Tell It Like It Is

For the week of August 3, 2019 / 2 Av 5779

Smiling bearded man with one hand on heart and the other raised.

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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If a man vows a vow to the LORD, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (B’midbar/Numbers 30:3 [English 30:2]).

I recently completed the book, “Irresistible” by Andy Stanley, who, in spite of his claiming to give a unique (at least since the third century) call unto a radical New Covenant faith, has fallen into the age-old trap of pitting faith in Yeshua against the Hebrew Scriptures. Even though he asserts several times that he values the older writings, he goes out of his way to cut any meaningful connections to anything revealed within an Old Covenant context. That Scripture should be read through a New Covenant lens is one thing, an essential thing in fact. But disengaging Messianic faith from its Scriptural foundation severs our God-given truth anchor, sending well-intentioned Yeshua followers into the oblivion of confusion.

Disassociating New Covenant from Old Covenant Scripture is nothing new and was already prevalent long before Stanley’s prophetic cry. It seems to me that a great number of believers through history have treated the Hebrew Scriptures as backstory, a book of promises over and done with. As a result there is so much good from God that is missed, such as what is conveyed in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

I suspect many Christians get antsy around this section of Torah. Doesn’t Yeshua in what is called the Sermon on the Mount adamantly forbid vows when he says the following:

Again you have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not swear falsely, but shall perform to the Lord what you have sworn.” But I say to you, Do not take an oath at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not take an oath by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let what you say be simply “Yes” or “No”; anything more than this comes from evil (Matthew 5:33-37).

There is a tendency to treat this and other similar statements as if Yeshua is speaking against the Torah, but nothing could be further from the truth. He is providing God’s perspective, God’s interpretation of Torah. Through time the religious leadership skewed Torah’s intended meaning, which Yeshua effectively corrects here. To be fair, this particular section on oaths does sound as if he is forbidding God’s earlier words through Moses quoted at the beginning. But it’s the complicated, full-of-loop-holes, legalistic, likely dishonest system of oaths that had become popular by that time, that he is confronting, not valid solemn promises or vows.

Now that we got that out of the way, I want to go deeper into the soil of Torah’s warning about vow keeping. My explanation to this point was necessary because we needed to clarify the ongoing legitimacy of vows here. The roots of this warning are what drives Yeshua’s take on this when he says, “Let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil.” It’s found in the statement at the end of our Torah verse: “He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.” The warning regarding vow keeping is rooted in the importance of doing what we say we will do.

Words are more than sounds. They are audible representations of reality or at least they should be. When human beings speak words, we are engaging the same technique God used to create the world. Following through on what we say we will do builds up the world and those in it. To do otherwise undermines our relationships and the broader societal fabric around us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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You Can Do It!

For the week of July 27, 2019 / 24 Tammuz 5779

Man facing wall with hands behind head

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (English 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Originally posted the week of July 26, 2008 / 23 Tammuz 5768 (Revised)

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Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 1:6-8)

A saying I have heard many times is “You can do anything you want, if you set your mind to it.” However, this only works when it does; otherwise, it doesn’t. It seems to me the purpose of this saying is usually to motivate someone to do something they really want to do but may fear they can’t. Fear is certainly an obstacle to accomplishment, and difficult tasks require that we determine as best we can to see them through to the end. But it is ridiculous to think that setting one’s mind on something is in itself a guarantee of success.

The prophet Jeremiah faced the difficult task of being God’s spokesman at a crucial time in the nation’s history. When God called him to this task, we don’t know if he understood the implications of his vocation, but what we do know is that he didn’t feel up to the job.

God’s response to him was not in the form of the kind of motivational speeches common in our day. God didn’t tell Jeremiah that if he would set his mind on being a prophet, he would be a prophet. Nor did God challenge him to visualize success and strive for greatness.

What God did do was first, he told him not to put himself down. Jeremiah felt that his youth somehow undermined his ability to accomplish the task at hand. This may sound like a “don’t be negative” pep talk, but it is deeper than that. It wasn’t as if a positive frame of mind would automatically enable him to do what God was calling him to do. It was simply that when God calls us to do something it doesn’t matter how old we are. Young people can be prophets too, if God so calls them.

Second, God said that Jeremiah would go where God would tell him to go and he would speak to those whom God would command him to speak. That may sound like, “You are going to do it, because you’re going to do it.” But that’s not really what God said to him. God said that Jeremiah would go where God sends him and speak what God commands. God determined that he would take charge of Jeremiah’s life, directing him and inspiring him. There is nothing we can’t do when God takes charge like that.

Third, God told him not to be afraid. But this wasn’t God just telling him to calm down as if he had no reason to be afraid. What God was telling him to do was truly intimidating. The reason Jeremiah was not to be afraid, was because God promised to personally take care of him.

God was not challenging Jeremiah to find power within himself to overcome the obstacles to his personal dream. Rather, because God called Jeremiah to be a prophet, God would also enable him to do it.

Whenever God calls us to do something, he enables us to do it. That doesn’t mean that everything God calls us to do will be easy as we see from the rest of Jeremiah’s life. Still, no matter how difficult a God-given task may be, we can do it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Curses

For the week of July 20, 2019 / 17 Tammuz 5779

Angry man shouting expletives

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

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Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (B’midbar/Numbers 22:5-6)

Do you think of the people of Bible times as fundamentally superstitious? Merriam-Webster online defines “superstition” as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” It seems to me that “false conception of causation” really captures it. The superstitious person acts upon a belief that certain happenings occur because of certain other things even though there is no reliable evidence that there is an actual connection between the two. For example, when I was about eleven years old, I was eating lunch at home and somehow dropped my salmon sandwich on the floor. At the time, I thought nothing of it, picked it up, and ate it. By that evening I was sick with a stomach virus. It would be years before I would eat salmon again. Yet even if that which made me sick transferred from the floor to the sandwich to my stomach, which is highly unlikely, there is no reason to think that all salmon from that moment on was a potential threat to my health. I do eat salmon now, but I would be lying if I said, I don’t have to fight through at least a tinge of unreasonable fear to do so. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that “false conception of causation” like this is pretty common. Maybe not you, of course.

In spite of human propensity towards superstition, we tend to think of ancient folks as more superstitious than we are. This is how we would view the story of Balak and Bilam (English: Balaam). Balak was a Moabite king who felt threatened by the presence of the people of Israel. Thinking they were no match for them militarily, he wanted to hire Bilam, a diviner of some sort, to curse them. Balak believed that by Bilam’s pronouncing certain words, Israel’s defenses would be weakened. As it turned out, God stepped in and didn’t allow Bilam to curse Israel. Every time he prepared to recite his incantations, he blessed Israel instead.

I suspect that even Bible fans regard this scene as reflective of a superstitious culture. What difference would it have made if Bilam had cursed Israel anyway? Would God have allowed words of destruction toward his chosen people to have any effect? Do such words have any effect regardless? Isn’t this a case of “false conception of causation”? It’s a great story for ancient people, but we know better than to give any credence to such a worldview, right?

I could spend the time remaining exploring the power of words. So much can be said about words, pun intended. From God’s using words to create the universe to the difference words make in our personal lives, a case could be made for causation with regard to blessings and curses, however the mechanics might work. But instead of analyzing the legitimacy of the power of blessing and curses, I would rather look at a contemporary parallel to the Balak and Bilam story.

When Balak determined that his people’s normal military prowess would be insufficient, he resorted to cursing. Whatever he believed about its dynamics, he thought it would work. In this case, his plan backfired, but that’s not stopping many people today from following his example.

In our increasingly polarized culture, more and more people are resorting to cursing those with whom they disagree. Instead of engaging differences by providing intelligent reasons for a particular viewpoint, it is common to tear the other party down with insults, accusations, and insinuations. Often people are shamed publicly, held up to incessant mockery, and subject to death wishes.

It should be clear that like Balak, these verbal attacks are happening because people really believe they work. We could wish that falsehood when spoken evaporates into the air, but it doesn’t. Negative words potentially destroy lives. The causal relationship between the curses (or whatever you want to call them) and their devastating effects doesn’t matter as much as that it works.

I wonder how many of us are not standing for what is good and right today, because we are afraid of the potential curses we may have to endure. But let’s remember that if we are truly in the Messiah, then like Israel of old, we can be confident that God will not allow negative verbal assaults to have their way in our lives. As we read in Mishlei, the book of Proverbs: “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight” (Mishlei/Proverbs 26:2).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When Blessings Become Idols

For the week of July 13, 2019 / 10 Tammuz 5779

Cartoon illustration of Moses and the bronze serpent on a pole

Chukat
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (B’midbar/Numbers 21:9)

One of the prime focuses of the Hebrew Scriptures is the issue of idolatry that was expressed in ancient Israel in two ways: the worship of false gods as represented by an image or claiming that the true God was represented by an image. In either case, the essence of idolatry is it misrepresents reality and especially the reality of the God of Israel. The dynamics of idol worship is captured by the New Covenant Writings through this statement: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:25).

Idolatry, whether it be through an actual figure associated with the true God or false gods, gives undo credence to a created thing instead of to the author of all creation. Putting one’s hope in an idol assumes that goodness can somehow be derived from the experience of engaging the thing, receiving blessing in other words. But blessing, as I just quoted, is derived from God, not things, even though God uses things to bless us. And therein lies the problem. It is so easy to confuse the instruments God uses with God himself.

This is exactly what happened with the Israelites and the bronze serpent, a story that took about eight hundred years to tell. During the wilderness wanderings under Moses, God punished the people for their grumblings by sending deadly snakes among them. In response to their humbling themselves, God prescribed an unusual remedy. He told Moses to set up a bronze serpent on a pole. All anyone bitten by a snake had to do was to look at the bronze serpent and they would be cured.

What we don’t know until the reign of Hezekiah eight centuries later was that not only did they hold on to the bronze serpent, but they made offerings to it, that is until Hezekiah smashed it (see 2 Melachim/2 Kings 18:4). For eight hundred years worship of this object had been tolerated! For eight hundred years “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

It isn’t difficult to understand why they did that. They believed, mistakenly so, that there was power in the object. What had begun as an act of faith unto God by following his instructions at the time, became an idol. They confused the source of power through his chosen instrument with the thing itself.

This is what underlies superstition. Superstition is believing that certain objects when related to in particular ways will empower us in some way. This is what happened with the bronze serpent. Looking to it was not originally superstition, since doing so was directed by God. It only became superstitious once the people assumed the power was in the object itself. They may have justified their misguided beliefs by claiming that if God used it in the past, then it’s appropriate to continue using it even after the occasion for which it was made was over and done with.

This is exactly where a lot of people of faith get stuck. We have a legitimate experience of God in the past and insist on revisiting it, thinking that we can continue to derive blessing from it when it’s outlived its intended purpose. We may not be doing this with a tangible object, but the dynamics are the same. Our precious moments with God were for the time allotted to them. To expect to derive the same blessings over and over again from what God did in an earlier time and place is to exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!

It is the Creator “who is blessed forever.” Blessing resides in God, not objects or experiences. He is free to use whatever he wishes to pour out blessings upon us. But if we confuse the One who blesses with that which he uses to bless, we will find ourselves living a lie and cut off from the very blessings we long for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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On Your Face

For the week of July 6, 2019 / 3 Tammuz 5779

Kneeling man with arms stretched out and face towards floor

Korach
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22
Updated version of “Go to God” from the week of June 23, 2001

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face… (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3-4)

Moses went through a lot. He didn’t want this job in the first place. Many years earlier, he thought he would try to help his people by taking matters into his own hands. Now that he was older and wiser with the desire to be the Great Deliverer purged from his soul, it was God’s idea to send him back to Egypt. Although he resisted, God prevailed, and Moses became a leader.

I have heard it said that Moses’ being a shepherd in the wilderness was to prepare him to lead the people there one day. That may be true, but not in the way some people think. It wasn’t his knowledge of the wilderness itself that qualified him for the job. It wasn’t the day-in and day-out of sheep herding that taught him the group dynamics necessary to lead two million ex-slaves from bondage to conquest. The primary lesson he learned during those forty years prior to God’s call was to be dependent upon God.

Moses had gone from elite status in Pharaoh’s palace to the life of a fugitive, running for his life. Cut off from everything he knew, at age forty he had to start life all over again, so to speak, working a menial job.

This week’s portion includes an example of how he dealt with the predicaments he faced as God’s chosen leader of his people. When challenged by Korah and company, the Torah says, “When Moses heard it, he fell on his face” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:4). Only after that, did he give them an answer. Over and over again, whether Moses was confronting Pharaoh, speaking to the elders of Israel, or dealing with the people’s virtual incessant grumbling, he looked to God.

What a way to react to being confronted! He fell on his face! He wasn’t showing reverence to Korah, nor was he completely overwhelmed. This was Moses’ leadership posture. He looked to God. Then and only then did he deal with the situation.

We don’t find Moses finding guidance via his vast learning acquired in Pharaoh’s court or from his previous years of wilderness wanderings. Whenever he faced a situation he went to God. And it was God who gave him the wisdom he needed.

Isn’t this what we should all do? As we read in the New Covenant Writings:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him (James 1:5).

So the next time you are in a situation where you need wisdom, maybe you should do what Moses did and get on your face.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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