The Glory Standard

For the week of March 25, 2017 / 27 Adar 5777
Va-Yakhel, Pekudei, & Rosh Hodesh
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 35:1 – 40:38 & 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46

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Fire pillarThen the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot/Exodus 40:34-35)

This week’s parsha (English: Torah portion) is a high point in Scripture. After many chapters describing the design and construction of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), it is finally completed. God responds to this by filling the Mishkan with his kavod (English: glory). God’s glory in this context refers to a physical manifestation of himself denoting his presence in a very real way. God was tangibly showing the people of Israel that he was with them. While God is everywhere in the universe in one sense, this demonstrated that he was uniquely making himself known in and through Israel alone.

Every aspect of the development of Israel’s national life as revealed by God through Moses had to do with maintaining his presence, his glory, among them. From the sacrificial system to personal intimacy; from agricultural techniques to hygiene; from business practices to treatment of people with special needs – everything that God commanded was because he, the Master of the Universe, dwelt among them.

In the centuries that followed, Israel risked losing God’s glory. Eventually, this did indeed tragically occur at the time of the Babylonian captivity as recorded in the eighth through eleventh chapters of the prophet Ezekiel. Contrary to what many people think, the loss of God’s presence was not due to Israel’s moral imperfections. God had made provision in the Sinai Covenant for wrongs committed. The glory departed due to long-term rebellion against God as expressed mainly through idolatry. Israel had outrightly rejected God in other words. But that is not the end of the story. Ezekiel, Isaiah, and the other Hebrew prophets predicted over and over again that God’s glory, his presence, would return to Israel. The restoration of God’s presence was guaranteed to Israel based upon his earlier unconditional and eternal promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

By the end of the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures, God’s glory had not yet returned. As prophesied by Jeremiah and decreed by the Persian King Cyrus, many Jewish people returned from Babylon. They resettled the land and rebuilt both the Temple and Jerusalem. But the nation continued in a state best described as tentative. On one hand God was with them during this period – there would not have been a return otherwise – but not to the extent anticipated by the prophets. For most of the time from the return until the destruction of the second Temple in the year 70, Israel continued under foreign rule, a sure sign that all was not right between them and God. Where was the promised Messiah?

It was not until Yeshua’s coming that the light of God’s glory began to appear on the horizon again. Those who believed him to be the Messiah rightly understood Israel’s prophetic writings that his arrival was the indication that God himself was returning to dwell in their midst.

This time it would not be in the form of a cloud filling the Temple, but something much greater. Through Yeshua’s sacrifice, his defeat of death through the resurrection, and his return to the heavenly temple to sit at God’s right hand, he poured out the Ruach Hakodesh, the Holy Spirit upon those who placed their trust in him. Now the glory of God doesn’t live in a tent or a building, but rather in people. The glory of the God of Israel has returned as promised, taking up residence in and among those who believe in Yeshua.

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

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Consequences

For the week of March 18, 2017 / 20 Adar 5777

Newton's Cradle in motion

Ki Tissa & Parah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 30:11 – 34:35; Bemidbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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The LORD said to Moses, “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his life to the LORD when you number them, that there be no plague among them when you number them.” (Shemot/Exodus 30:11-12)

I have been producing TorahBytes for almost twenty years. Forgive me if I refer to that several times over the next few months. I am not bragging; I am overwhelmingly grateful for the grace to do this almost every week for all this time. Because I have commented on the weekly parsha (English: Torah portion) so often now, I get concerned that I might be repeating myself. Not that there’s anything necessarily wrong about repetition. In fact, I have had no qualms from time to time reposting old messages when I have deemed it appropriate. But as I contemplate what to address each week, in order to avoid unnecessary redundancy, I often look over what I commented on in the past.

This week’s parsha is one of those that contains a great many topics and issues that I could potentially address. But a particular idea came to mind when I read the first two verses (the ones I quoted at the beginning). And so I did my normal routine of checking what I covered in years past for this particular parsha as well as seeing if I dealt with the topic I am considering at other times of the year. When I did a search for the key word “consequences,” it appears that I have used that term in about eighty messages, and only a few of those are repeats. While there are other terms that are far more frequent, (“God” almost a thousand times, and “faith” and “faithful” combined about three hundred), at first I was surprised that “consequences” came up as much as it did. But then as I thought about it, it made complete sense, since it is indeed a subject of which I have ongoing concern. And as it turns out, I haven’t used it as a message title or commented on it as part of these verses before. I will do so now.

God’s instructions here are straightforward. Whenever Israel would conduct a national census, a special amount of money was to be collected from each person. Failure to do so would have (here it is!) dire consequences. Many years later King David learned this the hard way as it appears he ignored these very clear instructions (2 Samuel 24; 1 Chronicles 21), and just as God said, a plague was the result.

I am not at this time going to deal with the whys and wherefores of David’s census. I only want to point out that failure to follow God’s instructions has consequences. Sometimes those consequences are clearly delineated as they are in this case, other times not. But that’s the way is. Obvious, right? Not really.

For some time, there has been a growing perception that we should be able to do what we want, when we want, how we want, and with or to whom we want with no consequences. The problem with this notion is it’s a fantasy. A universe of no consequences doesn’t exist.

Some may say that it isn’t really the inexistence of consequences that’s the issue. Everyone knows (I think) that if they hit their head with a hammer, it will hurt. But for some reason, we think we can engage in behaviors contrary to God’s design and suffer no harm. So it’s not a rejection of the consequences all together, it’s the belief that moral choices in particular have no consequences.

But that, too, is a fantasy. You don’t have to believe in God or a spiritual realm to conclude that moral choices have consequences. There are too many broken relationships, women and children in poverty, sexually transmitted diseases, and other destructive outcomes of particular behaviors to fail to observe that these outcomes are consequences of behavior. Yet that doesn’t stop people from denying the connection. By the way, I know that not all negative situations are outcomes of bad moral choices. But that doesn’t change the fact that so many are, thus establishing the connection I am asserting.

Tragically, many who claim to adhere to the Bible are contributing to the denial of consequences by confusing God’s forgiveness and acceptance through faith in the Messiah as a behavioral free pass. Sure, God used to mete out punishment for sin in the old days, they say, but because Yeshua died for sin, it doesn’t matter anymore what we do.

I am not really sure where this notion comes from. Even among those who mistakenly regard the New Covenant Writings as doing away with the Hebrew Scriptures, there is nothing in the Gospels, Acts, Letters, or the Book of Revelation that even hints at such a thing. The truth is the New Covenant Writings raise the bar on behavior and more explicitly spell out the consequences for immoral behavior. Not only does the New Covenant brilliantly illumine Old Covenant truth, it painstakingly helps believers, both Jews and Gentiles, to know how to live out the high quality of life to which we are called in Yeshua. To deny the reality of consequences is to send people further down the road of alienation from God. Let’s not be intimidated by notions of fantasy that prevent us from telling people the truth.

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

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Conduits of Blessing

For the week of March 11, 2017 / 13 Adar 5777

Clean water gushing from a pipe onto a person's hand

Tezavveh & Zakhor
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 27:20 – 30:10 & Devarim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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You shall make a plate of pure gold and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, Holy to the LORD. And you shall fasten it on the turban by a cord of blue. It shall be on the front of the turban. It shall be on Aaron’s forehead, and Aaron shall bear any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrate as their holy gifts. It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD. (Shemot/Exodus 28:36-38)

Every time I read it, I am struck by this description of the special gold plate fastened to the front of the High Priest’s turban. Perhaps I sense the solemn nature of it. Or its importance. On it were engraved the words “kodesh l’adonai” (English: “Holy to the LORD”). It’s as if the royal stamp of heaven had come down to indelibly mark Aaron and his dynasty for the most noble of tasks. The High Priest was responsible to connect the people of Israel to God. The special rituals he performed maintained God’s place within the community.

How did he do that? We read in this passage: “Aaron shall bear any guilt from the holy things that the people of Israel consecrate as their holy gifts. It shall regularly be on his forehead, that they may be accepted before the LORD.” He was responsible for whatever lack was found among the people in their offerings. His role made up the difference for everyone else, so that they and/or their offerings would be accepted by God.

If you are like me, you would then want to know how that worked. That’s something I regularly wonder about with regard to the entire priestly system. How did the various sacrifices, food and drink offerings, the incense, the cleansing rituals, and so on do whatever they did? After many years of reading these passages, my conclusion is we don’t know. But what we do know is that they did work. They truly fulfilled their God-given purpose in maintaining the sanctity of the community. Note that the failure of the sacrificial system as expounded by both the Hebrew Prophets and the New Covenant writings is not due to the ineffectiveness of the system itself as much as the eventual corruption of the priesthood. There is also the issue of its preparatory, and thus temporary, nature in anticipation of the coming of the Messiah. But that’s beside the point for now.

While we may not understand the mechanics behind how Aaron’s responsibilities worked, we can more easily surmise why they did. God established the High Priesthood to fulfill a particular role within the community. In a sense, it had nothing to do with Aaron himself. He was a conduit of blessing. He didn’t possess in himself the powers of ritual cleansing. The people would experience God’s acceptance only insofar as Aaron assumed the duties of his office.

This is not to say that the person in the role had no bearing on that role. He could have messed up big time by not sufficiently fulfilling his duties or through bad behavior bringing disgrace to his office. The Bible has examples of that within his immediate family and subsequent generations. But the power behind the role did not ultimately reside in the person, but in God. God established the office of High Priest to fulfill his purposes among the people. When the priesthood functioned as it should, God worked through it to bring cleansing, forgiveness, and acceptance to the people.

What was true for the High Priest is true for every role and function we may have. Whether we acknowledge the reality of the true God or not, whenever we are faithful to the tasks given to us by him, he works through us to fulfill his good purposes on earth. From fathers and mothers, to Presidents and Prime Ministers, to teachers and doctors, to engineers and grocery clerks, even religious leaders, the benefits we bring to others originate in God and are designed to be distributed as gifts to those we are called to serve.

My intention is in no way to belittle the office of the High Priest or its fulfillment in the Messiah, but rather to elevate whatever role we might have as each one of us have been called by God to be a conduit of blessing. How it works, I don’t know. But that it does is clear.

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

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Mercy Place

For the week of March 4, 2017 / 6 Adar 5777

3D Illustration of the Ark of the Covenant

For illustration purposes only. Not intended to provide exact representation of the Ark.

Terumah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)

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You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. (Shemot/Exodus 26:34)

As part of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and its furnishings, God directed Moses to build a “kapporet,” an ornate cover to be placed on top of the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). The aron ha-b’rit was an elegant box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar with a portion of manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded. It resided in the Mishkan’s inner sanctum called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: the Most Holy Place), and it represented the very presence of God within the community of Israel.

When the “Cohen Ha-Gadol” (English: the High Priest) entered the kodesh ha-k’dashim once a year at Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), the kapporet was the focus of his attention, for he was to apply the blood of the festival’s special sacrifices before it and over it (see Vayikra/Leviticus 16:11-4). The purpose of this ritual was to provide purification for the inner sanctum from the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins.

The kapporet was a lid made of pure gold overshadowed by the wings of golden “k’ruvim” (English: cherubim). The Scriptures tell us little about these creatures. We are introduced to them when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and God placed them to guard the tree of life. It is possible, therefore, that their being symbolically part of the kapporet was to remind Israel that the way to everlasting life remained blocked during the days of the Mishkan and its successor, the Temple.

Many English Bible versions translate kapporet as “mercy seat.” This goes back to one of the earliest English Bible translators, William Tyndale, whose 16th century translation became the core of the King James Bible and much of subsequent English translation tradition. It appears that Tyndale’s rendering of kapporet as mercy seat is based on Paul’s use of the Greek equivalent “hilastērion” in his letter to the Romans as he refers to the Messiah Yeshua, “whom God hath made a seat of mercy through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:26; Tyndale’s version). Hilastērion is the word for kapporet used by the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was common in Paul’s day. While hilastērion had a different usage in Greek outside the Bible, Paul must have had its biblical use in mind, a connection that Tyndale choose to make abundantly clear.

Regrettably, in my opinion, the translators of the King James Bible and many other later English translations chose not to preserve this connection. Instead most go with the pagan Greek meaning, “propitiation,” which is the idea of appeasing an angry god. Ironically, the King James and many other English translations that use “propitiation” in Romans retain Tyndale’s “mercy seat” in Exodus even though the reason for translating the kapporet as “mercy seat” is because Tyndale was drawing from Paul’s allusion in Romans to the place of God’s presence and mercy where cleansing occurs.

You may not be aware of the great controversy among scholars over the meaning of Paul’s use of hilastērion. This is part of a discussion about how Yeshua’s suffering and death provides forgiveness and acceptance to those who trust in him. But however it works, let us not miss the power of Paul’s allusion. Through Yeshua’s giving of his life, he has become our kapporet – the place of mercy. What was once hidden and inaccessible has become available to all. If we put our trust in him, God purifies us once and for all, making us fit to freely enter his presence.

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

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Where Is Heaven?

For the week of February 25, 2017 / 29 Shevat 5777

Beautiful blue sky background as metaphor for heaven

Mishpatim & Shekalim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; 30:11-16
Prophets: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 12:1-17 & 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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Then Moses and Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up, and they saw the God of Israel. There was under his feet as it were a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness. And he did not lay his hand on the chief men of the people of Israel; they beheld God, and ate and drank. (Shemot/Exodus 24:9-11)

One of the most intriguing incidences in the Torah is when Moses, his brother Aaron, two of Aaron’s sons, and seventy elders had a meal with God. The references to seeing and beholding God seem to contradict God’s later statement to Moses about not seeing his face (see Shemot/Exodus 33:20). But in both occasions, there seems to be a seeing but not seeing happening at the same time. In the later story, Moses is told that he can’t see God’s “face,” but only his “back” (33:23). How literally this is to be taken, we don’t know. It is reasonable to assume that seeing God’s face versus his back are references to levels of encountering his presence in the physical realm. Human beings, due to our alienation from him, can only tolerate his revealing himself to some extent, a fullness of which would result in death. This explains the reaction of surprise by people such as Jacob, Gideon, Samson’s parents, and Isaiah, who have encountered God in some physical sense and yet survived (e.g. Bereshit/Genesis 32:30; Shoftim/Judges 6:22-23; 13:22, Isaiah 6:5).

A hint that Moses and company in this instance didn’t see God in his fullness is the mentioning of “his feet” and the appearance of the ground underneath God. If they saw more than that, one would think that there would be other more graphic things to describe.

Experiencing the presence of God or the lack thereof is a recurring element of Scripture. The early pages of the Bible describe God as naturally mingling with people (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:8). Adam and Eve’s exile from the Garden of Eden due to their rebellion against their Creator marks the beginning of our alienation from him. And yet God is not entirely absent. His contact with human beings from that time on is primarily verbal (however that worked) with a few dramatic and more intimate encounters such as the ones I have referred to.

The directives given by God to Moses concerning the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), the precursor of the Temple, indicate God’s desire to dwell with his people. On one hand, he was understood to be in the people’s midst, but on the other hand, he was hidden from them behind the veil in front of the Mishkan’s inner sanctum, “the Holy of Holies.”

But doesn’t God live in a completely other place called “heaven?” Both the experience of eating with God and God’s presence within the Mishkan tell us something different. Heaven isn’t way out there; it’s where God is. Understanding heaven as far away is a way of speaking to describe the separation of God’s realm from the world in which we live. Yet the Bible teaches that the heavenly realm breaks in from time to time. And one day, the heavenly and earthly realms will co-exist harmoniously as God always intended, when the New Jerusalem is established on earth (see Revelation 21). Moses and company had a taste of the age to come.

We can access heaven now. That’s what happens when God’s Spirit takes up residence in us. The Messiah’s sacrifice and defeat of death through his resurrection creates an access to heaven beyond anything experienced prior to his coming. Heaven, the realm of God, is not something we are waiting for to happen when we die; it can be our current reality by putting our trust in Yeshua.

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

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What’s with the Sabbath?

For the week of February 18, 2017 / 22 Shevat 5777

Ask me a Bible Question!

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:5-6 (English Isaiah 6:1 – 7:6; 9:6-7)

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Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days you shall labor, and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, you, or your son, or your daughter, your male servant, or your female servant, or your livestock, or the sojourner who is within your gates. For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy. (Shemot/Exodus 20:8-11)

I was recently in Vancouver, Canada, to participate in a convention called “Missions Fest.” Over three days thousands of people gather at one of the city’s largest venues to hear speakers on a variety of biblical topics. My ministry was one of over two hundred which had displays, small and large. Weeks before the event, I was discussing with one of my daughters what I might do to encourage people to interact with my display. She suggested I make a simple sign with the words, “Ask me a Bible question!” on it. This led to some very interesting discussions.

One interaction didn’t go so well, because in the name of asking me a question, the person chose to harshly lecture me on the Sabbath. In the end, they questioned my eternal future with God because I wouldn’t fully subscribe to their perspective, which is too bad, since this is a very important, and often neglected, issue.

So, as briefly as I can I will share what I believe to be a sound biblical perspective on the Sabbath. First, however we might derive universal moral principles from the Ten Commandments (of which the Sabbath command is a part), it is primarily a cornerstone of the covenant given by God to the people of Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai. As the special ten, they represented the whole of the covenant, which includes many other directives covering every aspect of Israelite society. This is why the tablets of the Ten Commandments were to be included in the Ark of the Covenant, stored in the Most Holy Place within the Tabernacle and later the Temple.

Unlike the earlier covenant God made with Israel through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which was unconditional and eternal, the Sinai Covenant through Moses was conditional and temporary. As a covenant, it was broken by the people of Israel by their turning to other gods over and over again. God’s response to the breaking of the Sinai Covenant was the New Covenant promised through the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-33) and instituted by the Messiah (see Luke 22:20).

The New Covenant internalizes much of the essence of the Sinai Covenant and permanently establishes right relationship with God. And so, as a system of law, the Sinai Covenant is no longer in effect. Therefore, the Ten Commandments as representative of the Sinai covenant aren’t binding. This doesn’t imply that the principles they represent are to be neglected necessarily, since biblically speaking they, like so many of the other directives contained in the Sinai Covenant, are clearly eternal, universal principles. Application of the Sabbath beyond the confines of ancient Israel, however, isn’t straightforward. As the early followers of Yeshua began to teach God’s Truth to non-Jews, while they taught principles based on Old Covenant Scripture, including the Ten Commandments, they warned against the imposition of Sabbath law (e.g. Galatians 2:16; Colossians 4:10). Why is that?

Unlike the other nine and many other directives revealed by God through Moses, Sabbath keeping includes more than the moral and spiritual components of other commands. By regulating the work-week, Sabbath also addresses general society. Not only would it be impossible for people outside the Jewish world to effectively observe Sabbath by demanding the cessation of work, it would cause an unnecessary clash with the pagan world of that day.

Does that mean, therefore, that Sabbath has no place whatsoever among Yeshua’s followers? For much of history Sabbath has been most central to the lives of believers. It is thought that the Sabbath was changed from the seventh day (Saturday) to the first (Sunday), due to Yeshua’s resurrection and the early believers meeting on that day. Actually, there is very little evidence of what really occurred and why. Nevertheless, believing communities for most of the past two thousand years have almost always determined that some sort of Sabbath keeping was to be implemented. They were right to do so, because even though Sabbath keeping was not to be imposed upon believers from among the nations, it is clearly an important principle of Scripture stemming back prior to the giving of the Sinai Covenant. While the Sabbath as expressed in the Ten Commandments is specific to Israel under the Sinai Covenant, it is not only rooted in creation (Bereshit/Genesis 2:1-3), it reveals God’s perspective on the need for rest, not only for self, but for those under our care, including even animals. Why, therefore, would we not seek to implement a principle that so obviously expresses God’s understanding of life, work, and rest?

By not imposing their particular implementation of Sabbath the early Jewish believers gave non-Jewish communities the opportunity to develop culturally appropriate expressions of Sabbath over time, which is exactly what they did do, that is until more recently when it is just about forgotten altogether.

While we are not mandated to impose Sabbath keeping upon one another, we would be well advised to seek God and the Scriptures for appropriate application of the Sabbath within our communities today. This includes speaking into the society at large, encouraging civil governments to return to the kind of godly rhythm of rest exemplified by the Creator himself.

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

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Vulnerable Situations

For the week of February 11, 2017 / 15 Shevat 5777

Be-Shallah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31

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And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light, that they might travel by day and by night. (Shemot/Exodus 13:21)

Freedom! Such a key theme of Scripture. The exodus from slavery in Egypt is a prototype pointing to the Messiah’s release from the grip of the greater slavery of death. Genuine freedom is different from our many popular conceptions. For many today, freedom is imaged as the unrestricted ability to do whatever we want whenever we want however we want to or with whomever we want as much as we want. But true freedom is not the opposite of any and all constraint; it’s the opposite of oppression. The people of Israel’s journey through the wilderness is an authentic picture of freedom: God’s people in bondage to Pharaoh set free to serve the only living and true God.

The period between leaving Egypt and entering the Promised Land is full of unusual demonstrations of the power and presence of God. One of these was ongoing – the pillar of cloud and fire. The pillar was their God-given GPS system to direct their journey day by day. In the daytime, its appearance was as a cloud. At night, it was as fire to light their way. Thus, they were able to travel day or night.

Hold on! Day or night? They sometimes had to travel at night? Who wants to travel at night? You call that freedom? Besides walking for who knows how many hours per day (and that’s families with kids), they didn’t get to rest when they wanted to, but rather at God’s command. On the other hand, perhaps travelling at night might be preferred due to the wilderness conditions in that part of the world. All of a sudden night travel doesn’t sound that bad. Under normal circumstances, objections to night travel would be its associated dangers, including robbers and wild animals. Nighttime might be ideal for expert trackers and swift warriors, but not so good for the young and the weak. Unless God himself provides the headlights!

Whatever the reason for night travel (or day travel), God gave them exactly what they needed to negotiate the difficult environment whenever they needed to be on the move. I wonder when they entered the Promised Land, and the pillar was no more, if the people thought God was no longer with them. Or with them, but not so close; available, but not so available. While he continued to guide the people and help them overcome great challenges in the Land, they no longer had this vivid, obvious demonstration of his powerful presence.

But the reason why they had the pillar in the wilderness is because it was a pillar they needed at the time. People who have a genuine relationship with the God of Israel will often say when reflecting upon the darkest moments of their lives that they sensed God’s presence with them in unusual, almost tangible, ways during those times. That doesn’t mean that God isn’t with them during other times. When life is more routine there’s no need for him to shout directions at us. Normal living as God’s people is beautifully expressed near the end of Psalm 32:

I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go;
I will counsel you with my eye upon you.
Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding,
which must be curbed with bit and bridle,
or it will not stay near you. (Tehillim/Psalm 32:8-9)

The pillar of cloud and fire was not proof of God’s presence with the people, but rather the necessary provision at the time. God always knows in every circumstance exactly what we need, whether it be a shout from heaven or a quiet whisper inside our hearts; a pillar of fire or silent confidence in his faithfulness. Because of God’s goodness and because his people were in an extremely vulnerable situation, his faithfulness was evidenced through something as dramatic and tangible as the pillar of cloud and fire.

On one hand, I want to encourage you that you needn’t be concerned about not experiencing God in dramatic ways, since God’s presence is not dependent upon such things. But, I also want to encourage you to ask yourself if perhaps the lack of such things is more due to an unwillingness to step out into the kinds of vulnerable situations in which God’s tangible presence is often made manifest. Just asking.

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

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A God of Manipulation? Part Two

For the week of February 4, 2017 / 8 Shevat 5777

Carving wood in heart shape

Bo
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 10:1 – 13:16
Haftarah: Jeremiah 46:13-28

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But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (Shemot/Exodus 9:16)

Last week, I mentioned that I was not satisfied with how I answered my Bible class students’ recent question about the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. I had given my standard answer that God responded to Pharaoh’s attitude by taking him further down the road of his own stubbornness. But looking more carefully at the biblical material, it appears that God had purposely manipulated Pharaoh in order to cause certain events to occur. But however logical that conclusion might seem, it still isn’t correct. Let me try to explain:

First, if God ran the universe by manipulating it like this, then why doesn’t he manipulate everything accordingly? One might conclude that this is exactly what he does, but that makes most of the Bible absurd. God continually calls people to respond willingly to him. He patiently teaches them his ways and we are held responsible for our actions. The workings of God within human affairs is viewed as a remarkable thing. From the beginning, we were designed to be his co-laborers, not his pawns or puppets (See Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-29, cf. 1 Corinthians 3:9). When David writes, “The LORD is my shepherd,” (Psalm 23:1) for example, he extolls God’s loving intimate care, not his manipulations of himself or his circumstances.

It wasn’t so much that God was manipulating the will of Pharaoh as he leveraged it. God knew his opponent and maximized the situation by drawing out his weaknesses. He indeed devised a plan to rescue his covenant people from Egypt. So, in his wisdom, God was aware that Pharaoh’s pride and selfishness would lead him to stubbornly refuse to allow his economy to crumble by losing his slaves, thus setting the stage for the signs and wonders that resulted in Israel’s liberation.

To conclude that God manipulated Pharaoh against his will runs against the overall teaching of Scripture. Paul, who apparently supports this wrong teaching didn’t believe that. How could he, if in the same section of Romans where he speaks of God’s mercy and hardening, he warns the arrogant mercy recipients that they were in danger of God’s rejection if they didn’t smarten up, and that those who were hardened could receive God’s mercy if they would turn to him in faith (compare Romans 9:14-18 with 11:17-24)?

God is powerfully at work to fulfill his purposes; something that should invoke awe within us. As Paul writes elsewhere:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13).

These words of exhortation do not flow from an understanding that God manipulates human life. Paul calls us to respond. Can we do so on our own without God’s help? Of course not! As Yeshua said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But his help is freely available to us, and he turns no one away (see John 6:37).

Tragically, however, how many of us are stuck in a theological or philosophical prison that we cannot get out of, as we wait for God to soften our hardened hearts, when all along he has been waiting for us to call out to him for mercy? You don’t have to accept the state you are in as if God has appointed you to a hellish existence against your will. Whatever your need might be, cry out to him now and receive his love and mercy.

Perhaps that’s a better answer to my students’ question.

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

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A God of Manipulation? Part One

For the week of January 28, 2017 / 1 Shevat 5777

Sanding wood in heart shape with a rotary tool

Va-Era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35; Bemidbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

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You shall speak all that I command you, and your brother Aaron shall tell Pharaoh to let the people of Israel go out of his land. But I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and though I multiply my signs and wonders in the land of Egypt, Pharaoh will not listen to you. Then I will lay my hand on Egypt and bring my hosts, my people the children of Israel, out of the land of Egypt by great acts of judgment. (Shemot/Exodus 7:2-4).

I have the privilege of developing and teaching a Bible class at a small classical academy. I teach two classes, a combined grades five and six and a combined grades seven and eight. The students are well engaged and ask pertinent and, at times, challenging questions. One of the things we are covering this year is the book of Exodus, chapters one through twenty, the rescue of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt through the giving of the Ten Commandments at Mt. Sinai. Both classes, without any prompting from me (except that it was part of the reading of the day) brought up the difficult issue of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. Frankly I wasn’t particularly prepared to deal with this, not that I haven’t thought about it before. In fact, I have addressed it more than once through the years in TorahBytes. I attempted an explanation, but to be honest I wasn’t fully satisfied with my answer.

I gave them my standard answer, which is that the Scriptures speak of both God hardening Pharaoh’s heart and Pharaoh hardening his own heart. It’s not as if God arbitrarily made Pharaoh stubborn in spite of himself. Rather God’s response to Pharaoh’s negative inclination was to further take him down the road of his own stubbornness. I still think there is at least some truth in this, which leads to a serious warning: when we allow ourselves to hold a skewed point of view due to fear, pride, or selfishness, we may find our perspective becoming more and more solidified. We experience this, for example, when we become bitter against or cynical toward someone. Eventually everything they do and say reinforces our negative inclination toward them. Bitterness is a slippery slope that takes us down a deep dark pit. The story of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart may suggest that sliding downward might be more than a natural consequence, but a purposeful response from God. However it works, it should be obvious that we need to stop ourselves before we get to the pit’s precipice.

As I said, there may be some truth here, but it doesn’t fully deal with what we find in the Bible. The first time the concept of hardening is mentioned is found in last week’s parsha (Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1). We read:

And the LORD said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go (Shemot/Exodus 4:21).

God said these words to Moses before his first audience with Pharaoh. It certainly sounds here that contrary to my explanation of God’s taking Pharaoh further down the road of his own stubbornness, God was the prime influence behind Pharaoh’s hard heart. It might be more reasonable to deduce that the Pharaoh’s hardening of his heart described in later passages were because of what God had already done to him.

This does seem to be Paul’s understanding centuries later in his New Covenant letter to the Romans:

What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God’s part? By no means! For he says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, “For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.” So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills (Romans 9:14-18).

It sounds here as if God manipulated the situation for his purposes. Any difficulty Paul’s readers may have had with such a thing, is confronted in the verses following:

You will say to me then, “Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?” But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, “Why have you made me like this?” Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory (Romans 9:19-23).

Some may think this is cut and dry: God causes people to behave the way they do. But there are huge problems with such a conclusion, logical as it may seem. Does the Bible really teach we are nothing more than the products of God’s manipulative control? Is human will an illusion? Practically speaking, are you stuck in whatever state to which God has assigned you, relegated to endure both a present and a future completely outside your control? I don’t think so, I will attempt to explain why next week.

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

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Have You Prayed About It?

For the week of January 21, 2017 / 23 Tevet 5777

Pensive handsome bearded man standing with hands folded and thinking

Shemot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 1:1 – 6:1
Haftarah: Isaiah 27:6-28:13; 29:22-23

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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. God saw the people of Israel – and God knew. (Shemot/Exodus 2:23-25)

The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt for about 400 years (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:13). That’s a long time before God came through. He did eventually, but what took so long? God had told Abraham that his descendants would not return to the Promised Land for several generations because “the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:16). But that had to do with the multilayered purpose of the conquest. God had determined that at the same time Israel was to acquire the Land, he would judge its previous inhabitants. However, that doesn’t explain the need to be under oppression for so long in Egypt. Could they have not lived in Egypt under more pleasant circumstances? Remember that the fledgling clan of Israel originally migrated to Egypt as means of preservation during the severe famine. Egypt was good to them to begin with. Was enslavement necessary to keep them there? Perhaps only such harsh treatment over a long period would motivate them to want to leave a good and fertile region for the uncertain environment of Canaan.

Perhaps the time delay was fixed. If God says 400 years of oppression, then that’s what’s going to be. However, did God determine that timeframe or was he only stating what he knew would happen? We don’t know. What we do know is that we don’t read of Israel’s crying for help until after God called Moses at the burning bush. I can’t say that the people hadn’t prayed until then, though it’s possible.

Note that God was at work for the people’s deliverance before this point as he prepared Moses for his upcoming leadership role. If we think about it, many answers to prayer require God to work in advance. Still, the needed breakthroughs we so desperately need often don’t happen until we have prayed.

Does God need our prayers to act? I wouldn’t say that. God is a free agent. In fact, he is the only truly free agent in the entire universe. He tells Moses in this same Torah portion that his name is “I am who I am.” He is dependent on no one and does whatever he pleases. And yet, he didn’t act until he “heard their groaning” (Shemot/Exodus 2:24). It’s not that he didn’t know what was going on with his people or that he had forgotten his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It’s that there is a connection between our earnest communication to him and his willingness to act.

We could spend all of eternity trying to figure out how this works. Or we can accept it. God answers prayer. And if we are not getting the divine help we need, perhaps it’s because we haven’t gotten around to praying.

What about unanswered prayer? I can’t answer that for you. It might be that you are praying for the wrong things and/or with the wrong motives (see James 4:2-3). Praying can be part of a process over a long period of time (see Luke 18:1-8). Or he has answered you by doing something you don’t expect, recognize, or want to accept.

But this week’s message is not about the legitimate topic of unanswered prayer. It’s a reminder that the reason we may find ourselves in predicaments for longer than necessary may be because we haven’t stopped to pray. I know that’s been true for me. Even though prayer is a regular part of my life, I constantly find myself struggling with something for a period of time before I realize I haven’t really prayed about it. And while I can’t say that God instantly answers every single prayer I pray the way I would like him to, he has come through for me over and over again when I have earnestly, honestly, and intelligently sought his help.

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

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