Sunday, June 24, 2012

TorahBytes: You Don't Have To Do Stupid Things (Hukkat)

And Yiftah (English: Jephthah) made a vow to the LORD: "If you give the Ammonites into my hands, whatever comes out of the door of my house to meet me when I return in triumph from the Ammonites will be the LORD's, and I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering." (Shoftim / Judges 11:30,31)

The biblical book of Shoftim (English: Judges) includes some "interesting" stories and characters. It underscores for us the interpretive principle of prescriptive vs., descriptive passages. Prescriptive passages are those that provide general directives or life principles to live by, such as "Honor your mother and your father" or "To give is better than to receive." Descriptive passages are those which simply describe an incident or provide dialogue without necessarily encouraging the reader to follow suit. This isn't always straightforward, which gives us the opportunity to ponder over these passages as we seek God to speak to us through them.

Shoftim, is especially challenging in this regard. Several of its characters who seem to be the heroes of the stories, engage in some disturbing behaviors. Since these characters appear to be divinely inspired to save the day, so to speak, the reader may be inclined to think that these behaviors are acceptable.

When this passage was chosen to be part of the annual cycle of readings, it was decided to stop the reading at the point where the hero wins the day, which leaves out the disturbing part. Maybe the conclusion of the story was just too embarrassing or too difficult to handle. Yiftah promised God that if God would give him victory in battle, then, upon his return home, he would sacrifice whatever came out of the door of his house to meet him. That much we learn from this week's passage. But what is not included is what it was that met him upon his return. I don't know what Yiftah was thinking when he made his promise in the first place. Did he think he would be initially met by one of his goats or sheep? As it turned out it was his daughter. So what does he do? Does he say to himself, "Oy veh! Am I meshuge (English: crazy person)! Forgive me O Lord for making such a rash vow!"? No, instead he tells his daughter how bad he feels that he has to go through with his promise!

I could see some supposedly spiritually minded people attempting to justify Yiftah's actions. After all it was God to whom he made this promise. Of course his daughter's death was tragic, but "God is God," they might say. But what does God think about murder and human sacrifice? While we should keep our promises even when it is extremely difficult, it is never too late to stop ourselves from doing stupid things.

One of the things about descriptive passages, even though they are not prescriptive, is that we are still to learn from them. The story of Yiftah and his daughter shows us how someone could be chosen by God and inspired by him to do great things, yet still say and do some of the most ridiculous and destructive things in the entire Bible.

What lesson should we learn from this? Are we to learn that if we are really spiritual, then we can get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, or should we stop and realize that being spiritual doesn't automatically prevent anyone from doing stupid things? I suggest that as soon as we realize that we have gone down a foolish road - no matter how we got there or how far down that road we are - it is never too late to change course.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

TorahBytes: God-appointed Leadership (Korah)

When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, "In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him." (Bemidbar / Numbers 16:4, 5; ESV)

It was an interesting coincidence that around the same time I was looking over this week's Torah portion a friend of mine sent me an online video that was similar to this story. The video was about a pastor who was visiting a religious meeting and after the meeting's leader spoke some very positive words supposedly in the name of God to the pastor, the pastor asked if he could say a few words himself. After being handed the microphone, the pastor, after some positive comments, warned the audience about what he called false teaching in these meetings. At that point, certain members of the audience began to denounce the pastor and the meeting's leader took the microphone away from him and demanded he leave at once.

We could discuss whether or not the pastor did the right thing or if his critique was justified, but seeing this video at the same time as I was reading the story of Korah's confrontation of Moses, got me thinking: How should we handle this kind of confrontation? If I was giving a talk and someone started to question the validity of what I was saying, however they did so, how should I respond?

A Torah-based answer may be derived from Moses' example. God had appointed Moses as prime leader and Aaron as a close second as High Priest. God then set apart one tribe out of all the tribes of Israel to serve in the service of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) - the temple-like structure that was central in the worship life of the nation. That tribe happened to be Levi, Moses' own tribe. Aaron's descendants were designated as cohanim (English: priests), while the rest of Levi were to be their assistants in the service of the Mishkan. Was this family favoritism or nepotism as it is called? That seems to be what Korah and his followers thought.

Korah and company were actually Levites themselves, but they weren't satisfied with their role. Assisting the cohanim was not good enough for them. They wanted the priesthood itself, and thus they harshly challenged the leadership of Moses and Aaron.

As readers of the story, we can be too quick to criticize Korah's group. While not saying their actions were justified, we may have felt just like them if we were in their situation. While there are lessons to be learned from Korah's behavior, right now I am more interested in how Moses handled the situation.

Moses' initial reaction was to question Korah and his group. Moses knew that what they were doing would not go well for them, but instead of wrangling with them or defending himself, Moses entrusted the situation to God.

In order to handle the situation in the way he did, Moses had to have really trusted God. Moses was not an elected or self-appointed leader of a movement or the representative of a philosophy. God really did appear to him in the burning bush and really did direct him to lead the people of Israel. But notice that he doesn't use that to justify his position. Instead he looks to God to back him up.

Does that apply to God's leaders today? I guess it depends on if God really does exists and if he exists, does he still appoint leaders? Leaders exist all right. There are all sorts of ways people assume leadership, but what about God-appointed leadership? If there is such a thing, as I believe there is, do those who claim to possess it need to fight their way to the top and once there fight to keep their position? Let's put it this way: If you think you are a God-appointed leader, perhaps you should start acting as Moses did.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

TorahBytes: Getting on the Right Road (Shela Lekha)

And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath. (Joshua 2:11; ESV)

The other day someone asked me about how people in the days of ancient Israel were made right with God. Actually the question was more along the lines of how people in the Old Testament were saved, but I am translating. Part of the challenge in answering a question like this is due to the categories in which many adherents of the New Covenant (or New Testament) think. It seems that many Christians view the human condition in very strict spiritual terms. A person according to this way of looking at life is categorized as being either on a road to heaven or a road to hell. Believing in the Messiah therefore is some sort of mechanism whereby we are placed on the heavenly road.

Thinking this way makes a story like the one we find in this weeks' Haftarah (the supplementary synagogue reading for this coming Sabbath day) difficult to understand. Here we have two Israeli scouts checking out the land prior to the conquest under Moses' successor Joshua. They end up in the house of a prostitute named Rahab. What they were doing there of all of places, we do not know, but as it turned out, there was something very special about this particular lady apart from anything else.

It seems that she and her people were aware of the people of Israel and the things that happened to them the past 40 years, from the parting of the Red Sea to their military victories in the wilderness. Somehow she knew that the God of Israel had given his people the very land in which she was living. Somehow she knew that the God of Israel was not a localized private deity of a bunch of nomads, but rather that "He is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath." She knew that the God of Israel was not just a god, but the God.

This understanding caused her to relate to the scouts in a particular way and preserved their lives at risk of her own. As a result when Israel invaded she and her household were saved and lived among Israel from then on (see Joshua 6:25). In fact, we read in Yeshua's genealogy that she became a mother in the line of King David and Yeshua himself (see Matthew 1:5).

Was Rahab saved? Oh yes! But this salvation is more than finding oneself on the heavenly road. Her trust in the God of Israel completely transformed her life. She who was born into a nation destined for destruction, living a life contrary to the ways of God, was now integrated into the plans and purposes of God. More than getting on a road to heaven, she was now on the road from heaven, no longer living in the darkness of sin, but in the light of God's truth. As for her eternal destiny, she could be confident that her life was safely in the care of the one to whom she had given herself.

This then begs the question, do we really need to believe in Yeshua to be saved, to be in right relationship with God? Isn't it enough to think correctly about God and his nature to be accepted by him? Isn't this what happened with Rahab? Not really. Rahab was confronted with the plans and purposes of God in her day. It wasn't just that she just had good theology in her mind; it was that she responded in faith to the situation that God put before her. For her it was the Israeli scouts at the brink of the conquest of the land of Canaan. Since the coming of Yeshua, the same God calls everyone everywhere to repent and follow the Messiah. We cannot pretend that we live in another time in another place. These are the days of the Messiah and it is to him we must give our lives or else we will find ourselves on the wrong side like Rahab's people.

One of the things we learn from the Rahab story is that getting on the right road is not about acquiring a mental state of religious affection. To truly follow God we must embrace his plans and purposes. Knowing the true God led Rahab to make a difficult and risky decision that had enormous positive implications for her, her household, and human history. Those who know the reality of the God of Israel through faith in the Messiah should expect nothing less.

Monday, June 04, 2012

TorahBytes: How Things Work (Be-Ha'alotkha)

And I have given the Levites as a gift to Aaron and his sons from among the people of Israel, to do the service for the people of Israel at the tent of meeting and to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary. (Bemidbar / Numbers 8:19; ESV)

When people discuss spiritual things they are often concerned with questions to do with how things work: How can God hear everyone's prayers at the same time? How can God create something from nothing? How does prayer work? How does salvation work? This reminds me of the common reaction of "How did you do that?" to someone doing a magic trick.

This type of reaction is normal and expected in many cultures. I don't know if the whole world is like this and if people have been reacting this way since the beginning. But in the world of today with our obsession with complex technological devices, we are used to impressive human innovations. Few understand how these things work, but we are happy that at least someone does.

An essential aspect of life that many of us are lacking in, is plain old amazement - what we might call wonder. The reaction of wonder is one that is no less impressed by what it encounters, but it allows itself to feel the impact of the thing, rather than analyzing it. Not that it is never appropriate to analyze something. It's that our tendency to think that understanding is derived from trying to figure out how things work that distracts us from what are most likely deeper and more helpful levels of understanding.

When we look at the stars, it is completely mind boggling to think about the vastness of space, the number and sizes of stars and other extraterrestrial objects. As soon as we try to grasp how these things came to be (beyond that God created it all), we get lost in an infinite amount of unknown details. But if we would allow ourselves to be overwhelmed by the fact that the heavens are the product of a Creative Genius, who also made us, and that this same Creator wants to be in intimate relationship with us, then we may find ourselves understanding the stars as never before.

The kind of wonder you may be now experiencing is one that is wondering what this has to do with the passage I read. More than you might think! We read that one of the purposes of the tribe of Levi was "to make atonement for the people of Israel, that there may be no plague among the people of Israel when the people of Israel come near the sanctuary". What is that about? Sounds like if it hadn't been for the service provided by the Levites, plagues would have afflicted the people. It sounds like that, because that's what it says. Now it's my turn to wonder. I wonder how many people just skip over passages like this, because it doesn't make much sense to us. Our inability to sufficiently analyze this sort of thing, to understand how something like this works, prevents us from its intended impact.

Its impact upon this passage's first hearers is clear. They knew that the work of the Levites was essential to prevent them from unnecessary suffering. But what about the impact on readers today? Twenty-first century humans are so cocky. Most of us that get up each morning and sleep in a comfortable bed at night, who have enough to eat, enjoy a roof over our heads, and clothing to wear - not to mention all the other extras - have no clue of the things that God does to protect us from the dangers of life. Since the rebellion of our first parents, Adam and Eve, our world has been lethal, filled will all sorts of mortal dangers. Most of us will survive this day, and the next, and the next, but not realize that we will only do so because of the love and grace of God protecting us far more than we realize.

It's not just that the world is full of dangers; it's that in actuality every child comes into this world under God's wrath. It's only because he holds back the full venting of his anger that we are not completely destroyed. The people of Israel were in even greater danger because God chose to have his dwelling among them. If the Levites didn't perform the required sacrifices, Israel would have been obliterated. As for the rest of the world, God has been exercising extreme patience as he has been working out his plan of salvation these thousands of years.

We can spend our time trying to figure these things out or we can accept them for what they are. God, through the Messiah, has provided a way so that we can live our lives no longer under the threat of his wrath. By putting our trust in Yeshua, we can be assured of God's favor in our lives.

How does this work? I have no idea. I just know it does.