Revelatory Reactions

For the week of November 19, 2016 / 18 Heshvan 5777

Man laughing and pointing

Va-Year
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 18:1–22:24
Prophets: 2 Melachim/2 Kings 4:1–37

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But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.” (Bereshit/Genesis 18:15)

The eighteenth chapter of the first book of the Bible is extraordinary in many ways. Primarily that it records a visit to the home of Abraham and Sarah by God Almighty himself accompanied by two angels. Talk about “guess who’s coming for dinner?”! This blows away the popular misconception within Judaic circles that the idea that God manifesting himself in human form is idolatrous. Forbidding the manufacturing of images is one thing, that God takes on human form from time to time, and supremely in the person of the Messiah, is another. Apples and oranges.

God’s agenda for this visit appears to be twofold. First, it is to confirm his promise concerning the birth of Isaac through Sarah. Abraham already received this promise in the previous chapter at the same time as the establishment of the covenant of circumcision. The confirmation of the promise regarding Isaac recorded here may have been more for Sarah’s benefit than Abraham, which we will come back to in a second. The other purpose for this special visit is found in the following chapter, in which God reveals to Abraham the coming judgement of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, where his nephew Lot was residing.

There is an interesting compare and contrast in the reactions of Abraham and Sarah to the two promise announcements, since both of them laughed, which became the basis of Isaac’s name. This is the sort of thing that keeps scholars employed as they discuss how these are likely two different story traditions that were both included in the final version of the book. We don’t know exactly how these accounts were passed on over time, but it’s not unreasonable to accept them at face value. That both parents laughed makes sense. That such a couple would have their first baby is pretty funny no matter how you look at it. It also makes sense that their laughter arose from completely different perspectives as they are two very different individuals.

Abraham’s laughter appears to be one of astonishment. He gives no indication that such a thing wasn’t possible for God to do; only that it was completely unusual. Sarah’s laughter, on the other hand, was one of incredulity, unbelief in other words. We derive this from a combination of her statement about her elderly condition, the Lord’s response to her laughter, and her denial of it. Reading this, I don’t get the impression that the Lord has a serious issue with her reaction, but rather with her denial.

God’s promise of the unexpected and the unusual, if not impossible, elicited different responses from two different people. Laughter is an emotion that doesn’t normally emerge after a long period of contemplation; it occurs in the moment. As a reaction, it reveals something about the nature of the person at that precise time. In Sarah’s case, it was unbelief. That she would deny it is understandable, especially when talking to God. But who is she kidding? Did she really think she could fool God?

And yet don’t we do the same? Don’t we try to cover up when we are embarrassed and ashamed about something? Sometimes the shame of what we have done is so great, not only would we deny it to God’s face, we may even try to fool ourselves into thinking we didn’t do what we did.

Look at God’s response to her after she said she didn’t laugh: “No, but you did laugh” (v. 15). End of scene. Did anything happen between God and Sarah on this issue after that? We don’t know. Did Sarah accept the truth of her behavior? We don’t know that either. In the way the story is presented, the reader knows the truth of the situation, and God has the final word. That’s a picture of the way life is for all of us. There is an objective truth about who we are and why we react the way we do. God, more than anyone, knows what’s going on. He will have the final word about us and our lives. We can either accept the truth and deal with it or we can keep on denying it.

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

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Abraham Our Father

For the week of November 12, 2016 / 11 Heshvan 5777

Abraham and the stars (woodcut)

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

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And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. (Bereshit/Genesis 15:6)

Against the backdrop of the dismal failure of the grand, but misguided, attempt at building the city and tower of Babel is the introduction of one of the most influential persons to have ever lived. Novice readers of the Bible might be surprised to learn that not much is known about Abraham. But the Bible isn’t a biography or a collection of biographies. There is certainly biographical material in it, but in most cases not enough to paint a full picture of any of its characters. Yet, what is written is sufficient for the purpose of Holy Scripture: that readers could truly know God and live effective godly lives.

This is certainly true of the glimpses we have into the person and life of Abraham. For in him we encounter the basic model of a person of faith. And faith is the single most important component of true godliness. Without it, it is impossible to please God (see Hebrews 11:6). It was Abraham’s trust in God’s promise that put him into right relationship with God as we read: “he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:6).

God told this elderly, childless man that he would have innumerable descendants, and Abraham believed him. In that moment, this one man confronted everything that had ever gone wrong in the world. Adam and Eve unleashed God’s curse upon the world, because they didn’t trust his word; Abraham opened the door to blessing for all nations, because he embraced it. Years before God called Abraham to leave family and the familiar to go to an unknown land with an unknown agenda. This set the stage for God’s grand promise that his life would yet be extraordinarily fruitful. Contrary to normal expectations, Abraham’s affirmative heart’s response to God’s astounding promise set him apart as the father of all who walk in the restorative blessing of faith (see Galatians 3:7).

We shouldn’t be surprised when faith puts us at odds with the prevailing culture. Faith cuts through politically correct groupthink to rescue the broken and the lost. Those who prefer to remain in the grips of the curse will complain that the truths of faith upset their world, which of course it must do in order to break through the darkness of deception that is oppressing the masses.

Faith can’t be faked. You are either a child of Abraham or not. You can try to pretend, but in the end, your true identity will be apparent for all to see. Faith can get confused, however. You can find yourself conflicted as you struggle to hear God’s voice amidst the clamor all around us. But faithful ones know the voice of God and can never completely escape its veracity. People of faith may not always like what they hear God say, but they know it’s true. That’s why they can be so unsettled until they give in to its promptings. It’s why they never fully fit in with the crowd, no matter how much they try.

But why would we want to? What’s the benefit? Acceptance? Popularity? What will these things get us over time? And at what cost? Do you really want to spend your whole life being manipulated by society’s ever-changing expectations? Wouldn’t you rather be a source of positive change in the world, bringing the blessing of life wherever God may want you to go? Yes, it can hard at times. Abraham’s kids get lonely, are easily misunderstood, and suffer for our convictions. But it’s worth it.

It all starts by getting our eyes off ourselves and, like Abraham, looking up toward the heavens. God is waiting for you. He wants to tell you how you, like our father Abraham, are called to be a blessing to the world. Get ready. It’ll take a miracle. But you can trust him.

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

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Intelligence

For the week of November 5, 2016 / 4 Heshvan 5777

artificial intelligence, communication and futuristic

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

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And the LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:6)

Seven years ago when I commented on this same verse, I referenced a radio interview by futurist and inventor Raymond Kurzweil, who I had recently heard in a radio interview for the first time. One of his main points back then was the exponential increase of computer power and decrease of size and cost. “The computer I used as a student,” he said, “took up half a building; the computer I carry in my pocket today is a million times cheaper and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion-fold increase.” It appears that this interview is no longer available, but there no lack of other information about Kurzweil and his ideas online, including one from January this year that picks up on his thoughts on biotechnology.

Kurzweil believes that we will soon have computers the size of our cells that will be able to heal disease and solve all human problems. What appears to be the basis of his claim is not so much the technology itself, but human intelligence, He says, “Intelligence is the only thing that enables us to solve problems.” He continues, “The only way we’re going to overcome disease and aging and poverty and environmental degradation is through greater intelligence.” Really? This is the same misnomer that the people building Babel believed. Technology is a tool, or more correctly, a collection of tools, whether it be bricks and mortar or microprocessors. While the nature and functionality of each are considerably different, they are the result of human intelligence. But will it be intelligence that solves our problems?

We learn from the story of Babel that human intelligence is not necessarily defaulted to moral goodness. Intelligence can be used equally for noble or nefarious goals. Like the results of intelligence, intelligence itself is a tool that needs to be wielded correctly in order to serve the purposes of good.

Given where we are in history I am surprised Kurzweil’s utopian dream isn’t readily denounced as naïve. How soon we forget that it has only been about seventy years since one of the most intelligent countries in history used the advanced technologies of its day to degrade, dehumanize, and exterminate millions of people. What is Kurzweil’s basis for optimism? Babel teaches us that without God, we are the means of our own destruction. And is it not already happening as we fall deeper and deeper into a culture of death through abortion, assisted suicide, ubiquitous pornography, and the de-legitimization of the traditional family?

The confusion of the languages in the time of Babel must have seemed like a disaster to those involved, but it was actually an act of God’s grace to save us from our own intelligence. With the advances in technology the past few decades, perhaps it’s time for God to throw another wrench into the works before it’s too late.

Please don’t take any of this as being anti-intellectual. Human intelligence is a gift of God and should be developed to its full potential. But it’s not our savior. It’s only as we submit our capabilities, including our intelligence, to God and his ways, beginning by trusting in Yeshua as Messiah, that our technological advances will be the blessing they should be.

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

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Can God Have a Son?

For the week of October 29, 2016 / 27 Tishri 5777

Proverbs 30:4

Bereshit
Torah:  Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:26)

I didn’t know what was in store for me that day. I was sitting in the living room of a friend’s house, attempting some small talk with a new acquaintance. I was trying to recover from being told by this fellow Jewish young person that he “preached the word of the Lord.” I don’t know if I had said anything in response before he continued to describe the basics of his beliefs: the Bible was the Word of God; God had a son; and Yeshua was the Messiah (though he used the common English appellation, “Jesus”) – three things I certainly didn’t believe. To my surprise he made compelling arguments for all three of his assertions, one of which I want to focus on this week.

I was no theological expert, but I knew, being Jewish, that God could not have a son. So it was quite a surprise to me to see the twenty-sixth verse of the first book of Moses quoted above. “Let us make man in our image”? What’s with the plural? Who is “us”? Is it the angels? Not likely, since according to Scripture only human beings are made in God’s image. It’s certainly not the animals. Could it be a majestic plural in the way royalty might say, “We are not amused!” Possibly, but that isn’t normal word usage for God in the Bible. It does occur in three other places. Two chapters later, after our first parents’ disobedience: “Then the LORD God said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil.’” (Bereshit/Genesis 3:22). This could be a reference to other heavenly beings, if creatures such as angels know good and evil in the way spoken of here. Later, in response to the attempted building of the city and tower of Babel, it is clearly possible that God is calling for his angelic servants to join him in upsetting the people’s misguided plans: “Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:7). The same sort of heavenly company might be in view when God calls out an open invitation in the hearing of the prophet Isaiah: “And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isaiah 6:8). But the possible explanations for the use of the plural in these other examples don’t seem to apply to the first one.

Of course, the use of “let us” by itself doesn’t prove much, let alone that God has a son. But I learned that day that this isn’t the only verse in the Hebrew Bible that implies that there is more to God than what I was led to believe growing up. In the second Psalm, we read “I will tell of the decree: The LORD said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you” (Tehillim/Psalm 2:7). While this may be a song about David, Solomon, or another ancient King of Israel, the grand language more likely is referring to the Messiah. In either case, “Son” here could be a way of referring to Messiah’s special role under God, but note that the Scripture isn’t avoiding sonship language in the way I and many in my Jewish community were inoculated against. This is similar to God’s word to David in a passage that likely applies to both his own son Solomon and to King Messiah much later on: “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14). Is this simply speaking of role or something much more intimate?

One passage that really got my attention was from the Book of Proverbs, chapter 30, verse 4. The way it was presented added to the drama of the moment. The verse is a series of four rhetorical questions, followed by a final question and a statement. The four rhetorical questions were read to me, while the remainder of the verse was covered up for effect:

Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
   Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
   Who has established all the ends of the earth?

I was then asked, “Who?” To which I replied, “God.” Easy answer. Then the rest of the verse was uncovered:

What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
   Surely you know!

I didn’t know, but I was soon to find out!

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

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Tangibles

For the week of October 22, 2016 / 20 Tishri 5777

The four species

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

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And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days. (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40)

This week’s readings occur during the Festival of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles or Booths). Sukkot is a week-long thanksgiving holiday that commemorates Israel’s forty-year wilderness wanderings. It is fitting that God chose to connect gratitude with dependency. No matter how prosperous or secure we would be, every year we were to take time to remember what it was like when we were completely dependent upon God. This helped to reinforce the essential truth that whatever we have ultimately comes from God. During the wilderness years, that was fairly easy to see. But when we farm our own land or receive our provision via direct deposit, that connection is eclipsed by the many conduits our provision travels through. But if God doesn’t provide the rain and sunshine as well as bless all the various natural and man-made processes along the way, we would have nothing.

The years in the wilderness are vividly brought to mind through living for seven days in temporary shelters called sukkot (one sukkah, many sukkot; hence the name of the festival). The reminiscence of our history is then drawn to the present each year by rejoicing as we hold four specified organic items. The four items according to the Torah are in Hebrew p’ri etz hadar (the fruit of beautiful trees, traditionally an etrog, which looks like a large waxy lemon), kapot t’marim (branches of the palm tree, referred to as a lulav), anaph etz avot (leafy boughs of the myrtle tree), and arvei nahal (willow branches). The myrtle and willow branches are placed in a special holder connected to the lulav and are held together with the etrog. Special blessings are recited while holding the four items.

These items represent God’s blessing and provision in the present. What is instructive for us is that our gratitude, while being a spiritual activity directed to God, is based on that which is tangible. In the case of the ritual, it is a fruit and branches of various trees, but they represent the abundance of good bestowed upon us.

For many, spiritual activities are detached from the physical world in which we live – a world too confusing to be acknowledged in this way. The presence of hardship and suffering might cloud our understanding of God, preferring to keep him alienated from our broken world, or perhaps we are unable to associate material pleasures with God’s goodness due to our perception of the divine. Because of either of these or both, we tend to detach our spirituality from the real world, the world which God himself created and purposely placed us in.

Sukkot reconnects us to the tangibles of God’s provision. Instead of attempting to solely focus on abstract notions such as love, forgiveness, and goodness (which are also part of the real world God made), holding actual things gives us the opportunity to realize that the attributes of the intangible God are made known through the tangible items he made and has provided for us.

By holding the four items and rejoicing before the Lord, it is as if we are holding our houses and cars and mobile phones, not to mention our fridges and freezers full of food, or our spouses and children and siblings, or even ourselves, who because of God’s help have lived to see this day.

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

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10-10-10

For the week of October 15, 2016 / 13 Tishri 5777

Clock and magnifying glass on calendar

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

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

At a leadership simulcast a few years ago I heard business writer Suzy Welch describe her “10-10-10” concept. What she shared made a lot of sense. Simply, before making a decision, take a bit of time to think about what may result ten minutes from now, ten months from now, and ten years from now. While this is not the ultimate guarantee of success or the final word on preventing failure or disaster, thinking about implications and potential consequences within concrete timeframes forces us to put our decisions into a real-life context. Imagining how our choices might actually impact our lives in the immediate, near, and distant futures will help us give serious second thought to our plans and allow us to better clarify our needs and desires. And following that, should we be convinced we are indeed on right track, such a process can significantly increase our motivation to pursue our goals.

Sounds pretty straightforward. While there is more to good decision-making than the “10-10-10” concept, why would we not do this or something similar? Moreover, why does this even need to be said? Yet, this simple idea was a New York Times bestseller. Why? My guess: most of us don’t do this. We don’t take the time to think about the implications of our actions. Instead we make decisions based on reactions to circumstances, personal feelings, other people’s agendas, perceived expectations, and so on. Consequences will occur regardless, but we simply don’t take the time to consider them.

This is not a new phenomenon. This is what Moses criticized his people about at the end of his life. God had directed him to sing them a song to impress upon them the inevitability of their eventual unfaithfulness. Israel was doomed to turn their back on God and his ways and give themselves to the worship and practices of foreign gods. One of the reasons, if not the reason for this, is that they were not doing “10-10-10.”

While we suffer from the same near-sightedness as ancient Israel, there are factors bearing down on us today that further restrict our ability to think beyond the now. The contemporary mood of most people is that we are the product of complete randomness. If life didn’t emerge as a result of a purposeful intelligence and no Supreme Being is overseeing the unfolding of history, then the universe has no meaning. There may be some philosophical room for predictable consequences as if the world is nothing more than a sequence of falling dominoes. But if that’s the case, then we are nothing more than passive objects in a meaningless cosmos.

Followers of Yeshua should know better but buy into the current mood anyway, as we are overwhelmed by the pace of our age, the constant clamor of disconnected information, and the growing prevalence of ungodly influences over almost every aspect of society. Some super-spiritualize their copping out by invoking God’s sovereignty as if God desires passivity instead of faithful engagement. Others misapply grace and forgiveness as if God glosses over every action of ours to the point that nothing matters. Whatever the reason, we don’t do “10-10-10”, because we don’t believe it will make a difference.

But our decisions have real consequences and those consequences matter. We live in a truly meaningful universe – one in which God calls us to engage, and engage as thinking beings. We need to take responsibility for our actions, not just after the fact, but beforehand.

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

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Get Real

For the week of October 8, 2016 / 6 Tishri 5777

Time to Get Real cloud word with a blue sky

Va-Yelekh (Shuva)
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 31:1-30
Haftarah: Hosea 14:2-10; Micah 7:18-20; Joel 2:15-17

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And the LORD said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 31:16)

What a horrible Bible verse! Not only is the language over the top, but this has got to be one of the most discouraging statements in all of Scripture. After all Israel had gone through. Having been slaves in Egypt, they were rescued by God’s great power. Over the next forty years he not only took care of them, but revealed his Truth to them as an everlasting legacy. Now, they were on the brink of taking possession of the land promised hundreds of years earlier to Abraham, and God says this to Moses? Sure the great teacher had his ups and downs with the people, but God’s faithfulness had been so evident in spite of everything. That he would enable them to take the land was clear. So then why would he tell Moses that they were going to blow it anyway? Because it was the truth. And this is what makes the Bible so helpful.

The Scriptures have so much to teach us, but without this lesson, we’ll learn nothing. The solutions the Bible offers will make no difference in our lives until we accept its analysis of the problem. And what is that problem? That every human being has been overcome by a tendency toward evil. This is one of the main reasons why the Torah was given to Israel. As we read in the New Covenant Writings:

Moreover, we know that whatever the Torah says, it says to those living within the framework of the Torah, in order that every mouth may be stopped and the whole world be shown to deserve God’s adverse judgment (Romans 3:19; CJB).

While Torah reveals God and his ways, it also vividly demonstrates the depths of our depravity. The more we know what true goodness is, the more we become aware of our moral bankruptcy. Ironically, we are so weak in this area that even though the evidence of this confronts us each and every day, we readily deny it. This is also the case in how Christians have viewed Israel in Scripture as if the Jewish people were cast by God as villains in his story and are eventually rejected by Jesus the hero, who is then joined by a bunch of goody-goody Gentiles.

Talk about missing the point and skewing the true picture! God chose Israel to show the world its desperate need of him. The truth of Israel’s upcoming failure in Moses’ day was given in the hope of creating the kind of humility that’s necessary to allow us to overcome that failure. Until we can accept how needy we really are, we will never escape the trap of our depravity.

Today’s culture denies any notion of human depravity. In fact, the only thing wrong with us it seems is that we have been suppressed. It’s moral and spiritual codes such as the Torah that have been the problem, making us feel guilty and preventing us from giving full expression to our desires. More tragically, however, is that many who claim to adhere to the Bible have bought into this same philosophy as if it’s rules that create bad behavior. We sing about grace and forgiveness ad nauseam in order to put ourselves in an alternate state of consciousness, while we deny the very evil that continues to have its way. Grace and forgiveness through Yeshua is real, but can never be truly experienced until we reckon with the continuing reality of evil in our lives.

There is no better time than the Jewish High Holy Days to accept that we all still blow it. God in his graciousness has made a way through the Messiah so that we can be made right with him in spite of our depravity. It’s time to take a long look in the mirror and get real.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible unless otherwise indicated.

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Live Long and Prosper

For the week of October 1, 2016 / 28 Elul 5776
VulcanSalute01_480

Nizzavim
Torah: Devarim/ Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20
Haftarah: Isaiah 61:10 – 63:9
Originally posted the week of September 12, 2015 / 28 Elul 5775

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The LORD your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the LORD will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, when you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul. (Devarim/ Deuteronomy 30:9-10)

You may recognize the title of this week’s message as the familiar salute of Mr. Spock, the half human/half alien from the widely popular TV and movie series, “Star Trek.” The hand gesture used by the actor, the late Leonard Nimoy was derived from his own Jewish background as used by the cohanim (English: priests) as a blessing in the synagogue. While “live long and prosper” are not exactly the words spoken, they certainly sum up God’s own desire to make his people “abundantly prosperous.”

But what constitutes being abundantly prosperous? What may come to your mind is likely very different from the intention of the Torah here. Perhaps to you prosperity is an economic state whereby no matter how much you need or want, you always have extra. It’s a sense that whatever happens, there is always more financial resources to draw on. The biblical understanding of prosperity is very different. It’s having enough for yourself and those dependent on you, plus a little more to share with those in need (see Proverbs 30:7-9; 1 Timothy 5:8, 6:6-10; Hebrew 13:16).

Biblical prosperity is not about how much stuff you have or the size of your bank balance. You could have an enormous amount of goods and money, but still not really be living well. The prosperity here refers specifically to “the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground.” You could have all the money in the world, but unless living things thrive, both human and animal, and there is sufficient nutritious food to eat, we are not really living. Societies that only focus on self and do not adequately work towards the emergence and thriving of future generations will die. So ultimately prosperity is not about me and what I have, but the blessing of provision for the furthering of God’s creation long-term.

What will it take, then, to “live long and prosper”? Our passage tells us, “When you obey the voice of the LORD your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law (Torah), when you turn to the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul.” It’s tragic that there is so much misunderstanding regarding a command such as this. For some it is clouded by humanly derived traditions that add or replace God’s expressed intentions. Others confuse godly directives with a misguided system that bases God’s acceptance on performance. The whole Bible understands true godliness as an outcome of sincere trust in God. Those who are truly faithful to him have a heart to obey him in every way. To disregard God’s ways leads to anything but prosperity.

God wants us to live a full and abundant life (see John 10:10). But in order to have the quality of life he desires, we need to embrace his version of what life is really all about. Redefining biblical prosperity along the lines of greed and covetousness undermines the abundance that God has for us. Similarly claiming fairy-dust notions of grace that disregards God’s directives in Scripture may numb the effects of deception for a time, but in the end profits absolutely nothing.

However, if we embrace God’s version of what prosperity actually is and diligently follow his ways as outlined in Scripture, then we will indeed thrive both in this life and in the age to come forever.

Live long and prosper!

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

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Do You Rejoice?

For the week of September 24, 2016 / 21 Elul 5776

A family rejoicing

Ki Tavo
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 60:1-22

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And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you. (Devarim/Deuteronomy 26:11)

In this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion), God through Moses instructs the people with regard to a ritual they were to do after their first harvest following their entering the Promised Land. It involved presenting a portion of their produce to the cohen (English: priest) and recounting some basic history: beginning as a small clan with Jacob migrating to Egypt, they grew into a numerous nation there, eventually becoming enslaved by the Egyptians, but God delivered them, and enabled them to acquire the Land. The bringing of a portion of their produce was to be a “simcha” – a joyful celebration: “And you shall rejoice in all the good that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you” (Deuteronomy/Devarim 26:11).

Everyone was to celebrate “in all the good” God provided them. But in order to do that, they had to take notice of it and to do so within the context of their history. They were to remember where they came from, how they got to where they were, acknowledge what God has provided for them, and that what he had provided was good.

When was the last time you did that? I am asking myself the same question. It doesn’t help that the prevailing culture works against rejoicing in all the good God has given to us. How can we celebrate his provision when we are constantly told we don’t have enough? Many, if not most, of us are heavily in debt. So we don’t even have a sense that what we have is truly ours. And of what we do have, it is deemed obsolete almost before we get it out of the box as the next new thing is being paraded before our eyes.

Note that the instruction to rejoice is community oriented. Each person was to celebrate the good God provided to “to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” But how many of us feel any connection to community these days? Each individual is viewed as an isolated consumer, not a member of a community. The reference to “house” here means “household,” which is much more than a collection of persons living under the same roof. God intended that the prosperity of the community was to be the prosperity of the individual and vice versa. But today, even members of the same family lack connection with each other as they pursue not much more than their own personal interests. The profound selfishness that marks the current age cannot provide an environment of rejoicing. Fun, excitement, and pleasure at times perhaps – but not gratitude. We have forgotten where we came from. We have lost a sense that life is bigger than just me. And the only thing that matters is what I am getting for myself in the moment and it’s never enough.

Learning to rejoice for some of us is going to take some hard work. It requires stopping to think about where we have come from, what God has done for us, and what good things he has provided. It means forcing ourselves to stop yearning after the futile pursuit of the so-called latest and greatest. Then, we need to learn how to reconnect with others. Maybe gather some like-minded people and share your stories of gratitude with each other. It’s better if these stories would be shared experiences, but you might have trouble finding such people. So start with this; hopefully it’ll be the first of many to come. Then rejoice in whatever way you can: sing, shout, dance, applaud – but don’t keep it in. It’s not rejoicing until you let it out.

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

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Differences Count

For the week of September 17, 2016 / 14 Elul 5776

Multicultural characters on planet earth

Ki Teze
Torah: Devarim/Deuteronomy 21:10 – 25:19
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1-10

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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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