Wrath Turner

For the week of July 30, 2016 / 24 Tammuz 5776

Knight. Photo in vintage style

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


Watch Your Balance!

For the week of July 23, 2016 / 17 Tammuz 5776

Silhouette of a man walking on the tightrope

Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8 (English: 5:7 – 6:8)

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Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? (Micah 6:7)

We are looking at the Haftarah portion again. As I mentioned last week, the Haftarah is the selection from the Nevi’im (English: the Prophets) section of the Hebrew Scriptures that is read in addition to the weekly Torah portion. Micah asks some rhetorical questions to emphasize a perspective that is foundational to the whole Bible. Even though the Torah devotes much space to the details of the sacrificial system, it was always to be practiced within the wider framework of genuine dedication to God and his ways. Religious ritual whether established by God or by human tradition has always tended to become the focus of attention over and above the more important aspects of God’s truth.

Sacrifice during the days of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and the Temple was mandatory. They were an essential part of Israel’s covenant with God given at Mt. Sinai. But they were never intended as a substitute for humility, justice, and good deeds. This is clearly stated in the verse immediately following the one I quoted at the start:

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:8)

Without this kind of genuine godliness, all the sacrifices in the world are worthless. But if Israel of old would have pursued the quality of life God desired for them, then the offerings of animals, grain, oil, and so on, would have fulfilled their stated purpose in helping to maintain their covenantal relationship with God.

Micah and the other Hebrew prophets so passionately document for us Israel’s failure to grasp this balance. No wonder. The reality of sin, common to all, prevents us from being the type of fully integrated people we were originally designed to be. All throughout history every human community has lacked a healthy balance, most often overemphasizing the lessor important at the expense of the more important aspects of life. Then when confronted with this imbalance, we strive for what was lacking only to neglect the other secondary, but still essential things.

God’s plan to rescue us from this never-ending pendulum is hidden amidst Micah’s rhetorical questions. As he indicts his people for their futile attempts at finding security in their rituals, he blurts out something to the effect of “Could we ever offer enough sacrifices to actually please God? Should I offer him my firstborn child?” The response he was calling for is obviously “Of course not!” But I doubt that his audience, or himself for that matter, caught the irony of his words.

Nothing Israel could ever offer could make up for their lack of integrity, but there was an offering that would. God would himself enter into our dysfunctional mess by generating himself as part of the human family. The offering of Yeshua, the Son of God, would satisfy Torah’s demands once and for all that all who trust in him would be established in an eternal covenantal relationship with God.

But I wonder how many people still fail to really get Micah’s message. Faith in Yeshua is indeed essential to a right relationship with God, but are we forgetting that trusting in his sacrifice is not the whole picture? How many claim to have faith in the Messiah, but forget that God still wants us to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with him? May God grant us the balance we need.

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


You Are Legit

For the week of July 16, 2016 / 10 Tammuz 5776

The word, "legitimate" from a dictionary page

Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Prophets: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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So Jephthah crossed over to the Ammonites to fight against them, and the LORD gave them into his hand. (Shoftim/Judges 11:32)

This week’s Haftarah portion (reading from the Nevi’im [Prophets] section of the Hebrew Scriptures that is read in addition to the weekly Torah portion) is taken from Shoftim (The Book of Judges). That Shoftim is included in the Nevi’im section is due to the way the Hebrew book order works. Shoftim covers a uniquely difficult and confusing time in Israel’s history over about a four-hundred-year period between the days of Joshua and the monarchy instituted by the prophet Shmu-el (Samuel).

The shoftim were not judges in the legal sense. Rather, they were divinely inspired leaders who brought justice to regions of Israeli society as needed. Their personalities and the situations they were called to address were interesting to say the least, sometimes bordering on the bizarre. That these men and one woman (Deborah) were powerfully used by God doesn’t endorse their behavior. But there is something to be learned from the life of the person upon whom our passage focuses, Yiftach (Jephthah).

The stigma under which Yiftach lived is mentioned right from the start: “Now Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior, but he was the son of a prostitute” (Shoftim/Judges 11:1). When he was an adult his half-brothers sent him away. But later on when the neighboring Ammonites were making war against Israel, the elders of his home region called upon him to lead them, which he did successfully. The more tragic events of his leadership that are described following the end of the Haftarah portion didn’t stop the writer of the New Covenant book of Hebrews from listing Yiftach as a hero of faith (see Hebrews 11:32).

The circumstances of Yiftach’s birth did not disqualify him from being a judge. While this doesn’t justify the actions that led to his birth, it does tell us something about how God relates to the result of his parents’ sin. God didn’t consider him as illegitimate. His brothers rejected him. Perhaps others did too. But God did not.

The only reference in the Hebrew Scriptures to such a thing is Devarim/Deuteronomy 23:2, but the issue there has to do with the status within Israel of the product of a mixed marriage, not someone like Yiftach, the product of an illicit relationship. There is one reference in the New Covenant Scriptures when the leadership in Jerusalem is insinuating that Yeshua himself was illegitimate, likely due to the rumors circulating about who his father really was. Their misinformed disdain is common to how many societies have viewed the children of questionable unions.

There is no such thing as an illegitimate child. Every baby ever conceived was created in God’s image. The actions of our parents whoever they are or whatever they did are no reflection of our intrinsic value and our potential as human beings.

You are no accident. You are wanted. You are legit.

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


A Stranger at Home

For the week of July 9, 2016 / 3 Tammuz 5776

Man's hand on door knob, trying to open door

Torah: Bemidbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 11:14 – 12:22

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So the LORD said to Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood.” (Bemidbar/Numbers 18:1)

I want to comment on the effect of having guests in our homes. Some of you will relate to this more than others, but first, I must provide some disclaimers. First, hospitality is a heavenly virtue, which we should all learn to embrace regardless of the outcome. The New Covenant book of Hebrews captures the thrust of the full Bible tradition when it says “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13:2). Second, I prepared this message right in the middle of having a houseful of guests. While I will use an illustration that stems from this current experience, I am holding nothing against the person or persons who may have been involved in the incident below, except to thank them for giving me some fodder for this message!

The day after our guests arrived, I received an email from my Internet provider informing me that my connection had been used to download a movie illegally. I was shocked and appalled that my good online reputation had been sullied by someone whom I so graciously welcomed into my home. Thankfully the film itself was of noble character (believe it or not!), but still. To think that both my Internet Service Provider and the film’s copyright holder now views me as a pirate or worse! (I am only being a little dramatic.)

My wife and I have always enjoyed having people over. In our over thirty-six years of marriage, beginning right from our honeymoon (yes, you heard it right!) we’ve had people in our home for short or long periods of time. Eventually, we learned that when you tell people, “Make yourself at home,” some of them don’t think in terms of our home, but theirs, which can make us feel like strangers in our own home. Something that God feels as well.

Maybe you never thought of this before, but God’s detachment from Planet Earth was not his intention. His plan was to be as at home within the Creation as much as within the heavenly realm. We see this demonstrated in the early chapters of the Bible as he is found to be walking in the Garden of Eden (Bereshit/Genesis 3:8). This doesn’t last too long due to Adam and Eve’s rebellion against him. Not only are they forced out of the Garden because of their sin, but God himself becomes distant as a result. The story of the Bible is one of God’s reclaiming his creation as his own.

You may have been wondering what this has to do with our Torah portion. We tend to think of the purpose of the ancient sacrificial system as providing ritual cleansing to the people of Israel, and it did. But there was another essential aspect we don’t normally give much thought to. It was the cohanim’s (English: the priests’) responsibility to ensure the regular cleansing of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle – the portable tent-like structure that was the precursor to the Temple). The Mishkan in a very real sense represented the presence of God among the people. Sin, which is a term used to describe substandard human behavior, brought defilement to God’s house, thus making it unsuitable for his habitation. The sacrificial system was designed not only to maintain the possibility of God’s presence among the people but also reminds us that sin makes God feel like a stranger in his own home.

The creation was designed to reflect the nature and character of God. But because the human family has insisted on making ourselves at home on our terms, not his, it doesn’t exactly look like his house. He has been pretty patient, however, knocking at the door, waiting to be invited back in as we download whatever we want and move the furniture around to our liking.

Most people don’t realize that God’s desire to reclaim his house and to have lots of his children around to enjoy it with him is so great that he himself has provided the means of restoration. The sacrificial system was a foretaste of God’s own Great Sacrifice through the person of the Messiah. His death and resurrection began a process by which the creation is becoming his own once again and his house will finally look like his home.

In the meantime, hospitality can feel like a sacrifice at times, but when we understand the lengths to which God has gone so that we can be at home in his house, it’s worth it. And most of the time, it’s a wonderful blessing!

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