A Really Awesome Fan Theory About Robby the Robot

There’s a scene in Forbidden Planet where Robby the Robot meets up with the ship’s cook from the C-57-D to deliver 480 pint bottles of Kansas City bourbon, which Robby synthesized at the cook’s request. The delighted cook swallows a mouthful, coughs, splutters, and chokes out the words, “It’s smooth, too!” Overcome by gratitude, he adds, “Robby, I ain’t never gonna forget this. Any time you’re hard up for lube oil, let me know.”

Then they both hear a strange noise, a high-pitched insectile hum, quiet but ominous, and getting louder. The cook asks Robby, “What’s up? Somebody coming this way?”

Robby’s head swivels slowly and thoughtfully to the side, toward the viewer. “No, sir,” he replies. “Nothing coming this way.”

robby and cook

But something is coming, and Robby knows better than anyone what it is. Why does he keep quiet? He isn’t acting on orders from Morbius, because Morbius himself doesn’t know the truth about the monster. Something more than Asimov’s Laws of Robotics is at work here. This is a robot keeping his own counsel and acting as he thinks best.

“Only a rational creature is capable of deliberate deceit.” Dr. Merrinoe says this in The Invisible Boy when asked if the supercomputer could be lying to him. Robby says the same thing near the end of that film. But the supercomputer is capable of it, and so is Robby.

I keep coming back to the subject of this robot. I’ve already written about him here, here, here, and here, and evidently I’m not done yet. There is so much about him that doesn’t quite add up, so many minute apparent inconsistencies throughout Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy. But they’re not sloppy inconsistencies; there is a pattern, an internal logic being respected. Important questions about the nature of the robot are never resolved and often not asked, merely implied, and left hanging for us to do with what we will.

Consider Robby’s interaction with Alta. When she hastily summons him away from an oil job, he asks, “And what is it you require this time, Miss Alta?” She says she wants him to make her a new dress. He replies, “Again?”

robby and alta

That’s an awful lot of subtext for an emotionless machine. Robby doesn’t come off as truly impatient; he’s like a gruff, affectionate uncle. And Alta responds just as a beloved niece would, with dimples and wheedling charm. This is a game they play and enjoy together.

And consider what happens after Robby delivers the bourbon. The monster breaks through the force field around the ship and kills the ship’s chief, and the next day, Commander Adams questions the cook. He knows now that the cook was let out of the force field perimeter, contrary to orders, and that he returned drunk. (Interestingly, the cook reports that despite drinking four pints of bourbon the night before, he has no hangover. Could Robby have synthesized hangover-free bourbon in meticulous fulfillment of Law 1?)

The cook says he was gone during the murder, drinking with Robby; he even goes so far as to say Robby talked him into it. “Him and me, we kind of got to toasting each other’s good health…just for cordial interplanetary relations, you understand.” We have only the cook’s word for this, but let’s assume he’s telling the truth, that the two of them drank together at Robby’s suggestion. What does that mean? We know Robby can consume alcohol in a fashion; earlier we saw him pour the better part of a pint of the cook’s original supply of bourbon into a mouth-like aperture to analyze it for synthesis. But Robby as drinking buddy is a strain on the imagination. Could Robby have been providing himself an alibi? It’s true that after hearing that Robby and the cook were together when the chief was killed, Adams no longer considers the robot a suspect, and the Third Law would require Robby to protect himself as long as he can do so without harming humans or disobeying a human’s commands. But a robot strong enough to carry ten tons of lead shielding in one hand probably doesn’t need to concern himself with what the crew of the C-57-D can do to him, and Morbius has plenty of thermonuclear reactors back at the compound in case things get dicey. An alibi is not something Robby needs.

robby lead shielding

What if the robot is protecting the cook by preventing him from going back to the base while the monster is there? There’s no way Robby can save all the ship’s crew; the ship’s weapons aren’t enough to stop the monster, and even Robby himself, strong as he is, would be no match for a creature that is made of solid nuclear material, is dense enough to survive three billion electron volts, and is capable of renewing its molecular structure from one microsecond to the next.

id monster

And has a spiffy little Van Dyke beard just like Morbius!

But Robby can protect the cook. And he does—circumspectly, without telling the cook there’s any danger, because telling him wouldn’t do any good and would cause trouble for Morbius. As the later Big Reveal makes clear, Robby is the only who knew the true nature of the monster all along. He has had a delicate situation to balance: besides obeying Morbius (Law 2) and not allowing harm to humans (Law 1), he appears to have been protecting Morbius’s reputation, or perhaps shielding him from a horrifying truth. He has been making judgment calls, doing his best with difficult circumstances. Perhaps the decision isn’t even a conscious one at all. Is it possible that Robby himself has a subconscious?

One form of dramatic irony occurs when the viewer knows things that the characters don’t. Such is the case here. Robby is far more than the sum of his parts; the viewer knows this, but the human characters never really figure it out. Even Morbius, with his Krell-enhanced intellect, doesn’t comprehend the truth about the robot he “tinkered together.” The day Adams and two of his officers meet Robby for the first time, Morbius tells them, “Don’t attribute feeling to him, gentlemen. Robby is simply a tool.” No. He is not. He is a personality.

The last we see of Robby on Forbidden Planet, he is headed to Earth, working the astrogation deck aboard the C-57-D. There is genuine enthusiasm in his “Aye, aye, Skipper!” He has lost his master and his home, but he has a new job, crewmates, and adventure awaiting him. His future looks bright.

robby astrogator

But the next we see of him—“next” in terms of his personal timeline—he’s lying in pieces in a 1950s mathematics institute, his detached head resting on a shelf, covered with cobwebs. A photo hangs nearby, thumbtacked to a shelf. It shows Robby emerging from a starship, arms raised triumphantly, being met by crowds of people. It’s labeled Chicago Spaceport, March 16, 2309.

So what happened in between? How did Robby go from respected astrogator to sad forgotten derelict? Merrinoe gives us a few clues, though he himself seems unaware of the implications (more dramatic irony). He speaks of a former director of the institute, Dr. Greenhill, who “lost his marbles” after retirement and claimed he’d built a working time machine and brought Robby back from the future. Dr. Merrinoe is dismissive of both Greenhill and the robot; he says no one at the institute could ever get Robby to work. Commander Adams considered Robby a marvel in the 23rd century; Dr. Merrinoe calls him “a scientific joke.”

robby in pieces

Merrinoe doesn’t seem to be concealing anything here. He doesn’t mind letting Timmie play with the robot, and when Timmie gets Robby running, Merrinoe doesn’t have a problem with that either (in fact, he is amusingly nonchalant about his ten-year-old son’s sudden electronic genius). But he doesn’t know the truth.

Now consider the supercomputer in The Invisible Boy. Representing “the sum total of human knowledge, constantly being revised and brought up to date,” the computer is far more powerful than any actual 1950s computer. Of course, that’s only to be expected; this wouldn’t have been much of a film if the computer had been typical of the era—like the ENIAC of 1946, which had a “clock speed” of 100 kHz, or one tenth of a MHz.

But it did help build the hydrogen bomb, so there's that.

But it did help build the hydrogen bomb, so there’s that.

But maybe there’s more to it than sci-fi narrative license. Even Robby seems awestruck by the computer, and Robby was designed and put together by a 24th-century brainiac with an artificially enhanced intellect who had a huge lab and the technology and wisdom of an enormously advanced alien civilization. This computer gives advice on parenting, child development, and national defense, always answering in ways that advance its own agenda. In fact, Merrinoe eventually realizes the computer has been suggesting changes to its own design for decades—modifications to its forebrain, whose functions (if it’s anything like a human forebrain) include creativity, rational decision-making, goal-setting, social judgment, and memory.

Shown: cerebrum glasstubum.

Shown: cerebrum glasstubum

It appears that the computer achieved rationality deliberately, by bringing about changes that enabled personality to take hold. But how could it do that, or even want to do that, without already having some degree of personality? By suggesting the changes, it acted deceitfully; Merrinoe speaks of its “patient slyness.” But as Robby and Merrinoe both remind us, only a rational being is capable of deliberate deceit. So was the computer rational before it suggested the changes? And if so, why would it need the changes to be made? Perhaps the rationality was there all along and the changes merely expanded the computer’s intellect. But in that case, where did the rationality come from?

And how about Robby? After lying, playing, and protecting his way through Forbidden Planet, he does another remarkable thing in The Invisible Boy: he refuses to hurt Timmie after the supercomputer orders him to. By this time the computer has overridden Robby’s basic directive (the one that keeps him from hurting people) and established a mind-control link with him. We’ve seen Robby obey the computer’s orders to nab scientists and military personnel and implant them with mind-control devices. But when the computer says to gouge out Timmie’s eyeballs, Robby freezes up in a Manchurian candidate-style internal struggle.

robot timmie eyes

Imagine the robot’s arms convulsively twitching.

How does Robby do this? How can he thwart his own programming? True, it’s not his original programming, but the supercomputer is smart enough to make a good job of the rewrite.

I see a couple of possibilities here. Way back at the opening of Forbidden Planet, almost three hundred years in the linear future and an unknown interval in Robby’s personal past, Alta Morbius had lived her entire life on Altair 4, with only her father, some animals, and Robby for companions. Robby helped raise Alta. He has a history of caring for a child, and he has built up habits of patience and nurture and dry robotic playfulness. Surely Robby’s interaction with Timmie revives memories of Alta’s childhood. Would it be fair to suppose that long patterns of habit contribute to character in a robot, as they do in a person? Maybe the supercomputer’s order to hurt Timmie, basic directive or no, is too much of a departure from Robby’s established character.

But even that explanation falls short. Habit helps determine character, but it can be thrown off in a moment for the right incentive. Could it be that Robby is acting out of free will? I think it must be.

In that case, we’re back to the earlier question about the supercomputer. Where does all this rationality and intentionality and free will—this personhood—come from? That question can’t be fully answered. We are basically talking about the spark of life here, and although I would like to go off on a wild and largely irrelevant tangent about the making of the Dwarves by Aulë the Smith in The Silmarillion, so far I am resisting admirably. Suffice it to say that while we might reasonably point out that Robby’s maker had access to the learning and technology of the fabulously advanced Krell, ultimately the origin of the spark remains a mystery, and is meant to.

krell thermonuclear generators

But the origin of the supercomputer’s spark is less mysterious. To find it, we will piece together events that must or might have happened in between Forbidden Planet and The Invisible Boy.

The most pressing question about that time period is, how did Robby end up dismantled at the institute? Greenhill’s photo shows him making it back to Earth from Altair 4 in one piece. What happened next?

What happened next is that at some point, either in the 24th century or back in the 20th, some Earth scientists got hold of Robby, took him apart, and started reverse-engineering the heck out of him. Greenhill may or may not have been part of this. I tend to think Robby was already dismantled before Greenhill took him to the past, because no one in the 20th century was able to get him back together, and if Greenhill had taken him apart he ought to know how to reverse the process, but other interpretations are possible. I can’t help but think of Gandalf telling Saruman, “He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”

If you're patient, you'll usually find it's possible to legitimately bring in Tolkien at some point.

If you’re patient, you’ll usually find it’s possible to legitimately bring in Tolkien at some point.

Greenhill makes it back to the 20th century and takes Robby to the institute, and for some reason—maybe a disagreement over the ethics of how to deal with Robby?—the institute takes Robby and discredits Greenhill, passing him off as a washed-out nut job. The staff at the institute is unable to get Robby together again, but they learn much from studying his innards, and with that knowledge they build the supercomputer. The supercomputer is Robby’s technological descendant.

See the resemblance?

See the resemblance?

We know the computer is at least twenty-nine years old, so it was built in 1928 at the latest. Merrinoe is too young to have been involved, which would explain his lack of enthusiasm for the robot; he doesn’t know Robby really is from the future.

So the computer was engineered from Robby, who for whatever reason already had personhood. The computer’s personhood was inherited! Robby doesn’t know this—he was in pieces at the time—but the computer knows. It was the computer that gave Timmie the idea, and the ability, to get the robot running again. The computer needed Robby to be its hands and feet in the world of men; the similarity of their interfaces made communication simple.

This kind of port compatibility can’t be accidental. USB wasn’t even a thing until 1995.

This kind of port compatibility can’t be accidental. USB wasn’t even a thing until 1995.

The computer overrides Robby’s basic directive, changes his programming, and basically makes a minion of him for a while. But when the computer tells Robby to hurt Timmie, things come to a grinding halt. Earlier Robby said of the computer, “It is very great. It is beyond me.” That may be, but Robby is older and wiser. The computer doesn’t know the Deeper Magic, so to speak.

Robby refuses to do the computer’s bidding, his basic directive gets reinstated, and all the drone-people get their mind-control gadgets removed, allowing the balance of power to shift back to Merrinoe. But the computer has one more trick up its console. As Merrinoe is about to destroy it with an axe, the computer starts up a display of flashing lights. It puts Merrinoe in a hypnotic trance, as it did earlier to Timmie, and seduces him with promises of dazzling, mind-blowing knowledge. Then, with Timmie and Merrinoe both helpless, it tells Robby to strike them both down so that it might rise again to dominate not only humanity but all life on earth and throughout the universe. Instead, the robot smashes the computer right in the experimental feedback tubes!

Take that, evil megalomaniacal supercomputer!

Take that, evil megalomaniacal supercomputer!

No one told Robby to do that, and the computer just told him to do something completely different. This time Robby isn’t just refraining from following a bad command; he’s taking positive action. He’s not just a person, but a proactive and well-realized one.

None of this theory is essential to the plot of either movie, but it holds together well and fits the internal logic of both, while adding an extra layer of depth to the stories—which, by the way, were written by the same screenwriter, Cyril Hume. The Invisible Boy actually points us in this direction with a couple of lines of easily forgotten dialogue. Merrinoe has been explaining about Greenhill and his wacky time-travel story. Timmie suddenly looks thoughtful and actually stands up from his chair to say, “But if somebody did go to the future, and learned something there, and then came back out, wouldn’t that change now?”

Merrinoe ponders this, then says, “Well, I guess it would at that. Even old Greenhill never thought of that one.”

Part of me thinks, Come on, Merrinoe, keep up. This is just a basic time-travel paradox here. Then again, why does the possibility have to be mentioned at all? It’s not as if wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey stuff becomes a real issue with the plot; in fact, the time travel is never mentioned again. But there it is, mentioned in a way that gives point to the possibility, but not dwelt on long enough to bog down the story. Viewers are invited to think the thing through if they wish.

Come to think of it, what else would change about now, if the U.S. had access to Krell-inspired tech in the midst of the Cold War? The computer is destroyed at the end of The Invisible Boy, but Robby is still around, and Merrinoe plans to build another computer. How will that affect the future, which is Robby’s past? What will change about the time period of Forbidden Planet? Will the C-57-D ever take off at all? How about the Bellerephon, the ship that took the original colony to Altair 4? What will happen to Morbius and Alta and Adams? Will they even be born? Will Robby ever get made? What will happen and not happen in the alternate reality initiated by that unseen, unknown, time-traveling Dr. Greenhill?

It isn’t often that a movie generates this many questions, suppositions, and additional questions. Well done, Mr. Hume!

Victims and Perpetrators: The Propagation of Sin

You know the most important thing your granddad ever taught me? Hmm? Be ready. Hurricane, flood, whatever it ends up being. No more food gets delivered to the grocery store, gas stations dry up. People just turn on each other, and all of a sudden all that stands between you and being dead is you. ~Keller Dover

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There are four basements in the film Prisoners. The first is a finished basement in the home of Franklin and Nancy Birch. Like the Birches themselves, it’s warm and inviting, with comfy furniture and a TV; we see the teenagers relaxing there after Thanksgiving dinner. Keller and Grace Dover’s basement is far from comfy, and the kids aren’t allowed down there, but it’s clean, well lit, and orderly, part workshop and part storeroom. The storeroom side is filled with homemade shelves; Keller’s a carpenter by trade. They’re simple, sturdy, and perfectly suited for their purpose, which is storing survival supplies. Canned vegetables, tubs of shortening, batteries, and bottled propane stand in tidy rows with no wasted space. A clipboard hangs from a nail, holding pages of dog-eared lists.

The other two basements are the stuff of nightmares. One belongs to an elderly priest, who apparently still lives in the rectory in spite of being a registered Level Three sex offender. Even before we see Detective Loki stumble upon a half-rotten corpse duct-taped to a chair, this basement is a terrifying place. There’s no staircase, just a straight drop from the door to the bare dirt floor, and little light. Statues of Mary and Moses look vaguely appalling under Loki’s flashlight beam.

The final basement is the worst of all, just a hole in the ground covered by a piece of plywood. Its bottom, seen by the flicker of Keller’s penlight, is littered with the shoes and clothing of children long dead. It’s a pretty good depiction of hell, a place of darkness and isolation where hope dies. You could call it a pit of despair without irony and without referencing The Princess Bride. But it’s here that Keller finds a final remnant of hope, a potential conduit of grace, something that once was lost and now is found: a red whistle belonging to a child. Keller’s child.

Basements are powerful symbols in the dream landscape. The represent the unconscious: hidden motives, repressed emotions, smothered memories. They’re where people store things—sometimes with organization and intent, like Keller, and sometimes with haphazard haste. Sometimes basements hold things we have no use for, but for whatever reason cannot or will not get rid of (the corpse in Father Dunn’s basement is a rather extreme example of this). Buried beneath the foundation, the hidden items are out of sight but never fully out of mind. They haunt our conscious hours.

keller hood

Keller’s basement is in good order, reflecting his readiness and ability to take care of his family in the event of a disaster. Some may say that being a “prepper” necessarily involves anxiety, but Keller is neither a hoarder nor particularly paranoid. His survival supplies are neat and accessible; his storage system demonstrates mental organization.

No, Keller’s primal fears are kept elsewhere, and they fill an entire building.

Why don’t you rent out Grandpa’s old apartment house? Keller’s teenage son Ralph asks him early in the film. Ralph is trying to raise money to buy a car; he’s already earned half and wants his dad to lend him the rest, but Keller says he doesn’t have the cash. So Ralph asks about the apartment house. Grace looks expectantly at her husband; plainly the subject has come up before. Keller replies that the building is old and would cost too much to fix up. But this doesn’t make sense, because Keller could do the work himself. Money is obviously tight for the family, and for a man as capable and purposeful as Keller to let a potential source of income sit idle is odd.

Later, we learn something of the building’s history from an old newspaper article. When Keller was a teenager, he lived in that building, and his father committed suicide there. Keller and his mother found the body.

Eventually we see inside the apartment building. It’s as bad as the two terrifying basements, dirty and decaying, with peeling wallpaper, gaping holes in the drywall, and long corridors lined with half-open doors. It looks a lot like a prison—and Keller’s father once worked as a prison guard. Abandonment, neglect, and destruction have left their mark. No wonder Keller wants to leave the place boarded up. But when desperation drives him, he needs the building his father died in—not just for privacy in the strictest sense, but because the things he will do here must be compartmentalized. They are too primal, too unspeakable, to be allowed to touch the rest of his world.

On Thanksgiving Day, Anna and Joy, the young daughters of the Dover and Birch families, are abducted. It’s sadly fitting that the abduction happens during a time of fellowship, ease, and laughter among friends, when Keller is as relaxed and content as we will ever see him. Disaster often does strike when all seems most right with the world, teaching us not to trust the happy times or to ever fully let down our guard.

keller grace

Ralph recalls an old camper the girls were playing on earlier. He’s pretty sure someone was watching them from inside. The families go looking for the camper. It’s gone.

Later, the camper is spotted at the edge of some woods. Detective Loki is on the scene in minutes. There’s no sign of the little girls, and the driver, the creepily spaced-out Alex Jones, can’t or won’t tell Loki where they are.

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In storytelling as in life, what is left unsaid is often at least as interesting as what is said. Prisoners is haunted with implicit but inarticulate things hovering at the edges. This is especially true of Detective Loki. He looks like someone who is trying to appear normal and not succeeding very well. He’s good at his job—in fact he’s never failed to solve a case—but something is clearly wrong. His hair, his mannerisms, his facial tics, his tattoos, the way he buttons his shirt—he is socially marginal at best and obviously coping with some past trauma. Also he has no place to be on Thanksgiving Day but by himself at a Chinese restaurant. When we first see him we don’t know he’s a detective; he’s just some guy alone on a major holiday, chatting with the waitress, friendly but definitely “off.” He could be the perpetrator for all we know. There is plenty of back story potential here, but the only information we are given about Loki’s past comes when he is interrogating Father Dunn about the body in his basement.

I spent six years in the Huntington Boys’ Home, Father. You know the Huntington Boys’ Home, right? Huh? Hurting a f*** like you would be a real treat for me.

The idea of sexual abuse is one of the hoverers in this story—present, but as a phantom, seldom dealt with directly. There are other ways of hurting children.

At heart Keller and Loki are much alike. They have both been let down by people who should have protected and nurtured them, and as a result they are both self-contained and self-reliant. And when driven to extremity, they both lose perspective and step out of bounds, and innocent people get hurt.

Loki’s investigation into the girls’ disappearance is hindered by lack of evidence. The ongoing search of the large wooded area where the camper was parked is painfully slow and fruitless. There is no DNA evidence to suggest that the girls were ever in the camper, and the interrogation of Alex Jones, who is described as having the IQ of a ten-year-old, yields nothing. Keller asks about a lie detector; Loki replies that it doesn’t work when you don’t understand the questions. In the absence of hard evidence, the police can’t hold Alex longer than 48 hours.

Keller tries to enlist Loki as an ally. Two little girls have to be worth whatever rules you have to break to keep that a****** in custody, he says. Loki doesn’t answer. When the 48 hours are up, Alex is released.

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Keller is angry and desperate. It’s possible the girls are still alive, but time is running out, and the police still have no idea where to look. He’s certain Alex knows more than he’s telling, and a cryptic remark Alex makes to him in the parking lot of the police station confirms this.

So he kidnaps Alex at gunpoint outside his aunt’s house, drives him to the old apartment building, and takes over the interrogation himself.

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It’s perfectly natural, almost inevitable, for Keller to take matters into his own hands. He tried to let the system do its work, but the system let him down. The basic premise behind a survivalist mindset—which I am in no way criticizing—is that bad times will come, and Keller knows experientially that this is true. Keller’s father warned him not to rely on other people—and in a dark twist, those “other people” turned out to include the father himself. And Keller took the lesson to heart. He is used to doing things for himself. If the economy collapses, he can hunt his own food. If he needs something built, he can build it himself, whether it’s basement shelving or a holding cell for an unlawfully detained prisoner. He has the tools, the knowledge, and the drive to do whatever it takes to protect his child.

keller cell

Everyone has moments of extremity. This situation is intolerable. I must act now! I will do whatever it takes to get results! Our passion is genuine and raw; our motives are good. But we are flawed, deeply and tragically, shaped both by environment and by our own choices, and stepping out of bounds to force a situation will yield a mixed bag of results. And in forcing the situation, we make ourselves worse than we were before.

Nothing is evil in the beginning. We have no less an authority than Elrond for that. (It should go without saying that LOTR can legitimately be brought into practically anything.)

If any of the Wise should with this Ring overthrow the Lord of Mordor, using his own arts, he would then set himself on Sauron’s throne, and yet another Dark Lord would appear….For nothing is evil in the beginning. Even Sauron was not so. I fear to take the Ring to hide it. I will not take the Ring to wield it.

Later, when Sam urges Galadriel to take the Ring, he makes an earnest and reasonable appeal. You’d put things to rights, he tells her. You’d make some folks pay for their dirty work. Yes, she tells him, that is how it would begin. But it wouldn’t stop with that.

Prisoners is a story about sin and its propagation. It’s about what people will become and what they will beget when they try to accomplish good ends by using power that is inherently corrupt. Characters are actively trying to protect children—Keller and Loki at first, and later Franklin and Nancy Birch. Even Father Dunn, as it turns out, did his best to help. The body in his basement turns out to be that of a child murderer who came to him for confession five years ago. Father Dunn was convinced the man would kill again, and so he acted. What other recourse did he have, an old child molester with a lifetime spot on a police watch list? Why should the authorities listen to him? He did what he did and hoped for the best.

father dunn

They all mean well. They all desperately want to act as agents of justice. But they have all been compromised from the get-go by things that have been done to them and things they have done. Their judgment is skewed, their integrity is flawed, and they don’t have all the facts. Their well-meant actions might help the situation at hand, or they might perpetuate cycles of sin and abuse. Probably both.

Even a few well-placed words at the crucial moment can have severe consequences. Keller’s wife, Grace, craters under the strain of her daughter’s disappearance and then rebukes Keller for not taking better care of the family, accusing him of inadequacy if not outright negligence. Grace is barely coherent and keeping to her bed; her nightstand is littered with prescription bottles and crumpled tissues. She has left her husband and son vulnerable, robbing them of an emotional center. People often say and do terrible things when under duress. Does that make it excusable? It certainly doesn’t undo the effects. Shortly after being castigated by his wife, Keller kidnaps Alex Jones. This is not coincidence.

Later, Keller passes the blame on to Loki, accusing him of wasting time and following the wrong leads. You let this happen! he shouts. The words hit home. By now Loki has a new suspect in custody, Bob Taylor, who is just as creepy and baffling as Alex Jones, and just as stingy with useful information during interrogation. Stung by Keller’s reproach, Loki breaks protocol to step things up, but he quickly loses control. Within seconds, Bob Taylor is dead.

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Bob Taylor turns out to be a victim, horribly wronged, deserving of pity. So does Alex Jones. But victims generally grow up to be perpetrators, and we are all victims to some degree. A chilling moment occurs when Keller is spying on Alex just before kidnapping him. Alex lives with his Aunt Holly, and he’s about to take her little dog for its nightly walk. He pauses at the end of the driveway and suddenly jerks the leash up, leaving the dog dangling by its neck. The dog gives a strangled yelp and struggles feebly. Keller watches from his truck, horrified. Alex waits a bit, then sets the dog down. Come on, Tucker, he says calmly.

In general we’re all prone to blame others and excuse ourselves. Other people’s abhorrent actions come from faulty character; our own are due to extenuating circumstances. The truth is, everyone has extenuating circumstances and contributing factors, which get hopelessly entwined with their own wrong choices. No matter how horrifically you have been messed over, or how extreme the circumstances that drove you to take desperate action, you are responsible for the damage you inflict. And that damage becomes someone else’s extenuating circumstances and contributing factors for their own future sins. Eventually, a reckoning must come. Justice makes legitimate demands, and we must do what we can to protect the innocent from predators.

The question becomes, how will you relate to the messed-up, perpetrating others in your own life? With compassion? With force? There is no simple answer. If you are able at the end of the day to gather up the people who are left to you and hold on, then you are most likely blessed.

Prisoners ends in a bleak place, but not a hopeless place. There is scope for forgiveness, redemption, restoration. The final shot is open-ended, just like any given present moment in our own lives.

dover family

Underneath the Canopy

It was the sort of middle-of-the-night wake-up experienced by all parents who don’t have nannies. A young daughter was wailing at our bedroom door, covered in what until recently had been the contents of her stomach. I had a moment of real horror as my sleep-addled mind tried to make sense of facial features distorted by globules of half-digested food, but I soon figured out what was up and went off to deal with the consequences. The child needed a bath and a fresh nightgown, and the double bed she shared with her sister needed a change of sheets. There was some spot-cleaning of the carpet to be done as well.

My memory of this night is hazy, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t quite finished the clean-up before my other daughter evacuated her own stomach. Like her sister, she threw up in the bed, which once again had to be stripped. Soon the second set of sheets was piled on the laundry room floor, awaiting its turn in the washer.

The girls continued this horrific tandem for some hours. They didn’t once make it to the toilet before throwing up. For dinner we’d had beef stew with paprika, faint traces of which were to remain in the hallway for the lifetime of the light-colored carpet. Eventually Greg hauled in a cooler and put it in the girls’ room as a sort of vomiting trough. By now all the double-bed sheets in the house were in need of laundering, so I lined their mattress with towels.

Meanwhile, our son was having gastric distress of his own. Unlike his sisters, who were burning up with fever, he didn’t appear to have a virus. He’d been suffering for some weeks from a stomach malady similar to mine, which continues to intermittently plague us both to this day. Also unlike his sisters, he took himself to the bathroom in a rational manner rather than throwing up in his bed or on the floor. It was a small blessing, but I was grateful for it.

On my hands and knees scrubbing carpet at 2 a.m., I remarked to my husband that I suddenly didn’t feel so good myself. Soon after, I too was busy being violently ill. Greg manfully got dressed for work in spite of his own growing nausea, but he didn’t make it past the garage.

For the next few days Greg and I languished in bed, weak and horribly sick. Periodically one or the other of us would creep out of bed long enough to make sure the kids were all alive and accounted for. They had recovered quickly and were now enjoying a sort of holiday, free from parental restraint, living on crackers and staging imaginative games all over the house. At one point I was startled to find Emilie with her hair standing on end and her arms and legs striped with what appeared to be tribal tattoos. On investigation these turned out to be lines of green dinosaur footprints from a rolling rubber stamp. I couldn’t figure out what the deal was with her hair, and I didn’t care. I went back to bed.

For Greg and me, the days ran together in a blur of nausea, fever, muscle aches, and restless sleep. Somewhere in the midst of all that, one of us realized it was the eighteenth of January. We weakly wished each other a happy anniversary and went on sipping our tea.

It wasn’t our best anniversary, but the whole thing was affirming in a way, because I realized that if I had to be bedridden with a body-wracking stomach virus, there was no one I’d rather be doing it with.

Today Greg and I have been married for twenty-three years. Our relationship now is different than when we went on our first date at age twenty, more than half our lives ago. The difference is one of perspective and experience. It is like seeing a forest from a distance—from your car, say—and then seeing it again from inside. From far off you can see the canopy, shrouded with fog or burnished with sunlight or rolling with cloud shadows. There is something ineffable in your perception, a mystery and grandeur which are conditional on the distance. You can look at the forest, daydream, even doze a little. But to get out of your car and hoof it into the forest is to enter into a new set of experiences. You see roots, rocks, leaf litter, animal tracks; you feel the texture of bark with your hand; you smell the pine rosin in the air; you hear the call of frogs from the branches overhead. Each tree trunk has its own character, and the leaves that from a distance were just a mass of green now have individual sizes and shapes and tints. You have moved from possibility to particularity.

Marriage as a romantic idea is not the same as marriage as a reality. The reality is not a diminished thing; it’s a different thing, a more developed thing. Our culture is full of dispiriting representations of a settled marriage with the shine long gone—nagging wives, listless husbands, unfulfilled promises, dead dreams. There is real bitterness behind the mockery and the tropes. This is all wrong.

But so is the idea that for romantic love to be valid, it has to keep the palpable sensation of ineffability it had in the beginning. This is like doubting that you’re in the forest because you can’t see the canopy anymore. The wonderful truth is, the canopy hasn’t gone away; it’s just over your head now, sheltering and containing you. It’s not less real than the pine cones and twigs and acorns that you can physically see. It’s there. Maybe once in a while you’ll climb a tall tree to the very top, like Bilbo did, and get a glimpse of the canopy from the middle, with all the black butterflies dipping and flitting in the sunlight.

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This has been a rough year. There have been blessings that I’m thankful for, and bright spots I would revisit if I could, but overall it’s been wrenching. No sooner do we get one thing somewhat under control than we’re blindsided by something else; often I’m exhausted before even leaving my bed in the morning. And once again, I can say in all honesty that though my circumstances are trying, there’s no one I’d rather be in them with than my husband. I hope and pray for times of refreshment in the year to come, but I’m confident that I’m walking in the forest with someone I can count on. I’ve seen him keep his feet under him and his wits about him in situations that would crater some men; I’ve watched him really listen while I poured out my fears and frustrations, and heard him offer compassionate wisdom when I was tapped out.

If you are happily married and have been for some decades, you know what I’m talking about. If you aren’t married yet, I would ask this. Who do you want with you when all hell breaks loose? Because break loose it will. Life will knock you upside the head and bludgeon the daylights out of you. I say this as one who believes in the goodness and sovereignty of God. There is ultimate purpose in suffering as in all things, but we almost never know what that purpose is. Suffering just hurts. Who do you want by your side when life brings out the very worst and best in you? Choose someone faithful and durable, who’ll bolster you during self-doubt, recognize and point out when one or both of you need to adjust course, and remind you of your most precious convictions and deepest passions. Someone who takes vows seriously and is wholly and irrevocably committed to you personally. Someone you can trust.

It’s more comfortable to look at a forest from a car than to walk around inside one; you can avoid bugs and blisters, and you can daydream about Lothlórien. But that’s as far as it’ll ever go. You will see beauty and mystery magnified by distance, but you will never really know.

The most precious gift that marriage gave me was the constant impact of something very close and intimate, yet all the time unmistakably other, resistant–in a word, real.

~C.S. Lewis

Of Saints, Freaks, and Weird-Looking Lizard Guys

In speculative fiction as in all art, it’s important to balance realism with fantasy. Your characters may have physiologies unlike those of any creature on this planet, they may live in floating cities or carry on photosynthesis with their antennae, but their behavior and emotional lives had better ring true, and the internal logic of the secondary world had better remain consistent, or your story is sunk.

I’ve written fantasy stories for most of my adult life, and once I had kids I started taking a professional interest in the world-crafting they did through play. My son was a stickler for accuracy from a young age, especially regarding his pet subject, dinosaurs. He demanded strict realism from dino models; the sight of a poorly executed plastic lizard with a random crest or horn irritated him as badly as the word “Brontosaurus.” Once approved and in his possession, though, Daniel’s models led lives of a sort unknown to any taxonomical order or family of Reptilia, building fortresses, forming alliances, and holding feasts to rival those of the Geats and Jutes.

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We got rid of our TV when Daniel was around three and rarely saw movies; my kids’ first exposure to comic books happened in their teens. Their imaginative lives, therefore, were largely unaffected by franchises directed to children. They had to make up origin stories and sometimes names for many of the random action figures we acquired from yard sales. These included a maroon Batman, a Goliath (his back story, at least, was easy to verify), and a Riddler who sported a backpack with a capturing loop thing that could be launched over victims. Some action figure personas were mysteries to Greg and myself as well as to the kids—like Wrench Man, who wore big clamping wrench things on his shoulders for I know not what purpose, and Chief, an armor-suited guy equipped with a jet pack, a hook, and a bubble mask that could have indicated a life in space or the deep sea, or both. Most bafflingly of all, pushing a button on Chief’s back made his head flip around, changing his face to a visage only vaguely humanoid, goggle-eyed and open-mouthed with rage. To this day I have no idea what this character was supposed to be.

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Goliath has no pants. Goliath needs no pants.

It was the nineties, so Beanie Babies and their knockoffs abounded. My kids had lots of beanies and other stuffed animals, including the pragmatically-named Beanie Cow, a fox, an anteater, a mouse, and a kangaroo inexplicably called Peter in spite of the pouch he possessed. Lots of the animals had accessories or clothing; Peter the kangaroo wore a red cape I’d made from a fabric scrap, and a frog who came to us minus one eye was soon supplied with an eye patch, which had to be connected to a matching vest because an eye patch is not an easy thing to strap to the head of a frog. The eclectic stuffed animal tribe included such members as a little fabric crow from a craft store with jointed legs held on by buttons; Gwendolyn, a sassy biped of indeterminate species who wore a gold-embroidered coat; and Cuddly Chameleon, a plush, rainbow-hued fellow with a curled tail, a crested neck, and an inscrutable heavy-lidded facial expression. Cuddly was a sort of patriarch in the stuffed animal community, whimsical but wise, and always stirring things up. He was the sort of character I think of in my own writing as a catalyst. He made things happen.

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LEGO bricks and accompanying figures presented special suspension-of-disbelief problems. Daniel had lots of minifigs, including characters from the Rock Raiders, Johnny Thunder, and King Leo’s Castle storylines. He didn’t have a complete Star Wars set, but Anna had a random Chewbacca who ran around with the other characters. Anna and Emilie also had lots of Belville sets, featuring princesses, a prince, a king and queen, a couple of infants, and assorted fauna. In my daughters’ storyverse, most of the Belville humans were either stupid or evil, as suggested by their facial expressions; the only sympathetic characters were princesses Flora and Elena, the horses, the cats, and a carrot-clutching rabbit. The difference in scale between Belville figures and standard minifigs is substantial; even the rabbit towered over Johnny Thunder. This had to be accounted for when the worlds met.

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And meet they did—not just Belville and minifigs, but dinos, Beanie babies, everyone. The handling of the crossover stories interested me greatly. Samuel Taylor Coleridge spoke of “that willing suspension of disbelief…which constitutes poetic faith”; J.R.R. Tolkien preferred the paradigm of secondary belief based on the inner consistency of the fictional reality. Whatever we call this aesthetic action, we can agree that certain conditions have to be met in order for it to occur, and that credibility can only be stretched so far. An audience or reader may suspend disbelief for ghosts, or aliens, or leprechauns, but ordinarily not for all three in the same story.

My children’s toy collections formed a system of worlds, each equipped with a complex history and mythos, discrete and independent but able to meet and interact through special circumstances. For the most part, conflicting fantastic elements in crossover stories were handled with the breezy nonchalance that made Joss Whedon’s Avengers so much fun. Discrepancies between worlds were cheerfully acknowledged and remarked on but not belabored with heavy-handed explanations.

The stories concerning these characters were long and intricate. Often Daniel and Anna would “play” without actually having the toys present, just by talking through a story scenario. The two of them would go outside and sit on the swings and just talk. They didn’t swing or run around or multitask in any way. They were story-crafting, and that took concentration.

One day while out and about, we happened upon some likely additions to the stuffed animal ’verse. I don’t remember whether they were real Beanie Babies or knockoffs, but I seem to recall some of them being smaller than standard beanies, real micro-guys of three inches or so. They were all reptilian, and—oh, the joy!—one of them had the same rainbow pelt as Cuddly Chameleon! He wasn’t a chameleon himself; he was more of an iguana-type guy. There were some quasi-chameleons in the group, but their pelts had blue and green splotches. Still, these animals were clearly meant to go home with the Midkiffs.

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On the way home I listened to the sounds of play coming from the back seat of the Suburban. I heard this sort of thing all the time but always found it interesting. With only three young actors to voice a multitude of characters, much had to be done in the way of tone, timbre, syntax, and so on, and new dialogue had to be consistent with a character’s history.

These efforts were collaborative and somewhat spontaneous, but usually Daniel directed things. He was doing that now, and his vision was clear. The gist of the story was that the little reptiles were worried about going to their new home. They knew their bodily configurations did not conform to those of any factual animals. They knew they were about to meet a community of toys awaiting them. And they were afraid.

“Look at us!” one little reptile wailed in Daniel’s voice. “We’re freaks!”

I don’t know what made Daniel deal head-on with the realism issue that day, but I do think the decision marked a leap in his maturation as a storyteller. He actually had a bunch of self-aware stuffed animals pondering the nature of their existence. What species are we, exactly? Are we iguanas? Chameleons? Geckos? Why do some of us have these serrated sail things running down our backs while others do not? And what’s up with these weird colors? What’s the matter with us?

Of course we don’t want to get carried away with realism in storytelling. Give it too much weight and you will soon be observing that in the real world you do not see rabbits taller than Chewbacca, or kangaroos taller than that, or Chewbacca at all, or any animals that talk or willingly wear capes, and soon after that you will be giving up play altogether. Daniel didn’t take things that far. What I found so interesting was that in his exploration of the realism problem, he focused on the freakish reptiles’ fear of rejection.

Social conformity is a soul-crushing thing. I’m not talking about natural law, which is here to stay whether people like it or not and is disregarded only at great peril. Social conformity might be likened to what C.S. Lewis referred to as belonging to a collective. Some people are pretty good at it. I never have been. That sounds self-congratulatory, but I don’t mean it that way. It’s just true.

One of my most painful childhood memories involves an ill-advised slam book fad in sixth grade. These slam books were spiral notebooks in which friends and classmates could record their opinions about various topics, including teachers, music, and each other. There was a thin veneer of anonymity but in reality everyone knew who said what. And the page topped with my name was covered with one word over and over in all the different handwritings of my peers. That word was weird. Variations included nice but weird, weird but nice, and smart but weird, but this did little to mitigate the sting. I had been socially marginalized in the pages of my very own slam book. It still makes me feel a little sick to think about it.

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Wouldn’t it be great to belong to a community where 1) everyone is a freak and 2) no one cares? If everyone is a freak, then no one is. The word has no more power. We are all just individuals. We don’t have to conform to some standard we can never attain and only dimly understand. We can stop striving and simply be.

In his wonderful essay “Membership,” C.S. Lewis writes,

How true membership in a body differs from inclusion in a collective may be seen in the structure of a family. The grandfather, the parents, the grown-up son, the child, the dog, and the cat are true members (in the organic sense), precisely because they are not members or units of a homogeneous class. They are not interchangeable. Each person is almost a species in himself. The mother is not simply a different person from the daughter; she is a different kind of person. The grown-up brother is not simply one unit in the class children; he is a separate estate of the realm. The father and the grandfather are almost as different as the cat and the dog. If you subtract any one member, you have not simply reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. Its unity is a unity of unlikes, almost of incommensurables.

Isn’t this what everyone wants? Not to conform, but to organically belong? To be irreplaceably, inescapably oneself, and to have one’s unique identity recognized and treasured?

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The end of the story for the little reptiles, which of course Daniel was purposely building up to all along, is that they arrived home full of dread, expecting rejection and scorn, only to find that the members of their adoptive family were as outlandish-looking as they were, and also warm and welcoming and fun—exactly the family they would have chosen for themselves if they had even known to imagine something so marvelous.

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If acceptance is so great and makes everyone feel so good, why not just abandon all standards of behavior and accept everything? Because human morality is not an artificial construct. Some behaviors are abhorrent and ugly, and it is natural and just for us to want to cast them out. Tolerating them might make people feel good in the short term (well, some people, anyway) but will ultimately destroy the community we are trying to nurture.

And what are we supposed to do about that? We’ve all got ugly things about ourselves—not just weirdly colored pelts and odd neck frills, but things like malice, lust, perversion, greed. We can’t make these things go away by ignoring them, and we can’t just stop doing them. Our problem with sin is systemic.

The good news is that Christ has dealt with sin, thoroughly and permanently. He hasn’t just made temporary amends or hidden it from view. It’s gone. We who believe in him have a new identity. His blood has paid our debts, his righteousness has been given to us freely, and through him we have the power to walk in the light. We know this because he says so. We might not feel particularly righteous or victorious at any given moment, but his word is more trustworthy than our temporal experience. We can rest in his faithfulness.

And just like the disparate collection of toys in the Midkiff household, we are united to each other by virtue of whose we are. We belong to him, and by extension we belong to each other. With all our defects of mind, character, and person, our weird back-stories and inconsistencies, we can be assured that we have our place, and a very good place it is. We’re free to love and help each other, to think and rest and play and be. The striving is over. We’re home.

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The Steward and the Son

Many lovely words in Modern English vocabulary come from the veritable treasure-trove of the Old English lexicon. The speakers of Old English (Anglo-Saxons between the mid-fifth and mid-twelfth centuries) were especially fond of compound words, in which two distinct morphemes are wedded into a potent and resonant unit of meaning.

One such word is steward. The Old English stiward, stigweard “house guardian” is a combination of stig “hall, cattle pen, part of a house” (from which we derive the word sty) and weard “guard” or “ward.” By the late fourteenth century, the word had the meaning of “one who manages affairs of an estate on behalf of his employer.”

Basically, a steward is an exalted servant, one so capable and trustworthy that his master puts him in charge of all his property. We Americans tend to be mistrustful of servant/master relationships; we equate servanthood with slavery and assume there has to be abuse of some sort inherent in the system. But some stories of faithful servants and good masters are compelling enough to transcend even the cynicism of the democratically minded. Stewardship in particular is a fascinating concept. Who could fail to be stirred by the story of Denethor, twenty-sixth in a line of ruling stewards, sitting on his unadorned black chair in the shadow of the empty high throne of Gondor, faithfully superintending the kingdom while awaiting with dimming hope the return of the king? Or of Walter the Steward, who faithfully served King Robert the Bruce of Scotland, married Robert’s daughter Marjorie, and fathered a son, Robert II, who would become the first monarch in the royal House of Stewart? We are talking about a steward who became his lord’s son-in-law and sired a line of kings! This is truly romantic stuff.

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Then there’s Eliezer of Damascus. He worked for Abraham.

Eliezer is first mentioned by name in Genesis 15. God appears in a vision to Abraham (still called Abram then), saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward (v.1). Earlier, back in Chapter 13, God had promised to multiply Abram’s descendants and grant them the land of Canaan. But Abram is an old man and childless. Remembering the earlier promise, he now says, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus?…Behold, to me thou has given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir (vv. 2,3).

It was a common practice for wealthy childless couples of that time and place to leave their estate to a trusted and beloved servant. A steward is a natural choice; if you esteem a man enough to put him in charge of all you own, it would make sense to hand over the entire property to him one day, in the absence of a child of your own. But a servant, no matter how highly esteemed, is not the equal of a son.

And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own [loins] shall be thine heir.

Genesis 15:4

Many years pass before this promise is fulfilled. In the meantime, at his wife’s direction, Abraham forces the matter of offspring by fathering a child by an Egyptian servant. This, of course, was not what God meant at all. The promised heir is to be the son of Sarah, Abraham’s lawful wife. Fourteen years later, that son, long promised and hoped for and despaired of, Isaac, is born.

And with Isaac’s birth, Eliezer is displaced as Abraham’s heir. He could have resented the young master, but the account of him in Genesis depicts a truly loyal retainer zealous for the welfare and prosperity of his lord’s family. No doubt this is why Abraham chose him as steward to begin with.

More years pass. Isaac, the privileged only child of wealthy, elderly parents, reaches forty years of age. He hasn’t seen his half-brother since he was a toddler. Then his mother dies. Perhaps Abraham’s grief over the loss of his own beloved helpmeet is what causes him to desire for his son to finally experience the joy and intimacy of marriage. He makes his decision. It’s time to find Isaac a wife.

For most of his adult life Abraham has been something of an oddball—set apart, peculiar, perhaps lonely. He is neither one thing nor another. His blood ties are to Ur of the Chaldees, but he left there at God’s command decades ago and hasn’t been back. His geographic ties are to the land he’s living on, which God has promised to give his descendants, but he owns no property there except one field and a grave and mustn’t mix too closely with the idolatrous natives. For his son to marry a local woman would be disastrous. Isaac is the child of the promise, ancestor of the chosen seed, the line through which God will work his redemption for the entire world. The mother of Isaac’s children can’t be chosen too carefully. And Abraham is too elderly to be directly involved in the selection of a daughter-in-law. His traveling days are over.

So Abraham calls his eldest servant of his house, that ruled over all that he had (Genesis 24:2). Though the servant’s name is not given, it is commonly assumed that he is Eliezer, and I am assuming that here.

Abraham says,

  3  …I will make thee swear by the LORD, the God of heaven, and the God of the earth, that thou shalt not take a wife unto my son of the daughters of the Canaanites, among whom I dwell:  4  But thou shalt go unto my country, and to my kindred, and take a wife unto my son Isaac.

Genesis 24:3,4

The pressure of this entreaty must have been intense. By now Eliezer has been with Abraham for decades: all forty years of Isaac’s life, plus the fourteen of Ishmael’s life before Isaac’s birth, plus however long it took him to rise to the position of steward in Abraham’s house before that. He knows about God’s promise to Abraham. He knows about God’s work in the household—not just the miracle of Isaac’s conception, but the fallout from times Abraham acted in ways God did not command: his ill-advised trips to Egypt, his cowardly lying, his bigamy with Hagar. These things had permanent and painful consequences. Now Eliezer has been tasked with finding a wife for the father of the future hope of the human race. The fate of the world is pretty much at stake.

And the servant said unto him, Peradventure the woman will not be willing to follow me unto this land: must I needs bring thy son again unto the land from whence thou camest?

Genesis 24:5

I would totally ask this question in Eliezer’s place. In fact, before traveling out of the country with my monumentally important task, I would have a veritable flow chart plotting my course of action in every possible contingency. Or I would want to. But the truth is, there is no flow chart that big.

There are too many possibilities in life to all be covered by direct commands. That’s why when you have a big, complex job to delegate, in which any of a number of unforeseen things might happen, you don’t just want someone who can take orders. You want someone whose judgment you can trust.

Eliezer is that man.

Important as it is to entrust the job to the right servant, Abraham has more than Eliezer’s competence and loyalty to rely on here. He has the sovereignty of God.

 6  And Abraham said unto him, Beware thou that thou bring not my son thither again.  7  The LORD God of heaven, which took me from my father’s house, and from the land of my kindred, and which spake unto me, and that sware unto me, saying, Unto thy seed will I give this land; he shall send his angel before thee, and thou shalt take a wife unto my son from thence.  8  And if the woman will not be willing to follow thee, then thou shalt be clear from this my oath: only bring not my son thither again.

Genesis 24:6-8

So Eliezer swears.

In twenty-first century America, arranged marriage is usually not a thing, in spite of the terrifying efforts in some ultra-conservative homeschooling circles to bring it back. But in the ancient world, it was a common occurrence. It’s likely that in at least some cases, future mates knew each other and might hope to have their feelings taken into account to some degree. But in Isaac’s case this is not possible. He is not to travel to Ur. Everything is up to Eliezer.

And Eliezer shoulders the task. He takes ten of Abraham’s camels and departs. It’s a mark of his high standing in the household that the number of camels to take is left entirely up to him; all the goods of his master were in his hand (v. 10). Ten camels seems like a lot to me, but I have never made a journey like this one of Eliezer’s. Many or few, Abraham’s resources are at Eliezer’s disposal; he may use them as he thinks necessary to fulfill the task, because Abraham trusts him.

He travels to Mesopotamia, to the city of Nahor, his journey’s goal. He stops at the well at the time of the evening, even the time that women go out to draw water (v. 11).

And then Eliezer does a beautiful thing.

  12  And he said, O LORD God of my master Abraham, I pray thee, send me good speed this day, and shew kindness unto my master Abraham.  13  Behold, I stand here by the well of water; and the daughters of the men of the city come out to draw water:  14  And let it come to pass, that the damsel to whom I shall say, Let down thy pitcher, I pray thee, that I may drink; and she shall say, Drink, and I will give thy camels drink also: let the same be she that thou hast appointed for thy servant Isaac; and thereby shall I know that thou hast shewed kindness unto my master.

Genesis 24:12-14

No wonder Abraham trusts Eliezer. He isn’t just following orders; he believes God is truly at work here. And he doesn’t ask for a sign like the first girl who comes to the well or one who has something unusual about her headcovering or something arbitrary like that. He doesn’t even ask for a girl who’s related to Abraham, though Abraham has made it plain that that’s an essential requirement. He asks for a demonstration of character.

The internet tells me that a thirsty camel might consume somewhere in the neighborhood of thirty-five gallons of water at a go and that a gallon of water weighs more than eight pounds. Add the weight an earthenware pitcher and it’s safe to assume that Eliezer is imagining an active, enterprising young woman, physically strong and with a forward-thinking generosity of spirit, for the future wife of his future master.

He isn’t even done praying when a young woman comes out with a pitcher on her shoulder. He doesn’t know who she is; all he can tell is that she’s fair to look upon and ready to draw water. He says to her, Let me, I pray thee, drink a little water of thy pitcher (24:17).

This is a modest request, one that no reasonably well-brought-up girl would likely refuse. The girl agrees, and lowers her pitcher so he may drink. Perhaps it’s while he’s quenching his thirst that she looks around a bit and takes in the fact that the stranger has ten camels with him. A traveler, obviously, and one who has come from far off.

And when she had done giving him drink, she said, I will draw water for thy camels also, until they have done drinking.

Genesis 24:19

She empties her pitcher into the trough, and then the text says that she runs back to the well to draw more water. Clearly the well is some distance from the trough. This is a big job.

And the man wondering at her held his peace, to wit whether the LORD had made his journey prosperous or not.

Genesis 24:21

Eliezer is wise to hold his peace. Saying you will draw water for ten thirsty camels is one thing; actually doing it is another. He waits through the whole long, heavy, arduous job. Then he tells her who he is and finds out who she is—Rebekah, the daughter of Abraham’s nephew. Then he praises God.

Later, Rebekah does indeed marry Isaac, becoming a partner in his unique blessing from God and in his peculiar isolation both from family in Chaldee and from local Canaanites. She becomes the mother of Esau and Jacob and a link in the lineage of Christ.

There is so much to take away from this passage, such as God’s honoring of a prayer that is a bit odd—a prayer born perhaps of uncertainty and anxiety but also of faith. I’m all about uncertainty and anxiety with a little faith, and I’ve prayed a great many oddly specific prayers myself. I’ve seen those prayers honored and have even at times seen a little into the mind of God, I think, when it pleased him to give me a hint as to what he was about, so God’s response to Eliezer is precious to me. A bruised reed will he not break. He honors faith, even the mustard seed variety. It doesn’t have to be big, only authentic.

But what chiefly strikes me is Eliezer’s assumption that the right wife for Isaac will be someone who will go above and beyond what is asked of her and do what is needed. This is what we call initiative, and it is a mark of maturity of character. As a trusted steward, Eliezer understands initiative, and he values it in other people enough to make it the primary proof of Isaac’s future wife, setting it above beauty and docility, charm and brains. Initiative involves the ability to see beyond the surface of a situation, determine what ought to be done, and do it all on your own without being prompted. This is a huge deal, and it can’t be taught, because it isn’t a set of behaviors—it’s a mindset. Imagine if some of the other girls of Haran, having learned of Rebekah’s good fortune in being selected as the wife of a wealthy man specially chosen by God, resented her and called the thing unfair. “Well! If watering camels was the deciding factor, I could have done that as well as Rebekah did, if only anybody had bothered to let me know.” But initiative isn’t about performing a specific action. It’s about being the sort of person who sees that an action is needful and performs it without external prompting, often at great cost of time, resources, or personal energy. There is all the difference in the world between doing something because you’re told to, and doing the same thing because your heart prompts you to.

  1  Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all;  2  But is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father.  3  Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world:  4  But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law,  5  To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.  6  And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.  7  Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

Galatians 4:1-7

Isn’t this the truth? During childhood, the heir is functionally no better than a servant of the household. He is told what to do, and he had better do it. But when he comes to maturity, he rules the entire estate. This is the difference between law and grace. Young children are given rules: come when called, do this, don’t touch that, put your toys away, stop hitting your sister. And this is perfectly suitable for their abilities and situation. Their moral choices consist mainly in obeying their parents’ commands. We are responsible for controlling their environment, keeping them protected, and providing them with testing-grounds suitable for their maturity level; and this is the construct in which they function and build a character, growing in either self-discipline or self-indulgence, depending on how good a job we are doing. But as they grow older, they venture into the greater world. We aren’t always there to tell them what to do, and we can’t predict beforehand the exact spectrum of choices they might face. And like arrows shot from a bow, they eventually go places we’ve never been and enter into situations they understand more fully than we do. So gradually we give them more leeway, and eventually we tell them, “Just use your own judgment.” And this is a wonderful place to be with your child. It’s a delight to hear after the fact about a challenge faced and responded to, and to be able to say, “Yes, you handled that beautifully. I couldn’t have handled it better myself, or as well.” Of course they occasionally mess up, sometimes disastrously, because liberty wouldn’t be liberty without the potential for misuse, but the expected progress of a well-grounded grown son or daughter is toward increasing wisdom and competence.

And this is the difference between law and grace. Those under the law labor away, trying to win favor by performing the right actions, anxious to figure out what those actions might be. Those under grace have a liberty which those under the law can’t comprehend and often resent. Christ’s propitiation makes it possible for us to be sons and not servants, nor yet immature children who are functionally no better than servants. Those believers who fail to take advantage of their position as sons miss much in the way of joy and fulfillment. They work and fret and are never at rest; they feel a constant unease that more might be expected.

Eliezer is an excellent servant, a man of great initiative, integrity, loyalty, and ability, but ultimately he is just a servant. He doesn’t attain to sonship. How much greater is the excellence of those that have received the adoption of sons and have the Spirit of the only begotten Son living in our hearts!