For the week of October 29, 2022 / 4 Heshvan 5783

Message info over a man interacting with technological symbols

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 6:9 – 11:32
Haftarah: Isaiah 54:1 – 55:5

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And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:3-4)

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah reading) features technology gone bad. The story of the Tower of Babel takes place between Noah’s Ark and the call of Abram (whose name was later changed to Abraham). A superficial reading may give the impression that God is against technological advancement. He didn’t like that they had undertaken such a project. Actually, that might be true, but not because of their technological prowess.

That human beings would engage in technological development is assumed in Scripture. From the very beginning of our existence, we read of God’s directing the first man and woman: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:28). Humans were given the responsibility to “subdue” the earth. The Hebrew for subdue is kavash’ and has to do with making something or someone do what you want. In the context of the creation mandate, human beings were to make the earth be what God wanted it to be through them. We were not to simply make sure everything just stayed the way it was first made.

Some misunderstand the Garden of Eden as perfection in the sense that it could in no way be improved upon. People could mess it up, but not make it better. But this misunderstands God’s intention for both the planet and human responsibility. One might think that people were to just laze around eating fruit from the garden’s trees and drinking water from the rivers and that’s it. I can’t say for sure what it would have been like if the rebellion against God wouldn’t have happened so soon, but the directive to subdue the earth certainly called for interacting with and developing the creation. Under this directive, it would not be long before tools would be invented, and all sorts of discoveries made. These early forms of technology would be the baby steps eventually leading to space stations and smart phones.

So, what was so wrong about the Babel building project? I remember as a child in first or second grade, when my public school in Montreal was still allowed to read Bible stories, being told the reason why the people were making this high tower. I don’t know if it was in the story itself, if the teacher mentioned it, or if was a comment from a student. However it came to me, I had the impression that the tower was to enable people to survive in the event of another flood. I eventually learned that the biblical text gives no such impression. Instead, the purpose of the tower and the city was for theexpressed purpose of the people’s making a name for themselves to prevent them from being dispersed throughout the earth. They believed that their building project would provide them with identity and security, thus enabling them to remain together in that one location.

God was not happy about this plan. Again, it might appear that he was concerned about their technological prowess in and of itself. We read, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Bereshit/Genesis 11:6). The “nothing that they propose…will be impossible” implies God’s concern that if left unchecked humans will devise highly destructive inventions. But it wasn’t the technology itself he was concerned about, since he already not only tolerated but instigated technological advancement. Apart from the tools already developed, it was God who supplied the design of an extraordinary boat-like structure which preserved his creation project.

The problem with the development of the tower and city was not the technology itself but the people’s motive. God had commanded human beings to fill the earth, but they wanted to stay together in one place. They believed their technology could accomplish that. This stemmed from their believing that their identity and security could be derived from themselves and their self-driven plans.

While technology in itself is neither good nor bad, when it is used for self and security contrary to God’s will, it is highly destructive. What happened at Babel demonstrated that human nature was bent towards itself and away from God. In God’s wisdom, he confused their language to put a wrench in the works, so to speak. The resultant communication barrier greatly slowed down technological innovation and its inevitable destruction.

Let me reiterate that the problem isn’t the technology itself, but how it is used. When used as a tool in the service of God under his direction and for his purposes, much blessing may result. However, when used for self, disconnected from our Lord and King, there’s no limit to the damage it can do.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


We Are Adam

For the week of October 22, 2022 / 27 Tishri 5783

Message info over a large crowd from above

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: Isaiah 42:5 – 43:11

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This is the book of the generations of Adam. When God created man, he made him in the likeness of God. Male and female he created them, and he blessed them and named them Man when they were created. (Bereshit/Genesis 5:1-2)

The early chapters of Torah establish foundational concepts of God and life, including anthropology: What does it mean to be human? What is our origin? What is our essence? What is our purpose? The language used in the two verses I just quoted reflect the profound nature of our being created in God’s image as male and female. Tragically, in my opinion, many English translations, in their attempt to represent what they believe to be the intent of the Hebrew, distract from an extraordinary interplay found in the original wording.

An essential dynamic in any language is the relationship between form and meaning. While language is used to convey meaning, it does so through its forms. Every language uses series of sounds (or symbols when written) as the forms to express meaning. The forms of various languages used to convey the same or similar meaning of something are often very different from each other. The most obvious difference between languages are the words themselves. For example, in French, the word for “dog” is “chien.” Same meaning, different form. But word difference is just the beginning. The French for “the brown dog” is “le chien brun.” Not only are each of the three words different, so is the word order. It is common in French to put adjectives (words that describe nouns) after the noun instead of before as in English. French, also unlike English, has three words, le, la, or les, for the definite article, “the,” depending on the gender (masculine or feminine) and number (singular or plural) of the word it is relating to. That’s nothing compared to Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, where the form of the definite article is dependent on three possible genders (masculine, feminine, or neuter), number (singular or plural), and something called case, which has to do with what we call in English, subject, object, etc. There are four cases in Koine Greek. The only reason there are only sixteen and not twenty-four different words for “the,” is because some of them are repeated.

A serious challenge occurs in translation when form may affect meaning. In the example of “the brown dog” vs. “le chien brun,” meaning is not affected in any way by the difference of form. But sometimes translators can be too quick to dismiss form. Both biblical Hebrew and Greek in contrast to English at times emphasize words or phrases by placing them at the beginning of a sentence. Preserving this form in English can often sound strange, and so translators will often opt to use conventional English word order and fail to carry over intentional emphasis. In Jonah 1:9, Jonah says to the men of the overwhelmed ship, “A Hebrew I am, and the LORD God of heaven I fear, who made the sea and dry land.” Most English translations understandably prefer something along the lines of the English Standard Version’s: “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.” This is much better English but misses the emphasis in expressing the relationship between God and Jonah’s identity in this story.

Ignoring form also plays a part in the two verses I quoted at the beginning. The Hebrew word adam’, appears three times. The word can be used to mean the personal name “Adam,” the singular word for man as opposed to woman, or human beings as a category of creature.

In our verses, it is fairly clear that as far as meaning goes, adam’ is being used in the first and third ways. Verse one is setting up the story of the descendants who arose from the individual person Adam. This is similar to introductions of other individuals in Genesis such as Noah, Terah, and Isaac. Then it goes on to say, “When God created adam’, he made him in the likeness of God.” Is this a reference to Adam the individual or the creation of human beings in general? But note how it continues: “Male and female he created them.” This suggests that adam’ here is a reference to human beings in general.

Interestingly the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures reads this way: “This is the book of the origin of human beings. On the day that God made Adam, he made him according to divine image; male and female he made them, and he blessed them. And he named their name “Adam” on the day that he made them” (A New English Translation of the Septuagint). Here the Greek word for the more generic “human beings” is used in the first occurrence, while a Greek version of the proper name “Adam” is used for the other two.

Because Hebrew uses adam’ for the first human being’s proper name as well as males and human beings in general, it is difficult to determine which usage is intended in each occurrence. One might think that this is a weakness of biblical Hebrew but given that it is the language that God chose to reveal the basics of mankind (now often called “humankind”), perhaps the ambiguity is not to be easily dismissed.

What might seem confusing to us may actually draw our attention to the special place the first human has in history. The individual person, “Adam,” was given a unique representative role as the first human being. We all, male and female included, find our origins in him. It is in Adam, we discover our fundamental identity as beings made in God’s image, our primary calling as caretakers of Planet Earth, and the roots of our brokenness through his rebellion against God. It is also here that we can discover the answer to our ever-increasingly polarized world. For, it is in Adam that we discover we are all in this together. We are Adam.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated.


God of Marvels

For the week of October 15, 2022 / 20 Tishri 5783

Message info over the inside of a sukkah

Torah: Shemot/Exodus 33:12 – 34:26; B’midbar/Numbers 29:26-34
Haftarah: Ezekiel 38:18 – 39:16

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And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.” (Shemot/Exodus 34:10)

The festival of Sukkot (English: Booths or Tabernacles) begins this year the evening of October 9 and lasts eight days. The readings this week are special for the festival. Outside the Land of Israel, due to ancient issues with the calendar, it continues for one more day[1]. Sukkot is a harvest thanksgiving festival that includes two special features. First, the people were directed to “take…the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and…rejoice before the Lord” (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:40). Traditionally these four things are willow, palm, and myrtle branches, plus a lemon-like fruit called an etrog (English: citron). Second, the people were to build temporary dwellings called sukkot (one sukkah, many sukkot). They were to live in these sukkot for seven days. This was to remind the people that their ancestors lived in similar accommodations the years they were in the wilderness (see Vayikra/Leviticus 23:43).

It is interesting how this festival of rejoicing is to occur while living in sukkot. Calling the people to leave their permanent homes for a week to connect with the years of wilderness wanderings is powerful. Think of how effective it is for parents to tell their children stories of God’s miraculous provision and protection while sitting in a flimsy hut far more exposed to the elements than their normal residences. But more than simply providing a tangible backdrop, the environment places the people into a state of vulnerability, so that they could better relate to the vulnerability of their ancestors.

Within the context of getting in touch with their forebears’ state of vulnerability the people would more than just remember that God took care of them, but also how he did. As we read in this week’s Torah reading, God protected and provided them by doing “marvels.” The Hebrew word for marvels is “pala’,” which is often translated as “miracles.” The word carries the sense of “special” or “out of the ordinary.” God had promised Israel he would do extraordinary things, marvels, never experienced before to cause others to realize how awesome he really is.

God does more than take care of his people. He does so in marvelous ways. For Israel in the wilderness, it was through a physical manifestation of his presence in the form of a pillar of cloud and fire, which both guided them and protected them from the elements. He also gave them manna for their daily bread, which miraculously appeared on the ground every day except the Sabbath (he doubled the amount the day before). He sent quail to give them meat, he cleansed undrinkable water on one occasion, and caused water to emerge from rocks twice.

Note, however, that we can list God’s marvels yet not be impacted. Somehow we can tell these and other marvelous Bible stories and they remain just that – stories. Stories that happened to a people in such a different time and place, they may as well be fairy tales. This is why he sent Israel back outside into a wilderness-like environment. Perhaps there, in a place of vulnerability, we can feel the need for him in a way our more secure permanent houses don’t allow us to. For it’s in the place of vulnerability that we realize how much we need God.

The extraordinary nature of God’s marvels is most often due to the state of our vulnerability. The greater the need, the greater the marvelous nature of his provision. The more vulnerable we are, the more extraordinary is his power in and through our lives. But if we don’t allow ourselves to be in places of vulnerability, we might have a general sense of God’s presence and goodness but fail to experience his marvels. I wonder what we may be missing.

[1]  The duration of the festival is a bit complicated. It would be more accurate to say that Sukkot lasts seven days plus one. The people were to celebrate with the specified growing things and live in the sukkah for seven days. The first day was to be treated as a sabbath (the first two days are sabbaths outside Israel). God also directed that an additional eighth day, known as “Shemini Atzeret” (Eighth Day of Assembly) was also to be observed. Traditionally, a special ceremony to mark the restarting of the annual Torah reading cycle, known as “Simchat Torah” (Rejoicing over the Torah), is observed during Shemini Atzeret (in the diaspora, it is observed on the extra ninth day).

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


God’s Sovereignty

For the week of October 8, 2022 / 13 Tishri 5783

Message info over a starry background

Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:1-52
Haftarah: 2 Shmuel/2 Samuel 22:1-51
Revised version, originally posted the week of September 26, 2009 / 8 Tishri 5770

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See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand. (D’varim/Deuteronomy 32:39)

I struggle sometimes with the concept of God’s sovereignty—if God is in control of life as the Torah teaches, how in control is he? I am not looking for philosophical conclusions as much as biblical ones, since I accept that the Scriptures are God’s accurate revelation of himself and of life. From my study of the Scriptures throughout the years, I have discovered that God reveals his many-faceted truth without necessarily providing how its complexities work together. God is in no way obliged to satisfy our intellects. Rather, through the Scriptures, he has graciously provided us with everything we need in order to live life the way he intended. This includes the command to seek him as to how we are to apply his Word to our lives. This is why we need to work hard at understanding what the Scriptures say and grow in the wisdom of how to live lives firmly based on its teaching.

Therefore, struggling over what the Scriptures teach about God’s sovereignty and what it means for our lives is not a waste of time. Far from it! It is easy to claim to believe the Bible, but if we don’t take the time to grapple with what it is saying, it is doubtful whether we have really allowed its teaching access to our hearts and minds.

This year, this parsha (weekly Torah reading portion) is read the week of Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). This is a time of introspection, of spiritual housecleaning so to speak. From time to time, it’s a good idea to purposely examine ourselves to make sure that we are truly in the faith and that we are right with God and with others. As we do, we then need to make whatever necessary adjustments are appropriate.

The issue of God’s sovereignty is most relevant to this period of introspection, for it deals with a concept we may call primary cause. If God is truly sovereign, then he is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. Since we don’t normally deal directly with God but rather with others, both animate and inanimate, then if God is sovereign, it is his decisions that are ultimately behind everything that happens through these secondary causes. How God works through secondary causes is not something the Bible clarifies for us. Yet as we read in our verse, even though life doesn’t always seem to be in God’s control, it is. A great many questions arise from this, but whether or not there are answers to those questions, that God is sovereign is clear. To believe anything less is to reject God as he is revealed in the Scriptures. If how you comfort your heart and mind over this subject in any way diminishes this truth, you have diminished God himself. Taking the time to examine ourselves to make sure that we are right with God and others is a useless exercise if we don’t accept God for who he is. If God is not really the Master of the Universe, as is recited in countless traditional Hebrew blessings and prayers, then we will not know what adjustments to make or how to make them. Diminishing God’s rule over the universe to anything less than all-powerful exalts other forces to places of authority that God never assigned to them.

On the other hand, if we could accept God’s own statement as spoken through Moses that life, death, danger, and restoration are exclusively in his control, then our focus can be fixed firmly on God, the primary cause of everything that happens to us. Once we accept that God is ultimately in control of everything, then not only can we learn to relate to him as we ought, but how we relate to others will also begin to fall into place.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version