Saturday, February 21, 2009

TorahBytes: Voluntary Giving (Terumah)

The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me." (Shemot / Exodus 25:1,2; ESV)

Through Moses God initiated a national building project. By voluntary contributions materials were to be collected for the building of the mishkan (English: tabernacle). The mishkan was a large tent-like structure where the sacrifices were performed. It was to be the focal point for the entire nation and the place where, in some sense, God's presence was to reside.

Giving to this project was absolutely voluntary. This is in contrast to the great many obligations God laid upon the Israelites. We are not told why contributing to the mishkan was not compulsory, it just wasn't. What we do know is that this project was so successful, Moses had to tell the people to stop giving (See Shemot / Exodus 36:6).

It is a wonderful thing when God initiates something and his people respond so positively. I don't know what would have happened if the people would not have contributed as they did. Would Moses have given additional appeals? Would God, who originally called for voluntary contributions, oblige the people after all?

I tend to think that since God had determined that this project was to be funded voluntarily that he knew the risk and would not change course. Now, being God he knew how the people would respond, but that brings up the issue of God's foreknowledge, which I don't want to discuss at the moment.

What I do want to discuss is our need to know the difference between obligatory and voluntary giving. These two kinds of giving exist throughout the entire Bible. There are some things to which God obliges us and other things to which he invites us to be involved without obligation.

Caring for our families is obligatory (Matthew 15:1-6; 1 Timothy 5:8). Providing for our leaders both governmental and congregational is part of our God-given duty (Romans 13;6,7; 1 Timothy 5:17). But not all giving is obligatory. While the Bible encourages us to be generous toward those in need, it is wrong to oblige people or attempt to manipulate them in order to extract funds from them (1 Corinthians 9:7). If God's own building project was funded by voluntary contributions, how much more should our projects be?

I wish more congregations would be upfront with their real needs, especially when it comes to the welfare of those who legitimately serve its members. Active congregational members should be adequately informed about the needs of those who serve them and encouraged to do their duty as members to help meet their needs. But when congregational leadership have visions (perhaps from God) to attempt major projects, whether it be for buildings or other things, we would do well to follow God's example: lay out the vision before the people and let those give whose hearts move them in this way. If God hasn't obligated the people to give, who are we to so burden them? God loves a cheerful giver. Those who don't want to give should not give.

Don't get me wrong. As I have already mentioned, in situations when we are truly obliged to give, we must give. I also understand that people need to be taught the value of generosity. But that is not the same as extracting funds from unwilling hearts.

If you are on the receiving end of endless appeals for funds, I suggest you seek to discern if it is really God who is calling you to give. If it is, then you would do well to be generous. Otherwise don't be pressured.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

TorahBytes: God's Rules (Mishpatim)

Now these are the rules that you shall set before them. (Shemot / Exodus 21:1; ESV)

This week's Torah portion includes rules regarding personal property liability, the penalties for causing bodily harm, parent-child relationships, behavior towards handicapped persons, equity of the law with regard to non-citizens, the consequences for engaging in certain kinds of illegitimate religious activities, and so on. The wisdom in many of these rules is self evident and can be found in the law codes of many societies throughout the world today.

Those desiring to take the Scriptures seriously typically ask the question, "How do we know which rules still apply in our day?" Traditional Judaism asserts that everything in the Torah (five books of Moses) that was directed to the people of Israel still applies to the people of Israel. The exception would be the elements of the sacrificial system. Some traditionalists look forward to the day when a new Temple will be built and the sacrificial system will be reinstated.

There are some New Covenant believers who have a similar understanding of Torah precepts. They see that the Torah as given at Mt. Sinai is eternal. They may or may not look forward to the reestablishment of the sacrificial system due to their understanding of Yeshua's role in fulfilling that particular aspect of the Torah. They tend to see that one of the purposes (if not the prime purpose) of the Gospel is to bring the Torah to the nations.

This view of the Torah doesn't jive with the teaching of the New Covenant Scriptures, however. In fact, it doesn't jive with the anticipation of the Old Covenant Scriptures either. The Torah as given to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai was more than a law code. It was a covenant, something similar to a national constitution. It governed more than behavior; it established the relationship between Israel and God. When Israel broke the covenant, God determined to establish a new covenant, not like the old one (see Jeremiah 31:31-34).

This New Covenant was established by the Messiah Yeshua. The New Covenant's foundational difference from the Old Covenant was the basis through which right relationship with God was established and maintained. Under the Old Covenant this was founded on the Levitical priesthood and the Temple and was fundamentally for the people of Israel during the years of preparation until the Messiah's coming. Under the New Covenant right relationship with God is founded upon the person and work of Yeshua and is freely open to the full participation of all people regardless of nationality.

While there is wonderful continuity between the Old and New Covenants, the Old Covenant as a system of regulations is incompatible with the New. Since the basis of relationship with God has been transformed because of what the Messiah has done, the Old Covenant system is obsolete.

This understanding of Torah is actually similar to that of traditional Judaism. The absence of a temple with its priesthood and sacrifices along with the rejection of Yeshua as the Messiah forced a complete overhaul of Judaism. Some may think that Judaism upholds the Torah when the fact is it cannot without its Levitical foundation in place. Attempts by some messianics to make Yeshua the new foundation of the old system is misguided and uninformed.

This leaves us with the question of what do we do with Torah regulations such as many of the ones listed in this week's portion? Just because the system within which these regulations were communicated is transformed doesn't mean that every detail is irrelevant. Certainly when God communicated his ways to Israel of old, while there were elements unique to that covenant, there were also a great many things that apply to all people of all times. Determining which ones those are require humility, spiritual sensitivity, and much study. The New Covenant emphasis of love of God and neighbor should drive us to delve into the Scriptures to discover God's heart for the specifics on how we should live our lives.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

TorahBytes: God Is Who He Is (Yitro)

And the LORD said to Moses, "Thus you shall say to the people of Israel: 'You have seen for yourselves that I have talked with you from heaven. You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.'" (Shemot / Exodus 20:22,23; ESV)

One of the most basic truths in the Torah that we have difficulty accepting is that God is who he is. That God is who he is and not something else may sound like a simple and reasonable concept, but I am not sure how easy it is to grasp.

Throughout the Hebrew Bible, idolatry was common. The wrongness of idolatry is expressed in two ways. One way is through the creation of false gods. In much of the ancient world and in many places today people worship all sorts of gods in the form of an idol. The idol may either be a god or represent a god other than the one true God. When God said to Israel, "You shall have no other gods before me" (Shemot / Exodus 20:30), he was most likely referring to this kind of idolatry.

The second way idolatry is expressed is by representing the true God in the form of an idol. This is what Moses' brother Aaron did when he crafted the golden calf at Mt. Sinai (see Shemot / Exodus 32). He claimed that the God who delivered them from Egypt was being represented by means of the statue he made.

While both forms of idolatry are evil and dangerous, it's this second form that is more difficult to detect and avoid. It is a form of idolatry that we don't readily notice and when we do, we are slow to reject it. It is this form of idolatry that is being addressed in the verses I read at the beginning. Because God revealed himself to the people, they were not to represent him in ways contrary to who he really was.

It will be quickly apparent that I am using the term "idolatry" not exclusively in the sense of statue or statue-like objects, but in the broader sense of anything that serves the purpose of replacing God. This is especially applicable when dealing with this second form of idolatry. We may not create a physical representation of the true God, but we may conceive of him in all sorts of ways contrary to who he really is. So while we may not bow down to literal statues, we claim to know the true God when we actually don't.

Does this mean to truly know God we need to understand him perfectly? Of course not! As imperfect and finite human beings we don't have the ability to perfectly conceive of the infinite God. But this is no excuse to allow ourselves to introduce false notions about God, when he has adequately revealed himself to us through the Scriptures.

It seems to me that it is has become more and more popular today for those who claim to accept the Bible's authority to mold the God of the Bible into an image with which they feel most comfortable. How we feel about God has replaced who God really is. Perception trumps reality. Preference is valued over truth. We fail to realize that the filters through which we understand God serve to blind us as to who he really is. We pick and choose from the Bible what we like about God and add a sprinkling of pop culture and politically correct ideology in an attempt to make him acceptable and less embarrassing.

God has adequately revealed himself through the Scriptures. Allowing him to dictate to us who he really is and strip away false notions about him - no matter how uncomfortable that may be - is the only way to truly know the one true God.

Sunday, February 01, 2009

TorahBytes: Cause and Effect (Be-Shallah)

If you will diligently listen to the voice of the LORD your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer. (Shemot / Exodus 15:26; ESV)

Through Moses, God promised that if the people of Israel would obey his commandments, they would not be afflicted with the diseases experienced by the Egyptians. I don't know if the reference to disease is limited to the ten plagues or to diseases in general. Either way begs the question: what is the relationship between obedience to God and personal health?

Some think that there is a direct correlation between keeping the commandments and health as if God's regulations are healthy in and of themselves. For example, it is generally agreed that pork is far more prone to certain kinds of harmful bacteria than beef, especially in a culture in which modern hygiene was unknown. Eating biblically defined clean animals would have been healthier than eating biblically defined unclean animals regardless of whether the eater was aware that this distinction had anything to do with God's commandments.

There are other Old Covenant regulations that seem to have a direct correlation to health, such as the handling of human waste. There are still places in the world that don't manage sewage properly and suffer from easily avoidable disease. Also, if societies would follow the biblical sexual laws, they would avoid a great deal (if not all) of sexually transmitted diseases.

It is difficult to deny that at least in some cases a direct correlation between God's regulations and personal health does exist, but there is something about trying to understand God's Word in this way that undermines God's own intention in communicating his will to us.

There is something curious about the verse I quoted. While on one hand it sounds as if keeping God's commandments is the way to avoid disease, the basis of health according to this verse is not adherence to a healthy lifestyle per se, but the activity of God in response to the people's obedience: "I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians, for I am the LORD, your healer." The Torah doesn't say that keeping God's commands will keep the people healthy, but rather that God himself will prevent disease in response to obedience. Moreover, it is instructive that in this context God calls himself "the LORD, your healer," indicating that it is God who makes and keeps his obedient people healthy, not their lifestyle.

Scientifically oriented people (which I believe includes most people reading or listening to this) have difficulty grasping such a concept, since we have been conditioned to look at life through a lens of strict physical cause and effect. Again, I am not saying that direct correlations between God's commands and human health do not exist, but rather that the true basis of how all this works is spiritual, not physical. Therefore a scientific analysis of God's commandments is not the key to health and is certainly not what the Torah is teaching here. What God was seeking to impress upon the people was their need to obey him. It was not an encouragement to discover effective techniques in the achieving of physical health.

This is not to say that we should neglect God's Word. Far from it! As we have read, we should be diligent to listen to God's voice and to do what is right in his eyes, being attentive to his commandments and keeping his statutes. Exactly what this entails under the New Covenant is a different issue, but let's not reduce God's Word to simple practical advice detached from the One who has spoken them. Instead, let us obey God's Word, because we love him who loves us and knows what is best for us.