The Conversion of Baruch Maoz
As part of my mandatory military service, I was sent to live on a Kibbutz near the southern city of Eilat. Since I knew English, one of my duties was to care for the English speaking guests and volunteers.
One day a big torsoed, black bearded man arrived. We called him Black John. He had come to us from a Kibbutz in the north and was engaged in travel around the world in a catamaran. He had arrived at Haifa port from somewhere in Europe. His catamaran disintegrated and he intended to build a new one in order to continue on his way via the Red Sea to South Africa, and thence back to New Zealand. Since Eilat was on the Red Sea, he had made his way to us and was invited to stay, work for his keep and plan his next step more carefully.
John had been befriended by a family in the northern Kibbutz and, when referred to us, was told that there was a Christian family in Eilat, the Vintens. In the eyes of Israelis, anyone who was not a Muslim or a Jew was deemed to be a Christian. Black John was told that “this is a fascinating family you really ought to meet”. Since I knew English, I was assigned to liaise between John and our Kibbutz, and John asked me to show him the way to the family of which he had heard.
One evening we made our way through the city to the address he had been given. Peter and Anna Vinten had come to Israel from Rhodesia, where Peter had worked in the mines. Evangelical, warmly committed to Israel because of their faith in the Old Testament, eager to be a part in the resettlement of the Jews in their own land, they had settled in Israel and sought to help the fledgling State establish itself economically. Peter had put his mining expertise at the service of the nation and was one of the managers on the Timna copper mines, the only active mining operation in modern Israel. They had four boys, the oldest of whom was about 15.
Timna mined essentially the same copper vein that King Solomon mined many years before. It had an open, widening man-made crater where ore was scraped up in enormous trucks and taken to be processed. But the richer part of the vein was deep down in the ground. Access was through an angled shaft that was growing deeper and deeper as the mining process continued.
A group of young people had come to visit the Vintens from what was described to me as “the Baptist Farm” near Petach Tikvah. They sang and prayed, and someone said something from the Bible. John was unimpressed, but I was deeply moved. Somehow, my cynical shell was shaken. These were delightfully happy, clean-hearted individuals such as I wished I could be. But they were gentiles and their faith was a gentile faith. Jews don’t believe in Jesus – everyone knows that! On departing, I remember telling them, “I wish I had what you had!”, and fleeing into the night with Black John in tow. I might have wanted what they had, but I was wholly unwilling to follow the course they had followed. My Jewishness was dear to me.
I visited the Vintens repeatedly in the course of time. They preached the Gospel to me. They insisted that God existed and that he had made the worlds. They told me that sin had invaded the world and corrupted all of mankind. They spoke of a promised saviour – the Messiah – who would redeem the world from its sin, and of the promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in regards to that. They spoke of the biblical sacrifices, as the focal point of the worship of God as our forefathers were taught in the wilderness of Sinai and of the importance of the temple because that is where sin was atoned by the sacrifices God has commanded. They then spoke of Jesus as if he were both the Messiah and the sacrifice to top all sacrifices. They spoke of God’s holiness and of his love and of the need to repent.
All this did not interest me. It was happiness I wanted, not forgiveness. I did not consider myself any worse than anyone else, and was quite confident that I could cope with my own shortcomings. “Sin” was a religious term, and I was not religious. I did not believe in God.
Two years had passed. I had gone AWOL and was working in the Timna mines, where I had been injured and sent to a hospital near the centre of the country.
One comfortable November evening, on the 11th of the month, while still in the hospital I was told of a young man, Ovadiah Amarani. Ovadia was a Yemenite Jew who had come to faith in Jesus and was hospitalised because no one could believe that his faith was not the product of some kind of madness. His extreme charismatic views seemed to reinforce that understanding, so Ovadiah was institutionalised for observation. He left a short while later after being dubbed by the doctors as “strange and interesting, but completely normal”. That evening he was talking with a group of patients in one of the rooms. “You know something about the New Testament, Baruch. Come and help us put this guy in his place”, I was told.
Ovadiah was sitting on one of the beds, with a number of the patients on the beds around him. He was explaining what he believed, answering questions and responding to objections. I really knew nothing of the New Testament. But, in the course of my contact with the Vintens, I had heard of NT writers such as Paul, Peter and John. When Ovadiah stopped for breath, I interjected: “What you say isn’t even true to the NT. Paul says”… and then I made up a verse.
Ovadiah was stunned and all those present impressed with my thorough knowledge of the Christian NT. Ovadiah responded kindly and humbly. “I see you know the NT. I have no response to the text you quoted. I will have to think about this. But what I do know is,”… and then he proceeded to explain an aspect of the Gospel.
Once again I interjected. “Ovadiah, that’s not true either. Peter says,” … and I invented another statement. Ovadiah rightly concluded that there was no point in continuing the present discussion. As the gathering dispersed, he made a bee-line for me: “I want to talk with you”, he said. We sat down in a convenient corner and Ovadiah preached the Gospel to me. In substance he said, “I can’t contend with you over what the NT says. You’re better versed in the NT than I am. But God really made the world. He made you and me. But mankind has changed. It became sinful and will be judged because of its sin. You too will be judged. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. He came to bear the sins of many and to provide a way for forgiveness.”
I listened. It all sounded familiar – I had heard the same and much more from the Vintens over the years. There was nothing here for me because I’m as good as anyone else. What is more, I’m Jewish and this is a gentile religion. Wait a minute! I could say that about the Vinten’s faith, but here was a thoroughly Jewish young man telling me the same things, and his Jewishness seems to have all the more meaning to him precisely because he believes as he does. Did he not speak of Jesus as the Jewish Messiah? Nah! I don’t really have any more sin than anyone else. This is a nice, innocent but irrelevant religious faith and I’m not interested.
Ovadiah went on talking but I wasn’t listening any longer, until he surprised me: “Baruch, take my Bible and go out to the yard and ask God to talk to you.” I was flabbergasted. This guy really believed! He really believed that God exists and that he talks to people. Maybe there is something to what he is saying?!
I took the Bible and walked out to the darkened yard. It was about 8 in the evening and a cool autumn breeze blew over the trees. I was stirred by Ovadiah’s confident expectation that I would hear from God. That expectation stirred a hope of some kind in my own heart. So, for the first time in my life, I really lifted my heart to heaven and prayed: “God, if you exist. speak to me and I will believe in you.”
Now, I thought, that was a fair offer: If God exists, he undoubtedly wants people to believe in him. I was prepared to do that if he would answer me. Surely that was not too much to ask.
Ovadiah’s confidence sparked something in my own heart. For the moment, I fully expected God to appear or, at the very least, Elijah to pass by in his flaming chariot. I sincerely thought that this is what would happen, and from that moment on I would be a believer, whatever that meant in practical terms. But nothing happened. Nothing happened and, as far as my heart was concerned, all hell broke loose. It was the darkest moment in my sad and tortured life up to that moment. I felt a fury welling up within me. Well, then, if there is a God – and there probably isn’t – and he has refused to answer an honest prayer like that, then I do not want to have anything to do with him! I felt betrayed, used, abused. Deep in my heart I really believed that there is a God. But I also foolishly believed that he owed me an answer and, since he had not given it to me when I afforded him the sole opportunity of my life to prove his existence, and a golden one at that, he had betrayed me.
Foolish, arrogant, desperate, wicked man.
It was then, at the moment when I would have welcomed hell itself had Satan revealed himself, that God came. I do not know how to describe it. I saw and heard nothing but, suddenly, in the height of my angry, arrogant rebellion, I knew I was a sinner, I knew God was holy, and – somehow – I knew he was at that very moment frighteningly near.
I was overwhelmed by a sense of fear, of holiness. I fell to my knees, weeping, but it was a sweet kind of tear. Without words, I turned in my heart to God – or, more correct, my heart was turned to him – and I sought his forgiveness, and received it. Ovadiah’s Bible was at hand. Almost unconsciously, I turned to it, flicked it open and my eyes alighted on a verse which I later discovered had to do with Jesus. Matthew says that “The blind and the lame came to him in the temple, and he healed them” (Matt. 21:14). I knew myself to be one of the blind and lame, and I knew that coming to God meant coming to Jesus. Don’t ask me how, I can’t tell you. All I can say is the product of hindsight and of the study of scripture: God the Holy Spirit opened my eyes.
But what did he use to that end? I am not sure. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God. Perhaps all the explanations I had heard at the Vinten’s home now came to roost because the Spirit brought them home to roost just then. Perhaps Ovadiah had said more than I remember and that is what God used. Be it as it may, I knew. I knew beyond any doubt. I knew and I came to him, blind and lame in every sense but physical, and he healed me as surely as he healed the blind and the lame in the temple. I was not made perfect. I am far from perfect now, some 40 years later. But my sweet tears of sorrow and of fear became tears of relief and gratitude. I had been the object of a kindness that I fully understood I did not deserve, nor ever could deserve. I arose from my knees on that evening, around 8 pm, November 11 1963, a new man.
I told Ovadiah and he, of course was elated. He sought to instruct me in the ways of my new faith, but knew all too little himself and was of little help to me. He was a sincere young man, earnest and eager, but with little understanding of life or of faith beyond a few basic statements of his faith that he almost knew by rote. Yet what he knew was enough for God to use in my life, and for that I am eternally grateful. That night, as I took my daily shower, I sang as I had never sung before.
On the following day I was released and made my way to Eilat. It was the beginning of a long pilgrimage in which God’s grace repeatedly bore with my foolishness and my arrogant sin.
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