Language is a perilous thing. It can unite us, but quite often it does the opposite. That, by the way, was God’s intent. We know that from the story of how He created the different languages of the earth as presented in Genesis 11:
Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words. It came about as they journeyed east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. They said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks and burn them thoroughly.” And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar. They said, “Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built. The Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them. Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth. (Genesis 11:1-9 NASB, emphasis added)
Ever since then that curse of language has been with us. And, by the way, so has the curse of nations.
Curse of nations? Yes, it does seem to be a curse. It would seem that the Lord did not intend for humanity to be scattered and separated across the face of the planet in competing factions. Nevertheless, nations were His idea. The story of the Tower of Babel explains why. You’ll notice that mankind also had an idea of uniting themselves as one people, but their idea was not the same as the Almighty’s. They wanted to be a single, unified power that could challenge YHVH for sovereignty over this planet. Since these people lived in the generations immediately after the Great Flood, we can suppose that some of them harbored a little resentment at God’s destruction of the pre-Flood civilization. Maybe they thought they could do things better than their ancestors, perhaps by building a strong defense that could ward off any further Divine intervention in human affairs. Now since our God does not change (Numbers 23:19; I Samuel 15:29; Malachi 3:6; James 1:17; Hebrews 13:8), and since the eternal governing principles of the universe which He established do not change (Psalm 119:44; II Kings 17:37; Matthew 5:18, 24:34-35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33), He had to do something about this blatant rebellion. There can only be one God, after all.
The problem with sin is that it seeks to create many gods – in fact, as many as there are human beings on the earth. That is at the heart of Satan’s insidious deception spoken to our mother Eve: “For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:5 NASB) Tragically, the way our Creator dealt with the deception before the Flood was to destroy humanity. I would surmise He had little choice in the matter since all of humanity apparently was united as a single people, most likely under satanic leadership (not unlike the world we are anticipating at the end of this age when Messiah returns). To make sure He did not have to make a complete end of the human race this time around, the Lord God created nations and then scattered them across the earth. If they were divided in language, they would soon be divided in every other imaginable way, and the resultant wars and rumors of wars would ensure that a united human empire would not arise to defy the Living God until the end of days. In the meantime the Living God could go about the process of cultivating His redemptive work in human hearts while they remained in the nations.
The Barking Fox just completed the annual Torah Cycle and is ready to embark on another year of Bible commentary. Rather than embark on another systematic journey through the Torah and Haftarah, in this Hebrew year 5776 Fox Bytes will focus on selected books and topics, starting with the book of Job.
A sad commentary on human nature is that people who stand for what is right rarely are the people with whom one would prefer to be seen in public. We may honor such saintly persons as Mother Theresa, Billy Graham, or William Wilberforce, but we do not want to be close friends with them – or at least not let such relationships be known. Our preference is to hang out with “good old boys”, friends who like the things we like, sympathize with our problems, and make us feel better about ourselves without actually causing us to change. That, of course, is the problem with those saintly people: they uphold high standards of right living which make us feel uncomfortable. It does not matter how blessed they appear to be, or the peace they seem to enjoy in any situation, or that they give the authorities no cause for alarm. The truth is that they are righteous, and their righteousness interferes with our desire to live comfortably and indulge whatever pleasure seems good.
Shakespeare understood this fact of human nature. He made use of it in his masterful manipulation of the Roman public through Marc Antony’s speech in Julius Caesar. Caesar’s assassins justify their murderous act by saying the great man was ambitious and that his ambition would have been the death of Roman freedom. Antony seems to agree, saying “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones”, a statement that indicates whatever good Caesar would have done has died with him. Then he turns the tables, calling the assassins honorable men – good men whom the good citizens of Rome should trust, and with whom they should be glad to associate. Yet their honorable good pales in comparison to Caesar’s selfless ambition: an ambition that enriched Rome through his military service, that wept for Rome’s poor, and that refused a kingly crown thrice offered. In other words, any honor that may have accrued to Caesar’s assassins was as nothing compared to the great man’s righteousness in life and legacy in death.
We learn through Shakespeare’s theatrical Marc Antony a truth written centuries earlier to a real Roman audience by a man who also understood something about human nature:
For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die. (Romans 5:7 NASB)
When General Lew Wallace published Ben Hur in 1880, he had no idea that his tale of a wrongfully condemned Jewish prince would have such an impact on modern audiences. It is a tale of redemption, being the product of Wallace’s own investigation into the validity of the Christian faith. The epic scale of the story lends itself to the big screen, but Hollywood’s first effort at bringing Wallace’s characters to life in 1925 fell short of the mark. It took another generation of filmmakers, capitalizing on improved technology and cinematic techniques, to do justice to the tale. The result was William Wyler’s 1959 production of Ben Hur, a film that surpassed the achievements of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, released just three years previously. Wyler and DeMille both worked with the same leading man: Charlton Heston, a handsome actor known for his portrayals of tough men of action. Heston’s depiction of Moses remains the standard for cinematic portrayals of Israel’s Lawgiver, but it was his role as Judah Ben Hur which won him an Oscar as Best Actor.
The story follows Judah in his quest for revenge after his family is unjustly accused and sentenced for allegedly attempting to kill the new Roman governor of Judea. His mother and sister are taken to prison, but Judah is condemned to a hellish existence rowing the galleys of Rome’s navy. After three years his ship receives a new commander, Consul Quintus Arrius (played by Jack Hawkins), who leads the fleet against pirates who have menaced the sea lanes. On inspecting the rowers, Arrius takes notice of Judah as a man full of hate, but able to control it, a trait the Consul finds useful. Upon concluding his inspection Arrius offers this advice:
Now listen to me, all of you. You are all condemned men. We keep you alive to serve this ship. So row well, and live.
Judah finds opportunity to do more than that. In battle his ship is rammed and sinks, but he is able to escape and save the life of Consul Arrius. Later they learn the Roman fleet has won the day and Arrius is a hero. He returns to Rome, bringing Judah with him in hope of repaying the debt of his life. Judah becomes a famous chariot racer, trusted with some of his master’s most prized possessions. In time, Arrius rewards Judah with the greatest gift he can bestow: adoption as his son and heir.
Eventually Judah returns home, finds his mother and sister, and avenges the wrong done to his house. Yet it is not until he encounters Yeshua (Jesus) of Nazareth that he finds true peace. Lew Wallace’s story is, after all, a tale of the Christ, and would be incomplete without the redemption the Messiah offers. The roots of the story, however, go back to the time of Moses, when he spoke these words to the people of Israel:
The Lord has today declared you to be His people, a treasured possession, as He promised you, and that you should keep all His commandments; and that He will set you high above all nations which He has made, for praise, fame, and honor; and that you shall be a consecrated people to the Lord your God, as He has spoken. (Deuteronomy 26:18-19 NASB)
אַחֲרֵי מוֹת / קְדֹשִׁים
How do we love the unlovely? That is one of the questions Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise explore in Rain Man. Hoffman earned an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of Raymond Babbitt, a man with autism whose family had chosen to place him in an institution after he had accidentally harmed Charlie, his younger brother. Because of that, Charlie (played by Cruise) never learns of his brother’s existence until after his father’s death. Charlie is surprised to learn that his father had left most of his fortune to a trust fund that paid for Raymond’s expenses. Determined to obtain a share of the money, Charlie entices Raymond out of the mental institution and takes him on a road trip to his home in California, where he intends to file a lawsuit for custody of his brother. The rest of the movie is a journey on many levels as Charlie begins to see Raymond not as an easily exploitable asset, but as a remarkable human being, and as the loving and lovable brother he has missed all his life.
The audience shares that journey thanks to Hoffman’s masterful performance. By the end of the movie we are still a bit awkward and uncomfortable around Raymond, but we no longer think of him as something less than ourselves. He is brilliant in his own way, far more capable with computations and connections than most of us could ever be. In an odd way he is charming, affectionate, and even adorable. Once we look beyond his peculiar mannerisms and grow accustomed to his unique forms of expression, we begin to see a person of great value. Indeed he has special needs that prevent him from functioning on his own, but we learn from Rain Man that Raymond Babbitt and others like him do have a place in society. One example of this was reported recently in The Times of Israel, in an article explaining how the Israel Defense Forces have recognized the special gift of persons with autism, and have found a way for them to make a valuable contribution to the defense of their nation. Yet even those who are not able to make such a contribution have value. They teach us about ourselves – what it means to be human. We are enriched when we get to know them.
Indeed, they are our neighbors, the very people we are to love as ourselves.
The Apostle James admonishes us as people of faith to take action on that faith. His strongest admonition comes in the first part of his letter to the Twelve Tribes scattered abroad:
If anyone thinks himself to be religious, and yet does not bridle his tongue but deceives his own heart, this man’s religion is worthless. Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:26-27 NASB)
The real question is this: How many orphans and widows have you visited today?
The very real needs of this world stare us in the face every day. Sometimes those needs walk right up to your car at an intersection and ask for money. Sometimes those needs are half a world away, but still very close to the heart of God. Here is one of them. Her name is Myriam.
In many ways Myriam is one of the fortunate ones. In August 2014, when the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forced her Christian family to leave their home in Qaraqoush, Iraq, they fled to Irbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. Now she lives with her parents and sister in a mall that has been converted into a refugee camp. The good news is that they escaped with their lives. The bad news is that many did not, and those who did saw things that no one should ever have to see. Many thousands are still held in the grip of violent Islamist terrorists, faced daily with harsh choices that involve death or something worse.
How would one describe hell? Dante does a nice job in his Inferno, depicting levels of escalating unpleasantness corresponding to the earthly misdeeds of the unfortunate sufferers. It is important to note that Dante’s descriptions, however grotesque, are not without a certain order. In other words, hell is not complete chaos. There is an organization, a hierarchy, and a supreme authority that keeps it functioning. If there were no order then hell would splinter into a million pieces and never cause harm to another soul. And thus Dante reflects something that Yeshua explained about the infernal realm:
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. If Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself; how then will his kingdom stand? (Matthew 12:25-26 NASB; see also Mark 3:23-27 and Luke 11:17-22)
This principle of diabolical organization is something C.S. Lewis explains as the rationale for his masterful work, The Screwtape Letters:
I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed, and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern. (C.S. Lewis, 1961. The Screwtape Letters with Screwtape Proposes a Toast. New York: MacMillan.)
If Yeshua and these literary masters are correct, our conclusion is that hell must be organized and lawful, to some extent at least. But why is that so? One would think that Satan, the enemy of the Most High God, would do everything opposite what God does. That would mean he would preside over a completely lawless, chaotic realm. Yet that cannot be so for a fundamental reason that Satan knows only too well: without Law, nothing can function.
It has been more than 500 years since Christopher Columbus mistakenly identified the indigenous peoples of the Americas as “Indians”, and yet that name has remained the popular collective label for the many hundreds of nations more accurately identified by their own names, such as Arawak, Pequot, Lakota, Yaqui, Quechua, and Navajo. Many of these nations have ceased to exist, the victims of disease, war, enslavement, and cultural genocide. Others have come into existence as dispersed and diminished peoples have merged to make new nations. Still others have persisted in their identity to this day, enduring beyond hope as distinct peoples. All of those things describe the Seminole Nation, which now resides in the states of Oklahoma and Florida. The Seminoles did not become a distinct people until late in the 18th century, when remnants of the Muskogee (Creek) and other peoples of Florida and what is now Georgia and Alabama combined to form a new nation. The Spanish called them cimarrones, meaning runaways, or free people. This term referred to the fact that the tribe included many escaped slaves, both African and Native American, who had joined with others from broken, scattered tribes. In the Muskogee tongue, cimarrones became semulon-e, and eventually Seminole.
This people who originally were not a people soon developed a strong sense of national identity which compelled them to resist all efforts to conquer them. They fought against the Spanish, the English, the Creeks, and, inevitably, the Americans. Three bitter wars from 1817 to 1858 left the Seminole Nation broken and divided, but still unconquered. Most of the surviving Seminoles were removed by the United States government to Oklahoma, but a remnant remained in the swamps of southwestern Florida, where they remain to this day. The Florida Seminoles are unique among Native American peoples in that they alone have never signed a treaty of peace with the United States. Those who were removed to Oklahoma may have agreed to peace with the U.S., but they maintained a fierce independence in their new land. Efforts to integrate them into the Creek Nation of Oklahoma met with determined resistance. In time the Seminole remnant in Oklahoma reestablished their tribal identity, and today exist as a separate and distinct nation.
It may come as a surprise, but the greatest story in the Bible is about a nation created from a people who were not a people. The tale begins with the account of Joseph and his brothers, but the story as yet has no ending.
On a certain winter’s day early in my Army career a distinguished visitor stopped by our office. This gentleman was Chief of Staff of 24th Infantry Division, the third highest ranking officer of the division and our senior supervisor. His rank of colonel, his position as Chief of Staff, and his 30 years of service as a warrior of the United States conferred on him a high degree of honor and respect. The occasion of his appearance in our office was his farewell visit to the staff. Not only would he be leaving us, he would be retiring from the Army. As usual with such events, we had received word ahead of time that the Chief would be in the area. When he arrived we jumped to our feet, stood at attention, and waited patiently as he made his way around the room, shaking hands and speaking to every person. Whether we had known the man long or not, all of us understood the protocol required to honor a person of his rank and position.
Except for one soldier. For some reason it never occurred to her to stand up and come out from behind her desk when the colonel approached her. She sat there and allowed him to reach over the desk to shake her hand, and then returned to her work when he walked away. In all fairness, she was very young – not more than 19, and accustomed to the easy standards of her rural upbringing that regarded all people as social equals. The rigid rank structure of the Army, with its pomp and circumstance, was yet foreign to her. Nevertheless, her carefree demeanor and lack of respect for the colonel horrified me as the officer responsible for her conduct, and my warrant officer, the man who supervised our younger soldiers. We knew that the fault lay not with this ignorant young soldier, but with us who should have taught her better.
The people of God should also be taught better about our attitudes toward the Creator Who breathed life into us.
What is Yeshua really teaching us through the Sermon on the Mount? Yes, He explains that it’s good to be connected to the Maker of all life, but is His sermon an explanation of how to do that, or is it a picture of what happens when we really connect with our God?
As with so many things about our relationship with our Creator, the answer is “Yes”.
By now it should be clear that the basic details about how to live a godly life are not in Yeshua’s teaching. The details are in the Torah. In the Sermon on the Mount Yeshua takes the principles of Torah, which His audience knew very well, and clarifies them. It’s not that He is teaching something entirely new, but that He is looking in a new way at what His Father originally delivered through Moses. That is why He uses the format, “You have heard that it was said . . . but I tell you”. Consider these next points:
If we want to follow Yeshua, should we expect trouble? Yes. He said so Himself:
Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also. (John 15:20 NKJV)
The question is not whether we suffer trials and tribulations, but how we get through them. To do that we need deep roots, and to get those roots we have to dig deep with the right tools. This is one big point of Yeshua’s lesson about the Sower (Matthew 13:1-23; Mark 4:1-20; Luke 8:4-15). The good seed of the Word of God was sown in four types of soil, but only one produced good fruit. The other three got eaten up, withered away, or choked out because they did not have any depth in the soil. Somehow or other their roots just could not go down deep enough to make sure the plants grew to maturity and produced good fruit.