A Divine Guarantee

For the week of October 28, 2023 / 13 Heshvan 5784

Message info over an ancient map of the land of Canaan along with a fire pot and torch

Lech Lecha
Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 12:1 – 17:27
Haftarah: Isa 40:27-41:16

On that day the Lord made a covenant with Avram, saying, “To your offspring I give this land…” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:18)

It is no exaggeration to say that we may be on the brink of a catastrophe hitherto unknown in history. I hope I am wrong—that the current crisis in Israel will calm down, but not until the demonic evil unleashed by Hamas on October 7 is destroyed. I have no illusions, however, if by God’s grace that happens, it will manifest again soon and probably worse.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version, except that “Abram” is changed to “Avram”

Serious readers of Scripture have no reason to be unaware of the dynamics at play, including why it is that so much fuss is made over one of the smallest countries on the planet. Yet, not only are most people unaware of such things, but they have also reduced the God of the Bible to a detached spirituality of the inner life, while failing to grasp its global implications and all-encompassing importance. Core to this misguided spirituality is the disregard for the centrality of the people of Israel and the land of Israel in God’s plan.

This week’s parsha (weekly Torah-reading portion) is foundational in this regard. It begins with Avram, whose name is later changed to Avraham (you can figure out the English versions of his name yourself, I am sure). The God of all creation, who made everything “very good” (Bereshit/Genesis 1:31), determined to one day rid the universe of the curse he imposed on the earth due to our first parents’ rebellion against him (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:17-19). Described as the bruising or crushing of the serpent’s head (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:15), we are given no detail as to how this plan was to be worked out until this parsha. If Avram would venture to the alien land God would show him, he would make him a great nation and bless the entire world as a result (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3). One of Avram’s most famous descendants would call the promise to bless the nations, the good news or Gospel (see Galatians 3:8).

The agreement, contract, or covenant (they all mean the same, by the way) that God established with Avram included an aspect that Bible readers have tragically ignored. People often called the covenant made with Avram unconditional, but it did have one condition—a condition he fulfilled. He had to go to a specified location. It wasn’t until he arrived there, that God said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (Bereshit/Genesis 12:7). The land, therefore, was a crucial aspect of God’s covenant with Avram, which was later passed on to his son Isaac (see Bereshit/Genesis 26:2-5) and grandson Jacob (see Bereshit/Genesis 28:13-14).

But did you know how essential the land promise to Avram was? As we also read in this week’s parsha, sometime later, God says to him: “Fear not, Avram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great” (Bereshit/Genesis 15:1). Avram’s trusting response to God’s telling him that, despite his ongoing childlessness, his descendants will be like the stars of the sky, is an appropriate high point for many Bible believers as it demonstrates the importance of faith.

Following that interchange, God has Avram perform a covenant ritual whereby he was to cut up some animals (see Bereshit/Genesis 15:7-20). Apparently, this was a traditional covenant-making ceremony. The Hebrew for “make a covenant” is actually “cut a covenant,” probably taken from the cutting up of the animals. The two parties would walk together between the pieces as a way to declare that if either fails to live up to their covenantal obligations, may they become like the cutup pieces. But note that Avram doesn’t walk between the pieces. Instead, he sees the unusual site of a smoking firepot and a flaming torch passing through them. Commentators consider this an indication that God was taking the full covenantal obligation on himself, so that if either party would break covenant, he, that is God, would suffer the consequences. We see this happen in the person of the Messiah, of course. But neglecting the context of all this prevents us from seeing an essential aspect of God’s commitment to the people of Israel. God’s self-imposed covenantal obligations to the people is not only about the people. Here’s what God says when he reiterates the covenant to Avram:

“To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites (Bereshit/Genesis 15:18-21).

God’s covenant with Avram includes the land, guaranteed! Should Avram or his descendants (those through Isaac and Jacob) fail in their covenantal obligations, God himself would bear the punishment. You know what this means, don’t you? Yeshua’s death doesn’t only ensure your reconciliation with God by faith, but also upholds Israel’s divine right to their God-given land.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Heart Basics

For the week of October 21, 2023 / 6 Heshvan 5784

Message info along with an illustration of an injured heart character

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

Then Noah built an altar to the LORD and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, “I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth. Neither will I ever again strike down every living creature as I have done. (Bereshit/Genesis 8:20-21)

When my wife, Robin, tells the story of how she came to trust in Yeshua as the Messiah, she explains that it occurred in stages over a period of time. A key encounter she had was during a phone conversation with her best friend, who was her primary help in navigating this. At some point the issue of capital punishment came up, something that Robin didn’t believe in. When her friend found out that Robin didn’t believe in capital punishment, and inquired why, Robin responded, “Because man is basically good.” Her friend questioned her, “Do you think you’re basically good?” “Yes”, Robin replied. “Do you think you’re basically good?” she asked back. Her friend said, “No. I am a sinner.”  Robin was surprised at this response, as her friend was the “good-est” person she knew. But her friend explained the biblical concept of sin and its effects on human nature.

Robin’s view of self at that time is the view held by most people today. Through the past several decades, we have been taught to admire ourselves and trust in our personal moral compass (as if we have one). This is quite different from the prophet Jeremiah’s statement, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Jeremiah was much more in line with God’s assessment of human nature as expressed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). After God reset his creation project through Noah, his assessment of the inclination of the human heart was like that from before the flood. Even though God was determined to continue his creation project, he declared, “the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth” (Bereshit/Genesis 8:21).

The current crisis in Israel instigated by Hamas on October 7 is an extreme example of the evil intentions of the human heart. While there’s certainly a place to examine the particular motives of the “Islamic Resistance Movement,” the Arabic of which “Hamas” is an acronym, as well as questions over Israel’s response, this week parsha calls each of us to look at our own hearts.

It’s tempting to distance ourselves from “the bad guys,” as if we are morally superior. But do we have that right? Perhaps it was with a personal righteous air that Yeshua was asked about the gruesome murders the Roman governor committed against some Galileans in the middle of a religious exercise (See Luke 13:1-5). They must have been shocked and offended by his directing the issue back at them.

Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.

This is not to say that it isn’t right to grapple with justice issues. It’s that Yeshua knew that it was more important at this moment to help these people face the truth of their own sinfulness.

It’s not cool in our day to focus on negatives. However, the great solutions to human problems provided by God in the Scriptures cannot be realized without first accepting that all human beings have this same basic problem.

I fully support the need for Israel to enact justice upon the perpetrators of the attack on the south of Israel last week. I grieve over the loss of life on both sides. I am so grateful for the expressions of support I have heard and read about, not to mention the personal ones I have received. But let’s not forget that there is something much bigger and more personal for all of us here. The great evil that was unleashed and the tragic gruesomeness of war are manifestations of inclinations that dwell in all our hearts. I am in no way saying that everyone will necessarily commit such atrocities. However, have we ever stopped to think of how destructive our sins really are? “Oh, I didn’t mean that!” we say. “I wasn’t thinking! we say.” Here’s a good one: “I forgot.” And those are “nice” ones. How about, “Daddy didn’t mean to hurt you, dear!” You and I know the depths of evil we humans can stoop to, if we are honest.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that all sin is equal as some misunderstand James 2:10, which I don’t have time to get into now. There are different consequences for different sins. Yet, at the same time, all sin is rooted in the same basic human nature—a nature if left to itself will destroy us and others.

Therefore, as we pray for the current situation, looking to God for justice and (hopefully) mercy, let’s not forget to examine our own hearts. If we do, then we might better appreciate the sacrifice God has made through the Messiah on our behalf.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


God’s Favor

For the week of October 14, 2023 / 29 Tishri 5784

Message info against fiery background

Torah: Bereshit/Genesis 1:1 – 6:8
Haftarah: 1 Shmuel/Samuel 20:18-42

And the LORD regretted that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the LORD said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (Bereshit/Genesis 6:6-8)

I write this on the fifth day since, what one writer has called, “The Simchat Torah Pogram,” when Hamas terrorists invaded the south of Israel, indiscriminately murdering, raping, and kidnapping over 1200 Israelis and others. Simchat Torah is a special celebration at the end of the biblical feast of Sukkot (English: Tabernacles/Booths) to mark the end and beginning of the annual Torah reading cycle. Torah scrolls are held high and danced with inside and outside synagogues all over the world. Such a celebration seems inappropriate on such a day. Yet, it is the Torah as the foundation of the whole Bible that provides us the hope and direction we need to not only get through these terrible days but emerge victorious in time.

As we return to the first parsha (Torah reading portion) of the year, it is always a challenge to choose what to address, since there is so much to explore here. It seemed fitting to look at a time that was so bad that God himself regretted that he made human beings. I wonder how many times since then he has felt this way. What encourages me, however, is that despite the harsh judgment that he brought upon human evil in Noah’s day, he didn’t completely give up on his creation project. God’s commitment to his creation has sustained us until this day.

Note that it was not just general concern for creation that prevented him from destroying the planet. While he was just about to give up on human beings altogether, his plan for the earth included preserving people, which he did through Noah and his family. Also note that God assigned the task of preserving the people and the air-breathing animals to people. There’s so much about life that we imagine God could or should do on his own. Yet, in keeping with the mandate assigned to our first parents, God chooses to work through us. The story of Noah is a key example of how throughout history, human beings are both the problem and the solution of life on Planet Earth.

In the midst of impending doom, we read, “Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD”(Bereshit/Genesis 6:8). This is the first occurrence of the Hebrew word, “khen,” which appears almost seventy times in the Hebrew Scriptures and is most often translated as “favor” or “grace.” Readers of the New Covenant Scriptures rightly regard the Greek equivalent “kharis” (English: again “grace”) as a central aspect of a genuine life of faith. Grace is a driving force behind a biblical understanding of salvation.

God’s grace and favor are unmerited. It’s not something we can achieve. Yet, there is a lot more to grace and favor than God’s acceptance and forgiveness. It’s more than a status statement. It’s a dynamic of relationship between God and the person he favors.

When God favors someone, his presence and power is with them. God’s favor is the dynamic that equipped Noah with everything he needed to know and the capability to fulfill this great rescue operation. God had rejected the rest of mankind. They were doomed. But God’s favorable posture toward Noah set him apart to make all the difference in his day.

We read in the New Covenant Writings:

For you have been delivered by grace through trusting, and even this is not your accomplishment but God’s gift. You were not delivered by your own actions; therefore no one should boast. For we are of God’s making, created in union with the Messiah Yeshua for a life of good actions already prepared by God for us to do. (Ephesian 2:8-10; Complete Jewish Bible)

Being saved by grace through faith (or trusting) in Yeshua the Messiah is more than a position or status, it is being equipped to display godliness in an ungodly world. This is especially important in difficult times. When everything around us seems to be going down the drain, those of us who know God’s favor are to reflect the goodness and power of God in all the ways he calls us to.

That probably won’t be as dramatic and complex as building an ark, but there are a lot more of us today under God’s favor than in Noah’s day. Let us not be overwhelmed by the rise of evil. Instead let us be attentive to God, doing whatever he calls us to do, be it big or small. There’s no telling how God’s favor may express itself through us, if we simply trust him.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated


Climate Change Prayer

For the week of October 7, 2023 / 22 Tishri 5784

Message info over a dramatic stormy sky

Shemini Atzeret
Torah: D’varim/Deuteronomy 14:22 – 16:17; B’midbar/Numbers 29:35 – 30:1
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 8:54-66

If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (Divrei Hayamim Bet/2 Chronicles 7:14)

In the almost twenty-seven years that I have been producing TorahBytes, I almost never stray from the particular week’s Torah or Haftarah readings. As you will see, I am not straying too far this week in that the verse I quoted is related to the events of the Haftarah reading for the festival of Shemini Atzeret (the eighth day of solemn assembly), which marks the end of the autumn holy day season that began three weeks ago with Rosh Hashanah. Shemini Atzeret follows the seven days of Sukkot (Booths/Tabernacles). According to Torah, the people of Israel were to live in temporary dwellings (sukkot) for seven days, followed by an additional holy day back in their normal homes. Shemini Atzeret was to be treated as a sabbath day and featured special sacrifices.

The Haftarah reading for Shemini Atzeret is 1 Melachim/1 Kings 8:54-66, the end of the section of Scripture when Solomon dedicated the temple, which occurs on this specific holy day. The Second Book of Chronicles provides an expanded version of the temple’s dedication, including God’s words to Solomon immediately afterwards. In other words, the verse we are looking at is from God’s speaking to Solomon during the same occasion of the Haftarah reading for the holiday of Shemini Atzeret. And this is most relevant to us because it is a God given prayer for climate change.

First, let me be clear that whatever implications we may derive for our own day from this verse, we mustn’t forget that it is primarily a word to the people of Israel. Through all the challenges throughout the history of the natural descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, it is this prescription that guarantees God’s forgiveness and restoration. At the same time, we discover here the very core of the climate change problem.

As for “the climate change problem,” I, like many others, am reticent to be too certain as to what it is exactly. Are we facing the end of life as we know it or is extreme weather simply part of the normal cycle of climate throughout history? Some would have us believe there is no climate issue at all. Perhaps, but simple observation suggests otherwise. And then, environmental issues aside, the world is in turmoil. Hitherto tolerant, pluralistic, democratic societies are becoming increasingly polarized to the point that the potential for civil war is increasing before our eyes.

Be it the environmental climate change or social climate change, God’s word to Solomon is the solution. God instructs his people through King Solomon that if and when they observe issues in their land, here’s what they were to do:

First, humble ourselves. Stop self-justifying and blaming others. Stop talking and start listening. Take the time to do personal inventory. Become teachable and correctable. Second, pray. Don’t just think about the problems at hand. Stop complaining and start petitioning the only one who can effectively bring about the needed transformation. Third, seek God’s face. This might be simply another way of referring to prayer, but it focuses that prayer on the one and only God. It’s not good enough to be vaguely spiritual. Only the God of Israel can make a difference. Also, to be directed to “seek” God, implies focused, ongoing prayer, rather than performing a superficial formulaic duty. Finally, turn from our wicked ways. As we go through the process of humbling ourselves, praying, and seeking God, we need to be ready for him to show us what’s wrong with us. As that occurs we need to take responsibility for our actions and change course.

If we do all of this, God is committed to take notice, forgive us, and bring about the needed environmental and social restoration. If this is true, much, if not all, of our efforts to treat the symptoms of climate change are misguided. I am not saying that we shouldn’t try to be better at taking care of God’s creation. We should always be open to how we can be better stewards of our beautiful planet. But if the problems are as dire as some say, we are fooling ourselves to think that we will fix them through taxes, electric cars, recycling, and so on. Focusing solely on human solutions will only result in making matters worse, not better.

Political leaders impose restrictions on us in an effort to fix the environment when the environmental problems are actually due to spiritual and moral failure. I don’t expect our governments to heed God’s word in this matter, but perhaps it’s time you and I did.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version