Sunday, May 26, 2013

TorahBytes: Faith Is Not Blind

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel. From each tribe of their fathers you shall send a man, every one a chief among them.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 13:1-2; ESV)

This passage tells us that God initiated the plan to send in twelve scouts to check out the land of Canaan prior to the planned conquest. Later in the Torah, the story reads differently:

Then all of you came near me and said, "Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up and the cities into which we shall come." The thing seemed good to me, and I took twelve men from you, one man from each tribe. (Devarim / Deuteronomy 1:22-23; ESV)

This second account sounds as if God wasn't involved at all. Here we are told that the people initiated a plan that Moses approved. This kind of apparent contradiction is one of the many proofs that the Bible is not contrived. No one pretending to write true stories would do it this way. Yet, there is no problem seeing the differing accounts as describing various aspects of the same story. It appears that the people did make the suggestion. Moses, true to form, would have asked God before giving the go ahead. So that when Moses says, "The thing seemed good to me," it is based on God's approval. Therefore to write, "the Lord spoke to Moses, saying," is an accurate description of what happened.

So what we have here is a suggestion on the part of the Israelites to check out the Promised Land before beginning the process to acquire it. As it turned out, ten of the scouts were overwhelmed by what they saw. The other two, Joshua and Caleb, could not convince the people that God's presence with them was sufficient to overcome the land's inhabitants. So the people rebelled against God's directive to take the land at this time, desiring to appoint a new leader and return to Egypt instead. God then judged the people by causing them to wander in the wilderness for an additional 38 years until all the adults of the current generation died out, all except for Joshua and Caleb.

The negative reaction of the people to the scouts' report may lead us to conclude that their suggestion to check out the land before attempting to enter it was a bad idea. The problem with this conclusion is that God himself approved their plan. But could this be an instance where God gave the people over to what their unfaithful hearts wanted, allowing them to go their own foolish way, knowing it would not go well? I don't think so, especially since 38 years later, before the Israelites successfully entered the Land, Joshua also sent in scouts. The results that time were very different.

So the problem was not the strategy, but the conclusion. However, if God told the people to acquire the land, then what purpose is there in sending in an advance scouting party? Wouldn't the effect of their investigation be nothing more than confusion? Doesn't faith require as little information about situations as possible? Why cloud our minds with all sorts of facts and logistics? Why not just trust God?

To think that true faith requires ignorance with regard to the practical details of life reveals a misunderstanding as to what true faith really is. Faith is not a mindless floating through life, oblivious to reality. It is a dependency upon God, resulting in intentional living. The scouts' issue was not that they had too much information; it's that they didn't look at the information from a perspective of faith in God. The people needed to know the obstacles and challenges they faced, so that they could deal with them effectively. It's not that they didn't require a strategy; it's that they needed to develop a strategy based on the truth of who God is.

Faith is not blind. In fact it requires great clarity. It is only when we truly trust God that we are able to see the details of life for what they really are.

Monday, May 20, 2013

TorahBytes: Divine Guidance

At the command of the Lord the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the Lord they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (Bemidbar / Numbers 9:18; ESV)

The Jewish people have been called the "people of the book". One cannot underestimate the impact of the Torah and the rest of the Bible upon them and through them to the rest of the world. Not only does the God of Israel speak through the written words of Scripture, he himself wrote the Ten Commandments with his finger twice, both the original and replacement versions (see Shemot / Exodus 31:18; 34:28). ). Moses' successor, Joshua, was warned by God, "This Sefer HaTorah (English: Book of the Law) shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it" (Joshua 1:8; ESV). After years of neglect the rediscovery of the Sefer HaTorah during the reign of King Josiah precipitated spiritual and cultural renewal in the nation. God's written Word is celebrated in Tehillim, the Psalms (e.g. Tehillim / Psalms 1, 19, 119) as the only God-given source of truth and guidebook for life.

The inspiration and sufficiency of the Hebrew Scriptures is clearly supported by the New Covenant writings:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17; ESV).

But does this mean that the act of studying the Bible is sufficient in itself for God's people to become all that God intends us to be? Many years ago, not long after I first came to believe in Yeshua as the Messiah, I was in the home of some Hasidic (ultra-orthodox) Jewish people. I was sharing my story of how my new faith resulted in the healing of my panic attacks. My assertion that Yeshua was our long-expected Messiah and King was not appreciated by them, but when I explained the positive effects of my beliefs, they looked at each other and said with a nod, "Torah!" They believed that it was my exposure to God's written word, in spite of my being deeply misguided, that affected my healing. It didn't matter whether or not I understood the Scripture, believed it, or obeyed it. According to these people, the Torah acted like a magic charm.

The problem with this approach to Torah and the rest of the Bible is that the Bible doesn't see itself this way. Perhaps the Bible's own understanding of itself was best summarized by the Messiah following his most extensive teaching on Torah when he said,

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it (Matthew 7:24-27; ESV)

The Scriptures demand response. The Scriptures call us to trust God. The Scriptures direct us to obey God. The Scriptures expose us to what it means to properly relate to God. Any attempt to turn God's written word into a magic charm, a collection of mythical stories designed to warm our hearts, a set of cold detached moral principles, or a pretext for religious abuse is a complete misrepresentation. Instead the Scriptures invite us into an intimate encounter with a very personal God.

This week's Torah portion illustrates the personal aspect of God's nature. The people of the Torah were not guided in the wilderness through the words of Torah. Rather God called Israel into a great adventure through the wilderness and the conquest of the Promised Land. How to go about this cannot be found in the Torah's directives, but through the direct guidance of God in the pillar of cloud and fire. As it stayed or moved, so did the people.

While the Scriptures are full of timeless principles to live by and provide wonderful descriptions of God's nature and character that should profoundly impact us, the Bible encourages us to pay close attention to the dynamic and personal aspects of our relationship to the Master of the Universe.  Through the Messiah and by the power of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) within the bounds of the objective truth revealed in Scripture, we need to grow in sensitivity to God's leading in our lives.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

TorahBytes: The Voice (Naso)

And when Moses went into the tent of meeting to speak with the Lord, he heard the voice speaking to him from above the mercy seat that was on the ark of the testimony, from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him. (Bemidbar / Numbers 7:89; ESV)

Did you know that Moses heard voices? Well, a voice actually. Or I should probably say The Voice. Judaism is founded on the claim that the creator God revealed himself by speaking to people, especially Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. It’s not as if they were tuned in to the spiritual world. The Torah doesn't teach that God's voice emanates from behind the veil of the material world and some people possess a special ability to pick up the sound of his voice. Rather it was God who initiated communication with them.

We read in this week's portion that Moses heard God clearly speak on a regular basis as he entered the special tent which contained the sacred chest called the Ark of the Covenant (Hebrew: aron' habberit'). Some people attempt to extract the moral elements of Torah, while rejecting any notion that God can or does speak. But it isn't intellectually honest to attempt to honor the Torah as a great moral work while rejecting its own assertion to be divinely inspired. Either we accept it as a whole, including that it is a record of God's communication or reject it as a dishonest fabrication.

But what about other religions and their sacred documents? Don't most of them also claim that God or gods inspired them? Sure they do. And like the Torah it is dishonoring to other religions to reduce their sacred writings to collections of wise sayings. Either God inspired these writings or he did not. If he did, then we are well advised to listen. If he did not, then we should completely reject the claims of those religions.

As a student of the Bible (both the Hebrew Scriptures and New Covenant Writings), I have good reason to believe that it is the only authorized, inspired revelation of the one true God. This is not the time or place to explain my reasons for that. What I am trying to get at is at its core, the Bible is a record of people hearing the voice of God.

According to the Bible knowing God is more than adhering to a set of principles. It includes an essential personal and relational component mainly expressed through intimate communication with God, both speaking to him and hearing him. In the Hebrew Scriptures we read of individuals who possessed various levels of intimacy with God with Moses being the one who heard him the most in terms of quantity and clarity.

The prophet Joel anticipated a time when all God's people would experience a greatly increased level of communication with God:

And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions. (Joel 3:1-2; [English 2:28-29; ESV]).

The festival of Shavuot (English: Weeks or Pentecost) begins this week (evening of May 14, 2013). God chose the observance of this festival, fifty days after Yeshua's death, to fulfill Joel's prophesy (see Acts 2). Yeshua's perfect sacrifice satisfied God's requirements and opened up the way for this new level of communication between him and us.

As we receive the gift of God's Spirit, we shouldn't be surprised when we begin to sense communicative nudges from him. Will we hear The Voice like Moses did? Perhaps. God speaks in so many ways. But speak he will.

Sunday, May 05, 2013

TorahBytes: Stand Up and Be Counted! (Bemidbar)

Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers' houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. From twenty years old and upward, all in Israel who are able to go to war, you and Aaron shall list them, company by company. (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:2-3; ESV)

When God directed Moses to take a census of the nation of Israel, it was not simply a statistical analysis of the people. Not everyone was numbered. Only the males age 20 and up of every tribe but Levi. Levi was to be counted separately due to their special priestly function. The purpose of counting the other tribes was to determine those "who are able to go to war."

Israel's call to war may sound distasteful to some, but that's because most of us don't know that just as Israel of old, we have been born to fight. There's a war going on and whether we like it or not, whether we are aware of it or not, we are on one side or the other.

Since the beginning of creation evil has sought to overthrow the purposes of God. The forces of darkness have conscripted people to do their bidding, often quite successfully. Those on God's side have been in the minority, but the victories substantial and far reaching. Through the Messiah and his triumph over evil's greatest weapon, death, God has guaranteed final and total victory. As we wait for Yeshua's return to judge the world, we have been commissioned to extend his victory to every corner of the globe.

Every human being has a place in this cosmic battle. To quote Bob Dylan, "You’re gonna have to serve somebody. Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody." There is no neutral ground in this battle. No sidelines. No time outs. No vacations. No maternity or paternity leave. No disability list. Only active duty. You are either serving one side or the other. [Reality check #1: I am aware that there are people who for one valid reason or another cannot actively engage the battle, but I am making a point here. But don't let this statement too quickly count you out.]

As for each individual's precise duties, that's another matter. Different people have different functions. Still, everyone, regardless of age and ability is a part of this war. The better we understand this, the more effective we will be.

There is a tendency among spiritually minded people to think that true godliness is found in disengaging the battle. In this way of thinking, finding peace in the midst of a troubled world is a high value. Finding peace is a good thing, however we were not born to strive for serenity, but rather to confront the gates of Hell! [Reality check #2: I am also aware that there are times when we are not engaging life as we think we should and can easily be discouraged. It is at these times we need to remember that our identity as children of God must be central to everything else. But those of us who tend towards being passive need to heed this wake-up call.]

The nature of the battle we are in is primarily cultural and ideological. As Paul wrote in the New Covenant Scriptures, "For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Ephesians 6:12; ESV). This doesn't mean that the struggle in our age never takes on physical dimensions, but that the forces of evil are first and foremost unseen and express themselves in nonmaterial ways. As Paul says elsewhere:

For although we do live in the world, we do not wage war in a worldly way; because the weapons we use to wage war are not worldly. On the contrary, they have God’s power for demolishing strongholds. We demolish arguments and every arrogance that raises itself up against the knowledge of God; we take every thought captive and make it obey the Messiah. (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; CJB)

This is why it is so very important to engage our culture. Every time we express a value through what we say or do (or not say and do) we take sides. We either represent God's values or the Evil One's. That is why we need to carefully critique all forms and expressions of media, including movies, songs, books, and so on. Every thought, every word, every political comment, every marketing plan, every fashion statement carries with it the pursuit of either good or evil.

Let's not miss our opportunity to be counted for God.