

Does that help? Good.

Now, returning to our portion, in the Targum Neofiti, a midrash expanding on Judah’s confrontation with Yosef is preserved, and it suggests Judah was not immediately submissive. Remember, Yosef has just ordered them to surrender Binyamin, the last living son of Ya’akov and his favorite wife, Rachel… as far as Ya’akov knew, because he believed Yosef to be dead. It reads, in part, like this:

Targum Neofiti – B’resheet 44:18
And Judah approached him, raging in words and contrite in tongue. He roared like a lion and said, “I beseech, my lord, let your servant now speak a word; and, my lord, let not your anger be enkindled against your servant. Did you not say to us from the first time we came to you, “From before the L-RD I fear’? And now your judgments have turned to become like to the judgments of Pharoah, your master.” … Perhaps it has not been said to you, and perhaps it has not been heard by you, what my two brothers, Simeon and Levi, did in the fortress of Shechem, that they entered into it and killed every male in it, because within it they defiled our sister Dinah, who is not of the number of the tribes and who has no portion and inheritance in the division of the land. How much more for the sake of Binyamin, our brother…?”

The passage goes on with Judah basically threatening to kill every male in Egypt, starting with Yosef and ending with Pharaoh, if Yosef does not relent. Eventually, toward the end of the passage, Judah calms down and becomes more contrite as the Torah narrative resumes.

Why would the targum preserve this tradition? To show that Judah is not a person to meekly surrender; to further illustrate how passionate he is about not wanting to bring on his father the grief of losing his beloved Binyamin.

Now, whether this tradition about Judah is accurate or not, we know what the Torah says happens next. Judah finally lays out the truth before Yosef; that the demand they leave Binyamin behind because of the apparent theft of an object belonging to the court, which Yosef had had planted there to bring matters to a head—to abandon Binyamin to Yosef would mean the death of their father Israel.

Judah then offers up his own life in place of Binyamin’s, demonstrating a selflessness that has not been present before this in the actions of the sons of Israel. He is surrendering himself to an uncertain fate, and in doing this, Judah, in the eyes of Yosef, is also demonstrating repentance; he is showing by his actions that he regrets being the cause of his father losing one of his sons, and does not want to be the cause of him losing another.

Remember, through all this, Judah has no idea he’s speaking to his brother Yosef. So this surrender tells Yosef a lot.

It tells him his brothers regret their past actions which took Yosef out of their lives. It tells him they are not treating Yosef’s closest brother, Binyamin, with the same kind of jealousy with which they treated Yosef, because they are now willing to give up their own lives to preserve the lives of Binyamin and their father Ya’akov.

And it tells him that they are not doing this for show, because at this point they know Yosef only as Zephaneth-Paneah, second in authority in all of Egypt only to Pharaoh himself. Since they do not recognize him as Yosef, the surrender is more meaningful, because they have no assurance of mercy.

Yosef’s response also confirms our suspicions of how time and The L-RD have healed his wounds as well. Yosef no longer holds any bitterness toward his brothers, because no one could hold bitterness in their heart and live before God and man as Yosef did. In this week’s reading, that suspicion is confirmed by Yosef’s actions; in response to the surrender of his brothers to the power and authority he holds over them, Yosef meets his brothers with mercy and forgiveness. We read this in the Torah, in:

Genesis 45:1b-8a
So no one else was with him when Yosef revealed to his brothers who he was. He [Yosef] wept aloud, and the Egyptians heard, and Pharoah’s household heard. Yosef said to his brothers, “I am Yosef! Is it true that my father is still alive?” But his brothers couldn’t answer him, they were so dumbfounded at seeing him. Yosef said to his brothers, “Please! Come closer.” And they came closer. He said, “I am Yosef, your brother, whom you sold into Egypt. But don’t be sad that you sold me into slavery here or be angry with yourselves, because it was God who sent me ahead of you to preserve life … God sent me ahead of you to ensure that you will have descendants on earth and to save your lives in a great deliverance. So it was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Imagine the shock and relief that must have gone through the sons of Israel! For well over twenty years, they had lived with the regret that comes from the foolish actions of their youth. They had carried the shame so heavily that they could never bring themselves to share the truth of their actions with their father.

Instead, they had maintained the lie of Yosef’s death. And now, after years of not being sure if he was alive or dead themselves, before them stands the very brother they had thought they’d rid themselves of forever. Yosef is not only alive, but is second in authority to the most powerful ruler in the entire region, the Pharaoh of Egypt.

Furthermore, when Yosef reveals himself, he does not meet them with accusations of betrayal, rage, and bitterness, but instead is humbling himself before them, asking them not to be upset, because ultimately it was God who had wanted Yosef in Egypt, to preserve the lives of Ya’akov and his sons.

Consider for a moment just how powerful a portrait of Messiah that Yosef now is. Yosef had been figuratively put to death, while Yeshua was literally put to death. For a time, Yosef was concealed among the nations; similarly, Yeshua has also been concealed among the nations.

When Yosef stands before his brothers, they fail to recognize him until he reveals himself to them. And in the same way, many of us today have Yeshua standing before us through the teachings of both the Torah and the Ha’Brit Ha’Chadasha, and yet can so easily fall short of recognizing Him for Who He truly is.

Zechariah 12:10, 13:1
“and I will pour out on the house of David and on those living in Yerushalayim a spirit of grace and prayer; and they will look to me, whom they have pierced. They will mourn for him as one mourns for an only son; they will be in bitterness on his behalf like the bitterness for a firstborn son. When that day comes, a spring will be opened up for the house of David and the people living in Yerushalayim to cleanse them from sin and impurity.”

Just as with Yosef and his brothers, when Yeshua reveals Himself, both to us and to the Jewish nation as a whole, we mourn that we did not recognize him sooner. We grieve for all we have done to him. Yet, as the passage indicates, a fountain for cleansing from all sin and impurity has been provided, and that fountain is His Ruach HaKodesh, his Holy Spirit.

We can draw confidence in Yeshua’s forgiveness of us by the shadow of messiah cast by Yosef in this Torah portion. Although his brothers never fully forgave themselves, and therefore never trusted in Yosef’s forgiveness of them, what do Yosef’s actions reveal? He moves his entire family to Egypt, arranging with Pharaoh to have them stay not just anywhere, but on the best, most fertile land Egypt at that time had to offer, the land of Goshen.

In the same way, Messiah is preparing a place for us to dwell with him, as He says in:

Yochanan 14:2-3
“In my Father’s house are many places to live. If there weren’t, I would have told you; because I am going there to prepare a place for you. Since I am going and preparing a place for you, I will return to take you with me; so that where I am, you may be also.”

Just as Yosef met his brothers with forgiveness and restoration, so Yeshua meets us. Just as Yosef prepared a place for his family, so that they could all be together, so Yeshua is doing the same for us. For as long as we draw breath, we have time and opportunity for Yeshua to uncover His face and make Himself known to us.

Now, that is often the main emphasis of this parasha; the story of Yosef revealing himself to his brothers. It’s powerful. It’s moving. It’s a clear picture of Messiah in the Torah.

But before I wrap up, I want to draw your attention to the last chapter. After Yosef is restored to his family, the Torah relates how he went on to govern Egypt for Pharaoh.

We are told that at first the people came to Yosef and bought grain with money; when they ran out of money, they begged Yosef for mercy and Yosef agreed to accept their livestock in exchange for grain. When their livestock ran out, Yosef accepted their land as payment, and when they had nothing left, he made them servants of Pharaoh, purchasing their loyalty at a price.

At first glance, such behavior does not seem very Messiah-like, and it does not seem to fit in with Yosef as a shadow of the Messiah. After all, these people are starving, and Yosef seems only interested in accumulating assets for Pharoah.

Yet, on the contrary, I believe the Torah is giving us a very clear picture of the Messianic kingdom. Like Yeshua, Yosef’s mission is to do what? To build the kingdom. What Yosef does is that he gives people a choice; surrender all they have and live, or hold on to their possessions and perish.

Ironically, once they have surrendered all they have, and have put Pharaoh in his place as their ruler, they receive all they have surrendered back to them, with Pharaoh keeping only a fifth of their produce as a direct asset for the kingdom.

If one saw this purely on the human level, it would seem like the act of a ruthless man in pursuit of the things of this world; a man gathering money, livestock, land and the loyalty of the people because he had them over a barrel, their only other option being death by starvation.

And yet remember the words of Yosef to his brothers.

“It was God who sent me ahead of you to preserve life … God sent me ahead of you to ensure that you will have descendants on earth and to save your lives in a great deliverance.”

Consider how much that is reflective of Messiah’s purpose, as we find this in the words of:

Yochanan 10:10
The thief comes only in order to steal, kill, and destroy; I have come so that they may have life, life in its fullest measure.

The shadow of Yosef echoes here in the words of Messiah Yeshua, just as the words of Messiah Yeshua are seen in Yosef’s actions in this week’s Torah portion. Yosef was sent into Egypt to preserve life. Yes, that includes the life of Ya’akov and the rest of his family, but the last chapter of this parasha makes clear that it also includes all life in Egypt and the surrounding territory.

The kingdom of Pharaoh expanded greatly under Yosef’s influence, because he worked to build and strengthen and expand his master’s kingdom. In the same way, Yeshua has done likewise, raising knowledge of the God of Y’srael from the borders of Y’israel out to the entire world.

And while many assume that the “grace of God” is free or at least cheap, this week’s Torah portion reminds and corrects us on that false assumption. Too often, we look at our lives and what we have and grudgingly, if at all, hand a tithe back to the community we’re a part of. But what this passage illustrates is that we don’t “owe God a tenth” anymore than the Egyptians “owed Pharaoh a fifth.”

Because, like those in Egypt, we were bought by God. Not just ten percent of ourselves, not just a fifth of ourselves… we give up all we have and become the sole property of haShem. All we have, all we are, all we ever will be… belongs to haShem.

We read this in:

Genesis 47:23
Then Yosef said to the people, “As of today I have acquired you and your land for Pharoah. Here is seed to sew your land.”

This is a very accurate and telling picture of how things would be in the time in the desert, as well as how things would be in the land of Y’srael, how they ought to be in our Messianic communities, and how things will be in the World to Come. In the world as God desires us to live in it, no one goes hungry… and everyone belongs completely to the L-RD.

This sentiment is reflected in the teachings of the Talmidim of Yeshua. As Rav Sha’ul writes in:

1 Corinthians 6:19-20
Or don’t you know that your body is a temple for the Ruach HaKodesh who lives inside you, whom you received from God? The fact is, you don’t belong to yourselves; for you were bought at a price. So use your bodies to glorify God.

This is the second instance of surrender in this week’s Torah portion. And again it shows that when we surrender to the right people … to God, who is merciful and kind, generous and full of forgiveness … surrender doesn’t have to be a death-knell of defeat.

When we surrender ourselves to HaShem, and the living Torah, Messish Yeshua, it means nothing less than life to us… life in its fullest measure, and life in the World to Come.

Shabbat shalom.

Second Sermon at Sh’ma Yisra’el: Blessing and Cursing

Shabbat Shalom.

When Rabbi Erez invited me to offer a message this week, the first place I turned was this week’s parashah reading from Devarim 11:26 to 16:17, known by the Hebrew word “re’eh,” which translates to “see.” It’s a rich reading with many ways to go in terms of teaching, but what caught my attention straight out of the gate is the initial theme of blessings and curses.

We all love to talk about blessings. Blessings are nice. They promise peace, safety, wealth, prosperity, and most importantly, the blessing, contentment and shalom of our God. Blessings are perhaps the most pleasant part of the Torah, the Tenahk and the B’rit haDasha. And we’ll study something of blessings today, for sure.

However, we must also consider the reality of curses. This is the more uncomfortable side of this topic. Curses are not pleasant; they promise turmoil, destruction, danger, poverty, suffering and, most importantly, a separation from the blessings and favor and shalom of our God. Some folks like to pretend curses don’t exist, or at least that they don’t exist for those who believe in God, and trust in Messiah Yeshua.

But is that so? Or are we under a misunderstanding that could prove toxic to a sound understanding of ADONAI our God?

Let’s begin with the opening verses of this week’s Torah reading. We read this in:

Devarim 11:26-28
“See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse—the blessing, if you listen to the mitzvot of ADONAI your God that I am giving you today; and the curse, if you don’t listen to the mitzvot of ADONAI your God, but turn aside from the way I am ordering you today and follow other gods that you have not known.

In this passage, ADONAI speaks clearly of the existence of both His blessing and His curses. Notice he doesn’t play favorites with these terms, either. He doesn’t say the blessings are for Yisra’el alone and the curses for the nations alone. No, he promises both blessings and curses on the same equitable basis, with the same measuring stick. His blessings are the promise to those who listen and follow through on the mitzvot—the teachings and instructions—He has offered. His curses are the promise to those who do not listen or follow through on His teachings and instructions.

I hope I can suggest that sometimes we as believers have misunderstood both God’s blessings and God’s curses. It’s not that we intend to misunderstand these things; it’s merely that we have been handed down so many ideas about these concepts that go beyond Torah and beyond Messiah’s teachings.

Let me tell you a personal story as an illustration of this.

Back when I first became part of a Messianic community … we’re talking at least twelve years ago … I underwent a time of transition. I still had many friends in the big mega-church I had attended previously, and because they were friends, they’d let me know they hoped to see me at service some weekend. Of course, that meant service and their congregation, not at my new one.

One weekend, after attending both Erev Shabbat and Shabbat morning services with my Messianic community, I decided to visit some of my old friends from my previous congregation, and went to their Saturday evening service where several of us often met to hang out afterward.

That week, one of the praise songs that their worship team performed was the Fred Hammond classic, “Blessed.” The chorus may be familiar to some of you. It reads as follows:

Fred Hammond, Blessed
We’re blessed in the city
We’re blessed in the field
We’re blessed when we come and when we go
We cast down every stronghold
Sickness and poverty must cease
For the devil is defeated
We are blessed

Now, the first part of that chorus is actually taken from:

Devarim 28:3, 6
You will be blessed in the city and blessed in the country. You will be blessed when you come in and blessed when you go out.

For most people, the song itself would be message enough, but that Saturday night, something odd happened. After the Hammond song was performed, a member of the praise and worship team insisted he had a message to share with the congregation, and he was allowed to speak.

What he shared is something that, prior to becoming part of a Messianic community, I would have put my “Amen” to without a second thought. That night, with about six months of Messianic community teaching and experience under my belt, I picked up on something in what he shared that I would have missed before.

He said, “The song we’ve been singing comes from Deuteronomy, where Moses is speaking to the children of Israel and letting them know all the blessings that will fall on them if they obey God, and all the curses that will fall on them if they do not. Well, I just want to praise the L-RD tonight, because we’re not like the Jews! As Christians, it doesn’t matter what we do, it doesn’t matter how we act, we are blessed no matter what! We are blessed through the blood of Jesus and nothing we do can change that!”

Did you catch that?

Many of the believers gathered there that night put their “Amen!” to that guy’s enthusiastic message. A few months earlier, I would have joined them and thought nothing more about it.

But that night, it stood out to me like a neon sign. This is how replacement theology affects us and seeps into our understanding, almost without our awareness.

Whenever we as believers in Messiah think, “God acted this way for his chosen people, but He will apply a different standard of righteousness to us because we know His Messiah,” then we’ve fallen into a trap. We’ve stumbled into an error that can cause deep offense.

Why?

Because this is not the nature of God.

ADONAI does not create one set of teachings and instructions for one group, and another set for another group, and another for another, and so on. The LORD is the fair and equitable judge. When it comes to blessing and cursing, God’s standards are the same: He blesses those who listen to and follow through on his instructions, and he curses those who do not.

That well-intentioned but misguided believer who said those words about twelve years ago would have been well-advised to read more of the context of that passage the Fred Hammond song was based on.

There is a preface to those verses that is important to grasp, and we can read it in:

Devarim 28:1-2, 15
If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God: … However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you:

So you see, even in that passage, the connection is made between blessings and curses, and obedience to God’s teachings and instructions.

And certainly, as Messianics, we can appreciate that these words God is speaking through Moses to the nation of Isra’el, while having a broader application to all God-fearers, are special promises made to those about to enter the Land of Promise, those who sought to dwell in that land in a way that would honor and please the One who brought them there.

And so, even in that passage lifted by Fred Hammond into the chorus of his song, if you read on, there are parallel curses for the disobedient, as we read in:

Devarim 28:16, 19
You will be cursed in the city and cursed in the country. You will be cursed when you come in and cursed when you go out.

Now, some people might ask, “But isn’t our salvation dependent upon Yeshua alone?”

Our salvation, yes.

But the discussion here is not about salvation in the sense that modern Christianity discusses it; the discussion is about the nature of God’s blessings and curses. That’s a slightly different topic.

So let’s discuss the Jewish concept of blessings for a moment. What is a blessing? Well, on our level, a blessing is an expression of our gratitude and joy for all God as given us. I recently was watching Shalom TV, and on their program From the Aleph-Bet, the instructor, Rabbi Mark S. Golub, offered this insight into blessings that I’d like to share. He said:

Rabbi Mark S. Golub
“The Jewish tradition teaches that we should be looking for opportunities to say blessings. Why? The Jewish tradition understands that one of the biggest mistakes people make is that we tend to take life for granted. That often the joy of life, the wonder of life, the awe of life is just sort of forgotten … We live in a land of plenty and often the plenty we have is not only overlooked, it never seems to never be enough. We take for granted all that we have.”

So, from this modern perspective, perhaps we can demystify the concept of blessings a little bit. Blessings are expressions of gratitude, of joy, wonder and awe. They are expressions of thankfulness.

Now, let’s apply that understanding to the blessings of ADONAI.

What might make the LORD happy? Joyful? Thankful? Grateful? For these are the forebears of blessings.

It’s no mystery. The Torah tells us itself what stirs these emotions in ADONAI our God. What brings God joy, happiness, thankfulness and gratitude is when we willingly set aside our own will, our own opinions, our own way of doing things, and follow only His teachings and His instructions. As we read in this week’s parashah:

Devarim 13:1
Everything I am commanding you, you are to take care to do. Do not add to it or subtract from it.

And would not the heart of God be filled with greater joy in us if we all could but obey this one verse more perfectly? Take care to do everything I am commanding you. Oh, and by the way: don’t add to it, and don’t subtract anything from it.

How many of you who are parents can relate to this? When your children actually do as you ask them to, isn’t that one of the happiest moments of your day? Doesn’t it fill you with joy and spur you on to bless God? Of course it does. And if parents feel that way about their children’s obedience, how much more does the LORD feel that about our obedience?

And yet, both today and even at the time Moses spoke these words, we keep falling short of that simple instruction. And we know this because God, through Moses, continues on in:

Devarim 12:8-9
You will not do things the way we do them here today, where everyone does whatever in his own opinion seems right; because you haven’t yet arrived at the rest and inheritance which ADONAI your God is giving you.

This is a constant tripping point for many a well-intentioned believer. Ask most anyone if they love to obey God, and they’ll say something like, “Absolutely,” or at least, “Yes, and I try my best to do so.”

Yet in the same breath, each of us can identify areas in our lives where we’re not doing that, or at least not always. Why would we do that? We say we want to follow the LORD, and yet so often, when we’re in the moment, we instead do what is right in our own opinion. And this is not what the LORD wishes of us or expects from us.

For those Moses was speaking to, there were some specific instructions on what they were to do when they entered the Land of the Promise. We read from this week’s parashah in:

Devarim 12:1-3
Here are the laws and rulings you are to observe and obey in the land ADONAI, the God of your ancestors, has given you to possess as long as you live on the earth. You must destroy all the places where the nations you are dispossessing served their gods, whether on high mountains, on hills, or under some leafy tree. Break down their altars, smash their standing stones to pieces, burn up their sacred poles completely and cut down the carved images of their gods. Exterminate their name from that place.

This, of course, is a simple instruction. And very specific to that time and place. After all, if a group of us decided to go tear down a neighboring place of worship today, we’d be felons. But the transferrable concept to our experience today is this: we are not called by God to blend into society and worship as they do, when they do, or how they do. We are, instead, to follow the LORD’s instructions.

This, for example, is why we meet on a Shabbat morning instead of on Sunday. Many in the Christian world worship on Sunday, and there’s never a bad day to worship the LORD, but what did God instruct us? To remember the Shabbat and keep it holy. Not the first day of the week. Not Wednesday nights and Royal Rangers. No, we are to remember the Shabbat, the seventh day. And we know Saturday is the proper day because the practice of God’s chosen people has never changed the day of worship he declared. Only by trying to fit in with the rest of the world have some of us lost our way and begun worshipping on a day that God did not instruct us to worship Him on.

Again, there’s never a bad day to worship the LORD; but his instruction to us was to set aside the seventh day and honor it as a special time when all normal work is set aside, and we spend special time with our Creator and King.

A famous rabbi once shared this insight: “It’s not hard to obey God’s mitzvot. What’s hard is living in a world surrounded by those who do not.”

Why do many believers worship God on Sunday instead of the Shabbat he commanded? For most of us who have done that, it was never about disobeying God. It was about following the example set forth by those around us. Others around us worshipped on Sunday. The church we attended worshipped on Sunday. It’s just the example set for us, by those around us.

So, while God always rejoices in those who love Him and praise him, he rejoices even more when we do it on the occasions He instructed us to.

Parents, think of it this way: a young child runs up to you, eyes wide, smiling, and they say, “Mommy! Daddy! Look what I can do!” And they then proceed to show you something new they learned, like how to ride a bike without training wheels.
Now, you’ll be proud of their achievement regardless. That’s the nature of parenthood.

But you’re even more proud when they show you how they can ride a bike without training wheels outside, in the driveway, rather than if they show you on a bike with muddy tires driven all across the kitchen floor you just mopped. Right? As Ecclesiastes reminds us, “There is a time for every event under heaven.”

Another handy illustration is eating only clean foods. Some people claim, “Oh, it’s so hard to know what’s clean and what isn’t.” But this week’s Torah portion includes verses that actually make it very clear, as we read in:

Devarim 14: 3, 6-11, 19-20
You are not to eat anything disgusting. Any animal that has a separate hoof that is completely divided and also chews the cud, these animals you may eat. But you are not to eat those that only chew the cud or only have a divided hoof. For example, the camel, the hare, and the coney are unclean for you because they chew the cud but don’t have a separate hoof; while the pig is unclean for you because, although it has a separate hoof, it doesn’t chew the cud. You are not to eat meat from these or touch their carcasses. Of all that lives in the water, you may eat these: anything in the water that has fins and scales, these you may eat. But whatever lacks fins and scales you are not to eat; it is unclean for you. You may eat any clean bird. All winged swarming creatures are unclean for you; they may not be eaten; but all clean flying creatures you may eat.

Now, I removed from that reading a few verses that gave long lists of examples, primarily to make it easier to understand God’s instruction, though if you want to see those lists of examples, you can go back to the passage later today and puzzle over some of them. I say puzzle because those lists contain some ancient animals whose names are not easily recognized today, though in fairness, most of them can still be understood.

The point is this: many of us who did not grow up in Jewish homes, and even some of us who did, may have eaten many of these things before coming into a greater understanding of what God asks of us in the Torah.

And it is on these dietary commands that many of us can slip up and begin to rely on our own opinion, rather than God’s instruction. Some things I’ve heard people say to rationalize the consumption of pork products, for example, include:
“Oh, well, that was before refrigeration. Pork spoils faster than any other meat.”

Let me tell you something, folks: in the desert, any meat not processed quickly will spoil pretty quickly. Another was:
“Oh, that list is outdated. If God had Moses writing his Torah today, there’s a lot of things He’d add on and a lot of things he’d take off.”

So… what you’re really saying is that God’s instructions are not true, but actually outdated, old-fashioned, and irrelevant? That God’s teachings change over time? That’s dangerous territory, theologically speaking. But one of my favorite rationalizations is:

“Oh, God wouldn’t be so petty as to care about what we eat or drink, so as a Spirit-filled believer, I can make my own judgments.”

The trouble with that is, anyone truly led by the Ruach of ADONAI would never be led to disobey the Torah of ADONAI. If you’re feeling led that way, you may be feeling led by a spirit, but it’s not the spirit of God.

Also, consider this: what was the very first command God gave to Adam in Gan Eden?

B’resheet 2:16-17
ADONAI, God, gave the person this order: “You may eat freely from every tree in the garden except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. You are not to eat from it, because on the day that you eat from it, it will become certain that you will die.”

What kind of command is this? It’s a dietary command! The first rebellion against God’s instructions came as a result of disobeying a dietary command! Whenever we listen to this type of reasoning, we are merely hearing an echo of the serpent, who asked Havah, “Did God really say that?” In other words, is God so petty as to care about what we eat and what we drink?

The answer, of course, is that is does care, and it’s not a petty concern. Calling it a petty concern is our own opinion.

Then there are those who wish to act as apologists for God’s commands that may be hard to understand. They’ll claim that following his clean and unclean dietary laws will bless us with a long life, just as disobeying it will curse us with a shortened life.

But that’s not the answer either. There is no evidence that Jewish people who eat a kosher diet from birth to death live, on average, any longer than anyone else, or suffer from fewer afflictions.

Let’s not add to God’s instructions! There’s only one reason to avoid unclean animals as food, and only one reason to consume those animals God has declared as clean for human consumption.

It’s a very simple reason: We obey because he asked us to.

That’s it. That’s all.

You see, dietary commands don’t have death penalties behind them when we violate them. Violating them simply makes us unclean, and there are solutions to uncleanness spelled out in the Torah.

But dietary commands play an important role: they establish a basis, in the small, easy-to-obey things in life, by which to judge our willingness to accept God’s sovereignty—His authority, His power to declare this right and that wrong, in our lives.

If we can obey Him in the little things, he can trust us with greater things.

If we can listen and follow through on his simplest instructions—such as what to eat, or what day to set aside as holy—then our obedience stirs up in Him the joy that causes Him to bless. The more we obey, the greater His joy. The greater His joy, the more abundant His blessings.

Now, someone will surely object that the idea of blessing and cursing is ancient and superstitious, bringing to mind as it can, for some, images of old women pointing crooked fingers at you and giving you the evil eye.

Yet, to the contrary, the concept of blessing and cursing was such an important part of Messiah’s teaching, there is an entire parable dedicated to it. We read this in:

Matthew 25:31-46
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, accompanied by all the angels, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be assembled before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. The “sheep” he will place at his right hand and the “goats” at his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take your inheritance, the Kingdom prepared for you from the founding of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you have me something to drink, I was a stranger and you made me your guest, I needed clothes and you provided them, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.”

Then the people who have done what God wants will reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you our guest, or needing clothes and provide them? When did we see you sick or in prison, and visit you?”

Then the King will say to them, “Yes! I tell you that whenever you did these things for one of the least important of these brothers of mine, you did them for me!”

Then he will also speak to those on his left, saying, “Get away from me, you who are cursed! Go off into the fire prepared for the Adversary and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, a stranger and you did not welcome me, needing clothes and you did not give them to me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”

Then they, too, will reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, needing clothes, sick or in prison, and not take care of you?”

And he will answer them, “Yes! I tell you that whenever you refused to do it for the least important of these people, you refused to do it for me! They will go off to eternal punishment, but those who have done what God wants will go to eternal life.”

This parable features a style of Jewish reasoning called:

kol v’chomer
Arguing from the lesser to prove the greater.

That’s present in this parable of Yeshua. The message is, the details, the little things, matter to God. He wants us to not just hear a sermon, recite an Amen here and there, and then go about our week after the Shabbat is over.

What gives God joy, what makes him willing to bless or curse, is the extent to which we allow how we live our lives to be changed by His instructions and teachings. The extent to which we agree with him, rather than arguing with him.

As I shared earlier, the compulsion to pronounce blessings is a deep part of Jewish identity and thinking, and should be ours as well. The proof that this was historically true can even be found in the festivals of ADONAI and in the ways in which His temple was used.

The festival of Sukkot is coming up in a few months, and another name for that festival is, the Festival of Nations. Why? Because the purpose of the festival was to bless all the nations of the world, not just Yisra’el. What other nation prays for blessings upon both friends and enemies? Yet that is exactly what was done in the Temple historically on Sukkot.

Despite this, blessing others is not always met with kindness and blessing being returned to you. For example, we read in:

B’midbar Rabbah 21
The Sages have said: ‘In place of my love they hate me, and I pray (for them), (Tehilim 109): You find that during the Festival, Israel offers You seventy oxen for the seventy nations. Israel says: Master of the Universe! Behold, we offer You seventy oxen in their behalf, and they should have loved us…instead–’in the place of my love they hate me.’

And in further explanation:

Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi said
‘If the nations of the world would have known the value of the Temple for them, they would have surrounded it with fortresses in order to protect it. For it was of greater value for them than for Israel.

Indeed, blessing others can often become something that causes them to hate you. I was watching a true-crime show on TV in which all but one member of a family was murdered. At first, police suspected the daughter, because she survived, but in the end, it was the best friend of the son who confessed. When asked for a reason for his crime, he didn’t respond, but a journal of his was revealing. He wrote that he often fantasized about what it would be like to murder a happy family, because happy people angered him.

For all these reasons and more, I think it’s important to understand blessing and cursing for what they are: on God’s level, they express his joy when we do everything the way He asked us to, rather than relying on our own opinion, and his curses show the opposite.

On our level, however, I think we would do well to adopt into our own practice the habit of looking for opportunities to pronounce blessings. It is too easy in this life to pronounce curses over what we don’t have, which shows ingratitude for God.

Instead, let us leap at every opportunity we can find to thank God for all that he has given us, all that we often, but should not, take for granted. May we constantly be found grateful to our Creator for all ADONAI has given us, no matter how great or how small.

Shabbat Shalom.

First Sermon at Sh’ma Yisrael: Yonah

Shabbat Shalom.

When Rabbi Erez first invited me to teach today, my initial instinct was to teach from this week’s Torah portion. I’ve taught on this passage, Pinchas, once or twice before, so I could easily have come up with a message that allowed me to rely on studies I’ve done in the past.

However, as I began to study the passage, I realized that the part I really felt a tug toward began in last week’s portion, and concludes at the beginning of this week’s portion. It brings to mind a topic that seems basic, but becomes a little more mysterious when studied closely. Exploring that theme led me eventually to the book of Jonah, primarily, more so than this week’s portion.

So let’s begin our journey today where I began my own study for the week, in the book B’midbar, a Hebrew word that means, “In the wilderness.” And I think we can all agree that’s a more appropriate name for this section of Torah than “Numbers.”

Anyway, let’s begin our study at B’midbar / Numbers, chapter twenty-five, verse one:

B’midbar 25:1-13
Isra’el stayed at Sheetim, and there the people began whoring with the women of Mo’av. These women invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, where the people ate and bowed down to their gods. With Isra’el thus joined to Ba’al-P’or, the anger of ADONAI blazed up against Isra’el.

ADONAI said to Moshe, “Take all the chiefs of the people, and hang them facing the sun before ADONAI, so that the raging fury of ADONAI will turn away from Isra’el.” Moshe siad to the judges of Isra’el, “Each of you is to put to death those in his tribe who have joined themselves to Ba’al P’or.”

Just then, in the sight of Moshe and the whole community of Isra’el, as they were weeping at the entrance to the tent of meeting, a man from Isra’el came by, bringing to his family a woman from Midyan. When Pinchas the son of El’azer, the son of Aharon the cohen, saw it, he got up in the middle of the crowd, took a spear in his hand, and pursued the man from Isra’el right into the inner part of the tent, where he thrust his spear through both of them—the man from Isra’el and the woman through her stomach. Thus was the plague among the people of Isra’el stopped; nevertheless, twenty-four thousand died in the plague.

ADONAI said to Moshe, “Pinchas the son of El’azer, the son of Aharon the cohen, has deflected my anger from the people of Isra’el by being as zealous as I am, so that I didn’t destroy them in my own zeal. Therefore say, ‘I am giving him my covenant of shalom, making a covenant with him and his descendants after him that the office of cohen will be theirs forever.’ This is because he was zealous on behalf of his God and made atonement for the people of Isra’el.”

Now, that’s a hefty bit of Torah, isn’t it? There are many things one could discuss based on these thirteen verses alone. But what resonated with me during my study this week was the type of atonement that took place between Pinchas and ADONAI, and these extreme actions of Pinchas that God honors as an act of righteousness.

Certainly, the specific sin that Pinchas is responding to is as brazen as they come. Here, the community of Isra’el present in the wilderness has entered into the most basic of sins forbidden in the Torah: they had joined in the worship of other gods. To make matters worse, they had entered into sexual sin with the women of Mo’av as well, thus defiling both their bodies and their spirits.

In the context of last week’s portion, we know that this is a tactic used by Balak, on the advice of the prophet Bil’am. We learned that part of the reason God refused to be manipulated by Bil’am into allowing Isra’el to be cursed is that He found “no perversity among them.” Thus comes the temptation of the women of Mo’av, with their sins of the flesh and spirit.

And it works. The children of Isra’el fall into sins of the flesh and sins of the spirit, going so far as to bow down and worship other gods, the gods of the Mo’avites. This compromises somewhat the children of Isra’el.

That alone, dayienu, would have been enough. Through Moshe, God begins to pronounce a significant punishment. He is in the middle of ordering the chiefs of the people to be hanged in the sun, and for all who joined in the idolatry of the women of Mo’av to be put to death.

Try to imagine the scene. Leaders of Israel and many others are being put to death. Moshe is speaking God’s judgment against them. Families are weeping as they are torn apart. Righteous members of the community who did not join in the idolatry and other sins are watching their own brothers, fathers, and other family members who did join in, as they are led away to be put to the sword. Torah tells us that as Moshe is saying all this, the people of Isra’el are sitting in front of the Tent of Meeting, the very place where God’s presence dwelled with them, and they are weeping in sorrow.

And then.

And then along comes an Isra’elite, apparently oblivious to all that is going on around him, and he has with him a woman of Mo’av, one of the very women who helped tempt Isra’el into this moment of judgment, punishment, and sorrow.

Does he look at all this going on around him and change his mind? Send this woman of Mo’av on her way? No. He takes her to the Mishkan, the Tent of Meeting where the presence of HaShem dwells, and the implication is that he begins to repeat with her there the very same sins of the spirit and the flesh that started all this.

Now, some might ask, the Tent of Meeting? Really? Wouldn’t it be his own tent? And certainly that would be bad enough. But as Rabbi Erez pointed out to me this week, in the entire Tanach the Hebrew word Ha’kubah (The Tent/Canopy) is used only here. It is thought by most to refer to some type of canopy at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. This seems to fit the usage of the tent, the context flowing with the previous reference to the Tent of Meeting, rather than his tent. The single usage of the word appears to be due to the fact that it is derived—in grisly fashion—from kevah (stomach).

This is absolutely too much for Pinchas. He is a descendant of Aharon the cohen, the priest, and he has learned to be zealous for God. He has a fearful respect for God and His commands. And in this one instance, in this one situation, he takes an action that, today, seems brutal to us, perhaps, with our modern sensibilities. He runs a spear through the both of them, as they are engaged in the acts of their sin.

This is not the sort of action that would be deemed acceptable today. Yet these were unique circumstances. Remember the context. ADONAI Himself had taken the people out of slavery in Egypt. He had kept them alive during a lengthy sojourn in the desert, where He supernaturally provided for every need. That generation enjoyed a special closeness with God difficult for us to even comprehend today. And yet did this produce a generation of the most faithful men and women who had ever lived? Sadly, for most of those present in that generation, it did not.

So it takes a unique brazenness, even hard-heartedness, to walk through the middle of a community so specially provided for by God, in the middle of a process of repentance and atonement, in the middle of a scene where family members are grieving as their loved ones are being put to the sword, and to then start doing the exact same thing all his fellow community members are being punished for doing.

In this unique and singular case, Pinchas’ act brings an end to all the blood-letting, the plague and judgment going on around them all. Any other time, his action would most likely be considered a violation of the command not to murder. But this one time, it is seen as an act of atonement.

So, what is atonement, exactly?

A popular saw among Bible teachers is that if you break the English word up into three words, you get “at-one-ment” and they then go on to explain that atonement is the process of becoming at-one with ADONAI. But we get more than simple English word games if we explore the Hebrew word.

We know that the festival Yom Kippur means “Day of Atonement,” and that kippur is a Hebrew word that connects back to the word kaphar. Kaphar means “to cover over” in Hebrew. It is used to describe the pitch in Noah’s ark that made it water-tight during the flood; it’s also used to describe the cover of the ark of the covenant.

Hebrew scholar Jeff A. Benner, author of the book “The Living Words,” writes of the word kaphar:
“If an offense has been made, the one that has been offended can act as though the offense is covered over and unseen. We express this idea through the word of forgiveness. Atonement is an outward action that covers over the error.”

Now, this sort of passage is why some people allege that God as portrayed in the Torah is an angry God of judgment, while God as portrayed through Messiah Y’shua in the B’rit HaDashah is a loving God of forgiveness. Of course, most of us here know that this is not the case. God is unchanging, and in both the Tenakh and the Brit HaDasha, ADONAI always represents himself as both loving and forgiving, as well as holy, righteous, and able to deliver punishment to those who dwell in their sin. ADONAI does not change.

Yet due to the complex nature of HaShem, sometimes He is hard to understand. And if we think struggling to understand the complexity and mystery of HaShem is something new to our generation, it is not.

Which brings us to the book of the Tanakh I really want to discuss today: the book of the prophet Yonah.

Part of the reason I enjoy the book of Yonah so much and wanted to teach on it today is that I believe there are great messages in this book that are often overlooked. Too often, the story of Yonah is written off as a bit of a Jewish fairy tale, a legend with no basis in the history of the Jewish people, and a book that is often best left to Torah Tots story times. Its simple morality message of “there is no place you can run away from God” is often the only insight drawn from this prophet. And in doing so, I think many of us are missing out on quite a bit that is relevant to us and to our understanding of HaShem.

So let’s start our study of Yonah today by reading the first few verses. The book of Yonah begins like this:

Yonah 1:1-3a
The word of ADONAI came to Yonah, the son of Amitai: “Set out for the great city of Ninveh, and proclaim to it that their wickedness has come to my attention.”

But Yonah, in order to get away from ADONAI, prepared to escape to Tarshish.

Now, the first thing we’ll notice is that the narrative begins immediately, with Yonah being given a mission by HaShem. He’s told to set out for Ninveh and proclaim God’s judgment against them.

We’re not told, really, who Yonah was, other than the son of Amitai. We’re not really informed in the Yonah narrative about why he’s fleeing from God’s command to him. These things just take place and we sort of figure out as we go that Yonah is a prophet. The reason for his flight from God’s command is left mostly behind a veil of mystery.

Yet can we gather some clues that might help contextualize this story? We can.

Louis Ginzberg, a conservative Talmudic rabbi who lived from 1873 to 1953, wrote a seminal work that gathers and summarizes some of the traditions and folklore of the Hebrew people, called Legends of the Jews. From volume four of that work, on pages 246-247, we are given this insight into who Yonah was:

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 4
Among the many thousands of disciples whom Elisha gathered about him during his sixty years and more of activity, the most prominent was the prophet Jonah. While the master was still alive, Jonah was charged with the important mission of anointing Jehu king. The next task laid upon him was to proclaim their destruction to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. This doom did not come to pass, because they repented of their wrong-doing, and G-d had mercy upon them. Among the Israelites Jonah was, therefore, known as “the false prophet.” When he was sent to Nineveh to prophesy the downfall of the city, he reflected, “I know to a certainty that the heathen will do penance, the threatened punishment will not be executed, and among the heathen, too, I shall gain the reputation of being a false prophet.”

This insight, based on an ancient Hebrew midrash, is helpful to our efforts to understand the prophet Yonah and why he would attempt to flee from HaShem’s command. We are told he was one of the most prominent disciples of Elisha, that he was involved in appointing Yehu king, and most importantly… that he was tasked with prophesying destruction toward the city of Yerushalayim, and when that city repented, the destruction was held off by ADONAI and did not come to pass.

However, we also see the root of the potential problem here. Among the Israelites, we are told, Yonah had acquired a nickname: the false prophet.

Now, it might be hard for us to understand the seriousness of this nickname today. After all, we live in a time where secular prophets like Jeanne Dixon have been accurate maybe ten percent of the time, and are lauded as geniuses. We look at the French poet and self-appointed seer, Nostradamus, whose quatrains can only be force-fitted to be accurate after something major has occurred, and our entire culture fears his accuracy.

But we in the early part of the twenty-first century don’t understand the prophetic office, or prophetic accuracy, the way the Hebrew people of Yonah’s day did. Prophets of those times were held to a much higher standard. To be considered a true prophet of ADONAI, one must be accurate every single time. We read this, in part, from:

Deuteronomy 18:20-22
“‘But if a prophet presumptuously speaks a word in my name which I didn’t order him to say, or if he speaks in the name of other gods, then that prophet must die.’ You may be wondering, ‘How are we to know if a word has not been spoken from Adonai?’ When a prophet speaks in the name of ADONAI, and the prediction does not come true—that is, the word is not fulfilled—then ADONAI did not speak that word. The prophet who said it spoke presumptuously; you have nothing to fear from him.

So, there are the stakes, laid out for us in the words of the Torah itself. If a prophet speaks presumptuously in the name of HaShem, or in the name of false gods, he must be put to death, and one of the signs that HaShem did not speak through such a prophet is that the prediction did not come true, the word was not fulfilled.

One hundred percent accuracy. No exceptions. No guesses. Only speaking exactly what HaShem tells you to say, when He tells you to say it. No second chances. Speak falsely once, and you’re subject to a death penalty.

That’s a high standard. But it’s understandable, as well, because by this Biblical standard, prophets were representatives of HaShem. If there were false words found in their mouths, that would reflect on God. And is there ever a false word that flows from the mouth of God? Of course not.

By this high standard, all the secular so-called prophets of our time would never have lasted very long.

And this is why this label of “false prophet,” if the Hebrew tradition about Yonah is accurate, would be such a source of concern. It doesn’t take many people calling you a false prophet before someone’s going to act on that. It is reasonable to surmise that under such circumstances and background, the prophet Yonah could very well have been in fear of his life, and perhaps was even no longer welcomed in the Land.

With this insight, it becomes more understandable why Yonah might be hesitant. After all, this isn’t the first time he’s been asked to declare a day of destruction against an entire city. It’s happened before, and the people repented and the city was spared.

Keep in mind that in the ancient world, in Yonah’s time, there was really only two places for someone like Yonah to be. He could dwell in the Land of his people, or he could dwell among the nations. If indeed there is evil speech—lashon hara—circulating about Yonah in the Land of Isra’el, then one of those options, in his mind, has already been eliminated. If he is being called a false prophet, this is no casual insult or nickname; it’s the shadow of death hanging over him.

And so, all Yonah has left to him is to live among the nations.

And then, as the book of Yonah opens, God calls for him to give a repeat performance, this time against a city among the nations. In Yonah’s mind, the fear for his own life was likely great. He’d been called to prophesy against Yerushalayim, the city repented and was spared, and as a result he’s called a false prophet in the Land of Isra’el.

Now, if he follows God’s command, he fears the same thing will happen; the people will repent, and even the nations will offer no refuge for him. And Yonah’s struggle, many have observed, is against the seemingly contradictory character qualities of God. Namely, that he had been told by God to speak of destruction against at least one city and perhaps another, and yet labeled a false prophet when God holds off that destruction in favor of showing His mercy. How can both things be true?

You see, just like us today, even a prophet like Yonah sometimes had a hard time understanding the mysteries of HaShem. He struggled with the same questions. How can he be considered a prophet, if the destruction HaShem instructs him to foretell doesn’t come to pass? That is the fuel to this fire of evil speech against Yonah. Tied into it is this idea that God is not like a man who changes His mind with the wind, yet He is a compassionate and forgiving God as well. These seem, to our mind, to be contradictions. Therefore, they seem mysterious.

Let’s read deeper into the Yonah narrative. As we all know, he hops a boat to Tarshish, but a storm comes up and threatens to kill all on board. Yonah tells those he is with to toss him into the sea, and the storm will pass. They are reluctant to do so, but eventually feel they have no choice, and ask God not to hold the blood of Yonah against them.

Then comes the huge fish. The breed of fish is not named as a whale, even though that is often assumed. Some Hebrew traditions hold that it may have even been Leviatan, the great creature of the deep. Whatever it might have been, however, is not of great importance to our purposes. The point is that Yonah is swallowed and spends three days and three nights in the belly of this large fish.

And the second chapter of Yonah demonstrates what that time in the belly of the fish brings out in him. Let’s read the prayer he prays as he rests in the belly of the large fish, starting in:

Yonah 2:3-10
Out of my distress I called to ADONAI,
and he answered me;
from the belly of Sh’ol I cried,
and you heard my voice.
For you threw me into the deep,
into the heart of the seas;
and the flood enveloped me;
all your surging waves passed over me.
I thought, “I have been banished from your sight,”
But I will again look at your holy temple.
The water surrounded me,
threatened my life,
the deep closed over me,
seaweed twined around my head.
I was going down to the bottoms of the mountains,
to a land whose bars would close me in forever;
but you brought me up alive from the pit,
ADONAI my God!
As my life was ebbing away,
I remembered ADONAI;
and my prayer came in to you,
into your holy temple.
“Those who worship vain idols
give up their source of mercy;
but I, speaking my thanks aloud,
will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed, I will pay.
Salvation comes from ADONAI.

Now, consider for a moment how that last line would be read in Hebrew. It reads, “Yeshuatah La’ADONAI.” Salvation comes from HaShem. Or, Yeshua comes from the LORD.

Yeshua, the Messiah, the salvation of Isra’el, comes from the LORD. Yeshuatah La’ADONAI. That is the final confession of Yonah in the belly of the big fish. Yeshua comes from the LORD. That is the confession that regains Yonah his freedom, his second chance to obey HaShem’s command.

Now, this is where some rabbinic traditions get a little, shall we say, poetic? There are traditions that suggest that Yonah lived in complete comfort in the belly of this big fish, using its eyes as windows into the sea, to observe all of God’s undersea wonders, and that a huge diamond shed light on the entire area.

Of course, we know such things could never be, and are certainly not suggested by the text. Nor would they lead to such a prayer of humility. Nor would they lead to Yonah’s change of heart.

Yonah’s prayer affirms God’s goodness amid Yonah’s own rebellion. It compares his surroundings in the big fish to she’ol, which is often translated as “the pit,” “the grave,” or even “the abode of death.”

And if we imagine for a moment the possibility of Yonah living inside a large fish for three days, we can paint a portrait of how he must have looked on the shores of Ninveh after being spewed up by the fish.

As a result of the digestive juices, most of his clothes were probably in tatters. It’s possible Yonah suffered bites, acidic burns and other wounds. His hair would have at least have been disheveled, if not burned away. I mean, Yonah was very likely half-digested. He probably hadn’t eaten in all that time, and it’s likely he smelled pretty bad, too.

While God did spare his life, Yonah did not show up on the shores of Ninveh in a smart three-piece tuxedo, a perfect haircut, and a smile on his face, looking like the modern-day concept of an evangelist. This is a man who, by admission in his own prayer, has almost literally been to the abode of death and back again.

So when Yonah, looking this way, starts to march around Ninveh shouting, “In forty days, Ninveh will be overthrown!” in Yonah 3:4b, it’s no small wonder that we’re told he’d barely finished his first day of prophesying against Ninveh before the people of that great city believed God. The message was coming from someone who looked at least half-dead himself!

All the people of Ninveh then begin to wear sackcloth and ashes and repent from their wickedness. Now, that’s a nice, tidy little phrase, but I think we miss the extent of it with our modern, Western ears and preconceived notions. This was not just an, “Oops, I sinned. Sorry, God” moment. Not at all.

In his book, Legends of the Jews, on page 251 of volume four, Ginzberg writes of the Ninveh repentance these words:

Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews
The penance of the Ninevites did not stop at fasting and praying. Their deeds showed that they had determined to lead a better life. If a man had usurped another’s property, he sought to make amends for his iniquity; some went so far as to destroy their palaces in order to be able to give back a single brick to the rightful owner. Of their own accord others appeared before the courts of justice, and confessed their secret crimes and sins, known to none beside themselves, and declared themselves ready to submit to well-merited punishment, though it be death that was decreed against them.

Now, the words of the King of Ninveh are problematic to some in Yonah 3:9, where, after ordering all this repentance, we read this quote from the King:

Yonah 3:9
“Who knows? Maybe God will change his mind, relent, and turn from his fierce anger; and then we won’t perish.”

It’s stated very similarly in the Masoretic text and translated that way. Yet the way it’s worded trips people up. We know elsewhere that God has revealed about himself that He “isn’t like a man, who changes His mind.”

Yet it’s an imperfect translation that stops us.

Back in the days just before the days of Messiah Yeshua, as the Aramaic language grew in popular use in Isra’el, the rabbis of that day decided to translate the Tenakh into Aramaic, so God’s message could be more widely understood by all.

These efforts gave rise to what is known as the Aramaic Targums. These were very liberal translations because the scribes in charge of the translation knew that some concepts easily understood in Hebrew wouldn’t carry over to the new tongue and culture, so they made efforts to expand on the text, adding in extra insights and explanations, and sometimes going so far as to add in contextual information, Hebrew traditions and folklore that were not part of the Torah text, but helped capture their understanding of Torah at that time.

For example, the passage in Numbers that says, “a star shall rise out of Jacob” would drop the poetic expression in this Aramaic rendering. If the rabbis of that time believed “star” to be a reference to Messiah, they’d simply render the verse, “Messiah shall rise out of Jacob.”

So while the Aramaic Targums are not a hundred percent reliable as literal translations of the text, they are useful for understanding the Hebrew Tenakh, as it was popularly understood in the days of Yeshua and His talmidim.

Thus, there is help for us, to be found in an Aramaic Targum of the book of Yonah. The Targum renders the King of Ninveh’s words quite differently. Instead of suggesting God changes him mind, it reads:

Targum Jonah 3:9
“Whoever knows that there are sins on his conscience, let him repent of them and we will be pitied before the Lord.”

So, under this Targum rendering, God does not change His mind; He shows pity. That is more consistent with our understanding of HaShem.

And this gets to the heart of the whole conflict Yonah faced.

Was the charge against Yonah accurate? Was he truly a false prophet, simply because he may have prophesied the destruction of Yerushalayim and it did not come to pass? Was he truly a false prophet, because he prophesied the destruction of Ninveh and it did not come to pass?

Of course not.

His prophecy was true because had those in Ninveh not turned completely away from their wickedness, God certainly would have carried out his destruction of Ninveh. It is not accurate to call Yonah a false prophet, simply because a city he said would be destroyed was not immediately destroyed. He would only be a false prophet if he said the city would be destroyed, and then the city was not destroyed even though they did not repent.

This is another key to understanding these dueling aspects of God. He will do what he says, but He will also show mercy and forgiveness when repentance is genuine. God’s pity, His mercy, does not make Yonah a false prophet.

However, that does not mean all is well with Yonah. There’s trouble brewing, and a deeper message to this book of Yonah. Let’s start reading again in:

Yonah 3:10-4:2
When God saw by their deeds that they had turned from their evil way, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.

But this was very displeasing to Yonah, and he became angry. He prayed to ADONAI, “Now, ADONAI, didn’t I say this would happen, when I was still in my own country? That’s why I tried to get away to Tarshish ahead of time! I know you were a God who is mericful and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in grace, and that you relent from inflicting punishment.”

Before we continue, don’t those words sound familiar? Where have we heard them before? Well, of course, in:

Exodus 34:6-7
And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.”

So it’s clear that Yonah knew his Torah. He’s quoting Exodus here, even as he’s expressing his frustration and anger toward God.

And I must say, one of the wonderful aspects of the Hebrew prophets, I think, is that even when they are upset, they do not speak falsely about God. Can you imagine, even in your anger, what it would be like if you constantly told yourself the truth of who God was and is? If we never allowed ourselves, as we can so often be tempted to do, to place blame and condemnation for our own action on God, how much better off we might be.

It’s a quality we see in the book of Job, and it’s a quality we see when Yonah’s in the belly of the fish, and we see it again even here. So let’s continue reading:

Yonah 4:3-4
Therefore, ADONAI, please, just take my life away from me; it’s better for me to be dead than alive!” ADONAI asked, “Is it right for you to be so angry?”

Now, to my ears at least, that’s always seemed a little extreme.

“God, you’re too merciful! You’re too forgiving! Just kill me now!”

Yet, funny as it may seem out of context, Yonah’s facing, for him, a serious issue. He’s called upon Yonah to prophesy the destruction of a city in the Land of Isra’el, only to have the city spared and to be referred to as a false prophet; and now the same thing has happened in the nations. For Yonah, there is nowhere left to turn.

For, you see, part of what we see in Yonah is not ridiculously suicidal despair over God’s mercy. What we see is something that probably hits close to home for many of us: Jonah has allowed the impressions of other people to matter more to him than God’s impression of him.

Yonah has been obedient. He’s been a truthful prophet. But because the people see him differently, he despairs. You see, my theory is this: Yonah had so lost his perspective that he was more interested in achieving a specific end result than he was in seeing God’s purposes fulfilled.

The opinions of others mattered to Yonah so much that he’d rather see a city full of people destroyed, than to see them repent. In essence, Yonah’s failing is that he wanted to be right. He wanted to be right more than he wanted God to be worshipped.

So we get the castor-bean plant episode where God raises up a vine overnight to provide Yonah shade, and then kills the same plant the next day. God’s purpose is to remind Yonah of His sovereignty. But Yonah expresses again that he feels he’d be better off dead than alive, which elicits this response from God in:

Yonah 4:9-11
God asked Yonah, “Is it right for you to be so angry about the castor-bean plant?” He answered, “Yes, it’s right for me to be so angry that I could die!” ADONAI said, “You’re concerned over the castor-bean plant, which cost you no effort; you didn’t make it grow; it came up in a night and perished in a night. So shouldn’t I be concerned about the great city of Ninveh, in which there are more than 120,000 people who don’t know their right hand from their left, not to mention all the animals?”

The simplicity of the message of Yonah can be misleading. While it’s easy to write off as a children’s lesson about being forgiving, there is much more here.

One intriguing aspect is a story that has, by many rabbis, been attributed to be connected to Yonah.

In I Kings 17, we read about how the prophet Elijah visited a widow and her son and how the son died after eating a meal provided by the prophet. Elijah then takes the boy up to the attic, prays for G-d’s mercy, and the life of the boy is restored. Although the text of I Kings does not name this son of a widow by name, rabbinic tradition holds that his was, in fact, Yonah, who would become a disciple of Elijah and, later, his successor, Elisha.

While we cannot be completely sure this tradition is true, since the boy is not named in the biblical text itself, it certainly lends more background to how Yonah reacts to the merciful actions of ADONAI.

If true, his life has been a pattern of brushes with death and restoration by God. One would imagine Yonah would appreciate more than most God’s abundant mercy, and yet because he has become more concerned with the opinion of others than the opinion of God, he despairs over God’s mercy… mercy he himself has benefitted from both in the text of Yonah, and possibly in other ways suggested by Jewish tradition.

When explaining the purpose of the book of Yonah, the Jewish Encyclopedia has this to say:

Jewish Encyclopedia
[Jonah, as] J. Wellhausen has best expressed it, is directed “against the impatience of the Jewish believers, who are fretting because, notwithstanding all predictions, the antitheocratic world-empire has not yet been destroyed;—because ADONAI is still postponing His judgment of the heathen, giving them further time for repentance. ADONAI, it is hinted, is hoping that they will turn from their sins in the eleventh hour; and He has compassion for the innocent ones, who would perish with the guilty.”

Ultimately, isn’t this a struggle we’ve all felt at one time or another? We rejoice when God saves us, and then despair when we observe the evil of others. It becomes easy to forget that we, too, were once in the crosshairs of His wrath.

And to procure atonement, it would be wise to take a lesson from the Ninvehites. Repentance is not lip-service toward regret for doing wrong, or for being caught at doing wrong. It’s not just words. Words of repentance must be accompanied by actions. We should seek to make whole those whom we’ve harmed, rather than offer mere words of apology.

And we must put our old ways behind us. As it says in the Mishnah in:

TA’AN 16A
“He that confesses his sin and still clings to it is likened to a man that holds in his hand a defiling object; though he bathes in all the waters of the world he is not cleansed; but the moment he casts the defiling object from him a single bath will cleanse him, as it is said (Prov. 28:13): He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”

Therefore, perhaps, returning now to where we began in this week’s parashah with the actions of Pinchas, perhaps we can better understand what drove him to such extreme actions. To allow in the wilderness community even one member to continue in the very sins the rest of them were repenting for would have nullified and made void all the deaths that were being carried out. Torah tells us that Pinchas’ actions spared lives that day; yet even with his actions, twenty-four thousand Hebrews still died.

That can lead some folks to think God is capricious, that he delights in the taking of life. May that never be said of HaShem! We must remember that no single verse, no single chapter, no single book of the Tenakh or the B’rit HaDasha exists in a vacuum. We must strive to take in all that God has revealed to us in all of His Word.

So the next time someone suggests to you that stories like the tale of Pinchas paint HaShem as cruel and unconcerned with the deaths of others, remind them of the book of Yonah, where, thanks to the genuine repentance of the people, and despite the anguish His mercy caused Yonah, God spared an entire city because of the innocent lives, the great number of the people, and even the innocent animals that would have perished alongside the wicked.

Ninveh was no Sodom; it was no Gomorrah. Had they not repented, that city could have joined them in their destruction. Yet the book of Yonah shows that God will show His mercy, rather than His judgment, to all who walk away from wickedness with a pure heart toward ADONAI.

May all of us, like Jonah, cry out, Yeshuatah La’ADONAI. Salvation comes from our God. Yeshua, the Messiah, comes from our God!

Shabbat Shalom.

Review: Kosher Jesus by Shmuley Boteach

First of all, I must say that it was with gladness that I greeted the news that America’s most famous rabbi, Shmuley Boteach, had written a book about the central figure in Christianity, Jesus of Nazareth. Now, he is hardly the first rabbi to perform such a task, but R. Boteach is certainly one of the most prominent in the present day to do so.

My hope for R. Boteach’s KOSHER JESUS is this: that the book gain enough popularity among Jewish readers to make the person known as Jesus a kosher topic of discussion among the Hebrew people. Too often, there have been instances where rifts develop among Jewish families and other relatives, simply for bringing up the name of Christianity’s central figure. If his book can merely accomplish the task of making Jesus safe for discussion in Jewish families, R. Boteach has performed a powerful mitzvah through his authorship.

It should be noted that the intended audience of KOSHER JESUS is not primarily Christians. His audience for this tome is Jewish, in a very intentional manner. As such, he develops theories and ideas about Jesus that many in Christianity will take issue with. That should be expected.

Due to the nature of this book, before I discuss KOSHER JESUS, I think a mention of my own background is necessary. For over a dozen years, I have attended Messianic Jewish communities, including several years of intense theological study as part of an informal Messianic Yeshiva. Prior to joining the Messianic movement, I was a goyim (of the nations) Christian, so I do not personally have any Jewish heritage. My ancestors were Irish. So, this is the perspective I bring to my reading and review of KOSHER JESUS.

Now, to the review at hand.

First, R. Boteach writes in a very fluid and accessible style. His prose reads quickly and one seldom gets bogged down in pretentious scholarly vocabulary and presentation.

In other words, his book was written for a popular audience, and so that a wide swath of readers could pick it up and understand his ideas. This approach doesn’t do as well for him in the early going of the book, where he is developing his main suppositions on who Jesus of Nazareth was historically, in his first-century Jewish context.

Too often, it appears as though R. Boteach is merely asserting his own theories without the benefit of research and scholarly support. A plethora of end notes, however, indicate otherwise.

His greatest weakness, perhaps, is relying too heavily on the more scholarly-oriented work of Hyam Maccoby. KOSHER JESUS reads as though he has expected his audience to have read and become as familiar with Mr. Maccoby’s work as he is. This is unfortunate, because R. Boteach leaves readers not familiar with Maccoby’s books a little adrift at times.

In developing his portrait of a Jewish Jesus, R. Boteach leans on a familiar saw summed up succinctly in the words of this short poem:

“Blame it all
On Paul.”

In sum, R. Boteach’s theory is that the historical Jesus was a military Jewish rebel more concerned with political overthrow of Israel’s Roman occupiers; a man who was a Pharisee, freedom fighter, and a fierce Israeli patriot.

While R. Boteach’s Jesus seems new, his arguments are familiar: that Paul was primarily responsible for the development of a Christianity that embraced hostility toward Judiasm, and that later editors attempted to write the true nature of the historical Jesus out of the New Covenant writings.

Once he gets past these sticky points of contention, Boteach becomes incredibly articulate in outlining the Jewish identity of Jesus, stripping away the pagan trappings that have attached themselves to him over the centuries. He makes excellent points about how Jesus might have viewed Rome, regarded Jewish customs, and interacted among his fellow Jewish citizens.

What he builds is a portrait of a Jesus that Jewish people could indeed proudly embrace as a hero of their people.

His work, however, is not without some weaknesses.

The first thematic weakness of KOSHER JESUS is that R. Boteach relies far too heavily on traditional Christian interpretation of the New Covenant writings, assuming that those centuries-held teachings are not only a reflection of historical Christianity (they are, by and large), but also the proper and accurate way to interpret them (not so, in some cases).

Furthermore, many of his contentions and drawn from the non-canonical “Gospel of Peter.” Since most people, even outside of Christianity, will understand that Christians do not draw their theology from The Gospel of Peter, his over-reliance on it here also weakens his arguments.

As one example, R. Boteach asserts in his text that both Peter and Paul “ate pork.”

He bases his assertion on popularly misunderstood portions of Acts 10 and 15, as well as Mark 7, which are passages Christians have historically pointed to as allowing for the consumption of meats declared unclean by God in Leviticus.

Yet any careful study of these passages show that the discussions in any of these passages was not about clean or unclean foods at all.

So much of what R. Boteach posits about Paul rests on this misunderstanding, it weakens his argument once one realizes these were not the issues at play in those passages.

While R. Boteach’s work in KOSHER JESUS has done much to liberate the Jewish Jesus from his anti-Semitic Christian trappings, he does so at the expense of most of the New Covenant writings, as well as most of Jesus’s disciples, who likewise were completely Jewish and not always what Christianity makes them out to be. But one can only expect to accomplish so much in about 300 pages.

The second primary thematic weakness in R. Boteach’s work is that he often slips up, painting Jesus not merely as a Jewish man, but as a 21st Century Orthodox Rabbi, in some instances. While it is true that Jesus was a first century Jew, and some of the core teachings of modern Judaism come from first-century Pharisaic Judaism, it is a misstep to equate first-century Pharisaic Judaism with 21st-century Orthodox Judaism.

While considerably closer to the mark than mainstream Christianity’s popular conception of Jesus, there is still a vast cultural gulf between the 2,000 years that separate Jesus of Nazareth and Shmuley Boteach. They might not always see eye-to-eye.

In the final analysis, while KOSHER JESUS may rub mainstream Christians the wrong way, this book was not for them. It is a work of a dedicated and popular Orthodox Rabbi, and its purpose is to paint a portrait of the first-century Jewish Jesus that modern Jews can reclaim and embrace as a cultural hero, without having to view him as divine, which is anathema to Judaism.

As an aside, I will say the book could have easily done without the chapter containing Shmuley’s ad-hominem attack that Christian churches are “too obsessed” with “anti-gay” messages. This is another unfortunate example of R. Boteach painting all of Christianity with too broad a brush.

There are many Christian churches who agree that while homosexuality is a sin, it’s certainly just one among many. In my pre-Messianic days, I almost never came across any church that was obsessed with “anti-gay” sermons; if it was mentioned once or twice a year, that was notable. I suspect not much has changed in the dozen or so years since I embraced the Messianic movement.

As a Messianic believer and reader, I do in the end possess some differences with R. Boteach on his conclusions about the fitness of Jesus (we prefer his Hebrew-Aramaic name, Yeshua) as the promised Messiah.

Yet despite such differences on Jesus’ messiahship, it might surprise R. Boteach to know how often I found myself agreeing with him. KOSHER JESUS helps unclutter the portrait Jesus from his Greco-Roman Christian trappings to reach a more accurate first-century Jewish understanding of Yeshua.

Although I’m not convinced Yeshua was a first-century military rebel leader, largely unconcerned with spiritual matters, what I find refreshing is that R. Boteach has, at minimum, found a way to make acceptable a discussion of who Jesus was.

While our conclusions are and likely will remain somewhat different on key issues, his book has helped to popularize some teachings that hopefully will make an ongoing, respectful, non-proslytizing dialog more possible and palatable than it has been since any time in perhaps 1900 of the last 2000 years.

As a Messianic believer in Yeshua, I have spent the past dozen years learning the Jewish nature of Yeshua. Because of this, KOSHER JESUS is a welcome contribution to the discussion.

A faithful Jewish cantor once told me, “Here in America, you say there are Christians, and there are Messianics. But in Israel, there is no difference.”

On the broadest possible spectrum, I can understand that lack of distinction. However, were I to write a book adding the Messianic perspective on Yeshua to this conversation, I suspect R. Boteach might be surprised by how often I agree with him, and on the much greater number of issues upon which I differ with mainstream Christianity.

KOSHER JESUS is not a book written for Christians; yet if Christians can resist attacking it because of the points they disagree with, and see it for what it is, I suspect it could serve as a path toward a more deeply respectful dialog between Christians and Jews. As a Messianic, I would only hope we are welcomed to the table for such a civil discussion, as well. Perhaps as moderators.