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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Wrath Turner

For the week of July 15, 2017 / 21 Tammuz 5777
Originally posted July 30, 2016 / 24 Tammuz 5776

Knight. Photo in vintage style

Pinhas
Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1 (English 25:10 – 29:40)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3

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And the LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back my wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with my jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in my jealousy.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 25:10-11)

This week’s Torah reading continues where last week’s ended. A great plague had broken out among the people of Israel because of their gross immorality. They had been lured by the Moabite women to participate in their forbidden religious practices and engage with them sexually. The result was that twenty-four thousand Israelites died.

The contemporary reader may wonder why God responded so harshly to such a thing. Certainly, this is a sign of the Bible’s extreme backward thinking from which we have become liberated. Isn’t sexuality something to be freely explored by consenting adults? And as for participating in Moabite religious practices (of which the sexual component was likely an integral part), aren’t all religions the same? There’s nothing wrong with exploring the various cultures of the world’s peoples, is there?

Yes, there is. Sex without boundaries has issues. I hope that most people, at least deep down, do understand that. And while some people may espouse absolute sexual freedom, we know that some form of limits on who does what with whom is necessary for a strong and healthy society. This then begs the question, what limits should exist and how do we establish them?

Those questions are actually beyond the scope of this message. I simply wanted to make sure that we are on the same page with regard to limits. We agree that some form of limits is necessary and that to transgress those limits has serious consequences.

There were certainly serious consequences resulting from Israel’s transgression in this story until Pinchas (English: Phinehas) skewered an Israelite man and his Moabite amorous partner. God had already spoken on the matter, condemning what was happening, but this couple didn’t care and arrogantly flaunted their sin. Pinchas was so impassioned for God’s honor, that he couldn’t tolerate what they were doing and did them in. The result was not only the death of the couple but an end to the plague as well.

God commended Pinchas for sharing his heart for his people. We read these stories and wonder why God makes such a big deal about the things we think are fun. But if we could only see this from his perspective, as Pinchas did, our hearts would break as we would be overwhelmed by the destructive nature of our misguided pursuits. The extreme nature of Pinchas’s actions turned away God’s wrath and made atonement on behalf of Israel (see Bemidbar/Numbers 25:13). It is likely that by killing the perpetrators, Israel’s illicit engagement with the Moabites stopped, thus bringing an end to the plague.

There is no indication that what Pinchas did serves as a model to follow in similar circumstances. In fact, it is pretty clear that his actions were not sanctioned by Torah. There was something unique about this situation that called for drastic measures, and he successfully turned away the wrath of God.

Years later another zealous soul would go to great extremes to turn away the wrath of God. But instead of slaying the sinners, he was willing to be slain on our behalf. This episode from Israel’s early history is far more illustrative of the human condition than we normally think. From the beginning, we have been engaging one another in all sorts of illicit ways, transgressing limits consciously and unconsciously, and thus have brought the wrath of God upon us all.

Like Pinchas, Yeshua the Messiah looked upon our situation and took action. But instead of skewering us, he allowed himself to be skewered and conquered the plague of death once and for all, making atonement on our behalf, thus turning away God’s wrath.

And so whatever illicit activity you have been involved in, stop, and remember how Yeshua was skewered to turn away God’s wrath from you. If you turn to God in Yeshua’s name right now, he will turn to you…in love and acceptance, not wrath.

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

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Blessed Irony

For the week of July 8, 2017 / 14 Tammuz 5777

Daily News - Extra! Extra! - Irony

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

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How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced? (B’midbar/Numbers 23:8)

After Israel’s defeat of the Amorites, the neighboring Moabites were terrified they would be next. So their king, Balak, hired a diviner named Bil’am (English: Balaam). Balak wanted Bil’am to place a curse on the Israelites, but God wouldn’t let him. Every time he tried, words of blessing proceeded from his mouth instead. His relationship to Truth is confusing, because it appears he was committed to only speaking God’s words. But the blessings he offered were in spite of himself even though he had a level of awareness of God’s upper hand in this affair. He would later on instigate an immoral snare that drew Israel to worship other gods, resulting in a plague that killed 24,000 people (B’midbar/Numbers 25:1-9; 31:16). While Israel was not immune to transgression, they would remain a nation under the blessing of God regardless.

Centuries later there was another failed attempt to curse Israel. This time the attempted curse would proceed from the mouths of Israelites themselves. The result in some ways was devastating, not because God was coerced by supposed intent, but by how later generations would misrepresent the words spoken.

The scene was a courtyard in Jerusalem. The Roman governor Pontius Pilate found himself having to handle a situation he would rather avoid. From his perspective, some of the Jewish leadership in the city were making a big deal out of nothing, and he wished they would deal with the rabbi from Galilee themselves. Even when the people curiously accused Yeshua with sedition against Rome, Pilate balked at their concerns. After he claimed his own innocence in the matter, literally washing his hands of the affair, the crowd called out, “His blood be on us and on our children!” (Matthew 27:25).

Little did Mattityahu, the original Hebrew name from which the English, Matthew, is ultimately derived, know how these words would come to haunt his people. His retelling of Yeshua’s story, more than the other three versions, is purposely placed within its Jewish context. While offering much similar material to Mark and Luke, Mattityahu was very careful to demonstrate Yeshua as the fulfillment of Jewish messianic expectation, rooted in the Hebrew scripture, and relevant to Jewish concerns of the Second Temple period.

An exhaustive record of Yeshua’s life and ministry would be virtually impossible. Therefore, each of the four Gospel writers had to be extremely selective with what they put in writing. The Jewish nature of Mattityahu’s selections is vividly apparent. It is only in his Gospel that we read of foreign wise men, probably astrologers most likely from Persia, traveling all the way to Israel looking for the King of the Jews. Only in Mattityahu’s book, do we read of Yeshua, expounding Torah, cutting through the rabbinic interpretations of his day to instill its heart into the Jewish crowds following him. Only in Mattityahu do we read the clear statement from the mouth of Shimon Keifa (English: Simon Peter): “You are the Messiah!”

However, in subsequent years, as the membership of the New Covenant Community grew to not only include non-Jews, but to become majority non-Jewish, Mattityahu’s Jewish emphasis was taken as a diatribe against his own people. This was never his intention. His writings were in keeping with the passionate love of the Hebrew prophets from centuries earlier. Not only did the Gentile-dominated church misconstrue the tone and sentiment of Mattityahu’s words, they at times missed his point altogether. Yeshua’s expounding of Torah, for example, as found in what is commonly known as the Sermon on the Mount, has been hijacked to support the misguided and ungodly notion that Yeshua undermined the Hebrew Scriptures, particularly Torah. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The destructive nature of how the Church has abused the words of the Jewish crowd before Pilate is another example. For centuries many Christians have insisted “His blood be on us and on our children!” was a self-imposed curse, not only upon that particular crowd and their children, but on the entire Jewish nation forever – that somehow this statement sets the Jewish people apart for suffering and oppression – even at the hands of Christians – for all time.

That Mattityahu would intentionally set his kinsman up for an eventual negative backlash is absurd. Also, how can that crowd have the authority to place such a curse on themselves let alone upon the whole nation? This popular misinterpretation that resulted in centuries-long Christian arrogance towards Jews is not based on these words or the situation in which they are found. Rather, such a conclusion is all about the unresolved pagan hatred and suspicion of the Jewish people that didn’t get sufficiently eradicated upon turning to the Jewish God.

It’s possible that this particular crowd instigated by the corrupt Jewish priesthood of that day was seeking to placate the fickle Roman governor, but Pilate was still in charge. His handling of the situation was far more due to his great disdain for the Jews, than to any sense of justice whatsoever.

Whatever the crowd understood of the situation or their motive in saying what they said, they had no more power to curse their nation than Bil’am had. No one can curse what God has blessed. They themselves may have failed to personally derive the benefits of God’s enduring faithfulness to Israel as promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but they can’t undermine the eternal plans and purposes of God intended by him for blessing.

But there’s more. By the time Mattityahu reported these words, he was well aware of what they implied. To claim Yeshua’s blood upon oneself is no curse. Far from it! Like centuries earlier when the Jewish people placed blood over their doors as protection from death that first Passover night, so too having the blood of Yeshua upon us and our children is the greatest blessing of all. By quoting the crowd, Mattityahu was spotlighting the blessed irony of the situation.

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

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Don’t Misjudge

For the week of July 1, 2017 / 7 Tammuz 5777

White palm with red circle and the words Misunderstanding Stop

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

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And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. (B’midbar/Numbers 20:11)

The story of the second time God provided water from the rock turned out to be a really bad experience for Moses. For what seemed like the umpteenth time Moses had to deal with an antagonistic grumbling mass of humanity. But don’t criticize them. I remember how our Israel tour group two years ago felt after spending a few minutes in the Judean wilderness, and that’s knowing there was ample, ice-cold bottled water waiting for them on our comfy airconditioned bus. Though the Israelites should have handled their struggles better than they did, I don’t blame them for their behavior. Neither do I blame Moses for how he handled it. It’s incredible that he didn’t lose it far more than he did, being under that kind of pressure. Not only that, the last time he oversaw a similar miracle, he was told by God to hit the rock. This time he somehow missed the apparently small detail, that he was only to speak to it.

I have commented on this passage before. And it seems that the issue that got Moses in trouble with God was more than his hitting the rock. It does appear that after forty years of difficult leadership, his anger finally got the better of him. His indiscretion cost him being able to enter the Promised Land.

But notice, Moses’ failure didn’t prevent the miracle. Whatever the reasons behind Moses’ misguided actions and the aggressive demands of the faithless masses, God still gave them water from a rock.

What’s with that? I thought God didn’t operate that way. Doesn’t he require faith and purity, humble hearts and righteous obedience? Yes and no. When Yeshua said his revolutionary words, “Love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44), do you know what he based that on? How God relates to people: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:45). I know there’s a lot of bad things going on in the world, but there’s a lot of good too. And whatever the reasons for the bad, the good comes from God. Not just the sun and the rain, but the crops that grow as a result, the birth of every baby (which includes you!), every healing, every act of generosity – I can go on and on. It should be obvious that God doesn’t sit up in heaven pouring out blessing on do-gooders and zapping bad people. He doesn’t work like that. So, neither should we.

That God blesses us in spite of our behavior doesn’t justify evil, however. Wrong is still wrong. Moses had to endure one of the most disappointing aspects of his life because of what he did. Thankfully, his sin or the people’s attitude didn’t get in the way of God’s desire and decision to provide water for his people. But that shouldn’t lead us to conclude that God isn’t concerned with our behavior. It only emphasizes his mercy and generosity toward his human creatures in spite of ourselves.

When God extends his favor toward an individual, a congregation, a community, an organization, or a nation, that is a reflection of his sovereign goodness. God uses whomever and whatever he wants to fulfill his purposes. To our peril, we interpret God’s approval or disapproval based on appearances, real or imagined. Just because God prospers someone materially or physically is not necessarily an indication of his approval.

God will eventually call every single person to account for their actions. In most cases, that won’t happen until after death. Until then we need to take great care not to be swayed by what may be God’s goodness at work in and through others. What we may be witnessing is God’s mercy and patience at work.

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

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Blind Jealousy

For the week of June 24, 2017 / 30 Sivan 5777

Jealousy on warning road sign

Korah
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32; 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24 & 1 Samuel 20:18-42 

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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?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

Jealousy is blinding. I don’t mean the appropriate kind of jealousy that refuses to allow others to get in the way of your marriage, for example. That’s the jealousy God has for his people. I am talking about the all-consuming emotion that takes us over when someone else has what we think we should have.

That’s what was controlling Korah and company. They couldn’t handle seeing Moses and his brother Aaron being in leadership. And it’s not as if they were at the bottom of the ladder themselves. They were Levites, the tribe of Israel that was set aside to serve in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). Being special was not special enough, however, as they set their eyes on the priesthood itself.

I don’t know if they thought they would have more perks or prestige by being priests. We aren’t told. But it doesn’t matter. That’s just how jealousy works. The thought they were missing out was enough to drive them. They had to have what was not allotted to them or least what they thought they were missing out on. Jealousy can’t see the true nature of whatever it is jealous of. It’s always the perceived privilege or status that is passionately desired. It’s so easy to look at the exterior of other people’s lives and think they have it better than we do. Status and prestige are not all they appear to be. With privilege, if privilege comes into play at all, comes responsibility.

When jealousy fills us, we can’t see that roles and responsibilities are allotted to people from God. That may sound overly spiritual and idealistic, especially in a world where injustice abounds. This is not the case in Korah’s story. Based on divine inspiration we know Korah is not ultimately challenging Moses and Aaron but God. But what about it when it is you and me? How do we know when our place and position are due to God’s direct involvement or the machinations of other forces?

It depends how much in control you think God is. On second thought, it doesn’t matter what you (or I) think, what’s the truth? Is God only involved with some people sometimes, or with everyone all the time? While not speaking directly to the issue of allotted roles, these words from the New Covenant book of Hebrews are applicable:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

The writer encourages his readers (and us by extension) to be materially content on the basis of the intimate presence of God. This is not a pseudo-spiritual directive to disconnect emotionally from reality. This reminds us the Messiah follower can be confident that God is personally involved in his life. We are assured therefore that whatever is happening to us is not outside of God’s direct control.

That doesn’t mean we should never pursue change. Far from it! As emissaries of the Kingdom of Heaven there are no greater change agents in the world. But when things don’t go the way we expect; when we feel passed by while others are placed in positions we think we deserve, we must avoid jealously at all costs. Instead we should continue to commit our lives to God, looking to him to work things out according to his will.

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

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