TF: Must be the clouds in my eyes

TF: Must be the clouds in my eyes November 30, 2010

Tribulation Force, pp. 293-295

When Hattie excused herself to answer the phone on her desk, Rayford slipped his New Testament and Psalms from his pocket.

Those little pocket testaments are enormously handy for any Never Get Caught Without A Book situation. I've got a couple of those in my car for exactly that reason. Mine are from the Pocket Testament League — little 3-by-five bindings of the New Testament plus the Psalms and Proverbs — and I have sometimes done just what Rayford is doing here, pulling one of these out of my pocket to read during down time while waiting in line or for my name to be called by the receptionist.

Rayford's situation is a bit different, though. He's sitting across from the Antichrist's girlfriend and personal assistant and she's apparently on the phone with the Beast himself. So this doesn't seem like "down time" to me so much as it does time to desperately try to overhear everything you can in the hopes of learning more about the next steps in the Antichrist's evil plot for world domination.

He had been memorizing verses from the Psalms, and as his anxiety over meeting Carpathia grew, he turned to those favorites and ran them over in his mind.

It's nice to see a member of the Tribulation Force reading the Bible for some reason other than clarification of the prophecy check list. The Psalms, we should note, are one of the few sections of the Bible not completely repurposed and twisted by Tim LaHaye's prophecy mania. The law and the prophets, Gospels and epistles are all horribly distorted by LaHaye's secret-decoder-ring approach to the Bible, but the Psalms come through with their original meanings mostly still intact.

That's also why the Psalms are really the only thing Rayford can read out of his little pocket testament. You might expect him to turn to his favorite book, Revelation, but following the LaHaye/Billings/Scofield approach, he can't read more than a few verses in that book without flipping back to splice in sections from Ezekiel or Daniel and his pocket testament doesn't include those.

There's probably a marketing opportunity for some Bible publisher to sell a "Prophecy Pocket Bible" — one that includes all the passages that matter for LaHaye's prophetic mishmash without those distracting Psalms or Gospels.

And speaking of the book of Daniel, Buck Williams is still in a cab on the way to the airport, getting a crash-course on the history of the temple from Rabbi Marc Feinberg.

Feinberg, alas, isn't as much weird fun as he was initially when he arrived from central casting with good humor and a full magazine of exclamation points. The longer he talks, the more he reverts to the same bland voice as all the other characters and non-characters in these books.

Feinberg's lecture here on the history of the temple is further evidence that Bruce Barnes is doomed. This sort of thing is what Bruce is supposed to be for, the kind of thing Buck should be hearing in his nightly Tribulation Force Bible studies instead of from some stranger in the back of a cab. But it's clear by now that the authors have lost their enthusiasm for having Bruce play that role. Tsion Ben Judah — their shiny new Mr. Exposition and prophecy scholar — is waiting in the wings and Bruce's days are numbered (literally, if you're following the countdown in comments). Feinberg here is just a placeholder, a spot-starter filling in before Bruce's full-time replacement arrives in a few chapters.

Feinberg provides the kind of hurried history a local tour guide might give to a group of evangelical tourists from Texas arriving in Jerusalem for the first time. It seems impossible that Bruce hasn't already covered this background in their Trib-Force studies as an introduction to Daniel, but I guess their discussion of Daniel has been a contextless referencing of the 70 "weeks" with no consideration of the meaning or place of the rest of the book or of why it can only be understood if read interspersed with verses from John's apocalypse.

"The temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar," Feinberg tells Buck, neglecting to mention when this happened or what nation or empire Nebuchadnezzar was king of.

"Seventy years later a decree was given to rebuild the city and eventually the temple. The new temple, under the direction of Zerubbabel and Joshua, the high priest, was so inferior to the temple of Solomon that some of the elders wept when they saw the foundation.

"Still, that temple served Israel until it was desecrated by Antiochus Epiphanes, a Greco-Roman ruler. About 40 B.C., Herod the Great had the temple destroyed piece by piece and rebuilt. That became known as Herod's Temple."

Despite being a broad ethnic stereotype, Feinberg still talks like an American evangelical. He skips directly from Antiochus to Herod as though the Maccabee Revolt and ensuing rededication of the temple never happened — presumably because books like Maccabees are regarded as pagan Catholic Apocrypha and therefore are ignored by Protestant evangelicals. Feinberg's use of "B.C." is also an odd choice of words for a guy who, just a few pages back, expressed contempt for the idea that Jesus was the Messiah, but his term for the date isn't as odd as his getting the date wrong — the usual date given for Herod's rebuilding is 19 BCE.

But as I said, Buck ought to know all about Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus Epiphanes. All of that history — the Babylonian conquest, exile and rebuilding, followed by the subsequent conquest by the Greeks — is the stuff of Daniel.

This remarkable and strange book ranks just behind Revelation as the favorite of premillennial dispensationalist prophecy enthusiasts like Tim LaHaye and Bruce Barnes. But PMDs read Daniel differently than most Christians do. For most of us, starting in Sunday school, the book is most famous as the source of those memorable stories of heroic faithfulness in exile — the kosher diet challenge, the lions' den, the fiery furnace. Good stuff, but PMDs aren't interested in any of that. For all their obsession with the book of Daniel, you'll almost never hear them mention Shadrach, Meshach or Abednego. (That's a shame here in Tribulation Force, where one would think these stories would resonate for heroes now facing a similar dilemma of how to remain faithful under the reign of an ungodly New Babylon.)

For PMDs, the third-person stories in the first half of Daniel don't matter. What they're interested in is the first-person apocalyptic imagery in the second half of the book. The underlying assumption there is that this latter half of Daniel is wholly separable from the beginning of the book and can — and should — be read and understood apart from that context.

Both parts of Daniel are built on the framework of the history garbled here by Rabbi Feinberg: Nebuchadnezzar and Antiochus. The reign of the former oppressor provides the setting of the book, the reign of the latter provides its meaning. Daniel — this prophecy favorite — was written during the time of Antiochus the temple-desecrator, and his reign is what the story is all about. But the story is set several centuries earlier, during the reign of another oppressive imperial despot.

You're familiar with this approach if you've ever watched the television show M*A*S*H. That classic sit-com was set during the Korean War, but it wasn't really about Korea — it was about Vietnam. Vietnam was still too current, too raw and too polarizing to address directly when M*A*S*H was originally written and broadcast. The Korean War on the show provided a kind of surrogate or parallel that allowed us to talk about and deal with something we couldn't otherwise have discussed.

The authors of Daniel — it's a compilation of varying voices, stories and languages* — couldn't safely talk directly about their oppression under Antiochus Epiphanes, so instead they wrote about Nebuchadnezzar. And lest their readers miss the point, they added that whole latter half with its dreams and visions reminding us that empires come and empires go and that this latest oppressor and conqueror too will fall, just like Nebuchadnezzar did. The authors of Daniel look ahead, just as they look back, predicting the future rise and fall of more empires, more conquerors to come. They weren't wrong about that.

But what makes the book of Daniel apocalyptic is that the authors don't see this cycle of conquest as enduring forever. Some day, they say, it will end and everything will be made right and just and there will be lasting peace. That is the revelation that apocalyptic literature is always revealing.

The prophecy enthusiasts aren't wrong to view this idea as predictive — foretelling a future yet to come. But they miss that it's not only predictive. It's also prescriptive — we're not being told to sit around twiddling our thumbs waiting for that peace and justice to fall out of the sky. Nor is apocalyptic literature like the latter half of Daniel intended to produce an obsessive compiling of check lists and countdowns. Daniel, like Revelation, was written to be read, not to be deciphered or strip-mined for nuggets of prophecy that can be extracted from their surrounding context.

Such strip-mining is how the PMD prophecy maniacs approach the text. That's why even after spending weeks of daily study of Daniel, Buck still isn't familiar with the name Nebuchadnezzar.

Feinberg supplies an odd, but mostly accurate, summary of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and then skips ahead to the present day:

"Today the Temple Mount, the site of the old Jewish temple, is occupied by the Mohammedans and houses the Muslim mosque called the Dome of the Rock."

Close. The mosque is near the Dome of the Rock, but the actual mosque is … Hold that thought. We'll get back to Feinberg's understanding of Islam in a moment.

Buck was curious. "How were the Muslims persuaded to move the Dome of the Rock?"

That's an excellent question. An excellent question that neither Feinberg nor the authors even attempts to answer.

I share Buck's curiosity on this point. I can't imagine any possible way that this voluntary relocation of an entire holy mountain could have occurred. But all we get as an explanation is this:

Buck was curious. "How were the Muslims persuaded to move the Dome of the Rock?"

"That proves the magnificence of Carpathia," Feinberg said.

Yes, but how did the magnificent Carpathia pull this off? Feinberg isn't saying and neither are the authors, other than a vague suggestion that Nicolae's mind-control mojo may be involved.

The authors are far more interested in what they seem to think of as an even more magnificent feat: Nicolae's persuading Pres. Fitzhugh to give him Air Force One. That feat will be explored in torturous detail over the next several chapters, but the voluntary relocation of Mount Moriah and Al-Aqsa is dealt with in those two dismissive sentences above.

(N.B.: If your story contains an impossibility as a plot point, it's best to avoid spotlighting the impossibility by having your protagonist ask, "How is that possible?" Like a trial lawyer, you want to avoid asking any questions you don't already know the answer to. Having Buck ask, "How were the Muslims persuaded to move the Dome of the Rock?" and then not answering his question doesn't reassure readers that they are in trustworthy hands.)

Feinberg continues to explain the "Mohammedan" occupation of the Temple Mount:

"The Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock, is built right over Mount Moriah, where we believe Abraham expressed his willingness to God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Of course we do not believe Mohammed to be divine, so as long as a Muslim mosque occupies the …"

Oh my. Is Jerry Jenkins suggesting that Rabbi Feinberg really thinks Muslims worship Mohammed as divine? Or, more likely, does Jenkins have Feinberg say this because this is what the authors themselves think Islam is all about?

I'm far from being any kind of expert on Islam but, really, how do you get that wrong? "There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet." The Shahada. Muslims say this quite a bit. It's hard to miss.

This is not something it could be possible for Rabbi Marc Feinberg — "one of the key proponents of rebuilding the Jewish temple" — to misunderstand. The man's passion involves the Temple Mount, so there's no way he could be this stupefyingly ignorant of what that site's Muslim residents believe. He would have to be well-versed in Islamic belief and culture, and would likely know more than most Muslims about the history and significance of their holy sites in Jerusalem.

I just can't imagine someone supposedly so obsessed with the temple site misunderstanding Islam at such a basic, fundamental level.

But then I should have learned better by now. Tim LaHaye, after all, is obsessed with the United Nations, which he regards as a dangerous institution that will play an enormous, nefarious role in the future of humanity. And yet LaHaye knows almost nothing about the U.N. He doesn't understand what it is, how it works, what it's for, what it does or what it doesn't do. And he doesn't care to learn any of that.

The entire Left Behind series is proof that obsession need not produce curiosity — that it is possible to spend decades obsessing over and dreading and opposing an institution and yet still never bother to learn even the most basic facts about it.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Here's something that bugs me about the English translations of Daniel that most of us rely on. Daniel was written partly in Hebrew and partly in Aramaic, but our translations give little indication of where this linguistic switch happens or that it happens at all.

I'm not a Daniel scholar and I can't tell you what this shift means, but clearly it means something. One doesn't suddenly switch languages mid-text and then switch back several chapters later for no reason at all. Yet this switch and its meaning are blurred by English translations that impose a uniformity not present in the original. It's a bit like watching a version of The Wizard of Oz in which someone has colorized all of the Kansas scenes. Or like reading a French translation of "The Waste Land" in which the Sanskrit has been translated right along with the English. Conveying a bilingual text for a monoglot readership is an admittedly tricky problem for a translator, but I think it requires a bit more than just the usual single footnote.

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