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.