Sunday, June 20, 2010

TorahBytes: Don't Be Fooled by Appearances (Balak)

And God came to Balaam (Hebrew: Bilam) at night and said to him, "If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you." So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. But God’s anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. (Bemidbar / Numbers 22:20-22; ESV)

This week's Torah portion includes the account of Balak, king of Moab, and how he hired a diviner by the name of Bilam to curse the people of Israel. The people of Moab, a country on the eastern shore of the Dead Sea within modern day Jordan, were in great fear of Israel. So King Balak turned to Bilam for help.

The interactions between God and Bilam are confusing. Bilam told Balak's men that he would report back to them what God would say to him. He either sincerely anticipated that the God of Israel would speak to him or he purposely gave a false impression. Either way, God did speak to him and told him not to do what Balak had asked.

When Balak was told that Bilam refused to come, he sent another entourage with promises of great honor to try to get him to do the king's bidding. Bilam gave to them what sounds like the response of a true believer:
Though Balak were to give me his house full of silver and gold, I could not go beyond the command of the LORD my God to do less or more (Bemidbar / Numbers 22:18; ESV).
But when Bilam inquired of God a second time, God told him to go with Balak's men, yet he was to do only that what God told him. So he goes. But then we read that God was angry with him because he went. What's going on here?

The clue to this apparent contradiction in God's directives to Bilam is found in the fact that even though God clearly told Bilam the first time not to go, he inquired of God again. Bilam already knew God's will for this situation. There was no need for further inquiry. Yet he persisted and God sent him in a direction that God himself did not approve of.

This may seem strange, but is it? How often does God allow us to pursue the things that we know are wrong? How often have we prayed and knew deep down what God's will was and yet, not being satisfied with his answer, continued to pray until God let us do what we wanted.

Some may look at Bilam and think he was a really good guy, who faithfully followed God. Did he not only go when God said to go? And did he not speak over Israel only the words that God put in his mouth? Doesn't he seem to be a man truly blessed by God? Not if we see everything the Torah says about him.

We already noted that God was angry with him for doing this. Then, following this incident, Israel committed immorality with the Moabite women and worshipped their idols, thus resulting in a plague which killed 24,000 Israelites. It is not until some chapters later that we learn that this had been instigated by Bilam (Bemidbar / Numbers 31:16).

How often do we think that the evidence of God's power and presence in the life of an individual is an indication of God's approval of that person? We equate God's favor with his approval even when we are aware of very questionable issues in that person's life. Yeshua himself said that there would be people who would show signs of God's power and presence to whom he would one day say, "I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness" (Matthew 7:23; ESV). Just because God allows certain behaviors or he uses someone does not necessarily mean he approves of them.

The associated Haftarah (reading from the prophets) speaks well to this. I close with reading a portion of it:
"O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised, and what Balaam (Hebrew: Bilam) the son of Beor answered him, and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal, that you may know the saving acts of the LORD. With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?" He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:5-8)

Sunday, June 13, 2010

TorahBytes: Death Is Not Our Friend (Hukkat)

Whoever touches a dead person, the body of anyone who has died, and does not cleanse himself, defiles the tabernacle of the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from Israel; because the water for impurity was not thrown on him, he shall be unclean. His uncleanness is still on him. (Bemidbar / Numbers 19:13; ESV)

In this week's parsha (Torah portion), we read about the ritual cleansing that is necessary when coming into contact with the dead, as well as the deaths of Moses' sister Miriam and his brother Aaron. How people have related to death throughout history has varied. Today there is growing interest and openness to euthanasia. Euthanasia is commonly thought of as mercy killing, whereby causing or aiding in the death of a suffering person is viewed as a better option than allowing them to continue to suffer.

But is killing someone ever a better option than living? One of the things that this depends on is what death really is. To hear some of the arguments in favor of euthanasia one would think that death is a welcome friend to the sufferer, or that death is just one of many natural parts of life. For some who believe in an afterlife death is a doorway to a better place or the long awaited freedom from our bondage to our flesh. While these kinds of notions about death are not the only thing fueling the growing acceptance of euthanasia, it would be difficult for society to embrace such a thing if death itself was seen in a negative light.

But according to the Bible death is negative. Death is not natural. It is an aspect of God's curse upon the human race due to the rebellion of our first parents (See Bereshit / Genesis 2:15, 17; cf 3:17-19). We were created to live, not die. Death is not a solution, but a problem - our biggest problem. It is not our friend; it is an enemy - an enemy that God has purposed to destroy (See 1 Corinthians 15:26).

For those who have been made right with God due to trusting in the Messiah, death poses no threat. For even when it works its evil upon us, it will not have the final word. God's children are kept safe in his care after death and anticipate the receiving of incorruptible bodies at the resurrection.

However, while we have no reason to fear death, it continues to represent God's displeasure with humankind and will continue to be part of our plight until the Messiah returns. At that time, we will not be reconciled with death; it will be destroyed.

The word euthanasia is derived from the Greek, meaning "good death," but there is no such thing. Death is bad. Putting a positive spin on it distracts us from its purpose in human experience. To pretend that it is a welcome friend, when it is really our enemy, undermines the God-derived value of life.

Sunday, June 06, 2010

TorahBytes: Perspective (Korah)

They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, "You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?" (Bemidbar / Numbers 16:3; ESV)

This week's Torah portion includes a rebellious challenge by several key individuals of the community of Israel against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Even though the people knew full well that the roles of Moses and Aaron were clearly defined by God, Moses offered to the rebels an opportunity to see God yet again confirm their leadership. This was not acceptable to the rebels, however. Their minds were already made up. God therefore severely punished them by causing the ground to swallow them alive.

This disaster set the whole community against Moses and Aaron. God's response was to destroy the whole nation, except that Moses and Aaron intervened on their behalf. God relented, but not until over 14,000 people had died.

This is one of the many examples of Scripture that illustrates what happens when we stubbornly rebel against God. Not only did it ruin the lives of the rebels themselves, but it destroyed their families and resulted in thousands of unnecessary deaths. Rebellion against God is not just an individual matter; it brings destruction far beyond our own personal lives.

But how did the rebels get to the place where they would take such a stand against God's will? How is it that they could so misunderstand God's intentions for their community? When the rebels refused Moses' invitation to allow God to reconfirm the leadership he established, they said,

We will not come up. Is it a small thing that you have brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness, that you must also make yourself a prince over us? Moreover, you have not brought us into a land flowing with milk and honey, nor given us inheritance of fields and vineyards. Will you put out the eyes of these men? We will not come up. (Bemidbar / Numbers 16:12-14; ESV)
These people had struggled ever since leaving Egypt. This is not the only time that a reference had been made to their having been well fed there and perhaps they were, but that may have been one of the only positive aspects of their lives as slaves. Somehow the hardship of living in the wilderness since their deliverance helped them to forget how terrible their lives had been and why it was they had cried out to God for help in the first place.

Living in the wilderness was not easy. More than once they were without food and/or water, many of their number had already died, and they failed to enter the Promised Land. But it wasn't the hardships themselves that fostered rebellion in their hearts; it was how they responded to those hardships. Instead of seeing life from God's perspective, learning the lessons he sought to teach them, they gave in to discouragement. Their discouragement skewed their view of the situation. They really believed that Moses and Aaron had overstepped their bounds by assuming leadership, when actually they were the ones who were overstepping their bounds by challenging them. Their warped understanding was due to their choosing to view their lives from a place of discouragement. They were completely convinced that Moses and Aaron were the problem and thus failed to learn what God was seeking to teach them.

Many of us tend to think that how we see life and life situations is the way they really are. We don't always realize how profoundly affected we are by the way we respond to circumstances. This is not to say that reality is based on our perspective or that life has no objective meaning. Rather, how we respond to our lives makes all the difference in how we see our lives. This is not just about having a good attitude, though good attitudes can help quite a bit. But good attitudes can only take us so far. In order to view life correctly in the face of serious hardships, we need to have God's perspective.