Do, and Then Understand

This morning during a Bible study we were discussing the word shema, which is Hebrew for hear or listen. It also means much more than that, including to heed, respond, understand and even to obey. In fact the phrase to “listen to the voice of” is an idiom that means “to obey.”

There’s a fascinating rabbinic idea that is associated with the multiple meanings of the word shema. In Exodus 24:7, when Moses reads Israel the covenant, they respond by saying, “All the Lord has spoken we will do (asah) and we will hear (shema.) I think the literal understanding is that the two verbs are supposed to be synonymous – both meaning to obey.

But the rabbis loved to play with the language, and see what more they can learn from the Bible from reading the text from every angle. So they meditated a lot on this odd phrase “we will do and we will hear,” which is well known: “na’aseh v’nishmah.” They pointed out that the order seems backward – wouldn’t you first listen to commands and then do them, rather than doing them before you listen? They came up with the story that God went to all the nations of the world and offered to make a covenant with them, but they all wanted to listen to his commands first. When they did, they all turned God down, saying that all those laws were just too restraining. Only Israel impulsively said, we’ll do it! Now tell us want us to do! It was because of their faith that they pledged to be obedient even before knowing what they were getting into.

But as is typical with the rabbis there is a completely different interpretation that exists right along with this one. The word “shema” can also mean to understand. So, another spin on the phrase na’aseh v’nishmah is the idea that first you do what God asks without fully knowing why, and only later do you understand why.

I’m sure I’m the last person in the world to do things that don’t make sense just because someone told me to. But actually, now I’m seeing how this is really true. About a week ago I blogged about a discovery that I made when I took part in a Passover Seder at my church, how I got really sleepy afterward, just like the disciples. And how this actually was important for understanding who was behind Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion!

Another time was back when I was in college. Being a typical girl, I gossiped about everyone, using the classic rationalization that I should deal with my frustrations by seeking the counsel of friends. I remember feeling the Lord convicting me. Of course I still struggle and am not perfect, but after a while of being intentional about not gossiping, I discovered some things. One was that I became calmer, because I didn’t have to worry that someone had heard something or that my email got forwarded on to the wrong person. Another that my friends were closer to each other, because my constant complants about one to the other was driving them apart as friends. I’m hardly done learning this lesson, but many of the things I’ve learned only after experienceing the effects of my own obedience.

Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised at how often God teaches me when I’m humble enough to do something that he asks. God loves to teach experientially – through your hands and feet, not just through your head. So every year he tells people to live in a hut outside for seven days in order to feel what it was like to follow him in tents in the wilderness. And he tells Abraham to sacrifice his son, knowing that it would be two thousand years before God would use this to help people understand how he gave his own son as a sacrifice for our sins.

What else would he teach me, if I would only humble myself to obey him a little more?

Published in: on April 14, 2007 at 8:21 pm  Comments Off on Do, and Then Understand  

The Torah’s Best-Kept Secret: Sanctification of the Lord’s Day

(Guest article by Jonathan Miles – more about him below)

Ask any Christian familiar with the Hebraic roots of their faith: what day of the week is uniquely set apart by the Hebrew Scriptures? The Sabbath, of course. All other holy days, because they are fixed by the combined lunar-solar Hebrew calender, fall on a different day of the week each year. Or do they?

This week, as followers of Jesus remember his last Passover meal, arrest, and crucifixion, and celebrate his resurrection on the day after the Sabbath (now called in his honor the Lord’s Day), let’s look again at what the Torah actually says about the Feast of Firstfruits which falls during the Passover week:

Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: ‘When you come into the land which I give to you, and reap its harvest, then you shall bring a sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest. He shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, to be accepted on your behalf; on the day after the Sabbath the priest shall wave it.’ (Lev. 23:10-11)

Our hearts leap to realize that it was on this very day, the day after the Sabbath of Passover, that Jesus was raised from the dead, accepted on our behalf as “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” in Paul’s words. And the subsequent verses in the Leviticus passage make clear that this Torah holy day on the first day of the week begins the countdown to the next major holy day, the Feast of Weeks, when the Holy Spirit was outpoured:

And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD.

So a second Torah holy day, the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, also falls each year on the first day of the week, seven sevens or seven weeks following the resurrection on First Fruits! This is an unheard-of emphasis in the Hebrew scriptures themselves on a day of the week other than the Sabbath. The text is fairly shouting at us. Why, then, have we not heard of it?

While the intent of the text seems plain that these holy days fall on the first day of the week, rabbinic Judaism follows a tradition which claims that the “Sabbath” spoken of in Leviticus 23 actually refers to the first day of Passover, which falls on a different day each year. This is a forced and difficult reading of the text, and nowhere else in the Hebrew scriptures is “Sabbath” used in this sense.

And fascinatingly, until the time of Jesus there was no consensus on this tradition. The Sadducees, who controlled the Temple ritual, championed the straightforward reading of the text, meaning that in Jesus’ time Firstfruits and Weeks were in fact celebrated on the first day of the week. It was the Pharisees who argued against this special distinction for the first day of the week, and their view prevailed after they led the majority to reject belief in the resurrection of the Messiah on this day. Could their insistence on this point even have been part of the developing polemic against those Jews who did see Jesus’ resurrection as the fulfillment to which the Feast of Firstfruits pointed?

Notably, to this day the Karaite stream of Judaism, which rejects tradition and holds to a literal reading of the Torah, insists on celebrating the feasts of Firstfruits and Weeks on the first day of the week.

Food for thought, and praise, as we once again await the dawn of the Lord’s Day.

Jonathan Miles is the founder of Shevet Achim, a Christian ministry in Jerusalem that brings children from surrounding Muslim nations to Israel for lifesaving heart surgeries. When Jewish doctors and nurses save the lives of children from Gaza and Iraq, this obedience to Christ’s command to “love your enemies” has a powerful impact on the Muslim family and all who know them. (The photo is of their Iraqi guests visiting the Garden Tomb, a traditional location for where Jesus arose from the dead.)

Published in: on April 11, 2007 at 7:44 pm  Comments Off on The Torah’s Best-Kept Secret: Sanctification of the Lord’s Day  

Re-Living the Disciples’ Sleepiness

It’s Maundy Thursday today, and this always makes me think back to a discovery I made a few years ago on this day.

I was helping with setting up for a Seder meal at my church before our Maundy Thursday service. We spent the afternoon making plates of parsley and horseradish and decorating the tables, and by the time we sat down for the ceremony, I was absolutely famished. Waiting through the long Seder liturgy was torture. When we could finally eat our simple meal of stew and matza, I certainly feasted! Afterward I helped with clean-up and then slipped into the Maundy Thursday service that had already started. The Tenebrae service was mournful and solemn, and the lights gradually dimmed to complete darkness.

Right then I experienced just what the disciples did – I got terribly sleepy after being famished and then overeating! As the light waned, my eyelids drooped lower and lower. I could just hear Jesus saying, “Could you not watch with me just one hour?” It was fascinating to live through the same sensations as the disciples had that night. In fact, they would have been much more sleepy than me, I’m sure. Traditional Passovers start at sunset and go well past midnight, with a huge meal accompanied by four cups of wine. Certainly the disciples and every observant Jew wanted to crawl straight into bed after the late-night feast ended.

That led to another insight that really clarified my understanding of Jesus’ arrest and trial. I didn’t see why Judas needed to help the authorities find Jesus, and why he left right during the supper, and why they decided to arrest Jesus when he came out to the garden. The reason was that Jesus was enormously popular with the masses that whole week after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He was staying in a hidden location outside of town in order to get away from the crowds and the threat of the authorities. (See John 11:48-57)

The priests knew they couldn’t lay a hand on him because of his enormous popularity, and the only time they could get to him was when all observant Jews would have been at home asleep after Passover. Jesus’ arrest, trial and sentencing all occured during the wee hours, when the throngs of his supporters were in bed. The only people around to shout “crucify” in the early morning would have been the crowd of corrupt priests and Roman soldiers who had wanted to kill him. (See the article “New Light on Jesus’ Last Week” at

This made everything make more sense – I used to think that the same crowds who loved him one week earlier hated him that day. But reading the Gospel accounts more closely makes it clear that he was popular with the masses even after his death. One Jewish scholar believes that far from being rejected by his people, there was an enormously positive response to him. Now when I read Paul talking about why the Jews did not believe in him, I think he is actually talking about why every last Jew didn’t see that he was the Messiah, rather than why none of them understood that he was the Messiah. According to Acts 21:20, tens of thousands of Jews believed in him in Jerusalem alone!

Certainly Jesus died for the sins of the world that night, and God was completely in control of those events so long ago. But living through a Passover has taught me that Jesus’ secret arrest and conviction while the masses slept was carried out by a small group of corrupt officials rather than by the Jewish people as a whole.

Published in: on April 5, 2007 at 3:20 pm  Comments Off on Re-Living the Disciples’ Sleepiness  

Thinking about Resurrection on Passover

For my Hebrew class I was reading Ezekiel 37 today – the passage about the valley of dry bones, where God resurrects the dead and fills them with his Spirit. It says:

Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones and say to them, ‘Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life. (vs 4-5)

After that vision, the prophecy talks about how he will regather the resurrected from Israel and will fill them with his Spirit, and will make a permanent covenant of peace with them. And then it describes how the Messianic King “David” will rule over them forever:

My servant David will be king over them, and they will all have one shepherd. They will follow my laws and be careful to keep my decrees…25 They and their children and their children’s children will live there forever, and David my servant will be their prince forever. 26 I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. … 27 My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people.

This prophecy is of course a metaphor of the hope for God to come and redeem Israel again, and it is not read as literal. But my understanding is that was taken literally in the time of Jesus, and likely was the scriptural source for the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. There was quite a debate going on between Sadducees who didn’t believe in resurrection and the Pharisees who did, and of course Jesus defended the Pharisee’s position.

What I find fascinating is that its vision of the kingdom of the Messianic king is one of a resurrected people living in the presence of God forever, and this sounds like Paul talking about us dying with Christ and having new life forever with him.

Also, there is an obvious connection to make to Isaiah 53, which is about God’s suffering servant. He dies for the sins of his people, but then he is resurrected and given a great reward. In Ezekiel 37: 24 it talks about “my servant David” ruling over them. (“David” refers to the messianic “son of David” – this prophecy is much after the time that King David lived.) Doesn’t it make sense that the King of this eternal kingdom is the “servant” of Isaiah 53, who is the first to be resurrected among a people who will be resurrected?

Wow. There is the gospel, right there.

And then also, it talks about making an “everlasting covenant” with this people and I think of Jesus at the last supper declaring a “new covenant” in his blood.

Here’s one last neat thing – Ezekiel 37 is the reading for Shabbat during the week of Passover, because Passover is expected to be the time when God’s final redemption will appear. (Of course we know that this is Jesus’ death and resurrection.) So even today the Jewish people read about resurrection during Passover and pray for redemption to come. Hmmm.

Published in: on March 31, 2007 at 10:31 am  Comments (4)  

Passover Discovery #1 – The Moon is Watching

It is interesting how many insights on the Bible we can discover just through personal experience, once you become curious and observant.

I’ve known for a long time that the Jewish calendar is a lunar calendar, and that the month begins on the new moon. But it wasn’t until a lot later that I made the simple observation that you can always tell the date of the month (approximately) by just looking at the phase of the moon. I live in cloudy Michigan where you can’t see the moon that often, but in Israel, you can see it most of the time.

After a while of looking at the moon every night, I also realized that started to seem like a clock or a sundial to me – each night you look up and its a little different, and you know that time is slipping by. What the sun’s movement does to show passage of the hour, the moon does to show the passage of the days.

On Passover the moon is always full, because it falls on the 14th of the month.

Since I’ve discovered that, it has always put me in a meditative mood.

Published in: on March 28, 2007 at 11:05 am  Leave a Comment  

A Taste of Hebrew

I just thought I’d share a piece I wrote for the introduction of a book on Hebrew words. Enjoy.

Fresh pita bread made by the Bedouins is out of this world—chewy and hot, crispy in spots, and a little smoky from the open fire. When a veiled woman with a wizened face thrusts it piping hot into your hands, you need to rip off a piece and pass it on before your fingers burn. Smeared with olive oil and dried hyssop, it is nothing like you’ve ever tasted before.

The Bible’s Hebrew words are exactly the same way. They are aromatic and savory from the dusty, ancient land of their origin. Out of necessity for us to read them today, they’ve had to be preserved and then packaged in English sentences that are palatable to modern readers. Yet, some of their more subtle flavors simply don’t travel well across languages and time, even if their “nutritional value” hasn’t changed. In order to really experience the breadth of expression of the Bible’s original words, you have to travel back mentally into their original Middle-Eastern Jewish setting.

Hebrew is an extremely rich, poetic language that looks at the world in very different ways than English. Grasping the depth of even a few words greatly clarifies and enriches reading, and casts new light on things that you thought you understood. You’ll see humor, irony and timeless wisdom where you passed it by before. And often, knowing the original, fuller sense of a biblical idea will challenge and change you, when its ancient wisdom puts your life into the perspective of God’s eternal Word.

Surprisingly, the richness of Hebrew comes from its poverty. Because this ancient language has far fewer words than English or Greek, each word is like an over-stuffed suitcase, bulging with extra meanings that it must carry in order for the language to fully describe reality. Unpacking each word is a delightful exercise in seeing how the ancient authors organized ideas in very different ways than we do – when they used the same word for “work” as for “worship,” and the same word for “listen” as “obey.”

Similarly, the beautiful imagery of Hebrew comes from its lack of words as well. Largely without abstractions, the language is firmly rooted in the real world of the physical senses. Without a word for “stubborn,” it uses “stiff-necked,” evoking the picture of putting a yoke on an unwilling ox. Without the word “stingy,” it speaks of being “tight-fisted,” or of having a “bad eye”—being unable to see the needs of the person right in front of you. Living without abstract words did not prevent the Bible’s writers from expressing profound thoughts, but instead caused them to paint colorful word-pictures and tell clever parables instead.

Right now I’m working on some proposals to submit to publishers for this book and another. I’ll keep you updated!

Published in: on March 26, 2007 at 7:47 am  Comments Off on A Taste of Hebrew