Light from the Sidra

Beha'alotcha ('When you set up')

Torah: Numbers 8:1-12:16. Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14(10)*-4:7

Yiddisher goys?

We’ve all known it. That sense of déjà vu; the feeling when you’re in a completely new place that you’ve been there before, or that uncanny feeling when something new happens to you that you’ve experienced it before. When we read through the Tanakh, as we all ought to do, we encounter things in the later books that feel strangely familiar, as though we’ve come across them before but we can’t remember where. That’s why the linking of passages in the Prophets to the Torah readings can be helpful, because they clarify the connections.

The similarities and contrasts between the Parasha and Haftarah this week are quite remarkable. Num 10 lays out instructions for Israel’s journeys through the wilderness. God lived in their midst in the Mishkan, the tabernacle, and his glory cloud hung over the Holy of Holies. When the cloud moved, the camp of Israel followed and wherever the cloud settled the people camped. Once the Mishkan was erected, Israel’s God returned to his tent and lived among his people.


And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, O LORD, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.’ And when it rested, he said: ‘Return, O LORD, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel.’ (Num 10:35-26) 

In Num 10:29, Moses urges his Midianite father-in-law Hobab (Jethro), to join Israel on their journey to the Promised Land. Hobab’s presence will be beneficial for Israel and, conversely, Israel will do good to Hobab, ‘for the LORD has promised good to Israel.’

Although Hobab was reluctant to accept Moses’ offer, even though the text does not say so, the implication is that he joined himself to the people of God and benefitted from doing so. But Zech 2 foresees a day when God will dwell in the midst of Israel once again and, as a result, many nations will join themselves to Israel. In verse 10-11 (14-15) God speaks to Israel:


Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion; for, lo, I come, and I will dwell in the midst of thee, saith the LORD. And many nations shall join themselves to the LORD in that day, and shall be My people, and I will dwell in the midst of thee; and thou shalt know that the LORD of hosts hath sent me unto thee. (JPS translation, italics added)


Here is a strange statement. Yahweh, Israel’s God, says Yahweh will send him to dwell in the midst of Israel! Even before Solomon’s temple was destroyed by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar in 586BCE, the glory of God left Jerusalem and followed his people into exile, as can be seen in the first chapter of Ezekiel when the glory of God appears to him by the river Chebar. After the exile, when the temple was rebuilt, the glory of God didn’t return to the temple. Even in Herod’s magnificent structure, which was one of the wonders of the ancient world, the presence of God was absent.

When God once again dwells in the midst of Israel, he says, the nations will join themselves to him. So how is it that for the best part of 2,000 years, people from all nations have been joining themselves to Yahweh, the God of Israel? There is not a country in the world today where the God of Israel is not worshipped.

Around the world there are thousands of non-Jewish places of worship with names such as ‘Zion Chapel’ or ‘Ebenezer Gospel Hall’ or ‘Bethany Fellowship’. Go to any lively Pentecostal church and you’ll hear the sermons, prayers and hymns punctuated with the Hebrew words ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’. Across Africa millions of people are called by names straight out of the pages of the Hebrew Bible; Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Jeremiah, Isaiah or Malachi. Christian hymns lift lines straight from the Psalms or paraphrase entire chapters of the Prophets. I’m writing this in Scotland where there are churches that sing nothing but the Psalms of David. Every orthodox Christian can say ‘Amen’ to the Shema because they have joined themselves to Israel’s God. Indeed, some of the greatest Hebrew scholars today are Gentile, and Christian Bible Societies run by non-Jews distribute translations of the Hebrew Scriptures around the world.

All this has come about since the Jerusalem temple was destroyed over 1,900 years ago. According to Zechariah, that could only come about after God once again dwells in the midst of Israel. How can Gentiles in such vast numbers join themselves to the God of Israel unless he really does live in the midst of Israel? The key is to be found in a couple of astonishing phrases in Zech 2:9-11. This is a literal translation of those verses:


For, behold, I will shake My hand over them, and they shall be a prize for their servants. And you shall know that Yahweh has sent Me. Sing and rejoice, O daughter of Zion. For, lo, I come; and I will dwell among you, says Yahweh. And many nations shall be joined to Jehovah in that day, and they shall be My people. And I will dwell among you; and you shall know that Yahweh of Hosts has sent Me to you.


Israel’s God, Yahweh, will come and dwell among his people and, when he does, Israel will know that Yahweh sent him!

In Zech 12:10, Yahweh makes the astonishing prediction: ‘And I will pour on the house of David, and on those living in Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of prayers. And they shall look on Me whom they have pierced; and they shall mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they shall be bitter over Him, like the bitterness over the first-born.’

In Zech 13:7, Yahweh of Hosts calls on the sword to strike his Shepherd, the man who is his ‘companion’. How can any human being be the companion of God!

The Gentile gathering to Israel’s God will take place after Yahweh sends Yahweh to dwell among Israel. Gentiles will turn to Israel’s God after Israel looks on Yahweh whom they have pierced and mourns for him. The person Israel pierces and mourns for is their God, the Shepherd of Israel, the man who is the ‘companion’ of the Creator of the cosmos.

What if Yahweh did come and dwell in the midst of Israel but not in the way the Jewish people thought it would happen? What if the Shepherd of Israel did come as he promised in Ezek 34? What if Yahweh came to earth as a man?

What would the people say and do to that man if he declared himself to be the Good Shepherd of Ezek 34? How would they respond to a man who made claims that amounted to his being equal to God? How would they deal with a man who claimed to have existed before Abraham the father of the Jewish people was born? A man who claimed to have been sent from heaven by God? Is it beyond the bounds of possibility that they would have condemned him for blasphemy? Might they not also have pierced him? And if, after piecing him, they discovered that he really was who he claimed to be, might they not then weep with remorse?

That is precisely what happened in the period of the second temple. There was a Jewish man who made all those claims and was pierced by his own people; he was handed over to a cruel Roman governor to be crucified. And as the disciples of Jesus proclaimed that he had been raised from the dead, increasing numbers of Jews repented and believed in him until within a single generation tens of thousands of Jews in Jerusalem alone believed in Jesus and hailed him as the Messiah. Since that time, as Gentiles have heard the message of the death and resurrection of Jesus, multitudes of them have believed and joined themselves to the God of Israel.

The fulfilment of Zechariah’s prophecy of God sending God and causing the Gentiles to believe in him does not lie in the future. It is a present reality. The tragedy is that although the Gentile nations believe in the God of Israel, so many Jewish people still refuse to believe that their God came to dwell with them so long ago, that he suffered according to the Scriptures and rose from the grave on the third day according to the Scriptures in order to grant repentance and forgiveness of sins to his people Israel and also to the nations.

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