This year marked the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the bestselling English author of the twentieth century, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, the Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford University, who passed away on September 2, 1973. JRR Tolkien’s books have sold in the many millions, and include a 1937 children’s fairytale book, “The Hobbit,” the story of a simpleton named Bilbo Baggins, whose rather meaningless, unproductive life is upended when a group of dwarves conscript him to join in a battle with a dragon. More significant was his later works, “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy: “The Fellowship of the Ring,” “The Two Towers” and “The Return of the King,” which were turned into a Hollywood movie. On the surface, this is a fairytale continuing the exploits of Bilbo, who discovers a talisman ring forged by the dark lord Sauron that allows him to turn invisible. Few realize that there are underlying Christian themes in these books.
A featured article in the Wall Street Journal (Saturday/Sunday, September 2 – 3, 2023, C4) provided an analysis of Tolkien from a Jewish point-of-view by Rabbi Meir Soloveichik. That reviewer commented, “If sales of “The Lord of the Rings” rival those of the Bible itself, it is because the series offers a profoundly biblical view of the world. The reality and consistency of human sin described in Genesis is a central theme throughout Tolkien’s books.” The ring represents sin and its temptations, and reveals, Soloveichik says, “The moral fragility of humanity.”
Of particular interest to us, Soloveichik expounds, “Redemption ultimately comes to Middle-Earth through Aragorn, the descendant of a long-lost line of kings—a clear reference to the biblical story of David and to Isaiah’s guarantee that David’s heir will one day redeem the world. Christians like Tolkien identify this prophesied descendant as Jesus, though Aragorn more closely resembles the Jewish conception of the messiah as a great warrior-king.”
Here the rabbi has made a very apt observation. Christian expositors seem to focus largely on Christ’s first coming to die for our sins, while Jews focus on what we call the Second Coming as the Lion of David conquering His enemies. Perhaps the Jewish reticence toward noticing the prophecies of a suffering Savior-Messiah-Redeemer is to avoid giving confirmation of Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. But what leads Christians to neglect the biblical themes surrounding the return of Christ? Jesus is presented as a sweet, kind, inoffensive figure who wouldn’t hurt a bug, which clashes massively with some of the New Testament passages concerning Christ’s return in judgment. Soloveichek comments, “Faithful Jews and Christians believe, in different ways, in the ultimate ‘return of the king.’” In actual fact, however, Jewish and Christian theologians do both similarly acknowledge the double character of the biblical Messiah, although it is unfortunately not taught with the proper biblical balance.
In an article on the biblical Messiah, the Jewish Encyclopedia (i:508) says, “For the better understanding of the Messianic pictures in apocalyptic literature it is important to point out that, although frequently interlaced, two distinct sets of ideas may be traced…and the Messiah presents a correspondingly double character.” This “double character” corresponds precisely to the two divisions of God’s people: 10 tribe House of Israel and 2 tribe House of Judah. It would be the House of Israel that would accept the Messiah: “A part of the Ten Tribes will be found among those who will gather about his [Messiah ben David] standard.” (Viii:511). Notice that the Jewish Encyclopedia indicates that the House of Israel, the Ten Tribes, would accept the Messiah, not Judah! How very true to history that the Ten Tribe House of Israel after their migration to Europe “gathered about” the Messiah in “Christendom” during the Church Age.
Jewish scholars have long understood that the two houses of Israel were separate entities, and they therefore assumed that this would be the basis of two separate Messiahs: First there would be a “Messiah ben Joseph.” You may recall that the Patriarch Joseph was abused and forsaken, his life threatened, and his cloak torn and stained with blood, which was a fore type of Christ’s own sacrifice for sin: “And they took Joseph’s coat, and killed a kid of the goats, and dipped the coat in the blood;And they sent the coat of many colours, and they brought it to their father; and said, This have we found: know now whether it be thy son’s coat or no.And he knew it, and said, It is my son’s coat; an evil beast hath devoured him; Joseph is without doubt rent in pieces.”(Genesis 37:31-33)
Jewish theology further presumed that there would be a second Messiah, called by the rabbis “Messiah ben Judah” who would come in the likeness of a conquering King David. Jewish scholars did not realize that there would only be one Messiah, who would very significantly have two separate commissions in two separate comings!
We see the two distinct advents in the Old Testament scriptures: The Messiah ben Joseph imagery in Isaiah chapter 53:3-9, and secondly, Messiah coming as the conquering lion of Judah in Isaiah: “For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many.For I know their works and their thoughts: it shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see my glory.”(Isaiah 66:15-18)
The Jewish Encyclopedia advises (viii:507) that “Israel… is the servant of God, through whom the regeneration of mankind will be accomplished, who will spread the true religion among all nations, convert all men into willing servants of God, and lead all tongues to confess Him.” Is this true of the Jewish people? Have they done this? If the Bible is true, then Israel is doing this “great commission!” The Encyclopedia admits it has not been fulfilled by the Jewish people, saying, “Naturally, not the actual Israel of the present is meant, but the ideal Israel of the future, risen to spiritual heights in consequence of his wonderful deliverance of God.” (Viii:507) Why would they claim that it is “natural” that Bible prophecy has not been fulfilled? Of course, it has been fulfilled, but among the Ten Tribes of Israel, not the Jews!
The Jewish Encyclopedia (i:683) further says that Rome would persecute Israel “at the end of which time Messiah ben David will appear…then the dead will arise and the Israelites, dispersed over all lands, will be gathered into Jerusalem…also, the Ten Tribes, together with the descendants of Moses [i.e. Judah], will return, enveloped in clouds…and as they march, the earth will be transformed before them into paradise.” The return of the Ten Tribes, and reuniting of the Two Houses, takes place when Messiah appears at the end of this Church Age to set up His Millennial Kingdom. That is still future.
Many Jews and Christians today are not avid Bible-readers, and it is common to hear people complain that the Scriptures are too complex and difficult to read. Yet Tolkien’s Ring Trilogy, to quote Rabbi Soloveichek, “is densely written, with paragraph upon paragraph describing the geography of Middle-Earth…Tolkien also wrote an appendix explaining the history of Middle-Earth…and made up languages like Elvish…Yet Tolkien believed that these details were essential…The complexity of Tolkien’s world has in no way limited its popularity, with many fans devoting themselves to careful study of various aspects of Middle-Earth.”
Tolkien’s books may indeed have an underlying biblical message, but how much more valuable is our time spent in the reality of God’s Word rather than an involved mythological world of wizards, orcs, goblins, elves and dwarves!