Curses

For the week of July 20, 2019 / 17 Tammuz 5779

Angry man shouting expletives

Balak
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8 (English 5:7 – 6:8)

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Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed. (B’midbar/Numbers 22:5-6)

Do you think of the people of Bible times as fundamentally superstitious? Merriam-Webster online defines “superstition” as “a belief or practice resulting from ignorance, fear of the unknown, trust in magic or chance, or a false conception of causation.” It seems to me that “false conception of causation” really captures it. The superstitious person acts upon a belief that certain happenings occur because of certain other things even though there is no reliable evidence that there is an actual connection between the two. For example, when I was about eleven years old, I was eating lunch at home and somehow dropped my salmon sandwich on the floor. At the time, I thought nothing of it, picked it up, and ate it. By that evening I was sick with a stomach virus. It would be years before I would eat salmon again. Yet even if that which made me sick transferred from the floor to the sandwich to my stomach, which is highly unlikely, there is no reason to think that all salmon from that moment on was a potential threat to my health. I do eat salmon now, but I would be lying if I said, I don’t have to fight through at least a tinge of unreasonable fear to do so. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that “false conception of causation” like this is pretty common. Maybe not you, of course.

In spite of human propensity towards superstition, we tend to think of ancient folks as more superstitious than we are. This is how we would view the story of Balak and Bilam (English: Balaam). Balak was a Moabite king who felt threatened by the presence of the people of Israel. Thinking they were no match for them militarily, he wanted to hire Bilam, a diviner of some sort, to curse them. Balak believed that by Bilam’s pronouncing certain words, Israel’s defenses would be weakened. As it turned out, God stepped in and didn’t allow Bilam to curse Israel. Every time he prepared to recite his incantations, he blessed Israel instead.

I suspect that even Bible fans regard this scene as reflective of a superstitious culture. What difference would it have made if Bilam had cursed Israel anyway? Would God have allowed words of destruction toward his chosen people to have any effect? Do such words have any effect regardless? Isn’t this a case of “false conception of causation”? It’s a great story for ancient people, but we know better than to give any credence to such a worldview, right?

I could spend the time remaining exploring the power of words. So much can be said about words, pun intended. From God’s using words to create the universe to the difference words make in our personal lives, a case could be made for causation with regard to blessings and curses, however the mechanics might work. But instead of analyzing the legitimacy of the power of blessing and curses, I would rather look at a contemporary parallel to the Balak and Bilam story.

When Balak determined that his people’s normal military prowess would be insufficient, he resorted to cursing. Whatever he believed about its dynamics, he thought it would work. In this case, his plan backfired, but that’s not stopping many people today from following his example.

In our increasingly polarized culture, more and more people are resorting to cursing those with whom they disagree. Instead of engaging differences by providing intelligent reasons for a particular viewpoint, it is common to tear the other party down with insults, accusations, and insinuations. Often people are shamed publicly, held up to incessant mockery, and subject to death wishes.

It should be clear that like Balak, these verbal attacks are happening because people really believe they work. We could wish that falsehood when spoken evaporates into the air, but it doesn’t. Negative words potentially destroy lives. The causal relationship between the curses (or whatever you want to call them) and their devastating effects doesn’t matter as much as that it works.

I wonder how many of us are not standing for what is good and right today, because we are afraid of the potential curses we may have to endure. But let’s remember that if we are truly in the Messiah, then like Israel of old, we can be confident that God will not allow negative verbal assaults to have their way in our lives. As we read in Mishlei, the book of Proverbs: “Like a sparrow in its flitting, like a swallow in its flying, a curse that is causeless does not alight” (Mishlei/Proverbs 26:2).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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When Blessings Become Idols

For the week of July 13, 2019 / 10 Tammuz 5779

Cartoon illustration of Moses and the bronze serpent on a pole

Chukat
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (B’midbar/Numbers 21:9)

One of the prime focuses of the Hebrew Scriptures is the issue of idolatry that was expressed in ancient Israel in two ways: the worship of false gods as represented by an image or claiming that the true God was represented by an image. In either case, the essence of idolatry is it misrepresents reality and especially the reality of the God of Israel. The dynamics of idol worship is captured by the New Covenant Writings through this statement: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:25).

Idolatry, whether it be through an actual figure associated with the true God or false gods, gives undo credence to a created thing instead of to the author of all creation. Putting one’s hope in an idol assumes that goodness can somehow be derived from the experience of engaging the thing, receiving blessing in other words. But blessing, as I just quoted, is derived from God, not things, even though God uses things to bless us. And therein lies the problem. It is so easy to confuse the instruments God uses with God himself.

This is exactly what happened with the Israelites and the bronze serpent, a story that took about eight hundred years to tell. During the wilderness wanderings under Moses, God punished the people for their grumblings by sending deadly snakes among them. In response to their humbling themselves, God prescribed an unusual remedy. He told Moses to set up a bronze serpent on a pole. All anyone bitten by a snake had to do was to look at the bronze serpent and they would be cured.

What we don’t know until the reign of Hezekiah eight centuries later was that not only did they hold on to the bronze serpent, but they made offerings to it, that is until Hezekiah smashed it (see 2 Melachim/2 Kings 18:4). For eight hundred years worship of this object had been tolerated! For eight hundred years “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

It isn’t difficult to understand why they did that. They believed, mistakenly so, that there was power in the object. What had begun as an act of faith unto God by following his instructions at the time, became an idol. They confused the source of power through his chosen instrument with the thing itself.

This is what underlies superstition. Superstition is believing that certain objects when related to in particular ways will empower us in some way. This is what happened with the bronze serpent. Looking to it was not originally superstition, since doing so was directed by God. It only became superstitious once the people assumed the power was in the object itself. They may have justified their misguided beliefs by claiming that if God used it in the past, then it’s appropriate to continue using it even after the occasion for which it was made was over and done with.

This is exactly where a lot of people of faith get stuck. We have a legitimate experience of God in the past and insist on revisiting it, thinking that we can continue to derive blessing from it when it’s outlived its intended purpose. We may not be doing this with a tangible object, but the dynamics are the same. Our precious moments with God were for the time allotted to them. To expect to derive the same blessings over and over again from what God did in an earlier time and place is to exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!

It is the Creator “who is blessed forever.” Blessing resides in God, not objects or experiences. He is free to use whatever he wishes to pour out blessings upon us. But if we confuse the One who blesses with that which he uses to bless, we will find ourselves living a lie and cut off from the very blessings we long for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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On Your Face

For the week of July 6, 2019 / 3 Tammuz 5779

Kneeling man with arms stretched out and face towards floor

Korach
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22
Updated version of “Go to God” from the week of June 23, 2001

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” When Moses heard it, he fell on his face… (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3-4)

Moses went through a lot. He didn’t want this job in the first place. Many years earlier, he thought he would try to help his people by taking matters into his own hands. Now that he was older and wiser with the desire to be the Great Deliverer purged from his soul, it was God’s idea to send him back to Egypt. Although he resisted, God prevailed, and Moses became a leader.

I have heard it said that Moses’ being a shepherd in the wilderness was to prepare him to lead the people there one day. That may be true, but not in the way some people think. It wasn’t his knowledge of the wilderness itself that qualified him for the job. It wasn’t the day-in and day-out of sheep herding that taught him the group dynamics necessary to lead two million ex-slaves from bondage to conquest. The primary lesson he learned during those forty years prior to God’s call was to be dependent upon God.

Moses had gone from elite status in Pharaoh’s palace to the life of a fugitive, running for his life. Cut off from everything he knew, at age forty he had to start life all over again, so to speak, working a menial job.

This week’s portion includes an example of how he dealt with the predicaments he faced as God’s chosen leader of his people. When challenged by Korah and company, the Torah says, “When Moses heard it, he fell on his face” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:4). Only after that, did he give them an answer. Over and over again, whether Moses was confronting Pharaoh, speaking to the elders of Israel, or dealing with the people’s virtual incessant grumbling, he looked to God.

What a way to react to being confronted! He fell on his face! He wasn’t showing reverence to Korah, nor was he completely overwhelmed. This was Moses’ leadership posture. He looked to God. Then and only then did he deal with the situation.

We don’t find Moses finding guidance via his vast learning acquired in Pharaoh’s court or from his previous years of wilderness wanderings. Whenever he faced a situation he went to God. And it was God who gave him the wisdom he needed.

Isn’t this what we should all do? As we read in the New Covenant Writings:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him (James 1:5).

So the next time you are in a situation where you need wisdom, maybe you should do what Moses did and get on your face.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Strive To Enter Your Rest

For the week of June 29, 2019 / 26 Sivan 5779

Silhouette of three people on a hill viewing a sunset overlaid with the words" "Strive to Enter Your Rest."

Sh’lach L’cha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

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Not one shall come into the land where I swore that I would make you dwell (B’midbar/Numbers 14:30)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) contains one of the most tragic, yet instructive, episodes in the Bible. The people of Israel are on the brink of attaining the promise first given centuries earlier to Abraham. After all the patriarchs went through followed by years of slavery in Egypt, this generation witnessed evidences of God’s faithfulness and power like no one else before or since. It’s been two years since the ten plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. They have known miraculous provision of food and water. God enabled them to face battles and saw them through all sorts of other challenges.

Now it’s time for Israel to enter the next chapter of their history. Everything up to now was preparation for this moment. It’s time to acquire their God-given inheritance, the Promised Land. To do so would not be easy, however. Without God’s help, it would be impossible. But they had God’s help. They knew that. They were trained by him for this. Sadly, this wasn’t enough for them. After receiving the report from the scouts who spied out the Land, the people were too afraid to do what God was calling them to do. Somehow, they were not able to bridge their past experiences into the intimidating future. In spite of God’s continual demonstration of his powerful presence among them, they somehow couldn’t apply what they had already experienced into the new situation. As a result, except for two exceptions, Joshua and Caleb, all the adults were destined to die in the wilderness as the nation was sent wandering for an additional thirty-eight years. At least the next generation would succeed where their parents had failed.

This episode is taken up by the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews. He is writing to a community of Jewish Yeshua followers who were giving in to a fear something like that of the Israelites here. They too had previously encountered the reality of God, for some time demonstrating genuine trust amidst all sorts of difficulty. Whether their current situation was considerably different from their past experiences, or the ongoing nature of their challenges was becoming too much for them, the writer calls them to learn from their ancestors’ failure.

The writer of Hebrews articulates the call to overcome their fears with this brilliant statement: “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest” (Hebrews 4:11). Striving to enter rest may seem like an oxymoron, but this captures the dynamic of genuine faith necessary to truly walk with God in any and all circumstances of life. The Promised Land is being regarded here as the place of rest. It’s the great destination where the fulness of God’s promises are to be attained. Their attainment is not granted on the basis of achievement, but rather as gifts received due to promise. The Promised Land and its blessing are derived via the graciousness of God unto his beloved chosen people.

While the inheritance is not the result of achievement, as if there is something to prove, it is not to be received with complete passivity either. Great forces of darkness stand in the way, threatening anyone who dares enter God’s place of rest, the fulness of life offered to us in the Messiah. Without unwavering trust in God and his word, we easily fall victim to evil’s snares.

It is pretty clear in Hebrews that this community of believers was beginning to succumb to the pressure they had endured for some time. The writer’s objective was to urge them forward before it was too late.

God has a place of rest for each one of us. Besides the hope of the new heavens and new earth upon Yeshua’s return, God has a unique inheritance for each one of us to attain even now. Evil’s armies will throw everything in our direction to dissuade us from becoming what God wants us to be. If you are reading this now, it isn’t too late for you. Don’t give in to the intimidation. Gather to mind every act of God’s faithfulness and power in your life until this moment and take whatever steps he is calling you to take and enter your inheritance. Strive to enter your rest.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Have You Ever Really Prayed?

For the week of June 22, 2019 / 19 Sivan 5779

A man pondering the question, "Have You Ever Really Prayed?"

Be-Ha’alotkha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English 2:10 – 4:7)

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If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness. (B’midbar/Numbers 11:15)

I was recently chatting with a waitress in a restaurant about some weaknesses in the overall service there. It was exactly what I had read in an online review and thought she should know. She wholeheartedly agreed with me yet could do little about it since she was new at her job. So I suggested she pray. She looked at me funny for a moment. So I repeated myself, not knowing where she was at on this subject. I told her that praying was simply talking to God and that not only does he have infinite resources at his disposal, he is generous. She made it clear to me I gave her something to think about.

As believers in Yeshua we know this (though some may want to have a discussion on the theology of prayer and whether it is appropriate to describe prayer like this to a stranger). Be that as it may, what I shared with this stranger included an essential dynamic. I offered no formulas; I didn’t tell her what to say. At the same time, I made no promise as to what God’s answer might be. All I did was encourage her to start the conversation. The conversation would be on a particular topic, which in this case was help in resolving a need which she could not resolve on her own. Since right at the beginning I defined prayer as talking to God, the conversation had to start with her personally and purposely talking to him. There’s so much more we can say about prayer, but without this dynamic, I don’t know if much of what we call prayer is actually prayer at all.

Moses knew how to pray. That he did is vividly illustrated in the brief verse I quoted from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). Moses found himself being a waiter extreme. The whole nation of Israel whined like children for food. He had seen God do so much, yet the pressure of the people’s demands had completely overwhelmed him. He was done, and he told God so in no uncertain terms. Talk about a prayer from the heart! Moses held nothing back and told God exactly what he thought and how he felt. Thankfully, however, answered prayer isn’t always getting the items on our list. It’s about God meaningfully engaging us in response to our requests and desires.

I don’t know about you, but the best way I can describe some of my prayers is muddled. Even though I set aside some time each day to pray, am I really praying? To be honest, it’s not too unusual for me to do some sort of combination of wondering, thinking, wishing, and muttering. I’ll catch myself daydreaming of who knows what before I realize what I am doing. At that point I try to focus and really pray, which sometimes I do. When I do, it’s as if I shift from muddled to clear. I know who I am talking to and what I am trying to say.

This is why I remind myself what I encourage others to do: pray out loud. While I cannot discount all silent prayer, there is very little Scriptural basis for it. Even if there were, attempting to project thoughts to God from our heads is very difficult, if not impossible. How would we differentiate thinking from praying when silent? Praying out loud reminds us that we are actually speaking to another being who is not us.

Many years ago when I was in Bible college. I had a roommate from Africa. He would wake up before me and have a time with the Lord at his desk. I would hear him whispering in prayer. I thought, he really believes he is talking to someone! It encouraged me to do the same.

Realizing we are truly talking to God makes all the difference. And that’s just the beginning. Unless we intentionally do so, then whatever else we may be doing, we are not praying. Why not start right now?

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Smiling God

For the week of June 15, 2019 / 12 Sivan 5779

Collage of many smiling faces

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25
Originally posted the week of May 31, 2014 / 2 Sivan 5774 (revised)

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The LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you. (B’midbar/Numbers 6:25)

The cohanim, the Jewish priests of ancient Israel, were given the responsibility to bless their people. Blessing is an essential biblical concept which has to do with the impartation of life in all aspects. The pronouncement of blessing is not magic. The words given to them to say in themselves don’t cause blessing to occur. This blessing was but one of the many functions the cohanim performed as part of their role as intermediaries between God and the people. Just as they represented the people before God through the offering of sacrifices on their behalf, so God spoke to the people through the priests. The priests didn’t cause the blessing of God to come upon the people. God had already determined to bless them and appointed the priests to communicate that blessing on his behalf.

An interesting statement included in this blessing is “The LORD make his face to shine upon you.” What does that mean? Does God have a face? If so, how does it shine? And when shining, what does it mean to shine upon someone? When the Torah refers to God as having body parts, this is what is called anthropomorphism. It’s a way of speaking about a non-human being in human terms. Not only is God not human, he isn’t physical. There are times when he reveals himself in human form, however. In fact, the Haftarah portion for this week includes an example of that (see Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25) and most importantly, in the Messiah. But most of the time, when we read about God’s hand, his arms, or, as in this case, his face, the words we read are expressing something about God that is best expressed in this sort of way.

God desired that his people would experience his shining face. As best we can tell, a shining face is a smiling face, as if to say, may God look at you with a smile.

Sometime ago I posted the message, God Is Dangerous, where I emphasized that the God of Israel is the most powerful force in the entire universe. Therefore we cannot approach him any way we wish. Approaching God on our own terms may result in an untimely death. So what’s this about “The Smiling God?” How could the same God be depicted in both these ways?

That’s one of the most wondrous things about the true God. The dangerous God is the smiling God. Not that he is necessarily smiling all the time. The wonderful thing is that the only all-powerful, Supreme Being, who made the entire universe and holds our lives in his hands, may actually smile at us.

To live under the smiling face of God is to experience the reversal of the alienation experienced by our first parents in the Garden of Eden. Having been designed to be his co-workers as stewards over his creation, they turned their backs on him through mistrust and rebellion, no longer beholding his smiling face. Thankfully that wasn’t the end of it. God determined to restore relationship with his human creatures, culminating in the redemption brought about through the Messiah’s death and resurrection. Because of what Yeshua has done, we can experience the cohanim’s blessing in its fullness and see God’s smiling face again.

To have God’s smile upon us means his posture towards us is favorable. We are objects of his graciousness, which is explicitly mentioned in the next phrase in the blessing. Don’t forget, the biblical view of God is far more about his inapproachability, his grandeur, his nobility as the king of all kings. Such majesty doesn’t normally give commoners like you and me the time of day, much less a full-face smile.

But if we have been made right with him though Yeshua, God is smiling at us right now. As we get up each morning, we can be reminded that the good graces of the Master of the Universe are upon us. Not only can we enjoy intimate relationship with him, we can effectively represent him in the world. Like the cohanim of old, we now can bring the blessing of God’s smile to others.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Getting Right with the Environment

For the week of June 8, 2019 / 5 Sivan 5779

Illustration of a small green island with evergreen trees and a large sun in the background with superimposed words: "Getting Right with the Environment"

B’midbar
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English 1:10 – 2:20)
Originally posted the week of May 31, 2008 / 26 Iyar 5768

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And she did not know that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, and who lavished on her silver and gold, which they used for Baal. (Hosea 2:10; English: 2:8)

What a world we live in! While I am well aware of the reality of suffering and tragedy, we live in a most marvelous place. I have heard that for many astronauts, their biggest thrill was not being thrust out into the darkness of space at unimaginable speeds, floating in zero gravity, or walking on the moon, but rather seeing the earth. When I take my daily walk, I can be so focused on my own thoughts that I miss what is around me. But every now and then I am struck by the beauty of nature: a magnolia tree in full bloom, a scarlet cardinal, or a pair of deer sitting on the forest floor. It takes my breath away to encounter nature’s beauty and intricacy.

Aside from beauty, nature provides us with so much, including our basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter. It also enhances our lives through the pleasures of comfort and entertainment.

This might seem obvious, but we were made for this place. While the state that the earth is in is not what God intended, nor is it now what it will be one day, it is the sphere of our existence. I am aware that many people think that our destiny is in a heavenly, non-earthly sphere, but that is not actually what the Bible teaches. We look forward to a new heaven and a new earth, and those who are right with God will be resurrected to live on the new earth. Maybe we will come back to this subject some other time. Suffice it to say for now that we were made to live on planet earth.

One of the things that God has sought to teach us is how to understand our place on this planet. Because of the rebellion of our first parents against God, everything about life on earth has been out of sorts. We are surrounded by such bountiful beauty provided by God for our good, yet due to the disruption of our relationship with him, we tend to abuse nature.

The prophet Hosea speaks of this in this week’s Haftarah. God through his prophet says that Israel was ignorant of the fact that God was the provider of the good things of earth. The result of this ignorance is destructive. Having been blessed with precious metals, instead of using them appropriately, they became instruments of idolatry.

When we fail to acknowledge God as creator and provider of the good gifts he bestows upon us, we end up wrongly focusing on the very things he has graciously given us. God designed the elements of his creation for all sorts of good purposes, but when we fail to understand their true origins, they become destructive.

The only way to fully appreciate and properly relate to nature, therefore, is to know the God of creation. Once we are restored to him through Yeshua we can see this planet through his eyes, discover our God-given place here, and learn to utilize the things of his creation in the way he intended.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Give It a Rest!

For the week of May 25, 2019 / 20 Iyar 5779

The words "Give It a Rest!" superimposed on a photo of a man sitting on the ground, resting, with his back against a tree in a green field.

Be-Har
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2
Haftarah: Jeremiah 32:6-27
Originally posted the week of May 16, 2015 / 27 Iyar 5775 (revised)

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Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you come into the land that I give you, the land shall keep a Sabbath to the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 25:2)

Everyone who believes that the entire Bible is God’s inspired and authoritative written Word faces the challenge of working out how to apply it to our lives today. It’s not as if the Scriptures are simply a collection of general spiritual sayings or a compilation of moral tales. While it includes such content, the Bible is much more than that. Almost all of Scripture was originally intended for a particular people at a particular time. From its stories, laws, prophetic utterances, and letters, and so on, we seek to deduce truths about God and life in an effort to determine how those truths apply today.

In both Jewish and Christian communities there is much controversy in particular over the section of Scripture called the Torah, the five books of Moses. Orthodox Jews claim to fully observe it but do so through the filter of rabbinic tradition. That includes making up for the impossibility of fulfilling key commands – including the offering of sacrifice – due to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Non-orthodox Jews tend to see Torah as ever evolving as they accommodate it to changing times. Christians, on the other hand, have tended to relate to Torah in one of two ways. Some claim that it has been rendered obsolete by the New Covenant, having been superseded by the teachings of Yeshua and his followers. Others insist it continues to be binding except for its ceremonial aspects, which have found their completion in the Messiah.

It seems to me that the root of the confusion has more to do with what Torah really is, both then and now. Contrary to much Jewish and Christian thought, the Torah and the Sinai covenant given through Moses are not one and the same even though the Sinai covenant is often called, “Torah.” The Sinai covenant was designed as the constitution for the nation of Israel. With the giving of the New Covenant through Yeshua (see Jeremiah 31:31-33; compare Luke 22:20) and the destruction of the Temple, the Sinai covenant was rendered obsolete along with the particular elements given to maintain it, such as the sacrifices.

But there was more to the Sinai covenant than its constitutional function. God used the giving of this covenant to reveal, first to Israel and then to the whole world, his ways regarding every aspect of life, including business, sexuality, justice, and so on. The establishment of the New Covenant in no way abolishes God’s eternal ways or his “Torah.” In fact under the New Covenant, Torah is internalized. For God says through Jeremiah: “I will put my Torah (English: law) within them, and I will write it on their hearts.” Discerning what of Torah was temporary, being limited to the Sinai Covenant, and what is ongoing until now is not always an easy task, but well worth the effort.

Sadly however, it seems that we often regard God’s directives as oppressive restrictions that get in the way of things we want to do. It’s too bad we are slow to see that our reluctance to embrace God’s will is due to the forces of evil that continue to get the upper hand in our lives. God’s ways as revealed throughout the whole Bible, and understood correctly, are always life giving. Take Sabbath laws for example. Under the New Covenant, it is clear that Sabbath laws were not to be imposed upon non-Jewish believers (see Galatians 4:10; compare Acts 15:19-20). But does that mean all believers must disregard God’s weekly rhythm and embrace the 365-day/year, 7-day/week, 24-hour/day lifestyle so prevalent today? It’s not that long ago that countries with strong biblical roots took weekly days off – real days off – when most businesses were closed and a majority of people attended worship services, taking time to rest and be with family. Perhaps we would do well to consider Sabbath again.

Or take the Sabbatical year as mentioned in the verse I quoted at the beginning. Covenantally, like the weekly Sabbath, we have no justification to enforce such a custom, but should that stop us from considering its possible benefits? Is the Sabbatical year strictly a ritual for the sake of the Sinai covenant only, or are there benefits in allowing farmland to take a rest one year in seven?

The sabbatical year is but one of many reminders in Torah that in our responsibility to be stewards of the planet (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26) we must avoid exploiting our resources. It is so tempting to try to extract as much as we can for ourselves in the moment. But if we do that, we will create a disastrous situation for future generations that could have easily been avoided. God, who himself rested on the seventh day and was refreshed (see Shemot/Exodus 31:17), designed his creation to require rest as well. Whether it’s you personally or your sphere of work, maybe it’s about time you gave it a rest.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Perfection

For the week of May 18, 2019 / 13 Iyar 5779

Three arrows in target's bull's-eye with the word "Perfection"

Emor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Revised version of “Perfect Offerings,” originally posted the week of 20 Iyar 5758 / May 16, 1998

And when anyone offers a sacrifice of peace offerings to the LORD to fulfill a vow or as a freewill offering from the herd or from the flock, to be accepted it must be perfect; there shall be no blemish in it. (Vayikra/Leviticus 22:21)

Offerings to the God of Israel were to be without defect. Certainly one of the reasons for this was that the people were not to bring their leftovers and undesirables to him. For a sacrifice to be meaningful and acceptable, it had to be valuable. But apart from value, the perfect nature of these offerings has much to teach us about God, his creation, the Messiah, and ourselves.

First, by insisting that these animals have no blemishes, deformities, or disease, we are reminded that God himself has no defects, weaknesses or faults. We tend to create religion and spirituality that accommodates our own imperfect nature. But God calls us to something much higher. God is perfect. So what we offer to him must be of a fitting quality. To offer him anything less is to lower him to our level.

Next, we are reminded that the world was created perfectly. The imperfections and blemishes of life are a result of human rebellion against the Creator. By bringing some of the best of our possessions, we are confronted with an ideal that once was and will be again. Having to reject the defective, emphasizes the nature of the perfect. A day is coming when the creation will be renewed; the curse upon it will be no more.

For generations the people Israel had to carefully examine the offerings they brought as they were to be of only the highest quality. Little did they know that they were acting out what God himself would one day do himself. For what the animals could not accomplish, God did through the perfect offering of his Son, the Messiah, whom Peter refers to as “a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Peter 1:19).

Yeshua lived the only perfect and sinless life ever, preparing him to provide the way for imperfect people like us to be fully accepted by God. We read in the New Covenant book of Hebrews:

For if sprinkling ceremonially unclean persons with the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer restores their outward purity; then how much more the blood of the Messiah, who, through the eternal Spirit, offered himself to God as a sacrifice without blemish, will purify our conscience from works that lead to death, so that we can serve the living God! (Hebrews 9:13-14; Complete Jewish Bible).

On our own, because of our imperfections, we cannot approach God and serve him in the way he intends; we are disqualified. But if we trust in Yeshua and his perfect offering on our behalf, we are made acceptable to God, blemishes and all.

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Caution! Warnings Ahead

For the week of May 11, 2019 / 6 Iyar 5779

Yellow diamond warning street sign with the words, "Caution! Warnings Ahead"

Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

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The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Say to the people of Israel, Any one of the people of Israel or of the strangers who sojourn in Israel who gives any of his children to Molech shall surely be put to death. The people of the land shall stone him with stones.” (Vayikra/Leviticus 20:1-2)

Have you ever seen one of those lists of “interesting” warnings for various products? For an iron: “do not iron clothes on body.” For a microwave oven: “Do not use to dry cats and other pets.” One would assume that such things would be so obvious, they wouldn’t need to be mentioned. But, then again, I am sure my readers and listeners could send me stories of things they or people they know have done that might merit such warnings.

We tend to label some of the things we humans do as foolish or idiotic, but I don’t think this is necessarily an issue of intelligence or lack thereof. Some of our most ridiculous decisions are due to our thinking, at the time at least, of something as a good idea, even the best idea. Pressures from others and of time, lack of information, and inexperience can all lead to serious miscalculations in judgement.

The thing that happens in the moment, and this is true for all sorts of choices we make, big and small, is that we perceive that the benefit of our course of action outweighs the negatives. This is not only the case for bad decisions, but for good ones as well. Surgery, for example, often has significant downsides. Even without the risk of infection and death, there’s the inconveniences and discomfort. Yet the potential benefit is so great, we are usually willing to give up our normal comfort and schedule for the sake of the hoped-for benefit.

This is how sacrifice often works. We give up something of value in the hope of something better. This is not only true in the spiritual/religious realm. We might do without something we would like now in order to save money and be able to acquire something better later. This explains to me why we need the warnings against child sacrifice. I know that sounds like quite the jump, but don’t give up on me yet.

It might seem like a ridiculous warning, but God directed Israel away from child sacrifice. This was a particular ritual in the worship of Molech. People used to burn their children as an offering to this false god. Why would anyone do such a thing? Whatever an individual’s motive may have been, somehow they concluded that the benefits of their child’s death in this way not only outweighed the loss of the child, but the suffering he or she would experience.

What could be so good to warrant child sacrifice? Maybe it wasn’t the sense of reward from the false god that motivated the offering. Perhaps it was the relief of not having to care for the child. If the god is happy to relieve me of my parental responsibilities, I may be happy to worship him like this. Either way the sacrifice of the child outweighs preserving him or her.

I am not aware of formal Molech worship today, but its essence permeates much of the world. Is this about elective abortion? I would include that, but to regard abortion as the only form of child sacrifice today is to miss the point. The real question we need to ask ourselves is how much are we valuing other things over children. I am not saying we should be child worshippers. That’s a different issue for another day. But how much of resistance to marriage and childrearing is due to supposed other benefits? According to God’s value scale, is career, success, money, vacations, convenience, freedom, and so on, really more valuable than children? If not, then why are there over 50 million abortions a year and a below replacement birthrate within affluent countries? If so, then perhaps the warning isn’t so ridiculous after all.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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