Fox Byte 5775 #44: D’varim (Words)

דְּבָרִים

"The King and Queen inspecting the tarts", by Sir John Tenniel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).
The King and Queen inspecting the tarts”, by Sir John Tenniel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).

One wonders whether Lewis Carroll required chemical substances to help him create the absurd worlds of his literature.  Readers of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and audiences of the screen and stage adaptations thereof often conclude that the author – whose real name was Charles Dodgson – must have been on opium or some other sort of mind-altering substance fashionable in Victorian England.  If we are to believe the Lewis Carroll Society of North America and other authoritative sources, there is no truth in such allegations.  How, then, could a rational man come up with such outrageous fiction, creating characters and situations that defy logic and even sanity?  Most likely Carroll would have explained in the same way C.S. Lewis explained how he could create the diabolical correspondence of the demon Screwtape a generation later:

Some have paid me an undeserved compliment by supposing that my Letters were the ripe fruit of many years’ study in moral and ascetic theology.  They forgot that there is an equally reliable, though less creditable, way of learning how temptation works. “My heart”—I need no other’s—“showeth me the wickedness of the ungodly.”  (C.S. Lewis, 1961.  The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast.  New York:  MacMillan.)

What Professor Lewis tells us is that all humans have the capacity to imagine evil, and to act upon it once it is imagined.  Evil is abnormal; the opposite of good and right and true.  If our hearts are inclined toward evil, they are also inclined toward everything else that is contrary to good and right and true – things which are unsuitable, wrong, and illogical.  That is why Carroll can depict an absurd criminal trial with such success.  The King and Queen of Hearts sit as judges to determine the guilt or innocence of the Knave, who stands accused of having stolen the Queen’s tarts.  As judge, the King has trouble getting beyond his instructions to the jury to consider the verdict before any evidence has been given.  As witnesses, the Mad Hatter and the Knave say nothing of substance, and throughout the trial no one seems to care that the stolen tarts are there in the courtroom, presumably having been returned by the thief.  The trial ends with a mockery of due process of law as the Queen says, “Sentence first—verdict afterwards”, and then pronounces summary judgment on Alice:  “Off with her head!”

The sad thing about this trial is that it is not far removed from reality.  For much, perhaps most, of history unjust judges have made people’s lives miserable and shorter than they should be.  This is true even for judges among the people of God, which is why in promising to restore His nation of Israel, YHVH delivers this glowing promise:

“Then I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning; after that you will be called the city of righteousness, a faithful city.”  Zion will be redeemed with justice and her repentant ones with righteousness.  (Isaiah 1:26-27 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #36: Beha’alotcha (In Your Going Up)

בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ

Stephen R. Donaldson (Photo by  Danacea on Flickr.com via via Wikimedia Commons)
Stephen R. Donaldson (Photo by Danacea on Flickr.com via Wikimedia Commons)

In a response to a reader’s question about his works, author Stephen R. Donaldson provided this enlightening comment about the motivation behind his writing:

I’m a storyteller, not a polemicist.  As such, my only mission is to help my readers understand my characters and appreciate what those poor sods are going through.  (Stephen R. Donaldson Official Website, February 23, 2004)

Donaldson’s best known writings might be categorized as postmodern American science fiction and fantasy literature.  The worlds he creates are not the pristine, archetypical fantasy worlds of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, but darker realms that mirror our present ambiguous reality.  Donaldson explores human nature in a secular, relativistic world detached from the moral underpinnings of Christian civilization.  Good and evil manifest in the worlds he creates, but they are often uncomfortably intertwined so as to be nearly indistinguishable.  Such is the case with his most famous protagonist, the anti-hero Thomas Covenant.  In ten novels published over the span of 36 years, Donaldson follows Covenant through three epic quests in The Land, the world of his creation where magic and Earthpower shape the lives of mortals.  Covenant is one of the most unlikely heroes in the history of literature:  a leper living in present-day America who is magically transported to The Land to save it from destruction by Lord Foul the Despiser.  He wears a wedding band of white gold, the source of Wild Magic, which is the greatest power ever known in The Land.  He does not know how to wield this power, nor does he desire to do so, yet the dire circumstances of The Land compel him to find a way.  Each victory comes at a cost.  Ultimately it is Covenant himself who pays the greatest price, and thus he earns not only sympathy, but redemption.

We learn much about power in White Gold Wielder, the last novel of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  The Elohim, supernatural beings who keep watch over the Earth, “silence” Covenant, placing him in a catatonic state so he will not use his ring unwisely and risk destruction of the world.  After Covenant is revived by his companion Linden Avery, Findail of the Elohim explains their actions to her:

The ring-wielder we silenced, not to harm him, but to spare the Earth the ill of power without sight . . . Thus the choice would have fallen to you in the end.  His ring you might have taken unto yourself, thereby healing the breach between sight and power.  Or perhaps you might have ceded the ring to me, empowering the Elohim to save the Earth after their fashion.  Then would we have had no need to fear ourselves, for a power given is altogether different than one wrested away.

Findail’s declaration, “a power given is altogether different than one wrested away,” is a restatement of something taught long ago by One Who understood power:

But Jesus called them to Himself and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.”  (Matthew 20:25-28 NASB)

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Fox Byte 5775 #34: Bamidbar (In the Wilderness)

בְּמִדְבַּר

In Surrender of Santa Anna, artist William Huddle portrays the dramatic end of the Texas Revolution with a wounded Sam Houston accepting the surrender of Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna.  Houston is remembered for his role in establishing modern Texas, but few remember his identity as a Cherokee.
In Surrender of Santa Anna, artist William Huddle portrays the dramatic end of the Texas Revolution with a wounded Sam Houston accepting the surrender of Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna. Houston is remembered for his role in establishing modern Texas, but few remember his identity as a Cherokee.

Was Sam Houston a Cherokee?  It is a fair question.  The man who won independence for the Republic of Texas at the Battle of San Jacinto had spent many years with the Cherokee nation.  His first contact with the tribe occurred in his youth, when his family moved from their home in Virginia to Tennessee.  He learned their ways and their language, was adopted by a chief of the tribe, and in time represented the Cherokee people to the United States government.  Houston even took a Cherokee wife:  Tiana Rodgers, daughter of a Scottish trader who had married into a prominent Cherokee family.  Houston’s marriage with Tiana was never recognized in white society, but they were legally married under Cherokee law.  Even after he had returned to white society, Houston never remarried until after Tiana’s death.

But the fact is that Sam Houston did return to white society.  In 1832 he moved to the Mexican territory of Texas, and within four years had secured independence for Texas, forever linking his name with that great state.  Today, over 150 years since his death, Houston is remembered as a military hero and statesman, serving the Republic of Texas as its general and elected president, and the State of Texas as its senator and governor.  Houston is also the only man ever to have served as governor of both Tennessee and Texas.  These are the things that might come to mind when one thinks of Sam Houston, but what does not come to mind is his identity as a Cherokee.

Houston’s identity in history is the result of his own choice.  Had he remained with his adopted people, he would have been remembered as one of many non-Indian white and black people who became members of various Native American tribes.  Yet he chose otherwise, and therefore his Cherokee identity is merely a footnote of history.

It was the other way with our ancient Israelite ancestors.  Once they chose to become united with the tribes of Jacob’s sons, their previous identities became footnotes, lost forever in the sands of time.

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Fox Byte 5775 #16: Beshalach (When He Let Go)

בְּשַׁלַּח

Danny Kaye as the head of an "Egyptian Prince" selling Yakov's Golden Elixir in the 1949 film The Inspector General.  From "20 Best Films of the 1940s", Mubi.com.  The entire unforgettable scene is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1yM2babqZs.
Danny Kaye as the head of an “Egyptian Prince” selling Yakov’s Golden Elixir in the 1949 film The Inspector General. From “20 Best Films of the 1940s”, Mubi.com. The entire unforgettable scene is available on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m1yM2babqZs.

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)

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Fox Byte 5775 #15: Bo (Go)

בֹּא

Donkeys in Transition.  Top left:  James Cagney as Nick Bottom, with Anita Louise as Titania in the 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (via “The Many Faces of Nick Bottom” on Shakespeare Talks).  Top right:  Pinocchio turns into a donkey, from the 1940 Walt Disney film, Pinocchio, via The Disney Wiki.  Bottom Left:  Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) in Shrek the Third (via HD Wallpapers).  Bottom Right:  Donkey as Stallion in Shrek II (via Wiki Shrek).
Donkeys in Transition. Top left: James Cagney as Nick Bottom with Anita Louise as Titania in the 1935 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (via “The Many Faces of Nick Bottom” on Shakespeare Talks). Top right: Pinocchio turns into a donkey, from the 1940 Walt Disney film, Pinocchio, via The Disney Wiki. Bottom Left: Donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy) in Shrek the Third (via HD Wallpapers). Bottom Right: Donkey as Stallion in Shrek II (via Wiki Shrek).

Is there anything more ridiculous among beasts of burden than a donkey?  They are hardly the picture of a noble animal.  On the contrary, they are loud, obnoxious, stubborn, homely (not exactly ugly, but certainly not beautiful), and they smell bad.  It is no coincidence that William Shakespeare places a donkey’s head on the foolishly self-confident Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.  Neither is it a coincidence that in The Adventures of Pinocchio Carlo Collodi chose to transform foolish boys into donkeys.  Walt Disney offered a simple explanation of this process in his 1940 film version of Pinocchio:  “Give a bad boy enough rope, and he’ll soon make a jackass of himself.”  And then there is the companion of the ogre Shrek:  the carefree, friendly, and unbearably annoying Donkey, brought to life by the vocal talents of Eddie Murphy.  In the second film of the Shrek series Donkey is changed into a white stallion, but the change is only outward.  Inside he is still the same Donkey:  kindhearted, loyal, and eager to please, but seldom aware of the chaos that follows him at every step.

With such a pedigree it is a wonder that donkeys receive favorable attention in Scripture.  In fact, the lowly donkey and the lamb are the only animals mentioned by name in God’s instructions on how to remember the Exodus.

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