Intelligence

For the week of November 5, 2016 / 4 Heshvan 5777

artificial intelligence, communication and futuristic

No’ah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:6)

Seven years ago when I commented on this same verse, I referenced a radio interview by futurist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil, who I had recently heard in a radio interview for the first time. One of his main points back then was the exponential increase of computer power and decrease of size and cost. “The computer I used as a student,” he said, “took up half a building; the computer I carry in my pocket today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion-fold increase.” It appears that this interview is no longer available, but there no lack of other information about Kurzweil and his ideas online, including one from January this year that picks up on his thoughts on biotechnology.

Kurzweil believes that we will soon have computers the size of our cells that will be able to heal disease and solve all human problems. What appears to be the basis of his claim is not so much the technology itself, but human intelligence, He says, “Intelligence is the only thing that enables us to solve problems.” He continues, “The only way we’re going to overcome disease and aging and poverty and environmental degradation is through greater intelligence.” Really? This is the same misnomer that the people building Babel believed. Technology is a tool, or more correctly, a collection of tools, whether it be bricks and mortar or microprocessors. While the nature and functionality of each are considerably different, they are the result of human intelligence. But will it be intelligence that solves our problems?

We learn from the story of Babel that human intelligence is not necessarily defaulted to moral goodness. Intelligence can be used equally for noble or nefarious goals. Like the results of intelligence, intelligence itself is a tool that needs to be wielded correctly in order to serve the purposes of good.

Given where we are in history I am surprised Kurzweil’s utopian dream isn’t readily denounced as naïve. How soon we forget that it has only been about seventy years since one of the most intelligent countries in history used the advanced technologies of its day to degrade, dehumanize, and exterminate millions of people. What is Kurzweil’s basis for optimism? Babel teaches us that without God, we are the means of our own destruction. And is it not already happening as we fall deeper and deeper into a culture of death through abortion, assisted suicide, ubiquitous pornography, and the de-legitimization of the traditional family?

The confusion of the languages in the time of Babel must have seemed like a disaster to those involved, but it was actually an act of God’s grace to save us from our own intelligence. With the advances in technology the past few decades, perhaps it’s time for God to throw another wrench into the works before it’s too late.

Please don’t take any of this as being anti-intellectual. Human intelligence is a gift of God and should be developed to its full potential. But it’s not our savior. It’s only as we submit our capabilities, including our intelligence, to God and his ways, beginning by trusting in Yeshua as Messiah, that our technological advances will be the blessing they should be.

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

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Can God Have a Son?

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

Proverbs 30:4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tangibles

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

The four species

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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10-10-10

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

Clock and magnifying glass on calendar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Get Real

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

Time to Get Real cloud word with a blue sky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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