Light from the Sidra

Vayiggash ('And he drew near...')

Torah: Genesis 44:18-47:27. Haftarah: Ezekiel 37:15-28


Unity is a very important concept in the Bible. King David devoted an entire Psalm (Psalm 133) to the beauty of unity: ‘Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard; even Aaron's beard, that cometh down upon the collar of his garments; Like the dew of Hermon, that cometh down upon the mountains of Zion; for there the LORD commanded the blessing, even life for ever.’

The rebellion of Adam in Gan Eden brought about disunity and fragmentation to creation. As a result of his sin, recorded in Genesis 3, Adam suffered alienation from God and, from his wife, from the natural and supernatural realms and from himself. Disunity and disharmony have been the lot of humanity ever since but God has been at work since them working to repair the creation and undoing the damage brought about by the head of the human race. It’s interesting to note that while the Hebrew word kippur means to cover, the most common English word used to translate kippur is ‘atonement,’ a work meaning ‘to make one,’ or ‘at-one-ment.’

In the Torah and Haftarah readings this week we see, as they say, a pattern emerging. In both readings the tribes of Israel (particularly Joseph and Benjamin) are reunited, there is a national repentance and the blessings the nation receives overflow to the Gentiles.

Both passages concern salvation. In Genesis the fledgling nation – and the world – was saved from starvation by Joseph, while Ezekiel looks forward to a day when the people of Israel will be saved from their sins and live under the rule of Messiah, the shepherd king. In that day, says Dr. J.H. Hertz, ‘God’s Divine Presence will be clearly among them when they are true to their vocation as a Holy People. And thus too will Israel be the means of revealing God to the nations.’

The Bible is from start to finish a record of God’s salvation. Our readings this week include one of the earliest accounts of God’s salvation as well as one of the very last, and between Genesis and Ezekiel a pattern develops which reveals the way in which God saves. In the Hebrew Scriptures salvation invariably comes from the most unexpected places and from the least likely people.

Joseph is the prototype saviour; seemingly insignificant, despised and rejected by his brothers but paradoxically rising through suffering to become their ruler and benefactor. King David, referred to in Ezekiel’s prophecy as Israel’s future shepherd king, fits into the same pattern; the youngest of his brothers, a dutiful son, and an insignificant shepherd despised by his brothers. It was David, the despised and rejected ‘root out of a dry ground’ who God anointed to be the shepherd of his people, the one he used to weld the disparate tribes of Israel into one great nation.

Between Joseph and David, the deliverers God raised up to save and unite the nation fitted into the same broad pattern. Moses rose from obscurity to deliver Israel from the bondage of Egypt and unify the nation under the covenant of Sinai. Because Jewish people today universally revere Moshe Rabbeinu it is easy to overlook the fact that for most of his life he was an outsider rejected by his contemporaries.

In the days of the Judges, God raised up some insignificant and often deeply flawed characters such as the left-handed Ehud and Jael the wife of Heber. Gideon was the youngest in a household that belonged to the most humble clan in lowly Manasseh. God chose one of the least significant men in the nation to defeat innumerable Midianites with a motley band of 300. Jephthah, the black sheep who was rejected by his own family, became the saviour of the nation even though it meant the sacrifice of his only daughter. The last of the Judges, Samson, though morally weak and betrayed into the hands of the Philistines by his own people, became Israel’s deliverer, accomplishing his greatest victory through his own death.

During the exile, Haman’s evil conspiracy to eliminate the Jews was defeated not by a great and powerful leader in the mould of Judah Maccabee, but by a young Jewish girl from the harem of the most powerful ruler in the world.

So, according to Ezekiel and the later prophets, Israel’s greatest deliverer, the Messiah, would fit into the established pattern. It is ironic that when some Jewish people think of Messiah as the Son of David they think only of David at his most powerful and forget his lowly origins. David, like Joseph, rose from obscurity, through humiliation to exaltation and the Messiah will fit this pattern. The prophet Isaiah reinforces this concept when he speaks of the future Messiah as: ‘a tree trunk out of arid ground. He had no form or beauty, that we should look at him: nor any charm that we should find him pleasing. He was despised, shunned by men, a man of suffering’ (Isaiah 53:2-3).

But though the Messiah is rejection by his own people, God says, ‘Indeed, My servant shall prosper. . . Assuredly, I will give him the many as his spoil’ (Isaiah 52:13; 53:12).

Can you see the pattern? Imagine a Messiah born, like David his forefather, in the Judean backwater of Bethlehem. Like David, Joseph, Moses, Jephthah and other celebrated Jewish deliverers the Messiah is despised and shunned, rejected by the very people he comes to save. Imagine a deliverer who, instead of being outwardly imposing, appears to be the epitome of weakness, a man of suffering; a Messiah who paradoxically accomplishes the salvation of Israel through his sufferings and death; a Messiah who brings peace through his own tribulations and saves us not from outside forces but from ourselves, from our sins.

Who would believe in a saviour like that! But isn’t that what the prophet predicts? ‘Who can believe what we have heard?’ (Isaiah 53:1).

Listen to Isaiah again, ‘He was despised, we held him of no account’ (Isaiah 53:3).

Was there ever a deliverer or a prophet in the pages of Scripture that all Israel wholeheartedly received? Rabbi Dr Jacob Immanuel Shochet, in his lecture Square Circles, says this is probably why God ‘likes us [the Jewish people] so much, because we give him such a hard time.’ There were none of the prophets, says Rabbi Shochet, whom Israel did not persecute and reject. And yet he can state that if Jesus of Nazareth were the Messiah the Jewish people would have recognised and received him!

When Joseph’s brothers repented of their treatment of him, he freely forgave them. When David returned from exile following Absalom’s rebellion, he forgave his enemies who repented. Whenever Jewish people recognise the sin of rejecting the true Messiah and turn to him, he forgives and receives them as his true brothers.

Where do you stand? Are you like Joseph’s siblings before they recognised their brother for who he was, or have you already repented and received Messiah ben Joseph as your Saviour and deliverer?

Learn the lesson of the Haftarah and come into Messiah’s eternal covenant of peace. Rabbi Hertz observes that the promise of national unity in Ezekiel 37:23 is ‘not merely political reunion, but spiritual regeneration.’ Through Jesus, the messianic Son of David, there is spiritual regeneration, inner cleansing, salvation from sin and true shalom.

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