The “snake oil salesman” is another of those characters to whom writers and performers have turned for an endless source of entertainment. Perhaps he is offering a useful product, but more often than not this travelling peddler is a fraud, attempting to sell a strange concoction of secret ingredients he promises will cure every ill known to mankind. While it is amusing to see how easily this trickster can deceive the gullible, it is tragic to consider how quickly honest people can be robbed of their hard-earned wages when they are desperate to ease the suffering of those they love. We see a bit of both in Danny Kaye’s masterful performance in the 1949 comedy, The Inspector General. The film opens with a scene in a Central European village where a troupe of travelling con men stage a show to sell Yakov’s Golden Elixir, a product they claim will not only cure sickness, but even prolong life. Danny Kaye is the star of the show, posing first as the head of an Egyptian prince kept alive for two thousand years by Yakov’s Elixir, and then dancing and singing as a man whose many diseases have disappeared thanks to the magic tonic. Yet the whole time he knows what he is selling is no miracle cure, but instead is a dangerous substance used as furniture polish and cleaning fluid. At the end of the act, when an old woman offers her entire fortune of twelve pennies to buy a bottle for her sick husband, the tender-hearted performer cannot bear to take her money. Others overhear as he tells her the truth, and with that confession the fraud is exposed and the company of thieves chased from the town.
Of course the real product in The Inspector General is Danny Kaye’s comic genius, and the movie continues to a hilarious conclusion. Yet the opening scene leaves one with a question: Could there really be a Yakov’s Elixir that could cure all ills?
Actually, there is such a miraculous cure, and it is even connected with a man named Yakov. In English that man is known as Jacob, the same man to whom God gave the name Israel. When God rescued Jacob’s descendants from slavery in Egypt, He gave them a recipe for success which we would do well to learn:
And He said, “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer.” (Exodus 15:26 NASB)
This instruction comes after the people have come safely to Midian (Arabia), having passed through the Red Sea on their way to Mount Sinai. This month-long journey, recorded in Exodus 13:17-17:16, features the miracles of God in dividing the waters of the sea so the people can pass through, then closing the waves over the Egyptian army. Afterward He give them a means to make bitter water sweet, sustenance in the form of seventy date palms, bread falling out of heaven, and quail falling all over their camp. Then God opens a rock to release a river of flowing water, and He brings victory over Amalek, Israel’s mortal enemy. It is in the midst of the journey up from the seashore that God gives the instruction to listen to His commandments and keep His statutes. Here is that instruction in context:
Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea, and they went out into the wilderness of Shur; and they went three days in the wilderness and found no water. When they came to Marah, they could not drink the waters of Marah, for they were bitter; therefore it was named Marah. So the people grumbled at Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” Then he cried out to the Lord, and the Lord showed him a tree; and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet. There He made for them a statute and regulation, and there He tested them. And He said, “If you will give earnest heed to the voice of the Lord your God, and do what is right in His sight, and give ear to His commandments, and keep all His statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you which I have put on the Egyptians; for I, the Lord, am your healer.” Then they came to Elim where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms, and they camped there beside the waters. (Exodus 13:22-27 NASB)
Notice something very important: this burning thirst at Marah was a Divine test of our Israelite ancestors. Much later, as Moses spoke to the next generation of Israelites just before his death, he explained this and the many other tests God caused our fathers and mothers to endure:
All the commandments that I am commanding you today you shall be careful to do, that you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land which the Lord swore to give to your forefathers. You shall remember all the way which the Lord your God has led you in the wilderness these forty years, that He might humble you, testing you, to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep His commandments or not. He humbled you and let you be hungry, and fed you with manna which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds out of the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you, nor did your foot swell these forty years. Thus you are to know in your heart that the Lord your God was disciplining you just as a man disciplines his son. Therefore, you shall keep the commandments of the Lord your God, to walk in His ways and to fear Him. (Deuteronomy 8:1-6 NASB)
There should be something familiar about this passage. Anyone who has been to church for any length of time should recognize in it something Yeshua said as He also endured a great test of hunger and thirst in the wilderness:
Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led around by the Spirit in the wilderness for forty days, being tempted by the devil. And He ate nothing during those days, and when they had ended, He became hungry. And the devil said to Him, “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” And Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” (Luke 4:1-4 NASB; see also Matthew 4:1-4)
What is the connection our God is making here? He allows hunger, thirst, and all manner of discomfort to come on those He loves and has just delivered from great peril, and then He tells them to listen to Him and do as He says so that they will not get sick. Then, 1,500 years later Messiah Yeshua reenacts that scene, and uses the very words of His Father’s prophet to rebuke Satan. Why does the Lord do all this just to make a point? And what is His point anyway?
His point is the connection of obedience with life. It is the point He has made from the very beginning. Since the day our first parents chose to obey their own hearts rather than God’s instructions, we have all had this tendency to do the same. We pursue after a righteousness of our own making, a practice that takes many devious forms. Sometimes it means throwing out the commandments of God and declaring what is good and what is evil according to definitions we have made up on our own. Sometimes it means taking God’s commandments and adding our own interpretations and conditions so that we end up going through all manner of unnecessary self-inflicted suffering in the name of righteousness. Sometimes it is a combination of both. And yet the simple truth is that we cannot manufacture our own righteousness, which is why the Scriptures contain abundant reference to the fact that righteousness comes by faith alone. But note what that righteousness is: it is the righteousness of God Himself, imparted to those who believe on His promises. That is precisely what we are to learn from our father Abraham’s example. And then we are to learn from Abraham how to maintain the righteousness God puts on us by obeying His commandments.
This is the context of the choice our King placed before our ancestors at the edge of the Red Sea, and which He places before us every single day. If we do as He says, we are in a very real sense following the operating and maintenance instructions He has published to ensure this universe He created continues to function within the established parameters. Think for a moment how that works on our bodies. If we eat the things our Designer prepared as fuel for our bodies, then they function properly. If we do not eat what He designated as fuel, then we suffer all manner of maladies from high blood pressure to heart disease to kidney failure. If we pay due respect to our parents and elders, honoring them with our hearts and not just our lips, then we learn from their wisdom and go through life inoculated against a wide variety of stupid mistakes. If we are truthful with others and do not lust after the things they have, then we live in peace and contentment. Yet if we chase after what our neighbors have, we subject ourselves to broken relationships, bitterness, anger, and a host of stress-related conditions. If we rest on the day God said to rest – and that means really rest – then we are much less prone to fatigue and the compromises to our immune system that come with it. And if we content ourselves with sex in the context of our holy marriage relationships, then we shall avoid the many ills associated with every form of sexual expression that does not conform to God’s standard of conduct.
This is what God means when He says that if we obey Him He will not put on us any of the diseases which He put on the Egyptians. Thus, in a very real sense, obedience to God’s standards really is Yakov’s Golden Elixir. His Law is Life, just David the Psalmist tells us:
May Your compassion come to me that I may live, for Your law [Torah] is my delight. (Psalm 119:77 NASB)
The Son of David echoed and expanded on that statement many centuries later:
And a lawyer stood up and put Him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” And He said to him, “What is written in the Law [Torah]? How does it read to you?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And He said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28 NASB, quoting Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Leviticus 19:18, Leviticus 18:5, and Ezekiel 20:11; see also Luke 18:18-27, Mark 10:17-27, and Matthew 19:16-26)
Clearly the Commandments of God are very, very important. Keeping them gives us life and health; disregarding them results in suffering and death. And yet there are some complicated things we cannot explain about suffering. For example, Yeshua noted in one case that a man had been born blind not because he or his parents had sinned, but because God wanted to use him as a means to show His power and glory (John 9). Then there is the case of Job, a righteous man who endured extreme suffering, not because of any sin or disobedience in him, but so that God might reveal Himself to him in even more astounding ways and bless him far beyond what he had considered possible (Job 42). Thus, we cannot always say for sure why suffering happens, nor can we explain why healing does not come. Yet we can say for certain that there is responsibility on our part to do as God says, and if we do so, then things will be much, much better.