Justice Community Style

For the week of July 18, 2020 / 26 Tammuz 5780

White paper cut-out people in a circle surrounding another cut-out paper person

Mattot & Masei
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
Haftarah: Jeremiah 2:4-28; 3:4

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And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. (B’midbar/Numbers 35:25)

The casual reader of the Hebrew Scriptures may be struck by the amount of violence found therein. Between plagues and wars, vengeance and judgement, it can seem as if one could hardly turn a page without someone or thousands of people dying. Those more familiar with the Bible should know that this is an exaggeration, but I wouldn’t blame anyone for getting that impression. One must pay close attention to catch that even in the most graphic of bloody situations, there is so much good to glean. Take this week’s Torah reading for example. We read here how Israel was to annihilate much of the Midianite population. This act of judgement and the reasons for it are difficult for many of us today. But that’s not what I want to discuss this week.

Further on in the portion we read about the cities of refuge. God directed Israel to establish several of these throughout the land for people directly involved in an alleged murder. It was the responsibility of a close relative of the deceased to avenge murder. Our translation obscures that the word for the avenger is ga-al, the same as “redeemer” in other contexts. A person responsible to restore impoverished relatives (as was Boaz in the Book of Ruth), may be called upon to do justice by way of executing a relative’s murderer. Either way, they are functioning as the ga-al.

There are two highly instructive elements for us today in God’s directives through Moses with regard to alleged murder. I want to look at the second one first, which is not part of the verse I quoted at the beginning. Verse thirty of chapter thirty-five reads: “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness.” More than one witness had to testify that they actually saw the murder. This implies that a process had to occur. The ga-al was not permitted to react to impressions but had to wait for the fact of the matter to be established by at least two witnesses. This is one of the reasons why “Don’t bear false witness” is in the Ten Commandments (Shemot/Exodus 20:16). God deemed making sure of the facts in such a case was of utmost importance. Second, God himself was willing to risk the guilty going free. Protecting the innocent in the face of the demand for vengeance was essential – so essential that cities were established to provide protection to accused murderers.

Now to the verse quoted at the beginning. Note that the responsibility for protecting the accused was given to the community. Israel was a people taught by God to do justice. I discussed this a couple of weeks ago in my message Formula for Change, as I considered the words of the prophet Micah: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Israel was to do justice but love kindness (Hebrew: hesed). While we need to seek to establish justice, our hearts must remain kind even to the accused until it is made abundantly clear that the alleged wrong was done. Until then it is the community’s responsibility to protect even those accused of the most heinous of crimes from uncontrolled vengeance.

If these are God’s protections for those accused of (what we would call) first-degree murder, how should we treat people accused of or rumored to have committed lessor crimes or other alleged repulsive acts. Are we to destroy people’s reputations on social media as a way to vent our anger and perhaps signal to the world that we are virtuous for doing so? That’s not the community’s job. If we really cared about justice, we would realize that we all benefit from going to great lengths to protect the accused until due process has taken place and the facts are fully determined. Then and only then can the appropriate consequences be applied in such a way that is truly just and beneficial to everyone.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Don’t Be Intimidated

For the week of July 11, 2020 / 19 Tammuz 5780

A man intimidated by an over-sized fist

Pinchas
Torah: B’midbar Num 25:10 – 30:1 (English: 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Originally posted the week of July 11, 2015 / 24 Tammuz 5775

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But you, dress yourself for work; arise, and say to them everything that I command you. Do not be dismayed by them, lest I dismay you before them. (Jeremiah 1:17)

We are in a culture war. That’s nothing new. A biblical case can be made that we have always been in one. When God pronounced judgement in the Garden of Eden following our first parents’ disobedience, he said to the Tempter, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). This verse, the first messianic prophecy, looks forward to the Messiah’s eventual defeat of the Evil One, but there is something else here that is often overlooked, the enmity God placed between the serpent and the woman. When Adam and Eve sinned, God didn’t give the human race completely over to evil, but instead caused there to be a great struggle between the forces of good and the forces of evil. This clash is a key theme of the biblical story, what we might call the culture war.

In Scripture, the culture war finds two main expressions. The first is in the development of the nation of Israel as they are called out of Egypt and into the Promised Land. Under the Old Covenant Israel functioned more or less in isolation. Particular laws were given them to keep them separate from other cultures. They were not to concern themselves with the affairs of the outside world, except to prevent its influence. Eventually, through the latter prophets, God began to build an expectation within the nation that one day his reign would extend beyond their borders to encompass the entire world. How that would come about was not made clear until the Messiah’s coming and the establishment of the New Covenant.

Which brings us to Scripture’s second main expression of the culture war. Beginning with Yeshua’s early Jewish followers, it was time for the reign of God to be proclaimed everywhere. The new mandate for God’s people would no longer be one of preservation and purity of the nation but the call to the reconciliation and transformation of all peoples.

A major difference between these two expressions is found in the tools given us to fight this war. Under the Old Covenant, Israel was to enforce its cultural isolation through corporal punishment of its own members who put the nation’s integrity at risk and by the sword against the threat of foreign enemies. Under the New Covenant, we are given words. As Paul writes:

For although we do live in the world, we do not wage war in a worldly way; because the weapons we use to wage war are not worldly. On the contrary, they have God’s power for demolishing strongholds. We demolish arguments and every arrogance that raises itself up against the knowledge of God; we take every thought captive and make it obey the Messiah (2 Corinthians 10:3-5; CJB)

Sometimes I think the opponents of God’s Word understand this better than those who are called to proclaim it as they boldly assert their viewpoints without apology. The cultural changes we are seeing happening around us today are the result of a concerted effort that will not back down. In addition, its proponents have been very effective at shutting down dissent through intimidation, creating a great lack of confidence among God’s people.

In this week’s Haftarah portion, we read that when Jeremiah was called by God, he was solemnly warned against giving in to intimidation. The Hebrew word “chatat” refers to being emotionally shattered, resulting in a loss of confidence. Thus our translation uses the English “dismayed,” which is what happens when we give in to intimidation. In effect, God told him that giving in to intimidation would create an even greater sense of intimidation. If we don’t have confidence in God and his Word, he will not give us the courage we need to stand against those who oppose him and his followers.

How do we learn to not be intimidated by the opposition? First, we need to know what God is really saying. It’s not good enough to spout traditional values without knowing God-given truth as taught by Scripture. Second, we ourselves need to be people of integrity, living according to what we claim to believe. Hypocrites have no foundation on which to stand. And finally, we need to speak God’s Truth boldly and clearly. We don’t have to give in to fear. As we stand confidently upon the rock of God’s word, we will discover how secure it really is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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