Questioning Traditions

Traditions are wonderful and powerful forces for creating and reinforcing the bonds of family, community, and nation. Shared experiences even bind together generations separated by centuries. For example, people have been singing hymns at church and synagogue for thousands of years. If you were to travel back in time to a first century congregation, the shared traditions of singing hymns and reading and studying the Scriptures would unite you with those ancient believers in a meaningful way despite the vast linguistic and cultural differences.

Traditions inform our language by filling our words and expressions with meaning. One or two words between two people with a shared culture might contain unspoken volumes. Weddings. Independence Day. Thanksgiving dinner. Christmas sweaters. Merit badges. I know what images these words invoke in the minds of most readers because I see them in my own mind, while they might be meaningless to a Hindu in Jaipur.

Not every tradition is good. Some traditions are tainted by origins in idolatry; others require active participation in sin. Jeremiah prophetically quoted future gentiles turning to God’s truth:

Our fathers have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit. (Jeremiah 16:19)

But I love tradition! We all have traditions we love dearly. And tradition…it loves us too, so much that it doesn’t want to let go. The very qualities that give tradition so much community reinforcing power, also give it claws that grip deeply.

When confronting the Pharisees and Scribes concerning man-made traditions that caused people to break God’s commandments, Yeshua said:

Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men. (Mark 7:6-8)

Men who spent their entire lives studying God’s Law couldn’t bring themselves to give up traditions that violated it. For the most part they couldn’t even see that there was a problem. Traditions can become so much a part of who we are that they become semi-invisible.

Even so, we do have to try to see them. When we stand before Yeshua one day, we don’t want to hear the same words he spoke to the Pharisees.

Yeshua gave his life so that we wouldn’t be condemned for our imperfections, but he didn’t give his life so that we could ignore God’s Law either. Fortunately, we don’t have to empty out every room and shine a light into every corner of our lives today. What we need right now is a desire to find and remove the things in our lives that are displeasing to God. The actual removal will take time and we have to be okay with that, both in ourselves and in others.

Three questions to determine if a tradition should be discardedI recommend asking yourself a few simple questions to determine if any tradition or habit or activity is something you need to stop:

1. Does this activity cause you to break one or more of God’s instructions? If yes, stop. If no, carry on.
2. Does this activity prevent you from keeping one or more of God’s instructions? If yes, stop. If no, carry on.
3. If possible, place the activity into the context of a marriage with God as the husband and you as the wife. Would this activity be appropriate in that context? Would it please your husband? If no, stop. If yes, carry on.
4. Does this activity make you uneasy? If yes, go back to question 1. If no, enjoy!

Finally, don’t panic. God doesn’t expect you to do everything perfectly from day one.

Or ever.

There will always be another dustbunny to sweep up, a stain to scrub out. In this life you will never be perfect. Fortunately, God is willing and eager to forgive those who approach him with a right heart, which means a desire to do the right thing even if we can’t always tell what that is.

Understand that God knows you. He knows what’s in your mind and in your heart. On one hand, this understanding ought to have us quaking in our boots. God is privy to every dark thought we entertain. But on the other hand, nobody is any different, and if an evil inclination was a barrier to God’s love, then we would all be lost. This was the very reason that Yeshua shed his blood. It covers over our flaws and washes away our sins so that we can approach God without fear of condemnation so long as we are committed to working out our salvation through continual improvements in our behavior and thoughts.

Cleaning the inherited lies from the dark recesses of life’s closets is important–it’s commanded–but having faith in God’s mercy to overlook the flaws that we have been unable (but not unwilling!) to address is even more important.

Start somewhere because starting everywhere isn’t possible and starting nowhere means we have no faith at all. Don’t get too uptight about all the places you haven’t cleaned yet. Knowing that there is more work to be done is one way that we know we’re on the right track. When you think you’ve got your house completely in order, then you can really start to panic.

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Faith and a Punch in the Mouth

Eventually you have to stop preparing and start moving.When some people prepare for a road trip, they spend weeks planning, packing, and making checklists. Other people throw some clothes in a backpack and hit the road without so much as a route mapped out in advance. Based on my own experience, I know which one I’d bet on reaching their destination and having more fun while there, but to each his own.

Of course, some journeys require more planning than others. There’s going to the grocery store and then there’s going off to college. Unfortunately, sometimes we don’t know which is which and sometimes there’s just no time for thorough planning.

The Hebrews spent a lot of time moving from place to place in the wilderness. They spent very little time preparing for each move, but those moves didn’t require or allow extensive planning. Is the cloud moving? Then it’s time to go. But on either side of their wilderness journeys there were two moves that were of a very different sort.

God gave them one day to get ready to leave Egypt and had them prepare by asking their Egyptian neighbors for silver and gold. God told Moses to tell the people, “Go ask your neighbors for money. God is sending one more plague tonight, and Pharaoh’s going to let us go in the morning.” They didn’t have years to save their pennies or to collect survival gear. They didn’t have weeks to pack up for the movers. They had one day.

Which was more than Yeshua gave to his disciples one time:

And he called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He charged them to take nothing for their journey except a staff–no bread, no bag, no money in their belts–but to wear sandals and not put on two tunics. And he said to them, “Whenever you enter a house, stay there until you depart from there. And if any place will not receive you and they will not listen to you, when you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” (Mark 6:7-11 ESV)

Just like with the Hebrews many centuries before, Yeshua wanted to teach his disciples to trust in Providence. When God tells you to go, he will also provide the means. When the “what” is certain, but the “how” seems unimaginable, trust God to provide the means or an alternate route.

God provides. To reinforce that point to the Hebrews, he led them to a dead end, trapped between the sea and Pharaoh’s chariots. Failure appeared certain, yet he made another way. God parted the sea and brought it back together again to drown Israel’s enemies.

Once in the Wilderness, God transformed them from bitter, defeated, and dependent slaves into a cohesive nation with a powerful faith in him. He spent forty years preparing them for their next mission, the conquest of the Promised Land.

If you’ve lived long enough, you’ve learned that no amount of planning can ever account for every possible eventuality. Stuff happens. Roads fork. Children. As Mike Tyson says, “Everybody has a plan ’til they get punched in the mouth.”

At some point, you have to move from planning to execution. You have to stop training, contemplating, brainstorming and start storming castles.

You have been traveling around this mountain country long enough. Turn northward. (Deuteronomy 2:3 ESV)

After an entire generation had died in the wilderness, it was finally time to stop moving from one campsite to another. It was time for Israel to turn north toward Canaan and start confronting the peoples whom God said had lost all claim to the land.

They had the Torah and the Ark of the Covenant. They had the priesthood and new, aggressive set of leaders. They were hardened and free, no longer thinking like slaves. The Hebrews were as prepared as they could ever be and nation after nation fell before them.

And then they came to Jericho.

They looked at each other and asked, “Now what?” It seemed that nothing they had experienced had prepared them for the impregnable walls and well trained soldiers of Jericho.

But that wasn’t quite true. It was true that their swords, slings, and arrows were no more effective than feathers against that wall, but all of their weapons and tactics were the least of their tools. They had one weapon that was mightier than all the armies that have ever existed: faith.

Faith brings obedience and obedience brings victory.

When no weapon was of any use, they obeyed God. They marched, blew trumpets, marched some more, and then shouted for all they were worth. Against all reasonable expectations, Jericho’s walls collapsed before the weight of their faith and the city was theirs.

Planning and preparation is important–nothing about any of these stories should lead you to believe that God doesn’t want you to prepare for life or ministry–but planning isn’t everything. Eventually you have to stop circling the mountain and turn northward.

When God told the Hebrews to ask their neighbors for traveling money, when he told them not to fear Pharaoh, when he told them to move from camp to camp, and when he told them to march around Jericho he was preparing them by building their faith in him. Without faith, all of our plans and maps will come to nothing. Whatever we might accomplish in life, wherever we think we have gone, without faith in God and the obedience that inevitably follows it, it will all turn to dust before the end.

On that day, when everyone and everything is getting punched in the mouth, only those things solidly built on a foundation of faith and obedience to God will survive.

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God Is Faithful to the Faithful

Have I mentioned that I love chiasms? (Technically, I think it’s supposed to be chiasmi, but you know what? I’m sticking with chiasms.)

I do. I love chiasms and I have another one for you. This one is in Psalm 66, which begins and ends with praise to God and a call to the nations to worship the God of Israel, but is centered on the trials and restoration of Israel.

A chiasm in Psalm 66 highlighting God's faithfulness to His faithful remnant

Hard times come and go for everyone and sometimes it seems like there’s more coming than going. I don’t know what is happening in your life or what trials you have faced or might be facing now or in the future. I won’t pretend that I understand your suffering or that I’ve been there. Chances are very good that I haven’t. Overall, my life has been pretty good. I have been fortunate in having been spared most of the horrible things that many people must endure. I pray that God is merciful to you, that your burdens are as easy as they can be and still accomplish God’s purposes.

“God’s purposes? You mean God is doing this to me?”

Probably, yes. Again, I won’t pretend to know everything. Maybe the things you have endured are strictly from the Adversary and not from God at all, but the weight of Scripture is on God causing your suffering.

Many people are under the false impression that God never does anything bad to anyone or that he only did that in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, there are a large number of examples in both Testaments of God inflicting suffering on both the wicked and the righteous, and, as he told Malachi, “I am YHVH. I change not.”

Psalm 66 says

For you, O God, have tested us; you have tried us as silver is tried. You brought us into the net; you laid a crushing burden on our backs; you let men ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance. (Psalms 66:10-12 ESV)

Clearly God inflicted great hardships on Israel. Enslavement in Egypt, oppression by the Philistines and others, conquest by Assyria, Babylon, Greece, and Rome…all brought on Israel by God. The Scriptures and the ancient sages of both Judaism and Christianity are agreed on that point.

Each person suffers for different reasons at different times. Some are wounded and sick so that God can be glorified through their healing. Others, as the Psalmist points out, are afflicted so that they will be refined. And still others so that their lives may become catalysts for the salvation of many more.

Although all peoples have suffered, because of the Scriptures and the scholarly traditions of Jewish culture, we have a more thorough record of the trials of Israel and the Jews than of any other people. Whether they have suffered more or less than others, I can’t say, but after all that they have endured, it is truly remarkable that they still exist as a people at all.

For almost 2000 years they were homeless sojourners all over the world in lands where they were alternately blessed and cursed by their hosts. They have been subjected to genocide after genocide, purge after purge, and yet they persist long after the Philistines, Hittites, and Midianites have vanished from all but stone and parchment.

Because God is faithful.

God promised Israel–the physical descendants of Jacob, not anything called the Church–that he would always preserve a remnant of them for his own purposes. He made covenants with Jacob, Moses, and Pinchas (among others), that their descendants would always be a people before God, and that all the fires, nets, and burdens of the ages could not eradicate them, but would refine them like silver in a crucible.

As we who have submitted ourselves to Messiah Yeshua are grafted into the tree of Israel, we become joint heirs of the promises and prophecies it contains, both good and bad. Refinement by fire is part of being Israel. If we are to be citizens of the Kingdom, then we must be willing to bear our crosses alongside Yeshua, whatever crosses God might have in store for us.

Remember that Yeshua said it was not the Romans or the Jews who crucified him, but he gave up his life willingly according to God’s will. And we know that, just like the suffering recounted by the Psalmist, his suffering was for the good of the whole world. His shed blood opened the way to our adoption into the House of Israel. Without his suffering we would be lost, and without our own suffering, we would remain impure, incomplete and incapable of fulfilling the role that God has for us to play in his great plan.

The chiastic pattern in Psalm 66 tells us what God wants us to do with our suffering: he wants us to praise him, to trust him, to tell the world about his great deeds and how he is faithful to bring those who trust in him through any trial, no matter how severe.

God’s plan might be impossible for us to see from where we stand, but the essence of faithfulness is trusting in him despite whatever evil happens in the world around us, to us or to others. The faithful are preserved, while those who cling to their sin are burned off like dross and cast aside.

If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened. But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer. (Psalms 66:18-19 ESV)

Keep the faith, because God’s purpose is not to destroy his people, but to refine them. Recall what Paul wrote to Timothy:

The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful [to the faithful, according to his word]– for he cannot deny himself. (2 Timothy 2:11-13 ESV)

And what Yeshua said to the disciples:

But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. (Matthew 24:13 KJV)

Suffering must come, but those who reject God because of it will in turn be rejected by him. Those who endure, however, will be restored in mercy and rewarded appropriately. Stand tall or fall on your face before the almighty, whichever seems right to your circumstances. You are in good company.

Do you ever wonder why churches don't teach what the Bible actually says?

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When Love Requires Violence

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven… You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:43-45a,48)

In Matthew 5, Yeshua corrected a number of man-made doctrines and misunderstandings of Biblical principles. Although Leviticus 19:18 says “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”, there is no command in Scripture to “hate your enemy”. It’s easy to see where they would get such an idea, though. In Psalm 139, David wrote,

Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with complete hatred; I count them my enemies. (Psalm 139:21-22)

This sounds at first like David hated his enemies, but that’s not what he said. David hated “those who rise up against” God and also counted them as his own enemies. He didn’t say that he hated his own enemies, most especially those who merely hated God in their hearts–which is bad enough–but only those who took action on their hatred, who rose up against God in open rebellion, attempting to bring others into their error.

On the national level, the Tanakh (the Old Testament) records numerous instances of God commanding Israel to attack those who had made themselves enemies of God either by attacking God’s people directly or by attempting to lead them into sin through which they could be cursed and defeated.

This is exactly the strategy that Balaam taught Moab and Midian to use against Israel. By attacking Israel, those nations became God’s enemies. If they had attacked Israel only in self-defense, they would still be Israel’s enemies, but not necessarily God’s, and Israel would be in the wrong. But they didn’t attack Israel in self-defense. They didn’t even attack because they hated Israel, but because they hated God who had chosen Israel instead of them.

And the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Harass the Midianites and strike them down, for they have harassed you with their wiles, with which they beguiled you in the matter of Peor, and in the matter of Cozbi, the daughter of the chief of Midian, their sister, who was killed on the day of the plague on account of Peor.” (Numbers 25:16-18)

There is no instance of God commanding Israel to attack or hate anyone simply because they were rivals or enemies of Israel. Edom also hated Israel, but unlike Midian and the various Canaanite nations, they didn’t rise up against God. Despite centuries of conflict between the rival kingdoms, God commanded Israel to respect the boundaries of Edom until they were both conquered by Babylon.

The same principle holds true for interpersonal relationships, especially between brothers among God’s people. In Matthew 5:43-48, Yeshua drew on the broader context of the original source of “love your neighbor as yourself”, Leviticus 19:1-30. This passage is structured as a chiasm (see here for more information on chiasms) in which commands to refrain from hateful behavior are sandwiched between instructions on sacrifice, refraining from idolatry, and reverencing parents, Tabernacle, and Sabbath.

  • v3 – Reverence for parents & Sabbath
    • v4 – Idolatry/paganism
      • v5-10 – Sacrifice and food
        • v11-20 – Fraud, oppression, hatred, mixtures, sexual abuse
      • v21-26a – Sacrifice and food
    • v26b-29 – Idolatry/paganism
  • v30 – Reverence for Tabernacle & Sabbath

A chiasm in Leviticus 19:3-30 that equates hatred with idolatry.This is very similar to another, much larger, chiastic structure in Exodus 25-40. In that instance, the idolatry of the golden calf, after which God commanded the faithful of Israel to kill their own brothers, is set between the stone tablets, Sabbath, and instructions for the Tabernacle. See more details on that chiasm here.

God’s intent in this arrangement appears to be to equate unjust hatred for one’s brothers with idolatry, or hatred of God himself. To paraphrase God’s message…

Don’t steal from or lie to one another. Don’t oppress the powerless. Don’t hold hatred in your heart for your brother. Don’t speak ill of one another. Respect the boundaries I have created. Just like you, your brothers are created in my image and if you abuse them, it is like you are abusing me. My true worshiper not only offers sacrifices and reverences his parents, my sanctuary, and my Sabbath, but reverences his brothers, even those who have done him wrong.

Mercy is always God’s default position. He loves all mankind and doesn’t want even a single person to be lost. But for reasons of his own, he has created us able to reject him and each other. We are fully capable of theft, rape, and murder, and God doesn’t stop us from committing whatever wicked act comes into our hearts.

Just as he has empowered us to do evil, he has empowered and even commanded us to correct injustices. We are required to execute murderers and adulterers and to exact punishment and restitution where applicable.

The punishment of criminals and the destruction of entire nations who have sworn enmity against God is not counter to Yeshua’s instructions to love one another. It is impossible to love everyone equally as some are willing oppressors while others are innocently oppressed. To destroy the one is to love the other and God’s word is consistently in favor of the oppressed.*

Usually love means being kind and merciful, but sometimes love also requires violence.

*And by oppressed I don’t mean poor or uneducated. Those are conditions that might be the result of oppression, but they might as easily be the result of natural disasters or poor personal decisions. I mean people who are actively being oppressed by someone else and who are unable to defend themselves.

The Rewards of Kings and Prophets

Whoever receives you, receives me

Israel had been in the wilderness for 38 very long years. They had wandered–seemingly without end–through some of the harshest terrain the world has to offer, living in tents, driving their herds before them. They had suffered internal and external violence, fire from heaven, and the earth opening beneath their feet. Finally, they were on the border of the Promised Land. They could walk north through a short stretch of territory belonging to Edom before crossing the Jordan to their new home. Just a few more miles.

That was the plan, at least, but no plan ever goes quite the way we intend.

At the border of Edom, Moses sent messengers to the king asking for permission to cross. Israel would not stray from the main road and would pay for any resources used, even for water. The king refused them passage, and they had to walk months and many miles out of their way.

After Israel had gone around Edom, they encountered King Arad, who not only refused them passage, but attacked them unprovoked. King Sihon, the Amorite, and King Og of Bashan, followed suit. Their hostility to the Hebrews is unexplained in Scripture. Their land wasn’t within the boundaries that God had originally described, so until they attacked Israel (or, as in the case of Edom, simply refused to cooperate), they had no cause to worry about this vast horde descending from the wilderness.

Not only did they have no cause to attack, but they had every reason to be friendly. Every nation in the area must have known what happened to Egypt. Why weren’t they afraid? Each of these kingdoms suffered a worse fate than the one before. Edom lived in Israel’s shadow for many centuries until they were ultimately destroyed as a nation and partially absorbed into Judah. Arad’s people were devoted to future destruction. King Sihon’s Amorites were dispossessed, and their land was occupied by the Israelites. Finally, King Og and his people were destroyed, men, women, and children.

Imagine how different Edom’s place in history might have been if they had helped Israel instead of hindering them? If they had been willing to trade with Israel, they could have established a very profitable relationship that might still exist today.

When preparing the twelve disciples (How many tribes of Israel are there, again?) for their evangelistic missions, Yeshua said “Whoever receives you, receives me.” Then he extend this principal to all people who are anointed by God to perform a mission.

One who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward.

I believe he was specifically thinking about these episodes in Numbers 20 & 21 when he said this, and here is the clincher:

Whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.

He told twelve men that those who provide aid–a cup of water, even–to them while on a God-ordained journey will receive a reward. The parallel to the twelve tribes being denied a cup of water by Edom is hard to escape. Indeed, those who will not extend a cup of cold water to them will receive their reward as well, but they might not like it very much.

Just ask King Og.

There are a number of reasons why someone might attack one of God’s anointed: hatred of God, jealousy of their anointing or position, pride, etc. It’s no different today. Whatever motivated Edom and Arad still motivates people today. Anyone who boldly speaks out against precipitously declining morals will be attacked. It doesn’t matter how polite they are about it. The truth is hateful to people who are desperate to believe a lie.

Everyone in God’s Kingdom has a job to do, and all of our jobs are important no matter how big or small they appear in our own eyes. King Og was a giant of a man–Deuteronomy 3:11 says his bed was about 13 feet long–but he was a gnat before God’s little ones. Don’t be afraid to put your hand to your plow or to your cross. (The two are very often one and the same.) You might not be a prophet or pastor, but whatever God has given to you is important, and the rewards for obedience are great. We are all anointed for one task or another and we all have opportunities to aid one another along the way.

It’s even possible that the job God has given you is to stand at the side of the road with a cup of cold water like Phoebe did for Paul. (Romans 16:1) Don’t dismiss service and kindness as inconsequential. Edom could have saved millions of people months of hardship just by standing aside and giving a little water. Instead, they are gone, erased from history as a people, remembered only for what they did wrong.

Be who God made you to be and don’t stand in the way of others who are also about God’s business. You will by no means lose your reward, and when you aid others in God’s service, your reward will be all the greater.

You’re the Ranger, not Ford Motor Company

Recently I quoted John 14:15 (If you love me, you will keep my commandments.) in an online forum and an atheist troll replied with Deuteronomy 25:11-12 (If two men, a man and his countryman, are struggling together, and the wife of one comes near to deliver her husband from the hand of the one who is striking him, and puts out her hand and seizes his genitals, then you shall cut off her hand; you shall not show pity.).

Now, unless I’m in the mood for a fight, I know better than to feed the trolls, so I didn’t respond to him. But even though I know he’s a troll, he has a good point.

As our Creator, God gets to decide what's best for us.God commands quite a few things in Torah that don’t set lightly with most Westerners today. If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them rescues her husband by striking or seizing the other man’s testicles, should we cut off her hand? If a man is caught with another man’s wife, should we drag them both out to the city gates and stone them to death? Should we execute rebellious teenagers?

It all seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? This is a very common and understandable reaction to God’s commands.

Before I say anything else, let me make this clear: God is the judge of right and wrong, not us. Since he created everything, he also gets to define everything, including love and hate. If God says this is love and that is hate, then that’s just the way it is. Get used to it.

Fortunately God isn’t arbitrary. He does everything in good order and with good reason, even though he doesn’t always tell us what his reasons are. If God says that stoning a rebellious son is the loving thing to do, then we can be sure he’s right and that we just don’t have enough information to judge.

Most people who reflexively raise these points as reasons not to obey God are missing one or more (usually many more) pieces of relevant data.

Take this sentence, for example, without punctuation and context.

Lets go eat grandma

You can’t tell from reading that sentence if someone is inviting grandma to eat lunch with them or inviting someone else to eat grandma for lunch. Translators encounter this kind of problem all the time. Hebrew can be especially difficult because the original biblical Hebrew doesn’t have punctuation or vowel markings, and we are separated from the original writers and audiences by thousands of years. Translators have to rely very heavily on contextual clues and traditional interpretations to understand what any given passage is actually saying.

One passage very commonly quoted as an example of Biblical unreasonableness is “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” etc., but how many quoters could actually tell you where it is written in Scripture? It’s actually in several places within the Torah, and the most common interpretation of all of them among both Jewish and Christian theologians throughout the ages is that the lex talionis (law of retaliation) was never meant to be applied literally. It describes a system of tallying monetary restitution, not physical retaliation.

Another common objection is to the stoning of the rebellious youth. This too, is usually cited by people who have probably never read the original passage, let alone attempted to understand it. If they had taken the time to examine the source, they would have discovered that the conditions demanded by Torah before a son could be executed for “rebellion” are quite stringent and that both parents must be agreed that the action is necessary. The requirements are so stringent, in fact, that this trial and punishment have probably never been carried out in all the history of ancient Israel. (See here for further discussion.)

“But what about slavery?” They will inevitably object. Yes, God’s Law allows for slavery, but it doesn’t encourage it and places some restrictions on it that make it a very different kind of institution than what existed in antebellum America and still exists in much of the non-Western world today. For example, Hebrew slaves must be released after 6 years ,and if a master broke so much as a single tooth of a slave, the slave must be set free.

I could address all of the rest of Torah’s presumed draconian requirements, but each and every one would prove to be of the same sort, misunderstandings caused by ignorance and hearsay.

In the end, God created us and knows what we need. If love consists of doing what is best for someone, who knows better what is best, the Creator or the created? If you’re not sure of the answer, then I suggest you ask your auto mechanic who knows best how to service a Ford Ranger, the Ford Motor Company or the Ranger.

Salvation, Sanctification, and Ordination

Leviticus 14:1-32

The person who has been healed of leprosy is to present himself to the priest at the Temple. The Temple provides two birds, a piece of cedar, a piece of scarlet cloth, a branch of hyssop, and an earthen jar. Someone is to put into the jar a small amount of water from a natural source of “living” water. Next, the priest has someone else kill one of the birds so that its blood drips into the jar and mingles with the water. The priest takes the second bird and dips it, along with the cedar, cloth, and hyssop, into the bloody water. He sprinkles the healed leper seven times, pronounces him clean, then lets the bird go free.

Our High Priest was dressed in scarlet, nailed to a wooden cross, offered vinegar on hyssop, and buried in an earthen vessel. He was willingly killed by the hand of another so that we could be washed in his blood and set free from our sin. Like the healed leper, there is nothing we can do to save ourselves and join the kingdom of the Messiah except place ourselves at his mercy. The birds are Yeshua who was killed for us, rose from the tomb, and ascended to heaven. We are the leper sprinkled seven times as a sign of completion, as if to say, “It is finished.”

After being sprinkled with the bloody water, the cleansed leper shaves his entire body and washes his clothes and body. He then moves into the camp, but doesn’t enter his own tent for seven days. At the end of the seventh day, he shaves his entire body and washes again, then he is finally clean.

A new believer is declared clean by our High Priest, but must still work at cleaning his life before he can assume any kind of authority or official role in the kingdom. Only after he has proven himself should he be called a bishop, elder, or deacon.

On the eighth day, the cleansed leper takes to the Temple two male lambs and one female yearling lamb, three omers of flour mixed with oil, and one log of oil. The priest kills one lamb as a guilt offering and one as a sin offering. After the sin offering, the priest anoints the right ear, thumb, and big toe of the leper with lamb’s blood. He then waves the oil and anoints the leper with oil on top of the blood. The remainder of the oil is poured over his head. Finally, the priest kills the third lamb and burns it along with the flour.

The cleansed leper offers three lambs and measures of oil and grain on the eighth day. Eight is the number of new beginnings, and the leper has already begun his new life. The two birds sacrificed on the first day are provided by the Temple, and these sacrifices are offered only after he has been cleansed. No offering or sacrifice we can make has anything to do with our salvation. Anything we do is done only in response. Once our guilt and sin have been removed, we are commanded to hear Torah (the ear), do Torah (the thumb), and walk in Torah (the toe). The anointing oil is placed on top of the anointing blood. Learn the Word, be filled with the Spirit, and then teach the Word. I’m not sure of the meaning of the burnt offering at this point. Perhaps it means that by the time we are able to teach, we should be mature in our faith with nothing left of our flesh but ashes.

Four of the five types of sacrifices are made in the cleansing of a leper: guilt, sin, grain, and burnt. The final sacrifice of the thanks offering is not commanded, but it is expected, and will be blessed. Following the rules can be a good thing, but it is God alone who heals and saves. Be sure to give glory where glory is due.

And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back and glorified God with a loud voice. And he fell down on his face at His feet, thanking Him. And he was a Samaritan.

And answering, Jesus said, Were there not ten cleansed? But where are the nine? Were none found who returned to give glory to God except this foreigner? And He said to him, Rise and go; your faith has cured you

Peter’s Passover

As prophecy, Passover has ripples forwards and backwards in time.

Over many years in Sunday School, in church, and at school (I went to a Christian school.), I remember hearing the story of Peter’s miraculous escape from prison (Acts 12) many times, almost as often as I heard about the non-escape of Paul and Silas in Acts 16. But in all that time, I don’t recall ever hearing that God orchestrated–and Luke portrayed–this escape to be a mirror image of the Hebrews’ escape from Egypt.

I don’t think there was any grand conspiracy of silence involved. Maybe it was taught, and I missed it, but I think it’s more likely that most of my teachers were unaware of the parallels themselves. But once you become very familiar with the story of the first Passover in Exodus, the connections are very difficult to miss. Check out this startling list:

Peter’s Passover Israel’s Passover
Herod persecuted Yeshua’s followers. Pharaoh persecuted the Hebrews.
Herod killed James (“Jacob” in Hebrew). Pharaoh killed the infant sons of Jacob.
Peter was arrested and imprisoned during Passover. Passover commemorates the enslavement and redemption of the Hebrews.
The congregation of believers prayed for Peter’s deliverance. The Hebrews cried out to God for their deliverance.
There were sentries outside Peter’s cell door. The Egyptians were outside the blood-marked doors of the Hebrews.
An angel, who lit up Peter’s cell, appeared to lead him out of prison. An angel in the form of a pillar of fire led the Hebrews out of Egypt.
The angel woke Peter and told him to get up quickly. God told the Hebrews to be prepared to leave Egypt quickly.
Peter’s chains were removed by a miracle. The Hebrews’ chains were removed by a series of miraculous plagues.
The angel told Peter to dress and put on his sandals. The Hebrews were told to eat the Passover with their sandals on and staffs in hand
The angel and Peter walked out past the guards with no resistance. The Hebrews walked out of Egypt with the full cooperation of the Egyptian people.
God caused the gates into the city to open to let Peter pass. God caused the Red Sea to part to let the Hebrews pass.
Peter said, “Now I am sure the Lord sent his angel and rescued me from Herod and all that the Jewish people were expecting.” Jethro heard all that God had done in rescuing Israel from Egypt.
Peter went to the house of Mary (“Miriam” in Hebrew) where there was a prayer meeting in progress. Miriam led worship and prayer after the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea.
There was a disturbance in Herod’s court when Peter’s absence was discovered. Pharaoh was angry and regreted that he had let the Hebrews go.
Herod killed the guards who allowed Peter to escape. God killed Pharaoh’s charioteers in the Red Sea.
The neighboring kingdoms depended on Herod for food. The neighboring kingdoms depended on Pharaoh for food during the famine of Joseph’s time.
The people who heard Herod’s speech praised him as a god. The Egyptians worshiped Pharaoh as a god.
An Angel of the Lord killed Herod. God drowned Pharaoh in the Sea.

We usually think of the Passover as a one-time event (God delivered the Hebrews from Egypt) that prophesied another one-time event (the death and resurrection of Yeshua). Done and done. But that’s not really the way that God works. He builds everything around themes, applying the same patterns over and over, almost like ripples across the surface of time.

Passover also appears in the destruction of Sodom:

  • Abraham washed the feet of his guests and offered a meal with unleavened bread.
  • Lot offered a meal of unleavened bread to the angels.
  • Lot and his family sheltered in his house while angels caused mayhem in Sodom.
  • The angels lead Lot and his family to safety while God destroyed Sodom.

In the binding of Isaac:

  • God led Abraham on a three day journey into the wilderness.
  • Father Abraham left his servants (his disciples) behind while he and his son go on ahead to the altar.
  • Isaac carried the wood for his own death.
  • The near death and subsequent resurrection of Isaac.

And in John’s Revelation:

  • A series of plagues devastate the world (Egypt).
  • Those covered in the blood of the lamb are saved from or through the plagues.
  • The redemption of the 144,000.
  • The saints sing the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.

There are probably other echoes of Passover in Scripture that I haven’t seen yet or can’t remember right now. My point is that it is a mistake to call one of God’s feasts “fulfilled” as if it’s no longer relevant. God wasn’t done with Passover when the Red Sea closed over the Egyptians. In fact, He was only just getting started. Nor was He done with it when Yeshua rose from the grave, as we can see in Peter’s escape from prison and in Paul’s use of Passover themes to teach holy living.

Yeshua’s death and resurrection wasn’t an echo of the Passover in Egypt, but the other way around. Egypt was an echo of Calvary, and it wasn’t the only one, either before or after. We can expect another Passover and another Exodus at the Day of the Lord described by the prophets.

Just as the plagues and the march out of Egypt weren’t a walk in the park for anyone, not even the Hebrews, so the Exodus to come won’t be pleasant. And like all great events and disasters, thorough preparation can make things much easier. We keep Passover every year as a memorial of what has already happened and so that we will be able to recognize God’s patterns when we see them in the world around us.

God’s feasts aren’t arbitrary, nor are they only historical. They are ongoing training that we can use to better understand His character and His plan, and to be better prepared for the future. If we are taken off guard at how events unfold, there’s no real excuse. God showed us what will happen, and then He told us and showed us again, and commanded us to learn it and rehearse it.

If you’ve never kept Passover before, it’s not too late. You can start this year, and don’t worry about getting all the details right. God doesn’t expect anyone to get it perfect or else He wouldn’t have told us to keep doing it year after year. But you do have to start somewhere.

Hebrew for Christians has a lot of good information on Passover at their website here. Don’t get overwhelmed. Take it one piece at a time and progress as you can. Find some believers near you who are hosting a Passover seder and ask if you can join them. Who would say no?


Here are some great resources you can use to explore Passover with your family:

A Family Guide to the Biblical Holidays.
Great for families with small children who want to replace secular and pagan holidays with God’s days:
A Christian Passover Seder.
A guide to a semi-traditional Passover celebration for believers in Yeshua.

Vayikra: Approaching God

I am the door. -JesusLeviticus (Vayikra in Hebrew) gets a bad rap. It’s usually dismissed by preachers and Sunday school teachers alike as tedious and irrelevant, full of blood and obsolete rules.

But God doesn’t waste words.

Vayikra begins with a series of word plays:

Leviticus 1:1-2 And the LORD called unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you bring an offering unto the LORD, ye shall bring your offering of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock.

There are two distinct word plays that I want to talk about. Let’s look at the less obvious one first.

This Torah portion–in fact, this entire book–is named “Vayikra” which means “called” or “summoned”, but there is something missing from the English translation. This isn’t the fault of the translators necessarily because the thing that is missing could not be translated directly. The Hebrew word vayikra in verse one is spelled strangely. Although Hebrew doesn’t use capital letters like we use in English, it does use cases. It has a standard case, an upper case, a lower case, and even an inverted case. In this case, the final letter in vayikra, aleph, is in lower case, almost like a subscript.

There is another instance in the Torah where vayikra is spelled strangely: “And God met Balaam.” (Numbers 23:4) This vayikra has no aleph at all. The rabbis say (and the KJV translators seem to have agreed) that this is because vayiker implies a chance encounter while vayikra is a deliberate summoning.

The rabbis go on to say that Moses used a small aleph in Leviticus 1:1 because he wanted to de-emphasize the fact that God sought him out from among all his peers to lead Israel to freedom and to deliver the Torah. Balaam’s encounter with God was made inevitable by the path he and Balak had chosen.

Moses’ encounter, on the other hand, was pre-ordained. The small aleph is Moses’ way of saying, “Yes, God chose me, but that doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone else.” We are all called. The questions to be answered are, how do we respond to our calling and what are we to do with it?

The second word play is more apparent, although the English translation still obscures it a little. Did you notice in the above paragraph how I used the word “case” so many times in a row that it almost became irritating? The Hebrew scriptures, especially prophecy, do this frequently. It’s a trick God uses to flag a particularly important idea or an idea that isn’t immediately clear in the plain text. The Hebrew words for “called unto”, “bring”, and “offering” all have the same root, kar, which refers to coming near. Putting the Hebrew words in, this passage looks something like this:

Leviticus 1:1-2 And the LORD vayik’ra unto Moses, and spake unto him out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, If any man of you yik’rib a kar’ban unto the LORD, ye shall yik’rib your kar’ban of the cattle, even of the herd, and of the flock.

To make the sense even more clear in English, “YHWH told Moses to approach him and spoke to him from out of the tabernacle of the congregation, saying, “Speak to the children of Israel, saying, ‘If anyone of you would approach God with an approaching, you will approach with an approaching from the animals of your herds and of your flocks.'”

So what is the message that is barely hidden here? It is the central theme of the entire book of Leviticus/Vayikra: drawing near to God. Although Leviticus describes a sacrificial system and priesthood that most people today view as obsolete and even barbaric, it also describes the only way that we might be restored to a close relationship with our Creator. Our restoration requires innocent blood to cover (atone for) our sins. (“Why” is another question entirely and might be beyond our ability to understand.)

We must first acknowledge our guilt and our inability to approach God on our own merits. Then we must accept the atonement that God has provided for us in his inestimable grace in the person of his Son, the Lamb of God. (Genesis 22:8 and John 1:29) The blood of Yeshua takes away our sins so that when God summons us we may draw near without being destroyed.

As in so many other cases, God has presented us with a choice. He told us to choose between life and death, blessings and cursings. In the Garden he provided the means of our destruction and on Calvary he provided the means of our salvation. We have but to choose and to surrender to the consequences.

Balancing Torah

God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel

God wants obedience. He said that if we love him, we will keep his commandments. Yet, Moses and Elijah both appear to have disobeyed God and were honored for it.

Although God had said that the only place authorized for making sacrifices was at the place where he would “put his name” (Deuteronomy 12:11), Elijah built an altar at the other end of the country. After he put the sacrifice on it and soaked it with water, he asked God to light it for him, and God did, sending fire from heaven to consume it, stones, water, and all. (1 Kings 18:18-40)

Moses came down from Sinai after forty days to find the people worshiping and sacrificing to the golden calf, and God said, “Step aside, Moses. I’m going to destroy these people and start over with you.” Moses refused and appealed to God’s reputation (His name) to convince him not to destroy Israel. “What will the Egyptians think of you?” God honored Moses’ disobedience and spared the nation. (Exodus 32:7-14)

The truth is that neither Moses nor Elijah were actually disobedient. If you have been keeping Torah for long, then you have probably realized that there are times when you must stretch or appear to violate one law in order to keep another. For example, it’s good to work on the Sabbath in order to free a trapped animal or to heal an injured man or feed the hungry. Not only is it not a sin to rescue someone on the Sabbath, but it would be a sin *not* to! Sometimes it takes a great deal of wisdom to weigh the competing priorities. The same thing is going on in both of these stories. There are important elements in both passages that aren’t made explicit in the text but that make all the difference in understanding what was going on.

When Elijah offered a sacrifice on Mount Carmel instead of at the Temple, in Jerusalem, he appeared to be in violation of this commandment. But he didn’t actually make the sacrifice. He only went half-way. He killed the animal and laid it out on the altar, but then he waited for God to finish the job. He stretched the letter of the Law, but he didn’t break it.

On the other hand, there can be no compromise with Baal or his prophets. We are commanded not to tolerate them, especially not in the Promised Land. Israel was supposed to have driven out all of the Canaanites and destroyed all of their shrines so that they would not be tempted to take up their false religion (Exodus 34:10-17). But Israel neither drove them out nor destoyed their holy places, with the end result that the northern Kingdom of Israel was thoroughly infested with idolatry from the very beginning.

Elijah picked a fight with the priests of Baal in the heart of the land they thought of as their own, but which actually belonged to God. He rebuilt one of the abandoned altars of God’s and proved who was the real owner. He understood God’s character well enough to know which rule took precedence in that situation and how far the one could be bent in order to preserve the whole.

When Moses stood in God’s way on Mount Sinai, he understood that God’s destructive power couldn’t really be constrained by a mere man. So why would God say such a thing? By telling him to move when clearly no movement was necessary, God was subtlely teling Moses that he had the authority to intercede on Israel’s behalf. For God to make promises of salvation to Israel and then to destroy them would itself be a violation of Torah, so Moses knew that it wasn’t really what God wanted to do. It was a test of Moses’ faith in God’s promises and of his willingness to sacrifice himself on behalf of the people, and Moses passed both tests.

God gave Moses authority over and responsibility for the people of Israel. He was their judge, teacher, and protector. He was the man whom God used to free them from captivity. When they fought the Amalekites, Moses’ upraised arms enabled their victory. When they complained against God, his intercession saved them from destruction. Moses, by divine appointment and as a type of the Messiah, was a spiritual covering for Israel. When God threatened to destroy them, Moses was duty-bound to intervene even against God himself. His role as Israel’s leader took precedence over any possible role as the progenitor of a new people, and he honored God by putting his own life on the line to save his disobedient, ungrateful people.* “God,” he said, “if you will destroy these people, then destroy me too, because otherwise I will have failed them, you, and myself.” Like Elijah, he had a heart that understood God’s.

I pray that YHWH will bless me with such understanding, with such love, with such a relationship with him, that I will know how to obey him even when obedience seems impossible, how to honor his calling, his people, and his Torah. Baruch HaShem!

*What a great example for all leaders and husbands! Moses put his own life in jeopardy because his love for God and his people demanded it.