Sunday, February 24, 2008

TorahBytes: Mirrors (Va-Yakhel)

They made the bronze basin and its bronze stand from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. (Shemot / Exodus 38:8; ESV)

The materials for the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) were derived from the voluntary offerings of the people (see Shemot / Exodus 35:4-9). People gave of their personal possessions; no one was forced to. As it turned out, the people were so generous that Moses had to tell them to stop giving, since they had more than enough (see Shemot / Exodus 36:6,7).

In the midst of the descriptions of the making of the various articles for the Mishkan, we come to the verse I quoted at the beginning: "They made the bronze basin and its bronze stand from the mirrors of the women who served at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting" (Shemot / Exodus 38:8). It is interesting that the source of the bronze used to make the basin is specifically mentioned, since for the most part the sources of the other articles are not.

Under the inspiration of God Moses gave us this detail. While the reason for it is not explained, the special mention of the source of the bronze does seem to demand our attention.

Personal mirrors have a unique function. They enable us to do something that otherwise is almost impossible: they allow us to see ourselves. I say "almost impossible," because we can also see our reflection in water, but the right kind of water surface is not always readily available. Mirrors are far more convenient.

Women in ancient Israel had mirrors most likely because they were concerned about their appearance. I will avoid saying that they were as concerned as women are today, since I don't really know. But the more I read the Scriptures, the more I discover how similar we are to the peoples of ancient times. Our technology has changed, but human nature has not. I know that men can be quite concerned about themselves, but without speaking for all women, it seems me that, in general, women are rather intensely interested in their appearance. Therefore we can assume that these mirrors would have been an important personal possession to these Israelite women.

God did not design human beings to readily look at themselves. This might be intentional. We were put on earth to serve God's purposes, not to cater to ourselves. We were designed to see others, to be aware of others. It is due to our sinful nature that we turn in on ourselves, putting ourselves first. So in order to focus on ourselves, we invented mirrors.

I am not asserting that mirrors are, in themselves, bad things. The point that I am trying to get to is that, at least at some level, they are a tool of self. My mirror is about me. Your mirror is about you. And that has been true from ancient times until now.

Getting back to the Torah, these women offered their mirrors for God's service. There was nothing negative about their having mirrors. But the object they offered was an object that was intended for self. Yet they gave it to the service of God, which in this case was for a basin for washing. Instead of holding on to something that would allow them to look at themselves, they gave them away, so that others could "see" God better. Instead of their seeing a reflection of themselves, their sacrifice enabled others to get a better glimpse of God.

It is when we give up our obsession with self, that the reflection of God can be more readily seen in our lives.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

TorahBytes: Are You Trouble? (Ki Tissa)

When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?" And he answered, "I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the LORD and followed the Baals." (1 Melachim / 1 Kings 18:17,18; ESV)

The prophet Elijah (Hebrew: Eliyahu) lived during a very difficult time in the history of Israel. He was appointed by God to confront King Ahab. King Ahab was the most evil king of Israel to date (see 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 16:30). The intensity of his evil was partly due to his marrying Jezebel; a princess of the city of Sidon. It appears that she encouraged Ahab in the establishment in Israel of the worship of the false god Baal.

God sent Elijah to prophesy to Ahab of the coming three-year drought (see 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 17:1ff). After Elijah gave Ahab this message, Elijah went into hiding. For those of us from countries with ample water supply, it is difficult to fully appreciate what this means. At that time in history, the land of Israel was very dependent upon rainfall, even more than it is today. Drought inevitably led to famine, which meant national disaster. Lack of rain, therefore, would be understood as a sign of God's displeasure.

After the three-year period, we come to the interchange that includes what I quoted at the start. Ahab's first words to Elijah were, "Is it you, you troubler of Israel?" - an accusation which Elijah contradicted. He would not allow Ahab to transfer the blame for Israel's troubles from the true villain to himself.

But isn't Ahab’s accusation typical? True trouble makers will shift the blame for the trouble they cause to the ones who expose their bad behavior. I don't think one has to be a psychologist to understand what is going on here. What it comes down to is that real trouble makers don't want their bad behavior confronted. They want to do what they want to do without having to face the consequences. They will protect themselves by any means, which almost always includes attacking anyone who gets in their way. In this case, Ahab used blame shifting. He did so, because it is often effective. Elijah brought the bad news of God's judgment on the nation. Ahab may not have been the only one who put the blame on Elijah, when the real cause of the disaster was Ahab and his evil ways.

People whom God uses to deal with evil today are often the last people who want to make trouble. In fact, they want to speak up out of a desire to avoid trouble, not make more trouble. They care deeply about people and are sensitive to the consequences of bad behavior. So they speak up. And what happens? They are the ones who are called trouble makers.

This is enough to shut some down. They may even believe these accusations. At one level life seemed more peaceful before they spoke up. They forget what it was that originally spurned them on. They forget the origin of the trouble. They take the blame, and the real trouble makers continue as before.

If you are someone God has called to speak out, then you mustn't be afraid to do what Elijah did. He contradicted Ahab to his face by saying, "I have not troubled Israel, but you have...". If God has called you to speak, then don't back down. Don't take the blame for trouble you have not caused. Keep close to the Lord, and let him guide you as to what you should and should not say and do. Don't let your critics confuse and intimidate you. When the true trouble makers call you, "trouble," it most likely means you are doing a good job.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

TorahBytes: Religion Can Get in the Way of God (Tezavveh)

There I will meet with the people of Israel, and it shall be sanctified by my glory. I will consecrate the tent of meeting and the altar. Aaron also and his sons I will consecrate to serve me as priests. I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God. And they shall know that I am the LORD their God, who brought them out of the land of Egypt that I might dwell among them. I am the LORD their God. (Shemot / Exodus 29:43-46; ESV)

This may sound a little strange, but one of the things that religious people seem to miss in their pursuit of religion is God. Yes, I know that they may refer to God regularly or perhaps incessantly, but the reality of God himself may be absent.

People that are committed to religion tend to fill their lives with religious activities. They regularly attend religious services and engage in religious activities, which may or may not include singing spiritually oriented songs, reading religious texts, praying prayers, and giving their money to support their preferred religious organization.

None of this type of activity necessarily engages God himself. Years ago a Chasidic rabbi told me that he didn't experience God personally. His way of relating to God was through the keeping of the mitzvot (Hebrew: the commandments). In his understanding, God through Moses had communicated what was expected of the Jewish people, and that was that.

I wonder how many religious people are just like that rabbi. They give themselves to whatever they think are their religious obligations and that's that. God is referenced but not actually known in any personal way.

It is popular among some Bible believers to deny that they are religious. They say things such as, "My faith is not a religion; it's a relationship." Let's not be fooled by our pithy slogans. Spouting a creed doesn't make it real. Denying to have the kind of spirituality that the rabbi clearly expressed, doesn't automatically mean that we are any different from him. Just because his type of religion is very structured and ours is less so, doesn't mean that ours is immune from the way religious activities can become the end-all of our so-called spiritual existence.

Through the Torah, God gave to ancient Israel clear directives regarding their religious life. It would have been easy to focus on those directives and lose sight of the God who gave them. But as we read these directives we see over and over again that it is all about God. We read at the start, "I will dwell among the people of Israel and will be their God" (Shemot / Exodus 29:45; ESV). Central to the life of ancient Israel was the understanding that the God who personally rescued them from oppression in Egypt lived in their midst. The keeping of God's directives was to be a response to God's presence among them, not simply the performance of rituals to support the religion.

This is similar to what a congregation of New Covenant believers would be told many years later:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12,13)

The reference to "God who works in you" may be best understood as "God who works in your midst." The community was encouraged to live their lives with a sense of reverential awe, because God was in their midst. God's presence should have made a difference in everything they did both as individuals and as a community.

Please don't think that I am saying that the religious activities I listed earlier such as singing, praying, etc., are in any way undesirable for people who love God and want to serve him. But let us remember that these activities will only fulfill their God-intended purpose as we do them in response to him and his presence in our lives.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

TorahBytes: Is the Torah for Today? - Part 2 (Terumah)

And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst. (Shemot / Exodus 25:8; ESV)

Last week I explained that while the Torah is generally thought of as the covenant God gave the people of Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai, it is more accurately a way to refer to God's directives in general. For ancient Israel, from the time of the wilderness wanderings until the coming of Yeshua the Messiah, keeping Torah was synonymous with keeping the Sinai Covenant. But as for the rest of the world (except for those non-Jews living among Israel during the period of the Sinai Covenant), Torah has always been a more basic set of regulations. These regulations were understood by godly people of various nations prior to the giving of the Sinai Covenant. Since they apply to all people in all places, they are also included as part of the Sinai Covenant.

Any attempt to establish Torah on the basis of the Sinai Covenant today is a lost cause. Foundational to this covenant was the sacrificial system centered in the mishkan (English: tabernacle) and later the temple. With the loss of the sacrificial system in the year 70 C.E. the very basis of the Sinai Covenant was lost. The coming of the Messiah forty years prior anticipated the end of the Sinai Covenant era and the beginning of the Messianic New Covenant era as predicted by Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-34). It is this covenant that established the very things anticipated, yet never realized, by the Sinai Covenant: an internalization of Torah, an intimate relationship between God and his people, and the forgiveness of sins.

I closed last week's message by saying that the question we need to ask is not do we need to keep Torah, but rather what is the Torah we need to keep?

The New Covenant writings (New Testament) are instructive in this regard. It is within its pages that we learn how we are to live godly lives in light of the Messiah's coming. This in no way diminishes the importance of the Hebrew Bible. Far from it! The Hebrew Bible, including the Books of Moses, are God's foundational writings and the basis for the New Covenant. The Hebrew Bible provides us with an understanding of who God is and his purposes for the world. It informs us as to who we are as human beings, created in God's image, yet in desperate need of his restorative power. The Hebrew Bible teaches us that God is holy and that people, as his special creation, are to live accordingly, yet we are unable to do so. That is why he sent the Messiah to save us. Under the New Covenant we no longer relate to God on the basis of our need of restoration, but in response to it.

As a result, the New Covenant writings help us to discern God's Torah for today, which it does in two ways. First, it does so explicitly in that its pages are filled with very clear directives for godly living. Second, it also does so implicitly as it demonstrates how the Messiah is the fullness of what the Sinai Covenant anticipates. Christians who are enthusiastic about trying to adapt the customs of the Sinai Covenant to this era need to be careful not to undermine the reality of what Yeshua has accomplished.

The New Covenant perspective on Torah is well expressed through Jeremiah's prophecy, when he says "I will put my Torah within them, and I will write it on their hearts" (Jeremiah 31:33). Under the New Covenant the Torah of God (not the Sinai Covenant) has been internalized. The Sinai Covenant was an external imposition of a system to demonstrate to the world our desperate need of God. The New Covenant is the actualization of the restoration of God and the internalization of God's ways among those who participate in that restoration. We should not be surprised therefore that while there is significant continuity between the two covenants, there are also significant differences. Recognizing both the continuity and the differences is the key to discerning God's Torah for today.