Wednesday, July 23, 2014

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Alan Gilman, Bible Teacher and Writer

Sunday, July 20, 2014

TorahBytes: Ideological Warfare (Masei)

When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. (Bemidbar/Numbers 33:51-52; ESV)

Over the past few weeks I, like many others, have been caught up with the tragic situation between Israel and Gaza. The amount of articles and videos is overwhelming. As you may know, if the issue includes Israel, we end up with an inordinate amount of emotionally charged attention and opinions.

Every now and then I happen upon an article or report that, in my opinion, is set apart from the others by how the author avoids narrow definitions and simplistic conclusions. Why the Arab World Is Lost in an Emotional Nakba, and How We Keep It There by Richard Landes looks at the conflict from a worldview perspective. Whether or not Landes’s evaluation is correct, he is right that the problem at hand is fundamentally ideological. How people see the world controls how they live life. Failure to accept that will undermine any attempt to resolve conflict, whether it be interpersonal or international.

But this is not the way many people in the West look at life, instead preferring simplistic superficial analysis and quick thoughtless solutions. A great example of this as it relates to the current crisis is a three-and-half-minute animation entitled This Land Is Mine by Nina Paley. This is a satirical retelling of the history of the region by showing each people group being killing off by the next people group as their cartoon representatives seamlessly lip synch the song “This Land Is Mine” from the 1960 film, “Exodus.”

The appeal of Paley’s animation, apart from its humor, is its simplicity. But it’s a simplicity not rooted in a deep understanding of the issues. Instead it’s stripped of any historical context whatsoever. The bigger picture that might inform and affect the behaviors of the people involved is either neglected or deemed irrelevant. There is no consideration whatsoever for the various factions’ history, values, and aspirations. All the viewer is offered is a story of meaningless killing with the implied resolution being if only the fighting stopped, everything would be okay. A cry of “why can’t we all get along!” may sound good, but is devoid of any sense of justice.

What does this have to do with this week’s parasha (Torah portion)? Everything. First, so much of the Bible is taken up with issues pertaining to the region in question. The backdrop of a great deal of what is going on in Scripture can be termed “Mid-East crisis.” By the Bible’s twelfth chapter who has claim to the Land of Israel is already a key theme. While so many people are quick to derive personal spiritual lessons from the stories of Scripture, most of the context of both Old and New Testaments is the geo-political issues of the region. Yet many readers of Scripture treat this context in the same way as Paley’s animation. The bigger story becomes irrelevant in our attempt to distill the meaning we wish to derive.

The verses I quoted from this week’s parsha demonstrate what the conflict in the region is really all about. When God called the people of Israel to take the Land, they were not only to drive out its inhabitants, but also to destroy the objects of their religions. They were not simply a migrant people looking for territory and annihilating anybody who stood in their way. The goal was to establish a godly community of truth and righteousness. At the same time displacing the previous inhabitants was not indiscriminate, but was rather God-ordained judgment on peoples whose evil behavior had become irreversible (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:16).

I am not proposing that the modern State of Israel should follow the same directions today that God gave through Moses over three thousand years ago. I don’t believe that the Bible supports that at all. Still, through this we are reminded that all conflict is fundamentally ideological. This is why Landes’s article is so helpful. He understands that the two sides are conflicting on how they see the world. Paley’s animation provides another way of looking at the world, but skirts the real issues and insults the peoples involved by belittling their concerns.

The Bible is God’s revelation of the way the world really is and calls us to make that truth known in the name of the Messiah. The players in the current conflict are caught up in this ideological battle whether they know it or not. The only way we will ever find lasting resolutions to this and every other conflict is by gaining a better understanding of God’s perspective through his written Word.

Monday, July 14, 2014

TorahBytes: Don’t Ascribe Motive (Mattot)

But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them?” (Bemidbar/Numbers 32:6-7; ESV)

As the nation of Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land, they were camped east of the Jordan River. The members of two of the tribes approached Moses to request settling the area they were currently in rather than west of the Jordan. I might be exaggerating, but Moses went kind of ballistic on them as he lectured them on their history. Don’t they remember what happened the last time the people didn’t want to cross the Jordon to the take the Land? How could they have forgotten how the majority of the envoys Moses sent almost forty years before discouraged the whole nation from trusting God (see Bemidbar/Numbers 13-14). It’s people like this that undermine faith and get in the way of God’s plans and purposes. For almost four decades the people have had to wander in a barren wasteland due to the likes of such people. Oh no! Moses wasn’t going to stand for this. Once was enough; not again!

Moses really knew how to put these people in their place. The only problem was he got it wrong.
Moses’ mistake is one of the most common in human experience. He ascribed motive. He thought he had adequate information to know why these two tribes made their request. It’s not as if he was clueless as to where his people were at. He knew his history. He knew his people. He knew they weren’t always the quickest to get whatever it was God was teaching them. The years of wandering were partly designed to wipe out the generation that freaked out the last time. And since then, it’s been complain, complain, complain; problem after problem. And now this sort of thing again: “We want to stay here. We don’t want to enter the Land!” So can we blame him?

How was he supposed to know that this was nothing like what happened before? He couldn’t have guessed that they would pledge to stick with the rest of the nation until the land on the other side of the Jordan was secured. It’s understandable that he made the assumption he did. I don’t think you or I would have reacted differently. Still, it all goes to show, in our interactions with other people we cannot determine motive. The request was clear. The reasons weren’t yet given.

Kudos to those guys for how they handled Moses’ ill-informed reaction. They let him finish his diatribe, and then politely and patiently explained where they were coming from. I don’t know how much we can surmise from this, but we read, “Then they came near to him and said” (Bemidbar/Numbers 32:16; ESV). Most of us would recoil from being falsely accused as they were. But instead they simply and clearly made their case. Once Moses heard them out, he was completely okay with their plan.

I know this story would have been nicer if Moses wouldn’t have reacted as he did. Perhaps had the two tribes been wiser, they would have included the why along with their request. On the other hand, often when we are confident that our suggestions are sound, we may not always anticipate the kind of reaction they got. But hats off as well to Moses for his quick recovery. Not everyone gets over being as wrong as he was. Even though he misunderstood their motive, he was humble enough to not only listen to their explanation, but he also accepted it, approved it, and helped implement it.

There are many lessons we can take away from this interchange regarding reacting, patience, and so on. But what I see here more than anything is a reminder to not ascribe motive. We can rarely tell, if ever, what drives another person based on what they say or even what they do. It’s difficult enough to understand people’s motives when we know them well like Moses did, let alone in cases where we have few facts. Moses thought it was obvious, but he was wrong. Perhaps we would be well advised to accept that we know far less of the inner workings of our fellow human beings than we think.
Photo credit: "Hills of Gilead" by Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, July 07, 2014

TorahBytes: Expressing Concern (Pinhas)

Moses brought their case before the Lord. (Bemidbar/Numbers 27:5; ESV)

I am continually struck by the practical insight God gives us through his Word. When we read “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalms/Tehillim 119:105; ESV), this is not saying that the Bible enlightens us on what might be considered as spiritual issues alone. The Scriptures illuminate every area of life, from the understanding of God and how to properly relate to him to social issues, both personal and communal.

This week’s parasha (weekly Torah reading portion) includes an interesting incident between four orphaned daughters and Moses. Before getting into the issue they brought to him, notice that there is no comment in the text about these females’ (I don’t know how old they were) approaching Moses directly. I get the impression that many people think that women and girls in ancient Jewish society had no social standing. Obviously this is not the case. I am not claiming there was no inequity between men and women back then. It’s that I think women were much more highly regarded than how some historical revisionists would have us believe.

Be that as it may, these particular females brought a legal issue to Moses. They were concerned that based on what God had commanded regarding inheritances, since their father died and had no sons, only daughters, their family would lose their right to their ancestral land. They weren’t simply looking for confirmation of their understanding of what God had said; they felt that the policy as stated was unjust. That their understanding of the existing policy was correct is clear from Moses’ lack of response to them. They rightly interpreted the God-given principle. Yet they didn’t accept it as is. But notice that Moses didn’t simply reiterate the rule and send them on their way. Instead he took their concern to God, who agreed with the daughters and provided an addendum to the policy—a policy that he himself had established. Think about this! God’s word was clear, yet both he and Moses had no issue with the daughters’ expressed concern. Not only that; God adjusted the policy accordingly.

What can we derive from this? First, I already mentioned the place of women before God may not have been what many have assumed it was. Their access to both the community’s leader and to God himself demonstrates the place and value of women at the time. Second, God’s word is not static. That’s not to say that it is unclear, since likely nothing would have happened if the policy wasn’t clear. Neither is this to say that God is fickle as if he made a rule and then changed it as soon as new details arose. God didn’t change the rule; he expanded on it based on an exceptional circumstance. We discover how the dynamic nature of God’s word is broad enough to deal with a great variety of situations. Third, God and his appointed leader were approachable. Moses knew God would be happy to hear and to address the concern of his people. Finally, we see here an example of what happens when people appropriately express their concerns. The Torah is filled with bad examples of complainers and whiners, whose grumbling was destructive. Regrettably, some people wrongly conclude from such passages that genuinely spiritual people keep their concerns to themselves. However, often those concerns emerge anyway through the complaining we strive to avoid. The lesson to be learned here is that we need to express our concerns in a way that pleases God and results in constructive outcomes.

God welcomes our pleas for justice. He wants his children to come to him with their concerns. Congregational leaders would do well to follow Moses’ example. Listen to your people and bring their concerns before God. Hear what he has to say, and do what is right unto them.

Too many New Covenant (New Testament) believers have wrongly used Paul’s words regarding the avoidance of lawsuits (see 1 Corinthians 6:1-8). He was dealing with a highly dysfunctional, self-centered community when he told them it was better for them to be defrauded than to sue each other. He wasn’t saying that every unjust action between people should go unchecked. Listening intently to people’s legitimate concerns and making fair determinations are essential to healthy, thriving community. God didn’t turn the daughters away. Neither should we.

Monday, June 30, 2014

TorahBytes: Brand Confusion (Balak)

And Balaam said to Balak, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps the Lord will come to meet me, and whatever he shows me I will tell you.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 23:3; ESV)

One of the main purposes behind consumer and trademark law is the avoidance of brand confusion. I don’t know what it is like in your part of the world, but where I live the government has regulations in place to prevent individuals and companies from leveraging the popularity of competing brands. When a brand is already well-known and trusted, people more quickly notice it. The laws against trademark infringement are not simply because of ownership issues, but due to a desire on the part of our legislators to protect consumers. For example, Time, the weekly news magazine, is a very well-known brand that has been in existence for over ninety years. As far as I can tell, more than once, other periodicals have attempted to implement thin red borders on their covers similar to the one used by Time since 1927. Courts have determined that the newer magazines could not use the red border design element because it creates confusion for customers due to an illegitimate association with Time.

The Bible makes a brand claim, so to speak, with regard to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Bible clearly asserts that he is the original God—the one and only Creator, Wonder Worker, Redeemer, and Savior. Among his trademarked products is the universe, including Planet Earth and all its vegetation, animals, and humans. He is the sole inventor, designer and implementer of every physical and spiritual property, known and unknown. Everything everywhere has been brought to you by the God of Israel. All other claims by any other entity, real or false, are guilty of infringement.

However, God doesn’t seem to be interested in applying the principles of consumer law to himself or his products. It’s not that he is okay with infringement. Doesn’t he say, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:27: ESV)? Yet, he has allowed misrepresentation of his name to occur time and time again.

This week’s parasha (weekly Torah reading portion), is one of the most confusing uses of God’s brand in the whole Bible. King Balak of Moab, a territory in the vicinity of the Promised Land, was so intimidated by the people of Israel that he hired a diviner, by the name of Balaam (Hebrew: Bilam) to curse them. At first glance it seems that Balaam truly represented God. But what really happened was that God didn’t allow Balaam to have his way. His favorable use of God’s name occurred in spite of himself. Later on this same man will cause great damage to Israel through the use of sexual immorality (see Bemidbar/Numbers 31).

So while how Balaam spoke about God in this Torah section doesn’t appear to infringe on God’s brand (God saw to that), unless we read Balaam in his full biblical context, we might easily regard his illegitimate methods as acceptable.

Just because something is reported in the Bible doesn’t mean that it is endorsed by God. God did not reveal himself in Scripture in such a way that always makes right or wrong immediately obvious. Unlike our consumer laws, he allows the misuse of his brand. This means that if we don’t take care in how we read the Bible, we will get confused.

Years ago, I took a biblical Hebrew course at Regent College in Vancouver with renowned scholar Dr. Bruce Waltke. I’ll never forget the time he said something to the extent of (this is not a direct quote): “The Bible is a sensitive book for sensitive readers. It doesn’t build walls around itself to protect itself. If people want to abuse it, they can. But for the sensitive reader, it is a book of life.” Dr. Waltke’s comments are insightful. Superficial and selective reading of Scripture can easily result in great misunderstanding. It is relatively simple to misquote and misuse it for your own purposes. But it is its lack of protective barriers that enables God’s written Word to powerfully impact our lives. God purposely allowed the possibility of brand confusion to occur, so that we can know him with a genuineness and intimacy that protective legislation would obscure.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

TorahBytes: Idol Confusion (Hukkat & Rosh Hodesh)

And the Lord said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 21:8; ESV)

The people of Israel have had a long and difficult history with regard to idolatry. I am speaking of literal, not metaphorical, idols here. I know we can turn anything, whether material or not, into a sort-of idol by giving it a more important place in our lives than God should have. But strictly speaking, as far as the Bible is concerned, an idol is a physical artifact that represents a deity, whether it be the true God or a false god—something God explicitly forbids in the Ten Commandments (see Shemot/Exodus 20:3-5).

In spite of this prohibition, for most of Israel’s history up until the Babylonian exile, idolatry was a regular trap for the people. A great deal of the Hebrew prophetic literature includes either warnings against idolatry or threats of judgment because of it. It would not be until the return from Babylon that this particular sin was finally eradicated. In fact, as Judaism developed from that time, the rejection of idolatry became extreme.

Eventually disdain for images of any kind became part of the fabric of Jewish culture. This was the case even though the original prohibition in the Torah was balanced by the integration of other kinds of imagery, not associated with idolatry in any way. The Mishkan and later the temple included artifacts representing things of nature, as well as earthly and heavenly creatures. There is no hint in Scripture that these God-ordained items were themselves to be worshipped in any way. That God directed the inclusion of such things should put the actual sin of idolatry in proper balance as expressed in the Ten Commandments.

That God himself doesn’t have an issue with utilizing physical representations for legitimate means is clear by the incident referred to in the passage I quoted at the start. God sent deadly snakes as judgment against the people of Israel for their harsh attitude against him. As a result, they were brought to their senses and acknowledged their wrong. The means of healing God provided was quite unusual. He directed Moses to make a bronze serpent on a pole. Any afflicted person who looked at the serpent would be cured.

We don’t hear about the bronze serpent again in Scripture until many centuries later during the time of King Hezekiah’s reforms. Not only did he remove the unauthorized places of worship and rid the land of common idolatrous practices, we read: “And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan)” (2 Melachim/2 Kings 18:4; ESV). We don’t know if the bronze serpent was used as an idol from Moses’ time until then or not. Regardless, what was once a legitimate item for a God-expressed purpose had been turned into an idol. Note that the object itself hadn’t changed; only how the people used it. But what made the difference was that the first use was God ordained; the other was not.

When learning a lesson, it’s important to learn the lesson. We don’t learn lessons by becoming more extreme than what is called for. Israel’s overreaction to the consequences of centuries of idolatry is understandable. But doing more than what God says is just another form of not doing what God says. There was nothing wrong with the original bronze serpent and what it was used for. Idolatry was and is wrong. But God’s prescription for healing was totally fine.

The Jewish overreaction to the sin of idolatry has clouded the reality of the Messiah for many. One of the reasons for Jewish resistance toward considering Yeshua is over his claim to divinity. For many Jewish people the concept of God becoming a man is itself idolatrous even though it is anticipated by the Hebrew Scriptures. They refuse to even consider that the God of Israel would take on human form, since their self-made definition of idolatry doesn’t allow for any representation of heavenly things whatsoever.

It is possible that Yeshua understood the challenge it would be for his people to accept that God would come in human form. That may be one of the reasons why he likened himself to the bronze serpent, when he said to a Jewish ruler and teacher of his day: “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15; ESV). But no matter how difficult it might be for Jewish people to look to Yeshua, it doesn’t change the fact that he is our only hope.