Monday, May 26, 2014

TorahBytes: The Smiling God (Naso)

The Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (Bemidbar/Numbers 6:25; ESV)

The cohanim, the Jewish priests of ancient Israel, were given the responsibility to bless their people. Blessing is an essential biblical concept which has to do with the impartation of life in all aspects. The pronouncement of blessing is not magic. The words given to them to say in themselves don’t cause blessing to occur. This blessing was but one of the many functions the cohanim performed as part of their role as intermediaries between God and the people. Just as they represented the people before God through the offering of sacrifices on their behalf, so God spoke to the people through the priests. The priests didn’t cause the blessing of God to come upon the people. God had already determined to bless them, and appointed the priests to communicate that blessing on his behalf.

An interesting statement included in this blessing is “The Lord make his face to shine upon you.” What does that mean? Does God have a face? If so, how does it shine? And when shining, what does it mean to shine upon someone? When the Torah refers to God as having body parts, this is what is called anthropomorphism. It’s a way of speaking about a non-human being in human terms. Not only is God not human, he isn’t physical. There are times when he reveals himself in human form. In fact, the Haftarah portion for this week includes an example of that (see Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25) and most importantly, in the Messiah. But most of the time, when we read about God’s hand, his arms, or, as in this case, his face, the words we read are expressing something about God that is best expressed in this sort of way.

God desired that his people would experience his shining face. As best we can tell, a shining face is a smiling face, as if to say, may God look at you with a smile.

Last week’s message, God Is Dangerous, emphasized that the God of Israel is the most powerful force in the entire universe. Therefore we cannot approach him any way we wish. Approaching God on our own terms may result in an untimely death. So what’s this about “The Smiling God?” How could the same God be depicted in both these ways?

That’s one of the most wondrous things about the true God. The dangerous God is the smiling God. Not that he is necessarily smiling all the time. The wonderful thing is that the only all-powerful, Supreme Being, who made the entire universe and holds our lives in his hands, may actually smile at us.

To live under the smiling face of God is to experience the reversal of the alienation experienced by our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Having been designed to be his co-workers as stewards over his creation, they turned their backs on him through mistrust and rebellion, no longer beholding his smiling face. Thankfully that wasn’t the end of it. God determined to restore relationship with his human creatures, culminating in the redemption brought about through the Messiah’s death and resurrection. Because of what Yeshua has done, we can experience the cohanim’s blessing in its fullness and see God’s smiling face again.

To have God’s smile upon us means his posture towards us is favorable. We are objects of his graciousness, which is explicitly mentioned in the next phrase in the blessing. Don’t forget, the biblical view of God is far more about his inapproachability, his grandeur, his nobility as the king of all kings. Such majesty doesn’t normally give commoners like you and me the time of day, much less a full-face smile.

But if we have been made right with him though Yeshua, God is smiling at us. As we get up each morning we can be reminded that the good graces of the Master of the Universe are upon us. Not only can we enjoy intimate relationship with him, we can effectively represent him in the world. Like the cohanim of old, we now can bring the blessing of God’s smile to others.

Monday, May 19, 2014

TorahBytes: God Is Dangerous (Bemidbar)

But they shall not go in to look on the holy things even for a moment, lest they die. (Bemidbar/Numbers 4:20; ESV)

A friend of mine recently phoned me and asked how can we reconcile what appears to be two very different depictions of God in the Bible. He had just read the incident in the Torah where a man was executed for gathering sticks on the Sabbath (see Bemidbar/Numbers 15:32-36). To my friend, the God who would direct such a harsh consequence for a seemingly insignificant act is contrary to the version of God given us through Yeshua. How could the one who tenderly embraced children (see Mark 10:13-16) and called the weary to find rest in him (see Matthew 11:28-30) tolerate capital punishment for carrying sticks?

This is the age-old false dichotomy that claims the Bible portrays two different gods: The god of the Old Testament being a god of wrath and judgment; the god of the New Testament being a god of love and mercy (I am using a lowercase “g” for “god” here because I am referring to false gods who don’t exist). While my friend doesn’t believe in this two-god theory, the difficulty he was having is common.

The God of the whole Bible is a complex being. All through the whole Bible he is revealed to us as a God of love and mercy, wrath and judgment. He who cursed the world due to sin immediately determined to save it. In his dealing with human beings, his heart of longing for restoration and relationship pours forth from the Bible’s pages. Yet his intense intolerance of evil, both its source and its ourtworkings are clear. God longs for his goodness to be experienced by his beloved creatures, but will in no way lightly put up with wrongdoing. The tension between God’s determination to rescue his beloved creatures and the necessity to judge evil is found throughout. The Gospels’ portrayal of God as demonstrated through Yeshua’s actions and teachings is consistent with this. Yeshua, who can be so tender and welcoming, is also at times severely confrontational. Contrary to some people’s perceptions, he didn’t reserve his harsher statements for religious leaders alone; he had some pretty hard things to say to his followers as well. In the book of Acts, we read of the early experiences of the messianic community following Yeshua’s return to heaven after his resurrection. God’s plan of salvation is in full swing, yet in one case, we see a married couple struck dead due to their deceit (see Acts 5:1-11) and, in another, a man struck blind for opposing the preaching of the Gospel (see Acts 13:6-12).

So we shouldn’t be surprised when we read in this week’s parasha (English: Torah portion) the dire warning given to the Kohathites, one of the Levitical clans. They were responsible for the transporting of the sacred furniture of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). While they were to carry these items, if by any chance they looked at them, they’d die.

While, as I have tried to explain, harsh consequences for trespassing a God-given directive is found throughout all Scripture, we still may have trouble with God’s treating people like this. Why is he so harsh at times? That he might punish the wicked we may be okay with, but this kind of thing? That he has rules regarding the holy items, no problem. His property, his rules; but death? And just for looking? Even by accident?

The truth is God is dangerous. I know we’d rather not think like that. We would rather stick with the image of Yeshua and the children. But when we insist on solely focusing on one aspect of God’s character, no matter how true and wonderful it might be, we turn him into a caricature, perverting the reality of his complexity into an idol of our own making.

God is dangerous because he is the most powerful being in the entire universe. Have you ever seen one of those high voltage signs that are common around power stations—the signs with the lightning bolt and the falling man? The Mishkan should have had one of those signs. Every synagogue and church should have one of those signs. Bible covers should have that sign. Maybe I should design a t-shirt.

The God who forbade the Kohathites from looking at the holy articles hasn’t changed. He is still dangerous. We still can’t approach him on our terms without risking death. But he has made a way. Through the forgiveness available to all who put their trust in Yeshua we can now do what the Kohathites couldn’t. But as we approach the dangerous, all-powerful God, let’s remember who it is we are dealing with.

Monday, May 12, 2014

TorahBytes: The Deceit of Abundance (Be-Hukkotai)

You shall eat old store long kept, and you shall clear out the old to make way for the new. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:10; ESV)

This week’s parasha (Torah reading portion) includes one of the Torah’s descriptions of blessings and curses. God told the people of Israel how he would respond to their faithfulness or lack thereof. If they stayed true to him and his ways, life in their land would go well. But if they neglected to follow his instructions, disaster would ensue. One key aspect of this had to do with agriculture. Godly living would result in healthy and abundant crops; but if the people were disobedient to God, he warned them: “your land shall not yield its increase, and the trees of the land shall not yield their fruit” (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:20; ESV). The abundance enjoyed as a result of obedience is described in terms of having more than enough; so that when the new harvest is gathered, the previous year’s goods would need to be disposed of.

In Canada, where I live, this is the kind of abundance we experience. This is not to say that we don’t have poor people in this country who struggle to have enough food. But as far as our stores are concerned, they are overflowing with food to the extent that each day large quantities of food are thrown out to make room for new stock. Does this mean that as a nation Canada is blessed by God, and if so, is this blessing a result of godly living?

There are a couple of issues here. First, are the Torah principles with regard to God’s response to his people’s behavior as laid out in the Torah transferable to Canada (or any other country)? If this is the case, then God must be holding Canada to the same standard as Israel in biblical times. Biblically we have no reason to come to such a conclusion. The Torah never states that the dynamics of the Sinai covenant apply to other nations. But if it did, would Canada be blessed with the current abundance? I don’t think so.

Before going further, let me point out that abundance of food is not the only indicator of blessing in a society. Economics is more than agricultural bounty. The current debt load suggests that we are not as prosperous as we think we are. In addition, the total sum of a county’s state is not restricted to economics alone, but also its physical and spiritual health. The prevalence of family dissolution, negative population growth, and moral confusion suggest something different from what our food abundance may suggest. In fact, the overflowing shelves at the supermarket may actually be deceiving us.

For ancient Israel, having to remove the old food stores to make way for the new was a promised result of faithfulness to God’s covenant. But it doesn’t necessarily always work the other way around. If and when Israel at a particular time might experience such bounty, it would be wrong to assume that they were living right, which brings us back to our own context.

I wonder how many of us make that wrong assumption based on our current culture’s prosperity. On one hand we know we are not doing well as a society, but as we look around, we see signs of prosperity and think we must be okay. Isn’t this what we do with ourselves as individuals? How many of us know we should make changes to our personal lifestyle, for example, but until we have a significant breakdown, such as a marriage failure or heart attack, we don’t take our lives seriously.

God’s words regarding blessings and curses were never intended to be implied in reverse as in if you are prosperous; you must be doing something right. Right living is determined based on how it compares to God’s directives, not the current state of affairs, good or bad.
If we live in a prosperous part of the world, we should be grateful. If we have more than enough, we should share with those in need. But regardless of how we practically respond to the abundance at our disposal, it’s time we stop being fooled by it.

Do we need to wait for disaster to strike before we take serious stock of our personal lives and the condition of our communities? While the nations of the world are not under the same covenant obligations as ancient Israel, it is only a matter time before our neglect of God’s ways will be called to account.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

TorahBytes: Exiles at Home (Be-Har)

The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me. And in all the country you possess, you shall allow a redemption of the land. (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:23–24; ESV)

One of the reasons the New Covenant writings give us for living godly lives is rooted in this Torah passage. Peter writes: “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11; ESV). In order to understand what it means to be “sojourners and exiles,” let’s look closer at the Torah reference.

God, through Moses, directed the people of Israel on how to relate to their land. God promised the land of Canaan to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. While God was determined to give them this land to possess, they were never to own it in the way many of us think of land ownership today. In fact, it is probably most accurate to say that they never really owned it at all. The true owner of the land was God, a right he retained. This is why even though specific regions were allotted to the various tribes and clans; they could not sell it in perpetuity. This reflects the general creation mandate first given to Adam and Eve to be stewards of the planet under God’s supreme oversight (Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-31).

It didn’t take long, however, for Adam and Eve to be subject to the creation rather than to God, when they listened to the voice of the serpent as they were taken in by the allure of the forbidden fruit. God had intended that life on Earth  be organized a particular way. He was to rule as king; humans were given management responsibilities under him; the creation was to be subject to God through his human representatives. But all this was undermined by their rebellion. By disregarding God’s instruction they became oppressed by the very creation that they were to designed to manage.

God’s call upon Israel, in a sense, demonstrates an attempt to reverse this tragic turn of events. Even though this was doomed from the beginning, it served its purpose of revealing at least one aspect of God’s restoration plan by teaching Israel how to properly relate to the creation.

The way to be free of the creation’s control of our lives is to accept that we don’t possess it. God does. We are to relate to the creation only in the ways God has determined. Just as we can’t do with our land inheritances as we wish, so we should never relate to any aspect of life anyway we wish. This is what Peter is saying in his letter.

The world in its present condition, the same condition it has been in since our first parents’ rebellion, will easily control our lives for ungodly purposes unless we see ourselves in right relationship to it. Through the forgiveness of sin that we may receive through the Messiah, the power that the creation seeks to assert over our lives is broken. While it is not yet itself redeemed, and we ourselves are not yet perfected, God gives us the ability to live free of its control.

The reference to our being “strangers and sojourners,” is not to say that earth itself is alien to us. That would mean that the Promised Land was not the true inheritance of the people of Israel. God used this terminology to help the people grasp their true relationship to the Land as stewards. Earthly possessions were to be held lightly, not because of their lack of value or that the creation in itself was bad, but because our identity and direction was to be determined by God.

This is what it means to be “citizens of heaven” (Philippians 3:20; ESV). It’s not that heaven is our real home and earth is some sort of place of exile and banishment. We were designed to function on earth. It’s not as if we are out of place in the physical realm, yearning for the day when we will be finally free from its oppression. The oppression we experience is due to sin and the curse, not physicality.

When we read in the book of Hebrews, that the faithful of old, desired “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11:16; ESV), this is not a way to say that earth was an alien planet to them, it was that the state of the earth as they and we know it is not permanent. They were looking forward to its future restoration—the inheritance of all who put their trust in the Messiah.

Since the current conditions are temporary, we need to be careful not to feel too at home in the way things are. More than that! We need to live now as people of the future restoration, reflecting to others life as it will be when God finally makes everything right. If we do, we may feel out of sorts. But that’s OK; it won’t be like this forever.