Monday, December 31, 2012

TorahBytes: God of Promise (Shemot)

And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Shemot / Exodus 2:24; ESV)

When God makes a promise, he keeps it. In fact we might say that the story of the entire Bible is one of God making a promise and keeping it. It's a promise he made to a family long ago, beginning with Abraham, his miracle son Isaac, and specially chosen grandson Jacob, whose name God changed to Israel.

This week's Torah portion includes the story of the sending of Moses to secure the release of Israel's descendants from oppressive bondage in Egypt. The basis of God's acting on behalf of the nation of Israel is as I quoted at the beginning. It was that God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All that follows from the ten plagues to the parting of the Red Sea to the provision of manna to the protection and guidance through the pillar of cloud and fire to the giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai to the conquest of the Land were all rooted in God's covenantal promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Throughout history much of Christianity has wrongfully judged Israel on the basis of its relationship to the Sinai covenant (commonly called "The Torah", the term also used as a title for the books of Moses, the first five books of the Bible). Not only was their deliverance from Egypt based on God's earlier unconditional promises, but so would be their eventual restoration. The Torah itself teaches that if and when God would judge Israel for its wrongs, if and when they return to him, he would restore them, not on the basis of the covenant given at Mt. Sinai, but upon the earlier unconditional convent made with the forefathers.

But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies - if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land (Vayikra / Leviticus 26:40-42; ESV).

The writer of Psalm 105 understood the eternal nature of this covenant when he wrote,

He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac, which he confirmed to Jacob as a statute, to Israel as an everlasting covenant, saying, "To you I will give the land of Canaan as your portion for an inheritance" (Tehillim / Psalm 105:8-11; ESV).

Throughout the writings of the Hebrew prophets, we read of God's determination to resolve Israel's tendency towards unfaithfulness by promising to provide an eventual permanent restoration (see Jeremiah 31:31-37; Ezekiel 36:22-32). This determination is consistent with his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The New Covenant (New Testament) writings concur with this by regarding the coming of the Messiah as a fulfillment of God's promises to the forefathers. As Zechariah, the father of Yohanan HaMatbil (John the Baptist), proclaimed,

That we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear... (Luke 1:71-74; ESV)

Similarly Yeshua's mother, Miryam (English: Mary) said: "He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever" (Luke 1:54-55; ESV).

Paul also understood the continual nature of God's commitment to the forefathers and their descendants: "But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable" (Romans 11:28-29; ESV).

God has demonstrated his dependability through the coming of the Messiah and the preservation of the nation of Israel. Let's begin 2013 with a fresh resolve to trust in the One who remains true to his promises, faithful to his relationships, and determined to fulfill his purposes in the world.

Friday, December 21, 2012

TorahBytes: Evil Is Real (Va-Yehi)

As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. (Bereshit / Genesis 50:20; ESV)

Evil is in the news again. We don't normally hear a lot about evil. I don't think most people believe in it any more. The Governor of Connecticut, Dan Malloy, does. Commenting on the mass killing of twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, he said, "Evil visited this community today". Joseph in the Bible did. Commenting on his own brothers' murderous jealousy, he said, "you meant evil against me". But most people don't believe in evil, not really, for to accept evil as a reality is to embrace a worldview that we don't want to consider. Somehow we sort-of cope with mass shootings and terrorist acts as isolated aberrations - glitches in our evolutionary climb to perfection. But evil? That's something else entirely. For if evil is real, then who is immune to it? Who is its next victim, the next perpetrator? It might be anyone of us. If evil is real, it's not just something that randomly and tragically falls upon some; it affects us all.

The Bible claims that evil is real. If I read it correctly, helping us to understand the reality of evil is one of the reasons why the Bible was written. But before I get into that, I should first define evil the way the Bible does. The Hebrew word for evil is "ra". It simply means "bad", often used in contrast to the Hebrew "tov", meaning "good". When translators choose to use "evil" for "ra", it is because they have determined that the "badness" in those contexts is of moral nature. The English "bad" is not strong enough a term for English readers to sufficiently appreciate what the original readers would have understood. But I don't think that really helps us get the gist of what the biblical writers' intentions were when they wrote "ra". To say something is "ra" is to say it isn't what it should be as opposed to "tov" (good) describing that something is as it should be.

As simple as an explanation as that might be, it is a crucial one to understand the world in which we live. Commenting on people, actions, things, and events by calling them good or bad as the Bible does is only possible if there is a way that things ought to be. This is one of the Scriptures' most foundational truths. God created a universe that was designed in a particular way for a particular purpose. Human rebellion against God's expressed will resulted in people, actions, things, and events going bad.

It is difficult enough to live within a creation gone bad, but it's far worse to deny that reality. Throughout history, people have denied evil in all sorts of ways. Some call it an illusion; some consider it misunderstood goodness; others simply ignore it, which I would guess is most common in many places today, especially in more affluent societies. By filling our lives with pleasures and distractions we think we can escape the reality of evil, that is until it completely overwhelms us as it did recently. But evil is with us always. The sooner we wake up to that reality, the sooner we will be able to deal with it effectively.

Joseph was a victim of evil, but somehow Joseph not only endured it, he overcame it and became a source of blessing to the world of his day that itself was victimized by a creation gone bad, a famine in this case. Joseph's trust in God in the midst of extreme rejection, vilification, and physical suffering not only enabled him to endure evil, but kept him from the kind of bitterness that would have undermined everything that God intended him to do.

It was the reality of evil that the Messiah confronted head on as he endured its full vengeance. Sadly one form of the denial of evil comes from well-meaning Bible believers who claim that Yeshua's victory over evil removes any prospect of us having to face it. On the contrary Yeshua's victory through his resurrection empowers us to be like Joseph. Evil's power has been broken, so that we too like Joseph, can thrive amidst its fury. One day God will eradicate evil all together. But until then, we can overcome it, if we put our trust in Yeshua.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

TorahBytes: Change Is Possible (Va-Yiggash)

For how can I go up to my father if the boy isn't with me? I couldn't bear to see my father so overwhelmed by anguish. (Bereshit / Genesis 44:34; CJB)

When I dealt with this passage in a previous TorahBytes, I proposed that the reason why Joseph was giving his brothers a hard time when they came to Egypt in the hope to buy food was because he was concerned that their jealousy of him showed how much they didn't care about their father (see Roots of Relational Difficulties). Whatever the reason, Joseph made things difficult for them and kept his identity from them until Judah responded to Joseph's threat to detain their youngest brother Benjamin. Years before they so hated Joseph that they didn't stop to think about how their selling him into slavery would affect their father. But this time, when faced with the prospect of telling Jacob about the loss of yet another of his sons, it was different. While we can't speak for the others, we know that at least Judah had a change of heart, offering himself in place of Benjamin.

What brought about the change in Judah? One reasonable suggestion is what appears to be a sudden break in the Joseph story, where we read about Judah, his sons, and his daughter-in-law, Tamar (see Bereshit / Genesis 38). Judah had failed to fulfill his responsibility to Tamar, who had become widowed. Tamar tricked Judah and shamed him in order to expose his hypocrisy. Her plan worked, and he accepted that he had indeed been in the wrong. A wonderful exposition of that chapter is available online by pastor, Tim Keller. But regardless of what it was that changed Judah, he did change.

Change is possible. Human hearts - our wills, our desires - can change. That this is true drives many people to seek out change. From self-help books to counseling, people want change and strive for change. But how many find it? How many people have read those books and have been to those counselors? They have attended seminars, pledged pledges, and prayed prayers. They resolved and they medicated. They changed jobs, geography, and even spouses in pursuit of lasting heart change - all to no avail. If change is possible, then why is it so hard?

From where I sit I cannot say why certain people seem to be so stuck in destructive ruts - like a prison cell to which no key can be found. It is too easy to offer suggestions: Did you try this and how about that? It worked for me; it should work for you too.

All I know is that change is possible. Judah is not the only one. The Bible is full of stories of radical change, miraculous change, lasting change. Human perfection you won't find. But selfish, destructive lives turning around and become blessings unto countless generations? Yes.

For some the Bible is just another self-help book, only very old. Listen to how it's taught sometimes: read a bunch of verses, say a prayer or two, and everything changes. But anyone who is truly honest knows it doesn't work like that.

Look again at Judah. Pehaps read chapter 38 and/or listen to Tim Keller's sermon. Life, death, family, selfishness, sin, duty, irresponsibility, oppression, poverty, hopes, rejection. Sounds like real life to me. No formulas or easy solutions. But God is involved. And somehow he got through to Judah through a set of "interesting" circumstances. So I have a theory. Take it or leave it. Here it is: God has carefully arranged a set of circumstances through which he is seeking to change your life to make it a blessing beyond your wildest dreams. And if you cooperate with what he is doing in your life and stop running away from his plans and purposes for you, you will change. Ignore him and you won't. I don't think I can prove my theory. But you can.

Saturday, December 08, 2012

TorahBytes: Is God in Control? - Revisited (Mi-Kez & Hanukkah)

Why was the dream doubled for Pharaoh? Because the matter has been fixed by God, and God will shortly cause it to happen. (Bereshit / Genesis 41:32; CJB)

A few weeks ago I posted a message entitled, "Is God in Control?", where I concluded that God's control of life should encourage us to trust him in the midst of a dysfunctional world. I began that message by explaining that among believers in God, there is a wide range of understandings regarding God's control of life. Some think he is absolutely in control to the extent that every single thing that happens in the universe, from a drop of rain to genocide, is intentionally and purposefully directed by God personally. Others believe that after creating the world, he has been hands off, lettings things work out on their own. Most others are somewhere between these extremes.

This week's parsha (Torah portion) has a comment that may help us determine the Bible's perspective on this issue. Joseph, after being imprisoned in Egypt for many years, is summoned by Pharaoh in hope that he would interpret Pharaoh's dreams. As part of Joseph's interpretation, he explains the reason why Pharaoh had two different dreams containing the same message of seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine. This is because "the matter has been fixed by God, and God will shortly cause it to happen." By this Joseph is saying that nothing could change what was going to occur. God had determined it; God would cause it to happen.

Those committed to a more extreme view of God's absolute control over all of life might regard this as an emphatic way to describe what is always the case. According to this view, Joseph was driving home to Pharaoh that God always does what he determines to do, and that's that. But is this really the correct biblical perspective?

There are several Bible stories that suggest otherwise. For example, the prophet Jonah was called by God to preach judgment upon the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in the eighth century before Yeshua. Jonah's reluctance to obey God was based on the possibility that if the city repented, God would spare it. When Jonah finally went as God commanded him, he didn't tell the people this, but rather preached judgment alone. Yet, just as he dreaded, they did repent and God relented. Unlike the Joseph and Pharaoh story, God's word in this case was not fixed.

Still, some may assert with regard to Nineveh that God controlled the entire unfolding of circumstances - a setup in other words. Jonah preaches judgment, Nineveh repents, and God relents - all this according to plan just as God determined. The problem with this is that the story doesn't read that way. The story of Nineveh is told as if anything could have happened in contrast to Pharaoh's dreams, where only one option was available.

Most of the Bible doesn't read as if God is in control in the extreme absolute sense. The predetermined, no-other-possibility scenario given to Pharaoh is a rare exception. The more usual non-mechanical, non-deterministic language of Scripture has led some to deduce that God is not in control after all. But the problem with this conclusion, however, is that it doesn't take into account that God was able to predetermine the agricultural destiny of Egypt. It also doesn't sufficiently grapple with the Bible's overall understanding that God will, without a doubt, work out his purposes in history.

That the Bible could describe life with a such lack of unpredictability, including options and changing circumstances - all the while asserting God's sovereignty over our affairs, including fixing events at will - expresses a level of control beyond comprehension, yet thoroughly reflects reality. God's intimate overseeing of human affairs in which he provides for legitimate choice and responsibility should encourage us to live life to the fullest, trusting him every step of the way.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

TorahBytes: Don't Give In! (Va-Yeshev)

How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God? (Bereshit / Genesis 39:9; CJB)

This year Hanukkah is from December 9 - 16, 2012; the first candle is lit the evening of December 8. Hanukkah retells the story of the Jewish revolt against Greco-Syrian control that occurred around 165 years before the coming of Yeshua. The emperor, Antiochus Epiphanes, sought to consolidate his rule by forcing his subjects, Jewish ones included, to adopt Greek customs. Many in Israel submitted to these pagan practices, until a cohen (English: priest) by the name of Mattityahu refused. A small Jewish army, known as the Maccabees, led by Mattityahu's son Judah, eventually defeated the large and heavily armed Greco-Syrian force.

People who seek to please God often face pressure to conform to the dominant culture in which they live. In this week's Torah portion we see how Joseph, one of Abraham's great grandchildren, also stood against great pressure. Even though in this case, the pressure didn't come from the culture, but from a particular individual, the principles of resistance are similar.

Joseph knew that his master's wife's advances put him in a no-win situation. To give in may have provided temporary relief from the pressure but would have most likely cost him his life. Yet resisting her, apart from being a difficult thing to do, would most likely get him into great trouble, which is in fact what happened. She eventually falsely accused him of the very thing she was tempting him to do. She managed to successfully frame him and Joseph spent years unjustly imprisoned. In the end God used him for great things, which would not have happened had he given into the evil he faced.

Joseph's predicament is a graphic illustration of what it is like to stand against the pressure of a culture that constantly nags us into submission. But unless we, like Joseph, are motivated by a deep desire to please God above everything else, we will not be able to resist.

For some, it's too late. Just like in the days of the Maccabees, when many Jewish people gave into the pressure of assimilation, so today many who claim to be part of God's people have embraced the ungodly values and practices of the dominant culture. Here are some examples: The Bible teaches that there is only one God and one way to God, the Messiah Yeshua. Yet many today are ashamed of the exclusive nature of biblical faith. Less and less people regard the Bible's view of family, and children in particular, as God's intentional model for living, thinking that people have improved upon the teaching of Scripture. Many have exchanged God's version of love and sexuality for that of the world's, disregarding the sacredness of the marriage covenant, while pursuing relationships with selfish motives.

The only way to effectively resist the pressure to adopt unbiblical principles such as these is to not give in. Resistance can be difficult and painful, but following God isn't always easy. Yeshua's dying on our behalf was not so that we would not have to resist cultural pressure, but by conquering death through his resurrection, he proves that we can resist no matter how difficult it gets.