God is Our Refuge

by Bruce Okkema

In you, O LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame. Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me. Be my rock of refuge, to which I can always go; give the command to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Psalm 71:1-3

MasadaMasada stands as a huge outcropping of rock jutting 1,440 feet above the desert floor on the western shore of the Dead Sea. It is located fourteen miles north of the southern end of the sea and eleven miles south of En-gedi. Masada remains today one of the Jewish people’s greatest symbols, and except for Jerusalem, it is the most popular destination of people visiting Israel.

Its history as a desert fortress goes back far into the past. David moved throughout this region of the southern Judean desert as he was hiding from Saul, and quite likely spent time on this mountain. Although Masada is not mentioned by name in the Bible, we see glimpses of it in several places where God is called a “rock of refuge”, or “my fortress”. Metzudah means “refuge” or “fortress” in Hebrew. (In addition to our text above, see also 1 Sam 22:4-5, 23:14, 24:22, and Psalms 18:2, 31, and 144:2.)

The remains that we we see today are from the time of Herod, who not only increased the fortifications, but built magnificent garden palaces on either end of the mountain. It almost never rains here, yet Herod built an elaborate water system to divert water that originated in the Judean mountains into cisterns at Masada. Servants carried water from there to upper reservoirs servicing the palaces, to an Olympic size swimming pool!

The reason Masada is one of the Jewish people’s greatest symbols is for what occurred there during the Jewish revolt against Rome during 66 – 72AD. A group of Zealots took Masada and it became a place of refuge for other Jews fleeing the Roman terrorism. For three years they were able to fend off the Romans and worship the Living God while enduring the rigors of desert life. Finally, faced with certain capture and torture, the group of 960 chose to take their own lives, rather than become slaves of Rome. “The valor of the Jewish zealots residing on Masada during the Roman siege is celebrated as the supreme example of self-sacrifice for the preservation of the nation of Israel. Today, when the recruits of the Israel Armored Corps take their oath of allegiance, they do so on Masada to remind each generation of the price their forefathers paid for their nation. They cry: “Masada shall not fall again!” (1)

Masada

A view of the snake path from the top of Masada

To climb the arduous snake path in the 120° sun, to imagine looking down helplessly from above on your fellow countrymen enslaved to build a siege ramp against you, to stand at the precipice thinking across history about all the many who have served the Lord at the cost of their lives is to wonder if I will have the courage to stand that test for my Lord one day.

Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth. Serve the LORD with fear and rejoice with trembling. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry and you be destroyed in your way, for his wrath can flare up in a moment. Blessed are all who take refuge in him. Psalm 2:10-12.


 

Additional sources for this article:
(1) http://www.ancientsandals.com/overviews/masada.htm
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/masada.html
Josephus Flavius, Jewish Wars, Chapter 8 http://www.templebuilders.com

Empty Fruit

by Lois Tverberg

“Cursed (Arur) is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from the Lord. He will be like a bush (arar) in the desert, and will not see when prosperity comes, but will live in stony wastes in the wilderness, a land of salt without inhabitant.

But blessed is the man who trusts in the Lord, whose confidence is in Him. For he will be like a tree planted by the water, that extends its roots by a stream. It will not fear when the heat comes, but its leaves will be green, and it will not be anxious in a year of drought, nor cease to yield fruit.” Jeremiah 17:5-7

After reading this proverb about the cursed tree and the blessed tree, it is easy to imagine what the blessed tree must look like — thick green leaves; branches covered in large, luscious fruit; abundant growth even when everything is dry all around. The tree pictured here looks like such a tree.

But the remarkable thing about this beautiful tree is that it is actually the cursed tree that Jeremiah spoke about in this proverb. According to Nogah Hareuveni, an expert on plants of the Bible, in Hebrew the name of this tree is called the Arar, which sounds similar to the word for cursed (arur) and is part of a wordplay which is central to this poem.

Why is it called “cursed”? Because if a thirsty, hot traveler approaches the tree and picks a nice big fruit, he will find a nasty surprise. When opened, the fruit makes a “pssst” sound, and is hollow and filled with webs and dust and a dry pit. The Bedouin call this tree the “Cursed Lemon” or “Sodom Apple” because it grows in the desert salt lands that surround the Dead Sea where Sodom and Gomorrah once were. According to their legends, when God destroyed Sodom, he cursed the fruit of this tree also.

Interestingly, the cursed tree looks very healthy and abundant, as if it has a survived even in hard times and still has done well in life. Like the tree, many people who rely on their own strength really persevere enough so that they seem to “have it all.”

But we will not be judged on our “tallness” (fame, notariety) or our “leafy-ness” (material success), but on the fruit of our lives. Jesus tells us that rocks and weeds in our life can prevent us from bearing fruit. But it seems that even if we seem to be bearing fruit, there is a danger that it might be quite empty.

What really is wrong with the tree? Essentially, the big problem is that the fruit has no juice. The tree is supposed to absorb life-giving water from the soil and pass it on to others through its fruit, but something is not happening. It is as if the tree has cut itself off from the source of living water by relying on its own strength.

In some sense, the juice is the maim chaim (living water) of the Holy Spirit, which Jesus says will pour out of the one who believes in him (John 7:38). The “juice” comes having a life that is filled with the refreshing presence of the Lord, and without that, our lives are empty and hollow.

Drink Deep

by Bruce Okkema

As we close this section on living water for now, would you take a few minutes to do something very Hebraic? Take a glass … fill it with water … hold it up and look at it for a time. Think about God’s faithfulness to you and think about how so many people don’t have this simple glass of water so easily. Bless the Lord for his precious gift, then, take a big long drink. Let it soak deep into your soul as you read these beautiful passages about the Living Water:

“The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”
Isaiah 58:11En Gedi

“For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants; and they will spring up among the grass like poplars by streams of water.” Isaiah 44:3-4

“On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half to the eastern sea and half to the western sea, in summer and in winter. The LORD will be king over the whole earth. On that day there will be one LORD, and his name the only name.” Zechariah 14:8-9

“Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst again; but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him shall never thirst; but the water that I will give him will become in him a well of water springing up to eternal life.” John 4:13-14

“Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.’” John 7:37-38


 

For more on this topic, please read our Director’s Article of April/May, 2003 titled, “Living Water.”

A Drip or a Splash?

by Lois Tverberg

Let my teaching fall like rain and my words descend like dew, like showers on new grass, like abundant rain on tender plants. Deuteronomy 32:2

An fascinating rabbinic story points out how studying God’s word is like water:

One day a a great rabbi of around Jesus’ time, Rabbi Akiva, came across a stone by a river that had been greatly worn away by a slow drip of water falling on it over the centuries.

He remarked, “What has hollowed this stone? Is it not a small drop of water falling on it day after day? If soft water can wear away hard stone, how much more should the words of the Scriptures, which are like iron, carve their way into my heart, which is flesh and blood? (1)

It is interesting to note that it was not one drip of water, but the constant force, drip after drip, year after year, that had a great effect. We often talk about God’s Spirit being “poured out,” imagining it gushing as a great river. But here, the powerful work in our lives is done by the impact of a single drip, as we let it change us over time. The process is very gradual, and not overnight.

Also, often Christians think a big event like a powerful speaker or weekend conference will change peoples’ lives. But most of the time, God’s Spirit tends not to work through big “splashes.” Instead, through the slow drip of study and prayer, day after day, year after year, he shapes into what he wants us to be.


 

(1) From Avot de Rabbi Natan, as quoted by J. Telushkin in The Book of Jewish Values, Copyright 2000, Bell Tower, New York, p.1

If Anyone is Thirsty…

by Lois Tverberg

Now on the last day, the great day of the feast, Jesus stood and cried out, saying, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to Me and drink. ‘He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, `From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.'” By this He spoke of the Spirit, whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. John 7:37-39

This story about Jesus and living water is amazingly rich when we see it in its context – when we learn more about the biblical festivals and even the weather of Israel.

The feast that Jesus attended was Sukkot, the great harvest feast of the year. It takes place in September/October, after Rosh Hashana and the fast of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for the sins of the nation. It had not rained in six months, since about the time of Passover in March. Their very lives depended on the coming of the fall rains, something that wasn’t certain in that arid land. The rabbis believed that during the 10 “days of awe” before Yom Kipper, God was deciding whether to grant them favor and send rain the next year. Only if God had forgiven their sin at Yom Kippur would he send the living water of rain.

On this last day and greatest day of Sukkot, millions of people prayed fervently for the rain to begin. Many of the prophets saw this living water God sent after atonement as a picture of forgiveness and redemption. It was described by Joel many years before:

Blow a trumpet in Zion,
Consecrate a fast, proclaim a solemn assembly…
Then the LORD will be zealous for His land
And will have pity on His people.
So rejoice, O sons of Zion,
For He has given you the early rain for your vindication.
And He has poured down for you the rain,
The early and latter rain as before….
It will come about after this
That I will pour out My Spirit on all mankind;
And your sons and daughters will prophesy.
Your old men will dream dreams,
Your young men will see visions.
Even on the male and female servants
I will pour out My Spirit in those days.

(Joel 2:15, 18, 23, 28)

It is fascinating to see how this describes the mission of Jesus – that he came to atone for sin and pour out God’s Spirit in the world. But in order to receive this new life, they had to come to him and drink, from the true source of Living Water.

The Refreshment of Dew

by Lois Tverberg

“Let my teaching drop as the rain, My speech distill as the dew, As the droplets on the fresh grass and as the showers on the herb.” Deuteronomy 32:2

Another form of living water that was important biblically is something that we hardly think about — dew. In Israel it does not rain for half the year, and were it not for the dew in summer, all plant life would die.

In fact, dew and rain are equally important to the crops in Israel. If there is no rain in the winter season, the grass and early crops do not grow, if no dew in summer, later crops dry up and fruit does not mature. If there are many nights without dew, it constitutes a drought, in their thinking.

In Israel, on many nights dew is amazingly abundant. Because of the moisture of the Mediterranean, in early summer the dews are so heavy that the plants and trees are literally soaked with water at night. In fact, Israelis often use squeegees to remove the dew from their car windows before they can drive in the morning. In the story of Gideon, it said that he wrung a bowl full of water out of a fleece that he put out overnight (Judges 6:38). Even in areas that receive almost no rain, the dew is enough to sustain enough plant growth that sheep can graze, as they search for the few tufts of grass available in the pastures that are sustained by dew.

To the ancient people who were so dependent on their crops, dew was considered a nightly reminder of God’s constant care. In the Sinai, the manna came with it, supplying their sustenance that way too (Exodus 16:13; Numbers 11:9). In Hosea, God declares, “I will heal their waywardness and love them freely, for my anger has turned away from them. I will be like the dew to Israel; he will blossom like a lily.” (Hosea 14:4-5).

Even though the dew is not important for our crops now, it is a good for us to see it as a picture of God’s daily sustenance of a drink of living water that lets just enough grass grow to feed us for the next day. Next time, when you see it, remind yourself of God’s daily kindness toward you.

The River of Life

by Lois Tverberg

Every living creature which swarms in every place where the river goes, will live. Ezekiel 47:9

One of the most beautiful prophecies about living water is in Ezekiel 47:1-12. The prophet Ezekiel is at the temple, and sees a little trickle of water flowing out from under the altar. The water flows out of the temple down the south stairs.

As it flows, this paradoxical river does a strange thing – it grows wider and deeper until finally it becomes a stream so great that it can’t be crossed. Moreover, this little stream from the temple is flowing southeast out of Jerusalem toward the Dead Sea, twelve miles away. The area near the Dead Sea is a salt wasteland where nothing can live. But this stream has a marvelous effect. Trees grow on either side, and the waters of the Dead Sea suddenly teem with life.

It is beautiful to see how the image in Ezekiel 47 describes the outpouring of the Spirit that occurred at Pentecost. The Living Water of the Spirit first fell on the people in the temple as they were worshipping there, as if the Spirit started trickling out of the sanctuary to that little “puddle” of believers. Interestingly, when Peter preached to the people at Pentecost, he was probably standing on the south stairs, where the water in Ezekiel’s vision flowed. Also on that south stairs are the mikvehs (ceremonial baths), where 3000 people that day were baptized in living water. They have been excavated and are visible even today!

The trickle of God’s Spirit became ankle deep as the first believers shared the gospel and many in the city believed, and then knee deep as they carried the gospel to the surrounding countries. Instead of running out of energy as it flowed, the river of God’s Spirit got deeper and wider as it flowed! And its ultimate destination is that of the most desolate of wastelands, full of the poisonous water of the Dead Sea. This is the dark reality of a world devoid of a true knowledge of God. Anywhere it touches it gives new life where there was only death before.

The Blessing of Rain

by Lois Tverberg

“I will send rain on your land in its season, both autumn and spring rains, so that you may gather in your grain, new wine and oil.” Deuteronomy 11:14

One kind of living water that was considered a great blessing in biblical times was rain. Between the spring rains that ended in April and the fall rains that began in October, six months would go by with clear skies over Israel. When the rains returned again, it was considered to be a miracle directly from God’s hand. We can hear the positive attitude about rain from some ancient Jewish sources:

The day of rain is greater than the resurrection of the dead, because the resurrection of the dead benefits only the righteous, but rain benefits both the righteous and the unrighteous. (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 7a)

Also, in an ancient commentary on Psalm 117:1 (Praise the LORD, all you nations; extol him, all you peoples.), the rabbinic discussion followed:

At what times are all men equal, and when do the nations worship God?”
“On the day when all rejoice.”
“When is that?”
“When the rain comes down, and all rejoice and praise God.”

It is interesting, then, that we as Americans do not rejoice – we look on rainy days as bad days. Because water is relatively abundant here, and because we can rely on reservoirs, irrigation and clean water piped into our houses, we actually curse the days that are blessings to us. When you think about it, our abundant food here is just as dependent on the rain that we complain about as the crops are in Israel, but we just have forgotten the blessing.

It is easy for us to forget to be thankful for our blessings – but even worse when we complain about good gifts simply because we have so much. How many other gifts have we forgotten to be thankful for? Maybe the next time we should pray the traditional Jewish prayer that is said when it rains, and other happy occasions: “Blessed is he who is good, and gives good things!”

What Did Moses Do Wrong?

by Bruce Okkema & Lois Tverberg

Then Moses raised his arm and struck the rock twice with his staff. Water gushed out, and the community and their livestock drank. But the LORD said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them.” Numbers 20:11-12

Have you been wondering about this question? The Lord had clearly been developing Moses throughout his lifetime for the specific task of leading the Israelites out of Egypt and into the promised land. God had rescued Moses as a baby from Pharaoh’s edict to drown the Hebrew boys in the Nile. Then, through Pharaoh’s daughter, he had been raised in the royal palaces where he learned leadership skills and had access to the best education in the world. As a shepherd, Moses had learned how to protect a flock in the harsh desert while finding food and water, essential skills for what was to come. Then there was the call at the burning bush, the miraculous signs, the plagues, the deliverance, and all these years of leading this difficult people…

This story has puzzled Christians for ages: how the seemingly small sin of striking the rock could have made God so angry as to deny Moses the goal for which he had been raised. One answer comes from understanding what Moses’ actions would have meant to the people of his time.

Both the Egyptian and Canaanite religions believed that there were many gods. These gods were not supreme in power, but could be manipulated by invoking spiritual forces even more powerful than them. It was believed that by using incantations, occult magic, and fertility rites, people could force these spirits into obeying their will. God made it very clear to the Israelites that he was supreme and they must never make idols or do anything that treated Him this way.

Moses shouts angrily, “Listen, you rebels, must we bring you water out of this rock?” By using the word “we”, he attributes to himself and Aaron the power to give them water, suggesting that he and Aaron would use pagan rites to force God into giving them water, rather than publicly acknowledging the Lord as the supreme power.

In that one weak moment, he undermined all of what God had been teaching them about his absolute sovereignty. In Moses’ desire to show his own authority, not only did he fail to give God the glory, but to the Israelites who had grown up in paganism, he was acting as an occult magician who controls the spirits. This was extremely serious to the Lord, especially because it is a public sin. This underscores the responsibilities of leadership.

God demands that we always treat him as sovereign, so he did not revoke this severe punishment for Moses. But, the story does not end there. In his kindness, God honored his dedicated servant by showing him a vision of all of the land of Israel. The story ends with these beautiful words from Deuteronomy 34:

“Then Moses climbed Mount Nebo … There the LORD showed him the whole land and said to him, “This is the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob when I said, `I will give it to your descendants.’ I have let you see it with your eyes, but you will not cross over into it.” And Moses the servant of the LORD died there in Moab, as the LORD had said. He buried him in Moab, in the valley opposite Beth Peor, but to this day no one knows where his grave is … Since then, no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face.”

Take Your Staff

by Bruce Okkema

The LORD answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. I will stand there before you by the rock at Sinai. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. Exodus 17:5–6

Notice that God says, “….take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile.” This staff had also recently been turned into a serpent before Pharaoh’s eyes, and it had been stretched out to part the waters of the Red Sea. So the people would have immediately known that God was about to do something big.

For years Moses had used his staff in the deserts of Midian, leading his sheep and finding water for them. He may have even used it at times to strike rocks for water, because we know that in this area of the desert porous, water-bearing limestone was present which, with the crack of a sharp blow, could release a large flow of ground water. (1)

It was here at Mt. Sinai forty years earlier that God had spoken to Moses from the burning bush, calling him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Remember the story from Exodus 4, in which he questioned God saying,

“What if they do not believe me or listen to me and say, `The LORD did not appear to you’? Then the LORD said to him, ‘What is that in your hand?’ … ’A staff’ he replied … The Lord said, ‘… take this staff in your hand so you can perform miraculous signs with it.”

Is it a coincidence that in both cases, Moses was pleading with the Lord about what to do with the people? Is it a coincidence, that in these cases, God used this staff to work miracles relating to water and deliverance? Of course we know that the Lord can do any miracle by simply speaking a word if he chooses too, but in this case, he added to the impact by choosing a visible symbol which recurs throughout Scripture.

Ultimately, it points to his to his power and kingship in Jesus, the source of all living water!

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.
Genesis 49:10


 

(1) JPS Torah Commentary on Exodus, N. Sarna, p 94.