For the week of July 3, 2021 / 23 Tammuz 5781

The word "teachability" written on a green board

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
Haftarah: Jeremiah 1:1 – 2:3
Originally posted the week of July 7, 2018 / 24 Tammuz 5778

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But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, declares the LORD.” (Jeremiah 1:7-8)

I love to teach about Abraham for many reasons. I’ll get to Jeremiah shortly. Abraham is the biblical exemplar of a person of faith (see Romans 4:16). And with faith so central to having a genuine relationship with God, there is much we can learn from his life. One of the essential lessons we learn from Abraham is that we are never too old to make a positive difference. We don’t meet him until he is seventy-five, well past the normal age for what God called him to: leave family and the familiar for a foreign land and have a baby, the latter not happening until he was one hundred. Abraham is not the only senior citizen that didn’t get going on his God-given mission until later in life. Moses, being the next great example, received his marching orders at eighty.

Unlike our day, old age is highly esteemed in the Bible. We read in Mishlei (English: the book of Proverbs): “Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life” (Mishlei/Proverbs 16:31). The value Scripture places on the elderly may lead some to devalue youth except for its potential. Obviously, there are lessons inaccessible to the young, because they can only be learned through experience over a long period of time.

This is apparently what Jeremiah was thinking when God called him. He disqualifies himself from being God’s spokesperson (that’s what a prophet is) on the basis of his being, in Hebrew, a na-ar, which is a reference to the period of life from infancy through adolescence, pre-adulthood in other words. We can’t determine his exact age, but he was most likely in his latter teens. Even if he was older, it is clear that he saw himself as unable due to his lack of life experience.

From God’s perspective, however, Jeremiah’s experience or lack thereof was irrelevant. Age doesn’t matter, because the God of unlimited resources is the one who equips us to effectively serve him. Because God often calls us unto the impossible, taking personal inventory is not going to encourage us to rise up to the occasion. Does that mean, then, that this is a case of “all of God and nothing of us”? When God enables us to do his bidding, are we no more than empty shells that he animates for his purposes? For him to truly work through us, are we to disengage self and get out of God’s way? Is that what God calls us to do? Is that what he called Jeremiah to do?

Every person’s life, whether acknowledged or not, is completely dependent on God. We wouldn’t be here without him. We wouldn’t survive, much less thrive, without him. That said, are we to be completely passive while he overtakes our person like a body snatcher? Of course not. Obedience to God is accomplished by cooperating with him. He has endowed human beings with all sorts of abilities specially designed to fulfill his purposes on earth. Submitting our abilities to his will allows us to be what he made us to be.

Jeremiah thought he was lacking the necessary experience to be a prophet of God. That he lacked experience is correct. What he didn’t take into account – he may not have been aware of it – was that he did possess a, if not the, foundational qualification: teachability.

God knew that he could teach Jeremiah how to be a prophet during one of the most difficult and confusing times in Israel’s history. His lack of experience likely worked in his favor because the type of message God gave him was so different from the normal prophetic tradition. There was no precedent to tell God’s people to surrender to the enemy as Jeremiah had to do.

The story of Jeremiah may lead you to think that youth are more teachable than the elderly, but that’s not true. Abraham and Moses were two of the most teachable men who have ever lived. In fact, it can take many years of a great variety of life experiences before one finally becomes teachable. As a young person, Jeremiah may actually be an exception. Many young people are know-it-alls. But whether young or old, we will never become what God wants us to be unless we are teachable.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Brand Confusion

For the week of June 26, 2021 / 16 Tammuz 5781

A gavel by a large gold registered trademark symbol

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 22:2 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8 (English 5:7 – 6:8)
Originally posted the week of July 5, 2014 / 7 Tammuz 5774 (revised)

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And Balaam said to Balak, “Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps the LORD will come to meet me, and whatever he shows me I will tell you.” (B’midbar/Numbers 23:3; ESV)

One of the main purposes behind consumer and trademark law is the avoidance of brand confusion. I don’t know what it is like in your part of the world, but where I live the government has regulations in place to prevent individuals and companies from leveraging the popularity of competing brands. When a brand is already well-known and trusted, people more quickly notice it. The laws against trademark infringement are not simply because of ownership issues, but due to a desire on the part of our legislators to protect consumers. For example, Time, the weekly news magazine, is a very well-known brand that has been in existence for almost 100 years. As far as I can tell, more than once, other periodicals have attempted to implement thin red borders on their covers similar to the one used by Time since 1927. Courts have determined that the newer magazines could not use the red border design element because it creates confusion for customers due to an illegitimate association with Time.

The Bible makes a brand claim, so to speak, with regard to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Bible clearly asserts that he is the original God-the one and only Creator, Wonder Worker, Redeemer, and Savior. Among his trademarked products is the universe, including Planet Earth and all its vegetation, animals, and humans. He is the sole inventor, designer and implementer of every physical and spiritual property, known and unknown. Everything everywhere has been brought to you by the God of Israel. All other claims by any other entity, real or false, are guilty of infringement.

However, God doesn’t seem to be interested in applying the principles of consumer law to himself or his products. It’s not that he is okay with infringement. Doesn’t he say, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:27: ESV)? Yet, he has allowed misrepresentation of his name to occur time and time again.

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading portion), is one of the most confusing uses of God’s brand in the whole Bible. King Balak of Moab, a territory in the vicinity of the Promised Land, was so intimidated by the people of Israel that he hired a diviner, by the name of Balaam (Hebrew: Bilam) to curse them. At first glance it seems that Balaam truly represented God. But what really happened was that God didn’t allow Balaam to have his way. His favorable use of God’s name occurred in spite of himself. Later on this same man will cause great damage to Israel through the use of sexual immorality (see B’midbar/Numbers 31).

So while how Balaam spoke about God in this Torah section doesn’t appear to infringe on God’s brand (God saw to that), unless we read Balaam in his full biblical context, we might easily regard his illegitimate methods as acceptable.

Just because something is reported in the Bible doesn’t mean that it is endorsed by God. God did not reveal himself in Scripture in such a way that always makes right or wrong immediately obvious. Unlike our consumer laws, he allows the misuse of his brand. This means that if we don’t take care in how we read the Bible, we will get confused.

Years ago, I took a biblical Hebrew course at Regent College in Vancouver with renowned scholar Dr. Bruce Waltke. I’ll never forget the time he said something to the extent of (this is not a direct quote): “The Bible is a sensitive book for sensitive readers. It doesn’t build walls around itself to protect itself. If people want to abuse it, they can. But for the sensitive reader, it is a book of life.” Dr. Waltke’s comments are insightful. Superficial and selective reading of Scripture can easily result in great misunderstanding. It is relatively simple to misquote and misuse it for your own purposes. But it is its lack of protective barriers that enables God’s written Word to powerfully impact our lives. God purposely allowed the possibility of brand confusion to occur, so that we can know him with a genuineness and intimacy that protective legislation would obscure.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version 


Facing the Consequences

For the week of June 19, 2021 / 9 Tammuz 5781

The Brazen Serpent by Gustave Dore

The Brazen Serpent by Gustave Dore

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 22:1
Haftarah: Shoftim/Judges 11:1-33

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And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a fiery serpent and set it on a pole, and everyone who is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.” So Moses made a bronze serpent and set it on a pole. And if a serpent bit anyone, he would look at the bronze serpent and live. (B’midbar/Numbers 21:8-9)

I have always wondered about this story. It begins with the people of Israel yet again venting their frustration with their ongoing challenging situation. We read, “From Mount Hor they set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom. And the people became impatient on the way. And the people spoke against God and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no food and no water, and we loathe this worthless food” (B’midbar/Numbers 21:4-5). As I have said before, I don’t criticize them for their mishandling such situations. Nothing I have ever gone through comes close to Israel’s years in the wilderness. They shouldn’t have taken out their frustration on God and Moses, but I personally can’t fault them for doing so. I have to be careful, however, not to let my empathy for the people’s suffering get in the way of whatever lesson I need to learn from this affair.

The result of their faithless behavior was God’s sending among them “fiery serpents,” most likely very painful poisonous snakes. It didn’t take too long for the people to admit to their erroneous ways and plead with Moses to pray on their behalf for relief. God’s solution was unique in Israel’s history. He directed Moses to construct a bronze serpent on a pole. If anyone who was bitten looked at the bronze serpent, they would be healed.

That such an item would be sanctioned by God for such a purpose is very strange given the strong prohibition against idols. In fact, this item eventually did become an idol (for more on that, see the TorahBytes message, When Blessings Become Idols. As for its God-sanctioned purpose in the moment, it became a tool of faith. Certainly, the power of the healing came from God. It was the submitting to his directions in the situation that made the difference here.

But did the object itself contribute at all to the experience of healing? It might sound spiritual to say that God could have told Moses to make anything or even nothing. That might be true, but I wouldn’t assume that God’s instructions were arbitrary. It certainly doesn’t seem they are. People are bit by snakes; they have to look at a snake. Coincidence? I think not!

Since the text doesn’t clearly state the reason for the bronze serpent on a pole, we need to tread carefully. What is clear is the association between the instrument of punishment and the instrument of healing. Yet, it’s that connection which I have always found strange. How could it be that the object which was the source of pain could end up being the source of healing?

I think I’ve got it! Calling the Israelites to gaze upon the source of their pain forced them to acknowledge the consequences of their actions, and the result was healing. Not to take away anything from the supernatural dynamic of this, but isn’t this the way life works? How much personal suffering do we prolong because we refuse to accept the negative consequences of our wrongs? Conversely, how many of us have experienced the freedom that is derived from facing those consequences. While God is the agent of healing, true repentance requires we accept responsibility for our behavior.

As you may be aware, Yeshua used this story in his conversation with the Jewish leader Nicodemus to point to himself, when he said: “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). To gaze upon the crucified Messiah is to see the consequences of our sins. It is when we realize that our attitudes and behavior resulted in the horrific suffering of the Son of God, that we can be healed from the consequences of our actions.

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


Blind Jealousy

For the week of June 12, 2021 / 2 Tammuz 5781

Young man with blindfold over eyes

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Haftarah: 1 Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of June 24, 2017 / 30 Sivan 5777

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They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the LORD is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the LORD?” (B’midbar/Numbers 16:3)

Jealousy is blinding. I don’t mean the appropriate kind of jealousy that refuses to allow others to get in the way of your marriage, for example. That’s the jealousy God has for his people. I am talking about the all-consuming emotion that takes us over when someone else has what we think we should have.

That’s what was controlling Korah and company. They couldn’t handle seeing Moses and his brother Aaron being in leadership. And it’s not as if they were at the bottom of the ladder themselves. They were Levites, the tribe of Israel that was set aside to serve in the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle). Being special was not special enough, however, as they set their eyes on the priesthood itself.

I don’t know if they thought they would have more perks or prestige by being priests. We aren’t told. But it doesn’t matter. That’s just how jealousy works. The thought they were missing out was enough to drive them. They had to have what was not allotted to them or least what they thought they were missing out on. Jealousy can’t see the true nature of whatever it is jealous of. It’s always the perceived privilege or status that is passionately desired. It’s so easy to look at the exterior of other people’s lives and think they have it better than we do. Status and prestige are not all they appear to be. With privilege, if privilege comes into play at all, comes responsibility.

When jealousy fills us, we can’t see that roles and responsibilities are allotted to people from God. That may sound overly spiritual and idealistic, especially in a world where injustice abounds. This is not the case in Korah’s story. Based on divine inspiration we know Korah is not ultimately challenging Moses and Aaron but God. But what about it when it is you and me? How do we know when our place and position are due to God’s direct involvement or the machinations of other forces?

It depends how much in control you think God is. On second thought, it doesn’t matter what you (or I) think, what’s the truth? Is God only involved with some people sometimes, or with everyone all the time? While not speaking directly to the issue of allotted roles, these words from the New Covenant book of Hebrews are applicable:

Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:5-6)

The writer encourages his readers (and us by extension) to be materially content on the basis of the intimate presence of God. This is not a pseudo-spiritual directive to disconnect emotionally from reality. This reminds us the Messiah follower can be confident that God is personally involved in his life. We are assured therefore that whatever is happening to us is not outside of God’s direct control.

That doesn’t mean we should never pursue change. Far from it! As emissaries of the Kingdom of Heaven there are no greater change agents in the world. But when things don’t go the way we expect; when we feel passed by while others are placed in positions we think we deserve, we must avoid jealously at all costs. Instead we should continue to commit our lives to God, looking to him to work things out according to his will.

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


The Fear Is Real

For the week of June 5, 2021 / 25 Sivan 5781

A terrified man

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1-15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Repost of a revised message originally from the week of June 9, 2007 / 23 Sivan 5767

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Then all the congregation raised a loud cry, and the people wept that night. And all the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The whole congregation said to them, “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?” And they said to one another, “Let us choose a leader and go back to Egypt.” (B’midbar/Numbers 14:1-4)

I don’t criticize the people who make up the negative examples in the Bible (of which there are many). While I would like to think that I would be a Moses confronting Pharaoh or a David challenging Goliath, I fear that I am far more like the grumblers in this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

I prefer to think that after seeing God’s power expressed so dramatically through the ten plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea, and in his wondrous provision of food and water, that when the time came to enter the Promised Land, I would be good to go. Walled cities? No problem! Giants armed to the teeth? No big deal. With the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob on our side, it would be a cake walk. Weren’t Joshua and Caleb like that? They were among the twelve who had spied out the land. Even though the others brought back an intimidating report, seeing everything they saw, they were confident. I would like to be like them. But I have my doubts.

It’s so easy to boast about faith in theory. It’s another thing to have confidence in the face of true danger. It’s easy to pretend; it’s another to demonstrate real courage. It’s one thing to be calm when there’s nothing to fear. It’s another thing to stand strong when facing the impossible.

The problem, however, wasn’t that the people were scared. It’s that they didn’t submit their fear to God. When Joshua and Caleb urged them to not give into their fears, but to trust God instead, the people actually wanted to kill them.

We won’t learn lessons from other people’s failures until we can see them as a reflection of ourselves. How many challenges has God presented to us that we have rejected due to fear? How many times has fear dictated our decisions? It doesn’t have to be that way, however. It’s one thing to accept our frailty as human beings; it’s another thing to let it control our lives. It’s one thing to deny the reality of the fear we feel; it’s another to give in to it.

Caleb’s and Joshua’s confidence in God didn’t necessarily mean they had no fear. While there is no statement that I know of regarding their emotions in this instance, years later, as Joshua was preparing to lead the nation into the Promised Land, God tells him to “be strong and courageous” three times in the first nine verses of the book that bears his name.

I would like to think that the presence of courage automatically dispels the presence of fear, but between my understanding of the Bible and personal experience, it doesn’t seem to be the case. Fear is real, but it doesn’t have to have the final word.

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