Weekly Torah Commentary – Toldot November 17, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 25:19 – 28:9

Haftorah reading: I Samuel 20:18-42

This week’s reading begins by telling us of other sons whom Abraham had by Keturah, his second wife whom he married after the death of Sarah.  We are also told of Abraham’s death and burial;  we read a list of Ishmael’s descendants; and, a description of the birth of Esau and Jacob. Frankly, this reading at first glance doesn’t seem very relevant to where we all live.

So what was Moses’ purpose in writing it?

Moses was writing to a people about to go in and conquer the land promised to Abraham’s descendants through Isaac. The previous generation had the opportunity to conquer that land, but they died in the wilderness because of their unbelief. Now this generation had an opportunity to obey God in His redemptive plan of giving the land of Canaan to Abraham’s descendants. God’s purpose as promised to Abraham will be fulfilled. The question is, will this generation be used of God to fulfill it, or will they, too, be set aside?

I believe that the main point Moses was trying to convey was that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. God is sovereign; what He says, He will do. But even so, His chosen people must submit and commit themselves to His purpose if they want His blessing.

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Whenever a great leader, who has founded a work or a movement, passes away, there is concern for who will carry on. However, with God’s program, there is no such concern. His purpose is greater than any man. The most certain thing in this world is that God will do what He has said. Nothing can thwart His purpose.

This section of Genesis shows that God keeps His promises. God had promised to make Abraham the father of a multitude of nations (17:4). The list of Abraham’s sons through Keturah, several of whom grew into nations, shows a part of the fulfillment of God’s promise. Even though we don’t recognize most of these names, Israel did. The existence of these nations was a demonstration to Israel that what God promises, He does.

The text goes on to make the point that Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac (25:5). While he gave some gifts to Keturah’s sons, he sent them away.  It is not that he rejected them; rather we learn from ancient records, that Abraham commissioned Keturah’s sons to go to distant lands to teach the people about the one true God – the God of Israel. Isaac, on the other hand, was God’s choice to continue the calling of Abraham, and thus God blessed him after Abraham’s death (25:11). As they were Isaac’s descendants, the generation going into the Land needed to see their part as God’s chosen means of fulfilling His promises to Abraham, and they needed to obey God in taking the promised land.

Then Moses lists the generations of Ishmael (25:12-18). Why? To make the same point–that God’s purpose according to His choice will stand. Abraham had asked God that Ishmael might live before Him (17:18). God denied that request because He had chosen Isaac, but He promised Abraham that Ishmael would become the father of twelve princes, and that He would make him into a great nation (17:20). Moses records the fulfillment of that in 25:18. The point again is, God’s purpose according to His sovereign choice was accomplished.

Moses hammers home the same concept in the account of the birth of Esau and Jacob. If God was going to make a great nation of Abraham through Isaac, then obviously Isaac needed to have children. But Rebekah, like Sarah, was barren. For 20 years there were no children in their marriage. But Isaac prayed and the Lord answered in accordance with His promise to Abraham.

But even in that situation, God made a choice. He told Rebekah that two nations would come from the twin sons in her womb, and that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob). Esau became the father of the Edomites. Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel, became the father of that nation. It was God’s purpose that Israel’s descendants, those to whom Moses was writing, fulfill God’s purpose according to His choice of Jacob, by conquering the promised land.

So everything in the text is there to make the same point–that God chooses certain people for His purpose and that His purpose according to His choice will be accomplished.

These verses reveal two striking things about God’s choice:

First, God’s choice usually runs counter to man’s wisdom.

If we were going to pick a man to be the father of a multitude of nations, we’d probably run the couple through a fertility test and then pick the one who looked the most promising. God picked a couple who couldn’t produce any children. Then, we’d make sure that his son and his wife were fertile. In God’s sovereignty, the son’s wife was barren. His half-brother, Ishmael, didn’t seem to have any problem producing twelve sons, but Isaac could produce only two, and that only after 20 years of pleading with God. If we had to pick between the two sons, we’d pick the oldest. He seemed to be the strongest. The youngest was a wimp and a deceiver! God picked him. That’s how God’s choice usually runs–counter to man’s wisdom.

If God chose those who were strong in themselves, they would boast in themselves and God would be robbed of His glory. If God chose those who first chose Him, they could brag about their intelligent choice. So God chooses those whom the world would never choose. When His purpose is fulfilled through them, He gets the glory.

Secondly, God’s choice operates on the principle of grace, not merit.

One of the most difficult, but most rewarding, truths in the Bible to grasp is that God doesn’t operate on the merit system. He doesn’t choose those who have earned it or who show the most potential. He doesn’t choose on the basis of birth order or strength. If He did, He would have picked Ishmael over Isaac. Ishmael was tough; he grew up by surviving in a hostile desert. Isaac was a mild, blah sort of guy, not noted for much except digging a few wells.

This bothers people, because it humbles our pride, but it’s one of the most rewarding concepts in the Bible to lay hold of. It means that your redemption does not depend on you and your feeble hold on God, but on God and His firm grip on you.  It casts you totally on God and His sovereign grace, which is a good place to be. It floods you with gratitude as you consider His goodness and His mercy in choosing you in spite of your sin.

That doesn’t mean we can do anything we want. While God is sovereign, He has given me the responsibility to obey Him. I can’t presume on being one of the elect and go on living for myself.

Our responsibility is simply to submit to God and seek to obey what His Word clearly reveals, namely, that God’s sovereign purpose according to His unconditional choice will stand. When I quit fighting and submit myself to God and His ways, my relationship with Him flourishes.

The Lord didn’t wave His wand over the land of Canaan so that Israel could move in without any struggle. They had to commit themselves to God’s purpose and fight to get it.

Abraham is the example in our text. He submitted and committed himself to God’s purpose, and God blessed him abundantly. We read that he died “satisfied with life” (25:8). The expression is literally “full of years,” but it means more than just old. It implies that he couldn’t ask for anything more from life than God had given him. The only way you can truly die that way is if you have lived to further God’s purpose.

In Tune with Torah this week = Sometimes it’s easy to look at all the evil in the world and get discouraged because it seems like God’s side is losing badly.  The great truth is that God will accomplish His sovereign purpose. Let us therefore encourage one another to submit ourselves wholeheartedly to our heavenly Father and devote ourselves without reservation to His purposes.

Shabbat Shalom

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Weekly Torah Commentary – Chaya Sarah November 10, 2017

Torah reading: Genesis 23:1-25:18

Haftorah reading:  I Kings: 1-31

Moses writes, “Now Sarah lived one hundred and twenty-seven years; these were the years of the life of Sarah. Sarah died in Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan; and Abraham went in to mourn for Sarah and to weep for her.”  Genesis 23:1-2

As commentators over the centuries have noted, Sarah is the only woman in the Bible whose age at the time of her death is revealed. At 127 she is no young woman. But the death of Sarah would have seemed untimely because of her apparent youthfulness. Even at the age of ninety she was a woman attractive enough to catch the eye of King Abimelech (20:1-2). Was she the original Mrs. Oil of Olay? Her youthfulness and beauty would have certainly concealed the fact that death was coming upon her.

Abraham mourned and wept, meaning that in addition to the crying he went through the traditional mourning customs of his day: tearing clothes, cutting his beard, spreading dust on his head, and spending the seven days of mourning which have been traditional in the Middle East from the most ancient times. We read in Genesis 50 that when Jacob died and was buried in Hebron, his family mourned him for another 7 days. This tradition is still followed today in Jewish homes around the world.

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Genesis 23:2 is the first record of a man’s tears in the Bible. It is fitting that it should be a husband weeping and mourning over the death of his loyal wife of 60 years. It is remarkable that this is the only time we are ever told that Abraham wept. He had been through so many bitter disappointments and heartaches in his life: He was disappointed when Lot left him (13:5-12). He was heartbroken when he sent Ishmael away (21:9-14). He was devastated when he had to offer Isaac (22:1-10). But the only time the Scriptures reveal that he wept was when Sarah died. This reveals the depth of his grief and love for this woman.

The death of a loved one has always been a time to think about eternal realities. Ecclesiastes 7:2 says, “It is better to go to a house of mourning than to go to a house of feasting, because that is the end of every man, and the living takes it to heart.” In light of this eventuality, two of the most profound and beneficial questions I think we can ask ourselves are:

(1) How do you want to be remembered at your funeral?

(2) What steps do you need to take for that to happen?

Abraham recognized and believed that God’s promises are still in the future. Sarah’s death may well have reminded him that there were still others of God’s promises for him to receive.  He could also have been reminded that his death may not be very far away for he was older than Sarah.

This could have been be a deeply trying moment for Abraham’s faith. Yet the scripture demonstrates that he continued to believe faithfully for the future and act accordingly, despite many difficulties. He expected God to fulfill every one of His promises whether he lived to see them all come to pass or not.

In this way, Abraham serves as an example to every generation since. We must have  faith for the future; we must have a confidence in God that goes beyond even this life for the fulfillment of His promises.  This is the faith that waits expectantly for the coming of Messiah.

In 23:3-6, Moses writes, “Then Abraham rose from before his dead, and spoke to the sons of Heth, saying, ‘I am a stranger and a sojourner among you; give me a burial site among you that I may bury my dead out of my sight.’ The sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Hear us, my lord, you are a mighty prince among us; bury your dead in the choicest of our graves; none of us will refuse you his grave for burying your dead.’” Abraham’ first words are “I am a stranger and a sojourner among you” (cf. Lev 25:23; 1 Chron 29:14-15; Ps 39:12).

Abraham refers to himself as a ‘stranger’ and a ‘sojourner’ because he realized that Canaan was not his final home. He was living for his future home beyond the grave in the world to come. Eternal life in the presence of God was a reality that dictated how he lived – by faith.  The prophet Habakkuk echoed Abraham’s guiding principle when he wrote: The just shall live by faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

Notice that the sons of Heth call Abraham “a mighty prince among us.” Apparently, Abraham’s influence counted for something.

How do you want to be remembered?

In Tune with Torah this week =  Are you so caught up with your life here and now that you don’t live with eternity in view? Our goal in this life is not to build up a sizable estate, but to live our life as a pilgrim on the way to our true home, the world which is to come.

Does your life influence others towards God? Or are you on a spiritual auto-pilot?

Are you stuck in a spiritual rut, doing what you’ve been doing for years but not demonstrating in your daily life that God is alive to you, that you are passionate about Him and seek His presence?

There is an old saying that people will drive from all over to see a fire burn. The same is true in regard to our congregational and personal lives: If we are allowing God to work in our lives, people will drive from all over to see someone on fire for God.

Why shouldn’t it be you?

Shabbat Shalom

Weekly Torah Commentary – Vayeira November 3, 2017

Torah reading:  Genesis 18:1 – 22:24

Haftorah reading: 2 Kings 4: 1-37

This week’s Torah reading has a profound message for us right now in November 2017.  Across the world we see turmoil and chaos increasing at an alarming rate. Scandals, hate speech, racism and other factors consume the news media and become the topic of heated – sometimes vicious – exchanges on social media.

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While we may admire Abraham’s hospitality in this week’s reading, I think there is something else that displays a high degree of spirituality and maturity in the Patriarch. The brilliance of Abraham’s character is seen in his intercession with the Lord for the sparing of the righteous in Sodom.

The Lord and the two angels made their way down toward Sodom, escorted part way by Abraham. It would seem that the Lord turned to the two angels as He asked, almost rhetorically,

… Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, since Abraham will surely become a great and mighty nation, and in him all the nations of the earth will be blessed? For I have chosen him, in order that he may command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; in order that the Lord may bring upon Abraham what He has spoken about him” (Genesis 18:17b-19) .

The intimacy of the relationship between God and Abraham served as the motivation for God’s disclosure of His purposes for Sodom. Further, the Abrahamic Covenant provided the foundation on which that relationship was based. In verse 19 the necessity for Abraham’s faith to be communicated and continued by his offspring is stressed.

In contrast to the faithfulness of Abraham’s descendants is the wickedness of Sodom and Gomorrah.

And the Lord said, ‘The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know’ (Genesis 18:20-21).

Verses 20 and 21 dramatically portray the sin of Sodom and the righteous response of a holy God to it. The sin of the city is so great that it virtually cries out to heaven for retribution. God’s personal interest and focused attention is depicted as ‘going down’ to deal with it. God is not ‘going down’ to learn the facts, but to take personal interest in them and to invade the situation. So it is that Abraham discerned that God was about to destroy the city, although it was not stated specifically.

The two angels went on toward Sodom, leaving the LORD and Abraham alone, overlooking the city (19:27,28). While speaking reverently, Abraham manifested a boldness with God never seen before.

And Abraham came near and said, ‘Wilt Thou indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; wilt Thou indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from Thee to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from Thee! Shall not the judge of all the earth deal justly?’ (Genesis 18:23-25).

Abraham’s appeal is based on the justice of God.  He recognizes the evil in the city but his thoughts turn to the possibility of righteous people in the midst of it. Certainly he was concerned for his nephew, Lot and Lot’s family, but at the same time, Abraham also understood God’s mercy and his appeal may well expose his hope that if the city were spared because of the few righteous, perhaps the wicked might yet come to faith in God.

Abraham boldly asserts that it is against God’s nature to treat the righteous and the wicked in the same way.  Therefore, if a sufficient number of righteous could be found in Sodom, there is every reason for God to spare the city from destruction.

The LORD entertains Abraham’s plea and the bargaining begins.  How many righteous will it take?

God agreed to spare the city if 50 righteous could be found (verse 26). Abraham must have doubted that such a number could be found, and so he began to plead for a lower figure.

And Abraham answered and said, ‘Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, wilt Thou destroy the whole city because of five?’ And He said, ‘I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there’ (Genesis 18:27-28).

From here, Abraham was encouraged to attempt to further reduce the minimum number of righteous required to spare Sodom. First it was 40, then 30, then 20, and finally 10. We almost sigh with relief here, for one might fear that God would lose His patience with Abraham. Personally, I believe the heart of God was warmed by Abraham’s compassion and zeal. This was no selfish petition, but intercession for others.

Why, then, did Abraham stop with ten? Why would he not have gone on to five or even one? Some may think that he did not dare to press God farther. Perhaps so, but I do not believe that Abraham would have ceased until he were confident that Lot and his family were safe from the wrath of God.

As we know from chapter 19 Abraham’s hopes exceeded reality. This would have resulted in tragedy were it not for a great divine truth: God’s grace always exceeds our expectations.

In the final analysis there were only three righteous in Sodom, Lot and his two daughters. Some might well question the righteousness of the daughters from their actions in the next chapter. However, God did comply with Abraham’s petition. While He did not spare the city of Sodom, He did spare Lot and his daughters.

In Tune with Torah this week = in our day, nation after nation across the world is in turmoil.  Scandals, riots, violence and chaos are regular items in the daily media.  In the midst of a broken society, what are the children of Abraham to do?

Abraham, our father, is our example.

You will notice that Abraham did not spend precious time denouncing the wickedness of  Sodom.  It was obvious enough and needed no further commentary.  Abraham turned to the only One who held out any hope for a remedy.

Never underestimate the power of prayer.

Shabbat Shalom