Cultural Appropriation

For the week of May 6, 2023 / 15 Iyar 5783

Message info over an illustration depicting Santa Claus wearing a kippa and lighting Hanukkah candles

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 21:1-24:23
Haftarah: Ezekiel 44:15-31
Originally posted the week of May 5, 2018 / 20 Iyar 5778 (updated)

Thus Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 23:44)

According to Wikipedia, “Cultural appropriation is the inappropriate or unacknowledged adoption of an element or elements of one culture or identity by members of another culture or identity.” When cultural appropriation first came to my attention some time ago, I thought the strong objection to it was a bit strange, not because I don’t understand the concern, but because I am so used to it – sort of!

As a Jewish believer in the Messiah, whose spiritual relationships are mainly among non-Jews, I encounter cultural appropriation constantly. In fact, Christianity is and has always been an exercise in cultural appropriation. Generally, Jews and Christians are not aware of this, however, since most Christian cultural expression wouldn’t be recognized as Jewish. The fact is there is almost nothing within Christianity’s core beliefs that isn’t derived from the Jewish world. Some are more obvious than others. The primary document for Christians is the Bible, both Old and New Testaments written almost exclusively by Jews and focused on activities happening to or done by Jewish people. Even as global outreach developed, its development and implementation was in Jewish hands. The God of the Christians is the God of Israel. The religious and theological concepts adhered to by Christians are all Jewish in origin, such as sin, righteousness, sacrifice, and holiness. Then there’s the very center of all core concepts, the Messiah. While the Jewish and Christian worlds have traditionally been divided over the Messiah’s identity, Christianity is founded on the conviction that Yeshua (Jesus) is the Jewish Messiah. Using Greek-oriented instead of Hebrew-oriented terminology obscures the cultural connection. That many Jews and Christians aren’t conscious that Christ and Messiah, for example, are synonyms doesn’t negate the Jewish nature of the messianic concept.

Other key Jewish components of Christianity are not as obvious. Most people don’t realize that baptism was originally a Jewish custom that was done as part of the conversion process as well as when an estranged Jewish person wanted to return to God. The development of the church as the place of community teaching and prayer was based on the synagogue. Communion, also called the Eucharist or the Lord’s Supper, is taken from Passover. The hope of the resurrection of the body was an exclusively Jewish concept. We could go on.

The early Jewish believers went out of their way to allow the Good News about the Messiah to function freely and fully in a non-Jewish context. Through God-given wisdom they freed the core of biblical faith from Jewish cultural control, allowing the nations to work out the essentials of biblical spirituality within their own contexts. What I don’t think the early believers envisioned is how far from a Jewish frame of reference the Church would go.

Many non-Jewish believers over the past hundred years or so have sought to re-contextualize Christianity within a Jewish frame of reference. Some correctly understand that the freedom to adapt biblical teaching within foreign cultures, while helpful in many ways, can tend to skew biblical truth, especially when cut off from its Jewish roots. At the same time, however, the passion to restore biblical faith to its ancient roots can go overboard. This is where appropriate cultural adaptation can become misappropriation. This happens in two ways: first, by confusing Jewish culture with biblical truth. Not everything that is Jewish is necessarily biblical. Much of Jewish culture found in the world today is recent in origin. While we don’t know the tunes of King David’s psalms, we are fairly certain that they were not anything close to what is thought of as Jewish music today. Similarly, Jewish foods are normally adaptations of local fare throughout the world where Jewish people have lived. Apart from the limits of kosher laws, there is nothing intrinsically biblical about the vast majority of Jewish cuisine.

The second type of misappropriation is in regard to actual biblical material. For example, take the feasts as listed in this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion). It is tragic that this key component of the Books of Moses, like most of the Hebrew Scriptures, has been virtually ignored by Christians. There is so much to learn from the feasts as they teach us about God’s character and activities. Yet it is easy to go from a healthy renewed focus on Scripture to a misguided emphasis on cultural expression. Much of Jewish festival observance today is based on tradition, not Bible. Tradition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it is culturally bound to the people who developed it. People don’t often possess the level of sensitivity necessary to adapt cultural forms. That doesn’t mean it should never be done. Perhaps what needs to be done, be it non-Jewish Christians in relation to Jewish people or between other cultural groups is to truly get to know the people whose culture it is before we treat it as our own.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Acknowledging Israel

For the week of April 29, 2023 / 8 Iyar 5783

Message info over a map of Israel with a push pin in it along with a hand holding a Bible over the map.

Achrei Mot & Kedoshim
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
Haftarah: Amos 9:7-15

I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the LORD your God. (Amos 9:14-15)

Tuesday evening this week is Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel Independence Day. This year marks seventy-five years since the establishment of the modern state of Israel. It may or may not surprise you that in my experience the vast majority of people in the world who claim strong adherence to the Bible see no relation whatsoever between Scripture and the reemergence of Israel as a geopolitical entity. No better time than a seventy-fifth anniversary to demonstrate otherwise.

First, let me say that anything I list as support for a biblical basis for God’s ongoing faithfulness to the Jewish people, including our return to our ancient homeland, does not justify everything Israel has done prior to or during the past seventy-five years. But tell me, why do I even need to say this? Don’t we know that everyone and everything in this world is a mixed bag? Of all people, those of us who value Scripture should know that God uses broken vessels. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David all had issues. But if anything, their issues demonstrate God’s faithfulness both to them as individuals and to Israel as a nation. And yet, for some reason, the majority of the Church has tended to regard Israel’s sins as unpardonable despite innumerable promises to the contrary. This week’s Haftarah (weekly reading portion from the Prophets) is but one example that clearly establishes a commitment on God’s part to preserve Israel and fulfill its glorious destiny. Yet this doesn’t stop a majority of Christians from reading the Church into these promises, while, at the same time, leaving the judgment parts with Israel.

There are at least two factors at work here. The first is anti-Jewish sentiment. As the church went from an exclusively Jewish movement to a an exclusively non-Jewish one, non-Jewish leaders brought their ingrained disdain for Jewish people with them. As a result, they happily affirmed scriptural critique of Israel, while deflecting God’s messages of love, concern, assurance, and restoration solely to themselves. The second factor is the misapplication of the concept of ingrafting that Paul expounds in Romans, chapter eleven. The inclusion of the nations in the Gospel is something that Paul calls in another place a mystery (see Ephesians 3:1-6). No one expected God’s blessings to be extended to non-Israelites through the Messiah. But instead of receiving this undeserved grace with humility, they quickly developed a “new kid on the block” attitude, an attitude Paul strongly warned against (see Romans 11:18).

The Jewish people have endured great suffering due to the Church’s unwillingness to grasp the scriptural complexity of God’s commitment to Israel. I will try to summarize. God gave unconditional promises to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which include an objective of extending his blessing to all nations. This would eventually be realized through the coming of the Messiah, who, as King of the Jews, accomplishes God’s purposes within Israel, God’s blessings coming to the nations, and the restoration of the creation. Messiah’s coming emerged out of God’s faithfulness to Israel to resolve once and for all their alienation from God due to their ongoing disobedience. No one anticipated how this would fulfill God’s promise to Abraham to bless the nations, while also working to restore Israel to himself and to their land.

For some reason, many Christians are fine with a god (note the lowercase “g”), who is willing to receive outsiders but doesn’t have it in him to preserve and restore his own covenant people. I am aware of the parables spoken to certain Jewish leaders warning them of being cast out while Gentiles will be let in. At an individual level that’s true. But it is wrong to paint this as Jews vs. Gentiles. Instead, it’s between the arrogant and the humble, whoever, wherever, and whenever they may be. This is why Paul would write: “For if you were cut from what is by nature a wild olive tree, and grafted, contrary to nature, into a cultivated olive tree, how much more will these, the natural branches, be grafted back into their own olive tree” (Romans 11:24).

“Their own olive tree.” Does it bother you that God’s inspired word calls it Israel’s tree? You can redefine Israel all you like by turning the olive tree into “the Church,” but I hope it isn’t too long before you see how silly that is. I don’t mean to offend anyone. It’s just that the biblical promises to my people have been misappropriated by most of the Church for far too long.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


When Nonsense Will Be No More

For the week of April 22, 2023 / 1 Iyar 5783

Message info over an image of Escher Relativity Stairs

Tazria & Metzora
Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33; B’midbar/Numbers 28:9-15
Haftarah: Isaiah 66:1-24

For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. (Isaiah 66:22)

This week’s Haftarah (reading portion from Hebrew Prophets) is the second of two references made by Isaiah to “the new heavens and the new earth” that God will create (the first being Isaiah 65:17). The renewal of the entirety of creation is central to the overall story of the Bible. From the beginning, God had determined that he would not allow the cursed state of affairs resulting from our first parents’ disobedience, to be permanent. From the first hint of restoration based on the eventual destruction of the serpent and all it represented (see Bereshit/Genesis 3:15) to the promise to Abraham of world-wide blessing (see Bereshit/Genesis 12:1-3; compare Galatians 3:8) to various other prophecies to Israel and their implications for the nations, summing it all up in terms of universal renewal should be of no surprise.

Contrary to popular misconception, the expectation of the new heavens and new earth was never to be understood as God’s intent to destroy the material realm. Far from it! God was and is committed to his creation project. What is to be destroyed will be all the evil forces that have worked to undermine the essential goodness of God’s plan. A day is coming when the universe will be set right fully and forever.

To deny God’s intentions for the material realm distracts from an accurate biblical understanding of the world in which we live. Biblically minded people may be surprised, if not offended, to be told that our tendency to degrade the creation by denying the God-given goodness of the material realm has contributed to the growing tendency of much of today’s culture to embrace nonsense.

We live in a world of design, God’s design. Despite its cursed state, the creation is based on divinely intentioned principles. Denial of those principles is a denial of reality, nonsense in other words. C.S. Lewis, in his book The Problem of Pain, eloquently explains that the only thing that God can’t do is nonsense. The universe we live in has material and non-material aspects to it. Nonsense doesn’t exist, nor can it.

Yet, that doesn’t stop human beings from pretending that it does. I attribute this phenomenon to the wonderful God-given gift of imagination. Imagination is a key dynamic involved in creativity. It is imagination that enables us to problem solve, to explore possibilities, and to expound the complexities of life and the universe in extraordinary ways. What imagination on its own cannot do is determine what is good and right. When imagination is untethered from the realities of our universe, untold destruction is the result.

Asserting “anything is possible” or “you can be anything you want to be” are helpful when facing legitimate injustice or badly perceived obstacles. All sorts of beneficial innovations have been discovered and effectively implemented due to such optimistic attitudes. Accepting our inability to fly was reasonable until someone allowed their imagination to develop flying machines. But to imagine we can fly without such a device is outside the realm of God-established reality. To believe we could would be nonsense. Any attempt to do so would result in destruction.

Nonsense has beset the human family from the time Adam and Eve accepted the serpent’s claim that God was lying to them. Whether we ascribe power to idols or believe being rich will make us happy or that being popular will give us self-esteem or pretending we were born in the wrong body, nonsense has always set us in a destructive direction.

The establishment of the new heavens and the new earth will mark the time when nonsense will be shown for what it really is. No longer will reality be ignored as God unveils the full essence of his design forever. Until then, we have the opportunity and responsibility to reflect the creation’s destiny through navigating our broken world via the truth of God’s Word under the forgiveness of the Messiah and the power of the Ruach HaKodesh (English: the Holy Spirit). Imagine that!


Food Matters

For the week of April 15, 2023 / 24 Nissan 5783

Message info over an assortment of foods

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47
Haftarah: 2 Samuel 6:1 – 7:17
Originally posted the week of April 22, 2017 / 26 Nissan 5777

Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the living things that you may eat among all the animals that are on the earth. (Vayikra/Leviticus 11:2)

One of the essential features of the covenant God gave the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai is the directives concerning what kinds of meat were permissible to eat. Only animals which met certain criteria from the various categories of mammals, birds, fish, and insects were allowed to be consumed. Why exactly only mammals that chew their cud and have split hooves or fish that have both fins and scales could be eaten is not explained.

This hasn’t stopped people from trying to guess. Is there something about the design of these animals in contrast to those who didn’t meet the specified criteria that represented something about God or life? Perhaps, but since this is not explicitly stated, then it’s pure speculation, of which I am leery. Are these animals heathier to eat than others? The English words used to describe the categories of permitted vs. not permitted are “clean” and “unclean.” To the contemporary reader this may imply “healthy” and “unhealthy,” which these foods might be, but that’s not how clean and unclean function in the Torah. These terms have to do with being ritually fit for service. Encountering something unclean, be it food or anything else, renders one ceremonially unfit to engage the ancient sacrificial system.

One possibility may have to do with the way awareness of clean and unclean foods would help create a general sensitivity with regard to what is acceptable and what is not. As we see in our own day, discerning right from wrong is not natural. We need to be taught the difference. Having to always be careful about what goes into our mouths may train us to be careful about other aspects of life as well.

Whatever the reasons for these directives, one of the outcomes of this strict culinary lifestyle is that it creates a closed community. God’s forbidding the eating of certain foods made it impossible for the people to socialize with the surrounding cultures, since they followed no such diet. It’s understandable that since Israel’s neighbors heartily consumed unclean cuisine, that Israel would regard foreigners themselves as unclean.

It is commonly asserted that with the coming of Yeshua, the Torah food laws where discarded. Certainly these directives are implicated by the Messiah’s instituting of the New Covenant, but not in the way usually assumed. The oft quoted passage, Mark 7:19, is more of a criticism of the misguided religious obsession of ritual over heart, than a statement about the new status of pork, etc.

But that doesn’t mean that God intended to preserve the food laws into the New Covenant period. Peter learned this when God prepared him to make his first official visit to a Gentile home as an emissary of the Messiah.

Those who think the food laws still apply like to point out that Peter’s vision in which God told him to eat unclean animals was not mainly about the animals, but rather the Jewish mindset toward Gentiles as expressed in his comment: “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean” (Acts 10:28). While his vision is indeed first and foremost about people, the food issue is certainly implied, since there is no way to fully interact with foreign cultures without sharing what they eat.

This doesn’t mean that Jewish believers or anyone else may not retain scruples over food. Not only do the New Covenant Writings mention this, but they encourage us to be sensitive toward the scruples of others for love’s sake (see Romans 14:1 – 15:13). But if we are called unto a foreign culture, we need to be ready to enjoy all sorts of fare that we may not prefer.

One more thing. While it is clear that the early Jewish followers of Yeshua were not mandated to impose food laws upon the Gentiles (see Acts 15), thus extending freedom to believers regarding what they eat, it is conceivable that being exposed to passages such as this week’s parsha (weekly Torah portion) may alert other cultures that perhaps not everything we want to put in our mouths is good for us. I know this opens a can of worms for some. But just because we are allowed to eat worms, doesn’t mean we should.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Generation to Generation

Message info over an image of a grandfather, son, and grandson

For the week of April 8, 2023 / 17 Nisan 5783
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 13:1-16; B’midbar/Numbers 28:19-25
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:37-37:14
Originally posted the week of April 11, 2020 / 17 Nisan 5780 (revised)

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You shall tell your son on that day: It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt. (Shemot/Exodus 13:8)

Pesach (English: Passover) begins this year the evening of Wednesday, April 5. One of the reasons for this annual commemoration of Israel’s freedom from slavery in Egypt is to retain connection from generation to generation, “l’dor vador” as it is said in Hebrew. The ritual aspects of the retelling of the exodus were designed by God to not only remind subsequent generations of this wonderful, foundational story from our history, but to intimately bind our descendants to the original event to the extent that they see themselves as actually there when it happened. Every year when celebrating Pesach, we are to say to our children: “It is because of what the LORD did for me when I came out of Egypt.”

But isn’t this statement for the originals only? Would it not be more correct for the children of the released Hebrew slaves to say, “It is because of what the Lord did for my parents when they came out of Egypt”? Understanding oneself as connected to a historical event through one’s ancestors isn’t identical to being there, of course. That’s technically correct, but technicalities of this sort obscure the depth of meaning found in the intense identification the statement demands.

Even technically, we are far more connected to our history than we normally think. However genetics actually work, the experiences of the past indelibly stamp themselves on our psyches. To some extent, we carry the past with us and pass it on to our children whether we or they are conscious of it. For subsequent generations to benefit from the events of the past, be they good or bad, it’s better to be not only conscious of those events but consciously understand them properly.

From the days of Moses and the departure from Egypt every Jewish person was to regard themselves as a freed slave. To lose that would be to lose the core of our identity and begin to become something that we are not.

Retaining connection to this story is not for the Jewish people alone. When Yeshua leveraged his last Pesach celebration to function as the key reference through which his followers would remember him and his sacrifice, he opened the door for everyone, Jewish or otherwise, to realize the commonality of all peoples. Israel’s oppression in tyrannical Egypt functions as a picture of the oppression of all people to evil. Yeshua’s giving of himself as the supreme Passover Lamb provides freedom to all who trust in him. Just like the Angel of Death passed over those Jewish homes that applied the Passover lamb’s blood to their doorframes in faith, so God’s judgement passes over anyone, Jewish or not, who figuratively places the Messiah’s blood over themselves by trusting in him.

As we tell the story of our deliverance that we inherited from those who have gone before, their story becomes our story. This is especially important given what we have all gone through these past three years due to lockdowns, masking, social distancing, travel restrictions, and other mandates. The physical and psychological divisions among us eclipsed our shared humanity. Pesach, as understood through a messianic lens, reminds us that the God of Israel is the God of deliverance for all. And if we make his deliverance ours, as demonstrated by the exodus and offered to all people through the Messiah Yeshua, we will have the opportunity to tell our children, “This is what the Lord did for me.”

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated


They Are Us

For the week of April 1, 2023 / 10 Nisan 5783

Message info over a collection of old photos and a pocket watch

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Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 6:1-8:36 (English 6:8 – 8:36)
Haftarah: Malachi 3:4-24 (English: 3:4 – 4:6)

And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Malachi 3:24 [English 4:6])

As is my custom, I prepare TorahBytes each week by looking at both the weekly Torah and Haftarah (excerpt from the Prophets) portions. In more recent years, I also tend to look back at my previous messages based on these portions. The last time I commented on the portion from the end of Malachi, was the week of April 4, 2020. The first set of significant COVID measures, including lockdowns and social distancing, began in most places a couple of weeks prior. Here are a few excerpts from that message:

We are in sobering times. Most of us alive today have never seen a global pandemic nor have had to endure such drastic measures. Time will tell whether or not the restrictions imposed upon us are justified…We don’t know what the world will be like when this is over…People’s value systems will be transformed…Are we prepared? Are we prepared to face death? Are we prepared to face life?…The pressures of coping with COVID-19 personally and relationally are driving us individually and societally to a tipping point.

At that time, I asserted that the generational division had already been in place long before this crisis undermined our societal foundations, making dealing with COVID far more difficult than it would have been had the family unit been stronger. But something else was also going on unrelated to COVID: an all-out attack on the past.

The present can certainly be helpful in shining light on the past. Yet, it’s one thing to experience regret for our personal or communal wrongs. But it’s quite another to mercilessly attack it. We have become too quick to condemn the actions of the past based on our supposed enlightened perspective. God’s warning through Malachi speaks powerfully to the current moment. He said that unless the hearts of the fathers turn toward the children and vice versa, God would “come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” In other words, the survival of society depends on the healing of the generation gap.

Not only has the generation gap widened in the past few years, the very nature of the gap has changed. What began as a difference of opinion between adults and young people amidst the turbulent 1960s, is now a violent disdain for the actions of generations of the distant past. What had been a critique of cultural values has become a rage over long-ago events to the extent that their very memories are being wiped out of existence.

What is perhaps the most insidious aspect of this so-called social justice movement is the practical denial that the current generation are the descendants of our forebears. When we condemn them, we don’t realize how much we condemn ourselves. Assuming that the current generation possesses sufficient moral superiority, qualifying them to sit in judgment over the past, exposes a complete lack of self-awareness. Today’s social justice warrior types forget that we share the same humanity, in all its glory and brokenness, as those who came before. So, instead of owning the inheritance of past wrongs and working toward a better future, all that is gained is a sense of pride in one’s self-proclaimed moral superiority. To be so out of touch with one’s own nature can only lead to greater trouble. It’s only by recognizing that we are made of the same stuff as our ancestors can we find any resolution to the pain we feel for the social ills that have plagued humanity from the beginning. It’s when we see ourselves in the faces of the past that we can effectively address the ills of the present. But when we distance ourselves from our ancestors, we distance ourselves from ourselves.

This is why we need to heed the prophetic call to turn our hearts to our fathers. This may be our literal fathers or our historical and cultural ones. A thought: I wonder how many people who are enraged over great social ills of the distant past are also enraged at their own dads. These may be related. Be that as it may, the warning through Malachi is as relevant today as it was when it was first delivered. If the generational divide is not healed, we are in big trouble.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated


Divine Aromatherapy

For the week of March 25, 2023 / 3 Nisan 5783

Message info over an image of an essential oil diffuser humidifier

Torah: Vayikra/Leviticus 1:1 – 5:26
Haftarah: Isaiah 43:21 – 44:23

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And the priest shall burn all of it on the altar, as a burnt offering, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. (Vayikra/Leviticus 1:9)

Do you have a favorite smell? I have heard it said that our sense of smell supplies one of the strongest memories human beings possess. Whether we believe in aromatherapy or not, it is difficult to deny how various fragrances can have a profound effect upon us. Some fragrances may spark our appetite, while other may excite us, clear our minds, or help us relax.

As we begin Vayikra, Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, for another year, we regularly read about God’s emotive response to certain offerings. This is termed, according to the translation I’m using here, the English Standard Version, as a pleasing aroma to the Lord. This gives the impression of some sort of pleasure response on God’s part. Before I address what may be going on here specifically, I want to discuss more generally what Scripture means when it refers to God’s having what appears to be very humanlike experiences.

Many theologians assert that such references are a type of metaphor (figure of speech) called personification or anthropomorphism. Anthropomorphism is when nonhuman creatures or objects are portrayed in human-like ways. Examples commonly found in books and movies, include talking animals, toys, or cars. Personification is when the actions of a nonhuman creature or object are described in humanlike ways. This is so, when weather “threatens” or pain “shouts.” Most examples like this when pertaining to God would be categorized as personification, such as when he regretted making Saul king (see Shmuel/Samuel 15:11) or one day exulting over his people with singing (see Zephaniah 3:17).

It is important to understand how these and many other examples of God’s having or expressing humanlike attributes or emotions represent what he is experiencing. Through history many have undermined the power and meaning of such metaphors by asserting that God can’t be affected by human behavior. They conclude that these metaphors are used for our sakes alone in order to confront our beliefs and behaviors, while God himself is absolutely unmoved. If God can be affected by his creation, how would he then retain control?

Philosophically, I see the problem. But the Bible doesn’t attempt to fully satisfy our desire for an exhaustive philosophical system. Instead, it provides what we need to know in order to live effective, godly lives. That includes, in God’s wisdom, all sorts of descriptions of himself that are humanlike.

Isn’t that God’s way of coming down to our level, so that we can understand that which is completely beyond our comprehension? To some extent, yes. However, when God reveals himself in these ways, what’s the point if they don’t represent reality? When the second Psalm tells us God laughs at the conspirators (see Psalm 2:4), if he isn’t really laughing, what then is he doing? If God is as unmoved as some say he is, then it seems to me what we are left with is nothing more than a mechanical universe, while created by God, is simply behaving according to design. God isn’t involved, even though he is ultimately responsible for creation’s impersonal reactions.

But is that the reality the Bible reflects? Is not God personally involved in human affairs? Does he not communicate to and through people? Is it not more reasonable to accept that God actually experiences the emotions as told us through Scripture? I suggest that our human experiences are a real though comparably feeble reflection of what God is experiencing. Our emotions, therefore, are a taste of what God is truly feeling.

Once we accept that God is experiencing something very real in response to properly instituted offerings, we are able to look more carefully at the expression “pleasing aroma.” The word translated as “pleasing” (nee-kho-akh) is derived from the word “noo-akh,” meaning “to rest” or “to settle down.” This is why some translations prefer “soothing aroma.” It’s not just that God likes these offerings, it’s that they sooth him, the picture being one of God’s being agitated by sinful behavior but calmed by the act of sacrifice. Of course, we know from other parts of Scripture that it wasn’t the offering itself that made the difference, but the heart of the person making the offering.

And so it was with such a heart that Messiah himself not only gave himself but did so as an example to us all. As we read in the New Covenant Writings, “Conduct yourselves in love, just as the Messiah loved us, and gave himself for us, as a sweet-smelling offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:2; New Testament for Everyone). The great universal effect accomplished by the Messiah’s sacrifice is to be reflected in the healing aroma of our lives.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version unless otherwise indicated


Let Him In

For the week of March 18, 2023 / 25 Adar 5783

Message info over a large double wooden door, a hand opening them, and glowing light coming through

Vayakhel & Pekudei
Torah: Ex 35:1 – 40:38; & Ex 12:1-20
Haftarah: Ezekiel 45:16-46
Originally posted the week of March 9, 2019 / 2 Adar II 5779

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Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. (Shemot/Exodus 40:34)

After many chapters containing intricate details of every aspect of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle), it was finally finished. It must have been really something for a nation of former slaves to have completed their first building project that was for themselves. It was for God, of course. But it was also, in a very real sense, their own. Located in the center of their community, Israel now had a tangible expression of their unique peoplehood and faith.

However satisfying the Mishkan was or impressive it was to see, nothing can compare to what happened next. The pillar of cloud and fire, which was a physical manifestation of God himself, filled it. In some real way God himself took up residence in his house. The “everywhere” God localized his presence in the midst of the people of Israel.  

What would the Mishkan be without God inside it? Since it was built under his direction and according to his instructions, it was a legitimate place of true worship. The cohanim (English: priests), who were responsible for the sacrifices and the maintenance of the inner buildings, and Levi’im (English: Levites), who assisted them, were sanctioned by God through Moses. As long as they were faithful to the Mishkan’s Torah regulations, their activities would be pleasing to God and of benefit to the people. The understanding of God reflected by the Mishkan and its proceedings would proclaim the truth of God, his word, and his people.

So, what difference did his localized presence make?  It might surprise you if I don’t say “everything.” It’s not “everything” due to its legitimacy and the benefits I briefly tried to describe. But it is still a really big difference. The presence of God within the Mishkan allowed the people to go beyond good and true concepts of God to encountering him personally.

This personal dynamic is key to genuinely experiencing God. I wonder how much well-intentioned believers are content with a life that is more akin to the Mishkan without God’s presence. Most things in our lives appear to be in order. We believe the right things. We go through all the right motions. We avoid bad stuff (at least most of the time). But, if we are honest, God remains a concept; there’s no personal dynamic. God is around certainly, but he isn’t right here, not to mention inside us.

I know there’s lots of controversy about what the New Covenant Writings refer to as being filled with the Holy Spirit. Much of that controversy is wrapped up in people’s attempt to explain and formulize the personal dynamic of God’s presence in the life of the believer. Forget the controversy for a second. Is our experience of God supposed to be like the Mishkan without God? The New Covenant refers to us as the Temple of the Holy Spirit both corporately (1 Corinthians 3:16) and individually (1 Corinthians 6:19), because we are to be like the Mishkan with God inside.

If God isn’t in you the way he wants to be, let me offer some suggestions as to why. First, you may not truly believe in Yeshua. You may know that already, you may be lying to yourself, or others have deceived you into thinking that you are a true believer when you are not. If that’s the case, that can easily change right now. Turn from your sin and call out to God in Yeshua’s name. Second, the Bible speaks about grieving (Ephesian 4:30) the Holy Spirit. You may have come to believe in Yeshua, but your lifestyle is creating all sorts of barriers to truly experiencing him the way you should. The solution to that is the same as the first. Stop the bad behavior and turn to Yeshua. Let him direct you from there. Finally, you may have been conditioned against the work of God in your life. The Bible also speaks about quenching the Holy Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). You have been taught to be suspicious of emotions, impressions, inklings, voices, and visions – these and other ways that God makes himself known to us personally. This one is more difficult that the other two, since it so insidious. Some people have been taught that many of the things that God is doing in your life is of the devil. Can’t do much about that until you have a major paradigm shift (completely new way of looking at life). Good news though – nothing is impossible for God. He can show you what’s right. But for that to happen, you’re going to have to let him in.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


The Pain of Waiting

Message info over a photo of a woman impatiently sitting alone in a waiting room

Ki Tissa
For the week of March 11, 2023 / 18 Adar 5783
Torah: Shemot / Exodus 30:11 – 34:35
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38
Originally posted the week of February 15, 2014 / 15 Adar 5774 (revised)

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When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered themselves together to Aaron and said to him, “Up, make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” (Shemot/Exodus 32:1)

Years ago, I was talking to someone and said to them that I suffered from a lack of faith. That’s quite a confession for someone who calls himself a “believer,” seeing that biblically, belief and faith are the same thing, as is trust. Whatever the correct terminology, I was seeking to sum up my life struggles by acknowledging unbelief. My friend said “No, your trouble is lack of patience.” I think they were right. It’s not that I have never struggled with faith; it’s that my impatience has caused me unnecessary trouble time and time again.

I hate waiting! I can’t remember a time when I felt differently. Whether I am suffering, dreading a potential problem, or even anticipating something fun and exciting, I find the waiting process awful. I remember the first time I met someone who found more pleasure in the anticipation of an event than in the event itself, it was like meeting a visitor from another planet. How can anyone enjoy anticipation, when it makes me sick! It took me a while before I realized that I had a problem, a big problem.

The people of Israel camping out at Mt. Sinai vividly demonstrate for us how serious a lack of patience can be. Moses was away for over a month meeting with God. Even though Moses, a person who had proved to be so trustworthy, said he was coming back, they couldn’t handle what they took to be a delay in his return. I don’t blame them for how they felt. Of course I don’t, I can so relate! Being in a hostile environment, journeying into the unknown, having no clue when their leader would return, they were likely overwhelmed by their uncertainty and the waiting.

Patience is the ability to endure the pain of waiting, an ability they certainly lacked. But that’s not where they went wrong. Their sin was not in the pain of waiting, but in their turning to other gods. Their real problem was their lack of faith, which was exposed by their impatience.

The distinction between patience and faith is an important one. I wonder how many people are like me, especially in thinking that we are struggling with faith, not patience. Properly understanding this distinction can help us overcome this problem.

Those of us who suffer from the pain of waiting need to come to grips with the fact that so much of life is a process. Seeds are planted a long time before the plants produce fruit. Babies and other living creatures need a period of gestation before being born, hatched, etc. Maturity takes time. Projects require design and development. None of these common processes are due to sin. God invented process. Getting used to the reality of process over time is a first step in learning to be patient, to not get offended when we experience delay, short- or long-term.

Where my friend may not have been quite correct by saying that my problem was lack of patience, not lack of faith, is that they didn’t acknowledge how faith and patience are connected. While it has been helpful for me to realize that I have difficulty waiting, at the root of this is a lingering doubt over God’s general inclination toward me. For if we realize that God is in control of our lives, that he truly loves us, and his intentions toward us are always good, then when we experience delay, when we need to wait, when we cannot immediately see how our problems will be resolved, we can take comfort in God. Impatience, therefore, serves the purpose at times to reveal foundational flaws in our basic relationship to God.

Some people are afraid to pray for patience, thinking that God will bring them into the kind of difficult situations that require it. Whether or not we need to pray such a prayer, God will bring us into those situations anyway. We, like the people of Israel, will find ourselves where waiting a moment longer seems to be the most impossible thing ever. Whether our problem is lack of faith or patience, the solution is always the same. Don’t give up on God, because he has promised to be with us through the often-painful process of waiting.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version


Mercy Place

For the week of February 25, 2023 / 4 Adar 5783

Message info over an artist's reproduction of the Ark of the Covenant
For illustration purposes only. Not intended to provide exact representation of the Ark.

For the week of February 25, 2023 / 4 Adar 5783
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 25:1 – 27:19
Haftarah: 1 Melachim/1 Kings 5:26 – 6:13 (English: 5:12 – 6:13)
Originally posted the week of March 4, 2017 / 6 Adar 5777

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You shall put the mercy seat on the ark of the testimony in the Most Holy Place. (Shemot/Exodus 26:34)

As part of the building of the Mishkan (English: Tabernacle) and its furnishings, God directed Moses to build a “kapporet,” an ornate cover to be placed on top of the “aron ha-b’rit” (English: the Ark of the Covenant). The aron ha-b’rit was an elegant box that contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments, a jar with a portion of manna, and Aaron’s rod that had budded. It resided in the Mishkan’s inner sanctum called the “kodesh ha-k’dashim” (English: the Most Holy Place), and it represented the very presence of God within the community of Israel.

When the “Cohen Ha-Gadol” (English: the High Priest) entered the kodesh ha-k’dashim once a year at Yom Kippur (English: the Day of Atonement), the kapporet was the focus of his attention, for he was to apply the blood of the festival’s special sacrifices before it and over it (see Vayikra/Leviticus 16:11-4). The purpose of this ritual was to provide purification for the inner sanctum from the people’s uncleanness, transgressions, and sins.

The kapporet was a lid made of pure gold overshadowed by the wings of golden “k’ruvim” (English: cherubim). The Scriptures tell us little about these creatures. We are introduced to them when Adam and Eve are banished from the Garden of Eden and God placed them to guard the tree of life. It is possible, therefore, that their being symbolically part of the kapporet was to remind Israel that the way to everlasting life remained blocked during the days of the Mishkan and its successor, the Temple.

Many English Bible versions translate kapporet as “mercy seat.” This goes back to one of the earliest English Bible translators, William Tyndale, whose 16th century translation became the core of the King James Bible and much of subsequent English translation tradition. It appears that Tyndale’s rendering of kapporet as mercy seat is based on Paul’s use of the Greek equivalent “hilastērion” in his letter to the Romans as he refers to the Messiah Yeshua, “whom God hath made a seat of mercy through faith in his blood” (Romans 3:26; Tyndale’s version). Hilastērion is the word for kapporet used by the Septuagint, the early Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, that was common in Paul’s day. While hilastērion had a different usage in Greek outside the Bible, Paul must have had its biblical use in mind, a connection that Tyndale choose to make abundantly clear.

Regrettably, in my opinion, the translators of the King James Bible and many other later English translations chose not to preserve this connection. Instead most go with the pagan Greek meaning, “propitiation,” which is the idea of appeasing an angry god. Ironically, the King James and many other English translations that use “propitiation” in Romans retain Tyndale’s “mercy seat” in Exodus even though the reason for translating the kapporet as “mercy seat” is because Tyndale was drawing from Paul’s allusion in Romans to the place of God’s presence and mercy where cleansing occurs.

You may not be aware of the great controversy among scholars over the meaning of Paul’s use of hilastērion. This is part of a discussion about how Yeshua’s suffering and death provides forgiveness and acceptance to those who trust in him. But however it works, let us not miss the power of Paul’s allusion. Through Yeshua’s giving of his life, he has become our kapporet – the place of mercy. What was once hidden and inaccessible has become available to all. If we put our trust in him, God purifies us once and for all, making us fit to freely enter his presence.

Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version