Sunday, February 18, 2018

Esther Pays An Old Debt

Esther crowned as Queen
I always thought of the Purim story as a Jewish girl who rescued the Jewish nation. One reason that Esther became queen of Persia was apparently to save the Jewish people from destruction by Haman the Agagite. "And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?” - Esther 4:14. And to this day, Jews celebrate the day known as Purim.

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But, Rabbi David Fohrman AlephBeta [] points out that Esther and Mordecai were not Jews ethnically. They were descended from Benjamin. It's right there in the text, I just never noticed. "Now there was at the citadel in Susa a Jew whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei, the son of Kish, a Benjamite" - Esther 2:5. Well wait, it says Mordecai was a Jew, then it says he was a Benjamite. Which is it? Both actually. The kingdom of Judah, also known as the southern kingdom, was actually three tribes that banded together, Judah, Levi, and Benjamin, Judah being the most prominent and the royal line. The word Jew comes from the name Judah (Yehudi) and meant either an ethnic Judahite OR a resident of the kingdom of Judah. Verse 6 shows Mordecai was taken from Jerusalem into captivity, so he was a resident of Judah and could be called a Jew.

Big deal, so he and Hadasseh (Esther) were Benjamites. So what? There is language used in this story which draws us back to the story of Joseph in Egypt. Esther's story echoes Joseph's story when his brothers sold him to Midianites, and eventually Egypt. Note that this was Judah's idea.

Joseph sold by his brothers
Genesis 37:26  Judah said to his brothers, “What profit is it for us to kill our brother and cover up his blood? “Come and let us sell him to the Ishmaelites and not lay our hands on him, for he is our brother, our own flesh.” And his brothers listened to him.
Esther 7:4 For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed and to be annihilated. Now if we had only been sold as slaves, men and women, I would have remained silent, for the trouble would not be commensurate with the annoyance to the king.

Both passages talk about someone being sold for slavery versus sold for destruction. The words "sell" and "sold" are spelled the same in both verses (nmkrnu, Hebrew Torah scrolls are written without vowels).

But that story is about Joseph, not Benjamin. And Esther's rescue of the Jews is not over. When Esther appeared before the king, she succeeded in eliminating Haman, but Haman's decree to kill all the Jews was still in effect, and Esther had to approach the king a second time to ask for the decree to be rescinded. Again, it went well.

Esther pleads for the Jews
Esther 8:3 Then Esther spoke again to the king, fell at his feet, wept and implored him to avert the evil scheme of Haman the Agagite and his plot which he had devised against the Jews. 4 The king extended the golden scepter to Esther. So Esther arose and stood before the king. 5 Then she said, “If it pleases the king and if I have found favor before him and the matter seems proper to the king and I am pleasing in his sight, let it be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman, the son of Hammedatha the Agagite, which he wrote to destroy the Jews who are in all the king’s provinces. 6 “For how can I endure to see the calamity which will befall my people, and how can I endure to see the destruction of my kindred?”

Esther's plea echoes Judah's plea centuries before in Egypt, when he pleaded to trade places with Benjamin. Joseph tricked his brothers into bringing Benjamin to Egypt. Joseph was powerful in Egypt when his brothers came to buy food, but they did not recognize him. When the brothers were going home, Joseph planted his goblet in Benjamin's pack so Benjamin would look guilty of theft. Judah steps up and offers to trade himself as a slave in Benjamin's place. He could have gone back to his father Jacob and said there was nothing he could do, after all, the goblet was in Benjamin's pack. But in spite of Leah and her children (including Judah) being second class citizens in Jacob's eyes (note in the passage below that Jacob only refers to the two sons of Rachel), Judah's plea was based on how much sorrow it would cause his father to lose both sons of Rachel.

Judah pleads for Benjamin
Genesis 44:27 “Your servant my father said to us, ‘You know that my wife bore me two sons; 28 and the one went out from me, and I said, “Surely he is torn in pieces,” and I have not seen him since. 29 ‘If you take this one also from me, and harm befalls him, you will bring my gray hair down to Sheol in sorrow.’ 30 “Now, therefore, when I come to your servant my father, and the lad is not with us, since his life is bound up in the lad’s life, 31 when he sees that the lad is not with us, he will die. Thus your servants will bring the gray hair of your servant our father down to Sheol in sorrow. 32 “For your servant became surety for the lad to my father, saying, ‘If I do not bring him back to you, then let me bear the blame before my father forever.’ 33 “Now, therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the lad a slave to my lord, and let the lad go up with his brothers. 34 “For how shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me—for fear that I see the evil that would overtake my father?” 

Let me narrow in on Gen 44:34 and Ester 8:6.

Gen 44:34 Lest I see the evil that will come on my father
Esther 8:6 For how can I endure to see the evil that shall come unto my people?

In Hebrew, the phrase "evil that will come on my father/people" differs by one letter.

Gen 44:34 ra asher yim'tza et-aviy (father)
Esther 8:6 ra asher yim'tza et-amiy (people)
Esther used the exact same words as Judah. She must have known her history. Judah offered himself to save Benjamin. Esther, a Benjaminite, offered herself to save Judah, ie. the ethnic Jews in Persia. The family breach that started when the sons of Leah sold Joseph into slavery was restored by Hadasseh (Esther). And both stories have a happy ending for the sons of Jacob.

Judah saved Benjamin

Benjamin saved Judah

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Truth Changes Everything

A friend and I were talking about how difficult it can be to persuade someone of something, even when we are armed with facts, and yes - the truth. Often it is very difficult to convince someone of the simple truth. But in religious discussions, it seems almost impossible to change someone's mind.

Doctrinal Confusion

In the collective Churches of God, I have seen three major doctrinal controversies keep coming up that never seem to go away - Sacred Names, Calendar, and Nature of God. I bring these up as concrete examples of doctrines that cause controversy, but not change. This may be more of a personal rant, so if this doesn't apply to you, skip to #Christmas.

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Sacred Names - This is the idea that we must use the correct name for God, and also Jesus Christ. In the Bible, God's name is written YHVH, with vowel markings (not inspired) that make it read as either Yahweh, even though there is no "W" sound in Hebrew; or Jehovah, even though there is no "J" sound in Hebrew, or Yehovah; or Yahava, or possibly some other variants. Actual Hebrew scholars don't agree on the pronunciation, but many people are certain they know how, that they have truth on their side. How does a small town boy like me tell who is right when the scholars don't agree? Further it's not clear to me why we need to use the Hebrew pronunciation for these two names. Most names are changed as they pass from language to language (Johann, Juan, John, Yochanan). At the other end of the spectrum are the those who won't speak His name even if they did know it.

Nature of God - Most Churches teach that God is a Trinity, Most Churches of God teach that God is a Binity (yes that's a word), but some teach that God is a Unity, meaning God the Father is the only God, not Jesus in case that wasn't clear. Each camp has its Bible verses as proof, but ignore the other camps' proof texts. I have an opinion formed by reading the Bible and the arguments from all camps, but the truth is the actual nature of God is not up to debate, He is what He is regardless of our arguments. Who am I to resolve the debate?

Calendar - Besides the well known Hebrew calendar, published and freely available, there are at least four competing camps that claim the Hebrew calendar is wrong, but theirs is right, and their calendar is based on nothing but the Bible. The problem I have is that if they all based their calendars on the Bible, shouldn't they all come to the same conclusion? They don't. I've read more than I care to about calendars, and I am not expert enough to tell if one of these represents truth.

All of the people who argue such things are very sure of themselves, or as I like to say "often wrong, but never in doubt". Sometimes I think that love thy neighbor has been replaced with love thy calendar.

It occurs to me that the demons know the truth of each of these controversial doctrines. It appears they were created before the earth (the angels shouted for joy when earth was created - Job 38:7), so they saw  their Creator face to face at least once. As far as we know, no new angels are being created. And we understand demons to be fallen angels. The point is that they know God's nature from experience; they know perfectly well His name; and they know how the calendar is counted. But the truth doesn't do them any good. As the Bible says, the demons believe and tremble (James 2:19) - they are not atheists.

Now let me introduce two other teachings - Christmas and the identity of Israel.

#Christmas - It seems every year, someone publishes articles showing that "Christmas" was being kept long before Jesus' birth. They show that He couldn't have been born in December. My intent is not to prove it all over again, but to point out that these articles don't change anyone's behavior. The truth about Christmas is out there. People don't deny it, but they keep on celebrating Christmas.

Israel - As far as I know, all the churches of God teach that Israel and Jews are different. The word "Jew" is derived from the Hebrew name Judah, who was the fourth son of Jacob. Jacob's other name was ISRAEL. So all Jews are Israelites, but not all Israelites are Jews. A person could descend from one of the other eleven sons, and still be an Israelite, but not a Jew. I have read articles that say Abraham was the first Jew. Abraham was the great grandfather of Judah. If Abraham were a Jew, then descendants of Abraham's son Ishmael would be Jews, as well as the sons of Abraham's second wife Keturah (all twelve of them). I have read that Moses (who was a Levite not a Jew) led the Jews out of Egypt - yes, and eleven other tribes as well. The point is not to prove this exhaustively from Biblical sources, but to assert that it is simple enough to understand.

The identity of Israel is the key to understanding lots of prophecy. Prophecies like "possessing the gates of your enemies" can't be applied to Judah (the modern nation of Israel), but certainly can apply to the USA and British Commonwealth aka BC (Panama Canal, Suez Canal, Gibraltar, Hong Kong, Falklands). Prophecies like Israel was promised to become "a nation and a multitude of nations". Again, this doesn't fit Judah the nation of Israel, but does fit the US and BC. Prophecies like "I will bring again the captivity of my people Israel and Judah" show they are different peoples. My point is that it is simple, but also important to understand.

You Would Have To Change

So why do people not heed the truth? What happened to being a lover of the truth? Because people would have to change. Consider the average Christmas keeper. If he believed it was wrong, what could he do? Search out the real holy days from the Bible, find a church that kept them, and join them? That is disruptive to a family. Accepting and acting on the truth about Christmas will change relationships with family and friends. I speak from experience, though I never anticipated the changes at the time. I embraced the truth about Christmas and God's actual holy days (see Leviticus 23), not realizing the changes that would happen to nearly all my relationships.

Consider a Jew who believes that Israel means Jew. Accepting that one belief that Israel does not equal Jew will put him at odds with his fellow Jews. Where would he go?

Credibility And Authority

Authority figures have better success at persuading people, assuming you like your authority figure that is. The words of an unknown carry little weight, even if speaking truth. In time, the unknown may establish credibility, but until then will have little impact. In other words, why would you believe me in any of these teachings? How does anyone gain authority/credibility? In corporations, through promotions.  In science or academia, by publishing.  In sports, by scoring lots of points.  In business, by making lots of money.  In government, by getting elected.  In preaching, by speaking the truth. (Miracles would help establish credibility.)  How does one know when they are hearing the truth? I've pointed out three examples where I can't tell.  At some level, we evaluate everyone, authority or not, we all choose to believe certain sources over others. I choose to trust Hebrew scholars over self appointed scholars.  I choose to trust authors/teachers/preachers whose work I've evaluated before, that is they made sense to me before.  You evaluate me based on what I've written before, and what you're reading now.  I evaluate teaching according to the Bible, to logic, and to experience.  The Bereans "searched the scriptures daily to see if these things were so" Acts 17:11, that's a good place to start. Another scripture to help evaluate people is this, "By their fruits shall you know them" - Matt 7:16, that is to say their life should match their words.

People pay attention to every word from the President, Prime Minister, or Pope, but does that guarantee they speak truth? Famous people use their fame as an ersatz authority - think of sports figures or actors, why would you expect wisdom from their lips? They simply have access to a microphone. Think about how powerful it is when an authority figure speaks the truth. And sadly, how destructive it is when an authority figure speaks falsely, knowingly or not.

The people who hold doctrines concerning the nature of God, or calendars may be speaking the truth, but they have no authority or credibility in my life. But if I believed one of them, it would disrupt my life. I would have to leave my current church of 40 years, and go somewhere else. Some friendships would survive, most wouldn't. I have a vested interest in NOT believing them. And it is the same for the Christmas keeper, and the Jew=Israel crowd. Accepting those truths would change everything for them. That's why it's so hard to persuade people.

So should we not try at all? We absolutely should try, the Church was instructed to "preach the gospel, feed the flock". It is one of the big reasons we are here, we are supposed to share the truth we have received. I just never recognized how hard it is to accept some truths until I looked at possibly changing my own long standing beliefs. If I were to act on a new teaching, it would change everything. And I haven't been so persuaded.