Do You Rejoice?

For the week of September 24, 2016 / 21 Elul 5776

A family rejoicing

Ki Tavo
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:11)

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), God through Moses instructs the people with regard to a ritual they were to do after their first harvest following their entering the Promised Land. It involved presenting a portion of their produce to the cohen (English: priest) and recounting some basic history: beginning as a small clan with Jacob migrating to Egypt, they grew into a numerous nation there, eventually becoming enslaved by the Egyptians, but God delivered them, and enabled them to acquire the Land. The bringing of a portion of their produce was to be a “simcha” – a joyful celebration: “And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:11).

Everyone was to celebrate “in all the good” God provided them. But in order to do that, they had to take notice of it and to do so within the context of their history. They were to remember where they came from, how they got to where they were, acknowledge what God has provided for them, and that what he had provided was good.

When was the last time you did that? I am asking myself the same question. It doesn’t help that the prevailing culture works against rejoicing in all the good God has given to us. How can we celebrate his provision when we are constantly told we don’t have enough? Many, if not most, of us are heavily in debt. So we don’t even have a sense that what we have is truly ours. And of what we do have, it is deemed obsolete almost before we get it out of the box as the next new thing is being paraded before our eyes.

Note that the instruction to rejoice is community oriented. Each person was to celebrate the good God provided to “to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” But how many of us feel any connection to community these days? Each individual is viewed as an isolated consumer, not a member of a community. The reference to “house” here means “household,” which is much more than a collection of persons living under the same roof. God intended that the prosperity of the community was to be the prosperity of the individual and vice versa. But today, even members of the same family lack connection with each other as they pursue not much more than their own personal interests. The profound selfishness that marks the current age cannot provide an environment of rejoicing. Fun, excitement, and pleasure at times perhaps – but not gratitude. We have forgotten where we came from. We have lost a sense that life is bigger than just me. And the only thing that matters is what I am getting for myself in the moment and it’s never enough.

Learning to rejoice for some of us is going to take some hard work. It requires stopping to think about where we have come from, what God has done for us, and what good things he has provided. It means forcing ourselves to stop yearning after the futile pursuit of the so-called latest and greatest. Then, we need to learn how to reconnect with others. Maybe gather some like-minded people and share your stories of gratitude with each other. It’s better if these stories would be shared experiences, but you might have trouble finding such people. So start with this; hopefully it’ll be the first of many to come. Then rejoice in whatever way you can: sing, shout, dance, applaud – but don’t keep it in. It’s not rejoicing until you let it out.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Differences Count

For the week of September 17, 2016 / 14 Elul 5776

Multicultural characters on planet earth

Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:19-20)

The verses I just read contain a biblical understanding of life that is being overrun today by misguided notions of tolerance, brotherhood, and unity. That’s not to say that tolerance, brotherhood, and unity are not biblical notions. Indeed, they are, but it’s the versions of these and many other noble principles that are misguided. Obviously the main issue addressed by God through Moses here is the charging of interest, which certainly deserves our attention, but there is an underlying concept of human relations that is foundational for what is being said about loans. And it is this concept that I want to focus on this week.

Whatever else is implied by the charging and not charging of interest, the people of Israel were directed by God to treat citizens differently from non-citizens. This seems to contradict what God says elsewhere: “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God” (Vayikra/Leviticus 24:22). But these are two different contexts. One has to do with life and limb; the other is about loans and interest. One is clearly a justice issue in which natives and foreigners were to be judged equally, while the other is financial. Note it doesn’t say not to loan money to foreigners, just that charging interest in their case was permitted.

So on one hand the Torah is very clear about social equality between peoples. When Yeshua centuries later used the Samaritans, a despised people group of his day, to illustrate to his fellow Jews what loving one’s neighbor really means (see Luke 10:25-37), he was not being a modern radical, but he was rather affirming Torah principles that were being denied by his fellow countrymen. Contrary to popular misconception the Scriptures are not the basis of bigoted racial theory, but actually clearly espouse the unity of the human family via Noah and Adam. According to the Bible there is only one race, the human race.

At the same time, God’s inspired written word recognizes – more than that! – it celebrates national distinctions. Even though the emergence of diverse languages and the resultant cultural and ethnic groupings were due to an ungodly attempt of self-preservation as recorded in the account of the city and tower of Babel (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:1-9), the hand of God is seen in the development of nationalities. The Book of Revelation’s depiction of the renewal of all things in keeping with the Hebrew prophetic writings in no way anticipates the homogenization of ethnicities but their continued national distinctions (see Revelation, chapters 21 & 22). The trans-national unity experienced by believers (see Galatians 3:28) was never intended to undermine the practicalities of ethnic diversity (see Acts 15 & 21:17-26; Romans 14:1 – 15:13).

And yet among Bible believers and the society at large there is a growing sense of embarrassment with anything that affirms nationalistic differences (except at times for certain cultural expressions like food and music). Both believers and non-believers alike have bought into a version of human unity that makes them uncomfortable with the idea we should treat foreigners differently from natives. But that stems from a denial of distinctions that God himself recognizes. Paul, for example, who was so passionate about the intimate unity we have in Yeshua, could still write that we need to prioritize providing for our families over others (1 Timothy 5:8), and that believers need to care for the believing community before expressing concern for outsiders (Galatians 6:10).

Recognizing lines of demarcation between communities is a good thing and is necessary for the healthy administration of societies. Full participation within any community, whether it be a small religious group, or a large country should be the result of a clear naturalization process. Differing requirements for members and non-members/citizens and non-citizens are not necessarily expressions of bigotry and prejudice, but the essential elements of belonging that are necessary for the effective thriving of any community. Claiming that all people everywhere have the automatic right to belong to whatever group they like regardless of who they are may sound nice, but in the end creates nothing but chaos and meaninglessness. We shouldn’t be surprised when those who impose their sense of so-called brotherhood upon us end up taking away every last vestige of true diversity with which God has graced us.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Righteous Judgment – Part 2

For the week of September 10, 2016 / 7 Elul 5776

Men and women in intense discussion

Shofetim
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18)

Two years ago, I did a TorahBytes message on this passage, where I discussed the need for righteous judgment. This time, I want to delve into some aspects of the process necessary to establish justice.

First, while we hear a lot about justice issues, especially with regard to the systemic abuse of certain groups of people, there is a prevailing mood among us that undermines justice in our personal and societal relationships. Justice is establishing what is right. To bring about justice requires making judgments. Making judgments is difficult when we embrace the contemporary view of tolerance. Classical tolerance is showing respect for differences. Contemporary tolerance dictates that we treat all differences as equal. If our differences are equal, then it becomes wrong to compare them or prefer one over the other. While some things are indeed based on personal preferences (such as a favorite color), not everything is. People can pretend that all human activity is based on nothing more than taste, but we will never escape the fact that we live in a moral universe. If you and I don’t acknowledge the validity of right and wrong, the universe (God actually) will make it clear to us eventually, and likely sooner than we think.

It’s most tragic when people who should know better buy into a misguided version of Yeshua’s words “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1), thinking he is supporting the idea that we should never make value judgments regarding human behavior. What he is really speaking against is having a condescending, arrogant attitude toward others. One cannot take Yeshua’s teaching seriously and take on the moral relativism so prevalent today. Check out the rest of the Matthew passage to see that. Far from accepting everything everybody does, he calls us to carefully point out issues in one another’s lives (see Matthew 7:2-5).

Once we accept the need to make righteous judgments, we then need to learn to make decisions. That may seem obvious, but partly due to the effects of extreme tolerance, we sometimes confuse discussions with decisions. I am aware that for many people even broaching a difficult subject, especially an item of disagreement, can be a very big deal. But just because a matter is finally brought into the open doesn’t mean it is necessarily effectively resolved. It is resolved when a decision is made, but not any decision; one based on righteous judgment.

While some are satisfied simply to talk about a subject without ever resolving anything, others are happy making a decision for its own sake. But the appearance of a resolution is not the same as a just one. In order to make the kind of decisions God is calling for we need to be better informed as to what is right and what is wrong from his perspective. In other words, we need to know the whole Bible better. Then we also need God-given wisdom to understand how to apply his written Word to the personal and societal issues of our day. It won’t be easy, but our lives depend on it.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Don’t Go Overboard

For the week of September 3, 2016 / 30 Av 5776

Children Diving Sunset Silhouettes Brazilian Boat

Re’eh
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5; 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42 

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However, you may slaughter and eat meat within any of your towns, as much as you desire, according to the blessing of the LORD your God that he has given you. The unclean and the clean may eat of it, as of the gazelle and as of the deer. Only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it out on the earth like water. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 12:15-16)

God is very particular about how we are to approach him. This is true throughout the entire Bible. In the days of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple, there were very specific rules and regulations governing who was to do what where. This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) includes a relatively brief, but important, section that acts as a safeguard to prevent the people from taking God’s particulars too far.

Once Israel was sufficiently settled in the Promised Land, they were to seek out the location to which God would direct them to be the place of sacrifice. Until then, God tolerated a more laissez-faire approach to the people’s offerings. But once the location was clarified, they were forbidden from making sacrifices anywhere they wished. At first, it was the town of Shiloh and later Jerusalem. Following the explanation of the limits placed on where to sacrifice, God, in his wisdom, clarifies that his strict approach to the location of the slaughter, offering, and consumption of sacrificial animals was not to apply to the normal, day-to-day, eating of meat. It may seem obvious to some of you that the regulations controlling sacrifices wouldn’t also apply to general meat consumption, but other people seem to require this kind of further explicit information.

This second group of people includes the keener ones among us. You know who you are! You’re the kind of person who always insists we play by the book. If it’s in the rules, we have to do it. You’re the one always asking whether or not something is the “right thing to do.” Not much wiggle room when it comes to right and wrong. You’re probably married to someone who thinks you are a nitpicker, making mountains out of every molehill. But you know the truth, don’t you? Let other people waffle in their imaginary land of gray, as they float through life, but not you! God has drawn the lines and you are going to abide by them. Disclaimer: that’s my tendency. While I know I fall short just like everyone else, I think we should take God’s Word seriously and avoid any attempt to water it down in the name of grace or any other misguided theological notion. Note: I do believe in God’s grace, though I reject the idea that it nullifies God’s stated directions for our lives. In fact, grace is the power given to us freely by God through faith in the Messiah enabling us to be what God wants us to be and to do what he wants us to do, but I am getting off topic.

One of the tendencies that besets people like me, we who tend to be sticklers about doing the right thing, is that we can undermine the very obedience and faithfulness we claim to uphold. We do so by going overboard. If God says to eat the sacrificial meat in only the specified location, then perhaps it’s advisable to eat all our meat there. If God requires something, then doing more of it more often must be better. But that is not necessarily the case. This is the kind of thinking that leads some communities to create extreme food regulations, to enforce certain kinds of strict child-rearing customs, to forbid marriage, or impose other standards of behavior that God never intended for us. Often this begins out of a heart for godliness but eventually, results in oppressive customs and destructive traditions.

I am aware that the more common problem in our day is the neglect of God’s standards, a wrong understanding of grace and forgiveness that leads to licentiousness and other forms of ungodliness. It is this growing neglect of God’s Word that often fuels a sometimes extreme overcompensation that ends up justifying going overboard in the other direction.

But going beyond what God says is no better than neglecting it. People with this tendency have a hard time agreeing to such a statement. But think about it. If you are so keen to obey God, do you really think going beyond what he says is the same as truly doing what he says? Before you react, with “Yes, but…” as you point your finger at others, stop and consider what faithfulness to God really is. Going overboard in your attempt to follow the Messiah is the same as not following him. What we really need is the kind of balanced approach to the obedience exemplified by our parsha.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Don’t Worry About It!

For the week of August 27, 2016 / 23 Av 5776

Don't Worry blue street sign

Ekev
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:12-11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3 

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If you say in your heart, “These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?” you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:17-18)

My family knows that whenever I bring up a concern about something, I don’t want to be told, “Don’t worry about it.” First, just because I am concerned about how a thing is to be done by whomever, however, and whenever; it doesn’t necessarily mean I am worried. And If I am worried, simply saying, “Don’t worry!” is not going to make it better for me. I take my role in my family seriously, and while I do admit that I can get worked up over nothing at times (or often?), I don’t believe in simply going with the flow, throwing caution to the wind, the que-sera-sera sort of thing. If something is really not important, that’s one thing. But if it is important, then it should be done well and in a timely fashion. So don’t tell me, “Don’t worry about it.” I want details.

For those of you of the more laid back variety, you might be fine with “Don’t worry about it.” In fact, you might interpret faith through your laissez-faire lens. The less detail the better as far as you are concerned as you let go, and let God carry you along through the twists and turns of life. I admit there are times when I should do just that, but is that really what faith is all the time?

Not according to this week’s Torah reading. God through Moses is preparing the people of Israel to face their greatest challenge to date: the conquest of the Promised Land. This is actually the second time they are dealing with this as a nation. It didn’t go well the last time almost forty years before, when they freaked out hearing about the land’s inhabitants. Their lack of faith resulted in thirty-eight additional years of wilderness wanderings until almost all the adults of that generation died out. Interestingly, while many of the current generation would not have been born yet, there would have been a good number who would have remembered the last time decades earlier. But was the lesson they were to learn? Don’t worry about it”? Let go and let God? It wasn’t the lesson then, and it wasn’t the lesson now.

The last time, only two of the leaders who had scouted out the Land, Joshua and Caleb, truly trusted in God. But it wasn’t as if faith blinded them to the challenges they faced. Faith in God enabled them to see those challenges clearly and understand that God would give them what they needed to overcome them.

As Moses anticipated fear in the hearts of the people, he didn’t put them down for it. Rather he took their concern seriously and encouraged them by providing details as to why God could be trusted. First, “you shall remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt” (7:18). Remember what God did in the past. Many of these people saw the manifestation of God’s power in Egypt. While he may not do the exact same things in the future, he who enabled Israel to overcome the world power of its day is more than able to equip them to conquer the peoples of Canaan. Second, “the LORD your God will send hornets among them, until those who are left and hide themselves from you are destroyed” (7:20). While I am not sure what those “hornets” refer to exactly, God will not leave them to their own devices, but will “bug” their enemies (pun intended) until they are defeated. Third, “the LORD your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God” (7:21). The people of Israel will not be alone. God’s presence with them is assured. Fourth, “he will give their kings into your hand, and you shall make their name perish from under heaven” (7:24). God’s presence is more than sweet sentimentality, he himself through them will bring about victory over their enemies.

This is a lot more here than “Don’t worry about it.” Israel had nothing to worry about for good reason. Faith is not a disconnected otherly consciousness, but an informed, intelligent, detailed understanding of the way things really are when God is positively involved in our lives.

If you have a concern today. Don’t just not worry; listen to what God has to say about it. You might be surprised how detailed his answer to you might be.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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The Ugly Truth

For the week of August 20, 2016 / 16 Av 5776

Silhouettesof hand stop woman

Va-Ethannan
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Know therefore that the LORD your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 7:9-10)

I recently had a transformative experience. Regular readers of TorahBytes are aware that I was in Haiti visiting my daughter who has been working there for the past seven years. It was my second visit; the first being in 2012. Haiti has the reputation of being one of the poorest and most dangerous countries in the world. Being very aware of that, I was content on my previous visit to stay within the confines of the mission base with its high concrete walls, barbed wire, and armed guards. This time was different as I began to see Haiti from God’s perspective as a beautiful land with amazing people. You can read about my Haiti adventures on my blog.

Something my wife has been trying to tell me for years is that I tend to look at life through a negative lens. While there are negative aspects to the world in which we live, the goodness and love of God permeates the universe. Not only was everything created very good, even when reckoning with the pervading effects of evil, we need to remember that there is no limit to the reach of God’s powerful love.

With that said, we are going to look at what some may find to be a difficult and disturbing concept in our reading for this week. On one hand, those who love God can be confident in his enduring faithfulness, while on the other hand, he will destroy those who hate him. The language for the latter is so severe: “He will repay him to his face.” While I want to be more positively oriented about life, we ignore true negatives to our peril.

This is not the nice language that so many prefer to hear about God. But it is the truth! God doesn’t take our total disregard for him lightly. He actually loves us too much to do otherwise. I know that this is not how contemporary society regards love. But it is contemporary society that has redefined love to mean allowing everyone around us to do whatever they want, however they want, and whenever they want. But as any loving parent knows (if they care to admit it), permissiveness undermines maturity. If we care enough about our children, we will instill in them a sense of responsibility that can only come about through their understanding that actions have consequences. To let them get away with anything and everything will result in much harm to them and to others.

Contrary to popular thinking, this is not hard to understand. If you mishandle fire, you get burned. Ignoring God’s ways, you will unnecessarily get sick and injured. You can count on it. This is the negative side of Haiti. Health and safety are for the most part not valued there. Because people ignore some of the most basic of God’s principles, they prematurely die. And that’s what God through Moses is emphasizing here. To hate God is to disregard him. We cannot flagrantly turn our backs on how he designed creation and expect good results. It does not work that way!

But, as I learned in Haiti, the horrible consequences of disregarding God need not have the final say. No matter what we have done, no matter what the consequences have been, Yeshua the Messiah has made full provision to restore us to right relationship with God. Are you suffering because you’ve turned your back on your Creator? He is ready to reveal his faithfulness to you, if you are willing to receive it.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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God’s Leading

For the week of August 13, 2016 / 9 Av 5776

Huge pointing shadow hand

Devarim
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

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The LORD our God said to us in Horeb, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey, and go to the hill country of the Amorites and to all their neighbors in the Arabah, in the hill country and in the lowland and in the Negeb and by the seacoast, the land of the Canaanites, and Lebanon, as far as the great river, the river Euphrates.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:6-7)

This week we begin the fifth book of Moses, entitled “Devarim” in Hebrew, meaning “words”, taken from the beginning of the very first phrase, “These are the words.” The common English name, Deuteronomy, is derived from the Greek and means, “second law,” because a good portion of it is a recounting of much that had been previously recorded. But don’t be fooled! This recounting is full of reflection and explanation. Plus there is much material unique to this book.

The section we are specifically looking at is a recounting of some of Israel’s journey in the wilderness, in particular when God told Moses it was time to leave Mt. Sinai and head to the Promised Land. I am not sure how many times I have heard people recount their own story and how this passage provided them with supposed divine guidance. In each case, they had been living in a region for a considerable amount of time and then, either in their daily Bible reading, or a spontaneous glance at the page, they encountered the words, “You have stayed long enough at this mountain. Turn and take your journey…”. In at least one case, the person had been living in a mountainous area. So the words had additional meaning to them. According to these accounts, God spoke to them through these words, which they took to mean it was time to move to a new location.

The problem with this approach to Scripture is that God wasn’t speaking to these people here. He was giving guidance to the people of Israel many centuries before. On what basis can the directions given to Israel be applied to give people similar directions now? On one hand, there is no such basis. I cannot recall a Scripture that encourages us to derive special guidance by taking passages out of context. On the other hand, after years of reading the Bible, I am aware that God can choose to use just about anything to speak to us. But that doesn’t justify people’s claim that God’s words to Israel at Sinai are also his words to them. This is not something I or anyone else can necessarily judge on behalf of others. These people need to answer to God. Bible verses like this or not, we all should be careful to make sure we are discerning God’s leading accurately.

Which brings us to what I think is the real lesson to be derived from a passage like this. The Bible is not designed to function like fortune-cookie sayings or horoscope readings, where we peruse its pages to find statements that jump out at us to provide magic for our lives. Again, God could use Scripture to bring something to mind that is outside of its context, but that’s not the actual function of Scripture.

What we learn from this passage is not that you or I should prepare to move to a new location, but that God leads his people. We haven’t been left to ourselves to figure out life on our own. God wants us to have wisdom and learn to interact with life effectively according to the principles of his Word. At the same time, we are not alone in this process. God wants to speak to us as he spoke to the people of Israel.

The promise of the outpouring of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) in Joel’s prophecy (3:1-4; English: 2:28-32) is mainly about divine communication, including prophecy, dreams, and visions. This is the experience given to followers of Yeshua the Messiah under the New Covenant (See Acts 2) and is in keeping with the internalization of the Torah and the knowledge of God anticipated by the prophet Jeremiah (31:31-33).

Yeshua said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me” (John 10:27). This is not simply metaphor referring to nothing more than a life inspired by him, but rather that his followers would be intimately led by his communicating with us through his Spirit.

So while the Ruach HaKodesh may choose to highlight a Bible verse to get our attention, he is likely trying to get our attention in many other ways as well. Perhaps it’s time we started listening more carefully.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Wrath Turner

For the week of July 30, 2016 / 24 Tammuz 5776

Knight. Photo in vintage style

Pinhas
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (English 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

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And the LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 25:10-11)

This week’s Torah reading continues where last week’s ended. A great plague had broken out among the people of Israel because of their gross immorality. They had been lured by the Moabite women to participate in their forbidden religious practices and engage with them sexually. The result was that twenty-four thousand Israelites died.

The contemporary reader may wonder why God responded so harshly to such a thing. Certainly, this is a sign of the Bible’s extreme backward thinking from which we have become liberated. Isn’t sexuality something to be freely explored by consenting adults? And as for participating in Moabite religious practices (of which the sexual component was likely an integral part), aren’t all religions the same? There’s nothing wrong with exploring the various cultures of the world’s peoples, is there?

Yes, there is. Sex without boundaries has issues. I hope that most people, at least deep down, do understand that. And while some people may espouse absolute sexual freedom, we know that some form of limits on who does what with whom is necessary for a strong and healthy society. This then begs the question, what limits should exist and how do we establish them?

Those questions are actually beyond the scope of this message. I simply wanted to make sure that we are on the same page with regard to limits. We agree that some form of limits is necessary and that to transgress those limits has serious consequences.

There were certainly serious consequences resulting from Israel’s transgression in this story until Pinchas (English: Phinehas) skewered an Israelite man and his Moabite amorous partner. God had already spoken on the matter, condemning what was happening, but this couple didn’t care and arrogantly flaunted their sin. Pinchas was so impassioned for God’s honor, that he couldn’t tolerate what they were doing and did them in. The result was not only the death of the couple but an end to the plague as well.

God commended Pinchas for sharing his heart for his people. We read these stories and wonder why God makes such a big deal about the things we think are fun. But if we could only see this from his perspective, as Pinchas did, our hearts would break as we would be overwhelmed by the destructive nature of our misguided pursuits. The extreme nature of Pinchas’s actions turned away God’s wrath and made atonement on behalf of Israel (see Bemidbar/Numbers 25:13). It is likely that by killing the perpetrators, Israel’s illicit engagement with the Moabites stopped, thus bringing an end to the plague.

There is no indication that what Pinchas did serves as a model to follow in similar circumstances. In fact, it is pretty clear that his actions were not sanctioned by Torah. There was something unique about this situation that called for drastic measures, and he successfully turned away the wrath of God.

Years later another zealous soul would go to great extremes to turn away the wrath of God. But instead of slaying the sinners, he was willing to be slain on our behalf. This episode from Israel’s early history is far more illustrative of the human condition than we normally think. From the beginning, we have been engaging one another in all sorts of illicit ways, transgressing limits consciously and unconsciously, and thus have brought the wrath of God upon us all.

Like Pinchas, Yeshua the Messiah looked upon our situation and took action. But instead of skewering us, he allowed himself to be skewered and conquered the plague of death once and for all, making atonement on our behalf, thus turning away God’s wrath.

And so whatever illicit activity you have been involved in, stop, and remember how Yeshua was skewered to turn away God’s wrath from you. If you turn to God in Yeshua’s name right now, he will turn to you…in love and acceptance, not wrath.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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Watch Your Balance!

For the week of July 23, 2016 / 17 Tammuz 5776

Silhouette of a man walking on the tightrope

Balak
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8 (English: 5:7 – 6:8)

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Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7)

We are looking at the Haftarah portion again. As I mentioned last week, the Haftarah is the selection from the Nevi’im (English: the Prophets) section of the Hebrew Scriptures that is read in addition to the weekly Torah portion. Micah asks some rhetorical questions to emphasize a perspective that is foundational to the whole Bible. Even though the Torah devotes much space to the details of the sacrificial system, it was always to be practiced within the wider framework of genuine dedication to God and his ways. Religious ritual whether established by God or by human tradition has always tended to become the focus of attention over and above the more important aspects of God’s truth.

Sacrifice during the days of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple was mandatory. They were an essential part of Israel’s covenant with God given at Mt. Sinai. But they were never intended as a substitute for humility, justice, and good deeds. This is clearly stated in the verse immediately following the one I quoted at the start:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Without this kind of genuine godliness, all the sacrifices in the world are worthless. But if Israel of old would have pursued the quality of life God desired for them, then the offerings of animals, grain, oil, and so on, would have fulfilled their stated purpose in helping to maintain their covenantal relationship with God.

Micah and the other Hebrew prophets so passionately document for us Israel’s failure to grasp this balance. No wonder. The reality of sin, common to all, prevents us from being the type of fully integrated people we were originally designed to be. All throughout history every human community has lacked a healthy balance, most often overemphasizing the lessor important at the expense of the more important aspects of life. Then when confronted with this imbalance, we strive for what was lacking only to neglect the other secondary, but still essential things.

God’s plan to rescue us from this never-ending pendulum is hidden amidst Micah’s rhetorical questions. As he indicts his people for their futile attempts at finding security in their rituals, he blurts out something to the effect of “Could we ever offer enough sacrifices to actually please God? Should I offer him my firstborn child?” The response he was calling for is obviously “Of course not!” But I doubt that his audience, or himself for that matter, caught the irony of his words.

Nothing Israel could ever offer could make up for their lack of integrity, but there was an offering that would. God would himself enter into our dysfunctional mess by generating himself as part of the human family. The offering of Yeshua, the Son of God, would satisfy Torah’s demands once and for all that all who trust in him would be established in an eternal covenantal relationship with God.

But I wonder how many people still fail to really get Micah’s message. Faith in Yeshua is indeed essential to a right relationship with God, but are we forgetting that trusting in his sacrifice is not the whole picture? How many claim to have faith in the Messiah, but forget that God still wants us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him? May God grant us the balance we need.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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You Are Legit

For the week of July 16, 2016 / 10 Tammuz 5776

The word, "legitimate" from a dictionary page

Hukkat
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Prophets: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand. (Shoftim/Judges 11:32)

This week’s Haftarah portion (reading from the Nevi’im [Prophets] section of the Hebrew Scriptures that is read in addition to the weekly Torah portion) is taken from Shoftim (The Book of Judges). That Shoftim is included in the Nevi’im section is due to the way the Hebrew book order works. Shoftim covers a uniquely difficult and confusing time in Israel’s history over about a four-hundred-year period between the days of Joshua and the monarchy instituted by the prophet Shmu-el (Samuel).

The shoftim were not judges in the legal sense. Rather, they were divinely inspired leaders who brought justice to regions of Israeli society as needed. Their personalities and the situations they were called to address were interesting to say the least, sometimes bordering on the bizarre. That these men and one woman (Deborah) were powerfully used by God doesn’t endorse their behavior. But there is something to be learned from the life of the person upon whom our passage focuses, Yiftach (Jephthah).

The stigma under which Yiftach lived is mentioned right from the start: “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute” (Shoftim/Judges 11:1). When he was an adult his half-brothers sent him away. But later on when the neighboring Ammonites were making war against Israel, the elders of his home region called upon him to lead them, which he did successfully. The more tragic events of his leadership that are described following the end of the Haftarah portion didn’t stop the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews from listing Yiftach as a hero of faith (see Hebrews 11:32).

The circumstances of Yiftach’s birth did not disqualify him from being a judge. While this doesn’t justify the actions that led to his birth, it does tell us something about how God relates to the result of his parents’ sin. God didn’t consider him as illegitimate. His brothers rejected him. Perhaps others did too. But God did not.

The only reference in the Hebrew Scriptures to such a thing is Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:2, but the issue there has to do with the status within Israel of the product of a mixed marriage, not someone like Yiftach, the product of an illicit relationship. There is one reference in the New Covenant Scriptures when the leadership in Jerusalem is insinuating that Yeshua himself was illegitimate, likely due to the rumors circulating about who his father really was. Their misinformed disdain is common to how many societies have viewed the children of questionable unions.

There is no such thing as an illegitimate child. Every baby ever conceived was created in God’s image. The actions of our parents whoever they are or whatever they did are no reflection of our intrinsic value and our potential as human beings.

You are no accident. You are wanted. You are legit.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible

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