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)
It is understandable why Peter Jackson had to take considerable license with The Lord of the Rings when he brought J.R.R. Tolkien’s mammoth work to the screen, and yet his choices inevitably brought disappointment to Tolkien aficionados. Why, for example, did Jackson choose to minimize the presence of Farmer Maggot? Tolkienists take issue with the fact that his role in The Fellowship of the Ring was diminished to the point of insignificance. In the book, Farmer Maggot saved Frodo and his companions as they fled the Shire, giving them provision and helping them elude Sauron’s dreaded Black Riders. It was unexpected help, for Frodo had considered Farmer Maggot an enemy. As a child Frodo had taken a liking to Maggot’s mushrooms, and on more than one occasion absconded with portions of the good farmer’s crop. Such youthful mischief roused Maggot’s anger, compelling him to chase Frodo from his land and threaten him with his very large dogs should he ever return. And so it was that Frodo grew up fearing Farmer Maggot, never knowing that beneath his fierce anger lay a loyal, generous, and hospitable heart. Thanks to the mediation of his companion Pippin, and to the dire need of the moment, Frodo at last gained opportunity to get to know the real Farmer Maggot. He explained as much as they prepared to leave Maggot’s home:
Thank you very much indeed for your kindness! I’ve been in terror of you and your dogs for over thirty years, Farmer Maggot, though you may laugh to hear it. It’s a pity: for I’ve missed a good friend.
Frodo’s words present us with an all-too-familiar and all-too-tragic reality. How often have individuals, families, and nations remained at odds over ancient offenses, the causes of which are long forgotten? How much suffering has multiplied on the earth because natural allies regard each other as enemies, or at least minimize their contact with each other out of mistrust and misbegotten fear? And how much greater is that tragedy if the people who regard each other in this way are the two parts of YHVH’s people? In truth, Moses and Yeshua have no contradictions or arguments, but their followers think they do, and for that reason Jews and Christians have separated themselves from one another for twenty centuries.
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)
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.
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.
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.
Walking Through The Open Gate
An Enduring Standard
We see from Scripture that the Creator’s processes are lengthy, thorough, and often completely different from what humans desire or expect. This should not be a surprise. YHVH says quite plainly that His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts. Nevertheless, He does tell us what we need to know, and He reveals things at the appointed times to those who bother to seek Him. What we often learn is that the answer has been there all along, but we have never understood it correctly until the right time and until we approach with the right heart. When it comes to the purpose of the Lord’s processes regarding His people Israel, the answer has been staring at us for about 3,000 years. He spoke it through Moses to prepare the people for their first great meeting with Him at Sinai:
In the third month after the sons of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on that very day they came into the wilderness of Sinai. When they set out from Rephidim, they came to the wilderness of Sinai and camped in the wilderness; and there Israel camped in front of the mountain. Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob and tell the sons of Israel: You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings, and brought you to Myself. Now then, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be My own possession among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine; and you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the sons of Israel.” (Exodus 19:1-6 NASB, emphasis added)
Managing Expectations: Case Studies in God’s Processes
Ancient Hair Care
One of the most colorful characters in the Bible is Samson, the Judge of Israel from the tribe of Dan. His story is in Judges 13-16. It begins like this:
Now there was a certain man from Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren and had no children. And the Angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, “Indeed now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and bear a son. Now therefore, please be careful not to drink wine or similar drink, and not to eat anything unclean. For behold, you shall conceive and bear a son. And no razor shall come upon his head, for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines.” (Judges 13:2-5 NKJV, emphasis added)