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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The Fear Is Real

For the week of June 17, 2017 / 23 Sivan 5777

Anxious man biting his fingernails

Shela Lekha
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Revised version of message originally posted the week of June 9, 2007 / 23 Sivan 5767 

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Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (B’midbar/Numbers 14:1-4)

I don’t criticize the people who make up the negative examples in the Bible (of which there are many). While I would like to think that I would be a Moses confronting Pharaoh or a David challenging Goliath, I fear that I am far more like the grumblers in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

I prefer to think that after seeing God’s power expressed so dramatically through the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and in his wondrous provision of food and water, that when the time came to enter the Promised Land, I would be good to go. Walled cities? No problem! Giants armed to the teeth? No big deal. With the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on our side, it would be a cake walk. Weren’t Joshua and Caleb like that? They were among the twelve who had spied out the land. Even though the others brought back an intimidating report, seeing everything they saw, they were confident. I would like to be like them. But I have my doubts.

It’s so easy to boast about faith in theory. It’s another thing to have confidence in the face of true danger. It’s easy to pretend; it’s another to demonstrate real courage. It’s one thing to be calm when there’s nothing to fear. It’s another thing to stand strong when facing the impossible.

The problem, however, wasn’t that the people were scared. It’s that they didn’t submit their fear to God. When Joshua and Caleb urged them to not give into their fears, but to trust God instead, the people actually wanted to kill them.

We won’t learn lessons from other people’s failures until we can see them as a reflection of ourselves. How many challenges has God presented to us that we have rejected due to fear? How many times has fear dictated our decisions? It doesn’t have to be that way, however. It’s one thing to accept our frailty as human beings; it’s another thing to let it control our lives. It’s one thing to deny the reality of the fear we feel; it’s another to give in to it.

Caleb’s and Joshua’s confidence in God didn’t necessarily mean they had no fear. While there is no statement that I know of regarding their emotions in this instance, years later, as Joshua was preparing to lead the nation into the Promised Land, God tells him to “be strong and courageous” three times in the first nine verses of the book that bears his name.

I would like to think that the presence of courage automatically dispels the presence of fear, but between my understanding of the Bible and personal experience, it doesn’t seem to be the case. Fear is real, but it doesn’t have to have the final word.

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

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Fake Prayers

For the June 10, 2017 / 16 Sivan 5777

The word "fake" superimposed over a man praying by himself in a church building.

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

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I am not able to carry all this people alone; the burden is too heavy for me. If you will treat me like this, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness.” (B’midbar/Numbers 11:14-15)

I think Moses is amazing. I know he didn’t get off to the greatest start, murdering the Egyptian and running for his life as he feared the wrath of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. Note that he knew he was someone special, having miraculously survived the murder-all-the-baby-boys decree, rescued by Pharaoh’s own daughter no less. Killing the Egyptian was wrong, but it was the result of a good motive, as he reacted to his people’s ongoing oppression. The Torah doesn’t tell us how he learned he was a Hebrew or knew that he had a key role to fulfill, but like many people of destiny, he walked a twisted road to get there.

I don’t blame him for his resistance to God, when at age eighty he finally received his commission. Even though he was still afraid for his life, and in spite of his attempt to skirt his call, he went back to Egypt anyway. From that point on, with the exception of a couple of misguided actions due to frustration with the people (again no criticism from me about that), he performed magnificently in the face of Pharaoh’s stubborn short-sightedness and a fairly uncooperative, critical people to lead.

What made Moses such an effective leader was how he dealt with the problems he faced. Every time another issue arose, he would go to God for what he should do. Perhaps this is where Paul in the New Covenant Writings derives his encouragement to “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). While some may think Paul intended the believers in Thessalonica to utter barely audible prayers under their breath every waking second – nothing wrong with that if you can sustain such a thing – but more likely he was calling them (and by extension us), to regularly defer to God just as Moses did.

But there is more for us to learn from Moses’s prayers than the frequency thereof. He also “told it like it is,” so to speak. Moses’s prayer I quoted at the start, was in response to one of the many occasions of the people’s complaining. This time a bunch of discontents got everyone riled up about the boring nature of their menu. The supernatural provision of the bread-like substance called manna wasn’t good enough for them. They demanded that Moses produce meat. This pushed him to the limit and he told God so, and that he couldn’t take it anymore, saying: “If you will treat me like this, kill me at once(B’midbar/Numbers 11:15).

That’s not one of the nicest prayers I’ve ever read. It’s pretty confrontational and demanding, don’t you think? Note how he puts the blame squarely on God even though it was the people who were making life so difficult for him. Moses prayed that way because he knew something that we often fail to grasp: while people are responsible for their actions, our lives are ultimately in God’s hands.

His prayer is also pretty drastic: “resolve the problem or kill me!” If God is so in control, why not leave the resolution of the situation with him. But this is how Moses was feeling at the time. So that’s what he prayed. How did God respond? Did Moses get a lecture about appropriate piety and respectability? No; God heeded Moses’s desperate plea.

Why would God do that? Why didn’t he instead put Moses in his place for addressing him that way? Or at least ignore him (which, if we are honest, is probably the way we think God deals with us a good deal of the time)? God answered Moses because this is the kind of prayer God answers: direct and honest. Moses prayed a prayer of desperation because he was desperate. God knew that. Why pretend otherwise? Anything else would have been fake. God sees through fake. He isn’t offended by honesty. Unlike the complainers who put the onus on Moses, who had no ability to grant their request, Moses went to the only one who could do something about his difficult situation. And by baring his heart, he not only got an audience with the Sovereign of the Universe, he got the help he (and the whole community) needed.

The Messiah addresses this in his introduction to his model prayer:

And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matthew 6:7-8)

He is not only addressing meaningless repetition here, but the emptiness of fake prayers as well. We need to tell it like it is when we pray. Anything else is just a show. That doesn’t mean there is no room for formal prayer, especially in public. But it better be sincere or else you’ll find yourself filling up space with “empty phrases” than truly conversing with your Heavenly Father. Perhaps it’s time to tell God how you really feel.

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

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Are You Agitated?

For the week of June 3, 2017 / 9 Sivan 5777

Young man, deep in thought

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25

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And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the LORD blessed him. And the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol. (Shoftim/Judges 13:24-25)

The story of Samson (Hebrew: Shimshon) is a troubling one. Clearly he is especially chosen by God to make a positive difference in his day, but on a personal level, he is pretty much dysfunctional. For some Bible readers this is problematic. But I think that’s because we tend to have difficulty accepting that God might use a person of questionable character. Yet the Bible demonstrates how God uses both good and bad people to accomplish his purposes. That he uses someone in no way validates them. It is reasonable to assume that God would have preferred Samson be of much more noble character, but it should be comforting to know that a person’s irresponsible behavior can’t undermine God’s purposes (at least not in the long run). We are not looking at Samson this week to derive life lessons on virtue. Instead, we will focus on an aspect of how to discern God’s will in spite of Samson’s character.

Before Samson began to live out his God-given call, we read in our Haftarah (supplemental Scripture reading): “the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him” (Shoftim/Judges 13:5). The Hebrew word translated “stir” is “pa-am” and conveys the idea of being troubled. It’s how Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, were feeling after their hard-to-understand dreams (see Bereshit/Genesis 41:8 & Daniel 2:1-2). In Samson’s case, it wasn’t dreams that made him feel that way, but God. My guess is that the Bible translators resisted using more negative-sounding words, such as “troubled” or “anxious,” since God was the cause. But even though “stir” sounds more positive (or at least not negative) the result is similar. God caused Samson to experience some sort of internal agitation. How the biblical narrator understood the source of the agitation to be God, we don’t know. Regardless, we are to understand that it was this stirring that moved Samson to engage the oppressive situation Israel was under at that time.

I wonder if it is possible to misunderstand the stirring of the Lord in our lives. Could it be that there are people who right now are experiencing agitation from God and don’t know that it is from him? We may find ourselves sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, or anxious. But because these are deemed to be negative emotions, we try to get rid of them, thinking that trusting God means to always be joyful and at peace. Others may not be so quick to be free of such feelings, but instead of responding to God’s promptings, act them out in personally and relationally destructive ways.

As in Samson’s day, there is much in our world that should trouble us. Yeshua taught his followers to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This means that the way things are is not the way they should be. It is not God’s will that we simply accept evil. One day, all evil will be eradicated, but until then, we must pray that God does something about it. When he answers those prayers, it is often through the efforts of people like you and me. And the first thing those people experience is stirring.

Are you being stirred? While some people are very sensitive to the ills of life and seem to be burdened by all sorts of things, most folks appear to be oblivious as they are only concerned about their own existence. But perhaps there is more going on in the hearts of people than we realize. What would happen if we stopped and took inventory of what agitates us. What would we find? While some agitation is due to our own selfishness and lack of faith, it could be that we are being stirred by God to do something.

When we find ourselves upset over issues that are truly wrong from God’s perspective, we may discover that he is the source of our agitation. To resist his agitation, is to resist what he wants to do through you. But if God is our agitation source, then it’s time to seek him as to what he would have us do about it.

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

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Israel Will Flourish

For the week of May 27, 2017 / 2 Sivan 5777

The Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem filled with people

B’midbar
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English: 1:10-2:22)

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Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 2:1 [English 1:10])

This week’s parasha is the first of the fourth book of the Torah. The Hebrew title, “B’midbar” (“In the Wilderness”) is taken from the first sentence of the book, and aptly describes much of its overall content as we read about Israel’s journey through the wilderness. The English title, “Numbers,” is a translation of the Greek title “Arithmoi” and is due to the long description of Moses’s census of the people. The choosing of the accompanying Haftarah reading from the prophet Hosea is likely because of its reference to “the number of the children of Israel” I quoted at the start.

Paul’s quoting this passage in his letter to the Romans is often misunderstood. Tragically, he tends to be misrepresented regarding his understanding of God’s relationship to the Jewish people in the New Covenant era. This Hosea passage is quoted by Paul early in the section of Romans where he discusses that very issue (see Romans 9-11). It is most likely there were non-Jewish believers in Rome who had deduced that God had rejected the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob due to the combination of a significant amount of Jewish people who were antagonistic to Yeshua’s messianic claim and the openness to Yeshua on the part of a number of Gentiles (non-Jews). But Paul states that the rejection conclusion is both ignorant (see Romans 11:25) and arrogant (see Romans 11:18). God’s faithfulness to Israel was always and continues to be based on his unchanging, unconditional promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The current situation, however perceived, in no way undermines that.

However, there are two places in Romans that can appear to support the rejection scenario. The first is 2:17-29. This is where Paul defines what constitutes a genuine Jewish person. But contrary to the conclusions of some, he is not establishing a notion of the “spiritual Jew” in contrast to Jews by natural descent. Rather, he is emphasizing that the matters of the heart are more important than external forms. This is in keeping with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Yeshua that religious rituals, while having their place, are not that which express true godliness. What really counts is (in no particular order) faith, love, mercy, truth, humility, justice, and so on. Yet people, not just Jewish people, have always tended to focus on externals. Paul is not claiming that Gentile believers are the real Jews, while the natural ones are not.

Romans chapter nine, where he quotes our Haftarah, also tends to be misunderstood. To conclude Paul means anything but that God has not rejected natural Israel completely ignores God’s message through Hosea. God called Hosea to graphically illustrate God’s love for Israel by having him marry an unfaithful woman. Hosea’s heartbreak over his wayward wife is likened to God’s own yearning for his people. By Hosea’s referring to “the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea,” God confirms his promise made to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 22:17). And by quoting Hosea, Paul is doing the exact same thing. That Gentiles who have put their faith in the Jewish Messiah are accepted as God’s children too, does not negate God’s faithfulness to Israel.

We need to remember that the purpose of God’s promise to Abraham and his natural descendants through Isaac and Jacob was to bless the nations (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3), which, according to Paul, is the very essence of the Gospel (see Galatians 3:8). The inclusive nature of the New Covenant in Yeshua is not an abrogation of his particular purposes regarding Israel.

To use New Covenant inclusiveness to redefine Israel as the generic community of believers is to negate God’s commitment to the forefathers. Undermining his faithfulness to natural Israel defames his character and puts the onus of his acceptance on human performance rather than on his mercy and grace.

But if we listen carefully to God’s reaffirmation of his promise to Israel through Hosea and Paul, then we have grounds for hope. That Israel will flourish in spite of the common human tendency shared with the rest of the world to wander from God encourages us to trust God in the midst of every challenge we might face.

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

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