Counting the Omer is keeping the commandment to count 50 days (seven Sabbaths plus one day) between the offering of the first fruits of the barley harvest (often called First Fruits) until the feast of Shavuot (Pentecost) (Leviticus 23:15-21). This year The Barking Fox is counting the omer with modern pictures of people named in the Bible.
Those who have leprosy might as well be dead. Never mind that the disease we call leprosy today may or may not be one of the skin diseases meant by the Hebrew word tzara’at (צָרַעַת). The fact is, whoever had it was cut off from the community:
Now the leper on whom the sore is, his clothes shall be torn and his head bare; and he shall cover his mustache, and cry, “Unclean! Unclean!” He shall be unclean. All the days he has the sore he shall be unclean. He is unclean, and he shall dwell alone; his dwelling shall be outside the camp. (Leviticus 13:45-46 NKJV)
Think about that for a moment. Lepers could not go home. They could not have any kind of normal relationship with their family members, friends, business associates, or anyone else with whom they interacted before the cursed condition fell upon them. It did not matter what station of life the leper occupied; whether peasant or king, the disease cut them off from the life of the nation. Even mighty King Uzziah of Judah learned that. Although he reigned for 52 years in Jerusalem, the leprosy he contracted in the midst of his reign meant that he was king in name only:
King Uzziah was a leper until the day of his death. He dwelt in an isolated house, because he was a leper; for he was cut off from the house of the Lord. Then Jotham his son was over the king’s house, judging the people of the land. (II Chronicles 26:21 NKJV)
How can a person shepherd the people of God when he is cut off from the House of God? Is there any hope for him, or for the people he is anointed to lead?
Yes, there is hope. That is why the Torah portion Metzora (The Leper; Leviticus 14:1-15:33) provides elaborate detail on the procedures for cleansing lepers. Once healed, the priests help them through this process to restore them to their place in society. In a certain sense, this is a resurrection from a type of death, and thus it is a symbol of what Messiah will do.
At the distance of two hundred years the specter of Napoleon Bonaparte is no longer frightening. Now he is nothing more than a historical figure often depicted as a comic caricature of the man who once ruled most of Europe. In his lifetime he inspired admiration to the point of worship not only for his genius at the art of war, but for his genius at bringing responsible government out of the chaotic revolution of France. Yet his ambition pushed him beyond the limits of himself and of France, and in time he lost everything.
We have a picture passed on through the years of a bitter Napoleon who blames everyone but himself for his setbacks. That is the picture C.S. Lewis invokes in his description of Napoleon in hell in his classic work, The Great Divorce. A similar picture appears in Waterloo, the 1970 movie about Napoleon’s final battle starring Rod Steiger as the Emperor. In the midst of the battle, illness overcomes Napoleon and compels him to leave the field briefly. During that time Marshal Michel Ney (played by Dan O’Herlihy), Napoleon’s trusted subordinate, orders the French cavalry to attack when he believes the enemy is retreating. What he does not realize is that the Duke of Wellington (played by Christopher Plummer) has ordered his infantry to shift their position to the other side of the hill they occupied. As the French cavalry charge, the British infantry form squares, a tactic designed for defense against cavalry. In charge after charge, the French horsemen expend their lives to little effect, eventually crippling that arm of Napoleon’s force and contributing significantly to his ultimate defeat. In the movie, Napoleon returns to the field just as Ney is leading the charge. In rage and dismay he says,
What’s he doing? What’s Ney doing? What’s happening? Can’t I leave the field for a minute? What’s he doing there? How can a man go forward with the cavalry without infantry support? What’s the matter with you?
To the military mind this outburst is perfectly understandable. Napoleon the general trained his men well and expected them to act not only with initiative, but also according to his commands and within the parameters of good order and discipline. It is no surprise that he became angry at learning that a trusted and experienced subordinate acted impetuously, violating a cardinal principle of war and endangering the entire army. It is the same reason our God becomes very angry when His people disregard the good order, discipline, and sound judgment He expects of them.
One of those cultural icons of the post-modern era is Gary Larson’s cartoon series, The Far Side. Larson retired the series in 1995 after only 15 years, but the cartoons remain very popular. Their irreverent, bizarre depictions of people and circumstances continue to amuse, but more importantly, cause people to think about things we consider “normal”. Such is the case of Larson’s cartoon, “God at His computer”. The picture shows the Almighty sitting at a computer, with an image on the screen of a hapless victim walking under a piano suspended by a rope. God’s finger hovers over the keyboard, about to press a button labelled “Smite”.
There is no question that this particular cartoon is irreverent. Some might call it blasphemous. But why is it that humor is the most common reaction to this cartoon? Is it because we have this innate tendency to laugh at the misfortunes of other people – perhaps glad that the misfortune is not our own? Probably; comics and sadists have played on that tendency for centuries, all too frequently with tragic results. What strikes the chord in this particular cartoon, though, is that Gary Larson points to God as the cause of misfortune. In this case he is merely highlighting something we would rather not admit: our perception that God really does cause evil in the world, regardless how we might try to avoid it. This perception is rooted much deeper than we may be aware. Why, for instance, do contracts and insurance policies make allowances relieving the contracting parties from responsibility in the case of “acts of God”? Something like a tornado, earthquake, or other natural disaster, is an unforeseen event that no one can predict or prepare for, and thus no one can be held responsible for its effects. No one, that is, except God, the self-proclaimed Creator and Almighty Power of the universe. God, therefore, gets the blame.
But why? How did this all get started? What established our tendency to think of the Creator as a capricious being ready to press the “Smite” button? And is it fair or right to blame God for misfortune? To find the answers we must travel far back in time, to the beginning of humanity’s existence. No doubt our earliest ancestors began blaming God for their problems soon after He expelled them from the Garden of Eden. However, what most likely caused us to think collectively about God in this way was His judgment on Egypt.
When Empires Die was originally published June 28-July 28, 2014, as a six-part series. The original six part format is accessible here.
I. THE ROAD TO SARAJEVO
The world took a giant step toward death on June 28, 1914. On that day a young atheist shot and killed a prominent Catholic and his wife in an obscure Southeast European city. Within five years, four world empires were dismembered and two new ones arose in their place. Within 40 years, three more global empires breathed their last as the new world system spawned in 1914 grew to maturity. Today, one hundred years later, that world system wheezes with its own death rattle, soon to expire in the process of giving birth to yet another global system which may be the last – and worst – of its kind.
As a historian, a political scientist, a soldier, and an intelligence professional, I cannot let the centennial of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination pass without pausing to remember what his life and death meant to the world. The circumstances that brought the Archduke and his wife, the Duchess Sophie, to Sarajevo, Bosnia, are not difficult to explain, but to understand the significance of their deaths, both in their day and in ours, requires a detailed explanation. If that explanation seems too focused on Europe, the simple reason is that Europe in 1914 ruled the entire world. No nation outside Europe – neither ancient India, nor populous China, nor even the rising powers of America and Japan – was immune to events that shook the state system of the Continent. If we are to know why the world went to war in 1914, we must look at the major players of that state system. Only then can we begin to discern what happened to the world in the summer of 1914, and what is happening to the world now in the summer of 2014.