Friday, June 30, 2023

The Covenant...of Salt?

A batch of my za'atar challah, with
its giant flecks of salt!
Pretty much every Friday morning, I spend a few hours alone in my kitchen, baking golden braids of challah.* 

It all started three years ago, when I was missing my grandparents. I decided to do something tangible that would connect me to them and the foundation of faith they'd instilled in me. This Friday ritual quickly became an anchor in my psyche: a sanctuary to simply take time and to receive it. Shelter from life's noise and haste. A time and place where there is nothing for my mind to do but wonder and wander and pray.

I no longer use a written recipe; it's pretty much muscle memory now. But when I first got started, I used my grandma's instructions as a foundation and then started tweaking it each week. Tweaks based on others' suggestions and my personal preferences. 

Chief among my personal preferences is sweetness. Honey, to be exact. An entire half-cup of it. My grandma's recipe has just three tablespoons of sugar and absolutely zero honey. 

But I love honey. And I love what it does to the Sabbath bread as we celebrate the sweetness of holy rest. On occasion, we even drench the bread in honey for good measure. As I like to say (despite the eyerolls of those around me, like my kiddos): instead of a double-fudge brownie, it's double-honey challah!

Yet, for all the love of sweetness and honey, there's also an age-old tradition to dip challah in something that is decidedly not sweet. You may see people dip the bread in salt on Shabbat. "Tradition" isn't the right word, though, because this practice isn't built on tradition. It's built on covenant

A covenant, you say? A covenant of salt? Yes, exactly.

Don’t you know that the LORD, the God of Israel, has given the kingship of Israel
to David and his descendants forever by a covenant of salt?  2 Chronicles 13:5 NIV (emphasis mine)

What in the world is a covenant of salt? Well, the first time we hear this phrase is in Leviticus, everyone's favorite book of the whole entire Bible. 

You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant
with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.
Leviticus 2:13 ESV (emphasis mine)

And then...

Whatever is set aside from the holy offerings the Israelites present
to the LORD I give to you and your sons and daughters
as your perpetual share. It is an everlasting covenant of salt
before the LORD for both you and your offspring.” Numbers 18:19 NIV (emphasis mine)

What is it about salt that ties together King David's throne, Levitical sacrifices, and the priesthood's sustenance? In a way that is covenantal? 

It is, quite simply, that salt preserves

A covenant invoking salt is about permanence. The permanence of David's throne. The permanence of God's mercy through the altar. The permanence of the priesthood. Each of them bridging the gap between God and people in different ways. Because no matter who claimed power in Israel - whether Jerusalem or Babylon or Rome - God remained our true King. No matter how grievous the sin, the altar's blood maintained mercy from generation to generation. And no matter which descendant of Aaron held the high priestly office, he bore the names of all God's people on his shoulders and over his heart as he ministered in the sanctuary. A covenant of salt endures.

Indeed, what could possibly be more enduring than a covenant with the Eternal?

This lovely piece from
Yair Emanuel is one
example of challah boards
that feature a salt well.

And so, when we dip our sabbath bread in a little dish of salt on Friday evenings, we are remembering and celebrating the permanence of God's promises - and the permanence of God's presence - even as the sun quietly slips below the horizon.

And yet. A covenant that depends on fallible people keeping up their end of the bargain is prone to fracture. Prone to decay. Prone to impermanence. We know it about the Israelites and we certainly know it about ourselves.

Of course, God knew this, too. And so the covenant of salt continued to preserve His promises and His presence among us by giving way to a new age. A newer covenant. Where someone else holds up our end of the deal on our behalf, delivering us from our own impermanence, our own decay. That someone that God gave us was Himself, through the incarnation of the Messiah. The Anointed. Yeshua. Jesus.

The once-and-for-all sacrifice, made with eternal blood, covers us always.

The Priest in the order of Melchizedek intercedes without ceasing.

And the Lion of Judah reigns, on the everlasting heavenly throne.

God has kept his covenant of salt with us in ways we could not have imagined. Through such a profoundly magnificent - yet personal - rescue. 

And so the ancient covenant of salt endures without threat of fracture or decay. Upheld by the One greater than death, the One outside of time, the One entirely and perfectly - and eternally - good.

*Challah is pronounced either with a throaty "ch" or just the "h" (hallah); not a "ch" like in 'church' or a hard "k" as in 'choir.' Here's a great explanation/tutorial

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Pentecost: Firstfruits & Cheesecake...

My grandma's mini-cheesecake recipe,
with a crust made from Dewey's Brownie
Crisp Cookies and raspberry preserves. Mmmm
When the sun sets this Thursday evening, many of my Jewish brothers and sisters around the globe will not get ready for bed. Instead, they'll hunker down and spend the whole night reading and studying Torah. Probably sustained by eating all things dairy, like gouda and blintzes.

The reason? It's Shavuot, literally “weeks” - as in the biblical Feast of Weeks. 

Shavuot is one of the three ancient pilgrimage feasts for God’s people. He also called it the Harvest Festival and the Day of Firstfruits. You may know it better as Pentecost. That’s Greek for “fiftieth.”

“From the day after the Sabbath [during Passover]...count off seven full weeks. Count off fifty days up to the day after the seventh Sabbath, and then present an offering of new grain to the LORD. From wherever you live, bring two loaves made of two-tenths of an ephah of the finest flour, baked with yeast, as a wave offering of firstfruits to the LORD." Leviticus 23:15-17 NIV (emphasis mine)

Weeks, days, new grain… What, pray tell, does the offering of firstfruits have to do with people studying Scripture all night and eating lactose-laden treats? Well, it has everything to do with the date of the feast. Though, to be precise, there’s actually no given date on the calendar for Pentecost. God simply said to start counting after the Passover Sabbath, and to be back in Jerusalem on the fiftieth day with their firstfruits offering. Hence the “Feast of Weeks” and the “fiftieth day.”

This countdown to fifty from Passover is not arbitrary, nor is it simply a nice round number. The fiftieth day after the original Passover rescue was extraordinary. That was the day when God gave His people the Law at Mount Sinai. There was thunder and lightning and covenant making. 

God may have made personal covenants with Abraham and with Isaac and with Jacob hundreds of years earlier, but on that day He entered into a covenant with their descendants en masse. The promises He'd made to each of the patriarchs individually now became a covenant with an entire people. A nation in the making.

And along with His covenant promises that day, God began to give them the Ten Commandments and all the laws that flowed from them. Voluminous guidelines that would help them become a real nation. From spiritual to relational, and from legal to medical. Father Abraham’s children were invited to grow into a healthy society, with the Almighty Creator-Redeemer as king.

And that is why Judaism has a longstanding Shavuot/Pentecost tradition of feasting all night on those precious words given to us on that covenantal day. And -  since we love to teach bible lessons with food, and since Scripture is often referred to as spiritual milk - also feasting on delectable dairy dishes. So. Much. Dairy. Cheese blintzes, cheese pancakes and cheesecake. Caprese salad, lasagna and ice cream. Frittatas and pizza and noodle kugel. My sincerest apologies to the lactose-intolerant.

In other words, by studying scripture and eating foods that represent it, we celebrate the covenant God made with us and the Scriptures He gave to us, on that first fiftieth day. 

And, in exchange for God’s words and His word that day, the people gave Him theirs. 

Then all the people responded together and said, “All that the LORD has spoken we will do!”  Exodus 19:8 NASB

Of course, we know how that turned out. No matter how magnificent the covenant with the Creator was, the people couldn’t keep it.

Of course, neither can we. We make all sorts of promises to stay on the right track. To get back on the right track. To never make a mistake like that again – whatever “that” may be for us. Not a single one of us can “do all that the Lord has spoken.” And that is why we needed a new covenant. Because “the fault [was] not with the covenant, but with the people who did not remain faithful to it.”*

The Israelites in the wilderness knew this was true. They'd fallen into worshipping the golden calf before the stone tablets even made it down the mountain. And God's people in Jesus' day knew it, too. They knew it from the smoke of their endless sacrifices rising from the altar, reminding them that they could never get it right. At least not for very long. They knew this about themselves, just like we know it about ourselves.

But God's chosen people also knew that someday, He was going to establish a new covenant. He’d promised it. A covenant they could keep, because God was going to keep it for them.

“Indeed, a time is coming," says the LORD, "when I will make a new covenant … I will put my law within them and write it on their hearts and minds. I will be their God and they will be my people... For I will forgive their sin and will no longer call to mind the wrong they have done.” Jeremiah 31:31-34 NET

Instead of scrapping the whole human experiment and washing His hands of the whole thing – which He had every right to do - God leaned in. Toward us. And it was during that monumental Shavuot/Pentecost of Acts 2 when it all came together. 

Hundreds of thousands of Jewish pilgrims were gathered in Jerusalem for the feast, just like they’d been doing every year for almost 1500 years. Celebrating that “first” fiftieth day when God had descended with thunder and fire and smoke on the mountain. 

All the while, two things were rattling around in their heads: (1) the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus in their midst just fifty days earlier, and (2) God’s 600-year-old promise to establish a new covenant. Could it really be that the new covenant was happening then, after all that time? Yes. Yes, it was.

In the midst of their harvest offerings and worship, God descended like flames and a whirlwind from heaven once again. The promised new covenant had arrived. On the anniversary of the original covenant. The Holy Spirit indwelling humans for the very first time, right before their very eyes. 

Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift! 2 Corinthians 9:15

Our God is absolutely unfathomable. And more intentional than we could ever begin to imagine. His intention was and is and will always be to bring redemption and restoration in every possible way. The fiftieth day - in Sinai and at Pentecost - is a glorious reminder of His audacious and eternal promises. And of His power and desire to keep every single one of them.

I will most certainly raise a glass of milk to that.

*Stern, D. H. (1995). Jewish new testament commentary. Jewish New Testament Publications, Inc. 

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

Then They Will Know...

My seder plate
I love it when Passover and Easter overlap like they do this year. It's a great reminder of the tethering together of the Old and New Covenants. Of foreshadowing and fulfillment. Of the rescuing lambs and the rescuing Lamb.

"When you enter the land that the LORD will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the LORD, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt...'"  Exodus 12:25-27 NIV


The entire purpose of the Passover worship - in God's own words there in Exodus 12 - has been to teach the next generation about God's redemption. And so I love teaching about the Last Supper in the context of the Passover Seder. To see eyes light up as connections are made between the rescue from Egypt and the redemption on Jerusalem's hill. 

I love leading through the four cups and the breaking of bread. I love walking through God's four-fold promise made to Moses in Exodus 6:6-7, and the way the whole Passover worship is built around it. 

"Therefore say to the Israelites: 'I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians. I will free you from being slaves to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty acts of judgment. I will take you as my own people...'"

But what I especially love about Passover, is that God left no doubt about what his ultimate purpose was. No doubt about why He rescued Abraham's children with His mighty outstretched arm.

You may remember that, back when Moses stood before the burning bush, one of his big questions for God was: “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what shall I tell them?” (Exodus 3:13 NIV)

It's so easy for us to forget that by the time God appeared to eighty-year-old Moses, Joseph and all his brothers had been buried for about 300 years. Not only that, but the Israelites had no written Scriptures. Only stories passed down for three centuries about their powerful ancestor Joseph, and his father (Jacob), his grandfather (Isaac) and his great-grandfather (Abraham). They didn't know God the way the patriarchs and their families did.

And so Moses anticipated a very valid question from his fellow Israelites: Who are You? God's immediate response was the famous revealing of His eternal name. But even more important - to me - is when He shared the why of all of it. Right after that four-fold promise of rescue in Exodus 6:

"Then you will know that I am the LORD your God, who brought you out from under the yoke of the Egyptians." Exodus 6:7b

When God brought the Israelites out of Egypt with His mighty outstretched arm, He didn't do it so they'd go do something. He certainly didn't do it to make their lives easy, because we know how hard the next forty years in the wilderness would be.

No. God saved Jacob's descendants so that they would know Him. Yadah. The Hebrew word means "to know, to discover, to become acquainted." And it means both the beginning of knowing and the completion of knowing.

"This is eternal life, that they should know you, the only true God, and him whom you sent, Yeshua the Messiah." John 17:3 HNV (emphasis mine)

During His last Passover, the Messiah ushered in the New Covenant, bringing all of Adam's descendants - not only Israel - out of the oppression of sin with two outstretched arms. Wanting us to know Him in all His perfect power and His loving faithfulness. To discover everything about Him. To recognize Him as the beginning of who we are, and to allow Him to complete us.

And so, just as the Israelites rejoiced and sang on the other side of the Red Sea, and just as the disciples left the Upper Room singing psalms of praise, let us now offer our own songs of praise as we look to the redemption of Easter.

Understanding that the God of the Universe knows us, and has done the unimaginable, so that we might know Him.