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What If? ...

Every few days I pick up a book called, you guessed it, What If?. It's edited by Robert Cowley, published by Berkeley. ISBN: 0-425-17642-8. It's softback with a suggested price of $19.99Cdn. There's also a second volume.

In the book, various historical scholars (that is, scholars whose field of expertise is history) take a look at a significant point in history and wonder what might have been the outcome if things had gone slightly differently. They take a scientific look at history (as we currently know it), so any situation which is connected to religion (and there are lots of them) are looked at purely scientifically. As a work by scholars, it can be a little difficult to read in spots, but overall it is very interesting and enlightening.

For example, in 701 B.C., the city of Jerusalem, capital of the tiny Hebrew kingdom of Judah, was under siege by the mighty Assyrians. It looked like Judah's fate would follow that of its rival Hebrew kingdom of Israel which had been defeated earlier and its inhabitants dispersed and apparently absorbed into other populations. These "Lost Ten Tribes of Israel" were never heard from again. Would the remaining two tribes that made up the kingdom of Judah follow? It seemed all but inevitable.

But something happened. Was it a plague? a virus that spread among the Assyrians? or something else. Whatever it was, the citizens of Jerusalem woke up one morning to find the Assyrians gone. Their city was saved. Their nation was saved. But more to the point (since their nation would be overrun in only a few more years, anyway) their religion was saved. At the time of the siege, they were more Hebrews than Jews. Their religion was as yet undefined. The concept that their God was God irregardless of their own fate had not yet fully matured. Had they been dispersed into other populations, their religious beliefs would have likely been lost, just as had happened with Israel. If Judaism never fully developed, how would Christianity or Islam ever be established?

Let me just remind you that the book looks at history from the factual point of view (as we currently have the facts). It assumes that God does not intervene in the lives of man. You may, of course, have a different view. But, assuming for the moment, that no "supernatural" event intervenes, imagine what our world would be like if there had never been Judaism, Christianity or Islam? You probably can't, since it would be a completely different world.

What caused the Assyrians to disperse? No one knows, but imagine how different the world would have been, if they had taken the city.

When the Jews were eventually defeated, and taken off to Babylon, their religion had reached a state of maturity, complete with some written documentation. that it did not die not. Indeed, the period of this captivity is the time frame in which their monotheistic beliefs become codified, their religion is firmly established, and the seeds are sown for Christianity and Islam to follow. But had it happened in 701 B.C., all of it would have been lost.

Did God intervene? Was it part of his "divine plan"? Or, in a fateful moment, did man's free will make a decision that changed history forever? Your choice.

Time warp ahead about a thousand years, the emperor Valens leads the best of the Roman Empire's soldiers into battle. He loses. And Rome's influence over Western Europe never recovers. Had he rested his soldiers. Had he chosen a better place to fight. Had he been just a slightly better general, history would have been changed. The "Dark Ages" might have never descended, and we might still be under Roman influence today. It's not at all that far fetched.

Time warp again 300 years. Poitiers, France. The Muslims are on the march. They already control Spain and are looking for more of Europe to conquer. But they run into the Franks, under Charles Martel. In the melee, the Muslim commander, Abd Al-Rahman, is killed and the Muslims are stopped. Although the Muslims keep the pressure on, their advance in Europe is effectively stopped. and, Charles Martel's successors become the Carolingian dynasty, the first great line in Europe.

These are just three examples from the beginning of the book. What if the superior numbers of the Persians had defeated the Greeks at Salamis? Would our Western culture exist today? Or what if Alexander the Great had died at the Battle of the Granicus River in 334 B.C. (as very nearly happened) before his great conquests had really begun? Or what if he had survived the illness that killed him?

History is filled with "near misses". What if one of the many plots against Hitler had succeeded? What if Germany had not stopped the "Battle of Britain"? What if the warning message had reached the commanders at Pearl Harbor before the attack? What if President Bush had not called off the Gulf War before ousting Sadam from power? What if ...

It is fascinating to contemplate what could have been. But what is so compelling, so scary, is the tiny moments, the smallest of incidents upon which so much of our reality pivots. One might argue that the great conquests of Alexander's were not so much of his making, as of Cleitus, the Black, Alexander's bodyguard whose quick actions saved his young commander's life. Proof positive that sometimes, even the unsung, the almost unknown, can have an influence on history that is profound. Who knows when you or I might find ourselves in a situation where what we decide to do (or not do) may change history for all who follow. What if ...

Copyright © 2003 by Fred Oldfield. All rights reserved.


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