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 places named in the Bible.
Even superheroes have their weaknesses. If it were not so, the stories about them would be over very quickly and would not be quite so interesting. This is perhaps a reflection of our human condition. No individual is complete within himself or herself. We need one another to do things we cannot do for ourselves and to watch out for dangers hidden in our blind spots. Together we survive and thrive, but separately we grow weak and perish.
Hopefully we learn this lesson in childhood. Good children’s literature certainly upholds this principle, whether it is The Cat in the Hat helping bored children amuse themselves and then clean up the mess, or The Ugly Duckling finding unexpected help to teach him who he is. So it is with The Five Chinese Brothers, a classic modern retelling of an ancient Chinese story. In her 1938 version of the tale, Claire Huchet Bishop tells of five remarkable brothers who live with their mother near the sea. Although they are identical, each brother has a unique ability. One can swallow the sea, and thus is a highly successful fisherman. The second brother has a neck as hard as iron, the third can stretch his legs to any length, the fourth is immune to fire, and the fifth can hold his breath as long as he desires.
One day the First Brother goes fishing in the company of a lad who had begged to go with him. When the brother swallows the sea, the boy runs out to collect the treasures exposed on the now dry ground. Before long the Brother grows tired and signals to the lad to return, but he ignores the signals and continues wandering along the seabed. When the Brother must release the sea from his mouth, the waters cover the wayward boy. In sadness the Brother returns home, where he is arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death by beheading.
Happily for the family, the execution never succeeds. The First Brother has opportunity to go home and say farewell to his mother, but it is the Second Brother who returns. His neck of iron turns the executioner’s blade, leading to a revised sentence of death by drowning. The sequence repeats, with each Brother coming in to overcome successive sentences – the Third Brother’s long legs prevent drowning in the sea; the Fourth Brother’s resistance to fire defeats the flames of the execution stake; and the Fifth Brother survives an airless night in a sealed oven. Having failed to execute the offender, and not realizing that his Brothers have taken his place each time, the judge proclaims him innocent.
How simple and how profound is the lesson from this children’s tale. Brothers need one another, each contributing of his abilities to do his essential part in bringing peace and long life to the family and to the nation. That is just as King David said:
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity! It is like the precious oil upon the head, coming down upon the beard, even Aaron’s beard, coming down upon the edge of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion; for there the Lord commanded the blessing—life forever. (Psalm 133:1-3 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)
Everyone knows about Joseph and his fancy coat. He was the one with the dreams of greatness about how his brothers and his parents would bow down to him. Joseph was the favorite son, the one his father loved best, and the one who seemed to rub that in the faces of his brothers. That’s why they hated him and tried to kill him, and that’s why they sold him into Egypt as a slave. Everyone knows that story, and they know how Joseph was thrown into prison because his Egyptian master’s wife falsely accused him of attempted rape. They know what happened next: that while in prison Joseph interpreted the dreams of Pharaoh’s chief butler and baker, and eventually that’s what opened the way for him to get out of prison. Even people who have never read the Bible know Joseph’s story. It makes for good theater, as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice showed us with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and as we learned with the DreamWorks animated movie, Joseph: King of Dreams. That’s why I’m not going to write about Joseph. I’m going to write about the awkward and uncomfortable story of his older brother Judah.