Sunday, February 26, 2012

Torahbytes: Intentional Design (Tezavveh & Zakhor)

You shall not offer unauthorized incense on it, or a burnt offering, or a grain offering, and you shall not pour a drink offering on it. (Shemot / Exodus 30:9; ESV)

I have become rather passionate about the subject of Biblical worldview. Worldview is a way to describe how individuals and communities understand life. When an athlete wears the same undergarment during a long championship series, believing that not to wear it would undermine his success, he is living out a superstitious worldview. When in movie after movie, brave champions win the day having not first committed themselves and their endeavors to God in prayer; we encounter Hollywood's secular-humanist worldview. Every time someone says "truth is whatever you make it to be", they are espousing a post-modern worldview. Doing whatever you want, whenever you want, however you want, as long as it feels good is a hedonistic worldview.

Countries such as Canada and the United States that at one time officially embraced and promoted a biblical worldview now aggressively pursue opposing worldviews to the point of even denying the place the Bible once had in our societies. At the same time without realizing it we continue to enjoy the blessings of a way of living derived from Scripture. Yet if we continue neglecting God's ways these blessings will eventually be lost.

One aspect of a biblical worldview is the understanding that the universe is intentionally designed. The universe is not the result of meaningless random chance. There are many people today intrigued by the concept of Intelligent Design. Intelligent Design purports that the evidence of science points to an intelligent being who designed the universe. This is in agreement with the teaching of Scripture, but it's not the whole truth. Intelligence doesn't necessarily imply intentionality. The existence of an object in and of itself doesn't dictate an intended use. I may be intrigued by its complexity and ponder its origins, but its existence doesn't by itself determine its purpose.

The Bible provides us with more than just a claim to the origins of the universe. It also informs us as to the intended uses of the things we encounter within it. The importance of determining the intended use of things is illustrated for us in God's directives for the various elements of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). It was in and through the Mishkan that Israel encountered the very presence of God. God was very precise in his directions to Moses regarding the Mishkan's details. For example, as we read at the beginning, the altar of incense was for the burning of incense only. It was not to be used for any other purpose.

Through this we learn that God is very particular about how things are used. This flies in the face of today's technological worldview that declares "If it can be done, it should be done." From genetic engineering and other medical technologies, from communications to entertainment, human beings are being presented with ever increasing opportunities to explore solutions and experiences never thought possible before. The prevailing worldview does not tolerate the biblical perspective that how we live life, including the use of new technologies, should be directed by God's Word, not by the grand promises of big companies, governments, peers, and self.

Speaking of self, we also need to determine our personal purpose. For once that is established, we will find it easier to determine what our relationship is to all the things we encounter in life. You and I do not exist by chance and for no expressed purpose. God intentionally caused you to be born as his representative on earth to accomplish his will in whatever unique way he has determined for your life. You are not to be used for just any old thing. Determining exactly what you are for may not be a simple task; it might be a life-long quest, but a worthwhile one. On the other hand you may have a pretty clear grasp on what your purpose is. If so, don't sell yourself short. Live for that purpose - intentionally!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Torahbytes: Don't Feel Obliged (Terumah)

The LORD said to Moses, "Speak to the people of Israel, that they take for me a contribution. From every man whose heart moves him you shall receive the contribution for me." (Shemot / Exodus 25:1, 2; ESV)

Last week (, I explained how obligation with regard to our need to financially support the communities we are a part of is a good thing. We have an obligation to support our spiritual leaders. Also, those who have extra, bear a God-given responsibility for the needy. While no one should be forced to financially contribute to their congregations or to help the poor, these obligations are not to be viewed as merely optional extras for God's people. Rather, these are responsibilities that we need to take very seriously.

This doesn’t mean, however, that every time we are asked to give, we should feel obliged. Many of us are inundated with all sorts of requests - even demands - to give to this cause or that. Some are just plain shams, while many are truly good causes. While generosity is a mark of genuine godliness, we are also called to be good stewards of our resources. Generosity should not be an excuse for being naive.

The need to support our religious communities should not be taken to mean that we are necessarily obligated to contribute to every plan and supposed need they claim to have. It's one thing to come to grips with our basic responsibilities to provide for the needs of our spiritual leaders, it's another thing when leaders expect their people to automatically fork over piles of cash to underwrite their latest visionary project.

In this week's Torah portion we have the account of God directing Moses to invite the people to contribute to the construction of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). In this case there is no doubt that we are dealing with a God-inspired project that was crucial for the life of the nation. This was not Moses' idea and the people knew that. Yet, they were under no obligation to give anything at all. The call to give was completely voluntary. As it turned out Moses had to tell the people to stop giving for they had received more than what they needed (see Shemot / Exodus 36:3-7). But the people's generosity in this case was beside the point. They were not obliged.

What is instructive for us is that there was a difference between financial contributions that were obligatory and those that were not. What made the difference appears to be the nature of the financial need. Obligatory giving was called for when the personal needs of spiritual leaders and the poor were in view, while voluntary giving was appropriate for a community project, such as the Mishkan, even though the whole community would benefit from such a project.

This should cause leaders to take care not to unnecessarily burden their people with the financial needs of their grand and not-so-grand projects. If Moses didn't need to pressure his people to give to a project that was clearly of God, how less should we, when we rarely if at all can claim to be so sure of the source of our inspiration.

This is not to say that there isn't a place to clearly and extensively share the details and benefits of various projects. The members of our communities should be given the opportunity to be thoroughly informed and invited to participate in all sorts of appropriate ways, including through financial contributions. But to make people feel obligated to support these projects is abusive.

Perhaps God is calling you to contribute to such things far more than you ever have before. Once that is clear to you, obey him and give. But you shouldn't feel obliged.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Torahbytes: Obligation Is Not Negative (Mishpatim & Shekalim)

You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall give it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the LORD, so as to make atonement for your lives. (Shemot / Exodus 30:16; ESV)

There is a special, additional Torah reading this week that commemorates the annual half-shekel temple tax that was due at this time of year. This is what is referred to in the story of Yeshua, Peter and the miraculous find of a shekel coin in the mouth of a fish (see Matthew 17:24-27). The collection of this tax is associated with the numbering of all Israelites twenty years of age and over. The proceeds of this tax were for the service of the mishkan (English: tabernacle) and later the temple.

Money and religion is a topic that makes a lot of people uneasy. Some have the impression that the mention of money by religious leaders is always a bad thing as if the subject in and of itself is always associated with greed and the taking advantage of the naive masses. While this might be the case in some instances, it's not the only misconception regarding this topic.

In some circles, the giving of money comes with an expectation of getting a kick back like when a sales person offers a discount on a product to a client, who then sends a personal gift to the salesperson in return. This is both underhanded and in many cases illegal. Yet some people relate to religious causes this same way. Instead of an act of devotion and generosity, giving becomes selfishly motivated. Religious principles are perverted into manipulative tactics (when the return benefits are overt, such as merchandise) and superstition (when the return benefits are offered as "rewards from heaven").

Another common misconception about religion and money is how giving charity makes someone more spiritual or a better person. While giving to religious causes and to the needy is encouraged in the Bible, Yeshua's teaching on not making a public spectacle of one's generosity (see Matthew 6:2-4) and how generosity is based on not how much you give but the proportion of giving in relation to what you have (Luke 21:1-4), confronts this kind of thinking.

There is so much that one could say on this subject, but I want to address one area that I believe would help keep the issue of religion and money in proper perspective and discourage wrong, unhealthy approaches to giving.

In many of the religious circles I have walked in there is one aspect of this issue that is almost completely neglected, and that is obligation. I have the impression that the concept of obligation and duty are dirty words among many people today.

For some New Covenant believers this is fueled by the misnomer that the New Covenant is devoid of "have to's". This is a bigger subject, but with regard to giving, it would be difficult to establish a "whatever" kind of attitude based on the New Covenant writings. Besides the references I have already mentioned, Yeshua upheld the Old Covenant tithing obligations while questioning the priorities of the religious leaders (see Matthew 23:23). While this in and of itself does not establish a precedent for New Covenant communities, he certainly is not uncomfortable with the concept of obligation. Another time he confronts legalistic manipulation of religious tradition in order to withhold support of parents (see Mark 7:9-13). The obligation to care for one’s family's material needs as a necessary expression of true godliness is confirmed by Paul (see 1 Timothy 5:8) as is our duty to provide for our religious leaders (see 1 Timothy 5:17, 18), harkening back to the obligatory temple tax from our Torah portion. An important aspect of Paul's bringing the good news of Messiah's coming to non-Jews was that they would help provide for the material needs of the poor Jewish believers in the land of Israel (see Galatians 2:10). The way Paul explains it, giving was to be voluntary, but based on an understanding of how God distributes wealth and the obligation for those who have been materially prospered to help those who lack (see 2 Corinthians 8:13-15).

Obligations are a privilege. Whatever true obligations we have are due to the responsibilities given to us by God. This in no way justifies greed or manipulative tactics geared to extract funds from us. If you are in a situation where you don't want to or should not give, you might need to question your membership in that community or it's time you examined your heart. It is common in many cultures today to take family, organizations, and government for granted, thinking that they have some sort of magical supply of goods and that we exist to be the deserving recipients of their benevolence. Instead we need to understand that these God-ordained institutions are only as good as we make them. To withhold our support, be it financial or otherwise, is to undermine them.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Torahbytes: Messiah Reigns (Yitro)

For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us. And authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named "The Mighty God is planning grace; the Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler." In token of abundant authority and of peace without limit upon David's throne and kingdom, that it may be firmly established in justice and in equity now and evermore. The zeal of the Lord of Hosts shall bring this to pass. (Isaiah 9:5, 6 [English 9:6, 7]; Jewish Publication Society, 1985)

This week's Haftarah includes a controversial passage from the writings of the prophet Isaiah. Various schools of thought have made much over the complex name given to the governmental leader described here. The actual identity of this king is not explicitly stated though it is clear that he inherits the throne of King David.

The main controversy surrounding this name is over whether it is a description of the king himself or simply a statement about God. In the original Hebrew it is: "pele yoetz el gibbor avi-ad sar shalom". Some translations give the name a sense of being a description of this king himself. We see this in most popular Christian translations, the English Standard Version being one example: "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." The translation I quoted from at the beginning of my message is a standard Jewish translation and gives the impression that the name is about God, not the king: "The Mighty God is planning grace; the Eternal Father, a peaceable ruler." That a person would be named in the fashion suggested by the Jewish translation is in keeping with many Biblical names. For example, the name "Eliyahu" (English: Elijah) means "The Lord is God," which in no way implies divinity status for this well-known prophet of Israel. "Joshua," the name of Moses' successor means "The Lord saves." While his name may foreshadow that God would work his salvation through him, Joshua was not the Lord. Therefore it is not reasonable to claim that such a grand name is necessarily a direct description of the person to whom it was given simply on the basis of the meaning of the name.

How this name functions is actually a secondary issue regarding its controversy. As far as this passage is concerned, more important than whether or not this king's nature is of divine origin, is the nature of his reign. Whatever the viewpoint or prejudices of the translators they are agreed that the reign of this king is far greater than any king of Israel before, during, or after Isaiah's day. This king's reign is permanent, perfect, and everlasting. These words are in keeping with many other passages in the Hebrew Bible that look forward to the establishment of the messianic kingdom - a kingdom, which in some ways hearkens back to the reign of David, the man after God's own heart, but on a much grander, global scale. A kingdom which would fulfill God's promise to Abraham that through his descendants all the families of the earth would be blessed (see Bereshit / Genesis 12:3). The name given this king hints of a rule that comes about not by human innovation and achievement, but by an act of God. It is a rule marked by God's restorative presence among his people and the world.

For many Jewish people these days are yet to be. While many consider the Messiah a legend, others continue to wait for his coming, something that the New Covenant Scriptures claim has already occurred. For some followers of Yeshua the fulfillment of Isaiah's words, though applying to Yeshua, are yet to be, which makes their view of his reign currently similar to those who deny that he is the Messiah at all.

But Yeshua is the Messiah, whose reign is currently far more like Isaiah's description than we tend to think. To deny this is to contradict Yeshua's own words when he said "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (see Matthew 28:18). If this wasn't true, we would not see the reality of the God of Israel demonstrated throughout the world as we do. Since his coming countless people, Jews and Gentiles, have been rescued by him from the clutches of the kingdom of darkness. Messiah reigns indeed!