Sunday, March 27, 2011

TorahBytes: Giving Birth Is not a Disease (Tazri'a & Hahodesh)

And when the days of her purifying are completed, whether for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring to the priest at the entrance of the tent of meeting a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, and he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her. Then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who bears a child, either male or female. (Vayikra / Leviticus 12:6, 7; ESV)

The Torah does far more than provide lists of rules and regulations. Through the study of Torah we are drawn into seeing life from God's perspective. A fancy, popular term for this is "worldview." Most of us are not aware that we live our lives based on a worldview, but how we see the world controls the way we live. A worldview is something far more caught than taught in that, for the most part, how we see the world is unconsciously derived from our families of origin and the unstated values of the cultures in which we live.

The Torah is an expression of God's worldview. The explicit statements we encounter in the Torah arise from how God sees life. God's view of reality, which I accept to be the only true reality, is not always explained, but rather assumed. The reason for something is not usually given. After all God has no need to explain himself; he is the Creator and Master of the Universe. When he provides a directive, it is based on his correct understanding of life. But as we look closely at what he tells us, we can pick up on his perspective. As we do so, our understanding of life becomes enriched, which in turn puts his directives in their context, enabling us to fulfill them as God intended.

Before we look at a particular example, I want to point out that the context in which to best understand God's directives is that we live in the messianic age. Unlike the original recipients of the Torah who anticipated Messiah's coming, we live out God's directives in these days of messianic fulfillment. Yeshua's coming and the destruction of the Temple revolutionized how God's people conduct their lives. Yet the radical differences between the Old and New Covenants should not distract us from God's perspective on life which we encounter all through his sacred writings.

Now to our example of how the Torah provides us with God's worldview. This week's Torah portion begins with a section regarding the purification regulations of child birth. This is then followed by a lengthy section on infectious skin conditions. There are similarities and dissimilarities between these two sections. What these two conditions have in common is that special attention was to be given to their conditions and certain rituals were to be observed when the conditions were resolved. The state of being unclean in each case placed the person in a special relationship to the things of God and in the community. This was designed to protect the community and the individual during their time of ritual uncleanness. However, the port-partum mother did not pose a risk to the community in the way those who contracted an infectious skin disease did. If it was determined that a person truly had an infectious skin condition, they were to be placed in isolation. There was no such requirement for the specified time period following childbirth. While both the post-partum mother and the person with the skin condition were to be regarded as "unclean", whatever else unclean meant, childbirth is not a disease.

That childbirth is not a disease is, of course, rooted in God's overall perspective on children, which is that they are a blessing and a reward (See Bereshit / Genesis 1:28, Devarim / Deuteronomy 7:4, Tehillim / Psalms 127:3, Matthew 19:14). Yet even though many cultures correctly understand the differences between these two conditions and no one would outright say that giving birth is a disease, the amount of time and effort put in by so many people trying to prevent themselves from having children may expose a worldview very different from that of the God of the Torah.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

TorahBytes: When Feeling Bad Is Good (Shemini & Parah)

Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations. It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel. (Ezekiel 36:31, 32; ESV)

This week's Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) includes one of the Hebrew Scriptures' predictions of the physical and spiritual restoration of the people of Israel. These portions make it clear that while Israel will suffer serious consequences for rejecting God and his ways, he will not cast them off forever, but rather will restore them to himself and to their land. This restoration will not be a simple reset back to the way things were, but rather to the way God has always intended, though yet has never been experienced.

However this works out, God is the one who does it. The way the Bible references the work of God is not a poetic or metaphorical way of describing life at a human level alone. When we read, "Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt" (Ezekiel 36:33; ESV), God will really do it.

But the fact that God is the one who brings such things about doesn't mean that there isn't a human factor. The restoration of Israel is not something that just happens to the people. As God does what God does, so the people react and respond. In fact the reality of the restoration is that the people will react and respond in a very particular way.

One aspect of that response is contained in what was quoted at the start: "Then you will remember your evil ways, and your deeds that were not good, and you will loathe yourselves for your iniquities and your abominations" (Ezekiel 36:31; ESV). When God brings about the promised heart change in the people they will look at their bad behavior and feel terrible about it. And so God says to them: "Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel" (Ezekiel 36:32; ESV). In order to experience the restoration of God, the people first need to be ashamed.

That's not the kind of message I hear these days. What I most often hear is that God wants us to feel good about ourselves. What we're told is that the human problem is low self-esteem and if we only knew how God felt about us, everything would be okay (or, at least, a lot better than it is now). Our problem supposedly is that we haven't learned to accept ourselves. Since, according to this way of thinking, if God accepts us the way we are, then we should to.

But God doesn't accept us the way we are. The reason why the human situation is as bad as it is is because God rejects us in the state we are in. Our acceptance is based on his mercy and sacrifice on our behalf. The good news is that anyone who wants to return to God on his terms will be accepted. But it must be on his terms, which includes loathing ourselves because of our iniquities. Unless we see our sin for what it is, we will never receive the forgiveness necessary to be restored to God. How can we be forgiven if we think we have nothing that requires forgiveness in the first place? To claim to participate in the Messiah's sacrifice but deny its very purpose is to reject it.

It's not as if God wants us to live the rest of our lives feeling bad about ourselves. It's that seeing our wrongs from God's perspective is a necessary part of being restored to right relationship with him. Once we admit the truth about the nature of the evil that pervades our lives, we are in a place where we can receive his forgiveness and experience his acceptance.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

TorahBytes: What Is Sin? (Zav & Zakhor)

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, "If anyone sins and commits a breach of faith against the LORD by deceiving his neighbor in a matter of deposit or security, or through robbery, or if he has oppressed his neighbor or has found something lost and lied about it, swearing falsely - in any of all the things that people do and sin thereby -" (Vayikra / Leviticus 6:1-3; ESV).

This section of the third book of the Torah gives directions regarding what to do when a person did certain wrongs to another person. Notice that in the verses I read, doing such things are considered sins against God and not just against the offended party. The Torah, in this way, puts our behavior into proper perspective. Doing wrong to others badly affects our relationship to God.

Some may think that referencing God with regard to human behavior is simply a way to control a community's behavior. After all the Torah is a religious document. Of course it will reference God with regard to most things. But the God of the Torah is not just an impersonal rule maker. There is no sense that his commandments are designed as behavior modification tools. The Torah's morality is deeply rooted in the reality of a relational God.

God rescued the people of Israel from a horrible situation in Egypt. This redemptive deliverance created a unique eternal bond between the people and God. As a result their lives were to reflect the nature and character of God. Failing to do so constitutes what we call "sin." Sin is not the breaking of an arbitrary rule, but rather it is the denial of or the attempt to destroy an established relationship. Sins are not demerits or mistakes on an exam, where too many can lead to a final mark of "Fail." Rather they are the bad fruit that arise from a state of being out of sync with what was intended to be a most intimate relationship. Justice, equity, respect for property, and honesty are essential aspects of the nature and character of God himself. To ignore these things is to turn one's back on God. To do wrong to others breaks relationship with him, or in other words, it is to sin.

Until we understand that our misdeeds toward each other are first and foremost an affront to the God who made us, we will never effectively deal with them. Philosophy, psychology, and all sorts of religions attempt to resolve human dysfunction, but no amount of self-understanding, personal improvement, mind games, or behavioral techniques will ever resolve our inability to live rightly towards others, not to mention establish and maintain right relationship with our Creator.

It is only as we recognize our misdeeds for what they really are - sins against God - that we can begin to not only know the kind of relationship with God we were designed for, but we will also begin to experience the kind of relationship with each other we so desperately long for.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

TorahBytes: The People of God (Yayikra)

This one will say, "I am the LORD’s," another will call on the name of Jacob, and another will write on his hand, "The LORD’s," and name himself by the name of Israel. (Isaiah 44:5; ESV)

The central theme of the whole Bible is God's plan to reestablish right relationship with human beings. Having been made "very good" by God in the beginning, our first parents rejected God's word and listened to the Tempter, thrusting the human race into a state of alienation from our Creator. God determined from that day to restore our broken relationship with him (see Bereshit / Genesis 3:15). One might wonder why God didn't fix things on the spot. Why has the reconciliation of mankind to God been so drawn out, difficult, and complex? The complexity of this solution underscores the complexity of the problem. The more I ponder this, the more I realize how terrible our rebellious state really is. God's approach to this problem is the exact appropriate and most effective solution there is.

It would be centuries between God's promise of restoration in the Garden of Eden and the real beginnings of the outworking of his restorative plan. This occurred when God promised blessing to the whole world through Abraham. While so much of the focus of the Hebrew Scriptures is on Israel itself, throughout its pages we see how God's work in and through Israel would result in great benefit for all peoples and the entire creation.

An example of this is found in this week's Haftarah portion. Through the prophet Isaiah, God speaks of a time when he would restore wayward Israel to himself. As this occurs even those who were not of Israel originally would consider themselves as such and regard themselves as belonging to Israel's God.

The turning of non-Jewish nations to the God of Israel is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham - the fulfillment of God's promise in the Garden. Israel was not chosen as a holy nation for itself, but for global blessing.

How this was to work out was a major challenge to the early followers of Yeshua. It took a while for the first generation of Jewish believers to accept and embrace God's desire to make himself known to non-Jewish people. Then, once more and more non-Jews began to trust in the Messiah, it would be through controversy that the place of non-Jews within the community of believers would be adequately understood. In time, non-Jewish believers would be accepted as full members of the New Covenant community.

Through Yeshua all people, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, are restored to right relationship with God. As such, all believers are equally regarded as part of the people of God. God is equally Father to all who are reconciled to him through the Messiah by faith. We all have the same access to him. God has no favorites. How much one may benefit by their relationship with God and their particular calling and gifts may differ from person to person. Yet at the same time, all believers are equally part of God's family.

The establishment of the New Covenant community as a multinational gathering of people based on faith in the Messiah should not be confused with God's particular plans and purposes for the people of Israel, however. While Israel's tendency to see itself as the sole benefactor of God's blessings became an obstacle to its comprehending its call to be an instrument of those blessings to all nations, the incorporation of the nations as part of the people of God in no way undermines the particular aspects of God's plan that applies particularly to Israel.

This "both/and" of the one messianic people of God and God's continued covenantal faithfulness to Abrahams' descendents through Isaac and Jacob is an essential element of biblical truth. To fail to grasp the importance of these two essential aspects of God's overall plan of reconciliation is to disqualify ourselves from full participation in that plan.

Israel was called to be God's instrument of blessing to the entire world. Contrary to popular thought, this was realized through the Jewish Messiah and his early Jewish followers. The New Covenant (New Testament) writings is the legacy of Israel to the world. The temporary failure of the majority of Israel to embrace its messianic call in Yeshua in no way undermines God's plan for the world or Israel's own destiny, for God will yet fulfill his promises to them.

For more information regarding the identity of Israel in the New Covenant writings, please see my article, God Did Not Reject His People - The Identity of Israel in Paul's Letter to the Romans, Chapter 11.