Life and death in Egypt
‘And these are the names…’, thus begins this new book in the scroll, the same phrase used at the end of Bereshit to detail the people leaving their homeland to sojourn in Egypt. The parallels are meant to be stark, then we were small, now we are large in number, then we were free, now we are enslaved. Much had happened in the ensuing 400 years. To begin with life was good, Egypt had become our home and we were settled and comfortable; what on earth could cause this ‘perfect’ world to wobble? The Torah answers that question, a king arose who didn’t know Yosef. He had heard of him but the Hebrew words make it clear that a king had now arisen for whom ‘Yosef’, the people he represented and by inference therefore the God whom he represented, meant nothing.
Pharaoh didn’t ‘know’ Yosef but as Exodus 2:25-26 states ‘v’yada elohim’ (and God knew), God DID know them, the Israelites. God chooses to continue to uphold the covenant and demonstrates His intimacy and devotion to us while Pharaoh denies the covenant and chooses to distance himself from us and God. It also suited Pharaoh politically to have a subgroup he could direct antagonism towards.
God’s promises and Word are eternal and to be trusted fully over generations. Read Psalm 105:8-11. This covenantal view speaks of eternity on one hand yet also to each individual life and life in general on the other. He KNOWS us, was committed to us in the past, is dedicated to us now and has already constructed our future.
Historically, in the original three year cycle of readings, the later section of this portion is called ‘The Bush’. And it is here that we once more pick up this theme of covenant faithfulness and Life. Moshe, a man who, due to a reckless act of violence had run away from Egypt to become a recluse in the wilderness for 40 years is now 80 years old. He certainly hadn’t bargained for what happened next. He is confronted with a bush that was consumed with fire, but not consumed by it. It very quickly becomes apparent to him that he is in the presence of God. God speaks to him from within the bush and says who He is. Moshe is confronted with the God of the living, the God of his fathers, in His own words, the God of eternity, no past or future, just an ever-present now.
And it is by this title of ‘The Bush’ that we hear Yeshua calling it in Luke 20:34-38. The focus that Yeshua puts on it is critical here both for Moshe and for us. What Yeshua is saying is that this is what the Torah teaches; notice how He deduces it from Scripture not ‘as rabbi so and so says’. He’s teaching truth not opinion.
Resurrection aside, it is this key motif that runs through the whole portion this week: God is a God of the living, of the ever unfolding story of covenantal faithfulness revealed in human Jewish lives. LIFE is etched into the fabric of existence, even into His very name. Judaism is not a death cult, we do not glorify death nor glory in death, we teach and instruct for life! By following our covenant keeping God we should have life, and that in all its fullness. The Torah says that we should ‘choose life’. God does give us that choice: the decision to form our lives in line with His will or to rebel against Him. Who would willingly reject the commandments and covenants offered to us to reflect Life in all its fullness?
If only it were that easy; in fact it is quite a challenge. The Prophet Malachi puts it this way (Malachi 3:6-7): BECAUSE God does not change, we live. The little word ‘therefore’ in the middle says it all. Because He doesn’t change we can confidently declare that He IS the God of the living, not the dead. He has found a way to give us His Life and deliver us from judgement; His focus is on Life not death, covenantal continuity.
This leads Malachi into two key areas: read Malachi 3:8-15. The first is about bringing our offerings to God. To offer up something that on the face of it seems essential to live (food, finances today but not exclusively so) is an act of faith that says you trust and are connected to the covenants. His Life is what life is, not the merely animalistic level of existence. The Lord’s pleading to ‘prove Him’ in our giving is a call to trust in His Life; to give to the Lord is to sow into Life. We can so orientate our lives towards guarding what we feel we ‘need’ and require that we can completely lose sight of God and the Life He wants us to have. We need to invest in the Bank of God where the amount withdrawn is always greater than that which we paid in.
And notice how in verse 11 the opposite of life is crushed, namely the devourer, or barrenness. This will be rebuked because you sow into His Life. In Luke 9:59-60 Yeshua responds to the worries and distractions of this world(as important funerals etc. are) by saying ‘let the dead bury the dead’. We have to be busy occupying ourselves with God’s Life. Why occupy yourself with things that are passing away or which belong to the realm of death? Occupy yourself with Life!
In the second area (verse 14), Malachi talks about people who have wearied of doing good, who are tired of seeking God’s face in repentance so they slide into a cynicism revealed in verse 15. The commentators conclude that this class of people includes those who are ‘merely’ keeping the outward form of faith, the daily rituals that make up our structured Jewish lives, yet whose hearts are far from God and are ‘deficient in spirituality’.
Remember the start of this section: God says ‘I am the Lord and I do not change’. We still live because He wills it and has found a way to deal with our weakness and inability to choose correctly. We live and go on as the Jewish people because of our faithful and covenant keeping God, the One who ‘knew’ us in Egypt and heard our cry and saved us out of there. It is for LIFE that we have been saved, to walk with Him. Follow Mashiach every day.
Parashat Shemot (Names)