Sunday, November 27, 2011

Torahbytes: God and Human Dysfunction (Va-Yeze)

When Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, she envied her sister. She said to Jacob, "Give me children, or I shall die!" Jacob’s anger was kindled against Rachel, and he said, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?" Then she said, "Here is my servant Bilhah; go in to her, so that she may give birth on my behalf, that even I may have children through her." (Bereshit / Genesis 30:1-3; ESV)

The beginnings of the nation of Israel were rife with relational dysfunction. It took Jacob, Abraham's grandson, many years to come to grips with the reality of God. His family would emerge in the midst of polygamy, incest, and spousal competitiveness as well as murderous sibling rivalry. Yet God established the tribal divisions of the nation of Israel through his twelve sons.

God seems to have no issues with accomplishing his purposes through less than ideal human relationships and circumstances. Jacob's family is not an isolated case. Noah, the only good man in his day ends up becoming drunk to the point of unconsciousness. Moses the chosen deliverer of Israel was a vigilante murderer. David was an adulterer, who tried to cover up his sin through setting up the death of the woman's husband. The great prophet Elijah was depressed to the point of wanting to die. The early followers of Yeshua had their issues as well, from the apostles' yearning for top spot to their desertion of the Messiah when he needed them most to Paul and Barnabas's inability to agree on an outreach strategy. Through the Scriptures we encounter God's people at various levels of personal dysfunction. Yet God was at work both in and through these people and their less than ideal behavior.

God's plans and purposes are not thwarted by human sin, weakness, and incompetency. God is much bigger than that. The adage "if life gives you lemons, make lemonade" seems to be one of God's own favorite recipes. He used Pharaoh just as easily as he did Moses. Neither of them were willing subjects. Moses came around eventually, but his inability and unwillingness to cooperate with God, just like Pharaoh, didn't prevent God from accomplishing what he wanted to get done.

This is not to say that resisting God is in any way a good thing. The examples I have cited are clearly bad examples to help us to know how to truly walk with God as his people should. We are much better off when we gladly serve God according to his directives, living according to godly wisdom and pure hearts.

But until Yeshua returns and puts the world to rights, the many expressions of human dysfunction will continue. Once we realize that God, who himself is not dysfunctional, is at work in the midst of our disfunctionality to accomplish his purposes, we can spend our energy focused more on what God is doing than being put off by the problems, mistakes, and wrongs of others (and ourselves!).

Let me say again that the fact that human dysfunction does not impede God is not a reason to ignore our bad behavior. Rather it places it in context. When we understand that God remains in control of our lives in spite of human dysfunction, we can respond to life's problems from a position of trust in God, rather than from fear of its effects.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Torahbytes: It's a Baby! (Toledot)

The children struggled together within her, and she said, "If it is thus, why is this happening to me?" So she went to inquire of the LORD. (Bereshit / Genesis 25:22; ESV)

It seems to me that there are many people who claim to be pro-life who are not anti-abortion. It is common to claim to greatly value the unborn, but hesitate to be seen as coming on too strong toward others who may choose to terminate them. We might think that abortion is bad, but our unwillingness to impose our viewpoint upon someone else might be of higher value than our being considered pro-life.

There are two different issues at play here. Each of these has an effect on the other, but they are different. The first has to do with when is it right and good, if ever, to impose our viewpoints on someone else. I don't know if we could establish an absolute principle on this. How much we speak into the lives of others differs quite a bit from culture to culture. People in some cultures readily criticize one another about anything and everything with no offense taken, while other cultures so value the individual that it is thought we have no right to offer an opinion about anything personal unless explicitly invited.

Regardless of how free or hesitant a particular culture might be, every culture has a range of acceptability that governs when it is appropriate to impose one's viewpoint. In those cultures where people feel more free to speak up, there are still subjects that are off limits, and in the hesitant cultures, there are times when even the most hesitant will voice their opinion. This demonstrates that whatever else might influence our tendencies to speak up about a matter; what drives us is determined by our perception of the topic's importance.

I am aware that there are other factors that keep us from doing what we think is good and right. Fearing for our lives may prevent us from standing up for someone else, for example. But fear aside, confusion or doubts about a cause will obviously result in inaction.

This is why some people who claim to be pro-life are not anti-abortion. They don't believe that pregnant women carry real babies. For some, the unborn child is becoming a baby, which somehow makes it less than a baby. It might be nice to protect this potential life and preferable for the mother to carry it to term, but is aborting a fetus equivalent to murdering someone post birth? Well, not really. Sad? For sure. Bad? Possibly. But worth making big deal about? Probably not.

The "it's not really a baby" viewpoint is deeply rooted in a non-biblical perspective on human development. The naturalistic, scientific worldview is a warped lens that devalues life based on a cold analysis of its parts. Value, according to this worldview, is based on pragmatics with a focus on short-term benefits in the service of self (What does it do? What difference does it make if it survives or not? How best can I use it?).

In contrast, the biblical worldview derives value from God, the Creator. When the biblical writer refers to Isaac's wife Rebekah's unborn twins as children (Hebrew: banim, meaning "sons" or "children"), he regards the unborn as children, not potential children. There really were babies in there!

It is overwhelming to think of how many abortions take place worldwide every year. The Guttmacher Institute estimates the number at 46 million ( Based on a biblical view of life, that works out to more than one cold-blooded murder of an innocent child every second of every day of the year. Until we accept that these are actually babies, we shouldn't be surprised at how little is being done to save them.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Torahbytes: Burial vs. Cremation (Hayyei Sarah)

After this, Abraham buried Sarah his wife in the cave of the field of Machpelah east of Mamre (that is, Hebron) in the land of Canaan. The field and the cave that is in it were made over to Abraham as property for a burying place by the Hittites. (Bereshit / Genesis 23:19, 20; ESV)

How the handling of garbage has changed through the years. When I was a kid I remember living in a neighborhood of high-rise apartment buildings which all had incinerators. We would throw our garbage down a chute (nothing was recycled back then) and then about once a week, it would be burned. I imagine they had a process for the remains, but the bulk of it simply went up in smoke.

Oh, how we have come a long way in our attempt to preserve the purity of our environment. It makes me feel good to see how much we recycle and how little we truly throw out. I am glad the authorities make sure to show my garbage (and recycling) the greatest care possible in order to preserve our precious planet for future generations.

Yet in spite of the increasing popularity and complexity of recycling programs, garbage dumps continue to grow. There is one not far from where we live that is becoming a small mountain range.

I find it interesting how we used to burn garbage and bury people, and now we bury garbage and burn people. I know cremation has been around for a long time, but in cultures most influenced by biblical truth, it is only more recently that it has become as popular as it is.

When Abraham's wife, Sarah, died, Abraham went to great bother and expense to arrange a burial plot for her. It would have been much easier to cremate her, but he didn't. Burying dead bodies is not something simply based on custom and culture. It arose out of an understanding of the preciousness of the body and the hope of afterlife - an afterlife associated with that body. God instructed Moses that cremation was reserved for those who committed very immoral acts (Vayikra / Leviticus 20:14; 21:9). Otherwise God's people were buried.

I don't think that the burial of garbage and the burning of the dead are due to a conscious decision to honor garbage over people. But then again maybe it is.

We are so consumed with material goods, while people are deemed disposable. I haven't done the research but it wouldn't surprise me if we spent more money and time on electronic gadgets than on our relationships. I refer to real relationships such as marriage and family, the kind of relationships that build community for future generations.

Of course I know we dispose of gadgets as much as we do people, but could it be that the burning of bodies represents the human attempt to obliterate all obligation to our God-given relationships? Maybe the growing popularity of cremation isn't a direct reflection of the devaluation of people and relationships. Maybe it's just a coincidence.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Torahbytes: Faith and Works (Va-Yera)

But the angel of the LORD called to him from heaven and said, "Abraham, Abraham!" And he said, "Here am I." He said, "Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me." (Bereshit / Genesis 22:11, 12; ESV)

Perhaps one of the most confusing issues in the Bible is that of the relationship between faith and works. The more I hear the issue discussed the more it seems to me that it is rife with misunderstanding. It should strike us as curious that evangelicals, who claim to take the Bible more seriously than anyone, rally around the cry of "justification by faith alone" - when we read in the New Covenant Scriptures, "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." Here it is in context:

Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness"—and he was called a friend of God. You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24; ESV)

Justification is a biblical term that means "being made right with God." How one is made right with God is a major issue throughout the whole Bible that becomes most controversial in the New Covenant Scriptures. This is because it was essential to determine the basis upon which non-Jews could be included in the messianic community. Many Jewish Believers in Yeshua assumed that the embracing of Torah as given by God at Mt. Sinai through Moses and as understood by the Prophets and Sages of old was that which established right standing with God. The New Covenant writers rejected this notion. While Torah was God's true and holy revelation to Israel, it had two fundamental functions. First, it was designed to prepare Israel and the world for the coming of the Messiah. And second, it stood as an indictment against Israel and the world that we all fall short of God's requirements and need God to rescue us.

When the New Covenant writers speak against justification by works they are opposing the rabbinical claim held by some messianics of their day that Israel finds right standing with God through the Torah as a system. The rabbis knew that no one could keep Torah perfectly, but by adhering to Torah to the best of one's ability, one could be confident that he was in good stead with God. Contrary to this the New Covenant writers appeal to the example of Abraham and others whose right standing with God was clearly on the basis of their trust in him (faith, belief, and trust are the same words in the biblical languages).

It would be many years later that the faith/works controversy would take a new twist and help spawn Protestantism and affect how most Bible believers view this issue today. By the Middle Ages the Church began to regard good deeds and religious rituals as the basis of right standing with God. The rediscovery of the importance of the Bible coincided with this misguided approach to justification. Thankfully there arose those who stood for biblical truth and reestablished the correct understanding that no system of moral or ritualistic effort could ever satisfy God's requirements. Right standing with God could only come about through faith in the Messiah.

While the Protestant remedy rightly redirected us to the Biblical teaching of justification by faith, it tended to play down the place of works so much that today many Bible believers get nervous whenever someone seeks to restore works to their proper biblical place.

It is possible that this was already happening in the first century, which would explain why James addresses it. The balance between faith and works is actually all through the pages of the Bible. Right standing with God cannot be achieved by anything we do. God is the one who justifies us. Trusting in him and what he has done through Yeshua the Messiah is what makes us right with him. Good works and religious activities are the necessary fruit of real faith. Works don't produce right relationship with God, but those who claim right relationship with God yet lack the resulting fruit are most likely hypocrites.