Practical Torah

For the week of February 6, 2016 / 27 Shevat 5776

Practical Torah

Mishpatim
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1-24:18
Haftarah: Jeremiah 34:8-22; 33:25-26

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Now these are the rules that you shall set before them (Shemot/Exodus 21:1)

Last week we looked at how the Ten Words (commonly known as the Ten Commandments) function as representative of the covenant God established with the people of Israel through Moses at Mount Sinai. Accepting them as eternal principles simply because they are the Ten Commandments or rejecting them as Old Testament relics fails to regard their covenantal function. With the coming of Yeshua and the inauguration of the New Covenant as promised by the prophet Jeremiah (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare Luke 22:20), the constitution of God’s people underwent a major transformation. That which was given on tablets of stone has been internalized as Jeremiah said (see 2 Corinthians 3:3). The life that God had called Israel to live was no longer something outside and out of reach, so to speak, but instead to be lived from the inside out. The alienation from God which had prevented Israel from living up to the Sinai covenantal demands was resolved once and for all by the forgiveness of sin brought about through Yeshua’s sacrificial death.

The main contrast between the Sinai and New Covenants, therefore, is found not primarily in their practical details, but in the constitutional arrangements within which the details are given. The older covenant provides for the organization of a national entity; the newer one enables for the inclusion of all nations without requiring specific membership in Israel. The great change in the sacrificial system from ongoing and temporal to final and permanent makes the older priestly function obsolete and thus allows believers to approach God directly.

But just because the covenantal foundations have changed, that doesn’t mean that every God-given directive through Moses is no longer relevant. For it is in the Torah thatwe encounter almost every aspect of life from God’s perspective. Discerning which elements of God’s teaching (for that’s what “torah” means) were for ancient Israel alone and which ones are for all people for all times can be a challenge, but a worthwhile and enriching one.

Through Torah we are reminded that relationship with God is not something detached from life’s practicalities. While abstract notions of love and forgiveness are essential, it is through the directives of Torah that the core of our faith is expressed in very practical ways. When reading the first section of this week’s Torah portion you might wonder if that is really true, however. The subject of slaves in the Bible is often used to demonstrate how backwards it is. But what we actually have here is God’s speaking into a world where slavery was taken for granted. The boundaries and regulations God established through Moses emphasizes the value of all human beings. This would have been radical for those days and sets the stage for its eventual abolishment. How’s that for being practical?

Our portion continues by addressing the subject of personal liability. We are privileged to be given God’s mind regarding common issues like these that people have faced throughout history. We neglect God’s word on these matters to our peril.

In another section in this week’s reading we see the consequences for certain types of social behavior, including premarital sex, bestiality, sorcery, as well as dealing with the vulnerable members of society: foreigners, widows, and orphans. As with the slavery section, modern readers might too quickly react to the prescribed consequences for certain behaviors rather than glean from God’s perspective. The determining of consequences is subject to the jurisdiction of civil leaders, which while regulated under Sinai for ancient Israel, is not expanded to the nations under the New Covenant. What we can derive from this is the destructive nature of the things addressed, so that they can be avoided among believers and discouraged within the cultures in which we find ourselves.

This is what Yeshua meant when he told his followers that they are “salt and light” (see Matthew 5:13-16). As the great Master Rabbi he expounded the teachings of Moses, so that they (and us!) can learn the practical details of Torah within a New Covenant framework.

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

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The Ten Words

For the week of January 30, 2016 / 20 Shevat 5776

TheTenWords01_480

Yitro
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 18:1 – 20:23
Haftarah: Isaiah 6:1-7:6, 9:5

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And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me.” (Shemot/Exodus 20:1-3)

The Ten Commandments function in a most special way within holy scripture. You may not be aware that they are never actually called the “ten commandments,” but rather, eseret ha-devarim, “the Ten Words” (see Shemot/Exodus 34:28). Obviously the Hebrew is indicating that this is much more than a list of ten individual words. Rather they are ten unique divine utterances; unique in several ways.

First, the Ten Words were the only part of God’s revelation to Moses that was given in the direct hearing of the people (see Shemot/Exodus 20:18-21). It isn’t clear if they heard the actual words, but whatever they heard, they were so terrified, they never want to experience it again.

Second, of all that Moses received from God, only these Ten Words were written by God’s own finger. In fact, he did so twice, due to Moses destroying the first set in reaction to Israel’s rebellious activities while he was with God on the mountain (see Shemot/Exodus 31:18; 34:1).

The third and perhaps most important way the Ten Words are unique is that they, in particular, are called “the covenant” (see Shemot/Exodus 34:28). This would be why they were among the items that were placed inside the “aron ha-berit,” the Ark of the Covenant.

There was of course more to the covenant given at Mount Sinai than just the Ten Words. The Ten served to point the people to the details of the entire covenant. They weren’t necessarily more important than any other of God’s directives, but what they do is capture the essence of the whole covenant, while the rest of Torah elaborates on them. The ten, then, especially as a collection, have an essential symbolic function in that they represent the whole Sinai covenant.

It is not biblically sound, therefore, to isolate or detach the Ten Words from the rest of Torah as if God gave these directives as universal principles, while everything else he revealed through Moses was for Israel alone. This is not to say that the Ten Words or anything else in Torah aren’t necessarily universal. It’s that it is not right to automatically consider them as universal just because they are the Ten Words.

Biblically speaking, the Ten Words first and foremost function as covenant, not moral principles. They (as much of the rest of Torah) are full of morality, but primarily they establish the basis and parameters of God’s relationship with ancient Israel. That is why the Ten Words begin with “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Shemot/Exodus 20:2). Israel was to obey God’s commands on the basis of their having been rescued from Egypt, something which no other nation can claim. Note that Israel’s salvation and relationship to God were established by God first before he gave them directions to live by. Biblical morality was never intended to be a pathway to God, but rather a response of God’s people to his love and faithfulness.

Living God’s way under the New Covenant is similar in that it too is a response to God’s salvation. This time not only as the nation of Israel who were in physical bondage to Egypt, but people of all nations who have been released from the greater bondage to sin and death through faith in the Messiah.

But as those who have a relationship with God through Yeshua, how do we live? While many have adopted the Ten Words as their moral code, others have rejected most, if not all, the commands given through Moses as being relevant today. Some claim that Yeshua replaced an older notion of hundreds of commands with only two (love God and love your neighbor) as if God is now lenient instead of strict. But that’s not what is going on here at all. Yeshua’s answer to the question concerning the greatest commandment (see Matthew 22:36-40) provides perspective and priority in relating to God. These two commands therefore serve as a summary of everything God calls us to.

But what does he call us to? Under the New Covenant, Torah, which was at one time written on tablets of stone, is now engraved upon our hearts (see Jeremiah 31:31-34; 2 Corinthians 3:3). That which was external has been internalized. This transformational change brought about by Yeshua’s death and resurrection allows us to live out the essential elements of God’s revelation through Moses including the Ten Words, but within a new covenantal arrangement. We will look at how this works out practically next week.

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

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Go Forward

For the week of January 23, 2016 / 13 Shevat 5776

GoForward01_600
Be-Shallah
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:17 – 17:16
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 4:4 – 5:31

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The LORD said to Moses, “Why do you cry to me? Tell the people of Israel to go forward.” (Shemot/Exodus 14:15)

This week’s message is not for everyone. I guess that’s always true, but there’s something about this one in particular that probably should be ignored altogether if it doesn’t apply to you. But if it does, you don’t want to miss it! So, here we go…

The people of Israel were between a rock and a hard place, metaphorically speaking. They were actually between an impassible body of water and the Egyptian army keen on dragging them back to Egypt. An interesting interchange ensues between Moses and God. Well, actually, it’s not an interchange. The people freak out, thinking that they are about to be slaughtered, Moses reassures them, but then God tells Moses what to do, contradicting him in the process. Let’s look at this more closely.

Moses said to the people: “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today. For the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be silent” (Shemot/Exodus 14:13-14). Based on everything Moses knew about God up to that moment – his character, his power, and his methodology – this sounds so right. Moses knew how fundamentally incorrect the people’s freak-out was. God didn’t bring them to this point only to abandon them now. Moses knew that he was leading them to Sinai and on to the Promised Land. So this couldn’t be the end. How God would rescue them he didn’t know, but after all that had happened with the ten plagues and a reasonable analysis of the situation, Moses assumed that all Israel had to do was to do nothing, except stand. God would take care of the situation all by himself.

But with all due respect to Moses, he was wrong. They were not just to stand there; they were to “go forward.” I know Moses was also told: “Lift up your staff, and stretch out your hand over the sea and divide it, that the people of Israel may go through the sea on dry ground” (Shemot/Exodus 14:16), but the people were not to wait for the sea to part first, but rather begin to march toward the sea.

God was calling the people to readjust their orientation to the situation. He had called them to journey in a certain direction, which required getting to the other side of the water. But instead they were frozen by their fears. They needed to refocus and get with God’s program again.

Note that God was not calling them into the water before it parted. He might call people to do that from time to time, but not in this case. They simply had to move in its direction. He also didn’t order them to turn around and confront the enemy nipping at their heels. The day would come when Israel would engage in battle, but not now. In this situation they had to go forward.

I remember a situation I was in where I was called to go forward. It was nothing as drastic as what the Israelites were facing here, but for me at the time the dynamic was similar. I was at a large leaders’ conference, a pretty intense time of seeking God for wisdom and blessing. I was privileged to be part of the core group tasked with discerning the direction for the various meetings. I was new to such things and probably a little too excited about it all. In one of the core group meetings, I felt a real burden over something, but once I finally had a chance to speak out, I got the impression (right or wrong) that I was really out of line. I felt absolutely terrible and embarrassed. I went to my room, not wanting to show my face in public again (I am being only a little overdramatic!). As I called out to the Lord in my fear and confusion, I had the clear sense that I needed to go forward. That meant joining the others to face whatever might happen, whatever others might think of me, whatever reprimand I might receive, whatever. I had no guaranty of how God would deal with the scary elements ahead of me. I simply had to face them. And as I did, nothing I feared came to pass. My sea had parted.

Some of you reading this need to go forward. You need to walk right towards the very thing that you think will be your complete undoing. But as you do, God will enable you to walk right through it as if it is not really there, just like the Israelites walked through on dry ground. Perhaps he will even obliterate the threat at your back at the same time, just like the Egyptians who drowned when the waters receded.

But as I mentioned at the start, this is only for those for whom it is for. God may have a different tactic for you to follow. Maybe you are to stand, to fight, or something else. Only don’t be surprised if God is telling you to go forward.

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

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Blessed Rejection

For the week of January 16, 2016 / 6 Shevat 5776

Isolated man pushing copy space

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

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The Egyptians were urgent with the people to send them out of the land in haste. For they said, “We shall all be dead.” (Shemot/Exodus 12:33)

Last week we looked at how God used drastic measures to secure his people’s freedom in Egypt (Love in Action). Because of his love for his people he did what was necessary to break the power of oppression. When the story of the exodus is recounted, we normally hear about God’s sending of Moses, Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal to let the people go, and the ten plagues. We remember how Pharaoh finally gives in to God’s demands, but later changes his mind again. However, when his army catches up to the Israelites at the Red Sea, God causes it to part, allowing the people to cross, then drowns the Egyptians. Once on the other side, the people of Israel are finally free to begin the next chapter in their history.

There is an essential aspect of the process of Israel’s deliverance that is often overlooked. It’s a part played by the Egyptian people in reaction to the tenth plague, the killing of the firstborn. We don’t read much up to that point about the common Egyptian. The focus is on God, Moses, his brother Aaron, and Pharaoh. We also read a bit about Egyptian and Jewish leadership. But something crucial happens with the Egyptian people themselves after the tenth plague that may have made all the difference in Israel’s departure. The final plague freaked them out. I don’t blame them. After witnessing the death of the firstborn, if Israel didn’t leave, what could be next other than complete national extermination!

We might wonder why it took the common folks until now to urge the Israelites to leave. Hadn’t they already greatly suffered under the other plagues? Yet it’s reasonable to assume that to have said or done anything with regard to Israel’s liberation would have been illegal until Pharaoh gave his permission. Once he did, and death had visited every Egyptian home, the people pushed them out of the land in haste. Every year we eat matza (English: unleavened bread) to commemorate this very aspect of the story (Shemot/Exodus 12:34,39).

But why was the Egyptians’ urging of the people essential? Didn’t Pharaoh possess supreme power over Egypt? Once the Israelites were told they could go, that should have been it, right? While I am aware we can’t know what would have happened, we do know that after they left, Pharaoh changed his mind again, sending his army to bring them back. Is it not possible that if the Israelites would have hesitated, they may not have been able to leave after all? Also, it’s no small thing for two million people to get up and go after being so entrenched in a society. Individual Egyptians may have wanted to retain their slaves. And the Israelites, once certain that their freedom was secured, may not have felt the need to rush. It may not have occurred to them that Pharaoh would have reneged again on his word and prevented them from leaving. In addition, life in Egypt was not bad in every way. Later, during their travels in the wilderness, they pined after Egypt, saying “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt that cost nothing, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Bemidbar/Numbers 11:5). Egypt was difficult, but it was not as if the wilderness was easy. Both experiences had their positives and negatives. People will put up with a lot if their basic needs are met, even giving up personal freedom and comfort for a sense of security. So without the Egyptians urging them to leave quickly, the Israelites may have stayed.

The theme of liberty that emerges from the story of the exodus is easily romanticized: visions of people singing and dancing with big smiles on their faces as they journey into the horizon. But the exodus is no fairy tale. True freedom is an adventure into the unknown, often fraught with great danger. Freedom in God is a journey of trusting the Unseen One, where we must give up relying on those things we have grown accustomed to, including ourselves and others. That is why God knows that without a push we often prefer whatever oppression we may be in bondage to. That push may arise from within us, as the struggles of life take us to the end of ourselves, but it may also come from elsewhere as it did for the Israelites in Egypt.

When the push comes from others, it can be painful and confusing. It can take years to realize the blessing of rejection. Doors slammed in our faces, friends turning us away, opportunities that never materialized. It would be easy if we could simply get directions from God and follow them. But God knows that we are easily fooled by the false security of our oppressive situations and our natural fear of the great unknown. So he gives us a push, because he loves us too much to leave us where we are.

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

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Love in Action

For the week of January 9, 2016 / 28 Tevet 5776

LoveInAction01_480

Va-Era
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 6:2 – 9:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 28:25 – 29:21

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Say therefore to the people of Israel, “I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment.” (Shemot/Exodus 6:6)

Love is core to Holy Scripture. The Torah commands the people of Israel to love God with everything they’ve got (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 6:5) and others like oneself (see Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18). Messiah was clear that these particular commandments are the greatest of them all (see Matthew 22:36-40). Love is so key that God himself is defined by it (see 1 John 4:8).

But none of this means anything unless we know what love actually is. Most commonly the term love is used as code for having romantic feelings. “I love you” means “I want you.” It’s not exclusively used that way, of course. Parents, children, and siblings may love one another, but it would be an interesting exercise to see if people could tell you what love really means to them in those contexts.

Irrespective of what people mean by it, the biblical call to love is a call to give of oneself to another. To love within a marriage, or any other sort of relationship, should be about giving not getting. What is given, if it is true sincere love, is to be based on what is best for the other person. Once we understand that, then it’s easier to understand the concept of tough love, doing what is necessary for another, not perhaps what they would prefer. Disciplining a child or refusing to fuel a spouse’s addiction are examples of that. Similarly, in our relationship with God, we shouldn’t misinterpret hardships as something other than his love, for it is through difficulties we become better people (see Hebrews 12:7-11).

Sometimes true love within a relationship is expressed through actions outside that relationship. Loving the poor and the oppressed can and should include direct relief to such persons, but may also require confronting the societal structures causing the oppression. One of the greatest examples of God’s love, therefore, was the plagues of Egypt. The story of Israel’s rescue would have been a much nicer one, had God’s love been expressed solely through Moses’s word to Pharaoh to let the people go. However, Pharaoh’s stubborn refusal called for harsher action.

To grasp the fullness of the meaning of love, whether it be divine or human, we need to come to grips with the need for the kind of extreme measures that God himself utilized in order to alleviate his people’s suffering. Bullies – whether they be a ten-year-old child in the school yard, or oppressive regimes like ancient Egypt – cannot be effectively dealt with by niceness. After being given a reasonable amount of time to cease their destructive behavior, harsh action may be necessary. It is one thing to endure injustice ourselves for God’s sake, but to expect others, be it our own children or people groups, to suffer when we have the means to put an end to it, is to hate, not love, them.

How might you put love in action today?

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

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