Sunday, January 29, 2012

Torahbytes: When Bad Things Happen to God's People (Be-Shallah)

When Pharaoh drew near, the people of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold, the Egyptians were marching after them, and they feared greatly. And the people of Israel cried out to the LORD. They said to Moses, “Is it because there are no graves in Egypt that you have taken us away to die in the wilderness? What have you done to us in bringing us out of Egypt? Is not this what we said to you in Egypt: ‘Leave us alone that we may serve the Egyptians’? For it would have been better for us to serve the Egyptians than to die in the wilderness.” (Shemot / Exodus 14:10-12; ESV)

Life can be difficult at times. Circumstances have their way of throwing all sorts of unexpected obstacles in our path. We may find ourselves climbing the ladder of success only to find ourselves at the dizzying height of the top of the wrong wall. Our mistakes, intentional or not, can hurl us to unanticipated and undesirable depths. Disappointments zap our energy away, at times to the point of despair, and we wonder if it will ever be worth trying again.

There is a startling statement found in the New Covenant writings that goes like this: "And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28, New American Standard Bible). This statement actually claims that there are some people in the world for whom God causes "all things to work together for good." Whatever your take on the Bible is, stick with me for a second. Do you see what this is saying! The Master of the Universe purposely ensures, for people who love him - the "called" part is not adding an extra category of person, but rather is simply describing one of the aspects of a person who loves God in that they are called according to his purpose - God ensures for these people the eventual positive outcome of every circumstance of life.

This is not to say that every circumstance of life is good. There is nothing here about making light of life's hardships nor is there any encouragement to play psychological games with reality. Bad things do happen to those who love God. But step back and look at the big picture: the end result of everything that happens to these people is good. You may have heard the saying, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade, but this is better than that. It's not up to us to make the lemonade. God is the lemonade maker. Everything that happens to those who love God are like ingredients in his hands for eventual good.

Before we go further, this statement does not apply to everyone. This grand statement is designed to help those who have been made right with God through faith in the Messiah of Israel to engage life as we should. Those whose hearts are turned away from the Messiah have no such guarantee, but you can make that change right now.

Whether you just now decided to give your life over to Yeshua the Messiah or you have walked with him for years you can be certain that God is out for your good irrespective of whatever you may be going through right now.

We must be careful not to judge our circumstances wrongly. While some of the bad things that happen to us are our own fault, that doesn't nullify God's guarantee of eventual good.  God himself will often lead us right into difficult situations just like the people of Israel when they faced the Red Sea with the Egyptian army on their tail. They wrongly interpreted their circumstances to mean that God was out to get them. They couldn't see that they were on the brink of one of the most amazing things that has ever happened in history (if you don't know the story, go read it for yourself later).

We shouldn't play down how difficult it must have been for the people of Israel to keep a positive perspective in the midst of such an impossible situation. But that's the point. God wants us to trust him even when everything around us seems to be horrible with no way out. If Messiah was raised from the dead, then there is no situation in which his people may find themselves that cannot eventually result in our good. I think realizing that would make a big difference in our lives.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Torahbytes: Humility (Bo)

So Moses and Aaron went in to Pharaoh and said to him, "Thus says the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, 'How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me? Let my people go, that they may serve me.'" (Shemot / Exodus 10:3)

The Torah paints a stark contrast between Pharaoh and Moses. This is more than simply a retelling of an historical event. It is an historical event like so many of the Bible's stories, but through the inspiration of God the desired impact upon the reader is clearly intentional. Elsewhere in the Torah Moses is said to be the most humble man of his day (see Bemidbar / Numbers 12:3). Pharaoh is confronted by Moses for his lack of humility. It is the humble whom God regards (see Isaiah 66:2). He gives his grace (his power for living) to the humble, while opposing the proud (see James 4:6).

The issue of humility has to do with human will. Our wills may be defined as that which drives how we live or, in others words, our wants. Our wills or wants are not the same as our decisions. We may want to do something, but may be thwarted in our attempt to do it. I may want to go buy something, but the store may be closed. I may want to pursue an occupation, but not be accepted by the school that claims to provide the training I require. I find it interesting that most of us learn to navigate life in such a way that most of the time we fulfill our wants. We quickly learn to avoid those things that thwart our wills.

This is not to say that it is never inappropriate to assert ourselves. The existence of obstacles in our lives is not necessarily an indication that our wants are inappropriate. Far from it! Sometimes the obstacles we encounter are geared by God to strengthen our wills and to learn not to easily back down when facing difficulties.

Humility is a way to describe the ease of which we give into obstacles. When we assert our wills, but encounter an obstacle, humility is a heart mechanism enabling us to give in and allow that obstacle to change our course of direction.

Some people are more naturally given over to humility than others. Some of these people may be characterized as "wimps" - those who regularly allow others and circumstances to direct the course of their lives. The last thing we would call Moses is a wimp. He was a man that faced all sorts of obstacles and difficult circumstances. The clash of wills between him and Pharaoh was of epic proportions. Why would Moses be characterized as humble and Pharaoh not?

The issue of humility here is not an analysis of an isolated human trait. Humility in the Scriptures is not a general statement of character. Rather it is primarily an issue of relationship to God. The Bible doesn't calls us to humility by itself as if we must learn to easily give up our wills to the whims of others or to accept every difficulty as God's direction in our lives. Rather it calls us to humble ourselves before God, so that when our wills clash with his, we readily give in to his wants. This is the person he gives grace to. This is the person he regards. This is the person Moses was. This is the person Pharaoh was not.

That Pharaoh was a strong leader committed to the prosperity of Egypt was a good thing. No leader should be expected to immediately give in to the wishes of a former renegade and supposed liberator. As a leader of his people, Pharaoh must stand strong against every true threat to his people. What became problematic for him was when his will clashed with the will of a higher authority to whom he was answerable. We cannot fault Pharaoh for not quickly acknowledging Moses' claim to be representing the Master of the Universe. But it was not until after seven of the plagues that God makes this statement regarding Pharaoh's refusal to humble himself before him.

Moses on the other hand was able to assert himself against all sorts of obstacles because of his humility toward God. Almost every time after he finally accepted his call to liberate his people, whenever he faced a problem, he would seek God's will and do whatever God told him. The humility that God is looking for is not a general demeanor toward life, but humility unto him and his will for our lives.

Is your will being thwarted? It may be that God is trying to tell you something. How long will you refuse to humble yourself before the Master of the Universe? But perhaps you are being thwarted in your legitimate attempt to do God's will. Ask him. Learn to do God's will in God's way in God's timing. Perhaps your will isn't being thwarted, but that's because you're not really living. You may be more like Pharaoh than you think, except you are deaf to what God is saying to you. Have you asked him lately?

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Torahbytes: Do You Know God's Name? (Va-Era)

God spoke to Moses and said to him, "I am the LORD. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty, but by my name the LORD I did not make myself known to them." (Shemot / Exodus 6:2, 3; ESV)

The statement I just read often troubles readers of the Torah. When God appeared to Moses he told him that he did not make himself known to the forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, by the name (in Hebrew) yod, hei, vav, hei, often translated in English as LORD with full caps. This is sometimes written out as "Yahveh," or "Yahweh." This is where we get the mispronounced name "Jehovah". This name is derived from the Hebrew verb for "to be" and signifies God as the eternal Being, the self-existing one from whom all existence is derived. The reason why we don't use Yahveh or something close is that in Jewish tradition, God's name was considered so sacred that its use was reserved for very special occasions and even then by certain people. Since Hebrew is a consonantal language, meaning only the consonants are written out, the vowels for each word were to be remembered through oral tradition. In the biblical text the vowel sounds are noted through special markings. But these markings were added many years after the text was written down and were known only by tradition. The vowel markings for YHVH are most likely taken from the word "adonai", meaning "Lord." Using these markings was to signal the reader to say "adonai" whenever encountering YHVH in the text.

Be that as it may, our passage sounds as if Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob didn't know God by this name at all, but rather by "el shaddai" (commonly in English: "God Almighty") even though there are references to YHVH all through the stories of the patriarchs, including in quotes of the forefathers themselves.

There are two possible solutions to this issue. First, the use of YHVH in the earlier biblical period was introduced some time later by Moses or other editors of the Torah. According to this view, the forefathers had never once heard this name for God, but the stories are written using what later became the most widely used name for God. The problem with this explanation is that it runs counter to the usual care of the biblical writers to preserve correct uses of terms within their original time periods.

A better explanation is based on understanding that the way names in the Bible are used is primarily to describe something about the one named, rather than a simple designation. People in many cultures today tend to name children with particular names because they like the sound. An exception to that is naming someone after someone else. But even in that case the name simply functions as a designator, similar to how a serial number functions in order to differentiate individuals from one another. In Biblical times people are often named in such a way as to denote something about the person or in reference to an event of some kind. A person's name tells a story about the person or something about the context in which they live. Moses' name serves as an example of this in that it refers to his being taken from the water when he was found by Pharaoh's daughter. God's name as revealed to Moses is far more about the meaning of that name than its sound. It is possible that the forefathers were aware of this name even though they never experienced its full meaning.

Up until the time of God's deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt, his activity with people was for the most part intimate and personal only. While he did create the universe, instigated the flood and confused the languages at Babel, his work was limited to words of promise, warning, and guidance. It is with Moses and the exodus that we see the powerful hand of God at work favoring his covenant people. Through the plagues God judges Egypt, its leadership and its gods while revealing his loyalty to his chosen people. He doesn't sit idly by, simply offering words of encouragement. Instead he powerfully fights their battles by manipulating the forces of nature and twisting Pharaoh's arm, so to speak, in order to accomplish his purpose.

This demonstrated to his people and the world that God was not limited in any way. The power of the God of Israel extended far beyond their own community into every aspect of creation. What Israel knew about God through the stories of creation, the flood, and Babel, became personally relevant to them as a people. Their relationship to God was not to be something of myth and legend, designed only to encourage them in difficult times, but they could count on God to fight for them in the midst of greatest difficulty.

There are people today that think it is essential to use God's actual name, thinking that something special would happen or that God would be more pleased with us if we did. But what God desires for us is that we would know his name in the way that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not. He is not far off, existing simply to warm our hearts through gentle reminders of intangible thoughts. But rather he is a God of action who wishes to powerfully break through into our lives in order to reveal his tangible reality to and through us.