Nothing Better

For the week of August 5, 2017 / 13 Av 5777

Magnifying glass with the words The Best inside.

Va-Ethannan
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:7-8)

Standing (or sitting) before the people of Israel after forty years of wilderness wanderings, which followed being powerfully rescued by God from slavery in Egypt, Moses recounts their experiences as he prepares them to enter the Promised Land. At this point he enthusiastically exclaims the uniqueness of their relationship to God. No other nation on earth has what they have. Two things: an intimate relationship with the Creator, and his revelation of how to live within his creation.

Other cultures of that day had religion along with formal or informal philosophy. They had concepts of gods and other spiritual forces, both good and evil. They had theories of life’s origins and purpose. People related to one another and to the world around them based on their various beliefs, which, by the way, included agnosticism and atheism, just like today. But no other people group apart from ancient Israel were gifted with a genuine relationship with the only authentic God as well as insight into the workings of the world he had made.

Some may have difficulty with the exclusivity of this arrangement. Why would God only reveal himself to one nation? I trust the Master of the Universe knows what he was doing. From the perspective of the New Covenant, we know that this exclusivity was only to be until the time when the followers of Messiah, King of Israel, would be sent out into the whole world. But even when Moses spoke these words hundreds of years earlier, the other nations were in mind. For they were to notice the great wisdom and understanding that was given to Israel.

In the current social climate, we tend to forget the great blessing that God’s revelation through the Scriptures really is. Constant critiques of the Judeo-Christian worldview attempt to shame its adherents into hiding. Principles of Scripture are misrepresented as backward and bigoted. But nothing could be further from reality. Rightly understood, no philosophy, religion, or lifestyle comes close to the goodness of God’s ways as delineated in the Bible. Not only does it provide wisdom unto eternal life, observing its principles leads to health and long life in the current age. Bible-based living results in strong families and communities. The Scriptures contain the highest standards of honest and fair business practices, conflict resolution strategies, racial reconciliation techniques, personal psychological insights, and on and on.

This is not to say that the Bible hasn’t been extremely twisted through the centuries. Verses have been taken out of context and passages used nefariously for personal gain or control. That something so good and beneficial would be abused like that is the epitome of evil. Not only has this caused much harm, but it also results in preventing other people who might otherwise be helped by it.

Today, the problem is different. Many who claim to value the Bible neglect it or at least large portions of it, while others shape it to fit into the current culture’s expectations. Clearly much of the Bible’s values and approach to life’s practicalities are in stark contrast to popular thought. To accept its perspective necessitates major adjustments and invites aggressive reaction from others. But that in itself shouldn’t be reason to ignore it, especially once we realize its benefits.

Notwithstanding certain elements of the Bible that were for the time in which it was written, nothing compares to it. Its life-giving power that has benefited so many through the centuries is still as effective as ever. But let’s not forget the other remarkable thing that Moses mentions. That which made Israel unique was not simply that it possessed superior information in the body of writings we now call the Bible. It is that the knowledge of Scripture was to be acquired as part of an intimate relationship with God. In fact, it was Israel’s difficulty in maintaining that relationship that made the Bible virtually ineffective. Only through the coming of the Messiah Yeshua, and putting our trust in him, does the Bible become the life source God intended. There’s nothing better!

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

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The Bible: Israel’s Title Deed

For the week of July 29, 2017 / 6 Av 5777

Ancient map of Israel

Devarim
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Originally posted the week of August 2, 2014 / 6 Av 5774 (revised) 

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See, I have set the land before you. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring after them. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:8)

When reading the Bible, it doesn’t take too long to discover that its predominant context is the people of Israel in the Land of Israel. That context doesn’t simply function as a backdrop for the Bible’s overall story; it’s a crucial aspect of it. God’s endeavor to eradicate evil and its effects upon his creation is based on the outworking of a plan. This plan begins with his calling Abraham to leave his homeland and settle in what was then known as the Land of Canaan (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). Almost as soon as he arrived, God said to him, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:7). Not only is this promise unconditional, it is also eternal. As God soon after added, “For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever” (Bereshit/Genesis 13:15; see also 17:8). Even though Abraham had many sons besides Isaac (see Bereshit/Genesis 16 & 25:1-6), the promise was passed on to Isaac alone (Bereshit/Genesis 26:3-4). Of Isaac’s two sons, only to Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:28), was the promise of the land given (see Bereshit/Genesis 35:12).

Later on, under the covenant God gave to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai, Israel’s remaining in the Land was contingent upon their faithfulness to that covenant. Eventually, due to their relentless pursuit of other gods, God sent prophets to warn them that, unless they changed their ways, foreign domination and exile would result. Through the Assyrians and Babylonians, that’s exactly what happened.

But while retention of the Land was an expressed condition of the Sinai covenant, Israel’s claim to the Land was based, as I have already explained, on God’s unconditional, eternal promise to their forefathers. The tension between Israel’s lack of worthiness and God’s unconditional faithfulness through his promise is resolved through the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31-33) as instituted by the Messiah (see Luke 22:20).

Much Christian understanding of the New Covenant assumes that the issue of Israel’s claim to the Land becomes irrelevant. It is thought that the multi-national scope of the community of faith precludes Israel’s nationalistic aspirations. The inclusion of non-Jews as part of the family of God is taken to imply the superiority of a homogenized, generic, spiritual community. Yet knowing that some continuity with God’s ancient plan as outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures must be retained, this quasi-national organization brands itself as “new” or “true” Israel. Detaching what is supposedly higher spiritual values from the lower natural ones, concern over the literal Promised Land, especially with its ancient attachments to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is viewed as an archaic throwback to a below-standard epoch.

There are many problems with this approach to Israel and the Land, most importantly that nothing of this sort can be found in the Bible, the New Testament included. If such a redefinition was crucial to the understanding of God’s explicit commitment to Israel through the forefathers, why is it not clearly expounded upon anywhere in Scripture? The Hebrew prophets fully expected that the natural descendants of the people whom they addressed (unfaithful Israel) would one day be fully restored to the Land and to God. Take what God says through Amos for example: “I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them” (Amos 9:15; see also Isaiah 54:7; Jeremiah 30:3; Ezekiel 37:21). Nothing about the coming of the Messiah or the writings of his followers detracts from this expectation. To spiritualize the prophetic literature by twisting its explicit intent undermines the Bible, since so much of its overall message is based on God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel.

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

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The Family Unit

For the week of July 22, 2017 / 28 Tammuz 5777

White silhouette of a family

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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These are the statutes that the LORD commanded Moses about a man and his wife and about a father and his daughter while she is in her youth within her father’s house. (B’midbar/Numbers 30:17; English: 30:16)

It might seem strange to contemporary readers to encounter God’s directives concerning responsibility towards vows. I suspect vows themselves are a foreign concept for most of us. We may refer to statements of intention or personal promises as vows, but a vow is far more formal and solemn than that. The only vows most of us will ever utter are our wedding vows. But given the state of marriage in our society today, I don’t know how serious they are being taken.

Vows themselves aside, the stranger aspect (to us) with regard to vow taking in our parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) is the responsibility a father or husband bears with regard to his daughter’s or wife’s vows. Vows were basically binding. But in the case of daughters and wives, fathers and husbands could cancel them upon hearing of them.

In much of today’s world, not only does such a thing sound passé, it is abhorrent. Only backward misogynist societies would devalue women this way, we tend to think. But it’s not as if the Torah teaches a woman’s vow was worthless. Women were free to make vows and had to keep them just like men. It’s that the ultimate responsibility for her vows rested with the person vested with household authority. I understand that this too is offensive to many as it undermines our concept of equality. Why should the man be in charge? And why didn’t the father or husband have similar claim over their sons?

It seems to me that the offense taken at such an arrangement is not fundamentally rooted in our modern ideal of equality after all, but a rejection of the family as a God-ordained institution. The more we have elevated the place and position of the individual, the less we value the function of the family unit. Evolutionary thinking regards social phenomenon as strictly utilitarian, viewing the traditional household as only necessary for a time in history when people couldn’t survive on their own. But now with the help of technology, we don’t really need each other. Not only can we survive, but we can thrive on our own. You can still have a family if you want, though it needn’t be a gathering of parents and children plus perhaps grandparents. Household clusters today can be anything we want them to be and for as long as we want them to be, if we want them at all.

But that is not the world God made. The family is not simply a social convention, it is the intentional design of the Creator. God made this clear when he said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:24). Marriage binds a husband and wife into a new entity, so to speak. It is within this God-ordained union that children were to enter into the world. The responsibility of caring for and training those particular children fully rested on their natural parents. Thus, these families were established by God as the building blocks of every society ever since. I am talking in ideal terms, of course. Due to the state of the creation, we have had to deal with broken family situations of various kinds for all sorts of reasons. But that doesn’t take anything away from the God-mandated standard of the traditional household.

Once we understand that the family unit is instituted by God, it is reasonable to expect some sort of administrative directions in order to enable the family to function effectively. In God’s wisdom, he appointed fathers and husbands to bear responsibility for their household. One of the ways that was to  be expressed practically was with vows. Why the moms and daughters? I can’t say exactly. But I can guess that their vows would have often had a very direct effect on the household. The God-appointed authority, therefore, needed to have the last word for everyone’s sake.

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

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Wrath Turner

For the week of July 15, 2017 / 21 Tammuz 5777
Originally posted July 30, 2016 / 24 Tammuz 5776

Knight. Photo in vintage style

Pinhas
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (English 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

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And the LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 25:10-11)

This week’s Torah reading continues where last week’s ended. A great plague had broken out among the people of Israel because of their gross immorality. They had been lured by the Moabite women to participate in their forbidden religious practices and engage with them sexually. The result was that twenty-four thousand Israelites died.

The contemporary reader may wonder why God responded so harshly to such a thing. Certainly, this is a sign of the Bible’s extreme backward thinking from which we have become liberated. Isn’t sexuality something to be freely explored by consenting adults? And as for participating in Moabite religious practices (of which the sexual component was likely an integral part), aren’t all religions the same? There’s nothing wrong with exploring the various cultures of the world’s peoples, is there?

Yes, there is. Sex without boundaries has issues. I hope that most people, at least deep down, do understand that. And while some people may espouse absolute sexual freedom, we know that some form of limits on who does what with whom is necessary for a strong and healthy society. This then begs the question, what limits should exist and how do we establish them?

Those questions are actually beyond the scope of this message. I simply wanted to make sure that we are on the same page with regard to limits. We agree that some form of limits is necessary and that to transgress those limits has serious consequences.

There were certainly serious consequences resulting from Israel’s transgression in this story until Pinchas (English: Phinehas) skewered an Israelite man and his Moabite amorous partner. God had already spoken on the matter, condemning what was happening, but this couple didn’t care and arrogantly flaunted their sin. Pinchas was so impassioned for God’s honor, that he couldn’t tolerate what they were doing and did them in. The result was not only the death of the couple but an end to the plague as well.

God commended Pinchas for sharing his heart for his people. We read these stories and wonder why God makes such a big deal about the things we think are fun. But if we could only see this from his perspective, as Pinchas did, our hearts would break as we would be overwhelmed by the destructive nature of our misguided pursuits. The extreme nature of Pinchas’s actions turned away God’s wrath and made atonement on behalf of Israel (see Bemidbar/Numbers 25:13). It is likely that by killing the perpetrators, Israel’s illicit engagement with the Moabites stopped, thus bringing an end to the plague.

There is no indication that what Pinchas did serves as a model to follow in similar circumstances. In fact, it is pretty clear that his actions were not sanctioned by Torah. There was something unique about this situation that called for drastic measures, and he successfully turned away the wrath of God.

Years later another zealous soul would go to great extremes to turn away the wrath of God. But instead of slaying the sinners, he was willing to be slain on our behalf. This episode from Israel’s early history is far more illustrative of the human condition than we normally think. From the beginning, we have been engaging one another in all sorts of illicit ways, transgressing limits consciously and unconsciously, and thus have brought the wrath of God upon us all.

Like Pinchas, Yeshua the Messiah looked upon our situation and took action. But instead of skewering us, he allowed himself to be skewered and conquered the plague of death once and for all, making atonement on our behalf, thus turning away God’s wrath.

And so whatever illicit activity you have been involved in, stop, and remember how Yeshua was skewered to turn away God’s wrath from you. If you turn to God in Yeshua’s name right now, he will turn to you…in love and acceptance, not wrath.

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

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Blessed Irony

For the week of July 8, 2017 / 14 Tammuz 5777

Daily News - Extra! Extra! - Irony

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

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How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? (B’midbar/Numbers 23:8)

After Israel’s defeat of the Amorites, the neighboring Moabites were terrified they would be next. So their king, Balak, hired a diviner named Bil’am (English: Balaam). Balak wanted Bil’am to place a curse on the Israelites, but God wouldn’t let him. Every time he tried, words of blessing proceeded from his mouth instead. His relationship to Truth is confusing, because it appears he was committed to only speaking God’s words. But the blessings he offered were in spite of himself even though he had a level of awareness of God’s upper hand in this affair. He would later on instigate an immoral snare that drew Israel to worship other gods, resulting in a plague that killed 24,000 people (B’midbar/Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16). While Israel was not immune to transgression, they would remain a nation under the blessing of God regardless.

Centuries later there was another failed attempt to curse Israel. This time the attempted curse would proceed from the mouths of Israelites themselves. The result in some ways was devastating, not because God was coerced by supposed intent, but by how later generations would misrepresent the words spoken.

The scene was a courtyard in Jerusalem. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate found himself having to handle a situation he would rather avoid. From his perspective, some of the Jewish leadership in the city were making a big deal out of nothing, and he wished they would deal with the rabbi from Galilee themselves. Even when the people curiously accused Yeshua with sedition against Rome, Pilate balked at their concerns. After he claimed his own innocence in the matter, literally washing his hands of the affair, the crowd called out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).

Little did Mattityahu, the original Hebrew name from which the English, Matthew, is ultimately derived, know how these words would come to haunt his people. His retelling of Yeshua’s story, more than the other three versions, is purposely placed within its Jewish context. While offering much similar material to Mark and Luke, Mattityahu was very careful to demonstrate Yeshua as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectation, rooted in the Hebrew scripture, and relevant to Jewish concerns of the Second Temple period.

An exhaustive record of Yeshua’s life and ministry would be virtually impossible. Therefore, each of the four Gospel writers had to be extremely selective with what they put in writing. The Jewish nature of Mattityahu’s selections is vividly apparent. It is only in his Gospel that we read of foreign wise men, probably astrologers most likely from Persia, traveling all the way to Israel looking for the King of the Jews. Only in Mattityahu’s book, do we read of Yeshua, expounding Torah, cutting through the rabbinic interpretations of his day to instill its heart into the Jewish crowds following him. Only in Mattityahu do we read the clear statement from the mouth of Shimon Keifa (English: Simon Peter): “You are the Messiah!”

However, in subsequent years, as the membership of the New Covenant Community grew to not only include non-Jews, but to become majority non-Jewish, Mattityahu’s Jewish emphasis was taken as a diatribe against his own people. This was never his intention. His writings were in keeping with the passionate love of the Hebrew prophets from centuries earlier. Not only did the Gentile-dominated church misconstrue the tone and sentiment of Mattityahu’s words, they at times missed his point altogether. Yeshua’s expounding of Torah, for example, as found in what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, has been hijacked to support the misguided and ungodly notion that Yeshua undermined the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly Torah. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The destructive nature of how the Church has abused the words of the Jewish crowd before Pilate is another example. For centuries many Christians have insisted “His blood be on us and on our children!” was a self-imposed curse, not only upon that particular crowd and their children, but on the entire Jewish nation forever – that somehow this statement sets the Jewish people apart for suffering and oppression – even at the hands of Christians – for all time.

That Mattityahu would intentionally set his kinsman up for an eventual negative backlash is absurd. Also, how can that crowd have the authority to place such a curse on themselves let alone upon the whole nation? This popular misinterpretation that resulted in centuries-long Christian arrogance towards Jews is not based on these words or the situation in which they are found. Rather, such a conclusion is all about the unresolved pagan hatred and suspicion of the Jewish people that didn’t get sufficiently eradicated upon turning to the Jewish God.

It’s possible that this particular crowd instigated by the corrupt Jewish priesthood of that day was seeking to placate the fickle Roman governor, but Pilate was still in charge. His handling of the situation was far more due to his great disdain for the Jews, than to any sense of justice whatsoever.

Whatever the crowd understood of the situation or their motive in saying what they said, they had no more power to curse their nation than Bil’am had. No one can curse what God has blessed. They themselves may have failed to personally derive the benefits of God’s enduring faithfulness to Israel as promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they can’t undermine the eternal plans and purposes of God intended by him for blessing.

But there’s more. By the time Mattityahu reported these words, he was well aware of what they implied. To claim Yeshua’s blood upon oneself is no curse. Far from it! Like centuries earlier when the Jewish people placed blood over their doors as protection from death that first Passover night, so too having the blood of Yeshua upon us and our children is the greatest blessing of all. By quoting the crowd, Mattityahu was spotlighting the blessed irony of the situation.

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

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