Lot’s Choice

Lot leaves Sodom

by Lois Tverberg

Lot looked up and saw that the whole plain of the Jordan was well watered, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, toward Zoar. (This was before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself the whole plain of the Jordan and set out toward the east. The two men parted company: Abram lived in the land of Canaan, while Lot lived among the cities of the plain and pitched his tents near Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked and were sinning greatly against the LORD.
– Genesis 13:10-12

Even though the Lord makes Abram wait for years to have the thing he most longs for, a son, God starts to bless Abram materially immediately by multiplying his flocks and Lot’s too. At a certain point, Abram’s and Lot’s families have to part ways because their flocks are too large for the land that they have for them.

In this story, the difference between Abraham and Lot’s character becomes very obvious. Abraham graciously offers Lot first choice of the land, and Lot immediately takes advantage of the offer to choose the best and nicest for himself. In doing so, he abandons Canaan, the land God promised them in order to choose what was, in his opinion, better.

Interestingly, Jewish commentaries point out that the way Sodom is described is a subtle commentary on what it is really like. It looks like the “garden of God,” meaning the garden of Eden. They point out that even though Eden was paradise, it was the place of human disobedience from which humans finally were exiled. Sodom will be the same way – it is a place of great disobedience to God from which Lot will have to leave when God’s judgment comes. Next, Sodom is compared to the land of Egypt in beauty. But the Egyptians were known for their sexual immorality, and Abram feared that they would kill him to get his wife. That is another picture of Sodom, which is known for its sexual perversion. This is a hint, once again, to what Sodom is really like.

Then, Lot gets pulled in entirely into the life of Sodom – when he moves there, he doesn’t just camp away from people where his sheep can graze, he moves close to the city people who are known for their perversity. Lot was even involved in city affairs, “sitting in the gate” (the community center of the city), fully a participant in an evil culture.

Lot leaves SodomLot was truly foolish. He abandoned the good things God had offered to choose something that at first glance seemed better. But while it was attractive on the surface, underneath its appearances, it was a place of sin and rebellion. Not only did he choose it, he sank deeper and deeper into sin once he had moved there. Because of Lot’s foolish choices, he lost all of his inheritance, all of his wealth, and he even lost his wife when he had to flee. Unlike Abraham who lived not by sight, but by clinging to God’s promises, Lot ran after what looked good on the surface, even though it would later cost him dearly.

Aren’t our own choices too much like that sometimes?


photocred:  Wellcome Images

Wind and Water

by Lois Tverberg

The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. – Genesis 1:2

There is a really fascinating theme that runs through all of the Bible – the picture of God beginning a new creation. Genesis begins the story of creation with the Spirit of God “hovering over” the deep (Tehom), and one of God’s first acts of creation is the separation of water from water. This picture is a theme that recurs over and over in the scriptures, every time God starts something new.

There is a little of a poetic motif there, because the word for “the deep” is Tehom, which was symbolic of chaos. It is a picture of God conquering evil and chaos to bring order and a beautiful new thing into existence. The word for Spirit in Hebrew is ruach, which also means wind or breath, so when God parts the waters by a great wind it is a picture of God in the act of creating.

wind and waterWhere do we see this? First we see it in Genesis 1:1 of course, but only a few chapters later, after the flood destroyed all of life on earth, we read in Genesis 8:1-3 that God caused a wind (ruach) to pass over the earth, and restrained the waters of the deep (Tehom), and the flood waters receded, giving the world a new, clean beginning.

We next see this in the parting of the Red Sea, as the wind (ruach) blows to separate the waters so that the Israelites can pass through. This marks the beginning of God’s new nation of Israel, who now would have their own sovereignty and identity as the people of God. Later, as they pass through the river Jordan, once again God was parting the waters, and in a sense, re-creating them as his people and cleansing them of their sin in the desert. After their entrance into the land they took on the covenant again, just like they did at Sinai, and made a clean beginning as God’s people.

There is one more place significant scene in the Bible when we see this imagery of God at the waters – at the baptism of Jesus. Here the heavens are parted (reminiscent of the waters being parted) and we see the Spirit of God “hovering” over, in the form of a dove, just as it hovered over the first waters of creation. Here is God’s new creation, God on earth in the form of the Son of Man.


Photocred: Jacques Joseph Tissot

Drinking Rain From Heaven

by Lois Tverberg

“The land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.” Deuteronomy 11:11-12

During our five weeks in Israel in late June and July, not once did it rain. In fact, almost 6 months go by each year without any rain, between May and October. In all of the Middle East, water is precious, like oil is nowadays. In ancient times, countries that had water in abundance became superpowers, and the countries with little barely survived. Egypt received almost no rain at all, but had abundant water from the flooding of the Nile. That was why when regional famine came, people went there to purchase food, like Abraham and later Joseph’s family. The water available from the Nile each year was 30,000 times more plentiful than the yearly rainfall to Israel – an enormous difference indeed!
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waters of Dan.

Knowing this, we should be surprised that God saw the water of Israel as superior to that of Egypt. In Deuteronomy 11:10 – 12 it says,

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.

The difference between Egypt and Canaan was that in Egypt the crops were irrigated by the labor of hand-watering, while in Canaan the land was entirely watered by rain. In the ancient Middle East, that had profound spiritual implications, because rain was understood to be a gift straight from God, whereas water drawn by hand was a seen to be human self-reliance without regard to God. Egypt and Canaan, therefore, were a contrast of security of human effort compared to dependence on God.

This was a spiritual lesson for the Israelites when they left the land of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan — that when God chose a land for his people, he didn’t choose a place where they could have security because of their own efforts, he chose a land where they would be far more dependent on him and would need his presence watching over them to send them the living water of rain.

Many of us have seen God do the same thing in our own lives, when we step out to follow him and he takes us from security in our own efforts and brings us to a point of dependence on him, which doesn’t always include prosperity as the world sees it. God often desires dependence for his people rather than abundance, contrary to what “prosperity gospel” teachers may tell us. While we may not have the material wealth as if we lived in “Egypt,” we know that God’s eyes are on us from the beginning of the year to the end.

Standing Stones and Christmas Trees

by Lois Tverberg

You shall not set up for yourself a sacred pillar which the LORD your God hates. – Deuteronomy 16:22

At Gezer we saw a group of ancient standing stones (matzebot in Hebrew) that date from 1500 BC, when the Canaanites were in the land of Israel. In theory, they shouldn’t still be standing, because Israelites were given instructions to destroy all of the pagan standing stones in Israel (Deut. 12:3). But Gezer was a very strategic city and only rarely were Israelite kings in control of it (Judges 1:29, 1 Kings 9:16), so during very little of Israel’s ancient history could they have knocked down the stones of Gezer.

GezerStones

The standing stones there were part of the ancient practice of setting up stone pillars at pagan worship sites. The practice dates from at least 5000 BC, and many sacred stone sites from 3000 BC and older can still be found in the Negev and Sinai desert, as well as around Europe and elsewhere. They often seemed to be involved in worship of heavenly bodies.

Interestingly, Jacob uses this practice when he erects a stone, anoints it, dedicates it to God and calls it Bethel, where he had the vision of the heavenly staircase (Genesis 28:18-28). Later, when the Israelites cross the Jordan, God commands them to set up twelve stones to be a memorial to the great miracle God did there. The text says,

“When your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, `What are these stones?’ then you shall inform your children, saying, `Israel crossed this Jordan on dry ground.’ “For the LORD your God dried up the waters of the Jordan before you until you had crossed, just as the LORD your God had done to the Red Sea, which He dried up before us until we had crossed; that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the LORD is mighty, so that you may fear the LORD your God forever.” (Joshua 4:21-24)

It is ironic that God could use the same practice usually meant for idolatry to show his glory to the world, so that through the generations people would stop and remember what God did there. Otherwise, God forbade standing stones when he said, “You shall not set up for yourself a sacred pillar, which the LORD your God hates” (Deuteronomy 16:22). The difference was the motivation – whether the stones were set up to point people toward God, or to worship idols.

A related example is the bronze serpent God commanded to be made in the wilderness. The people who had been bitten by the snakes who looked at it in faith would live (Numbers 21:9). But later in their history, the same symbol that had helped people have faith in God had become an idol, so it had to be destroyed (2 Kings 18:4). The fact that God created it didn’t sanctify it when it was being misused. Once again, the motivation of the people, not the origins, determined whether a thing was idolatrous or God-honoring.

These biblical examples can give us wisdom about the holidays of Christmas and Easter. These holidays began as Christians decided to worship the true God on days when pagan gods used to be worshipped. Some of the traditions (like the Christmas tree and the Easter egg) once had pagan meanings that are now lost as they have become Christian celebrations. Should we avoid these observances?

There are some people who have rejected these celebrations entirely because of their origins. But it seems that the critical thing is not what their origins are, but whether we are worshipping the one true God. To most Christians, these holidays glorify God like the standing stones by the Jordan did — they are a continual reminder of the wonderful thing God has done by sending the promised Messiah, who saved us by suffering and dying for our sins.

The Land as the Fifth Gospel

by Pastor Ed Visser

For the LORD your God is bringing you into a good land — a land with streams and pools of water, with springs flowing in the valleys and hills; a land with wheat and barley, vines and fig trees, pomegranates, olive oil and honey; a land where bread will not be scarce and you will lack nothing; a land where the rocks are iron and you can dig copper out of the hills. – Deuteronomy 8:7-9

One of the first lectures I heard when I traveled to Israel was entitled, “The Land as the Fifth Gospel.” Since we would be visiting largely New Testament-related sites, it was helpful to see that the land was nearly as illuminating as the four gospels when it came to understanding the life of Jesus.

For the people of Israel, the wilderness had been a testing field, causing their dependence on God. As they came to the promised land, God reminded them of its goodness, but he also issued a warning:

Be careful that you do not forget the LORD your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day. Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. – Deuteronomy 8:11-14

Such forgetfulness, which can easily happen when one has all that he/she needs and doesn’t feel the need for God, would bring about dire consequences for Israel. God explains this very pointedly a few chapters later:

Observe therefore all the commands I am giving you today, so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, and so that you may live long in the land that the LORD swore to your forefathers to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey. The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for;
the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.

So if you faithfully obey the commands I am giving you today — to love the LORD your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul — then 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. I will provide grass in the fields for your cattle, and you will eat and be satisfied.

Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the LORD’s anger will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you. – Deuteronomy 11:8-17

Jezreel Valley from Mt CarmelGod had brought Israel into a very unique land in the Middle East: a land of milk and honey; that is, a land flowing with both shepherds (milk from goats) and farmers (honey from dates) ¬– very unusual in a region that has either one or the other. But a more crucial uniqueness is that the land is utterly dependent on rain — and the God who brings rain. While the Mesopotamian region has the Tigris & Euphrates rivers, and Egypt the Nile, and their fertility comes from flooding and irrigation — Israel is dependent on rain that comes down from the mountain regions to water the land. And it had to come at just the right times: autumn & spring. No rain, no crops = famine!

God makes it very clear that the rain is dependent on covenant faithfulness on the part of Israel. Famine would be punishment for their failure; and if they got really bad, God would exile them from the land. We see both types of punishment through the Old Testament, and the Bible and land together help us understand the reasons for it.

While most of us do not live in the land of Israel, and famine is something we’ve never experienced, this connection between God’s blessing of the land and Israel’s obedience to the covenant reminds us that God takes his covenant relationship with us very seriously. Do we?

Geshem – Drinking rain from Heaven

by Lois Tverberg

The land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end. (Deuteronomy 11:11-12)

During our five weeks in Israel in late June and July, not once did it rain. In fact, almost 6 months go by each year without any rain, between May and October. In all of the Middle East, water is precious, like oil is nowadays. In ancient times, countries that had water in abundance became superpowers, and the countries with little barely survived. Egypt received almost no rain at all, but had abundant water from the flooding of the Nile. That was why when regional famine came, people went there to purchase food, like Abraham and later Joseph’s family. The water available from the Nile each year was 30,000 times more plentiful than the yearly rainful to Israel – an enormous difference indeed! It is therefore interesting that God saw the water of Israel as superior to that of Egypt. In Deuteronomy 11:10 – 12 it says,

The land you are entering to take over is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you planted your seed and irrigated it by foot as in a vegetable garden. But the land you are crossing the Jordan to take possession of is a land of mountains and valleys that drinks rain from heaven. It is a land the LORD your God cares for; the eyes of the LORD your God are continually on it from the beginning of the year to its end.

waters of Dan

The difference between Egypt and Canaan was that in Egypt the crops were irrigated by the labor of hand-watering, while in Canaan the land was entirely watered by rain, geshem in Hebrew. In the ancient Middle East, that had profound spiritual implications, because rain was understood to be a gift straight from God, whereas water drawn by hand was a seen to be human self-reliance without regard to God. Egypt and Canaan, therefore, were a contrast of security of human effort compared to dependence on God.

This was a spiritual lesson for the Israelites when they left the land of Egypt for the promised land of Canaan — that when God chose a land for his people, he didn’t choose a place where they could have security because of their own efforts, he chose a land where they would be far more dependent on him and would need his presence watching over them to send them the living water of rain, geshem.

Many of us have seen God do the same thing in our own lives, when we step out to follow him and he takes us from security in our own efforts and brings us to a point of dependence on him, which doesn’t always include prosperity as the world sees it. God often desires dependence for his people rather than abundance, contrary to what “prosperity gospel” teachers may tell us. While we may not have the material wealth as if we lived in “Egypt,” we know that God’s eyes are on us from the beginning of the year to the end.

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Further reading:

See Listening to the Language of the Bible, by Lois Tverberg and Bruce Okkema, En-Gedi Resource Center, 2004. This is a collection of devotional essays that mediate on the meaning of biblical words and phrases in their original setting.

For a friendly, bite-sized Bible study of five flavorful Hebrew words, see 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know, by Lois Tverberg, OurRabbiJesus.com, 2014 (ebook).