The Lost Torah

For the week of September 3, 2022 / 7 Elul 5782

Message info over a Torah scroll partially obscured by a broken brick wall

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Haftarah: Isaiah 51:12 – 52:12

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You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the LORD your God that you shall make. And you shall not set up a pillar, which the LORD your God hates. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 16:21-22)

Over the past year, for my own personal Bible reading, I have been slowly working through the books of 1 & 2 Kings – not the most encouraging section of Scripture. It’s not all negative, of course. There’s Solomon’s rise to power and how God used him to establish Israel’s golden age. But it’s Solomon’s greatness and divinely inspired wisdom that make his slide into idolatry that much more distressing. Israel never recovers from this. The result of Solomon’s unfaithfulness to God results in the dividing of the Kingdom into north and south. The north is known as Israel or Ephraim, the south as Judah.

There are also the stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, but their brightness shines against an intensely dark background. Apart from a few good kings, the vast majority are evil. And when the better kings reign, it doesn’t take long before the nation plunges back into false religion and immorality.

One of the greatest, if not the greatest, times of reform occurs near the end of 2 Kings, during the reign of Josiah (see 2 Kings 22-23). The north had already been conquered by the Assyrians about a hundred years earlier. For the south, it’s beyond the point of no return. The level of evil under the reign of Josiah’s father, Manasseh, was the last straw as far as God was concerned. Judgement for the south was coming. It was only a matter of time.

Yet, this didn’t prevent Josiah from doing what was right. Unlike some of the earlier good kings, his reforms were thorough. Several of the other good kings tolerated various evil activities, but not Josiah. In my reading, I was overwhelmed by the vast number of positive changes he implemented as this reflected how saturated with idolatrous customs Judah was.

That which started Josiah’s reforms was the discovery of the “sefer Torah” (English: the book of the Law) during the Temple renovations he ordered. Josiah was devastated to learn God’s perspective on the nation’s behavior and took action. But once Josiah died, his son led the nation right back into evil and the nation began to crumble until it collapsed.

I often wonder about the lost Torah. How long was it lost? God had commanded that it should be read to the nation every seven years (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 31:10). Kings were to produce their own copy of the Torah and read it all their days (see D’varim/Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Were these ever done? We don’t know. It is reasonable to think that the Torah had become forgotten very early on. Perhaps there were times when it was more central than other times.

However central Torah was throughout Israel’s history, it didn’t change the fact that the people knew better. The fact that there were kings who basically did right, though few and far between, demonstrates that the knowledge of the true God and his ways were known. Known, but ignored. Just like today.

Just like today except that the Torah isn’t lost. Not only is it accessible as never before, be it in printed or digital form, it is ignored. The general ignorance of Scripture is no excuse even if it isn’t read. The evidence of what constitutes good and bad is on display for all to see. That obedience to God leads to life, while disobedience leads to death appears to make no difference whatsoever when we are consumed with ourselves or don’t care about the long-term effect of our misguided lives.

We live amidst a great fog of meaninglessness and self-absorption. For many, pursuing godliness feels futile. The world seems to be going down the drain at lightening speed. Why even try?

Ask King Josiah. He knew that doing the right thing was the right thing to do. Serving God faithfully in his generation whatever would happen down the road was worth it. Frankly, I don’t think we live in a day like Josiah’s. I don’t think we are going down the drain. It just feels like that sometimes. God has great things in store for those who are willing to trust him. Let’s not wait until our circumstances changes before we do.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


When in Rome, Don’t

For the week of August 27, 2022 / 30 Av 5782

Message info over a photo of ancient Rome

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 11:26 – 16:17; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:11 – 55:5; 66:1-24; 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 20:18-42
Originally posted the week of August 11, 2018 / 30 Av 5778

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When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 12:29-31)

There is a good deal of wisdom in the saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Before venturing into a foreign culture, we are well-advised to learn as much as we can about local customs and conventions to avoid misunderstanding and cause unnecessary offense. This principle doesn’t only apply to travelling to distant places. Interacting with neighbors and co-workers may require crossing very long cultural bridges in order to communicate effectively. Many years ago, the young lady who would one day become my wife had a roommate, the daughter of Canadian parents, who grew up in a South American country. The roommate was aghast when she first saw someone use the common gesture of making an “o” with their thumb and forefinger to signify “okay.” This was because where she grew up, such a gesture was vulgar (it didn’t mean “okay”!). Obviously, should we ever venture to that country, we would avoid the gesture, even though to us it is completely innocuous.

Tragically, many well-intentioned (and not-so-well-intentioned) people have caused a significant amount of damage due to ignoring the sage advice of “when in Rome, do.” Oft times it’s due to ignorance, other times to moral superiority. There is no excuse for the former, though hopefully such sins are worthy of patience and forgiveness. Moral superiority, on the other hand, is far more complex.

It is too simplistic to apply “when in Rome, do” to every context, however. For example, while eating and drinking like a local is a wonderful way to connect with people of other countries and cultures, it can be deadly. Locals have adapted to their environment over time. And while “when in Rome, do” may be a lovely gesture, it is not okay in this case. But accepting one’s inability to immediately acclimatize to a foreign environment is also no excuse for showing arrogant disdain towards cultural differences. Business people and missionaries have often been infamous for this kind of insensitivity. Perhaps they have good things to offer that would indeed greatly benefit the target culture, but carrying one’s self with an air of superiority tends to offset whatever potential benefits there may be.

God’s word to ancient Israel was clearly, “When in Rome, don’t.” However offensive this is to modern readers, God was establishing a morally and spiritually superior culture in what had been known as the land of Canaan. The wickedness of the people Israel was to dispossess was so extreme, Israel wasn’t even to ask about it.

However you might think about such an approach, this chapter of God’s epic story was unique. Israel was to establish a new culture untainted by other spiritual and moral influences. That this failed is a different chapter for another time. Skipping over the failure chapter for now, God’s story eventually sees Israel moving beyond its borders into the rest of the world. This is a key aspect of the epoch launched by the coming of the Messiah. Following Yeshua’s resurrection, the time had come to venture toward Rome (actually and figuratively).

So, when in Rome, is it “do” or “don’t”? On one hand it was “do,” as it was necessary to enculturate the truth of God. On the other hand, it was “don’t,” as it was also necessary to preserve the essence of that truth. The challenge in those early years was how best to embody God’s word within foreign cultures without compromising it.

Today, there tends to be more emphasis on cultural adaptation. As a result, those components of Scripture deemed problematic are downplayed or completely discarded. Israel’s earlier call to absolute purity is regarded as obsolete if not altogether misguided. This fails to appreciate the necessary preparation God’s people needed to experience in order to equip them one day to make the positive difference among the nations in the name of the Messiah.

The early Jewish believers wisely embraced the delicate balance of communicating the uncompromising truths of God within foreign, not to mention hostile, cultural settings. They understood those elements of Scripture that were uniquely Jewish, while identifying those which were universal. They knew “when in Rome, do, but sometimes don’t.”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Preventative Measures

For the week of August 20, 2022 / 23 Av 5782

Message info over an illustration of a virus

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:12 – 11:25
Haftarah: Isaiah 49:14 – 51:3

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And the LORD will take away from you all sickness, and none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you knew, will he inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 7:15)

The last time I commented on this verse was two years ago (Avoiding Disease). We were still in the early stages of the COVID era. At that time, I explained that the “diseases of Egypt” were not the ten plagues, but illnesses arising due to ungodly living. Israel was promised health as a result of following God’s ways. What was true then is still true today. God’s directives regarding lifestyle, sexuality, sanitation, etc. result in life. Ignorance and neglect of these principles lead to sickness and death.

We live in a post-biblical age. The Western World was built, imperfectly, on biblical principles. While adherence to these principles has ebbed and flowed through the centuries, generation after generation have been instructed in a very particular approach to morality. During this time, for the most part, people who ventured away from biblical morality knew they were doing so. When they suffered consequences, they had a good idea why.

It’s not like that anymore. For many years, we have been told that we are nothing more than the result of meaningless, impersonal forces; truth can’t be known; everything is subjective. Therefore, there is no right and wrong, no objective morality. This would explain why shame has taken the place of guilt as the main reaction to our sense of being out of sorts with the world. Guilt requires a clear sense of right and wrong. Without that, we are left with a much fuzzier uneasiness with ourselves. We know there is something wrong with us but don’t know why. We don’t know why because we have become ignorant of God’s ways as revealed in Scripture.

This ignorance undermines the vast amount of scientific knowledge we have acquired in the past several centuries. Whether we are aware of it or not we are the product of centuries of cultures that were not only biblically informed to a significant extent, but also thoroughly experienced in an approach to life based on biblical foundations. Many people would be surprised to learn that without the Bible we would have never seen the emergence of the vast array of beneficial technical advancements we so treasure. Collectively we know far more about sickness and health than any generation before us. What we know today is the result of centuries of investigation and implementation. In other words, we know how this stuff works. And yet, we are seeing an increase in certain infections as never before, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in particular. And then there’s monkeypox.

Technically speaking, monkeypox isn’t an STI, but you don’t have to be a medical professional or investigative reporter to realize that the vast amount of monkeypox cases is due to certain sexual behaviors. And yet the messaging we receive, be it for STIs or monkeypox, is anything but avoiding the behaviors that put people at risk.

I remember years ago when the vaccine for the human papillomavirus (HPV) was promoted in the region of Canada where I live. HPV is an STI that especially affects young people in their teens and twenties. It is of particular concern to women in that it may lead to cervical cancer. The vaccine was touted as the solution to the problem. I remember seeing a promotional poster for the HPV vaccine in my doctor’s office waiting room. What troubled me was the implication that it was assumed that young girls were having casual sex despite the health risks. I don’t doubt that children and other unmarried people are having casual sex, but to make it sound as if the risks of contracting HPV were so out of their control that it required a medical intervention assumes the complete rejection of biblically directed morality. Teaching sexual abstinence to young people is thought of as a useless, if not oppressive, venture. Sexual appetite may be difficult to curb, but when did fighting urges become a bad thing?

I fear we have forgotten what it means to be truly human. I say, “forgotten,” because we in the West once knew. But now we are immersed in such an abundance of scientific knowledge, offering all sorts of solutions, while being blind to God’s prescribed and effective preventative measures.

We suffer for nothing. God’s word is still available to us. Not only can we put the brakes on the snowballing cultural decay, God, through the Messiah, is available to forgive and heal us if we are willing to trust him and do life his way.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version