Sunday, February 24, 2013

TorahBytes: Don't Overcomplicate (Ki Tissa & Parah)

The Lord said to Moses, "When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the Lord when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them." (Shemot / Exodus 30:11-12; ESV)

Some people claim that the Bible has no contradictions. That claim seems to be essential for them to have confidence in the Bible's validity. That there are supposed contradictions even these people will accept, but this is usually followed by saying that they are all easily explained. Where I disagree is that I don't think all of them are that easy. Because the Bible isn't a technical manual or textbook, but rather a collection of stories - some true, some fictional, songs, prophecies, sayings, letters, and so on, it expresses itself from various perspectives over long periods of time by a wide range of authors. As a result how the Bible agrees with itself isn't always neat and tidy, but messy. Given the Bible's disparate sources its unity is overwhelmingly profound. But at the same time, the way it expresses itself can be perplexing. I have grown to love the Bible's raw vivid reality, designed by God to powerfully and effectively address every aspect of life in every culture. Truly understanding it can take some work. While there is much in the Bible a child could understand, including all we need to enter into a genuine relationship with the God of the Universe, much of Scripture is intellectually challenging and requires a mature heart and mind to grasp.

This week's Torah portion contains some information that can help to understand an incident near the end of the life of King David that is often used as an example of a biblical contradiction. In the second book of Samuel, we read that God was angry with Israel for some unstated reason and so incited David to take a census (see 2 Samuel 24:1). The book of First Chronicles tells the same story, but differently. There we are told that HaSatan (English: the Accuser) was the one who incited David to do this (see Divrei HaYamim I / 1 Chronicles 21:1).

Before we deal with the supposed contradiction, I want to look at what was so wrong about David's numbering of the people. What seems to be happening here is that this was not a God-directed census, but something that David decided to do on his own (yet, not fully on his own, since he was incited by spiritual forces). The Torah is clear that a special tax was to be levied upon taking a census. Neither accounts in Second Samuel nor First Chronicles contain any reference to the required tax. So what David initiated was outside of God's will and therefore, as God foretold through Moses, a plague was the result.

But what about the supposed contradiction? Who was it that incited David. Was it God or was it HaSatan? We can resolve this by understanding the difference between primary and secondary causes. Second Samuel rightly identifies God as the primary cause behind what motivated David. First Chronicles, on the other hand, rightly identifies HaSatan as the secondary cause. HaSatan is a tool in God's hand. While God is ultimately responsible for David's actions, it was HaSatan who provoked David to do what he did.

I find this greatly comforting. For even the forces of evil that are at work in our lives are under the control of God. This means that we don't have to worry about the tools God uses to accomplish his purposes, we only need to worry about him! I don't really mean "worry", of course. I mean that there is no need to negotiate with layers upon layers of spiritual forces in order to live life the way God wants. Instead we can simply go to God, because not only is he ultimately responsible for all that happens, good and bad, he is more than able - and willing - to deal with all that happens.

This brings us back to the perplexing issues we might find in the Bible. Life, like the Bible, can be very perplexing. But we don't need to complicate life even more than it already is by creating man-made spiritual formulae to resolve our problems. We can just go to God.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

TorahBytes: Blood: We Can't Live Without It (Tezavveh & Zakhor)

Aaron shall make atonement on its horns once a year. With the blood of the sin offering of atonement he shall make atonement for it once in the year throughout your generations. It is most holy to the Lord. (Shemot / Exodus 30:10; ESV)

I grew up knowing about and to some extent observing Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish year. But like most of my friends, I knew very little of its background and meaning. I knew that the main aspects of this holy day were that it was to be treated as a Sabbath, so we didn't go to school, a complete fast, including no food or water, and hours and hours in the synagogue. I was aware that Yom Kippur had to do with forgiveness of sins, but beyond that I knew next to nothing about its historical or contemporary significance.

So on that day over thirty years ago, when I first heard about Yeshua being the Messiah, I was a little surprised to hear that sacrifice was a key aspect of the ancient Yom Kippur rituals. Of course many Jewish people are much more informed than I was when I was 19 years old, but then again many are now still just as uninformed as I was back then.

I don't blame them, because Judaism today is a bloodless religion. Those who are in the know are fully aware that the blood-soaked sacrificial system was foundational to ancient Judaism. But with the destruction of the Temple in the year 70, the sacrifices ceased. After almost two thousand years of no sacrifices, the importance of blood in Jewish ritual slowly (excuse the pun) dried up, so that now the place of blood is more or less forgotten. I had forgotten about it. My parents had forgotten about it. Or at least they forgot to tell me.

Until that day when I first heard about Yeshua, that is. I was told then that the sacrifices done year by year didn't really accomplish anything - at least not permanently - as they had to be repeated. The Cohen HaGadol (English: the High Priest) made atonement through sacrifice every year. Whatever good it did, it didn't last, as it had to be repeated every year. Every year until Yeshua offered himself as the final and permanent sacrifice. If this concept is new to you, please don't turn off yet. For many the reason why Yeshua's sacrifice is difficult to comprehend is because our Judaism is bloodless. But according to Torah a bloodless Judaism is not true Judaism.

I am also aware that any concept that Messiah or any person would give themselves in sacrifice may be repugnant to you. But I have come to see this has far more to do with rabbinic anti-Christian rhetoric than it does Torah truth. Abraham and Isaac foreshadowed Messiah's sacrifice, not to mention the prophetic writings of Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53, where we see God's representative unjustly suffering and dying for sins. If you don't believe me, check it out yourself.

The truth is contemporary Judaism is bloodless. That's a problem. No blood, no atonement. No atonement, we remain separated from God.

What I was told that day is correct: the ancient sacrifices which are no longer offered due to the Temple's destruction, were designed to prepare us for the Messiah's perfect sacrifice. And so if we admit our sins and put our trust in Yeshua, then we can be completely forgiven and have unhindered access to the God of Israel. Blood is not my favorite topic, but we can't live without it.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

TorahBytes: Living Stones (Terumah)

For the house, when under construction, was built of stone prepared at the quarry; so that no hammer, chisel or iron tool of any kind was heard in the house while it was being built. (1 Melachim / 1 Kings 6:7; CJB)

An interesting aspect of the building of Solomon's temple was that it went up in relative silence. I say relative, because, while, "no hammer, chisel or iron tool of any kind was heard in the house while it was being built," we don't read that it was completely quiet. There was likely all sorts of sounds associated with this building site, except for what's listed. The stone preparation was done off site, so that the on site workers only handled finished stone. For a stone to be qualified to be on site, it had to be prefinished. Only then was it fit to be part of God's house.

We don't know how unusual it might have been in those days to not do any of the stone preparation on site. It was noteworthy enough for the biblical writer to mention it. The lack of hammering and chiseling may have created a particular kind of holy ambiance.

In the New Covenant Scriptures the people of God are called the house of God. Peter uses a mixed metaphor when he writes, , "You yourselves, as living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be cohanim (English: priests) set apart for God to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to him through Yeshua the Messiah" (1 Peter 2:5; ESV). That Peter freely refers to followers of Yeshua as both the stones of the temple and the priests who serve there should caution us from being too specific when using metaphors. This is similar to saying that believers both make up the community in which the God of Israel is present and are also called to sacrificially offer their lives in service to God. The figures of speech used by Peter are much more vivid than my explanation, but we need to be careful not to push any metaphor beyond the intended meaning of its writer, biblical or otherwise.

That said, the temptation to speculate on how the using of only prefinished stone on the temple's building site might illustrate some attribute of Yeshua's spiritual house is almost too much to bear. But before I indulge myself, I will briefly explain how best to avoid misapplication when using something from the Hebrew Scriptures to illustrate or highlight a New Covenant truth. In my opinion for a parallel to be legitimate, the supposed truth drawn out from it must be clearly taught somewhere in the Bible. Otherwise the claim has no basis in God's actual revelation, but rather is only an idea made up in our minds. No matter how clever the attempted parallel might be, we want to avoid twisting the Bible to support our personal ideas.

With that said, let me offer but one possible parallel. The New Covenant teaches that one of the essential aspects of what God does in the life of a believer is that his perfecting work is as good as done. Paul writes, "Therefore, if anyone is united with the Messiah, he is a new creation - the old has passed; look, what has come is fresh and new!" (2 Corinthians 5:17; CJB). At the same time, there is a process going on. Paul also writes, "And I am sure of this: that the One who began a good work among you will keep it growing until it is completed on the Day of the Messiah Yeshua" (Philippians 1:6; CJB). We ourselves tend to be more aware of the process, including our failures and weaknesses, than of the reality of our full acceptance by God. But in spite of our imperfections we are qualified by God now to serve him (see Colossians 1:12). So while the process is still going on, we are truly part of his spiritual house.

It's as if the process of perfecting us is happening off site in the muck and mire of life's everyday hammering and chiseling. At the same time, God is in our midst to use us in his service, to glorify him and bless other believers, representing him wherever we are.

Where the parallel breaks down is we, living stones, experience this as a "both/and." Unlike the stones of Solomon's temple which when done no longer required further hammering and chiseling, we continue to undergo the sometimes painful process of being made more godly. Where this idea may be most useful is in the reminder that in spite of our need of this ongoing process, we as followers of Yeshua can rest in the confidence that we are indeed part of God's spiritual house.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

TorahBytes: Protecting the Preborn (Mishpatim & Shekalim)

When men strive together and hit a pregnant woman, so that her children come out, but there is no harm, the one who hit her shall surely be fined, as the woman's husband shall impose on him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. (Shemot / Exodus 21:22-25; ESV)

Many people are shocked to hear that Canada, where I live, has no laws whatsoever regulating abortion. Every other nation where it is legal to purposely terminate pregnancy, except for North Korea, imposes some sort of limits. Usually those limits include prohibiting the procedure after a certain stage of gestation (often at twenty weeks of pregnancy). Canada, in all its provinces and territories, on the other hand, permits abortion through pregnancy all the way until the baby's body is completely outside of the mother.

This is based on the Criminal Code of Canada's definition of when a child is deemed to be a human being as far as the laws against homicide are concerned. Section 223, subsection 1 reads, "A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not (a) it has breathed; (b) it has an independent circulation; or (c) the navel string is severed." (

Sounds pretty clear. By determining that the preborn are not human beings, they are not under the law's protection. In other words, killing a yet-to-be born child in Canada is not murder, because he or she is deemed to be a life form that is not human.

It is no wonder that pro-abortion activists in Canada are aggressively opposed to any suggestion that the preborn's humanity might precede birth even though science says otherwise. A few months ago, a private member's motion to initiate a discussion over when life begins was soundly defeated in our Parliament. This was not a proposed law, but only a request for a discussion. This elected member and his supporters were ridiculed for daring to propose such a thing.

As I looked into the issue, I was surprised to discover that Section 223 of the Criminal Code of which I have already quoted has a second subsection that seems to agree with the verses from the Torah that I started with:

(2) A person commits homicide when he causes injury to a child before or during its birth as a result of which the child dies after becoming a human being.

While in no way contradicting the previous subsection's definition of what constitutes a human begin before the law, it clearly states that causing injury to a child prior to birth that results in death after birth is murder. This agrees with what God says through Moses: the punishment for causing premature birth is based on whatever happens to mother and/or child after birth. If the child dies, then the perpetrator is deemed to have committed murder.

The only difference that I can see between God's law and Canadian law is that in Canada if the baby dies pre birth, then the injury to the child is not deemed murder because he or she is not yet regarded as a human being.

Two conclusions: First, there is no doubt that God views the preborn as worthy of protection just like any other person. Second, Canadian law agrees. Somehow our lawmakers understand the value of human life and the government's responsibility to protect that life even at this early stage of development. For it accepts the connection between harm done to the child prior to birth and the result after birth. Yet it withholds protection by arbitrarily determining what constitutes a human being. The lack of logic in Section 223 should be enough to provide the preborn in Canada with the same protection any other person enjoys in this country. The injustice is self-evident.