Sunday, December 28, 2008

TorahBytes: Roots of Relational Difficulties (Va-Yiggash)

Now therefore, please let your servant remain instead of the boy as a servant to my lord, and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father. (Bereshit / Genesis 44:33,34; ESV)

The story of Joseph is one of the longer and more involved narratives in the Bible. It is a wonderful story of God's providential hand at work in the midst of human jealousy and hatred. Every time I read it, one of the things I wonder about is what was Joseph really up to in how he dealt with his brothers during their two excursions to Egypt to buy food?

I don't think that he was just giving them a hard time in order to get back at them for what they had done to him. If that was his motive, he could have done so much more to hurt them and would not have been so generous to them. Yet he did seem to be up to something or else he would have revealed himself to them on their first visit instead of putting them through all he did. It is reasonable to assume that he could have been struggling with his own feelings, but it looks as if he was waiting for something particular to happen before he revealed himself to them. That something may be the very thing that did happen.

Some background: Joseph and his eleven brothers were the offspring of Jacob and four women: Jacob's wives Rachel and Leah and their respective servants Bilah and Zilpah. Joseph and Benjamin were Rachel's two sons and had a special place in Jacob's heart. We don't need to get into why that was right now. Suffice it to say that Joseph and Benjamin were uniquely precious to Jacob - something of which the whole family was well aware.

Joseph's brothers hated him because of their father's preferential treatment of him. Joseph's dreams which predicted his special position over his family further infuriated them. They hated Joseph so much that they sold him into slavery and deceived their father, telling him Joseph was killed by a wild animal. Their father was devastated by this news, which shouldn't have been a surprise given his well-known feelings toward Joseph. But note that the brothers couldn't care less about their father's feelings. So much had their hatred blinded them.

We pick up the story many years later as Joseph is overseeing Egypt's supplying food for the surrounding region during a severe and extended famine. His brothers are on their second excursion to Egypt in the hope of buying food. Joseph pretends to treat them with great suspicion, which results in Benjamin being taken to be Joseph's servant. When their brother Judah offers himself in Benjamin's place, Joseph breaks down and reveals himself to his brothers. But what was it about Judah's offer that touched Joseph's heart? It could have been Judah's willingness to selflessly give himself for Benjamin's sake, but his words indicate something else. What Judah said just before Joseph broke down was, "For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the evil that would find my father." (Bereshit / Genesis 44:34; ESV). In other words, Judah couldn't bear what the news of Benjamin's plight would do to his father. Could it be that what Joseph was looking for from his brothers was a change of heart - not so much toward himself - but toward their father? Could it be that the wrongs done to Joseph were actually a result of the more serious wrong of their lack of honor toward and care of their father?

Whatever issues the brothers had with Joseph, if they had loved their father the way they should, they would have controlled their feelings toward Joseph. Don't get hung up on the fact that God used their evil actions toward Joseph for good. That God makes good come out of evil is no excuse for human misbehavior.

I don't know if the brothers ever consciously understood that the abuse of Joseph was rooted in their disregard for their father. In the same way I wonder how much of our relational difficulties actually have to do with issues relating to our own fathers, but we don't know it. God may want to use those difficulties to get us to deal with our relationships with our fathers. And in some cases getting our hearts right with our earthly fathers will also make a huge difference in our relationship with God.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

TorahBytes: Light in the Darkness (Mi-Kez)

And the angel who talked with me came again and woke me, like a man who is awakened out of his sleep. (Zechariah 4:1; ESV)

As I write this it is the longest night of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere at least). I took a walk early afternoon today and noticed how long the shadows were, with the sun being so low in the sky. I don't know if the ancients really worried every year that the sun would disappear. I suspect they were smarter than that. It is interesting that they would invent rituals regarding this phenomenon. There is something about the ever increasing duration of darkness night by night that is truly ominous.

There are some New Covenant believers that postulate that Christmas is nothing more than a slightly modified version of pagan winter solstice rituals, but I think this is a wonderful time to celebrate the coming into the world of God's marvellous light in the person of his Son, the Messiah.

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined. (Isaiah 9:1; ESV)

I know that some people have claimed to know what time of year Yeshua was born, but the New Covenant writings don't say. I can't think of a better time of year to celebrate the Light of God.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:4,5; ESV)

As Jewish Believers my family doesn't engage in the trappings of the Christmas season, but I still love to see the beautiful displays of Christmas lights as I drive down our streets on these cold, dark nights. While not knowing the convictions of these people, this is still a great illustration of God's light shining in the darkness of our lives.

Christmas is not the only festival at this time of year that features lights. One of the alternate names of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights (Hanukkah begins this year on the evening of December 21 and continues through the evening of December 28). Hanukkah, meaning "dedication," is the celebration of the rededication of the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem by the Maccabees in 165 BCE following its desecration by pagan oppressors. It is called the Festival of Lights because of the ritual of lighting a special ceremonial lamp called a Hanukkiah. On the first night of Hanukkah one light is lit. On each successive night an additional light is lit, each time by using the "shamash," or the servant light, until on the eighth night all eight lights are lit.

The purpose for the lighting of lights at Hanukkah is to tell forth the miracle of Hanukkah. The miracle that has been popularized through the centuries is the legend of the one day's worth of holy oil that lasted for eight days. But I think the real miracle of Hanukkah, the true light of this joyous celebration, is the faith and courage of the Maccabees to stand against overwhelming odds for the sake of God's truth and his ways.

This season of increasing darkness is a symbol of our moral and spiritual lostness. The economic meltdown in much of the world today is helping us to come to grips with how dark these days really are. We need God's light. Like the Maccabees of old, we again need those who will stand against compromise and falsehood to be a light in the darkness - people of courage, who are not afraid to stand with God's True Light, the Messiah, to shine in an ever increasingly dark world.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

TorahBytes: A Wonderful Plan (Va-Yeshev)

Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit / Genesis 37:5; ESV)

Perhaps you have heard the adage "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." In a world of meaninglessness, this is a most profound statement. That there is a personal God, who desires to direct our lives is in sharp contrast to the popular view that we are simply cosmic accidents, products of matter and energy, plus chance. To learn that the events of life are not due to complete randomization, but are actually part of a grand story is wonderful in itself. But to realize that God cares about each and every one of us, inviting us to cooperate with him in fulfilling his good plans for the world, is even more wonderful.

But what does wonderful imply? I would guess that when many of us hear "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," we think we are being promised fun and excitement. Perhaps God will make us famous or at least successful in the way most of us understand success: health, wealth, ease of living, and at least some level of popularity.

I don't know what the person who first said the words "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life," was trying to say exactly. This statement is not found in the Bible. Presummably it is an attempt to summarize the God of Israel's intentions for people. But how accurate a statement is it?

This week's Torah portion begins the story of Jacob's son Joseph. Joseph had two dreams that seemed to mean that his family would one day bow down to him. His brothers, who were already jealous of him, were incensed by this. Their hatred of him, which led to their selling him into slavery, is what led to the fulfillment of his dreams and his eventual exalted position over them. The process of bringing Joseph to his God-given place and position was a most difficult one. If you have never read the story of Joseph, I encourage you to do so.

Did God love Joseph and have a wonderful plan for his life? He certainly did. Not only did he love Joseph, but the wonderful plan that God had for him was not just an expression of God's love for him alone, but also for his family, the people of Egypt, and the whole region. God had chosen Joseph to help provide sustenance during an extreme famine, thus preserving many lives.

It is a truly wonderful thing to be so used by God. Even in the darkest of times, God was with Joseph, preparing him for the day when he would make such a difference in the world. I don't know if God has this kind of plan for each and every person, though he definitely loves us all. And once we come into right relationship with him through trusting in the Messiah, we have the opportunity to be part of his grand purpose, whatever that part may be.

In order for us to most truly embrace God's wonderful plan for our lives, we need to grasp the nature of what wonderful really means. If we assume that "wonderful" means fun and exciting or that it is a guaranty of personal benefit and convenience, then we are going to be put off by God's plan for us. His plan is indeed wonderful, but it is not necessarily easy and certainly not always fun and exciting. Meaningful, yes. Significant, surely, though that may not always be apparent. God's plans for us, as in the case of Joseph as well as many of the Bible's key characters, also includes great challenges and difficulties. I wonder how our resistance to such challenges and difficulties prevents us from fully participating in God's wonderful plans for our lives.

It seems that the real key to fully embracing both God's love and his wonderful plan for our lives is to allow him to have his way in our lives no matter what. Let's forget about our preconceived notions of what a life with God should include and let him fulfill his wonderful plan.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

TorahBytes: Bringing Evil to Light (Va-Yishlah)

So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Put away the foreign gods that are among you and purify yourselves and change your garments." (Bereshit / Genesis 35:2; ESV)

Jacob had gone through a lot. After colluding with his mother to deceive his father in order to steal his father's blessing from his older twin brother, he ran for his life. It would be many years before he would return to the land of his birth and have the encounter with God that changed his life for good. It was in that encounter that God first changed his name to Israel. Sometime later, when God summoned him to the town of Bethel, he conferred this name upon him again. Bethel was the town where God first appeared to Jacob when he was running away from his brother.

In preparation for this meeting with God, Jacob directed his family to rid themselves of foreign gods, purify themselves, and change their garments. Obviously this means that his household had been in possession of idols. This may shake up your impression of Jacob's family. We like to think of the key Bible characters as wonderful examples, but that's often not the case. Jacob himself was not a true follower of the God of his father, Isaac, and his grandfather, Abraham, until his injurious encounter with God not too long before this incident.

It appears that it was God's summoning of Jacob that prompted him to direct his family to radically deal with the evil in their lives. Why they still had such things we are not told. We are only told that Jacob instructed them to get rid of them and they did.

Have you ever heard God summon you to worship him? Maybe not in the same way that God spoke to Jacob. But perhaps you have felt a tug on your heart to draw close to God, to give him your attention in a much deeper and focused way. It is often in those times that we become more fully aware of the evil in our lives.

I wonder how many people have struggled with the awareness of evil in their lives just as they also found themselves drawing closer to God. We may treat that awareness as a distraction instead of realizing that it is the nearness of God that is bringing to light the evil in our lives. When God draws us closer to himself, his light often shines upon our lives in increasing intensity, revealing areas of darkness that we may not have been aware of. This is a good thing. We should not be quick to worship God until we effectively deal with the evil God is bringing to light.

Additionally, we should not be surprised in these times that God may also prompt us to deal with lingering evil in our households. Many of us tend to think of spirituality as a private matter, but Jacob's role in his household was not just a cultural thing; it was his God-given role. He was responsible to direct his family in God's ways. The idols in his household were not dealt with until Jacob dealt with them. He didn't wait for his wife, children, and servants to figure out godliness on their own. He knew what was right and directed them accordingly.

Fathers especially need to take this responsibility very seriously. In order to lead our families in God's ways, we need to direct our household accordingly. It is not good enough to simply lead our families in worship, we must also lead them in godliness. We should start by taking the lead and deal with the evil in our own lives; then we need to direct our loved ones in doing the same.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

TorahBytes: Choices (Va-Yeze)

Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. (Hosea 14:1; ESV [Hebrew 14:2])

Contemporary morality can be expressed by the words "make right choices." What constitutes a right choice for people today is something of personal preference. In fact it is this kind of relative thinking - the conviction that there are no absolutes - that is perhaps the basis of the new morality of right choice making.

Don't get me wrong. I am not against making right choices, but is it really the key to right living? If the world has no meaning as some suppose, then maybe moment-by-moment choices are all we have. But if the world has no meaning, then how meaningful can our choices be? If we really are the product of random occurrence in an accidental universe, then are not our choices just more of the same randomness? Choices may feel meaningful, but unless there is more to life than the material world, what difference do our choices make? Any meaning or morality we apply to our choices are simply arbitrary. If there is no meaning and no objective morality, then you may feel like your choices have meaning, but they don't.

I suspect that most people hearing or reading this actually believe that life has meaning. They believe in absolute truth and an objective, God-given morality. Yet many of you still put an unbiblical emphasis on your personal choices. The Bible doesn't teach that we are the sum of our choices. On the contrary, our choices are the outcome of who we are.

This week's Torah portion illustrates this. Jacob was a choice maker. He strove to be successful in every way he could. When God appeared to him, conferring upon him the same promise given to his father and grandfather, he didn't just accept it, but rather told God that if God would keep his part of the bargain, then he would make him his God. It would take bringing Jacob to a place of desperation before he would become the person he was meant to be.

Jacob's choices didn't define who he was; his nature did. His predisposition to protect himself and strive with others for his own benefit drove him to make the choices he did. It was only once God humbled him that his life changed, resulting in different kinds of choices.

This is well-expressed in our Torah portion's accompanying Haftarah reading. God, through the prophet Hosea, says, "Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity" (Hosea 14:1; ESV [Hebrew 14:2]). The failure of Israel to be faithful to God was not because of their bad choices. Rather their sinful state caused them to stumble or, in other words, to not live rightly.

My guess is that some people are going to respond to this message by quoting from the book of Joshua, where Joshua says to the people, "Choose this day whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15). But this actually backs up what I am trying to say. The choice that Joshua is calling for is a most basic one. Once the choice to serve God is settled, then the kind of lifestyle we will live is settled. Once we submit to God as Lord, then the details are the outcome of that choice. To claim that we are the sum of our choices gives the impression that every moral decision is up for grabs. We indeed may make some wrong choices, but whether to do right or wrong is no longer a choice for those who truly follow God.

If we find ourselves struggling to do right (and it is a struggle at times), we need to remember that it is God who gives us the power to live godly lives. The stumbling referred to by Hosea is only resolved through the forgiveness brought about by Yeshua the Messiah. It was his choice to give himself for us that makes all the difference.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

TorahBytes: Birthright (Toledot)

Jacob said, "Sell me your birthright now." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me now." So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Bereshit / Genesis 25:31-34;ESV)

The story of Isaac and Rebecca`s twin sons is one of providence over human decisions. God had determined contrary to custom, that Jacob, the younger of the two, would have precedence. He would be the one to whom the promises first given to his grandfather, Abraham, and then to his father, Isaac, would be passed. But as we see throughout the Scriptures, God works through the decisions and actions of people. The incident I quoted was key in the outworking of God`s determination.

By all rights Esau as the older of the two stood to receive a special inheritance. This was his birthright. It is not clear whether or not he or his brother fully understood the details of his birthright, but certainly they had some awareness of it - at least enough to swing a deal for it. We don't know if Esau's despising his birthright was due to his lack of understanding or personal preferences, but as we shall see, either one could lead to the same result.

What we read of Jacob reveals that he was a real go-getter. From birth he strove for place and position, grasping after those things that he wanted. It is interesting that he wanted the very things God had in store for him. Perhaps he would have received them anyway, even without his striving, since God had determined that he would. We don't know for sure. What we do know is that he placed a high value on those things, while his brother did not.

By all rights Esau had first claim on the greater inheritance, but at a point of weakness, he was more than willing to trade off his future to satisfy his immediate hunger. The comment following is "Thus Esau despised his birthright." In other words, he couldn't care less about it. All Esau cared about was himself and his hunger. Was he really at the point of starvation that he was better off trading his birthright for a bowl of stew? One would hope that if he really was dying Jacob would share some of his food with him or that there would be some available somewhere. And if he was really at the point of death? Was his life truly of greater value than his birthright? The fact is that Esau had no ability or desire to see beyond his immediate situation, which was his current felt need. Nothing else mattered. As long as he satisfied his hunger at that moment, he was okay as far as he was concerned.

Esau is a symbol of much of today`s world. All that matters to many of us is ourselves and our immediate satisfaction. Obviously this kind of selfishness has been around for a long time or else we would not have this story to discuss. But this life approach has risen to a level that perhaps has never been seen in history. The "gotta -have-it-now mentality is one of the main contributors to the current world economic crisis. We are willing to jeopardize our future for unprecedented accumulation of possessions.

We are obsessed about self because we have despised our birthright. In fact, most of us aren't even aware that we have one. We have been told that life is just a cosmic accident and that our lives have no real meaning. Why should we care about the future if there is no meaning? Like Esau, the only thing that really matters is satisfying our appetites right now.

Thankfully the story of Jacob and Esau reminds us that there is more to life than self and its desires. There exists a greater purpose beyond ourselves waiting to be grasped. Each human being is made in the image of God and has a birthright to be discovered and cherished. Let us take care not to sell our birthright for momentary satisfaction only to discover later how much we really gave up by doing so.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

TorahBytes: Temporary Residents (Hayyei Sarah)

I am a sojourner and foreigner among you; give me property among you for a burying place, that I may bury my dead out of my sight. (Bereshit / Genesis 23:4; ESV)

Last week I mentioned a contrast between Abraham and his nephew Lot. Abraham had accepted God's call to leave the familiar and the unknown to live as a sojourner (temporary resident) in the land of Canaan. Lot, on the other hand, was drawn to the security of city life and strove for place and position, which, in the end, counted for nothing.

God had promised Abraham to make him into a great nation and to give his descendants the land of Canaan though he was childless in his old age. Abraham lived the remainder of his life anticipating, but never fully realizing, this promise. He knew that the God of the Universe had determined to give him the very land in which he lived as a foreigner until the day he died.

Abraham is the Bible's prototype of a man of faith. Living by faith means relying on the unchanging truths of God no matter how things appear. In the words of the New Covenant Scriptures, "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1; ESV). This is how Abraham lived. He believed God's word and followed his lead, albeit not always perfectly, not always without fear. He didn't look to people and circumstances for security. He didn't seek to build his own kingdom. When he, at times, took matters into his own hands, and God would clarify the situation and direct him otherwise, Abraham accepted God's correction.

Abraham's determination to remain true to God prevented him from finding permanence in the Promised Land. God protected and provided for him, but never directed him to acquire the land. This means that he had to live with the tension of knowing that while the land was set apart for him, he remained a stranger in that land. If anyone should have felt entitled to acquire something it was Abraham. Yet he held back. He waited on God and was willing to live with that tension, something that Lot wasn't willing to do.

God calls us to live with that same tension. Receiving God's promises doesn't mean that we will necessarily see the fulfillment of those promises in our lifetime. Yet as we hide his promises in our hearts God will often use the events of our lives and the things that we do like seeds in preparation for a harvest in the future. Just like planting looks very different from harvest, so the circumstances of our lives while we anticipate God's promises may look very different from the days of their fulfillment.

God is preparing us for the Messiah's return when he will set everything to rights. The world in which we live today looks very different from what it will one day be. Yet we are called to live in anticipation and preparation for the day when Yeshua returns. This puts us at odds with the world as we know it, as Abraham was in his day.

Yeshua once said to a religious leader who claimed that he would follow him wherever he would go, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head" (Matthew 8:20; ESV). Like Abraham, Yeshua's earthly life lacked the kind of permanence many of us strive for. It is not that we are all called to a literal nomadic existence, but that we are to live as temporary residents in the world as we know it now (see 1 Peter 2:11). Until the Lord returns we can never be fully at home in the societies in which we live, for we are anticipating something much better.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

TorahBytes: At Home (Va-Yera)

The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. (Bereshit / Genesis 19:1; ESV)

In the Torah, Abraham's nephew Lot represents people who have close association with God, yet miss out on the fullness of truly knowing him. This might be a difficult concept for those who see people as either in or out with regard to having a right relationship to God. Lot, on one hand knows God and is a recipient of his great mercy on more than one occasion, yet he seems to be drawn away from God's reality.

The process of Lot's relationship to the wicked city of Sodom is interesting. Due to his and Abraham's prosperity, they needed to part company. Lot chose to live in the vicinity of Sodom. We read, "Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the LORD" (Bereshit / Genesis 13:12,13; ESV). At that point he settled near, but not in, Sodom. It was not too long, however, that he moved right into that city (see 14:12). By the time that God was about to destroy Sodom, Lot may have been a city elder, as indicated by his sitting in the city gate (see 19:1).

How Lot felt towards the Sodomites is found in the incident where the men of the city came to his house in order to abuse the angels who were visiting him. The people of Sodom didn't know they were angels of course, since they looked like men. All they knew was that they were newcomers to their town and potential victims for their desires. When Lot pleads with the Sodomites not to act wickedly, he addresses them as "brothers". That they didn't regard him in the same way is evident in their response to him:
But they said, "Stand back!" And they said, "This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them." Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down. (Bereshit / Genesis 19:9; ESV)

A life of faith in God is one that often puts us at odds with the prevailing culture. It forces us to trust in him instead of other people and the false security of earthly things. But it is only as we find our home among those who truly follow God that we can become all that God wants us to be.

Lot lived in Sodom and for some reason or other he felt at home in Sodom, but he was not a Sodomite. The Sodomites didn't regard him as such, and neither did God. Lot didn't belong in Sodom no matter how much at home he may have felt there.

When Lot, his wife, and daughters are rescued, there is an interaction between Lot and one of the angels. Lot's wife, of course, dies during the escape, since she looked back at the city contrary to the angel's instruction. One of the angels told Lot to escape to the hills, but Lot pleads to go to the town of Zoar instead (see 19:19-22). One might wonder with all that was going on, why he would bargain with the angel. Whatever his full reasons were, Lot was scared. He preferred the town over the countryside. Some time after Sodom was destroyed Lot leaves Zoar, goes to the hills after all, and lives in a cave where his life continues to deteriorate.

Lot's insistence to go to Zoar instead of heeding God's direction is in contrast to Abraham's faithfulness to God. God had called Abraham to journey into the unknown (See last week's TorahBytes message). God's word led Abraham to live a nomadic life in his old age, a life of continual reliance upon God. Lot, on the other hand, preferred city life, his heart drawing him to settle down and find place and identity in protective surroundings. How he could ever feel truly at home among such wickedness, we don't know. Yet his desire for place and acceptance enabled him to not only put up with great evil, but allowed him to gain some level of prominence, which in the end proved to be of little value.

Like Lot there are so many today who, even though they have some sort of real relationship with God, think that they could be at home amidst great evil. That these people are not exactly like those who they strive to be with is often evident, yet they find a sense of security and satisfaction in these relationships. In the end these relationship are found to be fake and the source of much grief, pain, and destruction.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

TorahBytes: Journey to the Unknown (Lekh Lekha)

Now the LORD said to Abram, "Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you." (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1; ESV)

The story of Abraham is foundational for our understanding of biblical spirituality. The first eleven chapters of the Torah vividly explain the human predicament. The reason why life is not all it should be is because our first parents disobeyed God. The reason why we could live on such a beautiful planet, yet be surrounded by violent conflict, sickness, and death is because Adam and Eve chose to do their own thing rather than submit to God's ways.

Bereshit / Genesis 3:15 records God's words to the serpent who tempted Eve to transgress the one restriction that God gave to her and her husband: "I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel" (Bereshit / Genesis 3:15). This is the first Messianic promise in the Bible: a descendent of Eve would one day destroy evil at a great cost to himself.

It is not until chapter 12 that the outworking of this promise begins to take shape. God calls an old childless man and tells him that he would make him into a great nation through whom blessing would come to the whole world. This promise is the essence of what the New Covenant Scriptures call the good news: "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel (the good news) beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed'" (Galatians 3:8; ESV). The purpose of God's call upon Abraham was not ultimately for his descendants alone, but for all nations.

Abraham's trust in God's promises stands in contrast to Adam and Eve's disobedience. While Abraham himself is not the promised deliverer, he was foundational in the outworking of God's plan of salvation. Not only is Abraham called the friend of God (see Isaiah 41:8), he is also the father of all who truly trust in the Messiah (see Galatians 3:7). He then is an example of what true faith really is. There is so much we can learn about what faith is all about by looking at Abraham's life.

To begin with, Abraham, or Abram as he was called at this point of his life, was called by God to leave his homeland and relatives to go to the land that God would show him. He was to leave all he was familiar with and journey into the unknown. It is not as if he didn't know the geographical destination to which he was headed. In the previous chapter we read how along with his father they left their homeland to go to the land of Canaan, the region which would eventually be known as the Land of Israel. So Abraham knew that he was going to Canaan. Yet God had said that he was to "go to the land that I will show you." It wasn't so much the geographical destination that was unknown as much as the details of the journey.

True faith is a journey into the unknown. That the journey would include certain known items in some way makes it a greater challenge. When we are in situations that are completely foreign to us, we tend to have no expectations and are highly aware of our need of help. But when we are in unfamiliar situations in which we have some grasp of what is going, we have a tendency to rely on what we think we know. This fools us into thinking that we can effectively rely on ourselves, instead of upon God. Also, that we are not always aware of the depths of the unknown into which we are called prevents us from relying on God the way we should. God never reveals all the details of life. He gives us just enough to lead us in his ways, but never enough to satisfy our desire to control our own lives. We need to learn, as Abraham did, to trust his word without having to know all the details - to journey into the unknown.

Monday, October 20, 2008

TorahBytes: Beyond Personal Spirituality (No'ah)

And God said to Noah, "I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. Make yourself an ark of gopher wood. Make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch." (Bereshit / Genesis 6:13,14; ESV)

There is something about the biblical understanding of life that I think many of us just don't get. In general, spirituality or religion tends to be thought of within areas such as philosophy, belief, personal enhancement, and self-realization. Benefits include motivation, self-esteem, hope, peace, happiness, and so on. Many religions include a moral component, which for many is all about the adoption of a particular lifestyle in order to successfully achieve the kind of personal spirituality I just described. While the Bible's understanding of life includes personal spirituality, it is much more than that. In fact it may be correct to say that the personal aspects of the Bible's view of life is much more of a minor thing than we realize.

When I was first introduced to biblical faith it was all about its benefits to me. I was told that if I would ask God to forgive my sins and believe in Yeshua's death and resurrection, then I would be happy for the rest of my life and live forever in heaven. This means that the result of my getting in touch with God and his cosmic purposes through the centuries, culminating in the Messiah's fulfillment of Jewish expectation was my personal emotional well-being and personal eternal security. While coming to know God that day has indeed made an extreme difference to me personally, is this really the essence of the biblical view of life? Is the whole plan and purpose of God really all about personal benefits and personal experience?

It can't be if the story of Noah is a reflection of God's truth. The story of Noah is a story of tragedy and hope. God was so grieved over the perversion of human behavior that he decided to destroy the whole world. Among all the people on earth only Noah was found to be right with God. While it was human evil that led to the destruction of all life on earth, it was through one man's right standing with God that life as we know it was preserved. God told Noah to build an ark, a large boat-like structure, to house his family and representatives of every kind of animal in order to repopulate and replenish the earth following the devastating flood.

It is difficult for us to perceive the magnitude of this project, including the years of hard physical labor and the organizational challenge of gathering and caring for all those animals. Noah and his family's involvement had its personal benefits, but that was secondary to the responsibility of the furthering of both the human race and the animal world. They worked extremely hard for very many years on what must have seemed to be the most ridiculous thing anyone had ever seen to date.

This was Noah's life. This was what it meant for him to truly know God. Would prayer have been a part of this? Probably. Did his personal relationship with God make a difference in his fulfilling his task? Absolutely. Did his understanding of God help him persevere amidst the ridicule and godless living of his neighbors? Certainly. But was his personal relationship with God what his life was all about? Of course not! The reality of God for Noah, for his family, for all the people living at that time, and for the animals affected every aspect of life.

But isn't Noah a spiritual lesson like all the other lessons of the Bible? Are not the Bible stories designed in such a way so that we could draw spiritual lessons for our personal lives? Perhaps to some extent, but if that is all we do, then we miss the fullness of these stories. What we have in the Bible are examples of real people facing real-life situations from the perspective of genuine encounters with the God of the Universe. Through the Bible we learn to relate to life in the way God designed. Whether it is heeding the warning of judgment that results from perverse living of the kind in Noah's day or the call to make a difference in the world as Noah did, we need to see that knowing God is not just about the personal benefits to you and me. It is about willingly accepting our God-given place within his overall plan and purpose for our day and in preparation for eternity.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

TorahBytes: Gender Matters (Bereshit)

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. (Bereshit / Genesis 1:7; ESV)

Some months ago I read the book, "Why Gender Matters - What Parents and Teachers Need to Know about the Emerging Science of Sex Differences" by Leonard Sax, MD, PhD. In this book Dr. Sax explores several physiological differences between males and females as the basis for teaching boys and girls differently. This is something that most parents and teachers tend to understand intuitively, even though for many years so-called experts have tried to convince us that these differences are learned.

In the name of equality we have been encouraged to think of boys and girls, men and women as simply generic humans as if our sexual differences are on the same level as differences in hair color or height. It is as if being male and female is like two identical gifts differentiated only by each one's wrapping paper. The outside is different, but the essence of the gift itself is identical in every way. To conclude that there is anything distinct about the gifts based on the wrapping would be considered absolutely silly and rightly so. But today, in spite of Dr. Sax's research, there are still many people who claim it is silly to think of males and females as having essential differences apart from our external ones. This view of human beings, according to Dr. Sax, has had detrimental effects upon the development of both boys and girls.

The Torah is clear that sex differences are intentional. When God created man (meaning the human race), "male and female he created them." The complementary nature of human beings is fundamental to our design.

Some of you reading or listening to this may be wondering why I am discussing something that seems so obvious to you. The reality is that, for whatever reason, it is not obvious to everyone. The fact that males and females are intrinsically and intentionally different simply on the basis of God making us male and female is denied outright by many.

Even among those who recognize these differences, there is great resistance to speak of any of their implications. Dr. Sax, for example, doesn't deal with the implications of our innate differences. He just provides practical guidelines to help parents and teachers deal with these differences in order to help both boys and girls succeed academically. It is illogical to me to not conclude that there most likely are certain tasks or roles more suited to each sex. The resistance to arriving at such a conclusion is at least partly due to the notion that equality of persons must be based on sameness. Restricting opportunity to someone on the basis of sex has become most distasteful and in some places illegal.

The insistence for sameness in human experience partly stems from a rejection of God's plan and purpose for our lives. Whether it is a resentment of women's exclusive ability to bear children or the special call upon men to lead in the home and the congregation, we want to be the sole determiners of every aspect of our lives. We don't want to accept that we enter life with certain unchangeable factors established by God, such as who our parents are, where we were born, or that we are born male or female. We would rather live in a land of imagination that thinks we can build our lives from scratch so to speak. But we can only pretend. We enter life with specific limitations assigned to us, including our sex. The notion that we should be able to do anything and everything we want instead of submitting to God's will for our lives is the essence of our rebellion against he who made us.

Being made in the image of God is more than just being generic people. It is being male and female. Accepting God's purposeful design in our sexual distinctives is an important first step in our becoming all that we are meant to be.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

TorahBytes: God's Involvement (Sukkot)

But on that day, the day that Gog shall come against the land of Israel, declares the Lord GOD, my wrath will be roused in my anger. (Ezekiel 38:18; ESV)

I have been thinking about God's judgment. I know it is not a very popular subject. I have the impression that many believers in God don't want to think about this. We don’t want to think about the possibility of God causing calamities that would in any way harm people. We would rather image God as a Really Nice Guy, a celestial teddy bear, who is always there to make us feel good especially when we mess up.

While the Nice Guy version of God has appeal, it is far from the biblical depiction of the God of Israel. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a complex character. The Bible teaches that in his love he has gone to great measures to restore us to himself. At the same time his patience only goes so far before he acts in judgment.

For example, in this week's Haftarah we read how God comes to the aid of his people by fighting against their enemies. There is speculation over the identity of the nations of Gog and Magog, but whoever they may be, it is God who saves the day. He does so through earthquake, sword, pestilence, torrential rains, hailstones, fire and sulfur, resulting in such destruction that it will take seven months to bury all the dead.

It is not the destructive nature of God's judgment that has been on my mind lately, but that this is one of the ways he is dramatically involved in our affairs. Judgment is not the only thing the Bible claims God does in history. God speaks to and through people. He performs signs and wonders; he heals the sick; raises the dead; he affects political outcomes. We could in fact say that the Bible is a record of God's involvement with human beings. According to the Bible, he is not a concept or a philosophy. He is not the product of man-made religion. Rather he has dramatically and effectively invaded the world in which we live.

Even though the Bible claims that God is involved in human affairs, that he is the primary cause behind certain cataclysmic events is not always obvious to the observers. It is not as if whenever God does something, he leaves his signature to ensure we know that "God was here". This is where the word of the prophet comes in. The prophet's job was to interpret the meaning of events. This is what Ezekiel is doing. He is telling the people of Israel that their coming victory over their enemies would be due to the specific involvement of God.

To some extent God is involved in all of life. There is nothing that happens that he is not aware of, that doesn't in some way serve his purposes. Exactly what his intentions may be may not be clear to us, but that he is involved is something we need to be aware of much more.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

TorahBytes: Do You Get It? (Ha'azinu)

For they are a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them. If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:28,29; ESV)

This week's Torah portion is a song that Moses sung to the people not too long before his death. It is a pretty negative song that speaks about how the people of Israel, in spite of all the good and wonderful things that God did for them, would turn away from him. It is a fitting portion to be recited on the Shabbat between the high holy days of Rosh Hashanah (New Year) and Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) as this is a time of self-reflection and of returning to God.

In order to get the impact of Moses' words, we need to hear them, not just as words to a people long ago but as words to us today. If we don't accept that we are no different from the people to whom the words were spoken, our hypocrisy will act like impenetrable armor on our hearts, and we will remain oblivious to what God wants to say to us now.

Jewish people have a tendency to think that we have learned our lesson. The negative stories of our past are thought of simply as history lessons, and we think that somehow our leaders got all the kinks out of our religion, so that everything is OK now. But that certainly misses the point. God through Moses is revealing to us our nature as human beings, which is a tendency to be unfaithful to God - a tendency that remains with us today.

Understanding this should help non-Jews to understand how Moses' words apply to them as well. In spite of a different history, what the Jewish people experienced as God's people is an example of what all people are really like. With all the good things that God has poured out upon the human race, we don't respond to him as we ought.

If I am reading Moses' song correctly, we might give it the title "You just don't get it." Isn't that the gist of the verses I quoted at the beginning?
For they are a nation void of counsel, and there is no understanding in them. If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:28,29; ESV)
God is saying through Moses, "You just don't get it." After all they have gone through until this point, including their dramatic deliverance from slavery in Egypt, the miraculous protection and provision for forty years in the wilderness, and the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they still don't get it.

What is it they don't get? It's the same thing that we still don't get today. It is that life was meant to be lived on the basis of a reality that we cannot perceive with our natural senses. We were not meant to figure out life on our own, based upon our own perceptions and analysis. We were not designed to live life based on what feels right at the moment or our own predictions of certain outcomes.

Remember the Garden of Eden? God said of a certain tree, "Don't eat". Yet the serpent said that God did not have our best interests in mind. The forbidden tree looked appealing and so our first parents took matters into their own hands. They deduced that they knew better and were willing to risk the consequences based on their own wisdom instead of upon what God had said. They didn't get it. They didn't get that God knew better.

This helps us to understand why it is through faith that we experience restoration to God. Many religious and moral activities are good, but they don't help us to "get it." In fact since we naturally don't get it, doing good things can further cloud the issue, because we might think that working harder at doing good is what will make the difference, when it is actually more of the same thing. It is we trying to make it on our own in our own way rather than relying on God and what he is saying to us. This will always result in the failure that Moses sings about. I am not saying that we shouldn't do good things. It is that our efforts are not that which will make us the people we were meant to be.

Once we accept that we don't get it, that we cannot know God on our own terms based on our own efforts, faith becomes our only option. It is when we are humble enough to no longer rely on ourselves and our own wisdom, but instead trust him and his Word that we can learn the lesson of Moses' song. It is by faith, which is trusting in God and in his offer of restoration through the Messiah, that we will "get it."

Sunday, September 28, 2008

TorahBytes: Fighting Fat (Va-Yelekh)

For when I have brought them into the land flowing with milk and honey, which I swore to give to their fathers, and they have eaten and are full and grown fat, they will turn to other gods and serve them, and despise me and break my covenant. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 31:20; ESV)

According to this verse, fat is trouble. Near the end of Moses' life God warned the people of Israel that their future prosperity would be the cause of their spiritual downfall. God had promised that if they would obey his commands, they would be prospered in every way. Yet while prosperity is a blessing from God, it undermines the spirituality that led to it.

Prosperity in this verse is pictured specifically in terms of food. After years of living in bleak wilderness conditions where they had to completely depend on God for food and water every day, they would live in their own land, build homes, and grow their own food. Under God's blessing, their agricultural efforts would be successful, resulting in a bountiful harvest. Lots of food means lots of eating. Lots of eating means getting fat.

The problem with fat in the way God speaks of it here is that it creates the illusion of sufficiency. Being fat is a condition whereby our bodies carry a great deal more substance than we require to survive. The lack of need of food translates consciously or unconsciously into a lack of need of God.

Notice that God is speaking primarily to the nation, not individuals. He is not saying that people who eat too much automatically turn to other gods. He is speaking about a nation that becomes full and grows fat. He is speaking about what would happen when his people as a nation are prosperous. When a culture has much more than it needs, its relationship to God is in danger.

There are many societies today that could be categorized as fat. Not only are the waistlines of these societies larger than the world average, their overall lifestyles could be called fat. These are those societies that are able to give themselves to an abundance of things and activities that are not essential to living. That these societies may perceive their luxuries as necessities, is a further indication of how fat they really are.

Only societies that are fat struggle to lose weight. Fighting fat is an impossible battle, not because we cannot learn to effectively diet, but because fat is more than about individual choices and more than just a diet issue. Fat is the result of a selfish society.

When God called Abraham, he promised to bless him and make him a blessing (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). The purpose of receiving God's blessing is to bless others. The purpose of prosperity is not personal success and comfort, but it is to be the means by which we alleviate the needs of others. To successfully fight fat we don't need a diet plan, we need a plan to die to self. We need a completely different way of looking at life: one that puts God and his ways first.

Prosperity is not the problem. We are. Our natural spiritual condition cannot handle God's blessings. Instead of administrating his blessings effectively, we get fat on them instead. The Torah understands this, thus preparing our hearts for the needed transformation that only the Messiah can provide. His life confronts our fat lifestyles. His death provides forgiveness. His resurrection frees us to live fat-free lives.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

TorahBytes: Good Question (Nizzavim)

Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger? (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:24; ESV)

One of the delightful things about young children is observing their intellectual development. It takes a considerable amount of time for human beings to correctly associate terms and phrases with their respective concepts. For example, years ago one of our sons asked my wife in the early morning, "When will it become pitch white?" thinking that pitch white was the opposite of the pitch black of nighttime.

An example from my own childhood was when I asked my older cousin a particular question. I cannot remember what my question was, but I do remember his answer. He said to me, "That is a good question." At first I was so excited that my cousin would compliment me on my question, that it was of such extraordinary quality. And then, I waited for the good answer. I didn't know that a good question was one to which there was no answer, which disappointed me.

Perhaps that was a defining moment in my life, because since then I have been asking "good questions". I continue to ask questions to which people either don't know the answer or they don't want to answer.

This week's Torah portion includes such a question. Not long before his death, Moses was telling the people that the children of a future generation may ask the following good question due to their observation of the desolation of the Promised Land: "Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?" (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:24; ESV). In this case Moses does provide an answer:
Then people will say, "It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. Therefore the anger of the LORD was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the LORD uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day" (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:25-28)
You may be wondering why I refer to this as a good question if a good question is one to which we don't have an answer. While Moses and the future generation to which he was referring knew the answer and was willing to give it, I wonder if our generation is as knowledgeable and willing. I wonder if someone would ask the same kind of question today, could we and would we give such an answer or would we respond with "good question" just like my cousin did.

The current situation in the Land of Israel is a complex one. Certainly it is better than it has been for much of the past two thousand years. Still, it is not all that God intended. Are we willing to answer the question, "Why is the Land of Israel in the state it is in?" How about the state of the world? Or the state of our congregations? Or our families? Or our individual lives? Are we willing to answer the question, "Why are we in the state we are in?" Or are we going to say, "Good question"?

One of the problems with telling a child "Good question", meaning "I don't know", "I don't want to say", or "I don't want to think about it" is that they learn to stop asking such questions. I fear that this is where many of us are at today. Not only are we not getting the most important questions answered, we are not even asking the questions.

Why not?

Sunday, September 14, 2008

TorahBytes: God's Reflectors (Ki Tavo)

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you. (Isaiah 60:1; ESV).

This section of the prophet Isaiah speaks of the time when God will establish the kind of relationship with the people of Israel that he intended. With the coming of the Messiah, we understand that this can be a reality right now to anyone who truly trusts in him. In Yeshua, God has returned to Zion, so that we, Jew and Gentile alike, can experience the blessing promised to Abraham so long ago.

The word picture painted by Isaiah is that of the dawning of a new day after a long, difficult night. The people of Israel had been chosen by God to be his instruments of blessing to the entire world. This indeed has happened, but not in the way anticipated. It was essential for the world to understand that human beings on our own cannot be what God wants us to be. The consequence of the rebellion of Adam and Eve against God is the predicament we are all born into. In order to come into the blessing promised to Abraham, we first need to accept the reality of that predicament. One of the functions of the Torah was to emphasize the fact that we are all sinners, incapable of pleasing God on our own. Israel's failure to live up to God's standard prepared us for the coming of the Messiah and his redemption. His sacrificial death and the overcoming of death through his resurrection is God's antidote to the predicament of sin.

Isaiah likened God's solution to the dawning of a new day. The light of a new day reflecting off the face of his people as God comes to rescue his people through the Messiah. The long night of despair, fear, and rejection is over as the new day of forgiveness, peace, and restoration dawns.

Note how Isaiah says that this wonderful experience is not just something that happens to us. The dawning of God's light is not something of which we are only spectators. This is not simply a prediction about the changing of circumstances, but rather it is a call to engage that change. As God's light dawns, we need to be reflectors of that light - or in Isaiah's words, "Arise, shine..."

Because God has made us right with him, we can be his reflectors. We reflect his light by directing our hearts and lives in such a way so that his goodness, his truth, and his reality will be seen by others.

As his reflectors, God uses us to reflect his light in order to shine his light in the world today. The day will come when God's light will encompass the whole earth, but for now, he calls us to stand out like beacons in an otherwise dark world. Not everyone will appreciate this however. For some we will be the means of their also becoming God's reflectors, but others will be blinded by that same light and will respond negatively to us. This is one of the reasons why some of us who at some level are aware of God's light refuse to be his reflectors. They may think it is possible to derive benefit from God's light while not disrupting the darkness around us. But they may be surprised one day to learn that they never actually really knew God's light at all, but rather have remained in the darkness. To truly know God's light we need also to reflect it.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

TorahBytes: Consistent Standards (Ki Teze)

When you are encamped against your enemies, then you shall keep yourself from every evil thing. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 23:9; ESV)

The Torah is filled with moral, spiritual, and ethical directives from God. God made it clear that his people were to live according to his standards. The consistency and seriousness of God's call to live righteous and just lives may make the verse just quoted seem strange. The people of Israel were told to keep themselves from evil when they were encamped against their enemies. Why would God say this? Had he not already make it abundantly clear that we should not do evil? Perhaps this is a case of repetition for emphasis. Something like "keep yourselves from evil in your home, in your fields, during the day, at night, at times of peace and times of war." However that is not the context of this directive. It appears to be one of many stand alone stipulations. It seems therefore that there is something special about this requirement to refrain from evil when encamped against enemies.

God, in his wisdom, so understands human nature. He knew that it was necessary to especially direct his people to keep themselves from evil in time of war. He knew that when we are in high pressure situations, we tend to adjust our standards to meet our perceived needs. It is typical of human behavior to be easy on ourselves when times are hard. When we cannot access our normal comforts, we look for comfort in other ways. But God makes it clear - the call to abstain from evil is not dependant upon our circumstances. Even in the most difficult of situations, we need to stick to God's moral, spiritual, and ethical standards.

If God's people were required to adhere to his standards in time of war, how much more when we face other kinds of challenges. Yet in these days of moral relativity, we tend to do whatever seems right at any given moment. It seems that few of us are committed to an unchanging morality that we stick to no matter what. Instead we make up morality and ethics as we go along, changing our standards depending on the situation and how we feel at the moment.

But this is not God's way. God calls people to his high standards in whatever situation we find ourselves. To live up to that standard requires us to know his Word and grow in wisdom in order to apply his Word to all of life. It requires us to be prepared for life's challenges through careful study of the Bible. It is tragic that to have the confidence that accompanies such understanding is perceived as arrogance today. Flexible morality and pragmatic ethics is what is valued most, not consistency.

Of course in order to refrain from evil, one needs to accept that evil exists. We need to recognize it for what it is and make sure that we have nothing to do with it. This requires discernment and judgment in order to know what to refrain from. This too comes from careful study of the Bible, but also the willingness to distinguish between types of human behavior, another thing that is unpopular today.

While this verse specifically refers to how to behave when facing battle situations, it also creates battles. For when we fail to recognize evil and refuse to stand against it, we will not conflict with others as readily. It was partly Israel's resistance to false spirituality that created conflict with other peoples. It is the same for us. Keeping from evil will create conflict. As we face that conflict, we may be tempted to adjust our standards in order to alleviate the conflict, the very thing we must not do.

As we find ourselves at odds with the culture, we need to remember to keep ourselves from evil. Failing to do so not only undermines God's Word to us, but leads to our being taken captive by a culture that is at odds with our God.

Monday, September 01, 2008

TorahBytes: Fragmented Existence (Shofetim)

Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the LORD your God that you shall make. And you shall not set up a pillar, which the LORD your God hates. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 16:20-22; ESV)

As I read the Scriptures I am continually struck by how they relate to all of life. That it touches every area of life is something that many Bible readers understand, but the way it does so is not always acknowledged. The Bible sees life as integrated. While not every aspect of life directly affects every other aspect of life, effective living is accomplished through a holistic rather than a compartmentalized approach. While we tend to compartmentalize our lives, the Bible sees the various aspects of life as one whole. It is not as if the spiritual aspects of life are separate from the non-spiritual ones. The Bible calls us to live life from a godly perspective, that is all of life lived in response to the one true God.

This is why the Torah can speak about the need to uphold justice and the rejection of idolatry in the same context. Remaining true to God is intimately connected to how we treat people. This may be difficult for us to understand, even when we regularly read the Bible and respect its teaching. It is difficult because we don't understand life this way. Instead of seeing life as an integrated whole, we tend to break up life into compartments that seem to have little to do with each other.

I know that most people are not philosophically minded and therefore don't think in these terms. Most people don't go around talking about their compartmentalized vs. integrated lives. But it is important for followers of the Scriptures to understand this if we are going to live life the way the Bible prescribes. While we might say we adhere to the Bible's teaching, we don't always notice how we are swept away by the assumptions of the world around us. There is more to living a biblical life style than being committed to a set of moral principles and professing to adhere to a list of religious statements. In the Scriptures God provides us with an entire outlook on life which is quite different from the way life is lived today.

For many of us, life in the 21st century includes a set of assumptions that actually undermine a biblical lifestyle. While it is always possible to remain faithful to biblical principles in any situation in any time period, we face a bigger challenge today than we might be willing to admit.

For example a great number of people live their lives over an enormous territory. Many people today travel in a single day further than most people throughout history travelled in their life time. One of the effects of this is that our homes, our places of our work, where we pursue leisure, and the services we partake of are completely separate from one another. Instead of only relating to one social group as people have done for most of history, we have many, most of which may never intersect with the others. Our business life is separate from our home life which is separate from our congregational life which is separate from our medical life and so on. This fragmentation is probably felt most in our home lives, since families have less and less shared experiences. We spend most of our energy at work or school and then wonder why we struggle to feel connected to the members of our households.

The Bible doesn't envision life this way. It is not just that the Scriptures were written when life was simpler. The values expressed in Scripture kept communities knit together. It was ingrained into the society that all of life was meant to relate to all of life. God's directives on land use, holy days, family relationships, sexual fidelity, care for the poor and needy, hygiene, authority structures, all helped build healthy community life.

Society's rejection of God's ways in favor of "doing our own thing" has resulted in a fragmented existence, where the bits and pieces of our lives have little or nothing to do with each other. As a result we spend so much energy just to get through a day. No longer do we have a rhythm of life that allows for strong community and healthy families, which are the basis of strong and healthy individuals, which are the basis for strong community and healthy families, and so on.

What is the solution? First, we need to recognize what is going on. Our fragmented existence is overwhelming us to the point of distraction. We cannot be what God meant us to be while being pulled in so many directions as we are today. We need to begin to reverse the trend. If life was meant to be lived as an integrated whole within families and communities, then we need to take steps to restore just that. Working closer to home or from home would bring us closer to one another. We should ask ourselves if it is really necessary for us and our children to pursue the amount of leisure and extra-curricular activities that we do. Restoring family time, especially at meals would draw families together. Equally important would be to discover ways in which families and neighborhoods could begin to have shared experiences again. Congregations need to become places of community, not just a place where we satisfy our spiritual needs and wants. In fact, it is in these biblical-based communities that we can help one another restore life to the way it was meant to be lived.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

TorahBytes: Secure in Threatening Times (Re'eh)

No weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed, and you shall confute every tongue that rises against you in judgment. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD and their vindication from me, declares the LORD. (Isaiah 54:17; ESV)

The last major section of the Book of Isaiah, chapters 40-66, focuses primarily on God's spiritual and physical restoration of Israel. It is here that we are given glimpses of a future return to the Land and of spiritual revitalization. We have hints of the coming Deliverer, also known as the Messiah, who is central to this revitalization. According to Isaiah God's work among his covenant people will also mean great blessing for the whole world. That which was promised to Abraham in the early chapters of Bereshit (English: Genesis) are thus fulfilled.

The blessings of God through the Messiah have both corporate and individual implications as we see in the verse I quoted at the beginning. Interestingly this is not speaking about the time when the world is completely set to rights, when evil and death are vanquished, but rather sometime before that when Israel as a nation rests secure in God. Weapons of potential destruction and opposition continue to exist, but the servants of the Lord are confident in the face of them.

This prediction is in keeping with the blessings promised by God through Moses to Israel on the condition of their keeping his directives. What we see in the Book of Isaiah, especially the earlier chapters, are the consequences as warned by Moses for failing to do that. The promise of restoration and the resultant sense of security comes about, not on the basis of adherence to God's commands, which the people failed to keep, but rather due to God's deliverance through the Messiah.

The predictive elements of the biblical prophets are similar to looking at a far-off mountain range. Looking from afar we have a semblance of the complexity of the mountains, including some of its various peaks. Perhaps we can vaguely make out some vegetation and other aspects. It is only as we get closer to the mountain range that we begin to discover its detail, including its valleys, canyons, rivers, inhabitants, and so on. The discovery of the detail doesn't contradict the original view, it only clarifies it. The result of this clarification may give impressions very different from the original long-range view, but the difference in impression has more to do with our assumptions than the actual reality of the scene.

For example, the descriptions of God's restoration of Israel as spoken by Isaiah and the other prophets appear to refer to a particular single time period, but as history has unfolded we see that the actual details are more complex than originally anticipated. Specifically, it was assumed that when the Messiah would come, all the predicted blessings would happen in their fullness at that time. But instead the fulfillment of God's promises to Israel has been working out over a very long period of time.

What has occurred is that the promised reality has significantly, though partially, come about through Yeshua the Messiah. His resurrection is the foretaste of all the good things prophesied. While we still await the day when Isaiah's words will be completely fulfilled and Israel as a nation will rest secure in the midst of great opposition, we can know this kind of confidence right now through faith in Yeshua. While part of God's plan may be eventually to bring about the fullness of this reality for the entire nation in a very brief time, he offers this reality to us now.

The world appears to be more and more of a threatening place. Not that long ago if I would have told you that the day would come when you would not be allowed to bring a regular size of tube of toothpaste with you onto an airplane, you would have thought I was crazy. But that day is now here. Also, we are regularly told about the increasing possibility of the next great global epidemic. But by and large most people are oblivious to these emerging threats. We cope by ignoring these dangers and by distracting ourselves with work and the pursuit of pleasure. The day will come when we will no longer be able to ignore them. Our coping mechanisms will fail us.

But this is not "the heritage of the Lord" that Isaiah speaks of. There is a confidence and security available right now to those who welcome the power and presence of the Messiah into their lives. If we truly trust Yeshua, living life according to God's ways as laid out in his Word, we have nothing to fear.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

TorahBytes: Real Living (Ekev)

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3; ESV)

I think this is one of the most important verses in the entire Bible. The principle expressed here is fundamental to the kind of life God calls us to live. God purposely allowed the Israelites to experience great hunger in the wilderness in order for them to learn this lesson. Having gone days without eating, God began to provide a miraculous food called "manna." For the next forty years manna would appear on the ground every day of the week, except on Shabbat (English: Sabbath). The people were only to take as much as they needed, but no more, lest it go bad. It was also miraculous that on the sixth day they were able to take twice as much to provide for Shabbat. Once the people entered the Promised Land, the provision of manna stopped.

Food is one of our most basic needs. Without it we die. Those who have little of it, know what it means to be obsessed with eating. What is interesting, though, is how much those of us who live in affluent societies think about eating. It would be instructive to realize how much of our life motivation is driven by our stomachs. My guess is that it is much more than we might be willing to admit.

In order for the people of Israel to be the people God wanted them to be, this issue had to be addressed. This lesson had to be learned.

What is the lesson? "Man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD."

In order for the Chosen People to live like the Chosen People they required a perspective shift. They (as do we) needed to learn that even though the human drive for food is so strong, that it was not to be the thing which drove their lives. Instead God's Word was to lead them.

The real shift that God was calling for was a shift from a self focus to a God focus. Instead of arranging our lives based on our personal needs and desires, whether they be legitimate or not, life should be based on God's directives.

What may be difficult to grasp is that this is the way we were all designed to live. Adam and Eve should have lived that way, but didn't. Now that we are on this side of Eden, it is much more difficult, but still, as human beings we were designed to live on earth as children of our Heavenly Father. We are not animals who were designed to live life based on their drives. We were intended to be children of the King of the Universe, children who trust their Father's care and are attentive to his words of guidance and direction.

But due to the chasm that exists between us and God, we think we are alone in this world. We think we need to care for our own needs. We live as if are abandoned children, as if we don't have a caring Father at all.

The Hebrew Bible tells us that this is how the ancient people of Israel actually lived. They never learned this basic lesson. It would take another kind of miracle to learn it - a miracle of a changed heart.

When we come to know Yeshua the Messiah, God begins to teach us this lesson from the inside out. Because of what Yeshua has done for us, our sin - the cause of our separation from God - is forgiven and through his Spirit he heals our sense of abandonment. Still, we don't learn this lesson automatically. We need to stop imitating those around us who live life based on their desires and, instead, learn to trust God. As we learn to live by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD, we will discover what living really is.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

TorahBytes: God's Highway (Va-ethannan)

A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 40:3-5)

Isaiah paints a vivid picture of a lone voice in the midst of hostile uncharted territory crying out: "Prepare the way of the Lord". God, having been absent from his people for a long time, is coming back to be among his people again. The ancient paths have become rough and overgrown. But get ready! Smooth out the terrain! Level the mountains! Raise the valleys! Build the passage way! God is coming! The glory of God will be seen by all. Who God is, his character and his power, will be displayed for everyone to see. But first, prepare! Do what it takes to remove the obstacles to his coming. It'll be hard work, but it's worth it! "Prepare the way of the Lord!"

Isaiah spoke these words well over 2600 years ago. Much has gone on since then. You may not be aware that these words have been essentially fulfilled. Another prophet arose about 600 years after Isaiah. His job was to prepare the way for God to return to his people. God was to be revealed in a way never before seen: the sick healed, the blind seeing, the dead rising, the afflicted and oppressed filled with joy and gladness, ungodly religious and political structures confronted - the Messiah had come, God returning to his people.

Since then the Messiah's work has continued. As in the days he walked the earth, even though it has not worked out as expected, the glory of God has been revealed throughout the world. Maybe you haven't seen it, but that's another story. There's something else I want to address.

We are two thousand years since the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah's words were fulfilled by Yeshua. Yet it seems to me that his presence has become obscured. The level paths have become unusable again. Did we not realize that the highway through the wilderness upon which God travels, needs to be maintained?

In fact those entrusted with maintaining God's highway have focused on other roads. Instead of investing in the infrastructure of God, we have been spending our energies on the values of the surrounding culture: self, success, money, pleasure, and so on. Dressing up the world's ways with spiritual talk and God's name doesn't make them anything but what they really are: distractions, emptiness, and sin.

If we stopped to take a look at the actual state of things, we would see that we are in the wilderness again. Unless we take the time to do the hard work of clearing the way again, we will miss out on the power and presence of God.

I am aware that there is much fuss being made about "what God is doing today." While it is not my place to determine the validity of various claims of marvelous happenings, I ask only that whatever may be happening be compared with the Bible rather than with people's opinions.

How do we prepare the highway for God? By practicing truth, holiness, godliness, righteousness, and honesty. All these must be rooted in faith in the Messiah, but a faith that is not expressed in these things is illegitimate. Prepare the way of the Lord!

Sunday, August 03, 2008

TorahBytes: Commandments (Devarim)

Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the LORD your God. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 1:26; ESV)

There are two types of commandments in the Bible. These two types could be broken down into sub-types, but at a certain level, there are only two. The first are what we might call general commands. These are directives by God that apply beyond a certain place, time, and circumstance. "Do not murder" is an example of that, but so are the regulations concerning the sacrificial system. While the former applies to all people for all time and the latter only to the people of Israel during the time of the tabernacle and temple, both were intended to be followed by more than just the original hearers of the command.

The second type we might call specific commands. These are commands that apply only to those to whom they were spoken. This is what Moses is referring to in the verse I read. The book of Devarim (English: Deuteronomy) includes a retelling of some of the key incidences in the story of the people of Israel up until that time. This includes how they failed to trust God to enter the Promised Land. Twelve scouts had searched out the land and brought back a report to the people. The twelve spies were in agreement that the land was good. But only two of the twelve believed that God would enable them to successfully possess it. The people were influenced by the ten and refused to enter the land. In fact they wanted to return to Egypt.

While they faced a great challenge, naturally speaking, the real issue for the people was that God had commanded them to go and possess the land. He didn't offer it to them as a good idea. He told them to do it. That they were scared, we can sympathize with. But their decision to not do so was an act of rebellion against God's command.

While there are differences between general commands and specific commands, they are still commands. When we read specific commands in the Bible, we are not obliged to do them. They only apply to those to whom they applied at the time in which the command was given. Therefore whether or not to obey the commands of Scripture is not a matter of whether or not they should be obeyed as much as which commands should be obeyed.

God directs our lives through his commands. The way of life he provides for us is not just a nice offer that we can take or leave. God commands. He doesn't ask us to do things; he tells us to.

This is as true in the New Covenant writings as it is in the Tenach (Old Testament). The Messiah said, "If you love me, you will keep my commandments" (John 14:15). To claim that his commandments are limited to loving God and loving our neighbor without understanding these as broad generalities intended to summarize and include everything else God dictates to his people is to totally miss his point. While Yeshua corrected all sorts of false notions about God and life that were popular in his day, he called his disciples, just as he calls us, to obey his commands.

The Bible gives directives, not suggestions; commandments, not requests.

We need to understand that neglecting to obey the commands of God which do apply to us is no different from what that meant for the people of Israel when they refused to go into the Promised Land. God doesn't take rebellion lightly. We may not always immediately see the consequences of rebellion, but it won't get by God.

If you think that God speaks to us in polite requests and that we have no obligation to obey him, read the Bible again.