Saturday, February 26, 2011

TorahBytes: The Visibility of God (Pekudei & Shekalim)

For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys. (Shemot / Exodus 40:38; ESV)

The Torah teaches us two essential factors about the nature of God. First, God is non-material. He is not made up of the stuff of creation. This is one reason why he is not to be represented by idols. Man's greatest attempt to represent God through man-made items is futile, for his fullness cannot be comprehended by our physical senses.

The second essential factor is that while God himself is immaterial, he makes himself known within the material world he has made. Even though he is unseen, what he does is clearly seen. The creation is prime evidence for his existence. The design of the universe from the smallest particle to the vastness of space shouts to us of the reality of the Designer. More than that, God also makes himself known through unusual acts of power. God's deliverance of Israel from oppression in Egypt is an example of this. The ten plagues were not natural disasters. They were intended by God to show to Israel, Egypt, and the world how powerful he was and where his allegiance lay.

During the 40 years of Israel's wilderness wanderings, God also showed himself through various miracles of protection, provision, and punishment. Israel was to learn that God was not just a concept or a power to manipulate. Though he himself could not be seen and no image could be concocted that could adequately represent him, he was very real.

Another way God communicated himself was through a cloud that stayed with them during their wilderness years. The cloud protected them and guided them in their journeys. The cloud itself wasn't God. They didn't worship the cloud. Yet the cloud was a visible representation of his presence.

How wonderful it would be to have such a visible representation of God's reality and presence with us today! How certain we would be of God's existence, love, and leading! But then again, would we? The visibility of God didn't actually make a difference to the majority within the nation of Israel. All the adults who were miraculously delivered from Egypt were judged by God for their unfaithfulness and died before ever entering the Promised Land. All these visible manifestations of God's reality made no difference in their lives.

The people's lack of faithfulness to God in no way diminishes the reality of God's visibility. This lack only testifies to the depth of human beings' alienation from God. For those who were faithful to God, his visibility was a great comfort and help. God's visibility doesn't produce right relationship with him. But for those who truly trust him, the various ways God makes himself known, make an enormous difference.

This is not to say that knowing God is a personal, subjective experience as if the visibility of God is dependent on faith. Just like the whole nation of Israel saw the cloud and was benefited by it, God makes himself known to all people in a variety of ways. The difference that trusting him makes has to do with the effect of his visibility on us. When we are in right relationship with him, then the ways he reveals himself enhances that relationship.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

TorahBytes: You Are an Artist (Va-Yakhel)

Bezalel and Oholiab and every craftsman in whom the LORD has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary shall work in accordance with all that the LORD has commanded. (Shemot / Exodus 36:1; ESV)

Years ago I was at a business meeting and the featured presentation was given by an art-oriented company. At some point during the meeting everyone attending was to introduce themselves and say something about their artistic ability. I was struck by how many people began by saying they weren't artistic, but loved gardening or were an engineer or software developer. Almost every person who seemed to be somewhat embarrassed by not being an artist in the classical sense of the word, clearly possessed some sort of creative ability.

As products of intentional creative design, human beings should expect to find all sorts of creative abilities within ourselves. From our first task as gardeners in Eden, people are called by God to creatively interact with our environment. We don't have to be painters, dancers, or musicians to be artistic. From parenting to building construction to assembly line work to management to even politics, life requires the ability of the artist to effectively perform the vast number of tasks we face throughout our lives.

This week's Torah portion helps us to understand our artistic ability according to God's design. God gave Moses detailed directions regarding the construction of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). The Mishkan was to be the central location for the sacrificial system for the people of Israel. As we read, the people who were to be involved in this project were the "craftsman in whom the LORD has put skill and intelligence to know how to do any work in the construction of the sanctuary."

The most important aspect regarding human artistic ability is that it comes from God. Believers in God may quickly agree, but do we really relate to our abilities this way? We may refer to our talents as "gifts", but do we really accept that they are fundamentally rooted in God and not in self? Do we relate to our abilities as if they have been bestowed upon us from our Heavenly Father? Or do we think of them (or the lack of them) as just the way we are? The Torah is clear: skill is something that God has put in us.

Once we grasp this, then we can begin to look at our artistic abilities as the gifts they are: gifts to treasure, gifts to care for. If our abilities have been entrusted to us by God, then it is easier to accept the second aspect that we find in what we read. The craftsmen were to "work in accordance with all that the LORD has commanded." The artistic abilities we have been given are not to be used in any way we like, but rather they are to serve the purposes of God.

So much of human creativity today is self expression. Being true to oneself and serving oneself in almost everything we do is our highest value. My abilities exist to serve my desires and my purposes. Even the reward of benefiting others is often expressed in terms of self gratification. And if my abilities make me lots of money, all the better!

This is so far from our Creator's perspective. God created us to be creative for his purposes. His directive to us to use that which he has entrusted to us within the confines of his will is not an expression of his own selfishness as if he is just like us only bigger. It's that for us to truly reflect the One in whose image we are made, we need to express our creativity with the same generosity, attitude of service and moral integrity as him.

A note to the artistically challenged: When we realize that creativity is truly a gift from God, we no longer need to accept our own (or others') view of our abilities. Just ask God, the Creative One, for his creative gifts. You may be pleasantly surprised at what you will discover he has put in you.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

TorahBytes: Avoiding the Philosophical Trap (Ki Tissa)

The LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people. (Shemot / Exodus 32:14; ESV)

I appreciate the study of theology. As we grow in our understanding of Scripture, we have the opportunity to get to know God better and be better equipped to live life the way God intended. However, I find that sometimes instead of theology, scripture study becomes nothing more than philosophy. It's not that philosophy itself is useless or that we should never grapple with some of the difficult philosophical issues that arise from Scripture. It's that sometimes philosophical questions can get in the way of the wisdom that God has for us in his written Word.

For example, this week's Torah portion contains a philosophical trap. In the incident of the golden calf, Moses was with God on Mt. Sinai for over a month. The people's impatience led them to idolatry and gross sinful behavior. God told Moses that he was going to destroy the people and make a new nation from Moses. In response Moses pleaded on behalf of the people, asking God to change his mind, which he did.

But how could it be that the all-knowing God could change his mind? If God knows everything, and he determines to do something, why would he change his course of action? Didn't God know that Moses would respond the way he did? If so, then was his original intention simply a ploy to get Moses to do what he did, so that God could appear to change his mind, when in fact, he had no intention of destroying the people in the first place?

Others look at a passage like this and conclude that God must not be all knowing after all and is just one of the players in the story, albeit a strong player. They assert that God's purposes are dependant upon the affairs of mankind. The problem with this view is that it doesn't hold up to the overall view of God in the Bible. Claiming that God is limited may provide philosophical satisfaction, but it doesn't alleviate the tension that arises from the study of the whole Bible.

The real difficulty about a passage like this is not what we know about God, but not realizing what we don't know. If we assume that the Bible is exhaustive in its revelation of God, then we might think that resolving philosophical issues like this would be only a matter of study. But the Bible isn't exhaustive in what it teaches about God; it is sufficient. While it provides all we need to know about him, the infinite Master of the Universe is way more than what we could ever comprehend. The fact is the Bible doesn't give us all the information necessary to resolve some of its own philosophical problems.

But God didn't give us the Bible to satisfy our philosophical needs and desires. He gave it to us to help us to be the people he designed us to be. This is how a passage like this one is meant to function. Here we have the example of Moses - a man who truly knew God as the all powerful and all knowing God he is. But when Moses was faced with a most tragic situation of God's judging the people, he didn't grapple with a philosophical crisis, he rather cried out on the people's behalf instead. Knowing God, his power and his faithfulness, enabled Moses to successfully pray for God's forgiveness and mercy.

Getting to know God and how to live for him is not a matter of figuring him out. That doesn't mean that we don't use our minds - far from it! But as we use our minds to grapple with Scripture, we need to stop trying to do philosophy. Instead we need to allow the great complexity of biblical truth, philosophical problems and all, to do its work in our hearts and lives.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

TorahBytes: No MSG (Tezavveh)

You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, "Holy to the LORD." And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue. It shall be on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrate as their holy gifts. It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD. (Shemot / Exodus 28:36-38; ESV)

Years ago I was talking to a business colleague, who made reference to his way of dealing with people, by saying "no MSG". He wasn't referring to the infamous flavor enhancer, but rather to "manipulation, shame, or guilt". I don't know about you, but in my growing up years. "MSG" (not the flavor enhancer) was a staple and it didn't enhance anything! One of the reasons this kind of MSG is so common is that it works. It may not work with you, but where I come from, it worked big time.

Some people claim that shame and guilt are illusionary, nothing more than a state of mind, a psychological condition concocted by the power brokers of society. There might be some truth in that when we address false guilt and shame. There are all sorts of people who, for all sorts of reasons, unnecessarily suffer from the burden of guilt and shame, but that doesn't mean that real guilt and shame don't exist.

The Hebrew word for "guilt" in the verses I quoted is "av-on'" and is often translated "iniquity." It comes from the idea of being twisted. In the context of these verses, guilt was experienced by the people for not properly fulfilling their obligations before God. As a result they were in a twisted condition as far as their relationship with God was concerned. A better way to express it in contemporary terms would be "being out of sorts."

Real guilt, then, is a relational condition, not a psychological one. Real guilt may be accompanied by feelings of guilt or not. For example if you commit a traffic violation, and the authorities determine you are in the wrong, whether or not they are correct, you are guilty and must satisfy the penalty of guilt before your relationship to the authorities can be fully restored. How you feel about the situation is beside the point.

Unlike the imperfect determinations of human institutions, God's determinations are perfect. If he determines we are guilty, then we are guilty. But just like my traffic violation example, while God's determination of guilt may or may not provoke guilty feelings, if we are guilty before God, then we are out of sorts with him and the evidence to that fact will manifest itself in a variety of ways.

The story of ancient Israel was designed by God to reveal reality and truth to the world. Through the sacrificial system we see God's desire to have an intimate relationship with his beloved human creatures, but at the same time we see that mankind is out of sorts with God and not able on our own to be in right relationship with him. And so God appointed priests (Hebrew: cohanim) to bear the people's guilt before him. The priestly role enabled the temple service to function even though it never fully resolved the problem of guilt. That would have to wait until the coming of the Messiah.

Before we can truly experience the freedom from guilt that is available to us in Yeshua, we need to acknowledge the reality of guilt in our lives. Don't confuse this with MSG. We should not be manipulated by a false sense of shame and guilt. We shouldn't be manipulated by real shame and guilt either for that matter. Having to face reality is not being manipulated. While facing guilt is not comfortable, it is the first step to true freedom in life. But we cannot be free from guilt until we can admit that we are out of sorts with God is so many ways. Freedom from MSG is possible, but only as we cooperate with God in acknowledging our guilt and accepting his provision for it in the Messiah.