You Gotta Serve Somebody

For the week December 16, 2017 / 28 Kislev 5778

Business man inside gears (hamster wheel metaphor)

Mi-Kez & Hanukkah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 41:1 – 44:17; Bemidbar/Numbers 7:30 – 41
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)

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Joseph was thirty years old when he entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from the presence of Pharaoh and went through all the land of Egypt. (Bereshit/Genesis 41:46)

The story of Joseph is one of the greatest “rags to riches” tales of all time. Sold into slavery by his own brothers due to their murderous jealously, he is purchased by an Egyptian captain named Potiphar. After refusing to give into Potiphar’s wife’s advances, she frames him, resulting in his spending years imprisoned in a dungeon. In both situations, Joseph is given significant responsibility. Be that as it may, few can comprehend how difficult those many years must have been, especially his time in the dungeon.

As we know, due to the predictive dreams Joseph had before his enslavement, God had big plans for him. How it would be that he would rise to some sort of rulership position over his family someday was unknown. We also don’t know what was going on in Joseph’s mind all that time. Whatever he figured the dreams meant, it must have seemed impossible given his predicament.

Then the surprising day came. Pharaoh, king of Egypt, having heard of Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams, called him to attempt to explain the meaning of two most troubling dreams he had. Pharaoh was pretty impressed with what he heard and appointed Joseph second in command over the whole country. Joseph’s main responsibility was to administer grain during the coming years of plenty and the subsequent famine.

It was only recently that I thought to myself, if Joseph was given such authority, why didn’t he go see his family? While he may have had no interest in his jealous brothers, we know he was concerned for his father and had a heart for his younger brother, Benjamin, who likely had no part in the plot against him. If he was concerned about his older brothers, he could have brought along an armed guard for protection. And why settle for a visit? Now that he was freed from prison, why stay in Egypt at all? Was it for the job? It’s not every day you’re offered anything close to Vice-Pharaoh with its prestige and other benefits. What would he do back home anyway? Be a shepherd? And with the coming famine, maybe staying in Egypt wouldn’t be too bad after all. Then again, why not at least visit?

Then it occurred to me, he couldn’t go home even if he wanted to. Pharaoh didn’t offer him a job; he appointed him to it. Pharaoh’s authority over Joseph wasn’t simply due to his being king, but that Joseph was still a slave. He was released from prison, but nowhere do we read he was made a free man. I imagine his life of service under Pharaoh was far more comfortable than most non-slaves anywhere in those days. But whatever perks he enjoyed, personal freedom was not one of them.

Looking at Joseph’s circumstances through a modern lens, we might determine that no perk could ever be a substitute for freedom. However, besides misunderstanding how difficult life must have been for people in those days, we also misunderstand the very essence of our God-given roles as human beings. When God created man and woman, he assigned them, and everyone else since then, to care for the creation under his rulership. A key theme of the Bible’s story is the broken nature of the world due to human refusal to submit to God’s established authority structure. We were designed to be servants, fulfilling God’s call in our lives as stewards of his creation. Never were we to be free to do whatever we wanted. This doesn’t mean that anyone should be subjected to slavery. That’s clear by both God’s providing moral freedom to Adam and Eve as well as the liberation of the nation of Israel in Egypt some generations after Joseph. Still, while slavery is an unjust, evil institution, we are to be servants.

Absolute personal freedom doesn’t exist in the real world. Whether we like it or not, we are part of a vast interconnected, complex system of life. In the design of God, our role is to serve his interests within that system, making positive contributions in the world. Yet it seems most people choose to serve their own interests instead; many creating the illusion that they are free, not realizing that they are being controlled by nefarious forces.

In 1979, singer-songwriter Bob Dylan got it right in his song “Gotta Serve Somebody”:

You’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

Like Joseph, we’re gonna serve somebody. The only question is: who is it going to be?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Internal Forces

For the week of December 9, 2017 / 21 Kislev 5778
Arrows depicting external and internal forceVa-Yeshev
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 37:1-40:23
Haftarah: Amos 2:6 – 3:8

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Now Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers they hated him even more. (Bereshit/Genesis 37:5)

While the story of Jacob’s son Joseph is one of the more comprehensive Bible stories, his personality is often overly simplified to be the God-favored victim of his brothers’ murderous hatred. Staying faithful to God through it all, God uses his terrible circumstances to save the day. The message to us is equally simple: trust God and he will take care of us no matter what. Nice thought. It certainly contains dependable truth. The problem is this story, including Joseph’s part, isn’t that straightforward. Neither is real life. Within the complexity of Joseph’s character, we can find real hope for our own complicated lives.

Was Joseph a passive victim? No one should blame him for being his father’s favorite. That wasn’t fair to his brothers, of course. But life isn’t fair. God also favored him by giving him dreams. I am aware favored persons can be the object of other people’s ire. But that’s not really Joseph’s story. Without excusing what his brothers did, Joseph was not passive. Joseph had a bit of a mouth. When we are first introduced to him, we are told he had brought a bad report of his brothers to their father. Not given the details of that, we don’t know what he said or how he said it. He may have been completely in the right. But when trouble ensued later on, most people would wonder if they could have done things differently.

It’s the sharing of the dreams, however, that is of greatest concern. The bad report may have been necessary. But did he have to tell his brothers and father about the dreams? Didn’t he know he would further infuriate his brothers? Even if he was clued out about the meaning of the first dream, he knew how his brothers took it (and correctly so) as a prediction of his eventual prominence in the family. Therefore, he knew exactly how they would understand the second similar dream. He may have been purposely trying to put them in their place. Joseph most likely figured his being favored by his father and God would protect him from his brothers’ wrath. If so, he figured wrong.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what was going on in Joseph’s mind through his ordeal. What we do know is after all was said and done, he was able to be gracious to his brothers in spite of what they did to him. His perspective he expresses as “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Bereshit/Genesis 50:20) is an unusually healthy balanced understanding of the interplay between human activity and God’s sovereignty. It’s easy to say, but Joseph’s freedom from bitterness and demonstration of generosity towards those who aggressively hated him is extraordinary.

Still, that was his state at the end of a very long and arduous personal journey. What about all the time in between, especially as he finds himself enslaved in Egypt, followed by unjust imprisonment in a vile dungeon? Shall we assume he took it all in stride as he made up songs about ruling over his family one day? That’s possible, but not probable. It’s reasonable to assume he wondered about his big mouth. Did he really have to talk up his dreams? Too late now, of course. But what if he had kept his big mouth shut?

Perhaps he didn’t give much thought to his contribution to his dismal situation. That would make him even more remarkable than most people think. Most of us spend considerable amount of time with our should’ve/ would’ve/could’ves. We obsess over the possibility that we are the ones who got us into our messes. Others blame shift, of course, refusing to take any responsibility for their lives. But that’s a different story for another time. Here I want to address those of us who get stuck over ourselves.

Whether or not Joseph blamed himself partly or completely for his situation, it is clear it didn’t cripple him. Dreams, something that got him in trouble earlier in life, would be key to his release and promotion in Egypt later on. Also, whether as a slave, prison foreman, or Prime Minister; his leadership skills, which may have helped precipitate his tense relationship with his brothers when a teenager, were fully expressed. How many people, when their abilities get them into trouble, out of fear vow to “never do that again”? Some may even think they are being responsible by avoiding the potential damage their God-given abilities may cause. Somehow Joseph didn’t fall into that trap.

Perhaps the way Joseph dealt with the relationship of his brothers’ evil to God’s sovereignty is a clue to how he coped with his own role in the story. Consciously or unconsciously, Joseph’s trust in God set him free to fully function in the role God assigned to him. He knew God was bigger than the outside forces of his life. Obviously, he also learned that God was bigger than his own internal forces as well.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Necessary Adjustments

For the week of December 2, 2017 / 14 Kislev 5778

Hands adjusting professional studio mixing console

Va-Yishlah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 32:4 – 36:43 (English 32:3 – 36:43)
Haftarah: Hosea 11:7 – 12:12 (English 11:7 – 12:11)

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For he thought, “I may appease him with the present that goes ahead of me, and afterward I shall see his face. Perhaps he will accept me.” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:21; English 32:20)

Jacob was on the brink of a life-changing event, though he didn’t know it. After a life of self-reliance, manipulation, finagling, and deception; he would have an encounter with God that would finally get through to him. It would leave him with a limp and a new name – Israel – the official and enduring brand of God’s specially chosen nation.

Jacob’s change was not a transformation of every aspect of his personality. I am not referring to the way true followers of the God of Israel remain a mixed bag until the Messiah returns, the continuing battle of spirit and flesh, so to speak. God affirmed a key aspect of what we might call the old Jacob, when he said, “you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Bereshit/Genesis 32:29; English 32:28). A couple of years ago, I commented on the positive nature of Jacob’s tenacity. His “go-get-it” attitude to life is something we should emulate.

Like so many human attributes, tenacity in and of itself is neutral. It can be used or abused. When something is a part of our personality, it can be difficult to recognize that. Let me explain. In the case of Jacob, it would be easier for us to divide his life into before and after his encounter with God. Prior to this, he was Jacob, the deceiver. Afterwards, he is Israel, the Prince of God. By the way, I know that he was sometimes still called Jacob, which may indicate his own ongoing internal struggle, but that is beside the point for now. What I am trying to point out is that it isn’t correct to categorize his tenacity as negative, since God himself affirms it as I quoted. However, we shouldn’t regard every way he expressed that tenacity in the past as acceptable.

Not to compare myself with Jacob, but when I came into a personal relationship with his God through the Messiah, my life radically changed. Still today, over forty years later, I refer to my first nineteen years on this planet as “the bad old days” as I was so misguided. It would take too long to list the changes: philosophical, theological, economical, psychological, and relational. But there is another sense in which I haven’t changed at all. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s that I am still me. However it works, like everyone, I am a unique personality with strengths and weaknesses, many of which are morally and practically neutral.

It would be easy for me to reject every aspect of my pre-messianic life due to how miserable and dysfunctional I was. But to do that would be to reject myself altogether. God didn’t want that for Jacob; neither does he want that for me (or you). The other extreme would be to think that because God made me a certain way, then I (and everyone around me) needs to accept my personality as is. But that too is not what God wanted for Jacob or anyone else. While he affirmed Jacob’s tenacity, he transformed his focus. Until his encounter, Jacob was self-driven. Once God got hold of him (quite literally in fact), God displaced self on the throne of Jacob’s life.

With a new ruler in charge change would be inevitable. Some things would have to go altogether, such as lies and deception; other things would need tweaking, such as the motivations and objects of his tenacity; while other things would stay intact. But that would now be under God’s direction, not Jacob’s.

It’s taken me a long time to accept some of what I was as gifts of God wrongly used, but now with his help can be instruments of blessing. If God is on the throne of our lives, then we need to get off. That entails releasing ourselves from our own judgments and allowing God to dictate what needs to go, what should be tweaked, and what might be fine just the way it is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The House of God

For the week of November 25, 2017 / 7 Kislev 5778

Celestial portalVa-Yeze
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 28:10 – 32:3
Haftarah: Hosea 12:13 – 14:10 (English 12:12 – 14:9)
Originally posted December 9, 2000 / 12 Kislev 5761
Revised version from the book Torah Light: Insights from the Books of Moses

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Then Jacob awoke from his sleep and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it.” And he was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Bereshit/Genesis 28:16–17)

Jacob had a vision of God in a dream. He’d never had an experience like this before. When he awoke, he surmised that there was something special about the place he was in, referring to it as the house of God, the gate of heaven. We don’t know if his conclusion about the place was accurate or if it was nothing more than his own interpretation of the experience.

Jacob assumed that this was a special place. He gave a new name to the town, calling it Bet-el (English, Bethel)—meaning “House of God”—and set up a pillar there. He then made a pledge that if God would keep his promise to bring him back there, this same god would be his God.

Whatever the significance of the place, Jacob thought God was more in Bet-el than he would be in the land of his ancestors where he was going. It would take many years before he realized how real and how present God was. Jacob’s dream was meant to reveal to him that God was going to take care of him. But Jacob focused more on the experience than on the message.

Like Jacob, we sometimes have difficulty knowing God beyond our experiences of him. I know many of us have not experienced anything like Jacob did, but still God is often confined to our specific events, activities, and experiences. We like to focus more on the wonderful things that God does than to learn the lessons those things were designed to teach us.

The essence of idolatry is the substituting of something in place of the reality of God. It may or may not be a physical object that we can touch. It might be a memory or a concept through which we relate to God. These things may function in our lives as helps in knowing God, but the fact is they get in the way.

It sounds so spiritual to be like Jacob and get excited over an experience. But God remained someone who seemed far from him for a very long time. It would not be until later difficult circumstances that God would finally become personal to him.

Could it have been any different for Jacob? We don’t know. But it can be different for us. Instead of getting hyped over what God is doing (or not doing) in our lives, maybe we should listen to what God is saying to us. Let’s stop making monuments of our experiences (or lack thereof) and let God into our hearts right now.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Shrinking World

For the week of November 18, 2017 / 29 Heshvan 5778

A miniature globe held by a hand

Toledot
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 25:19 – 28:9
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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So she went to inquire of the LORD. And the LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the older shall serve the younger.” (Bereshit/Genesis 25:22-23)

We have no idea what we are. Our view of life seems to get more and more narrow. For most people it is nothing more than the avoidance of suffering and pursuit of pleasure. Sure, we may have family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues, but life is wrapped up in self, and not much more. Let’s be honest, why do we pursue what we pursue? Who is it for? The other guy or yourself? I don’t assume this is everyone, but the self-driven life is certainly driving the traffic of much human endeavor today. I am not surprised by this. After being told for so long that life has no meaning, the universe shrinks and shrinks until it is no bigger than me.

But it’s not true. We are not meaningless blobs of tissue, the happenstance of random, mindless processes, existing only for a few short years simply to decompose to recyclable waste. But perhaps you knew that already. You may even be a person of faith – a believer in the one true God, the God of Israel, the God of the Bible. Maybe you pray and read that Bible of yours. You try to live a good life, keeping out of trouble as much as you can. You’ve got your ticket to heaven, or so you think, which gives you something to look forward to beyond your feeble current existence. But as for your feeble existence, is your life, your world, any bigger than that of your atheistic or agnostic friends? You have “Jesus in your heart,” and you know that’s supposed to make a difference, but this eternal life you claim to have has a tendency to shrivel up into the same self-focus of most everybody else.

It’s because we don’t get it. We don’t get that there is something really big going on. The world has its issues, of course. The Bible doesn’t pretend otherwise. Rebellion against God is at the core of all human dysfunction as well as the broken nature of the planet in which we live. But the purpose of life isn’t found in biding our time as we medicate our suffering through all sorts of distractions as we wait for heaven. We are here on a mission – God’s mission. All humans have been mandated by God, whether we know him or not, to be his representatives on earth (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-28). Through Yeshua the Messiah we are more than adequately equipped to not only fulfill that mandate, but to rescue others from sin and its effects (see Matthew 28:18-20).

Because people are made in God’s image, every one of us has potential for great positive impact. Yet we squander what we are due to ignorance. If we would only know what we are, we would get our eyes off ourselves and onto the grand mission God has for us.

When Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, was pregnant, she was concerned about the turmoil she felt inside. Asking God what was going on, he told her that she was carrying two nations. Get that? Not two blobs of tissue. Two nations. Not two products of pregnancy that may develop into something more one day. Two nations.

I understand that not every human being will necessarily generate offspring like Jacob and Esau did. But the potential for life that exists within every human being at the point of conception should encourage us to see that we are part of something way bigger than ourselves. God’s initiation of the universe and his intent on rescuing it from our mismanagement includes, not precludes, the ongoing generation of more human beings.

The Scripture is clear that everything that is wrong with the world is because of humans. But it is equally clear that the solution to everything that is wrong with the world is also human beings. That’s why God became human to save the creation. And that’s why he is calling us to be part of his rescue mission today. The more we embrace that mission, the bigger our world will become.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When It’s Not You

For the week of November 11, 2017 / 22 Heshvan 5778

A business man pointing his finger in blame toward a businesswoman

Hayyei Sarah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 23:1-25:18
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/2 Kings 1:1-31

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Abraham took another wife, whose name was Keturah. She bore him Zimran, Jokshan, Medan, Midian, Ishbak, and Shuah. Jokshan fathered Sheba and Dedan. (Bereshit/Genesis 25:1-3)

Abraham is depicted in the Bible as the model of faith. It was him of whom we read, “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:6). It was his trust in God (faith is trust) that established his right relationship with God. What did he trust God for? The seemingly impossible prospect of innumerable offspring (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:5). Why was this a seemingly impossible prospect? He and his wife, Sarah, were childless and already advanced in years. They astonishingly have the child of promise when Abraham is one hundred years old and Sarah is ninety.

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), Sarah dies, and sometime later Abraham remarries. Obviously, he is way over a hundred by now, but ends up having a whack of kids through his second wife, Keturah. Not bad for an old man, eh? But wait a second! I thought Abraham couldn’t conceive. Perhaps God healed whatever his condition was, so that he could have Isaac, the promised one. But that’s not right. Years before, after waiting and waiting and still no child, Sarah suggested going the surrogate mother route through her servant Hagar (see Genesis 16). Can’t say for sure, but looks like Hagar conceived pretty quickly. You know what that means, don’t you? The problem wasn’t with Abraham. It was Sarah who couldn’t conceive, at least not until God intervened.

If I am right, then Abraham’s faith challenge was not his own inability, but his wife’s. Did he understand that? He must have. They knew how conception worked. The Bible tells us many times something to the effect of so-and-so lay with her, and she conceived. Abraham knew he could produce kids. And he knew Sarah couldn’t. And yet he stuck with her until the end. He was open to the surrogacy solution, and appeared to believe that that was part of God’s plan until told differently. He thought it was funny when it became clear that his wife would finally conceive. Isaac, meaning laughter, would be identified with this act of heavenly humor forever. It was funny, but he went for it, lying with his long-time committed spouse at least one more time.

While many of the challenges to our fulfilling God’s will are due to our own weaknesses, struggles, and so on, we often find ourselves, like Abraham, frustrated by issues arising from others. Being confronted by actual enemies is one thing, but being constrained by those closest to us is another. How many people have started off on some Great Adventure and have been thwarted in pursuing what are clearly God-given goals, hitting a rock wall because of a loved one? Household obligations may dictate holding off on all sorts of noble, inspired objectives.

Abraham’s willingness to alleviate his situation only stemmed as far as surrogacy within the confines of his understanding of the cultural norms of the day. But that didn’t resolve the matter. Note that he never took a second wife. Maybe God kept him from that temptation by taking him to a hostile, alien land. We don’t know. What we do know is that God wasn’t put off by the length of time or Sarah’s infertility and that Abraham was willing to cooperate with the details of God’s plan as they were revealed to him.

There may be times when we unnecessarily accept obstacles to God’s plans for our lives. We may assume a false sense of responsibility towards family, friends, or business. We may have misguided financial expectations. But at other times, we need to resist skirting God-given limitations, trusting he knows what he is doing and will bring to pass whatever he wants in his time and in his way.

Some time later, God would say to Isaac, concerning his dad: “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws” (Bereshit/Genesis 26:5). The exemplary nature of Abraham’s faith is not confined to a few highlighted moments, but includes a lifestyle, imperfect though it was, loyal to God. This is no less found in his faithfulness to Sarah in spite of her insufficiency. He knew that the God who called him to be a great nation had also determined that marriage be permanent. He accepted the challenge and became the father of all who truly believe.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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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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