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."