Sunday, December 20, 2009

TorahBytes: Self Punishment (Va-Yiggash)

And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:5; ESV)

Some of us, when we realize that we have done something wrong, get very upset with ourselves. The details of the event play over and over again in our minds. We try to think how we could have done it better. We earnestly apologize again and again, but never feel forgiven. Others may feel just as bad, but deal with it differently. Instead, they internalize their sense of guilt and shame and never talk about it, allowing it to fester inside of them.

Joseph was concerned that his brothers would be too hard on themselves for how they had treated him. They certainly had done him wrong. Enraged with jealousy, they wanted to murder him, but in the end sold him into slavery. We can hardly imagine what the subsequent years for Joseph were like. Even with how things turned out in the end for Joseph - after years of slavery and imprisonment, he was promoted to second in command in Egypt - few people would have what it takes to console the very ones who were the cause of their years of suffering. Yet he does console them. Joseph's understanding of what God was doing through his terrible circumstances gave him perspective and the ability to not obsess over his brothers' wrongdoing.

Joseph was not saying that they didn't do wrong. He wasn't saying that they didn't need to face their guilt and deal with it before God. What he was trying to do was share with them a godly perspective to keep them from mishandling their guilt.

When we do wrong, we are guilty. We need to deal with that. How we deal with it is another thing. Punishing ourselves, which is what Joseph was encouraging his brothers not to do, doesn't do anybody any good. It doesn't change what happened or appease the one we have wronged. All we can do for the wronged party is express regret through a sincere apology and make restitution if the situation warrants it.

Self punishment shifts the focus of our wrongs to ourselves, which is most likely how we created the problem in the first place. Wallowing in failure may give the impression that we are taking the situation seriously, but actually prevents us from effectively dealing with our guilt.

Joseph's perspective on his situation is the key to being free from self punishment. Without saying that his brothers were free from any responsibility for their wrongs, he understood that ultimately God was in control of their lives.

Some may think that to accept what Joseph was saying regarding how God used his brothers' wrongdoing for good purposes would lead to their not taking their wrongs seriously enough. Perhaps they would start to think that there is no such thing as evil, since God uses everything - including jealously and murder - for his purposes. This certainly wasn't Joseph's understanding. Later on he would say to them, "You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good" (Bereshit / Genesis 50:20). The key to freedom from self punishment and from the guilt that spurs it on is to understand the relationship between our actions and the God who rules the universe. Do we really think that we control the destiny of others? Beating ourselves up for our wrongs furthers the lie that somehow we rule over life, when God, the Master of the Universe, is always in control. Once we accept that, then we can face our wrongs properly.

Self punishment completely missed the point. Wrongdoing is fundamentally an affront to our Creator. Apart from apologies and restitution, we can only be free from guilt through the forgiveness of God. So many of our misdeeds can never be resolved through anything we say or do. But God has made provision for our guilt. Through the sacrifice of the Messiah and acknowledging the seriousness of our wrongs, we can be free from guilt. The Messiah was severely punished on our behalf. So, stop beating yourself up!

Sunday, December 06, 2009

TorahBytes: Knowing When To Take a Stand (Mi-Kez & Hanukkah 8)

Then Pharaoh said to Joseph, "Since God has shown you all this, there is none so discerning and wise as you are. You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command. Only as regards the throne will I be greater than you." (Bereshit / Genesis 41: 39,40; ESV)

The story of Joseph continues during the celebration of Hanukkah. Last week we looked at how it is necessary at times to take a stand against certain kinds of evil. Joseph's unwillingness to give in to his master's wife's overtures kept him from wrongdoing, but resulted in his being sent to prison. Compromising in that situation was not an option for him.

It would be years before God's plan for Joseph would become evident. Having accurately interpreted dreams for two servants of Pharaoh, king of Egypt, Joseph was called upon to interpret a couple of dreams for Pharaoh himself. Joseph's insightful interpretation of the coming seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine along with his wise suggestion of how to prepare for the impending disaster, led to his being appointed as Pharaoh's chief administrator.

Joseph lived the rest of his life in Egyptian government service. His father, brothers, and their families, which were the beginnings of the nation of Israel, all moved to a district of Egypt, where their descendants would remain for over 400 years until the Exodus.

Much of the history of Israel has to do with living among other nations and cultures. God's promises to Abraham included the giving of the Land to his descendants. Israel's relationship to God was intimately connected to whether or not we would be free from foreign rule. As long as we were faithful to God, we lived in peace in our land. But if not, then we would be under the rule and oppression of foreign powers.

Israel's experience in Egypt prior to the Exodus was different from the other times. This was a time of preparation before God gave us the Land. Yet Joseph's experience in Egypt is instructive in how God's people are to live among other cultures.

Being faithful to God and his ways may, from time to time, create tension between us and the prevailing culture in which we live. Pressure may be put on us to conform to the ungodly ways of the people around us. When Joseph's master's wife tempted him to sin, he knew that was something he must not do and took drastic measures in order to stay faithful to God. Last week we saw how this is a good illustration for Hanukkah. There are certain lines we must not cross what ever the cost.

But notice that it wasn't as if Joseph saw himself as constantly being at odds with the prevailing culture. God had called him to be a blessing among foreigners. He knew that he could effectively serve God within the culture. At the same time he had already shown that he could do this while staying faithful to God.

God's people are not called to live at odds with the culture in which we live just because the majority of people within that culture may not believe in Yeshua. Like Joseph, we need to serve God wherever he may lead us. Like Joseph, we should live lives of godliness however others around us might live. As we do this, we, like Joseph, may need to take a stand against the temptation to compromise. Like Joseph, taking such a stand may result in difficult circumstances for us. But, like Joseph, standing for godliness may open doors of service within ungodly cultures in ways beyond our wildest dreams.

TorahBytes: Enough Is Enough! (Va-Yeshev & Hanukkah 1)

How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? (Bereshit / Genesis 39:9)

One of the central themes of Hanukkah (this year from December 12- 19, 2009) is the resisting of society's pressure to turn from God's ways. Hanukkah retells the story of the Jewish revolt against Greco-Syrian control that occurred around 165 years before the coming of Yeshua. The emperor sought to consolidate his rule by forcing his subjects, including his Jewish ones, to adopt Greek customs. Many in Israel submitted themselves to these pagan practices, until a priest by the name of Matitiyahu refused. A small Jewish army led by Matitiyahu's son Judah eventually defeated the large and heavily armed Greco-Syrian force.

People who have sought to please God have often faced pressure to conform to the dominant culture. Hanukkah is an example of when those who desire to stay true to God and his ways need to say "Enough is enough!" and take a stand against the culture. We are in those times again.

It is interesting that the beginning of Hanukkah this year coincides with the Torah portion containing the story of Joseph. Joseph also stood against the pressure of ungodly influence. In his case it was not a cultural thing, but rather a personal situation, where he was tempted to commit adultery with his master's wife. He knew she created a no-win situation for him. To do what she wanted may have provided temporary relief from his circumstances, but would have most likely cost him his life. But to resist her advances, besides being a difficult thing to do, would eventually cause him great trouble, which is in fact what happened. As it turned out she falsely accused him of the very thing she was tempting him to do. What made the difference for Joseph was that to give in to her would have displeased God - something that he was in no way willing to do.

Joseph's predicament illustrates for us what it means to stand against the pressure of a culture that constantly nags us into submission. But I believe we need to be like Joseph and say "Could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"

I fear that for many it is too late. Just like in the days of Hanukkah, many who claim to be part of the people of God have already given in to the prevailing culture. Having cast off the peculiarities of being people of faith, we have chosen to go after the customs of our day.

Here are a few examples of how we have been taken over by today's ungodly culture:

A growing number of so-called believers are ashamed of the exclusive nature of biblical faith. According to the Bible there is only one God and there is only one way to that God, the Messiah Yeshua. Yet there are those who have invented notions, claiming that there may be exceptions to this rule.

Less and less people regard the Bible's view of family, and children in particular, as God's model for living. Instead we go along with how the culture regards family, thinking that after two thousand years human beings have improved upon the teaching of the Scriptures.

North American affluence has become our preferred standard of living. How very different from the One who had no place to lay his head, who calls us to give up everything to follow him.

What does our obsession with entertainment say about our understanding of the stewardship of our time and money? We prefer to drown ourselves in diversions instead of spending our time in truly productive endeavors. Then, at the same time, we refuse to partake of rest and refreshment God's way.

We have exchanged God's version of love and sexuality for that of the world's. We disregard the sacredness of the marriage covenant, while pursuing relationships with selfish motives.

Perhaps one of the main driving forces behind these and other examples is today's value of being accepted by others. What kept Joseph was his primary commitment to God and his ways. When the temptation came to conduct himself inappropriately, his loyalty to God was the strong foundation from which he could not be moved. What a contrast to our own day where we tend to so easily go along with whatever is perceived as popular, so that we would not be viewed as weird.

Until we can stand up and like Matitiyahu say, "Enough is enough!" we will continue to be swept away by the pull of culture's powerful tide.

Monday, November 30, 2009

TorahBytes: Don't Let Go (Va-Yishlah)

And Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with him until the breaking of the day. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, "Let me go, for the day has broken." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And he said to him, "What is your name?" And he said, "Jacob." Then he said, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed." (Bereshit / Genesis 32:24-28; ESV)

Last week we discussed how we may confuse acknowledging the existence of God with believing in God. Simply acknowledging his existence doesn't mean that we actually trust him.

The primary reason why Jacob went to the land of his ancestors was to escape the vengeful wrath of his twin brother, Esau. It would be about 20 years before he would have to face him again. As he and his large household were approaching his brother's territory on their way back to the land of Canaan, he heard that Esau, accompanied by 400 men, was on his way to meet him. We read, "Then Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed" (Bereshit / Genesis 32:7; ESV).

First, Jacob splits up his camp into two in the hope that if Esau attacks one group, the other may escape. The next thing he does is pray, which may have been his first time ever. An interesting prayer it was in that he refers to God as the God of his grandfather and the God of his father, but not his God. Then he organized three large droves of animals as gifts in the hope that this would appease his brother by the time he reached him. Then behind the droves he placed his family. Behind his family with a river in between, was he - as far away from Esau as possible - where he spent the night with his fear, alone. Yet he would not be alone.

It was in that place that God wrestled with him. When God could not prevail against him, he dislocated his hip, which would cause him to limp for the rest of his life. Then God told Jacob to let him go, but Jacob, true to his nature I guess, would not do so until this mysterious wrestler would bless him. And bless him he did with these words: "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed" (Bereshit / Genesis 32:28; ESV).

Jacob was changed. The next day as he saw Esau coming, he went right up to him ahead of his family, the fear and self preservation gone. No more schemes. No more striving. Everything turned out fine and the two brothers parted company. When he arrived in the land of Canaan, he built an altar as a testimony of his new personal trust in God.

Up until the time of Jacob's wrestling with God, Jacob depended on himself. While glad to be the recipient of God's blessings and promises, he determined to run his own life his own way. Perhaps God had tried to get Jacob's attention other times, but Jacob continued in his self reliance. Of course God was the one who was actually directing and caring for Jacob all that time, yet Jacob's heart remained far from God.

But when God came to him this time Jacob would not let him go. It might sound strange to hear of God asking to be released. God could have easily destroyed Jacob, let alone win the wrestling match. With a simple touch he dislocated Jacob's hip. Yet in spite of how painful that must have been, Jacob held on to God until he blessed him. At that point Jacob may not have fully understood what was going on, but God changed his heart.

I wonder how many times God comes to us in our times of need, seeking to engage us, but we ignore him. Or he comes to wrestle with us (however that may be), but we don't hold on to him. We give up too easily. He might hurt us. He might change us.

Until we allow God to have his way in our lives, we may find ourselves acknowledging him, but not really believing in him. It is in the midst of life's circumstances that God gives us the opportunity to really know him. And we will know him if we hold on to him and don't let go no matter what.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

TorahBytes: Acknowledgment vs. Faith (Va-Yeze)

Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." And he was afraid and said, "How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven." (Bereshit / Genesis 28:16,17; ESV)

Jacob's understanding of and relationship with God is fascinating. These days we tend to equate acknowledging God's existence with believing in him. In Jacob's case, he seemed to fully accept the reality of God's existence but didn't really believe in him. Believing in God is not the same as simply believing that he exists. Believing in him means to trust in him. It would be many years before Jacob came to trust in God.

The context of the verse I read is the beginning of Jacob's journey to Mesopotamia, the land of his relatives. His primary reason for this journey was to escape the wrath of his twin brother, Esau. As he set out, he spent the night in the place he would name "Beth-El" (the House of God). It was there that he dreamt he saw a ladder that reached heaven with the angels of God going up and down on it. In the dream God spoke to him, giving to him the promises he originally had given to his grandfather, Abraham. Jacob's response upon awakening was that if God looked after him, then upon his return, in his words, "then the Lord shall be my God" (Bereshit / Genesis 28:21). So we see here that Jacob clearly acknowledged God's existence without trusting him.

Jacob's reaction to God's appearance had nothing to do with the question of God's existence. Rather Jacob said, "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." What surprised him was that God was there without him realizing it. This sounds as if he thought that God was in Beth-El in a way that he wasn't in other places. Perhaps this is an indication of a lack in Jacob's understanding of God. He didn't know as yet that the God of his father and grandfather was the Master of the Universe and that there was no place where God's presence was not.

That God would appear to Jacob at all didn't seem to faze him. One might think that this experience would motivate him into a life of utter devotion to God, but it didn't. He was just surprised that God was there and he didn't know it.

I wonder if we realize how present God really is. There's a wonderful story in the second book of Melachim (Kings), chapter six, where the army of Syria was surrounding the city where the prophet Elisha was. When Elisha's assistant anxiously reported this to him, Elisha prayed that his assistant would see with his physical eyes the heavenly power that was with them. Elisha was aware of this, while his assistant was not. I cannot say that God's help is with his people to this extent at all times, but certainly God is present and at work everywhere in so many ways that we are not aware of.

How often is the presence of God with us and, like Jacob, we don't know it? If God would open our eyes like Elisha's assistant would we not be surprised to see the heavenly reality that surrounds us? Unlike Jacob we claim to trust in the God who is everywhere, yet we think we are alone. We may not say that God is not with us, but how often do we act as if he is far, far away? Perhaps we don't believe in him as much as we think we do.

We may be more like Jacob than we are willing to admit in that we readily acknowledge God's existence without actually trusting him. We should stop confusing acknowledging his existence with true faith. Accepting God's existence is an essential starting point, but we need to let him take us much deeper - to the place of trust he took Jacob. That's what we will look at next week.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

TorahBytes: How Silly We Can Be! (Toledot)

Then Rebekah took the best garments of Esau her older son, which were with her in the house, and put them on Jacob her younger son. And the skins of the young goats she put on his hands and on the smooth part of his neck. And she put the delicious food and the bread, which she had prepared, into the hand of her son Jacob. (Bereshit / Genesis 27:15-17; ESV)

In this week's parasha (weekly Torah reading), we read of the stealing of Isaac's blessing. Before he died, Isaac wanted to give a special blessing to his older son, Esau. So Isaac asked Esau to prepare for him a special meal of fresh game after which Isaac would give him the blessing. Isaac passing this blessing on to Esau would make him the carrier of God's purposes for the world. Before Esau and his twin brother, Jacob, were born, God had told their mother, Rebekah, that the younger would have precedence over the older (see Bereshit / Genesis 25:22,23). We don't know if she ever told this prediction to Isaac, but when she heard that Isaac was planning on giving the blessing to Esau, she schemed to deceive her husband into giving it to Jacob instead.

This sets up one of the silliest scenes in the Bible. Although Esau and Jacob were twins, they were different in almost every way. Esau was a hairy, outdoorsy sort-of person; Jacob was a smooth-skinned homebody. Even though Isaac's sight was poor at this stage of his life, tricking him would not be easy. When Jacob comes to him covered in goat's skins, Isaac suspects something is up. He recognizes Jacob's voice and wonders how he could have prepared the meal so quickly. Yet when he calls Jacob over to kiss him, the feel of the goat skin and smell of Esau's garments he was wearing are somehow enough to fool him, and Jacob gets the blessing.

Could you imagine how silly Jacob must have looked wearing that goat skin! What a ridiculous scene of Mom and son scheming to trick Dad like that! The fact that their plan actually worked makes the situation even more absurd. Did Rebekah and Jacob really believe that they could manipulate the situation in order to fulfill God's plan for Jacob? Yet it worked! What is anybody supposed to learn from a story like this!

Could it be that the only reason why this crazy plan worked was because God had determined that Jacob would be the recipient of the blessing anyway? We don't have any direct comment in the text as to whether or not Jacob's actions were right or wrong. Yet as we follow his story, we see how God pursues him until he eventually learns to personally trust God. Until then he strives and strives for prosperity and success.

What we have in Jacob is an unbeliever pursued by God. God had determined to bless him and make him a blessing just like his father and grandfather, but he had no clue personally what that really meant. So while his deceitful scheming appears successful, it is only so because God had determined to use Jacob for his purposes. Jacob's heart would one day be for God, but in the meantime, God was at work towards that end. This in no way justifies Jacob's schemes. On the contrary it makes a mockery of human striving.

I wonder how often we are just like Jacob. We must look pretty silly sometimes as we strive to make life work out in our favor. God determines to bless us and use us, but we think we need to take matters into our own hands. We scheme in our attempt to manipulate life's circumstances for our benefit. Yet God is working behind the scenes, so to speak, to bring events to their determined end for our good. We presume that it's our scheming that makes us successful, when all along God in his love and by his power is seeking to draw us in line with himself. Let's stop being so silly and let God be God.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

TorahBytes: Rebekah's Blessing (Hayyei Sarah)

And they blessed Rebekah and said to her, "Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!" (Bereshit / Genesis 24:60; ESV)

This week's Torah portion includes the story of the search for a wife for Abraham's son Isaac. Abraham sent his servant back to Mesopotamia, where Abraham was from and his relatives still lived, to find a wife for Isaac. Upon arriving, the servant prayed that God would direct him in finding the right one. When God made it plain that Rebekah was the one, and she was willing to go with Abraham's servant, her family sent her on her way with the words I just read: "Our sister, may you become thousands of ten thousands, and may your offspring possess the gate of those who hate him!"

While it is possible that this was some sort of standard blessing, it is interesting within the context of God's plans and purposes for Rebekah's husband-to-be. Remember that God promised Isaac's father, Abraham, a man with no children, that he would be a great nation of blessing to the whole world. The beginnings of the fulfillment of God's promises, the birth of Isaac, did not happen until Abraham was a hundred years old. God had told him that his descendants would be beyond measure, but he died before seeing even one grandchild be born of the line of promise. Abraham did have other children, Ishmael through Sarah's servant Hagar, and several others through Keturah the woman he married after Sarah died, but none of these children stood in the line of promise as Isaac did. We learn later on in the Torah that Isaac and Rebekah will also have trouble having children. The promise of innumerable descendants did not come about easily.

Unbeknownst to Rebekah's family, they were speaking prophetically. Not only would she indeed become a mother of many descendants, but her offspring would also "possess the gate of those who hate him." The picture here is of an army capturing a city that has great disdain for that army's people. To capture the gate is to take control of the city. Rebekah's family was calling for her descendants to overcome any serious opposition they might face.

Note the use of the pronoun "him" instead of "them". This is due to the use of the word "offspring" (more literally "seed"), a collective noun, which could refer to one or more descendants. Collective nouns function grammatically in the singular, which is why the Hebrew is clearly "hate him." Since the context sounds as if it is referring to the thousands of ten thousands, some translations use "hate them" (New American Standard Bible) or go further and interpret the words, "those who hate him" as to mean simply "enemies" (New International Version), thus removing any confusion arising from the ambiguous use of the singular.

But could it be that the ambiguity is intentional? That since "offspring" could be understood as singular or plural these words may find their fulfillment both in the plural, referring to the nation of Israel, as well as in the singular, Rebekah's key offspring, Yeshua the Messiah.

Whatever their intention Rebekah's blessing certainly foreshadows the Messiah's own statement centuries later when he said, "I will build my Community, and the gates of Sh'ol will not overcome it" (Matthew 16:18; Complete Jewish Bible).

The very gates of death and all that death represents would be overtaken by Rebekah's offspring. Through the development and history of the people of Israel culminating in Yeshua the Messiah, everything that hates God and his people will be done away with. Those who align themselves with God's plans and purposes as revealed in the Messiah walk in Rebekah's blessing. Those who follow Yeshua can be confident that we will possess the gate of those who hate us.

Sunday, November 01, 2009

TorahBytes: Assurance of Faith (Va-yera)

But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:11,12; ESV).

This story, traditionally known as "The Binding of Isaac" serves as the climax of the Torah's account of the life of Abraham. God had called Abraham (then called "Abram") to leave his homeland and to follow God's leading without being given much in the way of specifics. Abraham was already 75 when God promised to make him a great nation even though he and his wife, Sarah, had no children. Eventually God made it clear to Abraham that he would have descendants more than can be counted. Even though there was still no prospect of having his own children, Abraham believed God. His faith was counted to him as righteousness (see Bereshit / Genesis 15:6). After more years went by and still no children, the two of them took the matter into their own hands by having Abraham seek children through Sarah's servant Hagar. It wasn't until Abraham was 99 and Sarah was 89 that God spoke to Abraham again and told him that his promise would be fulfilled through a child born to Sarah herself which occurred a year later.

After all that, God calls Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise. Apart from the obvious difficulty regarding such a directive, what a thing to call him to do! (At this point you may want to ask the important question, "How could God command Abraham to sacrifice his son?" - a question best answered through the death and resurrection of Yeshua the Messiah, but that is not the focus of this week's message. If you would like to discuss that aspect of this passage, don't hesitate to contact me. For now, I will continue building to my main point.) Isaac is the key to the fulfillment of all that God called Abraham for. He was to inherit the promises given to Abraham, including blessing for the nations (see Genesis / Bereshit 12:1-3). This was not just about Abraham and Isaac. It was about God's plan for the whole world. God was calling Abraham to risk everything in the name of obedience. But Abraham, being the faithful servant of God he was, did it or at least showed his absolute willingness to do it until God stopped him at the very last moment.

God's response to Abraham's obedience, spoken to him through the angel was, "now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." What a curious response. God said, "Now I know". How can that be? Is the Torah teaching that God didn't know what Abraham would do? Was there a chance that Abraham would not have done it? Apart from this particular task, did Abraham not already demonstrate that he feared God? Was God not aware of that fact? There's got to be something more going on than God finally becoming aware that Abraham truly feared him (by the way, if the concept of "fearing God" is unfamiliar to you, it refers to having great respect, the kind of respect that strongly evokes an obedient response).

Abraham's willingness to obey God's unusual and drastic directive outwardly demonstrated the inner reality that had been at work in his life for years. When God says, "Now I know" he is affirming the reality of Abraham's faithfulness. True faith in God proves itself through our actions. Sadly there had been a tendency to divorce the inner reality of faith from faithful deeds. Some have focused on deeds, claiming that the issues of the heart and of truth don't really matter, as long as we do what is right. Others have insisted that spiritual reality is found solely in the inner reality and have so diminished the importance of faithful deeds to the point where they are insignificant. Neither focus is biblical. Certainly a right relationship with God begins with the heart. We come to know God by trusting in the Messiah. But if that trust is real, then it will be expressed through our actions. If our lives do not reflect the inner reality we claim to have, then we have reason to doubt its genuineness. It is as we live out our faith through obedience to God that we receive the assurance of the reality of our faith as Abraham did that day.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

TorahBytes: Good News! (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. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed." (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1-3; ESV)

In the New Covenant book of Galatians, Paul refers to this week's Torah portion, when he says,
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed." (Galatians 3:8; ESV)
According to Paul, God's promise of blessing to the nations through Abraham (who was called Abram at the time) is the gospel. The word "gospel" comes from the Greek word, "euangelion," meaning "good news" and is most likely in reference to the "good news" passages in Isaiah (40:9, 41:27, 52:7, 60:6, and 61:1). Let me quote one:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns." (Isaiah 52:7; ESV)
According to Isaiah here, the good news has to do with the proclamation of the reign of God. For Israel, the reign of God means release from foreign oppression and spiritual restoration for the nation. Paul may have also had in mind how the Greek word was used in the Roman Empire of his day. A proclamation by Caesar that would bring benefit to the empire was called "euangelion," - "good news." Therefore, for Paul, while "good news" was rooted in Jewish expectation, he also had in mind its world-wide implications as he announced the reign of the true king.

This good news was the objective of God's promises to Abraham. God called him away from his homeland in Mesopotamia to journey to a foreign land, which would one day be called Israel, in order to accomplish his desire to resolve human alienation from God, which began with our first parents in the Garden of Eden.

Paul's reference to this good news finding its origins in Abraham confirms the Bible's teaching that the coming of Yeshua as Messiah is part of God's overall plan and purpose from the beginning. God's choosing of the people of Israel through the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, was the necessary outworking of his plan to make himself known to all nations. God's choosing of Israel was not simply a warm-up to the coming of the Messiah, as if God was biding his time until then. Nor was Israel some sort of "Plan A" that failed when the majority of Israel failed to recognize Yeshua as Messiah. Rather, beginning with Abraham, God worked out his master plan through to its fulfillment in Yeshua.

God chose Israel to reveal himself to the world. His revelation through the Hebrew Scriptures is the basis of what we know of the true God. The nature and personhood of God is provided to us through the prophetic history of Israel. While general things about God as Creator can be known through creation, it is through Israel that we learn about him and his ways. Also, it is the Hebrew Scriptures that provide us with the Messiah's credentials in order to recognize him when he came.

The good news is not just a message of individual salvation. That's included, but more fully it is the grand announcement that the long-awaited Messiah, through whom God would establish his reign, as foretold by the Jewish prophets, has come. In Yeshua the expectation of Abraham is fulfilled, Israel's oppression under foreign control is over, and God's reign as King over all the earth is established.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

TorahBytes: The Tower of Babel (No'ah)

And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." (Bereshit / Genesis 11:6; ESV)

I recently heard a radio interview with futurist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil (see Kurzweil believes that technology has been advancing at a rate much quicker than most of us realize. It is not as if technology has simply been increasing in a linear fashion, but rather exponentially. An example he gives is "The computer I used as a student took up half a building; the computer I carry in my pocket today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful. That's a billion-fold increase."

There is no doubt that technology has been advancing at an ever increasing rate. What makes this even more interesting is how we seem to take it for granted. It was hardly thirty years ago that many of us were just getting used to fax machines and voice mail. Now we take email and text messaging for granted, we have instant access to a good portion of all human knowledge, and soon the number of cell phones will be equal to the number of people on the planet.

The main subject of the Kurzweil interview was the real possibility that in the near future technology will enable us to live forever. Listening to what he had to say brought what may seem impossible into the realm of the possible.

Whether Kurzweil's predictions prove to be accurate, he may or may not realize that he agrees with God's assessment of human potential at the time of the building of the Tower of Babel: "nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." The building of the tower at that time was a technological marvel purposefully designed to be an expression of human greatness and preservation. God stepped in to ruin this plan through the confusion of language. By breaking down the lines of communication, he significantly reduced the rate of progress.

The creation of people groups through the diversity of languages and the resulting cultural differences has disrupted our desire to find greatness in our achievements. Instead of the human family working together, we have been at odds with one another. God did this to us on purpose to prevent us from achieving our desired goals.

We were made to be one family. We were designed to be great and to do great things. But our moral condition inherited from our first parents would have destroyed us. So God in his compassion disrupted our plans and slowed down progress in order to give us the opportunity to be restored to him through the Messiah.

Returning to our day, we find ourselves living in the midst of incredible achievements in technology and if Kurzweil is correct, we will soon experience even more incredible leaps in progress beyond most of our wildest imaginations.

The Tower of Babel is being built. It just took a lot longer than planned. It's not a literal tower, but it is designed to serve the same purpose of the original. Technological advancements apart from God seek to preserve, protect and unite human beings on our own terms. The more we progress in this way, the less we are aware of the emptiness and depravity of our lives. Our technological Tower of Babel is a fortress through which we attempt to shelter ourselves from the reality of human need that stems from our alienation from God.

Thinking of our technological advancements as true progress is a big lie. There are a billion undernourished people in the world today, diseases are increasing faster than our ability to cure them, broken families have become the norm, abortion is a world-wide movement, the killing off of the elderly and the infirm is no longer simply the agenda of some fascist regime, and addictions of all kinds affect every level of society.

God's people need to see this technological Tower of Babel for what it is with its empty promises of happiness, greatness, and immortality. It is a sham that seeks to cover up who we really are without God.

As we give ourselves to the understanding of God and his ways as revealed through the Scriptures, we may be called to disengage this exponential development of human achievement as we embrace the eternal life available to us through the Messiah. Unless we build our lives on God's foundation, we will crumble when the technological Tower of Babel falls.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

TorahBytes: Science and the Bible (Bereshit)

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Bereshit / Genesis 1:1; ESV)

This year is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin. While Darwin didn't develop the theory of evolution, his work on the concept of natural selection greatly contributed to making philosophical and scientific naturalism the predominant world view that it is. Philosophical and scientific naturalism claims that life emerged and developed from natural causes only. It denies the existence of the spiritual and the supernatural, including the very first statement in the Torah which I just read.

There are many people who hold to the basic tenets of naturalism (they may or may not call themselves naturalists), yet find room in their lives for religion and spiritual things. They may even give lip service to the supernatural, but their basic commitment to naturalism casts doubt on the Torah's assertion that the God of Israel is the sole, personal, and intentional creator of the universe. Sadly, we are not always aware that we are doing this.

We may claim to believe the Bible, yet reject the concept of a six-day creation by insisting that it must mean something other than what the Torah clearly teaches. Some say that the sequence of events over the six days of creation is poetical, that it is some sort of song extolling God as creator of the universe. The problem with this view is that God himself doesn't share it. In the second book of the Torah, God gives the Sabbath to the people of Israel as a sign of his creating the world in six days (see Shemot / Exodus 31:17).

Another way people try to retain a commitment to the Bible yet doubt the creation account is by saying that it is based on a primitive, non-scientific world view - that whenever the first chapter of the Bible was written, it expressed the truth of creation through the understanding of people who had no grasp of modern scientific categories. Because of this they expressed Truth via a limited understanding of the universe. Not having at their disposal the knowledge of future generations, we cannot expect them to express these things in precise scientific terms.

I concede that the Torah does not express itself in scientific terms. I also concede that the way of looking at the world has changed a great deal from Bible times until now. Those changes significantly affect how we understand and express ourselves. But when it comes to determining Truth, including the origin of the universe, what will be our basis? On whose terms shall we attempt to reconcile the Bible with science? Science is a man-made attempt to understand the physical world. The Bible claims to be the revelation of the one true God. Science has developed over time as new discoveries are made and as new ways of looking at old discoveries are put forth. The Bible is unchanging. Therefore why should we have to defend the Bible on science's terms? Instead should not science have to defend itself on biblical terms?

It doesn't help that this discussion has often not been between the Bible and science, but instead about people's agendas in the name of the Bible or science. But for those who genuinely yearn to understand the relationship between the Bible and science, it is very important to begin with an acceptance of what each is really all about. The Bible is God's revelation of all of life including the most fundamental of scientific issues, creation. Science is the analysis of God's creation. To think that human beings, creations themselves, can have greater insight into the origins and design of that creation than is contained in God's own revelation, is arrogant. At the same time, students of the Bible are not immune from this arrogance. We need to be careful not to confuse what the Bible says with our assumptions and traditions.

There is a common misconception that just because the Bible was written amidst an ancient culture far removed from our own, it is somehow inferior to ours. Why do we assume that the difference in cultures discounts what the Bible asserts? How we and the people of old look at the world has indeed changed, but does that necessarily mean that the revelation of God through the people of old is inaccurate? Could it be that instead of the culture of biblical times being inadequate to effectively speak truth to us today, it is our culture that obscures the truth that God revealed long ago?

In order to have a truly beneficial discussion about the relationship between the Bible and science, we must be unapologetic about what the Torah itself actually teaches and how it teaches it. Manipulating the Bible to make it acceptable to science, will render it powerless and will rob science and scientists of the essential corrections they need.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

TorahBytes: That All Peoples May Know (Sh'mini Atzeret)

Let these words of mine, with which I have pleaded before the LORD, be near to the LORD our God day and night, and may he maintain the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel, as each day requires, that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other. Let your heart therefore be wholly true to the LORD our God, walking in his statutes and keeping his commandments, as at this day. (1 Melachim / 1 Kings 8:59-61; ESV)

Solomon's prayer at the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem includes a reference to the very core of the purpose to which the nation of Israel was called: "that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other." This is the essence of God's promise to Abraham: "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Bereshit / Genesis 12:3). God built up a nation through Abraham so that all nations, and not Israel alone, would come to know the one and only true God. So as Solomon prays that the Temple would serve God's purposes for the nation of Israel, he includes this over-riding purpose, that all peoples would know the God of Israel.

God's desire to make himself known to the whole world is understood to be the ultimate blessing for all nations. The early chapters of the Torah describe the tragedy of the human race's falling away from right relationship with God. God's intention was that we would be in intimate relationship with him, to know a quality of life beyond anything we can imagine. But due to the rebellion of our first parents, people became alienated from God and were caused to live with the effects of that alienation. And yet God's original intention was not to be thwarted, which is why he called Abraham and promised that all the families of the earth would be blessed through him and why Solomon prayed that all nations would know the God of Israel as the only true God.

The other day I saw a car bumper sticker that said something like, "God is bigger than any one religion." Many people believe that no one religious group can be correct in thinking that their understanding of God is the only right one. Are not all religions in essence the same anyway? Are not the differences between religious groups simply a matter of perspective, emphasis, and culture? The problem with this approach is that it carries with it a fundamental misconception about the nature of world religions. Even though many religions share some similar values and perspectives, many of the most important differences between them are actually quite vast and irreconcilable.

Note that I am not commenting on denominations and branches within larger religious groups. Historically it is common for those who share similar foundational beliefs and values to differ on secondary issues. The need for these groups to work through these differences is a different topic all together and is beyond the scope of this message.

Solomon's prayer "that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other" is not some arrogant narrow opinion that his particular religious view of God is better than anyone else's. It is rather an expression of God's own desire to make himself known to all peoples for their benefit, and that the knowledge of the reality and goodness of the one true God was not to be restricted to Israel alone. To claim to know the one true God and yet not share his desire to broadcast who he is throughout the world is to deny him and stands in the way of God's purpose to bless all nations.

Just as Israel as a nation was created not for itself, but to be a vehicle of blessing to the whole world, so all who follow Israel's God are called to walk in that same purpose: "that all the peoples of the earth may know that the LORD is God; there is no other."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

TorahBytes: Yom Kippur - God's Provision (Sukkot)

And the LORD will be king over all the earth. On that day the LORD will be one and his name one. (Zechariah 14:9; ESV)

I present this week's message in anticipation of the holy day of Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), which begins this evening. At the same time the synagogue readings upon which this message is based are for the Feast of Sukkot (English: Feast of Tabernacles or Booths), which begins Friday evening. These two God-ordained occasions are intimately related, being part of the series of holidays of this Jewish month. Ten days ago was what is commonly known as Rosh Hashanah (English: New Year), but referred to in the Torah as Yom Teruah (English: the Day of Blowing [most likely of the shofar]). The blowing of the shofar (English: ram's horn) at Rosh Hashanah reminds us in our busyness not to forget that God is the creator of all things and the one to whom we must give an account. This begins a process of self-examination to make sure that we are in right relationship with both God and other people. The culmination of this process is Yom Kippur, when in ancient times, the Kohen HaGadol (English: the High Priest) would take the blood of a special annual sacrifice into the Kodesh Ha'kedashim (English: Holy of Holies). Contrary to how some may think, the observance of Yom Kippur was not to attain spiritual cleansing and forgiveness from God, but to receive it. Once this process was complete, then we are sufficiently prepared for the week-long festival of thanksgiving and rejoicing, Sukkot, five days later.

According to the prophet Zechariah, the Feast of Sukkot is intimately associated with the restoration of all things and the establishment of the age to come. The culmination of the ages will be marked by this festival of thanksgiving and joy.

Just like in the Torah where Yom Kippur is part of the necessary process on the way to celebrating Sukkot, so there are necessary steps to participating in the Sukkot of God's future reign. Unless we are right with God, we will not be part of this celebration. Being right with God requires that we take our lives very seriously and accept God's standards for cleansing and forgiveness. I don't know how many people attending synagogue for the high holy days understand how much the ritual has strayed from its roots in the Torah. While the essential aspect of humbling oneself before God has been retained, God's provision of cleansing and forgiveness through the blood of the sacrifice has been replaced by the merits of our own actions. The provision of God has been replaced by the deeds of people as if our own efforts could ever make us right with God.

The main reason for this error is our failure as a people to accept God's provision of cleansing and forgiveness, the one that the original Yom Kippur rituals foreshadowed, that is the atoning sacrificial death of the Messiah. While we must play our part in our restoration of right relationship with God, we will never attain to God's standards in this regard as long as we reject his provision of cleansing and forgiveness in the Messiah.

Yeshua the Messiah is the fulfillment of all that Yom Kippur anticipated. It is through him, his death and his resurrection, that we become adequately prepared to participate in the great celebration of Sukkot in the age to come. Yom Kippur reminds us that God's intent for us is to know his cleansing and forgiveness. A great future celebration awaits us if we would receive God's provision though Yeshua now.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

TorahBytes: God's Sovereignty (Ha'azinu)

See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 32:39; ESV)

I have been giving considerable thought lately to the subject of God's sovereignty. This has to do with the issue of how much God is in control of life. I am not looking for philosophical conclusions as much as biblical ones, since I accept that the Scriptures (Old and New Covenant writings) are God's accurate revelation of himself and of life. From my study of the Scriptures throughout the years I have discovered that God reveals his many-faceted truth without necessarily providing how its complexities work together. God is in no way obliged to satisfy our intellect. Rather he has graciously provided us in the Scriptures everything we need in order to live life the way he intended. This includes the command to seek him as to how we are to apply his Word to our lives. This is why we need to work hard at understanding what the Scriptures say and grow in the wisdom of how to live lives firmly based on its teaching.

Therefore struggling over what the Scriptures teach about God's sovereignty and what it means for our lives is not a waste of time. Far from it! It is easy to claim to believe the Bible, but if we don't take the time to grapple with what it is saying, it is doubtful whether or not we have really allowed its teaching to have access to our hearts and minds.

In Jewish tradition the days between Rosh Hashanah (the New Year) and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) are a period of introspection, of spiritual house cleaning so to speak. Having a set time each year to do this prevents us from neglecting this much-needed process and also from looking in on ourselves too much. From time to time we need to purposely check ourselves to make sure that we are truly in the faith and that we are right with God and with others. As we do, we then need to make whatever necessary adjustments are appropriate.

The issue of God's sovereignty is most relevant to this period of introspection, for it deals with a concept called primary cause. If God is truly sovereign then he is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Since we don't normally deal directly with God, but rather with others as well as with both animate and inanimate objects, then if God is sovereign, it is his decisions that are ultimately behind everything that happens through these secondary causes. One of the common philosophical difficulties regarding this subject is the relationship between God and the secondary causes for it seems that this is an area that God has chosen to keep hidden from us.

What we can surmise from what the Bible does teach on this is that while life doesn't always seem to be in God's control, it is. I am well aware of the many other questions that arise, but whether or not there are answers to those questions, that God is sovereign is clear. To believe anything less is to reject God as he is revealed in the Scriptures. If how you comfort your heart and mind over this subject in anyway diminishes this truth, you have also diminished God himself.

To take the time to examine ourselves to make sure that we are right with God and others is a useless exercise if we don't accept God for who he is. If God is not really the Master of the Universe as we say in countless traditional Hebrew prayers, then we will not know what adjustments to make or how to make them. Diminishing God's rulership over the universe to anything less than all powerful raises other forces to places of authority that God never assigned to them.

On the other hand, if we could accept God's own statement as spoken through Moses that life, death, danger and restoration are exclusively in his control, then our focus can be fixed firmly on God, the primary cause of everything that happens to us. Once we accept that God is ultimately in control of all of life, then not only can we learn to relate to him as we ought, but how we relate to others will begin to fall into place.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

TorahBytes: Connecting with God's Reality (Rosh Hashanah)

There is none holy like the LORD; there is none besides you; there is no rock like our God. (1 Samuel 2:2; ESV)

God gets a lot of attention. We hear about him all the time from the mouths of believers and non-believers alike. He is adored, he is scorned, he is exalted, he is mocked. Though many try, he cannot be ignored. I don't think there is a being or concept in all human experience upon which so much effort has been spent trying to disprove his existence. As for those who choose not to ignore him, how to relate to him has been far from straightforward. Millions of people claim some sort of belief in God, but the differences between their versions of him are so great that many curious seekers are turned off, thinking it impossible to come to any definite understanding. It doesn't have to be this way though.

To some the Bible is just another book of superstitions and myths - one of a multitude of human attempts to define spiritual reality. That it claims to reveal the one true God is taken to be no different from all the other so-called sacred texts in existence. Yet there is something about how God is presented in the Bible that sets it apart from everything else. The Bible doesn't try to convince us to accept a God who is distant and unknowable. On the contrary it invites us to know God, to encounter his reality for ourselves.

This week's Haftarah is special for the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. It was likely chosen to parallel the special holiday Torah reading that speaks of the miraculous birth of Abraham and Sarah's son, Isaac. The Haftarah speaks of another special birth, that of the prophet to be, Samuel. In both cases the mothers to be could not conceive. In the case of Samuel's mother, Hannah, she was desperate for a child - a desperation she took to God. We might miss how profound her request was. She performed no complex ritual nor did she pronounce some elaborate incantation. Rather from an honest, but hurting heart she cried out to the invisible creator God, who, if he made the universe, and if he gave Sarah a child in her old age, certainly could make a barren woman pregnant. And he did.

When Hannah fulfilled her promise to God by dedicating Samuel to his service, she broke out in an exuberant song through which she proclaimed her understanding of God. What makes her song special is that it emerged from a reality that until that time was just hypothetical. It's not that she didn't know God before. Obviously she did or else she would have not prayed as she did. But God's provision of a son was confirmation of what she already believed, thus allowing her to walk in God's reality at a much deeper level.

God doesn't expect us to only know him at a theoretical level. That which we know about him in theory is meant to be responded to. His reality is meant to be proven through lives willing to take him at his word. We may not be desperate like Hannah was, but as we earnestly pursue him, we will find him. Hannah is just one example of people just like us, whom God is inviting to experience his reality.

At this the beginning of another year, we have an opportunity to see if our understanding of God is one simply of theory or a proven reality. The Bible claims that God desires to be real in our lives. We are not expected to pretend, get hyped up, or be content in our confusion and emptiness. There is a reality beyond our wildest dreams waiting for us to take hold of if we are willing to let it take hold of us.

Sunday, September 06, 2009

TorahBytes:Bitter Roots (Nizzavim & Va-Yelekh)

Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, "I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart." This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:18,19; ESV)

It appears that the writer of the New Covenant book of "Hebrews" had this week's Torah portion in mind when he wrote:
See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no "root of bitterness" springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. (Hebrews 12:15,16; ESV)
These passages are encouraging God's people to make sure that there doesn't arise among them what in one place is called "a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit" and in the other a "root of bitterness." The Torah portion refers to a person who on one hand claims to be part of the covenant community yet stubbornly follows his own way. Similarly, in Hebrews, there is concern over people in their midst who are immoral and self-seeking.

In the Torah we learn that tolerating such behavior will "lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike" or, in other words, destructive behavior is destructive not only for the individual doing it, but for the community at large. Similarly in Hebrews, such behavior, "causes trouble, and by it many become defiled." In both cases it seems that the issue being addressed is not so much that this kind of behavior is unacceptable, but that the community needs to understand that such behavior has a profound negative affect on the whole community.

It can be difficult for us to comprehend the truth expressed in these passages. Many of us have been brought up to think of ourselves in strict individualistic terms. We don't readily see the implications of how our lives strongly affect the communities we are a part of, including family, neighborhood, school, congregation, company, and so on. Sometimes our unwillingness to accept this truth leads us to say things such as, "if someone has an issue with what I am doing, that's their problem". While that attitude may be appropriate on the occasions when we need to take a stand for what is right, it is inappropriate when we insist on doing what is wrong.

That someone hearing or reading this might get right with God out of a realization that their misbehavior affects those around them would be wonderful, but this is not whom is being address by these passages. Rather it is the communities that these people are a part of that need to take this message seriously. It is the communities, both the leaders and the other members, who need to make sure that this kind of misbehavior does not have a place among them.

The need for communities to address misbehavior challenges the concept of individuality. Many of us hesitate to speak into the lives of others, even those closest to us. Because we value individuality over community, we think that to address misbehavior is worse than the attempt to correct it. It's not as if the Bible places community over individuality, it is that it provides us with a truly balanced approach to each.

The reality is that failing to address misbehavior in our communities leads to the disastrous results mentioned in these passages. Failing to deal with sin in individuals will result in great trouble for the wider community. On the other hand if we would confront the emergence of bitter roots in our midst, then not only will our communities be far better off, but we will also give these troubling individuals the opportunity they need to get themselves right with God.

Monday, August 31, 2009

TorahBytes: Only God Can Change Our Hearts (Ki Tavo)

But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:4; ESV)

As Moses is nearing the end of his time as leader of his people and prepares them for their new life in the Promised Land, he expects that they will not remain faithful to God. He is well aware that even though they had been recipients of God's goodness and witnesses of his power, they had never undergone the change of heart necessary to keep them in right relationship with him. While the consequences of their inadequate spiritual state is made clear, this statement is the ultimate reason for this: "But to this day the LORD has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:4; ESV).

One of the most difficult and perhaps most controversial issues in the entire Bible is the relationship between God's sovereignty and human responsibility. While the Bible claims that God is master and king of the entire universe, we human creatures will be held accountable for our actions. People through the ages have grappled with how both of these truths can be true at the same time. Some insist on emphasizing one over the other, thinking that either God is limited in his sovereignty or we have no actual control over our actions.

But is it necessary to resolve this tension? If the Scriptures teach both and we can't figure out how they work together, then perhaps we don't have all the information we would need to know to sufficiently resolve this difficult philosophical problem. This approach may not easily satisfy you, but don't we regularly hold certain things to be true without working out all the logical inconsistencies between them? I accept that this issue is a most difficult and important one, and that the acceptance of one of these truths challenges the reality of the other. But the humility that comes from accepting that we don't have all it takes to know everything, might enable us to live with the tension (and the blessing) that arises from holding both God's sovereignty and human responsibility to be fully true at the same time.

Rejecting either of these two basic truths cuts us off from the reality of life as God created it. Instead of striving for philosophical comfort, we would be much better off to learn to live with the tension. These words of Moses we have read are a wonderful opportunity to do this.

According to Moses, the people's inability to follow God in the way they should is because God had not given them that ability. As each one of us accepts how we have failed to measure up to God's standards just as the people of Israel of old, we need to realize that our spiritual inadequacy is ultimately due to God's leaving us in our natural sinful state. To be what God designed us to be can only become a reality as God himself graciously grants changes in our hearts. Human striving will never overcome our spiritual inadequacies. We need God's transforming power.

This is why God's remedy for Israel's ongoing waywardness was that he himself would cause the necessary changes we so desperately need. Many years later, through the prophet Jeremiah, God said that he would one day bring about what Moses said had not occurred in his day - a permanent change of heart: "I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts (Jeremiah 31:33; ESV).

To be what God wants us to be requires the work of God in our lives. Does this mean therefore that there is nothing we can do with the spiritual inadequacies in our lives? If God hasn't changed us, then is there nothing we can do about it? Yes and no. While we cannot by our own efforts make us what we are not, we can submit ourselves to God and look to him to affect this change.

But isn't this circular reasoning? Is not our inability to rely on God due to God's not changing our hearts sufficiently so that we can rely on him? This is where not accepting that we don't know everything gets in the way of reality. While it is true that we need God's work in our hearts to rely on him, we don't see the evidence of God's work until we rely on him. As we submit to God's sovereignty we may just find that he has changed our hearts.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

TorahBytes: Free from Shame (Ki Teze)

Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. (Isaiah 54:4; ESV)

Years ago a friend of mine who was a Bible translator and an expert in cross-cultural communication explained to me how some cultures are guilt based while others are shame based. It is common to confuse guilt and shame, but they are actually quite different. Understanding this difference can help us to learn to live free of both.

Guilt is the result of breaking a clearly defined law or rule. Guilt is usually accompanied by a fear of punishment at the hands of an authority of some kind. Taking a cookie when your mom or dad told you not to may result in guilt. A judge determines guilt based on whether or not you have broken the law. A person is either guilty or not. If found guilty, then a sentence of some kind would be given.

Shame is not so straightforward. Shame often comes from a deep internal sense of having done something unacceptable due to a sense of failure to measure up to certain standards or expectations. Guilt may be included, especially if a rule or law is broken, but not all rules carry the same level of shame and a rule doesn't need to be broken to experience shame. Shame is present when there is a perception that our behavior is such that we don't deserve to be accepted by those with whom we have relationship. That relationship could be family, friends, community group, work place, school, and so on. Shame often leads to a desire to hide from others. Embarrassment often comes from a sense of shame.

Shame is much more difficult to deal with than guilt. It is relatively easy to determine when a well-defined rule has been broken thus making someone guilty or not. Shame has more to do with perceptions, not facts. That perception may be influenced by right and wrong, but in a very vague way.

Western society, with a foundation upon the rule of law, has for the most part been guilt based. Our leaders sought to establish a way of life that had one clear standard for all people. In recent years moral issues have been more and more removed from our legal codes. Personal preferences and special interests influence and control morality more than objective legal standards. As a result, while we continue to use the language of a guilt-based society, we have largely become a shame-based society. The often felt heaviness of heart and turmoil of mind that we call guilt may actually be shame. We wonder what we have done wrong, but we no longer possess the moral clarity to determine guilt, and so we feel ashamed.

It may appear that the current casting off of traditional morality is devoid of shame. Immorality is flaunted and celebrated. But this can only occur where the legalities controlling these behaviors are no longer in force. What is actually being celebrated is the apparent freedom from guilt. Yet the intensity of the celebration as well as the violent attempt to silence detractors may be very well derived from the desire to cover shame.

The redefining of morality will never free us from shame, since at its most basic level it is due to our alienation from God. It was God's clarification of right and wrong through the giving of the Torah that enabled us to understand this alienation along with its resulting shame.

God desires to free us from shame. Through the Messiah God has dealt with not only our guilt but also our shame. Through Yeshua we can not only be forgiven, but also be set free from that nagging sense of shame that continues to heavily burden so many of us. Seeing our shame for what it is is the first step to our being free from it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

TorahBytes: Abominable Practices (Shofetim)

When you come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 18:9; ESV)

As the people of Israel were prepared by God to enter the Promised Land, they were given specific details as to how they were to live. God's directives are not just a bunch of arbitrary religious regulations. Rather, they are an entire way of life that if carefully adhered to will enable God's people to live the way human beings were designed by God to live. While there were certain aspects of this lifestyle that were only for a certain time and place, much of what God revealed to Moses is his intention for all people for all time.

God's directives are expressed both positively, things we should do, and negatively, things we shouldn't do. I have heard it said that if we would fill our lives with good things, then we wouldn't have time for bad things. But that's not true. We humans seem to be able to always make time for bad stuff, no matter what else we may be doing. If we neglect obeying God in what he tells us not to do, we will certainly get ourselves and others into big trouble.

One of God's negative directives concerns our relationship to what Moses calls "the abominable practices" of the nations they were to dispossess. The people of Israel were to "not learn to follow" those practices. The way this is expressed emphasizes something more than just the avoiding of these practices. The people were to keep themselves from learning to follow them. This may suggest that while the people's initial reaction would be one of repulsion, if they allowed themselves they would learn to adopt them. God's directive then was that they should never even learn about them.

It is a challenge not to learn to follow abominable practices today. The sinful ways that are part and parcel of popular culture do not simply keep to themselves, waiting to see who might be interested in them. Rather they aggressively seek to influence us, calling to us to come and learn. They put on an appealing front in order to deceive us into thinking that any concern we may have over these things is an overreaction. Not only are abominable practices aggressive in their desire to lure us into their clutches, they are more than happy to have easy access to our lives through technology. At one time in order to learn these evil things, one had to purposefully go out of their way to seek them out. Now we can engage them with the simple push of a button anywhere, anytime.

To not learn to follow the abominable practices of our day takes a considerable amount of wisdom and effort. Perhaps like never before, we need to know the Scriptures. There are so many voices speaking in the name of the Bible, but do we have the ability to discern who is speaking the truth? Also, we need to have the courage to let the truth of Scripture confront the practices of the cultures around us. Cultural practices are not neutral. They are either under the influence of God or in the grip of evil. Too many people naively go along with the way things are, not taking the time to discern if they are truly of God or not. Once it is evident that certain practices are evil, we must not learn to follow them.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

TorahBytes: God's Words - No More, No Less (Re'eh)

Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 13:1 [English 12:32]; ESV)

In the biblical book Mishlei (English: Proverbs) we read:
Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar. (Mishlei / Proverbs 30:5,6; ESV)
Whatever God has said is true. Why would we want to add or subtract to what he has revealed? Can we enhance his Word by adding to it? And what would we gain by taking anything away from it? Through the Scriptures God has given us all we need in order to know him and to know our place and purpose in his plan.

Yet for one reason or another, even those of us who claim to accept the Bible as God's written and authoritative Word, add and subtract from it - at times knowingly, at times unknowingly.

Some of the ways we add to God's Word is due to speculation. The Bible doesn't always give us the kind of detail we may prefer or expect. Lack of description in a narrative portion or not being given an explanation as to why God said this or that may lead us to make guesses. Not being satisfied with the information we do have, there is a tendency to elaborate. While giving some time to speculation can be helpful in gaining better understanding of a particular portion, we may read our speculations into the words of the Bible, resulting in our becoming confused over what God has really said.

Legends are stories or concepts that may or may not be historically accurate, but to which we may have sentimental attachment. Similarly, traditions are rarely questioned as to whether they are condoned by the Scriptures. Loyalty to legends and traditions may blind us from accepting that they are actually additions to God's Word.

We may also add to the Bible through how we interpret it. Interpretations may not look like additions, but when they become authoritative we have added our opinions of the Bible to the Bible.

Subtracting from the Bible is something we may do simply because we want to. When certain passages make us uncomfortable, we may choose to reject them. A more subtle way in which we reject portions of God's Word is to ignore them. We might do that by not allowing ourselves to be exposed to certain portions of Scripture or by not taking the time to understand them.

Theological preferences may limit how open we are to the whole Bible. Instead of letting the Bible mold how we think about God and life, our commitment to an interpretive scheme or grid may filter out parts of the Bible.

Another way we subtract from God's Word arises from how we answer the very important question, "What in the Bible applies to us today?" Of course there are significant Bible passages that we are not expected to keep today (for example, I know of no serious Bible scholar who would insist that we follow the Old Covenant sacrificial regulations - not that we cannot learn from such passages). Be that as it may, there is a growing tendency among some to deny the relevancy of Bible passages based on the fact that our current culture is so very different from the cultures of Bible times. This view makes culture the interpretive key rather than the biblical text. If culture becomes the basis of whether or not to follow a directive of God, then we have little basis to follow almost anything in the Bible.

But note what we read from the book of Mishlei:
Every word of God proves true; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Do not add to his words, lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar. (Mishlei / Proverbs 30:5,6; ESV)
There is an intimate connection between our relationship to the words of God and the protection we have in him. Neglecting his words places us in significant danger. To add to his words will result in God's confronting us and in some way showing that we have misrepresented him. It is when we receive, believe, and act upon his every word that the Master of the Universe will be our protection and refuge.

Sunday, August 02, 2009

TorahBytes: God's Words (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)

As Moses recaps the forty-year journey of the people of Israel through the wilderness, he explains the purpose of the provision of manna. Manna was the food that miraculously appeared on the ground each day, except on the Sabbath. Through this God was teaching the people to rely solely upon him. The statement "man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD" is sometimes taken to mean that our lives depend on not just physical substance, but also upon God. But that is not what this says. What we have here is actually two ways of living. One is "by bread alone"; the other is "by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD". Either we live life dependent on the fulfilling of our basic physical needs or upon God. The people of Israel needed to learn that for life to be lived the way God intended, we need to be dependent upon him alone.

Note that relying upon God is not described in vague terms, but with reference to his words. Moses didn't say that man lives by depending or trusting in God, which would be true, but that "man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD". Living life the way God intends requires strict attention to his every word.

What Moses says is of great importance with regard to our understanding of the inspiration of the Bible. If the Scriptures (Old and New Covenant writings) are inspired by God, then to what extent are the words themselves inspired? Are the Scriptures only inspired in some general sense or did God intend the words themselves to be written the way they were? The New Covenant writings state the latter:
And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. (2 Peter 1:19-21)
There has been a growing tendency among Bible believers to think that it is only the meaning of the words and not the words themselves that are inspired by God. Failing to accept that words determine meaning, opens us up to all sorts of concepts that God never intended.

Some Bible scholars belittle the words of Scripture by asserting that these words are only truly relevant to the time and culture in which they were written. They claim that in order for us to effectively understand and apply the teachings of the Bible to our day, it is necessary to separate the words from their intended meaning. Because the Bible writers saw the world so differently from how we do, it's only the eternal truths, which are somehow contained within or behind the words they wrote, that are relevant to us today.

This approach rejects the fact that it is God's words, not just his Word in some general sense, which are inspired. It rejects what Moses said (God through Moses actually) that we are to live by every word that comes from God's mouth. God inspired the writers of Scripture to write the very words through which he has revealed both himself and his will to us.

It is true that there are many differences between the way the writers of Scripture and we today view the world. But perhaps if we lived by every word that came from God's mouth, we would once again view the world the way God does.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

TorahBytes: Discipline (Va-Ethannan)

Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:36; ESV)

Perhaps the oldest misconception about the difference between the Old and New Covenant writings (Old and New Testaments) is that their portrayals of God are opposed to one another. This is commonly expressed as "the Old Covenant God is a god of wrath and the New Covenant God is a god of love". This false dichotomy can only emerge from selective reading. There is no time here for me to demonstrate that the portrayal of the God of Israel is consistent right through the entire Bible. His complex personality as one who regards his human creatures as his children, longs to be in right relationship with them, going to great means to restore such a relationship, yet insisting on strict adherence to his will, a neglect of which means grave consequences, is how the whole Bible portrays him.

I think many people who have any understanding of the God of the Old Covenant, but have never read the New Covenant Scriptures, would be quite surprised at how consistent the God of Yeshua, Paul, and Peter is with the God of Moses, David, and Isaiah.

Few, if any, serious adherents of the New Covenant would think that the Bible refers to two distinct gods. Yet it seems to be common to think that under the New Covenant he has gone through some sort of transformation. It is as if at one time he went around with an angry scowl waiting to strike anyone who stepped out of line. But with the coming of Yeshua, he has morphed into a sort of Santa Claus, taking us on his knee and showering us with presents - the adorable kids we all are. These two caricatures in no way accurately describe the God of the Bible.

This warped view of God would make understanding the reference I read from this week's Torah portion next to impossible. According to Moses the purpose of God's speaking to the people of Israel was to discipline them. Let's not be confused by the word discipline. In this context it is not referred to punishment, but rather to a lifestyle in keeping with God's standards. This is like the discipline an athlete undergoes or the learning of a diligent student, which is another word for disciple.

Readers of the New Covenant should be quite familiar with the term disciple, since it is used so frequently to describe followers of Yeshua. Followers of Yeshua today, therefore, should be quick to note that God's purpose in speaking to his people has not changed throughout all these centuries.

While through Yeshua God has accomplished his goal of reconciliation with people, he still speaks to us in order to discipline us. Human beings naturally desire freedom from all restraint, preferring to live for self. We tend to bristle under the concept of a God to whom we must give an account, and we value personal pleasure over loving and caring for others. In order to be what we were originally designed to be, it is we, not God, who must be transformed - a transformation that only God can provide. Once this occurs we still need clear instruction on how to live out that transformation. Through God's Word and his work in our lives he disciplines us in order to make us all we need to be.

If we have a misinformed perception of God's character, we could easily misinterpret God's discipline. Many seem to not understand that true discipline is an act of love. Confusing love with permissiveness, which is another common misconception in our day, leads to the kind of warped view of God that I was referring to earlier. While a right relationship with God must include his forgiveness and acceptance, it also includes his correction and confrontation. Just look at how Yeshua related to his disciples in the Gospels to see this in action. Just look at how he relates to us today.