Generous Leadership

For the week of October 7, 2017 / 17 Tishri 5778

Paper cutouts depicting leadership in team

Sukkot
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:17-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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And He said, “My presence shall go with you, and I will give you rest.” Then he said to Him, “If Your presence does not go with us, do not lead us up from here.” (Shemot/Exodus 33:14-15)

In preparation to depart from Mt. Sinai, not long after the tragic incident of the Golden Calf, Moses is praying. He is praying and he is listening. While most of us will unlikely experience divine communication at anywhere near this level, prayer is more of a conversation than we generally think. We are not going to delve into that now, however. It’s the dynamic of this particular conversation that I wish to focus on.

What’s going on here sounds more like an argument than a conversation. And a strange argument at that. It’s sounds like one of those I-am-agreeing-with-you type arguments, where people passionately just about echo each other’s words, while somehow implying that each party isn’t quite satisfied that they’re getting their point across.

God: My presence will go with you.

Moses: We’re not going anywhere unless you go with us.

What’s Moses problem here? God said he would go with them. Why does Moses keep on about this if God said he would do it?

The problem is a little worse in the original Hebrew, which reads more like this:

God: My presence shall go…

Moses: If your presence does not go…

In the Hebrew, both instances of “go” doesn’t specify with whom God is going or not going. Presumably the confusion is only the reader’s, since God and Moses seem to know what they were arguing over. The translation I chose irons out the ambiguity by adding “with you” (singular) to what God says and “with us” to Moses’s words. This clarification on the part of the translators is justified by a reading of the entire interaction. The back and forth between Moses and God is due to God’s commitment to Moses alone, assuring him that his presence will be with him personally. But that’s not good enough for Moses. He wants assurance that God will be present with the whole nation. This isn’t clear until verse 16: “For how then can it be known that I have found favor in Your sight, I and Your people? Is it not by Your going with us, so that we, I and Your people, may be distinguished from all the other people who are upon the face of the earth?” (emphasis mine).

This is the mark of a true leader. Moses has extraordinary favor with God. But that’s not good enough for him. He wants the people to have what he has. He isn’t satisfied to be their champion or their hero. He knows that in the grand scheme of things, this isn’t about his success, his fame, nor even his legacy. We justify leader focus because of our assumption that as leaders go, so do the people they lead. Certainly there is some truth in this. We see such an example in the history of the Israelite monarchy. If a king was good, which was rarely the case, things went well for the nation. If a king was evil, the nation suffered. The principle works, but should this principle be our goal? Instead should not our hearts be for the people we lead, whatever be the scope and scale of our leadership?

For our families, our friends, co-workers, employees, congregations, and nations, it should not be sufficient to simply strive to be the best person possible. We need to truly care about people like Moses did. The blessings we ask for needn’t be channeled through us. May God bless people directly. If we get to play a part in that process, that’s great. But is it necessary? Isn’t God’s blessing a result of his undeserved love and mercy? He doesn’t really need us anyway. Yet he delights to use us.

I know we know this. And yet, it is so easy to fixate on ourselves. Perhaps that is why this interchange between God and Moses is so instructive. It’s a battle to fight for blessing upon others and not just ourselves. It isn’t as if blessing needs to be wrenched from God, who is so generous. It’s we whose hands need to be pried open through prayer that we might come to that place where we will fight for God’s blessing upon others.

Scriptures taken from New American Standard Bible

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Reflecting Relationship

For the week of September 30, 2017 / 10 Tishri 5778

Red heart on a black reflective background

Yom Kippur
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1-34; Bemidbar/Numbers 29:7-11
Haftarah: Isaiah 57:14 – 58:14

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Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the LORD? Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Isaiah 57:5-6)

The most likely reason why this selection from the prophet Isaiah (57:14 – 58:14) was chosen to be read at Yom Kippur (English: Day of Atonement) is because of its reference to fasting, the personal ritual that has become core to the traditional observance of this high holy day. Interestingly, however, God’s instruction regarding fasting here is not really about fasting itself. Rather, it is that religious ritual is futile unless it is accompanied by godly living.

Note how intimately God through the prophet connects the ritual with action. It’s not as if giving oneself to acts of justice functions as fasting. It’s that true fasting only has real benefit when the life of the person doing so is given to righteousness. This makes a lot of sense. Activities such as fasting and prayer are expressions of love and devotion to God. Good things for God followers to do. But expressions of love and devotion only really mean something when the other areas of life reflect those expressions. Fasting unto the Lord (as opposed to fasting for health, for example) makes God a special priority for that time. The giving up of food, drink, and other common needs and pleasures creates an opportunity to intensely focus on God. But to do so while normally ignoring his will is hypocritical. It’s downright deceitful, in fact, because the religious activity pretends to represent a lifestyle that is far from reality. It’s also self-deceiving, because the intensity of something like fasting can fool ourselves into thinking we are devoted to God, when we are not.

It’s like being really good at giving gifts to your wife. On one hand, your ability and willingness to do so gives every appearance of being reflective of a loving heart, when the remainder of the time you are unfaithful to her. Maybe you aren’t having an affair, but your heart is not truly hers; it’s yours. You may be able to fool your wife (though you probably aren’t). You may be able to fool yourself. But your gifts mean nothing. On the other hand, expressions of love, such as gift giving, builds relationship when they are from a sincere heart. It’s the same with God. To fast, to pray, to give to charity when our lives are reflective of the devotion we claim will deepen our relationship with him.

It is very clear from this passage what a true reflection of a genuine relationship with God looks like. Too often godliness is depicted as little more than being nice as if getting along with everyone, staying out of trouble, and not standing out in a crowd are what righteousness is all about. Nothing could be further from the truth according to Isaiah here. On the contrary, God’s people are called to notice injustice (which isn’t hard to do, if we are willing to look) and do something about it. Nice people don’t disturb the status quo. Oppressors and other nice people won’t like you confronting wickedness and oppression. The process is messy; you’ll probably make mistakes along the way. Even if you don’t, you’ll be noticed and will likely get into trouble. But isn’t that exactly what the Messiah said would happen?

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

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Israel, God’s Portion

For the week of September 23, 2017 / 3 Tishri 5778

The word Israel hovering over an open hand

Ha’azinu
Torah: Deuteronomy/Devarim 32:1-52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-8); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel. For the LORD’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:8-9; NASB)

Near the end of Moses’s life, God directed him to teach the people a song. This is no simple folk song, but rather a complex prophetic lyric designed to confront them as they will inevitably one day stray from God and his ways. Contained within these inspired words is a reference to God’s providence in the establishment of peoples and their God-allotted regions. Nationhood and defined territorial boundaries are not the outcome of human will alone, but primarily emerge from the purposeful oversight of the Almighty.

That much is clear in the verses above, but they include a curious statement about the relationship between borders and, according to this Bible version, “the number of the sons of Israel.” I make mention of this particular version because the text here is controversial. A quick glance over other English translations shows that another common rendering of this phrase is along the lines of “the number of the sons of God” (see ESV, etc.). Exactly what is meant by “sons of God” isn’t certain. It could be another way to refer to the sons of Israel, a generic reference to people of God, or to heavenly beings such as angels. The reason for the difference is in the manuscripts. The most common Hebrew manuscript is called the Masoretic Text (MT). Some English versions rely heavily on it, and only seldom prefer readings from other manuscripts. The MT reads, “sons of Israel.” The alternate reading, “sons of God” is from the oldest Greek translation of the Hebrew called the Septuagint (LXX). While it may seem to be more reasonable to prefer the MT over the LXX, since it is written in the original Hebrew, many scholars believe that the Hebrew manuscripts that were used by the LXX translators were older and thus closer to the original than the copies upon which the MT relies.

Textual Criticism is the study of ancient manuscripts to determine what the original writings were. It might come as a surprise to some of you that this sort of thing is necessary at all. We might prefer to believe that exact copy after exact copy was passed on from generation to generation, but that isn’t the case. But note that in spite of differences like the one we are looking at here, there is far more agreement between manuscripts than not. Remarkably and thankfully, no discrepancy threatens any major element of Scripture. Whether the text reads “sons of Israel” or “sons of God” certainly doesn’t greatly affect the Bible’s teaching either in this passage or others.

What I find most interesting is that many English versions prefer “sons of God” even though most other versions rely on the MT. While I hope the various translation committees followed this route due to high standards of scholarship, there may be something else going on. If indeed the correct reading is “when He separated the sons of man, He set the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel,” then we are made to understand that the makeup of world geography is intimately linked to the people of Israel. I am concerned that the real reason to prefer the LXX over the MT here is a resistance on the part of Christian scholarship to accept the centrality of Israel in the outworking of world history.

Few biblical scholars deny the place of ancient Israel in the development of God’s plans and purposes particularly with regard to salvation. But there is a tendency to cast off literal Israel in favor of a supposed New Israel, a generic people of God as it were. But if the MT reading is correct, then the very framework of nations and borders is somehow dependent on the people of Israel. By disregarding the ongoing nature of Israel in God’s economy, Christians unknowingly contribute to the disintegration of legitimate nationhood through misguided globalization in the name of unity, Christian or otherwise.

But as I mentioned, the Bible’s central teachings are unaffected by the relatively few discrepancies in the various manuscripts. This verse is no exception. Whatever may be intended in this statement concerning the connection between national boundaries and the sons of Israel or sons of God, Scripture is abundantly clear about the foundational and ongoing place of literal Israel. For there is nothing controversial about what follows. As verse nine reads: “For the LORD’s portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.” The use of Jacob reminds us that references to Israel in Scripture is not code for “the Church” or a post-Jewish generic “sons of God,” but that God has special regard and connection to the real, actual, physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. To deny that is to deny the essence of the Bible.

Scriptures, New American Standard Bible

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False Accusations

For the week of September 2, 2017 / 11 Elul 5777

Male figure pointng finger at female figure

Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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If a man marries a woman, has sexual relations with her and then, having come to dislike her, brings false charges against her… (Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:13-14)

Many people assume that the Bible is an archaic, backward book, written when people were superstitious, given over to mythical stories, and all round ignorant – nothing like we are today: enlightened, progressive, and intelligent. This might be hard to accept, but very little about humans has changed since the beginning, except for technological advances. We continue to do what we have always done, just faster and more efficiently. And that goes for things both good and bad.

This is not to say that the ancients weren’t superstitious. Many were. But many still are today. We continue to believe in all sorts of fanciful ideas, and ignorance over life essentials is rampant. Yes, much has been learned through the millennia, while some basic lessons of life continue to be ignored. The idea that people started off ignorant and foolish and have been progressing mentally and morally since then has no basis in fact.

One of the areas where the progress assumption is strongest is with regards to the Bible’s view of women. Some will even use the Bible itself to back up this claim by comparing the Old and New Testaments’ depictions and treatment of women. It is typical to assert that Yeshua was the great liberator of women, since he freely engaged females and considered some as associates in his work. That he did that is indeed the case, but making it sound as if he was being so-called progressive isn’t valid. Even a casual reading of his interactions with women demonstrates there was no scandal or even concern over them. There is his disciples’ questioning over the Samaritan Woman in John chapter four, but it isn’t clear from the text exactly what their issue was.

This is not to say that the world of that day, Jewish or otherwise, was necessarily altogether correct, vis a vis women’s rights. Certainly, all sorts of injustices were done unto women, but injustices of all kinds occurred to both men and women and have continued to this day. Whether or not we have significantly progressed to a higher moral plain is difficult to determine.

What we can determine, however, is that the whole Bible, Old and New Testaments, has a high regard for women. The divinely inspired wisdom of Scripture is displayed within a realistic view of life. Simply stating that all people should be treated equally does nothing to alleviate harmful behavior. But God knew that if left unchecked men and women would abuse each other.

In this week’s parsha, we have a situation where a man accuses his wife of deceitful impropriety prior to their marriage (see Devarim/Deuteronomy 22:13-21). The penalties for slander on the part of the man or impropriety on the part of his wife are harsh by today’s standards, but note the equality shown towards each party. If the man’s accusation is correct, then the woman was to be executed, the normal penalty for such things. But if the accusation is false, he was to be whipped, fined, and not allowed to ever divorce her. I know some will find these consequences backward in the way I referred to at the beginning, but don’t miss the sentiment here. Contrary to popular misconception, wives weren’t property to do with whatever their husbands pleased. Men were not allowed to say whatever they wanted about their wives and get away with it. There were repercussions for false accusations against women. These directives were designed to keep male selfishness in check. Yet, there is no preferential treatment here. Justice was to be done regardless of which partner was at fault.

There’s more. If I read this correctly, the result of God’s word here goes beyond this specific scenario. Because God provided a disincentive regarding false accusations, one would hope that men should think twice before acting on their suspicions toward their wives. In that day as well as our own, accusations in and of themselves destroy people’s reputations whether or not the accusation is valid. Yet, unlike in Moses’ time, there are no penalties for falsely accusing someone. Unlike the Torah, many justice systems tolerate false accusations to encourage victims to come forward. But that’s not just. True justice shows no bias toward supposed victims nor alleged perpetrators. Everyone should be treated fairly before the law. To allow otherwise is not progress.

Scriptures, Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)

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That’s Good News!

For the week of August 26, 2017 / 4 Elul 5777

A megaphone announcing good news with a blackboard background

Shofetim
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns!” (Isaiah 52:7)

This week’s Haftarah (excerpt from the Hebrew prophets) includes what might be the prophetic high mark in all Scripture (if I am exaggerating, then I should only correct myself by saying “one of”). The great prophet Isaiah makes this proclamation after much of ancient Israel had been overrun and scattered by the brutal Assyrians, while the remaining region known as the Kingdom of Judah, where he lived, had barely escaped the same fate. Moreover, God had revealed to Isaiah that it was only a matter of time before Judah would be exiled by the next great world power, Babylon. Yet like much of the Bible’s prophetic literature gloom and doom is tempered with words of hope.

And a good deal of the last third of Isaiah’s book contains some of the Scripture’s brightest light and this one verse I quoted is the brightest (or one of the brightest) of them all. The picture painted here is one of relief and excitement due to a messenger’s appearing upon the hills surrounding Jerusalem as he announces good news of peace and deliverance.

The core of this hopeful expectation is found in the promise of the eventual reign of Israel’s God. This is what makes this proclamation so climactic. For it is God’s being established as king – first and foremost over Israel and then extended to the entire creation – that is the supreme goal of Scripture. But doesn’t the Bible teach that God was, is, and will always be king? Yes and no. Ultimately that is always true. The traditional Jewish way to address God in prayer as “Lord God, King of the universe” is certainly correct. But in another sense, God’s rule over the earth is dependent upon the submission of human beings. From the beginning, God desired that people do his will on earth as it is in heaven. Our failure to do so undermines his reign.

Through the Scriptures we see this played out in the story of Israel. The spotlight of divine revelation shone on this particular people to demonstrate to the whole world how God’s reign was to be lived out. Or not, as was the case. And in case I need to remind you, any nation would have similarly failed, for this is the state of human nature. But in the genius of God, through his commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, he made a way to establish his rule on earth in spite of human dysfunctionality. And that’s good news!

And that’s the good news first proclaimed by messengers in around Jerusalem two thousand years ago. The Middle English word, “gospel,” based on the Old English, “godspel” (meaning “good tale”), is the translation of the Greek word “euangelion,” the term used in the Greek New Covenant Writings (New Testament). Euangelion is the word that was used to translate the Hebrew for “good news” in this verse. Therefore, the good news expressed through the proclamation of the coming of the Messiah is summed up in: “Your God reigns.” The early Jewish followers of Yeshua, therefore, were announcing that through his coming the long-anticipated reign of God over Israel (and the whole world) had come.

The power of the Greek word euangelion is made even greater by its use outside the Jewish community. This is the word commonly used to describe proclamations about Caesar, the Lord and King of the Roman Empire. To proclaim the Good News of the Jewish Messiah, was to announce the reign of the earth’s true king. In other words: Yeshua is King and Caesar is not. The subversive nature of Gospel proclamation is in full keeping with the essence of Isaiah’s’ prophesy – through the Messiah the reign of the God of Israel has come.

Knowing Yeshua is not simply a personal, private spiritual experience designed to comfort adherents by giving them a ticket to heaven. It is about welcoming the rule of God into our lives, allowing him to be Lord in every way. And that’s not just something that lives inside a tiny spiritual vault called our hearts. It’s a reality that is to affect every part of us and to be lived out in every aspect of life, because our God reigns. That’s good news!

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

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Our Children’s Peace

For the week of August 19, 2017 / 27 Av 5777

Colorful illustration of multi-ethic children holding hands around the earth

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

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All your children shall be taught by the LORD, and great shall be the peace of your children. (Isaiah 54:13)

This week’s Haftarah (selection from the Prophets) looks to a future age and the restoration of the creation. One of the central aspects of these wonderful days is shalom (English: peace). Shalom is a personal and societal condition much deeper than the lack of war and strife. It’s a way to describe life in perfect harmony, everything in its place, functioning as it should in right relationship to everything else.

The reference to children here is particularly interesting. The conditions of those days are to result in peace for children. When life is out of sorts, children are greatly impacted. Children suffer when their parents’ individual lives or marriage relationship is dysfunctional. Simply observing their parents, not to mention experiencing direct harm, has long-term, potential devastating effects on the young. Similarly, when the society at large is failing, children most often suffer the most. But one day according to God’s promise to ancient Israel, “great shall be the shalom of your children.”

But notice that their experience of shalom is not just an outcome of general peace upon the adults. It is the direct result of their being taught by God. We shouldn’t get distracted by attempting to figure out the details of what the Bible terms, “the age to come.” To do so would result in missing the point. What God through the prophet is saying is that the children’s peace would be a direct outcome of their being taught by God.

Parents have been mandated by God to be the prime educators of their children. Moses reiterates this at the end of last week’s Torah reading: “You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:19). The educational content referred to is, of course, God’s commandments. But when we understand the broad nature of God’s directives in the Scriptures, it becomes obvious that they are designed to be at the core of all education, not just things spiritual, moral, or religious. Exactly how our children’s education is done, formally and informally, is a serious task every parent needs to address.

That said, no matter how well-meaning, diligent, or capable a parent may be, we live in a broken world, where things don’t work in the way God intends. That doesn’t get us off the hook. Whether it’s our children’s education or anything else in life, we need to do our best. The problem is our best will never be good enough. The taint of sin undermines our efforts to fully meet God’s standards. No matter how well we do regarding education, human dysfunctionality will continue to get in the way of lasting peace. But one day, the barriers preventing God’s direct access to his people will be completely removed and children will no longer be the victims of their parents’ dysfunctions. Instead, the instruction of God himself will be the guiding force for everyone, kids included.

The promised shalom is not only something for a far-off day, however. Through the coming of the Messiah and the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit), God has made available to us now the resources of the age to come. This doesn’t only apply to children’s education, but it’s included. Parents who know the God of Israel through faith in Yeshua the Messiah have the opportunity to be conduits of his shalom. The reality of God present in the homes of true believers provides a foretaste of the great shalom to come. The effectiveness of educating our children is not solely due to our experience of God, but that of our children as well. As our children come to know Yeshua for themselves, the same Spirit directly works in their hearts too, thus making God their ultimate teacher. Our role, then, is to cooperate with what he is doing in their lives as he teaches them. The result? Our children’s peace.

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

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Spiritual Ecosystems

For the week of August 12, 2017 / 20 Av 5777

Photos illustrating the Egypt's and Israel's differant ecosystems

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

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For the land that you are entering to take possession of it is not like the land of Egypt, from which you have come, where you sowed your seed and irrigated it, like a garden of vegetables. But the land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the LORD your God cares for. The eyes of the LORD your God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to the end of the year. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:10-12)

The people of Israel were not simply rescued from an old, oppressed life of slavery in Egypt. They were rescued to a new life of freedom in the Promised Land. The contrast between these two situations is great. Not only were they liberated from bondage, taken from being under the abusive control of the king of Egypt in order to be servants of the Master of the Universe, their entire sphere of existence was radically altered. It would have been sufficiently wonderful if they only had been granted a status change, free to thrive in Egypt as they had when they first settled there. But instead God led them to an entirely different territory as was promised to their ancestors centuries earlier.

Yet another significant difference between their former existence and the one yet ahead was that life in their new land worked completely differently from how it did in Egypt. And I don’t mean culturally, although it included that too. Settling the Land of Israel would necessitate new challenges with other peoples, and the working out of a new culture based on God’s Torah directives. The dynamics of living in the Promised Land were so different compared to Egypt that it was almost like being taken to another planet.

Egypt and Israel, though neighboring regions, are controlled by different ecosystems. An ecosystem, according to Merriam-Webster is “the complex of a community of organisms and its environment functioning as an ecological unit.” Agriculture in Egypt was dependent on the Nile River. As far as the Egyptians were concerned, the Nile was a permanent and dependable resource. Having such a vast water supply in those days in that part of world was more valuable than anything. No wonder the Egyptians regarded the Nile as a god.

Israel’s ecosystem was not like that at all. As Moses said: “The land that you are going over to possess is a land of hills and valleys, which drinks water by the rain from heaven, a land that the LORD your God cares for” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 11:11-12). Israel even today has very little permanent water resources, notwithstanding current technological advances in desalination and waste-water purification. Without adequate annual rain, Israel would quickly experience a drought induced famine situation. Regular provision of rain would be a matter of life and death.

Israel’s ongoing dependence upon rain was to lead them to an ongoing dependence on God. Of course, Egypt was actually as dependent on God as Israel was to be. As the Creator and Sustainer of all things, he is behind all provision, including the presence and abundance of the Nile. But since the rain-dependent source of the Nile was far removed from the center of Egyptian life, the people would not be readily aware of that. Israel’s ecosystem forced them to look to God in a way that was not so obvious in Egypt. They had spent hundreds of years in a land, which, while oppressive, was rich in water, but now they were called to live in a land where their water situation would be precarious.

The uncertainty surrounding this essential resource didn’t mean they wouldn’t have water. Moses’s words were not geared to make them anxious due to the fear of drought, but rather confident in God’s provision. As we read, this would be living in “a land that the LORD your God cares for.” While Israel lacked the luxury of taking water for granted they were gaining an environment that was under the watchful eye of a loving and caring God.

The level of trust in God required of Israel is no different from the basic faith of any true follower of the Messiah. Yet, not all environments are the same. We know we should always be dependent upon him, yet he leads us into all kinds of situations where we find ourselves having to trust him in ways we’ve never had to before. We may not know that we have been taking certain areas of life for granted until they are not as readily available as we had been used to.

We need to take care not to overreact when we discover we have been depending on things instead of on the God who provides them. It can be jarring to all of a sudden have to trust God for things we have been taking for granted. But let’s remember, like the Land of Israel, the eyes of our God are always upon us. We can trust him even when the ecosystems of our lives radically change.

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

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Nothing Better

For the week of August 5, 2017 / 13 Av 5777

Magnifying glass with the words The Best inside.

Va-Ethannan
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 3:23 – 7:11
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:1-26

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For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Devarim/Deuteronomy 4:7-8)

Standing (or sitting) before the people of Israel after forty years of wilderness wanderings, which followed being powerfully rescued by God from slavery in Egypt, Moses recounts their experiences as he prepares them to enter the Promised Land. At this point he enthusiastically exclaims the uniqueness of their relationship to God. No other nation on earth has what they have. Two things: an intimate relationship with the Creator, and his revelation of how to live within his creation.

Other cultures of that day had religion along with formal or informal philosophy. They had concepts of gods and other spiritual forces, both good and evil. They had theories of life’s origins and purpose. People related to one another and to the world around them based on their various beliefs, which, by the way, included agnosticism and atheism, just like today. But no other people group apart from ancient Israel were gifted with a genuine relationship with the only authentic God as well as insight into the workings of the world he had made.

Some may have difficulty with the exclusivity of this arrangement. Why would God only reveal himself to one nation? I trust the Master of the Universe knows what he was doing. From the perspective of the New Covenant, we know that this exclusivity was only to be until the time when the followers of Messiah, King of Israel, would be sent out into the whole world. But even when Moses spoke these words hundreds of years earlier, the other nations were in mind. For they were to notice the great wisdom and understanding that was given to Israel.

In the current social climate, we tend to forget the great blessing that God’s revelation through the Scriptures really is. Constant critiques of the Judeo-Christian worldview attempt to shame its adherents into hiding. Principles of Scripture are misrepresented as backward and bigoted. But nothing could be further from reality. Rightly understood, no philosophy, religion, or lifestyle comes close to the goodness of God’s ways as delineated in the Bible. Not only does it provide wisdom unto eternal life, observing its principles leads to health and long life in the current age. Bible-based living results in strong families and communities. The Scriptures contain the highest standards of honest and fair business practices, conflict resolution strategies, racial reconciliation techniques, personal psychological insights, and on and on.

This is not to say that the Bible hasn’t been extremely twisted through the centuries. Verses have been taken out of context and passages used nefariously for personal gain or control. That something so good and beneficial would be abused like that is the epitome of evil. Not only has this caused much harm, but it also results in preventing other people who might otherwise be helped by it.

Today, the problem is different. Many who claim to value the Bible neglect it or at least large portions of it, while others shape it to fit into the current culture’s expectations. Clearly much of the Bible’s values and approach to life’s practicalities are in stark contrast to popular thought. To accept its perspective necessitates major adjustments and invites aggressive reaction from others. But that in itself shouldn’t be reason to ignore it, especially once we realize its benefits.

Notwithstanding certain elements of the Bible that were for the time in which it was written, nothing compares to it. Its life-giving power that has benefited so many through the centuries is still as effective as ever. But let’s not forget the other remarkable thing that Moses mentions. That which made Israel unique was not simply that it possessed superior information in the body of writings we now call the Bible. It is that the knowledge of Scripture was to be acquired as part of an intimate relationship with God. In fact, it was Israel’s difficulty in maintaining that relationship that made the Bible virtually ineffective. Only through the coming of the Messiah Yeshua, and putting our trust in him, does the Bible become the life source God intended. There’s nothing better!

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

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The Bible: Israel’s Title Deed

For the week of July 29, 2017 / 6 Av 5777

Ancient map of Israel

Devarim
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
Haftarah: Isaiah 1:1-27
Originally posted the week of August 2, 2014 / 6 Av 5774 (revised) 

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See, I have set the land before you. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give to them and to their offspring after them. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 1:8)

When reading the Bible, it doesn’t take too long to discover that its predominant context is the people of Israel in the Land of Israel. That context doesn’t simply function as a backdrop for the Bible’s overall story; it’s a crucial aspect of it. God’s endeavor to eradicate evil and its effects upon his creation is based on the outworking of a plan. This plan begins with his calling Abraham to leave his homeland and settle in what was then known as the Land of Canaan (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). Almost as soon as he arrived, God said to him, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:7). Not only is this promise unconditional, it is also eternal. As God soon after added, “For all the land that you see I will give to you and to your offspring forever” (Bereshit/Genesis 13:15; see also 17:8). Even though Abraham had many sons besides Isaac (see Bereshit/Genesis 16 & 25:1-6), the promise was passed on to Isaac alone (Bereshit/Genesis 26:3-4). Of Isaac’s two sons, only to Jacob, whose name was changed to Israel (see Bereshit/Genesis 32:28), was the promise of the land given (see Bereshit/Genesis 35:12).

Later on, under the covenant God gave to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai, Israel’s remaining in the Land was contingent upon their faithfulness to that covenant. Eventually, due to their relentless pursuit of other gods, God sent prophets to warn them that, unless they changed their ways, foreign domination and exile would result. Through the Assyrians and Babylonians, that’s exactly what happened.

But while retention of the Land was an expressed condition of the Sinai covenant, Israel’s claim to the Land was based, as I have already explained, on God’s unconditional, eternal promise to their forefathers. The tension between Israel’s lack of worthiness and God’s unconditional faithfulness through his promise is resolved through the New Covenant (see Jeremiah 31:31-33) as instituted by the Messiah (see Luke 22:20).

Much Christian understanding of the New Covenant assumes that the issue of Israel’s claim to the Land becomes irrelevant. It is thought that the multi-national scope of the community of faith precludes Israel’s nationalistic aspirations. The inclusion of non-Jews as part of the family of God is taken to imply the superiority of a homogenized, generic, spiritual community. Yet knowing that some continuity with God’s ancient plan as outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures must be retained, this quasi-national organization brands itself as “new” or “true” Israel. Detaching what is supposedly higher spiritual values from the lower natural ones, concern over the literal Promised Land, especially with its ancient attachments to the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, is viewed as an archaic throwback to a below-standard epoch.

There are many problems with this approach to Israel and the Land, most importantly that nothing of this sort can be found in the Bible, the New Testament included. If such a redefinition was crucial to the understanding of God’s explicit commitment to Israel through the forefathers, why is it not clearly expounded upon anywhere in Scripture? The Hebrew prophets fully expected that the natural descendants of the people whom they addressed (unfaithful Israel) would one day be fully restored to the Land and to God. Take what God says through Amos for example: “I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them” (Amos 9:15; see also Isaiah 54:7; Jeremiah 30:3; Ezekiel 37:21). Nothing about the coming of the Messiah or the writings of his followers detracts from this expectation. To spiritualize the prophetic literature by twisting its explicit intent undermines the Bible, since so much of its overall message is based on God’s faithfulness to the people of Israel.

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

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The Family Unit

For the week of July 22, 2017 / 28 Tammuz 5777

White silhouette of a family

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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These are the statutes that the LORD commanded Moses about a man and his wife and about a father and his daughter while she is in her youth within her father’s house. (B’midbar/Numbers 30:17; English: 30:16)

It might seem strange to contemporary readers to encounter God’s directives concerning responsibility towards vows. I suspect vows themselves are a foreign concept for most of us. We may refer to statements of intention or personal promises as vows, but a vow is far more formal and solemn than that. The only vows most of us will ever utter are our wedding vows. But given the state of marriage in our society today, I don’t know how serious they are being taken.

Vows themselves aside, the stranger aspect (to us) with regard to vow taking in our parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) is the responsibility a father or husband bears with regard to his daughter’s or wife’s vows. Vows were basically binding. But in the case of daughters and wives, fathers and husbands could cancel them upon hearing of them.

In much of today’s world, not only does such a thing sound passé, it is abhorrent. Only backward misogynist societies would devalue women this way, we tend to think. But it’s not as if the Torah teaches a woman’s vow was worthless. Women were free to make vows and had to keep them just like men. It’s that the ultimate responsibility for her vows rested with the person vested with household authority. I understand that this too is offensive to many as it undermines our concept of equality. Why should the man be in charge? And why didn’t the father or husband have similar claim over their sons?

It seems to me that the offense taken at such an arrangement is not fundamentally rooted in our modern ideal of equality after all, but a rejection of the family as a God-ordained institution. The more we have elevated the place and position of the individual, the less we value the function of the family unit. Evolutionary thinking regards social phenomenon as strictly utilitarian, viewing the traditional household as only necessary for a time in history when people couldn’t survive on their own. But now with the help of technology, we don’t really need each other. Not only can we survive, but we can thrive on our own. You can still have a family if you want, though it needn’t be a gathering of parents and children plus perhaps grandparents. Household clusters today can be anything we want them to be and for as long as we want them to be, if we want them at all.

But that is not the world God made. The family is not simply a social convention, it is the intentional design of the Creator. God made this clear when he said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Bereshit/Genesis 2:24). Marriage binds a husband and wife into a new entity, so to speak. It is within this God-ordained union that children were to enter into the world. The responsibility of caring for and training those particular children fully rested on their natural parents. Thus, these families were established by God as the building blocks of every society ever since. I am talking in ideal terms, of course. Due to the state of the creation, we have had to deal with broken family situations of various kinds for all sorts of reasons. But that doesn’t take anything away from the God-mandated standard of the traditional household.

Once we understand that the family unit is instituted by God, it is reasonable to expect some sort of administrative directions in order to enable the family to function effectively. In God’s wisdom, he appointed fathers and husbands to bear responsibility for their household. One of the ways that was to  be expressed practically was with vows. Why the moms and daughters? I can’t say exactly. But I can guess that their vows would have often had a very direct effect on the household. The God-appointed authority, therefore, needed to have the last word for everyone’s sake.

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

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