TF: Sweet fire-breathing Moses

TF: Sweet fire-breathing Moses January 19, 2011

Tribulation Force, pp. 317-325

Here, at last, we come across some of the standard vocabulary of a thriller. It's late at night outside of a hotel room in Jerusalem. The mysterious professor stands beside a waiting car. "Get in," he says.

Not a frightfully original set-up, but at least it is a set-up. This book, after all, is billed as an "End-Times thriller." A thriller is supposed to thrill or, at least, to attempt to thrill. But we've slogged through nearly 800 pages of this series and have thus far encountered very little in the way even of attempted thrills. There was the initial rapture scene on the plane, then the superfluous London car-bombing and the ensuing hours on the run for Buck, and the firing of a single bullet, but that's pretty much been it. Everything else has been phone calls, plane rides, corporate meetings, cookies and Bible study.

This is our introduction to Tsion Ben-Judah, who is to become a major character, so to fill us in on his background, Jerry Jenkins awkwardly shoehorns a recitation of the rabbi's Who's Who entry. "I am not granting any interviews," the rabbi tells Buck.

"Just some personal information then. …"

"… I am 44 years old. I grew up in Haifa, the son of an Orthodox rabbi. I have two doctorates, one in Jewish history and one in ancient languages. I have studied and taught my whole life and consider myself more of a scholar and historian than an educator, though my students have been most kind in their evaluations. I think and pray and read mostly in Hebrew and I am embarrassed to speak English so poorly, especially in an egalitarian country like this. I know English grammar and syntax better than most Englishmen and certainly most Americans, present company excepted I am sure, but I have never had the time to practice, let alone perfect, my diction. I married only six years ago and have two teenage step-children, a boy and a girl."

If there's one thing egalitarian societies cannot abide, it's poor diction.

For the joke to work, really, the sentence boasting of superior knowledge of English grammar should come before the sentence with the malapropism. But I suspect that this isn't so much a matter of Jenkins botching the joke as it is him not realizing he's making one.

"A little over three years ago, I was commissioned by a state agency to conduct an exhaustive study of the messianic passages so the Jews would recognize Messiah when he comes. This has been the most rewarding work of my life. In the process I added Greek and Aramaic to the list of my mastered languages, which now number 22."

How, I wonder, does one get a doctorate in "ancient languages" without studying Greek? And how can one be such a doctor of ancient languages and also a rabbi and the son of a rabbi while putting Aramaic all the way down at No. 22 on your language list?

The authors, I think, intended that bit about adding Greek and Aramaic as a hint that the rabbi has begun reading the New Testament, but Aramaic isn't an exclusively New Testament language. The Talmud is in Aramaic, as are large chunks of Ezra and Daniel.

Yes, the same Daniel about which Tim LaHaye regards himself an expert. The 10-horned beast of which LaHaye is so fond? That bit was written in Aramaic. You'd think a "Bible-prophecy scholar" should have known that.

"I'm excited about the completion of the work and eager to share my findings with the world by television. I don't pretend that the program will compete with anything containing sex, violence or humor, but I expect it will be controversial nonetheless."

"I don't know what else to ask," Buck admitted.

Other, lesser journalists might imagine the need for some follow-up questions — some further exploration that might provide deeper insight into this man than one can find in his own, cursory initial introduction, more detail about his private life and background that would help to illuminate his work, his faith and his scholarship. But Buck Williams cannot even imagine such distractions — he has no idea what else one might begin to ask interview subjects beyond what they choose to voluntarily offer about themselves. It's that laserlike focus that makes Buck the Greatest Investigative Reporter of All Time.

Take heed of the lesson here if you're interested in pursuing a career in journalism. If your goal is to become like Buck, the go-to reporter of choice for the powers that be — the one journalist that even the Antichrist himself regards as his handpicked favorite — then you should learn to emulate Buck's willingness to accept his subjects' self-assessments as wholly valid and sufficient. Allow them to describe themselves on their own terms, accept those terms uncritically, and always remember the GIRAT's motto: "I don't know what else to ask."

The Mercedes parked near some tour buses, and the driver waited as Dr. Ben-Judah and Buck mounted a set of stairs to take in the view of the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount, and everything in between.

TheWesternWall This chapter poses some difficulties for anyone who has ever been to the Western Wall or even has just seen photos of it, such as the one posted here. Where are the preachers standing and where are the crowds assembled? The authors suggest that the Orthodox faithful praying at the wall continue to gather there — unlike Buck, they were somehow able to work their way through the crowds — and I'm having a hard time forming any mental picture of the layout here.

It doesn't help that the few scene-setting details the authors do provide don't make sense. Take that line above about "the view of the Wailing Wall, the Temple Mount, and everything in between."  There isn't anything "in between" — the Western Wall is part of the Temple Mount. When you're looking at the wall, you're looking at the mount, at the side of one of the massive retaining walls Herod built to create the artificial plateau. The authors don't seem to understand the layout and the geography here. They don't seem to have even a passing familiarity with pictures of the actual place they're struggling to describe.

That's unforgiveable for a supposed "Bible-prophecy scholar." It's even worse than LaHaye's apparent cluelessness about the original text of his supposedly beloved book of Daniel. This is "Bible-prophecy" 101. The Temple Mount is ground zero for "Bible-prophecy scholarship." As Gershom Gorenberg wrote in The End of Days, his excellent book on the mount and its unique place in Christian, Jewish and Muslim apocalypticism, "For literalists, the venue for the final events is Jerusalem — and at its center, the Temple Mount." Every itinerant prophecy-seminar preacher in America, every wanna-be LaHaye or Hagee or Lindsay, carries with him a series of overhead-projector transparencies mapping out this exact plot of land. And yet here is Tim LaHaye, the most lucratively successful practitioner of their trade ever, bungling the details of the place. Weird.

"These are the largest crowds I have seen," the rabbi said.

"But they are so quiet," Buck whispered.

"The two preachers do not use microphones," Dr. Ben-Judah explained. "People make noise at their own peril. So many want to hear what the men have to say that others threaten those who cause any distraction."

I wish there were a way for us, as readers, to threaten the authors here to get them to stop yammering long enough to allow us to hear what the preachers are saying, but all we're given, again, is just a brief snippet in which they repeat the same slogan they were reciting last time.

This seems to be all that there is to their message: a brief assertion, endlessly repeated without variation, without support, without argument or citation or development as an idea. This isn't preaching, this is merely chanting. The two men have been speaking nonstop for nearly a month yet they do not seem to have ever spoken two consecutive paragraphs. They're just saying the same two-part message, over and over and over: "Jesus is Messiah. Suck it Jews."

I can't imagine hushed crowds listening intently to an unvarying repetition of that for more than a few minutes at the longest.

Perhaps you think I'm being unfair or I'm exaggerating the crude anti-Jewishness on display here. Judge for yourself:

Within 40 or 50 feet of the preachers were Orthodox rabbis, bowing, praying, sliding written prayers into the cracks between the stones in the wall. Occasionally one of the rabbis would turn toward the witnesses and shake his fist, crying out in Hebrew, only to be shushed by the crowd. Sometimes one of the preachers would respond directly.

As Buck and Dr. Ben-Judah reached the edge of the crowd, a rabbi at the wall fell to his knees, his eyes toward heaven, and howled out a prayer in anguish.

"Silence!" shouted one of the preachers, and the rabbi wept bitterly. The preacher turned to the crowd. "He beseeches almighty God to strike us dead for blaspheming his name! But he is as the Pharisees of old! He does not recognize the one who was God and is God and shall be God now and forevermore! We come to bring witness to the Godship of Jesus Christ of Nazareth!"

With that, the crying rabbi prostrated himself and hid his face, rocking in humiliation at the wickedness of what he had heard.

So, yes, "Suck it, Jews," is a fair and accurate summary of the Two Witnesses' message. Keep in mind that one of the preachers intent on "humiliating" the rabbis in this holy site is supposed to be Moses.

I'm imagining the authors' reaction to a half-assed fictional account in which Jesus of Nazareth reappears on the site they regard as the holiest place they can think of — Colorado Springs, maybe, or Wheaton — and in which this "Jesus" mocks and chastises evangelicals for believing he is the Messiah. Maybe that would help them to see how disrespectful and nasty their own crude scenario is. Maybe.

Dr. Ben-Judah whispered to Buck, "Would you like me to translate?"

He's hearing the preachers speak in Hebrew, but Buck is hearing them in English. Thus we learn that the preacher's message is being heard by every listener in her or his own native language. It's a miracle.

Jenkins and LaHaye drain the life out of this miracle by belaboring the revelation of it over the next several pages until it seems lifeless and boring. They seem more excited by the chance this gives them to show us that Dr. Ben-Judah (always Dr. Ben-Judah, just as always Capt. Steele) himself speaks fluent Spanish, German, Norwegian and "Asian" (to be fair, it just says he spoke to "some Asians"), which is meant to impress us, although again I'm more impressed that the rabbi and "ancient languages" scholar found the time to pick up Spanish and Norwegian before learning Greek and Aramaic.

Like the other flamboyant miracles that have occurred in these stories — the harmless nuclear assault, the rapture — this one is explicit, obvious and undeniable, allowing for no natural explanation. And like all those other extravagant signs of direct supernatural intervention, this miracle goes wholly unnoticed except for by Buck Williams — who once again takes care not to point it out to anyone.

The usual biblical phrase for what we call miracles is "signs and wonders." Both of those words require observers or witnesses. Signs are meant to signify to someone. Wonders are meant to fill someone with wonder. But what happens if a miracle falls in the forest and signifies nothing, inspiring no wonder? Is it still a miracle?

But enough dilly-dallying — this Pentecost knockoff isn't the miracle we've all come to see. We're here to visit the Two Witnesses and that can only mean one thing: Breathing fire. Tim LaHaye has promised us a "literal" depiction of the events described in Revelation, and Revelation 11:5 tells us of the Two Witnesses, "If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies."

Unlike LaHaye, I'm quite comfortable treating a passage like that one as figurative. "Fire-breathing" is, these days, an idiomatic expression applied with varying shades of meaning to orators, preachers, rappers and cattle auctioneers. I'm open to the possibility that similar expressions conveyed similar meanings 1900 years ago or so when the book of Revelation was written.

That possibility makes LaHaye apoplectic. He insists that we must read Revelation and every other part of the Bible "literally, just as the Lord intended." And yet, despite several brief vignettes in which various antagonists have "tried to harm" the Two Witnesses, so far there's been zero fire-breathing. Terribly disappointing.

But that's about to change:

"Ayee!" A young man wearing boots, khaki slacks, and a white T-shirt came screaming through the crowd. People fell to the ground when they saw his automatic weapon. He wore a gold necklace, and his black hair and beard were unkempt. His dark eyes were ablaze as he rattled off a few rounds into the air, which cleared a path for him directly to the preachers.

He shouted something in an Eastern dialect Buck did not understand, but as he lay on the pavement peeking out from under his arms, Rabbi Ben-Judah whispered, "He says he's on a mission from Allah."

Well, no. No chance of that happening.

Security You see, part of the description of the place that L&J have bungled here is the rather important feature that lies between where they parked the Mercedes and the plaza by the Western Wall — namely the rather formidable security checkpoint in the lower picture included in this post. Metal detectors, polite but very efficient and impressively armed soldiers, wands, dogs, the works. You can't get through there with an automatic weapon. And it's not easy to get through there if you're a Muslim male even if your beard is not unkempt and your eyes are not ablaze.

But sadly for our radical young Gap model, that security checkpoint seems not to be functioning here, giving him a "clear path" to try to harm the Two Witnesses.

Buck reached into his bag and turned on the tape recorder as the man ran to the front of the crowd. The Two Witnesses stopped preaching and stood shoulder to shoulder, glaring at the gunman as he approached. He ran full speed, firing as he ran, but the preachers stood rock solid, not speaking, not moving, arms crossed over their ragged robes. When the young man got to within five feet of them, he seemed to hit an invisible wall. He recoiled and flipped over backward, his weapon clattering away. His head smacked the ground first, and he lay groaning.

Revelation 11, read literally or otherwise, doesn't say anything about an invisible force field. That's Sue Storm's superpower. We were promised something more along the lines of her brother Johnny's special talent.

Suddenly one of the preachers shouted, "You are forbidden to come nigh to the servants of the Most High God! We are under his protection until the due time, and woe to anyone who approaches without the covering of Yahweh himself." And as he finished, the other breathed from his mouth a column of fire …

Flame on.

And as he finished, the other breathed from his mouth a column of fire that incinerated the man's clothes, consumed his flesh and organs, and in seconds left a charred skeleton smoking on the ground. The weapon melted and was fused to the cement, and the man's molten necklace dripped gold through the cavity in his chest.

Eww. On second thought, I think I preferred the scene with the Trip and Die Guys. I'm not sure which is more off-putting here — the relish Jenkins seems to have for gory details, or the way the witnesses didn't do the fire-breathing thing until after they had rendered their victim helpless, disarmed and unconscious on the pavement.

In the distance, families ran screaming toward their cars and buses while Israeli soldiers approached the wall slowly, weapons at the ready.

So this miracle got noticed. For now, anyway, by tomorrow I'm sure they'll all be accepting Steve Plank's official explanation that the fire-breathing trick was really due to "some kind of electromagnetic thing-y and not at all wondrous and/or significant."

One of the preachers spoke, "No one need fear us who comes to listen to our testimony to the living God! Many have believed and received our report. Only those who seek to do us harm shall die! Fear not!"

Buck believed him. … "I want to stay," Buck said. "I want to talk to these men."

Dr. B-J "turned and spoke in Hebrew to the Two Witnesses" and then "Buck and Ben-Judah backed away."

"I told them we would meet them at 10 o'clock tonight behind the building where they occasionally rest. Will you be able to join me?"

"Like I would pass that up," Buck said.

Behind what building? There's no …

No, let's not quibble over that. For the first time in this second book of the series, we've actually gotten something like what we were promised — a scene involving the "literal" presentation of one of the freakier bits from Revelation. The authors even threw in a bonus super-powered invisible force field for added excitement.

After 320 pages of human resource department meetings and phone calls, that counts as a positive development, so I'm willing to overlook the authors' strange rearrangement of the scene's world-famous, iconic setting.

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