Discussing Torah matters because the Torah matters

The Woman Caught in Adultery

A multitude has amassed in Jerusalem. For a week the city remains beyond full occupancy, alive with the spirit of celebration. Four spectacular menorahs, so tall that ladders lean against them, burn so bright at night that every courtyard in the city is illuminated by their firelight. Beneath these four towering torches, people dance and rejoice in the Temple courts; performers juggle and do handstands; the Levites sing and chant the Psalms of Ascent (120-134). The joyous clamor of harps, lyres, cymbals and trumpets ring out into the countryside. Shepherds hear the merriment from miles away; it begs them to come and join the party. Certainly, this is no ordinary week. 

It is the festival of Sukkot (also known as the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths). Sukkot is the seventh of the feasts; it occurs during the seventh month of the year; and it is seven days long. It is not a “Jewish” festival, per se, but one of God’s sacred occasions, an appointment on His calendar. “God’s calendar is a Divine plan; a schedule whereby man can plug into a network of vast Heavenly resources. Each festival arrives just in time; each in its respective season.” All males are commanded to come up to Jerusalem for Sukkot, bringing and giving whatever they are able (Deuteronomy 16:16-17). Once here, pilgrims go without much sleep for the activities begin with a trumpet blast early in the morning and go on long after sundown. After all, the flaming menorahs never give out since each and every stem is daily fueled with four gallons of oil.

For seven days the celebration kicks off the same way. In the morning––following a procession down to the Pool of Siloam––a throng of people makes their way into the Temple courts to watch a priest perform the tradition of a libation ceremony. In the ceremony, a priest ascends the ramp onto the altar where two silver bowls wait for him: one holding water (from the Pool of Siloam) and the other holding a red wine. The surrounding audience grows quiet with anticipation as they wait for the priest to raise the bowls and pour out the contents. Symbolically this is an act of prayer, a prayer that God will pour out His blessing of rain upon the land. (Sukkot leads into the beginning of the rainy season in Israel. Rain and Sukkot are linked prophetically as well. See Zechariah 14:17.) The libation ceremony is each day’s main event, and Day #7––Hoshana Rabbah––is considered to be the greatest day of them all. 

The main event on Day #7 has arrived. This is the epicenter of the entire celebration. The morning air is fresh, the autumn sun is rising, and the golden stone walls of the Temple are glistening. The crowd sits to watch the priest perform the final water-pouring ceremony of the festival. This time the priest builds the suspense by circling the altar seven times before ascending the ramp. When he finally reaches the top, he holds the silver bowls high into the air. The crowd is hushed but the feeling among them is electric. The priest raises his eyes to heaven and tips the bowls forward. Wine and water come spilling out. They are splashing against the altar when, without warning, Jesus stands up to make an announcement. 

He declares with a loud voice, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink! Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” 

All heads turn at once! Eyes are wide; jaws are dropped. Even the priest atop the altar looks over at Jesus. The priest is caught off guard. Here he is, having just poured out the water as an appeal to the Creator to provide water for Israel, and Jesus, as if to answer the prayer, tells the people to come to him for water! 

As it will be pointed out, “Jesus promises living water for all who believe. What is living water? It is cool, fresh, non-stagnant spring water; it is water with a current, a life flow. In Israel water is especially precious, and the most prized source of water is a spring, the sweetest and best water available. It bubbles up from the depths and continues to flow even when cisterns and streams have dried up. This is the water Jesus promises, the best water, real spiritual satisfaction.” The water used in the water-pouring ceremony is indeed spring water from the Pool of Siloam (it having been channeled from the Gihon Spring), but Jesus is the true wellspring of life, the One from whom all blessings flow. He is the fountain of living water, and his life will be poured out on the altar––water and wine picturing the water and blood poured out at Calvary. Should a man believe in Him, his heart will welcome the kingdom of Heaven, a kind of Garden of Eden from which rivers flowed (Genesis 2:10-14). 

For now, Jesus finishes his declaration and sits down. There are murmurs in the audience, curious looks, a few gasps and a few glares. Some go to the officers and request that he be arrested at once for such an interruption. The officers refrain from doing so because they are somewhat mesmerized by this man. No one has ever spoken like him before, and he has done nothing to threaten the people. When the officers later report to the chief priests and Pharisees, the officers are scolded. The Pharisees question their intelligence. “Have you also been deceived?” The Pharisees go on to scorn the entire crowd, calling them “a mob.” After all, anyone who knows the law would demand that Jesus be arrested. Clearly this accursed “mob” knows nothing of the law! The Pharisees seethe with anger. Sukkot is supposed to be the most joyous time of the year! Yet Jesus is a thief who has hijacked the traditions which bring them joy.

At this point, a respected member among the Pharisees named Nicodemus joins the conversation. Nicodemus has previously come to Jesus, has had a drink of living water. He came away refreshed with new insight. The others, though, do not know about his encounter, for he visited Jesus under the cover of night. Nevertheless, Nicodemus sees the whole situation differently. “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” he asks them.

A valid point, they come to realize. And a good idea, actually. Their minds are turning, scheming. Some of them agree: “Let’s test him. Let’s ‘give him a hearing to see what He does.’” So they hatch a plan. They select one of their own to initiate the process, a man under their authority. They designate him to do the deed; they grant him immunity and anonymity. The man disappears into the night to put their plot into action. Before the Pharisees part ways, they enjoy a good chuckle. “See you in the morning,” they say to each other, smiling. 

Morning dawns. It’s now “the eighth day” (Leviticus 23:29), the special day immediately following the seven day festival of Sukkot. This day is called Shemini Atzeret (“the eighth [day] of assembly”), and in Israel, it is also Simchat Torah (“rejoicing in the Torah”). This fact is important; context is everything.

The Torah is kept on an annual reading cycle in every Synagogue. On the day of Simchat Torah, the cycle renews. In other words, on this day the final portion in Deuteronomy is read followed by the beginning of Genesis. Over the course of the rest of year, the Torah will be read portion by portion until the following Simchat Torah arrives when, again, the scroll will be finished and rolled back to its beginning. It is on this day, Simchat Torah, that Jesus returns to the Temple courts to teach again (John 8).

Since Sukkot is a pilgrimage feast, there are still a lot of people in town. There are Jews from all over the region in Jesus’ audience. A number of them were especially intrigued by his unprecedented statement at yesterday’s libation ceremony; they want to hear more. He is devoting all of his attention to them when suddenly there is an interruption. He is approached by a group of Pharisees and teachers of the law. Among them is a lone woman. She is silent, humiliated, and defeated. She’s been caught in the act of adultery, and in this town she is done for.

The Pharisees have been waiting for this moment. Hours earlier, they were pleased to learn that their plans had come together perfectly. Their designated man had arranged the meeting. She had foolishly shown up, and then right on cue, a few men busted in and seized her by surprise. She was caught red-handed: guilty, defenseless. She saw her whole life collapse into itself in an instant. But little did she realize, the take-down wasn’t about her at all. She simply served as the prop they needed to take Him down. Quite frankly, they had long known that she was an adulteress. It wasn’t until last night that they even cared. She had just become useful to them. 

The Pharisees shove her in front of Jesus. She kneels voluntarily between Him and them, her arms limp and her face bent toward the ground. Center stage in front of a sizable audience, she has never been this embarrassed. She wears only her undergarments, further proof that she has been caught in the act. The Pharisees have thought this through. 

The lead Pharisee engages Jesus. In this scene, he is an actor playing like he is angry at the woman. “Teacher!” he says to Jesus. “This woman has been caught in the act of adultery! Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 

Game, set, match. The Pharisees have Him. It’s a win/win for them. If Jesus says stone her, he’s in trouble with the Romans. If Jesus says don’t stone her, he’s in trouble with the Jews. Either way, he loses. Either way, they reclaim the joy that feels taken from them.

.     .     .     .     .

The carpenter and his apprentice kneel over the project, their backs to the rest of the house. Behind them sits the old rabbi of Nazareth, stroking his bearded chin and watching the father/son duo construct a lamp stand for his home. His attention is focused on the carpenter’s son––no more than 10 years old, an apprentice beginning younger than most. Perhaps such expedience can be attributed to the precociousness of the child, or, perhaps, to the industriousness of his father, Joseph. Joseph is among the very best that Israel can offer, both in character and in carpentry. The rabbi is blessed to have Joseph as regular member of his synagogue. But it is at the synagogue that the boy, especially, has impressed the rabbi.

“If I may say,” says the rabbi, now leaning back in his chair.

The duo stops and turns around, wood and tool still in their grasp. 

“Your boy, Joseph, reads from the Torah in a way that is unlike anything I have ever heard. It feels like listening to the words from the mouth of Moses.” The rabbi grins. “If he weren’t studying under the most talented carpenter in town, I might ask him to study under me, the most talented rabbi in town.”

The boy lights up, and Joseph smiles at the old man. “What––so he can grow up to become a lawyer? I think carpentry better suits an honest man.”

The rabbi laughs at the blatant poke-in-the-ribs. “A teacher of the law, yes! Learned. Respected. Good looking.” 

“Afraid to get his hands dirty.” 

“Oh stop it!” 

The rabbi swipes his arm at Joseph as if to slap him upside the head. He then stands and leaves the room to fetch his workers some water. Joseph turns back to the project after a hearty laugh. Refocusing on the task at hand, he pinches two pieces of wood together to hold them into place. A nail is poised to connect the piece on top to a larger piece beneath it. Joseph nods, so the boy lifts the mallet and takes a swing. The nail barely responds. Two, three more swings and the nail has barely moved.

“Let me try,” Joseph says. “Don’t be afraid to drive it home.” Drawing the mallet into his mighty grip, Joseph swings once and the nail sinks solidly into the wood, squaring the surface with the larger piece underneath. They smile at each other, the boy more so. Joseph passes the mallet back to the boy. “The greatest carpenters make the fewest strikes,” he says just as the rabbi returns to the room with a jug of fresh water.

.     .     .     .    .

“This woman has been caught in the act of adultery! Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 

The unfolding showdown is one between the Son of God and a group of practiced, professional lawyers. Much of what transpires is hidden in the mastery of Torah and Jewish law. At such a skill level, the Hebrew Scriptures have been memorized, and with regards to these Pharisees, they certainly reviewed select passages before bedtime just to have them fresh on recall. However, they’ve failed to realize that they are dealing with the very author of the textbook, and that he isn’t afraid to drive it home.

Deuteronomy 17 states, “On the testimony of two or three witnesses a person is to be put to death, but no one is to be put to death on the testimony of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses must be the first in putting that person to death, then afterward the hands of all the people. You must purge the evil from among you. If cases come before your courts that are too difficult for you to judge––whether bloodshed, lawsuits or assaults––take them to the place the Lord your God will choose. Go to the Levitical priests and to the judge who is in office at that time. Inquire of them and they will give you the verdict.”

This section in the law comes to Jesus’ mind immediately. He thinks: Where are the witnesses? The witnesses must be willing to cast the first stone. This is by God’s design so that, if the witnesses are found to be compromised, the execution becomes a murder scene, and the so-called witnesses become liable for murder in that they cast the first stone. A man ought not testify against someone unless he is ready to put his own life on the line. 

Another question: Where is the other party? The Torah is clear: the adulterer is as guilty as the adulteress (Leviticus 20:10). And yet here they are presenting only the woman. 

Jesus turns over another question: Why are they bringing this woman to me? In their minds, I am no more than an outsider, an impostor. The law is clear in its requirement to take such cases to the Levitical priests. If these men were genuinely concerned, they wouldn’t be bringing her to me. 

These observations click through his mind in an instant. He recognizes their question for the trap that it is. He sees what this is about. 

“So what do you say, teacher?” they ask him again.

When the enemy offers Option A or Option B, always choose Option C. In response, he says nothing. Instead he kneels down and starts writing in the dirt. What is He writing? The audience wants to know! The Pharisees just want him to fall into their trap, so they keep pressing him to answer their question. But instead he keeps writing on the ground with His finger. This is the only record of Jesus ever writing anything. 

When the Pharisees begin to realize what he is writing, they are caught off guard. They can’t believe it, or make sense of it. For some reason, he is writing out their names in the dirt! This they find very puzzling. Not at all the response they expected.

Jesus stands up and faces them. Having gotten their attention, he says, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” That is to say, who is ready to put your life on it? Because if you testify against her and there is something that you are hiding––which I know you are––then your part in the execution becomes murder, and you yourself stand to be executed. He lets the question hang in the air.

Of course, they are hiding something! They’ve set her up! This whole case would be thrown out of court! And Jesus knows it, too. As a defense lawyer, he’s torn a gaping hole in the prosecution. As a teacher, he’s schooled them in the classroom of Torah. As the Son of God, he now looks them in the eye and sees right into their hearts which are suddenly more exposed than this woman. They realize that he is on to them. They realize he’s in on their secret. He has the moral high ground, and they have nothing to come back with. To keep appearances they don’t show it outwardly, but their hearts are stricken with shame. They really do think of themselves as pious individuals, yet looking into the eyes of this man, they catch a glimpse of their real condition. But they are resistant; another strike is needed. Once again Jesus kneels down and starts writing.

What is he writing this time? A portion of Jeremiah 17:13, a passage the Pharisees are familiar with, a verse beginning with God’s holy Name (YHVH)...

O LORD, the hope of Israel,
all who forsake You shall be put to shame;
those who turn away from You shall be written in the earth,
for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water.
Just yesterday he had declared, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” Yet these Pharisees had rejected him and his message. They did not believe him to be the source of living water. And now, as Jesus carves this verse into the dirt, the Pharisees begin to leave the scene beginning with the oldest among them. The oldest are the ones most trained in the words of Torah. Not only first to recognize the passage, they are the first to grasp the brilliance of his response. Without speaking a single contrary word, he had nailed them to the dark reality of their actions. He had used to the law to bring grace. The very thing they used to condemn her, he used to protect her! The response was so solid and mighty that the Pharisees––these master-lawyers in Jewish law––went away from him, one by one, speechless. Here was a man of such stature that he could take a trap and turn it into a teaching. 

Still on his knees, Jesus keeps writing while a few young Pharisees linger. Eventually they too leave the scene. Jesus is left alone with the alleged adulteress She still kneels motionless in front of him. His audience hasn’t said a word since the whole ordeal began. They now watch with curiosity as he continues to write in the dirt. What is he going to do next? 

Jesus finishes writing, showing care for each letter in the passage. Finally he looks up from the ground and sees that all of the Pharisees have departed. He stands and says, “Woman, where are they?” She gazes up at him and they make eye contact. “Has no one condemned you?” he asks.

“No one, Lord.” A glimmer of Eden’s light in her eyes.

“Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on, sin no more,” he tells her. 

His audience watches as she stands, turns, then walks away without another remark. She soon rounds the corner and exits the Temple courts. Jesus completes a silent prayer for her before he turns back to the audience and goes on teaching, picking up where he left off although now his hands are dirty.

“Do you see what just happened?” a man in the audience whispers to his son. “I’ll explain it to you later.”

Just before sunset, the man and his son––out-of-towners visiting Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot, staying an extra day for Simchat Torah––discuss the events they witnessed earlier that morning. The father explains to his son something from the Torah called “The Sotah” (The Ordeal). It is described in Numbers 5. It deals with the case of a woman suspected of adultery. It can be called “Trial by God.” The procedure goes as follows: a husband, suspicious of his wife’s infidelity and overcome with jealousy, brings her to the Tabernacle (later to become the Temple). There a priest conducts a special ritual which promises to bring the truth to light. In this ritual, a liquid concoction is made. It begins as a strange combination made of holy water and dust from the Tabernacle floor. Next, a curse is written upon a scroll. The curse functions as an oath, for the woman is taking on an oath that she is innocent, but a curse if she is guilty. The oath includes the never-erased, sacred four-letter name of God: YHVH. It is the invoking of this holy name that gives the oath its weight, God being the primary witness and judge of the promises made. After the curse is written and the ink has dried, the ink is scraped off of the scroll and pushed into the liquid concoction. The woman suspected of adultery is then required to drink the final product––this bizarre mixture of holy water, dust from the Tabernacle floor, and the curse scrapped from a scroll. Once she drinks the bitter water, that is that. The ritual is complete. The husband and his wife go on their way. 

It is only with the passing of time that the results become evident. As the Torah says, if the woman loses her ability to bear children, her guilt is known and her barrenness serves as punishment. On the other hand, if her womb is fruitful, she is thereby cleared of the crime and innocent of all charges. God promises children to such a woman as a reward. Her husband, knowing the truth, can breath a sigh of relief. And God, having saved a marriage, having laid down His sacred Name for the sake of the innocent party, is thus glorified.

“Son,” the father says, “don’t you see? Since the woman never confessed to the alleged crime, nor were there any witnesses willing to cast the first stone, it became a case of suspected adultery. The woman became a candidate for the Sotah from Numbers 5.”

The son looks at his dad, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“On Hoshana Rabbah, Jesus claimed to be the Messiah, the source of living water. Then this morning the notion was tested. Jesus, acting as Messiah, perfectly voiced the Word of the Lord. Having seen no witnesses willing to condemn the woman, Jesus moved to the laws of suspected adultery. He called upon all the elements of the ritual: the dust from the Temple floor; the writing of something that would be erased; the invoking of God’s sacred name––YHVH. He was acting as the priest. He offered her a drink of living water––the Spirit of God! ‘Anyone who is thirsty, come to me and drink.’ There is no doubt! Today she drank the most special drink of all. Not a bitter water that revealed her guilt but a living water that revealed his graciousness.” 

The father pauses as a new thought occurs to him. From near laughter, he says, “What day is today, son?” 

“Simchat Torah?” 

“Yes! Today is the day that the Torah is rolled back to be started again. This is exactly what Jesus did for that woman this morning. He rolled back the accusations and she began her life anew! So you see? Her experience is the scroll upon which the curse was written and from which the curse was removed! Truly, he is the Messiah!”

Matthias' Secret

A fresh wind rolls off the Sea of Galilee and rustles some of the surrounding shade trees as his master pronounces eight blessings upon the mount. From up here Matthias can see virtually every place that his master has lived and worked. Matthias does not realize that, on this very mountain many centuries in the future, an octagonal church will be built in honor of the eight blessings being pronounced on this day before Matthias and the 12 disciples. It will be called The Church of the Beatitudesand many thousands will come from all over the world to visit this holy site. Today, though, it’s the unadorned outdoor classroom of a rabbi named Jesus.

After pronouncing each blessing carefully, the rabbi segues into the rest of his teaching. He comes to say, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven.” Having spoken of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus raises his eyes and looks into the distance. Jerusalem––some 90 miles to the south––hides beyond the horizon, yet Jesus seems to eye it directly. Then, abruptly, he drops his eyes upon Matthias, sitting there on the edge. For an instant Jesus’ face lights up in the most subtle way, an expression the spirit perceives more than the eye observes. It feels to Matthias like Jesus has let him in on a secret, but it’s a feeling that he does not understand, nor is the special attention anticipated. Matthias, grateful to be included whenever he is included, is mindful of the 12 hand-selected students who come before him. He can’t help but feel like an outsider when he is among them. Thankfully Jesus loves outsiders. Matthias smiles back at Jesus, but Jesus now shifts his glance elsewhere and continues his discourse without missing a beat. 

Matthias leans over and whispers to the student next to him, “Did you notice the way he looked at me?” Matthew, sitting beside Matthias, motions that he did not. Matthias straightens up, questioning himself inwardly. Maybe he is over-thinking it? He explains the feeling away and refocuses on the teaching at hand. He will soon forget the exchange. That is, until it comes rushing back to his memory years later.

.     .     .     .     .

The old man sits in silence as his hand moves hurriedly over the parchment. He has only a short time left to live as he pens his farewell message. The letter will come to be called Deuteronomy, but for its writer Moses, the title is of no importance. He pauses from writing as two specific mountains enter his thoughts again. He first heard of these mountains when Joshua and Caleb gave their report of the land almost 40 years ago. In the four decades since, they have returned to his mind many times. 

These two mountains, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, stand side by side in the middle of the promise land. Moses likens them to the two trees which stood in the middle of the Garden of Eden. Those trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge, were symbols of blessing and curse. One promised everlasting life; one guaranteed certain death. Adam and Eve’s choice between them wasn’t complicated, for blessing and curse, life and death, had been marked as plainly as the landscape in front of them.

Then again, it wasn’t so simple. After all, the Tree of Knowledge was the flashy color in Eden’s centerpiece. Showcased by the Garden around it, this central tree was stunning to behold. Its immense stature, magnetic beauty and budding fruit bore no indication of a curse of any kind. How could something so pleasant to the eyes be so wrong to partake of?

The old man has learned that appearances––however convincing––can be deceiving. Moses looks up from the parchment and his attention goes to the staff which leans against the inside-corner of his tent. He remembers throwing that staff on the ground once, then fleeing from it in horror after it transformed into a serpent. “Pick it up!” God had told him. “Pick it up by the tail...” in fact. How was Moses to respond? Either trust God’s voice or trust his own apparent reality––a reality that registered danger at every level. A difficult choice no doubt, but Moses made his decision. He chose to trust God’s voice rather than appearances. He lifted the snake by its tail and it was a staff exactly as before! The danger which seemed so real to him a second beforehand vanished as the truth was revealed at the end of the test. Moses knew in that moment that appearances can be deceiving, a lesson he remembered when he topped the hill on his arrival to Egypt soon thereafter.

But Eve succumbed to the persuasion of appearances. She saw that the Tree of Knowledge was good for food and pleasant to the eye. Caught up in its allure (and tempted by the serpent), she pulled the fruit away from the tree and took a fateful bite. Her husband who was with her (Genesis 3:6) remained passive as she did so. He made not one protest. He failed to confirm God’s commandment when he failed to step in and stop the thing from happening. Truly, this was his first sin: an indifference to transgression, a relinquishing of his authority. When Eve then handed the fruit to him, he sinned again by eating the fruit as she had done. No longer pure in heart, neither Adam nor Eve could see God like they once had. Instead they heard Him approach in the cool of the evening. How diminished!

Being escorted from the Garden, Adam and Eve exited on the east perimeter, as God stationed cherubim behind them to guard the way back in. Later, when their son Cain murdered his brother, Cain wandered even further to the east. It’s a picture: as sin increases, the distance between God and man increases. 

Sin enlarges the distance between man’s God-given ministry and man’s self-imposed reality. But Moses sees the story come full circle. Whereas the Torah began with man wandering eastward, it ends with man journeying westward to the promise land. By bringing His people back westward, God is essentially inviting man to return to the Garden where the two of them can once again have fellowship. The Torah, then, is the story of God undoing the distance that sin has caused and calling man back into His Presence. Moses can sense the poetry. For him, the promise land begins to take on the beauty of Eden. It is a land flowing with milk and honey, a land surpassing the imagination. Once inside, the people will find themselves in a place that God has been preparing for them since the beginning. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, they will find themselves in front of two symbols that set blessing and curse side by side. Every man must choose for himself which one to partake of. To choose wrongly is to forfeit the land as Adam and Eve once forfeited the Garden. But choose they must! For this is a holy place where discernment and choice separate life from death.

Back at the parchment, Moses writes, “See! I present before you today a blessing and a curse. The blessing?––that you obey the commands of God. The curse?––if you turn away from the commands of God. It shall be that when you enter the promise land, you will come upon two mountains: Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. On Mount Gerizim, you are to proclaim the blessings, and on Mount Ebal the curses.” (Deuteronomy 11:26-32, author’s paraphrase). 

Moses instructs Israel to do the following: they are to set up great stones on Mount Ebal, stones coated with plaster. Into the plaster, they are to inscribe all the words of the Torah. They are to build there on Mount Ebal an altar to God, and sacrifice peace offerings and eat; they are to rejoice in the presence of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 27:4-5, author’s paraphrase). These instructions are recorded in his letter, a letter that reiterates in its conclusion, “This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the Lord your God, listen to his voice, and hold fast to him” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20a).

Just days after retiring as a writer, Moses, now alone, climbs a mountain for the last time. He reaches the summit and sits down. He realizes that he is still clutching his staff. After a pause, he releases his grip and surrenders the staff to the ground in front of him. “It’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it?” he says to the weathered staff. It remains motionless on the ground. It would seem an ordinary stick without any stories to tell. Moses sort of chuckles. If it were to become a snake at this point, he would not be afraid.

Despite his old age Moses is not a dying man, for his eyes are undimmed and his strength is unabated (Deuteronomy 34:7). However, he is a man who will not live to see the evening. His funeral will be a private service held before nightfall, wherein the Lord will personally lay His friend’s body to rest. Moses understands that these will be his final minutes on earth. Thoughtfully and quietly, he takes in the view of the promise land. God enables him to see as far north as Dan, as far west as the Mediterranean, as far south as the Negev. For the first time, he sees with his own eyes the two mountains named Gerizim and Ebal. Moses is overwhelmed with meaning as he slips into eternity. 

.     .     .     .     .

It’s early morning on the tenth day of the first month (10 Nissan). This is a day of choosing, for today a lamb is to be selected for the upcoming passover feast. The animal must be without defect in the prime of its life, so every household must exercise discernment when determining whether or not a lamb is worthy. Such an undertaking––one of discernment and choice––will be their first order of business once inside the promise land. It will occur on this day before sunset. But the Israelites must enter the land before they can begin. The Jordan River, which is full to overflowing this time of year, remains a barrier blocking their passage. Somehow they must cross over.

The sun is barely above the horizon when a small band of priests approach the river’s edge. They are shouldering the Ark of the Covenant. Those at the front take their first step into the water. Nothing happens, so they take another step forward. The weight of the most holy object in the universe drives the soles of their feet into the soft riverbank. The current wraps cold water around their ankles. Another step forward. Another step forward. Still nothing, but the priests are determined. They grip the staves of the Ark a little tighter. With faith they all commit, and the group takes yet another deliberate step. Then suddenly it happens.   

The moment their feet––to the last man––touch the Jordan, the waters at that point halt in their course, piling up into a heap while the rest of the river flows down (Joshua 3:13). The wide-eyed priests watch as the water downstream runs out completely, while the water upstream piles higher and higher on top of itself. Soon the water is like a column towering over the tree line. It can be seen from miles and miles around. The people of Israel––about a half mile behind the priests––are amazed as the river’s current heaps more and more water into the sky. They want to stop and watch, but Joshua is calling them to move, to keep advancing westward. Today is the day! The day they cross over underneath this pillar of testimony, a post of living water reaching so high that the Canaanites in Jericho sight it sprouting from the horizon. 

It is not long after entering the promise land that the Israelites come upon the twin peaks of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal. Here they stop to carry out the final wishes of their late leader, Moses. The mountains are as he described. Side by side about a mile apart, the mountains form a shallow valley in between. Following Moses’ command, Joshua builds an altar on Mount Ebal and brings the appropriate offerings. Also on Mount Ebal, he writes a copy of the Torah, the letters pressed into the plaster enveloping the stones they have stacked. With this done, the tribes of Israel organize themselves into two groups, the Levitical priests being isolated in the middle (Joshua 8:32-33). 

The scene plays out around Joshua at center stage. On his left is Mount Gerizim. On his right is Mount Ebal with its altar and built-up stones. Half the people are gathered on the hillside of one mountain. Half the people are gathered on the hillside of the other mountain. Standing in between these two crowds are the priests, carrying the Ark of the Covenant and standing alongside Joshua. Joshua is reading the Torah aloud. All of the people can hear his voice because the two mountains form a natural amphitheater, so a speaker’s voice can be heard on both hillsides. When Joshua finishes his reading of the Torah, he and the priests begin to proclaim in a loud voice the blessing and the curse. “The blessing and the curse” refers to a list that Moses put down in his farewell message (Deuteronomy 27:15-26). Only the curses are documented, but the blessings are inferred. The list is set below:

[ Moses documents only the curses for a reason. As it will be observed, “the sins that come under curse are active violations of prohibitions. Thus, the promises of blessing apply even to a person who does nothing more than refrain from violating a prohibition. Herein lies a great comfort: the people are much closer to blessing than they are to curse. The curse applies only if they positively commit an evil act. By contrast, for blessing to rest upon them, they have only to refrain from acts deserving of a curse” (Rabbi Samson Hirsch, Bereshis Chumash, pg. 656-657). The promise land is thus like Eden: default mode is set to blessing; curse comes only by engaging it on purpose. Each item on Moses’ list is based on this premise. That is, with one exception. The final item on the list is different, in that it pronounces a curse to those who fail to act. “Here, indifference is a crime deserving of a curse, and blessing will come only if everyone does their share to uphold God’s Word, to protect that which is everlasting” (Rabbi Samson Hirsch, Bereshis Chumash, pg. 657). Writing the final curse, Moses must have been reminded of Adam’s indifference at the Tree of Knowledge when he failed to confirm God’s commandment, when he failed to protect everlasting life. Again, it all traces back to the Garden. ]

Joshua delivers the blessing and the curse in a noteworthy manner. The details of his delivery will be preserved by oral tradition passed from generation to generation until finally they are documented in the Mishnah (tractate Sotah 32acirca 200AD. As it will be told in Jesus’ lifetime, the story goes like this: Joshua and the priests, standing between the mountains, turn toward Mount Gerizim and shout in unison an item on the list: “Blessed is the one who does not dishonor his father or mother!” The people on Gerizim respond, “Amen!” Joshua and the priests then turn and face the other mountain. Together they shout, “Cursed is the one who does dishonor his father or mother!” Those gathered on Ebal respond, “Amen!” Turning back toward Mount Gerizim, Joshua and the priests call out the next item on Moses’ list: “Blessed is the one who does not move his neighbor’s boundary stone!” The people on Gerizim respond, “Amen!” Then turning toward Mount Ebal, Joshua and the priests shout, “Cursed is the one who does move his neighbor’s boundary stone!” “Amen!” comes the response from Ebal.

In this succession of call-and-response, the Israelites move through the list recorded in Deuteronomy 27. The blessing is first delivered toward Gerizim, then its negation is delivered toward Ebal. They pronounce the truth in one direction and then they pronounce its mirror image in the opposite direction. One by one the blessing and the curse are pronounced, and Moses’ commandment is thus fulfilled. This is how the event will be remembered by Jewish commentators for centuries to come. Tonight, it is fresh on Joshua’s mind. 

Smoke still wafts from Mount Ebal as Joshua settles into his tent for the night. He is reflecting on the events of the day and he can’t shake a certain question. Namely, why did Moses want to put the Torah on Mount Ebal? The Torah is holy, righteous and good! Shouldn’t it stand tall on the mountain of blessing? And yet, the Torah-inscribed stones were placed on the mountain of curses. And even more bewildering: to build an altar, to bring offerings of well-being, to rejoice and to fellowship––why would these activities occur where the curses are pronounced? Is Moses implying that these activities are cursed? 

Joshua eventually lets it go and drifts to sleep. 

.     .     .     .     .

A late-spring breeze eases through the quiet streets of Jerusalem when Matthias sits up suddenly, his eyes now wide open. It is a clear night so the stars are shining in full measure above his house. He is on the rooftop, his sleeping mat underneath him. Sitting here, his body is still but his mind is at a full gallop. 

Minutes later he is pacing the rooftop, mumbling under his breath and counting on one hand with his fingertips. In his other hand, he fidgets with a small white stone, rolling it over and over with a loose grip. This stone is the lot that he drew from the fold of a garment days earlier, the lot that named him the twelfth disciple of Jesus. On that day, he and one other had been nominated to step into the inner-circle of 12. The disciples had prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen...” The lot was drawn and Matthias was chosen by the Lord. Just days have passed, and this simple stone has already become Matthias’ most treasured possession. The house he will sell very soon; even the sleeping mat will be sold eventually. But the keepsake in his hand will remain with him until the end. Tonight, it gives him the confidence to do what he is about to do next.

He laces his sandals and descends the ladder leading down into a small courtyard. He turns onto the street and makes his way around the corner. Finally he arrives at his friend’s residence a few blocks away. He lets himself in quietly. Several visitors are spending the night here. They are still in town for Pentecost even though it ended a few days ago. They wanted to prolong their stay as long as possible. Matthias doesn’t blame them. Exciting things have been happening ever since their master ascended into the clouds two weeks ago. Right now Matthias wouldn’t want to leave Jerusalem either.

The darkness doesn’t slow Matthias down; he is familiar with the lay-out of Matthew’s house. He starts up a ladder leading through the second floor to the rooftop. Passing the second floor he makes out a number of familiar faces asleep on sleeping mats. He climbs higher. On the rooftop now, he spots his friend near the far parapet.  

“Matthew!” he whispers, touching his shoulder gently. 

Matthew opens his eyes and lifts his head, a bit confused. “Matthias?” 

“Yes! I need to talk to you. Sorry, I couldn’t wait for morning.”

“What time is it?”

Matthias gazes up at the moon. It’s the thinnest sliver of a waning crescent, but it’s visible in its position. “Looks like the beginning of the third watch. But I need you to get up. I know you have parchment. I want you to write something down.”

Matthew grunts a little as he pushes up from his mat and rubs his forehead. “This better be worth it, Matthias.” They both smile. 

The two of them quietly descend the ladder to the first floor. They sit across from each other and Matthew lights a nearby lamp. Squinting at first in the lamp’s firelight, Matthew brings out a few tools of his trade: a pen and a piece of parchment. He sets the parchment on the table between them. The table, a handcrafted gift from a Galilean carpenter, is sanded and smooth enough to write on. 

Matthias begins. “Do you remember when Jesus declared those eight blessings on the mount that overlooks the Sea of Galilee?”

“Of course.”

“That day, do you remember that I asked if you noticed the way he looked at me?”


“Well I remember. It happened while he was teaching. He was looking off toward Jerusalem when something else caught his attention––me. I was just sitting there, like everyone else, but he looked me right in the eyes. It felt like he was passing along a secret. But I didn’t understand; the look was so subtle and quick. I passed it off as nothing and moved on. But praise God, He stirred the memory as I was praying tonight! And then His Spirit started putting things together. Matthew I have so much to tell you.”

“Do tell,” Matthew says with increased curiosity, his pen poised to write.

“That day, Jesus said he came to fulfill the law and the prophets. Moses––the law. Joshua––the first of the prophets. Little did we realize, Jesus was doing it at that very moment!” Matthias points to the parchment. “I want you write out the eight blessings  as you remember them. And beside the blessings, I want you write the eight curses.” 

Matthew is puzzled. “The eight curses?” 

“Remember that day in Jerusalem, in the temple?”

Matthew freezes. 

Matthias leans forward, his voice just above a whisper. “Matthew, it’s the blessing and the curse; it’s the two mountains. Jesus pronounced eight blessings on the mount. He pronounced eight curses on another mount: the Temple Mount! Mount Moriah! Where the stones are built up. Where the altar is located, where the Torah is recorded, where the offerings are brought. It’s why Moses wanted the curses directed toward Mount Ebal. It was a prophecy.”

Matthew keeps listening as Matthias continues. “Look, you know the story. Joshua and the priests pronounced the blessing and the curse at Gerizim and Ebal, and the blessings and the curses corresponded, one being a mirror image of the other. Well, by no coincidence, the blessings that Jesus pronounced on the mount align with the curses he pronounced on the Temple Mount. Again, one is like a mirror image of the other. Our master, the ultimate Joshua, knew what he was doing! 

“...He kept it a secret, though. He saved it for us to discover later. It’s like a gem that shines only in hindsight. And he chose––” Matthias pulls the white stone from his pocket and holds it beneath the table as he talks. “He chose me. It’s like he gave me something to share. This connection, this insight, his secret: it became my secret, and that secret now becomes your secret. The way he looked at me that day––he knew it wouldn’t make sense until later. But here we are, tonight, catching up to him at last.”

Matthew grins when he senses the genius and the humility of it, a combination so indicative of their master. “Let me write it out. I will write the blessings and the curses as I remember them being spoken.” His pen begins to scribble...

Matthias chimes in, pointing at the parchment: “The poor in spirit––theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But the Pharisees shut up the kingdom of heaven! The Pharisees are not poor in spirit. They exalt themselves with false humility. Deep down, they think that they lack in nothing. And if you lack in something, they are eager to tell you how to make up for it.”

Matthew listens and nods. Then his pen moves again...

Matthias: “A widow is one who mourns, but cursed are those who devour the house of the widow. The scribes and Pharisees don’t mourn with those who mourn. Instead they consume those who mourn! And then, to shroud their evil deeds, they say long, lofty prayers to God. But from God they’ll find not comfort but great condemnation.” 

Next on the parchment...

Matthias: “The meek inherit the world. But the Pharisees, being children of Gehenna, inherit Gehenna! Since the meek do not pursue the world, they get it thrown in for free. But the Pharisees––eager to travel to the ends of the earth to expand their influence––lose everything they ever worked for. In the end, they’re simply trespassers trespassing on the property of the meek.”

In the lamp’s firelight...

Matthias stops Matthew from writing to comment: “This is about appetite; it’s about what a person values. The Pharisees misplace their values. Instead of valuing the temple, they value the gold. Instead of valuing the altar, they value the meat on the altar which they can eat. But those who hunger and thirst after righteousness place their value in what is eternal. They desire righteousness and truth, so God sees to it that they experience the fullness of the blessing of Christ. Meanwhile, the Pharisees set their appetite on the gold, on the gifts, on the position. They will never be satisfied.”

Matthew nods, “Amen to that.” Now out of space to write, he reaches for another piece of parchment. He is enjoying this; it was worth waking up for. Again pulling from his memory, he writes...

Matthias now: “The Pharisees seek reward by tithing even the smallest of spices. But in their exacting attitude, the Pharisees neglect the heaviest matters of the law, matters such as mercy. But blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive the reward.”

Matthew draws more ink into his pen as Matthias continues to elaborate. “A gnat and a camel are both unkosher; neither are to be consumed. However, a gnat can be consumed on accident, without notice. A camel––quite the opposite. So here they are, the scribes and the Pharisees, straining out gnats––criticizing people who do something wrong by accident or without notice––while they themselves intentionally partake in an enormous injustice: being critical of others. Where is their mercy? Where is their ability to pardon you for the gnat and recognize the camel of their own condemnation? Matthew, that’s not justice. That’s faithlessness.”

But we must have mercy on them if we are to receive mercy, Matthew thinks to himself. He then writes...

Matthias: “Being pure in heart pertains to the internal man, but you know as well as I, the Pharisees are obsessed with the externals. They focus on maintaining appearances, giving little pursuit to the invisible purity within. Consequently, they cannot see God. They are blind guides! Attempting to guide others toward a God that they themselves cannot see.”

Matthew pauses briefly to recall what comes next. Not only did he witness Jesus making these pronouncements himself, he and his fellow disciples have reflected on these events many times in the days since. This, along with a trained ear and a sharp memory, allows Matthew to write with precise recollection. He scribbles down the seventh blessing and curse:

Matthias: “Peacemakers are the first to admit their own faults or shortcomings. At the expense of outward appearance, a peacemaker admits to these things with the hope of receiving forgiveness. They make peace at whatever the cost. But the Pharisees refuse to confess their own faults, or to admit to their own wrongdoing. They are not the peacemakers who are called the sons of God. Instead they are the murderers who murdered the Son of God! Their presence brings not peace but destruction.”

Matthew looks up at Matthias. Here’s the man who replaced Judas Iscariot, Judas the treasurer, Judas the trusted. Matthew had always considered Judas to be a righteous man, a model student among the others. Judas thought of the poor; he offered his time and talent to care for the accounts; he followed Jesus everywhere he went. That murderer beautifully concealed the rot that was taking place on the inside. And what of him now? Now he lay rotting in a field, having fallen headlong from the tree branch by which he hung himself. The outside finally matches the inside, Matthew thinks in a flash of anger.

A deep breath, a nod to Matthias, then back at the parchment Matthew writes:

Matthias: “The persecuted are rewarded with heaven; the persecutors are sentenced to hell. The persecuted fill up the measure of their fathers: the prophets. The persecutors also fill up the measure of their fathers: a lineage of serpents. The persecuted will receive a great portion in a glorious kingdom. The persecutors will receive what was given to the original serpent.”

Matthew sets his pen down and leans back, synthesizing the symmetry in his head. Matthias rotates the parchment toward himself, reviewing what Matthew has written. The room is quiet. A breeze outside passes through the window opening and causes the lamp’s orange-yellow light to dance upon the walls.

“The blessings and the curses align exactly as I thought,” Matthias says finally. “They are like mirror images of each other, the same core truths engineered in opposite directions. And by making these pronouncements, once more Jesus fulfilled the law and the prophets, doing in the promise land as Joshua did in the promise land, albeit taking it to a new level.”

Matthew, still running the numbers, says nothing. After a moment, he asks, “But what does it mean?”

“What do you mean, what does it mean?”

“I mean, when you put it all together, what does it add up to? What is the Lord teaching us?” Matthew hardly finishes the question before the Spirit volunteers a verse from 1 Samuel 16: “The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). A look of satisfaction comes over Matthew’s face as he looks back at Matthias.

“Matthias, the curses recorded by Moses––the ones read aloud by Joshua and the priests at the two mountains––all of them involve secret sins, sins done in private, sins done against the voiceless, sins done without being noticed by the public. Secret sins! When you move your neighbor’s boundary stone, you do it when he’s not looking. When you dishonor your parents, you do it behind their back. When you take a bribe, or when you commit acts of sexual immorality, you do it in private. When you mistreat a sojourner or an orphan or a widow, there is no one to speak up in their defense, no one to expose you for your actions. When you mislead a blind man, not even the blind man sees it.”

Matthias is eager for Matthew to complete his thought.

“People who sin in secret may keep appearances, but in truth, their heart is estranged from God.” Matthew taps the parchment. “Jesus stands center stage as the way, the truth, and the life. He is concerned not with the height of one’s stature but with the purity of one’s heart. God sees what goes on in secret places. The Pharisees are cursed because, in the secret recesses of their heart, they do evil. They sin in secret. So, while the public may perceive righteousness, in truth they are accursed.”

“We perceive one thing but the truth is another,” Matthias replies.

“Yes. Outward appearances can be deceiving, and that’s just it.” Matthew rotates the parchment to review it for himself. He continues: “Based on appearances, it doesn’t seem like the meek will inherit the world. It doesn’t seem like the persecuted are blessed, nor that the poor in spirit harbor the richest kingdom in all of existence. Quite the contrary, it seems like the scribes and Pharisees will inherit the world since they labor to advance their influence in the name of God. It seems like the scribes and Pharisees are blessed because their impressive prayers appear more pious and lofty than ours. By appearances alone, it looks like they are the gatekeepers of the kingdom of Heaven. But appearances can’t be trusted, can they?”

“Had Moses trusted appearances more than he trusted God’s voice, he never would have picked up that serpent––his staff. The Israelites might still be in Egypt.”

“Had Eve trusted God’s voice more than she trusted appearances, she might still be in the Garden of Eden!”

“Indeed,” Matthias says, thinking about it. “The serpent counted on the appearance of the tree to help sell his deception. So Moses had to overcome appearances in order to take authority over the serpent.”

Matthew nods. “We too must overcome appearances. Especially us, Matthias, being so close to the source.” The firelight pulls in Matthew’s gaze after a second. “You know, a group of priests surrounded Joshua at Gerizim and Ebal. As I think about it, you and me, our brothers upstairs––we are like that group of priests: set apart for a purpose, taking our cues from a single man, amplifying his voice to those around us. God’s Presence rests on us as if we carried the Ark of the Covenant. We are to lead the way, shoulder the truth and live the life; to discern between blessing and curse, walking by faith and not by sight. If this is our testimony, may it pile up like the Jordan so that those behind us can cross over, so that the world around us can know who our master really is.” 


The two of them look at each other, their spirits burning brighter than the lamp between them. Matthias turns his head toward the window. His eyes meet the dark sky over Jerusalem and his face lights up in the most subtle way, something the spirit perceives more than the eye observes. “We’ll get the message out,” Matthias says, squeezing the stone in his hand.

Showdown in the Wilderness

The serpent wouldn’t appear unless the odds were in his favor. Like in the Garden, he waited until Adam and Eve were away from God’s immediate presence before he spoke up. So Jesus knows the serpent won’t emerge from the shadows until he has the advantage. Jesus knows what He has to do.

Venturing out like a trapper, Jesus disappears into the wilderness, alone. He makes Himself very weak, eating and drinking nothing week after week. He senses the serpent watching Him from a distance, monitoring His strength as it dwindles more and more everyday. The serpent is cunning, and patient, so he waits. And waits. And waits. Finally, after 40 days, the serpent sees that Jesus is very near death. The time is right. He comes out of hiding and strikes. 

Here we ask a relevant question. In the Garden, why did the enemy manifest as a snake? Of all creatures, why a snake? What is the deeper meaning of this? The answer is, in short, that the snake most embodies the essence of the enemy. 

Consider a snake’s unique use of constriction and method of consumption. Some snakes employ the force of constriction to take the life of their prey. We can imagine a circle’s circumference tightening inward, squeezing around the center. This is constriction, an outside-in motion. Not all snakes constrict, but all snakes consume their prey from the outside-in as the prey is swallowed whole and then digested inwardly. This is so instructive because the enemy, too, works from the outside-in. Examples may be helpful. 

We see his affect on Eve, for she saw that (1.) the tree was good for food, and (2.) that it was pleasant to the eyes, and (3.) that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, so she took the fruit and ate. Good for food has to do with the body, which is the outermost part. Pleasant to the eyes has to do with the intellect, which is inside the body. A desire to make one wise (like God) has to do with the spirit, desire being the innermost part. Suffice to say, the enemy’s deception took hold of Eve from the outside-in. 

In the Book of Job, the enemy moves in on Job. Reading the account, we find that Job’s servants and animals are first struck down in the surrounding fields. After this, Job’s house and family are targeted. Finally, Job’s own body and health are attacked. Once more we find this principle in effect: the enemy bringing death from the outside-in.

Study the characteristics of a snake and you will learn a great deal about the enemy. The snake epitomizes the enemy more than any other living creature. Therefore, the enemy finds expression as a serpent in the Garden of Eden. The Garden of Eden is a zone in which physical reality perfectly translates spiritual reality, where the truth of one’s essence comes through and there is no denying it. In the Garden, the enemy has no choice but to manifest as a snake, because that is his essence. Outside the Garden, the enemy gains a new power, an ability to manipulate his appearance. When the outside doesn’t reflect the inside––when something isn’t what it seems––it makes a mockery of God’s design. By manipulating his appearance, the enemy mocks God’s design. He didn’t have this power in the Garden, but man set him free, and now he exploits that power constantly. Now he can prowl around like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). Understand, though, that his essence never changes even though his masks often do. 

Out in the wilderness, the tempter approaches Jesus probably not as a snake, but as something else. The text isn’t explicit. Knowing the enemy likes to mock what is holy and good, it wouldn’t surprise me if the enemy approaches Jesus looking like someone He already knows and trusts. No matter what mask he wears, the enemy is what he is. Once a serpent, still a serpent. He presses Jesus from the outside-in. His first temptation takes aim at the body, which desires food. His second temptation aims at the mind and the emotions, as he invites Jesus to take a shortcut to being proclaimed Messiah. The enemy’s third temptation takes aim at the spirit, it being a matter of worship. 

We read that the tempter first says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread.” Jesus responds with a verse from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.’” (Quoting Deuteronomy 8:3)

The enemy then takes Him into Jerusalem and has Him stand on the pinnacle of the Temple. He says to Jesus, “If you are the Son of God, jump off! For the Scriptures say, ‘He will order his angels to protect you. And they will hold you up with their hands so you won’t even hurt your foot on a stone.’”

The enemy is referencing Psalm 91:12 & 14. Notice he skips over verse 13. Why does he skip over verse 13? Because 91:13 says, “You will tread on the lion and the cobra; you will trample the great lion and the serpent.” The enemy neglects this verse for obvious reasons.

Nevertheless, Jesus answers the enemy with a verse from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Quoting Deuteronomy 6:16)

Now comes the third act. The enemy won’t hold back. As I imagine the scene, I sense the wind blowing against the sun burned face of Jesus as He stands on a high mountain alongside the enemy. Before them history is distilled into a single moment. Draped over the landscape beneath them, all the kingdoms of earth stretch out as far as the eye can see. Their brilliance lights up the sky. Each kingdom is portrayed in its highest grandeur. Rome in its prime; Persia at its best; China in its fullness; Britain at its pinnacle; the United States with its towering skyscrapers; first century Israel with His beloved Jerusalem. 

The enemy remains quiet and lets Jesus take it in. The enemy pretends to look too, but he has grown accustomed to this view. Besides, the one kingdom he really wants is not included in this panorama. This kingdom he eyes secretly. This is the kingdom still safeguarded within the thin frame of the Man standing next to him. So the enemy––the serpent known for his guile––remains patient. He keeps Jesus in his peripheral vision. Both of them are cast in the glow of this glorious summation of world history. The light reflects in Jesus’ eyes, and when the enemy finally turns to face Him, he is reminded of the way the light reflected in Eve’s eyes when she beheld the stunning beauty of the Tree of Knowledge. The enemy smiles and speaks. “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me.”

We must note that the kingdoms of earth were the enemy’s to give, meaning the enemy had to have the authority to offer them to Jesus as a temptation. It’s not a temptation if he doesn’t actually have them to give. For instance, if I say, “I’ll give you a million dollars if you commit some sin,” it’s not a real temptation unless I actually have a million dollars to give you. If I don’t really have a million dollars, it’s a joke. It’s silly. There’s no true temptation unless I genuinely have the means to give you the money. And so in the same way, the enemy really had to have the authority to give these kingdoms of the world to Jesus. How did he acquire such authority? Well don’t blame God! God didn’t give it to the enemy. Man did! God gave man dominion over the world (Genesis 1:28-30), but when man took and ate the forbidden fruit, he succumbed to the will of the enemy. It was a trade off: the enemy gave what he had to man (the feeling of being like God) and man gave what he had to the enemy (the dominion of earth). So now, here’s the enemy and the second Adam. The enemy wants to make another trade: the enemy will give Jesus the dominion of earth if Jesus will make him God. The enemy is trading up! From feeling like God to being God! Of course, the enemy holds his cards close to his chest. He doesn’t show his desperation.

“All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me,” he says to Jesus. Underneath his calm demeanor, the enemy screams: “Jesus, no one will notice! It’s just you and me out here! This is the deal of a lifetime! The future of the world is on sale! You can have it to rule as you see fit, and I will stay out of it––if you’ll simply do the smallest action in this private place. No one will see! Come on, what do you say?”

No terrorism. No holocaust. No inquisition. No crucifixion. Jesus closes His eyes and the world’s brilliance disappears from his pupils. When they reopen, his eyes are illuminated from the inside, by the light of God’s Word. Jesus turns to the enemy and answers with a verse from Deuteronomy: “It is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.’” (Quoting Deuteronomy 6:13)

The enemy’s countenance falls through his feet and tumbles down the mountainside. He’s been caught, bested, and beaten. But note, his head is not yet trampled, so he departs, leaving Jesus alone to die. We are told that angels come and attend to Him (Matthew 4:11). Jesus is not expecting this, nor demanding it, but if they do not strengthened Him at this moment, it’s likely Jesus will die right here in the wilderness. Physically, He has come this close to death.

What a showdown, though! The very best against the very best. Examining their dialogue, we find that Jesus relied on the Torah to do battle. There were five books in the Torah He could have chosen from, but a single book––Deuteronomy––was enough to put down the enemy.

I am reminded of another great showdown: David vs. Goliath. Interestingly, when David went against Goliath, the account says that David “chose five smooth stones from the brook and put them in his shepherd’s pouch. His sling was in his hand, and he approached the Philistine . . . David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet the Philistine. David put his hand in his bag and took out a stone and slung it and struck the Philistine on his forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell on his face to the ground.” (1 Samuel 17:40,48,49)

David relied on these stones to do battle with Goliath. There were five stones in his bag he could have chosen from, but a single stone was enough to put down the enemy.

Although the enemy was beaten, the showdown wasn’t all the way over for David. Neither is it over for Jesus. Luke 4:13 tells us that “when the devil had finished every temptation, he left Jesus until an opportune time.” This opportune time won’t arrive until later, when Jesus (again near death) hangs on the cross. The enemy, speaking through those in the crowd, calls out, “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!” (Matthew 27:40). Think back on the temptations: “If you are the Son of God...” “If you are the Son of God...” and now: “If you are the Son of God, come down from that cross!” This is the fourth great temptation, and it goes to show that the showdown isn’t quite over between the tempter and the Son of God.

Neither was it over between David and Goliath. After dropping him with a single stone, David stood over Goliath and drew Goliath’s sword out of its sheath. Using Goliath’s own weapon against him, David cut off Goliath’s head. 

Hanging on the cross, Jesus looks down at the enemy. Before this, He had struck down the devil with a single book, but now, Jesus will use something else to finalize his victory. Death is drawn up in the hands of Jesus. Using the enemy’s own weapon against him, Jesus dies on the cross––and with that death, He crushes the serpent’s head.

John 9: Apply as Needed

“Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living soul” (Genesis 2:7). 

That is the English version. Here’s the Hebrew version (reading right to left):

וייצר יהוה אלהים את־האדם עפר מן־האדמה ויפח באפיו נשמת חיים ויהי האדם לנפש חיה׃

Hebrew readers will notice something of interest. The first word of the verse is misspelled! The first word, vaiyitzer (ויצר), meaning “to form” or “formed,” is supposed to be spelled with a single yod. Yod is the letter that resembles an apostrophe (י). Yod is the second letter of the word vaiyitzer: ויצר. Yet in every Torah scroll in the world, this word is misspelled in Genesis 2:7, written with two yods instead of one. Elsewhere it is spelled with a single yod, but not here. Why is this? Why have the scribes so faithfully copied what seems to be a simple typo?

We have to be mindful that each letter in the Hebrew alphabet is a symbol. For example, the letter aleph symbolizes an ox; the letter beit symbolizes a house; the letter gimel represents a camel; the letter dalet represents a door. What does the letter yod represent? The letter yod represents a hand! 

Here we find meaning. When God formed adam (man) from the adamah (clay), He used both of His hands to do it! That’s why there are two “hands” in the vaiyitzer of Genesis 2:7––because God formed man from the clay using both of His hands. (At least, that’s the picture conveyed by the Hebrew.) 

If we jump forward to John 9, we find God reaching down and using both of His hands again. In John 9, Jesus spits on the ground and works His saliva into the mud. He then applies the mud to the eyes of a blind man. He tells the blind man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam (which means sent). Though the blind man cannot see Jesus, he listens to His voice and obeys the command. The blind man finds his way to the Pool of Siloam. There he washes, and his sight is restored. What just happened?

In Genesis 2, God forms man from the clay. Man’s creation is perfect. But then sin enters his being, and a tremendous amount of damage is done. Jesus comes to correct that damage. What does Jesus do? He goes back to the way God made man to begin with––with clay. But this time He doesn’t have to start from scratch. All He has to do is make some new clay, apply as needed, and form a new creation of the eyes. Once again something from God’s mouth (breath in Genesis 2, saliva in John 9) combines with the clay of the earth to bring man into fullness.

Why does Jesus go back to Genesis 2 to heal the man? Because the problem of blindness arises in Genesis 3. Of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, the serpent said, “...in the day you eat of it, your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The woman then sees that the tree was good for food, that it is pleasant to the eyes, and so she eats. Notice how much eyesight is involved here. Yet the moment “their eyes are opened,” they immediately start blocking things from their sight. They make themselves coverings, and they hide from God. They put God Himself out of view. 

Jesus is surrounded by people suffering the effects of the Tree of Knowledge. But the people fail to notice their condition because the effects are inherited from Adam and Eve. Like the blind man’s blindness, the effects of the fall trace back to birth. And since everyone is equally effected since birth, the damage is thus perceived as no damage at all. In principle, it takes a man with sight to know that a blind man is blind. An isolated group of blind people will not realize by themselves that they are blind. But this is the predicament in which Jesus finds Himself. He is amid a group of people who are spiritually blind, yet they don’t realize it. So He responds in a clever way. He singles out a beggar who is physically blind, and for this man Jesus performs a miracle of restoration. Baffled by this change in condition, the question they ask is, “How were your eyes opened?”

Eyesight is a central theme in John 9. We find various groups of people going back and forth about Jesus’ true identity. One group recognizes Him as a prophet, a man of righteousness, a man sent by God. Even though they can’t exactly understand it, they are humble enough to recognize the truth before them. However, the opposing group refuses to recognize Jesus for who He is, because, well, they are “like God,” determining good and evil, boxing in the truth according to the boundaries drawn up by their own understanding. For this group, the Tree of Knowledge stands in the way of the Tree of Life. God Himself remains out of view. 

To the latter group, Jesus says “...your sin remains.” But for the beggar, for the one in a position of humility, He makes a new creation of the eyes and says, “Go and wash in the Pool of Siloam.” Of all places, why does Jesus send the blind man to the Pool of Siloam? 

It is chosen for a reason. This particular pool, the Pool of Siloam, had been built during the reign of King Hezekiah some 700 years before the events in John 9 take place. It was designed to bring water inside the City so that, during a siege, Jerusalem could still access a safe water supply. The pool is fed by the Gihon Spring located outside the city walls. Water from this spring is channeled into Jerusalem via an underground passage. And this is why the Pool of Siloam is called Siloam which means sent, because the water is “sent” into the City.

How they made this thing bewilders the mind. In order to channel the water into the City, Hezekiah had to carve a tunnel through the earth no less than 583 yards long! He instructed his men to work from opposite directions. One set of workers started cutting into the rock on one end (from inside the wall) while a second set started cutting into the rock on the other end (from outside the wall). It’s an amazing feat of engineering that they met up in the middle! (Google Hezekiah’s Tunnel for more information.)

In 1880, an ancient plaque was discovered inside the tunnel. Today the plague is kept in a museum, it being among the oldest extant records written in Hebrew using the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. On the plague is an inscription that describes how the tunneling was completed. “The stone cutters wielded their picks, each crew toward the other, and while there was still 3 cubits to go, the voices of the men calling each other could be heard since there was an increase of sound on the right and the left. The day the breach was made, the stonecutters hacked toward each other, pick against pick, and the water flowed from the source to the pool, 1200 cubits.” (The Siloam Inscription)

Now there are a lot of places where this blind man could have washed the mud off. But Jesus said I want you to go to this pool. The pool that was created when Hezekiah was king. The pool that was created by two groups tunneling through rock toward each other. The pool that means sent. This is where I want you to go. 

It’s a picture. To the humble, Jesus says in essence, “If you draw near to me, I will draw near to you. You want the living water. You want life. You want back in the Garden. Well I’m working toward you, tunneling out from God’s Presence. You work toward me, tunneling in toward God’s Presence. You might be operating in darkness. But you can hear. You can hear Me working toward you. I am sent for you; you are sent by Me. Keep faith, and you will soon see as you ought to see.”