Get the Picture

For the week of August 24, 2019 / 23 Av 5779

The title "Get the Picture" superimposed on an arrogant man wearing a crown

Ekev
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 10:16)

I am fascinated by words. To think that God created the world through words. And then, he shares the gift of verbal communication with us by giving us the ability to share our thoughts with others (and himself through prayer) via this complex audible code. It’s wonderful when our words make a positive difference in the world. Words can give people a reason to live: words of encouragement, words of warning, words of instruction, words of love. Words can also destroy. Misrepresentation of truth of any kind can break relationship, cause paralyzing discouragement, and lead to disastrous outcomes.

Negative outcomes to words are not always the intent of speakers, of course. Accurately interpreting what people say is easier said than done (pun intended!). Concrete objects are easier to describe because they are clearly represented in the world. The word “dog,” for example is simply clarified by referencing an actual dog. Abstract concepts, on the other hand, such as emotions or philosophical ideas, can only be conveyed with words alone. If the speaker and hearer understand different things by those words, effective communication will not happen.

Figures of speech, what we might call “expressions,” are especially problematic. Some may remember the 1960s spy-comedy, entitled “Get Smart.” One unforgettable character was the humanoid robot Hymie. Hymie had issues with expressions. If told to “grab a waiter” in a restaurant, instead of getting the waiter’s attention, he picked him up and carried him to the table. “Kill the light, Hymie,” resulted in his shooting the light bulb instead of turning it off. We find that sort of thing humorous, but in real life misunderstanding expressions like this can have disastrous results.

While English has a great many expressions such the ones Hymie misinterpreted, it uses far more abstract terms than Biblical Hebrew, which is more concrete. This is illustrated in the verse I started with taken from this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). Moses is instructing the people to resist their natural inclinations to not listen to God and humbly submit to his directions. But that’s not how Moses put it. Closer to the Hebrew would be: “circumcise your heart and be not stiffnecked.” What would someone like Hymie do with that? The first half would kill you and the need for the second would be denied by those with flexible necks. Obviously, this was not to be taken literally. Yet the concrete tendency of Hebrew, which in this case vividly expresses otherwise abstract notions such as arrogance and stubbornness gets the point across most effectively.

There are all sorts of reasons why a translator would attempt to explain a concrete expression with an abstraction. Would readers know what circumcision is and if they did, would they understand that God wasn’t directing his people to do open heart surgery? Both elements would have to be properly understood for this to be the powerful statement it is.

As I look over English translations, I am surprised by how many, such as the one I am using, retain the first expression while opting for an abstraction for the second. Wouldn’t readers who get the point of heart circumcision also understand the warning against being stiff-necked? Maybe not.

Why use expressions at all? Why say things like “grab a waiter” or “kill the light” anyway? It’s that the pictures expressions create in our minds provide communicative elements that abstractions tend to lack. It’s difficult to represent “circumcise your hearts,” in any way but as an expression. The implications are that people need to remove the coverings over their hearts so that their affections, thoughts, and desires would be fully open to God. As for the warning against being stiff-necked, the word “stubborn” may appropriately reflect God’s intention here, but how much more when you picture ourselves refusing to bend under the weight of God’s will for our lives. It’s being stubborn, yes, but describing it in graphical terms helps us to see the intensity of our tendency to resist God’s lordship.

Unlike Hymie, our failure to understand God’s expressions isn’t funny. But thank God we are not robots.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Teach Your Children

For the week of August 17, 2019 / 16 Av 5779

A father, mother, son, and daughter learning together

Va’etchanan
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:4-5)

The past couple of weeks I have been mentioning the tendency among some to distance themselves from the foundation of Hebrew Scripture, the Books of Moses in particular. One of the ways that is done is by taking statements by Yeshua and others and making them sound as if they are undermining God’s prior revelation, when they are actually clarifying what he said. A case in point is the “Great Commandment” that appears in the Gospels of Matthew (22:35-40) and Mark (12:28-34).

The exact wording of these two accounts are similar for the most part, yet different enough to indicate that this sort of interchange may have been common. In each case, religious leaders ask him what is the “greatest” or “most important” commandment. Today’s readers may scoff at such questions, but Jewish people then and now who take God’s Word seriously want to know how to best prioritize or summarize God’s directives. Yeshua’s answer is two-pronged, giving more than what was likely expected. Not only are we to love God with everything we’ve got (as contained in this week’s parsha); we are also to love our neighbors as ourselves (from Vayikra/Leviticus 19:18). In that day, putting treatment of others on par with loving God, especially since Yeshua made it clear that we are to be neighbors even to those whom we don’t like, was quite radical (see Luke 10:25-37).

While we still need to take to heart God’s sense of priority as stated by Yeshua here, it is tragic that many readers of the New Testament assume that this in any way diminishes or discounts anything else God said through Moses, the prophets, or other writers of Hebrew Scripture. I am not saying that everything for ancient Israel has direct application to all people in the same way that it did for Israel under the Sinai Covenant. It’s that statements of priority or summary such as the great commandment are not in any way geared to reducing God’s inspired teaching to only two commands.

In fact, it doesn’t even take much careful investigation of these two commands to see that there is so much more contained within them than the vaguely defined “love God and love your neighbor” teachings you may have heard.

Perhaps we forget that when scriptures were quoted in first-century Israel it was automatically understood within its broader context. People had long passages memorized. So to hear one line was to hear the passage it was a part of. Check out “Love your neighbor as yourself” in its original context. You might be surprised to discover what love for neighbor actually means (I discuss this in an earlier TorahBytes message). Same with “Love God.” We rarely hear the Mark version of the Greatest Commandment, since it is more complex than the Matthew one, providing some of the wider context. In Mark, Yeshua begins his answer with the Shema (“Hear, O Israel…”) as in the Torah-quote I started with. In actuality it makes no difference, because, as I mentioned, the hearers would have automatically connected “And you shall love the Lord your God” with the Shema that introduces it. To speak about our need to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind without specific reference to the God of Israel’s exclusivity is to misrepresent Yeshua’s intent.

Note what follows “Love God” in its original context: “And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 6:6-7). Besides our need to take God’s words to heart, embedded within the greatest commandment is God’s ordaining parents as the prime educators of their children.

We don’t have time in this brief message to explore how to accomplish this. However it is done, God made clear that the household under the supervision of parents is the prime venue for our children’s education. To claim to love God with all our heart, soul, and mind while neglecting our God-given responsibility to educate our children is to neglect to love God.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Respecting National Diversity

For the week of August 10, 2019 / 9 Av 5779

Small world globe on top of a large open book

D’varim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27

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And the LORD said to me, “Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 2:9)

Throughout the years of my doing TorahBytes I have sought to demonstrate the ongoing relevancy of the Hebrew Scriptures as built on the foundation of the Books of Moses. At times I do that by noting a specific principle found in one of God’s commandments or a lesson derived from a story. We might explore an aspect of the character of God, the nature of human beings, or the dynamics of how humans are to relate to God. But there’s more to learn from Scripture than principles and lessons. In fact, the principles and lessons of Scripture are deeply rooted in its perspective on life in general. It’s in the soil of the Bible’s worldview that we discover how our complex existence is best navigated.

It’s tragic when belief in Yeshua as Messiah results in the collapsing of the breadth and depth of Truth as revealed in the Hebrew Scripture into a detached spiritualized, overly personal experience. There is almost nothing of life, big or small, that isn’t effectively addressed by Scripture. We’re going to look at something big this week.

I think it’s an astounding insight. It was brought to my attention while reading The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture by Yoram Hazony, and it is reflected in this week’s parsha. Israel was preparing to enter the Promised Land and needed to journey through inhabited territory. They were given specific instructions as to what territory they could take and what to leave alone. In this case there were told to not “harass Moab,” because God allotted their land to the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot. Israel’s acquisition of land was to be under God’s direction. We can look elsewhere in the Torah to see that God was very specific about Israel’s borders. They were given no mandate to expand beyond what was allotted to them.

Think about that. God made clear to Israel that they were not to build an empire but were to be satisfied with the geographical limitations imposed upon them by God. This is all the more astounding when we realize that Israel understood their God, rightly so, not as some sort of regional divinity, but the God of the whole world. The Bible begins with God creating the “heavens and the earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:1); God declares at Mt. Sinai, “all the earth is mine” (Shemot/Exodus 19:5); and Psalm 47 proclaims him as the king of all the earth and ruler of the nations. Be that as it may, instead of this “God of all the earth” commissioning his people to take over the whole world, he teaches them to respect national boundaries. And that in spite of the imperialistic tendencies of world powers both then and now.

This respect for nationality was firmly grasped by the leadership of Yeshua’s early community. In those first decades there were some who attempted to centralize the control of New Covenant faith within an exclusively Jewish context. As the leaders thrashed out the implications of how the Messiah’s message was reaching the non-Jewish peoples of their day, they realized that God was indicating that while the good news was for everyone, each people-group would be free through the power of God’s Spirit to work out how God’s kingship in the Messiah would be expressed within their cultural setting (see Acts 15).

Centuries later when messianic faith was co-opted by the Roman government, respect for national and culture differences faded and was replaced by age-old ungodly imperialist tendencies. Instead of continuing a de-centralized mosaic of nationalities, who were to find their way in God’s Truth with God’s help, church government aligned with political power to homogenize the nations under God.

In spite of this, God continues to regard the diversity of people groups while valuing national distinctions. We would do well to do the same.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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