The Centrality of Israel

For the week of March 30, 2019 / 23 Adar II 5779

Set of old keys with Star of David symbol attached to a wooden door

Shemini & Parah
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47 & B’midbar/Numbers 19:1-22
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38

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And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. (Ezekiel 36:23)

The story of the Bible is the story of God’s rescue operation of the creation. According to the earliest chapters of the Bible, from the moment God cursed the world in response to our first parents’ rebellion, he determined to put a complete end to evil (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:15). Much of the rest of Scripture is the unfolding of that promise. The intricate interplay of the whole Bible is summed up by Paul when he calls God’s promise of blessing to Abraham, the “gospel,” meaning “good news” (Galatians 3:8; cf. Bereshit/Genesis 12:3). The good news is that the curse would be undone through Abraham’s descendants.

Yeshua followers are quick to point out that the realization of the promise to Abraham is wrapped up in the Messiah. That is certainly true. Yeshua’s death and resurrection provide forgiveness and eternal life to all who repent and put their trust in him. However, Yeshua’s part of the story of God, essential as it is, is not the whole story. In fact, we cannot fully appreciate Yeshua and what he has done unless we see him in the context of the whole Bible.

To understand Yeshua in the context of the Bible is to come to grips with the centrality of Israel in the plan of God. To start with, Yeshua isn’t portrayed in Scripture simply as the savior from heaven. He is that, but he is first and foremost the promised Messiah of Israel. He couldn’t be the savior of all if he wasn’t the Jewish Messiah. That’s just the beginning. There’s far more to Israel’s role in God’s rescue plan than Yeshua’s Jewish messianic pedigree.

Tragically, Israel’s role has been obscured by deep-seated prejudice towards the Jewish people through the centuries. Ignoring Paul’s warning to the non-Jewish believers in Rome to not be arrogant towards the Jewish people (see Romans 11:17-24), the church did just that. Paul must have sensed that there was a growing “new kid on the block” mentality emerging from the increasing number of Gentile believers in his day. He knew that the outworking of God’s promise to bless the nations that they were experiencing could easily be misinterpreted as a shift of God’s heart – that Israel was “out” and the Church, its non-Jewish component in particular, was “in.” His olive-tree metaphor in Romans chapter eleven is a masterful three-dimensional picture of the complexity of the multi-ethnic makeup of the New Covenant community of faith. The inclusion of non-Jews into God’s family was not to be regarded as a replacement of his earlier commitment to the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And yet, that’s exactly what happened.

This anti-Jewish lens filters out the fulness of Scripture. Take this week’s Haftarah portion, for example. When you read Ezekiel’s words, do you hear God’s faithfulness to Israel or his disgust? Israel failed to live up to the standard of being God’s holy people as established at Mt. Sinai through Moses (see Shemot/Exodus 19:5-6). But many have failed to understand that Israel was made an example to demonstrate to the world everyone’s need of God. That should evoke awe and gratefulness, not disdain.

Why then does God himself seem to be so negative on Israel? Isn’t that what’s going on in this week’s Haftarah? He says through the prophet Ezekiel: “It is not for your sake that I will act, declares the Lord GOD; let that be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your ways, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 36:32). Words like these may appear to reflect God’s supposed rejection of his ancient covenant people. But keep on reading:

Thus says the Lord GOD: On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will cause the cities to be inhabited, and the waste places shall be rebuilt. And the land that was desolate shall be tilled, instead of being the desolation that it was in the sight of all who passed by. And they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden, and the waste and desolate and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.” Then the nations that are left all around you shall know that I am the LORD; I have rebuilt the ruined places and replanted that which was desolate. I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it. (Ezekiel 36:33-36)

God’s response to Israel’s failure is not rejection but restoration – a restoration that’s not only spiritual but physical as it includes a glorious transformation in their ancient homeland. Any version of God’s rescue operation that fails to include God’s ongoing plans and purposes for the Jewish people misrepresents his mission, his word, and himself.

What God began through the faithful remnant of Jewish followers of Yeshua sent out two thousand years ago will culminate in the renewal of the entire creation. When Israel is finally and fully restored, both the people and the land, the curse over the earth will be completely broken and God’s rule and reign will be established forever. God is not finished with Israel; the best is yet to come.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

The centrality of Israel in the plan of God is so important. On the next edition of TorahBytes Live, Alan Gilman will delve deeper into this too-often-ignored subject. Day & time: Thursday, March 28, 2019 at 2 p.m. Eastern (11 a.m. Pacific). Recorded version will be available immediately following.


The Motions

For the week of March 23, 2019 / 16 Adar II 5779

Blurred people moving in different directions

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36 (English 6:8 – 8:36)
Haftarah: Jeremiah 7:21 – 8:3; 9:22-23 (English 7:21 – 8:3; 9:23-24)

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For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” (Jeremiah 7:22-23)

Why would God make it sound as if he didn’t say something that he so clearly said? Why would he say that he didn’t speak to the people of Israel about sacrifices when so much of the content of his instructions was about just that? The sacrificial system was central to the life of the community and makes up a large percentage of what he revealed to Moses for the nation.

In terms of the chronology of events, it’s true that sacrifice was not the first item on God’s revelatory list for the people, though neither were the words “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people.” Could it be that Jeremiah was referring to an alternate understanding of early Israelite history that doesn’t include the sacrificial system? That’s the sort of thinking I have run into from some scholars. It’s not that I don’t appreciate high-level scholarship – far from it – as I have been so blessed by some people of deep learning. Still, once you allow yourself to become suspicious of the integrity of the biblical text, it’s simple to dismantle it in so many ways. Personally, I don’t have much respect for theories that claim there were all sorts of disparate sources that were eventually sewn together, resulting in the Scriptures we have today. If there are ever found ancient manuscript evidence to back up such claims, I would give such an idea some consideration, but there aren’t.

Sensitive readers of Scripture are able to pick up on God’s intentions found within his Word without resorting to complex theories. The point God is making in this particular example from Jeremiah should be clear. Of course God spoke about sacrifices to his people following the Exodus. The extreme statement that sounds as if God was silent on sacrifices contrasted with his word about obeying him is purposely designed to make a strong point. There’s something about the nature of sacrifice that leads people to confuse their priorities. This tendency is common to all external ritualistic observances. Going through the motions of a ritual or other outward expression without possessing the necessary internal heart attitude is something we can all slip into.

We express words of appreciation for people we don’t appreciate. We give them gifts, not out of love and generosity, but because we feel obliged or want to get something from them. We recite formal or not-so-formal creeds, not as a passionate expression of faith, but to assert membership in the group. And, if you can believe it, we sing worship songs and pray without giving God attention, not to mention the honor, he deserves.

The people of Israel in Jeremiah’s day were simply going through the motions. Even though they were fulfilling God’s expressed requirements, their hearts were so far removed from what they were doing, it was if they weren’t doing it at all. If this is what sacrifice is, then God said nothing about sacrifice in the first place.

Just going through the motions means absolutely nothing to God. This is not to say that every single thing we do in his name must be fully thought out to make sure that every ounce of our being is completely in synch with God’s desired intentions. If we are honest, we all struggle with at least some level of hypocrisy and mixed motive. Yet if we fail to have some genuine heart inclination towards God, our supposed acts of worship are useless or worse.

It’s so easy to get caught up in going through the motions. Genuine heart-felt earnestness becomes distracted by externals when we lose focus. The things that he himself requires can take the place of what he is actually saying when we stop paying attention to his voice.

Thankfully, it’s never too late to change. Once we realize that doing activities that look good and godly, while lacking authentic God-focus, mean nothing to him, then we are in a place to hear again what he is actually calling us to do. He may even direct us back to do the very things we have been doing all along. Only now they will be of a nature that he truly desires.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live (Special Purim Edition)

This year, Purim (the Festival of Esther) begins Wednesday evening, March 20. On the next edition of TorahBytes Live Alan Gilman will tie in some Purim reflections with a follow-up to this week’s message  (The Motions). This special Purim edition of TorahBytes Live will be live streamed Wednesday, March 20 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following.


Rule of Law

For the week of March 16, 2019 / 9 Adar II 5779

Collection of justice symbols: balance, books, gavel

Vayikra & Zakhor
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26 (English 1:1 – 6:7) & D’varim/Deuteronomy 25:17-19
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

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When a leader sins, doing unintentionally any one of all the things that by the commandments of the LORD his God ought not to be done, and realizes his guilt, or the sin which he has committed is made known to him, he shall bring as his offering a goat, a male without blemish and shall lay his hand on the head of the goat and kill it in the place where they kill the burnt offering before the LORD; it is a sin offering. (Vayikra/Leviticus 4:22-24)

It is difficult to overstate the remarkable nature of the Torah. I am not referring to the more sensational parts such as miracles. I am aware that miracles and other references to God, angels, etc. seem farfetched to many, but in its day, to include supernatural stories, whether portrayed as fact or fiction, would have been expected. There are actually other aspects that are far more remarkable given the Torah’s time period’s psychological, religious, relational, economic, and political perspectives within or outside Israelite society. Living in the 21st century and influenced as many of us are by a western way of thinking, we easily miss Scripture’s overwhelmingly astounding insight.

One truly remarkable example of an approach to life and society unheard of then, and increasingly forgotten today, is what is called “the rule of law.” When God gave the Torah to Israel through Moses at Mt. Sinai, he established a new kind of society. The Torah was not to be a mysterious, impossible-to-understand, spiritual text under the control of a religious elite, who exclusively held the interpretive key. While teachers would have their role to play, it was to be accessible to everyone. Not only that, its directives were to be adhered to by all regardless of role or status. Peasants, priests, and royalty were all governed equally by this law. As we see in the quoted passage from this week’s parsha (English: weekly Torah reading portion), leaders, like everyone else, were expected to publicly own up when they did wrong.

Typically, the elite in ancient societies were regarded as having a special in with God or the gods. These societies claimed to be theocratic (i.e. ruled by God), when they were, in fact, aristocratic (meaning, “rule of the best” or so-called best). On the other hand, God established through Torah a system whereby the elites of Israel (the priestly and royal classes) weren’t allotted special privileges. Instead Torah provided objective standards for everyone to live under and to be judged by equally. No exceptions.

The contemporary secular society, which minimizes, if not dismisses altogether, references to religion and divine power, still tends toward aristocracy, as we are ruled by some sort of elite. We may claim to adhere to the rule of law, but whenever politicians and other power brokers conduct themselves by a different standard for whatever reason, be it society’s betterment for the sake of political, economic, or social stability, we are no longer a true democracy under the rule of law.

God’s Torah isn’t an arbitrary set of values and principles imposed on ancient Israel for some highfalutin religious reasons. Apart from certain elements designed for Israel in particular at that time, Torah is the revelation of how life really works. That includes how people and our leaders are to live in relation to the law. Double standards which allow the rich and the powerful to avoid justice will eventually destroy them and the society that bestows on them special status.

A dismal end is not inevitable, however. This same parsha reminds us that when leaders, like anyone else, honestly and publicly confess their wrongs along with the appropriate sacrifice, they will be forgiven. God didn’t expect moral perfection. Instead he made a way to maintain a stable and prosperous society through the possibility of forgiveness. As then, so today, forgiveness is available. If our leaders would come clean about their wrongdoings rather than living by a different standard from everyone else, and accept the Messiah’s sacrifice on their behalf, our cities, regions, and countries would be blessed.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Following up this week’s message, Alan Gilman discusses the place of God’s law (Torah) in our lives today. This edition of TorahBytes Live will be live streamed Thursday, March 14 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time. Recorded version will be available immediately following.


Let Him In

For the week of March 9, 2019 / 2 Adar II 5779

Rays of light through the open white door on orange wall

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 38:21 – 40:38
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 7:40-50

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Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot/Exodus 40:34)

After many chapters containing intricate details of every aspect of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), it was finally finished. It must have been really something for a nation of former slaves to have completed their first building project that was for themselves. It was for God, of course. But it was also, in a very real sense, their own. Located in the center of their community, Israel now had a tangible expression of their unique peoplehood and faith.

However satisfying the Mishkan was or impressive it was to see, nothing can compare to what happened next. The pillar of cloud and fire, which was a physical manifestation of God himself, filled it. In some real way God himself took up residence in his house. The “everywhere” God localized his presence in the midst of the people of Israel.

What would the Mishkan be without God inside it? Since it was built under his direction and according to his instructions, it was a legitimate place of true worship. The cohanim (English: priests), who were responsible for the sacrifices and the maintenance of the inner buildings, and Levi’im (English: Levites), who assisted them, were sanctioned by God through Moses. As long as they were faithful to the Mishkan’s Torah regulations, their activities would be pleasing to God and of benefit to the people. The understanding of God reflected by the Mishkan and its proceedings would proclaim the truth of God, his word, and his people.

So, what difference did his localized presence make?  It might surprise you if I don’t say “everything.” It’s not “everything” due to its legitimacy and the benefits I briefly tried to describe. But it is still a really big difference. The presence of God within the Mishkan allowed the people to go beyond good and true concepts of God to encountering him personally.

This personal dynamic is key to genuinely experiencing God. I wonder how much well-intentioned believers are content with a life that is more akin to the Mishkan without God’s presence. Most things in our lives appear to be in order. We believe the right things. We go through all the right motions. We avoid bad stuff (at least most of the time). But, if we are honest, God remains a concept; there’s no personal dynamic. God is around certainly, but he isn’t right here, not to mention inside us.

I know there’s lots of controversy about what the New Covenant Writings refer to as being filled with the Holy Spirit. Much of that controversy is wrapped up in people’s attempt to explain and formulize the personal dynamic of God’s presence in the life of the believer. Forget the controversy for a second. Is our experience of God supposed to be like the Mishkan without God? The New Covenant refers to us as the Temple of the Holy Spirit both corporately (1 Corinthians 3:16) and individually (1 Corinthians 6:19), because we are to be like the Mishkan with God inside.

If God isn’t in you the way he wants to be, let me offer some suggestions as to why. First, you may not truly believe in Yeshua. You may know that already, you may be lying to yourself, or others have deceived you into thinking that you are a true believer when you are not. If that’s the case, that can easily change right now. Turn from your sin and call out to God in Yeshua’s name. Second, the Bible speaks about grieving (Ephesian 4:30) the Holy Spirit. You may have come to believe in Yeshua, but your lifestyle is creating all sorts of barriers to truly experiencing him the way you should. The solution to that is the same as the first. Stop the bad behavior and turn to Yeshua. Let him direct you from there. Finally, you may have been conditioned against the work of God in your life. The Bible also speaks about quenching the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). You have been taught to be suspicious of emotions, impressions, inklings, voices, and visions – these and other ways that God makes himself known to us personally. This one is more difficult that the other two, since it so insidious. Some people have been taught that many of the things that God is doing in your life is of the devil. Can’t do much about that until you have a major paradigm shift (completely new way of looking at life). Good news though – nothing is impossible for God. He can show you what’s right. But for that to happen, you’re going to have to let him in.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

TorahBytes Live

Watch this week’s edition of TorahBytes Live (broadcast Thursday March 7, 2019 at 2 p.m. Eastern Time). In a follow up to this week’s message, Alan will discuss the importance of the personal dynamic of knowing God.