The Relational Dynamic

For the week of June 2, 2018 / 19 Sivan 5778

Angel-looking large cloud over baseball field

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

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At the command of the LORD they camped, and at the command of the LORD they set out. (B’midbar/Numbers 9:23)

There are so many misconceptions about the nature of God in the Old Testament. So much so that from the early days of what became Christianity, there have been attempts to separate New Covenant faith from its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. Most typical is the angry vs. the loving God as if Moses and Yeshua were representing two completely different deities. While few Bible believers would make such an explicit claim, this misrepresentation of Holy Scripture has saturated the minds of many, creating a default suspicion towards the older Testament.

One of the areas that tends to be misrepresented is what I call the relational dynamic. There’s a tendency to overstate the contrast between the times before and after the coming of the Messiah regarding how people personally related to God. There is a contrast for sure. God’s heart for Israel was to dwell among them. This was what the ceremonial aspects of Torah were all about. In a sense God’s presence was located within the inner sanctum of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and later the Temple. Yet, at the same time, he was not fully accessible to the masses. This was designed to vividly illustrate to the people their alienation from God in the hope that they would be ready for the time when this alienation would be resolved through the Messiah.

However, it wasn’t as if their distanced condition necessarily implied lack of meaningful relationship to God. Not only was the unconditional covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob a clear statement of God’s ongoing commitment to Israel, acting as a firm foundation in spite of their condition, he revealed himself and his ways to the people through Moses. But doesn’t this also emphasize their alienation from God? Yes and no. Yes, God did anticipate a time when his communication with his people would be more personal and direct, but no, in that whether direct or not, God truly and personally revealed himself to them albeit through an intermediary.

Interestingly Moses’ intermediate role in the time prior to the Messiah was not absolute. Take the phenomenon of the cloud in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion). If Moses was an absolute intermediary, he would be the exclusive receptor of God’s revelation, who then would relay his intentions to the people. While he did fulfill that role to a great extent, the cloud was something that everyone would see. The people didn’t have to wait for Moses to give the word as to when they were to break camp and where their next destination would be. The whole nation would be witnesses to God’s direct leading.

That it was never God’s intention to speak through Moses exclusively is demonstrated all through the Hebrew Scriptures as we see God appearing and speaking to all sorts of people. David, for example, who loved God’s written Word, didn’t believe for a minute that knowing his Creator and Master was wrapped up only within Scripture as he lived out a vibrant intimacy with him. The Scripture taught him that there was a relational dynamic.

This relational dynamic, so clearly attested to by the Hebrew Bible, is amplified under the New Covenant. We recently observed the harvest festival of Shavuot (English: Weeks, aka Pentecost), the anniversary of the fulfillment of the words of the Hebrew prophet Joel, who predicted a far more intimate and general awareness of God’s presence among his people (see Acts 2:1-21; compare Joel 3:1-5 [English: 2:28-32]).

Sadly, many believers have been misled to believe that with the completion of the whole Bible, God is less present with us than even in Moses’ day. They assert that we are to rely solely on the objective testimony of the ancients as the way to know the God of Israel. We speak of “personal relationship” with God and reject anyone who claims to know him in ways reflective of Scripture.

It doesn’t help that some who make such relational claims are misguided due to their rejecting of God’s Word. As the Spirit illumines Scripture, Scripture enables us to discern the Spirit. Unless we keep within the Bible’s parameters, we have no way of knowing the difference between God’s direction and that of our own thoughts and feelings.

It’s only when we keep within the parameters of Scripture we learn that while God has provided general directions for every aspect of life, the only way to truly and effectively live out his directions is by personally relying on him. It’s not as if God speaks only in generalities, leaving it up to us to figure out life’s details. Rather, he wants us to rely on him as he teaches us to intimately follow him day-by-day, moment-by-moment.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Good Wishes

For the week of May 26, 2018 / 12 Sivan 5778

Illustration of positive words emanating from an open hand

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

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The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them, “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.’ So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (B’midbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

My understanding of dominant religious thought during the period of Israel’s wilderness wanderings is that most ancient peoples believed that the gods had to be appeased. Their rituals developed as a way to ensure (in their minds at least) that they might be able to keep their health, remain safe, and that their crops would grow. The underlying concept driving them was that spiritual forces were, for the most part, out to get them. Fear of harm and/or disaster kept them in line.

Regrettably many people think of the “Old Testament” in similar terms as if the sacrifices, for example, served a similar purpose. After all, didn’t God through Moses and the prophets clearly warn the people that if they didn’t abide by the rules, they would be in big trouble? This misconception is further tainted by the supposed contrast between the testaments, where the New Testament features a much nicer deity who so loves us that he is blind to our misdeeds.

Perhaps you never noticed that the Torah sacrificial system doesn’t contain the notion of appeasement. The people were severely warned of disaster, but only when the essence of their lives became defined as contrary to God’s ways. The consequences of ignoring God’s directives were not a result of ticking off God, but of ignoring life’s design, which God had graciously revealed to them. Sacrifice was far more an expression of an already established relationship with God than an attempt to draw his favor. In fact, engaging the sacrificial system as a means to make up for the kind of appropriate heart attitude which bears the fruit of a good and righteous life is regarded as extreme hypocrisy.

Far from being negatively predisposed toward his people, God’s heart for Israel was fundamentally positive. Look at the blessing he gave the cohanim (English: the priests) to speak over the people blessing, protection, and grace. That his face may shine upon us and that his countenance would be lifted upon us, are ways of saying, may God be positively disposed toward us. You may think that if such a blessing was necessary, then these words constitute a wish contrary to God’s normal posture. It’s as if my wishing that God might do good to you necessarily means his intentions toward you are bad. But that’s not it at all! Who gave these words to the cohanim to speak in the first place? This blessing is the way God was putting his name upon the people. To know him, was to also know that God truly wished them well.

God is not out to get you. He is not out to get anyone. That doesn’t mean that he is a simplistic “nicey nice” God. (I couldn’t think of a more technical term). Some of the same folks who skew the Hebrew Scriptures by mischaracterizing the God of Israel as an angry, vengeful dictator, do similarly with the New Covenant writings as they misrepresent him as a doting grandmother (no offense to doting grandmothers). An intelligent reading of the whole Bible reveals a great consistency in God’s character as someone who wants the absolute best for each and every one of his human creatures, but on his terms, not ours.

To ignore God’s ways is to invite harm to ourselves and those we love. He cares enough about you and me to tell us so. Pretending otherwise is to live an illusion – a fantasy that becomes a nightmare when we take the negative consequences of our lives that are due to our ignoring a loving, all-powerful God and read back into him malintent.

If we are constantly looking over our shoulder wondering when God is going to mess up our lives, we have believed a lie. Again, if we have not dealt with the seriousness of our misdeeds, we will be out of sorts with him. If left unresolved, we will find ourselves on a permanent road to destruction. But even being aware of that prospect is a gift from the One who has gone out of his way to bring us back from the brink.

God wishes us well. God wants to bless us. It’s time we stopped missing out on the abundant life he yearns to give us and receive the blessings he desires to speak over us.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Climate Change

For the week of May 12, 2018 / 27 Iyar 5778

Climate chance concept image

Behar & Bechukotai
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
Haftarah: Jeremiah 16:19 – 17:14

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If you walk in my statutes and observe my commandments and do them, then I will give you your rains in their season, and the land shall yield its increase, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:3-4)

There are few issues today that capture people’s attention as much as climate change. Climate change is far more than whether the global climate is significantly changing. It’s the great concern over its apparently inevitable devastating effects and that human beings are its chief cause. For many the climate apocalypse has taken the place of the threat of nuclear war as the world’s biggest fear. Destructive storms, unstoppable fires, and coastal flooding are lurking just around the corner.

There was a time that talking about the weather was considered polite small talk. Now it’s the stuff of international summits and overarching government policies. According to many leaders unless we drastically decrease our consumption of fossil fuels immediately, the world as we know it will no longer exist. It might even be too late.

The Torah includes insights to help us effectively deal with this issue. First, that we should care about the environment is a concern all people should share. This may come as a surprise to some people of biblical faith, especially those who mistakenly detach things spiritual from things material. God placed human beings on earth as caretakers of the planet, a responsibility never rescinded, superseded or redefined. From the Bible’s perspective, the importance of spiritual matters is deeply connected to the material realm. Spirituality in all its expressions, good and bad, is lived out in the physical world, not apart from it or in denial of it.

The Torah is clear that the health of the environment is dependent upon human activity. Some of that is obvious as in those things where our actions have immediate consequences. We have learned to burn wood in our fireplaces and natural gas in our homes in such ways so as to not poison ourselves with fumes. The industrial revolution caused great pollution, and smog was a major health hazard. I wonder how many people are aware of how cites like London and Los Angeles have effectively addressed such problems. Climate change is much more difficult to analyze because we don’t readily observe its effects or what the causes might actually be. The Bible however shares the concern of climate change proponents, though not necessarily what’s fueling it (pun intended).

According to the Bible the prime factor controlling the environment is morality and plays out in two ways. First, cause and effect – not in a way readily observable, but more obvious than we may think. While there are large regions of the world that are very poor, history has never seen the level of affluence many of us take for granted. Who thought even a few years ago, that it would be common for young people to carry (in their back pockets no less) a device worth hundreds of dollars that gets completely replaced every one to two years. The demand for individual convenience, pleasure, and status has resulted in overly excessive consumerism and waste. Yet, tragically, many people of faith refuse to consider greed and selfishness as issues to be concerned about. We produce far more than we need and in such a way that results in mind-boggling waste. Do we really think God will allow us to get away with this forever?

That brings us to the second way morality affects the environment. The Torah is clear that there is more than simply direct cause and effect going on. The well-being of the planet is dependent upon a relational dynamic. The earth belongs to God, and it matters to him whether we live according to his ways. When we do, the environment cooperates; when we don’t, it doesn’t.

I would suspect that many of those so very concerned about climate change would scoff at my tying spirituality and morality to the environment. But that connection may not be as mysterious as some may assume. Can we not see, for example, how sexual liberation, by undermining the traditional family as the basic building block for society, greatly contributes to the ever-increasing production of goods with its accompanying waste? Then we are told that if only there were less people, we would be better off, failing to understand that while humans contribute to the world’s problems, we are still God’s chosen solution. We can only make a short- and long-term positive difference if we live God’s way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Cultural Appropriation

For the week of May 5, 2018 / 20 Iyar 5778

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, & family on an official government trip to India, February 2018

Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, & family
on an official government trip to India, February 2018

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31

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Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:44)

Something we frequently hear about lately is “cultural appropriation,” the concept that it is inappropriate in some, if not all, circumstances to take on foreign cultural forms and expressions. The Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, was taken to task for this very thing on his trip to India earlier this year. When cultural appropriation first came to my attention some time ago, I frankly thought the strong objection to it was a bit strange, not because I don’t understand the concern, but because I am so used to it (sort of).

As a Jewish believer in the Messiah, whose spiritual relationships are mainly among non-Jews, I encounter cultural appropriation constantly. In fact, Christianity is and has always been an exercise in cultural appropriation. Generally, Jews and Christians are not aware of this, however, since most Christian cultural expression wouldn’t be recognized as Jewish. The fact is there is almost nothing within Christianity’s core beliefs that isn’t derived from the Jewish world. Some are more obvious than others. The primary document for Christians is the Bible, both Old and New Testament written almost exclusively by Jews and focused on activities happening to or done by Jewish people. Even as global outreach developed, its development and implementation was in Jewish hands. The God of the Christians is the God of Israel. The religious and theological concepts adhered to by Christians are all Jewish in origin, such as sin, righteousness, sacrifice, and holiness. Then there’s the very center of all core concepts, the Messiah. While the Jewish and Christian worlds have traditionally been divided over the Messiah’s identity, Christianity is founded on the conviction that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Jewish Messiah. Using Greek-oriented instead of Hebrew-oriented terminology obscures the cultural connection. That many Jews and Christians aren’t conscious that Christ and Messiah, for example, are synonyms doesn’t negate the Jewish nature of the messianic concept.

Other key Jewish components of Christianity are not as obvious. Most people don’t realize that baptism was originally a Jewish custom that was done as part of the conversion process as well as when an estranged Jewish person wanted to return to God. The development of the church as the place of community teaching and prayer was based on the synagogue. Communion, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, is taken from Passover. The hope of the resurrection of the body was an exclusively Jewish concept. We could go on.

The early Jewish believers went out of their way to allow the Good News about the Messiah to function freely and fully in a non-Jewish context. Through God-given wisdom they freed the core of biblical faith from Jewish cultural control, allowing the nations to work out the essentials of biblical spirituality within their own contexts. What I don’t think the early believers envisioned is how far from a Jewish frame of reference the Church would go.

Many non-Jewish believers over the past hundred years or so have sought to re-contextualize Christianity within a Jewish frame of reference. Some correctly understand that the freedom to adapt biblical teaching within foreign cultures, while helpful in many ways, can tend to skew biblical truth, especially when cut off from its Jewish roots. At the same time, however, the passion to restore biblical faith to its ancient roots can go overboard. This is where appropriate cultural adaptation can become misappropriation. This happens in two ways: first, by confusing Jewish culture with biblical truth. Not everything that is Jewish is necessarily biblical. Much of Jewish culture found in the world today is recent in origin. While we don’t know the tunes of King David’s psalms, we are fairly certain that they were not anything close to what is thought of as Jewish music today. Similarly, Jewish foods are normally adaptations of local fare throughout the world where Jewish people have lived. Apart from the limits of kosher laws, there is nothing intrinsically biblical about the vast majority of Jewish cuisine.

The second type of misappropriation is in regard to actual biblical material. For example, take the feasts as listed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). It is tragic that this key component of the Books of Moses, like most of the Hebrew Scriptures, has been virtually ignored by Christians. There is so much to learn from the feasts as they teach us about God’s character and activities. Yet it is easy to go from a healthy renewed focus on Scripture to a misguided emphasis on cultural expression. Much of Jewish festival observance today is based on tradition, not Bible. Tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is culturally bound to the people who developed it. People don’t often possess the level of sensitivity necessary to adapt cultural forms. That doesn’t mean it should never be done. Perhaps we need to meaningfully get to truly know the people whose culture it is before we treat it as our own.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version