When the priests of ancient Israel were prepared for sacrificial duty, they were anointed with oil and furnished with priestly garments. A turban and oil were placed on the priest’s head, the ephod and breastplate were draped over his shoulders, and blood went on his right thumbs and big toes. Pouring oil on the head was common practice (e.g., 1 Sam 10:1; Ps 23:5; Eccl 9:8), but thumbs and toes may seem like odd additions to the ritual. The rationale behind this practice reveals the relationship between the priests and the atoning work that they performed for their people.
In the description of clerical consecration, Exodus states, “You shall take the anointing oil and pour it on [the priest’s] head (ראשׁ; rosh) and anoint him” (29:7). After being dressed in the sacred garments, ram’s blood was to be placed on the “right ear (אזן; ozen)… and on the thumb (בהן; bohen) of their right hands, and on the big toe (בהן; bohen) of their right feet” (29:20; cf. Lev 8:23-24). Readers might assume that these actions have to do with the priests listening to God or walking in the commandments. However, the real rationale is related to the place of priestly sacrifice.
The altar of Israel (as with other altars in the ancient Near East) was constructed with four “horns” (קרנות; qaronot) on each of its four corners: “You shall make hornsfor it (קרנתיו; qarnotav) on its four corners, and its horns shall be of one piece with it” (Exodus 27:2). Just as the priests’ extremities (ears, toes, thumbs) were anointed with blood, so were the horns of the altar: “You shall take part of the blood of the bull and put it on the horns of the altar (קרנת המזבח; qarnot ha’mizbeach) with your finger, and the rest of the blood you shall pour out at the base of the altar” (Exodus 29:12; cf. Lev 8:15; 9:9). The priest and the altar receive the same treatment, which conveys the idea that the priest himself was a kind of living, breathing altar. Scripture reveals the inextricable relationship between priest and altar: Israel’s priests were the intercessors for their people—without them, no sacrifices could be made on the altar. Likewise, without the altar, the priests would have no place to offer sacrifices. By being anointed with blood in the same way, both the priest and the altar were purged of sin and prepared for the work of sacrificial atonement.
My dear readers, as probably most of you know by now, I love series. I am starting a new series today, and I bet the title of this series will intrigue you. I will explain in a second why I chose this name. However, first I need to tell you something.
You all know the expression: I have good news and bad news. This is exactly my case today. The bad news is that this blog is switching to “a post per month” format (instead of one post per week, as it has been all these years). I suppose it would be disappointing news for many readers, and it was very disappointing news for me as well – but the decision is not mine, so I am just letting you all know. The good news is that I hope and have reasons to believe that it would be just a temporary step, and that at some point the blog will go back, to “a post per week” format. Let’s hope and pray that it will happen soon!
Now, why “Three plus Four”? Years ago, I was invited for the Passover Meal (Seder) to one of the most religious homes I had ever been by then. If you have ever been to the real Seder, you have probably experienced that moment when the ritual part is over and the starving guests can finally start eating – only this time the hosts found out that there was another Passover song that they forgot to sing. “Echad Mi Yodea” is a very long cumulative song where each verse is built on the previous verses and therefore, each verse is longer than the previous one. The song has 13 verses, and demonstrates how every number can and should relate to God: “Five are the books of the Torah;… two are the tablets of the covenant; One is our God, in heaven and on earth”. There are numbers three and four, of course; can you guess what they correspond to? “Three are the Fathers”, and “Four are the Mothers”. That’s right, the Jewish people have three fathers and four mothers – and this is the reason why I called my new series: “Three plus Four”, Originally, I planned to dwell for a while on these biblical characters, dedicating several articles to each one of them. It doesn’t seem like an option anymore, since the articles will be separated by the whole month. However, I am still intending to proceed with this series, just instead of detailed research of each character I will publish an article with some Hebrew insights into this character, We will start with Abraham, of course. He is the first father. I am lucky to have still two posts before the end of this month, so there will be two articles on Abraham – and one on everyone else.
Abram and Melchizedek
I have no doubt that most of my readers have been students of the Bible for a long time, and know their Bible very well. Most of you probably think you know all there is to know about Abraham. Yet, there are stories in the Torah that when read in Hebrew (or at least, with some Hebrew understanding), seem almost unrecognizable! Today, I will share with one of such stories – and I hope that it will enrich your understanding of Abraham.
Our story happens in Genesis 14, but in order to understand the events of this chapter, we need to start earlier. At the end of Genesis 11, we read that Haran, Abram’s brother, died an untimely death, leaving his son Lot an orphan. Was Lot a sweet little boy, a bitter teenager, or a completely grown young man with his own family when his father passed away? Was it at this time of mourning and grief that Lot formed this special relationship with his uncle Abram? Had Abram become almost a father to his fatherless nephew? Had Lot become almost a son to his childless uncle? We don’t know all the answers; but we do know that in Genesis 12, when Abram departed for Canaan in full obedience to God’s call, he was ready to leave behind everything and everybody. And took only his very own with him – and his nephew Lot belonged to this group of Abram’s “very own”: So Abram departed as the Lord had spoken to him, and Lot went with him… Then Abram took Sarah his wife and Lot his brother’s son…
In chapter 13, once Abram is back from Egypt, uncle and nephew part company. Genesis 13:6 describes the moment where they part: Now the land was not able to support them that they might dwell together. True, we read that their possessions were so big that they could not dwell together, but somehow the reader gets the feeling that there was more to this conflict than just sharing the land. I think, Abram, exhausted by their endless fights, finally gave up and said with a heavy heart to his “almost son”: “Please let there be no strife between you and me, and between my herdsmen and your herdsmen; for we are brethren…. Please separate from me…”
Very soon, Lot finds himself in trouble. The trouble happens in the next chapter when the neighboring kings made war with… (the) king of Sodom and also took Lot, … and departed. The Scripture doesn’t tell us how Abraham feels when he hears that his nephew is taken captive; instead, we learn that he chased the culprits as far as Dan in the north, nearly 300 kilometers from Sodom; that he crushed the enemies at Hobah, north of Damascus; that he freed his nephew and recovered Lot’s possessions; and that he did all this with 318 of his servants (who served as soldiers in this battle, but clearly were not trained to be soldiers). An angry bear protecting her cub is capable of anything, and it seems that Abram’s deeds that we witness here belong to this same category.
As far as we know, Abraham was a very peaceful man. We don’t see him involved in battles like David. In fact, this is the only time we read about him going to war. This says a lot about him, because it wasn’t even his war; he definitely could have stayed at home. Instead, he gets up and runs 300 kilometers to rescue Lot. He wins the battle and brings back Lot, and all the captives and their possessions. It must have been a triumphant return indeed! The rescued captives were full of joy; Abram himself was extremely thankful to God for this miraculous victory; and who then meets him, in this victorious moment?
Here, at the end of chapter 14, our story begins. A Christian reader knows this episode as “Abram and Melchizedek” (many English Bibles even insert this title before verses 18-20 of Genesis 14) – but in fact here, in the Valley of Shaveh (“ethat is, the King’s Valley”), not one, but two kings approach Abram: Bera, king of Sodom, greets him in verse 17, and then Melchizedek, King of Salem, brings out bread and wine and blesses him in verses 18-20.
17 And theking of Sodom went out to meet him at the Valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley), after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him.
18 Then Melchizedekking of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High Not one, but two kings are here – but for some reason, this fact, along with the whole dramatic tension of the entire situation, is usually overlooked. Why do these two kings, representing completely different values, appear together?
This story gains so much more clarity when read in Hebrew, where the very meanings of the Hebrew words and names illuminate us as to what is actually going on here. The meeting takes place at the Valley of Shaveh, and the Hebrew rootשוה (shaveh) has two main meanings: equal or worth. Moreover, in Hebrew we have an expression: to reach the Valley of Shaveh,להגיע לעמק שווה – which means “to reach a compromise”. The two kings approach Abram simultaneously because this is a test that Abram has to pass. Their offers might seem almost equal, but Abram had to choose “the worthy one”. The name “Melchizedek” is a transliteration of the Hebrew מַלְכִּי־צֶדֶֿק (malki-tzedek), “my king is righteousness”. The name Bera: בֶּ-רַע means “with evil” or “in evil”. Thus, the Hebrew makes it apparent that it is here, at this Valley, that Abram had to choose between righteousness and evil; it is here, in this valley, that Abraham was tested and tempted to compromise his principles, his integrity – his faith. While Melchizedek blesses Abram and God Most High, ensuring that Abram knows that it was God who “delivered your foes into your hands” , the king of Sodom offers him a subtle temptation. Thankfully, Abram recognizes the truth and the authority of Melchizedek, and refuses Bera’s temptation – and thus passes yet another test of faith.
We continue our “three plus four” series, and this is my second post on Abraham. Today, with the help of Hebrew, we will see some additional insights into this amazing character. As we all know, Abraham was a man of faith, following God unquestioningly – and in this sense, many things in his life were supernatural, clearly marked by God’s direct intervention. On the other hand, the Bible never embellishes its characters, never presents them as some spiritual superheroes – and since Abraham was a regular human, we learn a lot from the biblical stories about his struggle between natural and supernatural. Today, we are going to see in Hebrew some examples of this struggle (of course, completely lost in translation).
Minor Change, Major Impact
A very peculiar detail about Abram is his natural name. The original name “Abram,” אַבְרָם (avram), is composed of two words: av and ram; together they mean something like “exalted father”. The irony of this name is lost on those who don’t know Hebrew: we all know that to be a father was the deepest desire of Abram’s heart – and yet, for a very long time, he could not become a father at all!
Let us open Genesis 15. Here we witness one of the most dramatic conversations in the whole of Scripture: the Lord bringing Abram out of his tent and telling him, as He points to the glorious sky: “Look now toward heaven, and count the stars if you are able to number them…. So shall your descendants be.” The gorgeous night and the shining stars are a uniquely impressive scene, indeed; and yet, he had already heard a very similar promise: “And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if a man could number the dust of the earth, then your descendants also could be numbered.” Certainly, the shining stars are a much more picturesque image than the dust of the earth; however, the essence of the promise had not changed between then and now: Abram knew that he was destined to become a great nation. He knew he was to have many successors; he had known it for a long time already. But a question had arisen that had begun to plague him at some point: Who would those successors be if he didn’t have any children?
The entire conversation in Genesis 15 is amazing. That night, for the first time ever, Abram expressed his pain to the Lord. For the first time ever, he complained. We do not know whether it was a decision consciously made in advance that made him say these words or the fact that he just could not hold back his pain and disappointment. All we know is that when God tells Abram: “Your reward is exceedingly great,” instead of humble, meek gratitude, we actually hear a resentful complaint: “Lord God, what will you give me? I am going childless.” This is how the English translation reads. In Hebrew, however, it is even worse: “Anohi oleh ariri!” The word ariri (when spelled with the letter ayin) means “childless, lonely, abandoned.” But this word also sounds so close to the word “cursing” (ariri spelled with the letter alef), that the bitterness of this statement is truly overwhelming: I am cursed by being childless and You are talking about reward?! “Lord God, what will You give me, seeing I go childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus.”
Moreover, Abraham repeats this complaint twice, as if to make certain that his pain and disappointment are clearly conveyed to the Lord. Thus, the third verse of chapter 15 merely reiterates the second, with the same resentful and almost angry attitude: “Look, You have given me no offspring; indeed one born in my house is my heir.”
And now, the conversation becomes truly groundbreaking, because here Abram learns, for the first time ever, that not only does his obedience matter to God, but his pain does as well. There is no greater revelation of God’s love than to realize that when you cry, He cries also. I believe that this was just such a moment for Abraham, because even now, after his painfully bitter speech, instead of the expected rebuke and reproach, he hears these wonderful words: “One who will come from your own body shall be your heir.”
Probably, at this point, Abram is starting to sob. He has been waiting for so long, both encouraged and humiliated by his natural name. “Exalted father”? He is 85 years old and still childless. Can it still happen that he will have a child of his own, after all? Not just a multitude of descendants in some vague future, but his own child, from his own body; his own child, whom he will be able to hold with his own hands. Can it be that he will become the “exalted father”, after all?
Then we read that Abraham was 86 years old when Hagar bore Ishmael to Abraham.Can you imagine the feelings of an 86-year old man who has been childless his whole life, who has dreamt of a son for a very long time, and finally, a son is born to him?! How blessed and how fulfilled he must have felt holding in his hands this living proof of God’s faithfulness to His promises! Remember, even though we know that Ishmael was not the son of the promise, Abraham did not know it. For thirteen years, from the moment he was born, Abraham saw Ishmael as his spiritual and physical heir and was absolutely content with this heir. He loved his son dearly, he enjoyed every single moment with him, and during those joyful years, somehow a “small” fact seems to have skipped his attention: God wasn’t speaking to him anymore!
Only in Genesis 17, after thirteen years of silence, does God appear to Abram again. We find several crucial changes here. The incredible promise—that Abram would have another son besides Ishmael—comes in verse 16. Before that, God announces to Abram that He will make a covenant with him and his descendants forever and changes his name: No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham. The change seems very minor: God is changing his name by inserting only one letter ה into his natural name – but the meaning of this change is huge. It signifies the transition from natural to supernatural.
God is saying: “your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations.” Thus, the new name,אַבְרָהָם (avraham), reflects God’s supernatural plan and promise: “a father of many nations ,אַב־הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם, (av hamon goyim). Now, that Abram has actually become a real, natural father, God is revealing to him His plan that goes far beyond his natural fatherhood: Abraham is to become a supernatural Father.
Guest or Guests?
Then the Lord appeared to him by the terebinth trees of Mamre…
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. If we read this text in Hebrew we do find something amazing and unexpected here – something that reflects the struggle in Abraham’s heart after his previous encounter with God in Chapter 17. The well-known beginning of chapter 18: “the Lord appeared to Abraham,” is followed by the conversation of Abraham with his guests. 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”. 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 natural or supernatural, human or divine—whether they were mere men, or represented God.
In the following verses, the Hebrew sentences are couched alternatively in singular and plural: in verse 3, there are only singular forms, while verses 4 and 5 use the plural. Abraham is saying: “do not pass on” in singular, and then “wash your feet”, and “refresh your hearts” in plural. I believe that here, 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. This hesitation, this inner struggle, is completely lost in translation.
For most Bible readers, Jesus’ status as the “Son of God” describes his divinity. Conversely, when Jesus calls himself the “Son of Man” the title seems to denote his humanity. Yet, it’s usually the other way around: “son of God” is a phrase for a human being, and “son of man” describes divinity.
On the surface, it would seem to make sense that “son of God” would be a moniker that marks one’s affinity to God or divine status. For instance, when Peter says of Yeshua, “You are the Messiah (Χριστὸς; Christos), the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16), one would expect that Peter refers to his divinity. But these titles do not denote divinity in Israel’s Scriptures. The Hebrew term “Messiah” (משׁיח; Mashiach), or “Christ” in Greek, means “anointed one,” and this same language appears in the Psalms to describe the earthly Davidic king who is also called God’s son. The psalmist says that the nations set themselves “against the Lord and against his anointed one (משׁיחו; mashicho)” (Ps 2:2), and this anointed king responds, “The Lord said to me, ‘You are myson (בני; beni); today I have begotten you” (2:7). Thus, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah and Son of God, he is making a declaration about Jesus’ royal status as David’s descendant.
The same reference to royalty holds for God’s description of Solomon. While it will be David who has a son, the Lord assumes fatherhood over the earthly king, saying, “I will be his father, and he shall be my son (בני; beni)” (2 Samuel 7:14). Elsewhere in the Bible, sonship under God doesn’t include any insinuation of divinity. For instance, Exodus describes the entire people of Israel as the son of God when the Lord tells Moses, “Israel is my firstborn son (בני בכרי; beni bekhori)” (Exod 4:22). To give an example from the Gospels, Luke’s genealogy ends a long list of fathers and their sons with “Adam [son] of God” (Lk 3:38), but the evangelist does not imply that Adam was divine. Instead, “son of God” is a title for individuals who have a close relationship with God, but who are not deific themselves.
On the other hand, “son of man” (or “son of humanity”) sounds like it should describe a terrestrial human being. After all, God calls the earthly Ezekiel “son of man” (בן אדם; ben adam) almost a hundred times (e.g., Ezek 2:1-8; 3:1-25), so shouldn’t Jesus’ self-application of “son of man” mean the same thing? But Ezekiel is written in Hebrew, and Jesus would have spoken Aramaic. While the two languages are related, “son of man” means something very different in the Aramaic text of Daniel than it does in the Hebrew Ezekiel. In a night vision, Daniel sees “one like a son of man” (בר אנשׁ; bar enash) approaching the heavenly throne on the clouds and receiving divine “dominion and glory” from God (Dan 7:13-14). In Aramaic, “son of man” denotes divinity. This why the high priest charges Yeshua with blasphemy when Jesus says, “You will see the Son of Man (υἱὸν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου; huiòn tou anthrópou) seated at the right hand of Power and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62). It was not blasphemous for someone to assert that he was the “Messiah” or “son of the Blessed,” as the priest puts it (Mk 14:61)—he knew these terms were used of mortal men in their Scriptures—but for Jesus to equate himself with Daniel’s divine “son of man” was a step too far.
To modern Bible readers, it may seem paradoxical that “son of man” denoted divinity and “son of God” meant a mortal. Jesus is both “Son of God” and “Son of Man”—human and divine—but the meaning of these titles isn’t necessarily self-evident today. In the ancient biblical world, things are not always what they seem! Luckily, a look into Scripture’s Jewish languages and contexts can illuminate its original intent.
In order to read Paul’s allegory in the way it has been read for centuries by the Church, some beliefs had to be presupposed: First, Ishmael was just a byproduct on the way to Isaac, and only Isaac was essential in God’s plan; secondly, the Sinai Covenant (and Old Testament) was just a byproduct on the way to the New Covenant, and only the New Covenant was essential in God’s plan. In this scenario, Galatians 4 can really be read as an allegory of bad and good—as an equation where the byproducts all point only to the final, essential parts. This two-dimensional, linear, reading sees only two parallel lines in Paul’s text: the Ishmael–Isaac line and the Sinai Covenant/New Covenant line, where the latter and better parts replace the former “imperfect” ones. Sadly, many traditional Christian commentators throughout history have read these verses in precisely such a way, using this allegory as a “biblical” means of rejecting the importance of the Sinai covenant, Torah, and Israel.
Yet, we can’t ignore Paul’s text, even though it is not an easy one. We need to understand exactly what Paul meant by it and not be discouraged or misled by traditional Christian interpretation. Yes, it has been read and interpreted wrongly for centuries, but there are many verses in Scripture that have been read and interpreted wrongly for centuries, and we cannot ignore them or fear them simply because of this centuries-long misinterpretation. It is time to restore the original interpretation—it is time for a paradigm shift.
Personally, I believe there is much more to this passage than a simple two-dimensional allegory, as the Church has commonly viewed it. Let’s turn to an analogy from geometry: try placing a three-dimensional figure on a flat surface – lumpy and bulging, it will never be able to shed the additional dimension. Of course, this analogy is limited: it’s impossible to compare a revelation from the living God to a lifeless geometric figure. Yet, it gives us a glimpse of this ‘additional’ dimension which is always present when comparing the revelations of God with the logic of men. It gives us a sense of the multi-dimensional character of God’s truths, which can only be confined to the flat and two-dimensional plane of our understanding in such a way that renders them devoid of their original volume.
I think this has been the main problem with this text all along: Although all Scripture undoubtedly has additional ‘dimensions’ beyond our human reading and comprehension, some especially significant and prophetic pieces just refuse to fit into two-dimensional human interpretation, and therefore cannot be understood without revelation. Paul’s allegory is one such text. That is why we need to approach it with awe and humility—seeking to restore the original dimensions, volume, and meaning that the Lord intended to be there in the first place.
It’s like seeing a hologram instead of drawing. First, you are absolutely overwhelmed with this additional dimension, this unexpected and surprising depth in something that you expected to see as flat and two-dimensional. Then, gradually you begin to distinguish the details that you never knew were there. And if, instead of a flat linear comparison between the sons and the covenants—where “the better son” replaces the first one, and “the better covenant” replaces the old one—we begin to perceive a multi-dimensional piece of God’s revelation, we have to be very careful in order not to devoid it of its original volume, and in order to distinguish the details!
Paul opens his text with the statement: “Abraham had two sons.” We have every reason to believe that this statement is extremely important to him—and to God. Once again, we need a paradigm shift here. There are two columns in this allegory. Therefore, we need to see a dual pattern in this text, which is completely different from the traditional parallel linear reading we just spoke about (where “the better son” replaces the first one, and “the better covenant” replaces the old one). Imagine a family tree with two lines coming down from the father: The different sons have different families, and each should be presented as a separate branch of this tree. In no family tree would one son replace the other. The same is true here: Abraham’s two sons have two completely different families and destinies, and the family tree, with its two branches, reflects this—but it still has to have two branches, not one!
Yes, Abraham had two sons, therefore, God’s plan cannot include only one. The prophetic picture would not be complete if there were only one son. Any picture of God’s plan for humanity is one-sided and incomplete if Ishmael and his descendants are not part of the picture. The same is true of the covenants: They both belong in the picture of God’s plan, just as both sons belong in Abraham’s family tree. We cannot see it if we read Paul’s text as just a linear and progressive comparison. However, once we restore the original meaning and the original volume, once we change the paradigm, and once we see a hologram and not a drawing, we can recognize that both sons are there, and both covenants are also there.
Indeed, we must be very clear regarding the objective of Paul’s allegory: He is trying to explain to his readers (mostly Gentiles, but also some Jewish believers) the relationship between the two covenants, not the relationship between Sarah and Hagar or Isaac and Ishmael. The personages from Genesis are just symbols for Paul. They are the constants in the equation he is building; the unknown in this equation is the relationship between the covenants. However, today we were able to establish the fact that Paul’s allegory has two columns: just as Abraham had two sons, and one does not replace the other, the same is true of the covenants—there are two covenants, but the latter does not replace the former. Next time, we will try to answer some difficult questions raised by this text: for example, why and how does Hagar symbolize the Sinai Covenant? And, are there any hints in the Hagar/Ishmael story that allude to Paul’s allegory?
Today is our Independence Day and it is my great joy and privilege to congratulate my readers on Israel’s 74th Birthday. Most of my readers, for years or even decades, have been faithfully interceding for the Land and the people – have been standing together with Israel and the God of Israel. Therefore, this is also your joy and your celebration!
Some of you probably know that our Independence Day starts immediately after our Memorial Day. Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, is a national day of mourning – and considering the disproportionately high number of orphaned families, a tally almost impossible to fathom for a country as tiny as ours, one can only imagine how heart-wrenching this day is. Therefore, one of the most peculiar experiences one can have in Israel is this incredibly jarring transition from the most difficult, the most tragic day of the year, to the most joyful and festive day of the year! It is hard enough that these two days follow one another, but if I remind you that in Israel the day starts at sunset, this transition becomes almost surreal. “And there was evening, and there was morning” – Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, the most difficult day in Israel’s year: memories, ceremonies, sirens, tears; and then, once again: And there was evening, and there was morning – and with tears still lingering in the eyes, the country is plunged into the festivities of Independence Day.
Of course, a lot of questions could be asked on these special days, all of them pertaining to the Israel/Arab, or Isaac/Ishmael relationship. Shouldn’t we look for answers in Scripture? Shouldn’t we try to recognize the biblically-based, spiritual reality in the everyday lives of these two different peoples, who are both incredibly close and incredibly hostile at the same time? I have written several times that I believe that God speaks to us, even today, through weekly Torah portions – and sometimes, when the Parashah seems especially important, I feel prompted to talk about it. This is the case with last week’s Torah Portion, Acherey Mot, and it is against the Memorial and Independence days’ background that we approach this portion today.
The mysterious Leviticus 16 discusses the special Yom Kippur service in the Tabernacle and in the Temple. The chapter describes the highlights of this service: the sacrifice of a goat for a sin offering, the High Priest’s confession on behalf of Israel, his entry into the Holy of Holies, and the dispatching of the Azazel Goat. Let us read those verses together:
He shall take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then Aaron shall cast lots for the two goats: one lot for the Lord and the other lot for the scapegoat. And Aaron shall bring the goat on which the Lord’s lot fell, and offer it as a sin offering. But the goat on which the lot fell to be the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord, to make atonement upon it, and to let it go as the scapegoat into the wilderness.
Sin and guilt offerings were common in ancient Israel, but this ceremony was absolutely unique. Why is this so? As Charles Feinberg wrote, “no more significant truths could possibly engage the mind of the believer than those set forth in this chapter of Leviticus.” So, what is the meaning of this ceremony? And what is the connection between Leviticus 16 and our Independence Day?
There are many commentaries on Leviticus 16 – both Jewish and Christian. Today, however, I want you to see the profound connection that, for some reason, has been overlooked for centuries. Years ago, I was writing a book about Abraham’s sons, Isaac and Ishmael – and to my great surprise, in order to unlock the ancient mystery of Abraham and his two sons, God had led me to the scriptural key of Leviticus 16. Before that book, I had spent a lot of time contemplating he sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22. However, when I started to write the book, I began to see Genesis 21 side by side with Genesis 22. I started to realize that Abraham had to sacrifice both sons; that there were actually not one, but two sacrifices in the old patriarch’s life; that Genesis 21 – the banishment of Ishmael – was also extremely tortuous and painful for Abraham and was just as much about sacrifice as Genesis 22. Of course, there is no point of comparison; we cannot ask Abraham whether Genesis 21 or 22 was more difficult for him, or which devastated him the most. The two sons of Abraham were chosen for two completely different destinies, and therefore these two chapters are very different. Still, both chapters speak about sacrifice, and nothing makes this more clear and convincing than Leviticus 16!
I was absolutely stunned when I saw the incredible resemblance between Leviticus 16 and Genesis 21 and 22. How perfectly Abraham’s double sacrifice is reflected in the sacrifice of the two goats! Abraham had to sacrifice two sons: one was sent into the wilderness, the other offered as a burnt offering. Likewise, the High Priest had to sacrifice two goats: one was sent into the wilderness, the other, burned as an offering.
How do I know that this connection, between Genesis 21-22 and Leviticus 16, is not just something far-fetched by my imagination? Well, I do have solid proof of this connection. As most of you know, the High Holidays are the crucial points in the Israel calendar year. These days, starting from Rosh HaShanah and ending with Yom Kippur, are very important for almost everybody in Israel – and they are clearly very important to God. Therefore, it’s impossible to ignore the amazing fact that the Rosh Hashanah reading consists of Genesis 21 and 22, while the Yom Kippur reading is Leviticus 16. It does make this connection very clear, doesn’t it?
Leviticus 16 might help us understand better the Isaac-Ishmael dynamic. A scapegoat was sent out alive into the wilderness while another was sacrificed! In this sense, Ishmael should be happy that he is not the one chosen for death. I often think that if Genesis 22 had come before Genesis 21, the whole history of humankind might have been completely different: Instead of envy and jealousy, Ishmael would have had compassion toward his brother and gratitude for his own destiny. The terrible hostility and tension that have marked a large part of the Isaac-Ishmael relationship might not have been there from the outset. However, this is not the case, and we might ask, why? Why are these crucial chapters set in this particular order?
I do believe that this reversed order is part of the mystery the Lord wants to reveal to us here – and you can read my book in order to uncover this mystery. One of the main themes of this book is that of restoring what was broken and making it whole again. That’s why I turn to Scripture: we do need a spiritual X-ray here. Yes, of course, real life is much more complex and multi-faceted than a biblical story, but isn’t that the case with an X-ray as well? A person is much more complex and unique than his or her X-ray shows: we see no personal features on an X-ray; we can’t recognize the individual by his X-ray, – and yet, an X-ray is definitely needed in order to see what must be healed: to see where the fracture is and what should be done to heal it. The broken has to be healed! Abraham had two sons—and the family picture will not be complete until they are both in this picture. These are my thoughts on our Independence Day.
Excerpts from my book “Abraham had two sons” are included in this article , soif you like the article, you might enjoy also the book, you can get it here
Also, if my articles whet your appetite for discovering the hidden treasures of the Hebrew Bible, or studying in depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, I would be happy to provide more information (and also a teacher’s discount for new students) regarding eTeacher wonderful courses (firstname.lastname@example.org) .
Passover & Elijah: Ushering in the Great Redemption
It is a Passover tradition to have an extra place at the seder table for the prophet Elijah. I saw a Passover haiku (form of short poetry) which read:
On Passover we Opened the door for Elijah Now our cat is gone.
It’s a fun part of the celebration to expect Elijah at this time: we leave the door open, call his name, and prepare a place for him in expectation. Why? What has Elijah got to do with Passover? He came about 500 years after the Exodus from Egypt. The first Passover is thought to have happened over three thousand years ago, and Elijah was taken from the earth in 849 BC. How did he get mixed up in all of this?
Elijah ushers in the Great Redemption
Understanding Elijah’s part in Passover is impossible if we do not understand the Jewish concept of ‘geula’ or redemption (גאולה).
The theme of redemption is central to the Feast of Passover, as Israel was set free from slavery. However, both Jews and Christians can all agree that the feast prophetically points to another level of redemption to come. It lays down a pattern for the Ultimate Redemption.
Christians interpret this, by and large, to be the pivotal weekend when the Messiah redeemed us from sin by surrendering His life to be our Passover Lamb. Jewish people, on the other hand, look to the “Great and Terrible Day of the Lord”, when the Messiah will come to rule and reign.
But could it be that both are right?
Christians often think Jewish people are missing a trick or two in their expectation that the Messiah would come to crush their enemies, but that’s because Christians forget that that’s exactly what the Bible describes over and over again. The second coming of Jesus is woven all through the Old Testament—not just the book of Revelation. The reason Jewish people expect a mighty warrior is because that is what has been promised.
The Messiah is coming with a winnowing fork to sort the wheat from the chaff, and the future for the chaff is not looking good. All of us who love righteousness long for Him to come and put things right—to establish His kingdom rule and do away with wickedness. The only reason for delay is to extend the chance for the wicked to repent and be saved. Ismar Schorsch from the Jewish Theological Seminary puts it like this:
With the door ajar, we intone four verses that call upon God to visit those who have afflicted Jews with retribution. In the contemporary Seder, the moment lends itself to remembering the obscenity of the Holocaust… The impact of historical events on the mood of the Haggadah merely rendered what was implicit explicit. The original matrix had been set long before by the haftarah: a second redemption would right the wrongs of history.1
And that’s what all creation is groaning for: wrong to be put right by our loving Creator.
On the Shabbat before Passover, the reading (the haftarah) comes from Malachi chapters 3 and 4. Schorsch explains that the choice of this haftarah from Malachi added a messianic undertone, bringing messianic anticipation to the celebration as well as the comfort of looking back on what God has done.
Passover looks back on God’s redemption of Israel when He delivered us from Egypt, but also forwards to the Great Redemption of the whole world which is yet to come.
Here’s how Malachi chapter 3 begins:
“Behold, I am sending My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me.Suddenly He will come to His Temple—the Lord whom you seek—and the Messenger of the covenant—the One whom you desire—behold, He is coming.” (Malachi 3:1)
Guess who the messenger is who will come and prepare the way? Elijah. His identity is revealed at the end of the book.
“Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet, before the coming of the great and terrible day of Adonai. He will turn the hearts of fathers to the children, and the hearts of children to their fathers—else I will come and strike the land with utter destruction.” (Malachi 4:5-6)
Jesus identified John the Baptist as fulfilling this prophecy (Matthew 11:14). John the Baptist indeed fulfilled the herald’s role, preparing the way for the Messiah, and John himself understood his role was that prophesied in Malachi, echoing the words about winnowing and burning away the chaff:
“As for me, I immerse you in water for repentance. But the One coming after me is mightier than I am; I am not worthy to carry His sandals. He will immerse you in the Ruach ha-Kodesh [Holy Spirit] and fire. His winnowing fork is in His hand, and He shall clear His threshing floor and gather His wheat into the barn; but the chaff He shall burn up with inextinguishable fire.” (Matthew 3:11-12)
The fact that Jesus did not come bearing a winnowing fork disqualified him in the sight of many Jewish people, but as we know, much of Scripture carries both the “now” and the “not yet” at the same time.
Yes, John the Baptist was Elijah. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah who came 2000 years ago to bring redemption. But yes, there is more to come: Elijah will precede the second coming of the Messiah, who will usher in his kingdom rule and fulfil the longing of our hearts.
He will redeem all things to himself. His first coming did not involve the burning of chaff that John proclaimed, but his second will.
Promises for Israel
Who can endure the day of His coming? Or who can stand when He appears? For He will be like a refiner’s fire, and like soap for cleaning raw wool. And He will sit as a smelter or a purifier of silver, and He will cleanse the sons of Levi, and purify them like gold or silver. Then they will become for Adonai those who present an offering in righteousness. (Malachi 3:2-3)
In this passage we see God making promises to Israel which have not yet come to pass. He promises to purify Israel, and that they will be pleasing to Him once again. He promises not to consume Israel in judgement, and also that they will be back in the land, being a blessing to the whole earth.
“All the nations will call you blessed. For you will be a land of delight.” (v.12)
“So they shall be Mine,”—says Adonai-Tzva’ot—“in the day I make My own special possession. So I will spare them, as one spares his son serving him.” (v.17)
Clearly, these things are still to come. At the moment, the nations rage and we are warned that eventually all will turn against Israel (Zechariah 12:3). Yet this promise to be globally recognized as a blessing will one day come to pass. We also see similar promises of redemption and transformation of Israel in relation to the world throughout the prophets, in Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah.
The beginnings of redemption
In Jewish expectation, the beginnings of the geula, the Messianic expectancy, will inevitably involve sufferings, troubles and wars for Israel… as well as the physical restoration to the land of Israel before the Messiah is to come. There is also the expectation of national salvation, a conviction that Paul the Apostle shared:
For I do not want you, brothers and sisters, to be ignorant of this mystery—lest you be wise in your own eyes—that a partial hardening has come upon Israel until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in; and in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer shall come out of Zion. He shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob. And this is My covenant with them, when I take away their sins.”
Concerning the Good News, they are hostile for your sake; but concerning chosenness, they are loved on account of the fathers— for the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:25-29)
This certainty of God’s irrevocable promise to Israel still stands.
“For I am Adonai. I do not change, so you, children of Jacob, are not consumed. From the days of your ancestors you have turned aside from My statutes, and have not kept them. Return to Me, and I will return to you.” (Malachi 3:6-7)
When the people of Israel have regathered to their land, when Jerusalem calls out to their Messiah “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord”, the Messiah will come. But not for the first time – He said He would return. And He will put all things right. Prepare the way of the Lord!
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It certainly feels this way if you understand Hebrew. For instance, at the end of the story, when Tamar brings out Judah’s personal items, she says, “Discern, I pray thee”(הַכֶּר־נָ֔א). This expression, הַכֶּר־נָ֔א – discern, recognize, appears only twice in the entire Torah, and can you guess where it is first used? Right in the previous chapter, when the brothers bring Joseph’s coat to Jacob and say, “Discern please whether it be thy son’s coat”.
The deceiver was deceived! Judah’s heart was pierced by these words and by the realization of his own sin that came back to him in these words. The eyes of his heart were opened, he confessed and repented – and amazingly, all this can be seen in the Hebrew text. When Tamar dressed up as a prostitute to trap Judah, she was waiting “at the entrance to Eynaim”, a name that doesn’t mean anything in English. In Hebrew, however,Petach Eynaim means the Opening of the Eyes.
See the hidden messages of the Scriptures
Thus, the message of the story of Judah and Tamar can only be fully understood in Hebrew – or at least, with Hebrew. This is the story of Judah’s change of heart, of the opening of the eyes of his heart. Torah wants us to know that the Judah that comes to Egypt is a very different person from the Judah who sold his brother.