Sunday, January 28, 2007

TorahBytes: Feeling Hopeless (Be-shallah)

As Pharaoh approached, the Israelites looked up, and there were the Egyptians, marching after them. They were terrified and cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, "Was it because there were no graves in Egypt that you brought us to the desert to die? What have you done to us by bringing us out of Egypt? Didn't we say to you in Egypt, 'Leave us alone; let us serve the Egyptians'? It would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the desert!" (Shemot / Exodus 14:10-12)

In preparation for writing this week's TorahBytes message, I have been thinking about the people of Israel anticipating attack by the Egyptian army while they were camped by the Red Sea. What we tend to remember about this story is the great miracle of the parting of the sea, the people of Israel marching across on dry land (not mud - dry land!), and the Egyptians drowning when the waters returned. But to really appreciate this miracle, we need to first put ourselves in the shoes (or sandals) of the Israelites.

The parting of the Red Sea is the climactic event of a very long and difficult period in Israel's history - a history that was part of the very heart of the people camped by the sea that day. For many years they had been slaves, suffering under the cruel mastery of the Egyptians. They had been made to work hard under severe circumstances due to Pharaoh's fear of the possibility of Israel's participating in an uprising against him. Since subduing the people through suffering wasn't enough to alleviate his fears, for a time he decreed the murder of every Israelite baby boy.

When the day came for their deliverance under Moses' leadership, it was no smooth ride. At first their hard labor was increased. Then they lived through terrible plagues sent from God. While they were kept safe from the effects of the plagues, they, unlike ourselves, were not able to read the end of the story. What they saw was destruction, but no deliverance for another significant period of time.

Then the day finally came when they were able to leave. That might sound wonderful, and it was in many ways, but packing up and heading out into the unknown is never easy. I am sure there are people hearing or reading this who have experienced this first hand. The transition of leaving even a bad situation to go to a new one is a hardship. And remember the people of Israel were the victims of a cruel society. While they may have had some level of hope to encourage them on, I would expect that their psychological state would not have been all that good. Then, on top of everything else, they end up facing complete destruction at the hands of a cruel and powerful army with nowhere to go and next to no means to defend themselves.

Can we blame them for their sense of hopelessness? Even without the years of oppression, what would it take to face this situation with confidence? But then to realize that they faced this situation on top of everything else…I still can't comprehend it!

Having experienced deep discouragement, I know for myself what it's like to be in a hopeless situation. I could try to compare my life's struggles to that of the Israelites at the Red Sea and accept that it was way more hopeless than anything I have experienced, that is if you can have degrees of hopelessness.

This is all to say that they really were in a hopeless situation. Yes, they had God, but would we react any differently? I know that is not the end of the story, but in order to get the story's full impact, we need to start with catching the sense of their hopelessness.

So in the midst of one of the most dismal situations in recorded history, comes God's deliverance. First Moses speaks to the people with an amazing confidence (see Shemot / Exodus 14:13,14). Somehow he understood God's intent and his power, thus enabling him to encourage the people. But what he didn't understand was exactly what God was going to do. Instead of the kind of thing they witnessed in Egypt, where they found themselves stuck as oppressed victims, now they were to move forward into the seemingly immoveable obstacle. I don't blame Moses for not expecting this tactic (see Shemot / Exodus 14:15,16).

Through the centuries one of the most difficult things for God's people to learn has been that God is not predictable. He leads us into impossible circumstances and them comes through for us in ways we don't expect.

While God does the unexpected, he wants us to learn that he does indeed come through for us. It is good to learn to relate to the people of Israel in this story, not thinking that our outlook would have been any better than theirs. But the lesson of the story is that with God there is never any reason to lose hope - even in the most desperate of situations.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

TorahBytes: Knowing God (Bo)

Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his officials so that I may perform these miraculous signs of mine among them that you may tell your children and grandchildren how I dealt harshly with the Egyptians and how I performed my signs among them, and that you may know that I am the LORD." (Shemot / Exodus 10:1,2)
One of God's purposes in displaying his wonders in Egypt was so that the people of Israel would know that he is "the LORD." Reading this in English gives the impression that they were to learn that God was the master or boss. But in many English translations when we see the word, "LORD," in all capitals, the Hebrew it represents is actually God's name, the letters of which are yod, hei, vav, hei. We do not normally pronounce this name, because in Jewish tradition it was believed that God's name was too sacred to pronounce. So instead the Hebrew, Ha-shem, meaning "The Name" or Adonai, meaning "Lord" was substituted. Therefore when reading English translations, the word "Lord" with only the "L" capitalized represents the actual Hebrew word for "Lord," while "LORD," in all capitals is God's name.

This is all to say that when God told Moses that one of the purposes of his wonders was so that Israel would "know that I am the LORD," he was not saying that he was trying to teach them who their Lord really was (which would be a good lesson too), but rather that they were to learn that he really is who is name represents.

This name for God, is derived from the Hebrew word for "to be" and is most likely related to God's revelation of his name to Moses at the burning bush, when he called himself, "I Am Who I Am" (Shemot / Exodus 3:14). I find the usual French translation for "LORD" with all capitals, "L'√Čternel" much better as it means "the Eternal One." God's name expresses that he is the self-existing one: "who was, and is, and is to come" (Revelation 4:8). This is what God wanted his people to learn.

God desired to impress upon them that he was real. God is not a concept, nor is He an aspiration. He controls history. He is not a product of human endeavors. God gets involved in our affairs. He is not an impersonal designer, who put the Earth in orbit and just lets it run its course. He is a God of justice. How we live and how we respond to his directives matters to him. God is a God of power. He makes plans and sees them to fruition. He is personal. He calls people to engage him. Not only are our lives dependent on him, the quality of our lives is in direct proportion to the intimacy of our relationship with him.

This was the legacy God gave to the nation of Israel long ago: to tell future generations of the reality of the one true God. It is this legacy that we can all receive. It is this legacy that we all today are called to pass on to others.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

TorahBytes: Whatever It Takes (Va-era)

But I will harden Pharaoh's heart, and though I multiply my miraculous signs and wonders in Egypt, he will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and with mighty acts of judgment I will bring out my divisions, my people the Israelites. And the Egyptians will know that I am the LORD when I stretch out my hand against Egypt and bring the Israelites out of it. (Shemot / Exodus 7:3-5)

The deliverance of Israel from bondage in Egypt is a defining event, not just for the people of Israel, but for all people of all time. For through this great event we see the lengths at which God goes in his desire to free us from oppression. The story of the Bible is one of understanding the basis of the human predicament and how God has determined to resolve it. Our predicament is that mankind is basically broken. We are meant to live lives of an infinitely greater quality than has thus far been experienced. We are broken because of our alienation from our Creator, inherited from our first parents due to their disobedience.

It was God's determination from that very moment to restore the human family to right relationship with him. The history of ancient Israel illustrates the outworking of the restoration, the exodus from Egypt being a foundational part of that illustration.

One of the things we learn from this story is that God does whatever it takes to accomplish his purposes in and through his people. The time had come to deliver Israel from slavery. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, opposed God's plan. Moses was confronting a leader who was so stubborn that he was willing to bring destruction upon his nation and land rather than give in to God. And so God hit the Egyptians with plague after plague until his people were released from Pharaoh's grip.

Perhaps you may wonder if God was so able to rescue Israel from Pharaoh, why was it necessary to strike them in this way. I don't know. But he did. What we need to see is that God fights for his people. He does whatever it takes to ensure our freedom from oppression. Could he have done it any other way? Perhaps. But the main point is that he uses his power to rescue his people. We can take comfort in that.

As we think about this, there are some key principles to be aware of. First, God's timing is not our timing. Israel had suffered under the hand of Pharaoh a long time before God rescued them. I don't know why God doesn't come through for us in a more timely manner. But whatever the reason, he doesn't act according to our timetable. That means we need to learn to be patient as we wait for him to come through for us.

Second, his methods of deliverance are varied and most often unexpected. One of the things we see in the Bible is that while God's character is consistent, he does different things in different ways at different times. It doesn't help us if when we look to God for help in a predicament, we insist he does so in a particular way. As we look to him for help, we should expect the unexpected.

Third, God's deliverance of his people requires cooperation. Next week's portion includes the final plague where each Israelite was required to place the blood of a lamb on their doorway, so that the angel of death would pass over their house. It has become increasingly popular to presume God's favor regardless of how we respond to him. But failure to heed God's directions disqualifies us from receiving the benefit of his purposes in our lives.

Therefore when we are in a difficult situation, we should first ask ourselves the question, “Are we truly cooperating with God?” There may be something that he wants to bring to our attention. He may be trying to correct us or teach us a lesson. As we cooperate with him, knowing that he doesn't work according to our timetable and that he works in unexpected ways, we can rest assured that he will do whatever it takes to see us through.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

TorahBytes: Change (Shemot)

And now the cry of the Israelites has reached me, and I have seen the way the Egyptians are oppressing them. So now, go. I am sending you to Pharaoh to bring my people the Israelites out of Egypt. (Shemot / Exodus 3:9,10)

Believing in an all-powerful, all-knowing, loving God creates some difficult philosophical questions. Perhaps the most common of such questions has to do with how such a God could allow evil in the world. Perhaps, the answer to that question has something to do with God's giving human beings choice. How free is our ability to choose may be debatable, but clearly, as far as the Scriptures are concerned - we are not remote-controlled robots. Otherwise we could not be held responsible for our actions.

It seems to me, though, that some of us have been crippled by some of the philosophical musings over the relationship between God's sovereignty and our involvement in the outworking of history. In an attempt to adequately honor God's rule over the universe, some have been led to believe that all of life has been unalterablely predetermined by God. This way of thinking can tend to lead towards fatalism. Fatalism is the belief that the events of life have been so predetermined that there is nothing we can really do about it.

While the Bible clearly teaches that God rules over the universe and human history, it never sees life through a fatalistic lens. We never encounter a "what will be, will be" type attitude in the pages of Scripture. Far from it! Over and over again we read of God's expectation that people would interact with life's circumstances in such a way as to make a positive difference.

There is no sense of fatalism in the story of God's deliverance of the people of Israel from Egypt. At first Egypt was a place of security and prosperity for them. But when a king arose who feared that they may one day help in the overthrowing of his rule, he severely oppressed them. We don't know exactly how long this terrible period lasted since the text doesn't tell us the precise timing of the beginning of the oppression. It had to be more than 80 years, since that's how old Moses was when he confronted Pharaoh and the oppression began prior to his birth. It could have been well over 300 years if it began not too long after the first generation living in Egypt died. However long the oppression lasted, it was a terrible time. Many Israelites lived their entire lives in bondage.

Then one day, according to the passage I quoted at the start, God began the process of their deliverance. According to his own words, God was concerned about their suffering. In response to their cries, he decided to do something about it.

We can ask why did he not act earlier or even why did he allow this to happen at all. A fatalistic perspective would conclude that, for some unknown reason, the long time of suffering was necessary until the time came for their deliverance. But that's not the story as we have it. God heard their cries and acted accordingly. There is no impression given that there was some sort of cosmic manipulation of events. By telling us that God was moved by his people's suffering, we see a very personal and relational outworking of what happened.

God doesn't expect us to always accept circumstances the way they are just because they are the way they are. The Israelites were never told to accept their bondage. Faith in God according to the Scriptures is never a resignation toward the status quo. Rather we are called by God to look to him to establish his will on earth. This is a process that he calls us to be part of both through prayer and through action.

When Yeshua provided his followers with his great model prayer, he included the words, "your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven" (Matthew 6:10). If we are to pray that God's kingdom should come and his will be done, then it is most reasonable to assume that his kingdom is not present as it should be, nor is his will being adequately done on earth.

Whenever we encounter life on earth not being sufficiently up to God's standard, we can assume that God wants change. How that change will come about is one thing, but just because things are the way they are does not mean we are supposed to accept them in the name of God's sovereignty. In fact it is his sovereignty that should lead us to seek him for that change.

Monday, January 01, 2007

TorahBytes: Extreme Forgiveness (Va-yehi)

But Joseph said to them, "Don't be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children." And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them. (Bereshit / Genesis 50:19-21)

It is common at this time of year to think about our lives and how we might better ourselves. I am sure that we all, if we looked back at the last 12 months, would find accomplishments and failures, good surprises and great disappointments. Whatever else we may have experienced this past year, I am sure that other people have not always met our expectations. In fact probably many of us have been severely hurt by others. Those hurts, if never resolved, can fester in our hearts and destroy our lives.

The concept of forgiveness is a key theme in the Scriptures. Not being an expert in comparative religions, I cannot assert with certainty that the Bible's understanding of forgiveness is unique, but from my life experience, I have never encountered anything quite like it anywhere else.

So crucial is this issue of forgiveness, Yeshua taught that God's forgiving us is dependent on our forgiving others:

For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (Matthew 6:14,15).
Yeshua is clearly saying that if we want to be forgiven by God for our wrongs, then we must forgive others for the wrongs they have done to us.

Joseph, who lived over a thousand years before Yeshua, beautifully illustrates a lifestyle of forgiveness. Few of us have ever experienced the level of betrayal and malice that Joseph endured at the hands of his own brothers. Yet years later, when he found himself in a position of power in which he held the very lives of his brothers in his hands, he forgave them. Instead of paying them back for what they did to him, he provided for them and spoke kindly to them.

Joseph understood that it was not for him to avenge himself for the wrongs done to him. Justice was God's responsibility. He accepted his God-given place of responsibility of being their provider and loved his brothers as God wanted him to.

Joseph's example helps us to understand what forgiveness is all about. Through him we see that God calls us not to hold personal grudges against others or take God's place by punishing those who harm us. Forgiveness is like releasing people from their debts to us. Until we forgive it is as if they owe us something. Often what they owe us could not be paid back even if they wanted to. When we forgive, we allow ourselves to suffer the loss of being wronged with no further claim upon that person. When we forgive, we grant relational freedom to that other person.

As we forgive, according to Yeshua's teaching we put ourselves in a place where God will treat us the same way. We need to realize how destructive unforgiveness is. To think that God will hold us in the same kind of bondage that we can tend to hold others who wrong us, is a frightful thing. We are well advised to follow Joseph's example.

People wonder if forgiveness is something that should only be offered when others ask for it. But Yeshua also said,

And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins. (Mark 11:25)
If we don't want God to hold anything against us, we must not hold anything against anyone else. This sounds extreme. It sounds extreme because it is. It's extreme, because it is meant to be. Our tendency to wrong one another is so great, that it requires an extreme solution. Extreme forgiveness has not come without a price. It cost the Messiah his life, so that we can be free from the consequences of our own wrongs. If God, through Yeshua, so forgives us, the least we can do is so forgive others.