Is something missing?

“And these are the generations of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham begot Isaac(VaEile toledot Izhak) this is the beginning of the new Torah Portion, Toledot. These very words, VaEile toledot, occur eleven times in the book of Genesis, serving as a heading for its major divisions and “making descent a keystone of biblical history”[1]. Eleven? Wouldn’t you expect it to be twelve? It’s as if some Toledot – some genealogy – is missing there. This feeling is amplified when we realize that we have Toledot of everyone in Genesis—of Adam, Noah and the sons of Noah,  Terah (Abraham’s Father), Isaac and  Ishmael (Abraham’s sons), Jacob, of Esau and many others—however, we don’t have Toledot of Abraham. There are no Toledot of the most important person in Jewish history, and even though it’s easy for us to follow Abraham’s genealogy, the Torah never says: these are the generations of Abraham… Why? What is the message of these missing Toledot?

Unlike Isaac or Ishmael, Jacob or Esau, Abraham didn’t grow up in a family that knew and worshipped God. The missing Toledot of Abraham makes it very clear: the story and the history of Abraham begin from his personal search and personal revelation. Yes, God builds the whole nation from Abraham, but the beginning of this building is very abrupt, it starts from God’s personal intervention.  And this is in fact, the message of these missing Toledot: to everyone – even to those who grew up in completely dysfunctional or atheistic families – Abraham can say, I was just like you!

Like Father, Like Son?  

This portion begins right after the death of Abraham, and one might expect that now the Bible’s attention would switch to Isaac. However, it shifts almost immediately to Isaac’s children. Of all the three patriarchs, Isaac’s personality is the least clearly defined, so much in his life looks like a repetition of Abraham’s experience – therefore, in the eyes of many students of the Bible, Isaac is just a link between Abraham and Jacob. However, I personally think that Scripture depicts Isaac as a very real product of real circumstances. He was the child of his parents’ old age and was probably overprotected in his youth. His mother was a woman of strong character, his father’s great status must have appeared almost intimidating to his son. He lost his stepbrother, whom I believe he loved deeply. On top of it all, he was nearly killed by his father. Traumatic experiences seem to have followed him, so it’s no wonder that, as a result of all his sufferings and traumas, Isaac became a reflective, thoughtful, quiet person. Like everything else, it had both positive and negative connotations: He was probably emotional and tender, and that’s what we see in his relationship with Rebecca, but it could also mean that he was a weak person, and that’s what we see in his parenthood.

How do we know that Isaac was a tender husband? There is a verse in our portion that always touches my heart: “Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer…” This verse provides us a glimpse into this marriage, into this couple’s very close and intimate relationship. Both Sarah, Abraham’s wife, and Rachel, Jacob’s wife, were also barren, yet we don’t hear a single word in Scripture telling of their husbands praying for them. Moreover, Isaac’s prayer was very special: the word “prayed” here (in many translations it’s “pleaded”) renders the Hebrew word יֶעְתַּר (ye’etar) and is derived from the same root that is used in the second half of this verse, when “the LORD answered his prayer”.  Isaac pleaded (וַיֶּעְתַּ֙ר יִצְחָ֤ק) with the LORD, and the LORD pleaded back in answer to his plea (וַיֵּעָ֤תֶר לוֹ֙ יְהוָ֔ה). This whole dynamic between Isaac’s plea and the Lord’s answer is completely lost in translation – and yet, it’s precisely this dynamic, this passionate commitment to continue and press on, that brought the desired result: the LORD answered him and Rebecca his wife conceived. Rashi writes: “He (God) allowed Himself to be entreated and placated and swayed by him.”

Was Isaac Really Deceived?

Was Isaac also a good father? Scripture tells us about obvious parental favoritism in Isaac and Rebekah’s family. Remarkably, we don’t find here any judgment or any explanation: the Torah doesn’t justify, doesn’t excuse, doesn’t provide any comment at all – it simply states the facts:Isaac loved Esau … but Rebekah loved Jacob[2] – and we are left to wonder why. As always, Hebrew can help us here.

While most English translations call Esau “a man of the outdoors”, the original Hebrew text calls him “a man of a field”. This difference is important. Unlike his parents, Isaac was born in the Land, stayed in the Land his whole life, and at some point, he became the first farmer in his family: he sowed and reaped and became extremely blessed in that: “Then Isaac sowed in that land, and reaped in the same year a hundredfold, and the Lord blessed him.”[3] Probably, that’s why Isaac loved Esau – they were both men of the field: “Oh, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field which the LORD has blessed.”[4] The field is a symbol of the one who loves the land and nature, and Isaac and Esau probably spent a lot of time together outdoors, in the fields. I believe this is how their special bond was developed. But to see this, one has to know that in the original Hebrew text, Esau is called: “a man of a field”.

Everyone knows the story of Jacob pretending to be Esau and thus, through deceit, obtaining Isaac’s blessing. There have been endless disputes and discussions as to whether such deception was an acceptable means to achieve God’s purpose. Throughout the centuries, artists have painted expressive pictures depicting old, blind, and helpless Isaac, mistakenly blessing Jacob instead of Esau. However, was Isaac deceived?

Before answering this question, let’s read a short verse at the end of Genesis 26: when Esau was 40 years old, he took two local wives and they were a grief of mind to Isaac and Rebekah”. This expression, “grief of mind”, renders the Hebrew expression marat ruah – literally, “bitterness of the spirit”. Thus, for a Hebrew reader, it’s very clear that these wives were a very serious source of frustration to both Isaac and Rebecca.

However, it was only after Isaac sent Jacob off to Padan-aram to take a wife from there, that the Torah shows us Esau realizing that “that the daughters of Canaan did not please his father Isaac”. Many years had passed since Esau took himself these wives (more than 30 years, according to some calculations), and evidently, over all these years, Isaac was not able to face Esau and tell him how unhappy he was with his choice. Having this special bond with Esau, soft and quiet Isaac is not able to face him with any disappointing or challenging truth.

Thus, we can read the story of the “stolen blessing” in a very different way. Maybe Isaac knows very well that the blessing belongs to Jacob, but he just couldn’t face his beloved son with this message. Jacob’s lie comes as a godsend: Isaac pretends to be deceived, all the while being aware of Jacob’s identity, and blesses the son that was supposed to be blessed!

Water of Life

In this Torah portion, we find another amazing example of the “lost in translation” treasures of Hebrew Scriptures: Isaac reopened the wells of Abraham (“for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham”) and he called them “after the names by which his father had called them,” and then – what did he find there? In English, we read that they found a well of running water or spring water. However, it sounds much more profound in Hebrew.

Surprisingly, the Hebrew words for “running water” here are Mayim Hayim (מים חיים – Living water, or Water of life). True, on a physical level, Mayim Hayim can refer to running water, and in this sense, the translation is correct, but these words also have a deep spiritual meaning, which is completely lost in translation – the significance of the words Mayim Hayim, “Living Water”, cannot be overestimated. Every time these words are used in Scripture, they always refer to the spiritual level—to God’s Spirit, to God’s Water of Life.

[1] The Torah: A Modern Commentary, NY, 1981, p .29

[2] Gen. 25:28

[3] Gen. 26:12

[4] Gen. 27:27

Faith in the LORD

Lost In Translation: Death In Life

By Julia BlumNovember 3, 2021No comments

My dear readers, we continue our “lost in translation” journey through the Torah Portions. At some point, we will definitely go back to the Book of Acts and continue the discussion that we started before the High Holidays, but for now, we will follow the Torah Portions cycle. Every year when a new cycle begins I find myself commenting again on these bottomless chapters. Yes, you can find Parashat Shavua commentaries on many other sites – and yes, even on these pages I have already commented on some of these portions. However, there are so many important, sometimes even crucial details in the Torah that are lost in translation and seen only in Hebrew, that I feel I need to show as many as possible of these details – therefore, we’ll keep discussing Parashot Shavua, at least through the book of Genesis. This week we read Hayyei-Sarah (Sarah’s life), Genesis 23:1-25:18, and this Torah portion, like almost every section of the Word, has a message for everyone: for young people looking for their ‘other half,’ for parents raising their children, and for people well advanced in age. Let us see what Hebrew brings us today.

A Lesson of Humility

The very first thing that those reading in translation miss is a profound lesson of this Portion’s title: Hayyei-Sarah. When we read the Bible in English, we have the division into chapters, and that’s it – but the Hebrew Torah, along with chapter divisions, also has divisions into Torah portions (Parashat Shavua). Right after chapter 22, right after Aqedat Itzhak, a new Parasha begins: Sarah’s Life. It seems like a strange title for a Portion opening with the death of Sarah—right away, in the second verse, Sarah dies: “And Sarah died in Kiriatharba (the same is Hebron) in the land of Canaan.”  We learn a profound lesson from the very first verses of this portion: Sarah lived such a life that even after her death the lives of those around her were influenced by Hayyei-Sarah – Sarah’s life. God desires His people to live in such a way that their lives have an impact on those around them, so that even when they pass from this world, people and stories will continue to bear their names.

From the next verses, we learn something very significant about Abraham. For me, this is one of the most amazing testimonies of a man of God. Abraham tries to buy a burying place for Sarah, and he says to the children of Heth: I am a stranger and a sojourner among you.” However, what do the children of Heth reply to these humble words? “Hear us, my lord: thou art a mighty prince among us.” This is the best testimony a person might aspire to: if you know that you are just a stranger and a sojourner, and yet people around you see you as “mighty prince”, it means that God must be shining through you and it’s not you whom they see – they see God in you! This is a great lesson in humility: “He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble[1]

The Servant

As we continue this lesson, we find that the next chapter is all about God shining, working, touching hearts, and changing lives through a humble man. Surprisingly, it’s not Abraham we are talking about now. At the beginning of Chapter 24, Abraham sends his servant to find a wife for his young master. Few remember this man, yet the entire amazing story that unfolds in this chapter is all based on the faith of this one man!

Who was this man? So humble was he, that Scripture doesn’t even provide his name, at least, not in this chapter. Likely, it was the same old servant Eliezer whom we know from the previous chapters (do you know, by the way, that the name Eliezer means “My God is my help”?) —however, in this chapter his name is not mentioned. Whoever he was, this story certainly demanded a great faith from him. Although by this time, the servant must have already witnessed many miracles that the Lord had performed in his master’s life, it would still have taken a good deal of faith to even undertake this journey, and to trust that the Lord would send him to the right girl.

We don’t hear much from him at the beginning of this journey. Then, we hear a simple prayer as he arrives and stands by the well outside the city. In translation, he prays for success: “O Lord God of my master Abraham, please give me success this day” (“good speed” or “good fortune”, depending on the translation). However, if translated literally, he is asking God: “please make this day happen before me” (הַקְרֵה-נָא לְפָנַי הַיּוֹם). In Hebrew, it sounds almost childish, he is asking for God’s help and guidance, and as we all know, the answer to this childish prayer was incredible!

Then he prays for a kind and humble girl. Pay close attention: he is not praying for her looks or wealth: It is her kind and serving attitude and behavior that he sets as a sign before God. We know that his terms were met immediately and precisely, and he was absolutely overwhelmed by this immediate answer.

21And the man, wondering at her, remained silent so as to know whether the Lord had made his journey prosperous or not.

One has to know God’s handwriting in one’s life and the feeling of awe that fills us every time we recognize His handwriting, in order to understand the feelings of the servant.  Like a double-exposed roll of film with its images overlapped, God’s as  yet invisible reality is showing through this seemingly routine episode—and he is absolutely overwhelmed by this invisible reality. The word translated here as “remained silent”, might also mean to be “speechless”. I think that was exactly what was happening to the servant: not only was he silent, he was speechless as he recognized God’s hand at work in this story!

I believe he experienced yet a greater shock when he realized that this invisible reality of God’s presence and guidance became visible and obvious to everyone— even to those who did not know God. Rebecca’s father and brother, after they hear the servant’s testimony, say some surprising words:

50Then Laban and Bethuel answered and said, “The thing comes from the Lord; we cannot speak to you either bad or good.”

 Mi-Adonai Yatza Ha-Davar – “this thing came from the Lord!” How obvious the Lord’s presence must have been in this man and in this story if people who didn’t know Him at all said these words!

However, the most incredible part of this story is Rebecca herself: Not only did she make the decision that changed her life forever; she made this decision within one day. Imagine: they didn’t have phones or internet, they didn’t have cars or planes, and for her to leave her home like this meant to leave it for good and probably never see her family again. The fact that she was able to make such a drastic decision to leave behind everything and everyone she knew and loved bears witness to Rebecca’s absolutely outstanding character!

Rebecca’s decision also bears great testimony to the servant’s character, though. Why did she say “Yes” when the servant appeared from nowhere and presented before her the choice of her life: Would she go with him to be Isaac’s wife? She didn’t grow up in a family of true believers, as Isaac did; she didn’t know God, as Isaac did; so what made her say “yes”? There is only one possible explanation:  when the servant appeared before her that day, somehow she knew that it was not just this servant, but Somebody in him and beyond him—Somebody much more than him—who stepped into her life and claimed this life. I suppose, like all young girls, she was interested in her future husband, but she knew almost nothing about him and had never seen him, so he was still not very real to her. However, that ‘Somebody’ who touched her heart through the servant, was so real that she decided at once that she wanted Him in her life. She saw God in this humble man, and she followed him in order to follow God. She said: “Yes” to the servant – but it was in fact, another ‘Yes’ to God, as we see many times throughout this book!

I have no doubt, that during the return journey, the servant thanked God for what He did for him; in his humility, I doubt he ever realized that what God did, He did through him. And it all started with one small and plain prayer of almost child-like trust: “please make this day happen before me”!

[1] Prov. 3:34

God will provide his son!

Lost In Translation: Gospel In Genesis

By Julia BlumOctober 27, 2021No comments

I wrote already on these pages that Torah Portion VaYerah presented a special interest to Christians: its structure is similar to the structure of the gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke. This portion begins with the Divine Annunciation of the miraculous birth of the son of the promise, and ends with Aqedat Itzhak, the sacrifice of this miraculously born son. In Genesis 18, God comes to Abraham in the form of three Heavenly Guests. One of the main objects of this visit was the annunciation – the announcement of the miraculous birth of Isaac. We see a very similar announcement at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel: Luke tells us that “the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth” to a virgin named Mary, announcing the miraculous birth of Jesus. VaYerah ends with Genesis 22, Abraham being ready to sacrifice his son and Isaac laying on the altar. The Gospel of Luke (as every other gospel) ends with Jesus’ sacrifice—with His crucifixion and resurrection. In this sense, there is a striking resemblance between the starting and the ending point of our portion today, and the starting and the ending point of the Gospel of Luke. There are so many things that we can say about this amazing portion – however, since this year’s comments on Parashot Shavua go under the title “Lost in translation”, I want to show you how many additional details we can see in these starting and ending points of Vayera when we read it in Hebrew.

Inner Struggle

Our portion opens with a famous scene in Genesis 18 where God comes to Abraham in the form of three Heavenly Guests. Some context would be helpful here: right before that, in chapter 17, God spoke to Abraham after 13 years of silence. First, God told Abraham that He was making a covenant with him and with his descendants forever:  “This is My covenant which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: Every male child among you shall be circumcised; 11 and you shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and you.” Then, all of a sudden, came the breaking news of Genesis 17:16: Abraham would have another son! Honestly, I don’t think it came as very good news to Abraham. At least, not in the way we are used to reading it: Look, finally, Isaac is coming! No, Abraham had a son already. He was perfectly happy with this son; his heart was full of Ishmael, and he wasn’t even sure he wanted another son. He was an old man, after all, and he was not sure he would have room in his life for another son. He knew the magnificent promises of God to his descendants and he naturally thought—and was absolutely happy to think—that all those promises referred to Ishmael. Certainly, he was obedient to the Lord, as always, and did not argue with Him when He announced His will, but I don’t think he was especially thrilled about the news of this new baby. In a sense, the breaking news of Genesis 17:16 was an unexpected and almost unwelcome change in Abraham’s world.

Now, we can better understand the beginning of Chapter 18. According to Jewish commentaries, just a few days had passed between God’s appearance to Abraham in chapter 17 and His appearance before Abraham’s tent in chapter 18. Abraham wasn’t even completely recovered from his circumcision at the end of chapter 17. The well-known beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” is followed by the conversation of Abraham with his guests. If we read this text in Hebrew, we find something strange and unexpected here, something that reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his previous encounter with God in chapter 17 – and something that is completely lost in translation. The Hebrew sentences of this conversation are couched alternatively in singular and plural. The very first word of Abraham’s speech here is “Adonai” (אדוני) – and there is controversy over whether Adonai here should be read as a sacred singular word, “My Lord”, or as a regular plural word, “lords”. In the following verses, we find both singular and plural: in verse 3, there are only singular forms, while verses 4 and 5 use the plural. First, Abraham is saying: “do not pass on” in singular, and then “wash your feet”, and “refresh your hearts” in plural. It sounds as if Abraham himself was not sure exactly who he saw – as if the Torah reflects Abraham’s initial uncertainty over whether the visitors were human or divine, whether they were mere men, or represented God. I believe that here, at the beginning of this crucial portion and right after chapter 17 with its breaking news, this interplay between singular and plural comes as an expression of Abraham’s hesitation and inner struggle between natural and supernatural: whether he could and wanted to believe the supernatural promise of chapter 17.

The Mystery of Sonship

Fast-forward some years (37 according to Jewish commentaries) and we arrive to one of the most dramatic stories of the Hebrew Scriptures: Aqedat Itzhak, the sacrifice of Isaac. As Isaac is being led to the mountain by his father, he asks Abraham, ‘Look, the fire and the wood, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?’[1] Abraham’s answer is astounding in its depth and prophetic meaning: ‘My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’[2]

This conversation between Abraham and Isaac is full of the details that you see in Hebrew only. In Hebrew ( אלוהים יראה-לו השה לעלה בני), these words sound even more profound, even more ambiguous, lending themselves to multiple interpretations. A traditional reading will place a comma in this sentence before the last word בני (my son), such as in the NIV, for instance: ‘God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.’ Some versions, such as the NKJV we are using here, even move these words to the beginning of the sentence: ‘My son, God will provide for Himself the lamb for a burnt offering.’ In the original Hebrew text of the Tenach, however, there were no punctuation marks and therefore it is perfectly allowable to divide this sentence in a way other than how the English translations render it. When doing so, a completely different text emerges:

אלוהים יראה-לו… השה לעלה בני

In English, this would sound approximately as follows: “God will provide (for Himself); the lamb for the burnt offering is my son.” Naturally, our ears are much better tuned to the translation of Abraham’s answer we find in our English Bibles, and therefore the traditional reading tends to appear a more valid rendition. Yet, there is nothing substantial that would incline us to support one reading above the other in the original sentence. Moreover, the fact that Abraham named the place The-LORD-Will-Provide – יהוה יראה[3] – seems to me another  weighty argument in favor of the alternative reading of this sentence as consisting of two very important statements:  אלוהים יראה-לו (God will provide for Himself) and השה לעלה בני (the lamb for the burnt offering is my son).

With such a reading, the story of the Akedah is revealed as a powerful illustration of God’s invisible mystery concealed within the words of Abraham. It unseals, uncovers His mystery of sonship: God will provide Himself a lamb for the burnt offering. God will provide Himself a lamb in His son. השה לעלה בני. If we remember that God calls Israel His son, we would understand the history of Israel in a completely different and much more profound way.

[1] Gen. 22:7

[2] Gen. 22:8

[3] Gen. 22:14

So why turn water into wine?

According to John’s Gospel, Jesus performs the first miracle of his ministry when he turns water to wine. After the wine runs out at a wedding in Cana, Yeshua has stone jars filled with water, which he transforms into the best wine at the banquet. But of all the wonders that the Messiah could have wrought, why does he begin with this one? Jesus’ first sign validates his own messianic identity and recalls the prophetic vision of a time when the blessings of water and wine would flow in abundance.

Jesus’ sign of turning water into wine alludes to divine cleansing for Israel. The transformed water comes from “six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding two or three metretas” (2:6). A metretes was an ancient measure of about ten gallons, so Jesus makes somewhere around 150 gallons of wine! More important are John’s exact numbers: six jars with two or three metretas each. Six multiplied by two is 12; six times three is 18. These numbers had symbolic resonance in first-century Judaism: twelve signifies the tribes of Israel (cf. Matt 19:28; Rev 21:12) and eighteen alludes to God’s gift of renewed life or prosperity (e.g., Lk 13:11-16; 1 Esd 1:21-22; SibOr 11:80-102; in the later rabbinic numerical system of gematria, in which each Hebrew letter also represents a number, the word for “life” [חי; chai] equals 18). Thus, Jesus’ sign shows that he has come to purify all Israel and offer the gift of eternal life to the whole world.

Jesus’ use of water to produce wine also echoes the prophecy of Joel, which details an abundance of wine and purifying waters in the messianic age: “In that day, the mountains shall drip with wine (עסיס; asis)… and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water (מים; mayim); a spring shall come forth from the House of the Lord” (Joel 3:18 [Heb. 4:18]; cf. Amos 9:13). The fact that John’s Gospel is particularly interested in Jesus’ offer of life-giving water supports the likelihood that his first miracle alludes to Joel’s prophetic words (cf. John 3:23; 4:7-15, 46; 5:7; 7:38). The expansive world of Jewish Scripture and tradition provides Gospel readers with a deeper theological understanding of Jesus’ first sign. These ancient contexts underscore Jesus’ role as a heavenly savior whose activity signals the divine desire to lavish life.   

The importance of names and their meanings.

Joseph’s Egyptian wife Asenath bore him two sons in Egypt. He called the firstborn son Manasseh מְנַשֶּׁה (menasheh). Joseph said: “God has made me forget (כִּי־נַשַּׁנִי אֱלֹהִים) completely my hardship and my parental home” (Genesis 41:51). The name Manasseh is connected to the verbal root נשך (nashach), which refers to forgetting and letting go. A very common usage of נשך describes someone being “relieved from debt.” This positive meaning is a better parallel to the second sons’ name, Ephraim (אֶפְרָיִם), which means “made me fruitful.”

When naming Ephraim, Joseph said: “God has made me fertile (כִּי־הִפְרַנִי אֱלֹהִים) in the land of my affliction” (Gen 41:52). As seven fruitful harvest years came to an end, it became obvious that Joseph was not a lunatic and that Pharaoh had been wise in appointing him to the task of setting aside massive quantities of food. When the people of Egypt thought of Joseph, they naturally thought of wealth and prosperity.

The meaning of these names has everything to do with Joseph’s awareness that it was God who set him free and made him fruitful. In Hebrew, Egypt (מִצְרַיִם) is a place of “confinement” and “limitation” where one cannot prosper. God’s faithfulness to Jacob’s children is best seen in Joseph’s ability to survive and thrive against all odds in that land of “confinement” and “limitation.” Centuries later, Israelites who came out of Egypt heard these stories and were strengthened by knowing that the same God who took take care of Joseph would take care of them as well.

A good article….

Saved From The Wicked Generation …

By Julia BlumOctober 14, 2021No comments

The second Torah Portion of the year is Noah. We all know the story of Noah. This is one of the first stories from the Bible that parents tell their kids. However, the most overlooked parts of the Torah are those which are most familiar. We think we know them too well, and therefore we do not delve into them with the appropriate depth.

The story of Noah is no exception. That’s why, when I read this portion in Hebrew for the first time, I went many times there and back, between translation and Hebrew text, in order to make sure that I was reading the same story—so differently it sounded! Today, however, I choose to talk about the generations between Adam and Noah. You know, we read the same Torah portion every year, and every year, this Word speaks differently into our lives. When entering the Portion of Noah, we are disgusted and repelled by the corruption and wickedness on the Earth. This year, probably because of the times that we live in, I feel led to ask the question: How come that, within so few generations (Noah was the tenth generation from Adam), every commandment of God was broken openly, and violence, lust, and ungodliness prevailed upon the earth?

Our portion starts in Genesis, 6. However, we first hear about Noah in Toledot Adam, in Genesis 5. Moreover, there is also chapter 4, because Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden in chapter 3 and “regular” human history began in Genesis 4; and we all know what happened in chapter 4, and how this “regular” history began: Cain killed Abel!

“Regular”? You have probably seen paintings portraying Adam and Eve leaving the Garden: sobbing, wringing their hands, desperate in their misery and sorrow. Do you realize, though, that with all these tears, with all this wringing of the hands,  they are going to the very same place where you and I now live – where humanity has lived ever since! Their misery is our misery, we live in the same dark place, the only difference is that we don’t know anything else – but they knew very well what they just had lost. From their sorrow and frustration upon leaving Gan Eden and going to the only place you and I know, we can only imagine how different and how wonderful that lost place felt. In this sense, their first steps and actions, their very first words after their banishment, are extremely significant. When we read: “Now Adam knew Eve his wife, and she conceived and bore Cain, and said, “I have acquired a man from the Lord,”   we can see how strong her longing was for the lost place and for their return to this place. When God cursed the land and banished Adam and Eve from the Garden, He also gave them the promise that many read as the promise of a coming savior. Apparently, Eve connected the birth of her son with the immediate fulfillment of this promise; she really hoped that through her son they would be restored to the Garden they had lost.

Later on, in the story of Noah, we see that this hope moved from generation to generation: by the time Noah was born, people were already extremely tired of the curse on the land and waited eagerly for the fulfillment of this promise. Noah’s father regarded his son as one who should bring deliverance from the curse – as one who should provide comfort and rest – but it started with the very first couple: naming her son Cain and claiming that she acquired him from the Lord, indicates that Eve was the first one to hope that her son would be this promised savior. Once again, it shows us clearly how deep her longing was.

Of course, Cain was not a savior. Chapter 4 gives us the gloomy record of the descendants of Cain. Already in Lamech, the fifth from Cain, we see the character and the tendencies of the whole line fully developed: the song, or poetry of Lamech, is full of self-confidence, of boastful defiance, of trust in his own strength, violence, and murder. From chapter 4, we understand that the civilization established by the descendants of Cain was essentially godless—not only because it was the civilization of ungodly men, but because it was pursued independently of God. In this sense, the name that Eve gave to her firstborn, speaks volumes. The name Cain in Hebrewקַיִן  (kayin), carries the meaning of something being “acquired”. Probably, waiting for the fulfillment of the promise of Genesis 3 (and maybe also feeling guilty and trying to make up for her mistake in the Garden), Eve felt and thought that she had to do something; that it was her task and her responsibility to remedy the situation. That’s why Eve called Cain by this name: she thought she did something to fix the situation – she “acquired” Cain. The name referred to Eve’s action—she was the one who “acquired”.

As we turn from this record of Cainites in chapter 4 to that of Seth and his descendants (the end of chapter 4 – chapter 5), the difference is striking. Even the name that Seth gives to his son, Enosh, or frail, stands out as a testimony against the defiance of Cainites. However, this drastic difference between the two races is especially clear from the last verse of chapter 4: “Then men began to call on the name of the Lord.[1]  Very significant, again, is the name that Eve gives to this son:  compared to the name Cain, the name Seth expresses an altogether different worldview. In Hebrewשֵׁת  (shet) means something like “provided”; the Hebrew verbלָשִית   means “to appoint” or “to provide”. Pay close attention: in this case, the name refers to God’s action, not Eve’s. This difference is extremely significant and shows that by this point, Eve knows that it’s not through her efforts, but by God’s grace alone, the help can come!

If we compare these two records, we will discover an additional interesting detail: while in the case of the patriarchs we always have this pattern – how many years he “lived” before and after the birth of his son – in the history of the Cainites, simply the birth of generations are mentioned, but no years of their lives are given. The explanation is very simple: the Cainites really had no future, whereas the Sethites who “called upon the name of the Lord” were destined to carry out the purposes of God.

We won’t understand the story of the Flood if we don’t look closely at the previous generations. Therefore, even though Genesis 4 and Genesis 5 belong to the previous Torah Portion, Beresheet, I decided to talk about these chapters today. On this blog, I’ve written several times about Noah already, and of course, you are welcome to read these articles: https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/noah-amazing-torah-portion-1/; https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/noah-amazing-torah-portion-2/; https://blog.israelbiblicalstudies.com/jewish-studies/torah-portion-in-real-time-noah/. Today, however, I am interested to understand what was happening to humanity before the Flood – because we need to understand what is happening to humanity right now – and I believe I am not the only one who feels the need to ask this question. In his very first public proclamation of the Messiahship of Jesus, Apostle Peter, turning to the people around “with many other words … testified and exhorted them, saying, “Be saved from this perverse generation[2]. That is exactly what Noah did!

[1] Gen. 4:26

[2] Acts 2:40

Will there be a third temple built?

Second Thessalonians describes a “man of lawlessness” who “sits in the Temple of God” (2 Thess 2:4). Since Jerusalem’s second Temple has been destroyed for nearly two thousand years and this mysterious man is yet to appear, many readers assume that a third Temple will be built in the future so that Paul’s prognostication can come to pass. However, based on the language in other Pauline literature, it is better to understand the “Temple of God” not as a physical building, but as a reference to the collective of those who follow Jesus.

The so-called “man of lawlessness” (ἄνθρωπος τῆς ἀνομίας; anthropos tes anomías) will be someone who “exalts himself against all that are called a god or object of worship so that he sits in the Temple of God (ναὸν τοῦ θεοῦ; naòn tou theou), proclaiming himself to be a god” (2 Thess 2:4). At first glance, this verse seems to imply the necessity for a third Temple in Jerusalem; after all, so the argument goes, if the yet-to-be-revealed man of lawlessness is to take a seat in the Temple, then there must be a structure in which he can sit. Yet, a closer look at the language can offer a way to understand Second Thessalonians that is more faithful to the broader context of the Pauline corpus.

The phrase “Temple of God” also appears in Second Corinthians: “What agreement is there between the Temple of God (ναῷ θεοῦ; nao theou) and idols? For we are the Temple of the living God, as God has said, ‘I will dwell among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people’” (2 Cor 6:16). Based on this other use of “Temple of God” in Paul’s epistles, it is more likely that the apostle envisions the man of lawlessness exalting himself among the collective human assemblies that make up the “Temple of the living God.” Thus, a third Temple is not a prerequisite for the man of lawlessness or for Jesus’ subsequent Parousia. Instead of directing our attention to the thought of Temple construction at the end of days, Paul tells Jesus-followers to direct their “hearts into God’s love and Messiah’s perseverance” (2 Thess 3:5).

Jesus, a perfect sacrifice…

It is not uncommon to hear people say that Hebrews teaches that the Mosaic commandments are weak and useless, and that Jesus enacted a better covenant that replaced the old laws of Moses. But is this the true message of Hebrews? A closer look at the letter reveals that the author does not dismiss the entire Torah in light Yeshua; instead, Hebrews shows how Jesus stands in for the priestly sacrifices that could no longer be made after the destruction of the Second Temple.

It’s true that Hebrews mentions a “change” in the Law of Moses: “For when the priesthood is changed, of necessity there takes place a change of law also…. For, on the one hand, there is a setting aside of a former commandment because of its weakness and uselessness. (for the Law made nothing perfect), and on the other hand there is a bringing in of a better hope, through which we draw near to God.” (Hebrews 7:12, 18–19 NASB)

These verses are often used to demonstrate that the Law was set aside as something obsolete. It’s simple, some say: Yeshua is a new priest who changes the Law! But we must clarify the context in which our author refers to the commandments. Here is a hint… Hebrews has some very specific priestly commandments in mind. If we miss or ignore this crucial context, we’re sure to misunderstand the writer’s meaning. The above passage of Hebrews does not discuss the validity or the usefulness of the Torah in general. These verses are only interested in the role of Messiah in relation to the levitical priesthood.

A look at the broader context is helpful. Hebrews 4 speaks of entering into God’s covenant-rest, God’s end-time Shabbat, the Lord’s presence. Chapter 5 asserts that Yeshua is a superior High Priest compared to the earthly priests, and chapter 6 compares Jesus with the royal priest Melchizedek. Finally, chapter 7 highlights how Melchizedek traditions relate to the teachings about the Messiah. Thus, Hebrews 4-7 does not deal with the entire Law of Moses, nor does it set up a dichotomy between Jesus and Torah. Rather, these chapters are focused on a discussion about priesthood, which constitutes only one part of Moses’ Law.

The rest of Hebrews also highlights concepts like priesthood and sacrifice. Chapter 8 explores the facets of Jesus’ priesthood and the New Covenant. Hebrews 9 and 10 proclaim the superiority of the New Covenant and outline the benefits of Yeshua’s sacrifice of his own body. All this priestly discussion does not question the Torah’s validity, but rather highlight Yeshua’s unique role as an eternal high priest.

So here’s the questions readers need to ask: “Which law is being changed in Hebrews 7:12?” and “Which commandments are weak in Hebrews 8:18?” Certainly not all of them! Instead, the writer of Hebrews is concerned with how Jesus relates to the commandments for Israel’s priests. When Hebrew says that Jesus “set aside” (ἀθέτησις; atheteisis) a former commandment (7:18) the command pertains to the priestly service. Hebrews mentions the “weakness” or “lack of perfection” (ἀσθενής, astheneis) in these commandments because the human priests are human and, therefore, imperfect (see Heb 10:1).

Moreover, it’s likely that Hebrews was written after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, which made the sacrifices no longer possible. Therefore, our letter writer is offering readers a way to ensure a continued atonement after the earthly Temple: as exalted heavenly high priest, Jesus offered himself as a “once for all” sacrifice for sin (cf. Heb 7:27; 9:26; 10:10). In this way, Jesus actually upholds the commands about sacrifice and atonement given to the Levites; though the priesthood’s cessation after 70 manifested its weakness and frailty, Yeshua strengthens and extends the longevity of the sacrificial system. Hebrews does not dismiss the Torah as obsolete or useless, but it does address a world without customary sacrifices and shows how Jesus serves as an everlasting high priest in heaven who makes atonement for all time.