About the time that Gideon of Manasseh delivered Israel from oppression of the Midianites and Amalekites (Judges 6:1-8:35), a war of (literally) epic proportions took place on the northwest coast of what is now Turkey. The Trojan War really did happen, but the conflict was already wrapped in myth and legend when a Greek poet known only as Homer published The Iliad sometime around 750 BCE, four centuries after the war’s generally accepted dates of 1194-1184 BCE. Homer’s epic inspired a number of classical works telling the tales of the Greeks and Trojans, including a sequel published in Latin seven hundred years later. When the Roman poet Virgil wrote The Aeneid, he probably had a political agenda in mind. His story is that of Aeneas, a Trojan hero of the royal family who escaped the destruction of the city and led a band of refugees in a journey that eventually resulted in their settlement at the mouth of the Tiber River in Italy. There they became part of the story of Rome, a city which began as a colony of Alba Longa, the capital of the new kingdom Aeneas and his descendants founded. Thus Rome could trace its origins at least in part to Troy. More importantly, the family of Julius Caesar traced its genealogy to Aeneas, giving it a claim to royalty that helped Caesar’s nephew Octavian consolidate his power as Caesar Augustus. Whether true or not, Virgil’s epic, written early in Augustus’ long reign, cemented the link of the Caesars with Aeneas and Troy in the minds of Romans, making it one of the most successful pieces of literary propaganda ever published.
Even if the Caesar’s claims were falsified, and even if Aeneas never existed outside of classical literature, his tale is an illustration of the remnant: those who remain. Whether it is Ishmael surviving to tell the story of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, or Job’s servants fleeing disaster to report to him (Job 1:13-22), fact and fiction throughout the human experience have featured a fortunate few who escape. The remnant has the task of carrying the memory of those who went before, of rebuilding what they lost, and of achieving their ultimate destiny. These remnant tales would have little impact on us if they were not a common feature in reality. The remnant is a continuous reminder in Scripture that God’s judgment is tempered with mercy in the expectation that a people will at last be able to step into the fullness of the promises YHVH has spoken from beginning of time.
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.
One of the compelling images I recall from childhood is the opening scene of Branded. This Western TV drama starred Chuck Connors as a United States Army officer unjustly charged with cowardice. Week after week the series opened with Jason McCord, Connors’ character, being drummed out of the service at a remote post in the American West. As the garrison assembles, McCord is marched to the front and center of the formation, where his commander removes from him every vestige of his connection with the Army – his hat, rank insignia, and even the buttons on his coat. Last of all the commander removes McCord’s sword from its sheath, breaks it over his knee, and tosses the broken hilt out of the fort’s gate. The shamed officer then walks out of the fort as the doors close behind him. Now on his own, branded for life with the mark of a coward, he must find a way to clear his name.
What if someone had exonerated Jason McCord? Such things have happened before. There is provision in the law to excuse an offender, either when the accusation is proven unjust, or when a duly constituted authority bestows clemency in an act of mercy. The law, however, remains in effect. Should another man, or even the same man, desert his post in an act of cowardice, he would be guilty of the same offence. Even if the entire United States Army deserted, requiring the President to recruit an entirely new force, the deserters would still be guilty according to the statutes and regulations governing the military service. And should the law change somehow, perhaps refining the definition of cowardice and clarifying the penalties, the law would still be in effect, and those subject to it would be wise to learn the changes lest they find themselves inadvertently in error.
How interesting that such a principal gleaned from a 1960s TV Western is actually a principal of the Word of God. While some may argue that the Law of God has no application at all in an age when Messiah Yeshua has won forgiveness for all who believe on Him, in actuality His work of redemption secured a prophesied change in the Law, not its abolition.