Sunday, January 25, 2009

TorahBytes: Violence (Bo)

So Moses said, "Thus says the LORD: About midnight I will go out in the midst of Egypt, and every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave girl who is behind the handmill, and all the firstborn of the cattle." (Shemot / Exodus 11:4,5; ESV)

I don't like violence. I certainly don't condone it as entertainment and I dissuade my children from playing violent games. I advocate the use of peaceful means in the resolving of conflict on both personal and broader scales.

This is all to say that for me the subject of violence is an uncomfortable one. I take no delight when anyone, friend or foe, is hurt or killed.

I am also uncomfortable with the violence I encounter in the Bible. Death and destruction are found throughout it pages. In fact, according to the Bible, God himself resolves issues with violence. I know that some people think that this depiction of God is confined to the Hebrew Scriptures as if he is characterized there as a God of wrath, while the New Covenant writings depict a God of love. I won't take the time here to debunk that misconception. Let it suffice to say that the depiction of God in both the Old and New Covenant writings is consistent. The God of the whole Bible is a complex, integrated character expressing himself in a great variety of ways. His motive toward his creation is always love, but this does not preclude his resorting to violence to accomplish his purposes.

God's use of violence seems to have become a major stumbling block for many people today. That God would resolve a situation through violent means is sufficient cause to prevent these people from considering the possibility that the God of the Bible might be real.

This extreme distaste for violence also appears to be what influences some people in their approach to societal and international justice. They deplore capital punishment even for the most heinous crimes and seem to think that military action should always be avoided. During the recent crisis in Gaza, I got the impression that some people would have preferred that Israel should have remained passive while bombs indiscriminately fell on their citizens. I am not saying that we should not be grieved over the devastation experienced by the Gazan people, but simplistic, pacifist solutions to conflicts of this nature are no solutions at all. Certain situations call for violent responses. I cannot say whether Israel's tactics in this case were the correct ones, but to completely reject violence as a legitimate means of conflict resolution is certainly not biblical.

I have the impression that the extreme pacifists reject the legitimate use of violence simply because it bothers them. They don't like violence, so they reject it. They fail to see that violence is at times necessary in a world gone wrong. They may accept pain, suffering, and death as part of the human dilemma, but they refuse to accept it as a legitimate aspect of God's justice. That we might struggle with our imperfections is one thing, but that we may be accountable for our sin is too much for them to take. Human evil, if not reckoned with on God's terms, will face a violent end. The violence of our day foreshadows the final judgement for all humankind. Great injustice requires extreme - and at times - violent responses from people of justice. In the same way our sin requires a violent response from the God of justice, unless, of course, we submit to his mercy offered to us in the Messiah.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

TorahBytes: Self-Disclosure (Va-Era)

God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them." (Shemot / Exodus 6:2,3; ESV)

According to these verses it appears that God is revealing himself to Moses by a name different from the one revealed to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This name in Hebrew is represented by the Hebrew consonants "Yod-Hey-Vav-Heh" (most commonly represented in English Bibles as "the LORD" in full caps) and is a form of the verb "to be." These verses sound as if this name for God is being made known for the very first time. But if we look back to the Torah's accounts of the lives of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we discover that this name is used regularly.

This supposed contradiction is resolved when we understand that the Bible's use of the concept of name is primarily one of the essence of a person's character, not that of a label. This is contrary to how names are used in contemporary English, whereby the name given to a person is one that tends to suit their parents. They may like the sound of that name or want to honor someone else who has that name. But the function of the name is simply to distinguish them from others.

In Bible times and perhaps in other cultures today, while names do have this function, they do far more. A name was meant to describe something of a person. So when God tells Moses that he had not revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as "the LORD", he doesn't mean that they had no awareness of this label, but rather that there were aspects of God that were not known until revealed to Moses.

This is not to say that God had changed or that the forefathers' understanding of God was wrong. It's that God chose not to fully reveal himself previously. God, being God, is far greater than anything we can imagine. He carefully chooses the times and circumstances in which to make aspects of himself known.

Comparing how God dealt with the forefathers with how he dealt with Moses and the people of Israel later on, we do see a fuller revelation of himself. God's involvement with the patriarchs was far more personal and somewhat hidden. There were situations that had a significant effect on others, but, for the most part, the essence of God's reality was experienced by a very few. Based on the workings of God in this earlier time, I don't know what the people of Moses' day may have expected. But what they got was very different from what they had heard of. The God of the Exodus was a God of power, judgement, and law. While this new revelation was consistent with what they had known about God until then, it was much much more.

Could you imagine what would have happened if God's fuller revelation of himself would have been rejected on the basis of how different it was? It was partly the people's acceptance of the fact that the God of their fathers was also the God of their deliverance that was the basis of their following Moses.

Many generations later the people's understanding of God would become so solidified that they would not as easily receive God's coming to them with a new name and fuller revelation. God would come to deliver his people again, but with a name that they had not yet known. The day would come when God would reveal himself in the name of "Yeshua" (salvation). All that the Messiah taught and represented was in keeping with God's revelation of himself up to that point. Yet it was a new day similar to that of Moses' time in that a time of oppression was coming to an end. And just like in the time of Moses, God's salvation through Yeshua would reveal aspects of his character that were not yet known. Sadly, many today continue in their refusal to accept God's fuller revelation of himself in Yeshua, but it is not too late to do so.

Then there are others who, for some reason, believe that God has in recent times revealed himself in a fuller sense again, thinking that he wants us to know him is such ways as "Multi-Faith God", "Mother God", or "God of Absolute Acceptance". But God's names are never based on our own perception of him. This is one of the things we learn from how he revealed himself to Moses. The name "Yod-Hey-Vav-Heh" is derived from "I AM WHO I AM" (Shemot / Exodus 3:14; ESV). God is the self-defining one, whose being and character is beyond human analysis. Accurately understanding God must be based on his self-disclosure, not upon our preferences.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

TorahBytes: The Foundation of Anti-Semitism (Shemot)

Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, "Behold, the people of Israel are too many and too mighty for us. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, lest they multiply, and, if war breaks out, they join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land." (Shemot / Exodus 1:8-10; ESV)

The first recorded expression of anti-Semitism is perhaps the Egyptian oppression of the people of Israel prior to the Exodus. At first glance Pharaoh's fear of the Israelites' potential threat may sound reasonable. What was Pharaoh's guaranty that they would not turn on the Egyptians one day? But why assume the worst, especially when relations between these two peoples were good for so many years? There is no reason to think that Egypt was in danger at that time. The slim chance that Israel would support Egypt's enemies became in Pharaoh's mind an enormous and immediate threat that required extreme and aggressive action by way of methodological oppression through enslavement. Pharaoh's unreasonable fear led to a completely warped view of the people of Israel.

The root cause of Pharaoh's unreasonable behavior is made clear in the Torah's telling of this story: "Now there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph" (Shemot / Exodus 1:8; ESV). Pharaoh's warped view of the people of Israel stemmed from his disregard of what Joseph represented. The reason that the people of Israel lived in Egypt was because of Joseph's special role many years before. Inspired by God, Joseph foretold of a coming famine and counselled the Pharaoh of his day to adequately prepare for it. Recognizing Joseph's wisdom for what it was, Pharaoh appointed him administrator of both the preparation for the coming famine and the distribution of food during it. When Joseph was eventually reconciled to his family, Pharaoh invited the whole clan to settle in Egypt, where they prospered.

Disregarding this history severed the good relationship enjoyed by Egyptians and Israelites for generations. The presence of the Israelites in Egypt was no longer regarded for what it was: a reminder of God's blessing upon Egypt. Israel's presence in Egypt was unusual. It was something that could only be properly understood by acknowledging the hand of God. Failing to understand this led to Pharaoh's suspicion and fear.

Israel's experience in Egypt foreshadows its entire history. Disregarding God's role in that history is the very foundation of anti-Semitism. Failure to recognize God's hand upon Israel results in the kind of insane abuse encountered in Egypt so long ago. Israel's place in the world will always seem strange when God is not taken into account.

Whether people are aware of it or not, the presence of Israel in the world forces us to deal with God's reality. That is why reactions to Israel and its affairs are so extreme. Through Israel, God exposes our hearts.

Two weeks ago I discussed how Joseph's brothers' resentment of him was actually symptomatic of their disregard for their father (see In the same way how we view Israel exposes aspects of our relationship to the God of Israel. Israel's unique place in the world is not random, nor is it due to political intrigue, economic manipulation or military might. Just like their presence in Egypt long ago, Israel's existence today is due to God's providential hand.

This is not to say that Israel and the Jewish people are beyond criticism and correction. Israel, like all nations, should be accountable to those who uphold God's justice and righteousness. But this must be done with respect and humility. Not because Israel is better than any other nation, but because of God's vested interest in Israel, for not only does Israel have a special place in the plans and purposes of God, in its prosperity and security is blessing for the entire world.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

TorahBytes: Don't Count on Circumstances (Va-Yehi)

When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, "Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head." But his father refused and said, "I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations." (Bereshit / Genesis 48:17-19; ESV)

Do you predict the future? I think most people do - not in the formal sense, but informally. As we face our lives day by day, most of us make plans based on how we think life will be in the near future. We look at weather reports to decide what to wear or to determine travel plans. We believe our heath condition will remain unchanged. We trust that our personal finances will be stable. We assume that if our job is secure today, it will be so tomorrow. We depend upon our relationships. On the basis of these predictions (unconscious as they may be), we plan our lives.

If we stopped to think about it, I am pretty sure that we are aware that nothing in life is for sure, but that doesn't stop us from our tendency to predict that the way things are is the way they will be.

In ancient Israel as in many ancient and modern cultures a person's place in life was determined by several factors, one of these being their birth order. First-born males were given special place. That was the way it was and there was nothing one could do about it. Even in cultures where such customs are not officially practiced, the circumstances into which a person is born still makes a huge difference in their lives. Other factors also influence the kinds of opportunities a person may have in life. While many people have been known to overcome life's limitations, most people most of the time seem to be controlled by their circumstances. The way things are is the way they will always be.

The incident reported in this week's Torah portion undermines this though. Near the end of Jacob's life, Jacob's son Joseph brought his own children to be blessed by their grandfather. Contrary to custom Jacob, in spite of Joseph's protests, gave the younger the greater blessing. This was not the first time this sort of thing occurred in the lives of the patriarchs. In fact, throughout the Bible, we encounter many unlikely people who are drawn into situations contrary to expected societal norms.

In the case of Jacob and his grandchildren, the unexpected turn of events was not by random chance, but by purposeful decision. This reflects the purposeful decisions of God himself as he affects people's personal lives.

This should challenge how we look at life. We cannot accurately predict our future based on analyzing circumstances. Moreover, the unpredictability of our future is not because of the influence of random chance. Rather, unexpected changes in circumstances are due to God's direct involvement in life, not because of good and bad luck.

We cannot count on circumstances - good or bad - continuing as is. Neither can we predict the unexpected changes of life we may suddenly face. The way things are is not necessarily what they will be. Rather than focusing on unreliable circumstances, let us trust God who is greater than our circumstances.