Fox Byte 5775 #42-43: Mattot (Tribes); Massei (Stages)

מַּטּוֹת / מַסְעֵי

The Princes in the Tower. John Everett Millais, depicts the young King Edward V of England and his brother, Richard, Duke of York, two royal sons allegedly murdered by order of their uncle, King Richard III, who sought to deprive them of their rightful inheritance and claim the throne of England for himself.
The Princes in the Tower. by John Everett Millais, depicts the young King Edward V of England and his brother, Richard, Duke of York, two royal sons allegedly murdered by order of their uncle, King Richard III, who sought to deprive them of their rightful inheritance and claim the throne of England for himself.

William Shakespeare has such as way with murder.  With so many characters meeting violent death in his plays it would seem that he regarded murder as an essential part of good drama.  Richard III is an excellent example.  When my daughter studied the play in school, she and her fellow students kept a “body count” of the many characters who died over the course of Richard’s rise to power.  Shakespeare’s preoccupation with murder may have been the product of the violent world in which he lived, and indeed England in the 16th century was a violent place, yet we need only look at the headlines of events in our own cities to realize that our world is no less violent than Shakespeare’s.  If the Bard had no qualms about employing murder as a plot device, it was because his art imitated life.  Richard III was a historical play based on events that shook the British Isles just one hundred years earlier.  The play’s popularity derived in part from the horrendous nature of Richard’s quest for power, extending even to allegations that in 1483 he ordered the deaths of his two nephews, the 12-year-old King Edward V and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York.  Their uncles’ guilt has never been proven, but it is plausible that he removed them so they would not stand in the way of his quest to seize the throne of their father, the late Edward IV.

Richard III is not the only Shakespearian villain to usurp a throne and seize the inheritance of a rightful heir.  Two others that come to mind are MacBeth of Scotland and Claudius of Denmark.  Although not historical plays, MacBeth and Hamlet have roots in actual events.  The central action of MacBeth occurs when the warrior of that name murders King Duncan of Scotland.  Duncan’s sons, fearing they will be blamed for the murder, flee the country, allowing Macbeth to take the throne.  In Hamlet, we do not see the murder of Denmark’s king; when the play opens his brother Claudius has already seized the throne by killing him and marrying his queen.  The plot follows Prince Hamlet as he learns the truth of his father’s death and his uncle’s guilt. 

As was necessary for Richard III, MacBeth and Claudius must deal with the heirs to the murdered kings.  MacBeth prepares to defend Scotland against the exiled princes Malcolm and Donalbain, and Claudius concocts a plot to have Hamlet killed in a duel by an opponent wielding a poisoned blade.  In the end all three villains meet violent deaths.  Richard and MacBeth fall in battle as their own countrymen rise in revolt against them, and Claudius is slain by Hamlet himself just before the young prince dies.

Shakespeare’s works have remained popular for over 400 years because they really do imitate life, even to a disturbing degree.  In these plays we see that an inheritance is not secure even if there are sons ready to claim their fathers’ legacy.  What worse things might the villains have done had there been no sons and heirs?  Who would ensure that the bereaved family retained their place in the nation?  That very question prompted the tribe of Manasseh to ask Moses for guarantees not only for their brethren who had no sons, but for the entire tribe’s legacy in the Promised Land.

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Fox Byte 5775 #41: Pinchas (Phinehas)

פִּינְחָס

Declaration of Independence John Trumbull
Declaration of Independence
John Trumbull

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:

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.  (Matthew 12:25 NASB; see also Mark 9:38-40; Luke 9:49-50, 11:16-23)

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Fox Byte 5775 #40: Balak

בָּלָק

General George S. Patton, Jr., one of America's greatest - and most flawed - military leaders.  (Photo:  US National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)
General George S. Patton, Jr., one of America’s greatest – and most flawed – military leaders. (Photo: US National Archives, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

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Fox Byte 5775 #34: Bamidbar (In the Wilderness)

בְּמִדְבַּר

In Surrender of Santa Anna, artist William Huddle portrays the dramatic end of the Texas Revolution with a wounded Sam Houston accepting the surrender of Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna.  Houston is remembered for his role in establishing modern Texas, but few remember his identity as a Cherokee.
In Surrender of Santa Anna, artist William Huddle portrays the dramatic end of the Texas Revolution with a wounded Sam Houston accepting the surrender of Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna. Houston is remembered for his role in establishing modern Texas, but few remember his identity as a Cherokee.

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.

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Fox Byte 5775 #32-33: Behar (On the Mount); Bechukotai (In My Statutes)

אַחֲרֵי מוֹת / קְדֹשִׁים

The search of the “Interstellar Other” in film.  Clockwise from top left:  A mysterious monolith enlightens pre-human primates in 2001:  A Space Odyssey (“Arthur C. Clarke's 3001 to become SyFy miniseries “, Wired.Co.UK, November 4, 2014); arrival of the alien spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)”, Steven Spielberg Movies, December 18, 2009); crop circles indicate alien activity in Signs (“Signs Movie Review”, MediaCircus.net, 2002); the end of the world according to Knowing (“Movie Review – Knowing”, Firefox.net, March 19, 2009).
The “Interstellar Other” in film.  Clockwise from top left: A mysterious monolith enlightens primates in 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Arthur C. Clarke’s 3001 to become SyFy miniseries“, Wired.Co.UK, November 4, 2014); arrival of the alien spaceship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind (“Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)”, Steven Spielberg Movies, December 18, 2009); crop circles indicate alien activity in Signs (Signs Movie Review”, Media Circus, 2002); the end of the world according to Knowing (“Movie Review – Knowing, Firefox News, March 19, 2009).

What is this fascination with the possibility of life beyond this planet?  Are we so insecure in our human existence that we cannot bear the thought of dwelling on the only inhabited territory in the entire universe?  Or is it, perhaps, a deep-seated sense of being incomplete in ourselves?  Whatever the reason, since the dawn of human existence we have sought for something, or Someone, beyond ourselves who shares our experience of sentience and can explain it to us.

For over a century the search for the Interstellar Other has found expression in science fiction.  Novelists like H.G. Wells, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke have made their marks on several generations of impressionable youth, yet the massive explosion of science fiction onto popular consciousness came not with books, but with movies.  Clarke’s collaboration with Stanley Kubrick in the 1968 film 2001:  A Space Odyssey took science fiction movies to a new level.  It combined world-class writing with world-class filmmaking to proclaim to audiences that we are not alone, but in so doing left more questions than answers.  Ten years later, Steven Spielberg sought to answer some of those questions in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, proposing that the Interstellar Others have been visiting earth for a long, long time, and asserting that humanity had reached a point where these advanced beings could take us into their confidence and educate us further.  Movies produced over the next generation investigated different aspects of this question.  Some, like M. Night Shyamalan’s 2002 thriller, Signs, explored the dark possibility that alien visitors are not friendly.  Signs clings to the hope that humanity can defend itself from alien intruders, and that the hostile encounter restores a sense of purpose we did not know we had lost.  And then there is Knowing, a 2009 drama in which Dr John Koestler, played by Nicholas Cage, embarks on a search for the meaning behind clues predicting one global disaster after another.  He learns at last that he can do nothing about the disasters; they themselves are clues all-knowing alien watchers have tracked through time to warn humanity about the imminent destruction of our planet in a massive solar flare.  The aliens have no intention of letting the human race pass into extinction.  Their clues guide people like Koestler in gathering children so the aliens can take them to a place of safety where humanity can begin again.

A recurring motif in these science fiction films is the search for meaning behind the evidence of alien presence.  In 2001 the evidence is a mysterious monolith, and in Close Encounters it is the connection of unexplainable phenomena across the globe.  In Signs it is the appearance of crop circles, and in Knowing it is the incomprehensible code of numbers and letters scratched by a child and left in a time capsule.  The story tellers would have us believe that the answers to human existence are all there if we can only decipher the patterns.

The science fiction story tellers are correct in that an Interstellar Other has left patterns for us to decipher.  What they have missed is that the Interstellar Other is the Holy One of Israel.  His clues are in Torah, and His answers are in the rest of Scripture.

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