Sunday, December 19, 2010

TorahBytes: A People in Process (Shemot)

Then the LORD said, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the place of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites." (Shemot / Exodus 3:7, 8; ESV)

There are many unique features regarding the nation of Israel. First and foremost is that even though every nation is the product of the providence of God, Israel was specially created by God for a particular purpose, namely to be God's chosen channel through which to make himself known to the world. It is no wonder therefore that Israel's history should be as complex and interesting as it is.

One interesting aspect to Israel's history is how the nation migrated from place to place under God's direction for very specific reasons. This started with Abraham and his call to move his household from Mesopotamia to what was then known as the land of Canaan. Even though all he came to possess in his own lifetime was a burial plot, God said his descendants would one day possess the entire region. But God told Abraham that before this would happen his descendants would first be servants in a foreign land for 400 years (Bereshit / Genesis 15:13, 14).

It would be through a most complex set of circumstances that Abraham's grandson Jacob and his clan would be brought to Egypt, where at first they were most graciously treated and only sometime later would come under oppressive servitude. This is what sets the stage for God's deliverance of the people under the leadership of Moses and his brother, Aaron.

God's deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt was itself a process by which God demonstrated his power. It was necessary for Israel to witness God's mighty hand in this way in order to prepare them for serving God in the years ahead. They would be taught many important lessons through this and their years of wandering in the wilderness followed by the conquest of Canaan under Moses' successor, Joshua.

As they came to possess the Land, God would continue to instruct them in his ways. As the people and their leaders would most often fail to live according to God's instructions, God would send prophets, his spokespeople, to speak his Word to them in hopes that they would trust God and live life as he intended. However, human nature as it is, Israel did not live up to God's standards, thus resulting in dispersion and exile. Most nations by this time would cease to exist, but God was not finished with Israel - more lessons to be learned - more of God and his ways to be revealed to them and through them. During this period, the anticipation of a Great Deliver, the Messiah, began to become part of the psyche of the nation.

Eventually some of Israel returned to re-establish itself in the Promised Land. The anticipation of the Messiah grew until Yeshua appeared on the scene. He accomplished all that God purposed for him, including the giving of himself as the perfect and eternal sacrifice for sin and the conquering of death through his rising from the dead. During his time on earth he continued to put Israel through a process by preparing a small remnant to journey out into the world, thus fulfilling God's promise to Abraham by making himself known to all peoples.

I get the impression that people don't like being put through process. We tend to want to learn things easily and quickly and get to a place in life where we are done: no more learning; no more process. We like to have things figured out. This is true for the atheist and believer alike. We make our philosophical and theological determinations and spend the rest of lives defending our positions and/or ignoring challenging ideas. The agnostic is no
different in their stubbornness to accept that Truth can be known, preferring to hold onto the illusionary comfort of indecision.

But for those who truly walk with God, there is a process through which God puts us. God is preparing us for an eternity with him. This preparation involves a lifelong education through which all sorts of means are at God's disposal. God is not satisfied with leaving us where we are at in life. In order for his plans and purposes to be accomplished in and through us, he will often upset our circumstances, taking us on to the unknown and the uncomfortable. It is as we give ourselves over to God's process that we are most able to learn the lessons he is seeking to teach us and be all that he wants us to be.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

TorahBytes: Misinformed Feelings (Va-Yehi)

When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, "It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him." So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, "Your father gave this command before he died, 'Say to Joseph, Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.' And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father." Joseph wept when they spoke to him. (Bereshit / Genesis 50:15-17; ESV)

Just as God revealed to Joseph in dreams years before, God placed him in a position of power over his family. No one could have guessed the context in which this would occur. Second only to Pharaoh in Egypt, Joseph administered a massive food program which sustained not only Egypt during a severe famine, but also the surrounding region. Joseph's brothers had no clue that when they plotted against him they were seeking to destroy the very person God had planned to use to save them. In a way only God can do, he used Joseph's brothers' violent hatred of him as the means by which Joseph was put into a position to preserve not only their own lives, but the destiny of their whole nation.

Imagine what it must have been like for the brothers to spend the rest of their lives in Egypt under the good graces of Joseph. I am sure they were well aware of how blessed they were in a material sense, having suffered through the first years of the famine. At the same time, it must have been very difficult emotionally. We know this from our passage. They had figured that Joseph was only being kind to them for their father's sake. They thought that once Jacob had died, they would be the targets of Joseph's vengeance.

It is most likely that the message they sent to Joseph about Jacob's request regarding forgiving them was fabricated. But they were understandably scared of what Joseph might do to them. After all, they deserved retribution for their evil, and Joseph had it in his power to severely mistreat them.

But note Joseph's response to them. He wept. Joseph was heartbroken that they thought the way they did. As we saw last week, Joseph regarded God as having the upper hand in his ordeal. He knew that God was using him to preserve his family. He had no animosity towards them, his graciousness toward his brothers was firmly rooted in his trust in God.

I don't blame the brothers for not being quick to accept where Joseph was at. They certainly had not conducted their own lives this way. If the roles would have been reversed, then they may have taken advantage of their position of power and insist on retribution. They couldn't fathom that someone could forgive, accept, and love them as Joseph did.

I wonder if God weeps for us much like Joseph did for his brothers.

How often do we relate to God, not on the basis of reality, but from misinformed feelings? He has done everything necessary so that we could be in an intimate relationship with him. Through the Messiah he has demonstrated to us his forgiveness, acceptance, and love. It is understandable that those who refuse to turn to him in repentance and trust would feel alienated from him, but those who have been reconciled to him have no reason to fear his rejection.

One reason for being uncertain about how God relates to us could be due to serious unresolved issues in our lives. Having a sense of God's disapproval when we are involved in truly wrong things is appropriate. That sense of disapproval is a sign of God's work in our lives and should drive us to get right with him.

But other times we are uncertain in our relationship with God due to misinformed feelings. This comes from basing our understanding of him more on how we see ourselves and life, than on how God has revealed himself. God, like Joseph, grieves over our how we allow our feelings to misinform us. When we begin to base our understanding of God on his own revelation of himself rather than upon our misinformed feelings, we will begin to relate to him in the way he longs for us to.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Hanukkah Day Eight: Taking Action

Tonight we light the eighth and final Hanukkah light for another year. We wouldn't have anything to celebrate if Matitiyahu and the Maccabees hadn't moved from thought to action. It is one thing to remember the events of the past and perhaps respond emotionally, but until these events move us to action, then the purpose of the holiday is not fulfilled.

As we light the eighth light this evening and once more acknowledge the miracles God did for our ancestors long ago at this time of year, may God do miracles through us now. And just like long ago, miracles happen when we don't just think about them, but act upon what we claim to believe.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Hanukkah Day Six: On being a lamp stand

The most common symbol of Hanukkah is a nine-branch candelabra, called a Hanukiah or Hanukah Menorah. Eight of the lights represent the eight days of Hanukah. On the first evening (the Jewish day begins at sundown) one candle is lit and then an additional candle is lit on each subsequent evening until all eight are lit on the final evening. The special ninth candle is called the Shamash or the "servant ". Its purpose is to light the other lights and is always offset from the others. This way the purpose of the eight lights is preserved, whose sole purpose is to proclaim the miracle of Hanukkah and nothing else.

Hanukkah happened partly because the Jewish people had forgotten their purpose. Having been called to be a light to the nations, their light had all but extinguished. The people were beginning to adopt the customs of the prevailing culture and neglected those things that distinguished them from the rest of the world.

In order to be what we are called to be we need to be what we are called to be. Obvious perhaps? Yes, but it is so easy to neglect what distinguishes us from the rest of the world. To be the lights we are called to be, we must make sure that we don't give ourselves to other purposes.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

TorahBytes: God Has the Upper Hand (Va-Yiggash)

And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God. (Bereshit / Genesis 45:7, 8; ESV)

Joseph was a victim of betrayal and abuse from his immediate family, which resulted in his being sold into slavery in Egypt and eventually into spending years imprisoned in a dungeon. Yet the day would come when he would face the perpetrators of his abuse and tell them that it was not them who sent him to Egypt, but God.

Did Joseph only say this because he was now the second most powerful person in Egypt? When we experience remarkable changes of circumstances for the better, it is easy to give God the credit. But would he have said this sort of thing if he would have remained in the dungeon till his dying day? It's hard to say, since that is not what happened. Still, a reasonable question would be does God only deserve the credit when we experience positive remarkable circumstances or is he intimately involved like this in both good and bad times? A third possibility is does God only get intimately involved like this occasionally? Does life normally go on without his direct intervention? If so, then most of the time it would be inappropriate to make a statement like Joseph's even when things do turn out well, unless we somehow know for certain God was involved.

My impression is that most people live life according to this third possibility. If God exists at all, his involvement in life is viewed as unpredictable and sporadic and therefore undependable. Sure, there are stories like Joseph's, but even if they are true, they are special cases.

Certainly there are aspects of Joseph's story that are unusual. First, this is the unfolding of God's specific plan for the world through the development of his chosen people, Israel. Second, God had already predicted Joseph's rise to power through his dreams while he was still living with his family in Canaan. So perhaps Joseph was only commenting on God's special role in his particular circumstances without purposely implying that this was a general principle that applies to everyone at all times.

While Joseph was most likely not making a general statement about God's workings in all of life, could he have made this statement without having such an understanding? There is something about Joseph's composure and faithfulness to God throughout his ordeal that speaks of real depth of faith on his part. So his comments about God's involvement in his circumstances were not a result of the outcome only, but of a life that was truly grounded in the understanding that God always has the upper hand in everything.

God's upper hand is not always evident as our lives unfold. But for those who truly love God, knowing that he has the upper hand is a great comfort. As we read in the New Covenant Scriptures, "And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28; ESV).

This is not cold deterministic fatalism. Far from it! The confidence exemplified by Joseph does not stem from a philosophical conviction over how the universe works, but rather from an intimate, personal relationship with the universe's Creator and Master. How comforting to know that our Father in Heaven has the upper hand!

Hanukkah Day Five: Taking a stand

The true story of Hanukkah begins in the ancient Israeli town of Modi'in with a cohen (English: priest) named Matitiyahu, who not only refused to sacrifice to Greek gods, but also slew his fellow Jewish countryman, who was willing to do so. The adoption of Greek pagan customs was prevalent throughout the land. Matitiyahu's drastic action was what was necessary to begin to restore righteousness in Israel.

How often do we find ourselves in situations where taking a stand for what is right is necessary? And yet, for one reason or another, we do nothing. Most of the time the issue at hand is nowhere near as drastic as what Israel faced in those days. Most of the time the type of drastic measures that Matitiyahu employed are not necessary. Most of the time what's needed is simply saying, "no". Yet, we say nothing. We do nothing. Sadly, when we get in the habit of not taking a stand for small things, we won't for the bigger ones either.

So as we prepare to light the fifth candle this evening, may God bring to mind those things for which we need to take a stand right now.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Hanukkah Day Three: Festival of Lights

Another name for Hanukkah is the Festival of Lights, a name given to it by the first-century Jewish historian Josephus. The lighting of lights at Hanukkah may be due to its being patterned after the Festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles), which in ancient times featured the lighting of lamps.

We read in the Psalms, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path" (Psalm 199:105; ESV). Life without God's Word is to live in darkness. Without God's Word we are left to human opinion and power, groping meaninglessly is an enormous universe. With God's Word, we live in light, our way illumined before enabling us to navigate a hostile world.

This was the experience of the Maccabees. In the midst of the growing darkness of oppressive assimilation, they stood in the light of God's Word and took action based on his Truth, which resulted in the restoration of the true worship of God in the land of Israel in their day.

When our eyes are opened to God's Word, we see life according to reality. We can no longer pretend that life is something it is not. If we let his light burn bright within us, then we, like the Maccabees, will no longer allow darkness to prevail.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Hanukkah Day Two: The true miracle

Each night of Hanukkah, when we light the candles, we say the following blessing: Baruch ata adonai eloheinu melech ha-olam she-asa nissim la-avoteinu bayamim hahem bazman ha-ze (English: Blessed are you, O Lord our God, King of the universe, who did miracles for our fathers in days of old, at this season). What miracles? In answer to that question, most people would recount the legend of the single cruse of holy oil that was found when the Maccabees reclaimed and cleansed the temple. It is said that this single cruse of oil miraculously lasted for eight days. But what most people are not aware of is that there is very little evidence for the historicity of this legend. It seems that it was introduced by the rabbis as to detract from the military and political victory of the Maccabees.

If the oil story is legend, then what are the miracles being recounted by the blessing. It is noteworthy that Yeshua when he was in Jerusalem for Hanukkah, used the occasion of this feast to speak about his own miracles (see John 10:22-28). The miracles of Hanukkah have to do with the surprising victory of the small Jewish army over the vast, mighty Greco-Syrian army. It was the Maccabees' faithfulness to God and his ways that spurred them on to resist the oppressive, assimilating policies of that day's world power. And like King David before Goliath, the God of Israel gave Israel's enemies into their hands.

Hanukkah then is a reminder to us, that those who trust and follow the true God can expect great wonders from his hand. Because of him, there is no reason to be intimidated by whatever the world might throw at us. As we anticipate the second night of Hanukkah, let us expect the miraculous again.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Hanukkah Day One: Heritage of Light

Tonight we light the first light of Hanukkah. Did you know that it was to a large crowd of Jewish people that Yeshua said the words, "You are the light of the world? (Matthew 5:14). The people of Israel are called by God to be a light. It is difficult for us to picture the state of the world when these words were spoken two thousand years ago, but most of it was it was in utter darkness - "having no hope and without God" (Ephesians 2:12). Israel was different, for the Jewish people had the gift of God's light, his Torah (see Romans 3:1, 2). What a marvelous heritage - what a great responsibility!

With the coming of Yeshua, God's light has shone, not just in Israel, but throughout the whole world, dispelling the darkness. On this the first night of Hanukkah, may the light of God's reality in the Messiah shine in us and through us.

Monday, November 29, 2010

TorahBytes: Waiting (Miketz / Hanukkah)

After two whole years, Pharaoh dreamed that he was standing by the Nile (Bereshit / Genesis 41:1; ESV)

The Torah, as well as the whole Bible, is not wordy. Perhaps that was due to the scarcity and cost of writing materials in those days, but the lack of lengthy description in no way diminishes its literary depth. So much is communicated in surprisingly few words. An example of this is found in the short phrase at the beginning of our opening quote, "After two whole years". The Hebrew reads, "Va-yehi miketz shenatayim yamim", literally translated as, "And it was at the end of two years of days". The choosing of this kind of expression underscores for us how long a time it really was. The English Standard Version tries to get this across by using "two whole years," but it seems to me that for readers of English, statements of time tend to be understood simply as calendar references. Yet there is more going on here than "Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream." By telling us that "two years of days" went by, we are drawn into the experience of Joseph, who after correctly interpreting the dreams of his fellow dungeon inmates. who happened to be servants of Pharaoh, had to endure over 700 more individual days in that horrible place.

All throughout the Bible we have stories of people who had to endure great hardship for long periods of time. When we read these accounts, to us the waiting periods seem to fly by in an instant, unless we stop and think about it. In Joseph's case in particular, the wording, at least in the original Hebrew, draws our attention to what the passing of time must have been for Joseph after all he had gone through, first in being hated by his own brothers, who sold him into slavery in Egypt, and then his unjust incarceration in an Egyptian dungeon. While God was with him and gave him favor in these difficult circumstances, we cannot underestimate just how difficult it must all have been.

God doesn't work according to our expectation of time. If we would have our druthers, we would get everything instantly. It's as if we think that getting something faster is almost always preferred. But that is not God's way. Good food takes time to grow. Good food takes time to prepare. It takes time to manufacture quality products. Living things develop over time. Good character takes a lifetime.

It is likely that Joseph wasn't ready for the kind of rulership for which God was preparing him. I don't think a person like Joseph, who had no issue telling on his brothers and broadcasting his dreams that spoke of his having a place of prominence among them, would necessarily treat them with the level of kindness that he ended up showing. It is possible that the time delay was partly designed to do a deep work in his heart, so that he would be to his family what they needed him to be despite their earlier abuse of him. I am aware that the Torah gives no comment as to the work of God in Joseph's life, but what we do know is that he endured abusive oppressive circumstances for a long time and that there was something about those last two years that were especially long.

Whatever God was doing in Joseph's heart and life, is this not what many of us go through? There is a proverb that says, "Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life" (Mishlei / Proverbs 13:12: ESV). Waiting for God-given expectations to be fulfilled can be sickening. Those of us who have experienced this at times think we would be better off not having such hopes than to wait and be given glimpses of our hope's fulfillment, only to have to wait again.

But God knows what he is doing. His sense of timing is perfect. We will never know all that he is doing as we wait, but we can be assured that if we truly love God, he is doing everything necessary to accomplish his purposes in us and through us.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

TorahBytes: God Is in Charge (Va-Yeshev)

Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit/ Genesis 37:3-5; ESV)

The story of Joseph is one of the most mind-blowing stories in the entire Bible. It is the story of how God uses a most dysfunctional family for his plan and purposes. Not only did he use jealousy and hatred to preserve the nation of Israel, but also of Egypt and the surrounding region. Joseph's understanding of how God was involved in his difficult circumstances are summed up by his words to his brothers some time after the whole clan moved to Egypt, when he said, "you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today" (Bereshit / Genesis 50:20; ESV). There is no doubt in Joseph's mind that God's good intentions for Israel, Egypt, and many others were carried out through his brothers' evil intentions.

Let's look at some of the details of what happened. Joseph, the eleventh of twelve sons, was his father's favorite. Jacob had no qualms about broadcasting his feelings about Joseph in public in that he gave Joseph the gift of an extraordinary outer garment. Joseph had no qualms about speaking badly about his brothers to their father. This all would be sufficient to cause significant problems between Joseph and his brothers, We read "But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him" (Bereshit / Genesis 37:4; ESV).

Then we read that Joseph had two dreams that predicted that he would rule over his parents and brothers. We do not know Joseph's motivation in sharing his dreams with his family, since the Torah provides no behind-the-scenes commentary on what he was thinking. All we know is that his older brothers hated him all the more to the point of wanting to kill him. One day when Jacob sent Joseph to check up on them, they were about to murder him. The eldest brother, Reuben, convinced the others to hold off in hopes of rescuing him. While Reuben was away attending something, the nine brothers sold him to slave traders on their way to Egypt. They then deceived their father into thinking that Joseph was killed by wild animals. Do note if it wasn't for Reuben's intervention, Joseph would have been killed.

Joseph served as a slave in Egypt. Yet God made him successful in his work. Even when he resisted his master's wife's advances, which ended up in his going to prison, there too God was with him, resulting in his being put in charge of the other prisoners. It was due to his accurate interpretation of some dreams of his fellow prisoners that he was eventually called up to interpret some of Pharaoh's dreams, thus resulting in his release and promotion to second in command in Egypt. This was the set up for the fulfillment of Joseph's earlier dreams concerning him and his family.

In the midst of all the human intrigue, jealousy, hatred, and lust, God's was at work for good. The Torah in no way excuses the evil just because God used it for his own good purposes. Also, there is no impression given that God made the bad stuff happen. The people did the bad. Yet the bad stuff served the overall purposes of God.

People also did the good stuff. Joseph was faithful to God in the midst of his terrible circumstances. It was not as if he was a passive spectator as God manipulated the situation to accomplish his purposes. He actively trusted God and worked hard. At the same time, it was not as if Joseph had the ability in himself to make things work out as they did. God did that. The Torah gives no impression that people are mechanically controlled by spiritual forces. Human responsibility in the affairs of life is not an illusion, but a reality. But whatever effect our actions have, God's plans and purposes cannot be thwarted. That's why we can trust him no matter what happens to us. While we cannot understand how this works, it is comforting to know that God is in charge.

Monday, November 15, 2010

TorahBytes: Getting a Hold of God (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." (Bereshit / Genesis 32:24-26; ESV)

You cannot encounter the God of Israel without being transformed. This certainly was Jacob's experience, but not Jacob's only. The Torah and the rest of the Scriptures contain all sorts of examples of people whose lives were radically changed as a result of encountering God. What is interesting is how each person's story is unique, which is one of many aspects that testify to the genuineness of these experiences.

Another such aspect is how unusual and unexpected these encounters are. They don't sound made up. The account of God wrestling with Jacob is a case in point. Who would make up a story where the Master of the Universe initiates a wrestling match with a key character, Jacob, who was in terror of his twin brother's wrath? Not only that, Jacob locks on to God to the point that God requests to be let go (God requests to be let go?), and that is only after God permanently injures Jacob's hip. Jacob knows that this was an extraordinary encounter, for he says, "I have seen God face to face, and yet my life has been delivered" (32:30; ESV).

One of the questions that arises from this story is who was really holding on to whom? On one hand God requests to be let go and Jacob says he won't until God blesses him. On the other hand how could it be that Jacob could hold on to God like that? Jacob himself is surprised that he survived this encounter at all, apart from how unusual it was that he held on to God as he did.

I like studying theology. I love to grapple with the truths of Scripture in order to get to know God better and how to live life the way he intended. Yet, as I study theology I sometimes find a disconnect between the way some people try to explain the truths that they supposedly derive from Scripture and the reality of God in the Bible itself. What is often missing is an overwhelming sense of wonder in the attempt to explain the infinite God of the Universe. How could we read stories like this one and presume that we can fit the teaching of Scripture into neat little categories or claim to discern how all its loose ends fit together into a fine-tuned system.

When I compare the result of the know-it-all attitudes of some teachers with what we actually find in the Scriptures, I am led to believe that what these people are putting forward is not just lacking in its details, but in the very essence of their teaching. In other words, they are completely misrepresenting both God and his written Word.

Teaching that is in keeping with the reality of God is one that reflects the examples of the genuine encounters with God that we find in the Bible. This is teaching that leads us to greater and greater humility before God and people. It is honest about human failure and sin, while demonstrating that God is our rescuer through the Messiah. It highlights our need to depend solely on God, putting him and his agenda first. This kind of teaching never leads us to thinking that we know it all or have God and life figured out (this is why I am hesitant to embrace an "ism" or becoming an "ist", if you know what I mean). In fact, the more we truly learn the Bible, we discover how much more there is to learn about God and life, not less. This is not to say that what we learn on the way is not valid. Far from it! Whatever we learn about God and his Word today is essential for what we will learn in the future. But we should never think that we can get a handle on God. Like Jacob, we need to learn that the more we get a hold of God, it is actually God who is getting a hold of us, or however it actually works.

Sunday, November 07, 2010

TorahBytes: A Biblical View of Life (Va-Yeze)

Jacob became angry with her and said, "Am I in the place of God, who has kept you from having children?" (Bereshit / Genesis 30:1, 2)

When Jacob's wife Rachel could not get pregnant, she demanded children from him as if he could somehow make it happen. Jacob's response included the assertion that God was the one who had prevented her from getting pregnant.

When we read statements like this from people in the Bible, we are encountering how they thought life worked. But just because a statement is recorded in the Bible doesn't mean that it is absolutely true. There are many examples of people, even godly people, who said things or did things that were wrong.

For example, King David, described as "a man after God's own heart" (1 Samuel 13:14) is someone, whom, for the most part, we should emulate. Yet he did not always do what was right. The story of his sin with Bathsheba is not included in the Bible in order to justify adultery, but rather as a warning that even godly people are susceptible to temptation, sin, and cover-up. Still. even in this case, the Bible is teaching us God's ways, doing so through a bad example instead of a good one.

Jacob himself is an example of this. I don't think we should justify his striving and trickery just because he was one of the patriarchs. I would understand someone being cautious about Jacob's theology. It would be a while after his statement to Rachel before Jacob would truly know God. We need to take care not to accept something as true and right unless the Bible clearly asserts it as so.

Whether or not Jacob is providing us with a biblical view of God's involvement with conception would have to be determined by what the rest of the Bible teaches on the matter. As it turns out, as the story continues, the biblical writer appears to share Jacob's understanding:

Then God remembered Rachel; he listened to her and opened her womb. She became pregnant and gave birth to a son and said, "God has taken away my disgrace." (Bereshit / Genesis 30:22,23)

Here we have a clear assertion concerning God's involvement in Rachel's ability to conceive. This along with other references to God's closing of the womb (Bereshit / Genesis 20:18; 1 Samuel 1:5,6) concurs with Jacob's understanding of the matter.

God's involvement in this crucial and personal aspect of the human experience is so very contrary to the prevailing world view that such things are just a matter of natural process. This view is held even by those who claim to believe the Bible. Somehow many have concluded that conception is a result of human activity alone - a natural process that God put into motion to follow its own course.

Reading the story of Jacob and Rachel as well as other similar accounts of couples who had difficulty conceiving (Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Elkanah and Hannah) challenges the view of natural process. But I imagine many would see these examples of God's intervention as special cases, while normally nature would just run its course.

But is this what the Scriptures really teach about God and conception? King Solomon asserted that children were a reward from God (see Tehilim / Psalm 127:3) - not some children, but children in general. Does this mean that each individual child is a gift directly from God or is it just a poetical way to speak about how God created life?

The Bible doesn't attempt to analyze its theological assertions through a scientific analytical lens. The Scriptures are far less interested in how things worked as much as how to please God and live life the way he intended. How conception works from a scientific point of view does not help us discover how to live life to its fullest. The Bible is clear (and correct!) in its assertion that God is the life giver and that we are the recipients and stewards of his gift of life. This is nowhere better expressed than through the miracle of having children.

Perhaps it is about time that those of us who claim to believe the Bible begin to see how much we have let a non-biblical view of the world influence us. In order to truly live the kind of life God designed us for, we need to allow ourselves to be re-acquainted with how God himself sees life.

Monday, November 01, 2010

TorahBytes: Long-Term Picture (Toledot)

Once when Jacob was cooking stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was exhausted. And Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stew, for I am exhausted!" (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, "Sell me your birthright now." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me now." So he swore to him and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Bereshit / Genesis 25:29-34; ESV).

I was struck the other day as I was reading from the book of Mishlei (English: Proverbs), of one of the many times it warns the reader to keep away from the lure of sexual sin. What caught my attention wasn't just the fact that it was saying that such activity is bad; it was that its consequences are not immediately felt:
and at the end of your life you groan, when your flesh and body are consumed (Mishlei / Proverbs 5:11; ESV)
One of the reasons for the writing of Mishlei was to instruct us in wisdom, so that we could live life the way God intended. Throughout the Bible God instructs us in his ways, so that we can be the people he designed us to be. But many of us determine whether or not our actions are good or bad, right or wrong, by their immediate results rather than by taking a long-term view.

We live in a day like never before where we expect our actions to have immediate results. It is difficult to remember that being in a push-button culture is fairly new. It took about three times as long to dial a 7-digit phone number on a rotary dial phone than it does to enter a 10-digit number on a key pad today. When I was a teenager it was a thrill to write a letter to a friend and receive a reply in as little as a week. While today if my text message isn't responded to in seconds I freak out (I am exaggerating for effect, but you get the idea).

Whether or not our push-button society is making it harder for us to realize that we need to have a long-term view of our actions, our shortsightedness - that is our failure to realize that the consequence of our actions may not be fully realized for many years - is not a new problem. This week's Torah portion includes a vivid illustration of this.

Abraham's son and daughter-in-law, Isaac and Rebekah, had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau, as the first born, by rights had a special position in the family. The earthly benefits of this would not be realized until Isaac's death and the greater blessings of God's promises would not be realized at all in his own lifetime. Esau lacked a long-term view. The only thing he cared about was the here and now. He gave no consideration to the long-term benefits of retaining his birthright. All he knew was that he was very hungry now and all he could think about was his immediate need to satisfy his hunger.

Let's be fair to Esau. He was not in good shape when he came home that day. The word used for "exhausted" signifies being very weak. Whether or not his statement about going to die was real or imagined, we know how desperate and unreasonable we can be when we are overly depleted. However, this makes this lesson all the more important. Having a long-term view of the consequences or benefits of our actions is so crucial in the living of a godly life, even when we think we are about to die.

The only way to keep a long-term view of life is to fix our sights on the One who sees the end from the beginning. God in his wisdom has revealed his ways through the Scriptures. His wisdom often contradicts the popular courses of action we are often tempted to take. The lure to do the thing that brings the quickest satisfaction can be so strong. Yet, it is only when we are willing to resist the temptation to give in to our desires, but instead see the long-term picture that God paints for us in his written Word, that our lives will become part of that glorious picture.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

TorahBytes: Forget Not the Promise (Hayyei Sarah)

Abraham gave all he had to Isaac. (Bereshit / Genesis 25:5; ESV)

When God called Abraham in his old age to get up and go to an unknown land, God promised to make him into a great nation that would be a blessing to the other nations of the world. It would be another 25 years before God would give him and his wife Sarah, a miracle baby named Isaac. Sarah's inability to have children provides much of the dramatic backdrop to their journey of faith. Prior to Isaac's birth, they devised a scheme whereby Abraham could have a child through one of their servants, but God rejected that so-called solution. The child of promise had to come through Sarah, which he did.

After Sarah's death, Abraham lived for many more years. He married again and had several children through his second wife. Reading through quickly one might jump to the conclusion that this was the fulfillment of God's promise. After trusting God for the miracle baby, notwithstanding their scheme which produced Ishmael, now God was ready to bless Abraham through the natural and legitimate means of a second wife.

God certainly blessed Abraham with these additional children. But even so, Abraham didn't forget God's plans and purposes for Isaac. For though he was generous to all his offspring (25:6), his estate and all it represented was given to Isaac just as God intended.

We don't read of too much drama in Abraham's life between the time of his willingness to offer Isaac to God and the end of his life. During that period, the Torah records his negotiation with the people of the land for a burial plot for Sarah and his sending his servant back to his homeland to find a wife for Isaac. His story ends with his marrying his second wife and the names of his children through her, along with the distribution of his wealth. In all this time we don't read of God speaking to him or leading him in any unusual way. He just lived his life. But in all that time he never forgot his responsibility in ensuring that Isaac and Isaac alone was the recipient of God's promise.

I wonder how many people who had at one time in the midst of dramatic circumstances received special promises or directives from God, but have begun to lose sight of them once the drama subsided. Back then his word to you was so clear, his promises so sure. But now that the drama is history and life has become routine that which you thought you would never forget has all but faded away. But God has not forgotten. Whatever God promised to do in and through your life, no matter how normal your life has become, is still in his heart for you to fulfill. It might take a bit of work to allow God's word to you to be restored to its proper place in your heart, but it's worth it.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

TorahBytes: The Akedah (Va-Yera)

After these things God tested Abraham and said to him, "Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I shall tell you." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:1, 2; ESV)

The "Akedah" or "Binding" of Isaac is one of the most difficult, troubling, and wonderful stories in the whole Bible. Thinking about this passage again this year, I struggled over whether it's about God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son or God telling him not to. I know that in one sense God said both things, but if God didn't stop him, we would not be talking about this today. If Abraham would have just believed he was supposed to sacrifice his son and gone through with it, the story would be lost in the midst of the other innumerable horrific things people have done. It's only because God stopped him at the last moment that Abraham, not only went down in history, but became the Bible's primary model of true faithfulness to God.

But speaking of his faithfulness, wasn't it for Abraham's willingness in God's name to murder his son that God commended him (see 22:12)? That's true, but God didn't commend him for murdering Isaac, which he didn't do, but for not withholding Isaac from him. Remember it was never God's intention for Abraham to literally sacrifice Isaac. What God was looking for in Abraham was for a heart that was completely devoted to him.

You may be offended by the lack of moral struggle on Abraham's part. Many of us would expect a Shakespearean soliloquy by Abraham on his moral dilemma: "To kill or not to kill; that is the question!" But instead his struggle is found in the subtleties of the story. It's found in God's command "Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love…" (22:2; ESV) and in the extremely slow pace in which the story unfolds. Abraham's struggle is clear, but his thoughts are hidden from view. Only God knows what was happening in Abraham's heart as only God knows what is happening in your heart and mine.

Abraham staked his life on God and his promises to him. The same God who drew Abraham into the impossible by promising him and his barren wife a son in their old age - more than just a son, but the beginning of a great nation through whom blessing would come to the whole world - this same God seemed to be undermining his very own plan by recalling Isaac. Abraham was willing to completely trust God even when God appeared to be undermining his very own plan.

The life of genuine faith is not one that always makes sense. Knowing the Master of the Universe doesn't mean that we become philosophical experts and theological know-it-alls. Rather, to truly know God means to be drawn into a painful, seemingly contradictory tension in which we find ourselves struggling to know what's what. The reason for this is that God is at work to transform our natural inclination to put our trust into anything but him and his Word.

That doesn't mean that the goal of faith is to know nothing, to shut off our minds and blindly follow nonsensical spiritual promptings. If that were the case, Isaac would have been killed. On the contrary, nothing can compare with the depth and quality of knowledge that results from allowing ourselves to be transformed by the complexity of God's Word. It's what we do with this knowledge that matters.

God wants to teach us, to bless us with gifts with which to bless others. But it is so easy to turn God's blessings into idols. When we withhold God's blessings from him who gave them to us, then even his blessings can become tools of destruction to ourselves and to others. It is only as we follow Abraham's example, not withholding anything from God, trusting in him alone, not leaning on our own understanding, that we can become the people God has called us to be.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

TorahBytes: The Key to a Biblical Worldview (Lekh Lekha)

And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Bereshit / Genesis 15:6; ESV)

Last week ( I explained how the way we look at life greatly affects us. Even those of us who claim to derive our worldview from an objective source, such as the Bible, often unconsciously filter our beliefs through alternate lenses. Being unaware of these lenses almost guarantees that we will have a skewed, incorrect understanding of life.

Some say that because we can only see life through our perceptions, then we can never hope to see the world or God as they really are. Anyone with an ounce of humility must admit that however accurately anyone understands anything, our human limitations prevent us from ever truly grasping the entirety of life or even the entirety of one aspect of life.

There is a famous story called the "Blind Men and an Elephant" ( in which a group of blind men, who upon feeling various parts of an elephant, come to very different conclusions as to its nature. They base their inaccurate conclusions on the individual body parts each one is feeling. The story illustrates the foolishness of making inaccurate generalizations based on our very limited experiences. The divergent ways people look at the world are nothing more than feeble human attempts to understand life. We should therefore stop quibbling over our differences.

There are appealing aspects to this story and the challenge to accept the limitations of human perceptions is well taken. But there are significant weaknesses in the story that expose its unbiblical worldview. First, in the story each person only feels one part of the elephant. It wouldn't have taken much to realize that there was more to the elephant than one of its parts. It is very likely that some people upon hearing the different views of others, instead of arguing, would pause before jumping to conclusions. Yes, there are people around who are like the blind men in the story, but the underlying assumption that everyone is like this and that we should therefore give up all hope of adequately knowing the true nature of the elephant - or life - or God, is unbiblical.

What is biblical is what we see illustrated in a different story - a true story - the story of Abraham. Through Abraham we see that God is knowable. He is knowable, not because people like Abraham somehow correctly figure him out, but because God makes himself known. Equally important is how God can be known. Unlike the way many strive after the divine through intellectual prowess, moral striving, ascetic disciplines, or ritualistic observances, God is known by faith.

Biblical faith is not an unreasonable wishful hope for some undefined goodness or reality, but rather a trusting response to the God who makes himself known. This is what marks Abraham as a model of true biblical faith: whenever God confronted his preconceived notions - his worldview - Abraham trusted God, thus adopting God's worldview.

To know God by faith means that the way we see the world, life, and God will be continually challenged. That doesn't mean that God is unknowable, but it does accept the reality of our limited perceptions. There are ways that we can be like the blind men in the story of the elephant. However, our conclusion should not be that God cannot be known, but rather knowing him can only occur as we place our trust in him.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

TorahBytes: One Race (No'ah)

The sons of Noah who went forth from the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. (Ham was the father of Canaan.) These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the people of the whole earth were dispersed. (Bereshit / Genesis 9:18, 19; ESV)

Most of the time we don't notice how we look at life. Day by day, we don't normally notice that we relate to ourselves and to others, to situations and to the world based on a set of assumptions and beliefs called a world view. It's our world view that defines for us what our purpose of living is or whether or not we believe that life has a purpose at all. It defines what we expect of ourselves and others, right and wrong, guilt and shame. It defines success and failure. It controls how we look at history and at the future. And, of course, it determines whether or not we believe in God and spiritual things and how to relate to them if we do.

Few people purposely develop their world view. Most of us learn to look at life from those around us. This may be fueled by our families, teachers, and popular culture. There are exceptions, for there are people who after discovering issues or weaknesses in the world view of their upbringing or peers, go out of their way to embrace ways of looking at life that are not so common. We are all probably aware of people whose world view stands out as different from other people we know. You might be one of those people. I think I am one of those people.

As a person committed to follow the teachings of the Bible I believe that my world view is quite different from those of many of the people around me. Some of those differences are obvious. I believe in God, not just any old generic god, but in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I believe that Yeshua is the Messiah and that both the Old and New Covenant Scriptures form the Bible. I also try to hold to a biblical understanding of morality, history, the future and other aspects of life.

That said, I get surprised when I discover that there are still so many ways in which I see the world that are based more on what I have somehow picked up from my upbringing or popular thinking than what the Bible teaches. It's not that I think that I understand the Bible perfectly or that I have a complete grasp on how to apply the Bible's teaching to every aspect of life. In fact, I guess it's partly my conviction that I still have so much to learn that keeps me humble enough see when the truth of Scripture differs from my assumptions.

An author who has helped me to realize that I hold to far more of these assumptions than I thought I did is G.K. Chesterton (1874 - 1936). After hearing about him for a long time, I finally have read a couple of his more popular books: "Orthodoxy" (1908 - and "Heretics" (1905 - In these two books, he effectively exposes ways of thinking that most of us take for granted as the way the world is, but are actually concoctions of human imagination.

For example, in "Heretics" there is an essay entitled, "Celts and Celtophiles", where he criticizes the concept of race. Chesterton writes, "And of all the forms in which science, or pseudo-science, has come to the rescue of the rich and stupid, there is none so singular as the singular invention of the theory of races." Now maybe you already knew this, but I didn't know that the concept of human beings being divided into racial groups is an invention of the nineteenth century. If you don't believe me, look it up. It's not just Chesterton's opinion that nations exist, but races don't.

If we believe the Bible we should have already known this. We are all descended from Noah and his wife. Treating Noah's three sons as if they are the progenitors of three distinct races, makes no sense biblically, but rather is a case of accommodating the Bible to nineteen-century, evolutionary, pseudo science.

According to the Bible, there is only one race, the human race. Even if you don't believe the Bible, it is undisputed that the genetic makeup of all human beings is such that we are all of one kind. There are no distinct and separate races among humans. Our outward physical differences have only to do with a type of inbreeding that has occurred due to migration. And yet most people today, Bible believers included, have bought into the lie of looking at others through a racial lens - a lens which has created all sorts of havoc in the last century or so.

A biblical world view demands that we see all people, whoever they are, wherever they are from, whatever they look like, as just people. Whatever differences do exist among us, we will never see others the way we should until we see them for who they really are: people made in the image of God.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

TorahBytes: Foundations (Bereshit)

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

In the building of any structure, it is impossible to overemphasize the importance of a well-built foundation. No matter how strong a structure may be, if its foundation is weak, it will not stand. What's true in a literal, physical sense is also true spiritually and philosophically. The greatest-sounding arguments and the most popular ways of looking at life will come crashing down around us unless they are built on reality and absolute truth.

What is true generally is especially true biblically. The early chapters of the Torah provide us with the foundations for everything else we discover in the whole rest of the Bible. It should be obvious that without creation we don't have anything else. It is within the creation, on Earth in particular, that the outworking of God's plans and purposes are played out. The activity of God in so far as it relates to humanity is not something that primarily exists in the invisible world, but takes place in and among people on Earth. Similarly, when God sets all things right, he will do so through a renewed creation - the new heavens and the new earth, where God will reign over all humanity on the new Earth (see Isaiah 65:17-25; Revelation 21:1-4).

However essential are the other elements of the Bible, only the Torah's account of creation is foundational. To neglect or undermine the importance of its place within Scripture is to undermine Scripture itself. For if the universe is not created and God is not the Creator, then there is no foundation upon which the rest of the Bible stands.

It is in the early chapters of the Torah that we learn that God existed before the universe. The universe was his idea and he spoke it into existence. Every broad category of life is the result of God's direct activity through his word, thus removing any possibility of macro-evolution. Gender differences and roles are by design, not social construct. The primacy and responsibilities of human beings within the creation were established by God. Our obligation to work is by his directive; while our struggles to get the creation to respond to our labors are due to our first parents' rebellion again God. Marriage is a divine institution and children are a result of God's blessing. As it is God who is the one who created life, so it is also he who sets the parameters for how we are to live. Thus it is he to whom we all must give an account.

It is not for no reason that the Torah's account of creation should be so viciously attacked through the years. Knowingly or unknowingly masquerading as proponents of objective science, atheists have spent vast amounts of time and money to concoct all sorts of supposed proofs against the notion of creation, especially creation as the Torah describes it. Sadly too many people who otherwise respect the Bible have been intimated by the onslaught of God deniers and have compromised biblical revelation.

Science cannot prove origins. Scientific theories may or may not support what the Torah teaches, but scientific theories are based on the analysis of humans. They may be accurate or not. They are subject to bias. Scientific theories come and go as new discoveries are made and more analysis is done.

Any attempt to reconcile evolutionary science with the first three chapters of the Torah not only contradicts those chapters, but, due to their foundational place in Scripture, undermines the whole of Scripture. The origins of the universe can only be known by revelation from God. The Torah is that revelation. It is through the creation account we are given a foundational understanding of who God is and how we fit into the universe he has made. Whatever else we learn about God and life through the rest of the Bible, in order to stand strong in these days of great spiritual confusion and deception, we need to firmly stand on the foundation of creation.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

TorahBytes: Binding Agreements (Sukkot)

Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land to which you go, lest it become a snare in your midst. (Shemot / Exodus 34:12; ESV)

This week's readings are special as they occur during the Festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths). Sukkot is a week-long, harvest thanksgiving festival that is celebrated after two weeks of intense spiritual preparation through the observances of Rosh Hashanah (also Festival of the blowing of the Shofar and commonly referred to as the New Year) and Yom Kippur (English: Day of the Atonement). The call to rejoice and give thanks during Sukkot draws us to some very basic aspects in our relationship to God.

The historical event that Sukkot commemorates is the 40 years spent by the Israelites in the wilderness between the exodus from Egypt and the conquest of the Promised Land. It was during these 40 years that the presence and reality of God was experienced by the people like no other time. This included guidance and protection through the visible manifestation of God's presence in a pillar of cloud and fire; the actual hearing of the voice of God from Mt. Sinai; and miraculous provisions of food and water.

This experience of the tangible reality of God was to act as a foundation in the development of the nation, so that when the people settled the Land, they would remember who God is and live life accordingly. Just because they would not be as vulnerable to the elements, or they would be able to eat of the fruit of their own labors, didn't mean that their need of God was any less. God is our provider regardless of whether he rains down bread from heaven or we receive a bi-weekly paycheck. God is our protector whether we live in tents or condos. Being surrounded by the works of own hands may blur our understanding of God's involvement in our lives, but the truth is that without God's continual care, we would be in big trouble.

As part of the perspective on life that the lessons of the years of wilderness wanderings were to provide, the people were strongly cautioned against making covenants with the inhabitants of the Promised Land. A covenant is an official binding agreement like a contract or treaty. The ways of the peoples of the Land were such that to enter into binding agreements with them would work to undermine who the people of Israel were to be as the people of God. Not only were they to not enter into covenants with them, they were to completely eradicate the presence of these people's religions from the Land.

It is important to note that God never sent Israel out on military missions outside the Land to destroy other religions. Their extreme stand against other religious and spiritual influences was an issue only within their own borders. Many centuries later, when God would send his people beyond their borders to bring the Truth about himself to the nations, the tools given them were his Word and his Spirit through teaching, preaching, and healing (See Mathew 28:18-20; John 20:21; Acts 1:8).

As the reality of God through the proclamation of the Messiah has been made known throughout the world, it is still necessary to be cautious of making covenants with those around us who do not know God. The cultures in which we live can have great appeal, supposedly offering us prosperity, success, and popularity, but unless their roots are in God's Truth, they will become a snare to us, just like the ancient Israelites.

The covenants we make with the world may not be established by official ceremonies and the signing of documents but they are just as binding. They try to convince us that if we come into agreement with them by embracing their values, then they will accept us and perhaps give us a hearing. But it isn't long before they demand we view our understanding of God as equal to all others and then they work to eradicate it all together.

The only hope for the world is if we determine to keep true to our covenant with God. It is only as we get to know him and his Word better, allowing him and him alone to determine how we are to live, that we will be most effective in helping those around us know him too.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

TorahBytes: Where Does God Live? (Yom Kippur)

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: "I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite." (Isaiah 57:15; ESV)

This verse is taken from the special Haftarah reading for Yom Kippur (English: The Day of Atonement), which begins this year on Friday evening, September 17. One of the main distinctives of this holy day is the call to purposeful humbling of ourselves before God. Traditionally this is accompanied by a full day of complete abstaining from food and drink as well as certain comforts and pleasures. The references to humility and fasting found later on in the Haftarah makes it most fitting for this occasion.

The need to humble ourselves before God is not simply a religious requirement designed to satisfy the rituals of a religious holiday. According to the verse quoted, humility is an essential ingredient in experiencing a right relationship with God.

According to this verse God has two places where he lives. The first is completely beyond human comprehension and experience. According to Isaiah he is "high and lifted up", signifying his distinction from the human earthly sphere of life and his authority over the universe. He also "inhabits eternity", meaning that his existence reaches from the infinite past to the infinite future, and he is not confined to time restraint as we are. "His name is Holy" signifies that his character is absolutely morally pure and perfect. He is distinctly himself and cannot be affected by anything outside himself.

But God doesn't only live beyond our reach; he says through Isaiah that he also lives "with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit." While the rituals of Yom Kippur are designed to get in touch with what it means to be "of a contrite and lowly spirit", God's dwelling with us is not based on a one-day performance, but rather on an ongoing attitude of heart and life.

What does it mean to be "of a contrite and lowly spirit"? The Hebrew word for "contrite" is "da-ka'", meaning "to be crushed." "Lowly" in Hebrew is "shefal'", refers to something being lower than something else. "Spirit" in Hebrew is "ru'-ach", and can mean "spirit," "wind," or "breath" and refers to our life source. To be "of a contrite and lowly spirit" therefore means to accept that we are not self-sustaining beings, but rather needy creatures in the sight of God. Only God alone is self sustaining, high and lofty, perfect and pure. We are dependent on him and accountable to him. Those who are of a contrite and lowly spirit are those who recognize their continual need for God and for his direction. Having no confidence in themselves, their humility is evident in their ongoing openness to God and his word.

This doesn't mean that the contrite and lowly in spirit are pushovers, passive, or depressed, because, as we read, God revives them. The Hebrew word for "revive" is "cha-yah'", meaning to give life. Without God's presence, we are lifeless. But when he lives in us, we can really live. But for him to live in us we need to stop pursuing life on our own terms and instead allow God to direct us however he wishes.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

TorahBytes: Shuvah (Ha'azinu / Shuvah)

Blow the shofar in Zion... (Joel 2:5; translation mine) / Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, "Take away all iniquity..." (Hosea 14:2; ESV) / Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. (Micah 7:18; ESV)

Traditionally the Shabbat between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is called Shabbat Shuvah (the Sabbath of Return) emphasizing one of the dominant themes of the High Holidays, being that of repentance or turning back to God and his ways.

Underlying the concept of return is the notion that our acts in the past need not determine our future. However broken our lives may be, God has made a way of repair and restoration. There is no sin too great that he will not forgive. No broken heart beyond his ability to repair. No pit so deep into which he is unwilling to dive in order to save us.

Because God has made sufficient provision for our sins, we have the opportunity to return to him. This reminder is dramatically presented to us year by year through the blowing of the shofar at Rosh Hashanah and the call to humble ourselves before him at Yom Kippur.

For some people the idea that the wrongs we have done in the past could ever be satisfactorily resolved is beyond comprehension. Things have gotten so bad that all we can hope for is to endure the consequences of our misdeeds and misfortunes. But the good news is that through the death and resurrection of the Messiah as foretold in the Tenach (Jewish Bible/Old Testament), the effects of human weakness and evil have been neutralized. In ways that we cannot fully comprehend, when we put our trust in Yeshua, we can fully experience the goodness of God regardless of anything we have done or whatever has happened to us. Whoever we are, if we follow Yeshua we can be confident of a positive eternity and enjoy a rich deposit of a most wonderful future here and now.

For others, it's not that we believe that our wrongs are greater than God's ability to deal with them. Rather, it's that we believe that our actions have no real consequences. Since we are simply the products of chance and random evolutionary process, life has no meaning. Therefore, things just happen; so get used to it.

But even those who view the world in this way know deep down that this way of thinking is not true. The depths of grief we experience due to our brokenness testifies that we are answerable for our actions, that life was not originally designed to be full of the pain, confusion, alienation, and devastation that is all too common. Human experience, though far from being an authoritative indication of truth, constantly reminds us that life does matter and actions have consequences. But without God and his promise of restoration, facing this only leads to despair.

Yet we needn't despair. Because of the graciousness of a loving God, we can return. We needn't resign ourselves to the inevitability of our life situations. No matter how far away from God we may be, the instant we turn to him, he immediately establishes us in right relationship with him. He has already done everything necessary to make this possible. Shuvah!

Saturday, August 28, 2010

TorahBytes: God's Secrets (Nizzavim & Va-Yelekh)

The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 29:29; ESV)

I love the Bible! It's hard to believe that this week marks 34 years since I first came to know Yeshua as Messiah. Perhaps my love for the Scriptures has been at least partly fueled by how God used them to bring me to himself. I remember like yesterday how even though I knew little about the Bible at the time, and I wasn't religious in any way, I wouldn't let my eyes be cast upon the New Testament. Whatever was my understanding of Judaism then, I knew that anything to do with Jesus was taboo.

I was overwhelmed by being shown for the first time the messianic prophecies in the Tenach (Hebrew Scriptures / Old Testament). Some examples: Zechariah 12 and Psalm 22 foretold his suffering on the cross; Micah 5 predicted that Bethlehem would be his birthplace; Daniel 9 set the Messiah's coming before the destruction of the second Temple (which happened almost two thousand years ago); and Isaiah 53 is a play-by-play description of his rejection, sinlessness, sacrifice, and resurrection predicted hundreds of years before Yeshua came.

So from day one of my following Yeshua, the Scriptures have been foundational to my life. I am so grateful to have been influenced by others who were firmly committed to the complete trustworthiness of the whole Bible. Whatever struggles I have faced throughout all these years, God's written Word has proven to be an anchor that has stabilized me, a compass to give me direction, treasure that has enriched me, and a light to keep me from stumbling.

Some people think I enjoy debating God's Word, but debating is formulating argument to prove one's point. I am not interested in being right, for I know that only God is right. While some may regard me as argumentative, that's just my way of grappling with Truth. If my understanding of something in the Bible is correct, it will stand up to scrutiny and challenge. The Scriptures are likened to a sharp double-edged sword that effectively cuts through to our hearts. By grappling with the Scriptures, we have the opportunity to more clearly understand what God is saying to us.

To understand the Bible's teachings it is essential to not only better understand what God is saying, but also what he is not saying. God has purposely revealed what he has intended to reveal. As for what he has not revealed, that too is purposeful. As we contemplate the revealed things, it is so easy to speculate over what he has not revealed. But God's secrets cannot be known, no matter how hard we try. As we read from the Torah at the beginning, we are responsible to live out all of what God has told us to do. But as for God's secrets - those things which he has kept to himself - they belong to him and he is not sharing.

The Bible is not a text book with neat subject categories. It sufficiently deals with a wide range of subjects, covering every area of life. It is not missing a single essential ingredient for successful godly living. Yet the truth of Scripture often leads us to ask questions to which there are no intellectually satisfying answers. And yet how much division has been caused among God's people over areas that God has not made clear? Instead of being satisfied with what God has revealed, we fight over conclusions established by speculation over what God has kept secret. That doesn't mean we shouldn't ask hard questions or seriously contemplate the implications of the Bible's teachings. But as we do, we also need to take care that we don't create conclusions over things which God has kept secret.

I am aware that we don't always know when we are doing that. But the only way we will discover that we are, is by humbly submitting our understanding of the Scriptures to the Scriptures themselves. We need to be willing to give up convictions that have no basis in what God has truly revealed. As we do, the Scriptures will begin to speak to us with a clarity like never before.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Movie Review: "To Save A Life", but at what cost?

Theatrical Release: January 22, 2010
DVD Release: August 3, 2010

How can someone have an issue with the idea of inviting troubled lonely teens to see a movie that not only attempts to accurately and powerfully speak into their meaningless lives, but also gives them a reason to live? This seems to be the motive behind the film "To Save a Life" - a supposed attempt to provide a true-to-life depiction of today's teen world, including a school shooting, suicide, sex, and drunken parties.

Determined to avoid cheesiness (which is pretty high on the 21st century's list of sins), "To Save a Life" purposely pushes the limit of what is appropriate for Christian film making. Followers of the Messiah who understand that God's morality reaches into every aspect of life understand the need to determine limits when it comes to artistic expression. It seems to me that "To Save a Life" goes beyond those limits.

That God isn't opposed to confronting us with the vilest of evil is clear by the many disturbing scenes we encounter in the Bible. Christian artists are right in wanting to effectively portray evil. To water down truth, positive or negative, is to portray falsehood. Yet, how we portray truth must also include an understanding of the different ways various art forms communicate to our hearts and minds. The visual arts convey truth in a very different manner than does the written word.

God purposely chose the written word, not pictures or other visual art forms, as his chief means of communicating his truth to people. The big difference between conveying truth through words as opposed to pictures is clear in that while God forbids the representation of himself through images, he freely depicts himself thorough words. The conveying of God's truth through pictures, moving or otherwise, carries with it additional information that God did not intend. For example, the Genesis account of the innocence of Adam and Eve's being "naked and unashamed" would be completely lost in a show-it-like-it-really-was movie rendition.

It is understandable that the makers of "To Save a Life" had to grapple with how to effectively depict their subject matter. But the film doesn't simply address these issues; it spends significant time drawing the viewer into immoral scenes. Causing the audience to understand the prevalence of teen drinking does not require lengthy party scenes. The tragedy and immorality of teen sex doesn't require being taken into the bedroom with two of the main characters as they passionately prepare to fornicate. So much for Paul's instruction, "But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints" (Ephesians 5:3; ESV).

Whatever the filmmakers' intent, these scenes are portrayed as some of the more fun moments of the film. In fact youth pastor, Jim Britts, who wrote the screenplay, referring to the two drunken party scenes has said,
That scene and the other party scene were the hardest for me to be a part of. Two or three times in between takes I had to say, "I have to remind you that this life leads to sorrow," because they were looking like they were having a lot of fun. It was hard for me as a youth pastor to watch, even though I knew they were acting (see
These comments are not surprising considering the film itself soft peddles the consequences of immorality. When the police bust one of the drunken parties, the amorous couple escapes virtually unscathed with the main character aided and abetted by a local youth pastor. While the unplanned baby is not aborted, and while the adoption scene is certainly touching, does anyone notice that this consequence of their immoral activity is only a small inconvenience to their pursuing of their personal dreams and goals?
Some may claim that the so-called realism of the film is necessary to attract unchurched teens. It is difficult to know whether including these scenes would make a difference or not. One does not need scantily clad young women throwing their bodies around, a passionate sex scene with after-the-event commentary, crude language, and an actual cutting scene to make a good movie. But who is actually seeing this film anyway? Is it the despairing teens or the Christian kids whose parents would not normally let them see a movie like this?

That the movie is geared toward a Christian audience is made clear by the message of the film. According to "To Save a Life" the reason for teen despair and suicide is the rejection of their peers. The emotionally charged message to the audience is that we need to stop being so cliquish and start looking out for the misfits and the lonely around us. What despairing teens need is a group of other teens that will not judge them, but accept them. Salvation is not found in the Gospel, but in the peer group. The film never actually speaks to the misfits themselves - only to cliquish Christians. But what if their peers, Christian or otherwise, never accept them; what then? "To Save a Life" doesn't tell us.

God never designed us to find our identity or our worth in our communities and peer groups. We need to find these things in him. Healthy godly communities should be vehicles of this to others but not the substance of it. As David writes, "For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in" (Psalm 27:10; ESV). While "To Save a Life" does encourage us to reach out to the lonely and hurting around us, it never makes clear that the acceptance we all need is only found in God through the Messiah.

The underlying systemic problem that this film exposes us to is never really dealt with. For the most part the young people in this movie are on their own. In fact, good parental and adult leadership is almost non-existent. The teen who commits suicide doesn't seem to have a father; neither does the girlfriend of the main character. The main character's father is a self absorbed workaholic, who is cheating on his wife. The senior pastor of the featured church is more concerned about his donors, than God and people. He is completely clued out with regard to his own wayward son. The dominant adult role model is the youth pastor, who seems to have a good heart, a desire to serve God, and is part of a loving family. Yet he has no problem covering up young people's mismanagement of their lives. The only consistent strong adult male is a security guard at the school, but he doesn't influence the plot in any significant way.

So if "To Save a Life" is correct, then today's youth culture, Christian or otherwise, is out of control, completely disconnected from their elders. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that it is time for parents and leaders to take notice of what is going on, including the questionable content of supposed Christian entertainment, and provide the biblically based, loving oversight our children require of us.