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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A Stranger at Home

For the week of July 9, 2016 / 3 Tammuz 5776

Man's hand on door knob, trying to open door

Korah
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22

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So the LORD said to Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 18:1)

I want to comment on the effect of having guests in our homes. Some of you will relate to this more than others, but first, I must provide some disclaimers. First, hospitality is a heavenly virtue, which we should all learn to embrace regardless of the outcome. The New Covenant book of Hebrews captures the thrust of the full Bible tradition when it says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). Second, I prepared this message right in the middle of having a houseful of guests. While I will use an illustration that stems from this current experience, I am holding nothing against the person or persons who may have been involved in the incident below, except to thank them for giving me some fodder for this message!

The day after our guests arrived, I received an email from my Internet provider informing me that my connection had been used to download a movie illegally. I was shocked and appalled that my good online reputation had been sullied by someone whom I so graciously welcomed into my home. Thankfully the film itself was of noble character (believe it or not!), but still. To think that both my Internet Service Provider and the film’s copyright holder now views me as a pirate or worse! (I am only being a little dramatic.)

My wife and I have always enjoyed having people over. In our over thirty-six years of marriage, beginning right from our honeymoon (yes, you heard it right!) we’ve had people in our home for short or long periods of time. Eventually, we learned that when you tell people, “Make yourself at home,” some of them don’t think in terms of our home, but theirs, which can make us feel like strangers in our own home. Something that God feels as well.

Maybe you never thought of this before, but God’s detachment from Planet Earth was not his intention. His plan was to be as at home within the Creation as much as within the heavenly realm. We see this demonstrated in the early chapters of the Bible as he is found to be walking in the Garden of Eden (Bereshit/Genesis 3:8). This doesn’t last too long due to Adam and Eve’s rebellion against him. Not only are they forced out of the Garden because of their sin, but God himself becomes distant as a result. The story of the Bible is one of God’s reclaiming his creation as his own.

You may have been wondering what this has to do with our Torah portion. We tend to think of the purpose of the ancient sacrificial system as providing ritual cleansing to the people of Israel, and it did. But there was another essential aspect we don’t normally give much thought to. It was the cohanim’s (English: the priests’) responsibility to ensure the regular cleansing of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle – the portable tent-like structure that was the precursor to the Temple). The Mishkan in a very real sense represented the presence of God among the people. Sin, which is a term used to describe substandard human behavior, brought defilement to God’s house, thus making it unsuitable for his habitation. The sacrificial system was designed not only to maintain the possibility of God’s presence among the people but also reminds us that sin makes God feel like a stranger in his own home.

The creation was designed to reflect the nature and character of God. But because the human family has insisted on making ourselves at home on our terms, not his, it doesn’t exactly look like his house. He has been pretty patient, however, knocking at the door, waiting to be invited back in as we download whatever we want and move the furniture around to our liking.

Most people don’t realize that God’s desire to reclaim his house and to have lots of his children around to enjoy it with him is so great that he himself has provided the means of restoration. The sacrificial system was a foretaste of God’s own Great Sacrifice through the person of the Messiah. His death and resurrection began a process by which the creation is becoming his own once again and his house will finally look like his home.

In the meantime, hospitality can feel like a sacrifice at times, but when we understand the lengths to which God has gone so that we can be at home in his house, it’s worth it. And most of the time, it’s a wonderful blessing!

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

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For Our Children’s Sake

For the week of July 2, 2016 / 26 Sivan 5776

Photo collage of children

Shela Lekha
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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And your children shall be shepherds in the wilderness forty years and shall suffer for your faithlessness, until the last of your dead bodies lies in the wilderness. (Bemidbar/Numbers 14:33)

There are few values in many societies today greater than that of autonomy. In Western-style cultures, self has become the chief determinant of all things: What’s in it for me? What do I get out of it? How does it make me feel? are the biggest questions many of us ask. Self-expression and self-actualization are the highest goods. Community and the common good have become incidental amidst the priority of self. It is no wonder, therefore, that laws that seek to limit self’s supremacy are viewed as oppressive.

The problem with the obsession with self should be obvious. Human beings do not exist as independent agents. No one is absolutely self-sufficient. No one brought themselves into the world, no one sustains themselves through infancy or any other stage of development for that matter. We are communal beings. It should strike us as strange how we have so elevated self, while at the same time continuing to find ourselves so very much connected to others. We cannot escape the fact that we are relational beings. Yet that doesn’t stop people from relating to others on the basis of a selfishness never seen before.

No one suffers more from the pursuit of self than our children. This week’s Parsha tells us how the people of Israel’s lack of trust in God to enter the Promised Land two years after God’s miraculous rescue from Egypt didn’t only prevent them from obtaining it. Their self-focused fear resulted in their children having to wander in the wilderness for an additional thirty-eight years.

We don’t need the Bible to know the perils of selfishness. Experience tells us again and again that self-seeking people cause extensive damage to others, not to mention themselves. But this doesn’t seem to stop us from going deeper and deeper into the delusional rabbit hole of self.

When parents fail, the kids suffer. Don’t like that? Too bad. It’s the way life works. You can try to blame others as much as you like, but the fact is how you live affects others, especially your children. I am not saying that parents are the only factor with regard to the welfare of children, but it should be obvious that we play the biggest role with regard to their welfare.

There is another unhelpful extreme that puts so much focus on our children that they are exalted to the position of gods and goddesses. But this is actually another form of self-focus. Not only is this approach often the result of personal pride and doesn’t have the best interest of the child at all, it is teaching them to be the kind of selfish brats that will continue to perpetuate the problem.

At first glance, the story of Israel’s unbelief in this account doesn’t appear to be about self and selfishness. But think about it. God had called them to do something very difficult. The scouts who checked out the Land were all in agreement that they were going to have to face some pretty difficult situations. The difference between the ten who were freaked out and the two who remained confident was where their focus was. Those who were focused on self couldn’t grasp what was best for the community, resulting in even greater difficulty for their children. Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, were focused on God. While they, too, had to endure the additional hardship because of the majority’s misguided focus, they were the only ones who were able to enter the Land along with their children.

We can put an end to the ongoing fragmentation of our families and our culture by turning our sights away from self and onto God. If you are interested in how to do that, let me know. For our children’s sake.

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

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Timing Is Everything…Almost

For the week of June 25, 2016 / 19 Sivan 5776

Analog stopwatch with green check on white background

Be-Ha’alotkha
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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And whenever the cloud lifted from over the tent, after that the people of Israel set out, and in the place where the cloud settled down, there the people of Israel camped. At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (Bemidbar/Numbers 9:17-18)

One of the most unhelpful pieces of advice that otherwise spiritually minded people regularly give is “Don’t pray for patience; God might give it to you!” This fear-based misguidance is based on two very wrong notions. First, prayer isn’t a magical incantation. It’s not as if saying particular words will result in the forces of the universe (whether God or anything else) responding accordingly. Second, prayer is a request to a sovereign free agent. And thankfully this sovereign also loves us and always has our best interest in mind. So if he so chooses to answer such a prayer, it’s only because it is both his will and for our good. Therefore, to caution someone against praying such a prayer is an attempt to keep us from acquiring one of life’s most essential qualities. How many things have gone wrong in the history of the world (including your life and mine) due to lack of patience? Good intentions, pure motives, and noble goals can never make up for a bad sense of timing.

There are two ways we tend to use the term “patience” in the English language. One has to do with enduring hardship. The older term for this is “long-suffering.” It’s having the fortitude to not give into discouragement when going through painful periods of life. The second is the way I am using the word here. It’s the quality of not reacting too quickly to life’s circumstances, whether it be a painful situation or not. This kind of patience is often required when we perceive there are great opportunities before us – and indeed, there may be – but instead of waiting for the right time to act, we undermine the opportunity by not being patient.

Learning to wait for God’s timing was a key component to the training God instituted for Israel in the wilderness years. He reserved the right to dictate to them when to break camp and move to the next location. It could take a day or years. In between there was no indication at all when that might be. If the cloud remained over the tent of meeting, they stayed put. If it moved, they moved. Pretty straightforward. Hard to do.

Timing is everything…almost. I say “almost,” because effective godly living is not only about timing. Learning to walk in God’s ways requires first and foremost trust in God, particularly as expressed as loyalty to his Son, the Messiah. We also need to grow in the knowledge of his will in every area of life. But unless we learn patience, we will continually find ourselves doing the right thing, but at the wrong time.

Learning God’s timing also frees us from a great deal of anxiety. We often find ourselves in situations that require change of some kind. Being aware of the need for change is important, but expecting immediate resolution can cause all sorts of unnecessary grief. God’s solutions may occur suddenly, but often his strategy for change requires a long process over time. Being aware of that synchs us to his timeclock and allows us to keep in step with him instead of fretting.

Learning God’s sense of timing can be challenging. Our tendency to react in the moment instead of patiently waiting for the right time to respond can be a very difficult lesson to learn. I don’t imagine it was easy for the Israelites to wait for the cloud to move, or to pick up and go when they hardly had time to settle. But once we understand how utterly crucial this kind of patience really is, how could we not earnestly ask him for it?

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

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Connections

For the week of June 18, 2016 / 12 Sivan 5776

Network connections

Naso
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25 

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So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Bemidbar/Numbers 6:27)

It’s been relatively recently that I have noticed how much I value connection. Few things move me more than to discover that something really good happened due to the outcome of complex relationships over time. When one of our daughters was in ballet training in Mississippi (far away from where we live in Ottawa, Canada) she was rooming with another young lady who was the daughter of one our daughter’s first dance teachers in the Vancouver area more than ten years earlier. Now that same daughter is co-owner of a dance studio here along with a person whom we know because she worked with another daughter of ours in a dancewear store in Calgary (also far from here). Every time I tell stories like these I get choked up, all the while invisibly scratching my head, wondering what it is that affects me so. My conclusion: meaningful connections.

God designed us for connection. Every human being shares the same parentage, beginning with Adam and Eve and then again through Noah and his wife. That means we are all related, though distantly. But that distance doesn’t undermine the sense of connection when it surfaces as illustrated through this video about the effects of a DNA study upon its participants.

Moreover, the having of children is not simply the product of sex, but the purposeful outcome of the institution of marriage as established by God in the Garden of Eden. From the very beginning, children were to be nurtured within a household led by one man and one woman bound together permanently under God. Later we learn that holistic education of children was to be under the direction of parents (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19). This deepens the natural connection between parent and child.

The interconnection within and between families is by design. Lack of connection is a result of human rebellion against God beginning with our first parents and demonstrates itself through envy, bitterness, and violence. The alienation we experience from one another at so many levels is counter to God’s original plan for the global family and is only truly restored through faith in the Messiah Yeshua. To see God’s hand of blessing through unusual connections is a taste of what should have always been and will one day be again. Perhaps that’s why it makes me cry.

Last week, I attempted to explain how the census under Moses was an exercise in connection. God appointed certain people to reach out to the community in preparation for the next stage of its development. Knowing God is not only about individuals connecting directly to him. Rather he prefers to make himself known through one person to another.

This is also what the special blessing in our parsha (weekly Torah portion) is all about. What God commanded Aaron and his sons to speak over the people of Israel wasn’t magic. The words of blessing on their own didn’t cause good things to materialize out of nowhere, they were connecting people with the goodness of God which he desired for them. The intermediating function of the cohanim (English: priests) illustrates God’s design for all humankind in that the potential for life (which is what blessing is) originates in God, but is to be manifested through fellow human beings to each other.

To live in isolation from others is to cut ourselves off from the blessings of God. This is not to say that all human connection is beneficial. Some connections we are better off without. But let us not allow the effects of sin to unnecessarily cut us off from those connections we so desperately need (or those who need us!).

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

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You Count!

For the week of June 11, 2016 / 5 Sivan 5776

Illustration of globe superimposed on generic, colorful, human forms

Bemidbar
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English: 1:10 – 20) 

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Take a census of all the congregation of the people of Israel, by clans, by fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male, head by head. (Bemidbar/Numbers 1:2)

The fourth book of Moses starts with a lot of counting. The English title, Numbers, reflects this, while the Hebrew title, “Bemidbar” (In the Wilderness), emphasizes Israel’s experiences from the time they left Mount Sinai through just before their entry into the Promised Land.

Sections of the Bible such as the early part of Bemidbar tend to bog readers down with what appears to be endless lists of names. But perhaps you feel like one of those names. As one of the seven billion people on the planet, do you ever wonder if you really count? There might be something here in our Torah reading that says you do.

God told Moses to take a census (or more literally a head count) of all the males twenty years and over of all the tribes of Israel except for the tribe of Levi. They are counted later on. But Moses was not to do this job alone. God appointed several men by name from each tribe to assist him. Get that? God appointed these men by name. God communicated the exact identity of each assistant to Moses. There is nothing in the text to signify that this is a metaphor. It was not as if each tribe voted on their census leaders and then submitted the list to Moses who validated them by using highfalutin spiritual language. It was not as if God called them out by name. He really did. Could you imagine being called out like that? By name?

It gets more interesting. Once the census team was appointed, they set out counting heads. But that’s not as straightforward as it first might seem. “One, two,… How old are you? You don’t look twenty years old. Really, you are? OK…three, four” and so on. It might have even been more complicated than that, since in addition to the age qualification they had to be “able to go to war” (e.g. Bemidbar/Numbers 1:3). It’s possible that simply being of age wasn’t sufficient, thus creating the need for a more thorough interview. The numbers of the qualified men were then submitted to Moses and recorded.

What makes this interesting is that if God was able to specifically name the assistants, wouldn’t he also be able to provide detailed census information? Assuming he could, obviously he didn’t. That had to be done manually, so to speak. But why? The most basic reason, of course, is because God said so. On one level that should be good enough. But that shouldn’t stop us from giving it some thought.

The Bible clearly teaches that God knows everyone. Yeshua said that he even knows the hairs of our heads (See Matthew 10:30). That statement is supposed to assure us of our Heavenly Father’s intimate love and care. For some of you, that’s not enough. Being told God loves everyone is too general, too unspecific. When we think in terms of everyone, we don’t think of being personally included but rather that we are nothing more than part of a big blur of unnamed humanity. God loves everybody, but does he really love me?

There’s something about the administration of the census that bridges this gap. Instead of God announcing the exact population figures himself, which he could have done, he sent out people to take note of everyone. You might say that not everyone was counted because they weren’t qualified for military service, but the only way to know that is to take notice of each and every person.

The counting of heads, initiated by God, but performed by people, brought God’s knowledge of the people to the individuals themselves. But isn’t this how the intimacy of God usually works? While God does from time to time interact with us directly, he most often reaches out to us through others. It’s possible that our sense of being distant from God comes from not allowing ourselves to get close enough to those through whom he wishes to make himself known to us.

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

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Covenantal Foundations

For the week of June 4, 2016 / 27 Iyar 5776

Tablets of the Ten Commandments (roman numerals only) on a stone floor

Be-Hukkotai
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

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But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:40-42)

Here in the last weekly portion of the third book of Moses, we read of the conditions under which God would restore the people of Israel to a right relationship with himself and return them to their land. The covenantal reference in the quoted verses above is key in understanding God’s unique arrangement with Israel.

This week’s portion describes the blessings of obedience and the consequences of disobedience under the covenant arrangement established through Moses by God at Mt. Sinai. As long as Israel would adhere to God’s commands, they as a nation would thrive. But should they reject God’s ways, breaking this covenant, they would experience terrible circumstances, culminating in oppression by their enemies and removal from their land.

Should this occur, which indeed it did, God made provision within the Sinai covenant for restoration to himself and to the land. But note that this provision is not based on the Sinai covenant, but on the earlier one made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Israel’s existence as a people, its habitation, and its role among the nations of the world were established, not by Sinai through Moses, but through God’s unconditional promise to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3) and passed down to Isaac and Jacob. The Sinai covenant with its conditions of blessings came about as a result of God’s deliverance of Israel from their oppression in Egypt, a deliverance also rooted in his earlier covenant with the patriarchs. This is what we read in Shemot (the Book of Exodus):

During those many days the king of Egypt died, and the people of Israel groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help. Their cry for rescue from slavery came up to God. And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob. (Shemot/Exodus 2:23-24)

The earlier covenant is the driving force behind all God’s dealings with Israel. So that even if Sinai resulted in failure, which it did, the covenantal foundation would survive. That’s why God’s judgement upon Israel could never be his final word to them. Even after rejecting God by turning to other gods and suffering the threatened consequences, there would always remain a right of appeal to unconditional promises that predate Moses.

This is also why a new covenant would one day be necessary. Jeremiah in chapter 31 of his book looked beyond the day when these words of judgement would be fulfilled to a new covenantal arrangement that would finally resolve the sin problem that continually beset Israel under the Sinai arrangement (see Jeremiah 31:31-33). That God’s affirmation of his ongoing faithfulness to Israel is based on their being the offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is stated a couple of chapters later (Jeremiah 33:23-26).

The establishment of the New Covenant on the foundation of the patriarchs provides hope for Israel’s full eventual restoration (see Romans 11:28). More than that! Knowing that the New Covenant is rooted in unconditional promises assures all its participants, whether Jew or Gentile, of God’s ongoing faithfulness to them.

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

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Jubilee

For the week of May 28, 2016 / 20 Iyar 5776

Text: Jubilee

Be-Har
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Originally post for the week of May 20, 2000 / 15 Iyyar 5760;
Revised version as appearing in the book “Torah Light”

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And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and each of you shall return to his clan. (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:10)

I love the way the Torah confronts conventional thinking. Far from being irrelevant or outdated, the Bible addresses many of the same issues we face in our own day. Yet how it deals with these issues is so very different from the dictates of popular thinking.

This week’s Torah portion is a great example of this. God commanded that every fifty years was to be a Jubilee year. At that time, everyone among the people of Israel was to return to his ancestral property. If anyone had sold their land to someone else or lost it due to debt, they would get it back. God says, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:23).

What a different way of looking at property! First, in ancient Israeli society, no one actually owned land; it belonged to God, who allotted portions of the Land to the various tribal groups and specific clans. Because it was his to give, the tribal inheritances could not be lost permanently. As the people went about their daily business, they could lose their land temporarily. After every fifty years, however, the land would revert to the original owners.

In God’s economy, the highs and lows of economic fortune are balanced by the Jubilee. Every fifty years the nation would basically start over. This would have prevented the poor from becoming completely destitute and staying that way from generation to generation.

This reminded the people that what they had was entrusted to them by God, something that every society would do well to realize. We wrongly think that all we have has come to us by our own efforts rather than by God’s blessing.

Another thing the Jubilee teaches us is that when we truly know God, we don’t have to think that our future is dictated by the present. We too can start over. God is a God of restoration. He longs to see his beloved creatures restored to the place he intended for us. Just like he provided a physical inheritance for the clans of Israel, so he has an inheritance for all people. He wants to restore each person to the quality of life he intended before our first parents’ rebellion in the garden of Eden. When Yeshua went public, he read a passage from the prophet Isaiah in the synagogue—words reminiscent of the Jubilee:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19, quoted from Isaiah 62:1–2)

Through Yeshua, every one of us can experience a Jubilee. No matter how destitute we have become, we can be restored to the kind of life God originally intended for us.

In the Jubilee, for anyone to be restored to their land, they had to get up and go there. No one was forced to return to his God-given inheritance. Each person had to take it upon himself to reacquire what was rightfully his.

It is the same for us today, but how do we do that? Pray and ask God for your rightful inheritance. Then trust him to answer that prayer. It might mean a major change in your life, but you will finally find yourself where you were truly meant to be all along.

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

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