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.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

TorahBytes: God Is Patient (Korah)

And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up, with their households and all the people who belonged to Korah and all their goods. (Bemidbar/Numbers 16:31-32; ESV)

Perhaps you have heard the story of the atheist who sought to prove that God didn’t exist by publicly daring him, if he did exist, to strike him dead on the spot. When nothing happened, the atheist gloated due to his apparent victory over the God in whom he didn’t believe. I don’t know if this sort of thing has ever happened, but it’s believable. In fact, the Bible supports the story’s outcome. For God rarely strikes people dead, even for the most odious of acts.

For some reason God’s violent response to Korah’s rebellion as told in this week’s parasha (weekly Torah portion), has become somewhat of a caricature. The God of the Bible is often pictured as someone continually venting his anger through dramatic shows of force as if he is sitting on the clouds with thunderbolts in his hand, waiting for his next victim. One wrong move and ZAP!

But nothing can be further from the Truth. While from time to time God sends extreme disasters as acts of judgment, such occurrences are rare. To my knowledge as far as the Bible is concerned, nothing of this nature occurs until the flood of Noah’s time. Then it’s more than a thousand years before the Ten Plagues. During the wilderness wanderings, which includes this week’s incident, there are several miraculous displays of God’s power, but they didn’t happen every day. On most days during this time and since, the sun goes up, the sun goes down, same same, nothing too unusual. No thunderbolts (figuratively speaking, of course).

The Bible teaches anything but the ongoing, regular venting of God’s anger upon people. One of the most explicit statements about the nature of God is from God’s own mouth, when he said to Moses:

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Shemot/Exodus 34:6-7; ESV)

While God is committed to justice, his disposition is mercy, patience and love, not anger and retribution. King David reflected upon this centuries later: “The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Tehillim/Psalms 145:8-9; ESV).

While God may have passed up an opportunity to prove himself by not taking the atheist up on his dare, he was being consistent with who he is by preserving the life of one of his misguided offspring in the hope that eventually his kindness and mercy would evoke an eventual change of heart (see Romans 2:4).

I am in no way seeking to undermine God’s wrath. His patience with us has its limits and should not be taken for granted. God is to be feared as the all-powerful Master of the Universe. You yourself may be under his great displeasure right now, and unless you repent immediately, you may find yourself swallowed up by your circumstances finally and forever. Pretending that God doesn’t see your sin or that he’s too nice to do anything about it will prove to be nothing but fantasy. But that he has not yet allowed the ground to open up beneath you is a precious act of love unto you. God takes no delight in your demise, but rather longs to embrace you as his son or daughter.

Sunday, June 08, 2014

TorahBytes: Faith Is Not Blind (Shela Lekha)

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)
In this parasha we read that God initiated the plan to send in twelve scouts to check out the land of Canaan prior to the planned conquest. However, 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 evidences that the Bible is not contrived. No one pretending to write true stories would do it this way. At the same time, 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 when Moses says, “The thing seemed good to me,” his answer 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. 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 thirty-eight years until all the adults of the current generation died out—all except 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 thirty-eight years later, before the Israelites successfully entered the Land, Joshua again sent in scouts. The results were very different that time.

So the problem was not the strategy, but the conclusion. However, if God told the people to acquire the land, then what purpose was 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 was 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 and what he was telling them to do.

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.


This week’s message was one of those specially chosen to be part of the recently released “Torah Light” collection. To order your copy, click here.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

TorahBytes: Complaining 101 (Be-Ha'alotkha)

I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (Bemidbar/Numbers 11:14-15; ESV)

Moses had had it. The people had had it. The people were sick and tired of eating the same thing day after day. Manna, manna, manna. Breakfast, lunch, supper; always manna. Even miraculous food can become boring. And if you think you would be different, then you’re lying (I wonder if it’s statements like that that cause people to unsubscribe—I’d rather you email me first, telling me why you disagree, and then unsubscribe if you still want to). Of course, I don’t know how you or anyone would behave in such a situation, but I find that the best way to read the Bible is to put yourself in the shoes of the people in the various stories. There is so much to be learned.

Back to the story. The people were not handling their boredom very well and began to complain. The intensity of  this really got to Moses to the point that he claimed he couldn’t take it anymore. As a result he poured out his feelings to God, telling him that if this is how it was going to be, he should get it over with and kill him immediately.

What do you think of that tantrum! This makes holding your breath until you turn blue or throwing yourself on the floor, kicking and screaming, look like nothing. And from a grown man no less! A leader—and not just a leader, but one of the greatest leaders ever. Looks like a breakdown or at least a meltdown to me.

At the beginning of this same chapter, there is what seems to be an earlier incident of the people’s complaining that made God angry, resulting in fire destroying some of Israel’s camp. After the food complaining incident that we are looking at here, God eventually provided meat to eat, but this miracle was accompanied by a plague—not good. Clearly God was not pleased with the people’s complaining.

But look how he handled Moses’s fit. He lightens his leadership responsibilities through the establishment of elders and then promises the meat I just mentioned. There is no tone of disapproval on God’s part towards Moses at all. Why the difference?

First, complaining in and of itself isn’t wrong. It’s whom you’re complaining to that matters. Talking to people who can’t do anything about your predicament only foments frustration and anger. Venting might feel good at the moment, but there is nothing constructive about verbally blasting away in the presence of others who are not responsible for your situation. In fact, it’s actually destructive and increases your discouragement, undermining your ability to properly deal with it and at the same time drags others into the dark pit you are digging. On top of that you are not giving those who have the power to make a difference the opportunity to do so. Griping in this way is cowardly. Instead of bringing the problem to light in a constructive fashion in the context in which it belongs, complaining of this nature prevents the complainer from having to take any responsibility themselves.

This is not what Moses did. He took his desperation directly to the one responsible. Even though his words are extreme, he put himself in a place where his problem could be effectively addressed. Unlike the people who turned their backs on God as they complained to each other, Moses’s expression of hopelessness was an act of faith. His willingness to be honest about where he was at before God enabled him to find the help he so desperately needed.

How many of us in our attempt to not be like the people in this story fail to be like Moses? We misread what happens here as if it is a negative statement on all complaining rather than a contrast between the bad and good kinds of complaining.

There is nothing good about pretending you are not facing what you believe to be impossible when you are. I know there are some of us who are too quick to panic over the smallest things, and we need to learn to get reasonably tough. But at the same time our desire to be strong can lead us to become too self-dependent and deny our true needs.

How do you know if you are being appropriately tough or too self-dependent? It’s easy. If in the name of toughing it out, you are complaining to others who can’t help you, then you should stop it and bring your problems to God instead. And don’t be afraid to be completely real with how you feel. He can handle it.