Differences Count

For the week of August 29, 2020 / 9 Elul 5780

Illustration of the world with costumed people of various nationalities holding hands around its circumference

Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Originally posted the week of September 17, 2016 / 14 Elul 5776

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You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:19-20)

The verses I just read contain a biblical understanding of life that is being overrun today by misguided notions of tolerance, brotherhood, and unity. That’s not to say that tolerance, brotherhood, and unity are not biblical notions. Indeed, they are, but it’s the versions of these and many other noble principles that are misguided. Obviously the main issue addressed by God through Moses here is the charging of interest, which certainly deserves our attention, but there is an underlying concept of human relations that is foundational for what is being said about loans. And it is this concept that I want to focus on this week.

Whatever else is implied by the charging and not charging of interest, the people of Israel were directed by God to treat citizens differently from non-citizens. This seems to contradict what God says elsewhere: “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God” (Vayikra/Leviticus 24:22). But these are two different contexts. One has to do with life and limb; the other is about loans and interest. One is clearly a justice issue in which natives and foreigners were to be judged equally, while the other is financial. Note it doesn’t say not to loan money to foreigners, just that charging interest in their case was permitted.

So on one hand the Torah is very clear about social equality between peoples. When Yeshua centuries later used the Samaritans, a despised people group of his day, to illustrate to his fellow Jews what loving one’s neighbor really means (see Luke 10:25-37), he was not being a modern radical, but he was rather affirming Torah principles that were being denied by his fellow countrymen. Contrary to popular misconception the Scriptures are not the basis of bigoted racial theory, but actually clearly espouse the unity of the human family via Noah and Adam. According to the Bible there is only one race, the human race.

At the same time, God’s inspired written word recognizes – more than that! – it celebrates national distinctions. Even though the emergence of diverse languages and the resultant cultural and ethnic groupings were due to an ungodly attempt of self-preservation as recorded in the account of the city and tower of Babel (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:1-9), the hand of God is seen in the development of nationalities. The Book of Revelation’s depiction of the renewal of all things in keeping with the Hebrew prophetic writings in no way anticipates the homogenization of ethnicities but their continued national distinctions (see Revelation, chapters 21 & 22). The trans-national unity experienced by believers (see Galatians 3:28) was never intended to undermine the practicalities of ethnic diversity (see Acts 15 & 21:17-26; Romans 14:1 – 15:13).

And yet among Bible believers and the society at large there is a growing sense of embarrassment with anything that affirms nationalistic differences (except at times for certain cultural expressions like food and music). Both believers and non-believers alike have bought into a version of human unity that makes them uncomfortable with the idea we should treat foreigners differently from natives. But that stems from a denial of distinctions that God himself recognizes. Paul, for example, who was so passionate about the intimate unity we have in Yeshua, could still write that we need to prioritize providing for our families over others (1 Timothy 5:8), and that believers need to care for the believing community before expressing concern for outsiders (Galatians 6:10).

Recognizing lines of demarcation between communities is a good thing and is necessary for the healthy administration of societies. Full participation within any community, whether it be a small religious group, or a large country should be the result of a clear naturalization process. Differing requirements for members and non-members/citizens and non-citizens are not necessarily expressions of bigotry and prejudice, but the essential elements of belonging that are necessary for the effective thriving of any community. Claiming that all people everywhere have the automatic right to belong to whatever group they like regardless of who they are may sound nice, but in the end creates nothing but chaos and meaninglessness. We shouldn’t be surprised when those who impose their sense of so-called brotherhood upon us end up taking away every last vestige of true diversity with which God has graced us.

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

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Going It Alone

For the week of August 22, 2020 / 2 Elul 5780

A solitary man on a busy walkway with blurred passersby

Shoftim
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18-21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the LORD your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the LORD your God is giving you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18-20)

I always found it a bit curious that while the Torah prohibits bribery, it only does so from the perspective of taking a bribe, not offering a bribe. The Hebrew word for bribe is “shachad,” and refers to the offer of money or items in order to unduly influence another person. The word also refers to a ransom, where the terms of the shachad are set by someone illegitimately holding back items or persons with the expressed purpose of demanding payment.

The Torah prohibition against bribery, albeit limited in scope is radical for its day. A scholar by the name of Jacob J. Finklestein, based on his study of ancient near-Eastern texts, concluded that such a prohibition was unique in addressing bribery. He could not find any other document that prohibited it at all. That should not surprise us as bribery was and is not only common, but in many places and situations is expected.

The Torah’s prohibition against shachad is not only limited to the taking of bribes, it is addressed solely to legal officials. The reason given is that officials were responsible for establishing justice. God knew that the taking of bribes would skew their judgment, and therefore forbid it.

I have heard stories of people travelling to certain countries where the giving of gifts or money was expected when dealing with immigration, customs, or law enforcement officers. In some cultures, it can be so customary that it may be deemed part of the cost of doing business. Those who are not used to such things may find this atrociously distasteful. Some may attempt to buck such a system, but to no avail. It’s pay the extra money or you may not be able to enter the country or get your luggage. When facing such a situation, it might be somewhat comforting to learn that it’s the taking, not the giving, that God prohibits.

When we realize how prevalent a practice bribery was and still is, it highlights what was at stake for those to whom it was explicitly forbidden. It’s one thing to be told not to do something that one may find appealing, such as taking bribes. It’s another when everybody else (or it seems everybody else) is doing it. That’s no justification for it, of course. It’s that resisting a supposed personal benefit when others are readily accepting it is much more difficult. Such things are even more difficult when they are part of the fabric of the society. It’s easier to take a moral stand on an issue when a culture is split over it. We can find comfort in resisting a common practice when a sizable group of resisters exists even if they are a minority. When an associate, friend, or family member looks at you funny for not going along with what they deem to be expected behavior, knowing that you are not alone in your stand is encouraging. But when a custom is taken for granted by the overwhelming majority of a society, that’s a whole other kind of challenge entirely. Taking a stand for what is right when you feel like you are the only one is really hard.

I would think this particular issue would have been a lot easier had God called the people of Israel to forbid all shachad in all situations. This may have at least created a sense of “bribery is wrong” that would have been easy to appeal to. But instead the commonality of such practices continued as normal. Perhaps God was aware that any attempt to regulate all forms of shachad would fail. I can’t say for sure.

What I can say is that this particular limited prohibition provides us with an example of the reality of living in a sinful world. The Bible doesn’t function as an extensive rule book covering all of life. Instead it equips us with everything we need to live effective godly lives. This includes difficult behavioral demands to be lived out within a broken world. It would be so nice if everyone around us bought in to the same set of godly principles to live by. But life doesn’t work that way. Rather, God expects his people to do what he calls us to do even when we must do it alone.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Outside In

For the week of August 15, 2020 / 25 Av 5780

Sunlight shining through prison window

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5

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See, I am setting before you today a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you obey the commandments of the LORD your God, which I command you today, and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the LORD your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26-28)

The welfare of ancient Israel was intimately tied to their adherence to the covenant established by God through Moses. Faithful adherence would result in blessing, the Torah term for possessing the potential for life, reproductive life. They would have large, healthy and thriving families over multiple generations; their animals would abundantly reproduce; and they would live in safety and security. Conversely, the consequences for disregarding Torah were curses, the removal of life, including illness, desolation, fear, and being overcome by their enemies resulting in eventual exile.

God never intended obedience and disobedience to be understood in absolute terms as if the tiniest infraction would be deemed as breaking covenant and thus inviting disaster. The God of Torah is merciful and patient, ready and willing to forgive when wrongdoers humble themselves. The grave disobedience that results in cursing is defined as “to go after other gods that you have not known” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:28). Breaking covenant was expressed by rejecting the one true God in favor of the false gods of idolatry.

The God of Israel’s prohibition against false gods was both personal and impersonal. It was personal in the sense that he alone was their savior. Not only did he establish them as a people through their ancestors, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he became their redeemer by rescuing them from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Therefor Israel owed their existence and their freedom to this God alone. To engage other gods would be a personal act of disloyalty.

The prohibition against false gods was also impersonal in that there are issues in engaging other gods that apply to all people and not only due to the kind of covenant relationship that Israel had with God. Whatever was true universally for all people regarding other gods would also apply to Israel in addition to that which uniquely applied to them due to the covenant.

The first universal principle would be that other gods are not gods. God-ness, so to speak, was erroneously ascribed to concepts and entities by people. To worship false gods was to create false reality. Not only does the worship of false gods misrepresent the truth of the God of Israel as being the only god, it misrepresents truth in general. People may enjoy or find some other perceived benefit in living in a false version of the world, but that has never gone well for them.

The second universal principle regarding other gods is that whether they be represented via a sculpted image, such as an idol; or a personalized force of nature, such as Thor the supposed god of thunder; or the de-religiousized gods of today, be they sex or success, they all are derived from the creation instead of from outside of it. Every other god is humanly based as the product of analyzing nature or imagination or both. The God of Israel precedes and dwells outside of creation. His word has been given to the world via the people of Israel from the outside in.

The myriad of false gods from time immemorial operate from the inside out. If only we can figure it out, we can make the world a better place. We somehow think we can find identity, meaning, success, and lasting joy within the creation. It can’t be done. Every attempt to accomplish salvation from inside creation not only fails but invites disaster. As beings made in the image of one who resides outside of creation we need outside help.

The warning to Israel is a warning to all. Life is not found in ourselves or the world around us. Life is only found in the creator God, the redeemer of Israel. Not only has he communicated his word into the created order through Moses and the Prophets, he embodies his word in the person of his Son, Yeshua the Messiah. Like the covenant of old, Yeshua came from the outside in to rescue those who put their trust in him. Once we discover the outside-in reality of the creator through Yeshua, then we are equipped to live life within the creation as we were truly meant to.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Avoiding Disease

For the week of August 8, 2020 / 18 Av 5780

Woman with medical mask holding out hand in stop gesture
Ekev
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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And the LORD will take away from you all sickness, and none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you knew, will he inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:15)

We live in a health-obsessed age. This is one explanation for the high amount of compliance to government-mandated regulations with regard to the current pandemic. Even among detractors, the basis of their push back is often health concerns, be they physical or mental. Sure, there are other concerns such as the economy or fear of conspiratorial forces, but by and large concern for health is a dominant factor. I know that not everyone is a health fanatic, but I don’t think the world has ever seen this level of health consciousness. From diet to exercise to the multiplicity of conventional and alternate therapies, getting well and staying that way is a societal obsession.

The God of the Bible is health conscious too. He wanted Israel to have good health. It was to be one of the benefits of staying true to the covenant that he gave them through Moses. Questions arise when reading a verse like the one I quote above, such as, does the Torah provide us with a sure-fire health program, that if carefully followed, we are guaranteed to be free from any and all sickness? Given the full breadth of Scripture, it is safer to conclude that God is speaking in general terms. By adhering to God’s directives, Israel would experience substantial community health.

In the verse I quoted, there is a specific reference to “the evil diseases of Egypt.” These are not the Ten Plagues that led to Israel’s release from slavery, but terrible illnesses the Israelites themselves had experienced while living there. Faithfulness to Israel’s covenant obligations would safeguard them from such afflictions, while those who hated Israel would remain vulnerable. This may sound as if God would reward the behavior of Israel with health and judge their enemies with sickness disconnected from natural benefits and consequences of their respective lifestyles.

Biblically speaking, there is no need to separate God’s involvement in human affairs from the natural realm. The natural and so-called supernatural are far more integrated than many may think. I say “so-called” supernatural because we often think of God’s involvement as completely separate from the natural realm. These realms are better thought of in terms of the material and spiritual aspects of the one creation. God’s activity shouldn’t be viewed as an occasional invasion into our realm. Rather he is ever present, always working, and accessible to us. I accept that some of what is going on with “the diseases of Egypt” is the result of God’s direct activity among faithful Israel and their enemies, but that is part and parcel of and not separate from natural benefits and consequences.

Through Moses God provided Israel with a healthy lifestyle. Torah’s ritual cleanliness and sexual guidelines, for example, protected his people from all sorts of diseases. But how would Israel’s faithfulness to God’s healthy Torah guidelines result in their enemies being afflicted with the “diseases of Egypt?” Note that these diseases would afflict those who hated Israel. I imagine the disdain for God’s covenant people would result in the curse that was an element of God’s promise to Abraham in Bereshit/Genesis 12:3, which reads: “him who dishonors you I will curse.” But that doesn’t mean there’s no practical dynamic at play. To hate means to show no regard for. To hate Israel would result in an attitude of disdain for not only the nation in general but for their unique customs. Israel’s customs were not simply the result of evolutional cultural development, but ways of living revealed to them by the Creator himself. To disdain Israel’s God-given customs invited disease.

What was true in Moses’ day is still true today. Despite obsession over health, we will continue to be overwhelmed by all sorts of ancient and novel sicknesses unless we turn back to God and his word.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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