Reflecting Relationship

For the week of September 30, 2017 / 10 Tishri 5778

Red heart on a black reflective background

Yom Kippur
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-34; Bemidbar/Numbers 29:7-11
Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14

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Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 57:5-6)

The most likely reason why this selection from the prophet Isaiah (57:14 – 58:14) was chosen to be read at Yom Kippur (English: Day of Atonement) is because of its reference to fasting, the personal ritual that has become core to the traditional observance of this high holy day. Interestingly, however, God’s instruction regarding fasting here is not really about fasting itself. Rather, it is that religious ritual is futile unless it is accompanied by godly living.

Note how intimately God through the prophet connects the ritual with action. It’s not as if giving oneself to acts of justice functions as fasting. It’s that true fasting only has real benefit when the life of the person doing so is given to righteousness. This makes a lot of sense. Activities such as fasting and prayer are expressions of love and devotion to God. Good things for God followers to do. But expressions of love and devotion only really mean something when the other areas of life reflect those expressions. Fasting unto the Lord (as opposed to fasting for health, for example) makes God a special priority for that time. The giving up of food, drink, and other common needs and pleasures creates an opportunity to intensely focus on God. But to do so while normally ignoring his will is hypocritical. It’s downright deceitful, in fact, because the religious activity pretends to represent a lifestyle that is far from reality. It’s also self-deceiving, because the intensity of something like fasting can fool ourselves into thinking we are devoted to God, when we are not.

It’s like being really good at giving gifts to your wife. On one hand, your ability and willingness to do so gives every appearance of being reflective of a loving heart, when the remainder of the time you are unfaithful to her. Maybe you aren’t having an affair, but your heart is not truly hers; it’s yours. You may be able to fool your wife (though you probably aren’t). You may be able to fool yourself. But your gifts mean nothing. On the other hand, expressions of love, such as gift giving, builds relationship when they are from a sincere heart. It’s the same with God. To fast, to pray, to give to charity when our lives are reflective of the devotion we claim will deepen our relationship with him.

It is very clear from this passage what a true reflection of a genuine relationship with God looks like. Too often godliness is depicted as little more than being nice as if getting along with everyone, staying out of trouble, and not standing out in a crowd are what righteousness is all about. Nothing could be further from the truth according to Isaiah here. On the contrary, God’s people are called to notice injustice (which isn’t hard to do, if we are willing to look) and do something about it. Nice people don’t disturb the status quo. Oppressors and other nice people won’t like you confronting wickedness and oppression. The process is messy; you’ll probably make mistakes along the way. Even if you don’t, you’ll be noticed and will likely get into trouble. But isn’t that exactly what the Messiah said would happen?

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

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Israel, God’s Portion

For the week of September 23, 2017 / 3 Tishri 5778

The word Israel hovering over an open hand

Ha’azinu
Torah: Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-8); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel. For the LORD’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:8-9; NASB)

Near the end of Moses’s life, God directed him to teach the people a song. This is no simple folk song, but rather a complex prophetic lyric designed to confront them as they will inevitably one day stray from God and his ways. Contained within these inspired words is a reference to God’s providence in the establishment of peoples and their God-allotted regions. Nationhood and defined territorial boundaries are not the outcome of human will alone, but primarily emerge from the purposeful oversight of the Almighty.

That much is clear in the verses above, but they include a curious statement about the relationship between borders and, according to this Bible version, “the number of the sons of Israel.” I make mention of this particular version because the text here is controversial. A quick glance over other English translations shows that another common rendering of this phrase is along the lines of “the number of the sons of God” (see ESV, etc.). Exactly what is meant by “sons of God” isn’t certain. It could be another way to refer to the sons of Israel, a generic reference to people of God, or to heavenly beings such as angels. The reason for the difference is in the manuscripts. The most common Hebrew manuscript is called the Masoretic Text (MT). Some English versions rely heavily on it, and only seldom prefer readings from other manuscripts. The MT reads, “sons of Israel.” The alternate reading, “sons of God” is from the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew called the Septuagint (LXX). While it may seem to be more reasonable to prefer the MT over the LXX, since it is written in the original Hebrew, many scholars believe that the Hebrew manuscripts that were used by the LXX translators were older and thus closer to the original than the copies upon which the MT relies.

Textual Criticism is the study of ancient manuscripts to determine what the original writings were. It might come as a surprise to some of you that this sort of thing is necessary at all. We might prefer to believe that exact copy after exact copy was passed on from generation to generation, but that isn’t the case. But note that in spite of differences like the one we are looking at here, there is far more agreement between manuscripts than not. Remarkably and thankfully, no discrepancy threatens any major element of Scripture. Whether the text reads “sons of Israel” or “sons of God” certainly doesn’t greatly affect the Bible’s teaching either in this passage or others.

What I find most interesting is that many English versions prefer “sons of God” even though most other versions rely on the MT. While I hope the various translation committees followed this route due to high standards of scholarship, there may be something else going on. If indeed the correct reading is “when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel,” then we are made to understand that the makeup of world geography is intimately linked to the people of Israel. I am concerned that the real reason to prefer the LXX over the MT here is a resistance on the part of Christian scholarship to accept the centrality of Israel in the outworking of world history.

Few biblical scholars deny the place of ancient Israel in the development of God’s plans and purposes particularly with regard to salvation. But there is a tendency to cast off literal Israel in favor of a supposed New Israel, a generic people of God as it were. But if the MT reading is correct, then the very framework of nations and borders is somehow dependent on the people of Israel. By disregarding the ongoing nature of Israel in God’s economy, Christians unknowingly contribute to the disintegration of legitimate nationhood through misguided globalization in the name of unity, Christian or otherwise.

But as I mentioned, the Bible’s central teachings are unaffected by the relatively few discrepancies in the various manuscripts. This verse is no exception. Whatever may be intended in this statement concerning the connection between national boundaries and the sons of Israel or sons of God, Scripture is abundantly clear about the foundational and ongoing place of literal Israel. For there is nothing controversial about what follows. As verse nine reads: “For the LORD’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.” The use of Jacob reminds us that references to Israel in Scripture is not code for “the Church” or a post-Jewish generic “sons of God,” but that God has special regard and connection to the real, actual, physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To deny that is to deny the essence of the Bible.

Scriptures, New American Standard Bible

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