In puzzle about cult, FBI consults biblical scholars

April 06, 1993|By Patrick McGuire | Patrick McGuire,Staff Writer

WACO, Texas -- The 37-day standoff between members of a heavily armed religious cult and a force of federal agents, so tantalizingly close to a resolution, has bogged down in a murky debate over biblical issues.

A lawyer for David Koresh, the leader of the Branch Davidian cult whose 90 members have been holed up in their fortress-like compound 10 miles from here since shooting it out with agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms Feb. 28, says his client will surrender once his followers have observed the Passover holy days.

While that should be good news to the FBI -- which assumed command after the controversial February raid left four ATF agents dead -- it still leaves a huge question unanswered.

When exactly is Passover?

As with so many of the inexplicable details of this Texas tale, the question is rooted in the seeming contradiction of a man who claims to be Jesus Christ wanting to celebrate Passover and not traditional Christian holy days.

Passover for Mr. Koresh may or may not be the period between sunset last night and sunset this evening -- when most traditional Jews observe Passover.

Authorities have found out the hard way that there is nothing traditional about Mr. Koresh or his fringe religious group, which refuses to say exactly when it celebrates Passover. Not even the two lawyers who have been allowed into the compound in recent days, and who have emerged convinced the affair will end peacefully, seem to know when the holy day observance will take place.

Mr. Koresh and his followers believe they are held to a divine law obligating them to celebrate the high holy day -- otherwise they would have surrendered by now, said Jack R. Zimmerman who represents Steve Schneider, Mr. Koresh's chief lieutenant.

Such nebulous news leaves the FBI frustrated.

"We're still up in the air as to when Passover begins for David," said FBI agent Richard Swenson. He said past observances of Passover by the group have lasted up to eight days. And while the FBI is willing to wait that long to avoid more bloodshed, he said, memories of Mr. Koresh's broken promise to surrender on March 2 are hard to ignore.

"I have no faith in any specific time frame David has laid out to anyone," said Mr. Swenson. "He is a manipulator. David is a con artist."

One of the things the FBI is concerned about is Mr. Koresh's long-stated prophecy that the 1993 Passover season would see the end of the world and that he must die to fulfill that prophecy. Several followers who have left the compound during the siege have told authorities that Mr. Koresh has often said this will be the last Passover season he and his church will celebrate together.

"Now, does this mean it's going to end violently?" asked FBI agent Bob Ricks, one of several bureau spokesman attached to the siege. "Or does it mean they are coming out and they

will go to prison and be separated?"

The FBI has consulted religious scholars at nearby Baylor University to help them understand Mr. Koresh's views. While they have received "reams and reams" of religious material, much of it just doesn't seem to apply.

For one thing, the Branch Davidians are Christians, but they celebrate Jewish holy days -- although heavily modified versions -- and they brand such traditional Christian observances as Christmas and Easter as pagan.

But the real dilemma is that Mr. Koresh, who claims to be Jesus, is following his own script, and not necessarily Biblical tradition.

"So his holy days are whenever he wants," said Mr. Swenson.

The FBI has also paid much attention to Mr. Koresh's belief that he is the lamb of God, the figure mentioned in the Bible's Book of Revelation. The lamb is the one who can open the so-called seven seals that bind a sacred book held by God.

Mr. Koresh has claimed to have opened five of those seals. The sixth seal is considered by many scholars to signify the end of the world.

"It has always been part of his teachings that the end of the world is imminent," said Mr. Ricks. "He is waiting for a catastrophic event to take place. He has taught that he has to be slain and there has to be a sufficient number of martyrs, his followers, who have to be slain before you have a complete fulfillment of the prophecy."

The FBI says it is prepared for a violent confrontation but feels it has actually thwarted Mr. Koresh's prophecy by laying siege to the compound and not outright attacking it.

"I believe early on he thought we were coming in," said Mr. Ricks. "Now I think they are on the defense because we have not come in. It has taken away from his prophecy so he has to try to harmonize scriptures again to see how the failure of the government to attack fits into what he's been preaching."

If the prophesied "catastrophe" doesn't take place, Mr. Koresh is also prepared to view it positively as a sign from God, Mr. Ricks said.

"So he has it both ways," said Mr. Ricks. "This is the way he makes predictions. If it doesn't come true, it's still a fulfilment. It means supposedly David will be able to carry on his work. So we're hoping this is what will happen."

Before yesterday's regular FBI briefing, members of the Waco Davidian Seventh-Day Adventists, (not associated with the Branch Davidians), handed out booklets on the story of the seven seals.

They also passed out a handbill that read, "The present crisis is God's providence to bring the world's attention to his impending judgment. Take Heed! Take Heed!" Almost in their footsteps came a volunteer for the local chamber of commerce, handing out fliers promoting the "Taste of Waco" food festival.

Meanwhile, inside, FBI agent Swenson was wrapping up his comments about the Passover predictions. "Trying to apply logic to what they're going to do next or what they've recently done is very difficult," he said, "because there's been a lot of illogical things done."

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