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B'resheet/Genesis 49:24 Yet his bow stayed taut, and his arms were made firm by the hands of the Mighty One of Ya'akov -- there, the Shepherd, the Rock of Israel (NJPS)
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Once more we find ourselves in one of the more impenetrable portions of archaic biblical Hebrew1. Frank Moore Cross Jr. and David Noel Freedman note that, "Verse 24a has defied the best effort of scholars for many years. Nothing satisfactory has resulted. The versions only add to the confusion."2 The translation above comes from the NJPS version and will form the basis for our discussion. Nahum Sarna adds, "In the present state of knowledge, this translation is the best that can be wrested from it. The idea seems to be that Joseph remained steadfast in the face of adversity and drew his strength from G-d, who championed his cause."Targum Onkelos was obviously confused when making his translation, offering a very paraphrased text: "His prophecy regarding [his enemies] was fulfilled because he observed the Torah in secret ... he took possession of the kingdom and became mighty. This was from G-d, the Mighty One of Ya'akov, by whose word he sustains father and children, the seed of Israel." Israel Drazin and Stanley Wagner explain the last amendment by "taking as a scribal contraction of , father, and , son, the phrase 'stone of Israel' being found nowhere else in the Bible."
The first phrase - "his bow remained taut" is taken differently by some of the commentators.Hirsch, assuming that the verb comes from the root , to sit or dwell, suggests "his bow remained at rest" and comments, "This means that he did not take his bow from his shoulder to destroy [his enemies], even though he could have done when G-d had strengthened his arms." Gunther Plaut claims the tautness made Yosef "able to withstand the onslaught of others' designs - those of his brothers, Potiphar's wife and enemies at court." The Sforno prefers "his bow was firm" and takes a more active line, commenting, "his was a bow from which arrows were shot accurately to refute the slanderers." The Sforno continues, observing that "his arms were made firm" when Pharaoh placed his ring on Yosef's finger, Yosef's elevation being by the hands of the Mighty One. Sarna comments here that , the Mighty One of Ya'akov, "is a rare divine title, appearing elsewhere only four times, always in poetic texts, corresponding to the Akkadian divine title, 'endowed with strength'".
The word translated 'there', literally "from there", might signify that Ya'akov raised his hand at this point and gestured heavenwards. One of the rabbinic names for G-d is , The Place. ThePeshitta reads , "in the name of", reflecting the idea that G-d's name is the essence of His being or presence from which flows His help and salvation. This can be seen in the book of Acts, when Peter asserts before the Sanhedrin, after the healing of the lame beggar in the name of Yeshua, that "there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved" (Acts 4:12, ESV).
"Stone of Israel", unused in Scripture as a divine name, is more literal than the JPS's "Rock of Israel", even though the latter is a frequent title used to express strength, permanence and protection, hence Yeshua's parable about the man who built his house on the rock. Sarna suggests that it may have been a very ancient title that dropped out of use quite early, and might have been derived from Ya'akov setting up a stone pillar at Bethel (B'resheet 28:18,22). The Sforno has a charming poetic comment: "The shepherd, the Stone of Israel - He shepherds the remnant of Israel and insures their survival among the nations, be it as precious or non-precious stones, which both last for many a year."
How are we to engage with G-d in what He is doing in our lives? How do we remain steadfast and draw His strength into our lives? Setting aside the hyper-Calvinist theories that rest our entire lives on G-d's sole purvey - since they would allow us to abdicate any responsibility for anything onto Him and make a mockery of His justice and holiness in rewarding those who were chosen but did nothing, while punishing those who could not be chosen no matter what they did or how much they wanted or tried - the process of salvation and life in Messiah, what in theological terms might be referred to as justification and sanctification, seems to require our active cooperation and involvement. Rav Sha'ul, for example, tells the Philippians to "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is G-d who works in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure" (Philippians 2:12-13, ESV). Here is a classic illustration of the partnership that is involved: we have to work at our own salvation, while it is G-d who works in us. Sha'ul is completely convinced that G-d can and will do His part - "I am sure of this, that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Yeshua the Messiah" (1:6, ESV). This is good news indeed, but what about us? What do we have to do?
Rav Sha'ul uses a key word here - we are all called to "attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of G-d, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Messiah, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes" (Ephesians 4:13-14, ESV) - the word is 'mature'. We are to grow into maturity. The writer to the Hebrews says, "let us leave the elementary doctrine of Messiah and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God" (Hebrews 6:1, ESV). It is not that repentance is not important, or that the person and works of Yeshua cease to be our rock; but that we are to grow to more than that, to grow beyond a child and take on the measure of adulthood, standing firm in and on Messiah, able to present a confident and consistent witness to the world, while encouraging our brothers and sisters in the L-rd. Who is mature? Scripture tells us, "those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil" (Hebrews 5:14, ESV). Constant practice? But that sounds like work. Yes, it does; Rav Sha'ul describes it as "your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Yeshua the Messiah" (1 Thessalonians 1:3, ESV). Our faith has to be put into practice and used in order to grow and develop. Like physical exercise that we do to lose weight, produce muscle tone and keep our bodies in order, we need to engage with spiritual exercise in order to challenge, grow and mature our faith and relationship with G-d. Sha'ul's famous picture - "Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified" (1 Corinthians 9:25-27, ESV) - surely applies to us.
How does this work in practice? James gives us a clue: "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, 'Go in peace, be warmed and filled,' without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?" (James 2:14-16, ESV). We can hear John the Baptist's voice in the background here, "Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise" (Luke 3:11, ESV). The faith exercise is giving out, even when you give everything that you have, trusting that G-d will replenish your store of what you need and what you need for more generosity: "Your Father knows that you need them. Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you" (12:30-31, ESV). Push out and stretch back, take the strain of the kingdom and grow your faith today.
1. - Material thought by scholars to date from the very earliest origins of the Hebrew language, being carried from generation to generation by repetition and recitation in a strong oral tradition. This was then incorporated by the biblical authors when the (larger) text was finally written down.
2. - Frank Moore Cross Jr. and David Noel Freedman, Studies in Ancient Yahwistic Poetry, Eerdmans 1997, 0-8028-4159-7, note 76, page 61
Further Study: Matthew 7:24-27; 1 John 3:16-18
Application: Have you stretched your faith muscles enough lately? Perhaps it is time for a big stretch, so that you may grow and be blessed as you are a blessing to others. Why not ask the Boss what He has in mind and see what you can do together.
© Jonathan Allen, 2014
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