Lost In Translation: God Thought Good
By Julia BlumDecember 22, 2021One comment
For I Know The Thoughts That I Think Toward You
In our last portion, VeYigash, we witnessed the climax of Joseph’s saga – when Joseph “could not restrain” himself and revealed his identity to his brothers – a very happy ending to a very dramatic story. It seems that the story is over now, so why do we still have a few more chapters in Genesis? Why do we have another Torah Portion? Have you ever asked this question? I certainly have!
Of course, there are many things we can say about Vayechi (as about every Torah portion). However, I want to point out some details that answered that question for me – and I hope will provide an answer for you as well. I want to start with the amazing words that Joseph says to his brothers after his father’s death. We read that “when Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “Perhaps Joseph will hate us, and may actually repay us for all the evil which we did to him.” They sent a message to Joseph, begging him again to forgive them, and “Joseph wept when they spoke to him”. Then “Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid, for am I in the place of God? But as for you, you meant evil against me; but God meant it for good”
The words in bold are amazing, aren’t they? Toward the very end of this book – like a seal on the story of Joseph, on the book of Genesis, and also on this about-to-end year of our lives – we hear: “God meant it for good”. Even in translation, these words are deeply meaningful; however, when we read them in Hebrew, their plain and straight meaning is just stunning! Literally, Joseph is saying: you thought bad, God thought good. It is so simple – and so profound at the same time! Both in Bible and in our lives, God always carries out His plan: not only through people’s strengths and faith but also through their weaknesses and mistakes. It’s a wonderful feeling when one can look back at the year that is about to end, see all the mistakes and misdeeds that each one of us has done or experienced this year, look forward to the coming year, and trust that the Lord can work out His good even from our mistakes: God thought good.
For Your Salvation I Wait, O Lord!
I would like to bring to your attention yet another interesting detail in this portion, but in order to understand the significance of this detail, I need to quote the New Testament. In the Gospel of Luke, after the return of the disciples, who rejoice that the demons are subject to them, Jesus thanks the Father and says to the disciples: “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it”. What exactly did he mean? What did they desire to see and hear – these kings and prophets? Can we state that many Jews in the first century believed that some of their ancients desired to see the Days of the Messiah?
To answer this question, we are going to use some Targums here. Targums are the free Aramaic renderings of the Old Testament for use in the synagogue – and in spite of the late dates of the final redaction of these texts, they usually represent the interpretative tradition of the Second Temple Judaism. It’s really interesting to see how Jesus’ contemporaries read these last chapters of Genesis.
In Gen.49:1, we read that “Jacob called his sons and said, “Gather together, that I may tell you what shall befall you in the last days”. Jewish tradition frequently comments on Jacob’s attempt to reveal “the End” (ketz). The Palestinian Targum says that the vision of the Days of the Messiah was desired by Jacob, but was withheld from him. In Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, 49.1, we read that Jacob called his sons and said to them, “Purify yourselves from uncleanness, and I will tell you the concealed secrets, the hidden times, the giving of the reward of the righteous, the punishment of the wicked, and what the happiness of Eden will be,” The twelve tribes of Israel were gathered together surrounding the golden bed on which he was lying, but as soon as the Glory of Shekinah of the Lord was revealed, the time in which the King Messiah was destined to come was hidden from him”. Again, Targum Neofiti paraphrases it slightly: “As soon as the end was revealed to him, the mystery was hidden from him… As soon as the mystery was revealed to him, it was hidden from him and as soon as the door was opened to him it was closed from him.”
Now we can see the words of Jesus in their proper Jewish context. “Jesus taught in the milieu of early Judaism, and therefore … he employed religious language from this milieu which would have been familiar to the various and non-expert Jewish audiences he primarily addressed.” Turning to his disciples, in his speech in Luke 10.21-24 Jesus uses the common language and refers to the common idea: all of you know what the kings and the prophets (beginning from the Patriarch Jacob, as we just saw) were waiting for – they were waiting for the days of Messiah. Now these long-awaited days are happening right before your eyes: the Messiah has come!
Christmas Torah Portion
So, in a sense, this Torah Portion is a perfect fit for the coming Christmas – the Christmas Torah Portion. I know, some of my readers would smile skeptically at this title: the statement that “Christmas is a pagan holiday” is so popular nowadays that many people prefer to have nothing to do with Christmas – and definitely would not expect Christmas to be mentioned on an Israeli Biblical studies blog. Yes, there is nothing to argue about, Christmas is a festival established by men – but so is the Torah reading cycle, isn’t it? Yet, I happen to believe that the weekly Torah portions are divinely ordained and that God speaks to His people, and to each one of us personally, through these portions of Scripture—Parashot Shavua. In the same way, through this humanly established holiday of Christmas, those who have ears can hear God’s message! So, let us hear the message of Christmas in our Torah Portion!
Once again, we are in Genesis 49, where Jacob pronounces blessings (or rather prophetic words – because not all his words were a blessing) upon each of his sons. When he blessed Judah, he said: his “brothers shall praise” him. We have spoken a lot about Judah on these pages—about the fact that, by the end of the book, the story of “Joseph and his brothers” becomes the story of “Judah and his brothers”. We also spoke about the amazing authority that we see in Judah throughout this whole story (starting from chapter 37, where even in the midst of the terrible crime of the brothers, the voice of Judah is decisive) – and therefore, we should not be surprised to hear Jacob describe Judah’s authority as given directly by God. But then, he declared that Judah would be a lion, powerful and strong to destroy his enemies, and also a cub – which we would imagine as weak and helpless. How are we to reconcile these two images?
I would like to remind you of an amazing scene from chapter 5 of the Book of Revelation, where John, who is weeping over the sealed book, is told: “Do not weep. Behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has prevailed to open the scroll and to loose its seven seals.” Hearing this, he turns around, expecting to see the victorious Lion, and suddenly, instead of a Lion, he sees a Lamb as though it had been slain. Can you imagine? You’re expecting to see a Lion: strong, powerful, and victorious, but instead of a Lion, you see a Lamb: meek, innocent, helpless, and as though it had been slain at that. This is such an incredible substitution that only He Himself can confirm that this Lamb was indeed sent by Him—and that it is the Lion Himself. The words of Jacob here are very similar—their prophetic meaning is the same: Judah would be both the cub and the lion.
Commenting on these words, Rashi writes: “He prophesized about David, who was at first like a cub, and in the end a lion, when they made him king over them.” However, there is another hint in the prophecy of Jacob that makes it possible that these words reach beyond King David:
“The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
Nor a lawgiver from between his feet,
Until Shiloh comes;
And to Him shall be the obedience of the people”.
What is Shiloh? Or who is Shiloh? In the entire Tanach (Old Testament) this word occurs only once – here, in this verse, and the meaning of the word, as well as its origin, is not clear. You probably know the Christian interpretation, but let me share with you what the Jewish commentators wrote about Shiloh.
Rashi: “[This refers to] the King Messiah, to whom the kingdom belongs (שֶׁלוֹ), and so did Onkelos render it: [until the Messiah comes, to whom the kingdom belongs]. According to the Midrash Aggadah, [“Shiloh” is a combination of] שַׁי לוֹ, a gift to him, as it is said: “they will bring a gift to him who is to be feared” (Ps. 76:12).
Can you see now why we can call this Parashah, “Christmas Torah portion”? Jacob is prophesying of the coming of Messiah who will be both a cub and a lion – and to whom “shall be the obedience of the people.” Isn’t this the message of Christmas?
Merry Christmas to all my precious readers!
May your hearts and your homes be filled with His Joy and His Light!