Can God Have a Son?

For the week of October 29, 2016 / 27 Tishri 5777

Proverbs 30:4

Torah:  Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:26)

I didn’t know what was in store for me that day. I was sitting in the living room of a friend’s house, attempting some small talk with a new acquaintance. I was trying to recover from being told by this fellow Jewish young person that he “preached the word of the Lord.” I don’t know if I had said anything in response before he continued to describe the basics of his beliefs: the Bible was the Word of God; God had a son; and Yeshua was the Messiah (though he used the common English appellation, “Jesus”) – three things I certainly didn’t believe. To my surprise he made compelling arguments for all three of his assertions, one of which I want to focus on this week.

I was no theological expert, but I knew, being Jewish, that God could not have a son. So it was quite a surprise to me to see the twenty-sixth verse of the first book of Moses quoted above. “Let us make man in our image”? What’s with the plural? Who is “us”? Is it the angels? Not likely, since according to Scripture only human beings are made in God’s image. It’s certainly not the animals. Could it be a majestic plural in the way royalty might say, “We are not amused!” Possibly, but that isn’t normal word usage for God in the Bible. It does occur in three other places. Two chapters later, after our first parents’ disobedience: “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.’” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:22). This could be a reference to other heavenly beings, if creatures such as angels know good and evil in the way spoken of here. Later, in response to the attempted building of the city and tower of Babel, it is clearly possible that God is calling for his angelic servants to join him in upsetting the people’s misguided plans: “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:7). The same sort of heavenly company might be in view when God calls out an open invitation in the hearing of the prophet Isaiah: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8). But the possible explanations for the use of the plural in these other examples don’t seem to apply to the first one.

Of course, the use of “let us” by itself doesn’t prove much, let alone that God has a son. But I learned that day that this isn’t the only verse in the Hebrew Bible that implies that there is more to God than what I was led to believe growing up. In the second Psalm, we read “I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Tehillim/Psalm 2:7). While this may be a song about David, Solomon, or another ancient King of Israel, the grand language more likely is referring to the Messiah. In either case, “Son” here could be a way of referring to Messiah’s special role under God, but note that the Scripture isn’t avoiding sonship language in the way I and many in my Jewish community were inoculated against. This is similar to God’s word to David in a passage that likely applies to both his own son Solomon and to King Messiah much later on: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14). Is this simply speaking of role or something much more intimate?

One passage that really got my attention was from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 30, verse 4. The way it was presented added to the drama of the moment. The verse is a series of four rhetorical questions, followed by a final question and a statement. The four rhetorical questions were read to me, while the remainder of the verse was covered up for effect:

Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
   Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
   Who has established all the ends of the earth?

I was then asked, “Who?” To which I replied, “God.” Easy answer. Then the rest of the verse was uncovered:

What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
   Surely you know!

I didn’t know, but I was soon to find out!

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



For the week of October 22, 2016 / 20 Tishri 5777

The four species

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; Bemidbar/Numbers 29:26-34
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16 

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And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40)

This week’s readings occur during the Festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths). Sukkot is a week-long thanksgiving holiday that commemorates Israel’s forty-year wilderness wanderings. It is fitting that God chose to connect gratitude with dependency. No matter how prosperous or secure we would be, every year we were to take time to remember what it was like when we were completely dependent upon God. This helped to reinforce the essential truth that whatever we have ultimately comes from God. During the wilderness years, that was fairly easy to see. But when we farm our own land or receive our provision via direct deposit, that connection is eclipsed by the many conduits our provision travels through. But if God doesn’t provide the rain and sunshine as well as bless all the various natural and man-made processes along the way, we would have nothing.

The years in the wilderness are vividly brought to mind through living for seven days in temporary shelters called sukkot (one sukkah, many sukkot; hence the name of the festival). The reminiscence of our history is then drawn to the present each year by rejoicing as we hold four specified organic items. The four items according to the Torah are in Hebrew p’ri etz hadar (the fruit of beautiful trees, traditionally an etrog, which looks like a large waxy lemon), kapot t’marim (branches of the palm tree, referred to as a lulav), anaph etz avot (leafy boughs of the myrtle tree), and arvei nahal (willow branches). The myrtle and willow branches are placed in a special holder connected to the lulav and are held together with the etrog. Special blessings are recited while holding the four items.

These items represent God’s blessing and provision in the present. What is instructive for us is that our gratitude, while being a spiritual activity directed to God, is based on that which is tangible. In the case of the ritual, it is a fruit and branches of various trees, but they represent the abundance of good bestowed upon us.

For many, spiritual activities are detached from the physical world in which we live – a world too confusing to be acknowledged in this way. The presence of hardship and suffering might cloud our understanding of God, preferring to keep him alienated from our broken world, or perhaps we are unable to associate material pleasures with God’s goodness due to our perception of the divine. Because of either of these or both, we tend to detach our spirituality from the real world, the world which God himself created and purposely placed us in.

Sukkot reconnects us to the tangibles of God’s provision. Instead of attempting to solely focus on abstract notions such as love, forgiveness, and goodness (which are also part of the real world God made), holding actual things gives us the opportunity to realize that the attributes of the intangible God are made known through the tangible items he made and has provided for us.

By holding the four items and rejoicing before the Lord, it is as if we are holding our houses and cars and mobile phones, not to mention our fridges and freezers full of food, or our spouses and children and siblings, or even ourselves, who because of God’s help have lived to see this day.

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



For the week of October 15, 2016 / 13 Tishri 5777

Clock and magnifying glass on calendar

Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:29)

At a leadership simulcast a few years ago I heard business writer Suzy Welch describe her “10-10-10” concept. What she shared made a lot of sense. Simply, before making a decision, take a bit of time to think about what may result ten minutes from now, ten months from now, and ten years from now. While this is not the ultimate guarantee of success or the final word on preventing failure or disaster, thinking about implications and potential consequences within concrete timeframes forces us to put our decisions into a real-life context. Imagining how our choices might actually impact our lives in the immediate, near, and distant futures will help us give serious second thought to our plans and allow us to better clarify our needs and desires. And following that, should we be convinced we are indeed on right track, such a process can significantly increase our motivation to pursue our goals.

Sounds pretty straightforward. While there is more to good decision-making than the “10-10-10” concept, why would we not do this or something similar? Moreover, why does this even need to be said? Yet, this simple idea was a New York Times bestseller. Why? My guess: most of us don’t do this. We don’t take the time to think about the implications of our actions. Instead we make decisions based on reactions to circumstances, personal feelings, other people’s agendas, perceived expectations, and so on. Consequences will occur regardless, but we simply don’t take the time to consider them.

This is not a new phenomenon. This is what Moses criticized his people about at the end of his life. God had directed him to sing them a song to impress upon them the inevitability of their eventual unfaithfulness. Israel was doomed to turn their back on God and his ways and give themselves to the worship and practices of foreign gods. One of the reasons, if not the reason for this, is that they were not doing “10-10-10.”

While we suffer from the same near-sightedness as ancient Israel, there are factors bearing down on us today that further restrict our ability to think beyond the now. The contemporary mood of most people is that we are the product of complete randomness. If life didn’t emerge as a result of a purposeful intelligence and no Supreme Being is overseeing the unfolding of history, then the universe has no meaning. There may be some philosophical room for predictable consequences as if the world is nothing more than a sequence of falling dominoes. But if that’s the case, then we are nothing more than passive objects in a meaningless cosmos.

Followers of Yeshua should know better but buy into the current mood anyway, as we are overwhelmed by the pace of our age, the constant clamor of disconnected information, and the growing prevalence of ungodly influences over almost every aspect of society. Some super-spiritualize their copping out by invoking God’s sovereignty as if God desires passivity instead of faithful engagement. Others misapply grace and forgiveness as if God glosses over every action of ours to the point that nothing matters. Whatever the reason, we don’t do “10-10-10”, because we don’t believe it will make a difference.

But our decisions have real consequences and those consequences matter. We live in a truly meaningful universe – one in which God calls us to engage, and engage as thinking beings. We need to take responsibility for our actions, not just after the fact, but beforehand.

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


Get Real

For the week of October 8, 2016 / 6 Tishri 5777

Time to Get Real cloud word with a blue sky

Va-Yelekh (Shuva)
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 31:16)

What a horrible Bible verse! Not only is the language over the top, but this has got to be one of the most discouraging statements in all of Scripture. After all Israel had gone through. Having been slaves in Egypt, they were rescued by God’s great power. Over the next forty years he not only took care of them, but revealed his Truth to them as an everlasting legacy. Now, they were on the brink of taking possession of the land promised hundreds of years earlier to Abraham, and God says this to Moses? Sure the great teacher had his ups and downs with the people, but God’s faithfulness had been so evident in spite of everything. That he would enable them to take the land was clear. So then why would he tell Moses that they were going to blow it anyway? Because it was the truth. And this is what makes the Bible so helpful.

The Scriptures have so much to teach us, but without this lesson, we’ll learn nothing. The solutions the Bible offers will make no difference in our lives until we accept its analysis of the problem. And what is that problem? That every human being has been overcome by a tendency toward evil. This is one of the main reasons why the Torah was given to Israel. As we read in the New Covenant Writings:

Moreover, we know that whatever the Torah says, it says to those living within the framework of the Torah, in order that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world be shown to deserve God’s adverse judgment (Romans 3:19; CJB).

While Torah reveals God and his ways, it also vividly demonstrates the depths of our depravity. The more we know what true goodness is, the more we become aware of our moral bankruptcy. Ironically, we are so weak in this area that even though the evidence of this confronts us each and every day, we readily deny it. This is also the case in how Christians have viewed Israel in Scripture as if the Jewish people were cast by God as villains in his story and are eventually rejected by Jesus the hero, who is then joined by a bunch of goody-goody Gentiles.

Talk about missing the point and skewing the true picture! God chose Israel to show the world its desperate need of him. The truth of Israel’s upcoming failure in Moses’ day was given in the hope of creating the kind of humility that’s necessary to allow us to overcome that failure. Until we can accept how needy we really are, we will never escape the trap of our depravity.

Today’s culture denies any notion of human depravity. In fact, the only thing wrong with us it seems is that we have been suppressed. It’s moral and spiritual codes such as the Torah that have been the problem, making us feel guilty and preventing us from giving full expression to our desires. More tragically, however, is that many who claim to adhere to the Bible have bought into this same philosophy as if it’s rules that create bad behavior. We sing about grace and forgiveness ad nauseam in order to put ourselves in an alternate state of consciousness, while we deny the very evil that continues to have its way. Grace and forgiveness through Yeshua is real, but can never be truly experienced until we reckon with the continuing reality of evil in our lives.

There is no better time than the Jewish High Holy Days to accept that we all still blow it. God in his graciousness has made a way through the Messiah so that we can be made right with him in spite of our depravity. It’s time to take a long look in the mirror and get real.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible unless otherwise indicated.


Live Long and Prosper

For the week of October 1, 2016 / 28 Elul 5776

Torah: Devarim/ Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
Originally posted the week of September 12, 2015 / 28 Elul 5775

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The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 30:9-10)

You may recognize the title of this week’s message as the familiar salute of Mr. Spock, the half human/half alien from the widely popular TV and movie series, “Star Trek.” The hand gesture used by the actor, the late Leonard Nimoy was derived from his own Jewish background as used by the cohanim (English: priests) as a blessing in the synagogue. While “live long and prosper” are not exactly the words spoken, they certainly sum up God’s own desire to make his people “abundantly prosperous.”

But what constitutes being abundantly prosperous? What may come to your mind is likely very different from the intention of the Torah here. Perhaps to you prosperity is an economic state whereby no matter how much you need or want, you always have extra. It’s a sense that whatever happens, there is always more financial resources to draw on. The biblical understanding of prosperity is very different. It’s having enough for yourself and those dependent on you, plus a little more to share with those in need (see Proverbs 30:7-9; 1 Timothy 5:8, 6:6-10; Hebrew 13:16).

Biblical prosperity is not about how much stuff you have or the size of your bank balance. You could have an enormous amount of goods and money, but still not really be living well. The prosperity here refers specifically to “the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground.” You could have all the money in the world, but unless living things thrive, both human and animal, and there is sufficient nutritious food to eat, we are not really living. Societies that only focus on self and do not adequately work towards the emergence and thriving of future generations will die. So ultimately prosperity is not about me and what I have, but the blessing of provision for the furthering of God’s creation long-term.

What will it take, then, to “live long and prosper”? Our passage tells us, “When you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law (Torah), when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” It’s tragic that there is so much misunderstanding regarding a command such as this. For some it is clouded by humanly derived traditions that add or replace God’s expressed intentions. Others confuse godly directives with a misguided system that bases God’s acceptance on performance. The whole Bible understands true godliness as an outcome of sincere trust in God. Those who are truly faithful to him have a heart to obey him in every way. To disregard God’s ways leads to anything but prosperity.

God wants us to live a full and abundant life (see John 10:10). But in order to have the quality of life he desires, we need to embrace his version of what life is really all about. Redefining biblical prosperity along the lines of greed and covetousness undermines the abundance that God has for us. Similarly claiming fairy-dust notions of grace that disregards God’s directives in Scripture may numb the effects of deception for a time, but in the end profits absolutely nothing.

However, if we embrace God’s version of what prosperity actually is and diligently follow his ways as outlined in Scripture, then we will indeed thrive both in this life and in the age to come forever.

Live long and prosper!

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


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


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


Righteous Judgment – Part 2

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

Men and women in intense discussion

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


Don’t Go Overboard

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

Children Diving Sunset Silhouettes Brazilian Boat

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


Don’t Worry About It!

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

Don't Worry blue street sign

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