Give It Up

For the week of November 7, 2020 / 20 Heshvan 5781

Painting: The Sacrifice of Isaac, Marc Chagall, 1966

Painting: The Sacrifice of Isaac, Marc Chagall, 1966

Vayera
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 18:1 – 22:24
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 4:1-37

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By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice. (Bereshit/Genesis 22:16-18)

“The Binding of Isaac,” as it is called in Jewish tradition, is a most disturbing story. Readers have struggled with how it could be that the God who reveals himself as “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Shemot/Exodos 34:6) could demand the sacrifice of another human being, let alone one’s own son. Clearly it was never God’s intention that he would go through with it since he stops Abraham at the last moment. While God was not going to allow Isaac to be sacrificed, what was the purpose of telling Abraham to do so in the first place?

The answer is in what God said to him following: “Now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me” (Bereshit/Genesis 22:22). God was testing the state of Abraham’s relationship with him based on whether or not he would withhold Isaac from him. The result was an affirmation of God’s earlier promises to him. Isaac was key to the fulfilment of the promises to be a great nation that would bless the entire world. The passing of this test was essential for these promises to come to fruition.

Abraham had gone through so much between God’s call on his life and this point. Leaving family and the familiar behind, he travelled to a strange and hostile land. Already well advanced in years, he and his wife were childless. This did not prevent Abraham from trusting God’s promise of becoming a great nation and possessing this land one day. He had no clue that it would be twenty-five years before the son of promise would be born. And now, everything hinged on Isaac. It was on Mount Moriah, where one day the Jerusalem Temple would be built, that God called for extreme relinquishment in order to move forward in the unfolding of his plan. Why was that so necessary?

Let’s fast forward two thousand years. Overlooking Mount Moriah, the Temple Mount, is the Mount of Olives. It’s there the Messiah would face his own test of relinquishment. After spending three years of teaching on God’s Kingdom and demonstrating its power, preparing his followers to carry on his mission, he had a date with destiny. Prior to this, he had sought to explain to his followers several times that it was necessary for him to suffer, die, and rise back to life. They couldn’t comprehend that the Messiah would do anything but lead them and the nation of Israel in victory over their oppressors by military means. Regardless, he was resolute that he must face a deadly onslaught of darkness. However, on the eve of his arrest, knowing what he would have to endure, he pleaded with his Father in heaven in agonizing prayer for a way out. Perhaps there might be some other way to fulfill God’s plan without having to suffer under the misrepresentations, mockery, beatings, and execution that lay before him. Despite his earnest desire for an alternative, he was clear: “not as I will, but as you will” (e.g. Matthew 26:39). Once he fully relinquished his claim on his life, he was ready to complete the task before him.

What may not be obvious is how for both Abraham and Yeshua these acts of extreme relinquishment work against the thrust of the curse that has oppressed the world since Adam and Eve. God’s original design for the creation called for human beings to oversee Planet Earth under God’s rule. Instead, our first parents turned from God to the Evil One, resulting in our becoming subservient to the creation rather than being its masters.

It is this oppressive situation that God sought to resolve from the beginning. He initiated a plan to break the curse, a plan which began with Abraham and developed over time within the context of the people of Israel and came to fruition in Israel’s Messiah. In order to be restored to our rightful place as stewards of the creation under God, we like Abraham and Yeshua need to relinquish our claim upon our own lives. It is when we die to self and the things of the world, that we begin to truly live.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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Be a Blessing

For the week of October 31, 2020 / 13 Heshvan 5781

Hands planting young plant in dark soil

Lech Lecha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-17:27
Haftarah: Isaiah 40:27 – 41:16

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Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. 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 12:1-3)

God’s promise to Avram, whose name would later be changed to Avraham, sets the course for the entire Bible. Bereshit, the book of Genesis, informs us that human beings had been assigned the task of representing the Creator’s interests within his creation. Doubting God’s good intentions, they fell prey to temptation’s lure, plunging not only themselves and the whole human family, but the entire creation into corruption. It is not until Avram that we encounter the beginnings of God’s rescue plan for Planet Earth.

God’s rescue of his creation from the effects of Adam and Eve’s rebellion is described in terms of blessing. The Hebrew word for blessing is “barach,” which means, “to fill something with the potential for life.” It’s the opposite of “arar,” cursed, that which removes life or, in other words, brings death. The disobedience of our first parents brought God’s curse upon the creation. The promise to Avram is the beginning of God’s confrontation of the curse, culminating with the restoration of all things through Avram’s greatest descendant, the Messiah.

From the time God spoke these words until the future day of Messiah’s return, Avram’s descendants, natural and spiritual have been a blessing – not all of them all the time, nor, with the exception of the Messiah, no individual in an absolute and complete way. Still, so much of the goodness experienced throughout history has come to our broken world through God’s work in and through his people. For the blessing through God’s instruments are ultimately rooted in God himself and revealed through his Word. Tragically most people are not aware that the Hebrew Bible and the New Covenant Writings are the source of so many of the blessings we take for granted today, including the value of all human beings, the rule of law, personal responsibility, care for the poor and infirm, universal literacy, racial equality, ecology, the importance of family, the undermining of superstition, the importance of both work and rest, and so on.

Equally tragic is how the mishandling of biblical truth has been blamed on the Bible. For example, many fail to understand that despite the prevalence of slavery in so-called Christian societies that, without the teaching of Scripture, the transatlantic slave trade may have never been abolished. It was because God’s blessing as promised to Avram found fruition through some who were both blessed and were a blessing.

God was well aware of the twisty road between his calling Avram and the eventual day of permanent blessing through the Messiah. Through this time, he has looked for those who would be his instruments of blessing. That God will set all things right eventually doesn’t mean we should wait passively for that day. It’s truly heart-warming to know that the burden of the curse will finally be lifted, but until then we are not to stand back and passively wait, but rather we must do everything we can in our day to be a blessing.

It’s not easy to be a blessing. It’s much easier to let things be. But when we let things be, they don’t stay the way they are, they go bad or get worse. This is how the dynamic of the curse works: things left to themselves decay. It’s only through the power of life-giving blessing that we effect positive change.

That means we need to follow Avram’s example. He obeyed God’s call to leave family and the familiar and venture into hostile territory. He didn’t know how that would make a difference. In fact, he didn’t need to know. He just needed to be willing to face the challenges of uncertainty as he trusted God to guide him. What that looks like for you or me will be different, except it always means we need to be open to God’s voice and be willing to do whatever he says.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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System Reboot

For the week of October 24, 2020 / 6 Heshvan 5781

A restart symbol superimposed upon a view of earth from outer space

Noach
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9-11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth.” (Bereshit/Genesis 9:1)

I am the main computer person at home. It helps that for years I worked in high-tech, including providing computer training and technical support. Most of the

I am the main computer person at home. It helps that for years I worked in high-tech, including providing computer training and technical support. Most of the time, my wife and kids have no issues with their various technical devices, but every now and then, they need my help: the screen is frozen, the mouse is stuck, the sound isn’t working, the web browser is too slow, a program won’t open, etc. These things don’t happen as often as they once did, but when the solution isn’t obvious, I often suggest restarting, or as it’s commonly called, rebooting. Rebooting clears out any data that may be lodged in memory and resets the computer, tablet, or phone. There are times when this is not the answer. Depending on the device, loose cables may need tightening, programs may need to be reinstalled, a virus might be present, and so on. The solutions to many of these problems are also pretty simple, except for viruses. Rebooting won’t repair physical damage, of course, but before taking more drastic measures, it’s always worth a try. But do remember before rebooting, save all open documents, if you can. Otherwise certain information may be lost forever.

Our planet is a very complex system within a larger complex system, the universe. This week’s Torah portion is about the time when the system of life on earth was so problematic, it needed to be rebooted. After Adam and Eve rebelled against God’s directions, human existence went from bad to worse. Near the end of last week’s portion it reads: “The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually” (Bereshit/Genesis 6:5). Every intention of the heart continually evil! That’s pretty bad. The passage goes on to say: “And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” (Bereshit/Genesis 6:6). It is difficult for us to conceive how God could regret his original plan or how he might experience grief, but he did. Time to reboot!

I imagine he could have completely destroyed the earth instead, but he didn’t. Having found one man who was in right relationship with him, Noah, he restarted the human race through him and his family. He then blessed him to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth,” the same words he had said to Adam and Eve (see Genesis/Bereshit 1:28).

By rebooting the earth rather than replacing it altogether, God demonstrates his commitment to the system he created. The creation is essential to the plan of God. That might be hard for some people to understand or accept, for there is a tendency for spiritually minded people to view the material world as somewhat of a mistake. Associating evil with the creation itself is contrary to how the Bible regards life. Scripture views the material and the spiritual aspects of the creation as an integrated whole. We are called to love and serve God within the material world as integrated material/spiritual beings. The New Covenant Writings tell us that God’s motivation for sending the Messiah was that he “loved the world” (John 3:16). The Greek word for “world” here is “cosmos,” referring to the whole of creation, not just the people in it. Not only does God love the creation, he continues to work out his plans and purposes within it, the culmination of which will be a new heavens and a new earth (see Isaiah 66:1-24; esp. v.22).

The new heavens and the new earth are not a reboot, but an upgrade. While there are aspects of the current system that will carry-over to the new, there will be brand new features, some of which we have a taste of today through Yeshua the Messiah, including right relationship with God, forgiveness, and healing. The new system will feature God’s personal presence on earth forever along with the complete eradication of evil, sickness, and death.

You can experience the preliminary features of the coming upgrade right now, but for a limited time only! All you need to do is turn from self to God and trust in Yeshua’s death and resurrection. Your sins will be forgiven, you will have an intimate relationship with God, and you will live forever in his new creation. Act now before it’s too late!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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This Is My Father’s World

For the week October 17, 2020 / 19 Tishri 5781

Laughing young child with apple

Bereshit
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42

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And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Bereshit/Genesis 1:31)

Many years ago, I was working as an instructor at a business college in Vancouver, British Columbia. As far as I know, I was only one of two believers among the staff. One day he and I were sitting in the lunchroom by ourselves, as he was enjoying the sort of large, very red apple that grows in British Columbia and Washington State. I pointed at his apple and exclaimed, “Our Father made that!” Instead of receiving the positive response I expected, he said something to the effect of: “I don’t necessarily share your perspective.” He might as well have added, “You fundamentalist simpleton, living in a fantasy land you call ‘faith!’ Don’t you know the slightest thing about botany? This apple is a cultigen, the product of ‘a plant that has been deliberately altered or selected by humans; …the result of artificial selection’ (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultigen; cf. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Delicious).”

I was saddened by his reaction. It reminded me of my father-in-law’s concern when we were still fairly new parents. He had asked a couple of our young children if they knew where they came from. As a devout atheist himself, he didn’t appreciate that their answer was “from God.” He made it clear to us that he hoped we would eventually teach them “the truth.”

I was less surprised by my father-in-law’s reaction than that of my “brother in the Lord.” That atheists reduce life to nothing besides nature is understandable. To them, bringing in God at all is dismissed as make believe or worse. But for a theist to detach the fruit (literal fruit in this case) from God’s creativity completely undermines the essence of his creation.

Pitting science against faith reflects misconceptions about each. Science is a useful tool in the analysis of nature. It can reveal how the natural world works. I find it curious however, that it is often presented not only as a system of exhaustive knowledge of everything there is to know, but also as a complete unchanging body of thought. For example, we hear politicians claiming that their particular policy on a certain issue is based on “the science.” Not only is science, good science at least, an ongoing investigation of observable natural entities and processes, it is always open to new information, which should challenge previous conclusions. Moreover, science is not the knowledge of everything. By itself, it is not very useful in determining its application. Just because we discover something can be done, doesn’t mean it should be done.

Faith, at least of the biblical variety, which I hold to be its only legitimate form, is not a denial of the natural world. Far from it! Faith is the lens by which we can most clearly observe the world in which we live. Well-informed biblical faith enables us to discover the “shoulds” of life, not by being blind to the world, but by the best understanding of it.

I know full well that my colleague’s apple was the result of years of careful cultivation on the part of human beings, just like I (and my children) know how babies are made. But life is far more than mechanical, naturalistic processes. The universe we inhabit is a vast and complex dynamic system designed, implemented, and sustained by God within which his plans and purposes are worked out. The Creator has assigned human beings to represent him by overseeing and caring for his creation. Our lives are to reflect God and his character in everything as we hear his voice and do his will. He then, as our ultimate Father, demonstrates his love through his providential care in and through the creation, including you, me, and others. This is most fully expressed in the gift of his Son in the person of the Messiah, through whom we are reconciled to him.

It is when we are in right relationship with God through Yeshua that we can appreciate the basic, though broken, goodness of the creation. Faith is that which enables us to see the creation’s goodness for what it really is. How the mechanics of the entire system of creation works, I don’t know. God bless the scientists as they do their work. What I do know is that every apple, every child, every good thing we enjoy, is a precious and deliberate gift from our loving Heavenly Father. To miss that is to miss what creation is all about.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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Joyful Torah

For the week of October 10, 2020 / 22 Tishri 5781

Painting: The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy by Solomon Hart, 1850

Painting: The Feast of the Rejoicing of the Law at the Synagogue in Leghorn, Italy by Solomon Hart, 1850. Public Domain.

Shemini Atzeret
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17; B’midbar/Numbers 29:35 – 30:1
Haftarah: 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 8:54-66

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So Moses told the people of Israel everything just as the LORD had commanded Moses. (B’midbar/Numbers 29:40)

This weekend brings the annual high holy day season to a close. Beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the new year, the traditional expression of the biblical Feast of the Blowing of the Shofar (ram’s horn); followed ten days later by Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), a national day of humility; it culminates with Sukkot (the Feast of Booths), a week-long harvest thanksgiving festival that commemorates God’s care and provision of the Israelites during the forty years in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land.

Sukkot lasts seven days plus one. Each year, after the people of Israel live in temporary dwellings for seven days, we were to move back into our permanent dwellings and observe an additional holy day. Thus, it became known as Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of assembly, which this year begins Friday evening, October 9; coinciding with Shabbat.

A feature of Shemini Atzeret is that it marks the restarting of the annual Torah reading cycle. This celebration, called Simchat Torah (English: Rejoicing Over the Torah) is one of the most joyous Jewish occasions of the year. The Torah Scrolls are removed from their special cabinet and carried inside and outside the synagogue with exuberant singing and dancing. In Israel, Simchat Torah is observed the same day as Shemini Atzeret. While in the diaspora, it is the following day (this year, beginning the evening of October 10).

Non-Jews familiar with the Bible may find it curious to associate rejoicing with what is commonly known as “the Law.” Doesn’t the New Testament teach that the Law was the heavy yoke that crushed the ancient Israelites (see Matthew 11:28-30 and Acts 15:10), and that its only purpose was to demonstrate the sinfulness of human nature (see Romans 3:19-20)? But if that is the case, why then would King David write: “the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart” (Psalm 19:8)?

The negative caricature of the Torah, supposedly derived from the New Covenant Writings, is one of the greatest tragedies of history. The true purpose of Torah has been obscured by confusing it with the system of the Sinai Covenant along with additional overbearing obligations forced upon people by religious leaders over time. Moreover, Torah’s illumination of human nature is a good thing designed by God to lead people to depend on him for the godliness delineated in Torah, not to disparage it nor discard it.

All of God’s written Word, beginning with the Torah as its foundation, is life giving. Through its pages we are instructed in his perfect ways. From sexuality to hygiene to politics to agriculture to business, God’s Torah, his instruction, guide our lives in a path of goodness, health, and life.

Torah was given to Israel at Mount Sinai and eventually shared with the world through the followers of the Jewish Messiah. The ways of God as revealed in Scripture are not principles developed by reason or higher consciousness; they are a gift from heaven. A gift certainly worth celebrating!

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated

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Unity in Diversity

For the week of October 3, 2020 / 15 Tishri 5781

Portrait collection group of multi-cultural young people

Sukkot
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus Lev 22:26 – 23:24; B’midbar/Numbers 29:12-16
Haftarah: Zechariah 14:1-21

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Then everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, and to keep the Feast of Booths. And if any of the families of the earth do not go up to Jerusalem to worship the King, the LORD of hosts, there will be no rain on them. (Zechariah 14:16-17)

One of the most difficult issues that has faced Yeshua-followers—and not just Yeshua-followers, but the entire world—is the tension between unity and diversity with regard to the human family. From the beginning, the human family has been fractured, starting with God’s cursing of Adam and Eve, thus creating tension between males and females (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:16b), quickly followed by the murder of their son Abel, by his jealous brother, their firstborn, Cain (see Bereshit/Genesis 4:1-16). This explodes when, as a consequence of the misguided Babel building project, the world divides into people groups due to the confusion of languages (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:1-9).

Since then, most attempts to unify human beings have been by brutal tyrannies, which at best have been partial; fragile; destructive; and, obviously, temporary. Temporary, that is, until the proclamation of the Kingdom of God through the Good News of the Messiah Yeshua. God’s plan was always to rectify the disunity resulting from Babel, rooted in sin. God’s desire to make the human family one is a hallmark of biblical faith. Not only is it core to a genuine relationship to God in Yeshua, God’s Spirit poured out upon those who truly trust in the Messiah is the only power that can mend the systemic brokenness that continues to plague our planet.

Tragically however, the unity God is seeking to restore has been grossly misunderstood as uniformity. While I assume that no one even slightly aware of the biblical teaching on this subject actually believes we are all to be the same as each other, when it comes down to it, there’s underlying discomfort with diversity especially with regard to nationality or ethnicity.

Certainly, this is a much bigger subject than can be adequately covered in a short message like this. But let me try to provide something from this week’s readings that should powerfully inform our thinking on this matter. These readings are special for the first day of Sukkot (English: Booths or Tabernacles), Israel’s week-long harvest thanksgiving festival that also commemorates God’s provision and care of the people during the wilderness wanderings following the exodus from Egypt. As usual, whenever a major festival falls on Shabbat, the regular readings are replaced by special ones relevant to the occasion.

The Haftarah (reading from the Prophets) for the first day of Sukkot is from Zechariah. At the end of his book, the prophet provides some details for what the Bible understands as the “age to come.” That was Israel’s great expectation of God’s restoration of the creation when he would establish his rule on earth forever. One aspect of this, according to Zechariah, is in that time the nations would come to Jerusalem to celebrate Sukkot.

I am aware that such an idea evokes all sorts of questions, but I want to point out one thing: the nations come to Jerusalem. That means, at the restoration of all things, the nations still exist as defined entities. Some think this is reserved for a golden age that takes place between the time we live in now and the final restoration. The problem with this is the Bible doesn’t see it that way. The book of Revelation echoes Zechariah. At the end of Revelation, we are given a description of the new heavens and new earth (see Revelation 21:1). As part of this, a new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven to earth (see Revelation 21:2). This is clearly the age to come, the time when God sets everything to rights. We read the following:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. (Revelation 21:22-26)

Just as Zechariah predicted, the nations will still exist. Moreover, they will have an essential relationship to future Jerusalem. The unity of all peoples in no way homogenizes the people of the world into one singular nation. The unity of all peoples in the Messiah connects them with God’s purposes and plans in and through Israel without nullifying their unique distinctions.

Reckoning with our destiny as God’s family in such a way that retains national distinctives is a first step to the unity in diversity God calls us to have today.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Positively Negative

For the week of September 26, 2020 / 8 Tishri 5781

Silhouette of a large finger pointing aggressively at a silhouetted intimidated man

Ha’Azinu/Shuva
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1 – 32:52
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10 (English: 14:1-9); Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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If they were wise, they would understand this; they would discern their latter end! (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:29)

The annual Torah reading cycle comes to an end during the High Holiday season. Whenever a festival falls on Shabbat, a special Torah reading replaces the regularly scheduled ones. This year that happens quite a bit; this week being the one exception. It is also unusually negative.

We live in unusually negative times. I am not referring to the general intensity of the current challenges we are facing, including the pandemic and various political and social issues. It’s the loud angry tone of accusation being incessantly fired at real or perceived wrongs, be they current or past, systemic or not. Somehow it has become acceptable to harshly and angrily criticize those with whom we disagree and blast those deemed to be the source of injustice.

I in no way want to suggest that the concerns being addressed are necessarily unjustified. Perhaps some are. I personally believe that we should do our best to listen to the complaints of others. I know it’s difficult to hear the content of what someone is saying when they are very angry. But just because their presentation is upsetting and extreme shouldn’t mean they should be automatically disregarded.

That said, I also believe there is an underlying misnomer about life in general that is fueling the anger. Perhaps if the victims of injustice and their supporters would take a moment to catch some of what is being addressed by Moses in this week’s reading, we all might have a better chance at resolving many, if not all, the issues we are facing today.

These are some of Moses’ final words to the people of Israel before he died, thus the Torah is near completion. The Books of Moses are foundational to the whole Bible and contain core stories such as creation, human rebellion, and the early beginnings of God’s restoration plan. It’s in Torah we learn of God’s choosing of Israel and the demonstration of his power through the exodus from Egypt, followed by the revelation of his word at Mt. Sinai and subsequent teaching through Moses. Throughout Torah’s pages we discover God’s worldview and the delineation of his ways as they touch on all aspects of life. Yet, as Moses completes his mission, his outlook is bleak. Instead of the expected, “You can do it!” pep talk, he tells his people, “You are going to fail!”

His words may be negative but are designed for a positive result. Moses isn’t trying to discourage the people; he is helping them to take a realistic view of themselves. They have a problem, a deep-seated spiritual and moral problem. Essential to understanding this problem is to accept that they all have it. It may sound as if Moses considers himself an exception, but remember he had been recently barred from entering the Promised Land due to his own misbehavior. No one is exempt from this negative assessment.

The good words of Torah, while being an overall blessing, testify against Israel by exposing the negative condition of human nature. This is not exclusive to Israel, of course. For Israel was chosen partly to demonstrate to the whole world our twisted state. This is what the Bible calls, “sin.” In the subsequent years Israel would face their sin as God would teach them (and through them the world), that only he possesses the remedy. It’s only by humbly admitting our need and receiving God’s forgiveness and power through the Messiah that we can be the people we were meant to be.

The current rage has failed to grasp that we are all in this together. No one can claim to be in possession of a nature that is morally and spiritually superior to anyone else’s. Sin may express itself differently in and through each one of us, but it will express itself. Thankfully, the remedy too is available to anyone willing to receive it.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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God Hears

For the week of September 19, 2020 / 1 Tishri 5781

Message information over oil painting of Hagar and Ishmael.

Painting: “Hagar and Ishmael” by Benjamin West. 1776, reworked 1803. Metropolitan Museum of Art collection. Public Domain (Creative Commons).

Rosh Hashanah
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 21:1-34; B’midbar/Numbers 29:1-6
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 1:1 – 2:10

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And God heard the voice of the boy, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven and said to her, “What troubles you, Hagar? Fear not, for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is.” (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17)

This week’s Torah readings are special for Rosh Hashana, which literally means “head of the year.” A more biblical term for this festival is Yom T’ruah, meaning “Day of Blowing (the Shofar),” which over time became the occasion to mark the civil new year for the Jewish people. When major festivals fall on a Shabbat, the normally scheduled reading is postponed and replaced by special readings pertinent to the festival. Rosh Hashanah, being observed for two days (this year beginning the evening of Friday, September 18), there are different readings for each day.

The first Torah reading for Rosh Hashanah includes the birth of Isaac, the son promised to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. This section of Bereshit/Genesis was likely chosen because it is acting as an introduction to the second reading later in the same book, when God provides a ram to be sacrificed in place of Isaac. The connection to the festival is due to the ram’s being caught by its horns in a thicket, and that the ram’s horn, shofar in Hebrew, is the central symbol of the festival.

The first reading also includes the account of Hagar’s and Ishmael’s final separation from Abraham’s household. Ishmael was the product of a surrogacy arrangement urged by Sarah as a way to resolve her barrenness. This was the second time that an issue between Sarah and her maidservant, Hagar, led to Hagar’s leaving. The first time Hagar was instructed by God to return (see Bereshit/Genesis 16), but this second time the separation was to be permanent. The first time, when she was still pregnant, she was told by an angel that she would bear a son, named Ishmael, and that God would give him many offspring. This second time, she is told he would become a great nation.

What I would like for us to notice in this encounter, is the statement: “God heard the voice of the boy” (Bereshit/Genesis 21:17). Every year in synagogues all over the world, these words are chanted: “God heard the voice of the boy.” Every year at the beginning of what has become the holiest three weeks in the Jewish calendar, the people of Israel are reminded, “God heard the voice of the boy.” Which boy? Ishmael—rejected from being a member of God’s covenant community. Yet, God heard him. In fact, his name means, “God hears.”

This one sentence to this one person tells us something about the God of Israel that is too often forgotten. From this earliest stage in the development of the Chosen People, Torah makes clear that the God of Israel isn’t the God of Israel only. The ears of God are open to all. This is not to say that every representation of the spiritual domain humans have invented is correct. Neither does this justify misguided actions of those who claim to be true believers. The Bible in no way condones an anything-goes approach to God and life. But it also doesn’t condone any attempt to claim exclusive rights to him.

The chosenness of Israel was established by God to bless the nations of the world (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:3). Israel was chosen as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. Without in anyway downplaying God’s eternal commitment to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, chosenness was never to result in an exclusive claim on God.

It took the early followers of the Messiah some time to grasp this. A breakthrough in this regard happened when Peter was called by God to be the first to present the good news of the Messiah to a non-Jewish household. He said, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him” (Acts 10:34-35). He didn’t understand that before. He should have, but he didn’t. Now he did.

I assume that many reading or hearing this at least theoretically understand that “God shows no partiality,” but do we really? While good definitions of appropriate faith are essential to walking in God’s truth, I wonder how many unnecessary boundaries we have placed on our particular brand. It’s one thing to cluster with like-minded people, but there is a fine line between preference and arrogance. If God is willing to hear people from outside our strictly defined groupings, then perhaps we are well advised to hear them too.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Individualism vs. Collectivism

For the week of September 12, 2020 / 23 Elul 5780

Multiple darts flying together toward a large target while a single dart heads to a separate small target

Nitzavim & Vayeilech
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9 – 31:30 (English 29:10 – 31:30)
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9

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You are standing today, all of you, before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water, so that you may enter into the sworn covenant of the LORD your God, which the LORD your God is making with you today, that he may establish you today as his people, and that he may be your God, as he promised you, and as he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. It is not with you alone that I am making this sworn covenant, but with whoever is standing here with us today before the LORD our God, and with whoever is not here with us today. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-14; English: 29:10-15)

One of the cultural clashes we are experiencing in our world today is individualism vs. collectivism. Some claim the successes of the Western world are built upon stressing the value of the individual, leading to individual freedoms, rights, and responsibility. Pop culture has derived “you can be whoever you want to be” from this way of thinking. Most of the world for most of history has downplayed the individual in favor of the collective. According to collectivism, who you are and your role in life are derived solely from your family and community. According to this way of thinking you are born into a particular station in life and are expected to remain there.

Individualists reject this type of deterministic thinking and look to remove what they regard as societal obstacles usually in terms of unnecessary government controls to provide individuals the opportunity to prosper. Collectivists on the other hand put their hopes on bettering community control, through greater government involvement as the way to prevent a small percentage of individuals from gaining inordinate advantage over the masses.

The reason for the intensity of the clash between these two ways of thinking is each views the whole of reality through their particular lens. Individualism only sees individuals.  They see collectivist leaders as nothing more than individuals riding the backs of the masses in the name of equality and equity. Collectivists don’t see individuals, but only an oppressive class to be replaced.

On the surface these may appear to be two different political approaches. But they are more than that, they are political approaches stemming from two different ways of seeing the world. What they have in common is that they are both wrong. Both create caricatures of the other based on skewed perceptions. Reality is best understood through a biblical lens. God’s perspective as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures and New Covenant Writings is not just another way of looking at life. It’s the understanding of the designer of the universe himself.

According to Scripture, human beings are individuals intimately connected to identifiable groups. We see this reflected in the beginning of this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion). The people of Israel are being addressed by Moses as he nears the end of his life. That he is addressing a community is obvious. He reminds Israel that their covenant with God establishes them as a people whose community identity extends beyond the current generation. Yet, how he addresses them also emphasizes their being individuals within that community: “You are standing today, all of you, before the LORD your God: the heads of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, all the men of Israel, your little ones, your wives, and the sojourner who is in your camp, from the one who chops your wood to the one who draws your water” (D’varim/Deuteronomy 29:9-10; English 29:10-11).

Throughout the Scriptures we see the dynamic of community obligation and individual responsibility. For ancient Israel the individual was at its best when he or she earnestly lived out his or her national community obligations. The greatest community builders in Israel were those who took very lonely stands for the greater good of the people, including Joseph, Moses, and David.

The basis for the well-balanced functioning of the individual and the community is that neither derived ultimate meaning in one or the other. Instead both individual and collective meaning and value were derived from God and his word. Focus on self or focus on community blinds us from the higher view of life that only God can provide.

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

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Differences Count

For the week of August 29, 2020 / 9 Elul 5780

Illustration of the world with costumed people of various nationalities holding hands around its circumference

Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10
Originally posted the week of September 17, 2016 / 14 Elul 5776

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You shall not charge interest on loans to your brother, interest on money, interest on food, interest on anything that is lent for interest. You may charge a foreigner interest, but you may not charge your brother interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:19-20)

The verses I just read contain a biblical understanding of life that is being overrun today by misguided notions of tolerance, brotherhood, and unity. That’s not to say that tolerance, brotherhood, and unity are not biblical notions. Indeed, they are, but it’s the versions of these and many other noble principles that are misguided. Obviously the main issue addressed by God through Moses here is the charging of interest, which certainly deserves our attention, but there is an underlying concept of human relations that is foundational for what is being said about loans. And it is this concept that I want to focus on this week.

Whatever else is implied by the charging and not charging of interest, the people of Israel were directed by God to treat citizens differently from non-citizens. This seems to contradict what God says elsewhere: “You shall have the same rule for the sojourner and for the native, for I am the LORD your God” (Vayikra/Leviticus 24:22). But these are two different contexts. One has to do with life and limb; the other is about loans and interest. One is clearly a justice issue in which natives and foreigners were to be judged equally, while the other is financial. Note it doesn’t say not to loan money to foreigners, just that charging interest in their case was permitted.

So on one hand the Torah is very clear about social equality between peoples. When Yeshua centuries later used the Samaritans, a despised people group of his day, to illustrate to his fellow Jews what loving one’s neighbor really means (see Luke 10:25-37), he was not being a modern radical, but he was rather affirming Torah principles that were being denied by his fellow countrymen. Contrary to popular misconception the Scriptures are not the basis of bigoted racial theory, but actually clearly espouse the unity of the human family via Noah and Adam. According to the Bible there is only one race, the human race.

At the same time, God’s inspired written word recognizes – more than that! – it celebrates national distinctions. Even though the emergence of diverse languages and the resultant cultural and ethnic groupings were due to an ungodly attempt of self-preservation as recorded in the account of the city and tower of Babel (see Bereshit/Genesis 11:1-9), the hand of God is seen in the development of nationalities. The Book of Revelation’s depiction of the renewal of all things in keeping with the Hebrew prophetic writings in no way anticipates the homogenization of ethnicities but their continued national distinctions (see Revelation, chapters 21 & 22). The trans-national unity experienced by believers (see Galatians 3:28) was never intended to undermine the practicalities of ethnic diversity (see Acts 15 & 21:17-26; Romans 14:1 – 15:13).

And yet among Bible believers and the society at large there is a growing sense of embarrassment with anything that affirms nationalistic differences (except at times for certain cultural expressions like food and music). Both believers and non-believers alike have bought into a version of human unity that makes them uncomfortable with the idea we should treat foreigners differently from natives. But that stems from a denial of distinctions that God himself recognizes. Paul, for example, who was so passionate about the intimate unity we have in Yeshua, could still write that we need to prioritize providing for our families over others (1 Timothy 5:8), and that believers need to care for the believing community before expressing concern for outsiders (Galatians 6:10).

Recognizing lines of demarcation between communities is a good thing and is necessary for the healthy administration of societies. Full participation within any community, whether it be a small religious group, or a large country should be the result of a clear naturalization process. Differing requirements for members and non-members/citizens and non-citizens are not necessarily expressions of bigotry and prejudice, but the essential elements of belonging that are necessary for the effective thriving of any community. Claiming that all people everywhere have the automatic right to belong to whatever group they like regardless of who they are may sound nice, but in the end creates nothing but chaos and meaninglessness. We shouldn’t be surprised when those who impose their sense of so-called brotherhood upon us end up taking away every last vestige of true diversity with which God has graced us.

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

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