Monday, May 30, 2011

TorahBytes: The Blessing of God's Name (Naso)

So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Bemidbar / Numbers 6:27; ESV)

This week's parsha (Torah portion) contains the well-known blessing that God entrusted to Moses' brother Aaron and his descendants, the cohanim (English: priests). Through this blessing they were to put God's name on the people of Israel.

When we read of God's name, we need to keep in mind that in that culture a name communicated something of the nature of the person or thing being named. Names were not simply a label in the way names are used today, where it is not uncommon for a person to be given a name because their parents like the sound of it. It is interesting that many if not most people today don't even know the meaning of their own names.

So when the cohanim were to put God's name on the people, it was not about the sounds of the consonants and vowels. The pronouncement of this blessing was not a magical formula that in itself caused things to happen to the hearers. It was what the blessing signified; its meaning made the difference. This is not to say that they could have used any words they wanted, since meaning is conveyed through words. Yet at the same time, saying the right words in themselves has no power.

The name that the cohanim were to put on the people is signified by the four Hebrew letters "yod", "hey", "vav", "hey" and is derived from the concept of "to be" or "existence". Its meaning is probably best explained when God referred to himself as "I am who I am" (Shemot / Exodus 3:14). Unlike anything else in the universe, God is the great Being or Self-Existing One. All existence is derived from him, while he is derived from nothing but himself.

The concept of blessing flows from God's self-existence. Blessing is the act of filling something or someone with life. For example, when a tree is fruitful, life, which is derived from God alone, has flowed into the tree resulting in abundant fruit. That process is called "blessing."

The cohanim were God's chosen channels through which blessing flowed. By pronouncing these words, or rather what these words signified, they brought life to the people of Israel.

Interestingly the blessing they were to say, used the singular when speaking to the nation. While God instructs the cohanim to speak to "them", the nation (vv. 22, 27), every use of the word "you" in the blessing itself is singular. God's intention for his people is that each of us individually would receive life from him.

Through the Messiah, we can receive that life. Yeshua is the Cohen HaGadol, the Great High Priest, through whom we can receive the power of God's name. Just as the cohanim of old reminded us that we cannot derive God's blessing on our own, it is through the life, death and resurrection of the Messiah that we can truly know God and be filled with his life.

Monday, May 23, 2011

TorahBytes: God's True Identity (Bemidbar)

And in that day, declares the LORD, you will call me "My Husband," and no longer will you call me "My Baal." For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more. (Hosea 2:18, 19; English: 2:16, 17; ESV)

My family and I are fans of C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, a popular series of children's fantasy books. In these stories people from our world have adventures in a parallel world. Masterfully written, Lewis weaves spiritual insights throughout these books, some of which have helped me to better grasp certain biblical concepts.

However, there is a viewpoint which Lewis illustrates that I take exception to. In the last book of the series, entitled The Last Battle, Lewis paints a picture of the transition from life as we know it to the age to come. The allegiance of the book's characters is split between the messianic figure Aslan and an evil god, named Tash. It is only those who have served Aslan who will inherit eternal life in the age to come.

There is one individual who, as far as everyone knows, including himself, served Tash his whole life, yet is welcomed into the new creation. It is explained that those who have served Tash with noble and good deeds were, without knowing it, actually serving Aslan; while those who, albeit in Aslan's name, lived cruel lives, were actually serving Tash.

If this is indeed Lewis's understanding of who, in the end, is truly accepted by God, then he clearly expresses one biblical truth, while denying another. Throughout history there have been many who have abused the name of the true God for their own evil purposes. Some of these people have put on a good front and others have not. Lewis is right that those who do evil in God's name are actually standing against him. These people should not be surprised when they are rejected by God in the end.

But Lewis has erred in his assertion that allegiance to the true God will be judged solely on the basis of people's intensions, faithfulness and good deeds. Whether or not people consciously profess faith in Yeshua is irrelevant according to "The Last Battle."

According to Scripture God is more than simply a spiritual concept; he is a personal being with whom we need to be in proper relationship. God's identity is revealed to us very specifically. He is the God of Abraham , Isaac and Jacob - the God who led his people out of slavery in Egypt. It was essential that his people learn to in no way confuse him with other gods. He knew that if they made that confusion, they would be disloyal to him and engage in all sorts of destructive behaviors.

This week's Haftarah is taken from the writings of the prophet Hosea. Through him God foretold of a time when this confusion would be no more. The people of Israel in the Hebrew Scriptures regularly integrated the spirituality of the nations around them with their service to the true God. Baal was a popular false god in those days. Throughout Israelite history the people were drawn into Baal worship. Through the passage quoted above we see that the true God was being called by the name of "Baal." To the people of that day, they were one and the same. The day would come, however, when this confusion would be broken for good.

God's true identity is found in who he really is and not simply through our intentions. Our acknowledgement of his true identity is an essential part of being in right relationship with him. While true faith is not just a matter of using correct religious labels, to disregard the way in which God has revealed himself is to disregard him.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

TorahBytes: You Don't Have To Be Afraid (Be-Hukkotai)

I will give peace in the land, and you shall lie down, and none shall make you afraid. (Vayikra / Leviticus 26:6; ESV)

Like many others I was deeply moved and impressed by this past year's Academy award-winning film, "The King's Speech" (minus the crude language). The line that affected me the most was when speech therapist Lionel Logue said to King George VI, "You don’t need to be afraid of things you were afraid of when you were five." This simple statement captures the depths of the kind of debilitating fear that continues to control so many of us. Logue is right. The traumas we experienced at a young age need not affect us now. But they do. They affected King George. They affect us. I appreciate how the movie doesn't cheapen the pain of childhood trauma by giving the impression that after Logue's statement, everything was okay. That the King was greatly helped by Logue and was able to give his historic speech in spite of his impediment is highly instructive and wonderfully encouraging. Yet, according to the film, the King's fears rooted in his childhood continued to plague him.

It was deplorable to hear of how the King was abused as a small child. No doubt many readers and listeners of TorahBytes have similar tragic stories to tell. Abuse and other types of hardships have profound effects on us. People who somehow escape such painful experiences are often surprised by how common such things are. Our desire to imagine that life is basically good clouds the reality of the brokenness of human existence due to our rebellion against God.

One of the reasons for God's choosing the people of Israel was to reveal the truth about human existence. In this week's Torah portion we read of God's blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience. Israel was to experience peace, security, and a sense of well-being as a result of following God's instructions, but devastating mental and physical anguish if they rejected God's ways. The result of rejecting God is not the story of Israel alone. Israel's story was designed to instruct the whole world concerning the truth about God and life, so that we could look at the overall human condition and realize that the cause of our brokenness is alienation from God.

The bad fruit of brokenness is different from person to person, nation to nation, but all of us can find ourselves in the terrible list included in the Torah portion. For some of us, like King George, fear is the predominate outcome of our alienation from God.

It is next to impossible for people who are controlled by fear to imagine that freedom from its clutches is a possibility. But it is. Not only was a lack of fear a promise of God to ancient Israel should they have been true to him, which they were not, but it is now a benefit for those who are restored to God thought the Messiah. This subject is much bigger than what we can cover in a short message, but let's be reminded of the great sense of security and lack of fear available to those who love God through the Messiah:

So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:16-19; ESV).

"There is no fear in love"; "Perfect love casts our fear"; "Whoever fears has not been perfected in love." Followers of Yeshua who still struggle with fear need to accept that we don't yet fully grasp the reality of God's love as we should. The residue of fear that continues to choke us is a sign of our need to know God and his love better.

As one who continues to struggle with fear due largely to childhood trauma, I know the difference Yeshua has made in my life. Before coming to know him, fear was absolutely crippling and destructive. I am so grateful to God for the great level of freedom I have enjoyed due to his deep work in my life. Like King George getting to the place where he could deliver his speech, so God has enabled me to live an effective and blessed life. But at the same time I believe there's more for me. I need not put up with the remnants of the chains of fear that continually threaten to choke my life. I need to look to God to perfect his love in me, so that fear will be cast out once and for all.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

TorahBytes: Slavery (Be-Har)

As for your male and female slaves whom you may have: you may buy male and female slaves from among the nations that are around you. You may also buy from among the strangers who sojourn with you and their clans that are with you, who have been born in your land, and they may be your property. You may bequeath them to your sons after you to inherit as a possession forever. You may make slaves of them, but over your brothers the people of Israel you shall not rule, one over another ruthlessly. (Vayikra / Leviticus 25:44-46; ESV)

For many people, one of the most troubling issues in the Bible is slavery. How could God view slavery in the way it appears to be presented in the Scriptures? The passage I just read from this week's parsha (Torah portion) seems to be clear that the people of Israel were permitted to own slaves.

Looking back from our day to ancient times, we expect the Bible to share our perspective on slavery. Most of us are deeply offended at the thought of owning other human beings and treating them like property, and therefore find it very disturbing that the same God through whom we learn an otherwise high standard of morality would condone such an evil institution.

But does God truly condone slavery? I cannot deny that our passage give this impression, but a more thorough reading of the entire Bible suggests otherwise. It is true that we do not find in the pages of Scripture the abolitionist language of modern times. Yet what we do find is a clear undermining of this oppressive man-made institution.

God's actual view of slavery is dramatically illustrated in his deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. He had no qualms about disrupting Egypt's economy by removing their forced labor system.

That slavery is a negative condition is also evident by the distinctions in our passage. While foreigners could be owned as slaves, fellow Israelites could not be. There was something about how nations viewed one another that allowed for the toleration of slavery. But since Israel was to view their own people as family, they were not to enslave each other.

But what if we viewed all people as brothers and sisters? What would happen to slavery then? This is what we see in the New Covenant letter of Philemon. Philemon was a wealthy man and slave owner, who had come to know the Messiah through Paul the sheliach (English: apostle or emissary). One of Philemon's slaves by the name of Onesimus had run away, but eventually also turned to Yeshua, through Paul's teaching. Respecting Roman law, Paul sent Onesimus back to Philemon along with the letter bearing his name. On the basis of the new brotherly relationship between Philemon and Onesimus, Paul shrewdly undermines the institution of slavery. He writes:

For this perhaps is why he was parted from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, as a beloved brother - especially to me, but how much more to you, both in the flesh and in the Lord (Philemon 15, 16; ESV).

As more and more masters and slaves became followers of the God of Israel through the Messiah and thus brothers through the same heavenly Father, slavery was doomed.

It would be the dissemination of biblical teaching that would challenge the world's understanding of how we should treat our fellow human beings. It would take centuries for the worldwide human community to recognize our commonality across national and ethic boundaries - a commonality that would make the condoning of slavery impossible.

You might be surprised to learn that slavery still exists. In fact there are more slaves in the world now than any other time in history. The UN estimates that there are over 27 million slaves today. According to "Slavery in the Twenty-First Century" by Howard Dodson (, "All racial groups are objects of the trade. Though women and children are its principal victims, those who are bought, sold and enslaved come from almost every continent and are sold into slavery in virtually every country." You may be surprised to learn how we benefit from the continued existence of this oppression.

As we seek to grasp a comprehensive understanding of the Bible's view of slavery, may God open our eyes to the reality of modern slavery and guide us in his mandate to set the captives free.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

TorahBytes: Blemishes (Emor)

You shall not offer anything that has a blemish, for it will not be acceptable for you. (Vayikra / Leviticus 22:20; ESV)

The God of Israel was very particular with regard to the physical condition of the cohanim (English: priests) and the sacrifices. He gave Moses lists of physical deformities which would have disqualified people and animals from his service.

These high standards were not legislated because of God's personal preferences, but rather to cause the people to reckon with the seriousness of human imperfection. Human beings were originally designed to be God's representatives on Earth. The rebellion of our first parents in the Garden of Eden drastically altered our nature, rendering us unfit to serve God. The sacrificial system of the Torah drives home the separation that exists between humans and God. On one hand the people of Israel were privileged to engage in the service of God through the sacrificial system and were instructed in God's ways and holiness. On the other hand they were continually reminded of their inability to enter true intimacy with God.

That anyone would be disqualified on the basis of blemishes goes against much popular thought that tries to convince us that there is nothing wrong with us at all. We are continually told that biblical concepts of sin and guilt are concoctions of power-driven religionists. By freeing our minds of such things and recognizing our innate goodness, we can reach our full potential and live successful lives.

Yet there has probably never been a day when we have been so obsessed with blemishes. Vast amounts of time and money are spent on tweaking our appearance. While neglecting the moral and spiritual aspects of our lives, we strive for some semblance of physical perfection that we find acceptable.

The drive for physical perfection is a lost cause, however, due to the mortality of our bodies. No matter how hard we try to remove or hide our blemishes, they will return or others will show and then eventually we will die anyway.

But it's not our physical blemishes that should cause us concern. Our moral and spiritual blemishes are not imaginary, but real. The Torah, as the mirror of our soul, reflects the gross imperfections which are part of us all. God's Word clearly reveals to us that we don't match up to God's standards, thus rendering us unable to come to God as we so desperately need to.

Thankfully God does not leave us in this condition. Having pointed out our spiritual blemishes, the Scriptures give us hope of being restored to right relationship with God. Over 600 years before the coming of Yeshua Isaiah prophesied:
But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned - every one - to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5, 6; ESV)

Isaiah foretold how the Messiah through his suffering and death would effectively deal with the transgressions and iniquities that have caused us to be alienated from God. As Yeshua took on himself our blemishes, he makes us fit to truly enter God's presence and to serve God in this world as he intended.