(Originally posted October 23, 2009. This got lost in the migration from TypePad to WordPress, recovered and reposted for the archives here thanks to Loki1001 and the Library of Congress.)
Tribulation Force, pp. 105-108
Before we proceed to our first glimpse of the appalling Tsion Ben-Judah, let me first take a moment to commend Jerry Jenkins for what is, for him, a minor achievement here:
At a few minutes after two in New York, Buck waited with Chaim Rosenzweig in the opulent waiting room outside the office of the secretary-general of the United Nations.
Here we are at the U.N. without having to trace every step of the journey from the table at the Manhattan Yacht Club to this room. See how much easier that can be for reader and writer alike? This is an utterly standard device in almost any other work of fiction, but in these books it’s a pleasant surprise on these rare occasions to be spared the logistical details of any journey Buck makes from Point A to Point B.
This new setting hasn’t changed the dynamic we saw between Buck and Chaim during lunch. Chaim remains full of enthusiastic affection for his friend and Buck is still seething with scarcely contained scorn.
Chaim was merrily going on about something, and Buck pretended to pay attention. He was praying silently, not knowing if his foreboding sense of evil was psychological because he knew Nicolae Carpathia was nearby, or if the man truly emitted some sort of demonic aura detectable to followers of Christ.
Buck is praying with a zeal that he hopes makes up for his utter lack of forethought or preparation for his impending encounter with Nicolae. I recognize this behavior. I grew up attending a fundamentalist Christian school, so I know all about last-second desperate prayer as a substitute for having done one’s homework.
Then again I also recognize this behavior from having played a lot of Dungeons & Dragons growing up. Buck is in the antechamber to the lair of the evil boss. He casts Detect Evil. He casts Protection from Evil. …
Buck was warmed by the knowledge that Bruce was praying for him right then.
Good move. Get the cleric to cast Bless before heading in to the lair. Buck is so preoccupied in trying to decide whether to use his Potion of Haste now or to save it for a lower level of the U.N. that he still isn’t listening to Chaim:
“Anyway, I was saying. My dear friend Rabbi Tsion Ben-Judah has finished his three-year study, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he wins a Nobel Prize for it.”
“His three-year study?”
“You weren’t listening at all, were you, my friend?”
Another pleasant surprise: an actual apology from Buck. He and Rayford don’t usually apologize for anything. They seem to view it as a sign of weakness.
“It’s all right. But listen, Rabbi Ben-Judah was commissioned by the Hebrew Institute of Biblical Research to do a three-year study.”
“A study of what?”
“Something about the prophecies relating to the Messiah so we Jews will recognize him when he comes.”
For this, Chaim expects his friend the rabbi to receive a Nobel Prize. This isn’t as strange as it sounds. If Chaim can win one for botany, there’s no reason Ben-Judah shouldn’t get one for Tanakh studies.
Buck was stunned. The Messiah had come, and the Jews left behind had missed him. When he had come the first time most did not recognize him. What should Buck say to his friend? If he declared himself a “Tribulation saint,” as Bruce liked to refer to new believers since the Rapture, what might he be doing to himself? Rosenzweig was a confidant of Carpathia’s. Buck wanted to say that a legitimate study of messianic prophecies could lead only to Jesus. But he said only, “What are the prophecies pointing to the Messiah?”
The stunning thing here is that Buck assumes his friend has never encountered the Christian idea that Jesus is the Messiah. He thus wrestles with whether or not he should risk exposing himself as a Christian in order to let Chaim in on this big secret.
I’m not being facetious here. This is really what Buck — and, by extension, the authors — seems to think. He believes that Jews like Rosenzweig are simply unaware that Christians believe Jesus was the Christ. As though our use of that name wasn’t a pretty big hint.
Buck (like the authors) further believes that if he were to explain this to his friend — “Well, Chaim, we Christians believe that Jesus was the Messiah” — then his friend would have no choice but to kick himself for not having realized that sooner while kneeling to convert.
Seriously, read that paragraph again and note the two key words: “Legitimate” and “only.”
A legitimate study of messianic prophecies could lead only to Jesus.
“Messianic prophecies” is, for LaHaye and Jenkins, a synonym for the entirety of the Hebrew scriptures, or what we Christians call the Old Testament. It’s not quite true that LaHaye thinks these scriptures are exclusively composed of prophecies about the Messiah. There are also lots of prophecies about the Antichrist, of course. But the whole thing, in LaHaye’s mind, is mainly a list of prophecies. Just like the New Testament.
Chaim — who is portrayed in this book as relentlessly dim — doesn’t guess at what the reader sees coming a mile away. TBJ’s three-year study will of course conclude that the “messianic prophecies” of the Hebrew scriptures can “lead only to Jesus.” TBJ’s study will thus reach the same conclusion Buck has reached after his extensive two weeks of second-hand research and the same conclusion that the authors started out with.
Note what it means here that TBJ is credited with “legitimate” study of the Hebrew scriptures. That means — explicitly in this book — that every other Jew who has ever studied the Tanakh without thereafter converting to Christianity was engaged in illegitimate study.
We’ll have plenty of opportunity in the chapters ahead, after TBJ arrives in person in our story, to explore the theological assumptions at work here. But for now I want to touch on how this tale of the scholar-convert compares to Penthouse Forum.
The introduction of Tsion Ben-Judah in this story might as well have started: “Dear Jews for Jesus, I never believed these stories were true until one day …”
What I mean is that we’re dealing here with the authors’ fantasy, with a pipe dream of their idea of the Ideal Jew. It’s a fantasy that, like those infamous Penthouse letters, purports to express the writers’ affection for its object but which actually, by treating them as objects for their own gratification, displays instead their contempt.
TBJ is what the authors imagine to be an Honest Jew. Any Honest Jew, in their view, is one who rejects Judaism. The implication, of course, is that any Jewish person who fails to do this is a Dishonest Jew.
Now, sure, that sounds awfully anti-Semitic. But in partial defense of L&J, we should note that this attitude of theirs toward Jews isn’t wholly different from their attitude toward everyone else in this regard. In their view, anyone who fails to embrace what they see as the obviously self-evident truth of their brand of Rapture-obsessed Real, True Christianity can only be acting out of a deliberate perversity. You and me and every other atheist, agnostic, pagan, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Roman Catholic, Quaker, Anglican and amillennialist can’t have given any legitimate consideration of their views. If we had, then we’d have been forced to concede that they were right and we were wrong. So either our studies have been illegitimate, or else we’re just pretending we’re not convinced or, perhaps, we’ve deliberately chosen falsehood over truth because we’re all evil like that.
So, yes, L&J believe that all devout Jews are disingenuous and perverse deniers of the truth, but they believe the same thing about most Christians, too.
Tsion Ben-Judah is a remarkable character because he embodies in these books that weird admixture of Judeo-philia and anti-Semitism that baffles and infuriates just about every observer of the prophecy-maniac fringe of American Christianity. We don’t need to exhaust that topic here before TBJ even arrives in person in our story, but let me make one more comparison: Tsion Ben-Judah is Tim LaHaye’s Cherokee great-grandmother.
“I thought all white people had a Cherokee great-grandmother,” the old AIM guy told me, sublimely deadpan. The barb in that joke is a deadly serious complaint having to do with wannabes and the misappropriation of culture.
Tim LaHaye loves Israel the way wealthy hippies love turquoise jewelry and dream catchers. He loves Jews the way James Arthur Ray loves Native American spirituality. Which is to say he appropriates Judaism for his own ends, disrespecting it by usurping for himself the respect it is due, twisting it into what he wants it to be rather than what it is.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Chaim’s second-hand introduction doesn’t really do justice to the full effect of TBJ in person and that will have to wait.
Chaim sidesteps Buck’s catechistic question (“What are the major prophecies pointing to the Messiah?”):
“I was not a religious Jew until God destroyed the Russian air force, and I can’t say I’m devout now. I always took the messianic prophecies the way I took the rest of the Torah. Symbolic. The rabbi at the temple I attended occasionally in Tel Aviv said himself that it was not important whether we believed that God was a literal being or just a concept. That fit with my humanist view of the world.”
L&J really have no idea how anyone who isn’t an RTC actually talks.
“Dr. Ben-Judah was a student of mine 25 years ago. He was always an unabashed religious Jew, Orthodox but short of a fundamentalist. Of course he became a rabbi, but certainly not because of anything I taught him.”
L&J also don’t seem to have any idea how scholarship works. It’s as though they think all pointy-headed intellectual types work together in one big laboratory. Secular botanists teach at the Yeshiva. Rabbinical students attend Tel Aviv A&M. And they’re all eligible for Nobel Prizes in Smartness.