When Blessings Become Idols

For the week of July 1, 2023 / 12 Tammuz 5783

Message info over a replica of the bronze serpent mentioned in this post

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 19:1 – 25:9
Haftarah: Micah 5:6 – 6:8
Originally posted the week of July 13, 2019 / 10 Tammuz 5779

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 21:9)

One of the prime focuses of the Hebrew Scriptures is the issue of idolatry that was expressed in ancient Israel in two ways: the worship of false gods as represented by an image or claiming that the true God was represented by an image. In either case, the essence of idolatry is it misrepresents reality and especially the reality of the God of Israel. The dynamics of idol worship is captured by the New Covenant Writings through this statement: “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!” (Romans 1:25).

Idolatry, whether it be through an actual figure associated with the true God or false gods, gives undo credence to a created thing instead of to the author of all creation. Putting one’s hope in an idol assumes that goodness can somehow be derived from the experience of engaging the thing, receiving blessing in other words. But blessing, as I just quoted, is derived from God, not things, even though God uses things to bless us. And therein lies the problem. It is so easy to confuse the instruments God uses with God himself.

This is exactly what happened with the Israelites and the bronze serpent, a story that took about eight hundred years to tell. During the wilderness wanderings under Moses, God punished the people for their grumblings by sending deadly snakes among them. In response to their humbling themselves, God prescribed an unusual remedy. He told Moses to set up a bronze serpent on a pole. All anyone bitten by a snake had to do was to look at the bronze serpent and they would be cured.

What we don’t know until the reign of Hezekiah eight centuries later was that not only did they hold on to the bronze serpent, but they made offerings to it, that is until Hezekiah smashed it (see 2 Melachim/2 Kings 18:4). For eight hundred years worship of this object had been tolerated! For eight hundred years “they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator.”

It isn’t difficult to understand why they did that. They believed, mistakenly so, that there was power in the object. What had begun as an act of faith unto God by following his instructions at the time, became an idol. They confused the source of power through his chosen instrument with the thing itself.

This is what underlies superstition. Superstition is believing that certain objects when related to in particular ways will empower us in some way. This is what happened with the bronze serpent. Looking to it was not originally superstition, since doing so was directed by God. It only became superstitious once the people assumed the power was in the object itself. They may have justified their misguided beliefs by claiming that if God used it in the past, then it’s appropriate to continue using it even after the occasion for which it was made was over and done with.

This is exactly where a lot of people of faith get stuck. We have a legitimate experience of God in the past and insist on revisiting it, thinking that we can continue to derive blessing from it when it’s outlived its intended purpose. We may not be doing this with a tangible object, but the dynamics are the same. Our precious moments with God were for the time allotted to them. To expect to derive the same blessings over and over again from what God did in an earlier time and place is to exchange the truth about God for a lie and worship and serve the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever!

It is the Creator “who is blessed forever.” Blessing resides in God, not objects or experiences. He is free to use whatever he wishes to pour out blessings upon us. But if we confuse the One who blesses with that which he uses to bless, we will find ourselves living a lie and cut off from the very blessings we long for.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Leadership Is Not Privilege

Message info over a red carpet draped over wide white stairs

For the week of June 24, 2023 / 5 Tammuz 5783
Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Prophets: 1 Shmuel/1 Samuel 11:14-12:22

So the LORD said to Aaron, “You and your sons and your father’s house with you shall bear iniquity connected with the sanctuary, and you and your sons with you shall bear iniquity connected with your priesthood. (B’midbar/Numbers 18:1)

Leaders are special. Whomever or whatever they may be leading, their role sets them apart from others. They stand out. Everyone knows their names. In many cases leaders have benefits, perks not accessible to non-leaders. Their importance often gives them access to even more important people, thus potentially increasing their influence even more. They live on a different plain from the general population.

When we think of leaders, this may be all we think about. Compared to them, we feel less important, disadvantaged. We might accept that some people in leadership truly possess superior ability than the rest of us. But others are just like us. Yet, they were chosen to be special. And that’s just not fair! What right do they have to be given all sorts of privileges we don’t have?

This was the sort of thing that Korah and his associates were thinking when they confronted Moses and Aaron in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). Despite already being part of the specially chosen tribe of Levi – the tribe responsible to assist the cohanim (English; the priests) – they were greatly offended by their not being selected for the priesthood itself, which by God’s decree had been given to Moses’ brother Aaron and his descendants.

Their perception of the priestly role was all wrapped up in everything except what it actually was. What it was is emphasized by God’s words to Aaron immediately following the tragic outcome of Korah’s rebellion. As I quoted at the start, after the deadly plague and God’s confirmation of Aaron’s calling, he impressed upon Aaron the depths of responsibility he and his sons would bear in their priestly role. Every special aspect of their leadership was designed to serve the crucial responsibilities God gave them as cohanim. No other Israelite would carry the concerns of the sacrificial system and everything along with it as they would.

The truly special thing about leadership is not the perks but the responsibility. Perhaps I should say, “genuine, godly leadership.” I don’t deny that to a great extent leadership throughout history has been about being at the top of the heap on the backs of the oppressed masses. Many leaders are nothing more than spoiled children who one way or another managed to hoard more toys than anyone else. But neither of these examples reflect how God designed leadership to be. And it doesn’t matter if leaders are aware of the true God and his ways or not. Genuine leadership is only realized when it is in keeping with God’s design.

The Messiah needed to remind his followers the true essence of leadership when he said:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:25-28).

Korah and company were not the first (or last) to misunderstand true leadership. Yeshua’s teaching here completely turns conventional thinking on this issue upside down. He confronts typical warped thinking on leadership at its utterly selfish core.

Leadership is not fundamentally about power. Leaders certainly possess far greater power than others. But they have been given that power not to benefit themselves but rather to empower others. This is related to the general stewardship role given to all human beings at the beginning of creation. By virtue of our being made in the image of God, we have all been entrusted with various resources, abilities, and opportunities to be used for the benefit of others. Leaders are those who, as part of that general stewardship, have been assigned levels of management for the common good.

Leadership is simply a heavier level of stewardship. In the New Covenant Writings we read, “The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1). Being given greater responsibility than others is noble and should be treated as noble. It’s not about money or popularity. It’s about being true to our God-given responsibilities; something to which we will all be called to account.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Sacrifice of a Different Kind

For the week of June 17, 2023/ 28 Sivan 5783

Message info over a dark fire background

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24
Revised version of “The Ultimate Sacrifice,” originally posted the week of March 17, 2018 / 1 Nisan 5778

But the person who does anything with a high hand, whether he is native or a sojourner, reviles the LORD, and that person shall be cut off from among his people. Because he has despised the word of the LORD and has broken his commandment, that person shall be utterly cut off; his iniquity shall be on him. (B’midbar/Numbers 15:30-31)

For the New Covenant believer, the concept of forgiveness of sin is central. We understand that whatever the Old Covenant sacrificial system meant, it in some way points to the Messiah’s ultimate sacrifice. For that reason, it is understandable that we would search for parallels between the multi-purpose sacrifice of animals in the Torah and Yeshua’s unjust death. The problem is it is difficult to draw exact parallels. First, not all Torah sacrifice was for sin. At times, people would offer something due to gratefulness, for example. But in contrast, the Messiah’s death was altogether tragic. While Yeshua freely accepted his mission, there was nothing celebratory about his having to die. While the results of his death were over-the-top good, and his resurrection certainly should be celebrated, the process of death itself was not good. Therefore, Yeshua’s sacrifice only parallels those sacrifices that were for sin of some kind.

Another dissimilarity is that the animals didn’t unduly suffer when killed. They weren’t beaten beforehand as Yeshua was, and they were killed quickly unlike Yeshua’s slow, excruciating, humiliating death on a Roman cross.

There’s at least one more difference. We see it in the verses I quoted at the beginning. You might be surprised to learn that Old Covenant sacrifice for sin was only for unintentional sin. There were no sacrifices for intentional sin at all. The consequence for intentional sin, the Hebrew phrase for that being sinning with a “high hand” (B’midbar/Numbers 15:30), was either banishment or death. This could be why King David in his well-known penitential psalm writes:

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise (Psalm 51:18-19; English: 51:16-17).

This is not a New Covenant-esque post-sacrificial system advanced theology of anti-animal sacrifice. It’s that there was no sacrifice that could cover David’s intentional sins of adultery and murder. The only acceptable action on David’s part is what he did – honestly and humbly admit his guilt.

What was the point of sacrifice for sin if it was not to cover serious, intentional wrongdoing? It appears that the loss of animal life was designed to make the people aware of their sinful condition. Most of us are conscious of our big sins, but we tend to go through life blind to how much we fall short. The sacrifices helped the people in ancient times to take even their unintentional shortcomings seriously. Sin is costly to ourselves and to those around us; it is also an affront to God who created us to serve him and his purposes. Instead of glibly saying, “nobody’s perfect,” we need to be made aware of the great chasm caused by our ever-present failings and the world as it was supposed to be.

It should be obvious that if unintentional sin was serious enough to require the killing of innocent animals, how much more serious is intentional sin? No wonder Yeshua’s offering was so different from animal sacrifice. It was the only sacrifice designed to actually take away sin. Old Covenant ritual wasn’t simply symbolically foreshadowing a similar, but greater, sacrifice, Rather it prepared Israel and the world for a much different, far more effective sacrifice that would deal with sin once and for all.

Despite the supreme effectiveness of Yeshua’s death for sin, its effects are not applied to us automatically. In order to experience the benefits of what Yeshua has done, we need to echo David’s words. On our own we have nothing to offer that which could satisfy the great losses we have caused the world or the affront our lives have been to our Creator. Nothing but God’s full giving of himself in the person of the Messiah is sufficient to resolve our alienation from him. Making it ours requires a turning of our lives in faith to Yeshua and personally accepting the precious gift of his sacrifice.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


What’s Driving You?

For the week of June 10, 2023 / 21 Sivan 5783

Message info over a modern crowd in the Sinai wilderness facing a pillar of fire

Torah: B’midbar/Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14 – 4:7 (English: 2:10 – 4:7)
Originally posted the week of June 13, 2020 / 21 Sivan 5780

At the command of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the command of the LORD they camped. As long as the cloud rested over the tabernacle, they remained in camp. (B’midbar/Numbers 9:18)

I am a big picture guy. That’s true in nature as well as stories and ideas. I love grand views and vistas, be it wide mountain ranges or hills and valleys from above or looking back at the skyline of a great city. I love big pictures because I also love the details they encompass. The better I can see the big picture, the more I understand its details. In stories, the Bible included, between its big picture and details are themes and motifs. Themes are ribbons of ideas, common subplots woven through events and descriptions. Motifs are recurring story elements. God’s love, mercy, and justice are biblical themes. The dynamics of how humans interact with God’s will is a common motif.

We first encounter this motif in the Garden of Eden (see Bereshit/Genesis 3). God gives clear directives to Adam and Eve, which are soon challenged by the serpent. The reader can sense the peril that awaits our first parents should they give into the temptation to doubt the goodwill of their creator, which tragically they do. This motif is played out over and over again throughout Scripture, including this week’s parsha (Torah reading portion).

Israel’s journey through the wilderness is a time of training between their slavery in Egypt and their conquest of the Promised Land. Having been given the gift of God’s word through Moses, the difficult challenges of wilderness living provides opportunity after opportunity to discover the nature and character of their God.

Like Adam and Eve before them they are instructed that obedience to God results in life and blessing, while rebellion results in death and destruction. One of the many ways this was to be lived out was in their travel directions. God reserved the right to tell them when they were to break camp and where they were to go next. The indication of when to go and where was provided by a pillar of cloud. If it stayed, they were to stay. When it moved, they were to move until it stopped.

Our translation expresses God’s communication via the cloud as being at “his command.” While capturing the intent of the Hebrew metaphor here, it misses its vividness. The Hebrew reads more along the line of “At the mouth of the LORD the people of Israel set out, and at the mouth of the Lord they camped. The picture painted by the metaphor is one of God’s speaking, key to the motif we are looking at. What’s not clear is whether it’s the cloud’s movement that’s in response to God’s speaking or that the movement of the cloud was the indication of God’s speaking. Either way, the people were to learn to embark or settle exclusively in response to God’s word.

Note the implications of this. If God’s word was to be their only guide, then that means they were not to listen to anything or anyone else. Enemies attacking? No cloud movement. Stay put. Water supplies exhausted? No cloud movement. Stay put. Living in a lush oasis? Cloud is moving. Time to go. Circumstances, preferences, and opinions don’t count. Only God’s word.

Should it be any different for us today? There’s no cloud to follow that I know of. Yet we have something more, not less, than the ancient Israelites. We have far more of God’s written word than they had. In the books of the Hebrew and New Covenant Scriptures we have more direct words from God; more examples, good and bad; more truth sorted out than they did. Plus, under the New Covenant, we have a far greater intimacy with God through the Messiah and the gift of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit) empowering us. It’s as if the wilderness cloud has now taken up residence within us.

Are we being driven by voices shouting at us or are we listening to God? That in no way diminishes the issues of our day, but it should determine what we do about them. The listening to God motif of Scripture clearly directs us to avoid being reactive. Circumstances and opinion are blind guides. Only God’s direction leads to life.

It feels good to connect to popular causes, but at what cost? What would happen if you stopped, took a deep breathe, and asked God what to do? His direction may not take you where you think you should go, but it’s the only way to ensure you get to where God wants you to go.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version