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 people quote this line in the the Hebrew Bible about “eye for an eye” and “tooth for tooth” as showing the barbaric nature of the laws of in the Bible. Grasping its context is important and sheds light.

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 at an offense 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, most 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 shoes that usually a monetary fine was the penalty for a crime. Yet it was not allowed for murder.

Surprisingly, this seemingly harsh law is actually evidence of an ethical difference between the laws of Israel and surrounding nations. 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 taking a life was death to the offender.

This emphasis on the sacredness of life was a key difference between the laws of Israel and surrounding peoples. In other nations, minor crimes like stealing might be punished by death. In Israel, however, no property crime ever demanded the life of the offender.

KnooseOn the other hand, in Israel, 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.

When seen in the light of the Ancient Near Eastern world, you 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.

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SittingTo explore this topic more, see chapter 11, “Touching the Rabbi’s Fringe” in Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus, Zondervan, 2009, p. 145-162.

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

Photo: Pbalson8204 and Patrick Feller

The Bride and the Lamb

by Lois Tverberg

Let us rejoice and be glad and give the glory to Him, for the marriage of the Lamb has come and His bride has made herself ready. It was given to her to clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean; for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints. Then he said to me, “Write,`Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.'” Revelation 19:7-9

Certainly there are many puzzling images in the book of Revelation. One that seems striking is the marriage of the Bride and the Lamb. Where is this image coming from?

MarriageIt appears to come from an ancient understanding of a redeemer, and how that describes Christ’s relationship to his church. A redeemer was a relative who would “buy” a person or property that had been sold, usually because of debt. If a person became enslaved because of debt, the redeemer would “purchase” the person to obtain their freedom. As a result, the redeemer would “own” the person, but as a close family member, not as a slave. An example of this is when Boaz acted as kinsman-redeemer for Ruth. It says he “bought” her and she became his wife (Ruth 4:5, 13). God was using this image when he said to Israel,

`I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians… I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments. `Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God. “ (Exodus 6:6–7)

God was saying that he would be their redeemer and take them as his people, as a man takes a woman as his wife, as Boaz did for Ruth. God did not just want to release to them from slavery, but he wanted an intimate relationship with this people, like that of a husband and wife. He redeemed them out of love for them and wanted them to be close to him forever. Often the Scriptures speak of God as the husband/redeemer of Israel:

For your husband is your Maker, Whose name is the LORD of hosts; And your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel, Who is called the God of all the earth. (Isaiah 54:5)

Christ, who was our redeemer from sin, also “purchased us” as his people with his blood that was shed on the cross. As Peter says,

It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. (1 Peter 1:18 – 19)

the Lamb

Peter points out that Jesus was the true lamb of Passover. The lamb’s blood protected the Israelites in Egypt and led to their redemption from slavery. In the same way, Jesus’ blood redeemed us from our debt of sin, and the death we deserve because of it. Through his death, Christ “bought” us as his people, but not just to set us free. Instead, like a husband taking a wife, he redeemed us out of his great love, so that we could have an intimate relationship with him. The scene in Revelation is the vision of the Lamb, Christ who had died and rose again, finally taking the bride, the people he loved, as his own to live together forever.


Photo: DaviPeixoto and  Jan Van Eyck

Jesus, God’s Firstborn

by Lois Tverberg

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation… And he is the head of the body, the church;he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. Colossians 1:15-18

Since Jesus is co-eternal with the Father, to speak of him as firstborn suggests that he is a created thing, not fully God. This may make us scratch our heads, until hear the passage with Hebraic ears, and see that the word “firstborn” could be used metaphorically to mean something else than just the oldest child in a family.

The firstborn son of a family had great honor and status, and usually received a double portion of the inheritance, unless the father decided that another son would be given that honor. Then another would have the “firstborn” status and rights, no matter what order in which they were born. The other children of the family would treat the firstborn with special honor and respect, reflecting his status as the successor to the patriarch of the family. Because of this special favor that was given, the term “firstborn” could mean “most exalted” or “closest in relationship” or “preeminent in status” even if it wasn’t literally speaking about something that actually came first. For instance, in Psalm 98 God says,

I have found David my servant; with my sacred oil I have anointed him… He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’ I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth. Psalm 89:20,26-27

David Anointed

David was youngest of his family, and God passed his other brothers by to choose him as king. When God said the he would appoint him firstborn, he didn’t mean that he would be first before anything else in sequence, but that David would be preeminent in favor and status. Another instance of this is in Exodus when God spoke metaphorically of Israel as his “firstborn son.” God told Moses,

Then say to Pharaoh, ‘This is what the LORD says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, “Let my son go, so he may worship me.” But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son.'” Exodus 4:22-23

Once again, the term “firstborn” means “closest in relationship.” Israel is God’s “treasured possession,” his nation especially set apart for relationship with him.

So now, when we read of Jesus as firstborn, we should think in terms of being of greatest honor and closest to God. But yet, he is firstborn from among the dead, a promise that all who are a part of his kingdom will rise too. And not only is he representative of all of his kingdom, he is also highly exalted of all of creation, worthy of honor and glory and praise.

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reading the bibleTo explore this topic more, see chapter 6, “Why Jesus Needs Those Boring ‘Begats’” in Reading the Bible with Rabbi Jesus, Baker Publishing, 2018, p 113-130.

(1) See also Tverberg, L. A. & Okkema, B. M. Listening to the Language of the Bible: Hearing it Through Jesus’ Ears (Holland, MI: En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004) pp 73-74.

Photo: Dura Europos synagogue painting : Yale Gilman collection

Why Carrying Wood?

by Lois Tverberg

Now while the sons of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering wood on the Sabbath day. Those who found him gathering wood brought him to Moses and Aaron and to all the congregation; and they put him in custody because it had not been declared what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man shall surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” Numbers 15:32-35

Carrying WoodSome scenes in the Old Testament leave us scratching our heads about why God was so harsh and the regulations so arbitrary. The case of the man who was caught carrying wood on the Sabbath is one of them. It seems like an innocuous thing, but it seems to be especially serious. How can this be?

Several cultural things may be helpful in understanding this. The prohibition that the man was clearly intending to break was to light a fire on the Sabbath, as it says in Exodus 35:3. Lighting a fire was not a minor task – a person searched far outside the camp until he or she had a large load of wood, and then carried the heavy bundle back home, and then took some time to get a flame going. It would be likely that he was planning to cook or do other work that required a fire, and that gathering the wood was just the first step toward having a day full of activity that would willfully ignore the commandment to honor the Sabbath day.

The Sabbath itself was an especially important commandment to the Israelites when the covenant was given. It was the sign of the covenant that God had made with them:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, `You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you. Therefore you are to observe the sabbath, for it is holy to you. Exodus 31:12-14

Wedding RingA sign of a covenant was a symbolic remembrance of the whole covenant. To break it was like breaking the whole thing. A modern analogy is the wedding ring, which is a kind of “sign,” a remembrance of the covenant of marriage. If a woman got rid of another piece of jewelry her husband gave her, it would not be very important. But if she threw away or sold her wedding ring, it would say something about her feelings about the marriage as a whole. Similarly, the man who was willfully ignoring the Sabbath was spurning the entire covenant, which he and all of Israel were accountable to keep as a people. If one person broke it, it affected all of them.

Even though our situation is much different than this, we can see that in its time, this sin was very serious, and indicated an attitude of rebellion that impacted all of Israel. Having its cultural setting helps us have the right lenses to grasp it the way was understood in its time, and why it resulted in such a strong reaction from Moses and from God.


Photo: WambuiMwangi and Eivind Barstad Waaler

Did Jesus Hide His Message?

by Lois Tverberg

He said, “To you it has been granted to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is in parables, so that seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.” Luke 8:10

Sometimes parables make us scratch our heads, and it can seem that Jesus was using them to deliberately confuse people. But even though they seem strange to us, they were a traditional teaching method that was always used to clarify rather than obscure. Many parables of Jesus’ that sound odd to us have very similar motifs than others of his time, and were probably less strange-sounding to his original listeners.

Still, we wonder why it sounds in the passage above like Jesus was deliberately trying to hide his message. A clue comes from the fact that Jesus seems to be alluding to Isaiah 6:9-10, when God commissioned Isaiah as a prophet to Israel. God did not send Isaiah to confuse the people with obscure teachings, but to clearly proclaim God’s word to them. But God says with great irony to Isaiah at his commission,

Render the hearts of this people insensitive, their ears dull, and their eyes dim, otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts, and return and be healed. Isaiah 6:10

Really, God is not telling Isaiah to confuse the people, but to proclaim the truth, even though God knows his teaching will be rejected by many. Jesus is saying the same thing – that like the prophets he speaks to clarify God’s word, but from hardness of heart, many will not hear or obey him.

Tree Knot

The idea that it is hard-heartedness that keeps people from understanding his teaching is supported by the context of this saying – it is in the middle of the parable of the four soils and its explanation. The parable of the soils seems to actually be the explanation of why Jesus’ words are not having an impact on people. It is not because the words are deliberately confusing, but because they are falling on deaf ears.

The parable shows that the same seed that grows well in good soil does not take root on the path, and produces little in rocky or thorny ground. The seed is always good, but the soil of human hearts may or may not be receptive. The reason people don’t understand Jesus’ teachings is not because he is hiding anything, but is a problem with the hearer. The difficulty is in their ability to receive his teaching in order to obey it.


Photo: Chitrapa

The Bones of Joseph

Bones laid to rest

by Lois Tverberg

Moses took the bones of Joseph with him because Joseph had made the sons of Israel swear an oath. He had said, “God will surely come to your aid, and then you must carry my bones up with you from this place.” – Exodus 13:15

The Bible shares a detail about the Israelites made their great departure of Egypt that we might see as minor – that Moses brought the bones of Joseph along with them. In Genesis it is recorded that Joseph knew that God would take his family out of Egypt and asked to be taken with them:

Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will surely take care of you and bring you up from this land to the land which He promised on oath to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely take care of you, and you shall carry my bones up from here.” So Joseph died at the age of one hundred and ten years; and he was embalmed and placed in a coffin in Egypt. – Gen. 50:24-26

To us it might seem minor, but this detail adds a remarkable amount of continuity and closure to Bones laid to restthe greater story of Joseph and the family of Israel in Egypt. Joseph was the first of the family to go
down into Egypt, and he was exiled there by his own brothers’ hatred. Now, just as his own family sent him down there, his family would need to carry him back out again. Or another way of looking at it is that Joseph had brought his whole family down to Egypt to rescue them from famine, and once again he would be with them when God rescued them from oppression.

In his early years, Joseph had dreamed of being a ruler, but this was the reason his brothers hated him and sent him into bondage. In spite of years of prison and dashed hopes in his own dreams, in faith he interpreted the Pharaoh’s and his servants’ visions, and his accurate interpretation was why Pharaoh set him free. At the end of Joseph’s life, he had one last “dream” – that God would bring his whole family out of Egypt and into the land he ultimately promised, and God fulfilled that one too.

In a sense, once Joseph was sold into bondage, that was the very beginning of the captivity of the family of Israel, because for the next 400 years, at least one of their family was not free to live in the land God gave them. Joseph was allowed to bury his father in Israel, but had to return to Egypt to be buried, showing his (temporary) loss of claim on God’s promise. (See “Enslaving Themselves.”) But when God did come to rescue Israel and they took even Joseph’s bones, it showed that not one person who had waited faithfully on the Lord was left behind when God came to rescue his people.


Photo: Tomas Castelazo

A Night of Watching

Vigil

by Lois Tverberg

It was a night of watching for the LORD to bring them out from the land of Egypt; and so on this night all Israel is to keep the vigil to the LORD for generations to come. Exodus 12:42 (NET)

Most know that the Jewish Passover celebration focuses on remembering how God redeemed his people from Egypt, but it also looks forward to God’s final redemption in the coming of the Messiah. The command to remember the deliverance from Egypt is clear to us, but it might be a mystery as to where Jewish people find the idea that they should look forward to redemption as well.

VigilThe answer is in Exodus 12:42, above, that says that all Israel is to keep vigil for generations to come. They saw this as meaning that they should be watching for what great thing that God will do next. Passover is referred to as a “night of vigil,” of keeping watch. Passover begins with the setting of the sun, as all days do in the Hebrew calendar. As the feast day begins, people are mindful of the need to watch for what God will be doing through the night and in the day ahead. The traditional way to observe this command is to open the front door of the house and look out – to show that you are standing alert. Typically, one of the children open the door to see if Elijah is there, because Malachi says that he will come before the Messiah:

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty…”See, I will send you the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. Mal. 3:1, 4:5

In Jesus’ time, of course, he explains that John the Baptist fulfilled the role of the “Elijah” who would come before him.

It is fascinating, in light of this tradition, that Christ really did complete his mission of dying for our sins on the very day that they were looking for their redeemer to come. Late at night, just hours after the Passover meal Jesus was arrested in the garden, and in the wee hours he stood trial. Before the next day had fully begun, he was being led out to death. Jesus’ words to his disciples in Matthew 26:40 take on special meaning to me now:

“Could you not keep watch with me for just one hour?”


Photo: A01333441jarh

Night of the Lord

Full moon

by Lois Tverberg

That was for the LORD a night of vigil to bring them out of the land of Egypt; that same night is the LORD’s, one of vigil for all the children of Israel throughout the ages. – Exodus 12:42

Full moonThe night of the first Passover must have been one of great emotion for the Israelites. After hundreds of years of not being able to worship their God, they were commanded to sacrifice a lamb to him in their very homes, worship that would be punished by stoning if the Egyptians caught them. They were to eat a great feast like they hadn’t had in years, with their bags packed so that they could leave for freedom after hundreds of years of misery. And in the midst of all their joyous celebration that night, in the distance they could hear great wails of anguish, as Egyptians found their dead firstborn among their animals and children, and even among their leaders. High overhead that night was the full moon, brightening the sky. It was the 15th of Adar, which always falls on a full moon because of its place in the lunar calendar.

Two thousand years later, on that same night of Passover, there was a full moon overhead when Jesus and his disciples got up from the feast in the upper room to head back to their camp site outside of Jerusalem. That night would have been one of mixed emotions for the disciples too – the Death of Firstbornjoy of the traditional Passover feast that was marred by the arguments over who was the greatest, and the ugly scene of finding out that Judas was a traitor. For Jesus, this night was one of great turmoil because he knew that it would be hours until Judas would bring the authorities to arrest him. While his disciples nodded off from plenty of wine and good food, he would sweat drops of blood waiting for his torture and execution.

This year, on the night of Passover, we looked up at the full moon again. We remembered that this was the “night of vigil” and thought of the battle that was fought to redeem us – first as God slew the firstborn of Egypt to let his people go, and as he later slew his own firstborn to set us, his people free.


Photo: Lachlan Donald from Melbourne, Australia and Caroline Léna Becker

God Unleashed

Plagues of Egypt

by Lois Tverberg

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: `Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.'” Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD and I will not let Israel go.” Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the desert to offer sacrifices to the LORD our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.” Exodus 5:1-3

During Moses’ encounters with Pharaoh, God told him to tell Pharaoh that the Israelites needed to take a three-day journey into the desert to worship him (Ex. 3:18, 5:3, 8:27). This is confusing because it sounds as if they are asking for a long weekend off, and then they’ll come back. But in fact, in no place does Moses say that they will return afterward.

Another suggestion is that the phrase “three-day journey” is actually not about the length of time they plan to be away, but the distance they need to travel from Egypt before they worship God. In the Scripture, measuring distance in “days of journey” was common. (See Gen 31:33, Num 10:33, Deut 11:1, 1Ki 19:4, etc.) Moses was likely saying that people must be far away from the false Plagues of Egypt“gods” and oppression of Egypt before they worshipped God, or their awesome God might release plagues and destruction. The Egyptians were the ones in danger!

It seems that Pharaoh was undaunted by Moses’ warnings about the power of his God, and he refused to let the Israelites go a safe distance from Egypt. It is easy to imagine that as this holy God approached his people, getting nearer and nearer, the plagues on Egypt became increasingly worse. First the river ran red from some distant danger sweeping downstream, then the insects started swarming, then the animals started dying, then the sky blackened with hail and locusts and utter darkness as this awesome God approached Egypt.

Finally, when the Israelites went ahead and sacrificed a lamb and worshipped their God right in the midst of Egypt, his full power was unleashed on the Egyptians and destruction poured out on the oppressors of his people. Because Pharaoh would not release Israel to worship their holy God, he came to punish their captors and release them himself.


Photo: John Martin

Bread Without Leaven

Unleaven Bread

by Lois Tverberg

Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread, but on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses; for whoever eats anything leavened from the first day until the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel. Exodus 12:15

Still today Jewish people make great effort to observe the commandment to remove all leaven from their homes and eat only unleavened food for seven days. The home is scrupulously cleaned, and pots and sinks boiled. In some homes an entirely different set of plates is used for one week of the year. The only bread that can be eaten is matzah: dry, flat, unleavened bread that has been carefully prepared to insure no fermentation occurs.

Unleaven BreadWhy do they do this? Surprisingly, the Bible gives multiple explanations about the significance of eating unleavened bread. In Exodus 12:34, it says that it is to commemorate their rapid departure from Egypt, when they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. But in Deuteronomy 16:3, it is called the “bread of affliction” and it seems to be a reminder of the misery of their slavery. Or, it could understood as a picture of eating manna in
the desert for forty years. It is paradoxical that unleavened bread represents both slavery and freedom, but Jewish sources agree that it does.

In the time of Jesus, leaven had gained even more significance beyond the meanings in the Torah. Unleavened bread that is very flat and plain was seen to represent humility, rather than being “puffed” up with pride. Because it is just wheat and water with no old, leavened dough added, it represented purity too. A person who was “unleavened” was like the character described in the beatitudes – meek and pure-hearted, aware of his own weaknesses, who comes to God honestly, without any pretense. In contrast, “leaven” was seen to be a picture of arrogance, boastfulness, hypocrisy, and being full of one’s self – to be “great in spirit” rather than being “poor in spirit.” This gives us insight on why Jesus says that the “leaven” of the Pharisees is hypocrisy. (Luke 12:1) And, it helps us understand Paul’s words to us as well:

Your boasting is not good. Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast – as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth. – 1 Cor. 5:6-8


Photo: paurian