Why Bless Israel?

For the week of November 9, 2019 / 11 Heshvan 5780

Hand of praying man on the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Lekh Lekha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

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I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. (Bereshit/Genesis 12:3)

A couple of weeks ago, I made the statement “there is only reality.” Whatever God made is what is. Everything else is false. One reader took me to task with regard to humanly made things from cartoon characters to clothing. Obviously, my brief treatment of the subject wasn’t sufficient. My point, however, was that we live within a created universe that is what it is because God created it that way.

Another aspect of the real world in which we live is that God determined to restore his creation from the effects of our first parents’ misguided journey toward evil. When he spoke judgement upon the Tempter, he said: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). The initial stages of the outworking of his creation rescue plan is found in this week’s parsha.

It all started with one man in what we now call the Middle East. Abram, whose name God later changed to Abraham was married to a woman named Sarai, whose name God later changed to Sarah. God spoke to Abram in his homeland of Ur in modern day Iraq, telling him to go to what would become the land of Israel. This land is key to not only Abram’s story but to the story of creation itself, since its restoration would come into full focus there.

God told Abram that he would make him a great nation. We don’t know how old he was when he was first given this promise. By the time we pick up his story he and Sarai are already getting on in years. He would be almost a hundred and she ninety before they would realize the full intent of God’s will for their lives in giving them a baby boy, Isaac. God’s plan was to develop through them a special nation which would bring blessing to the whole world.

The story of Scripture is the story of Israel. It was to this nation that God would reveal himself and his ways, and eventually through them to the world. Some may find it difficult to accept that God chose one nation through which to bless all nations. We often want God to reflect our version of fairness by relating to all individuals at all time and places in the exact same way. Meaningful differences within the creation have existed from the beginning. God created a diverse universe. Even the original design of human beings included role differentiation.

Note that Israel’s particular greatness was not for themselves, but for the stated purpose of bringing blessing to the whole world. This is in keeping with the statement made by Israel’s greatest offspring, when he said, “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant” (Matthew 20:26). The essence of true greatness within the real world is found in service. That Israel would struggle to fully realize its calling of its service to the nations takes nothing away from God’s purposes for his chosen ones.

Israel’s struggle may have been the very reason for God’s commitment to them as expressed by his promise quoted at the beginning: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse.” It is in the world’s best interests that God would have Israel’s back for his rescue plan, since the whole creation depends on them. Note that I didn’t say “depended,” because we haven’t yet seen the culmination of God’s purposes yet, the fulness of which is yet to come (see Romans 11:15).

Tragically too many people are caught up more with media depictions of Israel than the reality as established by God. Too many Christians forget, ignore, or misinterpret Paul’s teaching on God’s unending faithfulness to Israel (see Romans 11). That the Jewish people around the world or those living in the State of Israel today don’t meet God’s standards is nothing less than an expression of the humanity that we (I am Jewish myself) share with the world. Our ongoing existence and being a blessing to the world is rightly understood as God’s ongoing faithfulness to Abram. Those who honor Israel’s Messiah would do well to honor his kinsmen through whom God’s blessing has and will come.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Climate Disaster

For the week of November 2, 2019 / 4 Heshvan 5780

Photo of climate activist Greta Thunberg

No’ah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy them with the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 6:13)

A few years ago, I was at a family gathering, chatting with a relative who recently had his first child. I don’t remember how it came up, but he expressed great fear about his child’s future due to the looming climate crisis. That was the first time I had encountered such emotion over what has, since then, turned into a frenzy. As sixteen-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg has said: “I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

My reaction to my relative’s panic years ago was along the lines of “Don’t worry; it’ll be okay.” How ironic, I thought. My immediate family are the only believers in our whole clan on both sides. Everyone else is somewhere on the agnostic/atheist spectrum. It wasn’t that long ago that disaster predictions were the sole domain of religious folks. Remember images of prophetic wannabees waving placards blazoned with messages, like “Prepare to meet thy Maker” or “The world will end in forty days”? Back then it was secular materialists shrugging off such gloom and doom in the name of scientific knowhow and technological progress. No more! The roles are reversed. It is secularists who are predicting the end of the world as we know it; while many believers like me are calling for calm. But should we be calm?

Climate disaster is not new to our planet. Neither is it new to the Scriptures. This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) records history’s most destructive event, weather or otherwise, when God rebooted his creation through a flood that destroyed all air breathing creatures except for Noah, his family, and the animals on the ark.

This climate disaster reflects the biblical principle of the relationship between human behavior and the environment. Where I agree with the climate prophets is we can’t treat our world anyway we like and expect everything to always and forever be okay. Where we differ is that there is more to this, not less, than the burning of fossil fuels and greenhouse gasses. While as stewards of the planet (see Bereshit/Genesis 1:26-27), it’s essential to keep watch over what we put into the air, the effects of our lifestyles are the results, not of the cars and factories per se, but of the values behind how we live.

Activists and some political leaders claim if we would only adjust emissions, we may be able to avert climate disaster. But until we are willing to look seriously at what actually fuels (pun intended) our way of life, the coming disaster will not be averted. When will we take a serious look at the consumerism and greed that controls much of world economy today? I am not simply referring to billion-dollar corporations here. Big business cannot succeed without the everyday consumer. The rich can take great pride in their ability to purchase carbon offsets for their lavish lifestyles while the poor bear the burden of oppressive taxation. All the while the great polluting nations of the world continue to poison the atmosphere and water. The western world won’t get in the way of countries that have become manufacturing empires, because we want their inexpensive goods.

And that’s just one piece of a most troubling puzzle. The current obsession over climate is a convenient distraction from the grave issues plaguing the planet. It’s a lot easier to take off from work or school to attend a climate strike, than it is to effectively address destructive forces such as family breakdown, identity confusion, pornography, and abortion.

Perhaps changing climate will have disastrous effects on our planet, but it’s the social climate that should concern us the most. Not only is it something that you and I can address right now, the benefits are world changing.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Reality

For the week of October 26, 2019 / 27 Tishri 5780Boy looking at the earth with the universe in the backgroundBereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. (Bereshit/Genesis 1:1)

As we restart the annual Torah reading cycle we are reminded of one of the core concepts of Scripture: God created the heavens and the earth. There is nothing that exists that hasn’t been made by God except for God himself. Understanding the current and complex troubled state of his creation is essential to know how to effectively navigate the world in which we live. But that issue can’t be properly addressed without first starting with the fact of our living in a intentionally and intelligently designed creation.

It might sound strange, but we need to stress that the existence that God created is the only thing that exists. Either something exists or it doesn’t. We may have differences over what exists and what doesn’t or have conflicting opinions over the nature of this or that. But whatever we think of the universe, there is only what exists. For most spiritually minded people, including those who embrace the Bible’s perspective of things, we accept there are in existence material and immaterial entities (I was going to say “visible” and “invisible,” but materialists believe in the existence of invisible things such as radio waves, for example. There was a time when such things were unknown even though they were part of God’s creation from the beginning).

Just as existence is what it is whether we are aware of it or not, the properties and potential of things are the way they are as well. Again, we may have differing opinions over how this or that is understood, but it is what it is. The way things are in so far as they actually exist is what we call reality. Reality is the universe as it really is. Our understanding of reality may be misinformed or confused, but that takes nothing away from genuine reality.

Truth is an accurate representation of reality. In Hebrew, there is no difference between the concepts of truth and reality; they are one and the same. This is clearly illustrated in modern Hebrew conversation. If someone makes a statement, and the hearer reacts with what in English would be “really?” in Hebrew it’s, “Emet?”, which is like saying “Truth?” In other words, they are asking for confirmation whether the statement matches reality.

This is all to say that the pursuit of truth is the search for how things really are. This is what the scientific method is supposed to be about: the search for truth (reality). Tragically, in my opinion, scientists often fail to accept they on a journey towards truth. Too often discoveries are expressed in terms of complete understanding instead of as working theories. Scientists of all people should be the first to acknowledge the complexities of the creation (whether they believe in a Creator or not) and be humble enough to admit that whatever their field of study is the complexity of design should drive them to be far more tentative about their claims.

Regardless of perspective, there is only reality. Too often I hear believers referring to the spiritual world as being more real than the material world, when there is only reality. We could discuss priorities and/or relationship of the two to each other, but we need to start with accepting if they exist, then they are equally real.

The Scriptures tell us that God is the author of reality because he brought the existence of everything into being. The Scriptures also provide us with an accurate understanding of reality. God’s perspective of the universe he made is not his opinion or preferences about life, it is the truth about life. We may have trouble correctly interpreting Scripture, but the Scriptures rightly understood is an encounter with reality as it really is.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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The Nations Shall Know

For the week of October 19, 2019 / 20 Tishri 5780

Globe with a stethoscope on the Middle East

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

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And my holy name I will make known in the midst of my people Israel, and I will not let my holy name be profaned anymore. And the nations shall know that I am the LORD, the Holy One in Israel. Behold, it is coming and it will be brought about, declares the Lord GOD. That is the day of which I have spoken. (Ezekiel 39:7-8)

The Haftarah for this special Shabbat coinciding with the sixth day of Sukkot (the Festival of Booths) is a favorite for those focused on the Bible’s predictive portions. Many of these have already been fulfilled. These include those that are concerned with the Messiah’s initial coming (see http://alangilman.ca/messianicprophecies/) and other past events such as the emergence of ancient empires (see Daniel 7) and the second destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (see Daniel 9:20-17; Matthew 24). Much of what we are still anticipating is derived from passages that appear to refer to cataclysmic events associated with the Messiah’s return and the final judgement.

Early on in my new-found faith in Yeshua, I encountered people who were nearly obsessed with the details of predictive passages. I found it curious at that time and continue to wonder about how people could be so convinced of details of future events when they are not fully spelled out in Scripture. I accept that they think they are, but I am personally not convinced. What’s worse is, in my opinion, the creation of ideological camps based on various end-of-the-world schemes.

Another concern about this is how certainty over the details of possible upcoming events can result in the unnecessary unsettling of people’s faith. When teachers are so adamant that the Bible’s trustworthiness hinges on their particular understanding of certain passages, then when their predictions don’t happen as promised, it’s easy for those following them to throw out the actual Word of God along with misguided interpretations.

I prefer to try as best I can to stick to what we can determine with certainty from the biblical text. Take this week’s Haftarah for example. On one hand I appreciate the desire to try to determine the identities of Gog and Magog. Asking who they might be is a reasonable question. But as far as I can tell, no one knows for sure. That takes nothing away from the main thrust of the passage, however.

What’s clear is that God is in complete control of the situation regarding the people of Israel in the land of Israel. As I write this, we are looking at a situation with the nations of Turkey, Syria, and Iran that is potentially catastrophic for the region including Israel. Might this be the setting up of the scene in this section of the prophet Ezekiel? Perhaps. We’ll have to wait and see. Thankfully, the purpose of predictive passages isn’t the identification of all the details, but rather to heed the message.

God’s message through Ezekiel here is that he will use the coming events against Israel to make himself known to both Israel and the rest of the world. His commitment to his Word stemming back to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob remains certain regardless of appearances. The reality of the God of Israel and the truth of his Word will be established in the world and there will be no denying it. In spite of whoever may seem to have the upper hand in the latest plot or plan, it’s God’s purposes that will eventually come to pass.

I wonder if we think that the more we have a handle on the details of coming events, the more secure our lives might be. It can be comforting to wax eloquent over supposedly fascinating insights of which others are so clued out. But such a handle is illusionary. If we were honest, we would admit that such certainty is based on nothing other than guesses. Making up truth blurs reality and prevents us from facing the unknowns of not only the Bible but of life in general. This kind of dogmatic guessing is not the exclusive domain of Bible readers but is common to human beings in all sorts of realms of supposed knowledge.

If we would receive Ezekiel’s message, we would learn to accept the unknowns of both Bible and life and learn to find security in the One who will work out all things according to his will.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Geography Is More than Scenery

For the week of October 12, 2019 / 13 Tishri 5780

Ein Gedi National Park. Israel

Ha’azinu
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Shmuel/ 2 Samuel 22:1-51

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The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold and my refuge, my savior; you save me from violence. I call upon the LORD, who is worthy to be praised, and I am saved from my enemies. (2 Shmuel/2 Samuel 22:2-4)

I recently got back from my third trip to Israel. While there it struck me as never before how much the land itself is a key aspect of God’s revelation. The circumstances recorded in his Word took place in real time in a real place. That real place has unique geographical characteristics that provide more than just the scenery for its stories but help mold the divinely inspired experiences of its characters.

I am on a search for the perfect three-dimensional topographical map of Israel that I want to make an integral part of my Bible teaching. The dramatic geographical diversity within this relatively small country is breathtaking. It astounds me that in just over an hour you can drive from Jerusalem, which is about 750 meters (2,500 feet) above sea level to the Dead Sea, the lowest place on earth at about 400 meters (1,300 feet) below sea level. So much of the land north to south is mountainous, with exquisite, fertile valleys between. Israel is beautifully framed by the fertile Jordan Valley to the east, snow-capped Mt. Hermon to the north, the beaches of Mediterranean Sea to the west, and the resort town of Eilat on the Red Sea to the south.

The stories of the Bible take on greater depth as we understand them within their geographical context. For example, seeing the environment in which King David spent much of his time shows us that the way he describes God in some of his closing words is not the product of abstract spiritual musings disconnected from everyday life. On the contrary. David’s referring to God as his rock, his fortress, his stronghold is reflective of the very terrain in which he sought protection from his enemies.

On more than one occasion David fled to the Judean Hills for refuge. These hills are rugged, difficult to traverse with steep ravines. They contain caves perfect for hiding. Now nearing the end of David’s life, having experienced God’s protection and faithfulness through a great deal of trouble, he extols the protection God provided him in such places. He describes his experience of God in terms of the geography in which he sought safety. The vividness of these metaphors for God and what he did for David is fueled by the actual terrain. When David sought protection, he didn’t stand in an open field with his enemies encircling him as he called upon God’s angels to protect him or make him invisible. Rather he purposely went to the most secure locations he knew of. Yet in the end he didn’t give credit to the interesting geography, nor did he thank God for providing it. He rightly understood that the effectiveness of the natural lay of the land was from God. If God hadn’t guided him and protected him, then the highest mountain and most complex cave would not have helped him.

David had a deep understanding of God as creator. To know God was to know him within the world he made. At the same time, he never confused the creation with the creator. While serving God was something to be lived out in the physical world, life’s meaning and purpose could not be derived from what God had made, but from God himself. Yet to know God as David did, allowed him to stand within the creation in such a way that it vividly reflected the character and power of God without ever taking his place.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God’s Recipe for Life

For the week of October 5, 2019 / 6 Tishri 5780

Recipe book with vegetables on wooden table and the words "God's recipe for life" superimposed.

Vayelech (Shuva)
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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Return, O Israel, to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the LORD; say to him, “Take away all iniquity…” (Hosea 14:2-3; English 14:1-2)

I like to remind people that life has no formulas, but that’s an overstatement. The world as God made it certainly includes effective standard procedures that the vast majority of the cases result in expected outcomes. Baking recipes are a good example of such a formula. If you follow the instructions, including the listed ingredients and the specified quantities, mixing as described, and baking at the right temperature for the precise amount of time, the result should be a good one.

The problem with formulas for life, unlike recipes, is that there are too many variables at play. Even the most complicated baking recipes are simplistic compared to the lives of human beings. That’s why I am cautious about presentations that claim to provide ten steps to whatever. While such content may include some timeless and practical wisdom that may be beneficial, there is no way that someone who doesn’t know me personally can guarantee outcome.

Years ago, a friend recommended a doctor who had developed a treatment for general malaise. So I thought it would be a good idea to check him out. After a while I realized that his treatment of certain vitamins in relatively large quantities and avoiding certain foods worked extremely well for some people, but not for others. This didn’t stop him, however, from thinking that he had come up with a perfect diet for a large portion of the population. Even though I was not seeing the near-to-miraculous results others had experienced, he encouraged me to stick with it. In fact, he told me that if it didn’t work for me, then I was doing it wrong.

I have seen this in other areas of life. People who have gotten help via a formula, be it a special diet, a health product, a business idea, or particular advice, often think that if it worked for them, it’s going to work for everyone else. It might work for some others, but not for everyone.

I delight in how the wisdom of Scripture is not formulaic. It somehow captures the complexities of life in such a way that allows people to engage an intricate dynamic that is highly relational and very profound. While understanding the common makeup of human nature, the Bible makes room for individual differences, levels of maturity, and cultural contexts.

Yet, through the prophet Hosea, we are introduced to a basic formula through which we can experience a right relationship with God. Hosea served during the demise of what was known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel that split away from the south under the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. As it turned out, the people didn’t listen to Hosea’s words and were overcome by the Assyrian empire.

Israel’s refusal to follow God’s recipe for life is no reflection on its effectiveness, however. Unlike the claims of other supposed life formulas God’s recipe through Hosea includes core elements that if followed with sincerity will result in the promised outcome of restoration with the Creator. God’s recipe is found in chapter fourteen, verses three and four (English: verses two and three) and can be summed up as follows. (The following is a condensed summary; for a fuller explanation, you can listen to my sermon on this passage that I presented a few weeks ago.).

Decide to stop living life your own way and turn to the God of Israel. Speak to him out loud, asking him to help you be free from all that is controlling you and from which you cannot free yourself. Renounce all dependencies on earthly powers and man-made inventions. Also renounce all loyalties to false gods and powers that control your life. Acknowledge that God is merciful to the oppressed and be willing to reflect this same mercy to others. Finally, ask God to accept you on the basis of what he has done for you. Hosea states this in terms of “accept what is good.” What is good and acceptable to God is the sacrificial offering of the Messiah. Our failure to live up to God’s standards alienates us from him. Saying the words in themselves isn’t sufficient to re-engage God. But because of Yeshua’s death and resurrection we can turn back to him and have the kind of loving relationship with him for which humans were originally designed.

As we are in the midst of the Jewish high holy days, there is no better time to follow God’s recipe for life.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Sharing

For the week of September 14, 2019 / 14 Elul 5779

Young boy and girl picking berries in a field

Ki Tetze
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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If you go into your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat your fill of grapes, as many as you wish, but you shall not put any in your bag. If you go into your neighbor’s standing grain, you may pluck the ears with your hand, but you shall not put a sickle to your neighbor’s standing grain. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 23:24-25)

The Bible is far more than a book about God, morality, and spirituality. It is a holistic, comprehensive, integrated reflection of God’s perspective of life. In other words, it is a revelation of reality. While scientific analysis and philosophical musings may offer all sorts of interesting suggestions as to the nature of things, the universe is not subject to opinion. Rather, it is what it is. And the Bible provides sufficient insight as to what life is really all about.

This in no way should imply that our understanding of scripture necessary adequately represents the truth it reveals. We cannot completely escape historical misinterpretations and personal presuppositions that hinder our access to its depths. There’s also the challenge of how to bridge the ancient text to our modern context. None of this should stop us from diving in, however. In fact, the more we allow it to speak on its own terms, the more we will be confronted by its complex but accessible wisdom.

I try to engage the Bible with a whole lot of humility and awe. When I do so, I am in a place where I can continue to be challenged by God’s way of thinking. That’s what happened when I read through this week’s Torah portion, particularly the verses I quoted at the start.

According to this, in ancient Israel, someone walking through someone else’s field could help themselves to fruit or grain as desired. They were not to take more than they needed at the time. So while people were not to harvest someone else’s field, they could satisfy their hunger in the moment. I have read this many times. It’s also referred to as part of an interaction between Yeshua and the religious leaders in the Gospels (see Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 2:23-28; Luke 6:1-5). But I don’t know if I have ever really thought about it.

It’s not as if the Torah disregards private property. From “Do not steal” (e.g. Shemot/Exodus 20:15) to the directive to return your enemy’s cattle (see Shemot/Exodus 23:4) to the importance of retaining one’s tribal inheritance (see B’midbar/Numbers 36:7), Israel was not set up to be a share-and-share-alike society. There was no legislative attempt to completely smooth out economic differences. There are clear guidelines to prevent the poor from becoming destitute, and people were encouraged to be generous, but no one had a right to take what belonged to someone else. Or maybe they did. Isn’t that what this says? There is also the principle of gleaning at harvest time when the poor were allowed to help themselves to the edges of a person’s field and to the grain dropped by the harvesters (e.g. Vayikra/Leviticus 19:9-10). This meant that field owners were not to fully exploit their fields for their own gain.

On one hand this is such a nice thought, but to be honest it makes me uncomfortable. Let’s say I have berry bushes growing along my backyard fence. If my property bordered a pedestrian pathway and my bushes protruded beyond the property line so that some berries were available within what would be deemed public, I would have no problem with people helping themselves to some berries. But the thought of them walking through my property and doing so, I find distasteful (excuse the pun).

But it’s not distasteful to God. Far from it! God wanted farmers (who were the bulk of that society) to allow for this kind of freedom. While people were not to treat other people’s stuff as if it was their own, God wanted a culture that freely shared. This really challenges me to rethink my concept of private property. While Torah affirms a level of property rights, they may not be as absolute as many of us prefer.

As I mentioned earlier, getting from biblical principles to the modern day can be challenging. But before we give thought about the appropriateness of how God’s directive here can be worked out in our neighborhoods and towns, I need to start with my heart and rethink my relationship to my stuff.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Unknown Passages

For the week of September 7, 2019 / 7 Elul 5779

Hidden stone passageway in Malaga, Spain

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

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Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed? (Isaiah 53:1)

Each week TorahBytes provides what is known in Hebrew as a D’var Torah, “a word from the Torah,” the term Torah used here to refer to the Five Books of Moses. My intent is to bring the inspired word of the ancient text to the hearts and minds of modern readers and listeners. The Torah is foundational to the entire Bible, providing the basis for God’s perspective on life and living. The schedule I follow is the same as used in synagogues around the world that publically reads through the Torah on an annual cycle. The weekly Torah reading is chanted during services each Monday, Thursday, and Shabbat (English: the Sabbath/Saturday). On Shabbat and festivals an additional reading is chanted, referred to as Haftarah. That Haftarah sounds similar to the word Torah is a coincidence; it actually means something along the lines of “to leave” to designate it as the concluding reading. Through the years as I have been providing TorahBytes, I have sometimes opted to comment on that week’s Haftarah.

The Haftarah readings are taken from the section of Hebrew Scripture called Nevi’im, meaning the Prophets. How the prophetic books are organized in the Hebrew tradition is different from the vast majority of English translations because the English follows the order from the Septuagint (the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible). Nevi’im has two subsections, the Former Prophets and the Latter Prophets. The Latter Prophets are almost the same in both the Hebrew and the Greek, while the Former Prophets are often known as historical books, and include Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. As for why these books are considered Nevi’im is likely due to how they lead to the emerging role of the prophet in the establishment of the Kingdom of Israel.

The Haftarah schedule is fixed with an excerpt from Nevi’im read alongside the same associated Torah reading every year. There are also set special Haftarah readings for various special occasions that preempt the normally associated one. How the tradition of Haftarah began, no one knows. There is a story told that it began at a time when Israel, under foreign oppression, was forbidden to read the Torah, and so other parts of Scripture were read instead, but that theory emerged over a thousand years afterwards, and there is no other evidence to support it.

Not only do we not know when such readings became adopted, we also don’t know the criteria for choosing which passages were to be read. It is pretty obvious, however, that passages were chosen on the basis that they contained elements that are reflective of the associated Torah portion.

Interestingly the earliest recorded account of synagogue readings from Nevi’im is found in the New Covenant Writings. In Luke chapter four, we see Yeshua given the scroll of Isaiah to read. Whether it was a set scheduled reading similar to what is done today or chosen by a synagogue official or Yeshua in the moment we don’t know. What we do know is that this passage, beginning with the words “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me,” which Yeshua applied to himself to inaugurate the messianic era, is not part of the Haftarah schedule today.

Some might be inclined to claim that the reading was purposely removed since it would be one of several readings from Nevi’im used by Yeshua’s followers to refer to him (e.g. see this article). The same is sometimes claimed for another passage from Isaiah, chapter 52:13 through 53:12, that speaks in graphic terms of the suffering and rejection of a righteous servant of God. The details appear to foretell with great precision exactly what happened to Yeshua and why. For example:

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)

Contributing to the suspicion over the non-inclusion of this passage is that this week the Haftarah reading is Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12, while next week it’s Isaiah 54:1-10. This may give the impression that one of the most important and clearest predictive passages pointing to Yeshua being the Messiah was purposely skipped. The problem with this theory is that there is no evidence of an older list of Haftarah readings that include this or other passages, such as Isaiah 61 from which Yeshua read, that he fulfilled. What we do know is that whoever settled on the readings didn’t deem these passages sufficient for the purpose desired. There is no justification to assume any kind of conspiracy to keep this and other passages from the Jewish community.

In spite of whatever motive was behind the selection of Haftarah readings, it is tragic that the Suffering Servant passage and others that clearly point to Yeshua as Messiah are not more widely known. Yet to blame unknown ancients for what they didn’t list is misguided, especially since access to the whole Bible is available as never before. Not only can millions of people read the entire Bible in paper or digital form in their own language, those who know the truth of the messianic prophecies have it within their power to share these hitherto unknown truths with everyone around them, Jewish or Gentile. In this, the information age, virtually no one is prevented from encountering the truth – if we would only take the time to share it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Is the New Testament Anti-Semitic?

For the week of August 31, 2019 / 20 Av 5779

Dr. Michael Brown & Rabbi Shmuley Boteach debate "Is the New Testament Antisemitic?", August 8, 2019 in New York City.

Re’eh
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17 &
B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5; Isaiah 66:1-24; 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, “Let us go after other gods, ” which you have not known, “and let us serve them,” you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 13:1-3)

I recently watched a passionate debate between Messianic Jewish scholar and talk show host, Dr. Michael Brown and celebrity rabbi Shmuley Boteach on the topic “Is the New Testament Antisemitic?” I was struck by the collegiality between the two in spite of their sharp differences, many of which predate these two men by approximately two thousand years. They consider each other friends, which I found a little hard to believe, given the level of emotion on Boteach’s part. To me, he seemed downright angry, especially in his opening remarks. Not that I blame him. Everyone agrees that the New Testament has been used to perpetrate anti-Semitism. I am angry about that too.

According to Boteach, however, certain New Testament passages have not simply been leveraged for nefarious purposes, they are intentionally anti-Jewish. While Boteach admirably seeks to reclaim Yeshua’s Jewishness, he does so by disassociating passages he deems to have been inserted many years after the events of the New Testament. He claims that that the later church community sought to distance itself from the Jews to the point that God is depicted as having finally and forever rejecting his covenant people. Therefore, any passage critical or deemed negatively inclined towards the Jewish people or the Jewish leadership in any way must be, according to Boteach, a later insertion.

Brown disagrees, claiming (rightfully so) that there is no substantial difference between Jewish critiques in the New Testament and those from the Hebrew Scriptures as spoken by Moses and the prophets. Boteach doesn’t deny that the prophets could be pretty harsh but isn’t offended by them because he has no doubt that they possessed a fundamental, unshakable love for their people. And this seems to be where the bone of contention actually lies. In spite of Brown’s attempt to establish otherwise, Boteach is not able to accept that the heart of New Testament critique of Israel is of the same essence as that of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Again, I can’t blame Boteach. In spite of his misrepresentation of New Testament intent, I have to accept that the vast majority of Christian interpretation of the New Covenant Writings through the generations until now is exactly how he describes it. And if that is what the critical passages are about, he is right to denounce them. Tragically, after two thousand years of anti-Jewish church sentiment, it is next to impossible to engage the words of the New Testament any other way.

What does any of this have to do with the passage I quoted from this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion)? The Torah is clear that no matter how impressive or convincing a prophet might be, if he seeks to turn the people of Israel unto other gods, they should not be listened to. As far as I can tell, Boteach never asserts that the Christian God is a false god. In fact, he would be happy to retain New Testament  passages that he understands to be in line with the Hebrew Scriptures. His bone of contention are the so-called anti-Semitic passages in spite of their similarity to messages given by the Hebrew prophets. The New Testament in its current form – in spite of elements that Boteach respects, affirms, and admires – misrepresents the true God by denying his ongoing relationship with the Jewish people. Therefore it should be rejected.

In my opinion, Brown does not adequately satisfy Boteach’s concern. At approximately the 101-minute mark, Brown gets Boteach’s attention as he begins to repudiate supersessionism, commonly referred to as “replacement theology,” rightly indicting this false teaching for being the basis of much of Christian anti-Semitism. Boteach reacts as if surprised by this, but the discussion is regrettably redirected by the moderator due to time. This is the crux of the issue. The New Testament needs no revision; it’s the church’s teaching that does. As long as the god of the church is a god who rejects Israel, people like Boteach are right to resist.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

Video of the full debate is available here:

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Get the Picture

For the week of August 24, 2019 / 23 Av 5779

The title "Get the Picture" superimposed on an arrogant man wearing a crown

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

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Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 10:16)

I am fascinated by words. To think that God created the world through words. And then, he shares the gift of verbal communication with us by giving us the ability to share our thoughts with others (and himself through prayer) via this complex audible code. It’s wonderful when our words make a positive difference in the world. Words can give people a reason to live: words of encouragement, words of warning, words of instruction, words of love. Words can also destroy. Misrepresentation of truth of any kind can break relationship, cause paralyzing discouragement, and lead to disastrous outcomes.

Negative outcomes to words are not always the intent of speakers, of course. Accurately interpreting what people say is easier said than done (pun intended!). Concrete objects are easier to describe because they are clearly represented in the world. The word “dog,” for example is simply clarified by referencing an actual dog. Abstract concepts, on the other hand, such as emotions or philosophical ideas, can only be conveyed with words alone. If the speaker and hearer understand different things by those words, effective communication will not happen.

Figures of speech, what we might call “expressions,” are especially problematic. Some may remember the 1960s spy-comedy, entitled “Get Smart.” One unforgettable character was the humanoid robot Hymie. Hymie had issues with expressions. If told to “grab a waiter” in a restaurant, instead of getting the waiter’s attention, he picked him up and carried him to the table. “Kill the light, Hymie,” resulted in his shooting the light bulb instead of turning it off. We find that sort of thing humorous, but in real life misunderstanding expressions like this can have disastrous results.

While English has a great many expressions such the ones Hymie misinterpreted, it uses far more abstract terms than Biblical Hebrew, which is more concrete. This is illustrated in the verse I started with taken from this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). Moses is instructing the people to resist their natural inclinations to not listen to God and humbly submit to his directions. But that’s not how Moses put it. Closer to the Hebrew would be: “circumcise your heart and be not stiffnecked.” What would someone like Hymie do with that? The first half would kill you and the need for the second would be denied by those with flexible necks. Obviously, this was not to be taken literally. Yet the concrete tendency of Hebrew, which in this case vividly expresses otherwise abstract notions such as arrogance and stubbornness gets the point across most effectively.

There are all sorts of reasons why a translator would attempt to explain a concrete expression with an abstraction. Would readers know what circumcision is and if they did, would they understand that God wasn’t directing his people to do open heart surgery? Both elements would have to be properly understood for this to be the powerful statement it is.

As I look over English translations, I am surprised by how many, such as the one I am using, retain the first expression while opting for an abstraction for the second. Wouldn’t readers who get the point of heart circumcision also understand the warning against being stiff-necked? Maybe not.

Why use expressions at all? Why say things like “grab a waiter” or “kill the light” anyway? It’s that the pictures expressions create in our minds provide communicative elements that abstractions tend to lack. It’s difficult to represent “circumcise your hearts,” in any way but as an expression. The implications are that people need to remove the coverings over their hearts so that their affections, thoughts, and desires would be fully open to God. As for the warning against being stiff-necked, the word “stubborn” may appropriately reflect God’s intention here, but how much more when you picture ourselves refusing to bend under the weight of God’s will for our lives. It’s being stubborn, yes, but describing it in graphical terms helps us to see the intensity of our tendency to resist God’s lordship.

Unlike Hymie, our failure to understand God’s expressions isn’t funny. But thank God we are not robots.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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