March Essays

March Overview: Our Family Story

A few years ago when I visited a synagogue as part of a group, we talked with some of the Orthodox Jewish boys who were studying there. They took out the Torah scrolls and we asked them what the reading was for this week. They said, "This week we are reading the story of how God brought us out of Egypt and saved us from the Egyptians."

It struck me that the boys used the pronoun "us" as if they had been right there crossing the Red Sea. It is common in Jewish culture that when people discuss the scriptures, they use the pronoun "us", because their ancestors and they are one people. We can learn from their example to put ourselves personally into the stories of the Bible as we are reading it this year. Then when we read about the Israelites rebelling because they were tired of eating manna, we wouldn't say, "I don't know why God chose such a whiny people!" but rather, "My people got tired of eating manna - and I would have too because of my own sinful nature. How great of God to have showed such grace to us!" As Paul said, we are "ingrafted branches" into God's Covenant people, and need to understand our indebtedness and connectedness to God's people all the way back to 4000 years ago.

And, we should remember to focus on our connection with other members of the body of Christ. A few years ago, when the news featured stories on the enormous amount of oppression Christians are facing all over the world, many of us woke up to the need to pray for our brothers and sisters in the persecuted church. But the reporter who found and worked up the story was actually Jewish! Because of his own sense of identity with his people, and his personal sense of woundedness from what was done to the Jews during the Holocaust, he wanted Christians to know what was happening to their "family"!

This month we will keep reading the story of our journey in the wilderness through Numbers, and our later story in Acts as our early church ancestors are scattered from Jerusalem and bring the gospel wherever they (we) went. We can see both our difficulties with grumbling and being disobedient, and our victories when we are filled with God's spirit. Later this month, we will read two very important books - Deuteronomy and Romans. Both of them are theological rather than historical. In Deuteronomy, Moses makes his final speech to remind us of our history and tell us how to be obedient to God when we enter the promised land. He tells us over and over again to love the Lord with all of our heart, and that He will take care of us. Jesus quoted out of Deuteronomy more often than any other book in his scriptures! And in Romans, Paul explains how we as Gentiles can be brought into God's people, and explains the theology of the New Covenant God has made, where all people can stand forgiven before God because of the work of Jesus Christ.

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Week 10: Numbers 10 - 25, Acts 17 - 21, Psalm 28 - 30

In the Name of the Lord

In our readings up to this point we have read many times "In the name of Lord" or "in My name". The phrase "in the name of" is one of those Hebraic figures of speech that has been misunderstood by many Christians, sometimes leading to errors in Christian thought and practice.

What does it mean? Remember that in Eastern, oral cultures a person's name was connected with the person's identity, authority and spirituality. When God causes a major change in a person's life, he changes his or her name to show a change in their personality. We see that as Abram becomes Abraham and Jacob becomes Israel, and in the New Testament as Saul becomes Paul. When the Bible speaks of God's Name, it is an idiom for referring to his authority, power and identity.

The meaning of the Hebraism "in the Name of"

For the sake of. We see this usage in Matt. 10:41 “He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward." This means that those who come to the aid of a prophet because they realize God has sent him, or for the sake of his identity as a prophet of God, will be rewarded. Note that it doesn't mean that somehow by saying the prophet's name, we will be rewarded - it is an idiom to refer to the prophet's identity as a man sent by God.

We also hear that in John 14:13 - 14: “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. “If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it. When we end a prayer "in the name of Jesus" we are really saying, please listen to my prayer for the sake of Jesus, who died for my sins. Because of His sacrifice, we can come before the Lord with our petitions and God will listen. Or, you could say that we are praying with His authority when we pray in His name.

The reputation of. To speak of someone's "name" can also refer to his or her reputation, as it is used today. We hear it used this way in the following passages:

Ezek. 20:22 “But I withdrew My hand and acted for the sake of My name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations in whose sight I had brought them out. 
Lev. 19:12 ‘You shall not swear falsely by My name, so as to profane the Name of your God; I am the LORD.

To swear falsely is to break an oath made before God, which shows lack of respect for God, and causes others to scoff at the God who has such followers. When God's followers act sinfully, they bring shame on reputation of God. Think of the TV evangelist sex scandals and how they harden non-Christians from believing in Christ. That is what it means to "profane the Lord's name". In contrast, "to hallow God's name" is to cause God to be honored because of your actions. Jews still use the phrase "to sanctify God's name" as meaning to give your life for your beliefs.

The authority and power of: A name can signify a person's authority and power as well:

1 Samuel 17:45 Then David said to the Philistine, “You come to me with a sword, a spear, and a javelin, but I come to you in the name of the LORD of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have taunted.

David came against Goliath who mocked God in God's authority and power, acting as his representative, and God gave him the victory. Even today in Hebrew "in the name of" can mean "by the authority of". As I got off the plane on my last trip to Israel, I heard them say over the speakers "B'shem El Al, shalom", literally "In the name of El Al, peace (greetings)." meaning, "We represent El Al airlines in greeting you".

Misunderstanding "the Name of the Lord"

This phrase has sometimes had a misunderstanding that violates the biblical intent. People will hear it as meaning that by literally speaking the name of God, they can use it to cause God to answer prayers or even to confer salvation. For instance, one Christian movement believes that if the phrase "in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" is not used in baptism, that the person is not actually saved. By leaving out any of the three names, it renders baptism ineffective. Or, in a few ministries, a great amount of stress is put on pronouncing Jesus' name exactly as He would have in the first century. They feel that saying "Yeshua" or "Yahshua" is very important if we want to have God's power to answer prayers.

Beyond just being a misunderstanding of a Hebrew idiom, this interpretation can lead to a practice that actually is the opposite of the Bible's intent. In pagan cultures throughout the history of the world, it has been understood that people can manipulate spiritual forces by reciting incantations and formulas. By the power of uttering the correct words, we can cause our will to be done. We have discussed before that God is specifically teaching the Israelites that they cannot use idols or incantations to manipulate him. We should therefore always ask ourselves whether we are focusing our prayers on the Lord or on our words. If we use the name of God or Jesus in an incantational way it implies that God is a spiritual force, or an emotionless being who responds to our coercion. But we know that He is a gracious and compassionate God who listens to our sincere prayers, and whose heart is moved to answer because of His great love toward us.

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the current monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.

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Week 11: Numbers 26 - 36, Deuteronomy 1 - 3, Acts 22 - 26, Psalm 31 - 32


Paul, the Gentiles and the Jews

At the end of last week's reading we encounter a text that will be important as we read the rest of Paul's letters. Paul will spend the rest of his career discussing how the Gentiles believers relate to the Jews and the law that God had given them. So let's look at a text that shows some of the controversies that were going on and how Paul responds:

After we arrived in Jerusalem, the brethren received us gladly. And the following day Paul went in with us to James, and all the elders were present. After he had greeted them, he began to relate one by one the things which God had done among the Gentiles through his ministry. And when they heard it they began glorifying God; and they said to him, “You see, brother, how many thousands there are among the Jews of those who have believed, and they are all zealous for the Law; and they have been told about you, that you are teaching all the Jews who are among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, telling them not to circumcise their children nor to walk according to the customs. What, then, is to be done? They will certainly hear that you have come. Therefore do this that we tell you. We have four men who are under a vow; take them and purify yourself along with them, and pay their expenses so that they may shave their heads; and all will know that there is nothing to the things which they have been told about you, but that you yourself also walk orderly, keeping the Law. But concerning the Gentiles who have believed, we wrote, having decided that they should abstain from meat sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.”  Acts 21:20 - 25

First of all, note that there are thousands of Jews in Jerusalem who believed. The Greek word is related to "myriads", which often is translated "tens of thousands". So there was a large group of Jewish followers in Jerusalem, one of the areas where Jesus had the most skeptics. While it is difficult to guess the amount of Jews who believed in Jesus, an estimate of 10% has been considered reasonable, given the response in Jerusalem. This would mean that there was a large favorable response among the Jews to Jesus, and that they did not entirely reject Jesus as messiah. But tensions between those who believed and those who didn't became worse and worse over time, and it is reflected in their persecution of the early believers. Later, as more gentiles entered the church, these tensions only helped to cause them to leave behind their Jewish beginnings.

The Jews who did become followers of Jesus were "zealous for the law". This is a positive statement from James, showing that since they became Jesus' disciples they were passionate about observing the law as Jesus did. Jesus lived his own life perfectly according to the law, and he summarized the it with two statements - love the Lord with all of your heart, and love your neighbor as yourself. It seems that Jesus' disciples would have done their best to follow his example. Paul still observes all the laws himself as well, and James asks him to show the other Jews that as well by taking part in the temple ritual. But they also believe that they are under the new covenant of forgiveness through Jesus' atoning death. For them, this does not make them less interested in living the way God said he wanted.

They then discuss the fact that even though believing in Jesus has made the Jews more observant of the Torah, the church has already decided that it is not necessary for the Gentiles to observe the Torah themselves. This has created quite a controversy and rumors are flying that go beyond the truth. Paul has told the Gentiles that they don't need to be circumcised in order to become Jews - has he been discouraging the Jews from doing this as well? Of course not. He just needs to show the rest of the church in Jerusalem that he still has not tried to undermine God's laws for the Jews, and still observes them himself.

This whole text may surprise some of us who have believed that Jesus and Paul preached a gospel that negated and disparaged God's law. In contrast, they both are careful observers themselves and they have a positive view of the commandments God gave. Since the Jesus summarized the law by saying that it taught us how to love God and love other people, how could it be bad? But yet it was not necessary for the gentiles to observe it as they did.

We can imagine that after 2000 years of being a nation that was called out and required to be separate from the gentiles, it will be a huge question for them of how God wants the Jewish believers to live together with those who are not under his first covenant, but now together with them under the new covenant God made through Christ for the forgiveness of sins. That will be much of what the rest of the New Testament addresses. We just have to stay tuned...

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

For those who want to learn more, many excellent audio tape sets by Dwight A. Pryor are available on the subject of Jesus, Paul, the law and the church. They can be ordered from www.jcstudies.com.

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Week 12: Deuteronomy 4 - 18, Acts 27-28, Romans 1-3, Psalm 33 - 34


How to Love the Lord


A few years ago I discovered a book of the Bible that I knew practically nothing about - Deuteronomy. While I hardly knew it existed, Jesus quoted out it of more than any other book in his scriptures! And it has some of the most important sayings in all of the Old Testament. Deuteronomy is the record of Moses' final speech to the Israelites where he reminds them about everything that the Lord has done for them so far, and admonishes them to love the Lord and be faithful to Him. In fact, it uses the word "love" over 30 times and tells people to "love the Lord" eight times, and often reminds them of God's great love for them.

In today's reading in Deuteronomy 6, we read one of Jesus' quotations from that book. Jesus is asked what the most important commandment is:

“The most important one,” answered Jesus, “is this: ‘Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ (Mark 12:29-30, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

Jesus didn't choose that text out of the blue - he quoted the first two lines of the Shema (pronounced Shmah), the central creed that Jesus as an observant Jew would have said every morning and evening. By doing this, he would remind himself of his commitment to love God, to dedicate himself to following God and doing his will. The rabbis of Jesus' day said that when a person prayed this, he "received upon himself the kingdom of God", meaning that he was declaring God as king over his life. Jews of Jesus' day learned the Shema as soon as they learned to talk! It is the central affirmation for a Jewish person of his or her commitment to the Lord.

(Jesus' next statement, Love your neighbor as yourself, is from Leviticus 19:18. We will discuss that another time.)

Many have heard of the Shema. But it is helpful to unpack some of the richness of these lines that were central to Jesus and to his faith. Let's look at some of what it means. First, lets look at the saying in Hebrew:

Shema (Hear) Israel: Adonai (the Lord) elohenu (our god) Adonai (the Lord) echad (one/alone).

- "Shema" is the first word and is usually translated "Hear!" But the word shema actually has a stronger meaning than that. It has the sense of "take heed" or "obey". When Jesus says "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" he really means - you have heard my teaching, now take it to heart and obey it! Likewise, the Shema is telling the Israelites to obey - to love the Lord, not just to "hear".

- The word "echad" in Hebrew is the word for one. Jews and Christians have often debated its meaning, since Jews have used the fact that it means "one" to see it as a reason that they cannot believe in a trinity. Christians point out that it can mean a compound unity, like one bunch of grapes. But, the most authoritative Jewish text, the JPS Tanakh, says that the best reading of this phrase really is not "one" but "alone". So instead of reading that sentence "The Lord our God, the Lord is one", it is more accurate to read it as "The Lord is our God, the Lord alone!" This changes the meaning of the whole sentence so that instead of being a creed of monotheism, it is actually a command for their absolute allegiance to God. This also fits better into the rest of the passage, which tells them to love God whole-heartedly and to obey his commands.

Let's look at the next phrase in Deuteronomy,

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength."

On the surface, we think we understand heart, soul and strength, but knowing the Hebrew background of the words adds great richness to this command.

Heart (levav) in Hebrew does not just mean your emotions, but also means your mind and thoughts as well. So we are to use all of our thoughts to love the Lord - as Paul says, we "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Cor 10:5). In the gospels the phrase "and all your mind" is there to emphasize that fact, but from Moses' time it would have been understood that way as well. Whenever we read "heart" in the Old Testament we should understand it in terms of the intellect as well as the emotions.

Soul (nephesh) also has a different sense in Hebrew than just your spirit or emotions. Nephesh means life as well as soul. So the Jewish interpretation is that you are to love the Lord every moment throughout your life, and be willing even to sacrifice your life for Him. If Jews are able, they will quote the Shema at their death to make a final commitment to their God. Many a Jewish martyr has exclaimed the Shema with his last breath as a testimony to that fact.

Strength (me'od) is an unusual word usage which really means "much" or "very". You could translate the passage "with all of your much-ness" or "with all of your increase". It is interpreted to mean "with everything that you have" - your money, your time, your possessions and your family. Loving God with everything you have is a high calling indeed!

So, as we re-read Jesus' favorite law from Jesus' favorite book, we can capture it in this modern way:

"Listen up, Israel - The Lord is your God, He, and He alone!! You should love Him with every thought that you think, live every hour of every day for Him, be willing to sacrifice your life for Him. Love Him with every penny in your wallet and everything that you've got!"

AMEN!

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.



The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.




Week 13: Deuteronomy 19 - 32, Romans 4 - 8, Psalm 35 - 36

Praying as Jesus Did


As we said last week, the words of Deuteronomy were formative for Jesus and his first century Jewish culture, and come out in Paul's writings as well. This book contains the background of the Jewish practice of prayer, something that we hear of many times in the words of Jesus and Paul. Learning about how Jesus and Paul prayed is more than just of interest historically -- it is a powerful experience in practice as well. Using their style of prayer can transformed a person's prayer life and give a new sense of God's presence. This amazingly rich tradition is ultimately is based on a few lines we read last week in Deuteronomy:

Deut. 8:10-14 When you have eaten and are satisfied, you shall bless the LORD your God for the good land which He has given you. Beware that you do not forget the LORD your God by not keeping His commandments and His ordinances and His statutes which I am commanding you today; otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply, and your silver and gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the LORD your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 

The Jews in Jesus' day read this line from Deuteronomy about blessing God for the things that he has given them and they expanded it into a tradition of many short, one or two line prayers which are uttered immediately upon having any type of happy experience, and at some sad occasions too. The result was that a person filled his day with short prayers to constantly give thanks and praise God. Paul exhorts Christians to "Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances" (1Thes. 5:16 -18) and we wonder how such a thing could be done. But in fact, Paul was already a part of a culture that did exactly that - gave thanks in all circumstances and prayed at every opportunity. We see this same tradition in the gospels, that Jesus used these many short prayers that were a part of His culture.

The Jews saw in the Deuteronomy passage that God wanted them to bless Him whenever they received good things from Him so that they would not forget that He was the source. They knew, as we know ourselves, that it is easy to cling to God when times are tough, but very easy to forget God when times get better and the need has passed. We saw this after September 11 when all the churches were full, and now that people feel better, they have drifted away again.

So they developed a number of short prayers to be said whenever the occasion arises, in addition to saying longer prayers in the morning and evening. All of them begin by obeying Deuteronomy 8 ("You shall bless the Lord") by saying "Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, King of the Universe...". It sounds odd for a human to bless God, but the understanding is that the human is focusing on God as the source of all blessing, and praising God for His goodness. The word for bless, "barak" also means to kneel, suggesting that when they blessed God, they were bowing on their knees to worship Him. In Jesus' day the first line was probably just "Blessed is He...", but the rabbis felt it was important to always remind ourselves that God is King over us in order "to receive on ourselves the Kingdom of God", so they added the rest of the line later. So in these prayers they were mentally kneeling toward God, reminding themselves of His goodness, and that He was their King.

In the gospels it says that Jesus "took the bread and blessed". (The NIV says "gave thanks" but more literal translations use the word "blessed".) We know what words he said - most likely, "Blessed is He who brings forth bread from the earth." We read that when Jesus did miracles, the people "glorified God" - probably saying "Blessed is He who has performed a miracle in this place(!)". It was customary to pray the blessing before leaving the site where the miracle occurred, or to return to the place to say it. So when Jesus heals ten lepers and only one, a Samaritan, comes back and loudly blesses God, Jesus wonders why the other nine haven't returned to do the same thing (Luke 17:12 -19).

In Psalm 24:1 it says that "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof" and the rabbis of Jesus' day and earlier decided that everything that we enjoy in life should cause us to bless God. In the Mishnah, the record of rabbinic thought from before Jesus' time until about 200 AD, the first book is just devoted to blessings. We can get a glimpse of some of Jesus' prayer life by hearing some of these little prayers that are packed with wisdom, and even try them out ourselves:

When the first flowers were seen on the trees in the spring, it was traditional to say Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, King of the Universe, who did not omit anything from the world, and created within it good creations and good trees for people to enjoy. After a long, cold winter, who isn't happy to see these little signs of new life? They used that little occasions like that to focus their thoughts on God. When they heard thunder or felt an earthquake they blessed God by using the phrase "Blessed are you, oh Lord ... whose strength and power fill the world." as a reminder of the glory of God.

When they went through a long, difficult time and finally had relief, or celebrated some happy event for which they waited, they said, "Blessed are you, oh Lord ... who has allowed us to live, and sustained us and enabled us to reach this day." When a son returned home from war, or when a baby was born, or some other wonderful thing, they stopped to praised God for bringing them to that point in their lives.

Even ordinary things that give pleasure were an occasion to bless God. When they put on a new piece of clothing they said, Blessed are you, oh Lord ... who clothes the naked. These words reminded me that God is the one who allows us to earn the money to buy clothes, that the ultimate purpose of clothing is to cover our bodies (not just to make a fashion statement!) and that to many, a new piece of clothing is a source of joy since they don't have the full closets that I have.

Even in times of grief, when someone died or they heard tragic news, they blessed God. They said "Blessed are you, oh Lord ..., you are the true judge." It was a reminder that God was still good, even when they heard about tragic events, and that He will ultimately bring justice where justice doesn't seem to be present.

At one point in my own prayer life a few years ago, I started praying some of these short prayers throughout the day. It was interesting how my whole perception of the world around me changed. As I continually reminding myself of God's power and goodness and the many wonderful gifts He gives us, it made me feel like the world was saturated with God's presence. It was hard to worry when I started feeling God's gracious love at all times, and hard to complain when I had such a strong sense of His blessing. I can imagine that Jesus and Paul, through all of their trials, used these prayers to constantly remind themselves of God's presence. Perhaps my own attitude will become more like Jesus and Paul as I continue praying these things as well.

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©2002 Lois A. Tverberg, Ph.D., OurRabbiJesus.com. All of the articles in this series are copyrighted and may not be redistributed without the express written consent of the author. To request permission for use, contact Tverberg@OurRabbiJesus.com.

The Read Through the Bible Commentaries were sent out by email during 2002 and are available in an archive on this site. If you would like to receive the current monthly En-Gedi commentary by email, use this form to sign up.

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