Shofars, Chuppahs and Ketubahs

Before we dive into our next post, I wanted to do some precursory work explaining the context of an ancient Eastern wedding.  The purposes of this will become clear during the next post.  This post is simply preparatory and I have no plans of making any observations or profound statements — the exercise will be purely academic.

Having said the word academic, it should probably be noted that the content of this post could be heavily debated.  Many of its parts could be verified through some cursory research on the Internet, but I will also be employing some poetic license; I want to put the details in a context that allows us to become a part of the story and understand it in a meaningful way.  I just think it is important to state up front that there's some “story-telling” going on.  Much of my perspective has come from hearing the teaching of Ray Vander Laan on this topic, but I have been able to find numerous sources that verify different pieces of the content.  I'll be pulling those pieces together.  One enjoyable read from a fictional standpoint is Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes.

In an ancient Eastern wedding, when it came time to marry, the groom's mishpucha (household) would gather and begin the discussion of finding a wife for their son.  While the son may have some suggestions, the family may — or may not — consider his wishes.  Marriages were a household matter and were arranged by communities.  They would select a woman of similar cultural standing to pursue as a candidate for marriage; cultural standing is important, because setting their sights too high would result in public shame upon the rejection by the (potential) bride's family.  You can sense some of this tension in the novel mentioned above.

Once a potential bride has been selected, the father and the future groom set out (possibly on a long journey) for the bride's mishpucha.  Upon their arrival, the proposal is made father-to-father and the bride's family retreats to discuss the matter.  Typically, the bride's family is well aware of the potential suitors and is prepared to make a decision.  If the family agrees to the marriage, the father takes out a cup and pours some wine.  The groom-to-be takes the cup, offers it to his future bride, with the words: “This is the cup of a new covenant I make with you today.  I will not drink of this cup again until I drink it anew with you in my father's mishpucha.”

This is the bride's opportunity to turn down the proposal.  If she drinks the cup, she accepts; if she denies the cup, she refuses.  We actually do not have a single historical record of a girl turning down an engagement proposal.  Such a move could infuriate the family, being seen as a rejection of the community's wisdom.  They may refuse to marry you off the next time a suitor comes knocking.  In a sense, these “arranged” marriages were a movement toward trusting the judgment of the community over my fleeting emotions.  Interesting concept.

Nevertheless, upon the acceptance of the proposal, a small party might ensue and then the father and groom would set off to return home.  Now the groom's task is to go home and build a new addition onto the family's insula. (Insula is a Latin word referring to the multiple-family, Galilean dwellings that we've found in northern Israel.  There is much discussion about whether these same dwellings were used elsewhere; I believe there is evidence to suggest that they were.) This multiple-family dwelling was where he would bring his new bride home to live within his father's household.  Ancient Eastern families lived in extended communities, running the family trade and sharing many of their possessions and responsibilities. 

He builds his new extension onto the insula and the father oversees the progress.  He may be very involved or he may be very “hands-off,” depending on his personality and/or the final lessons he wants to teach his son.  There are comical stories that are told of a Jewish father who lets the son complete his extension, only to walk in and say, “THIS is what you build for your new bride?  It's all wrong!  Tear it down and start again!”  A lesson in patience.

Eventually, however, on the day of the father's choosing (the son never knows when the day is), the new housing is declared finished.  The excited groom immediately goes to wash and pack and grab the donkey, while the entire family — with smiles on their faces — encourages him to slow down; everyone else will have to prepare to leave, as well.

Meanwhile, back at the bride's home, everyone has been waiting for the arrival of the groom.  Like the groom himself, the bride and her family have no idea when he will be arriving.  He may arrive in three weeks or three months or three years.  He might arrive in the middle of the day or at the stroke of midnight.

But one day, the village sees him coming in the distance.  The shout goes out and the whole village stops their work and begins rushing to prepare the great wedding ceremony.  When everything is ready, a shofar is blown and the bride and groom gather under the chuppah, which is essentially a prayer shawl made into a canopy that symbolizes the presence of God.  The groom presents the bride with the ketubah, a wedding covenant that outlines the specific requests, mandates, or desires of the groom to his new bride.

In the back of the room, the fathers have arranged the dowry, or bride price, and the gifts are exchanged.  The couple is whisked away into the wedding chamber and the new couple consummates the marriage.  The bloody cloth is brought forth, proving the woman's virginity, and the massive party begins.

The new couple will be free from communal obligations for one year during what we would think of as their honeymoon period.  They will not attend to work or go to war — their one task is to get to know and enjoy one another (keep in mind that there is often a good chance that they do not know each other prior to the marriage arrangement).  After this, the couple returns to the mishpucha of the groom's father and begins to help him further the family's legacy and accomplish the role that they play in the world.

And somehow, this whole image will help revolutionize our understanding of the next story...


With All of Your "Very"

The third test comes as Moses returns from his trip to strike the rock.  Upon (or during) his return, Israel is attacked by the Amalekites.  The Amalekites were known as being a ruthless band of desert raiders that attacked traveling groups from behind.  According to Deuteronomy 25:17–18, this was exactly the case with the people of Israel:

Remember what the Amalekites did to you along the way when you came out of Egypt.  When you were weary and worn out, they met you on your journey and attacked all who were lagging behind; they had no fear of God.

Some rabbis teach that it was from this experience that Israel learned one of their greatest lessons in community.  You would expect that the typical scenario would include a band of people traveling through the desert would be trailed by those on the margins.  The weak, the sick, the elderly, the struggling would drift to the back of the pack and be easy pickings for the raiding Amalekites.  Jewish thought notes that after the story of Mount Sinai and the construction of the Tabernacle, in the book of Numbers the tribe of Dan will receive the task of following in the back of the pack, demonstrating the lesson learned from the attack of the Amalekites at Rephidim.  To put it in the words of Ray Vander Laan, “You can tell whether a community is shalom-centered or empire-centered by where you find the weak.  A community of God's followers will always put the weak in the middle of the pack to protect them.”  I have always found that to be a powerful image.

In light of that statement, it is interesting to note that prior to this encounter at Rephidim, the Israelites have always been referred to (by the author) as a plural, “they” identity.  After this encounter, the author of Exodus will always refer to them in the singular.  It is no longer Israel as a “they” — but Israel as a “she.”  They have learned how to be a community.

And the community images don't stop there.  As the story continues, we find that Moses will have the Israelites enter the battle while he climbs up to the top of the mountain and holds his staff in the air.  As long as his staff remains in the air, the Israelites are victorious; when his staff drops, the Israelites suffer defeat.  As Moses' arms get tired, Aaron and Hur climb the mountain, sit Moses on a rock, and hold his arms up for him.  This serves as yet another image for the need of community.

This would end up being the test of whether or not you would love God with all your might.  In the prayer that is called the Sh'ma (recited every day by Jews), we are commanded to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”  You may recognize this as the three tests of the desert.  The word for this third test — the word for “might” — is an interesting word.  In the Hebrew, the word translated “might” is the word meodeikah.  The root word is meod, which directly translates as “very.”

You are to love the LORD your God with all of your “very.”  Very what?

Very everything.  Love Him with everything you have to offer.  Everything that your hands can do and produce.  Everything that you can accomplish.  All of your talents, all of your time, all of your resources.  Love with with everything you have to give.  Love Him with all of your very.

I have heard some teachers teach that the “true third test” didn't take place at Rephidim that day.  They say that the true third test came when they entered the Promised Land.  When God finally gave them everything they had waited for, the true test would be whether or not they would remember where the blessing came from.  Deuteronomy would put it this way:

When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you.  Be careful that you do not forget the Lord your God, failing to observe his commands, his laws and his decrees that I am giving you this day.  Otherwise, when you eat and are satisfied, when you build fine houses and settle down, and when your herds and flocks grow large and your silver and gold increase and all you have is multiplied, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.  He led you through the vast and dreadful wilderness, that thirsty and waterless land, with its venomous snakes and scorpions. He brought you water out of hard rock.  He gave you manna to eat in the wilderness, something your ancestors had never known, to humble and test you so that in the end it might go well with you.  You may say to yourself, “My power and the strength of my hands have produced this wealth for me.”  But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you the ability to produce wealth, and so confirms his covenant, which he swore to your ancestors, as it is today. (8:10–18)

When you receive God's blessing, will you be able to remember where the blessing comes from?  Will you still be able to love Him with all of your very?

My teacher pointed a finger in my face and said, “You'll NEVER pass that test.”  I'm still not sure how much he believed that, but that challenge has remained to be one of the hardest tests I've ever had to navigate.  Living with the blessing is incredibly difficult.

And yet, Moses climbed the rock and pointed his staff into the heavens.  He named the place YHVH Nissi, which means “the LORD is my banner.”  The name was fitting, for a banner in the land they had just exited (Egypt) was a symbol for God.  The banner stood at the entrance to the Egyptian temples.  They could be seen from miles away and sent the message: “Just beyond this banner is the god that provides for this land.”  As Moses stood on this mountain, his staff served as the banner for all of Israel.  It pointed them to the source of their strength and victory. 

The third test is a continual struggle in my life to remember that the LORD is my strength and my provision.  In the next few verses of Deuteronomy, I am invited to worship the LORD and serve Him only, to always remember that my strength, my victory — and my “very” — come from Him.  No other gods.  No other empires.  Not even myself.

It is a form of trusting the story and knowing when to say enough.
It all comes from the Creator and I am invited to master my desires and know how to reject the obsession with my own creativity.
Because there is a danger when I don't think that I am good enough and that my identity and worth comes from production.
But there is an equal danger in forgetting our place and beginning to think we are more than we are.

"YHVH Nissi"


With All Your Soul

The second test that the Israelites face is in the very next story.  They set out from Elim and the Desert of Sin and begin following God from place to place.  They arrive at Rephidim and voice their displeasure, once again, with the lack of water.  As far as what we're given to work with directly in the passage, we're not told a whole lot about “the story behind the story.”  However, Jewish thought claims to find some hints in the text.

The Jewish reader finds a hint in the Psalms that tells us about the condition of their hearts during this test.  In Psalm 78, Asaph writes of the experience in Exodus 17.
They willfully put God to the test
    by demanding the food they craved.
They spoke against God;
    they said, “Can God really
    spread a table in the wilderness?
True, he struck the rock,
    and water gushed out,
    streams flowed abundantly,
but can he also give us bread?
In Asaph's psalm, he says that Israel was putting God to the test, trying to see if He could prove Himself as the great provider.  While this isn't in the Exodus story, it does fit the words of Moses, who says, “Why do you quarrel with me?  Why do you put the LORD to the test?”

Moses warns the people, but they persist.  And so Moses cries out to the LORD, saying, “What am I to do with this people?  They are almost ready to stone me.”  Which most of us read as Moses being slightly overdramatic.  Yet, I think he may be telling the truth.  The word that the Text uses for “cry out” is the same cry that went up from Sodom and Gomorrah.  It is not a whine or a cry of complaint.  It is not a frustration or an angry cry.  It is a cry that comes from the belly of the oppressed.  It is a cry that God always hears.

To echo the teacher that taught me this story, I love God's response to Moses' cry.  The first words out of God's mouth are, “Walk in front of the people, Moses…”  Moses is fearful and scared for his life and God tells him to trust the story that He is telling in the world and put himself out there.

You see, this test is about whether they will love the LORD their God with all of their soul.  The last test was about their heart — that is, their will.  The “soul” refers to the whole essence of the being.  It is your very life.  It is everything that makes you — you.  God is asking them if they will love Him with their whole lives. 

Israel is saying no.  They are saying, “No, God.  You don't get us.  You don't get us unless You can prove Yourself.  You want my soul?  Prove it.”

Moses knows that this crosses a very clear line.  But God sees it differently. 

First things first, God wants to know if He has Moses' worship.  “Do you love me with all your soul Moses?  You think you're going to die?  Walk in front of the people that want to kill you, Moses.  Put your soul, your life, yourself, in My hands.”  And he does.

Second, God wants to make a statement to Moses.  He tells Moses to take his staff and walk to Mt. Horeb.  Now, depending on where you think Rephidim is, that is quite a walk.  Mt. Horeb refers to the mountain range of Mt. Sinai.  God asks Moses to walk miles ahead of the people and go to the “mountain of God.”  He tells Moses that He will stand before him at the rock and he is to strike the rock.  Now, a couple points about the Hebrew language here.  The phrase “before you at the rock” would be best understood as “between you and the rock,” and the word “strike” is the word that refers to striking to kill.  There is a metaphor here.  God is saying, “I want you to go to My mountain and I want you to strike ME, Moses.  I know that the people deserve to be struck, but this time, I want to take the blow for them.  Strike me.”  I think God is trying to say something to Moses about leadership.  And yes, obviously, I think there are some allusions to the character of God, as seen in Jesus.

Third, I think God is making a statement to the people.  He tells Moses to walk in front of them so they can see, taking some of the elders with him.  God wants them to see what He's up to as well.  God is willing to take the blow in order to teach His people a lesson.  He is testing them and every test is an opportunity to learn.

A brief P.S.:  The midrash teaches that when the Israelites left Rephidim, that they took the rock that was struck — the rock of God — and put it on a cart.  They say that they took the rock everywhere with them and that Miriam used the rock to provide water for the nation of Israel in the desert.  It sounds like a silly story.  Except for the hints in the Text.  The Israelites will not complain about water until the death of Miriam.  Also, we have the interesting words of Paul to the church in Corinth.

For I do not want you to be ignorant of the fact, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud and that they all passed through the sea. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:1–4)

Just some juicy tidbits to let marinate as you consider this story and God's invitation to trust it.


With All Your Heart

** It should be noted that the next three posts have been heavily influenced by — and I have liberally borrowed from — Ray VanderLaan.

And so the tests come as Israel heads to God's mountain.

It's not long after the miracle of the Red Sea that the people are feeling a tad thirsty.  (And let's not be that harsh on them, shall we?  I can't tell you how many Bible studies I've sat through where everybody talks about how foolish the Israelites are.  Here's a good rule to follow: You don't get to critique them until you've walked in the Negev for a week; I spent a week in the 120-degree heat of the Negev, eight hours a day — and I complained quite a lot myself.  I complained and I still had water bottles, backpacks, lunch breaks, air-conditioned buses and a hotel room at night.)  They cry out to God.

Moses said in Deuteronomy 8 that God did this to them “in order to teach you that man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.”

The Jews teach that this is the first test of the desert.  God wanted to test them to see (or experience) whether or not they would love Him with all of their heart.  In Hebrew thought, the heart can be representative of your will.  God wants to know if they will be obedient — if they will wait for every word that proceeds from His mouth.  The message is this: “I will give you what you need when you need it.  Learn to trust Me.  Do you trust Me?  Will you love me will all of your heart/will?”

But they are thirsty and they come to a well.  The water is bitter.  But the bitterness isn't just in the water.  They call that place by the well Marah, which is the Hebrew word for “bitter.”  But the root word connected to Marah isn't just bitterness.  The word also is used to speak of “defiant, stubborn rebellion.”  The people, after realizing the water is bitter, are left at a crossroads: Will they trust the story?  Will they wait on every word?  They decide to sit and demand sustenance.  They do not love God with their will and they do not wait on His every word.

And so God provides.  He has Moses throw a stick into the well and the water becomes sweet.  Then the Text says that God makes a law and a statute.  Now it is possible to read the next few verses as the law and statute that God makes.  However, it is also possible to see the statement of the law and statute as separate from those verses.  You could also read the verses as the test (notice the call in the words to LISTEN to the VOICE of God. “Every word that proceeds…”).  That means that we aren't told what the law and the statute would be.

The Jewish tradition (in the midrash) teaches that the law/statute was that Israel had to let the old, the weak, and the marginalized go first to the well to drink.

This is particularly interesting, because as soon as Israel leaves Marah, they arrive at Elim — which we're told has twelve wells and seventy palm trees.  Twelve is the number for God's community (think the twelve tribes of Israel).  And seventy is the number of leadership within that community.  I make a couple observations about God bringing them to Elim; remember that a test is an opportunity to show God what is in your heart AND to learn lessons about where God is taking you.

First, if they would have just “wait[ed] on every word,” they would have arrived shortly at a location that had clean drinking water and more of it.  How long did it take for Israel to get water for the whole community?  If they would have only waited, their job would have been much easier.  God's way is always the best way.  God says, “Please, learn to trust Me.”

Secondly, they learn about community.  If the midrash is correct about the law and the statute (debatable, I understand), then they had to learn about caring for the weak.  They also could have learned that the distribution of the water will go much quicker if we take it from the well and distribute it to others, not just stand at the well and drink for ourselves.

This seems to be pure speculation, until we read the next story.  The Israelites are now hungry.  They grumble against God again and He provides manna.  But He also gives them instructions.  They are now being invited to “wait on every word” again.  Will you trust God and love Him with all your heart/will?  He tells them that they are only to gather an omer (there is great debate about the amount of an ‘omer’; it can range anywhere from half of a cup to almost one liter).

Exodus 16:17 tells us that Israel did as they were told.  (This is significant, because I always get the impression that Israel fails every time; not true — they succeeded in this!)  We then learn that some gathered much and some gathered little, but when it was measured out, each person had their omer.  How could this be?  It could be because they gathered for the community.  Some were able to do more work and they gathered more and were able to share it with those who could not!  Israel learned — at times — from their testings.

But we often experience the same test in our lives.  We are invited to live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD.”  We are invited to trust that God knows what we need and will give us what we need when we need it — at times, not a second beforehand.  It's one way that we learn to trust the story.

God asks: “Will you love Me with all of your heart?  Will you wait on My word?  Will you listen to and follow My words?”

This is our opportunity to let God experience our hearts and our love for Him.


10 Days of Fasting

For those that follow my blog, I wanted to give a write a quick note to say that I will be entering a media fast starting tomorrow and lasting through September 14.  While I will be writing, I will not be on the internet to post any blogs.  Please do not think I have abandoned my writing.  In fact, I'm hoping to use the opportunity to get ahead of the "blog curve" and have some great things to post when I return!

          Leshanah tovah tekatiev veteichatiem!


Yada, Yada, Yada.

So the Israelites cross the Red Sea and spend time on the other side singing and dancing.  They celebrate the rescue and redemption of God and they name Adonai as their God for the first time in their story.  “YHVH is our God!”  They sing, “and He is reigning forever and ever!”  And this is important, as we looked at in the last post.  It is significant to stand and watch and notice the rescue of God.  And as Ray Vander Laan has said, it's important to stand on the other sides of our Red Seas and teach our children how to dance.

But when the song is over, it is time for the children of Israel to begin making their way to Mt. Sinai.  God is not done with them yet.  He desires to enter into a more formal partnership — a covenant — with them.  It's as if God would say, “I am glad that you call me your Savior, but will you call me your Lord?  Will you enter into a relationship with me and speak my ‘love language’ of obedience?”  And on their way to the mountain, God has some experiences for them.  They are called tests and God speaks of them in the eighth chapter of Deuteronomy:

“Remember how the LORD your God led you in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands. He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your fathers had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD.”

Apparently, God wanted to test the Hebrews on their way to Sinai.  This word will require some contextual adjustment for us, because “testing” in the Hebrew mind is much different than our own.  For us, a test is a pass/fail assignment given to us to gauge our proficiency in that area.  But this understanding wouldn't be logical for a God that would know all things.  God said that He wanted to test them in order to know what was in their hearts.

Doesn't God already know what is in their hearts?

It comes down to the Hebrew word for know.  The word is yada and it means “to know experientially.”  To put the idea in context, the word is used in Genesis when we are told that “Adam knew Eve and she conceived and bore a son.”  The word is so experiential that it is used to describe the “knowing” that happens between a husband and and wife.

God wants to know — experientially — what's in our hearts.  He already knows it (in our understanding of the word ‘know’), but He wants to experience it.

And so God leads them through a series of tests.  And this is profound, because what this means is that when God desires to test us, it is not an attempt to gauge our proficiency.  In fact, God is wanting to experience what He already knows to be true of us.  It's not about whether you or I pass or fail.

A test is our opportunity to show God what is in our hearts.  To let God experience what is really true about us on the deepest level — for better or for worse.

But a test is also our opportunity to learn something about ourselves and let it change us for our future relationship with God.

Every test is a chance to relate to (and with) God.  And every test is an opportunity to learn and grow.

What continues to amaze me is that this God would desire to experience life with me.  That He would love me enough to say that it's not enough to be God and have my obedience and see my worship, but that He would pursue me through my deserts and lead me to moments where He could experience life with me.  What kind of a God is this?

It sounds like the God who would create the world of Genesis 1 and stand back with a giddy admiration over the creation He had made, calling it very good and resting in its completeness.  It sounds like the God who would stroll through the Garden of Delight (Eden) in the cool of the day, looking for people to hang out with, wanting to experience life with them.

It sounds like a God who is just waiting for us to trust His story.

But we have three tests to go through before we get to Sinai, and God wants to experience our hearts.  And so we set off from the bank of the Red Sea, into the dry heat of the Sinai desert.  Walking through 120-degree heat we find that our hearts are getting heavier and our throats are getting drier.  Certainly God wouldn't rescue us from Egypt to let us die in the desert from thirst, would He?