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

Mighty One of Israel

by Scott Leys

“I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” Exodus 20:2 (World English Bible)

The Hebrew language is a language short on vocabulary. Often times a single Hebrew word can have many nuances of meaning depending on suffixes, prefixes, and context. One word may serve to convey many different ideas or word pictures, making for a very poetic, but not a very concise language. There is one glaring exception to this rule though.

Have you ever stopped to consider what our Heavenly Father means when He identifies Himself as our God? In the passage above, the Hebrew word translated as God is Elohim. To the Hebrews it carried the connotation of Yahweh as the creator of all things. Interestingly there are several other Hebrew words that have been translated as God in our English versions of the Bible. So while the Hebrew language as a rule is word poor, the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, were very specific in assigning attributes to the Almighty.

Other Hebrew words translated as God include: El(identifying Yahweh in all His power and magnificence); Eloah(identifying Him as the mighty one to be worshiped, contrasted with false gods); Elyon(usually translated Most High God – identifying Him as the possessor of heaven and earth); and El Shaddai(usually translated as God Almighty – identifying Him as our nourisher and all bountiful giver).

What significance does this have for us? Our Father intended for us to know Him in a very personal and intimate way. He shows Himself to us by letting us in on these different personality traits. He wants us to understand every aspect of who He is and what He does for us. Many of us have a personal relationship with our Savior Yeshua, but we sometimes fail to realize Yahweh revealed Himself to His creation from the very beginning in this same personal way.

The next time you come across God in the Old Testament, pull out a concordance and look up the Hebrew word. You might be surprised at the treasure you find.

Amen and Amen!

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting even to everlasting. And let all the people say, “Amen.” Psalms 106:48

It is interesting to note that the most widely known word on all the earth, across the most languages, is the word “Amen,” a Hebrew word. Jews, Christians and Muslims all use this word in prayer, and it generally moves unchanged from language to language. Even in the Greek of the New Testament, the word was written literally as “amen” rather than a Greek translation being used.

The word “amen” is related to the Hebrew words “emunah” (faith, belief, trust) and “emet” (truth). It means something like, “This I affirm,” or “Let it be so.” It was used throughout the Old Testament as a response, as when blessings or curses were read as part of a covenant, and all the people said “Amen.” When psalms were sung, the people would respond, “Amen.” The leader didn’t say it – it was a way of the people to proclaim their agreement with the liturgy they heard. (See today’s verse.) In Jewish prayer today, this is still done. After the leader recites the prayer, the audience follows with “Amen,” in effect saying, “I affirm this prayer also, let it be so for me too.”

Some scholars believe that there has been confusion in our understanding of Jesus’ use of “amen.” He often began speaking with an “amen,” which has been thought to be a way to emphasize his own words. In the King James, it is translated “verily” and modern translations remove it altogether, and substitute “I tell you the truth.”

Robert Lindsay, a scholar of the first century Jewish context of Jesus, believes that Jesus actually used “amen” as it was used by the rest of h is society – as a response of affirmation of something else that precedes his words. For instance, when the centurion tells him that by just saying the word, Jesus can heal from afar, Jesus says, “Amen! I tell you, I have not seen such great faith in Israel.” (Matthew 8:10) The beginning “amen” is an exclamation of enthusiasm in reaction to hearing the man’s statement of faith. Jesus responded to the people and situations around him with a loud “amen” sometimes, and didn’t just underline his own teachings with that word.

“Amen” isn’t just the natural end of a prayer, it is a way of saying “I most certainly agree!” Whether we say it at the end of our own prayers, or use it to agree with the prayer of another, may all our prayers reflect this wholehearted agreement with the words we have prayed, and our response of faith to God’s answers.

Even This is For the Good

by Lois Tverberg

“I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. ” Psalms 34:1

One of the ways the rabbis interpreted the phrase “love the Lord your God with all of your heart” was to point out that since we have both joy and sadness in our heart, we need to love God both when we are happy and when we are sad. We are to bless the Lord at all times, as the psalmist says we should do today. As Paul points out, we should “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18).

The rabbis had some wonderfully wise prayers in order to bless the Lord for both the highs and lows in life. When they went through a long, difficult time and finally had relief, or celebrated some happy event for which they waited, they said, “Blessed is He who has allowed us to live, and sustained us, and enabled us to reach this day!”

burialWhen a son returned home from war, or when a baby was born, or some other wonderful thing, they stopped to praise God for bringing them to that point in their lives. Even today this prayer is used, and is a favorite for many.

Even in times of grief, when someone died or they heard tragic news, they blessed God. They said “Blessed is he who is the true judge.” It was a reminder that God was still good, even when they heard about tragic events, and that he will ultimately bring justice where justice doesn’t seem to be present. It also reminded them of God’s sovereignty, and his control over all things.

They have an interesting, wise, but difficult saying that is often said on hearing tragic news. Gam zo le tovah – Even this is for the good. The first time I heard this saying was from a dear friend in Israel when he had found out that his wife had breast cancer. It is never appropriate as an empty platitude, but from the lips of a person who is suffering, it is a statement of great faith in God — that even in the worst times, we know that a loving God intends it for good.

In All Circumstances

by Lois Tverberg

“Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”
1 Thessalonians 5:18

In difficult times it is hard to see what God is doing, and we worry that he has lost control of the world or doesn’t care about us. The rabbis had an interesting, wise, but difficult saying that is often said on hearing tragic news. Gam zo le tovah – Even this is for the good. The first time I heard it was from a dear friend in Israel when he had found out that his wife had breast cancer. It is never appropriate as an unsympathetic platitude, but from the lips of a person who is suffering, it is a statement of great faith in God – that even in the worst times, we know that a loving God intends it for good.

Paul said that we should give thanks in all circumstances. Other rabbis said something similar, that we are to “love the Lord your God with all of your heart”, and sometimes our hearts are full of joy, but sometimes full of sadness, so to love him with all of our heart, we need to love him both in happiness and sadness. We are to bless the Lord at all times, as in Psalm 34:1: “I will bless the LORD at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. ”

As part of this, there is a traditional Jewish prayer for times of grief, when someone dies or when tragic news is heard. It is, “Blessed is He who is the true judge.” It is a reminder that God is still good, even in tragedy, and that he will ultimately bring justice where justice doesn’t seem to be present. It also reminds them of God’s sovereignty, and his control over all things.

Child CryingWe as Christians have a special reason to know that God is not unconcerned about our difficulties. It is that we know he has walked on earth as we have, and he has suffered as we do. Our difficulties have most likely come from misfortune or mistakes, or something else out of our control. But, his pain was entirely of his own choosing. He willingly took on great hardship and suffering for us, out of the great depths of his love.


 

Photo: franciso_osorio

Saving a Whole World

by Lois Tverberg

“And He said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do
harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?'” Mark 3:4

When Jesus defended his actions about healing on the
Sabbath, he used the Jewish legal concept of pikuach
nephesh, which literally means “preserving life”, a supreme
value to rabbis of his time. The idea was that human life is
extremely precious, and that every other law can and must be
set aside to save a life. Even though the Sabbath laws were very
strict, any one of them could be broken if a life was at stake. There was some debate about what circumstances were considered “life-threatening”, and Jesus was taking part in a discussion about whether improving a person’s life by healing them was considered pikuach nephesh.

Man caring for childThe idea that saving a life is a supreme value may seem second nature to us, but it was without precedent in other ancient cultures. In other lands, many minor crimes were punishable by death, but not in Israel. God had made it clear that since humans were made in his image, we are precious to him. We don’t often contemplate how this singular idea has transformed our entire civilization to the point that it is what makes us “civilized.” Hospitals, orphanages, and charities of all types have arisen our of the belief that human life must be preserved at any cost.

Jews have a profound way of expressing the idea of the preciousness of life that comes from the first case of shedding of innocent blood, Cain’s murder of Abel. God said to Cain,

“The voice of your brother’s blood (bloods, literally) is crying to Me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10)

The Hebrew word for blood is dam, and the plural is damim. When the Bible talks about murder, or “bloodguilt,” it uses the plural form, damim. Using the logic that the blood contains the life of a person, to speak of blood in the plural implies that a murder doesn’t just take the life of one person, it takes the lives of many. Jews therefore have a tradition that the voice of the “bloods” crying out from the ground was actually the voices of all of the future descendants of Abel that would have ever lived. From this they have a saying, “To take the life of one person is like taking the life of a whole world, and to save the life of one person is like saving a whole world!”


Photo: John Severns

A Light to My Path

by Lois Tverberg

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path.” Psalm 119:105

We read in this psalm that God’s word is a light to ones’ path. To understand this metaphor, we need to imagine how perilous it was to journey at night in Israel’s rocky, mountainous terrain. When walking on a narrow path on the side of a hill, it was an utter necessity to have an oil lamp to light the way, to avoid twisting an ankle or losing ones footing and crashing down the hill.

A poignant Hasidic story expands on this metaphor to teach us a lesson. They tell a tale of a man walking through a forest one night without a light, alone and afraid. He was slowly stumbling along, trying very hard not to lose his way or trip over an obstacle. As he was going along, another man joined him on the path with a lantern, and together they walked easily and quickly together, until they came to a crossroads where they went their separate ways. Then the man without the light went back to groping and stumbling down the path, while the man with the lamp receded into the distance, moving forward smoothly, with no trouble.

Light in a tunnelThe point of the story is to teach us that everyone must have his or her own knowledge of God’s word to guide them – achieved through personal study and effort to know the Scriptures. We can’t be lazy and let our pastor, wife or friends be the ones who learn while we can’t be bothered. The difference is between worrying and stumbling through each situation, or walking sure-footedly by God’s word, as a compass that always points towards his will.


(1) A Hasidic story relayed in Old Testament Words: Reflections for Preaching, by Mary Donovan Turner, Chalice Press, 2003, p. 8. The Jewish Hasidism (hah-SEED-ism) movement arose in Poland in the 18th century. See this article for more.

Photo: *sax

Beautifying God’s Commands

by Lois Tverberg

“The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him.” Exodus 15:2

From this line that was sung when God delivered Israel from its enemies, rabbinic thinkers saw the words “I will exalt him”, and asked the question, “How can mere mortals hope to exalt God, the Creator of the entire universe?” Their wise answer was that they could exalt him by doing his will in the absolute best and beautiful way possible. They called this “hiddur mitzvah“, meaning to beautify God’s commands.

Christians may be surprised that the word mitzvah, meaning commandment, is positive rather than negative in Jewish culture. We tend to assume it refers to burdensome regulations, but the usual Jewish usage of mitzvah is that it is an opportunity to do something good that God told you to do. Jewish people say things like, “I had a chance to do a mitzvah today when the elderly woman asked for my help.” Or, “It’s a mitzvah to celebrate Passover with a lovely dinner with family and friends”. The word is always used in a positive way, suggesting that doing what God has asked is a joy and a spiritual opportunity, not a burden. (1)

Sukkot BoothThe idea of hiddur mitzvah (beautifying the command) goes even beyond this – that if God tells us to do something, we shouldn’t just do the minimum, but to perform it in the best way possible, sparing no expense or trouble. Since God told Israel to build booths for the Feast of Sukkot, when a Jewish family decorates their sukkah (booth) skillfully and elaborately, they “beautify the command.” When one poor Jewish man was asked why he spent $50 for a citron, a lemon-like fruit required for Sukkot, he replied, “Why would we worship God with anything less than the very best?” Spending sacrificially on doing God’s will is a way of showing great love for God. (2)

Man examining citron

We can see Jesus describing this behavior of hiddur mitzvah, going far beyond the minimum, in his story about the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan man obeyed God’s command to love his neighbor by personally caring for the wounded traveler, carrying him to the inn on his own donkey, and investing a large sum of his own money to care for him. Because he was a Samaritan in Israel he even risked his own life, because as an enemy of the Jews, he could have been accused of being the attacker. (Luke 10:33-35)

If we are grateful that Christ has died for our sins, to bring us into relationship with God, we should want to serve him as well as we possibly can too. As Paul said,

Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving. Col. 3:23-24


(1) An example of the positive Jewish attitude to the mitzvah can be found in this article.

(2) See http://www.cckollel.org/html/parsha/bereishis/mikeitz2002.html and http://www.kmsynagogue.org/Sukkot1.html for more about hiddur mitzvah – both articles are a little difficult to read.

Photo: http://samgrubersjewishartmonuments.blogspot.com/2010/07/sukkah-for-new-york.html and Sotheby’

Blessed Are the Mourners

by Lois Tverberg

Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Matthew 5:4

Sad Statue

This line of the beatitudes is beautiful because it says that God cares about those who are hurting and wants to heal them. But it seems odd to call mourners blessed, and to single them out as a group that God favors. All of the other beatitudes speak about an attitude or action that Jesus wants from his followers — such as being humble, righteous, pure in heart, peace-loving or merciful. This line, however sounds as if those greiving are somehow what God desires.

It helps to know that Jesus was alluding to particular scripture passages in the beatitudes, like Isaiah 57, 60, 61, & 66 and Psalm 37 & 38. In those passages, mourning is often mentioned, but grief in general is not the focus. Instead, the prophets often mourned over injustice, or lamented about personal or national sin. Experiencing God’s punishment on Israel and Jerusalem for its sins brought mourning as well, while forgiveness brought comfort. For instance:

I am bent over and greatly bowed down; I go mourning all day long. For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am ready to fall, and my sorrow is continually before me. For I confess my iniquity; I am full of anxiety because of my sin. (Psalm 38:6-7, 17-18)

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. (Isaiah 40:1-2)

We see here that “those who mourn” from these passages are those who are contrite for their own sins and those of Israel, or who desire the healing of their people. In this sense, mourners are those who care deeply about righteousness, but yet are merciful, wishing for repentance and God’s forgiveness. They fit well with the other groups that Jesus calls blessed, because they long for God’s will to be done, while still wanting to see God’s grace for sinners.

This is still a challenge to us as Christians today. It is easy to see the sins of other Christians or of the world in general, and angrily accuse them. But Jesus is saying that we can lament that things aren’t they way they should be, and we should long for the day when comfort will come, when Jesus’ reign is established over all the earth.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. Romans 12:14-17

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the nations of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of the sky, with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other. Matthew 24:30-31


 

Photo: Jes

An Eye for an Eye

by Lois Tverberg

But if there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. Exodus 21:23-25

Many of us read this passage in the the Hebrew Bible about taking “an eye for an eye” and “tooth for tooth” as showing the barbaric nature of the laws of that time. But in fact, the laws of the Torah were far more humane than in other ancient cultures, and even this law, in its context, actually was an effort at reasonable punishment rather than cruel vengeance. Without any laws, the typical response to a crime where one had injured another would be revenge by the victim’s clan, escalating into feuds. This law of “like for like” was actually intended to limit the punishment for an injury to no more than the injury itself.
No Littering SignIn fact, some scholars think that in ancient Israel this law wasn’t followed literally, but was interpreted as allowing for monetary fines for injuries (1). Evidence for that is in Numbers 35:31 which says: Moreover, you shall not take ransom for the life of a murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall surely be put to death. The existence of this law suggests that usually a monetary fine was given for a crime to compensate the other party. The reason for not allowing a life to be paid off by money was because of the precious nature of life itself — that a human life was so valuable, the only fitting punishment for destroying it was death to the offender.

Interestingly, the sacredness of life was a very large difference between the laws of Israel and surrounding
Knoosenations. In other nations, capital punishment might be used for minor crimes like stealing, but in Israel, no property crime ever demanded the life of the offender. On the other hand, murder always called for capital punishment rather than monetary fines, as in other cultures. Other nations also demanded brutal punishments for people of lower classes for minor offenses against the rich. Israel, in contrast, treated all criminals alike. Their punishment was far more humane, usually demanding restitution to the victim rather than bodily damage to the offender.

Once again, we can see that when we understand the culture, we see God teaching his people the need to be fair and just to all levels of humanity, and we see the preciousness of life itself.


(1) N. Sarna, Exploring Exodus, Shocken Books, pp 182-189

Photo: Pbalson8204 and Patrick Feller