September Essays


Week 36: Song of Solomon 5 - 8, Isa. 1 - 12 , I Tim. 5 -6, II Tim. 3, Psalm 99 - 102

Come, Let Us Go Up

This week we are beginning to read Isaiah, which is full of pictures of the messiah and the coming kingdom of God. One of the first that we encounter is a vision for the messianic age - it says:

Now it will come about that in the last days
The mountain of the house of the LORD
Will be established as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.
And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us concerning His ways
And that we may walk in His paths.”
For the law will go forth from Zion
And the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.  Is. 2:2-3

Isaiah is full of rich words and images to express God's promises. If we can see the thoughts behind the pictures, the beauty becomes all the more evident. Let's read through this poem, getting a sense of the word-pictures and the ideas behind them:

The mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains.

The mountain of the house of the Lord is the temple mount of Jerusalem. Jerusalem was built on Mt. Moriah, the tallest mountain in Judea, so when a person goes to Jerusalem, they always go up. If you go to visit, you will always remember the long climb that the busses make up the hill into Jerusalem. Even today in Hebrew, the Temple Mount is called Har HaBeit, which means "mountain of the house". Throughout the Bible, the Temple is often referred to simply as "the house".

Putting the Temple on the highest mountain in Israel was intentional. Shrines to worship gods were almost always established on hilltops, which were called "high places" in the Old Testament. God told the Israelites to destroy the idols on all of the high places, even though they never really did it. So the picture here in Isaiah is of the mountain of the Temple being raised up over all of the high places where idols are worshipped, and the peoples around them realizing that the God of the Jews is the real God.

And all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD...

The word "nations" in Hebrew has a stronger connotation than it does in English. In Hebrew, the word is "goyim", which is what Jews call Gentiles. It tends to carry an understanding of pagan-ness, to be one of the surrounding nations who worshipped idols and practiced immorality. A person might translate it "the heathen". So once again, this passage has a picture of the lost sinners of the world finding the God and wanting to worship Him.

That He may teach us concerning His ways, and we may walk in His paths. For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

When the people who do not know God come to Jerusalem, they will want God to teach them His ways, so His law (torah) will go out from Jerusalem. It is important to note that the word for teach, yarah, is the verb form of torah, teaching or instruction. In response to their desire to have God teach them, they will have God's teaching (torah), instruction for how to live.

The words walk (lekh) and way (derekh) are frequent metaphors used when speaking about having a covenant relationship with God. Lekh means walk, but as Hebrew words tend to be very broad, it often describes a general life direction. Derekh means road, path, or street, but often is a metaphor for a way of living. To "walk in God's ways" is to live out a relationship with God. Many times God says to Israel,

“Now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require from you, but to fear the LORD your God, to walk in all His ways and love Him, and to serve the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul? Deut. 10:12

In the book of Acts, the first Christians refer to themselves as "the people of the Way". They often spoke of their movement as "The Way", probably having the picture of living out the teaching that Jesus gave them. It suggests they are thinking of learning from Jesus how to live in relationship with God.

       The Fulfillment of this Prophecy

The picture in Isaiah is of a coming time when people from all the Gentile nations will seek the God of Israel, to know and worship the God of the Jews. They will want to know the Lord and have a relationship with Him, which is what salvation is, in this life. And it will begin at Jerusalem and go out to the ends of the earth. The fulfillment was first begun at Pentecost, when people in the Temple were filled with God's Spirit, and the gospel began to be poured out on all the world beginning in Jerusalem. Within a short time, the first Gentile, Cornelius, was filled with the spirit and all his family became believers. And then Paul brought the gospel to the Gentiles. It is still being fulfilled today as the all the nations of the world are hearing about the God of the Jews, how He came to earth to make a covenant of forgiveness of sin with His own blood. He came to walk on earth with us, so that we can learn to walk with Him.

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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.

Week 37: Isa. 13 - 28, II Tim. 4, Titus, Philemon, Psalm 103 - 104

Messiah, Mighty God?

One of the things that has intrigued me most as I have studied the Old Testament is what it says about Jesus as the coming Messiah. Even though the gospel about Jesus is the first thing every Christian learns, it is rare to hear a methodical explanation of what the Bible predicts about him. What exactly is a Messiah? Why we believe that the Messiah would be God Himself? We would be stronger witnesses if we could open up the Bible and trace from start to finish what it said about Jesus Christ. Several of En-Gedi's commentaries have come out of that quest to see Jesus Christ in the light of the scriptures that speak about Him. See weeks 19, 20 & 21 from May, especially.

We have mentioned before that the main picture of the Messiah is that of God's chosen king. The prophecies that clearly predict this begin in the life of King David when God promises David that one of his descendants would have a kingdom without end. It says,

“When your days are over and you go to be with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my love away from him, as I took it away from your predecessor. I will set him over my house and my kingdom forever; his throne will be established forever.” (1 Chron. 17:11-14)

One thing that Christians may overlook is that many prophecies about the Messiah do not expressly say that he would be God in the flesh. The term "Son of God" can refer to divinity, but also is occasionally used about angels and even people (see Gen. 6:2, Job 1:6, Matt 5:9). In the passage above, it could be interpreted to mean that the messianic king would be so close to God that he would be like a son to him. In the life of Jesus we often look at His miracles as proof of divinity. But Moses and Elijah and others had done miracles before Him, so even that isn't conclusive.

Nevertheless, the church from the earliest time, even when it was mostly comprised of Jews, believed that Jesus was God incarnate. According to Dwight Pryor, it was probably one of the earliest Christian creeds that Paul quoted when he said,

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. (Phil. 2:5 - 7 )

An intriguing study is to find the passages in the Old Testament said that the Messianic King who was coming would be God Himself. I found it very significant that in this week's reading in Isaiah we encounter one of the clearest statements that the Messianic King would be divine. It says,

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called Wonderful Counselor,
Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government
and peace there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this. (Is 9:6-7)

It is very clear that the passage is talking about the Messianic king from David's line, and also very clear that it refers to him with the words "Mighty God", and "Everlasting Father". The promised Messiah would be called "mighty God", an obvious statement of the divinity of the messiah.

One other important thing to note is that there are several precedents for God walking on earth in the Old Testament scriptures. It says that God walked in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day (Gen. 3:8), that he visited Abraham and ate with him (Gen 18:1-13), and that Jacob wrestled with God (Gen 32:24 -38). To see God walking again on earth as a man should not be a shock if He has done it before. The idea of the Messiah as God in the flesh is consistent with the witness of what the rest of scripture says about God's ways.

An interesting thing to note is that in the Targums, ancient Jewish commentary-translations, whenever God walked on earth and interacted with humans, they used the Aramaic term "Memra" to refer to God. The term Memra actually means "Word"! One hardly miss the fact that this is the term that the apostle John uses to refer to Jesus as the Messiah who actually was God himself!

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God... The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1, 14)

We have hardly scratched the surface of the texts that point to the divinity of Christ, although some are indirect allusions. Jesus refers to many of them and applies them to himself, and His first followers would have recognized them. As we finish the Old Testament by reading the prophets, keep listening for the prophecies about the Messiah. We will see that Jesus used many of them to proclaim Himself as Messiah, and even God in the flesh.

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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.

Week 38: Isaiah 29 - 42, Hebrews 1-5, Psalm 105 - 106

Life is in the Blood

Throughout Bible there is a recurring image that is mysterious to modern, Western Christians - that of blood. We will encounter it in all of the readings this week, in Isaiah, Hebrews and in the Psalms. By understanding some of the ancient beliefs about blood, it will give us some insight on why it is such a central motif in the scriptures.
                        
The ancient Hebrews thought in concrete ways, expressing abstract ideas in terms of things they could see, touch and smell. The Hebrew language reflects that -- a person is not stubborn, he is "stiff-necked"; God is not slow to anger, He has "long nostrils"; God is not jealous, He is "red-faced". It seems that when God was speaking to them about blood, He spoke in their language of images. Rather than being woodenly literal about what God said about blood, our best way to understand it is to imagine how they saw it, and then translate it into our own language. 

The ancient Hebrews believed that the blood of a creature contained its life. They could observe that a person or animal bleeding from a wound would grow faint, and with enough blood loss, will die. Because no other damage had to be done than to let the blood run out, it was logical to observers that the life of the animal or person was going out with the blood. This is has been a common understanding throughout the history of the world, and is still true in traditional African cultures even now. The Bible reinforces that belief by saying:

For the life of the flesh is in the blood... For as for the life of all flesh, its blood is identified with its life. Lev. 17:11, 14

Because of this commonly held belief, it was understood that imbibing the blood of a powerful animal would allow a person to acquire its "life", to take on some of its power. The Bible is unique among documents of its time for forbidding the consuming of blood. Although they could kill and eat animals, God Himself owned the "life" of the creature, and the blood had to be given back to him by being poured on an altar, or on the ground. We read this as an outmoded regulation from ancient times. But we should look at it as if God was speaking their language in order to teach them a profound idea -- that God alone is the creator and possessor of the life of every creature. He says:

But you must not eat meat that has its lifeblood still in it. And for your lifeblood I will surely demand an accounting. I will demand an accounting from every animal. And from each man, too, I will demand an accounting for the life of his fellow man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man. (Gen 9:4-6)

Here God is teaching them that human lives are precious to God - that He made us in His image, so by taking a human life, we are destroying the one thing in creation that uniquely bears God's likeness.

Innocent Blood

Related to this understanding that the blood contained the life of a person was the idea that the blood of an innocent victim of murder would curse the ground. (Of course, blood didn't literally have to be shed - the phrase "to shed innocent blood" meant the murder of innocent people, in whatever manner.) The "shedding of innocent blood" was such a great crime that the only way to get rid of it was to take the life of the murderer. If the murder was unknown, an animal had to be sacrificed to atone for the murder. Otherwise, if not atoned for, it eventually would bring terrible judgment. The sin that finally caused God to let kingdom of Judah be destroyed was the shedding of innocent blood:

The LORD sent Babylonian, Aramean, Moabite and Ammonite raiders to destroy Judah... Surely these things happened to Judah according to the LORD's command, in order to remove them from his presence because of the sins of Manasseh and all he had done, including the shedding of innocent blood. For he had filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the LORD was not willing to forgive. (II Kings 24:2-4, edited)

Jesus also said that this was would bring judgment on His generation as well, when Jerusalem would be besieged and the temple burned. He said that God would punish the corrupt temple leaders because of the righteous blood that they shed:

And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation. (Matt 23:35-36)

The Preciousness of Human Life 

The Jews have a profound idea that comes from the first case of shedding of innocent blood, Cain's murder of Able. God says to Cain,

"The voice of your brother's blood (bloods, literally) is crying to Me from the ground." (Gen. 4:10)

The Hebrew word for blood is dam, and the plural is damim. When the Bible talks about murder, or "bloodguilt", it usually uses the plural form, damim. Using the logic that the blood contains the life of a person, to speak of blood in the plural is to say that a murder doesn't just take the life of one person, it takes the lives of many. Jews even have a tradition that the voice of the blood crying out from the ground was actually the voices of all of the future descendants of Able that would have ever lived. From this they have a saying, "To take the life of one person is like taking the life of a whole world, and to save the life of one person is like saving a whole world!"

The picture of blood is a central motif in the Bible, and it is key for understanding the sacrificial system, atonement, and the work of Christ. It was also a central aspect of the making of covenants, so we need to understand it in order to see why Christ's blood was necessary for the new covenant of forgiveness. We will discuss this in another article. But, one thing that we can see in what we have learned so far is how God taught his people about the sanctity of life by using their belief in blood as a representative of life. While most of us do not believe that our life is literally contained in our blood, we can see that through this image God claimed ownership of every life on earth, and that He will require an accounting for every life.   

The sanctity of life may seem second nature to us, but the idea was unprecedented in ancient, pagan cultures. We don't often contemplate how this singular idea has transformed our entire civilization to the point that it is what makes us "civilized". Hospitals, orphanages, and charities of all types have arisen our of the belief that human life must be preserved at any cost. Even this small image has changed our thinking in profound ways.

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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.


Week 39: Isaiah 43 - 56, Hebrews 6-10, Psalm 107-109

If Anyone is Thirsty...

Last week we discussed how in the scriptures, the image of blood is associated with life. This is an example of the common practice in Hebraic thinking of using physical pictures to describe invisible things. The scripture is full of these images -- if we don't understand them, we miss many profound thoughts and wonderful promises in the Bible.

Another image in the Bible is that of living water, or maim chaim (MY-eem KHY-eem), in Hebrew. The scriptures are filled with this image, and we will encounter it many times this week as we read Isaiah. It is a physical picture that ultimately describes a spiritual reality.

In the Middle East,  water is very precious, with rain falling only about five months out of the year. In ancient times, people would survive much of the year on stagnant water that was stored in cisterns hollowed out of the ground. The Israelites referred to fresh, clean water that came from rain or springs as "living water" or "flowing water". They saw it as water that the Lord Himself had provided, mysteriously coming up from the ground or down from heaven. It isn't hard to see how this water is associated with life, because anywhere a spring wells up in that dry land, lush vegetation springs up around it.

The presence of living water was associated with God's presence. Many times in the scriptures, God is called the source of living water. In Eden, where God and man live together, a river flows out to water the earth (Gen 2:10). In Revelation, a river of life flows out from under the throne of God (Rev. 22:1). In Jeremiah it says,

"O LORD, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame. Those who turn away from you will be written in the dust because they have forsaken the LORD, the spring of living water. (Jer. 17:13)

In Isaiah this week we will be reading many beautiful promises about the messianic age - when God's kingdom would break forth in a powerful way on earth, with the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. This age is described several times as a time when rivers of water will flow in the desert:

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. Then will the lame leap like a deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy. Water will gush forth in the wilderness and streams in the desert. The burning sand will become a pool, the thirsty ground bubbling springs. (Isaiah 35:5-7)

For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out My Spirit on your offspring and My blessing on your descendants; and they will spring up among the grass like poplars by streams of water. (Isaiah 44:3 - 4)

Why is this image of water flowing in the desert used? Because it represents the pouring out of the Holy Spirit that is giving new life to those who find it! This happened at Pentecost and still goes on today. Jesus proclaims this in the gospel of John:

On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." By this he meant the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were later to receive. (John 7:37 - 39)

Anyone who has lived a life apart from God knows the utter dryness of life in a world without Him. We also have experienced how thirst forces us to recognize our dependence on water for life. So the Lord, in his wisdom, has brilliantly painted for us an image which is unmistakable: we cannot live in the desert of life without Him. The need in the world today for the life-giving water of his Spirit is very great; we all should be dedicated to sharing our cup with those who need it. 

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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.


Week 40: Is. 57 - 66, Jer. 1 - 4, Hebrews 11 - 13, John 1 - 2, Psalm 110 - 113

A Most Amazing Discovery

For a little change of pace, I would just like to share one of the most powerful, meaningful things I have ever discovered in my study of the Bible. I found it several years ago after singing in a performance of Handel's Messiah, when I wanted to see where the words of the songs came from.  Some of you may have already discovered this, but if you haven't, it will be exciting when you do.

Last week we read the following passage:

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. Yet it was the LORD's will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand. After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light [of life] and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities.

Reading this passage, we can hear its clear and obvious message about the atoning sacrifice Christ made for us. It is so detailed and pointed in its description of Jesus' coming, and about His death and resurrection, that it sounds like it came from our New Testament readings this week. It seems to be a restatement of the basic tenets of the gospel message for the early church.  

In fact, it comes from Isaiah, chapter 53, vs. 3 - 11, and was written almost 700 years before the birth of Christ!   I was utterly surprised that the prophecy about Jesus' mission on earth could be so clearly laid out, so many hundred years before He was born. The New Testament writers refer to it many times, seeing that it so clearly foretold Jesus' mission on earth.

It was even more amazing to hear about this text in the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1948, many scrolls and fragments were discovered in the Essene community of Qumran, in the Judean Desert near the Dead Sea in Israel. The scroll that revealed to biblical archaeologists that this was an extremely important discovery was called the "Great Isaiah Scroll", containing a complete manuscript of the book of Isaiah. Several copies of almost all of the books of the Old Testament were found there, mostly in fragments that have been pieced back together. Just a few scrolls were found intact, including two copies of the book of Isaiah. Before that discovery, the oldest known manuscripts of the Old Testament were from about 900 AD, and a skeptic could charge that somehow a monk had written this powerful prophecy into the Bible. But the Dead Sea Scroll texts that were found were a thousand years older than any other manuscript they had found, from about 100 BC!  So both the original text and the copy on this scroll predate the life of Jesus. 

Most powerfully, the Dead Sea Scroll text was virtually identical with manuscripts of over a thousand years later, that had been hand-copied over and over again. The words quoted above from the New International Version Bible are actually from the text found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The only difference between that text and later copies is the small insertion set off in brackets - [of life]. Scribal errors are common in ancient manuscripts - the fact that so little change was seen over thousands of years shows the amazing reverence the scribes had for the texts. 

If you ever have the opportunity, make sure to go to the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem, which is the museum specifically dedicated to the Dead Sea Scrolls. The main display room contains a long, lighted case that circles the perimeter of this round room. In it is the Great Isaiah Scroll! Out of the mighty grace of God, the Lord has preserved a powerful prediction about His Son's coming from before He was born on earth, and allowed us, thousands of years later, to see it with our very own eyes. Can anyone suggest that this is a coincidence? 

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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.