Parsha Miketz: Surviving a Famine

Parsha Miketz: Surviving a Famine

Pharaoh, in his detailed description of his dream, tells Joseph,

“I saw also in my dream, and behold, seven ears, full and good, came up on a single stalk; and lo, seven ears, withered, thin and scorched by the east wind, sprouted up after them; and the thin ears swallowed up the seven good ears…” (Gen.41:22-24)

What’s peculiar about Pharaoh’s dreams is the fact that, both with the seven cows in the first dream, and then with the seven ears in the second, that which is rich and healthy is swallowed up by that which comes after. There is nothing left.

This is reminiscent of debt servicing. It can be extremely discouraging to find oneself in a position in which throwing a huge amount of money at a debt makes a nearly imperceptible dent in the overall principle. In extreme cases, the debt increases so rapidly that income cannot keep up with the interest. In such situations, bankruptcy is around the corner.

In the case of famine, when hunger exceeds the ability of the food source to meet the need, starvation and death are imminent.

The strategy of Joseph deals effectively with the problem that this dream presents. What can we learn from this story that speaks to our own faith journey? Continue reading

Parsha Vayeshev:  A Brother Scorned

Parsha Vayeshev: A Brother Scorned

The parallels between Joseph and Yeshua Messiah are impossible to ignore, yet often the subtlety is missed. At once, the theological implications are clearly evident. and yet at the end, what we really have before us is a story of a relationship between a father and his son, and a brother with his brothers. It is heart-wrenching and at the same time almost inevitable in its tragedy.

Near the beginning of the parsha, the drama is staged:

“Joseph, when seventeen years of age, was pasturing the flock with his brothers while he was still a youth, along with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought back a bad report about them to their father.” (Gen.37:2)

Why is it necessary to mention that Joseph was “still a youth”, when we already know that he is “seventeen years of age”? Further, who is he giving a bad report about to his father, the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah or the other brothers, or all of them together?

Rashi explains to us that the reason for the added comment about being “still a youth” is based upon the idea that he acted like one. Meaning, he did not display mature behavior. So the text is hinting fairly deliberately at a factor that certainly increased tensions between the older brothers and the younger sibling. How was he immature? It’s important to understand this from the vantage point of the older brothers, and not from ours. To them, he showed up when he wasn’t supposed to, and opened his mouth when they felt he should be silent.

We also learn from the sages that Joseph frequently “hung out” with the sons of the “secondary wives”. He did this because he felt more at home with them, apparently. (Midrash Tanchuma 7)

According to the midrashim, Joseph’s  bad report was of the older brothers, the sons of Leah. It seems that there was a sort of pecking order among the family, with the sons of Leah holding privilege and greater status than the sons of the handmaidens. Fair? Hardly. Inevitable? Probably. Continue reading

Parsha Vayishlach: Who’s In the Kitchen with Dinah?

Parsha Vayishlach: Who’s In the Kitchen with Dinah?

“They killed Hamor and his son Shechem with the edge of the sword, and took Dinah from Shechem’s house, and went forth.” (Gen.34:26)

A tragic story of abuse, misplaced affection and revenge explodes onto the scene before us in this portion of scripture.

Dinah, the only named and chronicled daughter of Jacob in the Torah, “went forth” to see “the daughters of the land” (Gen.34:1). Was she looking for trouble? Did she invite the unwarranted advance of Shechem, through her alluring and seductive behavior?

Hardly, according to the sages. Rashi compares Dinah to her mother Leah in this respect, suggesting that her “going out” was of noble intent, with the intended purpose of friendly relations; to make a positive, peaceful connection with others. He refers to her as an “outgoer”. In today’s vernacular, we would call her “social”, and “outgoing”. We would even say she was “self-confident”.

The results of her journey to “see the daughters of the land” were not what she expected. She catches the eye of a young, local prince, who forces her to lay with him.

What follows is a drama of nearly mythical proportions. Hamor makes (what would appear to be) a respectful, sincere plea for Dinah’s hand in marriage to his son, claiming that Shechem truly loves the girl and wishes to marry her, and in like manner suggests a union of his people with Jacob and the rest of his clan.

Sure, the circumstances of the relationship between Dinah and Shechem may not be ideal, he implies, but after all, all is fair in love and war, and if can all come to some mutual agreement, everyone wins. You (Jacob’s family) will have access to their women, and they (Hamor’s clan) will have access to Jacob’s wealth. The question at this point, the text seems to suggest (at least from Hamor’s perspective) is the consent of Dinah and her family.

But the sages don’t view Hamor’s proposition favorably. According to them, she was both lied to, and forced physically to consent, and then mentally/emotionally tortured by Shechem. Far from viewing the young man as being an over-zealous suitor, he is viewed the same way that Levi and Simeon view him: as a violator.

What Shechem did, regardless of his feelings for Dinah, was rape. It was abuse.

There are two streams of thought that I will explore here, in regards to this.

First, the concept of Dinah’s dignity and reputation are a chief focus of the passage. The brothers are as incensed at the violation of family honor, as they are about the feelings of Dinah. What if Dinah really did have an emotional attachment to the young man? Would that be relevant? The answer is no. In the role of advocate and protector, her brothers wanted justice against a man who violated and defiled their sister.

Did Simeon and Levi have the right to take this revenge? The Torah suggests a strong no, they didn’t. At the end of Jacob’s life, when he is giving his prophetic blessings over his sons, he does not recount this event favorably:

“Simeon and Levi are brothers; their swords are implements of violence. Let my soul not enter into their council; let not my glory be united with my assembly; because in their anger they slew men…” (Gen.49:5-6)

However, make no mistake, what Shechem did was rape and abuse. Continue reading

Parsha Vayetze: Destiny Discovered

Parsha Vayetze: Destiny Discovered

God often appears to us where and when we least think He will.

We experience a long series of tiny events, which amount to a life, and occasionally catch glimpses of the bigger picture, and perhaps even what part our role may be in it. This thought was captured by the song “Scarlet Begonias”, by the Grateful Dead:

“Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest places if you look at it right.” 

This week’s parsha opens up with a description of Jacob’s journey away from his parents, and away from the brother who sought his life. The description is worded in a manner that the sages found curious. The phrasing led them to analyze what on the surface seemed to be small, insignificant details, yet hidden within were important keys to Jacob discovering his own destiny with the LORD.

“Then Jacob departed from Beersheba and went toward Haran. He came to a certain place and spent the night there, because the sun had set; and he took one of the stones of the place and put it under his head, and lay down in that place….Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it.” He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen.28:10-12, 16-17)

Rashi, the great 12th Century Jewish sage, says that the Torah makes special mention of the fact that Jacob “departed”, rather than simply saying that he “went to Haran.”  The Midrash Rabbah suggests why:

The departure of a righteous person from a place makes an impression upon those left behind.

For at the time that a righteous person is in a city, he is its magnificence, he is its splendor, he is its grandeur. Once he has departed from there, its magnificence has gone away., it’s splendor has gone away, it’s grandeur has gone away. (Genesis Rabbah, 68:6)

So the first thing the Torah is telling us, then, about Jabob’s journey to Haran, is the fact that his departure deeply affected those he left behind. They lost the benefit of the glory of God which he reflected upon them. This is an important thing to remember, as we seek our own purposes: we are not independent of our surroundings, but we impact them.

When the text says “he came to a certain place”, it is speaking of “the place”; the place of the future Temple, and the place of the binding of Isaac, his father.

The Talmud tells us that Jacob had gone past Mount Moriah, but “felt bad” about doing so, and so he decided to return. The Talmud goes on to say that as soon as Jacob decided to return to “that place”, the earth miraculously contracted and he found himself at Mount Moriah, the place. Continue reading

Cheyei Sarah: Triumphalism and the Promises of God

Cheyei Sarah: Triumphalism and the Promises of God

At the opening of this parsha, we see the following somber scene:

“Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a prince of God among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying his dead.’…And he spoke with them, saying, ‘If it is your wish for me to bury my dead out of my sight, hear me, and approach Ephron the son of Zohar for me, that he may give me the cave of Machpelah which he owns, which is at the end of his field; for the full price let him give it to me in your presence for a burial site.’ (Gen.23:3-9)

In itself, the scene is unremarkable. Abraham has lost his wife, and seeks to find a suitable location for her final rest. He has discovered a cave at the end of a field, and asks the residents to find the owner of the property so that he can negotiate the purchase of the cave for both the burial of his wife and, ultimately, himself and his descendants. Burial arrangements. These things are necessary, though in the grand scheme, routine. But, there is a catch.

The Torah has enshrouded this story into the folds of a greater narrative: One that has divinely promised both this cave, the field in which it is found, and in fact all of the surrounding territories to Abraham and his descendants, as an eternal possession.

This promise forms the very foundation of all future claims upon this controversial plot of ground, and all affirmations of divine promise to all the people of God, including the Christian Church, which claims (with Paul’s allegory in hand) an equal share in this same promise. This is deceptive, however, since traditionally the Church desires only the claim of identification in relation to spiritual destiny, and typically ignores the aspect of the covenant that pertains to the land. This, as we will see, is very unfortunate, since the management of shared resources is an important aspect of Torah.

Who is Ephron? And how does his opinion rate our consideration in this matter? Doesn’t he realize that he’s on sacred ground?

There are two promises God gives Abraham that would directly impact this story.

“The LORD appeared to Abraham and said, ‘To your descendants I will give this land.'” (Gen.12:7)

“The LORD said to Abraham, after Lot had separated from him, ‘Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever.” (Gen.13:14-15)

God obviously has far more authority than Ephron or the sons of Heth. How, then, does Abraham conceive that he must negotiate with them, for a place to bury Sarah?

The key is found in the fourth verse of our cited passage:

“I am a stranger and a sojourner among you…”

This statement is problematic. According to Rashi, Abraham cannot be both “an alien and a resident” at the same time, since an alien “does not reside in his current location.” He explains that Abraham was formerly of a foreign land, but that his self-description as a ger toshav means that he has taken up residence in Canaan. Continue reading

Parsha Commentary, Vayera: The Sterilization of Duty

Parsha Commentary, Vayera: The Sterilization of Duty

This week’s parsha, Vayera, presents us with a visceral, engaging, and horrifying story. Abraham, the hero of these early Torah portions, is asked by God to do the unthinkable.

In this parsha, Abraham dramatically intercedes for Sodom and Gomorrah. He receives fulfillment of promise, and the birth of his son, Isaac. But now, near the end of the portion, we read this:

“God tested Abraham, and said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take now your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.”  So Abraham rose early in the morning….” (Gen.22:1-3, emphasis added)

What’s remarkable about Abraham’s reaction to God’s inhumane request is that there is no reaction at all. He simply obeys, seemingly without question.

There are times as we read the Bible, that we are betrayed by our familiarity with the story. We know how this story ends, you see. We know not only that Isaac is ultimately spared, but we also know, as followers of Messiah, that this entire episode carries with it the theological freight of picturing for us the ultimate offering of God’s Son.

But for over 1,500 years, the Christ story lay dormant in the future and was not visible to the interpreters of the Bible. And the events in the story, at this point, demand a reaction.

A strong one. Continue reading

Jesus, the Jews and the path of Salvation

Jesus, the Jews and the path of Salvation

“Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance; and do not suppose that you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father’; for I say to you that from these stones God is able to raise up children to Abraham.” (Matt.3:9)

E.P. Sanders, in his seminal 1977 work, “Paul and Palestinian Judaism: A Comparison of Patterns of Religion”, submits a theory of “covenantal nomism”, and, in kind, a form of bilateral ecclesiology.

Essentially, and overly simply, the theory is that the Jewish people are in covenant status with God, and that this places them in a different category regarding the message of the gospel presented by the apostles. In effect, according to bilateral ecclesiology, there are two paths to salvation. One for the Gentile (Jesus), and another for the Jew (Jesus and/or covenant faithfulness in Torah).

This theory, further popularized by Mark Kinzer in his 2005 book “Post-Missionary Messianic Judaism: Redefining Christian Engagement with the Jewish People”, challenges a traditional Christian understanding of soteriology, as revealed in the New Testament.

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This post will not be able to adequately deal with all the implications of this theory, or the positive influence that these author’s works have had on the state of relations between Christians and Jews. Nor will I seek to criticize either author. Particularly Rabbi Kinzer, who, probably more than any other person, is chiefly responsible for the recent move by the Roman Catholic Church to revisit Her relationship with the Jewish people, even going so far as reflecting an official bilateral ecclesial position in a recent document released by the Vatican. See Rabbi David Rosen’s comments on this development here: https://www.rabbidavidrosen.net/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Jewish-Vatican_Relations_-_-Opportunities_and_Problems_October_2011.pdf

The path to reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity must necessarily include concessions and statements which we may struggle to embraces, as well as huge amounts of respectful dialog. From a Christian standpoint, at least, it can be deeply unnerving to consider the implications of such theories. In light of how the gospel is apparently presented in the apostolic texts, in which only confession of and faith in Jesus Christ is offered as an acceptable path to reconciliation with God, we should take some time to question the validity of “covenental nomism”. Continue reading