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)


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
Josephus Flavius, Jewish Wars, Chapter 8 http://www.templebuilders.com

God’s Wounded Family

by Lois Tverberg

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong which we did to him!”

So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father charged before he died, saying, `Thus you shall say to Joseph, “Please forgive, I beg you, the transgression of your brothers and their sin, for they did you wrong.”‘ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” And Joseph wept when they spoke to him.

But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in God’s place? “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good in order to bring about this present result, to preserve many people alive.” So therefore, do not be afraid; I will provide for you and your little ones.” So he comforted them and spoke kindly to them.
– Genesis 50:15-17,19-21

Many people feel that brokenness in their background prevents God from using them for his greatest purposes. Yet, as we look at Jacob’s family, even though deep woundedness followed them much their lives, God worked to heal them. But we also see that the process can be long and slow.

The difficulties began back when Jacob was forced to marry Leah, the sister of the woman he loved, Rachel. Leah bore son after son for Jacob, each time hoping that finally, Jacob would love her as he did her sister. But he never did. This was evident many years later when the brothers asked Jacob to let Benjamin come with them to Egypt. He said, “My son shall not go down with you; for his brother is dead, and he alone is left!” (Gen. 42:38) The statement hints that he considered Benjamin his only “real” son, the only one left he really cared about. Jacob’s favoritism for Rachel and her children had left deep scars on his other sons.

Wounded Family

The unloved brothers’ woundedness was what caused them to nearly to murder Joseph, and many years later when they come to Egypt, they were still plagued by guilt for their cruelty toward him. When we read that Joseph made himself known and invited them down to Egypt, we think that we’ve reached the “happy ending” that all good Christian stories ought to have! But, the final verses in Genesis reveal that the issues in this dysfunctional family lingered for years after that. After their father died, the brothers returned to the worry that Joseph was still plotting to repay them for their crime against him. At that point Joseph wept one more time. Was it because he had thought that his family wounds had been mended and he saw that they still had not been?

Wounded Family2When we see that this family who was to bless all the families of the earth is very average in terms of its pain, we can take hope that God truly can use anybody. God worked through their sinfulness to accomplish his purposes, but he isn’t a God of magical, quick fixes. After a great act of redemption in their lives (moving them to Egypt to be saved from the famine) their problems weren’t over, but he was gently working to bring them back together as a family. This is the note on which their story ends.

Photo: Lawrence OP and Owen Jones

The Testing of the Family

by Lois Tverberg

Then they said to one another, “Truly we are guilty concerning our brother, because we saw the distress of his soul when he pleaded with us, yet we would not listen; therefore this distress has come upon us. Now comes the reckoning for his blood.” They did not know, however, that Joseph understood, for there was an interpreter between them. He turned away from them and wept. – Genesis 42:21, 23-24

The final scenes in Joseph’s story, when his brothers come to Egypt, are very dramatic but somewhat of a puzzle. Why does he put them through so much torment and interrogate them as he does?

As we read the final story, it helps to remember that Rachel’s sons (Joseph and Benjamin) had a very cold relationship with the rest of the family because of Jacob’s favoritism. Joseph was very close to his brother Benjamin, but was convinced that his other brothers were liars and potential murderers for what they had done to him. When they came into his courts, he certainly would have been scanning their group for the face of Benjamin, but when he was missing, he probably worried that his brothers might have killed him because he was their father’s other favorite son. He devised a plan to force them to bring Benjamin to him, to see him and perhaps to protect him from their violence.

Joseph Explaining the Dream to Pharoah, Jean Adrien GuignetJoseph was also forcing his brothers to live through some of what he went through, to see how they would respond. Just as they put him in a cistern, he put them in a dungeon (the same word is used for both). By returning their silver in their sacks, it appears that he was reminding them that they had sold him for silver long ago. And, by imprisoning Simeon, the brothers were forced to see their father Jacob go through anguish yet again at the loss of a son in their company.

Finally, when Benjamin came with them, he treated him with favoritism to arouse their envy, and then put them to the ultimate test: when his cup was found in Benjamin’s sack, would they leave him as a slave as they did Joseph many years before? He must have thought that their jealous dislike for their half-brother would make it an easy choice.

Through this time of testing of the brothers, the brothers went through much anguish, believing that these troubles had fallen upon them because of what they did to Joseph. But, this process of soul-searching caused them to repent and change. For the sake of Benjamin, they all returned to plead for his release, showing that they considered him their brother, worthy of risking their lives for sake. And Judah, whose idea it was to sell Joseph into slavery, showed his complete repentance when he offered himself in the place of Benjamin as slave.

The family had finally come together – they would not abandon Benjamin as they did Joseph, as they did before. This was finally what brought healing, and they would never be the same again.

Photo: http://freechristimages.org

Wisdom for Good Years

by Lois Tverberg

Behold, seven years of great abundance are coming in all the land of Egypt; and after them seven years of famine will come, and all the abundance will be forgotten in the land of Egypt, and the famine will ravage the land. Let Pharaoh exact a fifth of the produce of the land of Egypt in the seven years of abundance. Let the food become as a reserve for the land for the seven years of famine which will occur in the land of Egypt, so that the land will not perish during the famine.
– Genesis 41:29-30, 34, 36

When God told Pharaoh through his dreams that there would be seven years of record crops followed by seven years of famine, he was giving him an enormous gift of insight into the future. With that warning, he was able to save the lives of his countrymen, as well as those in the surrounding region.

Wisdom in good YearsIn the past few years, many of us wished that God would have given us Pharoah’s dreams of warning about the future. In the late 1990’s the U.S. experienced a business boom and record stock highs, but since 2001, especially after September 11, we have experienced a severe recession that still is with us. Many of us lost retirement savings in the stock market, or lost a job or had a businesses fail. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if God would have warned us ahead of time? We can see the great wisdom that Joseph gave Pharoah about saving from the coming abundance for times of hardship. In these past years, many of us have re-learned this lesson, and now make our decisions with money based on an assumption that times may change for the worse.

Wisdom for good yearsWhile most know the truth of this economically, we should also think about this idea of “storing up a harvest” in times of abundance in other ways. We also should consider our relationships and our faith in God. Do we realize that our children will grow up and leave home, our friends may move away, and our parents will die someday? Do we know that it is almost inevitable that we will go through times of discouragement and a struggle for faith?

When we think ahead toward these potential hard times, it reminds us not to neglect to “store up” what we will need to be sustained when the need doesn’t seem so pressing. We need to grow relationships in our family and friends that can weather both good times and bad. And we need to grow our roots of faith in God deep enough so that they can sustain us in dry times too. Soon or later the dry times will come, and it is only what we have stored up that will sustain us then.

Photo: Pushkarv and Stephen Morrison/AusAID

At Peace in Prison

by Lois Tverberg

When a man’s ways are pleasing to the LORD, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him.
– Proverbs 16:7

After Joseph was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife and was sent to prison, the scriptures report that “the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him, and gave him favor in the sight of the chief jailer (Gen 39:21).” As a result, Joseph was put in charge of the other prisoners and trusted entirely with the job. It is remarkable that in such terrible circumstances, Joseph could make such a positive impression on his captors. His jailor could have been his tormentor, but instead he treated him like a friend. Joseph must have had an extraordinary personality to have had this effect on people.

This story reminded me of another man with a similar experience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian, was a man of powerful convictions
Peace in Prisonand part of the resistance to the Nazis in World War II. He was passionate that Christianity was not just an otherworldly faith, but that it demanded that he live each day according to the words of Jesus. After being arrested for his part in the resistance movement, he was sent to prison, where he spent his last two years before being executed.
Interestingly, Bonhoeffer had the same effect on the prison guards as Joseph had on his jailor. His warm, Christ-like spirit impressed his guards and greatly endeared him to them. As a result, they allowed him to visit the cells of other despairing prisoners to counsel them. He even ministered to the guards themselves! Because of their sympathy for him, the guards smuggled much of his writing out of prison, leaving a legacy for us today.

Why was it that Bonhoeffer had such a powerful effect on those around him? In Joseph’s case, the Bible says that “the LORD was with Joseph and extended kindness to him.” It seems to be the case with Bonhoeffer as well — he had become intimately close to God, and the Lord was “with him” too. The powerful love of God love shone through him to others, and they responded in kind. In the cases of both of these men, God’s love radiating through them caused even their enemies to be at peace with them.

Photo: http://www.abcgallery.com/

Exceptional Character

by Bruce Okkema

As much as she coaxed Joseph day after day, he did not yield … Genesis 39:10 JPS

Joseph will be a powerful figure in biblical history if he lives true to the drama that accompanies his introduction in Genesis 37. The story teller begins by emphasizing this young man’s part in a polygamous family in which there is much tension, and we read of his unfavorable report about his brothers to his father. Soon our hearts go out to him as he is mercilessly thrown into a pit and sold into slavery by his brothers. One comes back to rescue him and finds him gone, then his brothers lie about what they have done, even reporting to Jacob that his favored son has been killed. But what happens next in chapter 39 is almost unbelievable, especially for men.

We read,

The Lord was with Joseph and he prospered, and he lived in the house of his Egyptian master. When his master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord gave him success in everything he did, Joseph found favor in this eyes and became his attendant. Potiphar put him in charge of his household, and he entrusted to his care everything he owned … now Joseph was well-built and handsome … and after a while his master’s wife … said … ‘Come to bed with me’ … day after day. (Gen. 39:2-10).

Exceptional Character 1A glance at artwork from that time period in Egypt will reveal that royal women were not known for their modesty. And knowing the power of lust, you might be able to imagine how Potiphar’s wife may have been dressed as she whispered, “come to bed with me, I desire you, we are alone, nobody will know …” Aside from his own natural desires, Joseph would have known that slaves were commonly used for sexual pleasure, and his master’s wife was issuing him a command! Any adult will instantly understand the intensity of this temptation and the ease with which a young man could have succumbed.

But he refused. “With me in charge,” he told her, “my master does not concern himself with anything in the house; everything he owns he has entrusted to my care. No one is greater in this house than I am. My master has withheld nothing from me except you, because you are his wife. How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?” (Gen. 39:8-9)

Then the story continues to build until she physically grabs him and he runs from her, leaving his cloak in her hands.

Exceptional Character 2There is a lot to this story that we are not told, but reading between the lines, it is likely that Potiphar did not totally believe his wife’s account. She had softened the accusation of attempted rape which she had made to the other servants, to one of “making sport of me” when she told her husband. Also, Joseph may have had a chance to tell his side of the story even though it is not recorded. Neither is his reaction recorded in the account of his brothers throwing him into the pit (Gen. 37), yet later, in their retelling of that story (Gen. 42:21), we read, “he pleaded with us.” Potiphar could have certainly executed Joseph, which would have been the normal punishment for such crimes, but rather he had him imprisoned. And he knew Joseph’s character, having trusted him so much as to put him in charge of his entire estate. His wife’s character, as evidenced by her behavior, was questionable.

Hopefully, we will not find ourselves in such an irresistible situation as was Joseph, but we don’t have to go very far to see all manner of such temptations or to hear Satan beckoning us. Bless the Lord for giving Joseph the strength to do the right thing and then passing on the story! Be encouraged that when we look up, God will do the same for us.

Photo: www.africamaat.com and VwGevEwX5KoxpA at Google Cultural Institute

Tamar, the Heroine

by Lois Tverberg

It was while she was being brought out that she sent to her father-in-law, saying, “I am with child by the man to whom these things belong.” …Judah recognized them, and said, “She is more righteous than I, inasmuch as I did not give her to my son Shelah. – Genesis 38:25-26

Tamar the heroineOne of the most difficult stories in the Bible is that of Tamar and Judah in Genesis 38. It shocks our modern ears to hear about a woman pretending to be a prostitute and sleeping with her father-in-law, and when she was found pregnant with Judah as the father, she was vindicated as righteous. What in the world is going on here? This story shows that it is critical to understand the culture to get the Bible’s message.

A common law in many ancient cultures was the law of “levirate marriage.” If a woman married and her husband died before having a son, the husband’s family was obligated to give her another husband to have a son as an heir, because to die without one was a terrible curse. To keep the heir in the family, one of the man’s brothers usually was chosen, but even the father-in-law could fill the role according to some ancient documents.

So when Tamar’s husband Er, Judah’s firstborn son died, the family was obligated to help her have a child. The younger son, Onan, deliberately avoided getting her pregnant because the son would inherit Er’s estate, but if she died childless, Onan would get it. His greed infuriated God and he died an early death.

Judah also avoided giving Tamar his other son as a husband, possibly thinking that Tamar was “unlucky” after his first two sons died. By ignoring his obligation to her, he was committing a great sin against her by forcing her into childless widowhood, because she couldn’t marry anyone else. He also was endangering his own tribe, because if his last son died without an heir, they would be wiped out.

Tamar was in a terrible situation, and in the moral understanding of the ancient writer, she found an honorable solution to her desperate need. When she tricked Judah into fathering a child with her, she was choosing not to abandon the family of Judah, but to force Judah himself be her levirate husband, which would have been acceptable in that time. If Tamar had given up instead and Judah’s clan didn’t have an heir, the messianic line would have ended. But because of Tamar’s chutzpah, she entered the line that would lead to the birth of the Messiah. She was considered a heroine for her daring ploy that answered her need as well as the tribe of Judah’s.

As we read, we need to remember to respect the morals of the time and have patience that God is still teaching people how to obey him. It was still hundreds of years before the Torah was given, and thousands of years before Christ. We can admire Tamar’s perseverance in a moral world very different than our own.

Photo: http://www.ng-slo.si/si/razstave/razstava/umetnine-iz-prekmurja?id=1455

Joseph’s Dreams

by Lois Tverberg

Then Joseph told his brothers. ‘Listen,’ he said, ‘I had another dream, and this time the sun and moon and eleven stars were bowing down to me.’ When he told his father as well as his brothers, his father rebuked him and said, ‘What is this dream you had? Will your mother and I and your brothers actually come and bow down to the ground before you? – Genesis 37:9-11

God spoke audibly to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but in Joseph’s life, God never spoke aloud, but instead communicated through dreams. The first time was when Joseph was 17 and he dreamed two times that he would rule over his family.

Owen Jones - Joseph dreams of stars

The dreams were probably initially interpreted as Joseph’s belief that he should be the favored “first born” son of the family, who would have been given authority over the family after the father’s death. Of course, the older brothers were jealous and enraged. His second dream was that he would even reign over his parents, which went beyond the idea that he would just receive the blessing from his father, but that he would become a national leader. His brothers were furious.

It surprises us to read that as soon as Joseph had Joseph Dreamsthe two dreams, he told his brothers, which caused their extreme anger, which led to his later imprisonment and suffering. Why would he do such a thing, knowing how angry they would get? Some think that Joseph had been spoiled to the point where he was completely insensitive to how his words would affect others. But others point out that in that day, when a person had a clear vision from God, he was expected to share it with others, no matter how it impacted his own life. Joseph had told Pharaoh later when he had two dreams with the same message that “the matter had been firmly decided by God, and God would do it soon” (Genesis 41:32). If Joseph believed that his own two dreams were sure to happen, he probably felt obligated to tell others.

Joseph’s statement to Pharaoh that when one has two dreams, God would be sure to act on on them soon is loaded with irony. At the time Joseph said those words, he had been living in a dungeon for more than two years, and the two dreams in his own life had gone unfulfilled for 13 years. During that time he had been sold into slavery, sent to prison under false charges, and hadn’t seen his family in years. The fact that Joseph could be so sure of God’s answers after years of waiting is a tremendous testimony to his faith. More importantly, if Joseph had given up on God’s answers to dreams during that time, he wouldn’t have interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams, and he wouldn’t have been given the authority to rule that finally caused the fulfillment of his own dreams!

It was by being obedient in the face of dashed hopes that God was able to cause Joseph’s greatest hopes to come true. In the same way, often it is only when we keep on in faith, persevering without evidence, that God can finally cause miracles in our lives as well.

Photo: Owen Jones

Meeting God on the Way

by Lois Tverberg

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” Genesis 28:16

Meeting God on the WayAn interesting pattern emerges as we read the stories of Isaac and Jacob carefully. Both of these men had encounters with God, and interestingly, the encounters usually happened when they were traveling into or out of the Promised Land.

Isaac never actually left the land, but when a famine came, he headed for Egypt to find food. On his way there, arriving at the southern boundary of Canaan, he had a vision from God. The Lord told Isaac not to leave the land and that he would prosper there. Since God had promised to give this land to Abraham’s descendants, it was symbolic of that promise that his son never left the land and lived his entire life there.

Isaac’s son Jacob, however, did need to leave the land to go and find a wife from among his relatives back in Haran. His first encounter with God came as he was traveling out of Canaan, when he had a vision of a stairway to heaven. God said to him, “Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Genesis 28:15). His next encounter was as he was going to cross the Jabbok river on his way back into the land (Genesis 32:24). There he wrestled with God, and God gave him a new name, Israel.

The last encounter occurred when his sons brought him down to Egypt to live with his long lost son, Joseph, who was in a position to provide for their family during the famine. When Jacob got to the southern border of Canaan, he had a vision in which God said to him,

I am God, the God of your father; do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you a great nation there. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also surely bring you up again; and Joseph will close your eyes. (Genesis 46:3-4)

All these encounters show us that God had claimed the land of Canaan as the particular place where he would dwell with his people. The early patriarchs entered it and left it only with his permission and at his direction. Interestingly, the scenario is repeated when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land upon their return from Egypt. An angel of the Lord with a drawn sword in his hand stopped Joshua and told him to remove his sandals for the place where he was standing was holy. (Joshua 5:13-15). Once again God had made his presence known as he lead his people into this, his special land.

Photo: Yair Haklai

An Unlikely Choice

by Lois Tverberg

Then God appeared to Jacob again when he came from Paddan-aram, and He blessed him. God said to him, “Your name is Jacob;You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him,”I am God Almighty; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come forth from you. – Genesis 35:9-11

Throughout the stories of the patriarchs of Israel, we see a recurring theme – that God is utterly sovereign over the choice of each ancestor of Israel. Sarah became pregnant in a semi-miraculous way when she was well beyond childbearing, after many doubts and attempts to help God through human means. Only after God came to visit with the announcement did it happen. And, it was only after Abraham was circumcised, a physical reminder and covenantal sign to show that the children that he fathered were the fulfillment of God’s promise of descendants.

Isaac and JacobThis theme of God’s sovereign choice recurs in the lives of Isaac and Rebekah, when Rebekah also struggles to bear children. Only through prayer was she able to conceive, showing God’s hand in the process. And then God declared that the younger son, Jacob, would be the one He had chosen. If the twins were born only a little differently, Jacob would have been the firstborn and would have been the obvious heir according to the established tradition. Much of the story of Jacob’s life, of his bartering for the birthright and stealing of his father’s blessing would not have been needed. But these stories underline the fact that he was not, by human standards, supposed to be the heir. He wasn’t strong and warrior-like like his brother Esau, the hunter. He wasn’t his father’s choice, which in that society would have made the decision certain. He wasn’t even especially moral, which we see from his scheming ways to get ahead.

God’s grace is certainly at its greatest in the choice of Jacob. But we see later that over Jacob’s life he grows into being a man of faith, when he has grown old and seen God’s sovereign hand over his life. And through him he fathers the twelve tribes of Israel, through which the whole world would be blessed. That should give us great encouragement, that God chooses each one of us, many of us against all the odds and not showing any worthiness. But once he has chosen us, his plans are far beyond anything we could ever imagine.

Photocred: http://collections.lacma.org/node/201263