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LESSONS FROM BALAAM

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The story of Balaam, the soothsayer, is in the Book of Numbers, chapters 22-24 with New Testament writers warning about Balaam on three separate occasions. With that in mind, the story must contain important lessons for us.

Balaam is a strange and intriguing personality. He is a baffling combination of supernatural spiritual gifts and corrupt character. Sometimes we can see this combination in ministers and leaders today.

When the story of Balaam opens, Israel is encamped on the border of Canaan. The King of Moab, Balak, was apparently afraid of the Israelites. Balak viewed the Israelites as a threat to his kingdom, although they had done nothing to justify his fear.

Feeling unable to confront Israel in battle, Balak decided to use spiritual weapons against them. He sent some of his princes, with a fee for divination in their hands, to the Israelites. Balak called for Balaam to come and put a curse on Israel. As a soothsayer, Balaam had a reputation for uttering blessings or curses with a powerful effect for good or evil.

It is interesting to note that Balaam came from a town in Mesopotamia. He was not an Israelite, yet he had direct personal knowledge of the one true God. In Numbers 22:18 Balaam refers to God as “my God” and knew his sacred name.

When Balak’s princes arrived, God told Balaam not to go with them and not to curse Israel. Balaam obeyed. So Balak sends a larger party of more honorable princes with a promise of a much greater reward. This time God gave Balaam permission to go on one condition: “If the men come to call you” (Numbers 22:20). Interestingly enough, there is no record that the men did come to call Balaam again. Yet he went, and by his disobedience incurred the anger of the Lord, who opposed him on his journey and nearly killed him. This is a great side story of how the donkey Balaam was riding saw an angel blocking their way and even spoke to Balaam when he began to punish the donkey. Finally, however, the Lord did release Balaam to go but with the condition: “Only the word that I speak to you, that you shall speak” (Numbers 22:35).

Balak welcomed Balaam and made the most elaborate preparations for him to curse Israel. But each time the result was exactly the opposite. Altogether Balaam uttered four prophecies, which are among the most beautiful and powerful revelations in Scripture of God’s irrevocable commitment to bless Israel.

Thwarted by God in his attempt to curse Israel, Balaam proposed a different strategy against her (see Numbers 31:16). If the Moabite women could entice the Israelites into idolatry and immorality, it would not be necessary to curse them! God Himself would bring judgment upon them. Balaam’s second strategy succeeded and 24,000 Israelites perished under God’s judgment (see Numbers 25:1-9).

In all of this Balaam displayed the most amazing inconsistency. More than once he had been explicitly forbidden to curse Israel. Further, by supernatural revelation he had four times affirmed God’s unchanging purpose to bless Israel and to judge her enemies. But he stubbornly persisted in cooperating with Balak, the enemy of Israel, and in plotting Israel’s destruction. (Eventually he was executed along with the kings of Midian—Numbers 31:8.)

This story leaves us to ask ourselves: What motive could be powerful and compelling that it would cause Balaam to act in direct opposition to the revelation he had received from God—to his own ultimate destruction? Two writers of the New Testament answer this question.

Speaking of false teachers in the Church, Peter says: “They have forsaken the right way and gone astray, following the way of Balaam the sone of Beor, who loved the wages of unrighteousness” (2 Peter 2:15).

Jude likewise, speaking of false teachers, says: They…have run greedily in the error Balaam for profit: (Jude 11).

The answer is clear. Balaam was tempted to his own destruction by the love of money. For this he was willing to prostitute his marvelous spiritual gifts. Probably he was flattered too by the attention he received from King Balak and his princes. The love of money is closely associated with the desire for popularity and for power. All of these evil lusts grow out of the selfsame soil: pride. Sounds like some of our church and government leaders, doesn’t it?

What are the lessons to learn?

First, Almighty God has made an irrevocable commitment to establish the Jews as His people forever (get over it if you think otherwise). There is no power in the world, human or satanic, that can ever annul this commitment. Even Israel’s own unfaithfulness can never annul God’s faithfulness.

Speaking to Israel, Balaam says: “Blessed is he who blesses you, and cursed is he who curses you.” Individuals and nations alike determine their destiny—often without being aware of it—by their attitude toward the Jews. Those who bless are blessed and those who curse are cursed!

Second, one of Satan’s strongest and most successful weapons against us is the love of money. This has been true from the earliest days of Christianity until now. A ministry accompanied buy powerful supernatural signs—especially miracles of healing—can almost always become a means of making money.

Paul contrasted his own ministry with that of many of his contemporaries with these words: “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit” (2 Corinthians 2:17 NIV emphasis added).

Money in itself is not evil. By nature, money is neutral. It can be used however for either good or for evil. When we begin to love money, then we are caught in Satan’s snare. Look at Paul’s solemn warning to us:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into

 many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition.

 For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed

from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.

(1 Timothy 6:9-10)

Third, we need to understand the difference between spiritual gifts and spiritual fruit. Gifts represent ability, but fruit represents character. A gift comes through a brief impartation from God, but fruit comes through a slow process of development. Receiving a spiritual gift does not, in itself, change a person’s character. If a person was proud or unrelieable or deceitful before receiving a spiritual gift, that person will still be proud or unreliable or deceitful after receiving it. When we pass from time to eternity, we will leave our gifts behind, but our character will be with us forever.

Balaam’s clear vision of the blessed end that awaits the righteous is shown by his prayer: “Let me die the death of the righteous and let my end be like his!” (Numbers 23:10).Yet Balaam’s prayer was not granted. He was executed with the Moabites, whose money had tempted him to align himself against God.

Balaam’s story and the lessons learned from it are so current, not only in the Church but in our government as well. Each day in this election year greed among our officials and candidates for the highest offices in the land seems to be the driving force. Public service has become a means to great wealth. Certainly “service” is a misnomer these days. Not only greed but lying, cheating, and stealing, have become the norm and seemingly what the public accepts as normal.

Let’s learn from Balaam that obedience to the word of God is a means to much greater wealth than the world can offer. Character outweighs gifts. The fate of Balaam provides a graphic illustration of Jesus’ teaching given in Matthew 7:21-23:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who

does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we

not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders

 in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me,

 you who practice lawlessness.

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HANUKKAH AND JESUS

imgres (Hanukkah begins December                                                                                       12, 2017 at sundown.)

Around the 4th. Century b.c.e., Alexander the Great with his Greek armies conquered the near east including what is now called Israel.  After his death, his empire split apart.  The land of Israel came under the control of the Seleucid dynasty, which ruled in the region of Syria.  In the year 167 b.c.e., King Antiochus Epiphanes decided to force all the people under his rule to Hellenize (to become like the Greeks).  The practice of Jewish rituals such as the Sabbath and circumcision was outlawed.  The worship of Greek gods and sacrifice of pigs replaced the traditional worship in the Temple.  Some Jews eagerly flocked to the gymnasium, the symbol of the Greek emphasis on the beauty and strength of the body.  Others resisted Hellenism and died as martyrs.

One day the Greeks came to the village of Modi’in and set up an altar.  They commanded the Jews to bring a pig as a sacrifice to show obedience to Antiochus.  Mattathias, an old priest, was so enraged when he saw a Jew about to kill the pig on the altar, that he killed him.  He and his five sons then fought the Greek detachment, retreated to the mountains, and began a guerrilla war against the Greeks and their Jewish allies.  Before he died of old age, Mattathias passed on the leadership of the clan to his son, Judah the Maccabee.  Judah led his forces against a series of armies sent by Antiochus; and through superior strategy and bravery he defeated them all.  Finally, he and his followers liberated Jerusalem and reclaimed the temple from its defilement by the Greeks.  They could find only one small curse of oil, enough to last one day.  But when they lit the temple Menorah (the oil lamp) with it, a miracle occurred.  The Menorah burned for eight days.

So, we celebrate Hanukkah to remember the Maccabees and their successful fight for justice and to remember the miracle of light.

There are two very special themes and symbols that pertain to Hanukkah.  They are the number eight and the theme of light.  In chapter 10:22 of the Gospel of John, Jesus went into the Temple to teach. The Gospel tells us it was the Feast of Dedication or Hanukkah.

The major ritual associated with Hanukkah is the lighting of the Menorah—the purpose of which is to make known the miracle of the light.  Originally the Menorah was lit outside near the doorstep so that all passers-by could see it.  It is still customary to place the Menorah in the window so that passers-by can see the lights (this little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!)  Jesus taught in Matthew, chapter 5:  “You are the light of the world.  A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.  Nor do men light a lamp, and put it under the peck-measure, but on the lampstand; and it gives light to all who are in the house.  Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father, who is in heaven.”

A note about Menorahs:  usually eight candles or oil holders are placed on one level, with the “shammus” (servant) being the singled-out one that is used to light the other lights.  Wow, that speaks volumes of Jesus, doesn’t it? After all, it was Jesus who came as a servant to relight the light in mankind. Menorahs are also called Hanukiahs in Israel and on the Israeli ones it says:  a miracle happened here.  On the U.S. ones, the ones with this saying actually read “a miracle happened there.”

Traditionally, the shammus is lit and then before the other candles are lit, the following prayers are said:

“Praise are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who has sanctified our lives through his commandments, commanding us to kindle the Hanukkah lights.  Praised are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, who performed miracles for our ancestors, in those days, at this season.”

On the first night an added prayer is said:  “Praised are you, Lord our God, ruler of the universe, for giving us life, for sustaining us, and helping us to reach this moment.” Then the shamus is used to light the other candles.  The candles are lit from right to left.

These lights are sacred for all eight days of Hanukkah.  It is forbidden to make use of them, except to look at them in order to praise God for his miracles, wonders, and triumphs.

There are two customs associated with Hanukkah:  the giving of gelt (money) to children and the playing of the game dreidle.  The “gelt” is usually in the form of chocolate coins.  Dreidle is a top that is spun and on each of the four sides is the Hebrew letters: nun, gimel, heh, and shin.  This forms an acronym for the phrase “neis gadol hayah sham—or “a great miracle happened there.”  And, once again, in Israel the letter shin is replaced with a peh for the poh—so that it reads:  “a great miracle happened here.”  Another interesting fact is that each of these letters (nun, gimel, hey and shin) has a numerical equivalent that adds up to 358, the same number as the letters of the word “messiah.”  It is the Messiah who is the author of miracles!

Secondly, it is customary to eat foods fried in oil, to remind us of the miracle of the oil.  So we eat latkes—potato pancakes. Here is a popular recipe:  3 large potatoes, 1 small onion, 2 beaten eggs, ½ cup of vegetable oil and salt and pepper to taste.  These are then usually eaten with applesauce or with sour cream.

During the eight days and nights of light, the Maccabees cleaned, purified and rededicated the Temple.  In the Torah (the first five books of Moses), dedications take place on the eight day—remember the first-born animals are consecrated to God on the eighth day.  Hebrew boys are circumcised on the eighth day.  And, even today, before a sanctuary can be rededicated, it must undergo a seven-day period of purification.  Thus, the word ‘Hanukkah’ means rededication and also the number 8 signifies the same in Hebrew tradition.

The last day of Hanukkah has a special significance.  It is called “zot Hanukkah” which literally means  “this is Hanukkah.”  This is the time when the menorah is at its brightest (Psalms tells us that the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn that grows brighter and brighter until the full day).  And that is what the fully lit Menorah represents.  This number eight carries a special meaning.  It is one beyond completion.  Seven is completion.  When creation was complete, God rested.  Seven marks the limits of time and eight is beyond time.  Eight signifies the eternal.  So the eighth day is the essence of Hanukkah and a reminder of the light that is ever present in this world.

Thus, Hanukkah is the time of dedication and renewal.  The old altars that have become impure, are torn down and we rededicate ourselves and our temple to the service of God.

Since Jesus said he was the light of the world (and the Menorah represents God’s gift of light) I would like you to consider the following:  light gives of itself freely, filling all available space.  It does not seek anything in return; it asks not whether you are friend or foe.  It gives of itself and is not thereby diminished.  So, if His light is in us, are we not to do the same?

PROOF TEXTING WHAT IS IT AND WHY IS IT SO PREVALENT TODAY?

Proof texting is a method by which a person appeals to a Biblical text to prove or justify their theological position or belief without regard for the context of the passage they are citing. While proof texting is often used in the theological realm, today we are seeing it surface in just about every area of life.

When we study the Bible there are many forms of “criticism” that must be used. For instance there is Text Criticism that aims to determine the process by which a Hebrew text has been transmitted and comes to exist in its various forms. It also tries to establish the original wording of the text and consequently what is the best form for the modern reader.

Another form of criticism is Historical Criticism which is concerned with the context of the passage or writing. Some questions asked would be: what specific historical situation is described, what was the cultural situation or event that is being dealt with, and why was the passage written in the first place.

Then there is Grammatical and Literary Criticism. These focus on the composition, structure, and mood of the text. Also what themes are in the text, what is the style of the text, and are there breaks in the continuity of thought of the passage or text. Is an acrostic feature being used? Or a chiasm used for parallels or comparisons?

Another form of criticism is Form Criticism which is concerned with not only form but also genre and the “Sitz im Leben” (situation in life) of the unit or passage. So, is it oracle; and if so, what form does it take? What genre are we dealing with: a psalm of lament or thanksgiving, a hymn, a narrative, an apocalypse? What is the situation in life: was it composed, used, read in the home, around the campfire, at the royal court, at the city gate, on the steps of the Temple? Asking all of these questions can help us more fully understand what is being said.

How is tradition involved? Tradition Criticism looks at how the story “grew” over long periods of time. How has the author adapted the tradition; has he or she added to or subtracted from the tradition.

Finally, there is Redaction Criticism that looks at the final form and author of a passage or manuscript. What changes have been made? Has something been added to the text? Is there a final interpretation that is different from the original author?

Anyone who wants to study the Bible has to be aware of these techniques in order to fully understand the Bible’s message and meaning. Yet so few take the time to be critical in their thinking (not only regarding the Bible but other writings and philosophies on life as well) or to study and delve into meaning. Yet, that is our responsibility, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, we live in a world of “snippets” today: Twitter, Face Book, the News, headlines. In fact, we don’t even know who the authors are most times. Pseudonyms are hidden behind to mask the fear of “being found out.”  Take a short snippet, put it on your Face Book page or Twitter time line to prove your point all the while knowing your “followers” won’t read the source; but rather, will applaud you for your insight. And why not, that is exactly what the media does. News stories in thirty seconds because the public doesn’t seem to want any more. Reporters who put forth their opinion as fact are the norm today. This is proof texting and it is in all areas of life.

But where does the responsibility lie? Even though we don’t like to admit it, it lies with us. We need to demand more of ourselves and others; but we don’t. Knocking, seeking, asking are no longer to be desired. Just give me a short sermon (no more than fifteen minutes) entertain me with song, tell me I’m good so that I can feel good about myself, and send me home till the next week. Repeat. And please whatever you do, don’t ask me to think or reason, I just want to relax and “do my thing.”

Today the common expression is “I get my news on the internet.” I needn’t tell you how dangerous that is do I? Read an analysis? I haven’t the time. I am busy cramming myself with food, drink, drugs, and meaningless activities. I have no time to just “be” and think and read. Just tell me what to think. Our schools are like this—“teach” the kids to pass the test. Tell them the questions, and then tell them the answers!

I saw a short “snippet” today used to disparage an author and his beliefs. The quote used was taken completely out of context; yet the person writing it didn’t seem to care. In fact the “quote” was really a re-quote, cut, pasted, and photoshopped. So who really knows what the original author said and in what context it was being said. Yet none of this seems to matter today. I found it very disturbing and indicative of our society. It is a sad commentary and unfortunately the dumbing of our society continues. Sadder still is that our leadership (in the Church, government, wherever) exploits this. They seem to know we are ignorant and apathetic, and use it to their advantage; not only taking our money but our minds as well. As a society, we must return to critical thinking if we are to survive. If not, we will be led to slaughter and it will be our own doing.

Amos From Tekoa, Who Dat?

imgres There were fat cows, the best of the breeds, grazing on fertile land in the Northern Transjordan region during the time of Amos, the prophet. At this time the Israelites went to worship at Bethel, which means House of God. The problem? It wasn’t God’s house; God was in Zion or Jerusalem! At Bethel the higher echelon of the Northern Kingdom would burn incense and present their sacrifices at the altar. By the way, this is where Jeroboam, the first king of the North, set up golden calves. He felt he had to do such so that his people wouldn’t defect to Jerusalem, or the South. Sounds like our churches today who are afraid their offerings will fall off if “their” people visit another church. Pastors have been known to say: “better not go there, they teach lies, they are false prophets, they don’t preach the Word” and on and on. So Jeroboam commissioned his own priests and instituted his own feasts. He told his people they could worship where they pleased and how they pleased, as long as they stayed in the North. In Gilgal Jeroboam’s people presented their thank offerings with leaven (a symbol of sin in the Scripture) and even worshiped other gods. If it were today, they would be singing Sinatra’s “I Did It My Way!”

At this time Israel was prosperous (the Dow was over 15000) and politically secure, a time of successful military ventures. It was the golden era. Jeroboam II came to power and the entire kingdom believed that God was pleased with them; after all, they were prosperous. In the midst of this, the prophet Amos appeared on the scene and the Word of Lord came forth. Amos spoke about 2800 long years ago, but his prophecy reads like today’s newspaper.

God’s people during this time were intensely and sincerely religious. But theirs was a privatized religion that ignored the poor, the widow, the alien and the orphan, and that degraded faith to culturally acceptable ritual (you decided if that speaks of the church today). Worst of all, Israel’s religious leaders sanctioned the political and economic status quo; they pimped their religion for Jeroboam’s (Obama’s) empire.

Enter Amos. He preached from the lunatic, pessimistic, and unpatriotic fringe. He was blue collar rather than blue blooded. He claimed he was neither a prophet nor even the son of a prophet in the professional sense of the term. He was a shepherd, a farmer, and a tender of fig trees, a small town boy who grew up in Tekoa, about 12 miles southeast of Jerusalem and 5 miles south of Bethlehem. The cultured elites of his day despised Amos as a redneck. Furthermore, he was an unwelcomed outsider (not from inside the Beltway). He was born in the southern Kingdom of Judah, yet God called him to thunder a prophetic word to the Northern Kingdom of Israel (the name Ted Cruz comes to mind).

Amos’ fiery rhetoric opposed the powers of his day. With graphic details that make you wince, he describes how the rich crushed the poor, how sexual debauchery was prevalent, how the legal system was corrupt, how justice was sold to highest bidder, and how predatory leaders exploited the vulnerable. Worst of all, Amos told how the religious leaders aided and abetted all of this. To the priests who defended, legitimized, and justified Jeroboam’s political power, Amos delivered an uncompromising word of warning (Amos7:7-17).

In the midst of prosperity; Amos, out of step with his time, predicted failure, war, and devastation. And the most startling of all, Amos said it was God who would bring this upon the people. Amos’ words spoke of moral failure in every level of society: the law, the leadership, the economic life, and even worship (church life) Amos saw luxurious living for the rich, exploitation of the poor, loose moral standards, corruption in public life and religious life. He saw a religious life based on ritual rather than piety.

For Amos, there was no “Mishpat” (justice) and no “Tzedakah” (righteousness or right standing with God). In the Hebrew, Tzedakah is an attitude which is needed to produce Mishpat. One needs right standing with God in order to be just. Because one is righteous, justice is done. Tzedakah is a condition of the heart. It is a relationship with God that allows justice to flow through you. Has anything changed today? Just asking!

Amos spoke about injustice in the courts, no justice for the poor or weak. There was debt slavery (human trafficking). The upper class was exploiting the lower classes. There were burdensome interest rates on loans or no loans at all. People were being cheated at every turn. Furthermore, sexual morality and respect for others had completely broken down. Yet the leaders, the rich, were confident God as with them! The religious ceremonies were conducted with euphoric almost drug-like singing, dancing, etc. The priests, the prophets, and judges were intimately associated with all of this.

For Amos, Israel were God’s chosen people, a covenant people; and should be held to a higher standard than other nations. What about us in America? We hold ourselves out to be a nation chosen by God and morally superior don’t we? When justice (mishpat) is ignored, society suffers according to Amos. In fact, it dies.

One last thought. As long as the church (God’s called out people) looks like the rest of the world, what do you suppose God thinks of our worship?

I hate, I reject your festivals,

Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,

I will not accept them; and I will not even look at the peace offerings of you fatlings

Take away from Me the noise of your songs;

I will not even even listen to the sound of your harps.   Amos 5:21-23

It is not the worship that is wrong; it is rather, the condition of the heart.

Lastly, Amos’ words were preserved because he addressed them to the people as a whole; not just to a leader. God’s covenant is with all the people individually and equally. All must bear the task of keeping that covenant. No longer will God punish only the king or leader for the nation’s evil, but He will hold the people as a whole responsible. God have mercy on us and on America!

TWO CROSSES: REFLECTIONS ON A TWITTER CONVERSATION

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While reading tweets I came across this one:

“If you don’t have Jesus on your Cross in your Church, Do U have the true Presence of Jesus in Communion, in the teachings? Or: Empty Cross?”

So of course I immediately replied:

He is Risen, no longer on the cross. So communion w/0 Jesus on Cross in church is communion w/ the risen Lord. Not meant to offend!

As you can see, I did not want to offend my Catholic Twitter friend. I continued to meditate and mull over what was being said by each of us. The following contains some of my thoughts on the subject.

Of course Jesus died on the cross for me, taking away my sins; dying in my place (and yours). Without this sacrifice, His shed blood, I would not be forgiven and would remain in a state of sin expecting to meet the devil upon my demise. But that is not the case, thank God. Jesus did do that remarkable work on the Cross; but His work did not end there. If it did, I and many others would be worshipping a dead person. How foolish would that be? (A topic for another time)

The fact is that after defeating the devil and releasing the captives by taking the keys of death and Hades, Jesus rose from the dead. The Scripture states that my life is hidden in Christ life (Col 3:3). You see I died with Christ and I also rose with Him. His resurrection gives me the ability to lead a victorious life while I am still here on earth. That’s how I became a new creation (2 Cor 5:17).

As a new person in Him, I have power over the enemy (the devil) and power to conquer the trials and tribulations of life. Furthermore, I get to serve a risen, alive God. See Heb 7:25 and Eph 1:20. While I remember what Christ did for me on the Cross, I commune with my Risen Savior. I can’t leave Him on that Cross. I think so many Christians miss the joy of Christianity because they fail to see the victory of His Ascension on a daily basis. Jesus is making intercession for me (and you) right now to Father God. He is alive. When I commune with Him and pray, I am speaking to someone who is no longer on that Cross but who is alive and wants to have fellowship with me. How glorious is that? You just can’t fail knowing that, can you?

The Apostle Paul tells us that we are MORE than conquerors through Christ (Rom 8:37). So if God be for us, who can be against us (Rom 8:31)?

While it is good to remember Christ did die for us, it is also and always important to remember that He is alive in us, not some far off place in the sweet by and by. The same Spirit who raised Christ from the dead dwells in me (and you if you are His [Rom 8:11]) fellowships or communes with me and empowers me to live a victorious life in Him. It doesn’t get any better than that. So when I commune with Christ as His child, acknowledging that He went to the cross for me but at the same time realizing where He is now, I commune with that cross being empty!

And just as another thought: both Catholic, Protestant and Messianic can learn from one another and come to the unity of the faith thereby presenting a glorious picture of God to an empty, dying world! We have a long way to go, don’t we?

CHRIST IN YOU THE HOPE OF GLORY (Col 1:27)

The Counting of the Omer

rUmV1947808[1]From the second night of Passover until the day before the Jewish holiday of Shavu’ot (Feast of First Fruits or Pentecost–May 15, 2013), the Jewish people engage in a time of “Counting the Omer.” A period of seven weeks or forty-nine days is counted, as commanded in Leviticus 23:15 and Deuteronomy 16:9.          The omer was a measure of barley (approximately 2 quarts) that the Jews brought as the afternoon offering on the second day of Passover.  All of these numbers have significant meaning. Seven is, of course, completion. Thus, seven times seven is the superlative way of saying “completion.” Fifty is the number used for the year of Jubilee, when servitude and debt were forgiven. The giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai happened on the fiftieth day from the second night of Passover, according to the rabbis.

At the end of the evening prayer on each of these forty-nine nights, a Jew recites a blessing and then verbalizes the number of that day. At the end of the counting a special grain offering was brought to the Temple. This offering was waved in different directions, to demonstrate God’s all-encompassing presence.

What is the significance of this counting for us today, you might ask? Foremost, this counting expresses one’s eager anticipation of receiving the Torah or Law on the fiftieth day after experiencing the liberation of Passover. The word for Egypt in Hebrew (mitzrayim) means limitations and boundaries. It represents all forms of conformity and definition that restrain, inhibit or hamper our free movement and expression. Therefore, leaving Egypt means freedom from constraints. After leaving Egypt, the Jewish people spent the next forty-nine days preparing themselves spiritually for the most monumental experience of all time: the giving of the Torah (Law) to Moses and the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. God did not just drop the Torah on the people. There was a journey and the forty-nine day period of the counting of the omer is that journey.

Hence, this forty-nine day period is meant to refine and spiritually prepare ourselves for the event, not unlike the Lenten period which is meant to prepare us for union with the Risen Lord. It is during this period that we strive to grow and mature in our spiritual state. The Torah, as well as other Scripture, does not allow us to become satisfied with our current level of spirituality. Instead, it tells us to set high goals for ourselves and then methodically strive to reach each goal. It is a forty-nine day spiritual journey from Exodus to Sinai. It is a fixed time, emphasized by the actual, out loud counting of each day, to become fit receptacles for God. There are specific attributes to be contemplated each week: lovingkindness, justice, compassion, fortitude, humility, bonding, and sovereignty. Further, each one of these is to be contemplated in light of the other for each day of the week.

After we have accomplished all we can do on our own, through our own initiative and contemplation, then we are worthy to receive a gift from above (God’s grace). We receive the ability to commune with the Devine. We made the journey into God’s all-encompassing presence. Hallelujah!

 “And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering-the day after the Sabbath-you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete; you must count until the day after the seventh week-fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord.” Lev.23:15-16

IS THERE AN EIGHTH DAY FOR SUKKOT (The Feast of Tabernacles)?

imagesFirst came the blast of the Shofar or trumpet to assemble the people and to announce the coming of their atonement. Then the Day of Atonement came. At that point the people became cleansed of their sin and were able to fellowship with God. For God, it didn’t matter where the people were; in the city or in the field for harvest. He would meet them wherever they were. Therefore, during harvest, the Jews built booths (Sukkot) in their fields in order to fellowship with the Lord there. This was a time of great rejoicing, celebration, and fellowship.  It was to last seven days. Now, that’s a party! By the way, the number seven represents completion. Sukkot therefore is a complete time of fellowship and rejoicing with the Lord.

But then, what does the Lord do? In Numbers 29:35 the Lord tells us that on the eighth day of gathering, we are not to work again but to hold back or tarry with the Lord. We are to have a solemn gathering (atzeret). This day is called Shemini Atzeret, the eighth day of gathering (October 8, 2012). Eight is the number of “dedication” in Hebrew (more of that in my Hanukkah teaching). Could it be that since we have heard the Shofar, since God provided the atonement, and since we have celebrated joyously for a week, that we are now to dedicate ourselves to the Lord?

Could it be that God so jealously desires the fellowship of His people that He doesn’t want to let us go? In Zechariah 8:2 the Lord says “I am exceedingly jealous for Zion. . .” Does He so jealously desires our fellowship that He is unwilling to let us go and begs us to stay with Him yet another day? The answer is a resounding “yes.” His people (in the Old Testament) will not gather again for six months (Passover). Hence, he pleads “stay longer, be with me, let us worship together.” God will miss the gathering of His people, the music, the festivities, the unity.

Shemini Atzeret is a separate holiday. The symbols and rituals of Sukkot are not observed. A prayer for rain is recited because the rainy season is coming. There is candle lighting and a prayer over the wine (Kiddush) is said. In Israel, this eighth day is combined with a non-biblical holiday, Simchat Torah (rejoicing over the Torah). In the Diaspora, Simchat Torah becomes the ninth day of celebration. Nine, in Hebrew, is three (perfection) times three (perfection). Another subject for another time, but could it be that God wants to perfect us until we become like Him? You know that answer!

For the Jewish people, perfection comes in the Torah. Although it is a non-biblical holiday, Simchat Torah marks the completion of the cycle of the Torah readings in the synagogue. The rejoicing over the Torah makes a statement. Whatever the law denies, whatever suffering God’s people have undergone for upholding His law, the covenant as written in the Torah, affirms and enriches life. On this eighth or ninth day, the Torah is taken out of the Ark, and delight in His law is observed with great rejoicing, dancing, and singing. It is customary on this day for the Jewish people to go outside and dance around the Torah announcing their solidarity with world Jewry and declare “Am Yisrael Chai,” the people Israel lives, and to declare “Od Aveeynu Chai,” our Heavenly Father lives.

One further note of reflection, Shemini Atzeret is the eighth day—that is the day after seven. Seven being a perfect number in Judaism, signifies a complete unit of time. Thus, the eighth day is the day after time. It is not just the promise of redemption but the actual moment of it. God said, “Remain with me (atzeret) an extra day,” a time beyond time. Shemini Atzeret is a taste of the Messianic Age, a time when we are one with God. This all climaxes with Simchat Torah. Instead of circling around the Torah scrolls (as is done on Sukkot), the Jewish people circle with the Torah scrolls. We take the connecting link between us and God (His Word), our marriage contract, and circle around with the One who fulfills everything. What greater joy is there than to know we are one with God.