Sunday, October 29, 2006

TorahBytes: Avram (Lekh Lekha)

The LORD had said to Avram, "Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you" (Bereshit / Genesis 12:3).

I am so intrigued by Avraham (English: Abraham), who was originally called Avram (English: Abram). I don't know if it is because of his foundational place in the Scriptures as well in the history of the people of Israel and of all true followers of Israel's God, or because of how God has worked in my own life. There's also the fact that my true given name is Avram, named after my father's father.

When I was born, it was customary to name children after a deceased relative, then take the first sound of that name and give the child an English name based on that sound, which would then become the child's legal name. The Yiddish or Hebrew name would be referred to as the child's Jewish name. In more recent years I have thought of legally changing my name to my Jewish name. I consider it to be my actual name, while "Alan" is simply a tag of convenience given to me to help me survive in a non-Jewish environment.

The significance of my Jewish name didn't mean much to me until many years after coming to know God through the Messiah. It took me a while to understand why Jewish people had non-Jewish names, but it was much more than that. It would take years of walking with God to see how much I related to the father of our people. I am not saying that I am like Avram, except having gotten to know his God, I can relate to his life. The aspects of Avram's life that have become precious to me are aspects of godliness that I think all people of true faith should esteem.

When God called Avram, even though he was an old man, he was willing to venture into the unknown, the uncertain. He was willing to spend the rest of his life in an environment that was potentially hostile to him and his family. He was willing to trust God for things contrary to his life experience and natural occurrences. He was able to receive promises that seemed impossible. It was his willingness to be led into an alien land to live out his days as a stranger, which made him the foundation of great blessing for the entire world for eternity.

Avram was a man who, in response to God's call in his life, was willing to let go of the world he knew in order to embrace a life that God himself would give him. This is the essence of faith. This is the essence of godliness. It is the willingness to trade off the natural things in which we normally find security, for the supernatural unseen things of God. It is to live in this world, yet to be led in life by God's Word and not the standards of the societies in which we live. It is to accept that we are not of this world, but are actually ambassadors of heaven. We live in this world as representatives of our heavenly father. This is how Avram lived. This is how we are all called to live.

I suspect that in some way, each and every day, every follower of the Messiah hears God's voice to live like Avram. Each and every day we are called to make decisions based not on our natural perceptions, but upon the reality of God and his Word. Everyday we are called to be like Avram.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Image of God - Part 3

A misused biblical concept that has caused confusion is something the New Covenant writings call "the flesh." Depending on the context "flesh" can refer to one of several things. It could mean our physical bodies. It could refer to living creatures, both humans and animals. It could refer to human or animal soft tissue. The spiritual usage of the word refers to our human nature, but specifically that part of our nature that is prone to sin.

The Bible understands that human beings have a natural disposition that is contrary to God's character. We also come into the world under God's wrath. This is our inheritance from our first parents, Adam and Eve, who disobeyed God's directives in the Garden of Eden. Since then we have not been able to make ourselves right with God. Our lifestyles are the outcome of our state of alienation from God.

When God gave his commandments to the people of Israel, he was revealing his standards to us. One of the reasons for this revelation was to show us that we fall short of those standards and thus need his provision of salvation in order to be restored to a right relationship with him. There is nothing we can do of our own efforts that can bridge the gap between ourselves and God.

Where confusion arises is when we think of our personalities, abilities, and gifts as the flesh. While everything about us has been effected by sin, this should not be confused by our simple humanness. Our being human and much of what goes with that is not sinful in itself. Being a man or being a woman is not in itself sinful. The ability to sing or build things is not sinful. Appreciating a kindness or loving a child is not sinful. All these things are not what they should be due to the reality of sin, but the things themselves are not sinful.

The reality of sin in our lives does not fully negate the preeminence of the image of God. Every human being continues to reflect God is so many ways. It may be necessary to repeat that the our continuing to bear God's image does not make us right with God. Still, our not being right with God doesn't eradicate God's image.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

TorahBytes: A Positive Perspective (No'ah)

To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth. So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again. (Isaiah 54:9)

My wife and I are two very different people. That should be obvious, but it actually took me many years to realize that. I guess I was fooled by our great many similarities. We are both Ashkenazi Jews (our grandparents were from Eastern Europe), we grew up just a few blocks from one another. We frequented the same candy store (we love to reminisce over that one). We both came to know Yeshua as our Messiah in our late teens. We went to the same public school and Yiddish school after regular school three times a weeks for a couple of years. We weren't actually friends during that time, but got to know each other only after we both became believers.

So due to our similar background and experiences, we have more in common than many couples we know. She and I have also worked through many life issues together and are united on most, if not all, major life issues. That said, there are significant differences between us.

Perhaps the greatest difference has to do with how we look at life, which is a pretty big difference. One might say that she is a "glass is half full" kind of person, while I am a "glass is half empty" person. Please understand that I am generalizing. There are times when I am the one to see things in a more positive light (though I admit, that's a rare occurrence), but most often she tends to see things more positively than I.

Those of you who are more like me appreciate how I think I am the realist while she is simply naïve. At the same time, she thinks I am too quick to jump to negative conclusions. As it has turned out, sometimes she is more right, other times, it's me, sometimes it's a combination of both, and other times, we have both completely misread what's really going on.

Before I relate this to this week's Haftarah, I want to add that I believe that God has given the two of us unique gifts, which enables us to see things differently. Due to our human nature, we misuse those gifts, causing our perspectives to blind us to the reality of a situation. What we need to continue to do is learn how our differences complement each other, so that we can see things more accurately.

The downside of the way I tend to see things is illustrated by what happened when I first read this week's Haftarah. As I read the passage, the phrase, "the days of Noah" caught my attention. While I did notice that the point of the passage was positive (God was promising the people that the day would come when he would no longer be angry with them), I took the Noah reference as negative. I realize that I read the passage too quickly at first, but my assumption regarding the Noah reference led me to think of God's destruction through the Flood. I thought God was saying that just like he poured out his wrath upon the people of Noah's time, so he would pour out his love upon the people of Israel. Nice thought, but that's not what the passage actually says. The phrase "days of Noah" automatically made me think of the bad part of the story.

By the way, I tested my wife by having her read the passage and then asking her what "days of Noah" meant. Are you surprised that she knew that it had to do with the good, not the bad, aspect of the Noah story?

For me any mention of the Noah story immediately brings to mind the sinful nature of the human race, God's anger and his judgment. But the Isaiah passage showed me that I failed to catch the positive aspect of the story, which is God's commitment not to destroy the world by flood again. This experience made me see how I can miss the whole picture due to my tendency to think negatively.

God wanted the people of Isaiah's time to think about the "days of Noah" in a positive light. He wanted them to know that just as he had been angry for a time, but then committed himself to not judge the Earth in that way again, so he would be angry with Israel for only a time, but then would never be angry with them again. Through Isaiah, God was calling the people to see from a positive perspective.

God's desire for all people is not judgment, but salvation. His goal for all of us is positive, not negative. That doesn't mean that there is no negative aspects to how he deals with people. If we choose to ignore him, we will face judgment, but that's not God's heart's intent. His intent is positive. For me that's sometimes difficult to remember, but I am learning that my wife often does see things as they really are.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Image of God - Part 2

Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for in the image of God has God made man (Bereshit / Genesis 9:6).

This is one of the things that God said to Noah after Noah, his family, and the animals left the ark. It is the basis for what is called "capital punishment." It is noteworthy that our responsibility to take the life of murderers is not based on vengeance toward them. It is not focused on the need of punishment, but rather upon the sacredness of life.

I suspect this sounds contradictory to some, who may wonder if life is so sacred, why would God direct us to execute murderers. But such is the seriousness of the offense. If someone would dare destroy the life of an image bearer, their own life must be required of them.

I didn’t really want to get into a discussion of capital punishment, but I wonder if our one of the reasons why certain societies have outlawed it is not because of valuing life more, but rather due to our losing sight of who we really are. Failing to sufficiently deal with murderers says more about how we view the value of the victims than it does about our concern for the perpetrators.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Image of God - Part 1

You were dead in your transgressions and sins… (Ephesians 2:1)

Three years ago in a different context I wrote a couple of articles entitled, "You Are Basically Good" which challenged the notion that human beings are devoid of any intrinsic goodness. Some more theologically minded people had trouble with this. In Christian theology there is a teaching called, "total depravity". Many proponents of this teaching would say that we are "basically evil," but I think that is a misapplication of what the "total depravity" idea is seeking to convey.

The biblical concepts that lead to "total depravity" have to do with our inability to establish a right relationship with God on our own. The predicament caused by Adam and Eve's sin is one where we all come into the world alienated from God. We ourselves cannot resolve that predicament. It is only God's power that can rescue us from this spiritual death.

It may be logical to think that our spiritual plight means that we have lost the image of God entirely. How can we be spiritually dead, as Paul teaches in Ephesians, but still bear God's image?

I understand the logic, but there is more to understanding this than some may think. Over the next little while we will explore this in more detail.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

TorahBytes: Image Bearers (Bereshit)

Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." (Bereshit / Genesis 1:26)

I am so grateful for the Scriptures, for they are God's revelation to us. In the over thirty years in which I have been studying God's written Word, again and again I am confronted by its life-changing insight as it challenges my own way of thinking about life, about God, about others, and about myself.

It is so important to have a right understanding about ourselves. If we don't know who we are and what our God-given place in the universe is, all the correct thinking about other things, including God himself, will never be effectively applied in our lives. It's like a pitcher of water and a glass. We could know everything about the pitcher and the water. We can ensure that the pitcher is sound and the water is pure, but ignorance of the purpose of the glass will prevent it from receiving the water, which would then prevent it from ever providing refreshment to anyone. In the same way, if we only focus on knowing God without also understanding our place and purpose in life, we will never live effective lives.

I am aware of the other extreme of focusing solely on ourselves, but to do so actually demonstrates how little we know about who we truly are. We will not discover who we are apart from also knowing the One who created us. Yet at the same time, to know God requires our having a right understanding of ourselves, which is something the Scriptures do reveal.

In the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, we learn that we are made in God's image. This is in contrast to the other creatures who were made in their own likeness. Men and women possess the imprint of God unlike anything else in God's creation. We are not the result of a natural, meaningless process. The animal world is not our family. Apes are not our cousins. We are the special creation of God. We have been fashioned by him to reflect his person and character.

Bearing God's image makes all people sacred. Whether or not we acknowledge God's existence, whether or not we live godly lives, each and every human being is in some way a reflection of our Creator.

It is through people that God is made known on Earth. It is through people that God's will is done on Earth. It is through people that God's power, his wisdom, his truth, and his goodness are revealed and experienced.

As the early chapters of the Bible unfold, we read how the introduction of sin into the human story perverts who we really are. From that point on, we become like royalty living lives of abject poverty. The image of God, though never eradicated is marred. While still reflecting God and his glory, that reflection is warped. Due to our first parents'
disobedience, we come into the world groping about as if stricken with spiritual amnesia, having lost any sense of our true identity and place in the universe.

This is why the Messiah came into the world. While our rebellion against God rightfully leads to his rejecting us, his love for his special creatures could not be constrained. His love, greater than his anger, led him to send the Deliverer.

It is in keeping with God's original purpose for the human race that the Deliverer became a human being - One who would truly reflect God in the way we were designed to do. By becoming a man, Yeshua restores God's image in us, so that we can fulfill God's purpose through us.

Our worth, our perspective on life, the way we look at others, how we treat ourselves, the basis for anything we do begin with knowing that none of us came into the world by accident. Every human being is of great value, is essential, and should be treated with the utmost care and respect, because we bear the image of God.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Complete

The series I have working on, "Is the Torah for Today," deserves a fuller treatment than what I was able to give it over the past few weeks, but I hope that it encourages people to examine the Scriptures to understand this issue better. Perhaps some time in the future I will provide a more in depth study, but I will leave it for now.

Since it is cumbersome to try to read an already posted blog series from the beginning, I have compiled all 16 parts into one PDF file. To read the entire series, go to (opens new window):

Sunday, October 08, 2006

TorahBytes: Many Holidays (Shemini Atzeret)

On the eighth day hold an assembly and do no regular work. (Bemidbar / Numbers 29:35)

The current month in the Jewish calendar is special due to the amount of holy days observed. The first day of the month, which this year began the evening of September 23, is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, or as it's called in the Bible, the Festival of the Sounding of the Shofar (ram's horn). Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of a time of spiritual introspection and community reconciliation culminating in Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), which began the evening of October 1. Five days afterwards is the seven-day long, Sukkot (Festival of Tabernacles). This year Sukkot began the evening of October 6. Immediately following the seventh day of Sukkot is another holy day, called in Hebrew Shemini Atzeret, which simply means the "Assembly of the eight (day)."

Shemini Atzeret coincides with the completion and recommencing of the annual cycle of the reading of the Torah (Books of Moses). A special celebration, called "Simchat Torah" (Joy of the Torah) is observed. In the Land of Israel Simchat Torah is observed on Shemini Atzeret. Outside of the Land of Israel where certain holy days are doubled, Simchat Torah is observed on the second day of Shemini Atzeret.

I wonder if all these special days seems like a lot to you. Basically one half of this whole Jewish month is given over to a special focus on God. Fulfilling all these observances would mean major changes to our normal schedule. In Bible times, celebrating Sukkot meant taking your whole family to Jerusalem for the week. But I think God knows that our normal schedules need upsetting.

In our fast paced society, it seems that we have a lot of difficulty breaking our normal routine to give God this kind of attention, but I don't think we need it any less than the Jewish people of ancient times.

Those of us who do take time for God, often approach him as we do many other things we do. We slot him in somewhere. We spend time with God just like any other meeting, rarely taking time to linger in his presence, not to mention setting apart several days just to focus on him.

When God provided the people of Israel with our yearly calendar, he directed us to give over to him large amounts of time. Besides the weekly Sabbath, there were festivals throughout the year. Once a year there would be these two weeks, which includes even more intense time with him.

Those who know Yeshua and understand that we are no longer under the Sinai Covenant, may think that we are free from such observances. Technically this is true, but if the people before Messiah needed this kind of time with God, how much more should we want to have intense and prolonged times with him? If we know the love of God in Yeshua should we not want to spend more time with him, not less?

Friday, October 06, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 16

To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Messiah's law), so as to win those not having the law. (1 Corinthians 9:21)

This reference is very helpful in gaining a New Covenant perspective on Torah. The context in which Paul is writing has do to with his going out of his way to relate to different groups in different ways. In other words Paul learned to be culturally sensitive. Here he is referring to how he relates to non-Jews. We know from his other writings he knew God did not want Jewish Believers to impose the dictates of the Sinai Covenant on Gentiles. Paul's understanding of his relationship to God in Yeshua enabled him to relate to non-Jews without needed to uphold the strict barriers erected by the Sinai Covenant. This is similar to what Peter experienced in Acts 10, which I discussed in my previous post.

Note Paul's different uses of "law" (Torah). "To those not having the Torah I became like one not having the Torah." Here is referring to Torah as the Sinai Covenant also called the Law of Moses. Gentiles were not given the Torah by God and as a code of law were never obliged to keep it. Paul was free to relate to them outside of a strict Torah-observant framework. Yet he also says, "though I am not free from God's law but am under Messiah's law." While being free from the Torah as stipulated within the Sinai Covenant, this was not a license to live any way he pleased. He was still subject to the eternal Torah of God in the Messiah.

The distinction between Torah as expressed through the Sinai Covenant and Torah as the eternal ways of God is crucial. The former was designed to set the Jewish people apart until the time of Messiah, while the latter is God's eternal principles to which we all must subject ourselves.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Is the Torah for Today - Part 15

Peter's understanding of Torah was challenged when God began to prepare him for his initial venture into non-Jewish territory. In Acts chapter 10 we read of his seeing a vision of a collection of unclean animals along with a voice, which he understood to be God, saying "Kill and eat" (Act 10:9ff). Peter's response was "Surely not, Lord! I have never eaten anything impure or unclean."

Peter believed that the food laws of the Sinai Covenant were still in force. But the Lord told him, "Do not call anything impure that God has made clean." This happened three times.

While Peter was wondering what the vision meant, some messengers of a non-Jewish military leader named Cornelius were looking for him. Cornelius had been instructed by God to send for Peter. When Peter heard of these messengers, the Spirit of God directed him to go with them.

As it turned out Peter went to Cornelius' house. As he spoke to them about Yeshua, to the astonishment of the Jewish Believers who had accompanied Peter, Cornelius's household believed, received the Holy Spirit, and were immersed in the name of Yeshua the Messiah.

It appears that the main application of Peter's vision of the unclean animals made clean had to do with people, not food. God was opening the way to bring the good news of Yeshua to non-Jews. However note the response of the Jewish Believers in Jerusalem upon Peter's return: "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them" (Acts 11:3).

Peter's contact with non-Jews was immediately associated with food. It seems that in order to truly engage non-Jews, table fellowship would naturally be involved.

Some may think that since Cornelius was known as a "God-fearer" – a non-Jew who was attracted to the God of Israel and his ways, but not willing to convert to Judaism – he may have already embrace biblical food laws. But if that was the case, then why didn't Peter say so? Also why was the vision about unclean animals, if food really wasn't an issue.

The Jewish people of that day (as well as many today) followed a stricter standard regarding food than what the Sinai Covenant prescribed. Some may think that this is what was being confronted by God through Peter, but again, this doesn't seem to go along with what we encounter in the text.

The New Covenant writings nowhere encourage non-Jews to follow the Sinai food regulations. That being the case, the Jewish Believers would have great difficulty associating with non-Jews unless they recognized that God – just like in the vision – had made all foods clean.

Monday, October 02, 2006

TorahBytes: Facing the Future (Sukkot)

Then the survivors from all the nations that have attacked Jerusalem will go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD Almighty, and to celebrate the Feast of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles). (Zechariah 14:16)

I was having an interesting conversation with two men the other day. They both worked for companies that were part of the high-tech upsurge of several years ago. Both men were looking forward to the possibility of being able to retire very wealthy at a relatively early age. Then the high-tech bubble burst and, with that, their dreams.

These two men both felt that the real issue for most people regarding financial security is a sense of being able to control their future. While I think that most of us can see that no amount of money can ensure such a thing, we would still feel a lot better about the days to come if we had a million dollars in the bank.

The future - whether it be the immediate future: such as will I still have a job tomorrow? or the distant future: such as how long will I get to live? - is perhaps the single greatest cause of anxiety for most people. Having a sense of control of the future somehow alleviates that anxiety. Financial success is only one of the means by which we try to take control of our future. Others do it through power. They think that political position or military might will provide them with what they need to protect themselves and provide prosperity for them in the days ahead. Others do it though gaining knowledge. They think that understanding how life really works will enable them to not be caught off guard by changing trends. The popularity of horoscopes and fortune tellers of all kinds reveal the desire so many have to know the future. They think that knowing the future will give them a sense of security.

Some use the Bible in this way. Both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Covenant writings refer to future events. There is no lack of material available by those who would give us their interpretations of these predictive passages. But I wonder how many of us have taken the time to ask the question: why are those passages there? Listening to some people discuss biblical prophecy sounds similar to me to what the two men I referred to were saying as they discussed their financial experiences.

I get the impression that for some people being able to recite their biblical understanding of how the world will end, provides them with a sense of control. I don't know what those people will do when their interpretations don't come to pass, but I guess they will have to deal with that if and when it happens.

Back to my question: why does the Bible include predictive portions? To adequately answer this important question, we would have to look at the context of each passage to see if we could ascertain God's motive in revealing a future event. But might I say that there is no sense whatsoever that he ever intended to give us a sense of control. Far from it. Biblical prophesy declares that only God is in control of the future.

Is this not the lesson of the Festival of Sukkot, which begins this year on Friday evening, October 6? This was the time when the people of Israel were to live in temporary shelters for a week to remember how God took care of us during our wilderness wanderings for forty years after leaving Egypt. The prophet Zechariah predicted that one day all nations of the world will observe this festival.

God through Zechariah was saying that no matter what the nations might do to the people of Israel, they will eventually acknowledge God as the only true Protector and Provider. Therefore God's people were not to fear what might happen to them, but rather they should keep trusting in God, who will work everything out in the end.

This is just one example of the consistent message contained in biblical predictive prophesy. As we face the future, our only assurance of security is in trusting God.

Perhaps this is too simplistic for some people, but learning to trust God today, to do his will amidst the many challenges we face, is not easy. The forces of evil relentlessly attempt to get us to think that we will not be able to make it. They want us to believe that failure is our only option. Buckling under these pressures, it is tempting to turn to something that will give us a sense of false security, rather than trusting in he who holds the future in his hands.

Anything but God himself, including many of our interpretations of biblical prophecy, is just like the high-tech bubble that burst in the faces of so many who put their trust in it. We cannot control the future, but we can be secure in the one who does.