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.

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