While in Winchester, Kentucky, David Altman and I had an invitation from our friends Leonard Newlin and Abraham Ott to join them in their weekly video discussion of the Torah portion. They have been doing this for quite a while on their YouTube channel, RSS Torah Portions. This was the double portion Chukat (Statute) and Balak. We had a lot of fun talking through such topics as the red heifer, the bronze serpent, Moses not getting to enter the Promised Land, Aaron’s death, Balak’s attempts to get Balaam to curse Israel, and, of course, the talking donkey. Hopefully you’ll have as much fun listening as we had in the discussion!
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:
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.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s works had secured for him a lasting place among the giants of English literature long before Peter Jackson ever brought The Lord of the Rings to the big screen. Middle Earth, with its Elves, Men, Dwarves, Hobbits, Orcs, and Wizards, serves as the backdrop for a profound tale about our humanness – what it means, and what we would like it to mean. We would like to see ourselves, for example, as high and noble, like the Elves or the Men of Gondor. Tolkien expresses this nobility in many subplots, not the least being the saga of the Stewards of Gondor. We learn about them from Faramir, son of Denethor, the current Steward:
We of my house are not of the line of [King] Elendil, though the blood of Númenor is in us. For we reckon back our line to Mardil, the good steward, who ruled in the king’s stead when he went away to war. And that was King Eärnur, last of the line of Anárion, and childless, and he came never back. And the stewards have governed the city since that day, though it was many generations of Men ago. (The Two Towers, Book IV, “The Window On the West”)
Faramir relates how his older brother, Boromir, could not understand why his father had not claimed the throne. He had asked, “How many hundreds of years needs it to make a steward a king, if the king returns not?” To this his father replied, “Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty . . . In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice.”
It is here that we must question Tolkien’s grasp on reality. He describes a degree of nobility and selfless honor that transcends generations. It is remarkable for one person to lay aside his or her own interests to guard a place of higher power, wealth, and prestige for someone else. How could such selflessness be passed down from one generation to the next, knowing that at some point the supreme authority would have to be handed over to someone else?
And yet that is exactly what our God expects His people to do.