Bringing Things

For the week of April 1, 2017 / 5 Nisan 5777

Heart cupped by a child's hands cupped by an adult's hands

Va-Yikra
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1-5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23

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The LORD called Moses and spoke to him from the tent of meeting, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When any one of you brings an offering to the LORD, you shall bring your offering of livestock from the herd or from the flock.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1-2)

The third book of the Torah begins with a long section describing various details concerning offerings to God. The Hebrew word, translated “offering” is “korban,” and is derived from the root “karav,” meaning, “to bring or to draw near.” One always needs to be careful when attempting to determine meaning based on etymology, the study of word origins. Just because a word is derived from one or more other words doesn’t necessarily mean that the original words determine the meaning of the derived word. Word meaning is dependent on context more than anything. In this case, however, there does seem to be a close connection between korban and karav, because the phrase “when any one of you brings an offering” is in Hebrew more akin to “when any one of you offers an offering” or “when any one of you brings a bringing thing.” The latter sounds funny in English, but that’s really what an offering is. It’s the thing that one brings to God.

Usually when I refer to this section of the Torah and similar passages, I refer to the sacrifices or the sacrificial system. Every year at this time, I give thought to what the sacrificial system is all about. In the past I have commented on the essence of sacrifice as a concept or that this section in particular is not about why the Israelites were commanded to sacrifice as much as the controls imposed by God when they sacrificed. This year, I have been giving quite a bit of thought as to how sacrifice works. What did it really accomplish? Not only does that seem to be important regarding the sacrifices themselves, but also in appreciating what the Messiah has done for us through his ultimate sacrifice.

The words themselves may be the key to understanding what sacrifice is really all about. “When you bring your bringing things…” Sacrifice as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures is about bringing things to God. The focus of the sacrificial system was upon God’s presence in the midst of his people. They were explicitly instructed not to offer whatever they liked, but only that which God prescribed. And they were not to make offerings wherever they liked, but only at the Mishkan (English: the Tabernacle), the mobile structure that was the precursor to the more permanent Temple. The Mishkan and the Temple represented the presence of God. Therefore, since sacrifices were always “bringing things” brought to God, they necessitated drawing near to God, meaning they were fundamentally relational.

Biblical offerings didn’t manipulate God or nature. The one and only true God didn’t need anything from anybody. He received them as heart expressions of his people. Many, if not most, of the things brought were not completely consumed on the altar but became part of a shared meal between the bringer and God. So, whether the occasion was a matter of guilt or gratitude, the bringer was being drawn into fellowship with his God via the item he brought. And whether guilt or gratitude, the result was always a deeper sense of relationship.

While I don’t believe as some seem to do that biblical spirituality is about nothing more than relationship to God, relationship is certainly central. And it’s the relational component of the sacrificial system that sets the stage for the Messiah’s ultimate offering. For he brought himself to God fully, so that we could be fully brought to God through him.

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

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The Glory Standard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Consequences

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

Newton's Cradle in motion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Conduits of Blessing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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