The Death of Injun Joe: Reflections on God’s Providence and God’s Mercy: Lessons from Tom Sawyer

In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, Tom and his crush, Becky Thatcher, get lost for several days in a cave. Out of candles, hungry, and desperate Tom and Becky spend those days in the cave fearful and almost feeling as if death is inevitable. Miraculously Tom finds a way out and the two escape. The townspeople are joyously relieved as they had been anxiously searching for them. Judge Thatcher, Becky’s father, makes sure no other children will get lost in the cave by having a big door put on the entrance. At this news Tom turns white as a sheet because while in the cave he discovered that “Injun Joe” was also there using it as a hideout. Earlier in the book Tom and his friend Huckleberry Finn witness Injun Joe murdering someone in the graveyard. Tom later testifies to this at a trial. Injun Joe escapes and Tom remains in fear of him. Tom says, “Oh judge, Injun Joe’s in the cave!” When they reach the cave the sorrowful sight of Injun Joe’s dead body awaits them. He was lying stretched upon the ground with his face close to a crack in the door, as if to look longingly upon the light of day until the last minute. Tom is moved because he knows first hand “how this wretch has suffered.” They notice clues around the cave as to how he has been living. He had been trying to hack through the door with his bowie knife, a fruitless endeavor. He had been eating bits of candle left in crevices by visitors to the cave. He had also caught and eaten a few bats. It had not been enough to sustain him and he had starved to death.

Injun Joe also left evidence of how he was trying to keep alive by drinking what water was available. Twain says this: “In one place near at hand, a stalagmite had been slowly growing up from the ground for ages, builded by the water-drip from a stalactite overhead. The captive had broken off the stalagmite, and upon the stump had placed a stone, wherin he had scooped a shallow hollow to catch the precious drop that fell once in every three minutes with the dreary regularity of a clock tick- a dessert-spoonful once in four and twenty hours. That drop was falling when the Pyramids were new, when Troy fell; when the foundations of Rome were laid; when Christ was crucified; when the Conqueror created the British Empire; when Columbus sailed; when the massacre at Lexington was “news.” It is falling now; it will still be falling when all these things shall have sunk down the afternoon of history and the twilight of tradition had been swallowed up in the thick night of oblivion. Has everything a purpose and a mission? Did this drop fall patiently during five thousand years to be ready for this flitting human insect’s need? And has it another important object to accomplish ten thousand years to come? No matter.” It is here on this point I want to reflect. In reading Twain it amazes me that though Twain does not personally come to terms with his maker in his life, God still uses Twain’s incredible gifts to bring Himself glory nonetheless. In this statement Twain is pondering, just for a brief moment, both the providence and mercy of God. Theologian R.C. Sproul once defined God’s providence as “God’s seeing something before hand.” but he also said that the Doctrine of Providence “includes more than simple foresight with respect to a deity. Providence involves far more than just seeing what is taking place. God has the authority and power to change what he sees and to bring about whatever he desires to bring to pass.” Sproul challenges that “the broad question of providence is one of the most fascinating, important and difficult doctrines in the Christian faith because it deals with the difficult questions.” Twain just for a minute contemplates if God in his providence would have formed this stalagmite over all those thousands of centuries because in His mercy He knew it would provide some water to a dying murderer. Wow. What a question to contemplate. Most people feel that if there is a God he surely has abandoned His world or is merely a spectator of events here. Even if we feel that God might be involved, we think that his providence is only contained to what happens in this lifetime. Twain pushes us farther. Though he doesn’t put it in these terms he in essence says “what if God’s providence was unfolding for you millions of years before you were born?” I am particularly moved and also in awe of the thought that God could know, was thinking about and forming over millions of years a drink for a dying evil man who didn’t deserve it. That is just one man, just one situation, just one drink, in one moment in time. Can you contemplate just for one second how complex God’s interweaving of Providence is in his world? His providence doesn’t just involve people, he has all his creation at his disposal to bring about “all that he desires to pass.”

Church CrossPeople in our day don’t feel that God is involved in His world. Yet there are examples of his involvement screaming out to them all the time. Let me give you a recent example. In October 2010 sixty-four year old real estate broker Ed Rosenthal was hiking in an isolated canyon deep in Joshua Tree National Park when he lost his way. He survived six harrowing days in the remote scorched canyons. The one thing he was in particularly short supply of was water. He had left two huge bottles back at his hotel. He said simply “Your mouth turns to sand.” In desperation he tried drinking his urine, but he could not stomach it. Not being particularly devout Rosenthal prayed for rain. Ten seconds later it rained. In his words he “lay down in amazement as the drops wet his parched tongue.” A drink for a dying man from God’s creation. Twain already predicted it. He just asked us to think about how long that rain had already been formulating. When I think of God’s providence and mercy in these terms I am in awe. It’s more than I can imagine. I can only hold it in my mind a second and then it’s too much to entertain. It’s not that God is not involved in His world. It’s just that we fail to perceive and attribute His providential work to Him. We attribute it to luck or chance or worse yet we think nothing at all. God wants us to know him. He speaks all the time. In order for Mr. Rosenthal to hear him God arranged in His providence to meet him in the desert. A desert is a good place to get people’s attention. It’s the most barren, desolate place on earth. It’s harsh, unforgiving, merciless. In this sun scorched setting at the point of Rosenthal’s greatest desperation and need, God spoke. God spoke and drops of tender, merciful rain came down. Rosenthal said “There was definitely a miracle. I am much more religious now than I was. Seriously. I prayed for rain and it rained”, he marveled. “My conclusion is that God is real. Really. I have to tell you. God is real.” There it is. God finally getting the man’s attention. In the man’s own words he acknowledges that he now knows there is a God. He marvels. Yes, he marvels. That’s what men do when they meet God. These kinds of events which showcase the providence of God happen all the time, we just do not marvel at them or attribute to God the praise, awe and adoration he deserves for them.

All of us are born into this world dying men. From day one we are in the same desperate condition as Mr. Rosenthal. Sin has separated us from God and a relationship with him. Yet God in his Providence for all humanity sent Christ to be the sacrifice to pay for our sins so that we might be restored to Him. In a sense all events in history are either a providential lead up to Christ’s coming, or a providential play down to His return. It’s not just that the whole story of the Bible is about him. It’s that everything for all time and in every way is about Him. He is, as He says, the alpha and the omega. Today, right now, God is speaking to you. Do you recognize yourself as a dying man in need of a drink? Have you accepted his beautiful cup of water? Christ. Our only hope.

How To Be A Proper Murder Witness: A Lesson from Tom Sawyer

“A truthful witness gives honest testimony, but a false witness tells lies.”

Proverbs 12:17

I had always heard that The Adventures of Tom Sawyer was the epitome of adventure stories for boys. I am sad to say I hadn’t read it until I read it this year to my sons. I had the typical expectations. I figured it would be full of mischief, piracy, hooky from school, fishing, exploring caves, crushes on girls, etc. Things were going along as expected until I got to chapter nine: “Tragedy in the Graveyard.” It was right then that I knew this was no ordinary adventure story for boys. When Tom and Huck witness a murder it brought me up short. Twain took his fishing line and cast it out into deep waters. He let us know right then and there that if you came to this book for an unthinking read, go fish elsewhere. This was a guy who was going to make us wrestle. I loved him for that. In a biography of Twain by Ward, Duncan and Burns they talk about that Clemens life and Twain’s art were filled with undercurrents and unseen treacheries. They quote William Styron: Twain’s exuberant and almost irrepressible humor is almost always colored by this understanding that life is not one big yuck, but is a serious event in which horrible things happen.” I can appreciate that, because my life has been filled with unseen treacheries and I like how Twain makes us consider the meanness of life.

Tom and Huck are hiding out in the graveyard when they become the unwitting witnesses to a murder. Muff Potter, a local drunk, and Injun Joe have come out to dig up a body for young Dr. Robinson. However Injun Joe is there for other reasons. He has a personal vendetta against Dr. Robinson because the doctor’s father had once had Injun Joe jailed. As the boys sit wide eyed in horrified silence behind the tree they witness the argument between the two which ends with Injun Joe stabbing the doctor. Since Muff Potter had been knocked unconscious by the doctor, he doesn’t know what transpired. When he comes to, Injun Joe informs Muff that he is the murderer, but the boys know the truth. Muff is eventually arrested and held in a small jail cell awaiting trial.

In the intervening time we become privy to the private thoughts of the boys. They are very scared holding the knowledge of this private, horrible secret. After much debate they eventually decide to take a vow of silence, fearing that Injun Joe might kill them. Yet their gnawing conscience is stricken over the fact that if they don’t speak up Muff may take the punishment for a crime he did not commit. To ease their guilt, they smuggle “small comforts” to Muff through the bars of the jail window. Twain describes the two boys as they hear Injun Joe tell what happened: “Then Huckleberry and Tom stood dumb and staring, and heard the stonyhearted liar reel off his serene statement, they expecting every moment that the clear sky would deliver God’s lightnings upon his head and wondering to see how long the stroke was delayed. And when he had finished and still stood alive and whole their wavering impulse to break their oath and save the poor betrayed prisoner’s life faded and vanished away, for plainly this miscreant had sold himself to Satan and it would be fatal to meddle with the property of such as power as that.”

Twain makes us consider a lot here. All of us would like to think that if we would witness a crime that we would be a truthful, courageous witness for the innocent. However, I think we all would think twice if being a truthful witness meant we might be murdered for telling that truth. Being a witness is risky business. Even if it didn’t result in our death, we could still be paid back with harm by telling the truth. Our cowardice increases when we see an evil man tell a bold faced lie and God does not immediately strike him down. We too would wonder about “messing with the property of Satan.” This is a struggle I am intimately acquainted with.

Eventually Tom does reveal the truth and Muff Potter is freed and Injun Joe escapes and becomes a fugitive on the run. It is a very courageous act on Tom’s part and from then on he lives with the dread and nightmare that Injun Joe will return and kill him. For all his faults Tom really shines here. He shows us how to be a proper murder witness: we tell the truth, even if that truth might cost us our life. Perhaps we could say the moral of the story is: It is more noble to be a dead truth teller than a live coward.

Sitting in the Seat Of Mockers

In Psalm One King David says “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked or stand in the way of sinners or sit in the seat of mockers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord and on his law he meditates both day and night.” What does it mean to sit in the seat of the mocker? To mock by definition is “to tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner.” It also means “to make something seem laughably unreal or impossible.” One does not have to read very far in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” to understand that Twain definitely sits in the seat of the mocker. Despite his prodigious talent, or maybe because of it, Twain could not make peace with his maker. In their biography of Twain, Ward, Duncan and Burns note that “Twain knew from the start that God was the greatest dramatist, and much of his genius can be found in simply getting out of the way of a good story. He took for granted that God was everywhere, but Twain’s own search disappointed him continually.”1

In the chapter entitled “The Pinch Bug and His Prey” 2 Twain describes a church service. Of the choir he says “The choir always tittered and whispered all through the service. There was once a church choir that was not ill bred, but I have forgotten where it was now.” Of the announcements: “Rev. Mr. Sprague turned himself into a bulletin board and read off ‘notices’ of meetings and societies and things till it seemed that the list would stretch out to the crack of doom….” Of the prayer: “And now the minister prayed. A good, generous prayer it was, and it went into details.” Having grown up attending a Baptist church in a small town I personally find these images hilarious. Believe me I sat through every Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday evening service the church had, and not a few of them had tittering choirs, a list of announcements as long as the constitution and droning prayers. Yet despite the frailties of our human worship, those services made a deep impression upon me that remains to this day. I am deeply appreciative for that heritage.

When Twain describes the preaching he says “The minister gave out his text and droned along monotonously through an argument that was so prosy that many a head by and by began to nod- and yet it was an argument that dealt in limitless fire and brimstone and thinned the predestined elect down to a company so small as to be hardly worth the saving.” When I read this I must admit I laughed. Twain is riotously funny. Yet that is the very danger of mockery. It makes what is serious seem “laughably unreal.” What the above statement told me was that Twain knew quite a bit. If you are familiar with the idea of the elect, you have more than a passing knowledge of Christianity. The Bible makes clear that we are creatures meant for eternity and that all of us have an eternal destiny to be spent somewhere. Making hell seem amusing gives men the idea that they can be complacent in their lives about finding God. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is not a man in hell today that thought he would be there. As the famous puritan preacher Jonathon Edwards says “Men flatter themselves that they will escape hell.” Twain continues “The minister made a grand and moving picture of the assembling together of the world’s hosts at the millennium when the lion and the lamb should lie down together and a little child should lead them. But the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy.” What Twain is describing here is more than “a great spectacle.” What he is describing is the return of the King. When Christ returns in his glory. The Bible makes clear that Jesus Christ is the only hope man has to be released from his imprisoned state as a sinner and be restored to a relationship with God. Someday Christ will return and it will be the most glorious entrance any King ever made and “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (Philippians 2:9-11 ) It is clear in his writing that Twain is working out his struggle both with life and with God and he draws us into it. When Twain says “the pathos, the lesson, the moral of the great spectacle were lost upon the boy” he means they were lost upon himself. He is searching for God, but he cannot find him. He can’t find him because Twain sits in the seat of mocker. One can only find God by humbling himself and sitting in the seat of worshiper. That is to acknowledge that we are the creature he is the creator and we will never understand all. We must believe and have faith. God has given us many and numerous reasons to believe, as many as the stars in the sky. He has given enough reasons and proofs that men of the highest intellect should be astounded. The problem of faith in God is never due to God not providing enough evidence, it is due to man not being willing to humble himself in the face of such astonishing, overwhelming clarity of truth.

1Ward, Duncan and Burns, Mark Twain: An Illustrated Biography (New York: Knopf, 2001).
2Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1974).

Never Trade For The Bully Taw: A Lesson From Tom Sawyer

In “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer1 Mark Twain describes one of the most infamous scenes in literary history: Tom Sawyer sitting back watching others whitewash the fence he is supposed to be painting and actually paying him for the “privilege” of doing it! The first person Tom tries to swindle into whitewashing the fence is his Aunt Polly’s slave boy, Jim. Jim comes ambling along to go draw water from the well. Immediately Tom ambushes him. He tries to talk him into trading chores. “You whitewash a little while I go get some water.” But Jim has been forewarned by Aunt Polly not to make any stops and to beware of Tom and his schemes. Since he is hesitant Tom has to offer him some sparkles. He pulls one of his treasures out of his pocket. It is a white alley. Jim eyes it. Tom says “White alley Jim! And it is a bully taw!” In terms we understand: Jim, it is one heck of a beautiful marble! Jim says, “My! Dat’s a mighty gay marvel, I tell you!” But before Jim can fall for the temptation Aunt Polly swats him with her slipper and he goes a runnin’ to do his chore. Tom is downcast. He knows all the boys will make fun of him for having to work on a Saturday. Then he has, as the writer notes, “Nothing less than a great, magnificent inspiration.” He figures if he makes whitewashing look fun, all the kids will want to try it. His next victim, Ben Rogers, is not so lucky as Jim. He falls for the bait. Tom makes whitewashing look so attractive that Ben gives up his delicious, juicy apple or the “privilege” of doing Tom’s work. The rest of the kids fall for the same act, and likewise give up their treasures. At the end of the day, Tom is a rich man and the fence has been painted while he sat back and idly watched the spectacle.

Now reading this story makes us chuckle. It seems funny on the surface to watch Tom shrewdly manipulate all his friends and become wealthy to boot. It really does seem very funny indeed and you are about half-way through the laugh when it dies in your throat. All the sudden you realize that every person in history, including yourself, has been the dummy on the receiving end of the deception. The only difference is that the trades have been much more serious. We aren’t just giving up apples. We are giving up much more valuable commodities. With remarkable accuracy Twain outlines the Devil’s age old strategy. First Satan starts with distraction. We are on our way to carry out our task and he shows us a bully taw. It catches our eye. We stop to look. Then we begin to dialogue with the devil. Pretty soon he has convinced us to give up a greater treasure for a piece of junk. Then he sits back and laughs at us when we make the trade. Sometimes it takes us awhile to see we have been duped. When we finally realize it, we jump back in dismay and surprise! Later in the book, Tom performs his trick again. He trades the treasures he gleaned in the whitewashing scheme for “tickets.” These tickets were supposed to be earned by learning Bible verses. Tom is able to trade in his tickets to get a Bible. About Tom’s victims Twain remarks: The boys were all eaten up with envy- but those who suffered the bitterest pangs were those who perceived too late that they themselves had contributed to this hated splendor by trading tickets to Tom for the wealth he had amassed in selling whitewashing privileges. These despised themselves, as being the dupes of a wily fraud, a guileful snake in the grass.” One can almost sense Twain’s personal pleasure here as his protagonist “seems” to outwit God himself by getting the prize of a Bible again without doing the work. Twain often sits in the seat of mocker and makes religious folk out to be dimwitted. Yet it’s not just those who believe in God who are easily duped. We all have been duped and we all despise ourselves for the folly.

In a million different ways we have whitewashed many fences in our lives. We always remember too the person who duped us. We know them by name and usually feel great bitterness toward them. None of us likes to be ripped off. I think of one of the greatest Tom Sawyer’s of our century: Bernie Madoff, a name now synonymous with greed. He bilked billions out of many investors with his Ponzi scheme. Many people lost their life savings. Madoff’s son recently committed suicide unable to live with himself after the fallout of his dad’s arrest and imprisonment. It can seem that life is composed of the Tom Sawyers, and the rest of us dummies who get bilked by them. But in truth the Tom Sawyer’s of this world are being deceived by Satan too, “that guileful snake in the grass.” His trade with them is: do this immoral thing and reap the reward. For awhile it works. They sit back, eat their apples, and watch the painting with amusement. But in the end Satan gets them too. They have traded their eternal souls for the brief pleasure of a few worthless earthly trinkets.

Someone once asked Madoff what he felt about all the people he robbed. He said,”F*#k my clients!” As I said, they trade their soul. Here is the moral of the story: Never trade for the bully taw.

1Mark Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (New York: Grossett & Dunlap, 1974).