Speak Forth!

For the week of May 29, 2021 / 18 Sivan 5781

Silhouette of a man speaking to an outdoor crowd

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

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Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them! (B’midbar/Numbers 11:29)

This past Sunday in the Western Christian tradition, Pentecost Sunday was observed (June 20 this year according to the Eastern tradition). The term “Pentecost,” is derived from the Greek word for fifty. It refers to the Jewish festival of Shavuot, meaning weeks. Shavuot takes place seven weeks and one day (fifty days) after Passover. Pentecost Sunday commemorates the outpouring of the Ruach HaKodesh (the Holy Spirit) upon the followers of Yeshua in Jerusalem on the first Shavuot after Yeshua’s death and resurrection at Passover time.

Following the crowd’s reaction to the goings on of the disciples, Peter appropriately explained this phenomenon in terms of the promise of God spoken through the prophet Joel:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy (Acts 2:17-18; quoting Joel 3:1-2; [English: 2:28-29]).

Before I tie this in with this week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading), I need to clarify the essence of the phenomenon that occurred on this special Shavuot. Most readers would understandably focus on the speaking in other tongues, meaning languages. The nature of this and its contemporary use is a subject of much controversy. But for our purposes, I want to point out what the people were hearing rather than how they were hearing it. I am not saying that the how isn’t important; it’s that I would like us to focus on the what. Yes, the crowd was amazed to be hearing what they were hearing in their own language, but what were they hearing? According to verse ten of Acts, chapter two, they were hearing the Yeshua followers speaking forth, “the mighty works of God.”

If we could get over the theological conundrum over tongues speaking, we can see that what they were doing was what the Bible calls prophesying. This is why Peter referenced the promise from Joel about all types of people prophesying. And that is the tie-in between Pentecost and this week’s parsha.

The people’s complaining had gotten to Moses to the point that he wanted to die (11:15). God’s response was to have Moses gather seventy elders, so that they could help Moses bear the responsibility of the people. To equip them to do this effectively, God said he would take some of the Spirit that was on Moses and give it to these seventy elders. This indicates that Moses’ ability to lead had been imparted by God. The seventy would be similarly endowed with the power of God through his Spirit.

Note how these men reacted to the impartation of God’s Spirit: they prophesied (11:25). What form that took, we don’t know. But it is possible that they, like the Yeshua followers on Shavuot, spoke forth the mighty works of God. One could say this is a foretaste of Pentecost, but there’s more.

As it turned out, two of the seventy didn’t show up for the official impartation. For some reason they stayed with the rest of the camp. Despite their not being with the others, they prophesied anyway. This concerned Moses’ assistant, Joshua, who brought it to Moses’ attention in order to put a stop to this. But this didn’t bother Moses. In fact, his response was “Would that all the LORD’s people were prophets, that the LORD would put his Spirit on them!” (11:29). That’s the tie-in!

You may be aware that when Paul addressed the controversy of “tongues” with the believing community at Corinth, while the context was different from that of Moses, he expressed a similar sentiment. After Paul anchors his discussion on “spiritual gifts” in the centrality of love (1 Corinthians 13), he writes: “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (14:1). He then affirms speaking in tongues, while stressing the great importance of prophecy by stating, “Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy” (14:5).

It’s as if Moses’ heart resonated with God’s own, a desire that all his people would prophesy. Yeshua’s heavenly reception due to his death and resurrection resulted in God infusing his Spirit in his people to enable us to be conduits of his word. Whatever else followers of Yeshua are called to do, it stems from our foundational prophetic calling. The world needs to hear us speak forth the mighty acts of God.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV)

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Are You Agitated?

For the week of May 22, 2021 / 11 Sivan 5781

Man with confused thoughts

Naso
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 13:2-25
Originally posted the week of June 3, 2017 / 9 Sivan 5777

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And the woman bore a son and called his name Samson. And the young man grew, and the LORD blessed him. And the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him in Mahaneh-dan, between Zorah and Eshtaol. (Shoftim/Judges 13:24-25)

The story of Samson (Hebrew: Shimshon) is a troubling one. Clearly he is especially chosen by God to make a positive difference in his day, but on a personal level, he is pretty much dysfunctional. For some Bible readers this is problematic. But I think that’s because we tend to have difficulty accepting that God might use a person of questionable character. Yet the Bible demonstrates how God uses both good and bad people to accomplish his purposes. That he uses someone in no way validates them. It is reasonable to assume that God would have preferred Samson be of much more noble character, but it should be comforting to know that a person’s irresponsible behavior can’t undermine God’s purposes (at least not in the long run). We are not looking at Samson this week to derive life lessons on virtue. Instead, we will focus on an aspect of how to discern God’s will in spite of Samson’s character.

Before Samson began to live out his God-given call, we read in our Haftarah (supplemental Scripture reading): “the Spirit of the LORD began to stir him” (Shoftim/Judges 13:5). The Hebrew word translated “stir” is “pa-am” and conveys the idea of being troubled. It’s how Pharaoh, King of Egypt, and Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, were feeling after their hard-to-understand dreams (see Bereshit/Genesis 41:8 & Daniel 2:1-2). In Samson’s case, it wasn’t dreams that made him feel that way, but God. My guess is that the Bible translators resisted using more negative-sounding words, such as “troubled” or “anxious,” since God was the cause. But even though “stir” sounds more positive (or at least not negative) the result is similar. God caused Samson to experience some sort of internal agitation. How the biblical narrator understood the source of the agitation to be God, we don’t know. Regardless, we are to understand that it was this stirring that moved Samson to engage the oppressive situation Israel was under at that time.

I wonder if it is possible to misunderstand the stirring of the Lord in our lives. Could it be that there are people who right now are experiencing agitation from God and don’t know that it is from him? We may find ourselves sad, frustrated, angry, disappointed, or anxious. But because these are deemed to be negative emotions, we try to get rid of them, thinking that trusting God means to always be joyful and at peace. Others may not be so quick to be free of such feelings, but instead of responding to God’s promptings, act them out in personally and relationally destructive ways.

As in Samson’s day, there is much in our world that should trouble us. Yeshua taught his followers to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10). This means that the way things are is not the way they should be. It is not God’s will that we simply accept evil. One day, all evil will be eradicated, but until then, we must pray that God does something about it. When he answers those prayers, it is often through the efforts of people like you and me. And the first thing those people experience is stirring.

Are you being stirred? While some people are very sensitive to the ills of life and seem to be burdened by all sorts of things, most folks appear to be oblivious as they are only concerned about their own existence. But perhaps there is more going on in the hearts of people than we realize. What would happen if we stopped and took inventory of what agitates us. What would we find? While some agitation is due to our own selfishness and lack of faith, it could be that we are being stirred by God to do something.

When we find ourselves upset over issues that are truly wrong from God’s perspective, we may discover that he is the source of our agitation. To resist his agitation, is to resist what he wants to do through you. But if God is our agitation source, then it’s time to seek him as to what he would have us do about it.

All scriptures, English Standard Version (ESV)

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Israel Will Flourish

For the week of May 15, 2021 / 4 Sivan 5781

Fresh fruit stall in the old city of Jerusalem

B’midbar
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
Haftarah: Hosea 2:1-22 (English: 1:10-2:20)
Originally posted the week of May 27, 2017 / 2 Sivan 5777

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Yet the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea, which cannot be measured or numbered. And in the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it shall be said to them, “Children of the living God.” (Hosea 2:1 [English 1:10])

This week’s parsha is the first of the fourth book of the Torah. The Hebrew title, “B’midbar” (“In the Wilderness”) is taken from the first sentence of the book, and aptly describes much of its overall content as we read about Israel’s journey through the wilderness. The English title, “Numbers,” is a translation of the Greek title “Arithmoi” and is due to the long description of Moses’s census of the people. The choosing of the accompanying Haftarah reading from the prophet Hosea is likely because of its reference to “the number of the children of Israel” I quoted at the start.

Paul’s quoting this passage in his letter to the Romans is often misunderstood. Tragically, he tends to be misrepresented regarding his understanding of God’s relationship to the Jewish people in the New Covenant era. This Hosea passage is quoted by Paul early in the section of Romans where he discusses that very issue (see Romans 9-11). It is most likely there were non-Jewish believers in Rome who had deduced that God had rejected the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob due to the combination of a significant amount of Jewish people who were antagonistic to Yeshua’s messianic claim and the openness to Yeshua on the part of a number of Gentiles (non-Jews). But Paul states that the rejection conclusion is both ignorant (see Romans 11:25) and arrogant (see Romans 11:18). God’s faithfulness to Israel was always and continues to be based on his unchanging, unconditional promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The current situation, however perceived, in no way undermines that.

However, there are two places in Romans that can appear to support the rejection scenario. The first is 2:17-29. This is where Paul defines what constitutes a genuine Jewish person. But contrary to the conclusions of some, he is not establishing a notion of the “spiritual Jew” in contrast to Jews by natural descent. Rather, he is emphasizing that the matters of the heart are more important than external forms. This is in keeping with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures and the teaching of Yeshua that religious rituals, while having their place, are not that which express true godliness. What really counts is (in no particular order) faith, love, mercy, truth, humility, justice, and so on. Yet people, not just Jewish people, have always tended to focus on externals. Paul is not claiming that Gentile believers are the real Jews, while the natural ones are not.

Romans chapter nine, where he quotes our Haftarah, also tends to be misunderstood. To conclude Paul means anything but that God has not rejected natural Israel completely ignores God’s message through Hosea. God called Hosea to graphically illustrate God’s love for Israel by having him marry an unfaithful woman. Hosea’s heartbreak over his wayward wife is likened to God’s own yearning for his people. By Hosea’s referring to “the number of the children of Israel shall be like the sand of the sea,” God confirms his promise made to Abraham (see Bereshit/Genesis 22:17). And by quoting Hosea, Paul is doing the exact same thing. That Gentiles who have put their faith in the Jewish Messiah are accepted as God’s children too, does not negate God’s faithfulness to Israel.

We need to remember that the purpose of God’s promise to Abraham and his natural descendants through Isaac and Jacob was to bless the nations (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3), which, according to Paul, is the very essence of the Gospel (see Galatians 3:8). The inclusive nature of the New Covenant in Yeshua is not an abrogation of his particular purposes regarding Israel.

To use New Covenant inclusiveness to redefine Israel as the generic community of believers is to negate God’s commitment to the forefathers. Undermining his faithfulness to natural Israel defames his character and puts the onus of his acceptance on human performance rather than on his mercy and grace.

But if we listen carefully to God’s reaffirmation of his promise to Israel through Hosea and Paul, then we have grounds for hope. That Israel will flourish in spite of the common human tendency shared with the rest of the world to wander from God encourages us to trust God in the midst of every challenge we might face.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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Remember the Land

For the week of May 8, 2021 / 26 Iyar 5781

Hula Valley, Northern Israel

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

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But if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their fathers in their treachery that they committed against me, and also in walking contrary to me, so that I walked contrary to them and brought them into the land of their enemies—if then their uncircumcised heart is humbled and they make amends for their iniquity, then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham, and I will remember the land. (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:40-42)

This week’s parsha includes one of the Torah sections outlining the results of either living according to God’s directives or not (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:14-43). Included here is God’s promise of restorationif and when Israel repents after a time of spurning him. The restoration of wayward Israel is a core theme in the Books of the Prophets. While according to this and other similar sections of Torah, restoration is contingent upon repentance, the prophets envision a guaranteed restoration (e.g. Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 37:11-14), something that the New Covenant Writings affirm (see Romans 11:16-27). Based on a holistic view of Scripture we can be certain that the promised restoration will be precipitated by the necessary repentance.

The anticipation of restoration is deeply rooted in God’s covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But notice that they are, perhaps for the only time, listed in reverse order: “then I will remember my covenant with Jacob, and I will remember my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham.” This emphasizes the depths of God’s commitment to Israel. The reverse order underscores that the commitment of God to Abraham was an inheritance. Something real and eternal was established with and to Abraham and confirmed within his family line specifically through Isaac and then Jacob. The future behavior of their descendants can in no way undermine the everlasting nature of God’s promise to the nation. How each individual may or may not benefit from their inheritance is one thing, which in no way effects the promise itself.

This passage tells us that there is more going on than a commitment to a people. God also said through Moses that he would “remember the land.” The anticipated repentance of Israel doesn’t only evoke God’s covenantal commitment to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but realigns the people of Israel with God’s purposes for the land of Israel.

God’s promise to Abraham included the land. As he continued to wait upon God for further developments, which included the creation of a nation derived from him and Sarah despite their old age, the land continued to be part and parcel of the overall promise. The unconditional nature of God’s covenant with him always included the land (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:17-21).

The tendency of many Bible adherents to emphasize the so-called spiritual aspects of scripture over and against the earthly ones undermines the effectiveness of scripture in instructing us for living life. The Bible’s understanding of the world is a wonderfully integrated mix of the seen and unseen elements of life. The creation is the realm in which we were meant to live. Israel is chosen by God to reflect the importance of living life according to the purposes and ways of God.

Human beings spend too much time attempting to resolve environmental and political problems through technology and the manipulation of behavior. We think we can fix our problems directly by confronting them with our own ingenuity. The story of Israel in the Bible us reminds, however, that the key to creation restoration is by way of humble submission to the Creator.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version

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