Strange!

For the week of November 4, 2017 / 15 Heshvan 5778

Closeup of man staring fearfully

Va-Year
Torah: Bereihit/Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/Kings 4:1-37

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And Abraham said of Sarah his wife, “She is my sister.” And Abimelech king of Gerar sent and took Sarah. (Bereshit/Genesis 20:2)

 I like to say, “truth is stranger than fiction”, because it’s true. It’s one of the things that evidences the reliability of the Bible. No one could, or should I say would, make this stuff up. The life of Abraham is wrapped around God’s giving him a son in his and his wife Sarah’s old age. Early on, when he first journeyed to the land of Canaan, in spite of their infertility, he accepted God’s word to him regarding becoming a great nation one day. Eventually he became concerned that no child was forthcoming, but at God’s reassurance, he trusted that he would indeed have a child of his own one day. More time went by; still no child. His wife suggested surrogate motherhood as the solution. Abraham agreed and had a son, Ishmael, via Sarah’s servant Hagar. Problem solved, or so he thought, until God appeared to him again, saying that Sarah herself would have the child of promise, Isaac. It was soon afterwards that he did something really strange. He jeopardized God’s plan.

What occurred was that Sarah was taken by a local king. It is clear that this happened soon after the Isaac promise, because if Sarah would have been visibly pregnant, then she wouldn’t have been taken. The king was led to believe that she was Abraham’s sister, not his wife. This was a ruse they had agreed upon as they embarked on their God-ordained journey years before. Abraham was afraid that someone might kill him in order to steal his wife. That way, if she was taken, his life would most likely be spared. That he really was her half-brother made their ruse more believable, though no less deceitful.

This was the second time he almost lost her. Soon after arriving in the Land of Canaan, they went down to Egypt to escape famine, where Pharaoh took her. Both times God intervened, and she was returned to her husband unscathed. Both times Abraham was well-compensated in spite of himself. But both times he greatly risked completely undermining God’s plans and purposes for their lives. All because of fear.

That part of the story isn’t strange. Fear blinds us to the truth, resulting in destructive behavior. At least blind people know they’re blind, while fear tricks us into thinking that it functions like high-definition glasses. We think we see the world clearer than ever even though the image of life we’re engaging is completely skewed.

After all those years living as a foreigner in the Promised Land; after all those years of God’s protection and reiterations of his grand plan, by now wouldn’t the Father of Faith be free of such fear? Didn’t God just recently promise that Sarah would have a child? Even if he was afraid, couldn’t he muster up enough courage to avoid losing her at this most precarious time in their lives. If this was a made-up story, who would have thought up elderly Sarah, unusually beautiful though she was, being taken by another man just before Isaac was to be conceived. We would never imagine the hero of a story crumbling like this at this point. And yet in reality, such is the nature of fear.

What’s even stranger to me is that everything works out okay. But that’s because God’s faithfulness is perhaps the strangest thing in the entire universe! Our fears are not going to get in the way of God’s plans. And if we are part of those plans, he is going to work out our lives accordingly. That doesn’t mean that misjudgment rooted in fear is acceptable. Or that serious consequence may not result. So much trouble is avoided by trusting in God, the fruit of which is right living. But at the same time, God is patient with us. And faithful. While he wants us to always trust him, and not fear, it’s not as if our fears cause him to abandon us.

I wish the reality of true faith chased away every fear. I wish I was never intimidated by life’s challenges. Sometimes I find myself freaked out on the roller coaster of life, forgetting that it’s not my grasp of the cart that keeps me from being flung out. God firmly holds his children through everything, committed to never leave us or forsake us. We have every reason not to fear, but we do anyway. We shouldn’t; but we do. God can handle it. And maybe the more we realize that, the less we will fear.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Do You Know Where You’re Going?

For the week of October 28, 2017 / 8 Heshvan 5778

Walking trail in autumn

Lekh Lekha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

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Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3)

I am not Abraham, but I know what it means to not really know where I am going. Twenty years ago this week, according to the Jewish calendar, I embarked on a journey into the unknown. I was forty years old, living with my growing family in a most beautiful part of Planet Earth – Vancouver, British Columbia. My work-life until about six years before was filled with teaching the Bible and related endeavors. Then, having reached the edge of burnout, I was given the sage advice of laying down my ministry for a time – a brief time, I thought. In the meantime, since I still needed to provide for my family, I found a different line of work. It wasn’t easy due to my education being in theology. I was given the opportunity for retraining in office-based computing, and within a few months I was working in high tech and continued to do so for the next twenty-five years.

Those years had their ups and downs. I learned a lot about life, myself, and business. Yet my heart was never really in it. Not that there was anything wrong with the work I was doing. It was me. I couldn’t shake the desire to return to the kind of Bible oriented pursuits that filled my life previously.

A few years into my high-tech experience, the Internet began to emerge as a force to reckon with. In the mid-1990s, I started developing basic Web pages (that’s when the only background color available was gray!). In those days few people guessed how pervasive the online world would become.

In 1997 (that’s a year before Google was incorporated) I got an idea: maybe in my spare time I could post short Bible messages on the Web. I was intrigued by the idea that people who might not normally encounter biblical truth might read what I had to say in the privacy of their homes. I would follow the traditional annual reading cycle of the Books of Moses, explaining how these ancient words continue to speak powerfully in our day, especially as we understand them from a messianic perspective (the conviction that the promised Jewish Messiah has come in the person of Yeshua of Nazareth).

I had no idea where I was going with this, but I started out. Just like Abraham. I found that expressing myself through writing alleviated some of my heaviness of heart. Even though my normal work hours were given to other things, I knew I had something to share and was willing to put it out there for whomever might see it. Soon afterwards a friend and colleague suggested I add a subscribe function to my fledgling website so that people could receive the weekly message by email – a cutting edge idea in those early days of the Web. And then people actually started signing up! Little did I know that I would still be doing this twenty years later.

We read in the New Covenant book of Hebrews, “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going” (Hebrews 11:8). However, when we read his story, it is clear that he knew what his God-given destination was. So he did know where he was going. Still, the writer of Hebrews is not wrong. While Abraham knew his geographical destination, he understood nothing of what his life would be like there. It is often that way when we respond to God’s leading. The steps we are to take are sufficiently clear to get started at least. Beyond that, there’s no way to know what God has in store – except for one thing – the same thing God promised Abraham: blessing. We will likely be surprised at how the fruit of our God-directed endeavors brings blessing to the world. That’s God’s job, not ours. Our job is to simply obey his promptings – even when we don’t really know where we’re going.

I don’t know how much longer I will continue to produce TorahBytes. Today it’s one part of a much broader teaching work, having returned to my life’s calling about five years ago. Over the years I have often considered stopping these weekly messages. Then one way or another, the Lord would encourage me to keep going. So, we’ll see. For now, let me thank those of you who have supported me on this journey for some or most of the past twenty years.

What new endeavor might he be calling you to embark on?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Rescue Is a Messy Business

For the week of October 21, 2017 / 1 Heshvan 5778

Rescue workers at a building collapse

No’ah & Rosh Hodesh
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

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Then God said to Noah, “Go out from the ark, you and your wife, and your sons and your sons’ wives with you. Bring out with you every living thing that is with you of all flesh – birds and animals and every creeping thing that creeps on the earth – that they may swarm on the earth, and be fruitful and multiply on the earth.” (Bereshit/Genesis 8:15-17)

There are few Bible stories that are as misunderstood as Noah’s Ark. Most who are familiar with it can easily recite its key elements: world becomes extremely wicked; God decides to destroy it but saves Noah, his family, and two of every animal. Innumerable children’s books have depicted these scenes in a most delightful and fun way with happy streams of animals taking a sea voyage along with positive images of the dove of peace and a colorful rainbow at its conclusion.

While there are certainly positive elements in the story of Noah, there is very little in it that I would call delightful and hardly the stuff of small children’s picture books. It’s a terrible story really. Everyone alive at that time plus all the air-breathing land animals and birds, except for eight people and the animals on the ark, drowned – a most horrible way to die. From this we are supposed to understand that wickedness leads to destruction, and that God’s patience only lasts so long before his judgement comes. Even though there’s been only one universal flood, since then this has been experienced over and over in much smaller, but no less devastating, ways. Noah’s Ark also serves as a warning that there is a greater and more final judgement coming, where fire, not water, will be God’s instrument (see 2 Peter 3:5-7).

The judgement element of Noah’s Ark is not the only part of this story that is generally misunderstood, however. Have you thought about what it must have been like for Noah and company on the ark for all that time? Eight people and some great number of animals cooped up in a big box-like boat tossed violently for over a month, having nothing to do except survive. And by the way, they weren’t in the ark for just forty days and forty nights. That was just the duration of the extreme weather event. It took over ten months more for the earth to be suitable for habitation again.

It’s a messy business being rescued.

Life’s like that. People don’t always escape dangerous situations unscathed. Being rescued is often the beginning of a complex process of restoration. Like the passengers on the ark, the act of rescue itself may be unpleasant, not to mention the aftermath. Think of what people go through when facing serious surgery, for example, from the preparations through recuperation. Yet, we usually deem all the necessary unpleasantness as acceptable given the potential outcome.

Could you imagine if the negative aspects of surgery kept us from allowing our lives to be saved? It’s not that hard, actually. I know I have avoided medical tests out of fear of discomfort. The fact is we naturally resist pain even if it is for our good. It can take effort to be rescued, as it did for Noah.

The same is true in the case of the greatest rescue anyone could ever experience, the rescue from our alienation from God. The same wickedness at work before the flood continues to affect us all. Unless we are delivered from sin, we will be lost forever. But we can be rescued through faith in the Messiah Yeshua. However, it’s a messy business being rescued, and it appears not everyone is up to it. That’s really too bad, since the end result is absolutely off-the-charts wonderful! To be rescued by God through Yeshua includes freedom from guilt and shame; a sense of purpose and reason for living; being equipped by God’s own Spirit enabling us to live good and effective lives; a guaranty of living in the presence of God forever, and much, much more! Yet, in order to realize the benefits of God’s rescue, you have to be willing to face all sorts of unpleasantness. You will have to take responsibility for your failings and wrongs, expressing regret to both God and to the people affected by your mismanagement of your life. You will have to stop depending on yourself and trust in God, who may lead you into all sorts of new, exciting, and possibly dangerous situations. You may have to face rejection for the first time in your life. Don’t worry, God won’t make you deal with everything at once; it’s a lifelong thing. But it’s worth it!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Back to the Beginning

For the week of October 14, 2017 / 24 Tishri 5778

The word Reset on a pointing wooden sign by a road

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

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 1:1)

It’s that time of year again when we return to the beginning of the Torah. This is anything but “same old, same old.” Yes, the words don’t change year by year. And neither does their essential meaning, though I don’t know if we will ever fully plunge their depth. Yet, apart from learning aspects of God’s revealed Word that we never noticed before, it’s amazing how much we forget year by year; and that’s true even when we’ve been paying attention. But there’s another reason why these ancient words retain their freshness: life in the world as we know it constantly changes.

Certainly there are fundamentals to human life on earth that have been constant throughout the ages, both the good and the bad. Expositors of Scripture often focus on this fact. Perhaps we feel the need to justify the relevance of the Bible to those who dismiss it as out of date. For example, in this very parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), when God confronts Adam and then Eve on their eating of the forbidden fruit, they both blame shift, something we human beings have been doing ever since (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:11-13). From this we learn our need to take responsibility for our actions.

It is good to point out how the Bible is full of content, which while situated in a distant time and setting, is easily relatable by people today wherever we might live. But are there not factors of our contemporary existence that are way beyond the Bible’s scope? Isn’t the truth of Scripture based on a worldview and culture so different from ours, so as to make much of its teaching obsolete, not to mention that its writers could have no way foreseen the world of the 21st century, with its technological advancements and apparent cultural progression? Even if you don’t accept many of today’s cultural categories and approaches to morality, how could the Bible provide answers to questions and issues of which the people of that day would have no clue?

The Bible’s timeliness is not due to a focus on unchanging themes even though that is the way it is often taught. The stories in the Bible are not moralistic lessons. Neither is the Bible a collection of timeless sayings. There are some in the Book of Proverbs, but that’s the exception. The rule is that the Bible communicates via stories, the technical term for story-like writing is “narrative.” Most biblical narrative is historical. Even large non-narrative sections, such as the Psalms or the Prophets, are speaking within the context of historical happenings. The hundreds of commandments found in the Books of Moses are given within a specific cultural and historical setting. The New Covenant Letters are written to real people in real places, addressing specific issues. In almost no cases are the implications for or applications to our day spelled out for us. Rather, when we read the Bible, we are exposed to God’s perspective on life and living. It is through these writings that God has ingeniously provided us with everything we need to address any and all issues we may encounter anywhere at any time. Garnering the knowledge and understanding from the Bible that we need to effectively engage the world in which we live can be hard work, but it’s worth it.

For example, it’s worth it to take the time to examine God’s establishment of the human family as revealed in the first few verses of the Torah (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-30). Here we learn that man and woman are created, not as the product of natural causes, but both in and as the image of God. Also, we are created on purpose and for a purpose, being commissioned as stewards of the planet and that having children is key to our fulfilling our God-given roles. Chew over that for a while and see what happens. See what happens to your view of yourself, of marriage, of sex, of children, and your purpose for living. And that’s just the beginning!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Generous Leadership

For the week of October 7, 2017 / 17 Tishri 5778

Paper cutouts depicting leadership in team

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:17-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then he said to Him, “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:14-15)

In preparation to depart from Mt. Sinai, not long after the tragic incident of the Golden Calf, Moses is praying. He is praying and he is listening. While most of us will unlikely experience divine communication at anywhere near this level, prayer is more of a conversation than we generally think. We are not going to delve into that now, however. It’s the dynamic of this particular conversation that I wish to focus on.

What’s going on here sounds more like an argument than a conversation. And a strange argument at that. It’s sounds like one of those I-am-agreeing-with-you type arguments, where people passionately just about echo each other’s words, while somehow implying that each party isn’t quite satisfied that they’re getting their point across.

God: My presence will go with you.

Moses: We’re not going anywhere unless you go with us.

What’s Moses problem here? God said he would go with them. Why does Moses keep on about this if God said he would do it?

The problem is a little worse in the original Hebrew, which reads more like this:

God: My presence shall go…

Moses: If your presence does not go…

In the Hebrew, both instances of “go” doesn’t specify with whom God is going or not going. Presumably the confusion is only the reader’s, since God and Moses seem to know what they were arguing over. The translation I chose irons out the ambiguity by adding “with you” (singular) to what God says and “with us” to Moses’s words. This clarification on the part of the translators is justified by a reading of the entire interaction. The back and forth between Moses and God is due to God’s commitment to Moses alone, assuring him that his presence will be with him personally. But that’s not good enough for Moses. He wants assurance that God will be present with the whole nation. This isn’t clear until verse 16: “For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (emphasis mine).

This is the mark of a true leader. Moses has extraordinary favor with God. But that’s not good enough for him. He wants the people to have what he has. He isn’t satisfied to be their champion or their hero. He knows that in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t about his success, his fame, nor even his legacy. We justify leader focus because of our assumption that as leaders go, so do the people they lead. Certainly there is some truth in this. We see such an example in the history of the Israelite monarchy. If a king was good, which was rarely the case, things went well for the nation. If a king was evil, the nation suffered. The principle works, but should this principle be our goal? Instead should not our hearts be for the people we lead, whatever be the scope and scale of our leadership?

For our families, our friends, co-workers, employees, congregations, and nations, it should not be sufficient to simply strive to be the best person possible. We need to truly care about people like Moses did. The blessings we ask for needn’t be channeled through us. May God bless people directly. If we get to play a part in that process, that’s great. But is it necessary? Isn’t God’s blessing a result of his undeserved love and mercy? He doesn’t really need us anyway. Yet he delights to use us.

I know we know this. And yet, it is so easy to fixate on ourselves. Perhaps that is why this interchange between God and Moses is so instructive. It’s a battle to fight for blessing upon others and not just ourselves. It isn’t as if blessing needs to be wrenched from God, who is so generous. It’s we whose hands need to be pried open through prayer that we might come to that place where we will fight for God’s blessing upon others.

Scriptures taken from New American Standard Bible

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