Sunday, April 29, 2007

TorahBytes: Spiritual Cleansing (Emor)

Say to them: "For the generations to come, if any of your descendants is ceremonially unclean and yet comes near the sacred offerings that the Israelites consecrate to the LORD, that person must be cut off from my presence. I am the LORD." (Vayikra / Leviticus 22:3)

As God's creatures, we were made to know him intimately. The relational aspect of our being human, reflects the profound relational component of life, the greatest of which is our relationship with God. That this relationship is not what it should be, is life's greatest tragedy. It is the primary cause of our deepest longings and fuels all other forms of relational brokenness, whether that be with our fellow human beings, the animal kingdom, the earth's environment, or the rest of the universe.

The human drive to pursue various forms of intimate relationships is evidence of this brokenness. We know things are not what they should be. We want real, loving, meaningful relationships. We want to be at home in the universe. We know that the troubles we experience on a regular basis, including pain, disease, and disaster of all kinds, are to be resisted and overcome. To give in to the brokenness of life is to give up.

The Torah helps us to understand the cause of our brokenness in the hope that we will discover God's remedy. Until we can accept this fundamental problem and its cause, we will have great difficulty grasping the remedy.

The Torah illustrates for us the separation between ourselves and God, while at the same time underscoring the need for an intimate relationship with him. We see this, for example, in the priests of Israel. Their very existence makes it clear that the people were to draw near to God. Yet in so many ways we see through the priests the reality of the great gap between us and him. While the priests had the great privilege of entering God's inner sanctum on behalf of the rest of us, if they failed to meet the detailed requirements, they risked death.

Israel was reminded over and over again that while we could have relationship with God, we were not fit for such a relationship. We are unclean. We need cleansing. The good news is that if the priests would be properly prepared, they could approach God without fear of death.

Like the priests of old we cannot approach God unless we are ceremonially clean. If we are clean, we can approach God without fear of death. But unlike the priests of old, we no longer have the Torah-prescribed ceremonies. Instead we have what the Torah anticipated: the Messiah. Through him and the cleansing he provides, we are able to approach God in a far more intimate fashion than the ancient priests. It is through the Messiah that we can have the kind of relationship with God which our hearts so long for.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

TorahBytes: God's Standards for All (Aharei Mot & Kedoshim)

Do not defile yourselves in any of these ways, because this is how the nations that I am going to drive out before you became defiled. (Vayikra / Leviticus 18:24)

The Torah (the five books of Moses) is not simply a collection of dos and don'ts; it gives us God's perspective on life. The word "Torah," often translated as "law" could be understood more correctly as "direction." It shows us the way of life. Some of its teaching is explicit, such as certain clear moral directives, while much of its teaching is implicit, as we learn about God and life through good and bad behavioral examples or indirect statements. The verse just quoted is one of those indirect statements. This statement is part of the conclusion of a detailed list of immoral behaviors in which the people of Israel were forbidden to engage. The implications of this statement are essential in helping us understand how God views immorality among people in general.

Among some people who claim to believe the Bible, there is a tendency to avoid imposing biblical standards upon the society at large. In order to do this subject justice, we would need to discuss what "impose" really means in this context. In this brief discussion we don't have the time and space to get into every aspect. Before I delve into an aspect of this that I think is one of the most foundational, I do want to state that I don't believe that the biblical mandate is fulfilled in creating a religious political state. Faith cannot be legislated. But that doesn't preclude the need to address moral issues. All governments legislate morality; it is just a question of what kind of morality it will legislate.

Returning to the particular aspect of this issue that this week's passage addresses, note that God told the people of Israel that the peoples they were to displace in the Promised Land were being judged by God for the immoral behaviors listed. We don't know if and when God may have communicated morality to the peoples of the world. It is possible that no such communication was ever given. Yet this did not prevent God from calling these peoples to account for failing to meet God's standards.

This tells us that the God of the Universe responds to the behavior of people whoever they might be and whatever they might know. We who have received biblical revelation know what people in general do not know - and that is that God will judge them for failing to meet his standards. How then can we not communicate this truth to people? Whether or not the people among whom we live believe the Scriptures or have any concept of the true God at all, they and their children will benefit by following God's standards. Their failure to do so will lead them to a fate similar to those referred to in our passage.

It would take a fair amount of study to determine which of God's standards should apply to societies in general. But that some of his standards do apply is evident by this and other biblical passages. Of course the most important of these standards is the need for all people to trust in the Messiah. But personal faith is not the only aspect of life that God gives attention to, so neither should we.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

TorahBytes: Healthy Skepticism (Tazri'a & Mezora)

Go and find out what has happened. (2 Melachim / 2 Kings 7:14)

It has been said that if something is too good to be true, it probably isn't. Well, thankfully that is not always the case. From time to time things do happen that are truly wonderful. When we first hear about things like this, they may seem literally unbelievable, but sometimes we just have to believe the unbelievable.

This is what happened during a most difficult time in the days of Elie-sha (English: Elisha), the successor to Elie-yahu (English: Elijah). The capital city of the northern kingdom of Israel was under siege resulting in severe famine. Elie-sha predicted by the word of God that prosperity would return to the city within one day - something that in the natural seemed completely impossible.

There were four men afflicted with leprosy who used to hang out by the city gate. They decided that since death was inevitable, they may as well surrender to the enemy in the slight hope that their lives would be spared. But when they arrived at the enemy camp, they discovered it completely deserted and all the enemy’s belongings still there, including food, drink, animals, clothes, gold, and silver. At first the four men began to take things for themselves alone without telling anyone else, but we read,
Then they said to each other, "We're not doing right. This is a day of good news and we are keeping it to ourselves. If we wait until daylight, punishment will overtake us. et's go at once and report this to the royal palace." (2 Melachim / 2 Kings 7:9)

So they went back to the city and announced their great discovery. When the news got to the king, he didn't believe it right away. He thought it was a trap. So one of his officers suggested that he send some men to go to check out the situation, which they did. Their investigation confirmed what the four men had said. As a result the city instantly went from disaster to prosperity.
I don't blame the king for his skepticism. His reaction was reasonable. The city had been completely crippled to the point of starvation by the enemy army. What responsible leader would immediately accept the report of four outcasts? Even if he fully respected Elie-sha's prediction from the day before, there had been no indication that this is how Elie-sha's words would be fulfilled. It is right and good for leaders to be cautious when confronted by fantastic reports such as the one he heard.

That's not the end of the story, however. The king was willing to check out the report even though it was unbelievable. Once the facts were in, the king didn't continue in his skepticism. The city was then able to enter into the miraculous turn of events.

I get the impression that some people think that true faith never includes intelligent skepticism. By intelligent skepticism, I mean a good and healthy understanding of life that prevents us from being drawn into foolishness and falsehood. The king understood the strategies of armies. He knew that just because their enemies seemed to be nowhere in sight, they may have been hiding in order to stage an attack.

But there is another kind of skepticism, which we might call philosophical skepticism. This is when we keep committed to our skepticism even when the evidence shows otherwise. Though the king had prejudged the situation at first, once the investigation had been made, he was willing to change his opinion.

We should never be scared to question the unbelievable. When we hear of something that goes against everything we understand to be true and right, there is nothing wrong about being hesitant to accept it. But it takes humility and honesty to adjust our opinion once the evidence is in.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

TorahBytes: Avoiding Disaster (Shemini)

They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. (2 Samuel 6:3,4)

The ark of God referred to in this passage is also known as the Ark of the Covenant. It was a gold-covered chest that was to be kept in the most sacred area of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later, the Temple. Some time before the time period of this passage, it had been taken into battle and captured by the Philistines. The Philistines placed it in the temple of their god, Dagon. After several destructive occurrences, the Philistines discerned that the God of Israel was displeased with their keeping the ark, so they returned it. It remained at the house of Abinadab until after David became king and eventually sought to bring it to Jerusalem.

This happened at a time when things were going well for the nation of Israel. The return of the ark was one of several positive signs of those times. The return of the ark was accompanied with much joy and celebration. But at some point the oxen stumbled, and Uzzah, one of the sons of Abinadab, grabbed the ark. No one but the priests of Israel was ever to touch this most sacred object, and so as a result, God struck him dead. After this, David wasn't willing to take the ark any further. It would be three months before David would again attempt to bring it to Jerusalem.

We read in a parallel account of this story that when David made his second attempt to bring the ark, the method of transport was very different from that used in the disastrous first attempt: "Then David said, 'No one but the Levites may carry the ark of God, because the LORD chose them to carry the ark of the LORD and to minister before him forever.'" (1 Divrei Yamim / 1 Chronicles 15:2)

That only men from the tribe of Levi should carry the ark was established in the Torah (see Bemidbar / Numbers 4:15 and Devarim / Deuteronomy 10:8).

Why David neglected this instruction the first time is not stated, but there is something in this from which we may be able to glean an important lesson. When the Philistines returned the ark to Israel, they had come up with an elaborate method that they thought would be best. One aspect of that was transporting it on a new cart. In that case the transport of the ark went according to plan with no mishaps (see 1 Samuel 5 & 6).

While we certainly don't know for sure, it is conceivable that David, knowing that the Philistines had successfully delivered the ark the way they did, sought in some way to copy their methodology. Even if he wasn't aware of it, his method was unintentionally patterned after theirs to some extent.

The Philistines didn't have God's revelation of the Torah, while Israel did. God showed favor toward the Philistines in their humility and respect toward the ark. He did not hold them accountable for the directives he had given to Israel. On the other hand, Israel's neglect of God's clear directives proved to be disastrous for them.

I wonder how many times we determine what is good and right for ourselves by looking at the lives of others. We tend to assume that if good results occur when others do what they do, then we too will experience the same results. But God doesn't treat everyone the same. He holds each of us accountable according to what he has revealed to us.

It also seems that many think we can experience the successes of others by copying their methods, but life doesn't work that way. What God wants is for each one of us to know him personally and to allow him to instruct us in his ways, seeking him for wisdom in how to live our lives. This is not to say it is we ourselves who determine our own truth. God has established his Truth through the Scriptures. What we need to do is to be careful not to filter God's truth through the experiences of others. Instead we need to allow God through his Word to directly impact our lives. As we do that we will avoid many unnecessary disasters.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

TorahBytes: Modern Slavery (Pesach)

This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. (Ezekiel 37:12)

March 25 of this year was the 200th anniversary of the abolishing of the slave trade by Britain. It is good and right that many at this time are bringing to our attention the fact of modern slavery. This is similar to what we experience at Pesach (English: Passover), which begins this week (starting the evening of April 2). As we remember our own slavery in Egypt 3500 years ago, we are called to not only appreciate our freedom, but are also challenged to have compassion for those who still remain in bondage today.

Bondage takes several forms. This is not to detract from the need to confront the evils of modern slavery in the world today. Far from it. For perhaps if we take the reality of the general bondage of the human race more seriously, we will find that we will be able to more effectively deal with the issue of modern slavery. A closer look at the celebration of Pesach is instructive in this regard.

The Pesach celebration is not only a remembrance of our deliverance from Egypt. At the time when much of the symbolism of the traditional ceremonial meal (or "Seder" as it is called) was developed, the Jewish people were, yet again, in an oppressive situation; this time under the control of the Roman Empire. They understood that even though years before they had known deliverance at the hand of God and that since then God had rescued them over and over again from the oppression of various foreign powers, there was to be a much greater deliverance to come. Not only were they expecting God to remove the oppression of Rome, but that a greater change - a more profound rescue - a spiritual deliverance - was to come.

As we read at the start, the prophet Ezekiel, during the time of the Babylonian exile over five hundred years before the coming of Yeshua the Messiah, predicted that the return of the people of Israel to the Land of Israel was somehow connected to a greater spiritual experience. This experience was likened to being raised from the dead. God showed Ezekiel the true condition of his people. Not only were they cast out from their God-given home, but they were actually spiritually dead. But God, who delivered the nation from literal slavery years before would eventually deliver them from spiritual slavery. The Jewish people during the days of the Roman Empire rightly expected God to fulfill Ezekiel's words. They also rightly understood that their deliverance from spiritual slavery would only come about by the hand of the Messiah - something that many Jewish people of that day did experience just as many more Jews and non-Jews since then have also experienced.

It is death and everything that goes with it (sickness, injury, oppression, depression, relational dysfunction, etc.) that continues to hold people in its grip. Slavery is but a symptom of the bondage that affects us all. This bondage is not an illusion or a state of mind, though it affects our states of mind as it does every other area of our life. This is the human predicament. And it is this predicament from which God through Yeshua has determined to free us.

At Pesach we encounter the reality of the God who delivers his people - a reality we may all experience today. But in order to experience that reality, we must be willing to acknowledge our own modern day bondage. It is when we are able to admit that we truly are in bondage, that we are in a place where God can rescue us. And once we experience that rescue, we are in the place where God can, through us, rescue others from whatever their bondage might be.