Sunday, October 28, 2012

TorahBytes: Absorbing Values (Va-Yera)

The two angels came to S’dom that evening, when Lot was sitting at the gate of S’dom. (Bereshit / Genesis 19:1; CJB)

This week's parsha (Torah portion) includes a most disturbing incident. God sent two angels to rescue Abraham's nephew Lot and his family. While they were in Lot's house, a large contingent of males of the city arrived, demanding to have sex with the angels. The Hebrew word for angel is "malach", meaning "messenger". Their appearance was human- like. So the men of the city had no idea with whom they were dealing. To them the angels were simply strangers.

The moral decadence of that city is further illustrated through Lot himself, who to protect his guests, offered his daughters to the men. That Lot sought to protect his guests at all is honorable. His unwillingness to give in to the specifics of his neighbors' demands shows he had not fully succumbed to the level of their depravity. But that he would offer his daughters in order to pacify them shows that Lot was no better than they.

We may wonder at how the New Covenant Scriptures could describe Lot as "a righteous man who was distressed by the debauchery of those unprincipled people" (2 Peter 2:7; CJB). Doesn't his behavior reveal otherwise? What might be going on here is disturbing, but instructive. It is easy to write off Lot. His actions are deplorable, but if we miss how he got to this place, we will also miss God's warning to us.

The first Psalm contrasts the wicked and the righteous (see Tehillim / Psalm 1). The righteous have blessed, fruitful lives; the wicked come to nothing. The difference between how these two live helps us see what might have happened to Lot. According to the Psalm, the wicked spend their time in the company of the wicked; the righteous are focused on God's Word. It's not that the righteous choose better company; it's that they derive their lives from the Scriptures.

Lot was part of Abraham's entourage. He conceivably could have remained in close relationship to the man called to be a blessing to the world (see Bereshit / Genesis 12:1-3). He could have remained in community with the man regarded as God's friend (see James 2:23), who lived life based on God's Word and not derived from the surrounding culture. But for some reason Lot was drawn to the city of Sodom, thus rejecting the life of faith to which his uncle was called. His reaction to the men of the city shows that he retained some sense of right and wrong, but it appears that his society had significantly worn off on him. We read at the beginning that when the angels arrived, Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. Unlike the righteous in Psalm 1, he was hanging out with the wicked. It eventually got to him, and he may not have even been aware of it.

Even people who know better yet immerse themselves in the company of evil will absorb the values of those they hang out with. But a truly righteous man like Abraham doesn't immerse himself in anything but God's Word. That doesn't mean we are not to be in relationship with people. Far from it! Rather our relationships need to be, first and foremost, grounded in Scripture. That's the only way to be free from the expectations and values of others and be the kind of blessing to others we (and they) need us to be.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

TorahBytes: The Nature of God's Blessing (Lekh Lekha)

Now Adonai said to Avram, “Get yourself out of your country, away from your kinsmen and away from your father’s house, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, I will bless you, and I will make your name great; and you are to be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, but I will curse anyone who curses you; and by you all the families of the earth will be blessed." (Bereshit / Genesis 12:1-3; CJB)

The call of Avram (English: Abram) is the beginning of the unfolding of God's earlier promise to destroy evil in the world (see Bereshit / Genesis 3:15). Against the backdrop of the building of the city and tower of Babel (see Bereshit / Genesis 11:1-9), when God thwarted the people's attempt to find unity, security, and greatness in themselves and their own plans and effort, God promised blessing for the whole world through Avram and his descendants.

The word for blessing in Hebrew is "barach", which means to fill something with the potential of life. When something is blessed, it not only has life itself, but produces life that produces life. Healthy trees bear fruit with seeds that result in trees that bear fruit with seeds and so on. Barach is the opposite of arar "cursing", the removal of life. A land that is cursed is dead and produces nothing.

The promise to Avram to be a blessing to the nations is God's remedy for the curse pronounced on creation in the Garden of Eden. The consequences of our first parents' rebellion against God would be undone through the blessing that was to be extended to all families of the earth through Avram's descendants, the people of Israel.

As the story of God progresses through the pages of the Tenach (Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament), we discover that the way Israel will bring God's blessing to the world comes to its fullness through the Messiah. This is why in the New Covenant Scriptures, Paul calls God's promise to Avram the Good News (see Galatians 3:8).  It is because of the coming of the Messiah that the reality of the God of Israel has come to the whole world.

To fully appreciate the nature of the blessing that is now available to all people everywhere, we need to reflect upon who it was to whom the promise of blessing was given: an elderly childless man. Avram and his wife could not have children. They were already 75 and 65 respectively when Avram first received the promise. It would be twenty five more years before Isaac is born.

What makes God's blessing so remarkable is that it brings reproducible life where there was nothing before. God promised a great nation to a man who could not have children. This means Avram's ability to achieve God's plan for his life was in no way contingent upon his ability or resources. It was solely dependent upon God's word.

Followers of the Messiah have been made part of God's promise to Avram. We are not only recipients of the blessing; we are called, like Avram, to be carriers of it to others. Like Avram we need not be concerned about whether or not we think we have what it takes. In fact, we should not be surprised if God wants to bless others through areas of our lives where we seem the weakest.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

TorahBytes: Life Is Valuable (No'ah)

I will certainly demand an accounting for the blood of your lives: I will demand it from every animal and from every human being. I will demand from every human being an accounting for the life of his fellow human being. Whoever sheds human blood, by a human being will his own blood be shed; for God made human beings in his image. And you people, be fruitful, multiply, swarm on the earth and multiply on it. (Bereshit / Genesis 9:5-7; CJB)

Have you ever wondered why it is that many of the same people who are against abortion and euthanasia are for capital punishment? Prolifers are often characterized by others as meddlers with regard to a pregnant woman's choice to have or not have her baby and people suffering through horrific terminal illness, who simply want to die with dignity. But then some of these same prolifers believe that the most appropriate consequence for certain crimes is execution. Is this not hypocrisy of the worst kind?

Note that I am fully aware that not all prolifers believe in capital punishment and not all who believe in capital punishment are prolifers. I am simply dealing with the question of how someone can legitimately hold to both positions.

The logic of this has to do with a deep conviction that every single life is valuable. But how can a regard for life include regarding execution as an acceptable consequence for certain crimes?

In the passage I quoted, God declares to Noah and his descendants after the flood that he requires execution in the case of murder. The reason for this is that human beings are made in God's image. Opinion varies as to what constitutes the image of God, but whatever it is, it is an essential part of who we are as humans. Purposely terminating the life of another person is a personal affront against God himself. But if that is the case, how can execution be justified?

Allowing murderers to continue their own lives while their victims' lives were terminated at their hands, cheapens human life in the name of what some people think is mercy. This is why we shouldn't be surprised at the misguided logic of those who are happy with allowing murderers to live, but are perfectly fine with abortion and euthanasia. Again I know not every person who is against capital punishment is for abortion and euthanasia, but many are. The value placed on a woman's choice or a sick person's desire to die stems from this same lack of regard for human life. Letting murderers live, while killing the unborn and the infirm, denies our intrinsic value as human beings made in God's image.

Murderers give up their right to life, by taking life. We have no right to take the life of the living from conception to natural death. This is not to say that we should not have compassion for those with crisis pregnancies or for those in immense pain. We should do whatever we can to help these people, but taking the lives of image bearers helps no one.

A society that permits - or should I say encourages - the killing of unwanted children and the elderly, yet allows murderers to live, has lost touch with the value of their own lives. It won't be long before all sorts of people who need care for all sorts of reasons will be discarded and destroyed by what is becoming a more and more selfish culture.

Thankfully, God doesn't see life this way and neither should we. Whatever the general society might think, those who embrace biblical truth need to stand for the value of every human being. People are worth it!

Sunday, October 07, 2012

TorahBytes: Sexuality Is Good (Bereshit)

This is why a man is to leave his father and mother and stick with his wife, and they are to be one flesh. (Bereshit / Genesis 1:24; CJB)

This past week I had the privilege of teaching a room-full of mainly twenty somethings, mainly singles, key lessons from the first two chapters of Genesis, the creation accounts. I found myself unusually moved as I was about to share one of my points due to how the forces of evil have so twisted this most precious area of human experience. My point was "sexuality is good." God created sex as part of his good creation prior to the invasion of sin and evil. Yet more than ever what had been designed to be one of the wonderful forms of human intimacy has been turned into something God never intended.

What was most disturbing, however, was a brief discussion I had after the class with one of my adult sons who was attending. He questioned my commenting that sex is good within marriage and bad outside of marriage. He wanted to know if I meant that all sex was good inside marriage. It took me a few seconds to grasp what he was saying, realizing that while my general statement of "sexuality is good" is accurate, even within marriage there are certain such activities that biblically based morality deems as wrong.

My son continued to explain to me that due to the kind of graphic material many young people are being exposed to, they have developed a warped understanding of what constitutes legitimate human intimacy. The result of this is that men and women have skewed expectations of each other in this area.

The purpose of the class I was teaching was to explore various foundational issues of life and living derived from the early chapters of Genesis. I believe that these issues should inform our basic understanding of what it means to be human beings living on planet Earth. One of the most important of them all is that people are not the product of meaningless, random, mechanical processes, but rather are the intentional design of an all-powerful, relational God. More than that! We have been formed in his likeness, placed on Earth with the expressed responsibility to care for it and fill it with offspring.

As part of the fulfillment of God's expressed purpose for us, God instituted marriage. Marriage is not a social construct that humans developed over time. God invented it in order to establish a life-long bond between a man and a woman for companionship and as the basic structure into which our offspring were to come into the world. Sexuality is a powerful force provided by God to serve the marriage bond and the development of family.

Like most things, whenever we undermine God's intended purposes, ignore his ways, and transgress his wise and loving boundaries, we bring destruction to ourselves and others. Abusing sexuality is no different. Doing whatever we want with whomever we want, driven by our drives and desires instead of God's directives, leads to harm of all kinds.

What God intended as a most precious experience for his human creatures in the Garden of Eden long ago is still available to us today. But like everything else it must be on his terms. This means that not only must sex be reserved for marriage as God defines it, but we may also need to evaluate how sexuality is expressed within our marriages as well.