Sunday, January 27, 2013

TorahBytes: The Invitation (Yitro)

Then I heard the voice of Adonai saying, "Whom should I send? Who will go for us?" I answered, "I’m here, send me!" (Isaiah 6:8; CJB)

It has been said, "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life." There is certainly some truth in this, but it implies a certain kind of focus on ourselves that I don't think is correct. God indeed has a wonderful plan and he is interested in individuals, but to understand how God desires relationship with us, we need to know how we are to connect with his plan.

This week's Haftarah (weekly portion from the Hebrew prophets) draws us into one of the most spiritually intense scenes in the entire Bible. It occurred around the time of the death of a once great king of Judah, named Uzziah (not to be confused with the prophet Isaiah who is a key character and  author of this account). I say, "once great" since Uzziah, who began so well, spent his last days in isolation due to his contracting leprosy as a result of defiant pride.

It was against the backdrop of this depressing situation that the prophet Isaiah was overwhelmed by a vivid heavenly vision in which he came to see his own dismal moral and spiritual state. As God is known to do, he responded to Isaiah's honest confession by cleansing him of his sin, which in turns set up the invitation. It is this invitation that provides insight into God's invitation to us.

After Isaiah's cleansing, he heard God say, "Whom should I send? Who will go for us?" to which he replied "I'm here, send me!" It wasn't until after Isaiah accepted the invitation that God told him what to do. That God doesn't tend to reveal the specifics of his will until after we offer our services to him is a message for another time. For now, I want to focus on the invitation itself.

God issued a general invitation in Isaiah's hearing, which he accepted. God had a mission and was looking for those who were willing to participate. Isaiah accepted. I am aware that there other occasions in the Bible when specific people are called by God for particular tasks. But not this time. This was a general invitation to no one in particular. Isaiah heard. He accepted and became part of God's wonderful plan.

Some may be quick to point out that even though the invitation in this account only looks nonspecific, God actually intentionally designed it for Isaiah alone. He knew how to hook Isaiah and purposely set him up to respond exactly as he did. Perhaps this is how it worked. But the story isn't told that way. How God does what he does is not explained. Some people have made some pretty good guesses as to God's mechanics, but that misses the point of this and many other Bible stories.

God has a mission today. It is a mission to be part of his rescue operation promised to Abraham and fulfilled in Yeshua the Messiah.  God is looking for those who will extend his rule in the name of Yeshua, who gave himself as the perfect and final sacrifice for sin, rose from the dead, and ascended to God's right hand until he returns to judge the world. Yeshua's kingdom has impacted almost every nation on earth, transforming millions of lives. God's wonderful plan, though often ignored and ridiculed, has been the greatest force on earth for good these past two thousand years.

It is not so much that God has a wonderful plan for each of our lives, but that he invites us to be part of his wonderful plan. Do you hear his invitation?

Monday, January 21, 2013

TorahBytes: What Is It? (Be-Shallah)

When the dew had evaporated, there on the surface of the desert was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the people of Israel saw it, they asked each other, "Man hu? [What is it?]" because they didn’t know what it was. Moshe answered them, "It is the bread which Adonai has given you to eat." (Shemot / Exodus 16:14-15; CJB)

Photo by Aviv Hod (Own work)
[CC-BY-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
It is not unusual for us to have guests to our Erev Shabbat (Sabbath eve, being Friday evening) dinner table. Many who join us are believers in the Messiah, but from non-Jewish backgrounds. I would say for most this would be their first taste (no pun intended) of Jewish culture. Before the blessings we explain what's what, but there is one interesting element of dinner of which I usually ask people to guess what it is. On the table every week we have two loaves of challah. Challah is an egg bread that is specially braided for Shabbat and festivals. But why two?

Many of the people to whom I ask this question are well-versed in the Bible. But to my recollection I don't remember anyone guessing without a really clear hint. For those hearing or reading this who don't know, I won't keep you waiting any longer. The double portion of challah is to remind us of the double portion of manna that was provided to the people of Israel on the sixth day of each week during their forty years of wilderness wanderings.

Every day of the week during that time the people of Israel would wake up to discover a flaky substance covering the ground. The first time they encountered it they said "man hu", or in English, "what is it?" Thus they nicknamed it "man" (the "a" is pronounced more like the "a" in "dawn" than the "a" in "fan") usually pronounced "manna" in English. When God instructed the people concerning the gathering of manna, they were only to take as much as they needed, any extra would go bad. But on the sixth day, in preparation for Shabbat, the day of rest when no manna would be provided, they were to gather twice as much. The extra amount would not go bad the next day. So we have two loves of challah on our Erev Shabbat table.

I don't blame anyone for not guessing. Once you know, then the connection is obvious. But until then, the only clue is that it's a double portion of bread. But unless one has manna on their mind, the association is not easily made.

God wanted the Jewish people to have manna on their minds, however. This miracle bread from heaven was geared to teach us a lesson about God's provision even after the days of manna were over. The lesson was made the most dramatic, not on the morning on which it appeared, but on the first Shabbat following its initial days. We read that contrary to God's instruction, some of the people went out to gather and found none. One might think that's no big deal. After all there was no manna to gather, but that's not the way God saw it:

Adonai said to Moshe, "How long will you refuse to observe my mitzvot and teachings? Look, Adonai has given you the Shabbat. This is why he is providing bread for two days on the sixth day. Each of you, stay where you are; no one is to leave his place on the seventh day" (Shemot / Exodus 16:28-29; CJB)

The provision of manna was intentionally designed by God to not only teach us that God provides but that he provides according to his instructions. It is more important to learn to obey God than to expect his provision. I am not saying that God's generosity in providing for our needs should be thought of lightly. It's more that because God provides, we should all the more make sure to pay careful attention to his instructions.

This is what Moses taught near the end of his life as he reflected upon the manna when he said,

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 8:3; ESV)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

TorahBytes: God Is Complex (Bo)

Fear not, O Jacob my servant, declares the Lord, for I am with you. I will make a full end of all the nations to which I have driven you, but of you I will not make a full end. I will discipline you in just measure, and I will by no means leave you unpunished. (Jeremiah 46:28; ESV)

The way the Bible characterizes God is very different from how many people portray him. One reason for that is that the Bible's version of God is far more complex than some of the simplistic versions people concoct. For many today, God is a cross between Santa Claus and a teddy bear, who exists to shower us with goodies and cuddle us when we are sad. But before I go much further, I need to say that I am very aware that God has also often been portrayed as a distant cold, disciplinarian, who does nothing but wait for people to mess up so that he can vent his aggressive indignation upon them. Nothing could be further from the truth! And I suspect that it is this very negative version of God that has often fueled certain people's preference for a much nicer, overly positive version.

As someone who believes that the Scriptures are God's actual authentic, inspired, authoritative, and sufficient revelation of himself, I prefer to grapple with the more complex, sometimes confusing, sometimes disturbing depictions of God found in the Bible. We don't help anyone and certainly don't honor God by making him into something he isn't. And one of the things he isn't is simple.

God is dependable, but not predictable. He is faithful, but he is utterly impartial. He cannot be manipulated, but he is compassionate. His motive is always love, but his methods can be harsh and painful at times. While as the Scriptures say, "he is slow to get angry," he does get angry; he does discipline. It is these things that often offend people. Yet it is our offense that is more destructive than the fact that God does such things. For the simplistic images of God we concoct are fantasy, not reality. To truly know God, we need to know him as he really is, not as the projection of our personal preferences.

The week's Haftarah (portion from the Hebrew prophets) speaks of God's punishing. On one hand he will destroy the nations that oppressed Israel. On the other hand, Israel, while also having to endure punishment, will not be destroyed. For Israel the punishment is a form of discipline that will be beneficial in the end. For the oppressive nations, the punishment is final judgment.

Does God relate to all people in this way all the time? Of course not. As I mentioned, God is good and his motive is always love. For most people most of the time, the positive elements of God's love and goodness are most evident. It's our insistence as to what love and goodness are always supposed to look like that often misrepresents God. Life is complex and so is the God who created life. Life is full of good times and bad times. A spirituality that credits God with the good times only is not based on Scripture.

The more we allow ourselves to embrace the fullness of God's complex character as revealed in the Scriptures, the more we will truly know him and the better equipped we will be deal with the complexities of our lives.

Monday, January 07, 2013

TorahBytes: Remedy for Despair (Va-Era/Rosh Hodesh)

Moses spoke thus to the people of Israel, but they did not listen to Moses, because of their broken spirit and harsh slavery. (Shemot / Exodus 6:9; ESV)

The people of Israel were on the brink of deliverance. After long years of oppressive bondage, a new chapter of freedom was about to begin. Soon to be enriched by the bountiful provision of their one-time masters, they would witness God's miraculous power and his very presence in their midst to protect and to guide them. They would hear his voice, receive his Torah, and acquire the land promised to their forefathers four centuries earlier.

God sent Moses to bring them this good news, but they would not hear it. They could not hear it. All those years of suffering created an impenetrable barrier around their hearts. What actually happened was that when Moses and his brother Aaron first spoke to the community's elders about God's deliverance, they responded positively. But then when Moses and Aaron brought to Pharaoh king of Egypt, God's demand of release, he made things even harder for them.

Note the sequence: years of oppression, words of hope, things get worse. That's enough to discourage anyone. But let's take a step back for a second. Israel was in a very bad situation. They were under complete control by a most powerful nation, whose economy depended on their servitude. It isn't reasonable to assume that Pharaoh would have reacted in any other way. His power was being threatened. His economy undermined. Any leader in his situation would have likely done the same thing. That things would have to get worse before they got better should be expected.

But expected or not, when we are in a dismal, painful situation like this, it is difficult to see the bigger picture. Moses didn't see it either. He didn't respond to Pharaoh's reaction, by saying, "Oh yeah? Just watch what God is going to do!" Instead he said to God, "Why have you done evil to this people? Why did you ever send me?  For since I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name, he has done evil to this people, and you have not delivered your people at all” (Shemot / Exodus 5:22, 23; ESV). It was then that God told Moses, "Now you shall see what I will do to Pharaoh; for with a strong hand he will send them out, and with a strong hand he will drive them out of his land” (Shemot / Exodus 6:1; ESV).

So who could blame the people for having a hard time receiving this message. Nothing had gone right for them for as long as they could remember and now some guy comes in God's name demanding their release, and things get worse, not better. As we read at the beginning, their spirits had been broken. They no longer had the capacity to hope.

But God came through. He wasn't put off by the people's despair. He had come to deliver them, and deliver them he did. Through awesome acts of power, he pulverized Israel's oppressors and brought his people out in victory.

While nowhere near on the same scale, my experience of God is similar to this. I was in an oppressive, hopeless emotional state when I first heard about Yeshua. God swooped into my life that day, and, in spite of myself, rescued me. Because of this experience I have had a tendency to allow myself to fall back into a pit of despair, wanting God to do it again. But I don't think this is what he wants. Instead I need to learn from both my experience and stories like the one we are discussing to see that no matter how difficult or discouraging life may get, God is always able to see us through. Yes, sometimes our spirits break, and God understands that, but at some point, we need to learn to trust him no matter how bad it gets.