Covenantal Foundations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jubilee

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

Text: Jubilee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Blasphemy

For the week of May 21, 2016 / 13 Iyar 5776

Passage from Hebrew Bible

 

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

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Whoever blasphemes the name of the LORD shall surely be put to death. All the congregation shall stone him. The sojourner as well as the native, when he blasphemes the Name, shall be put to death. (Vayikra/Leviticus 24:16)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) includes a very serious injunction to impose violent capital punishment upon a person who “blasphemes the name of the LORD.” We may hear the term “blaspheme” mentioned from time to time, but what does it actually mean? And why is it so serious?

Depending on the English translation blaspheme is used when translating a variety of Hebrew words that apparently refer to the dishonoring of God in one way or other. The word here is “naqav,” which has a variety of meanings depending on the context. It can mean blaspheme or curse, pierce something with holes, or even select people for something. At first glance, these usages may seem to have nothing to do with each other. In fact, some scholars propose that while the word is the same, they may derive from a different semantic history. While that is possible, these usages may actually help us understand what blasphemy really is and why it is so serious.

Whether one is selecting people or boring holes, it assumes a certain kind of relationship between the person doing the action and the object. Selecting people assumes a level of authority and power on the part of the person doing the selecting. Boring holes assumes superiority and control over an object. It could be that in a context such as our parsha that naqav is describing a person taking a place of superiority over God and treating him like an object to be controlled for one’s own use.

The injunction against naqav here was in response to the misuse of God’s name in the midst of a fight between two men. It is possible that the offending party was attempting to utilize God’s name in order to gain the upper hand in the fight. Such a thing was deemed to be so wrong as to warrant the man’s execution.

This is not exactly the same as breaking the third commandment, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:7). To take God’s name in vain is to treat it lightly especially in relationship to taking oaths. Naqav, on the other hand, is invoking God’s name to manipulate others for one’s own benefit.

While under the New Covenant we (as opposed to the state) have no jurisdiction to enact capital punishment, the Torah portion encourages us to take the prohibition against naqav very seriously. Are there ways in which we seek to use God to control others, and thereby commit naqav? It is too easy sometimes to invoke God’s name in hopes that people will do our bidding. We forget that every individual is answerable to God, not to us. This is something to remembered especially when dealing with those closest to us. Even when our goal is to honor God and accomplish his will, we must never think it is permissible to use God’s name against those whom we are called to love and serve.

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

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The God of Israel

For the week of May 14, 2016 / 6 Iyar 5776

Israel independence day and abstract flag icons

Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob (Amos 9:8)

A significant feature of the Hebrew prophets is doom and gloom. After all, these spokespeople of God emerged as the nation of Israel fell into deeper and deeper decline. God had warned the nation from its beginnings that rebellion against him would result in judgment, culminating in foreign oppression and exile.

Israel is not the only target of biblical prophetic warnings. Israel’s enemies also faced the prospect of dire consequences due to their evil ways. While the threat of harsh judgment hung over the heads of both Israel and these other nations, there was one huge difference between them. Israel could be confident that judgment was never God’s final word to them. Interwoven within so much doom and gloom are the unbreakable threads of restoration.

I write this in between two key markers in the Jewish calendar. Thursday, May 5, this year, is Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we remember the 6 million Jews who died as a result of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies during World War II. Exactly one week later, Thursday, May 12, is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day, celebrating the re-emergence of the Jewish national home in 1948 after almost two thousand years of exile.

Whatever one thinks about the causes of the Holocaust or the political underpinning of the modern state of Israel, it is difficult not to be amazed at how a nation, dispersed and stateless for so long under great duress, could rise from the ashes of attempted genocide to become one of the greatest countries of the world. Sadly, many who only hear negative stories about Israel fed to us by the media are clued out as to the beauty and achievements of this most remarkable young ancient country.

Students of history should be confounded by this. No nation has ever withstood such hardship for so long only to be restored to its land, rediscover its language, regather and integrate literally millions of its people from the four corners of the earth.

The only reasonable explanation for the restoration of the Jewish people to the land of Israel is God’s commitment to them as a people rooted in his covenantal promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This is the basis of the hope offered by the prophets of old. The Bible is clear that human rebellion against God leads to destruction. Anyone’s hope is only and always found in God’s intervention. And time after time throughout the Bible that’s what we see as God comes through for Israel.

It’s interesting how some people accept God’s faithfulness to Israel in the Bible while having a hard time extending that same faithfulness into modern times. For some this is due to a misunderstanding as to the relationship of God’s unconditional covenantal promises to the nation through Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the conditional nature of the later covenant given at Mt. Sinai to Moses. While Sinai delineated harsh consequences for disobedience, God’s unconditional obligations to the people based on his promises to the patriarchs put himself in a situation where he could not leave Israel in an everlasting state of judgment.

Confusion over these matters is compounded by the New Covenant’s emphasis on the individual’s relationship with God and how personal salvation through the Messiah is for people of all nations, not Israel alone. Many fail to distinguish the national vs. personal aspects of God’s workings with humankind. God’s faithfulness to the nation of Israel as established through the Abrahamic covenant doesn’t automatically set individual Jewish people in right relationship with God. Salvation is always by faith. At the same time, the importance of personal faith doesn’t undermine God’s ongoing covenant faithfulness to Israel as demonstrated in its survival and national restoration. In fact, the God of Israel can only be fully known for who he is when we recognize his eternal faithfulness to Israel.

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

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The Feel of Clean

For the week of May 7, 2016 / 29 Nisan 5776

Vacuum cleaning dust on a floor

Aharei Mot
Torah: Vayikra / Leviticus 16:1 – 18:30
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of April 16, 2011 (revised version as appearing in the book “Torah Light”)

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For on this day shall atonement be made for you to cleanse you. You shall be clean before the LORD from all your sins. (Vayikra/Leviticus 16:30)

Do you enjoy the feeling of clean? You know what I mean. After working or playing hard on a muggy summer day, when you finally have a nice long shower, there’s nothing like that feeling of being free from the stickiness of sweat and dirt.

The Torah uses the terms unclean and clean to describe our state before God. The effect of sin in our lives makes us dirty in a very real sense. While this reality is spiritual, not physical, it is no less real.

Being dirty physically isn’t bad in itself, yet it can prevent us from participating in certain situations. While grease and grime may be appropriate for a car mechanic at a service garage, it wouldn’t do to be covered with dirt at his wedding. In the same way, spiritual uncleanness makes us unfit to enter God’s presence.

Our awareness or lack thereof is no indication of how physically dirty we may be. Human beings are quite adaptable and can get used to all sorts of things, including dirt. Getting comfortable with dirt doesn’t change the fact of dirt. It’s the same spiritually. How aware we are of our uncleanness may or may not be an accurate reflection of our spiritual state.

The Torah assumes that human beings get dirty spiritually and provides cleansing through the sacrifices. This is a foreign concept for most of us. We don’t tend to think of ourselves as spiritually unclean. But this is the very reason for our alienation from God. Due to sin, we are unfit to be in God’s presence, which in turn undermines human existence in every way.

Spiritual cleansing as prescribed by the Torah was only a partial solution, in that it only allowed the people to participate in the religious affairs of the nation. It never really made the people fit to be in God’s presence. In fact, it actually served as a reminder of how terribly dirty we really are.

When Yeshua celebrated his last Pesach (English, Passover) with his disciples, he washed their feet to demonstrate (among other things) the humble attitude we should have toward each other (see John 13:1–20). As he was about to wash Peter’s feet, Peter understandably reacted to the Messiah’s performing the function of a common servant. Once he understood that this act was necessary for him to truly be part of the Messiah’s life and mission, he asked that Yeshua might also wash his head and hands. To this, Yeshua made a most profound pronouncement. He said to Peter, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean” (John 13:10). While it is still necessary to deal with the uncleanness of daily living, as signified by the need for foot washing, Peter was clean. He was clean but didn’t know it. He didn’t feel clean. He thought he was still dirty.

Do you feel dirty? Unlike physical cleansing, spiritual cleansing isn’t naturally or automatically felt. But if you, like Peter, have turned to Yeshua as your Master and Messiah, then you, like Peter, are clean. Ah, the feel of clean!

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

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