Would Jesus Go Green?

Right now, of course, the hot topic in the news is the effort of many to be “green.” Because of the rising price of oil and the discussion about global warming, many people are trying to “reduce their carbon footprint.” Others may just be rolling their eyes at another over-hyped trend, and skeptical about the whole thing.

What would Jesus say about the issue? I think it’s fascinating that the rabbis were commenting on environmental conservation over 1600 years ago in the Talmud, in their discussion of a passage in Deuteronomy: “When you lay siege and battle against a city for a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy (lo tashchit) its trees, wielding an ax against them. You may eat of them, but you must not cut them down. Are the trees of the field people, that you should besiege them?” (Dt. 20:19)

In this verse, God forbade the destruction of the fruit trees outside of cities that were under siege by the Israelites during war. It was common practice during wartime to destroy the land – to chop down the trees and poison the fields by sowing them with salt. God expressly forbade this kind of wanton destruction and declared that the trees were “innocent bystanders” who should not be victims of the war.

The rabbis concluded that if God forbade the destruction of the environment in the dire situation of war, he must certainly must oppose it during peacetime. They then reasoned that modifying the environment to build useful things to serve human needs is fine, but needless destruction is wrong.

They also concluded that the reason destroying fruit trees was forbidden was because God gave the trees to provide food, and when we destroy any useful thing, we insult God’s gracious care for us. To them, these words against needless destruction should teach us not to waste any useful thing. The ethical command was called bal tashchit (bahl-tahsh-KEET), meaning “do not destroy.”

Whoever breaks vessels, or tears garments, or destroys a building, or clogs a well, or does away with food in a destructive manner violates the commandment against bal tashchit. (Talmud, Kiddushin 32a, written about 500 AD)

Because of this interpretation of Deuteronomy 20:19, there has been an ethic of conservation and avoidance of waste in Judaism for thousands of years. They see it as an act of reverence for God. Listen to the thoughts of Rabbi Hirsch, who lived in the 19th century:

In truth, there is no one nearer to idolatry than one who can disregard the fact that things are the creatures and property of God, and who presumes also to have the right, having the might, to destroy them according to a presumptuous act of will. Yes, that one is already serving the most powerful idols — anger, pride, and above all ego, which in its passion regards itself as the master of things. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, #56)

Wow. To him, wastefulness is a kind of idolatry that views the self as the ultimate god. What an excellent point.

I think the reason why Christians miss this is because in our Western mindset, we see God as completely uninvolved with his creation, and believe that the world as entirely ours for disposal as we see fit. This attitude actually comes from our Greek cultural ancestors who considered the material world to be worthless and evil, and God as utterly unconcerned with it. The Scriptures, in contrast, say repeatedly that God created the world very good, and that creation itself groans for its redemption which will come in the end (Rom. 8:21).

Part of the reason that some conservative Christians (including friends of mine who I respect a lot) are resisting the environmental trend is because it comes from folks who seem to be worshipping the creation rather than the creator, who are hostile to the God who made all things. But for centuries, the rabbis have been saying that we should be careful with the natural world not to worship it, but the God who created it. To show our love for the one who provided such abundant world for us to live in.

What would Jesus say about the whole issue? The way he summarized all of Torah was in two commands – (1) Love God and (2) Love Your Neighbor. Every other command must fit into one of these categories. But remarkably, the idea of conserving the environment fits into both, because it shows your appreciation for God’s handiwork, and consideration for the needs of others to live in God’s world. It is a spiritual discipline of thinking about others before one’s self.

And there is another reason too, which is especially for my conservative friends who bristle when they hear another op ed piece on global warming and refuse to recycle out of annoyance at the whole thing…

Consider the rabbinic discussion on the command in Exodus 23:5: “When you see the donkey of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him.” The rabbis asked the question, “If at the exact same time as you saw your enemy’s donkey needing help, and also your friend’s donkey needing help, which should you help first?” Their answer was, you should help the donkey of your enemy first, to teach yourself to be kind to your enemies. They realized that the point of the command was not for the donkey’s sake, but to fix your inner attitude.

The reason why this odd story comes to mind is because it is one of the places in the Torah where an early hint of Jesus’ command to “love your enemy” is found. This was his single most radical teaching, which was unparalleled among rabbis after him. But yet the rabbis saw that God told us not to act out of dislike for each other even in little ways. And they said that if you have an opportunity to teach yourself kindness to your enemies, do it, in order to get a little closer to that ideal.

My friends who question the global warming data may feel they have strong arguments supporting their cause. They may not feel like we are using up our world’s oil supplies at an alarming rate. But even if it isn’t happening, wouldn’t the thing to do be to conserve now, rather than wait until it does?

And, if you admit that just a little bit of your resistance is coming from your dislike for the “liberals” who advocate it, isn’t that all the more reason to do it?  Then you’d be able to fulfill all three of Jesus’ greatest commands at once — to love God, your neighbor and your enemy, every time you did something green.

Published in: on April 5, 2008 at 8:32 am  Comments (1)  

Under the Passover Moon

Today is Maundy Thursday, the Christian remembrance of the Last Supper and day of Jesus’ late night betrayal leading to his death. Because of the differences in calendars, the Jewish Passover is still a month off.

I always go out late at night on Passover and look at the full moon and remember Jesus’ struggle in the garden of Gethsemane. (Because of the lunar calendar, Passover is always on a full moon – tonight is also a full moon, just like Passover.)  Jesus said to Judas, “This is your hour – when darkness reigns.” It was as if a great battle was going on in the heavenlies, like the battle that was going on two thousand years earlier in Egypt when God defeated the gods who kept his people enslaved in Egypt.

I’d like to share a little of the chapter that we’re just finishing today on this very topic. It seemed appropriate. Blessings on your holy week!  — Lois


The full moon of Passover stared down at Jesus, its light filtering through the shivering leaves of the olive trees, their branches trembling in the early April breeze. Despite the evening chill, sweat glistened on his forehead. Still praying, he stood and then peered into the darkness, listening to a distant murmur of voices. One of his own talmidim, Judas, was approaching. Trailing him was a mob of soldiers, snaking up the hill.

Under a nearby tree, Peter, James, and John were lying in a heap. Twice, Jesus had pleaded with them to stay awake, asking them to keep vigil with him on this, the most difficult night of his life. Yet there they were, wrapped in their heavy woolen talits, mouths agape and snoring softly, oblivious of the approaching threat…  

Whenever I think back to this scene from Gethsemane, I can’t help but wonder about Jesus’ narcoleptic disciples. How could they have fallen asleep when their beloved rabbi had implored them to stay awake and remain alert? How could they have nodded off when the climax of salvation history was about to take place? I couldn’t imagine a satisfactory answer, and this was just one of many questions that filled my head whenever I thought back to that fateful week.

I remembered previous Palm Sunday services I had attended, where only minutes after the children stream down the aisles, joyously waving palm branches to celebrate Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the mood shifts, turning solemn as the gospel account of the passion is read. Why were the crowds in Jerusalem so fickle, adoring Jesus one week and then hating him the next? And why, I wondered, did Jesus choose a Passover Seder to celebrate the last meal of his life?            

Fast forward, now, two thousand years, to the fellowship hall of my church, on the afternoon of the Thursday before Easter, known as Maundy Thursday. We are setting up for a Passover Seder. As Gentile amateurs we are doing our best to recreate the Last Supper, giving ourselves a chance to meditate on its significance. Perfect historical accuracy isn’t the point. Our goal is to relive a little of Jesus’ final evening with his disciples so that we can better appreciate the Maundy Thursday service.

All afternoon the church kitchen bustles with clattering pans and chitchat as we hurry about our tasks, cutting parsley, boiling eggs, and spooning horseradish onto plates. When we finally sit down, I am famished. The time ticks by as I endure the long Seder liturgy, with just a bite of parsley dipped in salt water and dry, cardboard-like matzah (unleavened bread) smeared with horseradish to tide me over. When we finally dig into our simple meal of lamb stew, I devour my humble feast! Afterward, I hurriedly help with clean up and then slip into the back of the service, which has already begun. The liturgy is mournful and solemn.

The events of the day have taken their toll on me—the non-stop preparations, beginning the Seder feeling famished, and then overeating to compensate. I feel a crushing lethargy sweep over me. Over the next hour, the sanctuary lights gradually dim to complete darkness. I can barely see through shuttering eyelids. As the service rolls on, I rouse with a start. Did someone call my name? I can almost hear the disappointment in Jesus’ voice. “Could you not watch with me just one hour?”

Suddenly, I understood why the disciples found it so hard to stay awake! And they had an even better excuse than I had. Traditional Passover celebrations involved a huge meal plus four cups of wine, and they started at sunset and went well past midnight. What’s more, they took place after several days of exhausting travel and preparation. Certainly everybody in Jerusalem would have wanted to crawl straight into bed after their late-night feast. Aware of this perennial problem, the rabbis ruled that a person who dozed lightly could remain a part of the dinner, but anyone who fell sound asleep could not.

Our amateurish attempt at reliving the Last Supper led to other insights on the final hours of Jesus’ life. I realized, for instance, why the leaders had plotted to arrest Jesus after the Passover meal. A man so wildly popular couldn’t have been arrested in broad daylight. To avoid an uprising, the chief priests had to proceed in secret. So they let Judas lead them to Jesus while he was outside the city. Passover was the perfect choice, because every Jewish family would be celebrating the feast that started at sundown.

Jesus’ arrest and trial proceeded swiftly, occurring during the wee hours, when most of his supporters were in bed. Peter’s denials happened as the rooster crowed, around four or five in the morning. According to Mark’s Gospel, Jesus’ final sentence was handed down at sunrise (Mark 15:1). One has to ask, what group of people were around at the crack of dawn on a major Jewish holiday to shout crucify him? Mostly corrupt priests and Roman soldiers who wanted to kill Jesus.

But there’s more. Jesus was crucified at nine in the morning—the time of the first Temple service of the day! The authorities knew they had to finish their secret trial before the crowds re-entered the city. And indeed, as Jesus was carrying his cross out of town, his supporters reappear, weeping out loud as they see him being led to his death (Luke 23:27). His followers had just learned of the events that had transpired the night before.

Prior to our Passover Seder, I had always thought the crowds unimaginably fickle, cheering Jesus one day and then shouting for his head the next. But Jesus’ supporters never changed their minds! How could they have when they were not even present at his arrest or trial? The entire plot unfolded after the Passover festivities, while most people were sound asleep.

Published in: on March 20, 2008 at 7:19 am  Comments Off on Under the Passover Moon  

Getting Perspective from Two Eyes

Here’s a little experiment. Close one eye and look around at your hands on the keyboard in front of you. Notice the details of where your fingers are relative to the keys. Then, close that eye and look at the relative position of the keys with the other eye. The two pictures you have are similar but yet different. From one eye it might look like your left ring finger is directly in front of the 2 key, and the other eye its in front of the 1 key. Which is it?

Now open both eyes and look at the scene. Your brain has two sets of data coming from the left and right eye that actually disagree. From one eye things are hidden, but the other sees them. Edges of objects recede at one angle in one eye, and through the other eye, they’re at another angle. Somehow, your brain takes these two conflicting pictures and merges them and gives you new data about depth that neither eye could see on its own. Very cool, I think.

Now, consider Proverbs 27:6. In the New International Version, it reads, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” But in the Jewish Tanakh, it reads, “Wounds by a loved one are long lasting; The kisses of an enemy are profuse.” The two versions don’t agree! One says that friendly wounds are good, and the other says they are bad. How could they be so different in how they translate the verse?

The key is the word that is translated “trust” or “long lasting.” The Hebrew word is ne’emanim (neh-eh-mah-NEEM), which is related to the word emunah, which means “faithful” or “reliable.” It is also related to the verb aman, meaning to believe or trust. But the same word can also mean “steadfast, long-lasting, enduring.” So the wounds of a friend can be trustworthy and reliable, or they can be long-lasting, in the sense of never going away.

Which is the correct translation? Ironically, I think it is both. When our loved ones tell us their greivances, often they are something we should seriously consider changing, because they know that telling us will hurt us. But on the other hand, the speaker should realize that no matter how carefully said, his or her words will tend to stay with the hearer forever, often causing a wound that will take a long time to heal.

Reading this verse in either version gives you part of the sense, but having the verse in both translations (and knowing a little about the Hebrew behind it) gives you “depth perception.” The seemingly conflicting data points actually give you new information that neither give you on its own. This is why when people  ask me which Bible translation they should use, I say, “Use more than one, and learn a little about the original languages.”

This habit of reconciling two points of conflicting data is a typically Jewish way of thinking about reality. Think of Tevya in Fiddler on the Roof, who goes back and forth with “on the one hand” and “on the other hand.” At first with my Western sense of linear logic and background in the sciences, I found this really quite irritating. It felt like confusing rhetoric – one way must be right, the other is just plain wrong! Otherwise, you are headed straight into relativism, where all things are true – I just believe my thing, and you believe your thing. There is no truth anywhere.

And yet, my two eyes work with two sets of conflicting data and somehow tell my brain about three-dimensionality, something that neither eye can tell me anything about at all. You could almost say that three dimensions are an illusion of your mind. That’s why stereoscopes and ViewMasters and MagicEye puzzles can make us think we see dimensions that aren’t really there. (For instance, check out this video.) But our life experience is that this mental construction is actually the truth – when we walk toward something that our eyes say is farther away, we come up to meet it. Our brains deal with conflict and look past it to a further, hidden reality. Actually, our ears do a very similar thing too, and that’s why we like stereo sound much better than mono – it sounds so much more real.

There is one more thing going on that is important to note, and that one eye is dominant – it sets the perspective that your brain ultimately considers “authoritative.” With both eyes open, point your index finger at something across the room. Now close one eye, and then close the other. From your dominant eye’s perspective, your finger stays in the same place. From the other eye’s perspective, it “jumps.” If neither eye was dominant, your brain would just have a hopeless jumble of conflicting information. One eye is the final authority, but the other eye provides perspective that it doesn’t have by itself.

I find this important to remember as I have been learning to use this “on the one hand, on the other hand…” method for reasoning, in particular, when I consider the Jewishness of my Christian faith. Most people reading this blog have discovered the power of knowing more, as Christians, about what Jews believe about different things. Sometimes we see things very similarly, other times we see things very differently. At first it might be disconcerting, but if you have a solid sense of your own faith, the conflicting data can often give all sorts of three-dimensionality to what we already believe – it gives perspective.

For other people, however, I honestly don’t recommend this kind of study, if they have a shaky faith and some wounds from abuses or errors in their church past. Or if they actually believe that all truth is relative, which makes no sense at all. What will happen is that the two conflicting portrayals of reality will simply cause confusion.  You need to have a dominant eye, that gives you the final say. Sometimes you might modify what you think, but sometimes its necessary to reject something incompatible with your faith. If you want to learn about your Jewish roots, first learn your traditional Christian beliefs, and know why you believe. People who grow the most from this kind of study are ones who have a solid faith, but are not “brittle” – unable to deal with any kind of new information that might threaten them. It takes a mixture of humility and self-questioning, and confidence about convictions to survive in this field. And a lot of prayerful discernment.

As Tevya said, on the one hand…, but on the other hand…

Published in: on March 1, 2008 at 10:28 am  Comments Off on Getting Perspective from Two Eyes  

For Everything A Blessing

Asher Yatzar plaqueNote to readers: This article originally appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), May 28, 1997. Every time I read it I find it very touching. When I used to teach human physiology I would give my students a copy at when I was teaching about kidney physiology around Thanksgiving time, which is an appropriate setting for this prayer. I hope you enjoy it too. – Lois

(PS: I took this picture of a plaque with the Asher Yatzar blessing at Jewish retreat center in Israel.) For a close-up of the poster, click on the image in the article.

For Everything A Blessing

Kenneth M.Prager, M.D.
Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, New York

asher_yatzar_poster.jpgasher_yatzar_poster.jpgWhen I was an elementary school student in yeshiva – a Jewish parochial school with both religious and secular studies – my classmates and I used to find amusing a sign that was posted just outside the bathroom. It was an ancient Jewish blessing, commonly referred to as the asher yatzar benediction, that was supposed to be recited after one relieved oneself. For grade school children, there could be nothing more strange or ridiculous than to link to acts of micturition and defecation with holy words that mentioned God’s name. Blessings were reserved for prayers, for holy days, or for thanking God for food or for some act of deliverance, but surely not for a bodily function that evoked smirks and giggles.

It took me several decades to realize the wisdom that lay behind this blessing that was composed by Abayei, a fourth-century Babylonian rabbi.

Abayei’s blessing is contained in the Talmud, an encyclopedic work of Jewish law and lore that was written over the first five centuries of the common era. The Jewish religion is chock-full of these blessings, or brachot, as they are called in Hebrew. In fact, an entire tractate of Talmud, 128 pages in length, is devoted to brachot.

On page 120 (Brachot 60b) of the ancient text it is written:

“Abayei said, when one comes out of a privy he should say: Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a man to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders.”

An observant Jew is supposed to recite this blessing in Hebrew after each visit to the bathroom. We young yeshiva students were reminded of our obligation to recite this prayer by the signs that contained its text that were posted just outside the restroom doors.

It is one thing, however, to post these signs and it is quite another to realistically expect preadolescents to have the maturity to realize the wisdom of and need for reciting a 1600-year-old blessing related to bodily functions.

It was not until my second year of medical school that I first began to understand the appropriateness of this short prayer. Pathophysiology brought home to me the terrible consequences of even minor aberrations in the structure and function of the human body, At the very least, I began to no longer take for granted the normalcy of my trips to the bathroom. Instead, I started to realize how many things had to operate just right for these minor interruptions of my daily routine to run smoothly.

asher_yatzar_poster.jpgI thought of Abayei and his blessing. I recalled my days at yeshiva and remembered how silly that sign outside the bathroom had seemed. But after seeing patients whose lives revolved around their dialysis machines, and others with colostomies and urinary catheters, I realized how wise the rabbi had been.

And then it happened: I began to recite Abayei’s bracha. At first I had to go back to my siddur, the Jewish prayer book, to get the text right. With repetition – and there were many opportunities for a novice to get to know this blessing well – I could recite it fluently and with sincerity and understanding.

Over the years, reciting the asher yatzar has become for me and opportunity to offer thanks not just for the proper functioning of my excretory organs, but for my overall good health. The text, after all, refers to catastrophic consequences of the rupture or obstruction of any bodily structure, not only those of the urinary or gastrointestinal tract. Could Abayei, for example, have foreseen that “blockage” of the “cavity,” or lumen, of the coronary artery would lead to the commonest cause of death in industrialized countries some 16 centuries later?

I have often wondered if other people also yearn for some way to express gratitude for their good health. Physicians especially, who are exposed daily to the ravages that illness can wreak, must sometimes feel the need to express thanks for being well and thus well-being. Perhaps a generic, nondenominational asher yatzar could be composed for those who want to verbalize their gratitude for being blessed with good health.

There was one unforgettable patient whose story reinforced the truth and beauty of the asher yatzar for me forever. Josh was a 20-year-old student who sustained an unstable fracture of his third and fourth cervical vertebrae in a motor vehicle crash. He nearly died from his injury and required emergency intubation and ventilatory support. He was initially totally quadriplegic but for weak flexion of his right biceps.

A long and difficult period of stabilization and rehabilitation followed. There were promising signs of neurological recovery over the first few months that came suddenly and unexpectedly: movement of a finger here, flexion of a toe there, return of sensation here, adduction of a muscle group there. With incredible courage, hard work, and an excellent physical therapist, Josh improved day by day. In time, and after what seemed like a miracle, he was able to walk slowly with a leg brace and a cane.

But Josh continued to require intermittent catheterization. I know only too well the problems and perils this young man would face for the rest of his life because of a neurogenic bladder. The urologists were very pessimistic about his chances for not requiring catheterization. They had not seen this occur after a spinal cord injury of this severity.

Then the impossible happened. I was there the day Josh no longer required a urinary catheter. I thought of Abayei’s asher yatzar prayer. Pointing out that I could not imagine a more meaningful scenario for its recitation, I suggested to Josh, who was also a yeshiva graduate, that he say the prayer. He agreed. As he recited the ancient bracha, tears welled in my eyes.

Josh is my son.

Published in: on January 20, 2008 at 8:22 pm  Comments (2)  

Reflecting on the First Advent

Right now it is the Advent season, and we’re supposed to reflect on what it was like to anticipate Christ’s first coming. In my reading, recently I bumped into something that really got me thinking.

One thing I had always wondered about was a theme that you find in the prayers that surround Jesus’ birth. In Zechariah’s song, he rejoices that God has raised up someone who will bring “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Lk 1:71) Who is Zechariah talking about who hates them? And why was Simeon “waiting for the consolation of Israel”? (Lk 2:25) They seem to have some great anxiety, and seem to be imploring God to save them from a great enemy. What was going on around them?

Let’s find out a little more of the history of the time. Remember Herod’s massacre of the infants around Bethlehem? (Mt 2:16) I used to read that as an isolated tragedy, but it actually was typical of the great brutality of Herod and the Romans.

I was especially struck by an incident that happened near Sepphoris, a city just a stone’s throw from Nazareth. If you’ve visited Israel, most likely you’ve walked through its amazing ruins. Scholars say that it’s quite likely Jesus and Joseph walked there each morning and worked in the city because it was so close.

In 4 BC, almost exactly the time of Jesus’ birth, an uprising occurred in Sepphoris.  The Roman responded by scouring the countryside, rounding up two thousand rebels who were crucified. They swept through many of the towns, killing and destroying everything in sight. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, all its surviving inhabitants sold into slavery.

Just imagine, Jesus’ own hands may have chiseled some of the stones that rebuilt Sepphoris. He must have had family friends that told shocking stories of the cruel deaths of their relatives. In his adult ministry, he may have even healed some of their lingering wounds.

For some reason, as I heard about the events of the first advent again I was newly sensitized to the great anguish of Jesus’ people. For a while I’d gotten used to hearing about all the Roman cruelty, and it seemed almost fictional. But then I read one historian liken the Roman government to the Nazis, calling it a “totalitarian regime.” He said that there really was no time in Jewish history that they suffered so much as the first century, outside of the Holocaust. And Jews have suffered a lot over history.

It was really a crisis of faith for them, because in the Old Testament, Israel was punished when it wandered from God. But in Jesus’ time, the most pious were the ones that suffered the most. About a hundred years before Jesus, Greeks tortured and killed Jews for reading the Torah and circumcising their children. And horrors like that kept occurring in his time. In Luke 13, some Galileans report that worshippers who had come to the Temple had been murdered, their blood mixed with their own sacrifices. I can hardly imagine their feelings.

This helps in understanding the groups of people around Jesus, because society was deeply divided by this crisis. The Zealots felt that God wanted them to fight for their freedom, to serve him rather than foreign gods. The Sadducees were wealthy priests who controlled the Temple, who had given up the idea that God would come to their rescue. They, in fact, had sold out to the Romans and were getting wealthy by stealing the tithed money from the Temple. In reaction to the Temple’s corruption, the Essenes abandoned worship there and had secluded themselves to live lives of great ceremonial purity. They were waiting for the day when God would send the Messianic “Teacher of Righteousness” who would call them as the “Sons of Light” to battle the “Sons of Darkness,” which, in their minds, were pretty much everyone else.

Many of the common people, like Jesus’ family and Simeon and Anna, concluded that their best hope for the future lay in prayer and careful obedience to God’s word. A popular movement grew up of laypeople who wanted to pray and study together in their own towns, rather than only worshipping in the Temple. The leaders of this movement were the Pharisees, who were common laborers who distinguished themselves by their devotion to study. You can imagine that at times they might get a little excessive, because they felt like their nation’s life depended on their obedience and piety. But ultimately, Jesus was closest to their way of thinking. And you can imagine how strong people’s feelings were at that time. In times of war, emotions run very high.

Wow. All of a sudden I see why people were longing for a redeemer. And as many times as I’ve piously said, “they were wrong to want a political savior,” I now have great empathy for why they did. Jesus lived in a world as evil as anything in our modern reality, and God sent him right into the middle of the depths of their darkness.

Published in: on December 15, 2007 at 3:27 pm  Comments (1)  

Why did God become a Jewish Rabbi?

Just a little update on my life, and a question for you. A few months ago I told you that I’m working on a book on understanding Jesus in his Jewishness. One of the first chapters has the title “Why did God become a Jewish Rabbi?” Provocative, isn’t it?

I’ve written a lot in the past few years about what it meant that Jesus was a rabbi that fit into the Jewish culture of his day. That idea has really transformed my thinking – that I need to read his words in context, and that he was thoroughly human and part of a culture that we can learn more about.

But I’d like to ask you, the readers of this blog, for your input on this question too. I think most of my readers are old friends and readers of www.egrc.net, and maybe some new folks who’ve bumped into this site through a link. We’re a crowd of folks who are fascinated about digging into the God’s Word, and some have a little knowledge, some have much more.

But now, I’d like to ask you to please tell me, how has it impacted your faith to learn about Jesus as a Jewish rabbi?  What does it mean for us today? What does it say about God? What questions does it bring up in your mind that you never had before?

Published in: on November 12, 2007 at 10:29 am  Comments (4)  

The Bible is Like Star Trek

            Back when I was in school, my friends and I were huge fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Every Monday morning, all we talked about was the previous evening’s new episode. At first we just focused on the science fiction, discussing how Jean-Luke Picard dealt with whatever strange planetary life form that he had encountered that week.

Data            But after a while, we became engrossed in the plots that were interwoven into many episodes and would surface again in later programs. Data and LoreData, the android, would discover one week that his creator had also fashioned an evil twin “brother” named Lore, and weeks later, their relationship would come up in the characters’ conversation. Months later Lore would return, now possessing the “emotion-chip” that Data had dearly desired since he was first built. Over time we saw that key to enjoying the show was paying attention to the crew’s offhand remarks about the past, and then thinking back to how earlier episodes shed light on the current story. Like any well-written series, each program would tell a good story, but a long-time follower would be able to see how the intrigue grew as the plot thickened over time.

            As I learned to read the Bible in its ancient Eastern setting, I discovered that it’s actually a lot like this. Why? Because memory and history were central to the fabric of ancient Eastern culture. The ancients were very aware of ancestral relationships and oral history handed down to them, and used it to understand later events. Especially important to them was the first place they found something, because it usually set up relationships and patterns that would come up again and again.

            Being aware of this has greatly enriched my Bible study, because the Scriptures are written with this in mind. As a child, my Bible story book trained me to read the Scripture as a series of short stories, mostly unrelated, each with its own moral lesson. Only after learning about its Eastern setting did I discover that the Old Testament especially is an epic saga with a delightfully interwoven plot. Sometime the Bible includes stories that hardly seem to be moral examples, and I used to wonder why they were there. But they need to be there to explain the deeper meaning of later events.

            Let’s look at how an ancient person would read the book of Ruth. I used to simply see it as a nice story about a widow who found a good husband because she was kind to her mother-in-law. But if we lived in biblical times, we would be curious about Ruth’s ancestors, and our ears would prick up to the fact that Ruth was a Moabite. Immediately we’d think of the scandalous past of her people, and it would cast her story in a different light. We’d recall that when the weary Israelites were journeying to the Promised Land, the Moabites lured the Israelites into sexual immorality and worshipping idols (Numbers 25:1). From that time on, the Moabites were associated with sexual immorality, even more disgusting because it was how they worshipped their “gods.” Because of that sin, God declared that Moabites were barred from being a part of the assembly of Israel in Deuteronomy 23:3. Was their sin ever forgivable, we’d wonder?

            Then we’d think back to the origins of the Moabites in Genesis 19:30-38. After Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed, we read the not-so-nice story of when Lot’s daughters got their father drunk so that they could become pregnant by him, since their husbands had refused to leave the city and died. One of Lot’s daughters gave birth to a son named Moab, and he became the father of the Moabite people. So that’s why the Moabites are so immoral! This would make complete sense to us, because we’d expect that people would be defined by their ancestry.

            Keeping these ideas in mind, now let’s turn to Ruth. She was a Moabite woman who had returned to Israel with her mother-in-law after her husband died. An ancient listener would immediately wonder, was she as immoral as those who came before her? She said that she would worship the God of Israel, but would God ever accept her? We even find her in the same situation as Lot’s daughters! Like them, she was a widow who desperately needed children. Naomi even told her to approach Boaz when he was sleeping outside by his harvest, after he had eaten (and drunk) his fill. But unlike her ancestors, Boaz proclaimed that she was a virtuous woman (Ruth 3:10). He then married her, and her son became the grandfather of King David. Not only that, but Ruth even appears in Matthew 1:5 as part of the line of Christ! She turned from her people’s unseemly past to embrace the God of Israel. Not only did he accept her and cleanse her from her history, but he gave her a key role in his supreme act of salvation! Those of us who struggle with an embarrassing family history or an immoral past should rejoice to see how God redeemed Ruth and used her for his wonderful purposes.

            Understanding how texts interrelate has given me a whole new perspective on reading the Bible. When I used to read the stories by themselves, some of them frustrated me because they didn’t show me how to live. But the difficult ones have a far deeper purpose. They illustrate how the terrible sinfulness of man runs throughout history, but then how God graciously intervened to bring Christ into the world. We need to read with the eyes of an ancient person in order to see how that message is woven into the fabric of the Bible from beginning to end.

Published in: on November 10, 2007 at 9:50 am  Comments (2)  

Say Little, Do Much

“What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work today in the vineyard.’  ‘I will not,’ he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, ‘I will, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did what his father wanted?” Matthew 21:28-31

 The rabbis were delightfully sensitive to the little details in each biblical story. And their favorite stories were those of the patriarchs, who they considered superheroes of faith. Certainly, they thought, we can learn from them how to live.

Listen to what they found in the story of Abraham and his heavenly visitors in Genesis 18. When three strangers came to Abraham’s door he said, “Let a little water be brought, and then you may all wash your feet and rest under this tree. Let me get you something to eat, so you can be refreshed and then go on your way—now that you have come to your servant” (vs. 4-5).

But then he told Sarah to kneed three seahs (about 25 quarts!) of fine their finest flour into bread. He next ran out to his herd and chose one of his best calves, choice and tender, and found a servant to prepare it. And then he brought some curds and fresh milk too. It would have taken most of a day to prepare this luscious feast. The bread would need to rise and the calf would need to roast for hours. I think there would have been enough food for fifty people or more.

Abraham had no idea who these strangers were who came to his door, and all he promised them was a little water and just a bite to eat to tide them over for their trip. Instead, he rolled out the red carpet and prepared a luxurious feast for them. Wow.

The great rabbi Shammai, who lived about fifty years before Jesus, shared an excellent comment on how to live by Abraham’s example: Say little, do much. (Pirke Avot 1:15) A later rabbi added, “What does this mean? It teaches that the righteous say little and do much, whereas the wicked say much and do not even a little.” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 13:3)

Jesus said a similar thing when he told the parable about the two sons in Matthew 21, above. One son had the shocking chutzpah to say “no” to his father, something a son didn’t do back in those days! But then he went and did what he was told. The other respectfully said, “Yes, sir!” And then he didn’t actually do what he was supposed to.

I’ve been feeling convicted about this in my own life recently because for various reasons, I’ve said that I’d do things and then had to back out of them. Or I forgot my words in the midst of the other things that became important later. Or I’ve simply changed my mind. If I have a good reason, I apologize and usually people forgive me. If I forget, it just doesn’t get done, and in my mind I think, “Well it must not have been too important – maybe the other person won’t mind.”

Then I remembered one friend who made some exciting plans with me. I was very enthusiastic about what we’d do together, but then he cancelled out later. And then he did it more than once! I admit that I was irritated at him for years. It wasn’t until that I saw myself in him that I got over my anger. In his mind he genuinely wanted to do the thing he promised when he made the promise, just like I did. We were both a bundle of good intentions! But good intentions aren’t the same as follow-through.

As much as I see it in myself, it seems to be a common trait among us nowadays. I wonder if it isn’t part of our culture. I read a booklet for newly-arrived international students that said, “When Americans tell you, ‘We will have you over to our house for supper some time’, don’t be too disappointed if they don’t invite you the next week. They may not ever invite you, but this is just their way of voicing their general intentions of welcome.” I imagine that this advice came out of the experience of many an international student who felt crushed and angry when their phone didn’t ring. I may have even issued some of those “mock invitations” myself.

As it says in Proverbs 25:14, Like clouds and wind without rain is a man who boasts of gifts he does not give.

In the future, I am making an effort to live by Shammai’s words: Say little, and do much.

Published in: on October 21, 2007 at 11:19 am  Comments (2)  

The Greatest Day of the Feast

This past week has been a week of great celebration among the Jewish people. On the biblical calendar the past seven days were the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot. In Lev 23:  God tells his people in the fall to bring the fruits of the harvest to the temple and commands them to rejoice and give thanks. He also tells them to build a sukkah, a tabernacle or booth, and live in it for seven days. This is so that in the midst of their harvest that they remember that it isn’t their own strength that sustains them, but by God’s loving hand.

Western Seminary Sukkah

This past week I celebrated this with the Hebrew class at Western Seminary here in Holland. They built a sukkah last Friday in class!  This is the first sukkah ever built at this seminary of the Reformed Church of America, so it was a historic occasion. As is traditional, it is made out of temporary materials and the roof is made only of branches, and one side is left open, to emphasize the fragileness of the human condition. You are supposed to be able to see at least one star through the roof. It blew over on the seventh day, which seems completely appropriate!

Today the Hebrew class celebrated the Hoshana Rabbah, what John 7:38 calls last and greatest day of the feast. This is a day that is filled with fervent prayers for rain. In Jesus’ day, there was a great water libation ceremony in the temple, and hundreds of thousands of people would crowd into the temple, beating their willow branches and shouting “Hosha-na” meaning, “Save us, we plead!” You have to remember that in Israel, there has not been one drop of rain since April, and the very lives of the people depend on the early rains of fall to come. Our class read the words of Joel 1: 10-12 to picture the emotions of the Hebrews there:

10 The fields are ruined,
       the ground is dried up ;
       the grain is destroyed,
       the new wine is dried up,
       the oil fails.

 11 Despair, you farmers,
       wail, you vine growers;
       grieve for the wheat and the barley,
       because the harvest of the field is destroyed.

 12 The vine is dried up
       and the fig tree is withered;
       the pomegranate, the palm and the apple tree—
       all the trees of the field—are dried up.
       Surely the joy of mankind
       is withered away.

And then we read the promise in Joel 2 that if the people would repent, God would send rain and save their lives and give them food. And then, God promised that he would pour out his Spirit on his people too!

12 “Even now,” declares the LORD,
       “return to me with all your heart,
       with fasting and weeping and mourning.”

 13 Rend your heart
       and not your garments.
       Return to the LORD your God,
       for he is gracious and compassionate,
       slow to anger and abounding in love,
       and he relents from sending calamity.

 23 Be glad, O people of Zion,
       rejoice in the LORD your God,
       for he has given you
       the autumn rains in righteousness.
       He sends you abundant showers,
       both autumn and spring rains, as before.

 24 The threshing floors will be filled with grain;
       the vats will overflow with new wine and oil.

 28 “And afterward,
       I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
       Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
       your old men will dream dreams,
       your young men will see visions.

 29 Even on my servants, both men and women,
       I will pour out my Spirit in those days.

 Then we took the branches from our blown down sukkah and we beat them as we shouted a liturgy from a modern Jewish prayer book, with “Hoshana” at the end of each line. You can see an example of the kind of prayers they pray here. They go on for 30 pages!

Then, the professor, Tom Boogaart stood and read what Jesus shouted in John 7:38-39:

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.

Wow! You can see how Jesus is pulling in the prophecy to point toward the coming of the Spirit on Pentecost. He brings all these ancient prayers together and then shows how he is the fulfillment of them.

Finally, our class celebrated by dancing to the song U’shavtem Mayim. The Hebrew of the song means “We draw water with joy from the wells of salvation!” (Isaiah 12:2) We formed two circles and kicked up our heels to dance with joy at how God poured out his Living Water on the earth through Jesus. I didn’t get a picture of us, but if you want to see this dance performed go to this link.

What an amazing celebration! The Talmud says, “He who has not see the joy of the Hoshana Rabbah has not seen joy at all in his life.” How very true!

Published in: on October 5, 2007 at 1:31 pm  Comments Off on The Greatest Day of the Feast  

Doing Our Part

…Then [the king] sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. The first one came and said, “Sir, your mina has earned ten more.”  “Well done, my good servant!” his master replied. “Because you have been trustworthy in a very small matter, take charge of ten cities.”… Luke 19:15-17

I heard today about a girl who dreams of a career in music, and feels that God has given her as his vision of her life. But yet she is flunking her college music classes, partially because she hasn’t been buying the required books, because she wants to save money. Money is really tight and she’s going through a lot of personal issues. But yet, she’s actually retaking a class she flunked before because she didn’t buy the books. How does that save money?

What hit me is that she also has a somewhat flawed theology. I think her picture is that God is going to take her to the heights of success, and if she expends any effort, it won’t be in God’s plan. She sees her college profs who fail her as her enemies, thwarting God’s will. And she should just do nothing, waiting in faith for when her magical ship comes in. I know I’ve fallen into this kind of thinking myself.

I think Jesus’ parable of the minas addresses this. A king gave three servants a mina, which is coin weighing a pound of silver. One works very hard to use it and earns ten more. One works moderately hard and earns five more. One hates the king and sees the mina not as an opportunity but as a chore, and he buries it. When the king returns he puts the most industrious one in charge of ten cities, and the next in charge of five cities. The last must give up his mina, and it is given to the first, who’ll actually put it to use.

What hits me is that when God gives us something to do with our lives, its like a mina. We can hit the ground running with it, or we can do a half hearted job. Or we can assume God is evil and that he’s just giving us a terrible burden, and go bury it. The effort that we expend to reach God’s goals for us he will magnify a million times over. But we actually have to do our part! Working hard toward on something does not rob God of his glory, it submits to his will.

It hits me that actually God is being kind towards the servants in what he gives them. The industrious one will enjoy his position in charge of ten cities, but the half hearted one would find the task of running ten cities to be too much. Five cities is plenty for the effort that he feels like expending. The guy who didn’t want to do anything with the burden of investing a mina certainly won’t want to deal with the burden of running a city, so in a sense, he gets what he most desires. It’s like the king was giving them a little taste of a bigger gift and responsibility, to see if they really wanted it. I’m sure that in the same way, the woman who won’t do her homework now probably won’t enjoy the hours of practice and preparation that a career in music requires.

In the world to come, there will be good things to do, and Jesus speaks about a reward for those who have served him. Doesn’t that make you want to get to work?

Published in: on September 27, 2007 at 7:07 am  Comments Off on Doing Our Part