This Ukrainian Rabbi’s prayer, based on Exodus 34, made me smile…
“Lord of the universe, I want to propose a deal. We have many sins. You have much forgiveness. Let us exchange our sins for your forgiveness. And if You should say that this is not a fair exchange, then my reply is: If we had no sins, what would you do with all Your forgiveness?”
-Rabbi Levi Yitzack of Berditchev
AKA: Why We Need a Savior
When King Solomon asked God for wisdom (1 Kings 3:9) he asked God to give him the ability to determine the difference between good and bad. (He assumed he would choose the good…. Ooops!) Ironically the knowledge of good and evil is what enticed Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the garden. (At that point Adam and Eve only knew that one thing was bad- eating the forbidden fruit- and they choose to do it…) That knowledge led to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. While Solomon wanted the knowledge so he would not be deceived, and would assumedly choose good for him and the people he ruled, what we see is that when given a clear choice, without deception, humans, as a rule, are likely to choose to do what is bad at least some of the time….
Background: Jeremiah is the son of Hilkiah, the priest credited with finding the book of law in the Temple during the reign of King Josiah in Judah. (2 Chron 34: 14) This time in history is interesting. The kingdom of Judah has degenerated. The Temple is a mess, and the book of law has been lost to even the priests. The king, Josiah, commits himself to follow God’s laws and the people seemingly obey him, but as soon as he is dead, they return to their ungodly ways indicating that there was not a change of heart and their commitment to following God was likely one of convenience, self-serving etc since there was pressure from their king to do so.
Huldah, the prophetess, informs the people that God is going to judge them, but, for the sake of the godly king Josiah and his obedience, the judgement is to be delayed until after his reign. Jeremiah unfortunately (for him) outlives Josiah.
Jeremiah is from the tribe of Benjamin, where his father, a priest, is living. Benjamin is a part of Judah, but is a tiny part as previously Benjamin had some issues with sin and the tribe was almost wiped out by the other tribes of Israel. Jeremiah is a Levite, not a Benjaminite, as he is from a line of priests. Every tribe was to set aside land within their tribe for the Levites (the priests), who were not to have their own tribal lands, so that the word of God could be taught to all.
His name means ‘loftiness of the Lord,’ or ‘exalting the Lord.’ (It is a common practice in this culture to name your child something that can double as a prayer, or praise, to God so that every time you call your child, you also say a prayer. This is why there are so many Mary’s in the New Testament, as its root, Mara, means bitterness and weeping, and the Jewish people of this time were trying to draw God’s attention onto their suffering so the Lord would save them from Roman persecution.)
Jeremiah performed no recorded miracles during his ministry.
The message: The message of Jeremiah is clear- turn back to God by following His laws or go into captivity (and past a certain point turning back to God will only lessen your captivity, not eliminate it). So what does this mean for us today? That our actions matter. They speak of our heart and how strong our commitment to God really is. We have a choice- follow God’s laws or be oppressed by others who are ungodly. Unfortunately, like Jeremiah, we are part of a group, and when the group messes up, sometimes the godly go along for the ride into captivity as well. (This is why we have a duty to be an influential and respected member of our society.) Fortunately, the book of Jeremiah also teaches us how to behave in captivity. We are to work in the best interests of those around us and prosper where God plants us. Oppression is not an excuse to misbehave or give up, as much as we would like it to be.
God begins with a legal complaint. He is the Lord, and in this society that means He has sovereignty over the people of Israel. What you need to understand, that we often miss since we do not make these types of contracts in modern times, is that the Israelites have entered into a Lord/vassal style relationship with God twice. The first was at Mount Sinai, when the law was given to Moses. Moses brought two tablets up the mountain so there would be two copies, one for the Lord and one for His subjects. Both were kept in the ark as God was to be there with His people. At that time God had freed the people from slavery and performed many miracles. In addition to the ten commandments, the oral law was also given to Moses as it is recorded in Leviticus. The second ‘contract’ is contained in the book of Deuteronomy. Ancient contracts of this type were written as narratives. In Deuteronomy, God reviews everything He has done for Israel. God’s laws are also reviewed as well as the blessings and curses for obeying, or disobeying. The covenant is renewed before the Israelites go into the promised land. This is why Joshua says, ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.’ While the covenant is for the nation, it is also a choice each individual must make, and we will see individual as well as national punishments in scripture for disobedience to the law.
To void this contract, the people must be able to prove that the Lord has not fulfilled His obligations to His people. So God points out that He took care of Israel in the wilderness, in a land where people do not live due to harsh conditions, proving His ability to provide and protect His people and then led them into a land where food was plentiful and life was good, and instead of being grateful they left Him for other gods, who are not even gods. God points out that even the pagans do not change gods, despite the fact that they do nothing even close to what God has done for the Israelites.
So how does this speak to us today?
On a personal level we may ask ourselves (based on God’s complaints regarding the Israelites): Are we grateful to God when life is good? Do we grumble and complain over minor inconveniences? Are we embarrassed to speak about God? Do we pretend to believe as our neighbors do, or incorporate behaviors we know to be ungodly into our lives so that we avoid controversy with our neighbors? Are we as in love with God as we were when we first believed, or for those who were saved young, when we really began to understand the power of our relationship with God and what it truly meant? Going through the first chapter of Jeremiah (as well as many other places in scripture where God lists evidence that one is not with Him) and seeing how God’s complaints apply to your life is a humbling, but necessary thing to do. But, God does warn us in these passages that people like to ignore their sins and believe they have done nothing wrong, so if you read through this section and find no fault in yourself, pray and then read through it again just to be sure…. I recently read a book, fiction and not by a Christian author, that included a scene where people were lined up to enter Hell. A woman in the line was getting out of line and complaining loudly that she was in the wrong line. The demon assured her that this was not the case. She explained that she ‘believed’ and therefore should be in heaven. The demon explained that she was a mean, nasty person and was right where she belonged. This commentary regarding how this author saw Christianity made me sad. Unfortunately, it is too often true and one must ask themselves when their works do not line up with what God has called us to do, do we truly believe?
Theologian Andreas Bodenstein Von Karlstadt translates Jeremiah a little differently and has God stating ‘those who kept my commandments and knew me and did not ask for me’ in referring to the priesthood where as others speak of ‘those who handle the law and did not know me.’ Karlstadt’s translation talks of those, like the pharisees, who follow God’s law, but have not a real relationship with God. Karlstadt speaks of being a theologian and realizing that he loves exploring God’s Word, but rarely speaks to God. He asks, ‘How can one handle and keep God’s law when one does not know God or ask for Him?’ Just something to think about.
There are many confusing secondary characters in the Bible. They are confusing because they do things that we would assume would be ‘right,’ but are subsequently shown to be wrong. Joab is one of these characters. He makes a lot of decisions that seem to be ‘right.’ His reasoning is, unfortunately, reasoning some use today to teach children to be ‘good people.’ Unfortunately we will see that many of his actions are not looked upon as ‘good’ in the end….
Joab was the son of Zeruiah, who had three sons, Abishai, Joab and Asahel. Abishai was the brother who went with David when David snuck into Saul’s camp while everyone was sleeping. Abishai wished to kill Saul, believing God had delivered him into their hands. David counseled him not to kill the Lord’s anointed and stole Saul’s spear and water jog instead. (1 Samuel 26).
We first hear of Joab’s exploits shortly after David is anointed king of Hebron. Joab is the captain of David’s army. Ishbosheth, Saul’s son, is king over the rest of Israel and Abner is the captain of his army. Abner and Joab meet with their men by pool and propose they allow the younger men to engage in a wrestling match- 12 vs 12. It turns bloody, a battle ensues and Abner’s army is defeated. (While it would seem good for the two sides to engage in a ‘fun’ wrestling match, not realizing how much hatred existed in the young mens’ hearts made a fun activity, seemingly meant to build better relationships, into a battle that would lead to even more hatred. Wisdom must be used when reconciling two parties. What works when both sides are slightly miffed, may not work when there is still much animosity present. Not everyone is ready to ‘just be friends.’)
After the battle is over, Abner retreats. Joab’s brother, Asahel, is fast, but young, and follows Abner on foot. Abner warns Asahel to turn away. He is afraid of Joab’s reaction and knows Asahel is not a match for him. Asahel refuses and Abner kills him, worsening the relationship between Abner and Joab. (2 Sam 2) (Joab does not ask the details, but assumes Abner behaved badly. If he had asked, and listened with an open mind, he may have understood that Abner tried to avoid killing Asahel.)
Later, when Abner decides to support David, Joab arranges to meet with him without David’s knowledge and, with the help of his brother Abishai, kills Abner. Joab believes he is doing David a favor, protecting him, as he does not believe Abner to be a man of his word. (2 Sam 3:25) David curses Joab and his family, and mourns Abner. (What Joab saw as ‘protecting’ his friend, David saw as harming an innocent man. Teaching people to ‘have their friend’s backs’ often does not allow for a former non-friend to repent and change his position.)
Abner was said to have died a ‘fool’s death,’ as he trusted someone he should not have. (2 Sam 3:33) (Teaching children to be trusting, even when the situation is clearly treacherous, is teaching them to behave foolishly and sets them up to be hurt. While we cannot avoid all hurts in life, wisdom can be used to be on guard against some situations. To behave like Abner, and assume a man who has previously shown you hatred to be trustworthy, is foolish.)
Joab wins many battles for David. In the midst of one he is commanded to arrange for Uriah the Hittite to be killed in order to cover up David’s affair with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. Joab complies, and other men die with Uriah as well. (2 Sam 11) (Obeying unjust commands is not good, and not only did the intended man die, but so did other innocent men. ‘Covering’ for your friends can lead to feeling like you must do bad things.)
Joab then acts as a middle man between David and his son Absalom. (2 Sam 14) Joab has a widow woman try to convince David to reconcile with his son through a story. This has limited results and Absalom is allowed to return to Jerusalem, though David ignores him. Absalom tries to get Joab to speak with David again on his behalf, but has to resort to burning Joab’s field to get his attention. Joab again goes to David. The reunion seems promising in the beginning, but does not last and Absalom schemes to take over the kingdom. (We teach that bringing two sides together to reconcile is good, but family affairs are complicated and full of emotion. While Joab tries, his heart is not in it and his attempts are half-hearted. Not being aware of where both sides are currently at emotionally, and not being there to fully support an obviously volatile situation are recipes for disaster. Too many times we simplify what is needed in a situation and fail to teach our children that hard work and commitment to a situation are needed to gain true results.)
Absalom then takes over the kingdom and David, with Joab, flees. A war ensues, and Absalom is found hanging by his hair from a tree. Absalom had been riding on a mule, indicating that he had come in peace, assumedly to meet with his father, David. Additionally, David had stated that people were to deal gently with Absalom. Joab, likely believing he knows better than David and wishing to protect David, kills Absalom. (Remember, Joab had previously tried to help Absalom in his attempts to reconcile with David. He has not previously shown signs of being Absalom’s enemy before Absalom takes over.) (2 Sam 18) Due to this, and other times Joab kills without David’s consent, David instructs Solomon to make sure Joab does not die in peace. (Thinking you know better than those in authority and delivering ‘justice’ outside of the proper channels is not right.)
David later decides to call a census. Joab wisely counsels him not to, as it goes against God’s will. David insists, and Joab follows his orders. Israel is punished with a plague. (Giving in and doing something that you know is not right is still not right even if the person over you orders you to do so…) (2 Sam 24)
Joab then decides to support Adonijah as a successor to David instead of Solomon. Solomon uses this opportunity to end Joab’s life as he was instructed to by David. (Although Adonijah was the supposed heir through birth order, David had appointed Solomon. Believing man-made rules, or customary ways of doing things should be followed, without praying to seek God’s will is a mistake.) (1 Kings 2)
(Based on my reading of The Queen You Though You Knew by Rabbi David Fohrman)
The book of Esther not only forwards the role of Esther as a queen, but also shows us a view of how the Jews view marriage at this time.
Mordecai comes to Esther to ask her to speak to the king. He tells her that if she keeps silent at this time salvation will come to the Jews from somewhere else, but she and her father’s house will be destroyed. (Esther 4:14)
What does Mordecai mean by this?
The first clue is that Mordecai uses a phrase from Numbers 4:14 hacharesh tacharishi. These are both words that mean to be silent. They are found in the verse in Numbers where it explains that a Jewish husband may annul his wife’s vow, if he does so on the same day he hears of it. But Esther is not a husband, but a wife. By using this term Mordecai shows that the Jewish people understood this command to work in reciprocity, where the wife could also dissuade her husband of something foolish, if she did so immediately. If she did not, she was tacitly agreeing to the commitment. This notion is further affirmed in the naming of the feast ‘Purim.’ The name Purim is the plural for pur, and means lots. Scripture tells us that the day is named thus because Haman used lots to decide the date that the Jews were to be killed. But scripture also tell us that the name also refers to the actions Esther took to save the Jews. We see the same double entendre in the naming of the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, or Yom Kippurim (plural). Kip means like and Pur means to annul. Esther’s actions annulled her husband’s vow. (Yom Kippur is also the day the scapegoat is chosen by lot to be cast out for the sins of the people.)
So why would Esther’s father’s line be destroyed?
Esther is being given a choice. She is the only remaining person from her father’s household. She can either have a Persian marriage, where the woman has no value, or she can follow God and have a Jewish marriage, where the woman interacts with and advises her husband. If she chooses a Persian marriage, her children will be raised with Persian values and her father’s line will no longer be Jewish. This also shows us that while many of the laws regarding lineage follow the path of the male, the female is also important and considered part of the father’s legacy. Further, we see numerous examples in the Old Testament showing that having a Jewish wife determines whether, or not, your children will be godly. (Read the lists of the kings of Judah and see the pattern.) Today the Jewish line is followed through the mother, not the father, indicating that the mother plays a vital role in the beliefs of the child.
Further, the book of Esther shows that by remaining silent you are tacitly condoning, or allowing evil to occur and are as guilty as if you did the task yourself. This is a theme throughout scripture. We see it in the warnings of the prophets, as well as in Paul claiming to be a murderer of Christians when he held the coats of those who threw the stones. By allowing evil to go unchecked, when we could have stopped it (especially if, like Paul, we egged it on) we are just as guilty as those who did the deed.
(Based on my reading of The Queen You Though You Knew by Rabbi David Fohrman)
Esther arrives at the King’s chamber. He as locked himself away from his people and seemingly needs a break from the stress of ruling. He is pleased she has come. Likely he believes it is a sign that she cares for him and is risking her life to comfort him. This is not a time to dissuade him of this idea, so she invites him to a feast with only her and one other guy in attendance. A private dinner with your wife makes sense, but the king has to be thinking ‘Why is this other man being invited as well? What is my queen trying to tell me?’ Haman has no such thoughts and believes this is a sign he is highly favored. The invitation merely boosts his ego.
At the end of the dinner, Esther has still not revealed what is on her mind. Instead, she asks the king, and Haman, to another banquet. In the first request she tells the king the banquet is for ‘him,’ but which ‘him’ it is for is a little ambiguous. In the second request, Esther states that the banquet is for ‘them.’ This has to confuse the king, and may be why he cannot sleep that night. In ancient Jewish writings (before the Middle Ages) Rashi (a famous Jewish Rabbi) suggests that the king believes Esther is insinuating that something untoward has been happening between her and Haman. This makes sense. After all, at this time in history the queen has very little power so what else could she have to say to the king that she is so afraid of saying that it takes three audiences with the king to get her courage up? All he knows is that whatever she wants to tell him, it has to do with Haman.
This brings us to the fact the Esther has never told the king that she is Jewish. He must have asked; what husband would not want to know, especially if he was a king trying to unite a kingdom? The only logical reply Esther could have given was that she was Persian and that nothing else matters, which would have pleased the king immensely. Now Esther must reveal that she really does have some loyalty to one of the nationalities that reside in his kingdom, which may alter the king’s view of her, especially since the Jews have been accused of trying to overthrow the kingdom.
The king cannot sleep. He is likely thinking about why the queen would throw two banquets for him and another man. Haman on the other hand has passed Mordecai on his way home and is now really mad since, as usual, Mordecai did not given him the respect he believes he deserves. (There is a lesson here about not letting on person’s opinion ruin your whole day…) Haman’s wife advises Haman to just have Mordecai killed, since, after all, Haman is in charge. She also tells him to talk to the king about it in the morning. Haman however does not wait. He goes to the palace at night, after the king should be asleep. As luck would have it, the king is not asleep and asked Haman what he would do to honor someone who has pleased the king. As you well know Haman thinks the honor is for him and is crestfallen when he finds out he is to honor Mordecai for saving the king’s life. His disappointment was likely evident. At this point the king must have been thinking, ‘This man thought he would ride my horse and wear my clothes in front of all my subjects? And he has something to do with my wife?’ He must also be wondering what Haman is doing back at the palace at this time of night after he had clearly left for home hours ago. Doubts are increasing as to Haman’s motives….
The queen then reveals that Haman wishes to kill her and her people, and has tricked the king into signing a decree to make it legal. The king steps out to think and walks in the garden. Why would Haman wish to kill his queen unless he made advances that the queen spurned in an attempt to take the kingdom? (At this time, one of the ways to usurp power was to sleep with a king’s women, showing that the king was not powerful enough to protect them from others.) The king returns and Haman is on the queen’s couch (which can be translated as bed) with her begging for his life. This looks bad and confirms the king’s fears. The king asks the eunuch (the man charged with guarding Esther) what to do. The eunuch, likely a friend of Esther’s by this point, points out the Haman has built gallows to hang Mordecai, the man who saved the king’s life. This is the final straw, and it looks very much like Haman is upset that Mordecai foiled the plot on the king’s life. Haman has signed his death certificate.
Mordecai is made second in command, after all he has proved his loyalty, as has Esther by seemingly not going along with Haman to overthrow the king, and Mordecai has been given all of Haman’s belongings, a sizable amount of wealth. But the decree still stands. Esther must again approach the king, who tells her that she and Mordecai have the power to do what they think best. This is a huge promotion for Esther, and should be noted in any discussion regarding how God views women. In this kingdom, as seen by Vashti’s inability to refuse a request, the notion that a wife must obey her husband at all times, the beauty pageant where the king takes all the beautiful women for himself without causing civil war and the fear Esther, the king’s wife, has in approaching her husband without being sent for, show how little value women have. Now the king is giving his queen the power to make laws with his advisor. This is a huge leap forward. (We will also see in Nehemiah the queen mother being consulted, showing that the position of women in the kingdom as people valued for their wisdom has remained. And some believe that the queen mother in Nehemiah is actually Esther in her old age….)
So, not being able to revoke Haman’s order to kill the Jews, Mordecai and Esther devise a new order allowing the Jewish people to defend themselves and keep the spoils. This is a test devised to show that the Jewish citizens are loyal. This is now the perfect time for the Jews to rise up and take control, or at least increase their control, of the kingdom. But Mordecai knows a few things about the Jewish people that the rest of Persia does not. First, the Jewish people at this time believe the teachings in scripture about not taking the plunder are there to teach them that war is not about personal gain. Further, their land is Israel, not Persia, and that is the only land they are to have according to scripture. Lastly, their prophets have told them to work for the good of this kingdom while they are there. Mordecai is confident that his people will show their loyalty and that this will go well for them.
Mordecai then throws a parade to celebrate the decree before the date the decree goes into effect. This tells the other leaders in the kingdom that he is in charge, has the king’s backing and has confidence in the results. The leaders have two decrees: Haman’s which says that they may kill all the Jews and take their possessions, and Mordecai’s, which says that the Jews may kill those who come against them and take their possessions. Which one will they back? Since Haman is dead and Mordecai has the power, it is really not a question. When the day comes, only those who really hate the Jews come against them and are defeated. Esther asks the king for a second day for the Jews to finish conquering those who came against them, and it is granted, keeping the Jews who did not finish defeating their enemies in one day safe from repercussions and showing the nation that the king currently sides with the Jewish people, which impression one did not get from Haman’s decree. The Jews also do not take the plunder, showing that this was merely an act of self defense and not for personal gain, further proving themselves to be loyal. Esther also has Haman’s sons hung from the gallows. They are already dead. This is a further statement regarding how the king now views anyone who is against the Jews, as hanging is an insult.
Esther and Mordecai proclaim a yearly holiday and call it Purim (lots). This is Biblical sarcasm. There are a lot of seeming coincidences in the book of Esther, but the Jewish people do not believe in luck, but that God controls everything.
A quick guide to celebrating Esther’s feast for Christians.
The holiday of Purim was established in the book of Esther by Esther and Mordecai. It is fun to celebrate with children, and a great way to teach them their Bible.
1. Traditionally the book of Esther is read on Purim. If you have young children with short attention spans, you may read a children’s version.
The children are given noise makers. During the reading they are instructed to make noise whenever Haman’s name is to be read, so loud that his name is not heard, and thus not honored.
2. The children dress up. They may dress as Esther (a queen), the King, Mordecai (a Jew) or Haman (an evil man). (The adults may dress up too.)
3. As a Jew, Mordecai would have worn a prayer shawl. Learning to tie the fringes of the shawl, the tzitzit, as instructed in scripture can be a fun family activity. (Google tzitzit for instructions.)
4. There are many recipes for Purim. 3 sided cookies, called Hamantaschen, are common and represent Haman’s hat.
5. Games of chance are also an excellent way to celebrate Purim. But emphasize that the point of Purim (which means lots) is that there is no chance; God is in control.