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.