Saturday, April 14, 2012

Torahbytes: What Controls Your Tastes? (Shemini)

But anything in the seas or the rivers that does not have fins and scales, of the swarming creatures in the waters and of the living creatures that are in the waters, is detestable to you. You shall regard them as detestable; you shall not eat any of their flesh, and you shall detest their carcasses. Everything in the waters that does not have fins and scales is detestable to you. (Vayikra / Leviticus 11:10-12; ESV)

One of the things that differentiate people is our tastes. What you like may be very different from what I like. I believed that everybody liked ice cream until I finally met someone who didn't. In my own family we have a range of preferences for certain kinds of pickles. This is something I really don't get, because I know that the particular kind of pickle that I grew up with and love is objectively superior to any other kind. Yet my own children, my very own flesh and blood, somehow prefer inferior ones.

I am kidding of course. Well, sort of. Emotionally, I think there is something not quite right about anyone who doesn't share my pickle pallet. Objectively, however, I have to admit that people develop their own personal sense of taste and I shouldn't place a value on pickle preference. In fact, you may be one of those people who don't like pickles at all. But I am OK with that. We can still be friends.

Closely related to our different pickle tastes is a strong sense of preference whereby we view some things as good and acceptable and others as bad and deplorable. I can still remember when I was about five years old, my aunt reacting very negatively as I was about to touch the contents of an ash tray. What she said and how she said it impacted me to the extent that from that moment on I thought of the remnants of cigarette smoking in very negative terms.

It seems to me that our preferences are not cold objective decisions we make, but rather the result of various influences and experiences. For example, we know how difficult it can be for some (if not most) people to eat foods of cultures different from our own. The very thought of what other cultures consider "food" is enough to bring on feelings of great repulsion. But for those cultures, these foods may be the very essence of "yummy".

In the case of my experience with my aunt, she was doing what every caring adult should do, which was teaching a young child that certain things should be considered repulsive even though at the time I was attracted to it.

God cares enough to do the same. Much of what he has revealed in the Scriptures attempts to affect our tastes and preferences. Just as I needed to have my positive feelings toward ash tray contents transformed into repulsion, so we have many other natural inclinations that God wants to transform in the same way.

This week's Torah portion includes a section on how the people of Israel under the Sinai Covenant were to relate to certain kinds of animals. That under the New Covenant, this may have changed is beside the point. What is the point is that God, like my aunt, seeks to impress upon us his sense of what is acceptable and what is deplorable.

People tend to define themselves according to their preferences, tastes, and desires. Our attraction to things can be so strong at times that we might believe we are incapable of resisting them. But our preferences are not to rule our lives. God should. We need to embrace his preferences, tastes, and desires, accepting that we may be misinformed. The older we are the more difficult it might be to accept that. It might seem impossible to change. But with God's help we can.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Torahbytes: The Power of God's Word (Pesach 8)

He shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. (Isaiah 11:4; ESV)

God's word is powerful. When God speaks, things happen. The Torah's account of creation testifies to this. Light, sky, land, vegetation, the sun, the moon, stars, animals, and man all came into existence by God simply saying so. Whatever God says, he will do (see Isaiah 55:1). He made himself known by speaking his word to and through Moses and the prophets.

The power of God's word is well-described by the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart (Hebrews 4:12; ESV).

While this may apply to the Scriptures as the written Word of God, it primarily describes the effect of what happens when a person hears what God says, whether it be through the Bible, a dream, a vision, or another person. The speaking of God's word is what Yeshua's followers were commissioned to do. He sent them to teach the nations everything he had taught them (see Matthew 28:18-20).

In the book of Revelation, the Messiah's word is also described using the sword metaphor:

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. (Revelation 19:15; ESV).

Many assume that this sort of thing will not occur until Messiah returns to fully establish his Kingdom on Earth sometime in the future. But its similarity to the quote I read at the beginning from Isaiah, chapter 11, verse 4, suggests otherwise. The first ten verses of this chapter of Isaiah is one of many messianic prophecies that see the coming of the Messiah as one complex event. Many Jewish people reject Yeshua as Messiah because the fullness of passages such as this one has not occurred. Christians, on the other hand, tend to finely divide the details of Messiah's first and second comings.

I tend to see that there is far more of a continuum between his coming two thousand years ago and the full establishment of his kingdom in the future. This includes the topic at hand: the power of God's word. For through his followers the sharp sword of Revelation 19 and Hebrews 4 and the rod of Isaiah 11 have been striking the earth. While I am well aware of the continuing prevalence of evil everywhere, the word of God has been piercing hearts and transforming nations the world over. The world before Yeshua's coming is not the same world we live in today. The word of God which once was limited to the people of Israel has been and is being proclaimed to the nations. The word of God has been thrust against every evil deed and unjust system in almost every society. In the end God's word will prevail completely. But in the meantime it has freed captives and judged its opponents.

We mustn't underestimate the power of God's word. Irrespective of how people respond, as we speak his word, he will pierce hearts. As we speak his word, people of influence will be called to account. As we speak his word, nations will be confronted with the reality of God and the Lordship of Messiah.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Torahbytes: God's Story/Our Story/Your Story (Pesach 1)

For the Lord will pass through to strike the Egyptians, and when he sees the blood on the lintel and on the two doorposts, the Lord will pass over the door and will not allow the destroyer to enter your houses to strike you. (Shemot / Exodus 12:23; ESV)

Over the past while I have been very taken with seeing the Bible as God's story. As God's story, the Bible is the only true story of life. The world is full of many ways of looking at life. Each one of these ways is a story to some extent. Most cultures and societies carry with them a story of what life is all about. These stories might be deep and complex or simple and superficial, but it is through the acceptance of one story or another that most people find some sort of meaning in life.

The Bible tells us that God's story is one of rescue. God created a good world and filled it with life. Our first parents rebelled again God's direction and thrust the creation into death and decay. But from those earliest days, the Scriptures tell us that God's intent was to resolve our terrible predicament by destroying evil - both its source and effects. The outworking of God's plan, which forms the essence of this story, focuses on Abraham and his descendants, the people of Israel, as the chosen nation through whom God's rescue operation would be accomplished. Though Israel itself is part of the same predicament all people find themselves in, God in his wisdom through Israel would raise up a King, the Messiah, as Rescuer of all - all who trust in him.

In order to truly understand what it was that King Messiah came to do, we need to see his life, death, resurrection, ascendancy, and promised return against the backdrop of the story of Israel.

Passover, which we commemorate this week (evening of April 6, 2012), is a foundational part of Israel's story and therefore a foundational part of God's story. For through what God did for Israel long ago, we have a glimpse of God's intention for all people everywhere. It would be Passover specifically that Yeshua the Messiah would use to help his followers understand who he is and what he came to do as the climax of God's story.

The desperate bondage of Israel under the oppressive control of Egypt illustrates the plight from which we all need to be rescued. The slavery to which Israel succumbed, as awful as it was, pales in comparison to the servitude to sin and evil to which we all are bound. The powerful hand of God which rescued Israel in their helplessness reaches out to rescue us today from our oppressive bondage.

Passover calls Jewish people everywhere to reconnect with this story. At this time I am to tell my children, "It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt" (Shemot / Exodus 13:8; ESV). Though I wasn't literally there, as a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, I am intimately connected to this great event. I am a descendant of slaves, but I am a free man today. God's story is Israel's story is my story.

But Israel's story can be your story too. That which God did for my people and through them for me, he desires to do for you today - but far greater than what happened at the first Passover long ago. Just as the destroyer passed over those homes in Egypt who accepted God's direction to apply the blood of the Passover Lambs to their doors, so anyone who accepts God's direction to apply the Messiah's blood upon their lives will experience a greater rescue than that of physical slavery - rescue from sin, evil, and even death itself.

Just as Israel was set free to serve God in the Promised Land, so through the Messiah all people can be free to serve the God of Israel anywhere in the world. This is God's story; this is Israel's story; it can be your story.