Faith in Doubtful Times – Learning from the Fall Festivals

Lois Tverberg

(Editors note: This article was written and published in September 2001, following the tragic events of 9/11.)

In the past couple weeks, I have been reminded of an image from one of the traditions of Sukkot, the feast of tabernacles, that will be celebrated next week. God tells his people to build booths and live in them for seven days, in order to remember how he brought them out of Egypt and kept them safe in the booths they lived in. This was to remind them of how God took care of them so that their feet did not swell and their clothes did not wear out. To this day, Jewish people have observed the tradition of building a sukkah.

In order for people to get the sense of dependency they had while wandering in the wilderness, they established regulations for the booths. The booths should be made out of impermanent materials, cannot be entirely enclosed on all four sides, and at least one star should be visible through the branches used to cover the roof.

It is also traditional to fill the booth with harvest images — such as fruit and vegetables from the garden, to remind one’s self of the abundance of God’s blessings during that year. They are supposed to live in them, or at least eat their meals in it as if it was their home.

As you sit in one of these rickety little booths and see the sky through the branches and feel the wind blow through the walls, you have a strong sense of your own insecurity and lack of protection from the elements.

That is exactly the point: that our security doesn’t come from the strength of the walls that we build around ourselves, it comes from our protection by the Lord. Ironically, at the same time a person feels insecure, there is also a feeling of being overwhelmed with the abundant blessings of the harvest he has given. It is a potent experience of what following God is like — feeling radical insecurity but blessed at the same time. That is what I’ve felt like lately.

The tragic national events of the last couple weeks have made my house feel like a sukkah. My sturdy brick house suddenly seemed as if I could see the stars through the roof and feel the wind through the walls.

When the Twin Towers fell it seemed like the security of living in the United States fell with it. It seems only a matter of time until more tragedy occurs. On top of that, the economy that is worsening is making life difficult or even desperate for many businesses and people who have lost their jobs.

It is hard in a situation like this not to feel abandoned or unloved by God. Indeed, our spiritual ancestors, the Israelites, cursed God in their booths and accused him of bringing them out of Egypt in order to destroy them.  They longed for cucumbers and melons and forgot the slavery altogether.

Questions about God’s character frequently arise — is God really good? Does he really have our best interests in mind? Why does God let adversity plague us? How can we really be sure that God is loving and not dispassionate and cruel?

The Lord spoke to me about this about a year ago when I had been asking these same questions. For several days it rained without stopping and my basement flooded, and kept filling with water for weeks. One day I told a new friend of mine, Mary, who told me to mention it to her husband Bruce, a man I hardly knew. I expected that he would give me the number of a plumber. Instead he said “It looks like you need to have a sump pump put in — I’d like to help you with that.”

It turned out to be the world’s most horrendous project. He and his brother-in-law worked on it for weeks at great time and expense to themselves. Every time I came downstairs I was speechless at Bruce’s generosity and good will. I had never met a person of such character who would sacrifice so much of himself to help another he hardly knew. During this time we started talking about working together, and out of it began the ministry of the En-Gedi Resource Center.

I know Bruce didn’t realize the Lord was speaking to me through his actions. God was saying behind it, “Can’t you see my character, Lois? Bruce is a good man, willing to sacrifice a lot to help another he hardly knows. Kal v’homer — How much more did I sacrifice for you when I suffered for you?”

What hit me is that the truest test of a person’s selfless goodwill and love for another is what he is willing to sacrifice of himself for the other. Because of that, the suffering of Christ has once and for all exonerated God from accusation of being evil. God could make us happy and wealthy, but it wouldn’t say nearly much about his love and good intentions toward us as when he himself suffered for us.

I think of Romans 5:8, which says “But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Along with that, when he “tabernacled” among us, he felt the same insecurity that we feel.

Another thing I realized is that if Jesus and his Father are one, the sacrificial love of Jesus must be an exact reflection of the love of his Father in heaven. I’m not sure all Christians are convinced of this, because of their suspicion of God as he has revealed himself in our Old Testament. I hear things like “I think the story of the sacrifice of Isaac shows that God is a child abuser!”

If we are convinced that Jesus and his Father are one, how can we level that charge? Would we call Jesus a child abuser? Jesus himself says in John 5:19 “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of himself, unless it is something he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner.” Seeing God through the lens of Jesus must make us know that every possible charge of evil against him must be false even in the most difficult stories. We need to re-read difficult scriptures in the light of Christ.

With this thought, I see an irony in another Jewish tradition that comes at this time of year, called Simchat (“sim-KHAHT”) Torah, meaning “Rejoicing with the Torah.” Right after the feast of Sukkot is over, the the Torah scrolls are rewound back to the beginning and the next year’s reading cycle begins at Genesis 1:1 again.

This is an occasion of much rejoicing, and the object of their joy is the fact that God gave them his word, the Torah. They literally dance around the synagogue with the Torah scrolls praising God for the Scriptures. Why is it that they are so radically convinced of God’s goodness even in the passages that Christians find most difficult?

I think this is partly because they have understood the biblical culture better than Western Christians who find them so foreign. As I’ve studied the Torah, I’ve found the loving kindness of God in the books I have avoided, and this has deepened my understanding of the faithfulness of my Father in heaven.

Both the lesson of the Sukkah, God’s protection in the desert, and Simchat Torah, rejoicing in his Word, help answer the insecurity I feel at this time of worry and adversity.

I’m convinced, beyond a shadow of a doubt, of the goodness of God, even when it is hidden in difficult times or terrible events or even hard texts. His protection in the desert, his giving of his Word, and his very own sacrifice for us finally answer that question once and for all.

The Gospel as a Year of Jubilee

by Lois Tverberg

In Leviticus, we read an intriguing law that God gave Israel about observing a year of Jubilee:

‘You are also to count off seven sabbaths of years for yourself, seven times seven years, so that you have the time of the seven sabbaths of years, namely, forty-nine years. ‘You shall then sound a ram’s horn abroad on the tenth day of the seventh month; on the day of atonement you shall sound a horn all through your land. ‘You shall thus consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim a release through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, and each of you shall return to his own property, and each of you shall return to his family. ‘You shall have the fiftieth year as a jubilee; you shall not sow, nor reap its aftergrowth, nor gather in from its untrimmed vines. (Lev 25:8 – 11)

God proclaimed that every seventh year was to be a sabbath for the land: crops were not to be planted, and they were to live on what God had provided before that time and what grew up by itself.

After seven sabbath years came a year of Jubilee, which along with being a Sabbath for the land, also was a “year of release.” This meant that all Israelites who were in bondage were freed, and anyone who had sold his ancestral property would receive it back, and all debts were forgiven. The word “Jubilee” comes from the word Yovel, a Hebrew word for the ram’s horn that was used to proclaim the year.

Another name for it was a “year of release (deror).”  The Hebrew word deror means “release” or “liberty.” Early Americans, who knew their Bibles better than we do, placed Leviticus 25:10 on the Liberty Bell: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof.”

Our founding fathers found inspiration in the year of Jubilee as they were establishing the United States. What did they find so special about this concept?

The Purpose of the Year of Jubilee

As part of God’s covenant with Israel, he promised to give the Israelites the land of Canaan. After the conquest of the land, it was divided among the tribes so that each family had its own share. In the ancient world, owning land was greatly prized because it was a source of food, income and security.

In that economy where people depended on the crops they raised, if a family had a bad harvest and ran out of food, they were forced to go into debt or even sell their land. If they couldn’t recover but fell further behind, they would have to sell themselves into slavery or leave the country, like Naomi and Elimelech in the book of Ruth.

People did not borrow money and sell land for business purposes, they did it only out of desperate economic need. So the Jubilee was for one main purpose — to provide for the poor who had gone into debt or lost their land, so that they would be able to start over again. Without it, the wealthy would always do better in bad years, and the land would tend to move into their hands while those who had lost their land would become permanently enslaved.

Another effect of the Jubilee would be to stop the destruction of families. If a man lost his land and sold himself and his family into slavery, or if he moved out of the country, he would likely never see his family together again. Part of the reason Naomi was distraught was because not only had she lost her hope for future descendants, but by leaving Israel, she also lost her family and past. When she returned, she was reunited with her family.

The year of Jubilee was to be a year that people returned home and families were brought together again.

The evidence suggests that Israel never observed the year of Jubilee. In 2 Chronicles it reports that they never allowed the land to have its Sabbath every seventh year, and if they never did that, they most likely never observed the year of Jubilee either. Several of the prophets lament the exploitation of the poor by the rich, which also hints that they never observed a Jubilee year.

There is, however, evidence from other Middle Eastern countries that years of release were proclaimed in ancient times when a new king came into power. It would be a way to ensure support from the masses when a king would declare all debts void and set free all those in bondage to debt.

It is interesting that the prophets thought of this association of a year of Jubilee with the coming of the Messiah. The primary image of the Messiah was that he would be a king like David, so just as the new kings of other countries declared a Jubilee when they came into power, the Messianic king would as well. Isaiah says:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)

This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year. Each phrase is about how great the “year of the Lord’s favor” will be to those who have been imprisoned or enslaved because of their debt. The king will let them go home and start life over, to their great joy.

Jesus and the Year of Jubilee

In Luke 4, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus reads the passage from Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in his hometown, and he says “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing!” his audience would have heard this as an obvious claim to be the Messiah who has now come into power.

Throughout Jesus’ ministry he uses images from the year of Jubilee, but he takes the image of the poor person set free from debt, and uses debt as a metaphor of sin. For instance, when the sinful woman comes and washes his feet with her tears and Simon, his host, wonders if he knows what a sinner she is, he tells the parable:

Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.” “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. (Luke 7:41-43)

The poor who are set free in the Messianic kingdom are the poor in spirit, those who know they are in debt to God because of their sin. So the “good news of the kingdom of God” is that the Messianic King has come, and has declared complete forgiveness of debt — sin —for those who will repent and enter his kingdom. It is good news to the poor rather than to the rich who don’t see that they need to be forgiven.

We see in Jesus’ use of the picture of the Jubilee the greatest picture of God’s grace through Christ. Those in prison are those who are under a crushing debt they could never repay. We see Jesus, the new king, setting prisoners free of debt that they owe because of their sin. Through Jesus’ work on the cross, those who become a part of his Kingdom receive a forgiveness of a debt they cannot repay themselves so that they can start over as new persons.

Raise Up Many Disciples!

by Lois Tverberg

Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. (Matt 28:19)

Jesus’ final words were those of what we call the Great Commission — to make disciples of the whole world. But what is a disciple? The ancient, Hebraic picture Jesus had of raising disciples was unique to his Jewish culture. By learning about this practice, we gain fresh insight into how Jesus intended that we fulfill his command.

Jesus lived in a deeply religious culture that valued biblical understanding more than anything else. To become a great rabbi was the highest goal possible, and just to be a disciple of a famous rabbi was an honor. All boys studied and memorized the scriptures until age twelve, and then learned a trade after that. Only a small minority could keep studying, and only a very few were able to go on to learn with a rabbi.

Rabbis acted as wandering expositors who taught in synagogues and homes, and outdoors when a crowd gathered. They taught general audiences, and also had a small band of disciples who lived with them and followed them everywhere. They traveled from town to town teaching, because no mass-communication was available.

They often practiced a trade of their own, but when traveling they were dependent on the hospitality of the community. Indeed, it was forbidden to charge money to teach, but people were expected to support them and invite them into their homes.

Even to the present day, Judaism retains a tradition of discipleship. When Jewish rabbis are ordained, they are commissioned to “Raise up many disciples.” This is the first verse of Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers), from the Mishnah, the Jewish compendium of laws and sayings from around Jesus’ time. Texts like this have much to say about the rabbinic method for raising disciples. Another passage that describes discipleship is this:

Let your house be a meeting place for the rabbis, and cover yourself in the dust of their feet, and drink in their words thirstily. (Pirke Avot 1:4)

This text casts light on several stories from Jesus’ ministry in the gospels. Mary, Martha and Lazarus opened their home to Jesus in the tradition of showing hospitality toward rabbis and disciples. Their house would also have served as a place for meetings for him to teach small groups.

We also read that Mary “sat at Jesus’ feet” to learn from him (Luke 10:39), which may be the sense of the phrase “cover yourself in the dust of their feet.” The phrase may also have meant to walk behind him to listen to him teach, as Jesus’ disciples would have done. On the unpaved roads in Israel, they literally would have been covered in their rabbi’s dust.

What was expected of rabbis and disciples?

Rabbis were expected not only to be greatly knowledgeable about the Bible, but to live exemplary lives to show that they had taken the scriptures to heart. The objective of their teaching was to instill in their disciples both the knowledge and desire to live by God’s word. It was said, “If the teacher is like an angel of the Lord, they will seek Torah from him. If not, they will not seek Torah from him” (Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 15b).

The disciple’s goal was to gain the rabbi’s understanding, and even more importantly, to become like him in character. It was expected that when the student became mature enough, he would take his rabbi’s teaching out to the community, add his own understanding to it, and raise up disciples of his own.

A disciple was expected to leave family and job behind to join the rabbi in his austere lifestyle. They would live twenty-four hours a day together, walking from town to town, teaching, working, eating, and studying. As they lived together, they would discuss the scriptures and apply them to their lives.

The disciples were supposed to be the rabbi’s servants, submitting to his authority while they served his needs. Indeed, the word “rabbi” means “my master,” and was a term of great respect, the same title that a slave would use to address his owner.

This sheds new light on the story of when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. Jesus was entitled to having them wash his feet, not the other way around! By his actions he was teaching them a great lesson in humility — that the one most deserving of being served is himself serving, while they were arguing who is the greatest. Jesus was using typical rabbinic technique: he didn’t just lecture, he used his own behavior as an example.

The rabbi-disciple relationship was very intimate. The rabbi was considered to be closer than a father to his disciples, and disciples were sometimes called “sons.” When Peter said “Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you,” he was reflecting the deep love and commitment that disciples had for their rabbi (Matt. 26:35).

In contrast, Judas’ betrayal would have been unthinkable, even if Jesus had not been the Messiah. Jesus’ insistence that his disciples leave everything behind to follow him would not have been considered extreme in that culture. They held up the image of Elisha as a model of a disciple’s commitment, who burned his plow and left everything to become Elijah’s disciple (1 Kings 19). After Elisha had lived with Elijah and served him for many years, he received Elijah’s authority to go out as his successor, as the disciples did from Jesus.

What light does this shed on the Great Commission?

Jesus’ eastern method of discipleship gives us a new picture of what he called us to do. Our Western model focuses mainly on the gospel as information, and our goal is to be a person of correct understanding. We focus mainly on spreading information about Jesus, not on living our life like him and inspiring others to do the same.

While it is important to teach and defend truth, Jesus’ method of discipleship is much more than that. He began his Kingdom by walking and living with disciples, to show them how to be like him. Then they went out and made disciples, doing their best to imitate Jesus and show others by their own example.

Jesus expects his kingdom will be built in this way: as each person grows in maturity, they live their lives transparently before others, counseling them on what they have learned about following Christ. The kingdom is built primarily through these close relationships of learning, living and teaching.

Paul uses the same model of discipleship in his ministry. He said,

…in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. (1 Cor 4:15-17)

We can hear that Paul’s goal for the Corinthians is that they become disciples, who change their lives to be like Christ, not just learn the correct beliefs. Using rabbinic method, he likens himself as a father to them, and he send his disciple Timothy, who he calls “his son.” He wants them to learn by the example of Timothy about his own way of life, which is a reflection of Jesus’ teaching. Paul is using this “whole person” method of evangelism to transform their lives, not just their minds, to reflect the truth.

Through this model of discipleship, we see that Jesus isn’t just interested in having our minds. He wants our hearts and lives too. Once our lives reflect what our minds believe, then the belief has actually reached our hearts. Then our passion for following him becomes a loud witness that inspires others to do the same.

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For further reading on discipleship in the first century, see the book, New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus, by David Bivin. 

What does the name Jesus “Christ” mean?

by Lois Tverberg

It is always fascinating and enriching to bring the Hebraic cultural context into understanding the most important, basic words that Christians use. One of the most important is the word “Christ.” What does it mean to call Jesus, “Jesus Christ”? Or, what implications does it have for us to say that Jesus is the “Christ”?

First of all, the word “Christ” comes from christos, a Greek word meaning “anointed.” It is the equivalent of the word moshiach, or “Messiah,” in Hebrew. So, to be the Christ, or Messiah, is to be “the anointed one of God.”

To be anointed is literally to have sacred anointing oil poured on one’s head because God has chosen the person for a special task. Priests and kings were anointed, and occasionally prophets. Kings were anointed during their coronation rather than receiving a crown.

Even though prophets and priests were anointed, the phrase “anointed one” or “the Lord’s anointed” was most often used to refer to a king. For instance, David used it many times to refer to King Saul, even when Saul was trying to murder David and David was on the verge of killing Saul to defend himself:

Far be it from me because of the LORD that I should do this thing to my lord, the LORD’S anointed (moshiach), to stretch out my hand against him, since he is the LORD’S anointed (moshiach). (1 Sam. 24:6)

So, the main picture of the word “Messiah” or “Christ” as the “anointed one” was of a king chosen by God. While Jesus also has a priestly and a prophetic role, the main picture that word “Messiah” is used for is a king.

Through the Old Testament, we see little hints that God would send a great king to Israel who would someday rule the world. In Genesis, Jacob gives blessings to all of his sons, and of Judah he says,

The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his. (Gen. 49:10)

This is the first hint that they were expecting a great king to arise out of Israel who would be king over the whole earth. The clearest prophecy about this messianic king who was coming is from King David’s time. David told God that he wanted to build God a “house,” meaning a temple.

God said to him that instead his son Solomon would do that, and then promised that he will build a “house” for him, meaning that God will establish his family line after him. God further promises David that from his family will come a king whose kingdom will have no end:

“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chron. 17:11-14)

This prophecy has been understood as having a double fulfillment — it is first fulfilled in Solomon, who built the temple, but did what God forbade — amassed a great fortune and married foreign wives. His kingdom broke apart a few years after his death.

It also spoke about a “Son of David” who would come, who would have a kingdom without end. This prophecy is the seedbed of all of the messianic prophecies that talk about the “son of David” and the coming messianic king.

Jesus as the Christ

Even though we tend to not pick up on the cultural pictures, the gospels tell us many times that Jesus is this great King who has come. In Matthew 2, the wise men come to bring presents to this king whose star they have seen in the east. This was a fulfillment of Numbers 24:17, Isaiah 60, and Psalm 72.

The latter two passages both describe the coming of a great king and describe how representatives from nations everywhere would come to give him tribute:

He will endure as long as the sun, as long as the moon, through all generations. … He will rule from sea to sea and from the River to the ends of the earth. The desert tribes will bow before him and his enemies will lick the dust. The kings of Tarshish and of distant shores will bring tribute to him; the kings of Sheba and Seba will present him gifts. All kings will bow down to him and all nations will serve him. (Ps. 72:5, 8-11)

Soon after Jesus begins his ministry he proclaims himself as the anointed one (the Christ) in Luke 4 when he says that passage from Isaiah 61 has been fulfilled:

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor. (Is 61:1-2)

This is a picture of the coming messianic King, right after he is anointed by God, declaring good news of the jubilee year, a tradition observed when a new king came into power in some middle eastern countries.1 Jesus applied it to himself, arousing a very strong reaction from his audience to his bold claims.

We see yet another picture of Jesus as King when he rode on the donkey into Jerusalem. This was very much a kingly image, often part of the annunciation of a new king, as it was for Solomon in 1 Kings 1:38-39. It is the fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9, the triumphal entry of the messianic king.

Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
He is just and endowed with salvation,
Humble, and mounted on a donkey,
Even on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

During Jesus’ trial, the main question he is asked is “Are you the King of the Jews?” and he answers affirmatively:

And they began to accuse him, saying, “We found this man misleading our nation and forbidding to pay taxes to Caesar, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King.” So Pilate asked him, saying, “Are You the King of the Jews?” And he answered him and said, “It is as you say.” (Luke 23:2-3)

What are the implications of Jesus as King?

When we think about Jesus’ time on earth, the last thing we think of is of a king who is reigning, but Jesus explains that his kingdom is not of this world (John 18:37). Rather, Jesus is talking about the kingdom of God, the major focus of his preaching.

The kingdom of God is made up of those who submit their lives to God to reign over them. As the King that God has sent, and of course because he is God, the kingdom of God is Jesus’ kingdom. He speaks about how it is expanding like yeast or mustard seed, as the gospel that he has arrived goes forth and many more accept him as their King. When he returns in glory, all the earth at that time will see that he is King.

Did the people around him see him as a king? The fact that Jesus’ disciples and others who believed in him referred to him as “Lord” suggests that they were giving him great honor, with the understanding that he is the Messianic King.

Throughout the gospels Jesus is addressed with respect by strangers as “rabbi” or “teacher.” Only a few times is he actually addressed using his common name, Jesus, and only by demons (Mark 1:24) as well as a few who didn’t know him. To call Jesus “Lord” is using a term for addressing royalty, like saying “Your Majesty” or “Your Highness.” It is also a common term for addressing God himself, and has a hint of worshipping Jesus as God.

To use the word “Lord” displays an attitude of obedient submission to a greater power. Jesus seems even to expect that those who call him Lord obey him — he said to his listeners, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46).

To call him “Lord” or to call him Jesus “Christ” is to say that he is the King that God has sent, who has a right to reign over us. It is interesting that even though the demons know that he is the Son of God, they refuse to use the word Lord to address him (Luke 4:34, 40)!

This has implications about the basic understanding of what a Christian is. We tend to define ourselves by our creeds and statements of belief, but the very word Christ calls us to more than that. If Christ means King, a Christian is one who considers Jesus his Lord and King, and submits to his reign. Those who are saved have two things: both a belief in the atoning work of Jesus, and a commitment to honor him as their personal Lord and King. As Paul says,

If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:9)

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1 See the En-Gedi article, “The Gospel as the Year of Jubilee.” 

The Flood’s Deeper Message of Mercy

by Lois Tverberg

Most of us see Noah and the flood and as a story for children. We may think of wallpaper for the baby’s room with cartoons of cute animals, arks and rainbows. Others focus on its historicity — how the large the ark was, where it landed, or what geological features might remain.

These traditional ways of looking at the flood story miss its deeper significance, and reflect the difficulty Western Christians have with the Eastern way of communicating theological truth. The Bible’s writers saw theology in history, and composed their stories with an eye toward the meaning behind the events.

Most of us tend to simply read for historical details and miss the greater implications of Old Testament stories, thinking that we can only find theology in the New Testament. Surprisingly, if we look at the flood again, we find that this ancient narrative gives a profound answer to the difficult question of how a good God can tolerate sin.1

The Story of Sin in Genesis

When we read the story of the Fall, we don’t have much problem seeing the theological implications when Eve chooses to overrule God to eat from the tree. We understand what it says about rebellion and sin, and how they separate us from God. We often overlook that fact that the problem of sin is actually an important theme of several early chapters in Genesis, and culminates in the story of the flood.

Almost immediately after the fall, we read about Cain’s murder of Abel. It is ironic that these two were the first brothers ever born, representatives of all of us as children of Adam and Eve, but when one ignored the fact that he was his “brother’s keeper,” he destroyed him.2

From Eve’s small act of rebellion by eating the apple, sin grew until it led to murder, claiming the life of one of her children. Later in that same chapter, sin grew even worse, when Cain’s descendant, Lamech, bragged to his family that as violent as Cain was, he was much worse! He said,

For I have killed a man for wounding me; and a boy for striking me; If Cain is avenged sevenfold, then Lamech seventy-sevenfold!”3 (Genesis 4:24)

The words of Lamech show that sin doesn’t stop at murder. He went even beyond, claiming the right to kill for the smallest of offenses. With that kind of attitude, we aren’t surprised that in the very next generation, sin had reached its climax and provoked a response from God:

“Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence (hamas).”4 (Genesis 6:5-6, 11)

In these first chapters of Genesis we can see that over just a few generations sin had infected humanity so completely that it grieved the heart of God. It was a theological statement about the wickedness of mankind, contrasted with the goodness of God who had a short time before declared his creation “very good.”

We might wonder what human beings could do that would cause God such grief, but if we remember the horrors the Nazis committed in concentration camps, or the deaths of thousands in torture chambers in Iraq, or the mass graves found in many places in the world, we understand. Humans really are capable of wickedness beyond the limits of the imagination.

The Theological Problem

How can a good and sovereign God tolerate sin? This is a classic question, debated for millennia. Some say that evil shows God is either not powerful or not good by giving the following argument:

1. A good God would destroy evil.
2. An all powerful God could destroy evil.
3. Evil is not destroyed.
4.Therefore, there cannot possibly be a good and powerful God.

It is interesting that we usually pass by a profound answer to this difficult question that comes only a few chapters after the Bible’s beginning.

The flood does show that the first proposition is true: A good God would destroy evil. In the flood epic, we see a righteous God’s response to the depth of human wickedness. We usually miss the fact that the deluge was the most horrific act of judgment that the world had ever seen!

Rather than being a cute children’s story, the horror of the flood was captured in a woodcut by Gustave Dore that shows storm waves crashing around a rock where a man and woman are clinging, trying to save the lives of their children. It truly was an event that would have been utterly shocking to our sensibilities, a scene of incredible devastation.5

So philosophers are right that a good God would act to end evil on earth. The problem is in the second thesis, that an all powerful God could destroy evil. The flood proved that no amount of destruction of human life will destroy evil. Evil is part of man’s basic inclination now, and to eliminate it, God would be forced to destroy mankind itself. Our earth today is still filled with violence: we are no different than the generation that made God regret he had made us. Surprisingly, God now has a different response:

“Never again will I curse the ground because of man, even though every inclination of his heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.” (Genesis 8:21)

It is hard to see what had changed after the flood, because the evil within man didn’t change. Instead, God vowed to restrain himself against universal judgment, even if it is deserved. For much of the next passage, God established laws against the bloodshed that filled the earth, and declared that life is precious, especially that of humanity. Humans are unique because we are made in the image of God. Could this be why God decided not to send another flood? Is it that in spite of our sinfulness, by bearing his image, we are still precious in his sight?

The Covenant of the Bow

In light of this, the sign of the rainbow has a profound message for us. The Hebrew word for “rainbow,” keshet, is used for “bow” throughout the rest of Scripture. It was the weapon of battle. The covenantal sign of the rainbow says that God has laid down his “bow,” his weapon; and he has promised not to repeat the judgment of the flood, even if mankind does not change. It is because people are so precious to him that he has constrained himself to finding an answer to the problem of sin other than the obvious one of universal judgment.

Throughout the rest of the Bible, whenever God made a covenant, it was of monumental importance in his plan for the salvation of the world. The covenants with Abraham, with Israel on Mt. Sinai, and with King David to send the Messiah were all key events in salvation history.

We should realize that the covenant with Noah is just as important, because in it he promises to find another way to deal with the problem of sin than just to destroy sinners. It is the most basic covenant of all: to promise to find a way to redeem humanity from evil rather than just to judge it for its sin.

We know that Jesus promised to return to judge, so the day of reckoning is coming, but God sent Christ so that as many as possible could find his atonement before that time, so that God could show as much mercy as possible to the earth. His slowness to judge is not out of impotence, but out of his great mercy. As Peter says,

Long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. (2 Peter 3:4-9)

Now we have a different way of looking at that classic debate, perhaps the way God sees it:

1. God is good and is able destroy all evil.
2. But in doing so, he would destroy humanity, which is precious to Him.
3. Evil is not destroyed.
4. God is infinitely good and powerful, but out of mercy, chooses to wait to judge. In response to sin, he sent his Son as an atonement for all who would receive him.

Even in this story at the very beginning of the Bible, we can see God’s ultimate desire for mercy rather than punishment for sin. He will finally bring it to maturity in Christ, who will extend a permanent covenant of peace with God through his atoning blood.

~~~~

1 See also Listening to the Language of the Bible, pp 51-52, available in the En-Gedi bookstore

2 Ibid, pp 77-78.

3 Jesus may have been referring to Lamech in his teachings on being the opposite — seeking forgiveness instead of revenge. See “Lamech’s Opposite.”

4 It says something that the terrorist organization Hamas chose to name itself for the Hebrew word for “violence,” hamas, the very thing that grieved God’s heart so much that he regretted making humanity.

5 In September 2001, our Bible study was discussing the story of Noah. Our first response was why God didn’t just destroy the terrorists of 9/11 before they acted. From this story, we realized that no amount of destruction of evil human beings would rid us of the problem of evil in mankind.

The Tsunami: Thoughts from Job and Jesus

by Lois Tverberg

When the tragic tsunami took the lives of over 200,000 people in Indonesia and other countries back in 2004, many were horrified by the suffering of so many people, and struggled with hard questions for God. Others discussed why it happened at that place and time, and wondered if it was an act of judgment from God. What would Jesus have said? Or Job? Let’s look at how these two key figures who were so acquainted with suffering would have seen the tragedies of today.

Wisdom from the Story of Job

It is interesting how the discussion around the tsunami resembled the debate between Job and his friends, Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar. Job, of course, was a pious man who suffered for no reason he could find. His friends, however, asserted that God is all powerful, perfectly just, and knows every person’s sins, so therefore Job somehow had to have deserved his trials. Their logic seems flawless. Nonetheless, Job maintained his innocence and had very angry words for God about his lack of justice as he saw it. He bluntly said:

[God] stands alone, and who can oppose him? He does whatever he pleases… Why does the Almighty not set times for judgment? Why must those who know him look in vain for such days? Men move boundary stones; they pasture flocks they have stolen. They drive away the orphan’s donkey and take the widow’s ox in pledge. The fatherless child is snatched from the breast; the infant of the poor is seized for a debt.The groans of the dying rise from the city, and the souls of the wounded cry out for help. But God charges no one with wrongdoing. (Job 23:13; 24:1-3, 9, 12)

In the light of this harsh accusation, Job’s friends defended God, and said to Job:

“Far be it from God to do evil, from the Almighty to do wrong. He repays a man for what he has done; he brings upon him what his conduct deserves. It is unthinkable that God would do wrong, that the Almighty would pervert justice…Will you condemn the just and mighty One?” (Job 34:10-14, 17)

Truthfully, we must admit that Job’s friends have a very good point, and are trying to honor God. They echo many proverbs that say God rewards the actions of the righteous and punishes the wicked. If we didn’t know the rest of the story, we may even take their side.

God’s Surprising Response

It is fascinating to read God’s concluding words of the debate, because after all Job’s criticism, and the men’s strong defense of God’s honor, God was furious with Job’s friends! God said to Eliphaz,

“I am angry with you and your two friends, because you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:7)

It seems that God considered Job’s words that were spoken in anger at him to be truthful, while the other men’s theories defending his ways as untruthful. How could that be? We know that neither Job nor his friends knew God’s real reasons for allowing Job’s trials.

It wasn’t just that they didn’t know about Satan’s challenge, but that as finite humans, God’s eternal plan was utterly beyond them. God didn’t answer Job’s questions about evil because no human can grasp his unfathomable purposes. In spite of their ignorance, Job’s friends had the gall to presume to understand and speak for God, and accuse Job of sin. It should humble us when we want to put words in God’s mouth: how can we know for sure what he would say?

It is also interesting that God says that Job “has spoken what is right,” after Job’s accusations about God’s injustice toward the poor. When Job protested against their suffering, he actually was expressing the same compassion for the needy that God himself has. In contrast, Bildad, Eliphaz and Zophar’s theology had little concept of God’s love, so it was a misrepresentation of God’s heart.

While neither Job or his friends knew God’s future plans for redemption, Job at least understood God’s care for the suffering. Perhaps God would rather hear us ask angry questions that show concern for other’s pain, than for us to look for correct answers but not have love.

Our Christian culture tends to focus on theology concerning such things as the trinity, atonement, or free will vs. predestination, etc. Jewish culture over the millennia has tended to avoid this type of discussion because of the danger of the sin Job’s friends: claiming to have more knowledge of an infinite, mysterious God than we can possibly have. Since we are small and finite, we give God more honor by trying to love as he loves than to try to know all that he knows.

The Same Difficult Question in Jesus’ Age

The question of suffering came up often in Jesus’ time too, because he lived at a unique point in Jewish history. The people were greatly oppressed under Roman and Herodian rule, with extreme taxation and barbaric cruelty. Along with Jesus, thousands of other Jews were crucified by the Romans. Even before the Romans took power, the Greek Seleucids persecuted and executed any Jew who studied the Scriptures or circumcised their sons. Indeed, the suffering of the Jews before and during Jesus’ time was unmatched in their history until the Holocaust.1

This gave rise to an enormous theological problem that was reminiscent of Job’s situation: in the Old Testament, it was understood that when Israel suffered, it was because of its sins against God. The covenant at Sinai had been sealed with promises of blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience (Lev. 23, Deut. 28-29).

In Jesus’ time, for the first time in their history, they were being persecuted for their loyalty to God, and the most faithful people suffered most. Jesus responded at one point to this when he said:

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you shall be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and ostracize you, and insult you, and scorn your name as evil, for the sake of the Son of Man… But woe to you who are rich, for you are receiving your comfort in full. Woe to you who are well-fed now, for you shall be hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep… (Luke 6:20-26)

When we first read Jesus’ words, they seem too harsh. Why would Jesus proclaim that anyone who has enough to eat will go hungry? Or why would he want those who are happy to weep instead? Jesus was repeating many of the blessings and woes of Deut. 28, but instead of describing this life, he was saying that God’s reward will come later to many who did not feel his blessing here.

Indeed, those who were most faithful in trials will be rewarded most greatly. We cannot look at a persons’ earthly blessings and say that we know how much God approves of our lives. To the contrary, those of us who are comfortable should examine ourselves to see if we the ones who Jesus is speaking against.

Were The Galileans Worse Sinners?

A discussion very close to that about whether the tsunami was God’s judgment came up in Jesus’ life, when some Jews were murdered by Pilate:

Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:1-5)

Once again, people were asking Jesus whether misfortune showed that God was punishing sin, and Jesus said this was not true. Instead, he reminded them that true judgment will come some day, but this age is a time of grace, when God is seeking out sinners and calling them to repent. Rather than feeling secure if we are prospering because we think we have God’s approval, Jesus says that we should examine ourselves, because soon it will be too late.

Looking at the Tsunami

As we study these examples from Job and from Jesus’ own words, we can see that questions like, “Why did God send a tsunami?” aren’t ones that God will answer to our satisfaction. God showed Job that the answers were utterly beyond him by challenging him to be a god himself — no human could hope to understand God’s ways.

When Jesus was here, he reminded us that misfortune here is not God’s judgment because in this life we are under his mercy. We should therefore examine ourselves now and come to him for forgiveness, because judgment will come in the end.

Whenever we see innocent people suffering, we can at least remind ourselves that while they would not have chosen their fate, God willingly came in the person of Christ to suffer as an innocent person out of his desire to forgive his people’s sins. That should always remind us of his empathy for suffering and his goodness, in which we can always put our trust, even if we don’t know all of his thoughts.

 

Who Are You Going to Work For?

by Lois Tverberg

Freedom is the theme of God’s greatest miracles in history. Jews look back on the freeing of Israel from bondage in Egypt as their foundation as a people. They still celebrate this yearly at Passover, when they commemorate the night they were liberated. Christians recall Jesus’ death and resurrection as an act that brought far greater freedom for all people who believe in him, from bondage to sin and death itself.

In light of these two great acts of liberation from bondage, we may be uncomfortable with the fact that instead of speaking only of freedom, Jesus and Paul often speak about being “slaves” to God or Christ. Jesus says that “You cannot serve two masters, God and money” (Matt 6:24), and Paul says, “You were bought at a price” (1 Cor. 6:19 & 7:23). Paul and other New Testament authors also introduce themselves at the beginning of each book as being “slaves of Christ.”1

It seems paradoxical to speak about slavery and being set free simultaneously, but if we look back and understand God’s first redemption of Israel, we will see how this really is a theme from the beginning of the scriptures to the end. God set his people free from cruel masters to become his own, as their rightful Lord. Both at the first exodus and in Christ’s fulfillment, this picture teaches us much about what our relationship to God really is.

Set Free from Cruel Masters

The common belief of people in the ancient near east was that the world is filled with many spiritual beings that control nature and prosperity. These “gods” were unpredictable and cruel, and used humans as playthings and slaves to serve their own desires.2 Ancient people understood that all people were the slaves of the gods, and each tribe had its own gods that ruled over them, so that to survive, they had to appease the gods through religious ceremonies and magical incantations.

Because of these beliefs, many ancient writings reflect a perpetual sense of hopelessness, anxiety and fear of the spirit world that was hostile to humanity. Interestingly, this pessimistic worldview of polytheism is widespread, from ancient times even up to today.3

Knowing this helps us read the story of the redemption of Egypt as an ancient person would have understood it. They saw this story as a true spiritual battle between the God of Israel and the gods of the Egyptians. Not only were the Israelites in bondage to physical slavery, they were in bondage to these evil gods, including Pharaoh, who considered himself a god.

Each plague was directed at a specific god of the Egyptians: Hekt, the frog god; Hapi, the Nile god; Ra, the sun god, etc., and the final plague was against Pharaoh himself (Ex. 12:12). The imagery here is that as God fought and defeated each one, God was winning a battle to take his own people out of the hands of other “gods” so that he would be their God, and they would become his people — his “slaves” as it were (Ex. 6:7, 2 Sam. 7:23).

A key to understanding this is to look at the Hebrew word for “worship,” avad, which has parallels in other languages of the near east. Along with meaning “worship,” it also means “serve” or “work,” and the related noun, eved, means “servant” or “slave.” So, the “worshippers,” avadim, of a god could also be seen as the god’s servants or slaves.

When God challenged Pharaoh, “Let my people go so that they may avad me” (Ex. 8:1), this didn’t just mean so that they could worship him, but that they were to be freed from slavery to the false god Pharaoh, so that they could avad, serve and worship their rightful God.

God later commanded that his people should “worship,” avad, no other gods, which can also be translated to mean they should “serve” no other gods. They were set free from them to serve and worship the true God alone. Serving and worshipping may not seem related to us, but really, service is the truest expression of worship of a god.4

God’s Compassion on Mount Sinai

After Israel was freed from bondage, they arrived at Mount Sinai, where God gave him his laws that showed how he wanted them to avad, worship and serve him as his people. We hardly think to compare the laws of the Torah to other law codes of the time, but it is interesting to see how God’s rules show that their new “master” was vastly different from their old masters — he governed with great compassion, and cared about the needs of his people.

We modern-day readers hardly appreciate the profound ethical change that the laws of the Torah made relative to other codes of its time, and how fundamental its precepts are to our own laws.5

Other codes had no ethic of equal treatment in regard to rich and poor, so a crime against a person of a high class carried a much greater punishment than one against a low class person. Cheating in a business transaction with a high class person carried the death penalty. In contrast, murder of a lower class person was punishable by a fine based on his social status. In Israel, all were alike under the law, and poor and rich treated equally.

In cases of crime, the Torah was far more humane. In other countries, punishments for even minor crimes were often brutal and mutilating, and often including floggings, amputation and torture. In the Torah, fines were common but physical punishments were rare, and only for severe offenses against the nation or God.

The law that sounds most shocking, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is actually misunderstood. The expression was actually an idiom that wasn’t taken literally, but actually meant equitable punishment that fits the crime. (An eye for an eye — not a scolding for an eye, or a life for an eye.) It was an ancient expression from laws originally meant to limit punishment for an injury to no more than the injury itself, because without it, the victim’s clan would want greater vengeance, escalating into feuds. Scholars believe that it was not followed literally in Israel, but monetary fines were given for injuries instead.

In other codes, very little protection was given to those who were vulnerable to exploitation. The main goal of other law codes was to protect the assets of the wealthy from the lower class by threatening them with punishment for theft or destruction of property. Israel’s laws were instead very concerned for the protection of the poor, the alien, the widows and orphans.

People were to tithe their money to give to the poor, and let them glean from their crops (Deut. 18:29, Lev. 23:22). They were not to mistreat an alien, but to “love them as themselves” (Lev. 19:34). Much of the code of Israel is specifically written to protect the weakest members of the society, unlike any other nation of the time.6

With these differences in mind, the laws of the Torah show great fairness toward all levels of society, compassion for the vulnerable, and amazing concern for the sanctity of human life. Our own culture has been so transformed by these basic principles that we can hardly imagine the world without them.

The more we see the contrast between God’s ways and the rest of the ancient world, the more we see that the love of Christ in the gospels was fully present in the God who revealed himself on Sinai. In essence, we see the Father and Son as one and the same. The God who Israel was to avad, worship, cared deeply for humanity, and his servants were to mirror his concern as well.

Being God’s Slave to be Free

The most striking difference between God’s ethics compared to other nations was the laws regulating slavery, which teach us a lot about how God viewed his people as his own avadim. In the ancient world, slavery was a given. Knowing that humanity can only change so much, God did not outlaw it, but he gave laws that made it far more humane.

Many of the Torah’s regulations were unheard of in any other culture, and ultimately aimed to undermine the practice altogether. Only six days a week could a master demand a slave to serve him — all slaves had a day of rest every week, and celebrated holy days, too. If a master permanently injured a slave in any way, even causing him to lose a tooth, the slave was given his freedom. Women slaves were to have equal rights as other daughters and wives.

If the slave was a Hebrew who had sold himself because of debt, he had to be freed in six years and given a substantial gift of crops and supplies when he left (Deut. 15:14). If he loved his master he could pledge himself in permanent servitude, and his ear would be pierced to show his commitment. But the most amazing law was that if a slave ran away from his master, he was not to be returned, but allowed to live free anywhere in Israel!

You shall not hand over to his master a slave who has escaped from his master to you. He shall live with you in any place he may choose… you must not mistreat him. (Deut. 23:15)

In every other law code, the penalty for not returning a slave was death. This radical reversal of ethics shows God’s great desire for freedom for his people. In fact, most of the time when God speaks of his people as his slaves, it is to protect their freedom and keep them from being enslaved to anyone else! For instance:

If a countryman of yours becomes so poor with regard to you that he sells himself to you, you shall not subject him to a slave’s service. For they are My avadim (servants/slaves), whom I brought out from the land of Egypt; they are not to be sold in a slave sale. (Lev. 25:42)

The year of Jubilee was also for that purpose — to redeem all of God’s people from bondage to anyone else, because they were his alone. If a person sold himself to a foreigner because of debt, the reason they were set free at the jubilee was because, “the sons of Israel are my avadim, they are my avadim whom I brought out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God!” (Lev. 25:54-55). God set his people free to be his own, and for this reason they shall remain free.

Slaves of Christ

Many places in the New Testament use the image that just as God “purchased” or “redeemed” his people from slavery in Egypt, all who believe in Christ have also been “purchased”:

Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor 6:19)

Were you called while a slave? Do not worry about it; but if you are able also to become free, rather do that. For he who was called in the Lord while a slave, is the Lord’s freedman; likewise he who was called while free, is Christ’s slave. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. (1 Cor 7:22-23)

In this second verse, the ideas of being slaves but being free are once again interwoven. We have been redeemed from the evil masters of sin and death to become slaves of Christ, who actually won our freedom. When we are his, he will not let us be slaves to anything else.

Who will we serve?

How do we live this out? In Exodus, after God redeemed his people, he gave them his Torah so that they could know how to serve him. God didn’t give them the law before he redeemed them and then expect them to earn their freedom — he redeemed them entirely out of grace.

Afterward, he gave them his law so that as his avadim, worshippers and servants, they would live in a way that would show the world his justice and love. In the same way, Jesus spent most of his earthly ministry giving us his Torah, his teaching, to show us how to serve him. Jesus’ laws didn’t negate the Torah, but rather he made it more encompassing and brought it to a higher level. If we say we worship Jesus, we must also serve him by doing his will.

It may come to us as news that every human is the servant of a greater master — whether an idolatrous god or our own appetites. We really don’t have a choice to be utterly free of any master, any more than we have a choice to quit a bad job in order to do absolutely nothing, because we need to support ourselves to live.

In the working world, we are “redeemed” from a bad employer when we find an employer who gives us fulfilling work and cares for our personal welfare. We move from one kind of serving to another kind of serving, not to be free from serving anything at all.

In the same way, we all need to choose our master, and in doing so, we should look at a potential master’s character to see whom we should choose. Will we serve pagan gods whose people lived in terror of them? Or will we serve a God who has great compassion for even the weakest of his people? Will we serve the demanding idols of success and money, who destroy our families and lives? Or will we serve our Master who sacrificed himself for our sins, and came not to be served, but to serve instead?

~~~~

1See the beginning verses of the books of Romans, Colossians, Titus, 2 Peter, Jude, and others. The writer of each book refers to himself as a doulos (“slave”) of Christ. Even though English translations often soften the word to “servant,” it really refers to a slave, not a servant.

2Understanding Genesis by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1966), p. 16-18.

3See Christ’s Witchdoctor, by Homer Dowdy (Gresham, OR: Vision House, 1994) p. 7, 23, 46. This is the fascinating autobiography of a witchdoctor in a South American native tribe who came to Christ in the 1950s. He said that even though his tribe was prosperous and safe, they lived with constant fear of the spiritual world around them that they saw as mostly evil, and aimed to destroy them.

4Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg & Bruce Okkema, (En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004) p. 21-22.

5See Exploring Exodus, by Nahum Sarna (New York: Shocken Books, 1986), p. 171-189. This is a fascinating comparison of the ancient near eastern laws to the Torah that shows the enormous ethical difference between the laws of Israel and other lands.

6Ibid, p. 179

7JPS Commentary on Exodus, by N. Sarna (New York: Jewish Publication Society, 1991), p. 125

Being a Part of Abraham’s Family

by Lois Tverberg

If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants,
heirs according to promise. (Galatians 3:29)

Many of us scratch our heads at why there are so many long lists of genealogies in the Bible. Our modern, individualistic Western culture makes it difficult for us to see an important theme that would have been obvious to its ancient audience — the centrality of family.

Not only is family critical in the Old Testament, it is key to some very important controversies in the New Testament as well, such as including Gentiles among the growing movement of Jewish believers in Jesus. Grasping the ideas that ancient peoples had about the family, and how these themes play out can help us understand our Bibles from beginning to end.

The Ancient Idea of Family

First, we need know that the ancient Hebrews valued family and heritage beyond anything else — it was absolutely everything in terms of a person’s identity and life goals. A person didn’t derive his identity from his occupation, but from his or her family. It was expected that children would take on their father’s profession and spiritual life.

It was also understood that children would take on their father’s personality — if a father was wise, his descendants would be wise; if he was warlike, his descendants would be warlike. Explaining what each family was like and relationships between families was very important to understanding the society as a whole.

Stories about the founders of each family were important because they were key to each family’s self-definition. This helps us to see why some biblical stories are included that don’t seem to be moral examples for us. For instance, we are told that Lot’s daughters got him drunk and had relations with him, and Moab was born, who was the father of the Moabites (Gen. 19:37).

Why are we told this? Because later in history, the Moabite women seduced the Israelites into sexual immorality (Num. 25:1). There are even hints of this in the story of Ruth, the Moabites, and her encounter with Boaz, but she was a “woman of noble character” (as Boaz said in Ruth 3:11), unlike her ancestors. We can see from this how the Moabite family’s “personality” affected its actions over many generations, and how a key to reading the Old Testament is to be aware of the associations with each family.1

Besides knowing the stories of the family’s fathers, another important thing in biblical cultures would be to understand how the inheritance was given. Typically the first-born son would receive a double portion of the inheritance and become the spiritual leader of the family, and the rest of the children would honor him, even from youth. He was considered to be the “first-fruits of his father’s vigor,” evidence of his father’s ability to leave a legacy, a source of manly pride.

Interestingly, the Bible makes an effort to point out that God did not allow his blessing to be given to any significant firstborn in the line of Abraham, including the sons of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Judah, Jesse and David!2 He was showing that the nation was established through his power, not through human achievement. The only prominent firstborn in the Bible is Jesus, who did not have an earthly father at all, but of whom God said, “This is my beloved son, in whom I delight” (Matt 3:17)!

The Epic of Abraham’s Family

Knowing this shows us the rationale for God’s covenant with Abraham. Abraham was a man of great faith, who, at God’s request, gave up his own ancestral family and homeland, a great sacrifice in that time. When God first appeared to him he was childless, which was understood to be a terrible curse, the ultimate failure in life.

Because of his unwavering faith God promised him the greatest of blessings — that he would be the father of many nations. In biblical culture, becoming the father of a great nation would have been an enduring legacy of honor, like being elected president today.

Because it was assumed that the members of a family would be like their forefathers, it made sense that Abraham would instill in his children his strong faith in God, and a great nation of believers would result. God’s covenant with Abraham was specifically with him and his future descendants, and the “sign” of the covenant, the physical remembrance, was circumcision, which was required of all males from Abraham’s time until this day.

The sign of the covenant is not coincidental — rather, it marked the fact that the covenant was with Abraham’s “seed,” passed down through each generation of the family. Each time descendants are listed it showed that God had been honoring his covenant.

In the time of Jesus and Paul, there seemed to be quite a debate over who was a “son of Abraham,” with the understanding that a person’s salvation was linked to being a part of the covenantal family. John the Baptist warned people not to trust in their lineage when he said, “Do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham” (Matt. 3:9).3 

Jesus had a heated discussion with some leaders on this very topic:

[Jesus said,] “I know you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are ready to kill me, because you have no room for my word. I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you do what you have heard from your father.” “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is, you are determined to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does.” (John 8:37- 41)

Behind this conversation seems to be the idea that they were claiming to be part of the “saved” because Abraham was their father. Jesus questions this, and points out that he expects that if they were sons of Abraham, they would then be like him.

Paul’s Understanding of the Sons of Abraham

In Paul’s writing too, he deals with the idea that being a “son of Abraham,” a circumcised Jew, was necessary for salvation. Christians have traditionally read Paul’s arguments over circumcision as a contrast between grace and legalism. Recent scholarship suggests that a greater issue was whether God could extend his salvation to others outside the family of Abraham.4

A strong sense of nationalism and isolationism was among Jews of the first century, who were a small minority in the Roman Empire, and who had gone through much persecution for not adopting Hellenistic ways. About 150 years before Christ, Jews were executed if they circumcised their sons in order to be faithful to God.

As a reaction to that persecution and to the encroaching Gentile world, they put great emphasis on observing laws that separated them from Gentiles, as a way to show their commitment to God. Being circumcised was especially important because it marked them as “sons of Abraham,” and part of the family covenant. To them, it undermined God’s covenant with Abraham to extend it to others who had not become full proselytes to Judaism.

Interestingly, Paul does not say that a person doesn’t need to be a son of Abraham to be saved. Rather, he deals with this issue by redefining what a “son of Abraham” is, by stretching the definition to include the Gentiles, the very group not included in the definition of a “son of Abraham”! He points out that Abraham himself was a Gentile, and that God’s promise was given to him because of his faith, before he was circumcised. He says,

Is this blessedness only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? We have been saying that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. Under what circumstances was it credited? Was it after he was circumcised, or before? It was not after, but before! And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. So then, he is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them. (Romans 4:9-11)

In Galatians, Paul makes a similar point:

Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations (Gentiles, goyim) will be blessed through you.” (Galatians 3:7)

Paul is interpreting the words of God’s promise to Abraham to say that He would bless the goyim, (meaning both “nations” and “Gentiles”) through him. He is pointing out that God’s blessings are not just for his biological descendants who were circumcised, but also for the Gentiles of the world, but yet they still come through Abraham. From this, Paul can conclude that Gentile believers in God are true sons of Abraham. In his words from Galatians 3:28-29 he concludes,

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendents, and heirs according to the promise.”

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1 Another story that continues over generations is the battle with the Amelekites, and key to understanding it is the family relationships between the generations. See “Esther, The Rest of the Story.

2 The issue of who would get the blessing of the firstborn is a theme throughout Genesis, and especially the story of Joseph and his brothers. The special coat from Jacob indicated that he had appointed Joseph firstborn, because he was the first son of Rachel, the wife he loved. Jacob once said to his family, “My wife bore me two sons” (Gen.44:27) virtually disowning Leah’s family entirely. We can see why Joseph dreamed that his family would bow down to him, and why his older brothers wanted to kill him, to eliminate him as heir. For more, see “All in the Family.”

3 It is likely that they felt that being a “son of Abraham” insured that their sins would be forgiven. See “God’s Illogical Logic of Mercy.

4 For more about Paul’s arguments in their Jewish context, see “The Context of Paul’s Conflict.”

Thinking Biblically Takes Both Hands

by Lois Tverberg

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:25)

Many have seen the musical Fiddler on the Roof and recall that the father, Tevya, had an amusing habit of chewing over every issue with several rounds of, “On the one hand… but on the other hand…!” This habit of looking at things in terms of two contrasting viewpoints is distinctly Jewish, and a part of their Eastern-thinking culture.

Often the two points of view are left unresolved and simply accepted as a paradox. Western-thinking Christians, however, often struggle to find systematic treatment of every issue, and are frustrated by how the Bible sometimes seems to be contradictory. Rather than trying to make the Bible more “logical” by Western standards, we’ll have a deeper understanding of it if we learn to read it with “both hands,” as Jesus, Paul and Jews over the ages have done.1

Paradoxes throughout Bible

If you think about it, many of the most important truths of the Bible are paradoxical. God is both omniscient, but yet he is present at certain times in a unique way, like at the burning bush. Jesus is both fully human and fully God. God is loving and in control, and yet he allows tragedy and injustice to take place.

Jesus’ words also often come in paradoxes. He says that “if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last” (Mk 9:35) and that “he who loves his life will lose it, while he who hates his life will keep it for eternity” (Jn 12:25).

When Western-thinkers find a paradox in the Bible, they often are tempted to resolve the conflict by rejecting one side for the other. For instance, the question of whether humans have free will or whether our actions are predestined has divided Christians for centuries.

Some reject free will entirely, as if humans are only puppets in God’s hands. Others reject the idea that God is in control, imagining that God is wringing his hands in heaven, hoping that in the end everything will come out OK. Many churches have divided over these issues.

In contrast, the rabbinic answer was simply, “God foresees everything, yet man has free will.”2 Their observation was that passages in Scripture actually support both points of view! Pharaoh hardened his own heart, and yet God hardened his heart (Ex 7:3, 13; 8:15). God foresaw that it would take 400 years for the Canaanites to become so evil that he would evict them from their land (Gen 16:15). But he also offered the choice to the Israelites to take on his covenant or not (Dt 30:19).

Amazingly, the rabbis simply embrace the two ideas in tension with each other rather than needing to seek resolution. By doing so, they are actually being true to the text by not ignoring passages that don’t fit their theology. They see that God alone can understand some things.

Balancing Mercy and Justice in a Parable

One Jewish way of comprehending contrasting truths is to put them into a parable. For instance, God describes himself as both slow to anger and forgiving, yet he says he will punish the wicked to the third and fourth generation (Ex. 34:6-7). Some have concluded that the God of the Old Testament was full of judgment, but is now full of love, since Christ died for our sins. If we read more closely, however, we find that neither is the case.

God forgave the Israelites for worshipping the golden calf, but then forbade Moses, his greatest prophet, from entering the promised land because he struck the rock. Likewise, Jesus spoke about the coming judgment more than anyone else in the New Testament, yet he told the woman caught in adultery that her sins had been forgiven. He said, “Woe to you, blind guides!” (Matt 23:16) but later said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34). 

How can God be both just and merciful? The rabbis told the following parable:

“This may be compared to a king who had a craftsman make for him an extremely delicate, precious goblet. The king said, ‘If I pour hot liquid into it, it will burst, if I pour ice cold liquid into it, it will crack!’ What did the King do? He mixed the hot and the cold together and poured it into it, and it did not crack.” Even so did the Holy One, blessed be He, say: “If I create the world on the basis of the attribute of mercy alone, it will be overwhelmed with sin; but if I create it on the basis of the attribute of justice alone, how could the world endure? I will therefore create it with both the attributes of mercy and justice, and may it endure!” (Genesis Rabbah 12:15, adapted.3)

This parable doesn’t use detailed theological terms to explain why God is merciful sometimes and why he chooses to judge at other times — it merely points out that both are needed in order for God to reign over creation while allowing it to survive. Parables like this show the difference between Jewish and Christian thought, because they attempt to comprehend by describing through story, without the assumption that humans can explain God’s mysterious ways.

Besides being a wise approach to looking at the nature of God, this parable also illustrates the “both hands” approach of Judaism as to how we should live. It points out that a blend of mercy and judgment is often what we need in our lives.

Parents struggle with the balance of enforcing rules along with showing grace to their children — not being too strict, yet not letting their kids run wild. Or, when our spouses do something that hurts us, should we forgive them and let it slide, or, should we bring our hurt and anger to their attention?

Christians tend to think there must be only one right way to act in these situations — either to never let sin go unpunished, or to always be forgiving. In reality, we need to have both discernment and balance. Even God walks the difficult line between mercy and judgment! We can turn to him for guidance because he knows our struggles beyond what we could ever imagine.

“Weighing” the Laws Against Each Other

Another way Jewish thought seeks balance is in its approach to the law. Christians have traditionally understood all of the commandments to be of equal importance, but in the time of Jesus, the rabbis “weighed” the laws so that in a situation where two laws conflict with each other, a person knew which one to follow.

For instance, the command to circumcise on the eight day took precedence over the Sabbath (Jn 7:22). This came out of an effort to live by God’s laws in all situations, rather than arbitrarily ignoring some and doing others. They would describe the laws in terms of being “light,” kal, and “heavy,” hamur. Certain principles derived from the Bible were used to organize laws relative to each other, and the focus of many rabbinic debates was how to prioritize them.

One rabbinic principle is Pikuach Nephesh (pi-KOO-akh NEH-fesh), which is the preservation of life.4 The rabbis saw that Leviticus 19:16 says, “Do not stand by while your brother’s blood is shed” — meaning if someone’s life is in danger, you must intervene. The Torah also says the law was given in order to bring life, (Ex. 30:15-16), so they concluded that all laws (except a few) should be set aside to save a human life.5

Because of this, Jewish doctors and nurses go to work on the Sabbath, because they may potentially save a life, and if a person is ill, he or she is supposed to eat on Yom Kippur, the day when eating and drinking are strictly forbidden. Even the possibility of saving a life is enough to put this principle into effect. The rabbis would disagree with the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ policy of refusing blood transfusions in a medical emergency, because of the prohibition against drinking blood in Genesis 9:4. The weightier law is to save life!

An interesting example shows the contrasts in approach to the law. Imagine you lived in Europe during World War II and were hiding Jews in your home, and a Nazi came demanding to know where they were. Should you lie or tell the truth? According to the principle of Pikuach Nephesh, you should lie to save their lives. There is also biblical precedent in Exodus, when the midwives lied to Pharaoh rather than to kill the Israelite boys, and God rewarded them (Ex. 1:19-21).

Surprisingly, Christians have sometimes come to the opposite conclusion. The theologian St. Augustine actually said, “Since, then, eternal life is lost by lying, a lie may never be told for the preservation of the temporal life of another.”6 He would conclude that a person must answer the Nazi truthfully no matter what. It appears that in his thinking, all rules are absolute. This logic forces one to conclude that law to intervene to save life (Lev. 19:16) and the law against lying (Lev. 19:11) are irreconcilable.

Jesus Weighed the Laws Too

Jesus used the principle of Pikuach Nephesh when he was arguing what may be done on the Sabbath in Luke 6, when he said, “I ask you, which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Both activities under debate in that chapter were an effort to preserve life — the plucking of grain to satisfy hunger, and the healing of the man’s hand.

The point was not that Jesus was throwing aside the Sabbath as unimportant, because keeping the Sabbath was extremely important throughout the Torah. It was the “sign of the covenant” which was symbolic of a Jew’s commitment to all of the Sinai covenant (Ex. 31:13). Jesus was saying that as important as it is to honor the Sabbath, human life is even more important. He concluded, “The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” (Mark 2:27).

How then do we prioritize our obedience? The idea of “weighting” the laws of the Torah was likely the rationale for the question, “Of all the commands, which is greatest?” (Mark 12:28-30). The lawyer was asking, “What is our ultimate priority as we try to obey God?” Jesus’ answer, of course, was to quote the commands that said that we should love God wholeheartedly, and love our neighbor. Everything we do should be towards that end.

Jesus illustrates his point with the parable of the Good Samaritan, which points out the wrong priorities of the two characters who wanted to go worship at the Temple rather than helping the dying man. Of course, the right thing to do in this case was to attend the needs of the wounded man, showing him the love of God.

Does this mean we can ignore God’s standards altogether? Not at all! Reading Matthew 5, one wonders if Jesus was accused of this, and he needed to defend his approach. There he emphatically said he came not to undermine the law, but to explain it and live by it faithfully.7

He then said that anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. He was emphatically stating that we should aim to be obedient in all ways, but that we should always aim to love, and that sets our priorities for how we should obey. As Tevya would phrase it, on the one hand, be obedient, but on the other hand, choose to love!

This is a very wise word for us in terms of discerning what to do when two commands conflict with each other. If you must choose one over the other, choose the one that shows the most love. If you don’t do yard work on Sunday (or Saturday), but your elderly mother really needs her lawn mowed and it’s the only day you can help, you should do it then. Or, if your family celebrates holidays with a tradition that you don’t embrace, seek to do what is loving rather than dividing the family over it. Choose the most loving path. Jesus himself would probably do the same thing in your situation, and indeed, he is using you to do it.

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1 Two excellent references for further reading are: Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith, by Marvin Wilson (Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1989) pp 150-153; and The Gospel According to Moses: What My Jewish Friends Taught Me About Jesus, by Athol Dickson (Brazos Press, Grand Rapids, MI, 2003), pp 63-80.

2 Rabbi Akiva, (who lived between about 50-135 AD) Mishnah, Avot 3:16.

3 See “Jewish Concepts: Loving-kindness” from jewishvirtuallibrary.org for more.

4 B. Talmud, Shabbat 132a.

5 There were three laws that were so weighty that they could not be broken to save life, and these were idolatry, sexual immorality, and murder. These also were the three laws given to the Gentiles who were entering the early church in Acts 15, according to David Bivin. See New Light on the Difficult Words of Jesus: Insights from His Jewish Context, pp. 141-144.

6 As quoted by J. Telushkin, The Book of Jewish Values, (Bell Tower, New York, 2000), p. 100.

7 See the article “What Does It Mean to ‘Fulfill the Law’” at www.egrc.net.

The Bible is like Star Trek

by Lois Tverberg 

Back when I was in school, my friends and I were huge fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Every Monday morning, all we talked about was the previous evening’s new episode. At first we just focused on the science fiction, discussing how Jean-Luke Picard dealt with whatever strange planetary life form that he had encountered that week.

After a while, though, we became engrossed in the plots that were interwoven into many episodes and would surface again in later programs. Data, the android, would discover one week that his creator had also fashioned an evil twin “brother” named Lore, and weeks later, their relationship would come up in the characters’ conversation. Months later Lore would return, now possessing the “emotion-chip” that Data had dearly desired since he was first built.

Over time we saw that key to enjoying the show was paying attention to the crew’s offhand remarks about the past, and then thinking back to how earlier episodes shed light on the current story. Like any well-written series, each program would tell a good story, but a long-time follower would be able to see how the intrigue grew as the plot thickened over time.

As I learned to read the Bible in its ancient Eastern setting, I discovered that it’s actually a lot like this. Why? Because memory and history were central to the fabric of ancient Eastern culture. The ancients were very aware of ancestral relationships and oral history handed down to them, and used it to understand later events. Especially important to them was the first place they found something, because it usually set up relationships and patterns that would come up again and again.

Being aware of this has greatly enriched my Bible study, because the Scriptures are written with this in mind. As a child, my Bible story book trained me to read the Scripture as a series of short stories, mostly unrelated, each with its own moral lesson.

Only after learning about its Eastern setting did I discover that the Old Testament especially is an epic saga with a delightfully interwoven plot. Sometime the Bible includes stories that hardly seem to be moral examples, and I used to wonder why they were there. But they need to be there to explain the deeper meaning of later events.

Let’s look at how an ancient person would read the book of Ruth. I used to simply see it as a nice story about a widow who found a good husband because she was kind to her mother-in-law. But if we lived in biblical times, we would be curious about Ruth’s ancestors, and our ears would prick up to the fact that Ruth was a Moabite.

Immediately we’d think of the scandalous past of her people, and it would cast her story in a different light. We’d recall that when the weary Israelites were journeying to the Promised Land, the Moabites lured the Israelites into sexual immorality and worshipping idols (Numbers 25:1).

From that time on, the Moabites were associated with sexual immorality, even more disgusting because it was how they worshipped their “gods.” Because of that sin, God declared that Moabites were barred from being a part of the assembly of Israel in Deuteronomy 23:3. Was their sin ever forgivable, we’d wonder?

Then we’d think back to the origins of the Moabites in Genesis 19:30-38. After Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, we read the not-so-nice story of when Lot’s daughters got their father drunk so that they could become pregnant by him, since their husbands had refused to leave the city and died. One of Lot’s daughters gave birth to a son named Moab, and he became the father of the Moabite people. So that’s why the Moabites are so immoral! This would make complete sense to us, because we’d expect that people would be defined by their ancestry.

Keeping these ideas in mind, now let’s turn to Ruth. She was a Moabite woman who had returned to Israel with her mother-in-law after her husband died. An ancient listener would immediately wonder, was she as immoral as those who came before her? She said that she would worship the God of Israel, but would God ever accept her? We even find her in the same situation as Lot’s daughters! Like them, she was a widow who desperately needed children. Naomi even told her to approach Boaz when he was sleeping outside by his harvest, after he had eaten (and drunk) his fill.

Unlike her ancestors, however, Boaz proclaimed that she was a virtuous woman (Ruth 3:10). He then married her, and her son became the grandfather of King David. Not only that, but Ruth even appears in Matthew 1:5 as part of the line of Christ! She turned from her people’s unseemly past to embrace the God of Israel. Not only did he accept her and cleanse her from her history, but he gave her a key role in his supreme act of salvation! Those of us who struggle with an embarrassing family history or an immoral past should rejoice to see how God redeemed Ruth and used her for his wonderful purposes.

Understanding how texts interrelate has given me a whole new perspective on reading the Bible. When I used to read the stories by themselves, some of them frustrated me because they didn’t show me how to live. But the difficult ones have a far deeper purpose. They illustrate how the terrible sinfulness of man runs throughout history, but then how God graciously intervened to bring Christ into the world. We need to read with the eyes of an ancient person in order to see how that message is woven into the fabric of the Bible from beginning to end.