Hebrew Nugget 223: Lessons from the School of the Desert

This week we begin the book of Exodus and the Torah portion, Sh’mot (שְׁמוֹת ), which means ‘names’. This is the 2nd word in the Biblical Hebrew text which begins: וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֹת <- (v’eh-leh sh’mot) – translated as, “and these are the names”. Sh’mot (“names”) is also the Hebrew name of the book of Exodus.  Chapter’s 1-2 let us know that hundreds of years (430 of them) have passed since the closing events of Genesis 50. Also, we are introduced to Moses and his younger years.  When Moses kills the Egyptian in ch. 2, he forever leaves his life of grandeur in Egypt (as Pharaoh’s daughter’s son) and flees to the land of Midian to become a humble shepherd. Here he lives for 40 years.

Where God Spoke to Moses

A few years ago, I took a class on Bible geography with Dr. Jonathan Lipnick of eTeacher and He taught us a very important observation, “The physical setting of the Bible plays a major role the theology of the Bible.  To understand the God of the Hebrew Bible, you must understand the place (ie, Israel!) where He has that relationship with His people. The Bible would not be the book we know if it were situated anywhere else.”

Exodus 3:1-2 gives us the geographical setting for the passage under consideration: “Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.”  Notice I highlighted the phrase, “backside of the desert”. The Hebrew word translated as ‘desert’ is מִּדְבָּר (mid-bar) and means exactly that – ‘desert’. If you have ever visited Israel and gone to my favorite places – the Judean Wilderness or the Negev, then that is the mid-bar. (Although Moses is not in Israel at this time, but in Midian.)

The desert is in general a still and quiet place.  I love the desert and love to visit desert places.  Many prophets received revelations from God while in the desert (among them, Moses, David and the apostle Paul).  It is not that God is more real in the desert than in other places, because God is everywhere present.  It is just that we are so easily distracted from knowing God due to the many distractions of life.  In the desert, we detach from the noisiness of everyday life that demand our attention and can focus on God.  It is then that God can speak to our heart. I think it is most important that Moses was not just in the desert, but in “the backside of the desert” when God gave Him this revelation. God wanted Moses in a place where He had his undivided attention before He revealed to him His most important name!

What God Spoke to Moses

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who was the Chief Rabbi of the UK from 2001 – 2013, wrote that Moses asked God two questions at the ‘burning bush’: Who am I? and Who are you?  God’s answer to the second question is worth close examination. In Exodus 3:14, God tells Moses, 

אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶֽהְיֶ֑ה – transliterated as Eh-he-yeh asher eh-he-yeh. The word that is repeated twice, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה (eh-he-yeh) is the future tense form of the verb ‘be’ – (ie, “I will be”). So literally the phrase is, “I will be what I will be.”  In the AV this phrase is translated as, “I AM THAT I AM”. However, the reader must remember that in Hebrew, the verb ‘be’ does not have a present tense form – only future and past. Therefore there is no way to say, ‘I am’ or ‘he is’ or ‘we are’.  You can say ‘I was’ or ‘he will be’.  Also, there are NO CAPITAL letters in Hebrew so all capitalization in English translations is added by the translators. Capitalization does not exist in the original Hebrew text.

The following concept is very important. The root of the verb that is repeated twice in the Hebrew text, אֶֽהְיֶ֖ה, is היה (Strong’s #1961) – the verb ‘to be’. Now, look how similar the Hebrew letters are for the verb ‘be’ (היה) to the letters in God’s covenantal name – יְהוָֹה (also known as the tetragramaton – a Latin phrase meaning “the four letters”). The Hebrew word for the verb ‘to be’ or ‘to exist’ is basically derived from God’s name!  Thus etymologically, we see that all existence is derived from God! God does not officially introduce the name יְהוָֹה to Moses until Exodus 6:3, although Moses has used it many times already in Exodus and in Genesis (remember that he wrote these books). 

Rabbi Sacks reminds us that God really never answered Moses’ first question as to why He had chosen him.  However God did assure Moses of success.  Rabbi Sacks explains God’s viewpoint this way, “You [Moses] will succeed because I am not asking you to do it alone. I am not really asking you to do it at all. I will be doing it for you. I want you to be My representative, My mouthpiece, My emissary and My voice.”  He goes on to say, “In the Tanakh as a whole, the people who turn out to be the most worthy are the ones who deny they are worthy at all. … The heroes of the Bible are not figures from Greek or any other kind of mythology. They are not people possessed of a sense of destiny, determined from an early age to achieve fame. They were people who doubted their own abilities. There were times when they felt like giving up. Moses, Elijah, Jeremiah and Jonah reached points of such despair that they prayed to die. They became heroes against their will. There was work to be done – God told them so – and they did it. It is almost as if a sense of smallness is a sign of greatness.” To this great insight, I simply say, ‘amen’.

There are so many great applications from this passage that just “fall out” if we are faithful to study out the details of history, culture, geography and language.  The inductive method of Bible study will always give the best grasp of the Bible truths.

There are many qualities of the desert that God can create in our life regardless of where we live geographically, and one of them is that of ‘limited resources’. God often puts His servants into ‘desert situations’ regardless of where they are living to teach them the same principles that He taught Moses, and the children of Israel and David and Paul. So if we find ourselves in a desert of God’s making, let us not fret, but rather rejoice that God is wanting to speak to us and give us a deeper view of Himself and so He is sending us to the school of the desert.

Don’t Leave My Bones in Egypt

This weeks Torah Portion, ‘Vayechi’, is named for the first Hebrew word of Genesis 47:28 – וַיְחִ֤י יַעֲקֹב֙ בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם <- (‘Vayechi Ya’cov b’eretz mizraim).  The AV translates it exactly as written, “And Jacob lived in the land of Egypt…”  The first Hebrew word in the above phrase is וַיְחִ֤י(vah-yi-chi). The root of וַיְחִ֤י is חיה and means ‘live’!  Often it is used in the plural, חַיִּים֙ – chaim, like in Genesis 2:9 speaking of the ‘tree of life’. However, it is always translated into English in the singular ‘life’. Chaimis a frequently used Hebrew word. Perhaps you have heard the phrase l’chaim meaning, ‘to life’.  Chaim is also a popular male name in Israel.  Israel’s first president was Chaim Weizemann.

Jacob’s life was basically lived in three different places.  For 77 years he lived in Hebron ( חֶבְר֑וֹן ) with his parents – Isaac and Rebekkah.  [This was also where Abraham had lived.] Then he left Hebron (not as young man as many tell the story, but at the age of 77), to find a wife among Rebekah’s family back in Syria ( Padanaram). He lived there for 20 years where he married his wives and had 11 sons and one daughter. Upon his return to Hebron, Rachel gave birth to the 12th son, Benjamin, but died in childbirth and Jacob buried her near Bethlehem. Jacob lived 33 more years back in Hebron.  The last 17 years of Jacob’s life, however, were spent in Egypt.  At the time of his death, he commanded his sons to return his body to the family burying place, the cave of Machpelah in the plains of Mamre that Abraham had purchased from Ephron the Hittite.
The 12 sons of Jacob all died in Egypt, but only Joseph had the faith to tell the children of Israel, “God will surely visit you, and bring you out of this land unto the land which he sware to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. And Joseph took an oath of the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you, and ye shall carry up my bones from hence.” (Genesis 50:24-25) The final sentence of Genesis says, “So Joseph died, being an hundred and ten years old: and they embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt.” (Genesis 50:26)  The English word ‘coffin’ is translated from the Hebrew word אָר֖וֹן (ah-ron) which literally means a closet, or something with doors that you store things in.  In this case, Joseph’s body was stored inside.  As Viceroy of all of Egypt, Joseph could have no doubt requested to be buried in one of the great Pyramids where the Pharaohs were buried. Joseph had lived most of his life exiled in Egypt, but he never forgot that Egypt was not his home and he did not want his final resting place to be there! Joseph was the only one of the 12 brothers whose final resting place was Israel. The children of Israel honored his wish and when they left Egypt on the first Passover, Moses himself made sure they took the bones of Joseph as he had commanded: “And Moses took the bones of Joseph with him: for he had straitly sworn the children of Israel, saying, God will surely visit you; and ye shall carry up my bones away hence with you. ” (Exodus 13:19) This action guaranteed his placement into the honor roll of faith in Hebrews 11: “By faith Joseph, when he died, made mention of the departing of the children of Israel; and gave commandment concerning his bones.” (Hebrews 11:22) It takes a huge amount of faith to pray prayers that we know won’t be answered in our lifetime. Joseph had that kind of faith! I want this kind of faith too!

The Unseen Hand

Edith Samuel, in her book, “Your Jewish Lexicon”, says that chesed is one of the “most high-frequency words” in the Jewish lexicon. Chesedחֶסֶד [remember in Hebrew the ‘ch’ is pronounced as in ‘Bach’] occurs 237 times in the Hebrew Scriptures (Strong’s #678) and is most often translated into English as the old fashioned word, ‘lovingkindness’, but also ‘mercy’ and ‘kindness’.
The best way to explain the concept of chesed is to look at someone who exhibited it to others. One of the greatest examples is found in today’s Torah portion when Joseph reveals his true identity to his brothers. During his 20 years in Egypt, God had taught Joseph some powerful lessons, preparing him to be the preserver of his family ie, the Jewish people!  During the same 20 years, Joseph’s brothers had been suffering with a very guilty conscience! In Genesis 42, the first time they meet Joseph (and of course they did not recognize him), he calls them spies, they reply, “And they said one to another, We are verily guilty concerning our brother, in that we saw the anguish of his soul, when he besought us, and we would not hear; therefore is this distress come upon us.” (Gen. 42:21) Apparently they had an agreement among themselves never to tell the real truth about Joseph since they told Joseph in verse 13 that one brother “is not”. Joseph’s actions towards his brothers, before he reveals who he is, it not due to revenge, but he is trying to bring them to the point of repentance and freedom from their guilt. He realizes that while he was imprisoned in Egypt, they have been imprisoned inside of their guilty conscience. Finally when Joseph did reveal his identity, his brothers “could not answer him; for they were troubled at his presence.” (Genesis 45:3) Again, it was their guilty conscience that caused them to be “troubled at his presence”.
Because Joseph is full of chesed and forgiveness, he is the initiator in the entire event of restoration. Joseph immediately shares with his brothers the very powerful, life changing lesson that God had taught him.  From man’s perspective, Joseph was sold into Egypt.  Genesis 37:28 specifically states, “… they [his brothers] … sold Joseph to the Ishmaelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they brought Joseph into Egypt.”  However here in Genesis 45, Joseph is able to say, “Now therefore be not grieved, nor angry with yourselves, that ye sold me hither: for God did send me before you to preserve life.” (Gen. 45:5)God had taught Joseph one of the most important lessons of life – God is in control of every event and if we trust completely in Him, His unseen hand will work it out for our good. Joseph said that God SENThim into Egypt to preserve the very ones who had harmed him – his family.  In order for Joseph to be able to preserve his family from the coming famine, God had to send this special trial into his life to mature him. The twenty years in Egypt was not an intellectual pursuit of God by Joseph.  Joseph did not even  have the Word of God!  It had not been written yet.  All Joseph had was God!! God taught Joseph to view life from His perspective, instead of man’s perspective which is very limited because we are finite. Therefore, Joseph learned that bad things are often good things in disguise. Now it was time for Joseph to teach this lesson to his family. When the brothers least deserved kindness from Joseph, he gave it.  He forgave them and sought their good and wanted to preserve them from the famine. God deals the same way with us.  When we least deserve it, God shows us lovingkindness and forgiveness – usually through other people. Do you recognize God’s chesed towards you in all situations? The next time something ‘bad’ happens, remember that it may turn out to be the best thing to ever happen if we will view it from God’s perspective!
Nugget 218: When Days are Dark

Nugget 218: When Days are Dark

The Golden Menorah that was in Solomon’s Temple (originally in the Tabernacle) is first mentioned in Exodus 25 where God gave the instructions for making the Tabernacle and all of its ‘furniture’. Called the מְנֹרַ֖ת זָהָ֣ב – (menorah zhav), meaning ‘golden menorah’, it is the first item mentioned in verses 31-40. The Hebrew word מְּנוֹרָה – ‘menorah‘ is translated as ‘candlestick’ in the KJV, but it is important to remember that the golden menorah was not a candlestick and it did not burn candles! The Golden Menorah (it was solid gold!) had six branches, three off of each side of the main stem. [See photo above.] Each branch along with the main stem held a ‘lamp’ for a total of seven lamps that burned “pure olive oil” (ie, kosher).  Leviticus 24:1-2: “And the LORD spake unto Moses, saying, Command the children of Israel, that they bring unto thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamps to burn continually.”
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