Sharing

For the week of September 14, 2019 / 14 Elul 5779

Young boy and girl picking berries in a field

Ki Tetze
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 23:24-25)

The Bible is far more than a book about God, morality, and spirituality. It is a holistic, comprehensive, integrated reflection of God’s perspective of life. In other words, it is a revelation of reality. While scientific analysis and philosophical musings may offer all sorts of interesting suggestions as to the nature of things, the universe is not subject to opinion. Rather, it is what it is. And the Bible provides sufficient insight as to what life is really all about.

This in no way should imply that our understanding of scripture necessary adequately represents the truth it reveals. We cannot completely escape historical misinterpretations and personal presuppositions that hinder our access to its depths. There’s also the challenge of how to bridge the ancient text to our modern context. None of this should stop us from diving in, however. In fact, the more we allow it to speak on its own terms, the more we will be confronted by its complex but accessible wisdom.

I try to engage the Bible with a whole lot of humility and awe. When I do so, I am in a place where I can continue to be challenged by God’s way of thinking. That’s what happened when I read through this week’s Torah portion, particularly the verses I quoted at the start.

According to this, in ancient Israel, someone walking through someone else’s field could help themselves to fruit or grain as desired. They were not to take more than they needed at the time. So while people were not to harvest someone else’s field, they could satisfy their hunger in the moment. I have read this many times. It’s also referred to as part of an interaction between Yeshua and the religious leaders in the Gospels (see Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5). But I don’t know if I have ever really thought about it.

It’s not as if the Torah disregards private property. From “Do not steal” (e.g. Shemot/Exodus 20:15) to the directive to return your enemy’s cattle (see Shemot/Exodus 23:4) to the importance of retaining one’s tribal inheritance (see B’midbar/Numbers 36:7), Israel was not set up to be a share-and-share-alike society. There was no legislative attempt to completely smooth out economic differences. There are clear guidelines to prevent the poor from becoming destitute, and people were encouraged to be generous, but no one had a right to take what belonged to someone else. Or maybe they did. Isn’t that what this says? There is also the principle of gleaning at harvest time when the poor were allowed to help themselves to the edges of a person’s field and to the grain dropped by the harvesters (e.g. Vayikra/Leviticus 19:9-10). This meant that field owners were not to fully exploit their fields for their own gain.

On one hand this is such a nice thought, but to be honest it makes me uncomfortable. Let’s say I have berry bushes growing along my backyard fence. If my property bordered a pedestrian pathway and my bushes protruded beyond the property line so that some berries were available within what would be deemed public, I would have no problem with people helping themselves to some berries. But the thought of them walking through my property and doing so, I find distasteful (excuse the pun).

But it’s not distasteful to God. Far from it! God wanted farmers (who were the bulk of that society) to allow for this kind of freedom. While people were not to treat other people’s stuff as if it was their own, God wanted a culture that freely shared. This really challenges me to rethink my concept of private property. While Torah affirms a level of property rights, they may not be as absolute as many of us prefer.

As I mentioned earlier, getting from biblical principles to the modern day can be challenging. But before we give thought about the appropriateness of how God’s directive here can be worked out in our neighborhoods and towns, I need to start with my heart and rethink my relationship to my stuff.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Unknown Passages

For the week of September 7, 2019 / 7 Elul 5779

Hidden stone passageway in Malaga, Spain

Shof’tim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? (Isaiah 53:1)

Each week TorahBytes provides what is known in Hebrew as a D’var Torah, “a word from the Torah,” the term Torah used here to refer to the Five Books of Moses. My intent is to bring the inspired word of the ancient text to the hearts and minds of modern readers and listeners. The Torah is foundational to the entire Bible, providing the basis for God’s perspective on life and living. The schedule I follow is the same as used in synagogues around the world that publically reads through the Torah on an annual cycle. The weekly Torah reading is chanted during services each Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat (English: the Sabbath/Saturday). On Shabbat and festivals an additional reading is chanted, referred to as Haftarah. That Haftarah sounds similar to the word Torah is a coincidence; it actually means something along the lines of “to leave” to designate it as the concluding reading. Through the years as I have been providing TorahBytes, I have sometimes opted to comment on that week’s Haftarah.

The Haftarah readings are taken from the section of Hebrew Scripture called Nevi’im, meaning the Prophets. How the prophetic books are organized in the Hebrew tradition is different from the vast majority of English translations because the English follows the order from the Septuagint (the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Nevi’im has two subsections, the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Latter Prophets are almost the same in both the Hebrew and the Greek, while the Former Prophets are often known as historical books, and include Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. As for why these books are considered Nevi’im is likely due to how they lead to the emerging role of the prophet in the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel.

The Haftarah schedule is fixed with an excerpt from Nevi’im read alongside the same associated Torah reading every year. There are also set special Haftarah readings for various special occasions that preempt the normally associated one. How the tradition of Haftarah began, no one knows. There is a story told that it began at a time when Israel, under foreign oppression, was forbidden to read the Torah, and so other parts of Scripture were read instead, but that theory emerged over a thousand years afterwards, and there is no other evidence to support it.

Not only do we not know when such readings became adopted, we also don’t know the criteria for choosing which passages were to be read. It is pretty obvious, however, that passages were chosen on the basis that they contained elements that are reflective of the associated Torah portion.

Interestingly the earliest recorded account of synagogue readings from Nevi’im is found in the New Covenant Writings. In Luke chapter four, we see Yeshua given the scroll of Isaiah to read. Whether it was a set scheduled reading similar to what is done today or chosen by a synagogue official or Yeshua in the moment we don’t know. What we do know is that this passage, beginning with the words “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” which Yeshua applied to himself to inaugurate the messianic era, is not part of the Haftarah schedule today.

Some might be inclined to claim that the reading was purposely removed since it would be one of several readings from Nevi’im used by Yeshua’s followers to refer to him (e.g. see this article). The same is sometimes claimed for another passage from Isaiah, chapter 52:13 through 53:12, that speaks in graphic terms of the suffering and rejection of a righteous servant of God. The details appear to foretell with great precision exactly what happened to Yeshua and why. For example:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)

Contributing to the suspicion over the non-inclusion of this passage is that this week the Haftarah reading is Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12, while next week it’s Isaiah 54:1-10. This may give the impression that one of the most important and clearest predictive passages pointing to Yeshua being the Messiah was purposely skipped. The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence of an older list of Haftarah readings that include this or other passages, such as Isaiah 61 from which Yeshua read, that he fulfilled. What we do know is that whoever settled on the readings didn’t deem these passages sufficient for the purpose desired. There is no justification to assume any kind of conspiracy to keep this and other passages from the Jewish community.

In spite of whatever motive was behind the selection of Haftarah readings, it is tragic that the Suffering Servant passage and others that clearly point to Yeshua as Messiah are not more widely known. Yet to blame unknown ancients for what they didn’t list is misguided, especially since access to the whole Bible is available as never before. Not only can millions of people read the entire Bible in paper or digital form in their own language, those who know the truth of the messianic prophecies have it within their power to share these hitherto unknown truths with everyone around them, Jewish or Gentile. In this, the information age, virtually no one is prevented from encountering the truth – if we would only take the time to share it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?

For the week of August 31, 2019 / 20 Av 5779

Dr. Michael Brown & Rabbi Shmuley Boteach debate "Is the New Testament Antisemitic?", August 8, 2019 in New York City.

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

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If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods, ” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 13:1-3)

I recently watched a passionate debate between Messianic Jewish scholar and talk show host, Dr. Michael Brown and celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the topic “Is the New Testament Antisemitic?” I was struck by the collegiality between the two in spite of their sharp differences, many of which predate these two men by approximately two thousand years. They consider each other friends, which I found a little hard to believe, given the level of emotion on Boteach’s part. To me, he seemed downright angry, especially in his opening remarks. Not that I blame him. Everyone agrees that the New Testament has been used to perpetrate anti-Semitism. I am angry about that too.

According to Boteach, however, certain New Testament passages have not simply been leveraged for nefarious purposes, they are intentionally anti-Jewish. While Boteach admirably seeks to reclaim Yeshua’s Jewishness, he does so by disassociating passages he deems to have been inserted many years after the events of the New Testament. He claims that that the later church community sought to distance itself from the Jews to the point that God is depicted as having finally and forever rejecting his covenant people. Therefore, any passage critical or deemed negatively inclined towards the Jewish people or the Jewish leadership in any way must be, according to Boteach, a later insertion.

Brown disagrees, claiming (rightfully so) that there is no substantial difference between Jewish critiques in the New Testament and those from the Hebrew Scriptures as spoken by Moses and the prophets. Boteach doesn’t deny that the prophets could be pretty harsh but isn’t offended by them because he has no doubt that they possessed a fundamental, unshakable love for their people. And this seems to be where the bone of contention actually lies. In spite of Brown’s attempt to establish otherwise, Boteach is not able to accept that the heart of New Testament critique of Israel is of the same essence as that of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Again, I can’t blame Boteach. In spite of his misrepresentation of New Testament intent, I have to accept that the vast majority of Christian interpretation of the New Covenant Writings through the generations until now is exactly how he describes it. And if that is what the critical passages are about, he is right to denounce them. Tragically, after two thousand years of anti-Jewish church sentiment, it is next to impossible to engage the words of the New Testament any other way.

What does any of this have to do with the passage I quoted from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion)? The Torah is clear that no matter how impressive or convincing a prophet might be, if he seeks to turn the people of Israel unto other gods, they should not be listened to. As far as I can tell, Boteach never asserts that the Christian God is a false god. In fact, he would be happy to retain New Testament  passages that he understands to be in line with the Hebrew Scriptures. His bone of contention are the so-called anti-Semitic passages in spite of their similarity to messages given by the Hebrew prophets. The New Testament in its current form – in spite of elements that Boteach respects, affirms, and admires – misrepresents the true God by denying his ongoing relationship with the Jewish people. Therefore it should be rejected.

In my opinion, Brown does not adequately satisfy Boteach’s concern. At approximately the 101-minute mark, Brown gets Boteach’s attention as he begins to repudiate supersessionism, commonly referred to as “replacement theology,” rightly indicting this false teaching for being the basis of much of Christian anti-Semitism. Boteach reacts as if surprised by this, but the discussion is regrettably redirected by the moderator due to time. This is the crux of the issue. The New Testament needs no revision; it’s the church’s teaching that does. As long as the god of the church is a god who rejects Israel, people like Boteach are right to resist.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Video of the full debate is available here:

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Get the Picture

For the week of August 24, 2019 / 23 Av 5779

The title "Get the Picture" superimposed on an arrogant man wearing a crown

Ekev
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 10:16)

I am fascinated by words. To think that God created the world through words. And then, he shares the gift of verbal communication with us by giving us the ability to share our thoughts with others (and himself through prayer) via this complex audible code. It’s wonderful when our words make a positive difference in the world. Words can give people a reason to live: words of encouragement, words of warning, words of instruction, words of love. Words can also destroy. Misrepresentation of truth of any kind can break relationship, cause paralyzing discouragement, and lead to disastrous outcomes.

Negative outcomes to words are not always the intent of speakers, of course. Accurately interpreting what people say is easier said than done (pun intended!). Concrete objects are easier to describe because they are clearly represented in the world. The word “dog,” for example is simply clarified by referencing an actual dog. Abstract concepts, on the other hand, such as emotions or philosophical ideas, can only be conveyed with words alone. If the speaker and hearer understand different things by those words, effective communication will not happen.

Figures of speech, what we might call “expressions,” are especially problematic. Some may remember the 1960s spy-comedy, entitled “Get Smart.” One unforgettable character was the humanoid robot Hymie. Hymie had issues with expressions. If told to “grab a waiter” in a restaurant, instead of getting the waiter’s attention, he picked him up and carried him to the table. “Kill the light, Hymie,” resulted in his shooting the light bulb instead of turning it off. We find that sort of thing humorous, but in real life misunderstanding expressions like this can have disastrous results.

While English has a great many expressions such the ones Hymie misinterpreted, it uses far more abstract terms than Biblical Hebrew, which is more concrete. This is illustrated in the verse I started with taken from this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). Moses is instructing the people to resist their natural inclinations to not listen to God and humbly submit to his directions. But that’s not how Moses put it. Closer to the Hebrew would be: “circumcise your heart and be not stiffnecked.” What would someone like Hymie do with that? The first half would kill you and the need for the second would be denied by those with flexible necks. Obviously, this was not to be taken literally. Yet the concrete tendency of Hebrew, which in this case vividly expresses otherwise abstract notions such as arrogance and stubbornness gets the point across most effectively.

There are all sorts of reasons why a translator would attempt to explain a concrete expression with an abstraction. Would readers know what circumcision is and if they did, would they understand that God wasn’t directing his people to do open heart surgery? Both elements would have to be properly understood for this to be the powerful statement it is.

As I look over English translations, I am surprised by how many, such as the one I am using, retain the first expression while opting for an abstraction for the second. Wouldn’t readers who get the point of heart circumcision also understand the warning against being stiff-necked? Maybe not.

Why use expressions at all? Why say things like “grab a waiter” or “kill the light” anyway? It’s that the pictures expressions create in our minds provide communicative elements that abstractions tend to lack. It’s difficult to represent “circumcise your hearts,” in any way but as an expression. The implications are that people need to remove the coverings over their hearts so that their affections, thoughts, and desires would be fully open to God. As for the warning against being stiff-necked, the word “stubborn” may appropriately reflect God’s intention here, but how much more when you picture ourselves refusing to bend under the weight of God’s will for our lives. It’s being stubborn, yes, but describing it in graphical terms helps us to see the intensity of our tendency to resist God’s lordship.

Unlike Hymie, our failure to understand God’s expressions isn’t funny. But thank God we are not robots.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Teach Your Children

For the week of August 17, 2019 / 16 Av 5779

A father, mother, son, and daughter learning together

Va’etchanan
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

The past couple of weeks I have been mentioning the tendency among some to distance themselves from the foundation of Hebrew Scripture, the Books of Moses in particular. One of the ways that is done is by taking statements by Yeshua and others and making them sound as if they are undermining God’s prior revelation, when they are actually clarifying what he said. A case in point is the “Great Commandment” that appears in the Gospels of Matthew (22:35-40) and Mark (12:28-34).

The exact wording of these two accounts are similar for the most part, yet different enough to indicate that this sort of interchange may have been common. In each case, religious leaders ask him what is the “greatest” or “most important” commandment. Today’s readers may scoff at such questions, but Jewish people then and now who take God’s Word seriously want to know how to best prioritize or summarize God’s directives. Yeshua’s answer is two-pronged, giving more than what was likely expected. Not only are we to love God with everything we’ve got (as contained in this week’s parsha); we are also to love our neighbors as ourselves (from Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18). In that day, putting treatment of others on par with loving God, especially since Yeshua made it clear that we are to be neighbors even to those whom we don’t like, was quite radical (see Luke 10:25-37).

While we still need to take to heart God’s sense of priority as stated by Yeshua here, it is tragic that many readers of the New Testament assume that this in any way diminishes or discounts anything else God said through Moses, the prophets, or other writers of Hebrew Scripture. I am not saying that everything for ancient Israel has direct application to all people in the same way that it did for Israel under the Sinai Covenant. It’s that statements of priority or summary such as the great commandment are not in any way geared to reducing God’s inspired teaching to only two commands.

In fact, it doesn’t even take much careful investigation of these two commands to see that there is so much more contained within them than the vaguely defined “love God and love your neighbor” teachings you may have heard.

Perhaps we forget that when scriptures were quoted in first-century Israel it was automatically understood within its broader context. People had long passages memorized. So to hear one line was to hear the passage it was a part of. Check out “Love your neighbor as yourself” in its original context. You might be surprised to discover what love for neighbor actually means (I discuss this in an earlier TorahBytes message). Same with “Love God.” We rarely hear the Mark version of the Greatest Commandment, since it is more complex than the Matthew one, providing some of the wider context. In Mark, Yeshua begins his answer with the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”) as in the Torah-quote I started with. In actuality it makes no difference, because, as I mentioned, the hearers would have automatically connected “And you shall love the Lord your God” with the Shema that introduces it. To speak about our need to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind without specific reference to the God of Israel’s exclusivity is to misrepresent Yeshua’s intent.

Note what follows “Love God” in its original context: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:6-7). Besides our need to take God’s words to heart, embedded within the greatest commandment is God’s ordaining parents as the prime educators of their children.

We don’t have time in this brief message to explore how to accomplish this. However it is done, God made clear that the household under the supervision of parents is the prime venue for our children’s education. To claim to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind while neglecting our God-given responsibility to educate our children is to neglect to love God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Respecting National Diversity

For the week of August 10, 2019 / 9 Av 5779

Small world globe on top of a large open book

D’varim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

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And the LORD said to me, “Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 2:9)

Throughout the years of my doing TorahBytes I have sought to demonstrate the ongoing relevancy of the Hebrew Scriptures as built on the foundation of the Books of Moses. At times I do that by noting a specific principle found in one of God’s commandments or a lesson derived from a story. We might explore an aspect of the character of God, the nature of human beings, or the dynamics of how humans are to relate to God. But there’s more to learn from Scripture than principles and lessons. In fact, the principles and lessons of Scripture are deeply rooted in its perspective on life in general. It’s in the soil of the Bible’s worldview that we discover how our complex existence is best navigated.

It’s tragic when belief in Yeshua as Messiah results in the collapsing of the breadth and depth of Truth as revealed in the Hebrew Scripture into a detached spiritualized, overly personal experience. There is almost nothing of life, big or small, that isn’t effectively addressed by Scripture. We’re going to look at something big this week.

I think it’s an astounding insight. It was brought to my attention while reading The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, and it is reflected in this week’s parsha. Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land and needed to journey through inhabited territory. They were given specific instructions as to what territory they could take and what to leave alone. In this case there were told to not “harass Moab,” because God allotted their land to the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot. Israel’s acquisition of land was to be under God’s direction. We can look elsewhere in the Torah to see that God was very specific about Israel’s borders. They were given no mandate to expand beyond what was allotted to them.

Think about that. God made clear to Israel that they were not to build an empire but were to be satisfied with the geographical limitations imposed upon them by God. This is all the more astounding when we realize that Israel understood their God, rightly so, not as some sort of regional divinity, but the God of the whole world. The Bible begins with God creating the “heavens and the earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:1); God declares at Mt. Sinai, “all the earth is mine” (Shemot/Exodus 19:5); and Psalm 47 proclaims him as the king of all the earth and ruler of the nations. Be that as it may, instead of this “God of all the earth” commissioning his people to take over the whole world, he teaches them to respect national boundaries. And that in spite of the imperialistic tendencies of world powers both then and now.

This respect for nationality was firmly grasped by the leadership of Yeshua’s early community. In those first decades there were some who attempted to centralize the control of New Covenant faith within an exclusively Jewish context. As the leaders thrashed out the implications of how the Messiah’s message was reaching the non-Jewish peoples of their day, they realized that God was indicating that while the good news was for everyone, each people-group would be free through the power of God’s Spirit to work out how God’s kingship in the Messiah would be expressed within their cultural setting (see Acts 15).

Centuries later when messianic faith was co-opted by the Roman government, respect for national and culture differences faded and was replaced by age-old ungodly imperialist tendencies. Instead of continuing a de-centralized mosaic of nationalities, who were to find their way in God’s Truth with God’s help, church government aligned with political power to homogenize the nations under God.

In spite of this, God continues to regard the diversity of people groups while valuing national distinctions. We would do well to do the same.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Tell It Like It Is

For the week of August 3, 2019 / 2 Av 5779

Smiling bearded man with one hand on heart and the other raised.

Mattot & Masei
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 30:2 – 36:13 (English 30:1 – 36:13)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28, 3:4

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If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (B’midbar/Numbers 30:3 [English 30:2]).

I recently completed the book, “Irresistible” by Andy Stanley, who, in spite of his claiming to give a unique (at least since the third century) call unto a radical New Covenant faith, has fallen into the age-old trap of pitting faith in Yeshua against the Hebrew Scriptures. Even though he asserts several times that he values the older writings, he goes out of his way to cut any meaningful connections to anything revealed within an Old Covenant context. That Scripture should be read through a New Covenant lens is one thing, an essential thing in fact. But disengaging Messianic faith from its Scriptural foundation severs our God-given truth anchor, sending well-intentioned Yeshua followers into the oblivion of confusion.

Disassociating New Covenant from Old Covenant Scripture is nothing new and was already prevalent long before Stanley’s prophetic cry. It seems to me that a great number of believers through history have treated the Hebrew Scriptures as backstory, a book of promises over and done with. As a result there is so much good from God that is missed, such as what is conveyed in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

I suspect many Christians get antsy around this section of Torah. Doesn’t Yeshua in what is called the Sermon on the Mount adamantly forbid vows when he says the following:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:33-37).

There is a tendency to treat this and other similar statements as if Yeshua is speaking against the Torah, but nothing could be further from the truth. He is providing God’s perspective, God’s interpretation of Torah. Through time the religious leadership skewed Torah’s intended meaning, which Yeshua effectively corrects here. To be fair, this particular section on oaths does sound as if he is forbidding God’s earlier words through Moses quoted at the beginning. But it’s the complicated, full-of-loop-holes, legalistic, likely dishonest system of oaths that had become popular by that time, that he is confronting, not valid solemn promises or vows.

Now that we got that out of the way, I want to go deeper into the soil of Torah’s warning about vow keeping. My explanation to this point was necessary because we needed to clarify the ongoing legitimacy of vows here. The roots of this warning are what drives Yeshua’s take on this when he says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” It’s found in the statement at the end of our Torah verse: “He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” The warning regarding vow keeping is rooted in the importance of doing what we say we will do.

Words are more than sounds. They are audible representations of reality or at least they should be. When human beings speak words, we are engaging the same technique God used to create the world. Following through on what we say we will do builds up the world and those in it. To do otherwise undermines our relationships and the broader societal fabric around us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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You Can Do It!

For the week of July 27, 2019 / 24 Tammuz 5779

Man facing wall with hands behind head

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (English 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Originally posted the week of July 26, 2008 / 23 Tammuz 5768 (Revised)

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Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 1:6-8)

A saying I have heard many times is “You can do anything you want, if you set your mind to it.” However, this only works when it does; otherwise, it doesn’t. It seems to me the purpose of this saying is usually to motivate someone to do something they really want to do but may fear they can’t. Fear is certainly an obstacle to accomplishment, and difficult tasks require that we determine as best we can to see them through to the end. But it is ridiculous to think that setting one’s mind on something is in itself a guarantee of success.

The prophet Jeremiah faced the difficult task of being God’s spokesman at a crucial time in the nation’s history. When God called him to this task, we don’t know if he understood the implications of his vocation, but what we do know is that he didn’t feel up to the job.

God’s response to him was not in the form of the kind of motivational speeches common in our day. God didn’t tell Jeremiah that if he would set his mind on being a prophet, he would be a prophet. Nor did God challenge him to visualize success and strive for greatness.

What God did do was first, he told him not to put himself down. Jeremiah felt that his youth somehow undermined his ability to accomplish the task at hand. This may sound like a “don’t be negative” pep talk, but it is deeper than that. It wasn’t as if a positive frame of mind would automatically enable him to do what God was calling him to do. It was simply that when God calls us to do something it doesn’t matter how old we are. Young people can be prophets too, if God so calls them.

Second, God said that Jeremiah would go where God would tell him to go and he would speak to those whom God would command him to speak. That may sound like, “You are going to do it, because you’re going to do it.” But that’s not really what God said to him. God said that Jeremiah would go where God sends him and speak what God commands. God determined that he would take charge of Jeremiah’s life, directing him and inspiring him. There is nothing we can’t do when God takes charge like that.

Third, God told him not to be afraid. But this wasn’t God just telling him to calm down as if he had no reason to be afraid. What God was telling him to do was truly intimidating. The reason Jeremiah was not to be afraid, was because God promised to personally take care of him.

God was not challenging Jeremiah to find power within himself to overcome the obstacles to his personal dream. Rather, because God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, God would also enable him to do it.

Whenever God calls us to do something, he enables us to do it. That doesn’t mean that everything God calls us to do will be easy as we see from the rest of Jeremiah’s life. Still, no matter how difficult a God-given task may be, we can do it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Curses

For the week of July 20, 2019 / 17 Tammuz 5779

Angry man shouting expletives

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

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Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (B’midbar/Numbers 22:5-6)

Do you think of the people of Bible times as fundamentally superstitious? Merriam-Webster online defines “superstition” as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” It seems to me that “false conception of causation” really captures it. The superstitious person acts upon a belief that certain happenings occur because of certain other things even though there is no reliable evidence that there is an actual connection between the two. For example, when I was about eleven years old, I was eating lunch at home and somehow dropped my salmon sandwich on the floor. At the time, I thought nothing of it, picked it up, and ate it. By that evening I was sick with a stomach virus. It would be years before I would eat salmon again. Yet even if that which made me sick transferred from the floor to the sandwich to my stomach, which is highly unlikely, there is no reason to think that all salmon from that moment on was a potential threat to my health. I do eat salmon now, but I would be lying if I said, I don’t have to fight through at least a tinge of unreasonable fear to do so. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that “false conception of causation” like this is pretty common. Maybe not you, of course.

In spite of human propensity towards superstition, we tend to think of ancient folks as more superstitious than we are. This is how we would view the story of Balak and Bilam (English: Balaam). Balak was a Moabite king who felt threatened by the presence of the people of Israel. Thinking they were no match for them militarily, he wanted to hire Bilam, a diviner of some sort, to curse them. Balak believed that by Bilam’s pronouncing certain words, Israel’s defenses would be weakened. As it turned out, God stepped in and didn’t allow Bilam to curse Israel. Every time he prepared to recite his incantations, he blessed Israel instead.

I suspect that even Bible fans regard this scene as reflective of a superstitious culture. What difference would it have made if Bilam had cursed Israel anyway? Would God have allowed words of destruction toward his chosen people to have any effect? Do such words have any effect regardless? Isn’t this a case of “false conception of causation”? It’s a great story for ancient people, but we know better than to give any credence to such a worldview, right?

I could spend the time remaining exploring the power of words. So much can be said about words, pun intended. From God’s using words to create the universe to the difference words make in our personal lives, a case could be made for causation with regard to blessings and curses, however the mechanics might work. But instead of analyzing the legitimacy of the power of blessing and curses, I would rather look at a contemporary parallel to the Balak and Bilam story.

When Balak determined that his people’s normal military prowess would be insufficient, he resorted to cursing. Whatever he believed about its dynamics, he thought it would work. In this case, his plan backfired, but that’s not stopping many people today from following his example.

In our increasingly polarized culture, more and more people are resorting to cursing those with whom they disagree. Instead of engaging differences by providing intelligent reasons for a particular viewpoint, it is common to tear the other party down with insults, accusations, and insinuations. Often people are shamed publicly, held up to incessant mockery, and subject to death wishes.

It should be clear that like Balak, these verbal attacks are happening because people really believe they work. We could wish that falsehood when spoken evaporates into the air, but it doesn’t. Negative words potentially destroy lives. The causal relationship between the curses (or whatever you want to call them) and their devastating effects doesn’t matter as much as that it works.

I wonder how many of us are not standing for what is good and right today, because we are afraid of the potential curses we may have to endure. But let’s remember that if we are truly in the Messiah, then like Israel of old, we can be confident that God will not allow negative verbal assaults to have their way in our lives. As we read in Mishlei, the book of Proverbs: “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight” (Mishlei/Proverbs 26:2).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When Blessings Become Idols

For the week of July 13, 2019 / 10 Tammuz 5779

Cartoon illustration of Moses and the bronze serpent on a pole

Chukat
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (B’midbar/Numbers 21:9)

One of the prime focuses of the Hebrew Scriptures is the issue of idolatry that was expressed in ancient Israel in two ways: the worship of false gods as represented by an image or claiming that the true God was represented by an image. In either case, the essence of idolatry is it misrepresents reality and especially the reality of the God of Israel. The dynamics of idol worship is captured by the New Covenant Writings through this statement: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:25).

Idolatry, whether it be through an actual figure associated with the true God or false gods, gives undo credence to a created thing instead of to the author of all creation. Putting one’s hope in an idol assumes that goodness can somehow be derived from the experience of engaging the thing, receiving blessing in other words. But blessing, as I just quoted, is derived from God, not things, even though God uses things to bless us. And therein lies the problem. It is so easy to confuse the instruments God uses with God himself.

This is exactly what happened with the Israelites and the bronze serpent, a story that took about eight hundred years to tell. During the wilderness wanderings under Moses, God punished the people for their grumblings by sending deadly snakes among them. In response to their humbling themselves, God prescribed an unusual remedy. He told Moses to set up a bronze serpent on a pole. All anyone bitten by a snake had to do was to look at the bronze serpent and they would be cured.

What we don’t know until the reign of Hezekiah eight centuries later was that not only did they hold on to the bronze serpent, but they made offerings to it, that is until Hezekiah smashed it (see 2 Melachim/2 Kings 18:4). For eight hundred years worship of this object had been tolerated! For eight hundred years “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

It isn’t difficult to understand why they did that. They believed, mistakenly so, that there was power in the object. What had begun as an act of faith unto God by following his instructions at the time, became an idol. They confused the source of power through his chosen instrument with the thing itself.

This is what underlies superstition. Superstition is believing that certain objects when related to in particular ways will empower us in some way. This is what happened with the bronze serpent. Looking to it was not originally superstition, since doing so was directed by God. It only became superstitious once the people assumed the power was in the object itself. They may have justified their misguided beliefs by claiming that if God used it in the past, then it’s appropriate to continue using it even after the occasion for which it was made was over and done with.

This is exactly where a lot of people of faith get stuck. We have a legitimate experience of God in the past and insist on revisiting it, thinking that we can continue to derive blessing from it when it’s outlived its intended purpose. We may not be doing this with a tangible object, but the dynamics are the same. Our precious moments with God were for the time allotted to them. To expect to derive the same blessings over and over again from what God did in an earlier time and place is to exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!

It is the Creator “who is blessed forever.” Blessing resides in God, not objects or experiences. He is free to use whatever he wishes to pour out blessings upon us. But if we confuse the One who blesses with that which he uses to bless, we will find ourselves living a lie and cut off from the very blessings we long for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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