For three consecutive days in this Holy Land called Israel I have become acquainted with the immense progress of YHVH’s Kingdom plans. Over that same period I have become acquainted with how utterly inadequate I am in this process.
Inadequate? Yes. Indispensable? No.
Moses, by his own confession, was inadequate, and the Almighty did not deny his protests. Yet no one would argue that Moses was indispensable in the process of bringing our ancient people out of Egypt in the First Exodus. So am I no less indispensable to this process of bringing home the rest of YHVH’s covenant people.
The truth is that everyone is indispensable. Each man, woman, and child who steps up to the high calling of bringing tangible reality to the Creator’s Kingdom is indispensable. Each one who shirks that call diminishes the Kingdom in ways that at the moment only the angels know – and weep over.
As I am learning, this is not simply a Christian kingdom, nor a Jewish kingdom, nor a Messianic or Hebrew Roots kingdom, but the Commonwealth of Israel instituted by Holy God. His revelation comes in multiple pieces and levels and ways. It comes to Jews, Christians, Hebraic believers in Yeshua, and many others we may not now recognize as fellow Israelites. It is bigger than we think, but its glory wanes when we think we have it figured out and insist that others endorse our singular view of it.
It is a miraculous Kingdom. Perhaps not the miraculous that we may expect, such as oceans dividing to make a dry path, or mountains crumbling, or masses of sick people instantly healed. Those miracles have, do now, and will occur. Yet the miracles all around us are hardly recognized as such today. I lived through one a few nights ago, when ten of us Hebrew believers of Christian backgrounds shared a fine supper in the Orthodox Jewish sukka of my new friend Adam Eliyahu Berkowitz.
One of the great depictions of American historical events is John Trumbull’s painting, Declaration of Independence, which hangs in the Rotunda of the United States Capitol. The scene captures the moment on June 28, 1776, when the five men who drafted the Declaration present their work to the Continental Congress. Of the 56 signers of the Declaration, 42 appear in Trumbull’s work, the others having died before he could obtain their images. The painting also depicts five men who did not sign, including Robert Livingston of New York. Livingston was one of the men who drafted the Declaration, but New York recalled him from the Congress before he could sign his work. In Trumbull’s painting Livingston appears in the center of the drafting committee, with Roger Sherman of Connecticut on his right and Thomas Jefferson of Virginia on his left. Americans may not remember the distinguished men from Connecticut and New York, but they do remember Jefferson and John Adams of Massachusetts, two future presidents. Jefferson and Adams embraced different visions of how to govern the infant American Republic, and even though they became political rivals, they remained friends until their deaths on the same day, July 4, 1826.
There is a legend that Jefferson paid Trumbull to paint his foot on top of Adams’, but it is only a legend. The two men’s feet are close together in the picture, and as time and dirt wore away at the painting it came to appear that Jefferson’s foot was resting on Adams’. That is not the only oddity in Trumbull’s work. Like many works of art it is not entirely accurate, but is effective in capturing the spirit of the moment and of the age. So also is 1776, a musical play which humorously explores the events during that fateful summer of American independence. Howard DaSilva dominates the film version with his portrayal of Dr. Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania. If we are to believe the movie, independence was Adams’ idea, and the declaration was expressed in Jefferson’s words, but it was Franklin who brought it into being with his wisdom, wit, and ability to achieve consensus. 1776 embellishes the story with fictional dialogue, but it captures a number of famous quotes by the Founding Fathers, including Franklin’s immortal words: “If we do not hang together, we shall most assuredly hang separately!”
Dr. Franklin spoke a warning to a people facing the threat of political extinction before they could become a nation. Long before Franklin uttered his warning, Yeshua of Nazareth spoke the same truth to the people He had come to redeem from the threat of extinction by the enemy of their souls:
And knowing their thoughts Jesus said to them, “Any kingdom divided against itself is laid waste; and any city or house divided against itself will not stand. (Matthew 12:25 NASB; see also Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50, 11:16-23)
The great military leaders of World War II include nine who attained the highest rank awarded by the United States of America. Those five-star leaders are Generals of the Army George C. Marshall, Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley; Fleet Admirals William D. Leahy, Ernest King, Chester W. Nimitz, and William Halsey, Jr.; and General of the Air Force Henry H. Arnold. Each man accomplished great things for his nation, and all deserved the honors bestowed on them, yet some students of history would say there is a name missing from the list. Where is George S. Patton, Jr.?
Patton died too soon, losing his life as the result of an automobile accident in December 1945. Had he lived he might eventually have become a five-star general. Might, that is, had he been able to refrain from the controversy that followed him throughout his very public military career. By the time World War II erupted he had proven his worth at home and abroad, including combat operations in Mexico and France. Less than a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Patton commanded the only all-American force in Operation Torch, the Allied landings on North Africa in November 1942. His Western Task Force conducted the longest amphibious operation in history, sailing from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to the shores of French Morocco. From there he went on to a stunning series of battlefield successes in Tunisia, Sicily, France, and Germany.
Along with Patton’s skilled leadership came his shortcomings: a volatile temper, and a tendency to speak indiscreetly. Twice in Sicily he encountered soldiers suffering from battle fatigue; both times he slapped them and accused them of cowardice. For that he was reprimanded and kept from a field command for nearly a year. When he returned to combat in command of the Third Army, he engineered the breakout from the Normandy beachhead and raced across France at astonishing speed. December 1944 witnessed his greatest battlefield accomplishment: the relief of Bastogne at the height of the Battle of the Bulge. Patton’s troops remained on the offensive thereafter, advancing across Germany and into Czechoslovakia. After the war, as an occupation commander, he continued to generate controversy by retaining former Nazi Party members in positions of authority in the belief that they were best qualified to restore and run Germany’s shattered infrastructure. While he had good reason, Patton chose to defend his decision by saying that membership in the Nazi Party in Germany was no different than membership in the Democratic or Republican parties in the United States. His remarks came at the time when the heinous crimes of the Third Reich were becoming public knowledge. As a result, he was relieved of command of Third Army and assigned to the less prestigious post he occupied at the time of his death.
As with all people it is impossible to separate Patton’s strengths from his weaknesses. Patton could “read” an enemy, understanding not only his opponent’s capabilities, but also his state of mind. That ability made him one of the greatest battlefield commanders of modern warfare. What kept him from true greatness was his inability to control himself – or, more accurately, what came out of his mouth. In that sense George Patton was very much like Balaam, a man who aspired to greatness, but whose inability to match his words with his deeds ensured that he would never attain it.
Is it possible to be a hero without paying a price? A hero is one who does something worthy of esteem on behalf of someone else, and that requires sacrifice. Sometimes it requires the sacrifice of a life, and sometimes merely the sacrifice of time and attention. Sometimes heroes save nations, and sometimes they save little children from tears of embarrassment, pain, or grief. Every act of salvation, no matter how small, entails a sacrifice that someone offers willingly. And that is what makes a hero.
We learn about heroes in The Karate Kid, a 1984 film starring Ralph Macchio as Daniel Larusso, a fatherless teenager very much in need of a hero. Daniel suffers a vicious beating by boys from a local martial arts school. He is saved by a humble janitor, Mr. Miyagi (played by Noriyuki “Pat” Morita), who drives off the attackers with a masterful display of karate skills. Before long Mr. Miyagi agrees to teach karate to Daniel. The instruction begins when Miyagi assigns Daniel a number of hard tasks. First he must wash and wax Miyagi’s antique automobiles, using special hand motions to “wax on” and “wax off”. Then he must sand the walkway around Miyagi’s house, paint the fence around the property, and finally paint the house itself. Each task features a specific set of hand motions. After days of arduous labor, Daniel complains that he has learned nothing about karate while working like a slave. Miyagi responds by having Daniel perform the hand motions for each task. He then throws punches and kicks at Daniel, demonstrating that “wax on, wax off”, “sand the floor”, “paint the fence”, and “paint the house” have trained the boy to defend against attacks from many angles. As he blocks Miyagi’s attacks, Daniel realizes the truth: his faithfulness in seemingly unconnected menial tasks has made him ready for further instruction and greater responsibility in the art of karate.
In time Daniel becomes competent at karate and confident in himself as Miyagi’s training transforms him from a self-absorbed braggart into a self-controlled warrior. In the concluding scenes he enters a martial arts tournament where he faces the boys who first attacked him. Each is a formidable opponent, yet while Daniel learned karate as a means of disciplining himself in service of others, they had learned it as a means to exalt themselves over the weak. They do not realize that the humble attitude Miyagi cultivated in Daniel has made him stronger and better able to withstand pain and suffering. Their combined efforts at wounding and weakening Daniel only help him discover deeper wells of strength which in the end bring him victory.
This is a life lesson few are willing to learn. Either we walk humbly in the confidence of our King, or we get eaten by our adversary. As the Apostle Peter says:
You younger men, likewise, be subject to your elders; and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble. Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you. Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. (I Peter 5:5-8 NASB)
What would happen if the Vice President of the United States committed murder and got away with it? It is not a rhetorical question; such a thing happened long ago, in the early days of the American Republic. On July 11, 1804, Vice President Aaron Burr shot and killed fellow New Yorker Alexander Hamilton. The two had been adversaries for several years, and eventually their enmity resulted in a duel at a neutral site in Weehawken, New Jersey. It is unclear who fired first, but it is certain that Hamilton fell mortally wounded, dying the next day in New York City. Burr fled, facing charges of murder both in New York and New Jersey, but later returned to the city of Washington to complete his tenure as Vice President. In time the charges of murder were dropped, but Burr’s political career was over. Thoroughly disgraced and out of favor with President Thomas Jefferson, he moved to the West in search of new opportunities.
The American frontier in those days separated the United States from the Empire of Spain in Florida and along a continental-sized line from Louisiana to what would become the Oregon Territory. It did not take long for an enterprising man like Aaron Burr to create opportunities for himself, whether legal or not. It is said that he intrigued with Spanish and American officials on a scheme to separate Mexico from Spain and the western territories from the United States and establish a new empire with himself as its chief. Although the full extent of Burr’s plans will never be known, there was enough truth to the allegations of intrigue to result in his arrest and prosecution by the Jefferson Administration on charges of treason. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Marshall, personally presided over the famous trial in August 1807. The Chief Justice had instructed the jury that conviction required testimony by two witnesses to a specific, overt act. When the prosecution could not meet that standard, the jury declared Burr not guilty.
In the election of 1800 Aaron Burr had come within a whisker of winning the presidency. By 1808 he was a political outsider living in exile. By 1812 he had returned to the United State, but he never returned to power. His family, his law practice, and his health deteriorated over the remaining years of his life as he watched his nation grow in size and power without him. Although endowed with considerable gifts and abilities to govern, his grasp for power ensured that his legacy would not be as one of America’s great men, but as a byword, a legal precedent, and a footnote in history. Yet from him, perhaps, we can learn something more about what Yeshua of Nazareth meant by His cryptic observation:
From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and violent men take it by force. (Matthew 11:12 NASB)
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)
This post-modern generation of the industrialized West has lost sight of the power of the Oath. That is why there is so little understanding of the covenant terminology which establishes the context of humanity’s relationship with our Creator. An oath sworn in good faith is something far more powerful than a legal procedure. It is a spiritual transaction which makes an indelible mark on the parties who take part in it. That is why one’s conscience is troubled when even the least significant promises are broken. Something as simple as committing to be at a certain place at a specified time is a type of oath or covenant. Failing to keep that promise fosters disappointment, anger, and bitterness in the heart of the one who is expecting the appointment to be kept. Hopefully the one who broke the promise will make amends and resolve to keep such commitments in the future. However, if the promise-breaker develops a habit of showing up late, or not showing up at all, then eventually his or her conscience will no longer serve as a reminder about the transgression. And then the promise-breaker becomes something worse: an untrustworthy person.
If this is the case with something as simple as a promise to be on time, what can we say about more serious promises? There is an illustration which may help. J.R.R. Tolkien delved deeply into the subject of oaths and covenants in his epic works about Middle Earth. Perhaps his most memorable account is the oath made by the Men of the Mountains to fight against Sauron, an oath they did not keep. In The Return of the King, Aragorn explains the circumstances of this broken oath:
But the oath that they broke was to fight against Sauron, and they must fight therefore, if they are to fulfill it. For at Erech there stands yet a black stone that was brought, it was said, from Nümenor by Isildur; and it was set upon a hill, and upon it the King of the Mountains swore allegiance to him in the beginning of the realm of Gondor. But when Sauron returned and grew in might again, Isildur summoned the Men of the Mountains to fulfil their oath, and they would not: for they had worshipped Sauron in the Dark Years.
Then Isildur said to their king, “Thou shalt be the last king. And if the West prove mightier than thy Black Master, this curse I lay upon thee and thy folk: to rest never until your oath is fulfilled. For this war will last through years uncounted, and you shall be summoned once again ere the end.”
In Tolkien’s novel, Aragorn leads his companions to the realm of these dead oathbreakers, and as Isildur’s heir calls them to fulfil their oath by following him into battle against Sauron’s armies. They answer the call, and upon winning the victory are released at last to depart in the peaceful sleep of death.
In Tolkien’s story the oathbreakers are redeemed by the descendant of the king whom they had betrayed. Their answer to his call brings an end to the curse and the blessed peace they have sought through the ages. As is so often the case with Tolkien, he illustrates a profound principle first explained in the Scripture. Yet what we learn from Moses differs from Tolkien in one critical point: redemption from the curse of broken oaths, or vows, results not the peace of death, but in the promise of life.
תַזְרִיעַ / מְּצֹרָע
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov wrote a story about how a dead fish ruined a man’s life. To be honest, it was not the fish itself, but what happened when this particular man encountered it. Chekhov opens “A Slander” by explaining that Sergei Kapitonich Ahineev, a writing instructor, is enjoying the celebration of his daughter’s wedding at a great feast. As time for supper approaches Ahineev goes into the kitchen to see if everything is ready. He asks Marfa, the cook, to show him the centerpiece of the banquet, a fine sturgeon, and at its unveiling is overcome with delight at the aroma and presentation of the great fish. The sight of it moves Ahineev to smack his lips, a sound much like a kiss. Just at that moment, one of his colleagues, Vankin, looks in and makes a joke about Marfa and Ahineev kissing. Apparently thinking nothing further about it, Vankin moves off to rejoin the party. Ahineev, however, is mortified that Vankin would think he was kissing the cook, and anticipates that he will be spreading that story to the guests. Determined to prevent such a slander, Ahineev makes the rounds of the party, telling everyone he can that there was nothing to the story Vankin would be spreading about him kissing Marfa in the kitchen. In the process, he describes both Vankin and Marfa in the most unflattering terms, calling him a silly fool, and her a perfect fright whom no one would care to kiss.
Having completed his self-appointed task of circumventing Vankin’s anticipated slander, Ahineev settles down to enjoy the rest of the celebration. All is well until a few days later, when his headmaster calls him into the office and reprimands him about his indiscretion not only in having an affair with his cook, but also in being so public about it. Truly scandalized, Ahineev goes home at the end of the day, only to face the anger of his wife at his supposed unfaithfulness. Angered himself, Ahineev leaves immediately to confront Vankin, the man he supposes has spread this false tale. Yet that confrontation does not turn out as he expects, for Vankin’s sincere denial convinces Ahineev that he is innocent of the gossip. Puzzled, Ahineev reviews the list of his acquaintances, frantically asking himself who might have ruined his reputation.
To the reader there is no mystery about the guilty party: it is Ahineev himself. By spreading rumors about his colleague and his servant, he has made himself an outcast. In other words, Ahineev has become a social leper. And in presenting the hapless writing instructor to us in this way, Chekhov helps us understand the deeper meaning of the Torah’s instructions about leprosy.
The problem with great satire is that it can be so irreverent. Then again, that is the strength of satire: using humor and ridicule to point out something (usually a shortcoming, hypocrisy, or vice) often overlooked in the routine of living. Satire can be cruel, and thus must be used with great caution. If employed properly, it moves the audience to laugh loudly in genuine humor at their own or their society’s expense, and plants seeds for reflection that hopefully will bloom into motivation for positive change.
Or perhaps not. Sometimes humor exists only for humor. That is one way to consider the works of Douglas Adams, the late English author best known for his satirical science fiction works, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. It is quite possible that Adams and I could have been good friends, although our worldviews would have generated a continuous wrestling match between us. To the end of his life he remained utterly convinced in the nonexistence of a Creator, even as I am utterly convinced that there is no god but YHVH. And yet I can appreciate his masterful use of the English language, his clever story lines, and his penetrating wit, all of which he employed to point out things worthy of our consideration. Here is one example from the first Hitchhiker’s Guide novel:
The History of every major Galactic Civilization tends to pass through three distinct and recognizable phases, those of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication, otherwise known as the How, Why and Where phases. For instance, the first phase is characterized by the question How can we eat? the second by the question Why do we eat? and the third by the question Where shall we have lunch?.
This is Adams at his best, using seemingly trivial questions with simple answers to provoke a deeper level of inquiry on the very nature and meaning of human existence. Perhaps he would be surprised to learn that the Lord God does the very same thing. The small, simple, seemingly insignificant things are what He uses to test our hearts, to discipline us, and to mature us so we can exercise greater responsibility, and all the time He magnifies His glory through us and through these processes. Thus, when it comes to distinctions between believers in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the differences usually are much smaller than we may think. Consider, for example, the attitudes of believers in Messiah Yeshua (Jesus Christ) regarding the Law, or Torah, of God. To define this difference, we can use the same pattern Douglas Adams used by asking three simple questions:
When are we to worship God?
How are we to worship God?
What does God say is food?
Consider the fragility of human existence. We survive within a specific set of environmental parameters – a fixed range of temperature, hydration, radiation, and atmospheric content. From a cosmic perspective the margin of error is very small; the slightest adjustment in even a single factor, such as the amount of oxygen, quickly moves the environment from pleasant to deadly. Yet we have learned how to venture into the realm of the deadly when necessary. Thanks to protective clothing, equipment, and protocols, our species can operate within the vacuum of space, in the ocean’s depths, in the radiation-charged atmosphere of a nuclear reactor, and in the hot zone of an infectious disease laboratory.
We venture into these deadly environments, but we do not live there. We cannot survive there without observing the strictest standards. Those who enter these realms understand this. Astronauts, deep sea explorers, nuclear engineers, and epidemiologists are professionals who have answered the call to highly specialized career fields. Not all who enter the paths of these professions advance to the point that they can operate confidently in the most dangerous places. The selection and training standards must be established at the highest possible levels for the simple reason that the slightest error can produce lethal results. Richard Preston explained this principle in The Hot Zone, an investigative look into the origins of viral hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola. We learn from his book that the protocols for entering, working in, and leaving an infectious disease lab are elaborate and time-consuming, but necessary. No amount of caution is excessive when microscopic killers can infiltrate through the tiniest puncture of a protective suit or escape through an improper seal of an airlock. The viruses create the hot zone, whether it is in the lab or in the human body. Because of the radical transformative nature of these microorganisms, the highly trained professionals who work with viruses like Ebola in a very real sense act as mediators between them and the general population.
In fact, the role of these professionals is not unlike the role of the Levitical priests.