Friday, 20 December 2013

Forest Green

I don't know much about the history of Christmas traditions. Whatever its origin, I'm struck by the paradoxical and strange nature of the Christmas tree. In the depths of winter we bring a green tree into our house and place it at the centre of our celebrations, and the locus of the abundance of the season in the form of our gift giving. Because of the tree Christmas is always united in my mind with green, with verdant beautiful forest green, despite its temporal home in the depths of winter.

The bringing of green things into the home reminds me of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, during which it is traditional to decorate the inside of the home with green plants. This associative connection between the two holidays leads me to contemplate the commonality between the two: both celebrate revelation. Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah on Mt Sinai. Christmas celebrates the incarnation of the Torah as a person- Jesus Christ. In both cases the revelation of God's face is associated with green things- the pure force of life, or as Dylan Thomas put it "the force that through the green fuse drives the flower".

The tree in Christmas also celebrates life in the depth of the sleeping death of winter and is an obvious symbol for the resurrection and more broadly redemption in Christ. To my mind green things speak of the life and wisdom of the Father, and of the creation of all things in and through Christ. The evergreen at the heart of our homes speaks of the robust indestructibility of the love of the Father and the Son, its green branches and the tang of pine quickening our senses amidst the quiet, desolate stillness of winter. Life fertile and eternal pulses there.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Obedience to Christ

It seems to me to be extremely difficult to be worthy of Christ's offer and to be truly obedient to Him. It seems to me that the people who think that Christ's grace is absolutely free and no worth is required of us are both right and wrong.

It is absolutely free and no worth is required of us in the same sense that a bucking bronco is absolutely available for free to anyone to ride and no worth is required to get on. To get on, yes, but to stay on?

Christ's offer is absolutely open and His love is available to everyone, yes. But that is just the beginning. It is a relationship that is on offer- one that is gratuitous, yes, and one that is sweet, yes, but also one with a true lover. A true lover loves you for who you really are, not for who you think you are. A true lover see you with absolute clarity, and wants to see you that way. A true lover does not humour your neurosis, your weakness, your self-destructive desires. A true lover is a bracing and yes, consuming fire, whose love will burn away everything not worthy of you.

We want to be faithful to Christ, and that is admirable. But the way that we sometimes choose to be assured of our own faithfulness is actually opposed to a real relationship with Christ. Some Jews tend to seek security in their fidelity to the details of the law, cloaking from themselves and others their failure to dance the true dance with the living God. Some Christians tend to take refuge in doctrinal propriety, believing that if we believe what we've been told the Bible says with perfect fidelity regardless of troublesome promptings of conscience or contradictory information from the world, then we are true to God. Then we have met the great self-sacrificial love of Christ towards us with requisite responsibility and gratitude.

Yet while we build idols with clear boundaries and well defined lines we are all the time obscuring from sight the real shape of Christs desire in us. Until we meet that desire something will always feel off- we will fail to acquire the real health that is offered to us in Jesus. Gratefully he will keep knocking at the door.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Come and See

"They said to him, "Rabbi!" (which means teacher), "Where are you staying?"

"Come and see", Yeshua tells them.

So they came and saw where he was staying, and they spent that day with him....

.....Phillip finds Natana'el and tells him, "We've found the one that Moshe in the Torah, and also the prophets, wrote about- Yeshua of Nazeret, son of Yosef!"

"Nazeret!", Natana'el answered. "Can anything good come from there?"

Phillip said to him, "Come and see."

-Yochanan 1:38-39; 45-47 (based on Tree of Life Bible translation)

"What is the nature of this dhamma (teaching) of the one you call the Buddha (awakened one)?"

"His dhamma is here-and-now, timeless, inviting all "come and see!", giving guidance, verifiable to everyone for themselves!"

- Pali Canon (my translation)

The latter quote is a summary of the nature of the Buddha's teaching that is chanted by Buddhists all over the world every day as part of "dhammanupassana" or contemplation of the wondrous nature of the teaching. The crux of the quote, in my eyes, is the central invitation "come and see!" It is this very invitation that is so inspiring to children of the secular enlightenment in the West. This is a teaching that apparently needs no faith, that lies completely open to empirical investigation. "Taste and see that the Dhamma is good!" the quote cries.

I was therefore struck when I read in the Gospel of Yochanan (John) that an identical invitation is presented twice in the early 2nd chapter of the book when Yeshua (Jesus) first begins gathering disciples. This invitation, "come and see!" serves the same function as it does in the Pali Canon- to provoke curiousity, to express joyous confidence, and to lay down a challenge.

There are of course diffferences. The disciples of the Buddha are inviting people not to come and see the Buddha, but to come take up the practice of his teachings- to apply a set of techniques- and see the results in and for themselves. Jesus, and after him his disciple Phillip, is inviting others to come and see Jesus himself. The Buddhist invites you to examine a doctrine and a practice, the Christian invites you to come see a person.

Herein, it seems to me, lies one of the difficulties of evangelism: it is not Christian doctrine, nor Christian community, nor the rewards of living Christian disciplines, that make a Christian. Doctrine may be intellectually scintillating- delivered in a beautifully dignified and complex harmony like the writings of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI or witty, biting and brilliant like those of CS Lewis. Community may be warm, genuine and supportive. Christian disciplines may fill days with meaning, joy, purification and warm ripples of heart-health. I think it true that none of these will make a true Christian, however.

These things will appeal and may draw one in for a time, giving a certain superfical sense of conviction and rootedness. What they won't do, in my opinion, is make one loyal to Christ through the tests of time, persecution, dark night, and doubt. Nor will they truly bring you into the heart of the Church.

The only thing that can do that is a direct encounter with the head of the Church and the full content of Christian revelation and religion- Jesus himself. Unlike the Buddha, Jesus lives. He is el chai v' kayam, the living and eternal God.

Jesus is the fulfillment- nay, the embodiment- of the Torah itself, God's instruction through Israel to humanity. He is the revelation of the Torah. Zoat ha Torah- Ish.
This is the Torah- a man (Num 19:4, based on traditional Hasidic midrashic reading of verse).

Monday, 9 December 2013


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

A Christmas Sermon for Advent from George Macdonald

A Christmas Sermon
by Mr. Armstrong (from George Macdonald's Adela Cathcart)

It is not the high summer alone that is God's. The winter also is His. And into His winter He came to visit us. And all man's winters are His-the winter of our poverty, the winter of our sorrow, the winter of our unhappiness-even 'the winter of our discontent.'

Winter does not belong to death, although the outside of it looks like death. Beneath the snow, the grass is growing. Below the frost, the roots are warm and alive. Winter is only a spring too weak and feeble for us to see that it is living. The cold does for all things what the gardener has sometimes to do for valuable trees: he must half kill them before they will bear any fruit. Winter is in truth the small beginnings of the spring.

The winter is the childhood of the year. Into this childhood of the year came the child Jesus; and into this childhood of the year must we all descend. It is as if God spoke to each of us according to our need: My son, my daughter, you are growing old and cunning; you must grow a child again, with my son, this blessed birth-time. You are growing old and selfish; you must become a child. You are growing old and careful; you must become a child. You are growing old and distrustful; you must become a child. You are growing old and petty, and weak, and foolish; you must become a child-my child, like the baby there, that strong sunrise of faith and hope and love, lying in his mother's arms in the stable.

But one may say to me: 'You are talking in a dream. The Son of God is a child no longer. He is the King of Heaven.' True, my friends. But He who is the Unchangeable, could never become anything that He was not always, for that would be to change. He is as much a child now as ever he was. When he became a child, it was only to show us by itself, that we might understand it better, what he was always in his deepest nature. And when he was a child, he was not less the King of Heaven; for it is in virtue of his childhood, of his sonship, that he is Lord of Heaven and of Earth-'for of such'-namely, of children-'is the kingdom of heaven.' And, therefore, when we think of the baby now, it is still of the Son of man, of the King of men, that we think. And all the feelings that the thought of that babe can wake in us, are as true now as they were on that first Christmas day, when Mary covered from the cold his little naked feet, ere long to be washed with the tears of repentant women, and nailed by the hands of thoughtless men, who knew not what they did, to the cross of fainting, and desolation, and death.

So, my friends, let us be children this Christmas. Of course, when I say to anyone, 'You must be like a child,' I mean a good child. A naughty child is not a child as long as his naughtiness lasts. He is not what God meant when He said, 'I will make a child Think of the best child you know-the one who has filled you with most admiration. It is his child-likeness that has so delighted you. It is because he is so true to the child-nature that you admire him. Jesus is like that child. You must be like that child. But you cannot help knowing some faults in him-some things that are like ill-grown men and women. Jesus is not like him, there. Think of the best child you can imagine; nay, think of a better than you can imagine-of the one that God thinks of when he invents a child in the depth of his fatherhood: such child-like men and women must you one day become; and what day better to begin, than this blessed Christmas Morn? Let such a child be born in your hearts this day. Take the child Jesus to your bosoms, into your very souls, and let him grow there till he is one with your every thought, and purpose, and hope. As a good child born in a family will make the family good; so Jesus, born into the world, will make the world good at last. And this perfect child, born in your hearts, will make your hearts good; and that is God's best gift to you.

Then be happy this Christmas Day; for to you a child is born. Childless women, this infant is yours-wives or maidens. Fathers and mothers, he is your first-born, and he will save his brethren. Eat and drink, and be merry and kind, for the love of God is the source of all joy and all good things, and this love is present in the child Jesus.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

A Christian Dialogue With A Kabbalist pt.1

Rabbi Yeshuda Lev Ashlag was perhaps the greatest 20th century philosopher of Kabbalah. Himself a Hasidic mystic of deep spiritual insight, the Rav dedicated his life to making the Kabbalah available to the masses of Jews and thus displaying what he considered the inner soul (pnimiyut) of the Torah to its people. Christians believe that the Torah, as well as being the gift of God to Israel for its guidance and identity, points in its essence and details to its ultimate consummation in Yeshua, the anointed King of the cosmos and teacher and deliverer of all humanity, Jesus Christ.
It might be an interesting exercise then, provided we find compelling Rav Ashlag's claim to unveil the soul of the Torah, to see whether and to what extent we can see the face of Jesus illuminated by the Rav's revelation of revelation's inner radiance.
My contention is that we can, which I hope to demonstrate in this series of essays. They will serve as an introduction to Rav Ashlag's thought, which I consider interesting in its own right, as well as a beginning foray into contemplating what the Rav reveals and how it does, or does not, point to the suffering servant who Christians consider himself to be the incarnate Word, or in other words, the soul of the Torah in the form of a man.
In order to begin looking at the thought of the Rav I will summarize and comment on his brilliant essays "Matan Torah" (The Giving of the Torah) and "Arvut" (Mutual Responsibility) which are parts one and two of one teaching where the Rav lays out his vision of the inner meaning and purpose of the Torah and mission of Israel. These essays were originally distributed by the Rav in Israel as pamphlets early in the century as the Zionist project was gaining steam.
Matan Torah
In the beginning of the essay Matan Torah the Rav begins by quoting the mitzvah (commandment) to "love your fellow as yourself" (Lev 13:9) and R' Akiva's comment that "zeh klal gadol b'Torah" ("this is the great principle of the Torah"). Rav explains that "klal" (principle) here means "inclusive" (from the same root as "kol" for "all"). So the Rav translates Akiva as saying "this is the great inclusive principle of all Torah". The other 612 mitzvot are included in it, writes the Rav. He further quotes Hillel's famous statement in the Talmud (Shabbat 31) summarizing all Torah with this one prinicple for the sake of a prospective convert, and then telling him: "The rest is commentary. Now go study." The Rav writes that this means that the rest of the Torah is just commentary on, or elaboration of, this commandment to love the other as yourself. "How could this be?", he asks. Can the mitzot bein adam l'makom (between humans and God) also be included in this miitzvah (which is technically in the class known as bein adam l' chavero- between people)?

Rav Ashlag touches here on a traditional Jewish teaching: that all the mitzvot can be classified into two categories, those between us and God and those between us and other people. Christians will immediately recognize the twofold "great commandment" of Jesus to love God and to love your fellow as yourself, which He said, in concert with general Jewish sensibility, to be the essence of the Torah (Matthew 22:36-40). The Rav is perplexed by the statement, made by two of the greatest teachers of Torah according to Rabbinic Judaism, that these two commandments can in fact be reduced to the one of loving your fellow as yourself.

Further, Ashlag says, we should understand that the principle is to love everyone "like yourself", ie to care for everyone in Israel's needs just as your own, which is tantamount to saying before your own. Note that at this point Rav Ashlag takes "your fellow" to mean "your fellow Jew". This understanding is normative in Orthodox Rabbinic Judaism, and contrasts with Jesus's famous parable of the good samaritan (Luke 10:25-37). Rav Ashlag will not leave the issue quite to stand this way, however, as we will see later. Taking up his thread again, the Rav asks, "How can it be practically possible to do put others before yourself?" And it is really meant, he says, as the Talmudic text Kiddushin 20 shows on the treatment of the slave: if you cannot give your slave a pillow as good as your own you must give him the better, so that he be "happy with you".

The Rav then takes one step backward and says, "To understand all of this we must ask why the Torah was given to Israel specifically. Nationalism? No, he says, "one would have to be insane to think that". All of the Nations were offered the Torah and Israel was given it because she accepted. In other words Israel was not elected due to an arbitrary decision of God or because of God's love for Abraham: Israel became the carriers of the Torah because they chose to be and other nations did not. This explanation references a Midrash where God is said to have offered the Torah to all the nations who refused it because of their attachment to one sin or another. The original parable may be seen as another form of glorification of Israel, but Rav Ashlag is using it to make a different point. The Rav is saying that there was nothing special about Israel except a ripeness for the Torah. He will explain below what this ripeness consisted of.

The Rav then takes another cosmic step backward and asks, "What is the purpose of creation?" Every act is done with a purpose even among us, he says, how much more so is this the case with the Creator. He created to reveal His godliness to an other, which is a pleasant bounty He wishes to give. "Our sages tell us about that, that the world had not been created but for the purpose of keeping Torah and Mitzvot, meaning, as our sages have explained, that the aim of the Creator from the time He created His Creation is to reveal His Godliness to others. This is because the revelation of His Godliness reaches the creature as pleasant bounty that is ever growing until it reaches its full measure."

What the Rav is saying is that God created in order to give the goodness of Himself to another. In other words, God created out of love. Here again we see echoed two core Christian teachings: that God created in order to share His trinitarian life of love with another, or as John the evangelist says, "God is love (1 John 4:8). This corresponds closely to Catholic teaching as represented in the current Catechism (293-295): "St Bonaventure explains that God created all things "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and communicate it", God has no other reason for creating than his love and goodness: "Creatures came into existence when the key of love opened his hand".......We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance. We believe that it proceeds from God's free will; he wanted to make his creatures share in his being, wisdom and goodness...."

As the Rav will explain, the purpose of Torah and Mitzvot (ie. learning and practice of the Torah) is to became capable of receiving the bounty that God wants to give us in His love. What the Creator want to give is in the Rav's kabbalistic-hasidic language "dvekut", which means something along the lines of "clinging/intimacy/union" with Himself and which corresponds well to the Christian idea of both union and, as we shall see, deification. The Rav does have a specific idea of what union, or closeness, with God would entail, which God willing we will explore next week.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Facing Our Sins and Passions

Have recently been reading John Newton's Cardiphonia. This is quite an amazing collection of letters. Despite my hesitations to affirm his theology (which I don't see a clear picture of yet, but I suspect is too Lutheran for me) I am hypnotized by his ruthless honesty. Amazing that he wrote in the 18th century in England! His self-lacerating and raw description of his mind and actions reads very modern, the key difference being that today people affirm their depravity in a vacuum of ideals, safe in a cozy nihilism of the impossibility of great virtue and the illusion of meta-narratives. Newton, of course, does not- he has mountain high, crystalline ideals and is a follower and worshipper of Christ, sinless lover of humanity and unimpeded incarnation of God's very own wisdom and Word. This makes his ruthless sin exposure truly laudable and bracing, especially when one considers that he was also writing as a Pastor!


All of this has inspired me to take a harder look at my own sins special and habitual, which are sadly numerous despite my tendency toward Pelagian hopes for my own moral accomplishments. This is spurred on by watching a relative of mine, now in his 60's, suffering from a series of humiliating and painful develeopments in his life which unfortunately follow straightforwardly and predictavly from the sins he has nurtured in his breast for decades. It reminded me of CS Lewis' The Great Divorce, with its depictions of the crooked, lost souls we make for ourselves and prefer, in the end, to the heaven whose price is humility, honesty, and the abandonment of our obsessive drives. How well, I wondered, do I really know my sins and their likely results? How well do I see the shape of my life? Perhaps it is time to sit down with oen and paper and huny myself before I am hunted.




Monday, 9 September 2013

Thoughts on Hannah (Samuel 1- 3)

The story of Hannah is that of a barren woman whose fertile co-wife Peninah torments her to the point of despair and whose husband counsels her to be happy with his love ("Am I not worth ten sons to you?") Peninah is, as I heard a pastor say this morning, the voice of culture. In Hannah's time not having children- or not having sons- meant you were socially worthless. Your husband might still love you, as Elkanan loved Hannah, but the voices of the culture of Israel BCE would tell you that as a woman, a wife, a mother- as a member of society, you were worthless. In our time we would not be tormented for not bearing children. Ours is not a collectivist but an individualist culture, and in ours we are made to feel worthless for not securing individual accomplishments- a beautiful body, wealth, status, uniqueness.

Hannah's response to her plight, to the taunts of her co-wife and kind but foolish minstrations of her husband is fascinating. Having heard the condemning voice of Peninah and the loving but blind voice of Elkanan, Hannah stands up and takes matters into her own hands. She turns away from culture, and even away from love, and turns to God.

But what does Hannah say to God? "If you give me a son, I will give him to you." She vows that Shmu'el will be a Nazir and will serve all his life in the temple at Shiloh. Effectively she has placed herself in a forever secondary position in his life, and placed God forever first. Hannah would visit Shmu'el at Shiloh once a year (and touchingly give him a handmaid linen ephod to wear while serving in the Temple) but he will grow up in the precincts of the Holy, consecrated to God.

This is an amazing story if you stop to reflect on it. It seems clear that Hannah desperately wants a son. Yet she vows to God that if she is given one she will offer him to God. In being a barren woman given a son by God Hannah embodies Sarah imanu (our mother) as well as all of the matriarchs who at times were barren and were given a child by God. God's gift of miraculous conception to righteous women appears again and again in the shaping of Israel. More powerfully Hannah's offering of her only son to God embodies Abraham our father's offering of Isaac to God. In other words Hannah embodies in herself both Sarah and Abraham. There is also a sense in which Hannah may transcend Abraham: she offers her son freely, not because of being commanded.

Hannah's loss is no small thing. In her household she will still dwell as a woman without children helping the scornful Peninah to raise hers. She may have shown herself fertile and blessed by God, but her son will not contribute to the economy of the family and Hannah's social status is likely to remain low. So her offering entails real loss and real humiliation alongside the triumph of conception.

As for Hannah's son, Samuel, he will come to serve in the Temple alongside the sons of Eli, both of whom are corrupt (2:12). Eventually Samuel will be called to announce God's judgement against Eli and his sons. Through Samuel God "again appears at Shiloh" (3:21). Samuel goes on to be a judge and prophet and preside over the establishment of the Davidic lineage- the lineage of the Messiah Yeshua. That lineage will, of course, get off to a false start when Saul, the first anointed one over Israel, proves a false coin. Samuel will then, in accordance with God's word, chose David son of Yeshe, whose lineage will eventually produce Yeshua. As Peter J Leithart points out, Samuel, Hannah's son, prefigures in some sense John the Baptist who will prepare the way for Yeshua. Hannah's exultant prayer seems to take in all of this at a glance: her prayer exalts the messianic tasks of enriching of the poor, strengthening the feeble, raising up the poor and needy (2:4-8). It also celebrates YHVH's cutting off of the wicked, breaking of His adversaries, and the extension of his justice to the end of the earth (2:9-10). Most amazingly, Hannah exalts God's power of resurrection: "YHVH...brings down to sheol and raises up". Finally the prayer ends with YHVH giving "strength to His king" and exalting "the horn of his anointed/messiah" (2:10).

This prayer, which was certainly written by Hebrew scribes who knew nothing of the career of Yeshua, prefigures it to an amazing degree. Yeshua will indeed reverse the values of the world in His being and His actions- he will raise up the poor and the weak and be raised from the dead by YHVH to break the adversaries of God (sin) reigning as King, exalted by God forever as Messiah.

Does Hannah do something to warrant this vision of the great movement in the history of the world that her son will preside over? Accepting that she embodies at once Sarah and Abraham and produces an heir who will prophetically preside over the regeneration of Israel- what motivation brings her into this luminous path?

What is it to Hannah to have a child just to give him away? One explanation: Hannah's pride has been wounded. She wants above all to prove that she can have a child- that she is in fact a whole woman. She is willing to give Shmu'el away to God in exchange for this vindication. I think that this is plausible. Hannah's celebratory song (2:1-10) does in fact exult in deriding her enemies (2:1) and praises God in several examples for his power to reverse status (2:4-8). This seems like the speech of a woman who has turned to God chiefly for her own vindication and exultation, even at the cost of giving up the very thing she has proved that she can (with God's help) produce.

The story of Hannah, then, is that of a woman faithful to YHVH in the degenerate time of the Judges who finds herself barren and scorned by the wicked Peninah. She turns to YHVH to be vindicated. Yet in order to accomplish this she does a remarkable thing- she embeds her own salvation in a gift to YHVH. In so doing she seems, in a sense, to tie together the exaltation of herself and YHVH into one movement.

Hannah must have known that the "house of Eli" who ran the Temple at Shiloh were corrupt. In offering up her son Samuel to God, does she act not only for her own pain but for the pain of God? If so Hannah includes within herself at once chutzpah, transcendent vision, sympathy for the pathos of God and dedication to His glory. In offering Samuel to YHVH perhaps she acts at once for herself, for Israel, and for her God. Her over-arching concern is vindication- of herself, of Israel, and of God's saving power.

Hannah is richly rewarded. God blesses her and she bears three sons and two daughters (2:21). But even granting that Hannah acts out of love for God and Israel we are still left with the fact that a key part of her motivation is her own vindication before a society which would render her worthless. This is perhaps not as selfless or noble a desire as we would wish in a spiritual hero. We should perhaps remember here that in the Tanakh Israel often turns to YHVH for the satisfaction of all of its normal emotional needs- safety, justice, peace, plenty- and at times vindication, triumph and even vengeance. Israel turns like a faithful child to its powerful parent. Save me! Feed me! Avenge me!

And when Israel is righteous and sincere and wholehearted in its turning to God, God grants Israel her wishes. Perhaps the simple truth is that in return for Hannah's sacrificial gift God gives her vindication because the fact is that is what she wants. Poteach et yadecha u matzbia l' kol chai ratzon. You open up your hand and fulfill every living things desire (Psalm 145).That is what she has asked for. It is Hannah's wholehearted trust (emunah) in God that wins His response and secures what she wants. The fact is Hannah wants to be vindicated even more than she wants an actual son. God rewards her both with vindication and with children, perhaps because of her being true to her difficult sacrificial pledge, or perhaps because of her righteousness, or perhaps because of the love for God and Israel implicit in her acts and prayer. We can speculate, though the text does not seem to tell us.

God turns in love to those who love Him, and gives us what we ask for. I don't want to be too quick in making little of Hannah's passionate desire to be vindicated before her "enemies". It does make me thoughtful, however. The lesson here is, of course, that we should be very careful about what exactly we want. If God will reward my innermost desires by fulfilling them then- speaking for myself- I had better, as St Augustine taught, bring order and good direction to my desires.

Monday, 29 July 2013

Monday, 24 June 2013

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Contempt for Humanity

Being an exceedingly judgemental, aversive, weary and arrogant person, I am in need of reminders like this. This is also admirably succint, saying much in few sentences: "There is a very real danger of our drifting into an attitude of contempt for humanity....the following thoughts may keep us from such a temptation: The man who despises another will never be able to make anything of him. Nothing we despise in the other is entirely absent from ourselves. We often expect more from others than we are willing to do ourselves...We must learn to regard others less in regard to what they do or do not do and more in the light of what they suffer. The only profitable relationship to others is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them. God himself did not despise humanity, but became man for mens sake." -Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison

Friday, 21 June 2013

Parshat Balak

כי ידעתי את אשר תברך מברך ואשר תאר יואר

"Because I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed." (Bamidbar/Numbers 22:6)

The Rabbinical tradition is fond of contrasting Bilaam the gentile prophet and Avraham. But one contrast seldom discussed is their relationship to blessing (brakhah). When Balak, King of Moab, fearfully concocts a plan to have the gentile prophet curse Israel, he says, "For I know that who you bless is blessed and who you curse is cursed."

This is, of course, the exact opposite of Hashem's language when talking to Abraham: "Those who bless you will be blessed and those who curse you, cursed." (Bereishit/Genesis 12:3).

How do we explain this contrast?

In fact, as we find out, Bilaam is only able to bless those who are blessed and curse those who are cursed- by Hashem. As a result when he finally stands above the encampment of Israel in the desert and attempt to pronounce a curse on Israel it comes out of his mouth as a blessing: "How shall I curse whom Hashem has not cursed?"

In a characteristic bit of chutzpah Bilaam's blessing, which follows, is recited by Jews every morning when entering the synagogue: "How good are your tents, Ya'akov (Mah tovu, ohelecha Ya'akov)...."

So Bilaam cannot, in fact, act against Hashem's will. Nevertheless, blessing and curse follow upon his word: it is a matter of a special power that Bilaam has.

By contrast, for Avraham and his descendants, who will be blessed and who will be cursed does not follow from their word, from their power. It follows from other people's perception of them: from how other people will toward them.

What follows from this is that Israel in the world is a source of blessing only to the extent that it inspires other people to bless Israel. And here we find the heavy burden placed on God's people.

But why is this? Why should Hashem bless those who bless Israel, and curse those who curse it? Surely this is because Israel is Hashem's representative in the world. When Jews pray daily, "Humble Your enemies...." they mean, "Humble our enemies.." This is proven by the fact that some Hebrew prayer books read "Your enemies" and some explicitly state "the enemies of Israel".

In fact in Jewish tradition doing good in the world is often referred to as "sanctifying the divine name" (kiddush Hashem), and doing evil as "chillul Hashem"- defiling, defaming, or de-sanctifying God's name, Heaven forbid.

Israel is to sanctify God's name in the world through their conduct and their relationship with Hashem. This is the basis for Jesus' famous prayer, perhaps the most commonly recited prayer in the world- the Lord's Prayer, whose opening line is " Our Father in Heaven, may your name be sanctified..."

The reality today is that Israel continues to fulfill or not fulfill this mission. God's promises are not revoked, as many Jews are profoundly dedicated servants of Hashem and lamps to the world.

That said, the Gospel declares Jesus as the embodiment of Israel, and since His appearance in the world the main representative of Hashem in the world is now Yeshua HaMoshiach, Jesus Christ. This is the sense in which those who bless Jesus and his apostles will be blessed, and those who curse them, will find themselves "worse off then Sodom when judgement comes..."(Luke 10:12, Matthew 10:15). Central to Paul's argument in Romans is that the true Israel is spiritual in nature and that though the value and role of the Jews has not ended, the true Israel goes beyond the boundaries of Israel (Romans 1-3). The burden that was once God's peoples alone now falls also on the Gentile church, who together with the Jewish church, are the body of Christ in the world.

We should not misunderstand what is said here. Hashem did not say "those who fail to bless you will be cursed", but rather "those who curse you". We should not misunderstand this to mean that anyone in the ancient world who failed to bless Israel was under divine judgement. The Tanakh makes quite clear that Hashem judges people primarily on whether they live up to the moral law that He wrote in their hearts.

Likewise when I assert that those who bless Jesus are blessed and those who curse Him cursed this shouldn't be misunderstood. This truth is both an opportunity and a burden for those who embrace it. Those who bless Jesus are those who understand who He is. This is "justification through faith" in Jesus.

There are also those who "fail to bless Jesus", however, for reasons of ignorance, misunderstanding, or pre-occupation with God's communications to the Nations outside of the sphere of Israel (the Midrash states that prophets are sent to each nation, as the Qu'ran also affirms). These will not be cursed, but judged on the basis of their alignment with their own conscience, or in other words, according to the degree of their fear of God (yirat Hashem). "Will not the judge of all the earth act justly?" (Bereishit/Genesis 18:25).

That is not to deny the universal scope of the Christian's concern. As the end of the blessing verse about Avraham from Berishit/Genesis attests, "All of the familes of the earth shall be blessed through you." All.

What does this mean? My understanding is that whether the families of the earth explicitly bless the true Israel inside and outside of Christ or not, they will be blessed through the activities of Israel and Christ. It cannot mean that all the families of the earth will bless Israel and/or Christ, so the blessing of Israel and/or Christ must not only extend to those who bless, but also those who fail to bless. This does not mean that it will extend to those who curse. There is a line beyond which blessing cannot cross, and the "all" above must be modified.

The blessing that Israel and Christ offers, then, is not limited to those who become Jews or Christians. It extends to all the families of the earth, aside from those who curse Israel or Christ, ie. those who curse God. Those who "curse" God are those who turn away from a loving relationship with God. In doing so they turn away from the source of all good and indeed the source of life itself. And as CS Lewis argued, what they want they get.

The fact that all the familes of the earth will be blessed through Christ and the true Israel, however, shows that it is not just those who turn away who get what they want. To quote Roger Waters, "What God wants, God gets."