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B'resheet/Genesis 28:14 And your seed shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall burst out to the west, to the east, to the north and to the south;
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This portion - Vayetze, And he went out - starts by narrating the journey as Ya'akov obeys the dual imperative of being sent by his father Yitz'khak to find a wife from the family back in Haran and of fleeing from his vengeful brother Esav who has sworn to kill him. In the remarkable dream sequence that he experiences on his first night out from Beer Sheva, Ya'akov sees first a ladder from heaven to earth with angels ascending and descending upon it. Then he sees HaShem standing over him and hears these words repeating to him the promises which have been given to Avraham his grandfather and Yitz'khak his father; promises of the land and many descendants.
The verb is almost onomatopoeic in sound. A Qal affix 2ms form from the root , "to break out, disperse, scatter, burst, overflow", the vav-reversive makes it future in tense: "you shall".Rashi points out that the same verb is used of the Israelites in Egypt: "But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out" (Shemot 1:12, JPS). Targum Onkelos translates it as , the Aramaic equivalent of - and you shall be strong - in the same way as David's last words to his son Solomon: "I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man" (1 Kings 2:2, JPS). Zornberg, a modern commentator, describes as "an explosive promise ... a descent into the concrete reality of the earth, which will produce enormous force and - ultimately - blessing for the whole world.1 It is as if she sees Ya'akov as the conduit for divine blessing like a hose-pipe with water under pressure, pressed vertically down against a floor so that the water can only come out like a horizontal sheet in every direction around the hose-pipe.
Each of the direction words - westwards, eastwards, northwards, southwards - uses a directive hay as its final syllable in the same way as the English suffix -wards, avoiding the need for a preposition. TheSforno connects this with one of the phrases in Balaam's final prophecy over Israel: "A star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth" (B'Midbar 24:17, ESV). Since the promise of great numbers had already been given to Avraham and Yitz'khak, the Sforno takes this repetition as providing a condition or sign of this happening; he suggests that the "the dust of the earth" is indicative of a time of severe persecution, following which Israel shall rise up, "For he will come like a rushing stream, which the wind of the L-RD drives. And a Redeemer will come to Zion" (Isaiah 59:19-20, ESV).
Nahum Sarna points out that "the wording of the divine promise shows clear dependency on the promise made to Avraham": "Now lift up your eyes and look from the place where you are, northward and southward and eastward and westward; for all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered" (B'resheet 13:14-16, NASB). Avraham has the promise of the land first, in the order N-S-E-W, followed by the promise of progeny, while Ya'akov has the progeny first, followed by the land in the order W-E-N-S. Commentators have suggested that the difference in direction order is because of their relative position to Jerusalem at the time the promise was given: Avraham south, so that he is directed north to Jerusalem first, Ya'akov east, so he is directed west. Others say it is question of prophetic priority: Avraham is shown Jerusalem and the Temple - the focus of Israel as a witness to the nations, because Avraham was called to be a witness - first, north, while Ya'akov is shown the Parting of the Sea of Reeds - focusing on Israel as a nation leaving Egypt, because it was Ya'akov's job to father the tribes and so the people - first, west.
The idea of spreading under pressure is clearly a theme that appears both in the gospels and the book of Acts. Yeshua tells the disciples, "Beware of men; for they will deliver you up to the courts, and scourge you in their synagogues; and you shall even be brought before governors and kings for My sake, as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles" (Matthew 10:17-18, NASB), then explains what to do next: "But whenever they persecute you in this city, flee to the next; for truly I say to you, you shall not finish going through the cities of Israel, until the Son of Man comes" (v. 23, NASB). Although His own witness was limited to just the nation of Israel, Yeshua clearly saw that the gospel would need to spread both throughout the Land of Israel itself and to all other peoples and countries in the world: "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations" (28:19, NASB).
Although the early church was based in Jerusalem, G-d used persecution to spread its horizon and outreach throughout the Land of Israel: "And on [the day of Stephen's death] a great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles" (Acts 8:1, NASB). Perhaps they had become too comfortable in the city, with constant access to the Temple, so that they saw no need to spread out, but once on the move "those who had been scattered because of the persecution which had arisen over Stephen went as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch; they spoke G-d's word" (Acts 11:19, CJB). The message was on its way to the nations. Initially, that was just to other Jews, but then the G-d-fearers in the synagogues got to hear about Yeshua too and from them it spread to the wider Gentile populations so that soon the gospel had spread throughout the Roman empire: north, south, east and west.
It is interesting also to notice how the early disciples reacted under pressure. After John and Peter had had a somewhat bruising encounter with the Temple authorities, they went back and told the others what had happened. No-one started packing; on the contrary, "when they heard it, they raised their voices to G-d with singleness of heart. 'Master,' they prayed, 'You made heaven, earth, the sea and everything in them ... So now, L-rd, take note of their threats; and enable your slaves to speak your message with boldness! Stretch out your hand to heal and to do signs and miracles through the name of your holy servant Yeshua!' While they were still praying, the place where they were gathered was shaken. They were all filled with the Ruach HaKodesh, and they spoke G-d's message with boldness" (Acts 4:24,29-31, CJB); they prayed for boldness to continue witnessing and speaking of Yeshua. Their prayers were answered: "With great power the emissaries continued testifying to the resurrection of the L-rd Yeshua, and they were all held in high regard" (Acts 4:33, CJB). Many people came to faith in Yeshua, the church grew both numerically and in favour with all the people in Jerusalem.
Today we are under pressure. Some of us are physically under pressure, facing arrest or persecution for our faith in Yeshua. All of us are under psychological and societal pressure, which tries to make us dilute our faith, compromise with the world and - eventually - give up and become ineffective. That's, excuse me, all of us. What are we going to do about it? The word of the kingdom is that we are to have many descendants - read: disciples, spiritual children - and explode in all directions to fill the land as the irresistible force of G-d's love in us sprays out around us.
1. - Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, The Beginning of Desire - Reflections on Genesis, Three Leaves Press 1995 0-385-48337-6, page 193
Further Study: Joshua 23:14; Ezekiel 2:6-7
Application: Have you been co-opted by the world or are you still all out for the kingdom? How about speaking to one more person about this L-rd this week than you did last week? Refuse to give ground for a quiet life - we are called to more than that!
Comment - 7Nov10 03:17 Robert: This is good stuff. It stretches my fragmentary grasp of Hebrew, and helpfully links the Gospel with the Tanakh.
© Jonathan Allen, 2010
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