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!